"Boy, it sure is loud in here, isn't it?"

Tomoe Hotaru swiveled in her barstool, a confused expression clear in her piercing stare, and a shot glass in hand. "What?" she shouted over the music. It was so loud the beats resonated in her chest.

"I said, it's loud in here!" Usagi called back. Her cheeks were pinkened—most likely from Minako's obvious attempt at subtly pouring a bottle of champagne into the punch—to the color of her long pink hair, swinging gently at her hips.

Usagi settled into the stool next to her best friend, grabbing the glass and tossing the amber liquid back in a fluid motion.

"That was mine." Hotaru protested half-heartedly, not bothering to snatch it back.

Usagi stuck her tongue out. "It's mine now."

"So it is."

Her red eyes narrowed, staring intently at her dark friend. Taking in the carefully painted violet nails, the stylish black bangles, the black dress (surprisingly short for Hotaru—it went a good ways up her upper thigh), the immaculately neat hair. Hotaru hadn't really changed much over their teenage years—but in other ways she had changed entirely.

"You're sad." Usagi said flatly, setting down her glass.

"Haruka-papa says that it's a default expression of mine." There was a hint of laughter in those swirling violet eyes, but her lips remained still.

But the eyes were the windows to the soul, Usagi remembered. So she snuck a look into her friend's eyes and saw a peculiar mix of weary depression, contentment, and an itty-bitty spark of happiness—so faint she almost missed it, but it was still there and still counted for something.

"You're certainly not Miss Optimistic, either." Hotaru said to the sake bottle in front of her. The side of her mouth that the pinkette could see crinkled.

Usagi watched as the carefully handcrafted mask bent ever so slightly. A miniscule crack in the foundation. A trampled weed in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

Small, perhaps not significant, but still there and still counted for something.

"We all have our bad moments." Usagi allowed, tearing her eyes away for a moment to pour herself a drink. She set the bottle down. "But this one seems especially bad."

On New Year's Eve Usagi shouldn't have been sitting (almost) quietly by her (usually) quiet friend. She should have been on the dance floor, flirting up a storm and getting hammered. But something about this particular dark corner of the room, where the pulsating lights did not reach, drew her like a moth to light (except it was dark, of course).

Because she just couldn't have fun when she saw Hotaru settled in her seat like she was preparing for a long wait, face blank and completely devoid of any positive emotion. Her eyes stood out the most, shielded by the shadows and a guarded look about them.

Defensive.

Hotaru sat like a dark little china doll—still and blank and perfect. Except there was one major difference: her eyes were haunted (but perhaps that was not much better than empty).

"What are you talking about? I've been sitting here perfectly this entire evening, haven't I?" Hotaru said defensively, pulling back slightly to throw a protective barrier up.

And that's precisely the problem we have here, Usagi thought.

"You shouldn't be in here all alone." Usagi said.

Hotaru slowly faced her, turning her entire body to concentrate on her friend. "I'm not all alone, silly. See all of those things walking around on two legs? They're people. They keep you company."

Lies.

"I don't see them here talking to you." Usagi pointed out.

Hotaru leaned forward, face tightening. In a low voice, she said, "Look, I'm just not like you, all right? I'm not all pink and smiles and rainbows. I don't do the whole meet-greet-become-friends-instantly thing. People tend to stay away from me. And you know what? That's fine. I stay away from them." Then she sat back, arms crossed—like she was barring the world from seeping its way into her heart.

"Okay. That's peachy," Usagi scowled, "but don't you get lonely?"

The music blared on, but the chasm between them grew deathly silent.

"I…have to go."

Usagi stared, shocked, as Hotaru slipped off of her stool, quickly paying the bartender.

"What? No, don't leave!" She pleaded, following her.

Hotaru whirled on her, and tears were actually streaming down her face. "I can do whatever I damn please, Princess."

Usagi stood there stunned, watching Hotaru's disappearing back as one thought echoed in her head: I cannot believe we are having our first fight five fucking minutes before the New Year in the middle of a drunken crowd.

Usagi's eyes widened. Our first…fight.

She took off, barreling into partygoers, ignoring their irritated shouts.

"Hotaru!" She lunged, yanking her back. "Stop!" She dragged her through the crowd, an iron grip on the surprisingly small wrist, searching. She opened a door and shoved them through, slamming the door behind them.

"Ack! Cold!" She shivered as a biting wind hit them. Hotaru was frowning, stubbornly looking away as she wandered over to the railing. She frowned too. "So this is how it's going to be?"

"What do you want me to say?" Hotaru cried, looking at her fiercely. "Of course I get lonely! Of course I get scared and want to crawl under the covers with someone that's not—and never will be—there!" The tears kept coming.

"Shh…it's okay, Hotaru-chan." Usagi soothed, hugging her friend tenderly. She rested her chin on her shoulder, rocking them slowly. "It's okay."

The moonlight fell on them, making Hotaru's violet eyes sparkle when she looked up.

"I get scared when I sit in the dark," she said quietly, "because that's when the loneliness gets to me the most. It makes me scared that I'll never have somebody to laugh with, cry with, and love me with all they have. I'm so frightened, Usagi-chan," she shuddered, but didn't look away. Couldn't look away if she tried. "I'm so very frightened that I'll never have somebody to embrace and kiss and tell me they love me when the clock strikes twelve every year. I feel so alone!" Her cry echoed bitterly in Usagi's heart.

Usagi smiled sadly, eyes closed. "That's where you're wrong, Hotaru-chan."

In the background, voices began to sing the achingly familiar tune of 'Auld Lang Syne,' joyous and full of cheer.

A beat.

Hotaru's eyes widened. "I…"

"You're never alone." Her eyes flew open, serious. "Because if you'll have me, I'll always be here to wipe away your tears and hug you when you get scared." Usagi said, eyes burning.

She was drowning in Hotaru's eyes.

"I promise to hold you close and kiss you until all you think of is me and how much I love you," she whispered, trembling, "because that's all I've ever wanted to do."

Hotaru's arms tightened around her waist. Usagi waited apprehensively.

Hotaru looked up, and although tears still stained her cheeks, she presented Usagi with the biggest, sincerest smile she could ever hope to find within herself.

"I…will." Said in a soft and shaky voice.

But it was delivered all the same.

And it was still there.

And it still counted for something.

A murmuring of voices filtered into their consciousness, and together they glanced at the balcony beside theirs.

Realization flooded Hotaru's features, followed by a look of smug satisfaction. "I knew it," she said. "They make a wonderful couple, don't you think?"

And although the forms of the tall Setsuna and the bright Minako were breathtaking, Usagi wanted to bring her back to the 'now.'

"Hey," she said softly, tugging on the sleeve of Hotaru's black dress. It was cool in between her fingers. "Let's focus on us."

A bubble of laughter found its way out of the heart of Tomoe Hotaru, surprising the both of them with its light innocence and carefree ring.

"Sure," she agreed. "And by the way?"

Usagi smiled back. "Yeah?"

Hotaru kissed her princess softly, lovingly, as fireworks went off in the dark sky around them.

"Perfect timing," Usagi mused, looking up at them.

"Focusing on us, remember?"

"Oh, right."

And so they were at peace.

--

--

"…hey, Haruka-papa owes me twenty bucks!"

"…shut up, Hotaru-chan."

"…right, right. Where were we?"

Blissful smiles.

Clasped hands.

--

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Together.

--

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://:AN://: Well, this is my other New Years' piece. It could be considered a side story, I guess. It didn't come exactly how I wanted it, and I posted it without checking but…who really cares? I realized that I posted my original New Years' fic (Setsuna x Minako) a day early. Oops. All the best.

--1010'jin

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Don't be afraid to lose your way on a path you've never traveled before.

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