"The Wrapper Or The Gift"
A Neo-Sailor Moon fanfic

By Bill K.


Sailor Moon and all related characters are (c)2006 by Naoko Takeuchi/Kodansha and Toei Animation and are used without permission, but with respect. Story is (c)2006 by Bill K.

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

Usagi/Serenity: Serena

Ami: Amy

Rei: Raye

Makoto: Lita

Minako: Mina

Haruka: Amara

Michiru: Michelle

Setsuna: Trista

Mamoru/Endymion: Darien

Usa/Princess Usagi: Rini


The little clothing boutique just off the main street in the retail district of Crystal Tokyo was usually a quiet, dignified place. It catered to young and older client alike and, while their more youthful clients tended to "ooh", "ahh" and squeal a little more than the twenty and thirty-
somethings, the atmosphere didn't usually get out of hand.

This, though, was not just any day. Today the shop had a celebrity in its midst. Though she was trying to keep a low profile, the twin indicators of her flowing pink hair in rabbit-ear odangos and the fact that her face seemed to resemble the beloved Queen more each day tended to make Princess Usagi easy to spot in a crowd. Her increasingly womanly figure didn't help, either.

Nor did two of her three traveling companions. One had magenta hair done up in pretty yellow bows and pink roses and a sleek, feminine body displayed in a pastel violet blouse buttoned low and a deep violet miniskirt that clung to her hips and barely covered her bottom,
with long, bare, elegant legs disappearing into flared white ankle boots. Her second companion wore loose green slacks and a knit white top, though its owner favored a bared midriff as usual. Her outstanding feature was the brown hempen headdress that towered into the air and tightly held her green hair.

Only her third companion, in her conservative black dress and sensible black shoes and charcoal leggings, didn't stand out. She was also the shortest of the quartet and the most petite. In fact, she seemed to be a twelve-year-old girl running with three sixteen-year-old women, a fact not lost on the quiet young girl.

"Silver pseudo-satin!" Cere-Cere squealed, holding up a gleaming silver dress with a low bodice, a high hem and spaghetti straps. "Oh my goodness, wouldn't I just look too much in this?"

"It's a little loud," Jun-Jun replied, looking at it suspiciously.

"Jun, loud is the new soft," Cere-Cere fussed. "Besides, how are you going to be noticed if you don't yell?"

"Wouldn't that silver clash with your hair?" Usa asked. Cere-Cere held the dress to her body, then draped one of her rope-like hair dangles over it.

"You're right, it probably wouldn't look very good on me," Cere-Cere scowled. Then she smirked. "I think it would go better with pink hair," and she held the dress against Usa's body.

"What do you think, Hotaru?" Usa giggled.

"It's a little," Hotaru swallowed, "revealing."

"Yeah, Pop would probably choke on his morning tea if he saw me in this." The princess gently pushed the dress away. "Ah, who needs the hassle. Besides, I've got a closet full of dresses. People send me gifts all the time from all over Japan."

"You know," Jun-Jun smirked, "that silver cloth might go good with black hair."

Usa and Cere-Cere squealed their assent and held the dress to Hotaru. Hotaru endured it, but she didn't endure it lightly.

"Don't frown, Hotaru. You'll spoil the effect!" chided Cere-Cere.

"Wow, talk about an image change," grinned Usa.

"It's too big for me," Hotaru grimaced.

"Yeah, I guess it is," sighed Cere-Cere. "What do you wear, a size zero? I wish I could wear a size zero."

"No, you don't," Hotaru mumbled to herself.

An hour later, the four girls were walking down the street. Jun-Jun had two new outfits, Cere-Cere had eleven, and even Hotaru had managed to find a nice, safe long-sleeve dress with a flared skirt in midnight blue in her size. As the four walked, heads turned.

"Wow," they heard one man say as they passed him.

"Looking good, Princess!" called out two passing youths their age.

"Hi! Thank you!" Usa waved back. Then she turned back to the group. "Oh, the one on the left was so cute!"

"Not bad," Jun-Jun nodded. "Not that you're looking, of course."

"Hey, I love Helios!" Usa protested.

"Don't listen to her," Cere-Cere told her. "Boys do it all the time. It's perfectly acceptable to peek - - especially when they're cute."

Another passing comment was directed at Cere-Cere, who smiled and waved. And Hotaru's gaze fell earthward.

That evening, Hotaru hurriedly struggled with her makeup as the minute her Yutaka would arrive to take her out neared. She was wearing her new midnight blue dress with the three-inch pumps her Michiru-mama had given her last month. Dabbing a hint of eyeliner on,
Hotaru surveyed her face in the mirror. She looked - - good - - but not as good as she wanted to look.

"I look like I'm ten and going to Spring Festival," Hotaru sighed. "Why do I have to be so small and sickly looking?"

Emerging into the living room, Hotaru found Yutaka waiting on the sofa for her. He looked so nice, his gangly body draped in dark slacks and a white shirt and his thick, tousled black hair incessantly drooping over his right eye. Then she noticed her Haruka-papa sitting in the chair nearby, eyeing poor Yutaka as if she expected him at any moment to lunge at Hotaru and rip her clothes from her body. She gave Haruka an impatient glare, then collected Yutaka and headed for the door.

"Have fun," Michiru called out from the kitchen, "but not too late."

"Take care of my little girl," Haruka murmured loud enough to be heard, "Or else."

"Little," Hotaru sighed in mortification.

Yutaka nodded his ascent to Haruka, then almost possessively took Hotaru's hand - - right in front of Haruka - - and the pair disappeared out the door.

"I'm sorry about that," Hotaru said as the couple headed for the front gate of the palace.

"I'm used to it," Yutaka grinned. "I don't blame your dad. I'd want to protect you, too."

"Thank you," Hotaru whispered, feeling her cheeks burn.

But as they passed through the gate, Minako was breezing in. She wore a very tight version of the silver dress they'd seen earlier in the dress shop. As she passed, Yutaka's head turned innocently, his eye drawn to Minako's still attractive figure.

And Hotaru's gaze began noticing the pattern of the marble in the floor.

That night, Michiru entered the living room and found Haruka asleep at her sentry post on the chair in which she'd been waiting for Hotaru. Amusement colored her features, for it seemed to be getting harder and harder for Haruka to wait up for Hotaru - - and Hotaru wasn't staying out later.

The door hissed open. Michiru looked up and saw Hotaru enter. Her elation faded when she saw the downcast expression on the young girl's face.

"Did you have a good time?" Michiru inquired.

"Yes," Hotaru replied distantly. "We saw a holo-vid."

"Did you want me to fix you something to eat?" Michiru persisted, for she sensed Hotaru's muted mood.

"No, Yutaka bought me something after the show. I'm going to go to bed."

Michiru stared after the girl as Hotaru disappeared into her room. Reaching a decision, she crossed over to Haruka, bent down and pressed her lips to her mate's ear.

"Wake up, Haruka," she whispered gently, caressing the sleeping woman's neck. "Hotaru's home. You can go to bed now."

"She is?" Haruka said groggily. "She OK?"

Michiru glanced back at the door to Hotaru's room.

"Nothing to worry about, Haruka," she told her mate. "Now how about you finish your sleep in bed?"

"M'kay," Haruka mumbled, barely awake. She got up and stumbled toward the bedroom. "Save you a spot."

"I have to finish a few things first," she advised Haruka. Once the sandy blonde was in their bedroom, Michiru moved to Hotaru's door. She knocked, then pressed the pass code to open the door. Hotaru was sitting on the edge of her bed, in her sleeveless floor length peach nightgown, staring at the floor. Cautiously Michiru padded over.

"Mama?" Hotaru remarked with mild surprise when she noticed she wasn't alone.

"What's wrong, Hotaru?" Michiru asked. "You seem very preoccupied with something."

Hotaru looked down. She was silent for a few moments.

"Mama," she began plaintively, "am I going to be this small for the rest of my life?"

"Does it bother you?" Michiru asked, sitting on the bed next to her.

"Sometimes," Hotaru admitted. "It just seems like everyone is bigger and more beautiful than I am."

"So just who is 'everyone'?"

"Well," Hotaru hesitated, "boys don't look at me the way they look at Usa or Cere-Cere. Even Palla-Palla is more developed than I am. I'm tired of being mistaken for a ten-year-old - - if I'm noticed at all."

"Yutaka doesn't seem to mind how small you are," Michiru commented.

"I bet he wouldn't mind if I looked more like you, though," Hotaru retorted. "I've always been so small and sickly and it never seems to change."

"Well, Hotaru, you're still only sixteen," Michiru told her as she brushed the girl's hair with her hand. "You've still got some filling out to do before you're done. As for the sickly part, that's all in your head. When Serenity reincarnated you, Mistress Nine wasn't there to leech your energy. Ami has told you over and over again that you're perfectly healthy."

"Then why don't I grow?" Hotaru sobbed.

"Maybe you're just destined to be petite. It's not a crime, dear." She could see Hotaru wasn't convinced. "Hotaru, when you receive a gift, what's more important to you: The wrapping or the gift inside the wrapping?"

"The gift," Hotaru said softly. "But if there's a pile of gifts, you're going to pick the one with the prettiest wrapping first."

"Possibly," Michiru smiled. "But a lot of times the most valuable gift is in the smallest box."

She let Hotaru digest that for a moment.

"Hotaru, no one automatically has it easy in life. We all have our obstacles to overcome, whether its something as major as illness or injury or something less important like height or bust size. I know this seems important to you, but just please remember that what's more important are the people who like you for who you are instead of what you are - - people like your papa and I, or Usa, or Yutaka. And the most important person that should like you for who you are - -should be you."

Michiru leaned in and kissed Hotaru on the cheek.

"Sleep on that, dear," she told Hotaru as she got up. "Maybe you'll feel better tomorrow morning."

"All right, Mama," Hotaru said and crawled into bed. Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was how wonderful it would be if she had a woman's body and not a little girl's.

Michiru let the door slide closed behind her, then leaned against it. She let out a long, low sigh.

"Mom," she muttered to herself helplessly, "I wish you'd been a better role model for me. Maybe then I'd know what to do."

The next morning, Hotaru woke with a strange tightness around her body. She tugged at her nightgown several times, concluding in her still groggy state that it had gotten twisted during the night. Hotaru shuffled into the bathroom and peered into the mirror - - and found herself peering at her shoulders.

"Mama! Papa!" she cried, hurrying into the room. Michiru and Haruka looked up from breakfast. All the color drained from them. "Look what happened!" Hotaru gasped joyously, for she was now five foot nine with long flowing black hair, a woman's face, and very shapely chest, hips and legs that her peach nightgown was straining to the breaking point to conceal.

"F-Firefly?" Haruka sputtered. Then she felt Michiru's hand on her shoulder, felt the tension in her lover's grip.

"Yes, it's me!" Hotaru squealed, her soft whisper of a girl's voice now throaty and seductive. "I don't know how, but . . .!"

Then she noticed the alarm in the faces of her adoptive parents.

"Mama, Papa, it's me! Hotaru!" Hotaru cried.

"She's done it again," they all heard Michiru whisper, as if fearful of triggering the wrath of the gods themselves.

"Done what?" Hotaru inquired cautiously.

Michiru crossed over to her, Haruka close behind. They held her hands and Michiru put her arm around the girl, trying to steady and comfort her. Hotaru noticed that she was now inches taller than her adoptive mother and just inches below Haruka rather than a full foot. She saw Michiru trying to be sympathetic and protective, but deep down there was a small hint of suspicion that she couldn't quite conceal.

"Hotaru dear," Michiru began, "do you remember when Sailor Galaxia resurrected Queen Neherenia and sent her against Sailor Moon?"

"Most of it," grown Hotaru responded timidly.

"You sensed this was happening, according to Setsuna, and somehow, using your own power I assume, you willed yourself to age from an infant to twelve years old in a matter of days in order to help her. Dear, I think that's what's happened now."

Hotaru couldn't help but notice the wariness still in them both. It was eerily reminiscent of the reaction the kids at Infinity Academy had to her healing powers.

"I didn't do it on purpose," Hotaru said contritely. "It wasn't to hurt anyone."

"We know that," Haruka said, with that butch confidence that always seemed to tell her everything was all right - - even though it didn't quite seem that way. "It's just kind of surprised us, you know."

"I suppose your sub-conscious was reacting to what we were talking about last night," Michiru added.

"That makes sense, I guess," Hotaru said. She snuck a glance at the hall mirror and once more saw an alluring adult woman staring back at her.

"Were you going to stay that way?" Haruka posed.

"Do I have to go back?" Hotaru asked urgently. "Papa, I didn't intend for this to happen, but - - well, I kind of like being grown up and beautiful. I'm not even sure I can change back. And - - I'm not sure I want to."

"Hey," Haruka said, caressing Hotaru's cheek with her hand, the first familiar fatherly gesture she'd made this morning, "you don't have to change back - - not if this makes you happy. All I want is for you to be my happy little Firefly." Haruka swallowed back a burst of emotions. "I am going to miss that cute little thing you used to be, though."

"Hotaru," Michiru interjected, "regardless of what you decide, I think it would be best if we let Ami check you out. We're only assuming you did this. Something else may be at work here. And even if it turns out that you did do this, I'd still like her to examine you. A sudden growth spurt like this might have health problems associated with it and I'd like to catch them early if they are there."

"All right," Hotaru agreed, reluctantly for she had hoped to show Usa and the Asteroids her new voluptuousness. "Um, but what am I going to wear? None of my clothes fit me now."

"That is a problem," Michiru said, chuckling at the implications. She looked Hotaru's shapely new body over. "I'd lend you something of mine, but I don't think you're my size, either. Haruka?"

"She can have anything in my closet," Haruka shrugged, then grew adamant, "EXCEPT for my lucky sponsor's jacket."

"Don't worry," Michiru sniffed with distaste. "I doubt Hotaru would WANT to wear that disgusting old thing."

Meanwhile, Hotaru couldn't help but wonder how Dr. Mizuno would greet her newfound stature.

She wasn't long in finding out. Ami Mizuno was visibly startled when the mature, curvaceous young woman Haruka and Michiru escorted into her office turned out to be Hotaru. But characteristically, Ami's voracious curiosity took little time in clicking into place, shunting her shock to the side. The doctor practically hustled Hotaru into an examination room and by the time the girl's guardians had managed to follow them in, Ami had Hotaru on an examination sensor table and was scanning her body with a handheld bio-scanner.

"Do you feel any pain or discomfort?" Ami asked as she scanned. Holographic displays of her biometric life signs surrounded Hotaru.

"No," Hotaru replied. "I've never felt better in my life."

"You don't have any aching or soreness?" Ami peppered her. "Light-headedness. Fatigue?"

"Well," Hotaru sighed peevishly. "I'm a little uncomfortable with how everybody's reacting."

"Forgive me, Hotaru," Ami said. "But you must admit that something like this is highly unusual. I'm only concerned with possible harm such a dramatic growth spurt may have had on your body."

"Like what?"

"Well, sudden growth spurts could overextend and weaken the body's nutrition and leave the subject susceptible to injury. Additionally bones have been known to outgrow the muscle's initial ability to cope with them. The term 'growing pains' didn't come from thin air, after all. There's also the concern of the body's growth outdistancing balance and hand-eye coordination. Clumsiness and uncoordinated movements are often symptoms in teens who have had dramatic spurts. The mind has a difficult time catching up to the body. Sometimes it never happens."

"Oh."

"And I'm also curious as to how the spurt was initiated," Ami continued, eyeing one readout in particular. "Your measurable PKE levels are much higher than anything I've ever charted for you."

"Is that bad?" Michiru asked.

"In and of itself, no," Ami responded. "That quality would only be determined by the intent of the user."

"Do you think this PKE thing is what made her grow?" Haruka queried.

"It's hard to say conclusively, but that's the theory I'm leaning toward," Ami told them. Then she felt a hand close around the glove of her protective body-suit. She looked back down at Hotaru.

"I am going to be all right, aren't I?" Hotaru asked.

"I assume so, but I admit it's hard to say. I've never run into a situation like this. I don't have any experience to go on. I don't see anything wrong. However, now that you're an adult, you'll need to make some changes in your lifestyle. Your eating habits may have to change. Avoid too much sugar or fatty foods. Your metabolism is different now and you don't process these things as quickly. Bad eating habits could lead to being overweight."

"I'll try, Mizuno-Sensei," Hotaru replied shyly.

Ami nodded, then left the room, gesturing for Haruka and Michiru to follow. Outside, the doctor turned to the two women.

"Any idea why she would do this?" Ami asked.

"She was feeling depressed last night," Michiru related. "She was having feelings of inadequacy because of her height and her small stature in relation to her friends. I didn't think it could go this far."

"That might explain it," Ami nodded. "The sub-conscious can be a very powerful motivator for physical reactions. You said she did this once before. I recall that. She didn't have any health problems then, so it might be worrying over nothing. I would monitor her for signs of anxiety or distress."

"Is there any signs of," Michiru ventured, then halted, "of emotional problems or instability?"

"That's an odd question," Ami judged. "Do you suspect something?"

"You don't see it?" Michiru asked. "No, of course you wouldn't. You weren't there."

"What am I missing?"

Michiru hesitated, pained by the entire thought.

"She looks like Mistress Nine," Haruka said bluntly.

"And I'm concerned," Michiru interjected, "that this might be some sort of sign of repossession?"

"Well," Ami began delicately, "I can imagine that might arouse some suspicion. I can assure you it's nothing like that. There's absolutely no sign of any PKE signature other than Hotaru's, based on my previous scans of her. She's definitely Hotaru."

"All right, I'll accept your assurances that this isn't a recurrence of Mistress Nine," Michiru said. "You said to monitor her for signs of anxiety or distress, though? What do you think might happen?"

Ami frowned, considering her words. "Michiru, teens can be very emotionally fragile. And I observe that Hotaru is very excited about this change in her life. Literally it's her subconscious compensating for a part of her life that she was having trouble dealing with. But if society doesn't demonstrate the same enthusiasm for this change that she has, it could lead in one of several unproductive directions emotionally. She's already showing evidence of disappointment over the lack of enthusiasm you and I have shown for this. If this turns out not to be the answer her subconscious was seeking, her problems could worsen."

"Not my Firefly," Haruka maintained.

"Be that as it may," Ami responded, "there's also another consideration. She's a sixteen year old girl in an adult's body and she may not yet be mature enough to cope with some of the consequences of being in an adult's body."

"Hey, we'll do anything we can to help her," Haruka vowed. "Anything she needs."

"That's good," Ami smiled. "For the moment, I think love and support is what you can best do for her."

Since it was already so late in the morning, Michiru kept Hotaru home from school for the rest of the day. The teen didn't like it, but she only put up a mild protest. She was too busy admiring her new look. For a year now she had envied the mature figures of Usa and Cere-Cere as her friends matured past her. Now she had a body that rivaled them both - - perhaps even surpassed them. The minutes of the day seemed to drag on. She couldn't wait to see how they would react.

"I hope they're not jealous," Hotaru frowned.

The moment it was time for school to let out, Michiru anticipated a visitor. She wasn't wrong in doing so.

"The Princess Usagi desires entry," announced the environmental control computer for the room. Michiru didn't even have to look to sense Hotaru's anticipation rise.

"Please show her in," the woman said, brushing back a lock of green hair.

"Michiru-San, is Hotaru all right?" Usa asked, bounding into the room the second the door opened enough to let her through. "She wasn't in school and . . ."

Then Usa caught sight of the woman Hotaru now was over Michiru's shoulder. Her eyes bulged. Her mouth gaped.

"Yeah, Usa, it's me," Hotaru said, her happiness laced with just a hint of nervous anticipation.

"Hotaru? W-What happened?" Usa whispered in shock. "You're . . ."

"I woke up like this," Hotaru explained. "Mizuno-sensei thinks I made it happen with my PKE ability." The princess still could only stare dumbfounded. "Usa - - Usa, it's still me inside!"

"Oh my goodness," Usa stammered out. "Do you know what this means?"

"What?" Hotaru cringed.

"WE'VE GOT TO BUY YOU A WHOLE NEW WARDROBE NOW!" Usa squealed. "Hotaru, you've got a body to show off!"

Elation grew exponentially in Hotaru's face.

"OK," she nearly giggled. Then she turned to Michiru. "Mama?"

"Um," Michiru stammered, startled by the reaction of the princess. "All right - - I guess. Um, just - - just try not to spend too much."

"Michiru-San, half of them will be on me!" Usa beamed. "This is so wild, Hotaru! The Asteroids have to see this! Cere-Cere will swallow her tongue!"

"You think?" Hotaru asked as they headed for the door arm in arm.

"Hotaru, you may be bigger than I am now!" Usa claimed.

"Nobody could be bigger than you are," Hotaru lightly needled.

As the teens exited chattering and giggling, Michiru stared after them, marveling at the resiliency youth could sometimes demonstrate. It suddenly made her feel very, very old.

The shopping trip was a limited success. The Asteroids all expressed elation and wonderment at Hotaru's new form, with only Jun-Jun expressing any reservations. As they toured the shops in the retail district, Hotaru received her share of admiring looks and whistles. She felt gratified at first; however, as the constant attention from males persisted, it quickly became burdensome. Hotaru began to feel less like a person to be admired and more like a target of acquisition. It made her feel uncomfortable.

And while shopping for a new wardrobe, Hotaru found that though she had a curvy adult body to clothe now, her tastes still ran very conservative. Usa and Cere-Cere tried to push her into buying one skimpy dress after another, mostly because it was what they liked. Ves-Ves was useless because she had no fashion sense and liked it that way, and she was riding herd on Palla-Palla besides. They finally goaded Hotaru into trying on a violet item with flared sleeves,plunging neckline and a very high hem. They all said she looked great in it, but as she looked at herself in the mirror Hotaru couldn't help thinking that, despite her newly minted voluptuousness, the dress made her look - - less than respectable. Finally they all settled on a dozen casual outfits, some pants and blouses, and three new pair of shoes. The girls all headed home, Hotaru less ecstatic than she thought she'd be. As the group walked, they all got their share of comments. Hotaru got the majority, but they only made her feel embarrassed.

"Hotaru, what's wrong?" Usa asked as she walked the girl to her quarters after parting with the Asteroids.

"I don't know," Hotaru whispered. "I'm sorry for giving you and the others so much trouble today."

"Don't worry about it," Usa grinned.

"It's just - - some of those dresses . . ."

"Hey, as long as you're happy with what you bought, that's all that matters. Cere and I are like two little devils perched on your shoulder, trying to tempt you. Doesn't mean you have to listen." The Princess got a nasty leer. "And it's probably the safe thing to do - - at least in Cere-Cere's case."

Hotaru giggled. "Sometimes I wish I could be like you two. You're both so free about your bodies. Don't you ever get embarrassed?"

"Not about the way I look. I like it when guys stare. It means they like me for something other than who I am. And you shouldn't be uncomfortable with the way you look."

"Maybe people staring at me brings back bad memories," Hotaru said. "I couldn't even believe it was me in the mirror sometimes." She sighed.

"Is it just that? Aren't you happy with what happened?"

"I was. But somehow things aren't happening the way I thought they would. None of the adults seem very happy with what happened. And - - I don't know."

"Hotaru, do you know why this happened in the first place? Deep down, I mean. Obviously something triggered your mind to do this."

"I just wanted to be bigger," Hotaru said, then looked down. Her cheeks flushed. "I wanted to be more like you."

"Why? Hotaru, my life isn't that great."

"You've got wonderful parents," Hotaru reminded her.

"Who nag me constantly."

"And a wonderful boyfriend who loves you."

"Who I hardly ever get to see. And you've got a guy who loves you, too."

"Well, everybody notices you and they all love you. Nobody notices me."

"And sometimes you don't want to be noticed. You just want to be 'Usa' instead of 'The Princess Usagi, Heir to the Throne'. I still don't see where being me is better than being you. Hotaru, you've got a lot going for you. You're such a great person. Someone only has to get to know you to see that."

Hotaru thought about all her friend said.

"Usa, do you wish I was small again?"

"As long as you're you, I don't care," Usa told her. "You're my friend, Hotaru. As long as you're my friend, you can look anyway you want." Hotaru gave her a grateful look.

When they got inside of Hotaru's quarters, though, the two found the elder senshi waiting for them.

"Mama?" Hotaru asked, turning to Michiru.

"When Ami told Serenity and the elders what had happened," Michiru began, then hesitantly glanced at the others, "it was proposed that we had no way of knowing how this might affect your abilities as Sailor Saturn."

"Yeah, you're pretty powerful in that form," Venus chimed in, trying her best to sound casual, "and it might be a good thing to know how much more powerful you are now. So, if you're not doing anything, I figure we could go somewhere and test you out."

Hotaru looked down. "It's because I look like Mistress Nine now, isn't it?"

Michiru gasped. "You heard that?"

"Yes."

"Hey!" Usa bellowed angrily. "Hotaru hasn't done anything wrong! She just made herself grow a little!"

"Which in itself is hardly an ordinary ability," Mercury replied calmly.

"Usa, Saturn has always had unguessed-at power," Mars added. "If her power has grown with her body and is something beyond her control now, that's something we have to know. We're not trying to upset her or you. We're not intending to be mean."

"It's not fair! Why can't you all just be happy for her!" the Princess fumed.

"Usa," Hotaru whispered, lightly grasping her friend's arm. "It's all right."

"Hey, if you're tired or something, we can do this tomorrow," Jupiter offered. "We're not trying to push you into anything."

Hotaru silently nodded.

"Maybe that would be best," Michiru moved in protectively. She gently grasped Hotaru around the arms from behind and looked up at her adoptive daughter.

"All right," Mercury nodded. "If you'd like, you can take time off from school to do this, so that it doesn't interfere with your social life." Hotaru nodded.

Awkwardly the elder senshi filed out. Hotaru heard them without acknowledging them. Then she felt someone grasp her hand. She looked up and found it was Usa.

"You going to be all right?" Usa asked.

"Yes," Hotaru replied, grateful for the unconditional friendship the princess provided.

"OK, I'm going to go. If you need to talk or anything, call me." And Usa exited.

When they were alone, Michiru folded her arms around her now busty daughter from behind and laid her head on Hotaru's shoulder.

"I'm sorry. That didn't go very well," Michiru told her. "We keep forgetting how much suspicion you've had to deal with in your life."

"They're just worried about me. They don't mean anything."

"It's good to know your charitable nature hasn't changed. Really, we are happy for you if this is what you really want."

"Well it seems like it's really hard for everyone to accept this. Usa and the Asteroids are the only ones so far. Everybody else just seems scared."

"Well," Michiru began, keeping her daughter in a hug, "maybe we just liked the old you. It doesn't mean we won't like the new you. It's just that the new you is so different on the outside, it's going to take some getting used to. Please be patient with us, Hotaru. I realize that's hard for someone your age, but we are trying."

"Yes, Mama," Hotaru whispered with a hint of dejection.

The next hour passed with Hotaru trying to study her biology homework. It was rough going. Either her mind would wander to what had happened and why her life wasn't suddenly perfect, or she'd feel the worried glances Haruka or Michiru would give her surreptitiously and it made it hard for her to concentrate.

When the environmental computer announced the arrival at the door of Yutaka, it was almost a relief. Hotaru burst for it energetically. She stopped and bade the computer open the door, sensing her adoptive parents hovering nearby. What would Yutaka think of the change? Suddenly that became the single most important question in Hotaru's life.

The door hissed open. Yutaka entered, saw Hotaru and for a few moments didn't recognize her. Then he gazed into her violet eyes, the one feature on her that hadn't altered dramatically. The youth's face colored with shock.

"I-I heard," Yutaka said, staring into eyes that were now level with his. He tried to speak further, but couldn't find words.

"Yutaka?" Hotaru whispered, her heart thudding to a stop in her chest. "Don't you like it?"

"Uh," he stammered, searching for words. "Well, you're still pretty." The boy seemed at war with himself. "If this is what you want . . ."

"I thought you'd like me this way," Hotaru almost sobbed.

"I liked you before," Yutaka countered plaintively. "Hotaru, why would you do this?"

Hotaru looked down. "I got tired of being a little girl among women. I wanted to be noticed. I wanted people to think I was beautiful."

"I thought you were beautiful," Yutaka told her. "Wasn't that enough?"

"I'm sorry," Hotaru said, her lip quivering.

"No, it's OK," Yutaka said and tried to hold her the way he always did. However, her new, rounder form seemed to be more difficult for the sixteen-year-old boy to encompass and seemed to intimidate him. "If it's what you want. It'll take a little getting used to - - but whatever makes you happy is-is what I want."

Yutaka released his hold on Hotaru and awkwardly departed. Hotaru turned, fighting back tears - - and saw the agonized wistfulness in the expressions of Haruka and Michiru as they watched from a distance.

"I'm going to go to bed now," Hotaru told them and departed to hide her embarrassment.


Emerging from her quarters, the well wishes of her adoptive parents in her ears, Hotaru's thoughts were still burdened with her new form and with the less than enthusiastic reactions to it. Her night had been a fitful one, but she declined to admit as much to Michiru. Michiru would only worry and she'd caused enough problems for her guardians. She didn't say anything about the fatigue she felt through her chest and shoulders. Perhaps it was the growing pains she'd heard Mizuno-sensei mention. Perhaps it was because of her now-heavier chest and she wasn't used to carrying such weight. Those thoughts vanished, though, when she found the surprise waiting for her outside.

"What are you five doing here?" Hotaru asked, for Usa and the Asteroids were there to greet her.

"Well, we were worried about you, Dummy!" Cere-Cere exclaimed.

"It was my idea," Usa confessed. "I figured the test the elders were going to give you today was probably on your mind and you'd need some support."

"So we're all here to cheer you on, Miss Hotaru-ma'am!" Palla-Palla added with enthusiastic delight. Hotaru noticed the girl staring.

"What is it?" Hotaru asked.

"Palla-Palla's sorry for staring," the blue-haired girl said. "It's just that you're so different now! You're taller than everybody, even The Princess. And you look so much like a grown-up now." Hotaru grinned with pride. "And your chest is all swelled up like The Princess,
too." Hotaru began to blush.

"All right, Stupid," Ves-Ves said, giving Palla-Palla a light rap on the head. The girl responded with a pouty look.

The gaggle headed for the cafeteria to have breakfast as they usually did. Hotaru seemed muted all through the short trip. Everyone sensed it, but didn't know what else to do. The usual morning small talk seemed artificial and affected that morning.

"When does the test happen?" Ves-Ves asked after their meal was concluded and they were headed to Classroom One.

"First thing," Hotaru replied. "I'm kind of nervous. I hope I still can control my powers now."

"You'll do fine," Usa told her.

"And I'll be there watching," Ves-Ves added.

"You're skipping school?" Cere-Cere clucked.

"All the elders are going to be testing Hotaru," Ves-Ves argued. "No sense going if they're not around to bust you."

"Yes, but the computer sim teacher will be there," Jun-Jun reminded her.

"I'm not worried about 'teacher-bot'," sneered Ves-Ves.

"You are still going to be in school when you're thirty," scowled Cere-Cere.

As they walked, Hotaru couldn't help but notice how she towered over her friends now. Before there was a camaraderie between them, not only from being senshi, but from all being sixteen. Now she felt an awkwardness, like she was an adult palling around with kids.

"Maybe it's all in my head," Hotaru thought. Then she noticed one of the staff stare as they passed the woman in the hall. It was a familiar stare, one she could recall from that day in middle school when she healed her fellow classmate. That particular stare that silently shouted out "freak".

"Hotaru?" Usa asked, and Hotaru realized she was grimacing and that her friend had noticed. "What's up?"

Now everybody was looking at her. Hotaru could feel her facial temperature rising, the tightness in her chest and the familiar anxiety. It was too late to deny it, she knew.

"Maybe this was a mistake," Hotaru admitted. "Not that I did it on purpose - - but I'm starting to wish it hadn't happened."

"Why?" Ves-Ves asked incredulously.

"Because," Hotaru struggled to say, "people are treating me like a freak again."

"We don't think you're a freak," Jun-Jun told her.

"I know. You've all been great. But it seems like everyone else," and Hotaru sighed in frustration. "Why can't I be normal? All my life, I've either been small and sickly, or a demon. Either nobody notices me or everybody is afraid of me. Why can't I be normal?"

"Why would you want to be?" Ves-Ves persisted. "Hotaru, I haven't been normal all my life. I had to be special just to survive. And you know what: I like being special. If someone stares at me, it's either because they wish they WERE me or they know I can kick their butt. And it's all good either way."

"Though I might not have put it that way exactly," Jun-Jun added, momentarily eyeing her sister, "Ves has a point. Being special isn't a sin. It's a good thing. It means you can do things other people can't. That's what being a senshi is all about. If people seem to pull back from that, it's only because they don't understand yet. If you don't give them reason to dislike you, they'll come around." She put her hand on Hotaru's arm, because it was harder now to reach her shoulder. "When we first started here, everybody looked at us like they thought we were going to eat their children. But once they found out that we had changed and we weren't a threat - - most of them came around. It'll happen for you, too."

"I hope you're right," Hotaru mumbled. She didn't seem convinced. Then she felt Usa's hand close around hers.

"It's not like the old days with the Witches Five and the kids at Infinity,"Usa told her. "You've got to let that go. You're a new person in a new time, and things are different."

"Please cheer up, Miss Hotaru-ma'am," Palla-Palla chimed in. "Palla-Palla thinks you're very nice and you shouldn't be sad."

"Yeah, stop worrying," Cere-Cere added. "You're a sex bomb, now. Once you manage to wrap your head around that, you'll be fine." She grinned conspiratorially. "Sometimes it can even be an advantage."

The group passed a pair of male palace staff. Without looking, Hotaru could sense their eyes turn back and devour her where before they would have looked at Usa or Cere-Cere. She felt her cheeks flush.

"I didn't want to be a sex bomb," Hotaru murmured. "I only wanted to be noticed."

The group arrived at Classroom One. Jun-Jun and Palla-Palla went inside. Cere-Cere stopped and gave the fisheye to Ves-Ves. Silently Ves-Ves told her she was serious about skipping classes. With a dramatic huff, Cere-Cere scowled and went inside. When Hotaru and Ves-Ves realized Usa was lingering outside, they turned to her.

"I'm going with Ves," Usa shrugged. "I want to watch. I'm worried about you."

"Usa, don't get in trouble because of me," Hotaru sighed.

"What trouble? Mom'll just dump ten years worth of guilt on me, then try to punish me and chicken out at the last minute," Usa shrugged. "If Pop tries to get tough, I can deal with that, too, because if he gets too unreasonable, I'll just give him 'the eyes' and be his precious,
adoring little girl and he'll melt just like Mom."

"You are such an operator," Ves-Ves smirked.

"Hey, I suffered for this information," countered Usa. "Why shouldn't I use it to my advantage?"

Hotaru let out an audible sigh as she headed for the palace gymnasium. She hoped Usa hadn't seen her grin of amusement.

Watching from a vantage point atop the stands located in the gym, Ves-Ves and Usa saw Hotaru enter. The Inner Senshi were waiting for her, already transformed. Haruka and Michiru were off to the side, there to observe and lend Hotaru support should something happen. Sailor Mercury stepped forward from the group and met Hotaru midway.

"Thank you for coming, Hotaru," Mercury said. "First, I want to stress to you that our primary concern in testing you like this is your own health and welfare. We're not seeking to trap or punish you because of what's happened to your physical form."

"I understand, Mercury," Hotaru said. But it seemed like she didn't.

"Naturally we're also concerned with the population around us as well," Mercury continued. "Of all the senshi, your power has always had the greatest implication for destruction. You've always done an admirable job in keeping the darker nature of your powers under control. For the good of everyone, we need to know if you can still do that." Mercury took a breath. "Transform, please."

"Saturn Crystal Power Make Up," Hotaru said in a halting voice, for she knew the implications of her power more than anyone, save perhaps Queen Serenity, and the question of whether she could control her power lingered on her mind as well. The transformation itself took no more time than it usually did, but felt different this time. Her fears were confirmed by the surprised looks from the Inner Senshi.

Saturn looked down at herself. If anything, she seemed taller than ever, as tall perhaps as Pluto. Long, elegant legs appeared from beneath her violet skirt and arched down into her violet boots, boots now longer and wider to magically accommodate her longer, more womanly body. Glancing at her glaive, Saturn looked at her reflection in the surface of the blade, a blade that before had been over her head. She saw a mature beauty, much like Pluto, but a beauty that was cold and distant like death itself. Saturn felt her heart tremble. This wasn't what she wanted.

"Saturn?" she heard Mercury venture and snapped out of her reverie. "Our first test will be of your Silence Wall attack. We'll start lightly, in case you can't properly erect the shield. That way there will be little chance of hurting you accidentally. The room is filled with biometric sensors and I'll be using my visor as well. Hopefully we'll be able to gather enough data to make this as short as possible. Shall we begin?"

Saturn nodded. Mercury backed away, then activated her visor.

"Silence Wall!" Saturn called out. The shield sprang up around her far more easily than it ever had before. Instantly she saw Jupiter raise the lightning rod on her tiara.

"Supreme Thunder!" Jupiter called out. Her form filled with electricity, then a bolt shot out toward her. The shield easily caught and dissipated it.

"Crescent Beam!" Venus shouted next. The golden energy beam shot out from her finger and lanced out toward her with the speed of light. But again the shield effortlessly caught it and dissipated it.

"Do you feel any discomfort, Saturn?" Mercury called out, concentrating on the data that was feeding into her visor.

"No, I'm fine," Saturn replied. She was fine. Before, she would have felt something from the impact of the attacks Jupiter and Venus launched. Now it felt like raindrops on her skin.

"Fire Soul!" Mars thundered. A fireball exploded from her and impacted harmlessly against her shield.

"Drop your shield please," Mercury requested and Saturn complied. "That attack seems perfectly under control. Now let's move to your PKE attack."

Up in the stands, Ves-Ves glanced at the princess.

"She looks like she's doing OK," Ves-Ves judged.

"She is OK," Usa scowled. "I wish everybody would stop being afraid of her. Hotaru is one of the gentlest people I've ever known!"

"Well, it's probably that whole 'destroy the universe with one swing of her glaive' thing. I know it got my attention when I first heard it. That's a pretty serious attack." Ves-Ves paused for a pregnant moment. "Can she really do that?"

"That's what they say," Usa said, her eyes locked on Saturn. "But she'd never do it."

"Now in this test," Mercury instructed Saturn, "I'd like you to try to pierce the target with your telekinetic dagger attack."

"But I've never been able to control it," Saturn protested.

"Perhaps your new physical maturity will aid you in that," Mercury suggested.

Reluctantly Saturn nodded and turned to the target. Her brow furrowed as she tried to call the telekinetic power that lay nestled within her mind. Before it had always acted like a recalcitrant puppy, ignoring her appeals, then bounding out unexpectedly. This time, though, the power jumped out from her like a predator lying in wait.

"Look out!" Saturn shouted as her attack lunged for the wall to her right rather than the target. Everyone ducked defensively as the far wall exploded, showering everyone with dust and debris. A gaping hole in the wall more than a meter across sat and silently accused Sailor Saturn. She stared at the hole with growing horror, her hands to her mouth.

"Saturn, are you experiencing any discomfort?" Mercury inquired urgently. The tone of her voice shook Saturn from her horror, but confused her as well. Her body was tingling, but the girl assumed it was from the adrenal rush of what just happened.

"Why?" she asked, perplexed, her thoughts dizzy and jumbled.

"Your blood pressure and pulse are spiking alarmingly," Mercury replied. Instantly they could feel Haruka and Michiru moving in.

Saturn attempted to reply. That's when it hit. What felt like a hand closing around her heart froze Saturn in her tracks. Then the phantom hand began to squeeze. Saturn's eyes bulged as pain gripped her entire body. The glaive clattered to the floor. The senshi emitted a strangled gasp. Then all the strength drained from her body and she collapsed.

"Hotaru!" Michiru shrieked. She and Haruka were at the girl's side in a second, with Mercury. The other Inners converged and huddled around their fallen comrade, then were suddenly joined by Usa and Ves-Ves. They all found Saturn in a rigid fetal position, visibly wracked with pain.

"Mercury, what is it?" Haruka bellowed frantically. Mercury cooly scanned Sailor Saturn.

"Computer! Medical team to the gymnasium!" Mercury shouted. "She's going into cardiac arrest!"

"Moon Crystal Power Make Up!" Usa shouted and transformed into Sailor Moon.

"Jupiter! I need you to use your Sparkling Wide Pressure attack!" As Mercury told her this, she grabbed the senshi's hands and pressed them directly to Saturn's chest.

"Mercury!" Jupiter gasped in shock.

"Moon Princess Halation!" Sailor Moon yelled desperately. Her halation energy swept over Sailor Saturn, boosting her life energy and easing some of the senshi's pain.

"Jupiter, you're the closest thing I have to a defibrillator until the med team gets here! Do it!" barked Mercury. Jupiter grimaced.

"Sparkling Wide Pressure!" Jupiter called out.

"Clear!" Mercury ordered. Michiru pulled back just in time. Saturn lurched up as the charge passed through her, then collapsed back down again. The medical team entered.

"Mercury?" Haruka asked, on the edge of desperation.

"All right, Jupiter, that's all," Mercury said. "Sailor Moon, please keep supporting her as long as you can. Get that Gurney over here! We have a cardiac arrhythmia!"

And as Haruka scooped Saturn up off the floor and placed her on the anti-gravity Gurney,
Sailor Moon strained to continue bathing her with her restorative pink energy.

"Come on, Hotaru!" she whispered as she kept feeding her friend energy. "Please get better"


The next conscious thought Hotaru had was of a dark room. It didn't seem familiar to her at all. There was a strange beeping somewhere behind her that she couldn't identify. She wanted to sit up and look around, but it was like her body was weighted down with lead. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Hotaru got the sensation of silver light.


When her eyes opened again, Hotaru looked up at the ceiling of the strange room again. There was light now and this allowed her to recognize the ceiling in the palace infirmary where she worked part time as a medical assistant to Dr. Mizuno. The beeping was still coming from behind her. With a moment's thought, Hotaru identified it as the cardiac monitor in the infirmary. After a few more moments, she recalled her collapse in the gym, the searing pain in her chest, and how closely she brushed against the oblivion - - the same oblivion the original Sailor Moon had pulled her back from after her fight with Pharaoh 90.

Only this time the color of the hands holding her back were pink rather than silver. That memory made Hotaru smile.

A hand reached out and grasped hers. She looked up weakly.

"Mama," Hotaru whispered, seeing Michiru bent over her. Haruka was hovering behind her, eyes red from - - crying perhaps? "Papa. I'm sorry if I made you cry."

"Just allergies," Haruka responded. But Hotaru knew her papa didn't have any allergies.

"How are you feeling, Hotaru?" Michiru asked. She could see the woman was clenched tighter than a fist, like she had a stranglehold on her emotions - - typical Michiru.

"I feel so weak," Hotaru confessed. "What happened?"

Michiru looked to someone out of Hotaru's field of vision. Then Ami leaned in, wearing her medical anti-contamination white jumpsuit.

"You had a heart attack, Hotaru," Ami told her as gently as possible.

"Why? I'm only sixteen."

Ami gathered her strength. "My scans show that when you artificially aged your body, you weakened the muscle tissue in your heart, liver and kidneys. The weakened muscle tissue couldn't stand up to the stress of you using your PKE attack and your heart went into arrhythmia."

"But why? I grew from an infant to twelve without hurting myself."

"And you also aged yourself over the course of a few days rather than a single night, according to Michiru. Besides adolescence is an entirely different process from childhood," Ami explained. "Artificial stimulation of growth, through drugs, mega-hormone treatment, radiation or even telekinesis can have very drastic side effects. Organ tissue may get over-extended and weakened, bone density can be affected, or there can be severe mental changes. The human body was meant to grow at a natural rate. Artificial stimulation usually leads to unfortunate consequences."

"But Mistress Nine," Hotaru argued weakly, "she grew me artificially. And nothing happened then."

"Perhaps it did," Ami told her. "After you were stabilized, I went back and dug up my old scans from that era. My scanning ability wasn't as thorough as it is now, so this is just an inference I've drawn - - but I believe Mistress Nine was headed for a massive stroke when she was cast out by Pharaoh 90. It could have come days later - - perhaps even hours. And I believe it might have been a contributing factor in allowing you to reassert control over your body during that time."

Hotaru silently digested this while the others looked on.

"So I should go back to the way I was," Hotaru concluded. "Do I have the power to do that?"

"Queen Serenity has already taken care of that," Ami told her. Hotaru looked down and realized the sheets on the hospital bed were covering a body that was shorter and far less pneumatic.

"The silver light," mumbled Hotaru. "Is she all right?"

"She's resting," Michiru assured her, "but she'll be fine."

"Good," Hotaru smiled. Then she darkened. "Will I be all right?"

Ami sobered. "I can clone new organ tissue for you, Hotaru. But there's an old saying, about a repaired object never being as good as when it was new. You've suffered a massive coronary trauma, Hotaru. I can fix the damage, but I can't say that it will never happen again."

Hotaru frowned. Then she glanced at Michiru.

"I guess it's not just in my head any longer," Hotaru said and for a moment Michiru almost lost it.

"Hotaru, there's no reason why you can't lead a normal life," Ami advised her. "You're just going to have to watch your diet and make sure you keep fit. You don't have the margin for error that other people have."

"Can I still be Sailor Saturn?" Hotaru asked, fearful of the answer. Ami thought about that one.

"I suppose that's up to you," Ami replied finally. "It is your life. I know what being a senshi entails and I can't guarantee that it won't induce another arrhythmia. It's not a large risk in my opinion, but in all honesty, the risk is there."

Everyone looked on with sympathy as Hotaru processed this. Finally she nodded.

"When you feel up to it, I'll begin the tissue cloning," Ami said.

"How long will that take?" Haruka asked.

"The cloning and implantation? Thirty-six hours at the most. But she's going to need three to four weeks of recovery time afterward, then another month of physical therapy."

Watching her adoptive parents nod gravely, Hotaru expelled a forlorn sigh and slipped off to sleep.


It was later that day. Ami was in the outer hall from the recovery ward, looking over virtual representations of Hotaru's medical scan progressions. At once she sensed a presence next to her. She turned and found the Princess standing nervously by her.

"Um," Usa asked delicately, quite out of character for her, "I heard Hotaru was awake."

Ami smiled. "Yes. She regained consciousness this morning."

"Can I visit her?" Usa almost pleaded.

"Well," Ami said with a wry grin, glancing over at the monitor with a surveillance image of the room, "she's visiting with someone at the moment." Usa looked and saw Yutaka had Hotaru in a bear hug and from the look on Hotaru's face she wasn't in a bit of pain.

"Oh," Usa replied with a melancholy attitude. "Well, I'll come back. I don't want to interrupt them." She started to go, but Ami caught her by the hand.

"It looks like Yutaka's leaving," she told her favorite "niece". "Go on ahead. A visit from you will lift her spirits even more."

Yutaka passed Usa as he exited the room. The rail-thin youth gave her a shy nod, deferential to the royal family as his father had always taught him. Usa grimaced internally, but was outwardly cordial. Entering the room, she saw Hotaru's still tired eyes focus on her. The girl's face lit up.

"Usa, thank you for coming," Hotaru said wanly. She was back to being petite and, as weak as she was now, Usa's mind flashed back to images she'd rather forget.

"How you doing?" The Princess asked, sitting down beside her best friend's bed.

"As well as can be expected for someone who had a heart attack," Hotaru offered. "Mizuno-sensei may not know it, but part of what helped me get through it was your Halation energy. Thank you."

"You don't think I'd let my best friend down, do you?" Usa choked out, her red eyes misting. "Is it true you had the heart attack because you made yourself bigger?"

Hotaru nodded uncomfortably. "I wish I'd never made that wish now." She sighed. "I just wanted to be beautiful."

"But Hotaru, you are beautiful," Usa argued.

"No, I'm not," Hotaru groaned. "All the boys notice you and Cere-Cere. You've already got a woman's body, Usa, and I've got a little girl's."

"Hotaru, you're every bit as beautiful as anyone else!" Usa exclaimed, tears beginning to trickle down her soft cheeks.

"Not as beautiful as you."

"Would you stop comparing yourself to me!" Usa cried. "Sure, maybe you're not as tall as me. Maybe your chest isn't as big as mine. You have things I don't have, too!"

"Like what?" Hotaru grimaced.

"Your eyes. Hotaru, your eyes are the most lovely shade of violet I've ever known. Mine are a dopey red. And you're so mysterious and exotic-looking. Boys love that! With this pink hair, I couldn't be mysterious if my life depended on it."

Hotaru lay silent.

"Hotaru, just because guys don't leer at you doesn't mean you're not beautiful," Usa persisted. "It just means you attract a brainier type than me. I mean it!"

She was wavering, but Hotaru still wouldn't commit.

"Hotaru, I'm not just saying this! I would drink poison before I would lie to you! You're my best friend in the whole universe! Please believe me!"

"OK," Hotaru relented, her own tears welling. "Guess I was just being kind of foolish. You know, 'the grass is always greener'."

Usa stared at her, perplexed.

"They don't have that old saying in the thirtieth century?" Hotaru asked. Puzzled, Usa slowly shook her head. "I'll explain it to you sometime."

The conversation lapsed for a few moments.

"So," Usa began, "is this something that could happen again?"

"Mizuno-sensei said it might," Hotaru admitted. "Especially if I keep on being Sailor Saturn."

Hotaru saw Usa try to keep her emotions behind a pleasant mask, but to her relief The Princess failed miserably. This news scared Usa.

"Well if you need to retire as a senshi, I totally understand," Usa responded quickly, almost urgently. "Don't feel for one minute that you have to do this because you're worried about me."

"Thank you," Hotaru smiled. "But I've been thinking about this." She fell silent. Twice she started to speak, then stopped because she didn't have the right words yet. Finally she began. "One of the demands on a senshi is that she protect the person she's sworn to protect - - even at the cost of her life. Now whether that comes from an enemy's attack or from a heart attack, it's a price a senshi has to be willing to pay." She looked up at Usa, her Princess's eyes bubbling anew with tears. "I'm willing."

"Hotaru, you don't have to," Usa choked out. Hotaru's hand slithered out weakly and caught Usa's in a soft, tepid grip.

"Yes, I do," Hotaru smiled, tears streaming down her face, too. "There's no way I could let my best friend down like that."

And the dam burst. Usa leaned in, bawling like a baby even as she tried to smile, and hugged Hotaru. And Hotaru realized that this feeling beat being leered at by some guy any day of the week.

Maybe it was better to be the gift and not just the wrapper.

THE END