Bleed (Just to Know You're Alive)
Chapter 11


As though he was made of only paper, the King slumped to the ground, his legs lost beneath him. His hand was no longer completely solid, and try as he would to grip the Golden Crystal, it simply melted through his palm and clattered to the floor without shattering. It was clear that the Crystal was not going to survive long outside of its host; the light in the room was slowly dimming, the powerful aura drained to its last.

Jadeite picked up the fallen crystal reverently, holding it reverently. It felt like a sin, holding his Prince's very essence, like it was a taboo he was breaking. But it certainly deserved better than to be discarded on the floor. He held it close to his chest, almost like he was trying to keep its warmth in, absorb it and keep it safe. "Prince..."

"Why? Why would you do this to yourself?" Nephrite growled. "How could you do this to us?"

"I have already told my story. I want my last moments to be free of my burden." The king smiled a joyless smile at Nephrite. "If there is one thing I learned from you four, it is that our planet comes first. I didn't listen to you once, and everything was lost. You did once say I was a quick learner."

"And there was no other way than to rip yourself from the people who love you?"

"You don't think I would have done it if there was?"

"From what you've showed us? No. I don't." Nephrite looked down on him with utter contempt. "I hope you rot in Hell. I hope you're sorry every day for eternity for what you've done!"

"You lied to me, Prince." Kunzite touched Mamoru's face with a mothering gentility, careful of the long gash on his face, the blood flow stopped by the cessation of his heart. "You swore…you swore you wouldn't fight alone, and now look what you've done…"

"Kunzite." Zoisite put his hand on Kunzite's arm, trying to steady him, but his leader was clearly losing it, and no reassuring touch was going to fix him.

The white-haired man began to shake, first in his hands, then in his shoulders, then in his entire body. Long bangs shielded the first flow of tears. "How could you do this to us, Prince? How could you leave us? You said you loved us, Prince…"

"There must be something we can do." Jadeite walked to them, solemnly, still holding the Crystal as though the touch of his fingers might break it.

"The Crystal has no power left," the King said, conversationally, now little more than a faint ghost at the feet of the statue. "It won't re-enter his body when it's this weak. Not much of a body to go back to, either. I do damn good work."

He sighed, now nothing more than a pale outline. He had seconds left, at most. He closed his eyes as the last of his being simply dissolved into the air, like a translucent fog. "Tell Usako... we're both sorry…"

Everything was silent for a long moment. Zoisite wiped ineffectually at his eyes, trying to wipe away tears, not because he was embarrassed of them, but because they confirmed the harsh reality he was still desperately trying to deny. Nephrite stared at the place where this future Mamoru, whoever he was, had last been, trying to make sense of what he'd seen. Jadeite stared at the crystal, trying to will it back to life with his eyes alone, to no avail.

It was Kunzite who broke the silence with a yell so loud, it shook the entire room, sending even more debris crumbling all around them.

"HOW DARE YOU DIE ON ME, PRINCE!" he bellowed, dropping his Prince's head into his lap. He pounded on Mamoru's chest, a one-handed CPR that would never work, simply an act of denial and despair. "You're a liar, Mamoru! A filthy, deceitful liar! I hope you're proud of that!"

"Kunzite, come on, don't." Jadeite looked at him longways.

"Why not, Jadeite? He is, isn't he? He told me he wouldn't go out on his own! But then he decided to back out - some misguided notion of saving us from the battle, I bet! He broke his promise to me, and now he's dead, and I'm angry as hell!" Kunzite slammed his fist on Mamoru's chest again, making his lifeless body shudder like a beaten rag doll. "We're supposed to be protecting you, stupid, not the other way around! Why couldn't you just let us do our job?"

A hand grabbed him by the wrist before he could strike another blow. "Enough, Kunzite, okay?" Nephrite said softly. "He's gone, buddy. He's gone."

The white-haired man firmly shook his head. "We could get him to the hospital, or--"

"I don't think so, Kunzite."

His arm went suddenly slack in Nephrite's grip, as though the very life went out of him. He stared down at the black-haired man in his lap, and his faded green eyes looked, to Nephrite, as hollow as Mamoru's.

Jadeite gazed down at the jewel in his hands, like a droplet of pure sunlight crystalized in his palm. His hands were so shakey and sweaty that he was terrified he might drop it, and so he was focusing very hard on it, as though keeping the Prince's crystal safe was the most vital task in the world. The light inside it was fading, flickering like a lightbulb on its last leg. Even the warmth was leaving it. "Why can't... why can't we put it back inside him? He's taken it out before, and it always went back in."

"It doesn't have the power," Zoisite choked out. He was not even flirting with denial. "It couldn't sustain him, even if it did go back in."

"But... it still has some left. It's still lit." As he spoke, the crystal flickered again, dimmer than it was mere seconds ago. "No! Don't go out on me, now! You have to stay lit for him!"

"Leave it alone, Jadeite!" Zoisite could think of nothing more irreverent at a time like this than all this shouting.

"I am not giving up, Zoisite! Nothing could make me fucking give up on him!" He held the crystal up to his face, as though by seeing it clearly, by staring at it hard enough, he could will it to stay lit. "Come on. Come on, you chunk of glass, keep glowing for me, huh?" The light fluttered, like a weak butterfly in his hands. "C'mon, you sexy little golden thing, stay lit!" Jadeite urged it, for a moment sounding disturbingly like Jed when he was attempting to start Bertha in the morning. The light had already become little more than a thin halo around him. Jadeite gritted his teeth. "Light. Light, dammit! LIGHT!"

Against all expectation, the light, for a moment, swelled.

Jadeite took a shaky breath and held it, hardly believing his eyes. As though carrying a dying ember that could have been snuffed out by a sharp breeze, he clasped the Golden Crystal close to himself, and slowly descended onto the floor next to Zoisite. The other three watched with reverence, as he held the crystalline flower out over the body of their Prince.

"I think," he said in a hushed voice, "that if what this little crystal needs is power, then it can take all the power I can give it. I don't know about anyone else here, but I would give every ounce of strength I have to make him okay."

He glanced around at each of them in turn, the fading flicker of gold shining on their faces.

Kunzite met his eyes. "If it means my life, then it's a life well spent."

Jadeite slowly let the crystal out of his fingers - it shuddered in the air, but stayed steady, hovering just above Mamoru's chest, probably out of sheer defiance.

"Focus on it." Kunzite put his hand on his Prince's collarbone, this time without any unnecessary pounding, just to keep them both grounded. He felt it was probably needless to give them instructions, but it was more to reassure himself than anything else. "You have to want nothing more than for this thing to light. That word, nothing else."

"Guys? If…If this is it…" Zoisite looked around the lopsided semi-circle, unsure of what to say. He looked near to tears again, but this time, not out of grief. "I..."

"We know." Nephrite smiled, patting the blonde's knee. "C'mon, he's not going to wait all day."

The four closed their eyes almost simultaneously, thinking only of the Crystal, the brilliant light they knew so well, of their Prince asleep in Malachi's bed, of him shouting down his phone, defending their honor, living, breathing, fighting…

Four brows knitted, four jaws clenched in frustration and deep concentration. But even as the power flowed, as their entire bodies stiffened with the exertion, and try though they might, they were only making minor progress; they still had little more than an anemic lightbulb on their hands. They had to try harder.

"Fight for him," Kunzite ground out, a low growl that had to fight to get out. "Fight for him! Get angry!"

"You can't have him, Hades," Jadeite snarled. "You hear me? Give him back!"

"I still have to update your wardrobe, you understand?" Zoisite shook his head sharply. "You're probably walking around the Elysian Fields in purple shorts! Get up here so I can beat your head in with a Prada bag!"

Nephrite's head injury had decided to take this time to fight him, so he focused less on speaking and more on simply bringing his power to bear, so much so that he physically began to tremble. No Prince of his was going to be dead, no sir. No way.

Kunzite felt the air around them begin to warm, buzzing like a swarm of bees from the excess of power. "That's it…"

After what seemed like a thousand years of pushing, fighting, and occasionally ridiculous outbursts, the Crystal looked almost like its former glory again. But hard though they tried, they could all feel a wall, some sort of barrier - the Danger, Turn Back sign, the point after which they'd be sending their Prince not just their power as guardians, but their own life and blood, as well. It was a line that nature, and whoever was responsible for this whole guardian thing in the first place, had never meant them to cross.

But there was no turning back.

With one great push, they broke the barrier, unleashing every nerve, every vein, every last ounce of themselves on the Crystal, hoping beyond hope, hoping beyond themselves that it would be enough. For a moment, it seemed like it wasn't, everyone began to sink to the floor, their lives seeping away--

Time froze.

When it resumed, a flash of light, the likes of which had never been seen before, exploded out of the little Crystal, blazing like a flare from the sun itself, that the Shitennou could see even with their eyes closed. It shot into the air almost ten feet, far above their reach. And underneath Kunzite's hand, the Prince began to stir.

The crystal had become a star blazing above them, and suddenly a blinding beam shot straight down, down to the Prince that lay below, and struck directly into the center of his forehead. As though it had branded him, an answering glow flared out from where it had struck, a strange symbol in the shape of two crossing bars inside a circle, burning in his forehead. The symbol caused a strange sort of resonance inside Kunzite, and its meaning rose to his lips before he was even aware of it. "Earth."

And then the world exploded.

Or at least it seemed to, as all four Shitennou were thrown back, engulfed in such absolute, blinding light that they could sense nothing else. They could -taste- it, as though light, in its purest form, were something that could be tasted. Kunzite had landed sprawled on his back, which should have been an agonizing experience, but the pain in his shoulder seemed to have evaporated in the light's touch.

The light dimmed--or rather, it gathered toward the center of the room, swirling like a tornado of golden mist around the crystal above and the Prince below. Through the glittering storm, Kunzite could see, barely, a figure of dazzling white sit up from the ground. And then the figure was on his knees, and what armour still covered his back shattered, and suddenly the figure grew beyond any human shape that Kunzite was aware of. An impossibly huge structure emerged from the silhouette's back, and then split into two, and each half unfolded into what he realized was an unbelievable wingspan. They were--yes--wings, and they curled around into a great cloak surrounding the figure as the crystal began to descend toward its host. The figure raised a hand to meet it as it descended, and for one split second the two beings of light--the crystal and the person--were impossible to look at, they were so bright. And then the two became one, and the brilliance became more muted, and at last Kunzite was able to pick out details.

There was the black-haired Prince Endymion, cloaked in nothing other than feathers of the purest white, which seemed to glow almost as brightly as the symbol on his forehead. One enormous wing folded behind him as he turned, and his eyes, smoldering their molten gold, met Kunzite's. He stood, a being so powerful and majestic that one could hardly believe this was the same man who had been found curled in a ball on Malachi's bed, and as he walked nearer, Kunzite almost wondered whether he was.

The winged creature looked Kunzite over, and with all the seriousness of the reborn, asked, "who said you could take off your sling?"

Kunzite did not know whether to laugh or cry, but Mamoru helped him reach a decision when he found himself with his Prince straddling his legs, arms around his neck, and nothing seemed more appropriate than to do both. He held him back, so tightly that he did not even notice that he had use of both arms, or that Endymion's uniform was missing completely, or that they were surrounded on both sides by a cocoon of feathers.

Endymion shed tears, too, but they were tears of gold.

"Prince..." Kunzite whispered, wondering if this was a dream. If he had actually died in trying to bring Mamoru back, and all of this was nothing more than the fantasy of a dead man.

"I'm here, Kunzite. I'm here."

"You were dead."

"I know. I'm sorry." It seemed such a strange thing to say that Kunzite had to laugh into his Prince's ebony hair, though it was mostly a laugh of relief. "I felt you. You pulled me back. You wouldn't let me go." His fingers tightened in Kunzite's white hair. "Thank you for fighting for me."

"Mommy, please turn the lights off, I want five more minutes sleep," Jadeite groaned, rolling onto his side. "It's too bright for 6 AM!"

"If I'd known you were going to go fucking supernova," Nephrite said, rubbing the spot where his head had ached only moments before, "I would have brought my sunglasses to this battle."

Zoisite, on the other hand, was simply not in the mood for absurdity anymore, and did his best impression of a flying squirrel by launching himself into the air and holding on to Mamoru's waist like he was coming apart at his liver. "Prince, I swear to God, if you ever do that again, I'm going to … do something remarkably unpleasant to you, do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir, Zoisite, sir."

Before any other predictable whinings or lovely platitudes could be shared, the moment was interrupted by, of all things, clapping. A hearty round of applause, no doubt about it, and everyone turned in confusion to search for the source of the noise. It came not from anyone on the ground, but a figure perched on top of the mutilated remains of the much-maligned Queen Beryl statue.

Much to everyone's disgust, it was King Endymion himself. This time, Mamoru noted, he looked just like he had when they had parted ways more than a year and a half ago.

"Bravo!" The King cheered loudly, shaking his head with a shit-eating grin. "I didn't know if you could do it, I got a little concerned at the end there, though limbo isn't too terribly bad, I probably could get used to it if I tried hard enough, but you passed with flying colors!"

Nephrite, bless him and his big mouth, shook out of his reverie first. "What the fuck are you talking about!"

"I could tell you, but it's awfully fun to be cryptic! It drives my wife nuts. This could possibly explain why I haven't gotten laid since 2332." The King leapt off the statue and landed without a sound on the rubble-covered ground. He brushed Beryl crumbs from his lapel. "Good thing we only need one heir. I am talking about your whole ordeal, boys. You won, you beat the odds, you did a damn fine job!"

Zoisite blinked so hard, Mamoru was almost sure he could hear it. The blonde pointed a shaky hand at the king. "Wait, so you're not--"

"Heartless, warped and cruel? Only on poker night, my boys, I kick ass at poker." King Endymion approached them cheerily, unaware or just plain unworried about five looks of promised violence on varying levels. "What I am is a good actor, a brilliant story teller, a genius scientist, and 115 off my rocker."

"You might find this hard to believe," Kunzite said, managing to maintain a certain level of calm, "but I don't follow." He was holding a death grip on his Prince, very aware of the fact that evil or no, his future self could do with some medication.

"I have been playing you like five oblivious violins, is the long and short of it." The king was awfully proud of this fact, it was clear. "I created nine working, albeit miserably flawed, clones of our own beloved Senshi, and sent them hundreds of years into the past to kick you around like soccer balls, watching from my precious government-funded home entertainment system. My heartbreaking tale was a Pulitzer-worthy piece of fiction, but it was nothing more than that. Everything that has happened to you over the last few days has been cleverly orchestrated by yours truly, not with the intention of actually wiping you off the face of the map, but rather..." He paused to consider his wording. "Training. Training for your final exam, which, as I said, you passed beautifully."

"Let me see if I understand." Against Kunzite's better judgement, Mamoru wormed out of his guardian's grip, and advanced on his future self. "We have been beaten, maimed, broken, insulted, emotionally abused, and otherwise been brutalized as some sort of crazy test?"

"Smart lad! Clearly, I get it from you."

Mamoru counted to five, took a deep breath, squared his shoulder, a pillar of maturity and poise - and punched his future self expertly in the nose.

The shock and relief of the past five minutes had not failed to carry over into the moment, and so it was very little surprise to anyone that Nephrite and Zoisite very nearly killed themselves with laughter at that point, though Zoisite at least had the dignity to cover his mouth. "He totally learned that from me," Jadeite announced with a grin, while Kunzite appeared to be mildly--though not altogether--disapproving of the gesture.

A quick glow of gold was all the King needed to recover, evidently no less proficient at quick healing than when he was younger. He was also, apparently, far too jovial at the moment to let a mere broken nose put a damper on his mood. "Okay, two days ago you were getting knocked around by an obnoxious juvenile clone, and now I've got you punching me in the face. Do I kick ass or what?"

"If it's ass kicking you want, I could arrange that for you." Mamoru's feathers were getting ruffled--quite literally.

"Oh, let's not get too excited, Mamoru. A nice 'thank you' would suffice."

"Thank you? After all the shit you just put us through, you want me to thank you?"

"Have you not listened to a word I said? You children, you can't listen to anything. How did I ever learn any patience?"

"Probably from having to put up with your own annoying self."

"Someday, you'll learn to have as much fun as me. You'll also learn how to sew your own button holes."

"Okay, time out for one second, huh?" Jadeite had to move quite a distance around Mamoru before he could actually view the King directly, being that Mamoru's wings were like a wall of feathers in his path. "Maybe I've been knocked around by a few too many clones, run into a few too many freaky doubles, and had way too many conflicting stories thrown around. But right now, I am pretty damn sure that you have told us precisely shit, and I don't even really know who the fuck you are."

"Silence, my whiny little bitch, else I tell everyone the name of the stuffed hippo you keep hidden under your bed." The King smiled genially as the blonde visibly paled. There really was no messing with a time traveller. "But I suppose we are running short on time for me to properly annoy you with vagueness, seeing as how you lot took your sweet time getting everything done. I am a busy man, you know. And I had hoped even the dullard over there would have caught on by now that I am Endymion--I dropped the Chiba at some point because everyone knows one-word names are so much cooler for celebrities--king of all the Earth and damn fine in purple. You got the basics now, Jadeite, or should I go slower?"

Jadeite muttered something about how that was just fine, thanks, and went back to trying to crawl beneath the nearest rock, figuratively speaking.

"Right, then. Here's the deal, Mamoru, before you go swinging those fists again. The future you know has changed, but not in the ways I told you it did. What we were doing here was making those changes happen, as you can't always trust destiny and the natural flow of things to make things play out the way you want them to. Look at it this way. If you had gone off to Harvard--"

"You're the reason Harvard filled my position?" Mamoru had very swiftly moved from moderately angry to wholly irate. He would be doing more than punching in a moment.

"Are you going to interrupt me every time I mention something inconsequential? Yes, I did have a hand in it, though it was really just a matter of some administrative tweaking. No real loss to anyone except them. When they find out that they turned away the future king of their planet and let Stanford have him instead..."

"Inconsequential? I worked my ass off to get accepted to that school, you--"

"As usual, Mamoru, you miss the point entirely. What would you have gone to Harvard for? A degree? You can get one just as good anywhere, and without all the cold, lonely nights you would have spent studying. I used to value the years I struggled there too, until things were put into perspective for me. There are some things that are worth giving it up over. Did you know, Mamoru, that even if you have been alive on this planet for 935 years, you can go your entire life without ever meeting someone who shares that planet with you? It's taken for granted that all the people we are meant to run across in our lives will eventually stumble into us, but this is not always the case. Or at least, it may take a phenomenally long time to happen." Endymion sobred quite a bit as he spoke, his eyes becoming distant with memory. "I had never bothered looking for them, because I never imagined that it was possible, that they had been out there all along and never knew to alert me of their presence. I believed, when I was younger, that if ever it were possible to revive my Shitennou, it would be when Crystal Tokyo appeared. As though all those giant crystals somehow had the power to make everything right again. I know now that the reason it never worked out was because I was going about it the wrong way. They did not need to be revived at all. What they needed was to be reunited with their other halves."

Mamoru went silent, finally understanding. His future self took a slow breath and continued. "Things change in nine hundred years. They change a lot. By the time we finally found each other... I don't want to use the phrase 'too late' but it was damn close to it. I don't need to tell you what courses your lives would have taken. No one should know that. Suffice to say... we were all willing to take an enormous risk in changing things."

Zoisite looked contemplative. "So we--our future selves, that is--had a hand in all this?"

"You don't think I could do all this myself, do you? I'm good, but I'm not that good. I do believe you ran into one of them earlier. He was so excited about playing the villain, I just couldn't turn him down."

"I just bet he was," Nephrite muttered to Kunzite, who appeared too sheepish to respond.

"I'm sure they're all sitting at home, telling each other what a dashing yet horrible actor I am." The purple-haired king looked far too pleased with himself over this fact.

"That still doesn't explain why you had to go to all the trouble of killing me, Endymion. I mean, that didn't do anything but probably shave five years off their lives!" Mamoru was beginning to work himself back into a rage, but a steadying hand on his shoulder courtesy Kunzite calmed him. A little.

"If my only goal had been to reunite with the Shitennou, I could have stopped long before you got here. I simply would have said, 'hey, me from nine hundred years ago, here's some rocks, here's some guys, smush them together and let me know how it goes!' Have you not considered," the king said, spinning his cane around in his hand, and then rapping the end lightly on Mamoru's forehead. "The clones, the fighting, and even dying - it was the means to an end.

"You see, Mamoru, it occured to me one day - September 4, 2210, in case you were wondering - that the Golden Crystal was about as good to me as carrying around a little battery operated lightbulb. When the time came to fight, and indeed, that time came more often than I would have liked, I was about as useful as I was in my youth, which basically meant I was getting hurt. A lot. I mean, a lot a lot, it was ridiculous. I spent hours training with the Senshi, but I never made any progress. I did, however, break my arm twelve times, my right leg six, my left leg seven, and even gave myself a hernia. Word of advice - don't ever try a triple somersault after the age of 607, it just won't end well for you."

Jadeite took the opportunity to get back into the conversation. "But if you just wanted Mamoru to strengthen the crystal, why not have him do it in ways that didn't, you know, put his life in danger at every moment of every day? I mean, we must have trained him some way in the Golden Kingdom..."

"Yes, the type of training we employed back then was 'fighting Beryl.'" Kunzite rubbed his forehead. "I wanted to do it the proper way, but any time I tried, there was an army of youma at our door. It was training by fire for almost five years."

"And it worked. Back in the day, the Golden Crystal was a fucking menace, if I do say so myself. But it was dormant for so long, we forgot how to use it properly. You never thought to ask the Shitennou what to do about it after you fought the Dead Moon Circus, and I don't know if they would have been able to help if you had. I knew the only way the Golden Crystal would be a real compliment to the Ginzuishou was through violent, life or death fighting. Dummies don't cut it. You have to go into it fearing that you're going to die." The king smiled, looking only a little bit mentally unsteady. "I made very sure that death was always a distinct possibility."

"And a damn fine job you did of that. But why the Senshi?" Zoisite asked. "Couldn't it have been anyone? Why add insult to injury?"

"Because insults are remarkably fun when you aren't on the receiving end of them." The king's smile broadened. "And what ever is the point of trying to kill your past self if you can't have a little fun at it? On the technical side of things, the clones simply made for rather perfect vessels to carry out my purposes. Unlike youma, they were physically stable enough to withstand a lot of damage, and were able to store much higher levels of energy for use in those nice sparkly attacks they employed. They also had the ability to give my past self the wiggies, which I found deliciously appealing."

"So, what, you just cloned these apparently evil senshi for us to use as target practice?" Jadeite asked, the expression on his face showing his distaste for the idea.

"Goodness, you make it sound so dismal. But I am aware of your concern, and I can assure you that the clones were not actual living beings with thoughts or feelings of their own. Think of them as being no different than characters from a video game. Their personalities were simply programmed into them. Their interactions with you were a combination of automated responses and commands given by yours truly. I suppose you never cared to notice how they would sometimes switch tactics abruptly, or even hold back at just the right moment. I have to say, it's not at all easy trying to attack someone without actually killing them. Especially when that someone consistently hurls himself in death's path." The King looked rather pointedly at Mamoru, who looked quite sheepish at the mention of his self-destructive ways.

"Damn, Prince, even your future self thinks you're out to get yourself. Maybe we need to start keeping you on a leash." Nephrite folded his arms, and the black-haired man was mildly disturbed to realize that he was only half joking.

"You honestly have no idea how difficult you are to work with, Mamoru," the King continued. "For one thing, do you have any idea how hard it is to force you to meet people? First off, you don't talk to anyone, and you don't leave your dorm for anything except classes and occasional--very occasional--meals. So I had to make you crash into one. But then, should you realize this person looks remarkably like a former enemy, you would immediately assume either a threat or your imagination, and actually go out of your way to avoid him from then on. So I had to force you into a situation where you would be dependent on him, hence that rather uncomfortable fainting spell. Fortunately, Malachi is a much more obliging person. All I have to do is toss you at him and say 'catch!'" The only one who did not laugh at that analogy was Mamoru, who rather did not like the idea of being tossed around by his future self and his guardian.

"I was even forced to personally interfere when our little drama queen over here was too busy emoting to notice that a little clone's giant poking stick was about to spear him like an hors d'oeuvre on a toothpick. That little episode, I can tell you, damn near gave me a heart attack. I'm too old to deal with you kids." The King shook his head tragically, leaning both hands on his cane, though he looked only marginally older than the as-yet uncrowned version of himself.

Mamoru blinked at him. Wouldn't he have realized it if the king had... oh. "The voice in my head," he stated with sudden revelation.

"What, you're hearing voices now, too? We need to keep a closer eye on this boy." Jadeite shook his head with mock gravity while Mamoru flushed beneath his golden glow.

"No, just the one time. There was a voice that kept telling me--"

"Telling you to get off your angst-ridden ass and fight already." The King looked like he enjoyed insulting his younger self just a little too much. "I had thought that if the clones smacked you around for a while that they would finally knock some sense into you, but apparently even I underestimated your stubborn need to treat yourself like shit. Which inevitably lead to yet another unforseen crisis, which I like to call 'getting my guardian killed.' I wasn't especially pleased about that. I do hope you know that I had that in mind while I was kicking your ass." The King smiled wickedly, and Mamoru decided that he was no less frightening now than when he was pretending to be the bad guy.

"Okay, yeah, I get the point. But none of that would have even happened if you had not made Usako blow up at me. Just what did I stand to gain from that whole Lunette fiasco?"

"Other than the sheer joy of messing with your head? I simply needed to make sure that no one would interfere with all our work on this side of the ocean. I couldn't have dearest Usako getting any silly ideas about running over here to rescue you--you'll notice I chose the rather opportune time of her surgery. I also had to make sure that you would not turn to the sailor senshi and ask them what they thought of these rather dashing Shitennou look-alikes. You had to be certain of your own feelings for them before you faced all that strong opposition. Ten minutes on the phone with them, and they would have had you promising to stay away from the Shitennou at all costs--don't look at me like that, you know you're the sailor team's bitch."

"I think you went just a tad overboard," Mamoru stated flatly, very much trying to ignore the distinct snickers coming from the Peanut Gallery that was Jadeite and Nephrite. "Making Usako so upset, and then death threats from most of her senshi..."

"Actually that was all you." The King beamed at him. "You know, if there's one thing I can trust you to do, it's snowball any tiny problem with Usako into something monsterous. All I had to do was start you on the right track."

Mamoru's face dropped into his hand, as he decided at that moment that he would like nothing more than to disappear. This was, unfortunately, not to be, as he was about as visible as a big, golden spotlight in the middle of a dark room. A spotlight with giant shimmering white wings that could probably have knocked one of his Shitennou flat on his back if he dared attempt to flap them around. Kunzite's hand still rested on his back, fingers massaging the place where the base of one wing met bare skin. It was an odd sensation, the warm touch against layers of feathers that sprung out of raw new skin. It made him shiver.

"Any other questions, gents? I have to get back before Usako notices I'm not, in fact, taking a four hour bubble bath."

"Whose idea was it to rip out his Sailor crystal?" Everyone gave Jadeite a stange look, and he held up his hands in defense. "I just want to know! I know this guy is off his nut, but it takes a special kind of nut to go rooting around in someone's chest cavity, right? Especially their own!"

"You're right about that, kiddo. See, I could bore you with all the details of how my super secret clandestine plan got busted and I had to do damage control, but I don't think any of us care, least of all me. The shorthand version is: Uranus busted my ass and swore she wouldn't tell on one condition. That was the condition."

Mamoru paled to a white just this side of paper. "I think I'm going to keep a better eye on Haruka from now on."

"You just might want to, yes." King Endymion shuddered. "It was better than the other conditions she gave me..."

Without a pause, the king beat the floor with his cane in some sort of gesture of finality. "On that pleasant note, I have a utopia to run and servants to give heart attacks to. Gentlemen, it was a distinct pleasure, though I can understand if you don't feel the same way. Take care of yourselves, and each other, yada yada fishsticks."

He regarded his former self with a strangely solemn smile - for him, anyway. On anyone else, it still would have looked more than a little imbalanced. "I ought to give you some stupid, marshmellow words of wisdom, Mamoru, but I'll settle for this. I'm proud of you. You make us both look good. And whatever you do in life, don't forget your anniversary. You do not want to go through the Rose Massacre of 2441."

"Duly noted," Mamoru said, resisting the urge to outright laugh. He made a mental note to never do hallucinogens, because his future self was clearly sent to him, above all things, as a PSA against drug abuse. "I...don't really want to thank you, but if it wasn't for you, I never would have--"

"I know. We're both very lucky people." With a ridiculously showy flip of his cape, King Endymion disappeared in - and Mamoru had to blink to make sure he'd seen it right - a flash of purple glitter and disco lights. Like that, the orchestrator of his greatest nightmare was gone, leaving only his naked butt and four confused Shitennou in the remains of a miniature shrine to everyone's least favorite queen of the underworld. It seemed like a pretty pisspoor way to end the whole ordeal, but he knew that Endymion wanted to get the heck out of the past before he ended up causing serious damage. As it was, he was secretly afraid that this whole thing would cause Chibi-usa to have blue hair and an insatiable urge to eat book paste.

"If I ever become like that," he said to no one in particular, warily watching the empty space where his future self had been standing moments before, "please hit me. Hard."

"I'm not so sure that I need your permission for that." Mamoru turned, a retort at ready, but if he was expecting to see mirth on his guardians' faces, he was sorely mistaken. The four had gathered behind him, a semi-circle that closed him into a corner with pieces of Beryl statue at his back. With his enormous wings now out of the way, they moved in close, but the black-haired prince did not think that another round of relieved hugs was on their minds. The less-than-pleased expressions on their faces told Mamoru that he was not in for what he would call a fun time.

He squared his shoulders, the feathers at his back bristling slightly. He had just survived having his sailor crystal physically ripped from his chest; anything beyond that should have been a walk in the park.

"So what gave you the great idea to come charging down here on your own?" Kunzite's words were sharp, matching his looming, battle-ready stance, and his hardened emerald eyes. His fist tightened as if to clasp a weapon that was not there, but even while his eyes blazed, his movements remained perfectly contained, a picture of ice cold fury. Mamoru thought that he could understand, as he felt himself squirm under that gaze, how Kunzite could have commanded armies of men twice his age, and bring down monsters big enough to destroy whole villages. All other eyes were fixed on the black-haired man--all, that is, except Nephrite's, which were watching Kunzite as though expecting him to launch himself at Mamoru's jugular.

"I couldn't have you walking into a battle in your condition."

Zoisite spoke up. "Prince, that is not your decision to make. We--"

"Well I made it this time. None of you were in any position to fight, especially you, Kunzite. You could have had your asses handed to you, and that wasn't a chance I was willing to take."

"For crying out loud, Prince, don't you have any faith in us at all?" Jadeite looked more than a little hurt by this. He also looked like he wanted to punch Mamoru in the jaw.

"I have plenty of faith in you. I have enough faith to know that the four of you would be alright if anything happened to me. What I don't have much faith in is myself. After what happened before, I... there's no way I could have known whether I could resist Lunette or not. I couldn't let the same thing happen again. I could have killed you last time."

"You don't think that's a risk we were aware of, Prince? Did nothing I told you earlier sink in?" Nephrite glanced away from Kunzite long enough to give him a sharp glare, and Mamoru wondered whether his intention was really to protect him from Kunzite or to hold him down while Kunzite hit.

"Yeah, Nephrite, it did. That's why... I couldn't let this become something I'd regret. You guys are too important to me for that. I want you here as my guardians, not as corpses."

"You shut me out," Kunzite growled lowly, in a way that made Jadeite edge away from him. "And you LIED!" His voice echoed sharply in the hollow cavern, shattering what had been an empty silence beyond the small golden glow immediately within their party.

Mamoru took a breath, resisting the urge to back away from his guardian with the cold green eyes, if only because his wings would collide with pieces of the Beryl statue if he did. "I'm sorry," he said evenly, and he meant it.

Through the battle, and the king's appearance, and his near-death experience, he had failed to notice just how cold it was here, deep beneath the school. But now, as the last of the adrenaline faded he could feel the chill air on his naked skin and the icy stone floor shooting numbing spikes of cold up his bare feet. He was beginning to notice, with increasing discomfort, that he was not exactly dressed for such a discussion, but it seemed silly to suddenly become bashful about it now. There had been slightly more important things on his mind when his uniform went missing, and he was not sure that shouting "oh shit, I'm naked!" twenty minutes after the fact would do anything for his credibility. Mamoru knew this talk was important to them, but he really wished it could wait until he'd managed to retrieve a new set of clothes and about four blankets. And maybe some coffee. Coffee was a brilliant idea.

"We almost lost you because of your stupidity."

"Which, the stupidity of my future self? I'll agree with you on that one." Mamoru secretly wondered whether that comment would do anything to ease the tension in here, or if it would only frustrate the white-haired man further.

Kunzite gave him a stern look, jaw set. Mamoru could not help but notice that Jadeite and Zoisite had all but abandoned glaring at him to cast nervous glances at their leader, instead. He swallowed hard.

The white-haired man took a breath, as everyone else in the room held theirs. "Well really, how can anyone take him seriously with hair like that?"

For a moment, Mamoru seriously considered fainting. "No shit, Prince. What kind of mutant hair have you got, that you'll go purple in your old age?" Jadeite had a million-watt grin of relief and just a tad of deviousness on his face.

"Obviously he hasn't had a capable hair consultant on his team." Zoisite gave a longsuffering sigh. "I guess I'll just have to inform him on the finer details of hair dye."

Nephrite smirked. "It's not like Kunzite has room to talk. His future self looks like he should be wearing a tutu."

"I thought he looked very dignified," the white-haired man answered stiffly.

"Oh, vastly dignified. If he were an Easter egg." The brunette gracefully accepted a punch on the arm, snickering.

Mamoru crossed his arms over his chest, huddling into his wings. "Now that that's cleared up, think we can get out of here? If it's all the same to you, I'd really rather not die of hypothermia so soon after surviving so many ass kickings."

"Yeah, hey, what'd you do with my clothes?"

The black-haired man cast a glance down at himself, as though half-expecting the "seme" shirt to reappear. "Um. I, uh, lost them? Mysterious fourth dimension portal? I don't know. Sorry, Nephrite."

The brown-eyed man sighed. "Ah well, not like I was actually going to wear it after a certain someone's joke got outed."

Zoisite grinned. "Don't worry, Nephrite. I'll find you a better one."

"That's what I'm afraid of, actually. See if I ever wear anything from you again."

Jadeite looked him up and down. "Excuse me for saying this, Prince, but with the wings and the wardrobe choice, or lack thereof, you look like you belong in one of Zoisite's gay porn mags. Ever consider a career change?"

While Mamoru turned a very dashing shade of red and attempted to hide certain parts of himself behind his wings (which did nothing to help his backside), Zoisite remarked, "those are not porn. Those are fashion and art magazines."

"They're porn," Jadeite silently worded to Mamoru, as though assuring him that his career options were intact.

"You know, Prince," Kunzite began, and Mamoru found that he did not like the look in his eyes, "maybe you'd finally learn your lesson if we left you like that."

"We couldn't leave him down here on his own, of course," Nephrite drawled, an all-too-devious twinkle in his eye.

"No, that would be far too dangerous. But you know, I'm so beat from running all the way over here, I think I only just have the energy to teleport him back to the psychology building. You don't mind walking, do you Prince?"

"The rain's stopped already," Jadeite joined in. "It's a perfect night for a stroll."

Zoisite nodded. "Of course, we'd have to keep to the well-lit areas. For safety, you understand."

Mamoru had turned a shade of white to rival the feathers that surrounded him. "...You wouldn't."

Kunzite smirked. "Consider it a warning. You'll get worse than that if you ever do something so ridiculous again. Now get rid of those wings; I don't want to think about how much you'd break if you opened those in my room."

The prince glanced curiously down at the masses of white feathers. "I don't know if I can keep up this glowing thing if I do that. It'll be pitch dark in here."

"Anybody got a light?" Nephrite asked, of the fratboy expectation that there was always someone in the room with a lighter.

"How's this?" On cue, a ball of fire erupted over Zoisite's head, and took the form of a fire bird. Its wings roared and crackled as it drifted up to the biggest piece of the Beryl statue and perched on the edge, lowering its long neck to peck disdainfully at the marble.

"Show off," Jadeite muttered.

Mamoru was not entirely certain how these wing things worked, but he imagined them to be something like a very large weapon to be called upon at will. He was not, however, used to having weapons attached to his body like this. He breathed deeply, folding the massive wings behind him as though as a signal that he was not in need of them now. The wings shimmered, each feather turning to dozens of glistening stars, before they began to fade and finally vanished completely.

His powers now safely tucked away, the full force of the cold struck him, and he began to shiver. He rubbed his arms, missing the soft down that had warmed his back.

In the flickering light of the fire bird above them, Kunzite removed his cape, and wrapped it around his prince's shoulders. "You are on your way to giving me a heart attack at a very early age," he muttered, pulling Mamoru close to rub his back.

Mamoru leaned into him, feeling his shivers subside. "Don't worry, I'll be there to fix you up again."

There was a quiet calm in the room now, where everyone stood looking at each other, waiting for someone to come up with their next move. It was over. Most of the ends had been knotted up. What was there to do? What could you say, when the worst week of your life had reached its climax, and all you had left to do was pick up the pieces and shuffle back home?

"I need a beer," Jadeite stated decisively. "I need eight beers."

Nephrite looked wistful at the mention of alcohol. "I need eight beers more than you. I'm camping out in a corner with my own keg."

"I claim the bathtub." Zoisite picked at a greasy lock of hair with disgust. "I'm scrubbing myself down until every last bit of this day comes off."

Mamoru laughed, massaging his temples in relief. "I just need a nap. A long nap. To heck with it, I'm just going to sleep until next fall. We'll all be safer that way."

"Are you kidding?" Jadeite elbowed him in the ribs. "I bet your future self would come back and smother you with a pillow. Face it, Prince. You're just doomed to be injured in whatever you do. And thankfully, we'll be there to make sure you don't get too heavily maimed."

The young prince attempted to kick him in the shin, but his guardian had gotten wise and managed to dodge, laughing all the while.

"You trying to start something?" Jadeite gave him a shove, which knocked the prince into Kunzite, sending them both stumbling, until they both ended up in a messy heap. The white haired man gave him a Look, complete with a raised eyebrow. There was a moment where no one was quite sure what was going to happen next.

Completely deadpan, Kunzite declared, "I think, Prince, that this means war."

Mamoru nodded gravely. "I do believe you're right, Kunzite."

Jadeite paled as one very big leader and one very naked prince bore down on him. "C'mon, that was only--oh shi--HELP!"

"Think he dug his own grave on that one?" Nephrite casually asked the small blonde next to him, as Jadeite was tackled to the ground amidst cries for mercy.

"I don't think he could have done a better job at it if he'd had a shovel." Zoisite attempted to remain dignified, but Kunzite was roaring and Jadeite was attempting to chew his way out of the melee, and Mamoru had lost Kunzite's cape somewhere, and was now revealing a side of himself that Zoisite had never expected to see. The green-eyed boy could not help it--he broke into fits of laughter and could hear Nephrite do the same, and before long the two were struggling to hold each other up lest they collapse completely into giggles, while Jadeite's shouts of "rape!" echoed through the halls.

No Dark Kingdom base had ever witnessed such a scene.


Mamoru was just hanging up his phone when Malachi emerged from the steam-filled bathroom, silver hair turned glossier with dampness. "How did it go?"

The black-haired prince shrugged. "Oh, she's been frantically leaving me phone messages for the past two hours. She had a strong feeling that something was wrong, and when she couldn't get ahold of me she panicked. But, here's the weird thing. She had no idea I was dead for five minutes."

Malachi raised an eyebrow. "You didn't tell her, did you?"

"You think I'd want to? The poor girl did just come out of major surgery; I don't think she needs to know that unsettling little detail."

Though he normally chided Mamoru for keeping the unpleasant things in his life to himself, Malachi conceded that he had to agree this time. Usagi had already been through this once before with him. After tonight, Malachi thought he had a good idea of what kind of emotional trauma that had put her through. She did not need the same scenario coming back to her. "So what did you tell her?"

Mamoru slumped on the bed. Neff had dug up for him a well-worn t-shirt (fortunately not sporting any embarrasing phrases) and flannel pants that were frayed at the edges, but were more comfortable than anything Mamoru had previously owned. Compared to being naked in a cave, the outfit was heavenly. "The truth, just not all of it. I got up to the part where the King showed up, and I just couldn't tell her that her future husband has been decidedly trying to kill himself of the past to make some adjustments to the future. It would sure make me look even less trustworthy than the senshi currently think I am, and besides, it's just too..."

"Weird?" Malachi offered.

"Yeah, that. Especially since in the future I am, apparently, a nutcase."

Malachi looked dubious. "You don't think the senshi are going to be concerned that your story only includes clones? They're going to think there's someone else still out there, waiting to go after you."

"Oh, I didn't say I left out the King entirely. I told her it was some crazy guy with purple hair. Wanted world domination, or something like that. Never caught his name."

Malachi almost had to laugh. He wondered if anyone would make the connection. It was quite unlikely. "So then, how did your story manage to get rid of the crazy purple guy, if it didn't involve you dying?"

Mamoru smirked. "Easy. You guys showed up and saved me at the last minute. Then you defeated him, without my help, placing yourself firmly in Usako's good graces and saving my ass in more ways than one. She's just relieved this whole thing is over and that I'm okay. And she's very glad to know that I have you guys around to count on."

"Well at least something good came out of this. Maybe the senshi will decide we're worth keeping around for a while."

"That's not up to them." Mamoru looked squarely at him. "But it would help. I don't really look forward to being at odds with them about it. But they aren't completely unreasonable. Just... a little protective sometimes." Not entirely unlike certain guardians of his own. He sighed. "I'm still confused about Usako not being aware of what was happening, though. Not that I'm not relieved she didn't have to go through that, but, she knew the moment all that stuff with Lunette went on, and that didn't even compare."

Malachi plopped down in his desk chair. "I'm betting the King had a hand in that. He wouldn't have wanted her to know what was happening to you, any more than you do."

"He died too, though. How could he maintain that when he actually wasn't in existance during that time?"

"He could if he had help. He did say that the Shitennou were in on the whole thing. He also had a forcefield almost as big as the campus blocking out teleportation, and he somehow messed with time behind Pluto's back. All sorts of sophisticated stuff that he probably couldn't have kept up on his own while he was busy kicking your ass."

Mamoru looked thoughtful. "I hadn't even thought of that. I don't even know how that would work, but I guess they've had a few centuries to refine their skills."

"Yeah, well, you're plenty skilled at blocking out mental links already, so I guess it's not too much of a leap."

The black-haired man visibly winced. "I'm sorry, Malachi. I really am. You were already hurt so bad, and I was so afraid that you would be hurt again. I just, I don't know, I panicked, and I did something to you that I never thought I'd do to anyone." He'd known, for a long time, that he was capable of just walking into somebody's head and manipulating a few variables. That was a power that not even Usako was aware of, because it was something that he pointedly chose to ignore. He had always thought that it was something that simply would never happen. Malachi's connection with him had made it far too easy, and Mamoru had taken advantage of something that he should not have touched.

Malachi wasn't looking at him. He was straightening his desk, piling up papers and putting away CDs like it was a vital task.

"I thought I could make it better," Mamoru mumbled, trying to fill the gap. Somewhere in the house, the music had escalated and there was a loud thump as someone collided with a wall. Though the boys had seemed tame before, apparently they just needed a few hours to warm up before the party was up to its usual standards.

"You made it worse," the white-haired man answered softly, stuffing a pile of notes into his textbook. "You trapped me in my own mind, and that's not really a place I like to be right now."

Mamoru sighed. "It was the stupidest thing I could have done, Malachi, and I really am sorry. I... wasn't thinking. It was like I had to prove I had to do it on my own no matter what. I'd like to blame the King for that, but I've already blamed him for everything else. Maybe he started it, but…" He threw his cellphone at Malachi's bed for lack of any better course of action, and watched the small metal wad flop around in the sheets. "Usako's a bad influence. All she ever wants is for her friends to be safe, even if it's the worst course of action she could possibly take."

"Let's just hope it doesn't work both ways. The last thing the Senshi need is for her to adopt suicidal tendencies."

"Shut up."

"Make me."

"Well, we never did get to finish that delightful wrestling match earlier. I wouldn't want you thinking you'd gotten the upper hand or anything." Mamoru did not wait for the invitation. He approached Malachi with devious intent, but the white haired man was cornered against his desk, and before he could consider making a run for the bathroom again, Mamoru had grabbed his towel. He evaded Malachi's grasp, jumped to the bed and rolled to the other side.

They were both at a loss for words for a moment, and then Mamoru uttered what was either the most or least masculine thing he'd ever said in his life. "Nice package."

Malachi blanched. Someone was going to have to give him a lesson on English colloquialisms. "What, you're hitting on me, now? Prince, what will your fiancé say?"

"Right now, she'd probably be saying, 'UWAAAA! Mamochan, give him his towel back!' And probably peeking through her fingers to get a look. Of course, right about now, Minako-chan would be attempting to get her camera..."

"Would you just give me my towel back already?"

"You were going to make me walk naked through the quad. I think you can afford to squirm a little bit."

As karma would have it, it was at that exact moment that Malachi remembered he should have locked the door when he came in. A slight rattle of the doorknob was all the warning he got, before the door went cheerfully swinging open to the tune of "Hey ladies, look what we--HOLY FUCK."

The bathroom door slammed shut, an unclothed Malachi safely behind it, while Neff gaped between it and Mamoru, and Jed hid his face in an armful of beer. "Oh God, my eyes! My poor virgin eyes!"

"Did someone put something in my beer, or did I just see Malachi's white ass go streaking by?"

Mamoru looked multiple levels of smug as he held up the confiscated towel. "Yeah. Payback's a bitch, isn't it?"

The brunette raised an eyebrow, staring at Mamoru like he had just pulled out a severed unicorn head to show off. "Man, are we sure we brought the right guy back with us? Maybe we should go back and check whether the real Prince is still sitting down there, waiting for something to come and maim him." He ducked as Mamoru threw the towel at him, landing squarely on his head. "Hey, watch where you throw that thing. I don't want to think about where it's been."

Jed was carefully depositing the precious alcohol on Malachi's desk. "All I know is, we don't have nearly enough beer to wipe that mental image from my mind. You owe me a six-pack just for subjecting me to that, Prince."

Neff raised his voice. "Hey Malachi, were you planning to put on some clothes yet, or are you going to show off your junk to the guys in the livingroom first?"

"Fuck you, Neff." The white-haired man's voice came muffled through the door. "Fuck you, and get me some pants."

"What's going on?" Zory entered carrying a fruity wine cooler in place of a beer.

"Malachi was just putting on a naked show for us."

"And I missed it?"

"Fuck you too, Zory."

"I think he wants his pants." Mamoru didn't look much like he intended to give them to him.

"I see no pants here," Jed said innocently.

Zory sighed as he moved to the closet. "Do I always have to be the one to clean up after everyone? Two days around you two troublemakers, and the only mature person around here is already just as bad as you are."

Upon emerging from the bathroom, properly attired and with his silver hair slicked back against his head, the king zeroed in on Mamoru like a predator. Mamoru stiffened like a cornered animal, as he really was cornered, between the bed and the window, with no easy way of escape. Before he could plot out an elaborate escape plan, Malachi had jumped on the bed, and with dizzying speed had Mamoru from behind with his arms pinned against his chest. They collapsed awkwardly against the bed, amidst Mamoru's half-hearted cries of "ow, ow, ow!" that were too tainted by giggles to bear much weight.

Neff groaned into his beer. "Bloody hell, get a room you two."

"You're in our room."

"Get another room."

"Just don't send them to my room," Jed pleaded. "Can't you guys just sit down and have a beer like normal people?"

"Yeah, Malachi, there's beer, you want a beer, right?" Mamoru asked in desperation, a good handful of his hair currently coiled in an iron grip that tugged only just enough to keep him immobile.

"I'm not especially thirsty right now."

"No, really, I think you should have some. To, you know, relax a little."

"I'm perfectly relaxed. Don't I seem relaxed to you?"

"If you're so relaxed, think you could release your hold on me now?"

"Um, no."

Zory perched on the corner of the couch with his fruity drink. "No damaging the Prince, Malachi. You break it, you bought it."

Malachi growled in feigned anger as he released the struggling black-haired man with a good natured shove. "Like I could afford that."

Mamoru snorted. "Wouldn't be that hard."

The white-haired man's voice was matter-of-fact, but quite serious, as he said simply, "Yeah it would."

Neff retrieved a small bottle opener from his back pocket and expertly popped the lid off one of the bottles. "Prince, how old are ya?"

Mamoru shifted to lean against a pillow. "Uh, twenty..."

"Close enough." He passed the bottle to Mamoru, who dumbly took it. The label was unrecognizable, probably representing some local microbrewery of choice, but the contents were clearly some form of alcoholic beverage commonly known as beer.

"Isn't that just a little..."

"Hey, in your home country, you're legal." Quipped Jed, ever willing to look at the convoluted side of things.

Zory shrugged. "You don't have to, Prince, but it's not like the police are going to come busting down our door. After tonight, you could probably use a little liquid relaxation."

Mamoru watched as even Malachi commandeered the bottle opener from Neff to open his own drink. "Hey, don't look at me, you think I'm the responsible one all the time?"

The black-haired man sighed--near-death experiences sure made such matters seem trivial--and took a drink. It wasn't half bad.

"So," Zory started, with a smile in Mamoru's direction, "who's going to be the first to say it?"

"What, that I'm sexy?" Jed grinned. "Or does that just go without saying?"

"How about the fact that Mamoru got his ass handed to him by a half-senile, mentally unstable version of himself?" Neff drolled.

Mamoru nearly choked on his beer. "If anybody's ass was being handed anywhere, it sure wasn't mine. You four didn't exactly look like you were in control of the situation yourselves."

"Hey, I don't get that."

"You see, Jed, when a man's ass is..."

"Fuck off. I mean the whole Kunzite thing. I mean, what the hell was he doing there in the first place? If all Endymion wanted was to keep us busy while he did the 'committing murder-suicide-assassination-worst-timewarp-loophole-ever' thing, he could have just stood another clone or two there. And if he wasn't going to do that, he should have at least had my sexy self there too."

"Well there was a bigass barrier covering the whole base that not even a tank could penetrate that he probably needed help maintaining," mused Neff. "I can't imagine that's particularly easy to do while beating someone to death."

"But why the whole Dark Kingdom ruse, is what I want to know," Zory cut in softly. "A few days ago, that was useful just for misleading us from suspecting who was behind this. If we'd had any idea that this was orchestrated by our future selves, the whole thing could have backfired, but we've all been so caught up in our pasts, we had no time to consider such a thing. But tonight, with the King right in front of us... it didn't make sense to go to such lengths. It doesn't fit in with everything else that Endymion was trying to do."

"That's because it wasn't Endymion's doing." All eyes turned to the white-haired king who sat at Mamoru's feet, leaning back on one arm and watching his beer with half-lidded eyes. "He mentioned that Kunzite wanted to do it. I think that maybe, he was trying to tell me something."

"That bad hair colors hurt baby Jesus?"

"Jed, I bet your hair is fuchsia in the future. In fact, possibly the near future. I'm making a trip to the hairdresser's tomorrow." Zory smirked in the mildly unsettling way that only Zory could.

Not even Malachi could keep from snickering a little. "Much to my disappointment, Jed, I don't think so. No, what my rather assholish future incarnation did was force me to face something that I really didn't want to. He made me see what would happen if I... failed to keep it together. What was at stake. But, weirdly enough, he also made me realize that I'm more capable of standing up to him than I thought. I thought that... if I came face-to-face with him, the real him, I would have just crumbled. But even with that, and my shoulder, at the time I was so focused on Mamoru that his being there barely even mattered. He couldn't scare me." Malachi shrugged, feeling slightly self-conscious about his confession. "I guess that's what they mean about facing your fear."

No one really said anything, and in the end, no one really had to. They understood. They knew what it was to face your demons of past and memory and come out of it still--barely--standing. Malachi took a decisive swig of his beer and polished off the remaining dredges that had warmed in his hand. "I think we need more beer."

"I'll drink to that!" Jed chirped, proceeding to catch up with Malachi.

Neff had long since placed aside his empty bottle, and was patiently waiting for just those words. "Who needs another? Zory? You've gotta have more than that, man."

"I do not." Zory held his half-finished bottle defensively.

"You do so, you little lightweight. Prince, please tell me you've done better with yours than the little one."

Whether Mamoru had or not, he was not about to say. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, he had curled up against Malachi's stack of pillows in a way that he had very much wanted to do almost exactly three nights prior, and closed his eyes to listen to the murmur of his friends' voices nearby. Two excruciatingly long days had finally caught up with him, but with the threat gone and his guardians around him, Mamoru found himself in a place where he finally, finally felt safe.

Of course, all his friends were really aware of was that their Prince had fallen asleep, and his beer was at risk of tipping out of his fingers. Malachi soon remedied that by reaching over to pluck the bottle from his hand and, not one to be wasteful, taking a drink. Mamoru had, in fact, not done any better than Zory.

"How come he always falls asleep during the good parts?"

"So he can be awake every for all the bad parts?"

"No wonder he has such a negative outlook on life."

Neff returned from his foray into the kitchen to replenish the stock of alcohol in the room, and soon all had a fresh bottle in hand. He held his aloft, like a tribute to all that was fermented and golden. "I propose a toast."

"To beer!" Jed shouted. "Wonderful, wonderful beer!"

"To almost getting our asses kicked, and coming out in one piece."

"To actually getting our asses kicked! And, technically, losing. Badly."

Zory raised an eyebrow. "If you're talking technicalities, we also won. I mean, considering that we were playing both sides."

"Right. So to winning, and losing, and somehow having that translate to winning anyway. To best friends who fight for you, and most of the time have their asses kicked right alongside you." A snicker was to be heard from all conscious parties in the room. "To the past and the future, and time warps that hurt my head. And to being alive for one more day, just so we can have the most notorious damn job in the world of protecting a dude who has no idea how much he deserves it. Alright, that's it. Drink up, you fuckheads."