Those Left Behind

© 2001 by E. Liddell


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Author's Notes:

This takes place during the interstices of the first part of "Little Lies", back during the Silver Millennium, and was written in response to an inquiry by Gita Toronjil-Lee, who was also kind enough to serve as my vict--er, proofreader --for this story.

Sailor Moon and associated characters do not belong to me, etc, yadda yadda yadda.


Aiko

If I hadn't been working late that night, we might never have found out what happened to them.

I'd spent most of the afternoon consoling a hysterical, pregnant young woman whose boyfriend was hospitalized, clinging to life by his fingernails. After all that, I was so tired that I was half-minded to beg off my normal meeting with Gervase, but I decided that a drink with an old friend was just exactly what I needed to cheer me up, so I went to the bar anyway.

The place was awfully crowded, reminding me of why I didn't usually come here this late, and I was just about to duck back out again when I spotted a blonde head sticking out above the sea of black and dark brown hair. The Earthan capital may be a melting pot in which every single racial strain on the planet is jumbled together, but hulking, seven-foot-tall bearded blondes aren't common even here -- especially here, since beards have been out of style for a couple of generations -- so it could only be Ger.

We make an odd pair, I suppose, given that I'm slightly under five feet and distinctly Oriental-looking, but we grew up together, and Gervase-the-blonde-barbarian really is my best friend in the world.

It was hard work, pushing through the crowd to reach him at the bar, especially since a lot of people didn't seem to notice me until I elbowed them in the ribs. I'm used to it, though, so I made it eventually and shifted Ger's coat off the stool beside his so that I could sit there.

"So, how was your day?" he asked. "Meet any nice girls? Or have you changed your mind about that?"

"Don't you ever give up?"

He chuckled, an almost gravelly sound. "You can't blame me for trying, Aiko. You've spoiled me for other women. I take it that you had another long, rotten day of trying to help people, many of whom just don't want to be helped."

"Something like that. There are days when I wonder if I shouldn't just get out of social work and take up farming or accounting or something instead. Yes, I think I'll go into accounting. Numbers behave in nice, easily-defined ways that don't take a specialist to interpret."

The bartender deposited a glass in front of me, and I drank without really tasting it.

"And no new pieces to your little puzzle, either, I take it," he added, sipping at his own drink.

I jumped, sloshing a little of my drink out over my hand and the polished surface of the bar. "Actually -- Dear gods, I can't believe that I almost forgot! -- I finally got a good description of the guy who visited them the night before Ken disappeared. His mother still won't talk to me, but one of the neighbours down the street saw this guy leaving. And -- get this! -- what he saw exactly matches the description you got of the guy who adopted Masato, and the one I got of the guy who took Sakura. A really tall, thin, pale man, pretty good-looking, with slanted dark eyes and waist-length black hair--"

"An' gloves. Gloves on both hands, an' overdressed."

I turned in surprise to look at the brown-haired man on the other side of me. "Yes! Do you know this person? Please tell us if you do. It's important."

"Dunno." He stared into his drink, and to be honest, I wasn't sure how sober he was, or whether he was the type to see tall, dark, handsome, mysterious strangers instead of pink elephants at the bottom of his beer mug, but if he knew anything, anything at all... "S'a guy like tha' tha' took two of m'brothers. Said s'name was Lord Onyx, an'tha' 'e wuzza Crystal Weaver. Paid us pretty damned good, too. Too bad wasn' enough."

I stared at him for a moment. Rough hands, rough clothes... This young man looked like he belonged to a poor farming family. His only exceptional feature was a pair of very speaking eyes of an odd shade of blue-violet, one that I couldn't recall ever seeing before.

"Two of your brothers?" I prompted.

"Yeah. Sho'n'Anshin. Two've th'youngest. Jus' little kids..." A tear rolled, seemingly unnoticed, down his face to splash neatly into his mug. "Jus' kids," he repeated softly. "They were jus' kids..."

Ger and I looked at each other.

"A Crystal Weaver," Ger said at last. "What would a Crystal Weaver want with five little boys?"

I sighed. "I wish I knew. Ken and Sakura... Your Masato... And now this guy's brothers. All taken away by the same man." I turned back to the guy who'd been talking about his brothers and crying into his beer mug. "How long ago was it that this man took your brothers away?"

"Eight months, 'bout. Why d'you care?"

I sighed, took another sip of my drink, and began to explain.

"This spring -- about eight months ago, just as you said -- the children of two of my clients disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Well, at least, the children of people who were my clients -- after those two boys were gone, they suddenly seemed to have a lot more money than they used to, and they didn't need my help anymore. They wouldn't talk about what had happened, either."

If it had been just Ken, I would have been sad, yes, but I don't suppose that I would really have been surprised. Ken had lived in the worst district of the city, eldest of a whore's four children, his father unknown, and kids like that disappear all the time. Especially good-looking thirteen-year-old ones like him. It wouldn't have been too surprising for some pimp to take an interest in him, although it would have been a tragedy. Ken was bright, and he'd had the sense to keep himself out of the gangs. I'd honestly thought he was going to get out of that place someday... I could still see him, in my mind's eye -- tall for his age, even though he was painfully thin, with close-cropped black hair and dusky skin and slanting, blue-verging-on-turquoise eyes that together spoke of some very odd racial mixture in his background, standing proud, with his shoulders thrown back. Any other kid from that part of town would have had that pride beaten out of him years ago, but Ken had been a survivor, a fighter. He might even have been a leader, given half a chance.

No, I wouldn't have been too suspicious of only Ken had vanished, but Sakura was different. He came from a good family, or what had been a good family once, that lived in a respectable district of town. Tiny and fragile, barely eight years old, looking more like a girl than a boy, except what he had one of his stubborn fits and his eyebrows drew together over his intensely green eyes... Sakura was too young to have sold himself, his mother wouldn't have known who to contact for such a transaction even if she hadn't loved her son, and his father was a bedridden invalid, a former enlisted man in the Palace Guard who had been badly injured in an accident. So it had been very odd when Sakura had disappeared without a trace, and even odder when I'd managed to coax a description of what had happened out of his four-year-old sister. She didn't remember much of what had been said, but she had been able to describe the man who had taken her brother by the hand and led him away...

And then there was Masato. He had been nine years old when his parents had died in a head-on collision between their groundcar and a hauler, and the orphanage where Ger worked had taken him in. My friend had taken a special interest in the stoic little boy, and when, three years after his arrival, Masato had started showing the little flashes of clairvoyance that were often one of the first signs of a strong magical ability about to manifest itself, it had been Ger who had practically moved heaven and Earth to get the boy into a special educational program for the sorcerously gifted. Then, with absolutely no warning, Masato had been adopted out.

"... Normally, it takes months to approve an adoption, and a lot of visits back and forth," Ger was saying. "We want to place the boys in good homes, and that means thorough background checks on their prospective new parents. But when I'd spoken to Masato the previous day, he hadn't given me so much as a hint that there was anyone interested in him. And there was the minor matter of the director suddenly being able to afford a very expensive aircar that I knew he'd had his eye on for a few months. And when I finally managed to sneak a look at Masato's adoption record, it was completely illegible. It looked like someone had deliberately spilled something on the papers to make the ink run. So I managed to corner one of the older boys, who had been waiting outside the director's office that day, waiting to be called in for a minor disciplinary matter. And he saw Masato leave that office with a man -- that same tall man with the long black hair that Aiko described to you earlier."

"And that's why we think that there's something fishy going on," I finished. "Ken and Sakura and Masato were all good kids, and we'd like to find out what happened to them and make sure that they're all right."

The stranger with the blue-violet eyes stared into the depths of his mug for a little while longer, then put it down on the bar with a thunk!

"Onyx... he came, offered money if we'd let my brothers go with him and never try to find out what happened to them." He sounded a bit less drunk now, to my relief. "Well, he really only wanted Anshin at first, but Sho wouldn't let the little one go without him -- they were always really, really close, even more than the rest of us -- and Onyx said that it would be okay, and that he would pay us double if they both went. We... we needed the money so badly, and he promised that they'd be well-treated." And he... well, I think it was supposed to be a laugh, but it sounded more like a croak to me. "After what I saw today, I don't know whether he was telling the truth or not."

I was instantly alert. He knows something!

"Why?" I asked. "What did you see today?"

"I... I'm not sure, but I think I saw Sho again. If it was him."

"You aren't sure?" I prodded.

His hands clenched around his mug, knuckles white. "I... It had to be him, he had Sho's eyes, but he was so much older, as old as me, almost... and he said his name was Jadeite, and he wouldn't talk to me. When I tried, he just turned around and walked away."

Jadeite

I was looking out the window of my room when he knocked on the door.

<<Jay? Are you all right in there?>>

<<I'm fine. Go away and stop fussing, Alex.>>

<<You didn't come to supper. I was worried.>>

<<I said "go away". What part of that didn't you understand?>> I knew that would probably hurt him, but just then, I really didn't want to talk to anyone.

<<Not until you tell me what happened today. Where did you go this afternoon, and why did you come back looking so depressed?>>

I bit my lip, still staring out the window, not seeing the courtyard below.

<<I saw Tetsuro today,>> I stated at last.

<<Tetsuro?>>

<<Our oldest brother, Alex. Don't you remember?>>

It had been... such a shock, even though I'd thought I'd been prepared ever since I'd seen his name on that damned list of court cases. Tetsuro. I'd never been as close to him as I had to Alex, but seeing him again had reminded me of... so much.

And then he had recognized me, which I had never expected, and I'd had to force myself to turn away, knowing that I'd hurt him and our parents and all the rest of our brothers and sisters no matter what I did, but hoping that, this way, the wound would at least be clean. At the time, it had been... almost easy. It wasn't until afterwards that the pain had set in.

We -- the five of us, Alex and I and Nephrite and Zoisite and Malachite -- had been taken from our homes, if not necessarily entirely against our wills, then at least by no decision of our own. But by turning my back on my elder brother, I had made a deliberate choice, a decision never to return home to my family again.

It felt like I had torn out part of my soul.

<<Oh, Jay... I do remember, but not as clearly as you do. I was just so young when we left... Will you let me come in now? Please?>>

<<Oh, all right.>> I waved my hand, banishing the wards that held the door shut.

Alex opened it gently, stepped through, and shut it again, then walked across the room to stand beside me, at the window.

<<I think it's more difficult for you,>> he stated, after a moment. <<You were old enough to understand what it was that we really lost. For me, it doesn't matter as much -- you and the others are my family now, and I'm... almost content with that.>>

Almost content with that...

And one of the things that hurt the most was the fact that my little brother should have been at home, should have been anywhere but here, being trained for a war. Alex, the gentle one, the healer. He should never have been involved in this, and it disturbed me that he was anything approaching happy here.

<<I'd feel a lot better if you could bring yourself to cry,>> he stated after a few moments of silence. <<Holding this much pain inside isn't good for you. Human beings just can't take that kind of emotional stress for too long.>>

<<Oh, but you forget, little brother. I'm not human. I'm a Crystal Weaver.>> I allowed myself a crooked smile.

<<In your soul, you're still human,>> Alex corrected gently. <<We all are. Even Onyx.>>

<<I'm not so sure about that,>> I stated, but somehow, obscurely, his words comforted me.

I slid an arm around his waist, and we stood there companionably for a while, watching the stars come out.

Tetsuro

It hurt even just to talk about it, but the slender woman and her hulking blonde friend just listened sympathetically and nodded, so I was able to force it out, even though I was blubbering into my beer and ashamed to be doing it.

"I was called into the king's court this morning..."

There had been a drought two years ago. A bad season always makes things difficult for farmers, and we had twelve mouths to feed. In the end, my father had been forced to take out a loan just so that we could eat until times got better, and we had nothing to secure it with but the land, and our half-square wasn't so rich that anyone except the worst of the loan sharks would accept it as collateral. But we had no choice, and so my father went into the city and found such a person and signed a contract with him, knowing that it was a choice between a loan that we could maybe pay off if we had a good year the next year, and certain death for at least some of the little ones.

The next year... wasn't an especially good year, although if it hadn't been for the loan, we probably would have done okay. We had enough to eat, and managed to sell enough of what we grew to have a little money left over after buying the seed for next year, but it wasn't enough to pay off our debt. And that was when he had come. Onyx.

I can still remember little Anshin, eyes wide, clinging to Sho's arm, while Sho, the family's blonde changeling, told the tall, dark-haired stranger that he wasn't letting his baby brother leave without him. And in the end, he'd had his way, and they'd gone together, and we were left with a bunch of questions that we weren't supposed to ask, plus enough money to pay off the loan. Only then my mother got sick, and after we'd paid the doctor, there wasn't quite enough left...

"He walked straight down the aisle in front of the throne, and knelt in front of the king." So gracefully that I hadn't recognized him, not when I was expecting a child instead of a young man my own age with the dress and bearing and accent of a nobleman. I'd just thought, idly, that his neatly-trimmed blonde hair was exactly the shade that Sho's had been. "He offered to pay my fines for me if the king let me go, and he didn't flinch when the king said he'd have to pay a triple blood-price as well. And he said his name was Jadeite, which I'm pretty sure meant something to the king, although I couldn't tell you what. Then he got up, and our eyes locked for a second, and... well, I've never seen anyone else except my mother and Sho and two of our sisters who have eyes the colour of mine. He must have been Sho. It's the only reason I can see for him to be helping me. I tried to say his name, but I couldn't make the sound come out, and by the time I had gotten myself together again, he was gone." I took a deep breath. "You must think I'm crazy."

"Not at all," the blonde man rumbled. "So what happened after that?"

I shrugged. "Nothing. They let me go, but it was already too late for me to get back home today on foot, and I figured I needed a drink, so I came here to find one. And then you guys walked in and started talking about that Onyx guy."

They looked at each other, the little woman and the big man.

"We have to get inside the Palace," she said, and he nodded. "Even if his sighting was a false alarm, we may be able to find this Onyx person and get a few answers out of him."

"We'll probably have to crash some social event or other," the big blonde said. "I can't see them letting us in, otherwise. Actually, even that's a pretty big risk..."

"I might know someone who can get us in," the woman admitted, but she was biting her lower lip and didn't look at all comfortable. "She's a friend of my sister's -- they're in classes together at the university -- but the problem is, I don't think she owes me a big enough favour for this... Part of the problem is that you're just too distinctive, Ger. If it were just me, I could probably sneak in and out, but you..."

"I suppose I can manage to grit my teeth and stay behind, if it'll get me some answers. I don't like having you go alone, though."

"I'll go with her." The words just slipped out, and I wasn't sure whether it was me or the beer talking. "Please. I need answers as much as either of you -- maybe even more -- and it isn't like I stand out all that much in a crowd."

They looked at each other again.

"It might work, as long as he keeps his mouth shut," the woman said. "No offense," she added to me, "but there's no way you can pass yourself off as even a poor noble relation, not the way you talk. No, you'll be my... my husband, I guess, and I'll be a younger daughter from a penniless junior blue-blooded family who had to marry beneath herself. Yes. That'll work. Oh, and incidentally, I don't think we were ever properly introduced. I'm Aiko Yoshida." She slid off the stool to make a bow, hands loosely clasped in front of her.

"Gervase Leblanc." The blonde man didn't bother to bow, but he did nod to me.

"Tetsuro Yamada." I bowed sitting down. "Pleased to meet you. Now, how and when do we get started?"

Zoisite

I guess it's true, what the humans say.

You really can't ever go home again.

I stuffed my hands into my pockets as I walked along the street, knowing that I stood out and that I should have chosen something a little different to wear. This wasn't the worst part of town by a long stretch, but it wasn't the best, either -- strictly lower middle-class -- and most of the people that I passed were wearing jackets of dull grey or brown wool, not patched or even terribly worn but not new either, collars turned up against the cold. Against a backdrop like that, my loose green cloak practically screamed affluent. But then, walking around in my shirtsleeves and using magic to warm myself, or conjuring something on the spot, would have been worse.

Why did I come back here?

The only answer I could find for that question was, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had been headed for somewhere else entirely when I'd realized that I was near my old neighbourhood and had decided to take a little detour through it.

It was... really strange. Everything seemed so small, for one thing, since I was remembering it from an eight-year-old's perspective and not that of my presently sixteenish body. And I didn't remember having thought of it as dingy while I lived there, but...

It's just because of the time of year, I told myself. There are certain winter days when everything looks dingy and washed-out. It's just something in the lighting, in the absolute oppressive greyness of the world on those days.

A group of small children, four and five and six years old, ran past me, laughing. I tried to smile. My face felt stiff.

One of the little ones, a bit less nimble than the rest, stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk as she passed me. My smile became less forced-feeling as I reached out a hand to steady her.

"Arigato, niisan." It was almost more of a giggle than a thank-you.

"You're welcome," I replied, touched. No one had called me niisan since...

Her hood fell back, and she grinned at me as she tried to scrub her hair out of her eyes. I froze.

"Suzume?" What bizarre act of fate had brought my little sister here to this place at just the right time for me to meet her?

She was about to run after the other children when I grabbed her by the shoulder. "Wait, please!" I'd thought that I didn't miss her -- she'd been the sort of benign nuisance to me that most younger sisters are to older brothers, and my memories of her had been fuzzy anyway, but now...

She squirmed. "Please, niisan, let go of me! I'm going to be late!"

"Suzume!"

That was another voice I recognized -- that I recognized now, although I wouldn't have until I heard it.

"Suzume, who is this man?"

"I don't know, kaasan. Please, niisan, let me go now."

I heard her, I suppose, but the words didn't penetrate to the part of my brain that might have understood them. I was too busy staring.

So very like... I had her face, her chin and nose and cheekbones. Her slender build, and even her blonde hair, although I was now an inch or two the taller. Just about the only thing I hadn't inherited from my mother was her eyes -- soft, faded blue, not my brilliant emerald. Dozens of blurry images that I'd relegated to the back corners of my mind as unimportant snapped back into sharp focus.

How could I have forgotten you?

How could he have made me?

Then I heard the crack of flesh against flesh, and the pain hit an instant later, drawing me back into the here-and-now. I let go of my sister's shoulder to raise my hand to my stinging cheek, eyes filling with unexpected tears.

"How dare you, you disgusting pig?! She's only five years old! Keep your hands off her! I swear, my husband was right -- you noblemen are all perverts!"

And I was left staring at her back as she turned away and hurried off down the street, dragging my sister with her.

She didn't even know who I was. Granted, I was older, but surely that hadn't changed me that much. How could she not have seen... Or did she just not want to see?

I collapsed to my knees in the middle of the sidewalk, her words still ringing in my ears. Had she really believed that I was capable of doing something like that to anyone? Oh, gods... I could taste bile at the back of my mouth as the tears poured down my face.

My own mother...

How could a woman say such a thing to her own child?

They aren't to be trusted. No, no woman was to be trusted. Other men might stand by me, as my Weavemates had, but women... Women could turn on you for no reason at all. They were dangerous, they'd do you harm if they could, and I was probably better off avoiding them from now on. I'd never liked them, anyway. They'd always confused me.

Surely Malachite would protect me from them.

I dried my eyes with a fold of my cloak and rose to my feet. I still had other business to accomplish today.

Aiko

I tripped over my skirt for the third time that evening and cursed softly. And we weren't even inside the palace yet!

Nausicaa, my sister's friend, gave me an Evil Look. I ignored it and went right on brooding. After all, it wasn't my fault that court styles for women involved these ridiculous long dresses, or that I'd never learned how to handle them! I like to dress up as much as the next girl, but I prefer that my skirts not fall below mid-calf, thank you very much.

Tetsuro, walking beside me, looked equally ill-at-ease in his borrowed and ill-fitting velvets. Well, no matter. We were supposed to look uncomfortable. Poor noble relations in the capital for the first time usually are, or so Nausicaa had told us. So far, we hadn't done anything out-of-character. Then again, the only people who had seen us so far were the doorman who had passed us through the outer gate and the two token guardsmen with him, and we hadn't even started looking for Onyx and the children yet...

I had to steady myself against Tetsuro's arm as we climbed a flight of shallow stairs that led to the inner gate. This would be our first real test. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people who might have business in the outer areas of the Palace complex, but the inner gate into the Palace itself could only be passed by honest-to-goodness nobles and those who waited on them, and the identification procedures on the servants were such that we would never have been able to sneak past them that way.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the guards waved us on through. We were clear now, and we could go on to try to accomplish our real purpose here.

"We might as well start at the ball," I said once I was sure that the guards were out of earshot. "Half the population of the Palace is going to be there, and there's a chance that our friend will be one of them. And besides, I don't doubt that if we make any wrong turns -- deliberate or accidental -- between here and the ballroom, someone will correct us immediately."

Tetsuro shrugged and nodded. He seemed to be taking his role as the strong silent type very seriously, which was all to the good. The more he talked, the more likely it was that someone would figure out that we didn't really belong here.

"I think we should -- oh!" I hadn't been paying much attention to my surroundings for the past few minutes -- after all, I'd seen this part of the Palace dozens of times in photographs and holodramas, and I had a lot on my mind -- but the spectacle of the ballroom kind of made me take notice.

The floor was about two feet lower than the bottom of the doorway, which meant that we were at the top of a flight of shallow steps that provided us with an excellent view of the room. Huge, brightly lit, floor and walls made of white marble and hung with moving, holographic tapestries, with no less than three gigantic crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and splitting the light into coloured fragments... and the people! Very few of the ones that I could see were anything less than handsome, although I suspected that when I got a little closer, I would see that their good looks owed rather more to illusion-charms and plastic surgery than they did to nature. Still, the overall impression was gorgeous, if a little on the decadent side.

I placed my hand in the crook of Tetsuro's arm, as was proper for a woman being escorted by her husband, and squeezed a little to get his attention, because he seemed just as stunned by the ambiance as I was. We descended the stairs together.

As we moved among the crowd, I saw several very pretty young women that I might have been interested in getting to know better, under different circumstances... and many others who were, as I had suspected, wearing badly-cast illusion charms that weren't nearly so effective at close range. In fact, one of those I had thought was a young woman was really a middle-aged man, wearing an illusion-charm that made him look like a nubile girl (at least from a distance). Wondering exactly how widespread that sort of thing was, and how many others like him were wearing better illusion charms, ones that I couldn't see through, I decided that I was glad that I wasn't here looking for a date.

I squeezed Tetsuro's arm again. "Maybe we'd better split up. It's going to be difficult to find anyone in here, and having two of us looking should double our chances."

"I guess."

We separated, heading in opposite directions through the crowd.

After a while, I found myself standing in the lee of a pillar, scanning the crowd for anyone who matched the descriptions I'd been given. I wasn't having much luck. Of course, if this Onyx person really was a Crystal Weaver, he could show up looking like a six-legged green elephant on roller skates, and I still wouldn't be able to see through the illusion. Crystal Weavers are to human mages as the Earth is to an asteroid, after all.

"You don't belong here, do you?"

I flinched and turned around slowly.

The man who had spoken gave me an engaging smile. He towered head and shoulders over me -- he looked like he was a bit more than six feet tall -- and had intensely blue eyes, wavy auburn hair that fell past his shoulders, perfect teeth, and a face and body so gorgeous that they just had to be the product of an illusion charm. Real people just don't look that good. If I weren't immune to men, I probably would have fallen for him right there and then.

"Oh, don't worry," he continued. "I'm not going to turn you in. You don't seem to be doing any harm, after all. I'm just curious. You could get into a lot of trouble, crashing a Palace party like this. What do you want that could possibly be worth that kind of risk?"

"I..." I started, then stopped again, fishing for an excuse. Well, why not tell the truth? He's already said that he isn't going to turn me in, and he might be able to help. "I'm looking for a man named Onyx. Do you know him?"

Those blue eyes narrowed, and I felt a distinct chill. "What business could you possibly have with him? In any case, he never comes to things like this. He isn't the social type."

"Oh." My heart sank. We're going to have to sneak out of here and search the rest of the Palace, then, and I doubt we'll be able to find him without getting caught.

His face softened again. "If it's important, I could take a message to him. Why don't you tell me what this is about?"

I opened my mouth, closed it again, fumbled for words. For all I knew, this guy could be Onyx's best friend, in which case he might not take very kindly to my--

My thoughts were interrupted by a bloodcurdling scream coming from a point nearly directly across the room from us. The auburn-haired man jumped a bit.

"What in hell?... Ah, damn. Look, I have to go." And without any more explanation than that, he began shouldering his way through the crowd, moving away from me.

Well, of course I followed him. What else was I supposed to do? Just stand there? When he was making such a nice, big opening for me to walk through?

I couldn't see much except his blue-velvet-clad shoulders and that incredible mane of auburn hair, so it came as a bit of a surprise when we suddenly hit the edge of the crowd and he stopped.

"And just what is happening here?" he asked.

Finally, I managed to fight through the crowd so that I was standing beside instead of behind him. What I saw was... disturbing, to say the least.

A dark-haired young man dressed in familiar clothing was lying on his side in a spreading pool of blood. Encircling him and pushing the rest of us back were a full dozen members of the Palace Guard, all with weapons trained on the wounded man.

The man lying on the floor was Tetsuro.

"He went after the Prince of Venus, m'lord," one of the guards was saying respectfully to my auburn-haired companion. "We stopped him."

"You idiots. He's no assassin. He isn't carrying any kind of weapon, doesn't have the muscular development of a martial artist, and what little magic he carries is only potential, not active. I just hope I can get him to the infirmary in time to save his life."

One of the guards tried to hold him back as he pushed his way to the center of the circle, but there was a flash of blue-white light, and although I didn't see what happened all that clearly, it ended with the guard lying flat on his back and trying to roll over so that he could get his legs underneath him again, and the auburn-haired man bending over Tetsuro, sliding his arms under him as though about to lift. I hurried forward, past the downed guard, to join them.

"Tetsuro!" But no, his eyes were closed -- he had to be unconscious. "Is he going to be all right?"

"I thought he might be with you. And not if you keep distracting me. Move closer to me if you're coming along."

I obeyed, edging a little closer to him, and then a little closer again, until we were almost touching. He had Tetsuro in his arms by this time, and as he turned toward me, a red mist swirled up around us. There was an instant of absolute freezing cold during which I couldn't feel the floor under my feet, and then we were... somewhere else. It looked like it might be a clinic of some kind, or at least it had the all-flat-white paint job, the bright lighting, and the stench of disinfectant.

The auburn-haired man -- I still didn't know his name -- laid Tetsuro's limp body down on a table just as another man shot into the room, moving at a dead run.

"Neph, what--" Then the second man -- well, boy, really, he couldn't be more than thirteen or fourteen -- saw Tetsuro and his face turned a strange, pasty shade of grey-white.

The auburn-haired man frowned, and then a series of expressions flickered over his face, almost as though he was having some sort of conversation. In the end, he shook his head, stepped away from me, and disappeared in a column of red fog without saying a word.

"Would someone mind telling me what's going on here?" I asked.

The youth, who was now standing over Tetsuro, paid no attention to me. He examined the unconscious man for a moment or two, then began running his hands through the air an inch or so above the bloody hole in Tetsuro's chest. Coppery-coloured sparks trailed from his fingertips, and Tetsuro's wound began to close even as I watched.

It was a few minutes before the youth lowered his hands to his sides, and sighed. "Tetsu, just what did you think you were doing? For that matter, what are you doing here at all?"

He knows Tetsuro's name. More than that, he called him by a nickname, as though he were a close friend. Or a member of the family.

A terrible suspicion was growing inside me.

He can't be Sho, because he said that Sho was blonde, and this boy is a brunette. Also, he's too young to match the description of Jadeite. What was the younger brother's name?

"You're Anshin, aren't you?"

The youth flinched. "That was my name once. People call me Alexandrite now."

Nephrite

It was cold enough, up on the roof of the tower, for me to see my breath, but in a way, that was all to the good. It made it less likely that the guards would find me up here, and while I knew that I was going to have to answer their questions eventually, I wanted a little time to get my thoughts in order first.

I know I've seen her before. The question is, where and when?

I was pretty sure that it hadn't been recent at all. She didn't seem to fit into the ambiance here at the Palace, which was what had drawn my attention to her in the first place. Someone I had met down in the city, then?

No.

But that meant that she could only be from... before. >From the days when my name hadn't been Nephrite. From the days when I'd been... when I'd been... No, there were certain things that I was just best off not thinking about.

Why would someone from that part of my life be here, at the Palace?

I looked up. It had to be well past midnight. The sky was a perfect velvet black, with no moon to mar it, and spangled with little glimmers of white light. It was both beautiful and humbling.

"The Stars..." I began, then stopped. No, I didn't want to know who she was, or why she was here, not really. If she was here to take me back--

I laughed, astonished at my own folly. Is that what I'm afraid of? Being hauled back to the orphanage? I'm a little past that, I think. Thank the gods.

It wasn't that I'd been mistreated, really, but I was, truth be known, far happier here. It was different for me than it was for the others. They'd all left families behind, people who cared about them. I'd been an only child, and with my parents dead, I'd had no one. But now I had my Weavemates. That was far better, wasn't it?

I shook my head. I really did need to get back downstairs and answer the questions the captain of the Palace Guard was sure to have for me.

Casting one last glance up at the stars, I gathered myself to teleport.

Tetsuro

That was stupid, was my first, muzzy thought upon waking up.

That was really stupid.

But how could I have known?

I'd been pushing through the crowd in the ballroom when I'd spotted a head of hair in a familiar shade of blonde. Taking it as an encouraging sign, I made for it.

And that was my mistake.

I'd suddenly stepped into an area where the crowd was sparser. The blonde man was at the center of it. He was of about the same height and build as Jadeite, and his hair was styled about the same way, so I reached for his sleeve, intending to apologize and fade back into the crowd if I had the wrong person.

"Hey, you there! I don't recognize you! Identify yourself."

But I didn't realize that the guard was talking to me. I was too tightly focused on the blonde man.

My fingers were actually brushing his sleeve at the moment when the first shot hit. And then he turned and... it wasn't Jadeite, wasn't anyone I knew.

That may very well have been the worst moment of my life.

Then I was lying on the ground, fighting a losing battle against pain and encroaching darkness. I vaguely remembered an argument, and someone picking me up... and then nothing, until I'd woken up here, pain-free...

Am I dead?

It isn't the sort of question that you normally ask yourself, but the circumstances seemed to support the idea. Especially since I seemed to be hearing a voice saying, "Tetsu, just what did you think you were doing? For that matter, what are you doing here at all?"

"You're Anshin, aren't you?" Aiko's voice. Is she dead, too?

"That was my name once. People call me Alexandrite now."

My eyes snapped open.

I couldn't see Aiko from where I was lying, but the face of the youth standing over me made it completely clear to me who and what he was. He looked like Jadeite had, vaguely like old pictures of our father when he was the same age, except more refined than the latter.

"We found you," I whispered. "Oh, dear gods, we found you." I felt something warm and wet trickle down my face from the corner of my eye, and realized that it was a tear.

"Were you looking for us?" Anshin's -- no, Alexandrite's -- voice sounded oddly remote.

"Of course we were! You and Sho are my brothers. We had to be sure that you were all right."

He smiled, but he wouldn't look directly at me. "And now that you know that we're both fine?"

"Are you?" I asked. "Are you really? Anshin, what's happened to you? When you left home, the top of your head barely came to my waist, and now..."

"And now I look like I'm just about old enough to shave?" my brother suggested. "Tetsu, it's better if I don't even try to explain. In fact, it's better if you just pretend that you never recognized me at all."

It was obvious to me, from the tone of his voice and the expression on his face, that something was hurting him terribly.

I reached out and grabbed his wrist. "Anshin, come home with me. You and Sho. We'll find some way of protecting you, I promise."

"Oh, Tetsu... You can't protect us from ourselves. I'm a Crystal Weaver now. Do you realize what that means? I used my powers to heal you tonight. But they can be used to kill just as easily, and we don't know everything we need to know about controlling them yet. And..."

He's a what?

"And we belong with them now," Anshin was saying. "With Malachite and Nephrite and Zoisite. Our Weave. Closer to us than family or lovers. Leaving them... it would be like cutting my own heart out, even if Jay -- Sho -- came with me. I can't, Tetsu. We can't. I'm sorry."

He was the one crying now, tears rolling down his cheeks to splash on the tough brown cloth of the wraparound tunic that he wore. Cautiously, I propped myself up on one elbow, then sat up and gathered him into my arms, letting him cry against my shoulder.

"I hate this," he whispered fiercely. "I don't want to harm anyone... but no matter what I do, someone is going to be hurt, either you and the rest of our family or Jay and I. Please, Tetsu. Just forget about us. I wish you didn't have to -- wish that we could be with you, and Jay wants that even worse than I do -- but all we can possibly do is cause each other pain. I don't want to kill anyone by mistake. And I don't want to watch the rest of you grow old and die while Jay and I stay young. Please. Just leave us alone. Let us remember you as you were. We'll be all right. We have each other, and the others. We will be all right."

I still didn't entirely understand what was happening, but one thing had become crystal clear: I was the one hurting him. It was because of me that my youngest brother was crying.

"If that's what you really want..." My voice cracked, and I swallowed. "If that's what you want, we'll leave you alone from now on. I promise. I'm just glad that I could see you one last time... Is there any way I could say good-bye to Sho, too?"

"It's probably best if you don't. He's been... depressed... for days, and I just don't know if he could handle this." Anshin gently loosened my arms from around his shoulders and straightened up. "If you really want, though... I may be able to let you look in on him, after a fashion. He'll assume that I'm just practicing divinations."

"Wait," Aiko said.

Alexandrite

I think the most frightening part of it was that I didn't feel any particular bond with him, just the compassion and sympathy I would have felt for any other patient, even though his old nickname had come to my lips without my consciously remembering it. When I started to cry, it was Tetsuro's reflected pain and my concern for Jay that caused it, not some concealed yearning of my own.

The cure for Jay's pain was right there in front of me, and I knew I couldn't let him have it. That hurt. It really did. I loved Jay, as any younger brother would love the older sibling who had protected him and taken care of him for all his life that he could remember, and I wanted to be the one to help him for a change. But I couldn't, not really. All I could do was try to insulate him from any more shocks, any more memories, and hope that, in time, he would heal.

One of the first things I had been taught as a healer was that sometimes, it's necessary to be cruel in order to be kind. That doesn't make it any easier, though.

I was a little surprised when Tetsuro hugged me, letting my tears soak into the blood-stiffened velvet of his jacket. Surprised, I think, because other people didn't normally touch us. It was as though they thought our uncanny magic would rub off on them somehow... And here was a man who felt like a near stranger, embracing me unashamedly... I think I cried even harder, then.

Maybe... I have lost something. Is this what it feels like, to be part of a family? This sense that, if I let him, he'll always be there for me, just like one of my Weavemates?

The moment that thought crossed my mind, I had to pull away from him. I couldn't let myself get dependent, despite being young and tired and a little frightened of all the strange stuff that had been happening around me and to me for more than half a year now. More importantly, I couldn't let him get dependent, couldn't promise him something that I couldn't give him. It would have been wrong, and it would have hurt both of us.

But...

I was wrong, I realized as I gently lifted his hands away from my shoulders. There was a bond between us -- faint and tenuous, but there. And it would have to be ripped out by the roots.

Gods help me, I could see no other way.

Aiko

I think they'd forgotten I was there for a while, because they both jumped a little.

"There were three other boys," I said. "They were taken at about the same time you were, by the same person. Do you know what happened to them?"

I suspected that I already knew the answer, but I described Ken and Sakura and Masato for him anyway.

"Malachite," Alexandrite identified. "And Zoisite and Nephrite -- but then, you've already met Nephrite. He's the one who brought you here."

I must admit, that made my jaw drop, but when I thought about it, taking about a decade of age and a foot of hair off the man who had teleported us here would have produced someone who looked uncannily like Masato had, the one or two times I'd seen him.

"Can we 'look in' on them, too?" I asked.

"I don't see why not. Wait here for a moment."

He left the room, and returned a few minutes later with a flat, polished piece of metal.

"I'm not very good at this," he warned us, "so the images I get may be short-lived or out-of-focus. Ready?"

I nodded, and, after a moment, so did Tetsuro.

"All right. Nephrite first, then, since I've seen him most recently." He breathed on the metal plate, misting it over, and then tilted it toward us.

The mist slowly cleared to reveal a familiar ballroom. Nephrite was leaning against a pillar not too far from where I'd met him, idly watching the dancers. Then he turned, and for one heart-stopping moment, he was looking straight at us, but he only nodded and then went back to watching the dancing.

Alex smiled at us as the image faded. "I don't think I've ever managed to scry him out without him noticing. We shouldn't have that problem with the others. Now for Malachite and Zoisite -- they're almost certain to be together..."

He breathed on the metal again, and turned the misted surface towards us.

The image that formed this time was indeed of two young men together, both half-naked, barefoot and shirtless. They were curled together on a sofa, both apparently reading the same book, the bigger looking over the shoulder of the smaller. The big man had dusky skin and striking white hair and slanted, silver-grey eyes. Ken. I was sure of it, even though he didn't look much like his former self. The smaller was almost feminine-looking, with a delicate, beautiful face, slanted emerald green eyes, and a tumbled mane of hair the colour of dark honey. Sakura.

As I watched, Ken gently pried one of Sakura's hands loose from his book and raised it to his lips. The look on the smaller man's face just then was indescribable, compounded of equal parts of pleasure and love and pure happiness.

Well, at least I now have proof positive that those two are better off, I thought as the image faded. Sakura had always been a rather solemn child, and I had never seen him that happy before. As for Ken... Well, he was off the streets, and healthy, getting enough to eat for the first time in his life judging from the way he'd filled out, and he might even have a future here. It was all that I'd ever wanted for him, and more.

Which didn't explain why I felt so sad.

Alex breathed on the metal one last time, and then the mist cleared, showing us a bedroom. A blonde man who looked an awful lot like Tetsuro was lying on his back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He didn't move for the entire period that we were watching him.

"And so now you know," Alex said. "Excuse me, please. I have other patients to check on."

And he flipped the metal plate up under his arm and walked out, leaving Tetsuro and me there to try to come to terms with what we now knew.

Malachite

Zoisite stiffened in my arms and shifted his weight, and the corners of his mouth began to twist down into an abstracted frown.

<<What is it, beloved?>> I asked.

He blushed a bit -- Still not used to having me call you that, are you? -- and stated, <<I thought I felt something brush against my wards. It's gone now, though.>>

<<You're sure?>> Not that I was really worried. The Palace was completely safe. It had probably just been some incompetent human student mage flubbing a divination. We'd had a couple of those in the past.

<<Well, I can't feel it now.>> But he shifted again, restlessly. <<Malachite...>>

<<Yes, Love?>>

<<Have you ever... I mean, do you ever think about your family? You never talk about them, but I, uh, I assume you must have one.>>

My eyebrows shot up. <<I do think of them, now and again,>> I admitted. And more than think... but he doesn't need to know that. Not because I didn't trust Zoisite to keep my secrets, but because I knew that, at his much lower power level, he couldn't always shield his thoughts completely from Onyx, and I certainly didn't want the older Crystal Weaver to know...

And besides, I admitted, I'm still a bit ashamed of them. I don't want anyone -- least of all Zoi -- to ever find out what I once was.

It had been easy, when you got right down to it, although it would have become a lot more difficult if I'd waited for more than a few days after the beginning of our new life, and I'd only held back that long because I'd needed to learn how to reliably shield my mind. All I'd really had to do was dress in the ragged, almost-too-small clothes I'd brought with me to the Palace, which I'd steadfastly defended from the servants, and ghost through the city under a "look somewhere else" spell until I found an area where other people were wearing clothes like mine, and the buildings looked half-familiar, like something I'd seen in a dream. Then I'd tried very hard not to think about anything at all, and just let my feet retrace a path that they seemed to have taken before.

That path ended outside the front door of one of the shacks that seemed to be the most typical sort of building in this neighbourhood. I steeled myself, then walked right up to it and knocked.

Those inside only let it open an inch or so at first, a wary crack.

"Ken? God'v lies, it do be ye!" The door jumped open a good two feet more, and a slender figure squeezed itself through the opening. "What happened t'ye? That'n said ye wouldna be comin' back... and ye've gotten a hell of a lot bigger in just five days."

Shock after shock after shock... My name had been Ken. And this thin, wiry boy with the brown hair and skin and eyes was my brother...

"Chairo." His nickname meant brown, too, in the language used on some of the nearby islands. "Never mind about me. Do all be right with ye and the twins?" The twins, yes. My youngest brother and sister, barely of an age to toddle yet. The mists inside my mind that had hidden their faces from me were fading away, as real mist does when faced with strong sunlight...

"We be fine. We had meat f'r supper tonight, Ken. Real meat, and more than a mouthful f'r each. There do be... he gave us much money..."

For me, I completed, the image of Onyx standing in the center of the one room inside the shack, silver in his hand, looking at me, crystal clear in my mind's eye.

"Do na let her drink or drug t'all away," I warned him, knowing our mother's habits, and was rewarded with a smile.

"D'ye take me f'r a fool? 'Twas ye that trained me! Of course I been watchin' her. An' even did she buy herself the best dreams that she could, there'd still be left t'keep us f'r moons."

"I'll try t'get ye more," I promised him, not sure if I could, but willing to try to make use of my new status at the Palace. "I'll be comin' back in five'r six days. An'... Chairo?"

"Aye?"

"Be na surprised if I do be much changed in even so little time."

"I will na. Ye be speaking already half like some fancy-britches from the Tall Houses... but ye be my brother still, an' I trust ye. Gods ward ye."

He slipped back inside then, leaving me to shake my head at the door and turn away.

I'd gone back once a week or so ever since, taking with me things that I thought they could use -- food, clothing carefully conjured to look aged and worn, coins of denominations small enough that just spending them wouldn't be enough to get them arrested. Chairo had watched the slow transformation of his brother into Malachite the Crystal Weaver without comment, just an occasional sad, puzzled glance every now and then.

He had yet to let me inside the house, and somehow I suspected that he never would, that he was afraid of letting me too near the twins. That he knew I had been his brother once, but was now... something else.

<<It would be difficult not to think of them, at least from time to time,>> I added to Zoisite. <<After all, they're an important part of my life -- they're where I came from. My future is going to be built on that past.>> Even if, in that future, I intended to deny everything that I had once been. It's difficult to run away from something unless you know what it is.

Tetsuro

I don't know who told the guards what, but they questioned us for about twenty minutes the next morning, and then let us go.

When I told my parents and my two oldest sisters what had happened, they were all for storming the Palace and taking Anshin and Sho back at first, but I managed to convince them that it really wouldn't be a good idea. I kept seeing the pain in my youngest brother's eyes, and I didn't want to be responsible for any more of that.

And then it was like I had never had two younger brothers named Anshin and Sho... except for one thing. Well, two things, really, since I had to pay for the set of third-hand court clothes that I'd ruined by getting shot, but that wasn't really important.

The photograph came in the mail some three years after my visit to the Palace. A picture of five smiling young men, wearing casual wraparound tunics. And there they were, the two of them, standing together, off to one side. Alexandrite and Jadeite.

Anshin and Sho.

It's pretty much all the proof I have left that they ever really existed.

And I still miss them.

Onyx

I almost blurted out I'm home as I closed the door behind me, an old habit trying to reassert itself after more than half a century. I was glad that I'd managed to restrain the impulse. Nothing would have answered back, not in this empty city.

The entryway was free of dust, the furniture still arranged just so. My mother had always been fairly good at household spells.

I kicked my low boots off and stepped into a waiting pair of sandals -- those of my mother's last term-husband, most likely. Hers would never have fit me, and none of her children had been living at home when the End came. Keeping the floors clean in here wasn't necessary anymore, of course, but I needed the familiar ritual of childhood today.

It was almost enough to fool me into believing that they were still alive, the way the children's families mostly still were.

How can I make you understand that I'm trying to protect you, damn it?

The children thought that I was jealous of them for having pasts that they could still reach out and touch. But in a few years -- it could be ten, or it could be a hundred, but it would be a minuscule number when weighed against the length of a Crystal Weaver lifespan -- everyone that they had known and loved in their mortal lives would be gone. I had hoped to prepare them for that, to sever the bonds now, so that, when the veils I had placed on their memories finally faded away, they would remember their loved ones as they were now, alive and healthy...

In my mind's eye, I saw my father's flesh melting off his bones again as he was caught in an Empyrean attack and his wards failed, saw my mother bleeding out her life on the ground when, exhausted, she had let her protections drop and been struck in an artery by a piece of flying debris, bleeding to death before any of the Healers could reach her...

I just want to spare you from that! Why can't you understand?

They'd fought so hard to get their memories back... I wasn't blind. I'd known what was happening, but I couldn't call them on it without acknowledging that I'd deliberately created the veils in their minds in the first place.

I stood in the center of the main hallway of the empty house, at the foot of the stairs leading to the second floor, hands balled into fists.

You're almost like sons to me. Why can't you just understand and accept? Why do you have to fight me?

They weren't like real Crystal Weavers -- they were so much more passionate than the people that I remembered. And, sometimes, just on the edge of my thoughts, I could sense something in the air around them that troubled me, the faintest premonition of some disaster that hadn't happened yet.

And I still didn't know whether what I sensed was something catastrophic that was destined to happen to them, or something that would happen because of them.

Was I right in creating them? Have I saved the world, or condemned it? Demantoid, did you foresee this?

The empty house gave me back no answers.

It was a long time before I left.

The End


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