"ACE OF HEARTS"

A Sailor Moon fanfic

Based on the anime Sailor Moon and stories

From Codename: Sailor V, by Naoko Takeuchi

By Bill K.

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Sailor Moon and all related characters are (c)2003 by Naoko Takeuchi/Kodansha and Toei Animation and are used without permission, but with respect. Kaitou Ace and all characters from Codename: Sailor V are also (c)2003 by Naoko Takeuchi/Kodansha and are used without permission, but with respect. Story is (c)2003 by Bill Kropfhauser.

As always, for those only familiar with the English dub:

Usagi=Serena

Ami=Amy

Rei=Raye

Makoto=Lita

Minako=Mina

Haruka=Amara

Michiru=Michelle

Setsuna=Trista

Mamoru=Darien

Chibi-Usa=Rini

Motoki=Andrew

Kunzite=Malachite

Dark Kingdom=The Negaverse

Silver Millennium=The Moon Kingdom

Finally, Haruka and Michiru are NOT cousins.

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****SPOILER WARNING********

This story reveals the ending to the manga "Codename: Sailor V".

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Usagi, Makoto and Minako walked down the street three abreast. School was over and they had just dropped Ami off at her second home - - the library. Ami had invited them to join her, in a futile attempt to finally lure them away from frivolous activity, but all three had declined. Now they headed toward Minako's house.

"I still can't believe I got a 60 on my history test!" Usagi squealed, clutching her satchel to her chest. "Komatsu-sensei is a miracle worker!"

"That's nothing, kiddo! Look at this!" Minako proclaimed proudly, holding up her paper. "72! Read it and weep! I can finally show one of my papers to my mom and not have her freak out all over me!"

"Learning from him is a joy, isn't it," Makoto nodded. "I think that's the first score over 85 I've ever gotten."

"He makes this stuff so interesting," Usagi said. "Why can't the other teachers be like him?"

"Well, Usagi, he does have a built-in advantage," Minako told her.

"What's that?"

"It's easy to learn from the absolute dreamiest, most hunkiest man who ever lived!" sighed Minako.

"Is 'hunkiest' a word?" Makoto asked.

"It became one the moment he was born," Minako maintained. "That's assuming he wasn't dropped from heaven on a gossamer cloud, a gift to humanity from the gods."

Makoto and Usagi glanced at each other, then broke into giggles.

"Easy, blondie, we just cured Ami of this sickness. Don't you start," Makoto warned her.

"Don't worry, I'm not in love with him," Minako smiled. "I know he's married and I know it'd never work, no matter how charming and irresistible I am."

They walked a few paces.

"But that doesn't mean you can't have naughty dreams about him every night, right?" Makoto smirked.

"Damn right," Minako nodded. "And I bet I've had more than you."

"Bet you haven't," Makoto replied with a sly smile.

"And Rei's so jealous," giggled Usagi. "Her teacher at her private school this year is a fifty-five year old woman. There's got to be a way I can take his picture so I can tease her with it."

The trio erupted in laughter. Arriving at Minako's house, they waved good-bye as Minako entered the gate. She opened the door and found the usual scene. Her salaryman father parked in front of the television and her mother in the kitchen preparing dinner.

It was so ordinary.

"Hi, Daddy," Minako said, leaning over and kissing the top of her father's head. The squat man glanced up at his daughter and smiled. "Got my test back today. Take a gander."

"72 - - you're getting better," he nodded. Then he wagged a stubby finger at her. "Didn't I tell you that you could get good grades if you just applied yourself?"

"You know everything, Daddy," she smirked, rolling her eyes. Just then her mother entered the room.

"Test?" the still beautiful woman asked warily. She combed a lock of her light brown hair out of her eyes. "Let's see," and she held out a hand.

Minako confidently handed the paper over. Her mother took it and looked it over with a critical eye.

"Better," she said. "But not nearly good enough if you expect to get into a good college."

"Knew you'd see the bright side," Minako muttered to herself.

"Your father's right. You are capable of better. If you'd just apply yourself and stop wasting your time dreaming about show-business and stardom and . . .!"

"Yes, Mother!" Minako heaved dramatically. "Excuse me while I go to my room and 'apply myself'!"

Minako loudly climbed the stairs to her room.

"I'd like to 'apply myself' to the Foreign Legion," Minako groused as she entered her room. Her satchel sailed across the floor and skidded to a stop next to her desk. "Why can't she ever be happy with who I am?"

"Do you mind?" grumbled Artemis, peaking out from under her bed. "I WAS sleeping."

"Don't start, Artemis. Hey, I got a 72 on my test today."

"Am I supposed to be impressed?" Artemis asked. Minako stuck her tongue out at him.

"Don't look, cat," Minako said as she pulled her school uniform top off.

"Don't worry," Artemis replied. "Until you walk on all fours and grow a tail, I'm not interested."

"Geez, what do I have to do to impress somebody around here?" Minako asked.

"Start scoring over 72 consistently and I'll be impressed," Artemis replied, stretching to such a degree that his spine threatened to part. Then he noticed the fashion top and miniskirt Minako was wiggling into. "Going somewhere?"

"The Crown," Minako told him. "Maybe I can entice Motoki to ditch his fiancee and marry me."

"You've been trying that for four years now and it hasn't worked yet."

"I'm no quitter!"

"Besides, don't you have studying to do?"

"God I wish I knew a way to impress on you people that STUDYING IS BORING!"

"And video games aren't?" Artemis asked.

When he got no reply, the cat turned to Minako. She was staring in shock at the pillow on her bed. Glancing that way as she reached for it, Artemis saw there was a solitary playing card sitting on the pillow. As Minako snatched it up and stared numbly at it, he could see it was the Ace of Hearts. Minako's hand went to her throat.

"Ace," she whispered.

* * * *

"And she's been gone for four hours now!" Artemis told the other girls and Luna. They were all gathered at Hikawa Shrine listening to him after Artemis had sent out a general alert. The cat noticed Usagi yawning. "Am I boring you, Usagi?"

"I'm sorry!" whined Usagi. "But it's after nine and I just spent four hours studying!"

"Are you afraid Minako's in trouble?" Ami asked.

"Yes. Normally I don't get too concerned when she's out prowling. Minako can take care of herself better than anyone I know. But you didn't see the way she looked when she saw that card. And if it's what I think it is - - although I can't see how - - she could get in over her head."

"What's the significance of the card, Artemis?" Luna asked.

"You don't suppose it could be Kaitou Ace, do you?" Usagi asked. This startled Artemis.

"How on Earth do you know about Kaitou Ace?" Luna demanded.

"Usagi and I both followed the news reports about Sailor V, Luna," Ami told her. "The battle between her and Kaitou Ace was widely reported in the papers."

"Yeah, about how she went to China and busted up this movie set he was using as a blind for his criminal schemes! It was awesome!" squealed Usagi. "Take that, Ace! HI-YAAA!"

Usagi swung her arm around, mimicking a karate chop, and knocked a lamp off of the table.

"Oops! Sorry, Rei," Usagi grimaced. Rei glared at her as she picked up the lamp.

"So this Kaitou Ace is a tough customer, huh?" Makoto asked.

"Was, actually," corrected Ami. "I thought the report said he died in the battle, didn't it?" Usagi nodded.

"Well, there were a lot of things that weren't in the news reports," Artemis replied. "Starting with the fact that Kaitou Ace was secretly Saijou Ace."

"The hunk idol on TV?" gasped Rei.

"Impossible!" cried Ami, stricken. "He was gorgeous!" She immediately felt eyes turning toward her and flushed. "Um, so I hear."

"It's OK, Ami," grinned Makoto. "I'm pretty sure we all watched Saijou Ace when it was on."

"And Saijou Ace had a third identity," Artemis announced. "He was also Danburite, an officer in the army of the Dark Kingdom and the advance scout for its invasion of Earth."

The room quieted to a hush.

"And Minako thinks that Kaitou Ace may still be alive?" Luna asked.

"Yeah. The way she tore out of that house," Artemis said, then shook his head. "I've seen Minako when she's obsessed with something and she's obsessed with finding Kaitou Ace. And I don't know what worries me more, that or the prospect of her actually finding him."

"He's that dangerous?" Rei asked.

"He was an officer in the army of the Dark Kingdom. That makes him dangerous. But what's more dangerous is that . . ." Artemis hesitated.

"Artemis?" Luna asked.

"Minako's judgment might not be one hundred percent concerning Ace."

"What do you mean?" Makoto asked.

"Well, she may not - - see him for what he is."

The girls all looked at the white cat inquiringly.

"Umm," he offered lamely.

"She's infatuated with him?" Luna asked, aghast.

"She was - - at the time," Artemis admitted.

"Well it's not hard to see why," Usagi offered. "I mean for a while there, Kaitou Ace was sort of Sailor V's Tuxedo Mask." Luna looked at her askance. "Well he was always showing up when she was in a jam, helping her out!"

"Which may have been part of the plan," Artemis warned. "Remember, she was getting into these jams by fighting the soldiers and youmas that turned out to be under his command. Was he helping her out or was he setting her up?"

"Maybe he had a reason," Usagi persisted. "After all, there were times when we thought we couldn't trust Tuxedo Mask, either."

"That doesn't mean we shouldn't check this out," Makoto said. "Sure, there are nice guys out there, but there are users, too. And if this 'Ace' is one of those guys, we've got to help Minako out."

"Precisely," Artemis nodded. "We have to find Minako - - make sure she's all right."

"Can't you home in on her communicator signal?" Luna inquired.

"Sure," the white cat nodded. "I just didn't want to do it without back up."

The heads of the three girls turned to Usagi. She nodded and together the quartet transformed.

* * * *

Minako exited the elevator and walked dejectedly into the lobby of the high-rise office building. She's just returned from the former office of Avextrax Productions, the company that produced the "Saijou Ace" television show. Avextrax was long gone and a web-hosting consultant operated there now. The guard at the desk nodded to her as she returned the visitor's pass to him, then appreciatively watched her form as she walked toward the door.

"Naturally he wouldn't be in any of his old haunts," Minako thought to herself. "Ace wouldn't be that sloppy. Thing is, I don't know where else to look!"

She ventured out into the still populated street of the Tokyo business district at night. People wrapped up in their own concerns passed her without a glance. Those waiting for a bus or getting into cars had time to notice her short skirt and midriff-baring top and the emerging woman's body they concealed.

"And it shouldn't even be Ace," she continued as she walked down the street. "When Usagi beat Beryl, all the forces of the Dark Kingdom were consumed. Since he was Danburite, that should include him, too, shouldn't it?"

Her high heels clicked softly on the pavement as she walked.

"And besides, I saw him fade to mist myself in China. He said then it was the end for him."

The sound of her shoes on the cement continued.

"But if you did see him 'die', why were you so ready to fly all the way to England on a moment's notice the minute you heard there was Dark Kingdom activity there and that he might be involved."

Click, click, click, came leather on pavement. The darkness shrouded the area with an aura of mystery.

"The evidence was there. Katarina may not have recognized it for what it was, but I did. Even though I didn't see him, I know Kunzite was there for at least part of that operation. And I'm pretty sure Danburite was, too. He may have even been behind that little hand grenade going away present Katarina and I got at the garage."

The thought of that made her feel sick.

"Why is it so hard to believe he's capable of something like that? Was he ever straight with you? Did he ever once tell you the truth, ever?" Minako grew very sober. "'You're fated never to know the happiness of true love'. Just another one of his lies to throw me off the track."

Minako stopped. There were two sets of feet clicking on the pavement. Someone was following her. Instantly she whirled, ready for anything that other person might throw at her if he chose to attack.

"Hello, Minako," Ace said calmly.

He stood about twenty feet from her. His hands were in the pockets of his pants. His blue sport jacket was open, revealing a yellow shirt with no tie, open at the collar and the tail hanging out. His long light colored hair blew softly in the gentle breeze of the night. He smiled at her and his soft, boyish, obscenely handsome face was just as magnificent as ever.

It was him. Minako didn't know how, but it was him. Kaitou Ace, Saijou Ace, Danburite, Adonis or whatever he called himself now, it was him. It was impossible, but it was him.

Minako felt her heart skip a beat.

"Why aren't you dead?" she asked, her voice low with disgust and a trace of glee.

Ace calmly covered the twenty feet in a slow, sure gait. He stopped only when his proximity to Minako was several inches. Minako wanted to back up a step, to assume a defensive posture to be ready for anything he might try. But the anticipation of the possibility that he might actually touch her after four years kept her still. He was close enough to smell. He smelled good. He always smelled good.

"Do you wish me dead?" he asked, no trace of hurt or anger in his soft masculine voice.

"It'd make my life a whole lot simpler," Minako said, struggling to keep her voice from trembling. "Then I could just wonder what could have been and move on with my life. Find someone who deserves my love - - prove you wrong!"

"You remembered," he smiled, touched and yet slightly amused. "I'm flattered."

Minako struck him savagely across the face.

"Don't pretend to be touched!" she snapped. "Don't pretend you can actually have an honest, uncalculated emotion! You were never honest with me, not for a second!"

"You wish honesty?" He took some of her blonde hair in his hand and let it slide through his fingers. "You're even lovelier than you were four years ago. You're even slightly more mature."

"Slightly?!!"

"You demanded honesty. Does the mature person demand from another that which she will not practice herself?"

"This isn't about me!"

"It's always about you. It's always been about you in my mind, in my desires - - and in yours. What I told you that day remains true and will remain true. I only lacked the vision to realize just how many events would conspire to make that prophecy come true."

"You're playing with me again! What do you want, Ace? What's your game now?"

Ace was about to answer, then turned at something behind him that only he seemed to hear. Like a flash he was up, leaping to the rooftop above. Only as he made his superhuman leap did Minako hear the slap of four sets of shoe leather on pavement. She tore her gaze away from the now disappeared form of Ace and focused on her fellow senshi running up to her aid.

"Minako?" Artemis gasped, arriving first. "Did he hurt you?"

Minako didn't answer right away. Sailor Moon was there, clutching her shoulders, looking at her in that desperate, distressed manner she had whenever one of her friends were in peril. Jupiter stood to her right, just as concerned, while Mercury and Mars stood to her left and peered at her with anxiety. She felt sad, sad that she'd worried them, Artemis most of all. She felt disappointed that she'd let Ace get so close to her, that he'd managed to get under her skin and upset her thinking once again.

And she felt a deep sense of loss because he was no longer there.

"No," she whispered, then forced a smile. "You guys got here before he could try anything. Thanks."

"What did he want?" Mars asked. Minako noticed that she was looking at her with that intense manner she had. Her face colored and she flinched, looking away.

"I don't know," she replied. "Maybe he was just messing with my head again - - just for old times sake."

"But I thought Kaitou Ace was dead," Sailor Moon cried.

"So did I. I thought he died in China. I thought he died in England." Minako shrugged. "Maybe it's his ghost and he's haunting me." She looked up at her friends, appealing to them with eyes that told them she'd had enough. "Look, can we just go home? You guys scared him off. He won't be back tonight."

"All right," Mercury said. "If you think it best. You know him better than we do."

"If you want, you can stay at my place tonight," Jupiter offered. "If you're - - um, I mean, if you, um, want to throw him off his plans."

"I'll be all right," Minako said, pushing past them so she didn't have to answer any more questions. "See you all in school tomorrow, OK? Come on, Artemis."

Artemis nodded to Luna and the senshi, then scampered off after Minako.

* * * *

Minako turned over from a restless night at the sound of the alarm. She opened her eyes and found Artemis sitting on the bed, staring at her.

"What's the matter?" Minako groaned. "Didn't Mom feed you?"

"You know what I'm worried about," the cat told her.

"What don't you worry about? Artemis, I'm OK."

"That's why you had such a restful night, right?" Minako pulled the sheets over her head. "Minako, maybe you can make the others believe that. I've seen Ace in action. I know what he's capable of. And I know the way you react to him."

"I was thirteen!" Minako howled. "He was gorgeous! He was nice to me! I thought he loved me!" She climbed out of bed. "I'm older now. I can handle it."

"You don't feel anything for him?" Artemis asked suspiciously.

"Well I'm not going to lie," she grinned, shimmying out of her nightgown. "He's still gorgeous. But I'm not that naïve little girl running around in the Sailor V suit anymore."

"You were a lot of things back then," Artemis retorted, "but naïve wasn't one of them. You just don't think straight when it comes to Ace. Minako, he's from the Dark Kingdom! He was Kunzite's first officer! He tried to kill you!"

"Did you know he was also in Silver Millennium?" Minako asked. Artemis stared, astounded. "His name was Adonis. He was in love with me, but he never told me. He thought that - - that because I was the Princess of Venus and he was just a soldier that I wouldn't speak to him." Minako dabbed a tear from her eye. "That's so stupid! You're a guy, Artemis. Why do guys think that way?"

"Ace was in Silver Millennium?" Artemis asked.

"Minako!" her mother called up from the first floor. "Get ready for school!"

"I'm on it!" Minako called back and raced for the bathroom. Artemis sat on the bed, barely noticing her departure.

"Ace was in Silver Millennium?" he murmured. Then he leaped over to the dresser. "I need to talk to Luna about this."

"Yes, Artemis?" Luna said over the communicator.

"Minako just told me Ace was in Silver Millennium!"

"He was?" gasped Luna.

"Yeah. I think she said his name was Adonis back then."

"Well, I suppose it's possible," Luna replied. "After all, Beryl recruited her generals from Silver Millennium. Come to think of it, I do recall someone named Adonis."

"Oh yeah?" Artemis asked.

"He was a soldier - - rather far down in the ranks. Oh, but he was quite attractive."

"Really?" Artemis asked, his tone vaguely miffed.

"Yes, he had quite a few girls infatuated with him, as I recall. But he seemed to have eyes for someone else. Rather a pity, really. He was quite the comely young fellow." Luna hastily added, "Not that I notice such things."

"Oh, of course not," grumbled Artemis.

"As if you've never had a roving eye, you closet philanderer!"

"Well, the person he had his eye on was Minako apparently," Artemis commented. "At least he was being honest with Minako about that. He still worries me though, Luna."

"Perhaps he should," Luna told him. "I also recall why Adonis was so low in the ranks. He was quite well thought of by his superiors, but he kept getting into scrapes with the rules. There were recurring questions about his honesty."

"Looks like he hasn't changed much," Artemis judged.

"No," Luna replied with a lustful sigh, "I should say not."

"Try not to drool into the communicator. You'll short it out," muttered Artemis.

"Well! Of all the nerve! Luna out!"

Racing out the door, Minako glanced at her watch. Late again; Minako knew she had just about used up the good graces of her teacher, even a great teacher like Komatsu-sensei. She tried to hurry this morning, just like every morning, but it was always the same. You didn't just fall out of bed and look the way she looked - - it took maintenance. To her surprise, Usagi was waiting by the gate.

"You waiting for me?" Minako asked as she ran up. Usagi nodded. "Won't that make you late, too?"

Usagi shrugged. "Why should today be any different?" The pair hurried along. "How are you doing?"

"OK," Minako replied warily. "Why, did Artemis say something?"

"No! I mean, he was talking to Luna when I left, but I don't know what about." Minako continued to look at her suspiciously. "Well, Rei did kind of put me up to it. She sensed you were kind of conflicted last night."

"Rei needs to keep her psychic nose to herself," muttered Minako.

They walked along in silence.

"So," Usagi began awkwardly, "are you in love with Kaitou Ace?"

Minako didn't answer.

"Because I can understand it if you are. I mean, he is really cute. I know he's done some bad things, but maybe deep down he really does love you."

"Is that enough?" Minako asked. "Does it matter if he does love me if he's only going to break my heart - - at the very least?"

"Yeah, that is a lot to worry about. There was a time I wasn't sure about Mamo-chan - - whether he was our friend or just out for himself. That was before you came along."

"I know about it," Minako told her. "Artemis was monitoring your activities while I was recovering from what happened in England. That was when he was trying to collect the rainbow crystals, right?"

"Uh huh." Usagi paused thoughtfully. "It really hurts when you love someone, but you don't know if you can trust him."

"Yeah. Did Mamoru ever try to kill you?"

"Only when Beryl had him. Maybe that's the story with Kaitou Ace? Maybe he's different now that Beryl is gone."

"Maybe. How do I find out?"

She glanced at Usagi and her friend gave her a helpless look in return.

"I wish I knew what to tell you," Usagi offered. "But you know I'll be there for you no matter what happens, right?"

"Sure," Minako smiled, "but it's still good to hear." A loud ringing pierced the air. "Oh crap, there's the bell!" Minako and Usagi scurried into the building.

Both girls met Mr. Komatsu at the door to their classroom and anxiously eased past him.

"Sorry we're late again, Komatsu-sensei," whimpered Usagi.

"Well, you're both getting better," the handsome teacher smiled gently. "At this rate, you'll both just be on time when I give out the end of term final exam." The class giggled. "You both know how you can make it up to me, right?"

Usagi grinned, rolled her eyes and handed him her homework.

"Here you go, sensei," Minako smiled, batting her eyes adorably as she handed over the paper. "Um, sorry about the jelly stains." Komatsu smirked cynically and nodded her to her seat.

"OK, class," Komatsu announced, "biology books open to chapter six: Human Reproduction - - and the first one who giggles gets detention."

Out of the corner of her eye, Minako noticed Ami blushing slightly while Usagi struggled to keep a straight face. She smiled to herself and opened the book. Folded in the pages at chapter six was a note. Curious, Minako opened it. Folded inside the note was a playing card, the Queen of Diamonds. The note read:

COME JOIN ME, MY QUEEN, FOR LUNCH ON THE ROOF

Minako felt her pulse quicken.

At lunch, Minako excused herself and headed for the roof. There she found Ace. Two folding chairs were positioned on either side of a wooden box. A white linen tablecloth covered the box and a vase with a single rose sat in the center. Upon seeing her, Ace smiled, his eyes twinkling.

"I'm glad you accepted my invitation," he said, producing a picnic basket.

"And if I hadn't?" Minako asked warily.

"I would have been sorely disappointed," he said with good humor.

"How did you get that invitation into my biology book?"

Ace smiled in silent amusement. "My reputation as a master thief would be undeserved if I could not sneak into your bedroom without waking you."

"YOU WERE IN MY BEDROOM?" Minako gasped. "You saw me in my nightie?"

"It will be a sight that will give me comfort on many a lonely night," Ace smiled. Minako was about to shout at him, but stopped and screwed up her face in confusion.

"Hmm," she said. "I'm not sure whether I should kiss you or slap you for that one."

"Please join me, my dear," he chuckled. "I swear to you the food is not poisoned."

"Your word of honor?" Minako asked cynically.

Ace grinned. "Since I have no honor, I would never insult you that way." Minako continued to hold back. "If I can't appeal to your sympathy, perhaps I can appeal to your sense of adventure. Take a chance."

Minako eyed him skeptically. Then her mouth curled into a grin.

"You are so terrible," she said, easing into the chair opposite him.

"You know me too well."

"I don't know you at all." She looked at the masterfully prepared food on the table. "So where'd you steal this?"

"From only the best restaurant," he replied with a twinkle. "You deserve no less."

Minako sampled it, waiting for the drug to overcome her or the poison to cut her breath short. Instead, flavor overwhelmed her. She nodded to Ace and took another bite.

"So tell me, Ace," Minako said between bites. "Was that you in the garage in England - - the one who threw the grenade at me?"

Ace sobered. "It was."

"How could you do that?" she asked softly, her eyes seeking the food rather than his.

"My lord, Kunzite, demanded it," he replied without hesitation. "It was his power that caused me to fade before your eyes in China. I thought I was dying. Instead, he was recalling me for my failure." She noticed Ace's jaw clench for a moment. "Perhaps it would have been better if I had died."

Minako studied him the entire time, wanting to believe it but still fearing in the back of her mind that it was another skillful performance.

"I make no excuses for England," Ace told her. "I was a different man. I was a man in the grip of a force I had no hope of opposing. The only options I had were to embrace death or tread a very twisting and perilous path that would lead to my freedom by deceit. I took that path and it allowed me to survive the eventual destruction of Queen Beryl and the Dark Kingdom. But in order to successfully navigate that path, I could not fight you with anything less than my best efforts while Lord Kunzite and his minions exerted their influence over me."

Minako sipped some juice.

"So you were willing to trade my life for your freedom," she replied, looking at the glass.

"There is an element of risk in everything we do. The wise gambler only takes risks when the reward is valuable enough and the odds can be tipped. I was confident in your abilities, but I also took steps to slant the risk in my favor. Or do you think you survived that explosion through sheer luck or the righteousness of your mission as Sailor V?" Ace asked her evenly. Minako looked at him intently. "The grenade's charge was sabotaged, Minako. It made an impressive noise and a pretty flash, but was not deadly."

"It blew up the garage!" Minako countered.

"Secret charges set in the foundation of the garage, detonated by the concussion of the grenade," Ace told her. "The attempt satisfied Lord Kunzite, though the result did not. It allowed me to continue my efforts to slip from his grasp while he concentrated on your friends and his lover in Japan." Ace sipped his drink. "And it let you live, for the thought of destroying such a beautiful spirit - - is quite offensive to me."

Minako was staring at him, amazed.

"You must understand that the world's beautiful things must be cherished and admired, not trodden under one's boot, don't you?" Ace asked. "I am hardly above stealing beautiful things, but destroy them? There's no profit in it."

"And how do you intend to profit from me?" Minako asked.



Ace merely looked at her and smiled and the meaning of his smile made her cheeks flush. She looked away, reached for her juice again only to misjudge the distance and knock the can over with her hand. Fumbling for it, she saw the can squirt from her grasp. Minako snatched at it, but her hand only closed around it securely when she saw Ace's hand close around hers. Her heart fluttered when she felt his strong hands securely grip hers. She looked up into his placid eyes.

"What are you really after?" she demanded.

"I seek a very precious jewel," he replied.

"I-I'll stop you."

"Do you really want to do that? I don't have to resort to illicit methods to obtain what I desire. If given freely, I will gratefully accept."

Minako struggled to keep her head. This was the man she'd had both romantic and lustful dreams about since she'd hit puberty and first had such thoughts. But he was also the man who had toyed with her for months, leading her around by the nose until she walked right into his trap. She had to think, rather than rely on her instincts, for her instincts were not to be trusted at the moment. But her brain was a swirl of emotions.

"I-I have to go," she choked out, breaking away and heading for the door.

She hated herself for running, but she had to put some distance between her and Ace. His proximity was too intoxicating. Artemis was right - - she didn't think straight around him. He was just too - - desirable. As her shoes scuffed across the surface of the rooftop, she tried to think of all the other boys she'd dated and momentarily loved, from Alan and Asai to the guy she met at the Crown four months ago. But their memories together couldn't seem to shove the essence of Ace from her. Minako reached for the door handle and suddenly it wasn't there. It was blocked by a man's suit. Hands seized her by the upper arms. Minako felt her chest tighten as she looked up into Ace's intent face.

"Ace," she whispered, her throat constricting.

He had said to her once "You will never know true love". She refused to believe that was true, but true or not, there was one thing in the span of time from that oh so young girl to now that she had come to know: desire.

She stood paralyzed as Ace gazed at her. He bent down. Minako arched her mouth to his. One of his hands moved from her arm to cup her in the small of her back, trapping her long blonde hair against her. Their lips touched. Minako felt herself falling over backwards, carried as if down a waterfall to churning rapids below. Adrenaline surged through her body and it arched against Ace.

Suddenly those lips were ripped away from her. Minako, devastated that they were gone, looked around from her haze. Ace was backed defensively against the door from the roof, looking at someone. She followed his line of sight and saw Sailor Jupiter, Sailor Mercury and Sailor Moon. Jupiter had her tiara's lightning rod up and the expression on her face said she was ready to use it, while Mercury was scanning him with her visor and computer and Sailor Moon held the Moon Tier.

"Step away from her, Kaitou Ace," Mercury advised warily.

"As you wish," Ace smiled calmly. He took a sidestep from Minako and she had to fight the urge to reach for him.

"Mina-chan, are you all right?" Sailor Moon asked urgently. Minako nodded numbly.

"What do you want here?" Mercury asked him straight out.

"Since you saw what we were doing," Ace smiled with a twinkle in his eye, "that should be quite obvious." Mercury flushed slightly.

"Yeah, well it looks like the date's over, Romeo," Jupiter snarled. Her lightning rod began to crackle with energy.

"I don't see the need for violence," Ace said, placidly adjusting the cuff of his jacket sleeve.

Suddenly Jupiter's head whipped back. She staggered back a couple of steps before regaining her balance. Mercury and Sailor Moon both looked to see what was wrong. The lightning rod on her tiara was bent, while lying at her feet was a playing card.

Neither one saw the other two cards leave Ace's hand, though Minako did and tried to shout out a warning. Mercury suddenly felt the computer whipped from her hands. Before she could reach for it though, there were the twin sounds of metal clattering on the roof and of Sailor Moon squealing in surprise. She and Jupiter both saw Sailor Moon shaking her hand in pain and the Moon Tier lying on the roof.

"Oh no you don't!" snapped Minako. She spotted Ace start to head for the door and lunged for him.

However, Ace pivoted instantly, almost as if he had anticipated Minako's action. His spin put him in the perfect spot to catch Minako in his arms. In control of the blonde girl, Ace bent her backwards and planted his lips firmly on hers. Minako struggled at first, but her desire overwhelmed her and she surrendered to the kiss. Only the thundering approach of Jupiter caused him to break the embrace. Ace spun Minako into Jupiter and slipped effortlessly through the door as Jupiter caught her.

"Oh, wasn't that romantic!" squealed Sailor Moon.

"SAILOR MOON!" Mercury gasped.

"Sorry."

"You all right, Blondie?" Jupiter asked Minako.

"Uh huh!" Minako sighed happily.

Back downstairs, the three girls huddled protectively around Minako. For Minako's part, she spent the entire trip down memorizing the look of her black patent leather shoes.

"Sometimes I wonder about the two of you," Ami clucked. "There was nothing romantic about that kiss, Usagi. He was clearly exploiting her infatuation with him to make good his escape. And you, Minako: you of all people know what Kaitou Ace is capable of and yet we find you having lunch with him!"

"Yeah?" grumbled Minako. "And would you be able to resist if you suddenly had a lunch date up on the roof with Komatsu-sensei?" Ami burned with embarrassment.

"Hey," rumbled Makoto, smacking the back of Minako's head. "That was a low blow, Blondie."

"I'm just trying to make you people understand! I'm - - wacky about him."

"I understand, Mina-chan," Usagi said gently.

"Minako, he's a criminal!" pleaded Ami. Minako just folded her arms over her chest and continued to gaze downward.

"I think that's part of his charm," Makoto offered.

"Oh, PLEASE don't start with that outlaw-bad boy nonsense!" Ami huffed. "There is nothing charming about someone who intentionally breaks the rules or defies authority for his own amusement or to look 'cool'!"

"Up here, I agree with you," Makoto replied, pointing to her head. Then her hand moved over her heart. "But down here - - you got to admit they can be exciting."

"Romance novel rubbish!" Ami maintained. "There's nothing exciting about unfocused, illogical rebellion for its own sake. And there's certainly nothing logical about placing yourself in a potentially dangerous situation both emotionally and physically. Minako, he's using you. You have to see that!"

"You're probably right," moped Minako.

"I know what you're probably thinking," Usagi told her, stopping the quartet in the hall so she could look her friend in the eye. "You see some good in him, even if it's only a tiny little bit, and you think if only you can love him enough that you'll make him see that there's more to life than stealing and hurting people. Maybe you can't, but I understand that you have to try."

"Usagi!" gasped Ami.

"I know where she's going with this," Makoto grinned. "I mean, I've practically lived my life by the motto 'every guy deserves a chance'. And I know what it's like to ache for someone and to feel him slip away from you. But I know when a guy's bad news, too. You got to keep your head about this, Blondie. You've got to look at what he does for what it is, not for what you want it to be. If you need to take a cold shower until you turn into an ice cube, do it. The next time you run into Ace, you need to be looking at him with your eyes, not your hormones. Otherwise you could get hurt."

"But maybe he's sincere," Usagi protested. "People can change if you give them a chance."

"I want to believe that, too, Usagi, but the evidence just doesn't point to it," Ami countered. "This course can only lead to heartache."

"It doesn't have to," Makoto argued. "She just has to be careful."

"Do you want her to be hurt?" Ami gaped.

"Do you want her to be lonely?" Usagi retorted.

As they debated the problem, Minako wandered off down the hall. As Ace had kissed her that final time - - kissed her so wonderfully that she still felt the burn of his lips on hers - - she felt something in the kiss. Call it telepathy or call it wishful thinking, but she felt sincerity from him for the first time since he'd looked at her that day in China and told her the fortune she didn't want to hear.

"Maybe he does love me," Minako mused. Her fingers brushed lightly over

her lips, trying to recreate in her mind the sensation of Ace's mouth on hers.

Over the days that followed, everyone seemed to go out of her way to stay close to Minako. Rei dropped over unannounced on the flimsy excuse that they "needed to catch up." Usagi invited her over to try on clothes, to swap styling tips and keep her company. Makoto dropped by with some pastry and invited herself along when she found out Minako was going to enter a talent contest. Study groups were often interrupted when she noticed Ami studying her like a specimen under a microscope. And Artemis was always underfoot. He followed her everywhere except the shower.

But only Usagi seemed to understand what she was going through. The girl wasn't afraid to bring Ace up, unlike the others, and let Minako unburden all of her conflicted emotions without judgment. It made Minako feel closer to her, if that was possible. Her advice didn't help, because Usagi was an incorrigible optimist and always felt love would work itself out. But it helped that she was supporting her rather than protecting her and Minako appreciated it.

That's why she only told Usagi about the gifts. Every day since the lunch, Minako would find a different present waiting for her. They appeared never at the same time twice and always in a place Ace couldn't possibly have access to. The gifts were sentimental trinkets, never anything of great value except that she knew they were from him. Enclosed each time was a note with a few words of tender malarkey, words that could only be smooth lies if they were from Kaitou Ace.

Or were they?

In her room after school, Minako put her satchel down on her chair, for her desk was far too cluttered to have any room, and opened it to pull out her English grammar text. At once her eyes widened in surprise, then nearly closed as she smiled in cynical amusement. As she pulled the small box from her satchel and undid the ribbon, she swore to herself that one day she'd figure out how he did it.

Artemis watched her as she fumbled with the box. He saw that the box contained a miniature gold chain and a note. The cat noted that the chain momentarily dazzled Minako. He noticed her interest in the note. He noticed her sober as she read it. The chain was put down, the note stuffed into a pocket and just like that Minako was off.

"Where are you going?" he asked warily.

"The Crown," Minako tossed over her shoulder.

"I'll go with you," he said, scampering after her.

"What makes you think they'll let cats in there?" Minako groused at him.

"What makes you think they'll see me?" he replied.

Whether that was her original destination or not, Minako arrived at the Crown five minutes later with Artemis behind her. She waltzed right in, just as she had hundreds of times before and parked herself in the Grand Prix game. Confident he had her under surveillance, Artemis turned his attention to slipping into the door and under the pinball machines before Motoki noticed him. While waiting for his moment, he glanced back at Minako. She was still there, taking the hairpin turns of Le Mans as if she'd been drinking sake all night.

The chance presented itself and Artemis took it. Darting behind the ankles of a ten-year-old, the cat slipped into the arcade and under the pinball machine like the pro he was. Allowing himself a moment of pride, Artemis turned back to the Grand Prix game.

"She's gone!" he gasped to himself. Darting up to the game, he leaped onto the seat and looked around. There was no sign of her anywhere. Amid surprised shouts and amused titters, Artemis checked the entire arcade without finding any sign of Minako. Finally, with Motoki on his tail, Artemis darted out the door and down the street to an alley.

"You don't lose me that easily, Minako Aino!" he muttered to himself. Executing a backflip, Artemis summoned the tracer he used to track the Sailor Senshi communicator watches the senshi all wore. The tracer came to life and instantly pinpointed Minako's comm-signal.

"That's her house," Artemis thought, staring at the screen. "She must have left it behind." Feeling uneasy, Artemis sat back on his haunches and stared down the alley out into the city. "I hope you know what you're doing, Minako."

* * * *

"I have no idea what I'm doing here," Minako thought. She faced the door to a hotel room.

Ace's note had brought up the memory of her time in England. She had stayed there initially in the London Hilton Hotel, the stay arranged as part of her "modeling tryout" cover story that Artemis and the mysterious entity she knew only as "The Boss" had concocted. At first she wondered why he'd brought it up, because her time in England chasing Danburite hadn't been a pleasant memory for either of them. And the note was oddly phrased, making no sense.

Then she saw it. The note was a veiled invitation, the reference to England being a clue to his whereabouts. So now she was in the Tokyo Hilton Hotel, in front of a room with the same number as her suite in London. Her initial thought was to change to Sailor Venus, in case this was a trap. But the thought of perfect strangers opening their door and finding a belligerent Sailor Senshi quickly put a damper on that.

"Go on," she said to herself, knocking on the door. "He can only kill you once."

The door opened and revealed Ace behind it. He smiled warmly and gestured for her to enter.

"Come into my parlor?" Minako asked.

"I vow that I am a most benign spider," Ace replied.

"Which makes you all the more dangerous," Minako retorted.

"Which excites you terribly," Ace smiled. Minako felt her cheeks begin to burn.

"What's with all the cryptic crap in the note?"

"A message only you would understand. I wished to see you - - without your chaperones."

"Planning on having your way with me?"

"If fortune smiles upon me," Ace smirked.

"That's the first honest response you've ever given me."

"I have given you many honest responses. You choose not to believe them." He gestured to a table with a handsome dinner on it. "Dine with me?"

Minako hesitated.

"Do not be afraid of me," Ace appealed.

"This was a mistake," Minako whispered. She turned to go, but a hand caught hers.

"Please do not run away again," she heard Ace say. Minako turned back to him, gazing up into his liquid eyes. "You wish honesty from me. I love you. I burn for you. I have burned for you since Silver Millennium. Until now, a conspiracy of circumstances has kept us apart, from the will of others to my own flaws to your weaknesses. One thing has remained constant - - my passion and desire for you."

Minako stared up into his eyes.

"And yours for me. Do not deny it, Minako, because then you would be the one lacking in honesty. Do not run from your passions. Do not fear them."

"No," Minako said, stiffly shaking her head. "Y-You're just using me."

"For what? To gain one time with you? Can't you see the ardor I have for you? I don't want one night. I want you! To have and to hold for all of eternity and beyond! Do not fear me, please!"

She wanted to look away, but couldn't force herself to break the grip Ace had on her upper arms.

"Or do you fear yourself?" he boldly asked, his face nearing hers until they were inches apart. "Am I the wild card that just doesn't fit your perfectly crafted fantasy of how your life will unfold? Does the idol in waiting have no time for love?"

"I have plenty of time for love!" Minako shot back. "I just won't love a criminal!"

"It's already too late," he said, his lips nearing hers.

"Don't," she whispered.

"I'm not forcing you to do anything," Ace whispered back. "You are free to leave at any time."

Minako could feel Ace's hot breath on her mouth.

"As if I could," Minako said.

Their lips touched. Passions sparked and mouths hungrily sought each other. Minako's arms curled around Ace's torso. Two forms molded together.

And dinner got cold.

* * * *

"Are you positive you've checked everywhere?" Luna said into the communicator. A response buzzed in her earpiece. "Don't take that tone with me, Artemis! I'm just trying to be thorough!" Another response came. "Yes, I agree, it's quite troublesome. We'd better get them mobilized. You contact the others. I'll TRY to rouse Usagi. Artemis - - chin up."

Luna severed the connection and allowed herself a moment's pensive look. Then determination fixed her features and she leaped over to the bed. In it, Usagi lay, arms and legs spread-eagle, sheets twisted around her, mouth open and drool leaking onto the bedding.

"Usagi," Luna said.

When no response came save a loud snort, Luna leaned her front paws onto Usagi's shoulder and pushed.

"Usagi, wake up!" Failure. "Oh, bother!"

The cat climbed on top of Usagi's head, balanced on her forehead, and began jumping up and down.

"WAKE UP, WAKE UP, WAKE UP, WAKE UP!" the cat bellowed.

"LUUUUUUUNNNNNAAAAAAAA!" roared the sleeping princess. She rolled over, throwing Luna to the bed, and sullenly raised her head from the pillow. "What is it?! And it better be good!"

"I just received a call from Artemis," Luna informed her. "Minako didn't come home last night."

Usagi was up immediately.

* * * *

Ace checked his watch. His plane departed for Sidney at ten. In the back of his mind he wondered if he'd use both tickets he booked on the flight or only one. He hoped she'd be there when he returned, but if she wasn't he wouldn't be surprised. There was a limit to what people could put up with and sometimes being hopelessly in love with someone wasn't enough to counteract such things. He was prepared for that eventuality, but that didn't make it any easier to cope with. His hand closed around the knob of the door to the hotel room. The door swung open.

Sailor Venus was framed in the doorway.

"Where have you been?" Venus asked, her eyes narrow and her mouth a thin line. "And don't lie to me."

There was none of the jaunty assurance normally seen in Kaitou Ace's handsome face. Solemnly he looked at Sailor Venus.

"There's a jewelry store near this hotel," he said calmly. "One of their most valuable pieces is gone."

"You set me up!" she said, a trace of the hurt and anger audible in her voice. "You used my feelings and conned me into believing that I was the 'jewel' you were after! And all you wanted to do was keep me occupied! Last night was just a lie!"

"I did not lie," Ace maintained calmly.

"You're doing it right now! You're pathological!"

"The gem I stole is a means to an end," Ace said, casually approaching her, even though she was close enough to blast him into the wall with her attack. "It will provide me either with a means to live and a way to carry out my next venture," and his hand slid into his jacket. Venus tensed, a heartbeat away from launching her attack at him. But in his fingers was the jewel mounted on a gold ring, "or it will grant my happiest wish and be the contract that seals our - - union."

"Union?" Venus whispered, mesmerized by the glittering stone. "Us?"

"A partnership, if union is too strong a word. I want you, Minako. I had never known what a woman was until I met you. I have desired you since Silver Millennium. These things I steal are just a means to an end - - or a challenge to a bored rogue. You are the one thing in this universe that would bring joy to my life, that special magical joy that only the twinkle of your eyes, the curve of your hip and the gaiety of your soul can bring me."

"So you stole an engagement ring for me?" Venus asked incredulously.

"It's what I do," Ace replied, amused. He saw Venus was not amused.

"And what about me? Am I supposed to compromise everything I believe in and be - - moll to a master thief?"

"I am what I am. I cannot change that. Whether you can stay with someone like me is a decision only you can make. But you can't deny the pleasure I give you. You can't deny the desire that smolders in your heart as it smolders in mine. You can't deny the magic of last night. Last night wasn't a lie. Last night was the first time you realized the truth."

"But you said I would never know true love. Doesn't that include you?"

His hand caressed her cheek and the skin tingled beneath.

"Perhaps I will never be able to inspire true love in you," Ace replied, "as you have in me. But I inspire something. That's enough. I'm willing to hope that more will come, but I'll settle for desire. Indulge that desire with me, Minako. We can roam the world. We can live free. We can do as we wish." His finger traced along her lips. "And we can indulge our mutual desires until we are consumed in an inferno that our own passions create."

"I want to," she whispered. "The thought of you - - of being in your arms - - of being joined with you - - it's just so. . ." A tear trickled down her cheek.

Ace watched her soberly, sensing what was to come.

"But I can't help wondering how long you can settle for something less than true love? Because your words show me that what you feel isn't true love. Because you're not willing to change who you are or stop what you're doing, it isn't true love, Ace. It's true lust."

She saw Ace's jaw clench, but he remained silent.

"Last night was - - so perfect," Venus continued. "But this morning, when I woke up in an empty bed in an empty room - - that was as much of a sign as last night was. I want you, but I don't want to want you!" Her words caught in her throat for a moment, Venus stopped to collect herself. "There's no future in loving you! You make me feel - - Gods, you make me feel like heaven! You make me feel like I'm the only woman in the universe. But that's not enough! Passion is a beautiful thing, but it won't last. It can't! One day passion becomes commonplace. And on that day I'll wake up and you'll be gone and I'll have nothing."

Wordlessly Ace looked at her. He was sympathetic, but silent.

"I can't live my life just on how you make me feel! You're like a drug, Ace. But I don't want to be addicted! I don't want drugs! I don't want passion! I want true love. That's why we can never be. I can't be part of two lovers on the run anymore than you can be Mr. Minako Aino with his pipe and slippers and newspaper. You sensed it all along - - you just didn't finish the sentence. I'll never know true love - - with you."

Ace reached for her, but Venus shrugged away from him. He bowed his head slightly.

"There is wisdom in what you say. I have always lived for the present because I have never thought I had a future. I think I can only gain a future with you. But to love me means risking your future. I admit that. I don't begrudge you your skepticism."

Without trying again to reach out to her, Ace turned and walked to the closet. He pulled out a suitcase and turned back to Venus.

"But I'm also a weak man, Minako. I indulge my whims and wants and I have a petty, jealous side that dislikes losing," he told her. "Doubt if you will, but I love you and I will see to it that I will always be your only love. Do not seek happiness in the arms of another. I won't allow it."

"And what can you do to stop it?" Venus demanded, her anger rising.

Ace looked at her coldly. "I maneuvered you to England just when a relationship between you and the boy - - Asai was his name? - - was beginning to blossom. Then when you threw yourself at Alan in your endearingly childish manner, I secretly wove a web that drew him closer to the other woman and drew you into faking your own death."

Venus stared at him in shock.

"And if you ever try to find happiness in the arms of another in the future," Ace said, a confident smile on his beautiful face, "I will return and put your latest 'true love' to the test. Perhaps you will never know true love with me. But I won't allow you to find it with anyone else. I'm sorry, but I can't."

The fury welled up in Venus. "Venus!" she roared. "Love and Beauty Shock!"

The shock wave tore through the room. With a diffident air, Ace somersaulted over it. The arc of his leap sent him, suitcase in hand, crashing through the window at the far end of the room. Venus raced to the window and peered out, at once hoping and dreading that Ace was splattered on the pavement below. But Ace glided down the side of the hotel secured to a bungee cord leading from the window sill Venus now looked down from. At the apex of the cord's length, Ace's feet gently touched pavement and he severed it.

Turning back to her, Ace waved graciously, then hopped into a red convertible sports car and drove away. Venus watched him until the car disappeared from sight.

"You don't own me, Ace," Venus said through clenched teeth. She slammed her fist into the cross frame of the broken window, shattering it. "YOU DON'T!"

Turning on her heel, Venus stormed out of the room.

"It may take me the rest of my life, but I WILL find true love - - a love you can't bust up!"

Morning was dawning outside of the hotel. Minako squinted at the sunlight in the east. The light seemed particularly harsh this morning. She desperately wanted to wake up, for this had to be a bad dream. She'd roll over and see Artemis staring at her and know none of this had happened.

"How could I have been so stupid?" she whispered to herself. Easy, her mind instantly sneered back - - it was Ace.

Turning, Minako headed for home. She didn't particularly want to go there. She knew there'd be a million questions from her mother and father about where she was all night. She knew they couldn't take the truth and she didn't have any convincing lies made up yet. And then there would be Artemis. She already knew she couldn't lie to him.

"Maybe I'll get lucky and a meteor will fall on me," Minako muttered.

"Minako?"

She knew the voice, but turned around and stared in shock just the same. Usagi stood there, her face in anguish over what Minako was enduring.

"How'd you find me?" Minako asked.

Usagi shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. I knew you were in trouble, so I was determined to find you. Somehow I did."

If it were anyone else, she'd think they were hiding something. But Usagi always had that magical way of performing miracles when her friends were in need. The edges of Minako's mouth curled gratefully and it encouraged Usagi to come closer.

"Artemis said you didn't come home last night," Usagi ventured cautiously. "Were you with Ace?"

Minako nodded.

"Was he nice to you?"

"Yeah," and Minako couldn't help but smile at the memory. "It was beyond everything you ever dream it will be like. I-I just can't describe it. I think I love him even more now than I did before last night."

"Where is he?"

"Gone."



Usagi's face fell. Minako wore such a burden of sadness on her continence that it made Usagi's heart ache.

"I trusted him - - and in the end he burned me, just like everyone was afraid he would - - just like I was afraid he would. And you know - - if he showed up right now, in front of me, and caressed my cheek and told me he loved me, I'd probably do it again." Minako let out a deep sigh from the depths of her soul. "Maybe it's for the best he's gone."

"Don't give up hope, Minako," Usagi implored. "He does love you. I know it. I can see it. He just - - loves too many other things and he can't give them up for you yet. You both love too many other things besides each other and you can't bring yourselves to give them up. It doesn't mean that's the way it will always be. Someday you'll both come to a point in your lives when you'll realize that nothing else is as important as each other. And if you keep the flame burning in your heart for each other, it can all come true for you."

"Sure," Minako replied. She didn't believe it because she was far more cynical than Usagi would ever be. Still, her friend's words, naïve though they may be, did help some. Minako let out another tired sigh. "You know what I feel like right now?"

"Like eating five pounds of chocolate in one sitting?" Usagi grinned.

"Actually I was thinking ten," Minako grinned in return. Seeing Usagi smile made it easier for her grin to come out.

"I like the way you think," chuckled Usagi.

The two girls nestled their arms around each other. With Minako leaning on Usagi, the pair headed for home.

END