"All right, I think I got it this time. Mareki, please repeat what you did just now." Ami observed the energy flows within the green-clad youma's body with the aid of her visor, and her fingers flitted over the keyboard of her computer as she adjusted the sensor parameters. The reptilian creature suppressed a sigh and focused her magic into her flexing claws, which caused various rune-encrusted metal coins strapped to her limbs and body to light up. Ami furrowed her brow in concentration, but was interrupted by the warding bracelet around her left wrist lighting up. By now, summoning her crystal ball and tracing the observer back to the source had become an easy routine. Upon seeing who was spying on her, Ami's face lit up. "Mareki, you can go for now. This will take a while. Thanks for your assistance."

"Finally. No more poking and prodding! These things chafe!" the youma brushed the measuring instruments attached to her off and headed toward the door at a brisk pace that was just short of a run, slamming the door shut behind her.

Wincing at the loud noise, Ami slipped behind her desk and carefully set the crystal ball down on a blank spot among the books and documents. The image within showed the familiar interior of the Hikawa shrine, where her friend Rei knelt with closed eyes in front of the sacred fire, long black hair reaching down to her red-clad legs as she meditated. Behind the shrine maiden waited three more figures on tatami mats, eyes widening in excitement as they watched the vision in the flames. While Ami immediately recognised the black mooncat on the left and the pigtailed blonde in the centre, the tall brunette wearing an unfamiliar school uniform to their right was a new face. That must be Sailor Jupiter, the blue-haired girl concluded, remembering what she had been told about the newest addition to the team. She was strong and used lightning, and a good fighter was just what her friends needed to keep them safe. The smile on the pony-tailed girl's face was polite, rather than being as radiant as Usagi's, and almost eclipsed by the unabashed curiosity with which she stared into the fire. Makoto's narrowing green eyes told Ami that the girl's first impression of her missing team mate wasn't altogether positive.

Makoto Kino gazed into the vision within the dancing flames with mixed feelings. Aside from the creepy red eyes, Sailor Mercury looked gentle enough, but those glowing orbs were rather difficult to ignore. The others seemed to trust Ami, but Makoto herself had never been able to meet her and form her own opinion. Despite knowing who Sailor Mercury was, it was hard to recognise her as the girl whose face had been all over the city on missing person posters - a grim reminder that the fight against the Dark Kingdom was not a game, and that serious consequences could and would happen if one wasn't cautious. Makoto also didn't know what to think of the fact that Sailor Mercury had a dark general working for her, and seeing a youma flee the premises as soon as she was given a chance didn't exactly lay the tall schoolgirl's worries about her displaced comrade's intentions to rest. Not to mention that the military cut of Mercury's well-tailored black and gold getup reminded the brunette a bit of the Dark Kingdom's uniforms. "She's in her transformed form, right?" Makoto whispered into Usagi's ear.

The blonde nodded and kept rummaging in her bag for her written message. The tip of her tongue protruded from the corner of her mouth, so concentrated was she on the task. "She doesn't transform back so she won't be surprised by danger," Usagi explained. "Luna! Where did I put this sheet?"

Makoto kept watching the transparent image in the fire. While she had expected Mercury to wear a regular sailor senshi uniform, she could guess at the reasons behind the changed outfit. After all, she wouldn't want to wear the same thing for months either, and playing the role of evil overlord convincingly in that cheerful getup would be nearly impossible. Since Ami had neglected to inform her friends about her enchanted water induced wardrobe malfunctions, the tall girl remained unaware of a third reason. Regardless of the circumstances, Mercury - Ami - seemed genuinely happy to see her friends, and Makoto's smile became more sincere as she decided to trust their judgement. She waved a greeting at the ceiling, hoping that this was the right direction.

"Ah, here it is!" Usagi held up one of her notebooks and shook it, causing a large, folded-up piece of paper to fall out. She opened it and enthusiastically raised it in the air. Only Makoto's reflexes saved her nose from a brush with the blonde's left elbow. "Okay, Rei! You can stop now, Ami should have seen the message!"

Stooped over her scrying device, Ami read Usagi's poster with interest. "Hello Ami! We hope you are well! Now that Rei got your attention, please look into her room instead!" Seeing the others file out of the fire reading room, Ami complied, wondering what was up that couldn't be discussed here. Was grandpa Hino around to disrupt her connection? The teenage Keeper concentrated and followed Usagi's instructions. When the raven-haired girl's chamber appeared in the swirling mists, Ami's eyes flew open wide in surprise, and her right hand rose to cover her mouth as she gaped at the large banner spanning from wall to wall which proclaimed in huge letters "Happy Birthday, Ami!" Recovering from the surprise, she also noted the colourful streamers that lightened up the atmosphere in Rei's room. Usagi was chasing Luna with a conical party hat until Makoto approached with a box in her arms, which she deposited on the table. The sight of cake was enough to distract the blonde from the recalcitrant and still hatless feline, and she salivated while she waited for the ponytailed brunette to light all fifteen candles. Meanwhile, Rei was laying down more letters for Ami to read as she smiled at her friends' antics. "Happy birthday, Ami. Even though you can't be here with us today, we haven't forgotten you. We miss you all terribly! This way, you can at least be with us in spirit!"

The letter from Usagi was a bit different. "Makoto baked the cake. It's delicious! Come back soon, she promised to bake another one for you when you get back! We'll keep your presents waiting for you!"

Ami blinked rapidly, and the corners of her eyes filled with tears of happiness at this show of support from her friends, even if it was mostly symbolic. It reminded her of how it felt to just be accepted and loved, something she hadn't realised she missed so much. "Thank you, everyone," she said in a low voice that quivered with emotion. As there was nobody in the empty room to hear her, she repeated the sentence by telegraphing it to Rei. Her other friends were already writing more letters, updating Ami on the newest gossip and joking around. She was contributing much less to the conversation by necessity, as her only method of communication was so much slower. By unspoken agreement, everyone avoided serious topics in order to not taint the festive mood, and just enjoyed the afternoon.

Later, Ami slid the crystal ball aside and leaned back in her chair, resting her head on its back and looking at the ceiling, deep in thought. The birthday party had come as a complete surprise, even though she could have easily kept track of the current date with the aid of her Mercury computer. It simply hadn't registered as very important with everything else that had been going on. She was glad her friends had tried to cheer her up, she really was, but now she longed to be back with them even more. So it is the eleventh of September already? Ami sat up ramrod-straight as a horrible thought went through her head. Oh no! That means the first trimester is already over! I'm going to be held back a year! She grimaced and wrung her hands, coming very close to a panic attack. Easy now. You are being ridiculous. There's nothing you can do about it. You have more important things to worry about! Thinking logically about the situation helped her get her breathing back under control, but a treacherous part of her brain kept insisting that there was nothing more important than her scholastic performance. When she had calmed down, she reached for the crystal ball again to check on someone else. If today is my birthday... Within the glowing orb appeared a woman with short, dark hair, who was sitting at a kitchen table and looking down at a photograph that showed Ami smiling at the camera. Two wet splotches marred the picture, and a piece of cake - Ami noted that it was her favourite - waited untouched to the sophisticated woman's left. "Mother," the teenager sighed and wished with all her heart that she could just reach through the image and comfort her parent.

"Is it just me, or does Mercury look somewhat depressed?" Jadeite asked as he arrived in the living room, having passed the blue-haired girl in one of the corridors.

"No, slouched shoulders, hanging heads and bloodshot eyes are perfectly normal for happy teenagers," Cathy said in a deadpan tone of voice that left no doubt that she was being sarcastic. Jadeite harrumphed at her reply, which she ignored as she snuggled closer against Jered, who was sharing the couch with the tall woman and had an arm draped around her waist.

"Well, why is she feeling down? Did one of her plans fail or something?" the dark general asked with barely hidden irritation.

The red armchair in the corner creaked as Snyder lowered the tome he was studying and sat up straighter. "It is her birthday, an occasion that is usually celebrated within a circle of friends and family. I would think that she is feeling homesick and missing her loved ones," the redhead explained.

Jadeite remained silent for a while as he paced up and down, crossing his hands behind his back as his lips curved downward in an unhappy arc. After a minute or two, the muffled sounds of his footsteps on the thick carpet ceased. "I don't like it. Why is this nagging at me so much?"

"It's called compassion," Cathy explained, grinning at the curly-haired blond's uneasiness. "It makes you feel bad because she feels bad."

"That seems unfair," Jadeite said, keeping his voice neutral. Dark general did not whine, after all. Well, except for Zoisite, but he didn't count.

With a wink, Jered suggested in a tone too innocent for him to be completely honest "Well, you'll just have to kiss her and make her feel bett- Ow!" The familiar pain of Cathy's elbow jabbing into the weasel-featured man's rips interrupted him, and he shot his girlfriend an annoyed look over his shoulder.

"Ignore him. He's just poking fun at you," she told Jadeite, who cocked his head and frowned at a blank spot in the ceiling, visibly thinking about something. With a whoosh of vertical lines, the dark general disappeared. Cathy's shook her head. "Just great. If he acts on your suggestion and upsets Mercury more, I'll hold you responsible!"

Sunlight glittered on the crests of the ocean waves that reflected and the blue tone of the sky, which was marred merely by the occasional cumulus clouds. Only a very keen observer would have noticed the circular area in which the sea's current didn't quite match its surroundings, and where the dancing foam sprayed higher than everywhere else on the vast, featureless expanse. Behind the illusion, a three-masted ship cut through the waters, its white sails swelled by the stiff breeze propelling it. An emblem consisting of three crossed swords within a wreath of laurels shone forth proudly from the white linen of the main sail, proclaiming the vessel's allegiance to the Shining Concord Empire.

On the bridge, a man wearing white trousers and a blue uniform jacket was standing on a rotatable platform, leaning down to look through a telescope that was as long as he was tall. The dish-sized lens of the brass contraption was pointed at a spot on the horizon, and cogs rattled as the man turned a crank, bringing his object of interest into sharp focus. An elongated, deep black thundercloud loomed above a shadow that glided serenely through the churning sea, protected from the violent waters by its sheer size. The enormous, thorny vessel seemed to drink in the light and only flared up brightly when lightning flashed in the clouds above. When it did, it looked as if it was made from pale bone, which did not detract from its menacing appearance.

"I'm getting too old for this," the white-bearded man complained as he stepped away from the device and stretched. The cracking noises in his spine seemed to confirm his statement.

"Your hat, captain!" An insect-winged sailor approached, holding the flaring white crime against fashion reverently between her hands.

The captain put the proffered symbol of his rank back on his head before pulling a pipe out of his jacket pocket and lighting it, all without having to look at what his fingers were doing. Only after he had inhaled a lungful of smoke did he share his findings."Our informant was correct," he said, snorting tobacco-smelling clouds from his nostrils. "There's an entire damn dungeon floating out there, and it's coming our way."

"The Light will smile down on us in the coming battle," the sailor, an amber-haired faerie, commented.

The elderly man shook his head. "Not if I have anything to say about that."

"Sir?" the woman asked, perplexed.

"What part of 'it's an entire damn dungeon' didn't you understand? We are prepared for ship-to-ship combat, not for conducting a full scale invasion. We will have to let it pass."


"Our duty is preventing the evil infesting the island from spreading, not preventing other evil from getting there," the captain explained solemnly. "Which is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned, because a floating fortress full of monsters is way outside of our ability to handle without a lot of backup. Which we will call in, just in case it's planning a round trip. Go and inform the rest of the fleet about this!" He breathed out a thick cloud of white smoke and turned away from the girl, not waiting for her to comply. "Helmsman, get us out of the path of that thing!"

"Mercury? Could you come to the kitchen please?" a male voice called in Ami's mind, and she wondered what Jadeite wanted from her. She stepped in front of a mirror, running her fingers through her blue bangs in order to make herself look presentable, and disappeared in a maelstrom of snowflakes and blue light. They grey-clad blond was already waiting for her, standing next to the table.

"Yes, Jadeite? What do you need?" Ami's eyes widened when instead of an answer, he produced a platter from behind his back, presenting a chocolate cake to her.

"For me?" the blue-haired girl blinked once, stunned by his unexpected action.

"Well," Jadeite scratched the back of his head "I heard it was your birthday, and, um, from what I remember of human customs, there's traditions, so I bought a cake - I didn't mess up, did I?" He didn't know how to interpret Mercury's astonished stare, especially with her hand covering her lips.

A moment later, a radiant smile banished Ami's dumbfounded expression, and it took all of her willpower to not run over and fling her arms around his neck. He cares! He really cares! her mind jubilated. Somehow, she found herself at the dark general's side, becoming aware of the warmth of his white-gloved hand under hers. Blushing, she almost couldn't hear her own words over the sound of her heartbeat as she looked into his steel-blue eyes. "Thank you! That's really nice of you! Don't worry, you didn't do anything wrong!"

Jadeite smiled back, feeling strangely relieved that the girl was happy with his gift. "Should we eat, then?" He asked, gesturing toward the two plates on the table.

Ami giggled. "It's a bit much for only us two. A birthday cake is meant to be shared, and we'll need candles too. I'll get some, can you go and invite the others in the meantime? Only the important ones, of course."

"Even Marda? I don't like that smug troll," the curly-haired blond protested.

"Well," Ami put one finger to her chin as she thought. In a serious tone of voice, she said "She is the leader of the trolls and might take it as an insult if she was left out." Her eyebrows turned into cheerful arcs as she added "But I think it's enough if we just send her a slice."

Sitting on a bench in the training area, Marda took a bite out of her piece of cake and licked her fingers clean, her tongue making rasping noises as it scraped over the metal of her gauntlets. "Keeper's birthday, hmm? I'd have expected more music and booze." She turned toward one of the trolls that were watching her with envy while she ate. "How old did that pathetic acolyte say she was?"

"Fifteen, my Lord," The broad-nosed warrior replied without hesitation.

"What? Fifteen?" Marda shouted. "I thought she was using magic to look younger!" The armoured troll rubbed her chin, furrowing her brows as she considered the new information. "Being a Keeper at that age should not be possible. Unless - yes." She raised her head, an unreadable gleam glittering in her coal-black eyes. "She must have gotten her first dungeon heart as a gift. Someone powerful - a parent perhaps - backing her also explains her income and her access to advanced equipment. We will have to account for this in our plans. Yes." She proceeded to give her snack the attention it deserved. In the darkness deep below the waterline, uncountable tiny spiders wriggled around the salamander eggs that kept them warm, feasting on dead meat just as greedily as the female troll devoured the last of her sweet confection.

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Chapter 79: Cruising Along Chapter 81: Equipment Test

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