twenty

It had four days since they had all gathered in Sendai. After a rather intensive training session (Ryo and Rei nearly burned each others' eyebrows off, Shin had successfully found the water state of mind but accidentally drowned half of Seiji's mother's plants, and Touma and Shuu ended up in a squabble that Minako somehow goaded into a janken tournament), the two groups decided to relax. Makoto quickly suggested card games, and everyone seemed keen on the idea.

"Do we need more drinks?" Seiji glanced around, taking a count of the empty cans. The market was down the street a ways, but it seemed like they would all be up late. Shin, Ryo, Minako, Makoto and Shuu were caught up in a rather passionate game of Go Fish. "I'll go get more."

"I'll go with you," Rei murmured, swiftly standing up and approaching the door before anyone could protest. Minako's eyebrows shot up, but no one else seemed affected by her change in attitude. Seiji hesitated before he nodded.

"Thank you," he said, to which Rei gave him the slightest—just the slightest—of smiles.

"Shuu, give me your three," Makoto said. Shuu scowled.

"How'd you know I had a three?"

"You don't have a very good poker face," Makoto teased. Shuu handed over his card, and she triumphantly threw down her own. "Minako, eight?"

"Nope!" Minako chirped. She beamed at her friend. "Mako, ten?"

"How'd you know?" Makoto asked, placing down her card.

"You don't have a very good poker face," Minako said, at which Makoto blushed and Shuu roared with laughter.

"It's okay, babe, we're just two of a kind," Shuu said, grinning at her. Makoto's face reddened even more as she stared at her cards, unsure of what to say. Minako grinned slyly, nudging Ryo. Ryo had his own smirk on his face, knowing just how much Shuu adored Makoto.

"Now if only he has the guts to just kiss her already," Minako whispered behind a hand. Ryo chuckled, especially when the two subjects glared them.

"What's so interesting, you two?" Makoto asked.

"Oh, you know, leader talk," Ryo said. He glanced around, trying to find something to divert their attention to. His gaze landed on Ami, who was paging through a book next to Usagi. Touma, beside them, was focused on his own set of books. "Ami, what are you reading?"

"Only the best manga series ever!" Usagi said enthusiastically. "Don't bother her! This is the one and only time Ami-chan is allowed to read at a group gathering!"

"Usagi, is that my set?" Makoto shook her head once she realized that her name was indeed scrawled on the spine. "I wondered where it went."

"Don't worry, it's in good hands now," Ami said as Usagi clasped her hands and quickly apologized to Makoto.

"Jeez, Touma," Shuu said, raising his eyebrows and bringing attention to the bearer of Tenkuu. "Even Ami's put down the books."

"Almost to the end," Touma said faintly, turning the page. Ami smiled softly, glancing at the spine of the book. It was a mystery, in English. A small burst of excitement ran through her; she had read that book a year ago and found it to be entirely enthralling.

"Let him finish," Ami said, her eyes bright. "It's a very engaging book, I'd like for him to finish it."

Touma glanced at her, startled. She returned her gaze with a bright one of her own; cheeks pink, Touma quickly turned back to his book. Minako and Ryo exchanged amused glances again.

Shin, who had been messaging Setsuna during the lull of the game, put down his phone, looking pleased with himself. He turned to the card game at hand to realize that at the small motion, everyone was now staring at him.

"How's the girlfriend?" Shuu asked, wiggling his eyebrows.

"Oooooh," Usagi and Minako chorused, clasping hands. "Did you tell Setsuna that you miss her and love her?"

Shin rolled his eyes, but the two blondes easily caught his blush. They giggled together as Makoto shook her head. "I always thought Setsuna had game," she said to Ryo, who laughed.

"So tell us again," Minako said, scrambling forward. Usagi was right at her heels. "How did you woo her?"

"Don't spare any details!" Usagi added. Shin ran a hand through his hair, shrinking back from the zealous pair.

"I don't kiss and tell," he said, hoping to deter them. That only made them squeal even louder.

"Oh leave him alone," Ami said, pulling Minako back before she got too close to Shin. "You've heard the story a million times already."

"What, are you jealous, Mizuno?" Minako teased, grabbing her friend into a headlock. Shuu snorted as Ami's petit frame flailed under her friend's grip. "Better confess your feelings now before he and Setsuna get serious!"

"M—minako!" Ami protested weakly. Minako's elbow suddenly slipped and she flopped over on her face. Ami took the opportunity to crawl away. Shin took her elbow and helped her up; she gave him a grateful smile.

"Excuse me," Touma muttered under his breath, interrupting the banter. He got to his feet and stalked towards the sliding door, slamming it shut behind him. There was a silence after his sudden departure; uneasily, Makoto cleared her throat.

"What just happened?" she asked.

"No clue," Shuu said, exchanging bewildered glances with Ryo.

"I'll go check on him," Shin said faintly. He handed his cards to Usagi, who eagerly started rearranging them. "I'll be back."

There was a nagging feeling in the back of his mind that made him think it had something to do with him. Shin carefully slipped on his shoes, maneuvering through the halls. He could barely feel Touma's armor in the grounds behind the dojo. True to his instinct, he found the bearer of Tenkuu lying in the middle of the field, staring up at the night sky.

Touma tensed when he heard Shin approaching. He didn't need to look up to know who it was; it was their connection through their armor that let him know it was Shin. He closed his eyes briefly, taking a deep breath.

"Touma—"

"I don't want to talk to you right now."

Ah, Shin thought. So he had been right—it had something to do with him. "What's wrong?"

"I said I don't want to talk to you." Touma sat up abruptly, throwing a glare over his shoulder. "Can't you at least understand that?"

Shin knew better than to get angry. Touma was impulsive when it came to his feelings; although the moments were rare, there were times when he acted without thinking. "If you tell me what's wrong—"

Touma sprang to his feet and started off, his pace quick in his anger. Shin sighed and hurried after him. If he had learned one thing about his friends, it was that leaving them to their anger was catastrophic. Seiji he wasn't so much worried about, as the blonde had a keen idea of himself; Shuu, Touma and Ryo, however, managed to subconsciously channel the powers of their armor when riled up.

"Touma," Shin called out. He hadn't expected Touma to stop, but the blue-haired genius did—and then he whirled around and socked Shin in the face. Thrown off by the sudden assault, Shin took a moment to rub his jaw as he fell back. Touma stood facing him, glaring at him in a way he had never seen before.

"You're an idiot," Touma said darkly. "You're sitting there bragging about Setsuna when Mizuno is sitting right there."

Shin stared. If anything, that fueled Touma's anger. He swung his arm back again, but Shin was ready this time; he evaded Touma's punch, grabbing his arm and pinning it behind him. Touma, however, was physically stronger. He wrestled out of Shin's grip and shoved him back.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Shin asked, utterly baffled.

"What's wrong with me? What's wrong with you?" Touma replied. "What, were you playing with her this whole time?"

"Playing with who?" Shin didn't mean to raise his voice, but none of what Touma was saying made any sense. Touma was irrational, sometimes, but never like this. This—there had to be something more.

"Don't play stupid," Touma said. That was another thing about Touma's anger—despite the temper flare, his voice was always so level, so calm. And Shin, hardly the type to get riled up, found this to be most maddening. "I'm talking about Mizuno. I've seen the way you look at her, Shin, and the way she looks at you. I'd be an idiot not to."

"Do you hear yourself right now?" Shin said incredulously. "Do you honestly hear yourself right now?"

Touma's jaw clenched. Shin shook his head and ran his hands through his hair, feeling his irritation build.

"Gods, Touma, you're a complete idiot, do you know that?"

"Who are you to call me—"

"Touma," Shin said firmly, striding forward and clasping him on the shoulder. Touma, for a second, seemed like he wanted to throw his hand off; one look at Shin's eyes, however, and he knew he couldn't. Shin always knew how to get someone to pay attention. "You are the biggest, most aggravating idiot in the world, and I believe it's because you're an only child."

Touma scowled, this time shoving Shin away. For some reason, he felt his anger curb. Damn Shin to be able to do that. "You're not making a very good case for me to listen to you."

"Like you listen to anyone," Shin murmured. He sighed, shaking his head. Touma thought there was pity in his gaze. "Touma, I've never had any feelings for Mizuno, and she has none for me."

"But—"

"Listen to yourself," Shin said. "Do you realize what you sound like?"

Touma clamped his mouth shut, suddenly feeling abashed. He knew exactly what he sounded like.

"You sound like a jealous idiot," Shin said, as if he needed to clarify. "I don't understand why you came to the conclusion that I liked Mizuno like that, but I don't. And she knows that. No one was misled."

Touma glanced away, glaring at the grass. A slow breeze picked up, ruffling his hair. A quiet tension filled the air between them, but it was a different feeling from before. Shin radiated understanding, but all Touma felt was shame.

"Touma—"

"Sorry," Touma said, rubbing the back of his neck. His posture slumped, all traces of anger fading away. "I didn't mean—"

"It's fine," Shin said, shaking his head. It was anything but fine, but he knew better than to hold a grudge. "But you should—"

"I know," Touma said, looking embarrassed—as he rightly should be, Shin thought. "I don't know what's gotten into me. I've never felt so—irrational."

"You really like her, don't you?"

It was interesting to see the emotions play out on Touma's face. He seemed surprised at first that someone actually knew—then mortified as he wondered if he was obvious. Shin kept quiet, though, waiting for Touma to talk. He needed to talk.

Another moment of awkward silence passed before Touma sighed. "This isn't like me at all."

"You're right. I can't imagine why you would ever let someone else get the girl instead of thinking for yourself, as you are so apt to do, my only-child friend." Shin laughed when Touma rolled his eyes. "In all seriousness, though, Touma—"

"I know," Touma said.

"You keep saying that," Shin pointed out.

"I know," Touma said, and he cringed. He really was a mess. This was completely unlike him; he hadn't felt this way since his parents had divorced long ago. Even then, he had the job of taking care of himself to distract him from becoming totally undone. But now—now that they were in an odd moment of peace, with new allies and an adventurous journey in front of him—now Touma had to face himself. "Thanks, Shin."

Shin clasped Touma on the shoulder, smiling. Then, without warning, he swung his fist back and punched Touma right in the jaw. Touma staggered back, clutching at his chin. "Shin—"

"Now we're even," Shin said. He could see Toums struggling with the idea that he might have deserved it. "Come on, let's get back before everyone worries."

They returned to find that Seiji and Rei had replenished their drink supply. Touma spotted the smudge of dirt on the hem of Rei's skirt, as well as the disheveled look of Seiji's own shirt. No one else seemed to notice; he raised his eyebrows at his blonde friend, who discretely shook his head. Later, that meant.

"Ah, melon soda!" Usagi sighed contently, clutching the bottle in front of her chest. "My favorite."

"Always thought you were a melon kind of girl," Shuu said. Usagi stuck out her tongue.

"Always thought you were a cherry kind of guy," she retorted. Then her eyes lit up. "Hey, Mako-chan likes cherry too!"

Before anyone could say anything else, Shuu leaned over and sipped at Makoto's straw. He sat back, looking satisfied. "Yep, she's a cherry kind of girl."

"WOAH, talk about indirect KISS," Minako roared, seizing the moment. She and Ryo slapped hands, grinning notoriously as Makoto flustered around. She ended up choosing to speak with her fists; Makoto noogied Minako until the blonde squealed for mercy.

"Hey, Mizuno," Touma said, and he felt as if all eyes were suddenly on him. He tried to ignore Minako and Usagi's wily smiles, focusing instead on the petit girl in front of him. "Did you bring anything to study?"

Ami blinked. "A few materials, but not too much. Usagi threw out half of my books out of my suitcase."

"Oh, well," Touma said, and he scratched his cheek. "Do you think sometime this week, you could go over the homework set? There was a problem that I wanted a second opinion on."

Which wasn't completely a lie. Touma had found a problem disconcerting, but only because of the wording of the problem. He had solved it three ways and gotten three different answers, all of which were completely logical according to each interpretation of the problem. Ami nodded, smiling slightly.

"I think I might know which one you're talking about," she said understandingly. "For all his genius, our professor certainly has a limited grasp on grammar."

Touma's lips quirked up. He couldn't deny that little flip that his stomach did. Of course Ami would know what he was talking about. It felt ridiculously wonderful to know that someone out there could follow his train of thought. "Let me know when you're free."

Ami played with the corner of her manga. Her gaze was thoughtful and almost guarded—or was he looking too much into it? "Whatever's convenient for you," she said quietly.

"I'd say right now," Touma replied, leaning forward slightly, "but you know, these crazy friends of ours will never let us hear the end of it."

The two of them turned back to their friends, who had been watching the whole exchange with bated breath. Abruptly they turned back to the drinks, pretending that they hadn't been obviously eavesdropping.

"Seiji, let's share one!" Minako said, shoving a can under Seiji's nose. Seiji actually sputtered as he reeled back. Minako gaped when Rei grabbed the can, popped it open and drank without a moment's hesitation. "Um, excuse me, Hino-sama, that was for me and Seiji."

"Was it?" Rei raised an eyebrow before handing the drink to Seiji. "My mistake."

Seiji wondered what on earth was going on. He gave Ryo a bewildered look; Ryo only gave him a thumbs up and full-toothed grin.

"Anyway," Touma said, turning back to Ami. She looked hesitant for a moment before she excused herself.

"I can grab the assignment now," she said, disappearing from the room. Touma took two seconds to realize that he should follow after her; he scrambled out the door, ignoring Shuu's smirks. Everything was starting to make sense now—why everyone had been teasing him about her. It was because he was as obvious as Byakuen at the mall.

Touma quickly made his way down the hall, stopping abruptly in front of the room Ami was sharing with Minako. She quickly emerged, looking a bit startled that he was there. "Oh," he said, trying to play it cool. "I thought we could just sit outside and look at it."

"Oh," Ami said. She nodded slightly. "Lead the way."

And as Ami followed, she couldn't help but think—wasn't this sort of what she really wanted this whole time? To spend time with Touma under the stars, discussing theories and imparting knowledge on each other? She wrung her hands, casting her gaze to the floor. If only this had happened a week earlier, before she had committed herself to ignoring her little crush in order to focus on—on teamwork and group dynamics.

The two of them settled down in the courtyard. Ami had quickly recognized that the Date dojo was wonderfully detailed. The courtyard was no exception; Seiji's mother had a fondness for plants, and Makoto's keen eye had appreciated the variety of plants that she had shown them. Ami, however, was more fascinated with the architecture of the place.

Ami sighed inaudibly before turning to Touma; she was abruptly startled when she realized he was watching. She blushed. He smiled. "Sorry, you just looked so focused."

"Oh," Ami said. She sheepishly ran a hand through her hair. "I was just thinking..."

His stare became curious. "About?"

"It's nothing." Her cheeks flushed as she glanced down and played with her hands. "I was admiring the structure of the dojo. It's crafted beautifully. Nothing is put in place without reason, but it doesn't sacrifice visual."

"Hmm," Touma said thoughtfully, chin in hand. "I never thought you'd have an aesthetic mind as well."

"I might get it from my father."

Oops. Ami froze, wondering why on earth she let those words come out the way they did. She hadn't thought about her father in awhile—not since her last birthday, anyway.

"Ah," Touma said. He seemed to withdraw a little at this. "Are you close to him?"

There was no way out. Ami smiled slightly, peeking under her bangs to meet his gaze. "No, he left when I was young."

Quiet. It wasn't silence, because Ami could see that he was genuinely taking in her answer. Either way, she didn't expect much of a response. She had already dealt with the social stigma of having separated parents when she was younger; it didn't bother her now. She had other things to deal with.

"My parents divorced when I was young," Touma said conversationally. He met her gaze, giving her a wry smile that said he understood. She nodded slowly, unable to look away from his clear blue eyes. "I guess it might be a little silly to let something like that decide my future, but I suppose it's part of the reason I don't want children."

"Ah?"

Touma shrugged. "My mother left the country and my father was too busy. I don't think I could ever put a kid through something like that. It was fine for me, I could manage, but someone else..."

She knew exactly what he was talking about; as a doctor, her mother was unable to be there for a major part of her childhood. Maybe before she met Usagi she would have felt the same way as him, but now... "I think I disagree with you."

"Do you now?"

He sounded amused. Ami glanced up at the night sky. "My mother's a doctor, so she was never home. That was her personal choice, though. It doesn't mean that I'll do the same to my children. In fact—I want as big of a family as I can, so I can love them as they should be loved. I don't want them to be lonely like I was. And I won't sacrifice my career, either. There's a balance in everything."

Hesitantly, Ami met his gaze again. He was looking at her with a solemn gaze, one that had her heart pattering. Oh dear, she thought, here comes the rash. She instinctively made to scratch her elbow, but nothing was there. Ami paused—had she been cured?

"You know, if you were Shuu, I'd think you just wanted a lot of sex," Touma joked, and Ami's entirely body flared up. She buried her face in her knees and furiously scratched, trying not to pass out. Touma started sputtering once he realized what he actually said. "I—I'm sorry! I didn't—are—are you okay?"

He placed a hand on her shoulder; Ami slapped his hand away and scrambled backwards, scratching at her face. "Allergies," she managed to get out, her eyes watering. The itching wasn't going to stop. Oh dear, oh dear oh dear. She scrunched her eyes shut, shaking her head. This was ridiculous; there weren't any love letters around!

Suddenly, Ami felt hands rubbing her arms. Her eyes shot open to see Touma staring at the redness of her skin. "It's better to rub," he murmured. "Won't damage your skin that way."

Ami couldn't say anything. She felt the itching go down slowly, but her arms were still a bright red. At least her face wasn't warm anymore. After a moment, Touma drew back and the two of them sat in silence. He scratched his cheek, glancing at her.

"Sorry," Ami mumbled, utterly embarrassed.

"No, I was—I don't think sometimes," Touma admitted. Ami couldn't help but smile.

"You, not think? I can hardly believe it."

He grinned, reaching forward to flick her in the forehead. She yelped, her hands instantly flying to rub the spot. "Believe it," he said. He leaned back on his arms, his grin widening when she blushed. "Say, Ami, what do you know about constellations?"

Her confusion turned into excitement. Touma didn't anyone besides him could get so geeked up over something. "I've actually been looking more into the sky," Ami said, leaning forward. "I think I've managed to get a general area of where Kinmoku is in relation to the moon's orbit."

"Really?" Touma's eyebrows rose. "Do you mind if I take a look at it? I'd like to help, if I can."

"Of course!" Ami said enthusiastically, her eyes brightening. Then there was a beep from the pocket of her skirt. She pulled out a small watch and flipped open the cover. "Mercury."

"Pluto," Setsuna's voice answered. Touma peered at the screen, seeing the older woman appear amidst static. "Ami, I need you to get a scan on the Earth. We were just attacked here in Spain; if there's anything out of order, please let us know."

"Of course," Ami said, and she already had her Mercury computer out. Touma watched as she touched an earring and the goggles appeared across her eyes. She typed away, her gaze concentrated on the words that flew across the vision.

"You can use that outside of your transformation?" Touma asked. Ami nodded, distracted.

"Minor tweaking of Lunar system," she responded. She frowned for a moment, pausing in her typing. "Setsuna, I see two abnormal energy readings by you, but otherwise the rest of the world is clean."

Setsuna looked faintly troubled. "Ami—"

"I'll only tell if it's something we need to be concerned about," she said firmly. This wasn't the first time Setsuna had asked her for a world-wide scan. There were always little things around the world that the Senshi of Space-Time had to deal with—minor occurrences that didn't need to be worried about. Ami trusted Setsuna enough to take care of things.

"I'll let you know if it becomes a problem." Setsuna sighed. "Thank you."

Ami closed the watch. She touched her earring again and the goggles faded away. Touma looked absolutely stunned. "So," he said, "I still can't a figure on that. It's based off of ancient Lunar technology?"

"More or less," Ami said. "What, you couldn't figure out a way to replicate it in the five minutes I let you explore around on my minicomputer?"

Touma rolled his eyes. "Maybe I should take my coffee maker back."

"Maybe you should, it doesn't work very well." Ami laughed when Touma glowered. "I'm just kidding! It works very well."

"Of course it does," Touma said. "I made it."

As the night went on, Ami and Touma fought against sleep as they pointed out constellations in the sky. Touma was impressed with Ami's knowledge on the planets in relation to the galaxy, but she admitted she didn't know much about the stars. That led to him pointing out several constellations, giving very brief histories (she chimed in a few times, leading him to believe that ).

"And of course, I'm sure you know a bit about the Milky Way galaxy," Touma said. He glanced at his watch, realizing that it was absurdly late. "I've been trying to study more on its infamous black hole, but I haven't had time to visit my dad back home. He's got access to a lot of resources at his university."

"Sagittarius zero star," Ami said softly after a moment. "Right?"

"You know it?" Touma asked, intrigued by the peaceful look on her face.

"Of course," Ami replied. "It's the birthplace of all stars."

Touma was perplexed. Surely she knew better? "Nebulas aren't limited to just black holes, Ami..."

Ami shook her head, smiling gently. "Mm, no. I know that. But—Touma, we're all born with stars inside of us. Did you know that? It's true that we're made of stardust. There's the scientific basis—we were formed from elements from the stars. But there's also that logic-defying magic—that we were born to carry stars inside of us, little seeds that we grow."

Touma found himself leaning towards her. Once he realized what he was doing, he stopped. He ran a hand through his hair, smiling slightly. Years ago, he would have called her crazy. Now—with magical armors and skirted sailors taking up his life—he believed every word. "A star's inside of me, huh?"

"A star's inside of you," Ami repeated, and they shared a smile before turning back to spot Venus in the sky.

x

Kayura thought the city of Cuenca was charming, in an idyllic sort of way. It was like a getaway, a hideout, somewhere she could spend her time without much worries. There were no questions as to why Haruka and Michiru wanted to raise their child there; it seemed, however, a bit uncharacteristic. She had assumed that out of all the senshi, they had the most soldier-like mindset.

Then again, maybe anything anyone ever really wanted was peace.

"You looked bothered."

Kayura started, glancing at Hotaru beside her. "I do?"

"Maybe you could tell me about Naaza and feel all better."

Kayura's face turned a bright red. She sunk lower in her seat, trying to hide behind her cup of ice cream. The second she had spotted Hotaru after landing at the airport, she had too excited to think. She had thrown her arms around the girl, chirping in her ear, "I'm so glad to see you! I have to tell you all about Naaza!"

She had quickly corrected, saying that she meant Youjakai, not Naaza. Why would she ever want to talk about Naaza? It wasn't as if they had anything other than a strict Empress-Masho relationship. Of course not.

Except Hotaru had inherited Michiru's ability to sense bullshit. And so hours later, after Hotaru had taken her on a walk throughout the city (Kayura wasn't quite sure if all the whistles from the males were compliments, and Hotaru found it difficult to explain), the two of them sat on a bench with ice cream in the hands. "Naaza?" Kayura said innocently. "Whatever do you mean?"

"You guys kissed, didn't you?"

Kayura whipped around to face Hotaru with a mortified look on her face. "You already know!"

Hotaru gaped. She had only been joking. "You're not serious?"

"I—what?" Kayura looked utterly perplexed. Hotaru's mouth closed, and Kayura had the distinct feeling that she was trying to hold in her laughter. "Stop that!"

"Oh my," Hotaru said quietly, turning away. Her shoulders started shaking; Kayura scrunched her face up, uselessly slapping Hotaru on the back.

"Stop that! Hotaru!"

The other girl burst out in laughter, unable to hold it in any longer. "You and Naaza?!"

"It just happened!" Kayura protested, flailing. "Really, it's not like I've harbored some—some desire for him or anything—"

The made Hotaru laugh even harder. She clutched as her stomach, trying not to drop her ice cream. Kayura, giving up, joined her. After a moment, the two of them caught their breaths.

"It really does sound ridiculous, doesn't it?" Kayura admitted, shaking her head. "But he was so sweet and—and gentle."

Hotaru took a bite of her ice cream so that she wouldn't burst out laughing again. Sweet and gentle was everything that Naaza was not. "That's cute," she chose to say.

"Please don't make fun of me," Kayura mumbled, playing with the ends of her hair. Hotaru sighed.

"I won't," she promised. "Not that much, anyway."

"Hotaru!"

"But I'm glad. You seem happy."

A smile bloomed across Kayura's face. While she appreciated her friend's sentiment, she also knew that two could play at this game. "So, you seem to be good friends with Rekka no Ryo."

"Eh?" Hotaru replied just as casually, watching the sun slowly start to dip. Kayura's little smile widened.

"Anubis brought up to me that Rekka pays a lot of attention to you."

"Eh?" Hotaru purposely repeated as she dipped her spoon into her ice cream. She popped the spoon in her mouth and gave Kayura an innocent look.

"In fact, Anubis talks about you quite a lot," Kayura continued, swirling her ice cream around. There was a mischievous gleam in her eye. "I've never heard him ramble on and on like this before."

If there was one thing that Michiru could claim to have instilled in Hotaru, it was the beautiful art of lying. She played it cool, despite the little bubble in her stomach. "You're sure he's not just grumbling about how stupid I am?"

"Well, okay, that might be it," Kayura said as she stabbed as her now-empty cup, "but really, I haven't heard him grumble so fondly!"

"Do you realize how insane you're making him sound?"

"Pfft!" Kayura rolled her eyes, turning her body to face her friend. "You think that's insane? Try listening to Naaza's lectures. I swear, that boy is the epitome of crazy."

"And yet you kissed him," Hotaru pointed out. She almost smirked when Kayura started blushing.

"I never should have told you that," Kayura muttered, pouting. Hotaru nudged her, wagging her eyebrows up and down. "Stop that!"

"I probably should have seen it coming," Hotaru mused, glancing up. "I mean, the way you two bickered was obviously your guys' way of flirting."

"I'm not sure what this flirting thing is," Kayura huffed, "but I'm certain we were not doing that!"

The two of them were quiet for a moment before they started giggling. Hotaru shook her head. "You and Naaza. That's crazy."

"Not as crazy as you and Rekka," Kayura said. "And if I may subject you to my opinion—"

"If you so wish, Empress," Hotaru interrupted, but Kayura ignored her.

"—then I suggest you ditch him and pick my dear Yami Masho. He's stronger."

"Is he now," Hotaru said, feigning disinterest in the topic. She had no idea where everyone was getting the idea that she was interested in either Ryo or Anubis. Haruka had pulled her aside just before they left to Spain, lecturing her to focus on her studies and to forget about boys who had tigers for pets. Michiru had saved her, saying that Ryo should be the least of her worries since Anubis was the epitome of devil-may-care.

"No boys!" Haruka had shrieked as a way to end the conversation. Sestuna, pitying Hotaru, gave her own opinion.

"Ryo's very handsome," she said, nodding sagely, "and Anubis is very manly. I suppose it's all up to what your taste is, Hotaru."

Hotaru's tastes, at the moment, concerned catching up on months of schoolwork so she wouldn't have to repeat a year.

She suddenly felt it at the last second; Kayura did as well. The two of them leapt off the bench, which exploded into splinters of wood. Hotaru barely managed to get a barrier up as something large crashed into them. Kayura had seamlessly transformed from teenage girl to armored warrior. She ducked out from under Hotaru's arm to face a large beast that snarled at them.

Even on all fours, the beast was twice their size. Hotaru narrowed her eyes. This was not a leftover youma from the Dark Kingdom—it reeked entirely of death. She swung her glaive out and leapt forward, ignoring all of instincts which told her to run. The beast roared; with a large swipe of its clawed hand, it flung her aside.

"Hotaru!" Kayura gritted her teeth as Hotaru crashed into a building. "Are you—"

She was cut off as the beast roared again; this time, the sound was deafening. She fought against the chill in her spine, holding out her sickle and chain in front of her. Shuten never did teach her how to use the armor, she thought, but none of it mattered as the beast charged at her.

Kayura jumped at the last second, swinging the sickle out. The chain wrapped around the beast's neck, but it didn't stop. She barely had time to change her grip on the chain before she was yanked along with the beast on its path to destruction. Her heart raced like it had never done before; she maneuvered herself so that she was riding atop the beast.

It suddenly came to a halt, nearly threatening to spill Kayura over. She kept her grip, reaching for the short sword she had strapped to her thigh. Naaza had made fun of her for wanting to add the weapon; he teased that the sickle and chain should be enough if she was skilled, but Kayura didn't want to take chances with an unfamiliar weapon. Thank goodness for her hindsight, she thought as she pulled the sword out.

In one swift motion, she stabbed the beast. It bucked, successfully throwing her off; Kayura rolled onto her side, swinging the sickle and chain up. It sliced the beast's neck, but it wasn't enough to behead it. Kayura cursed under her breath as the beast wildly turned to her. She really needed to take time away from ruling a country so she could learn how to properly wield the damn armor.

The beast loomed over her. She swung the sickle around, but it was no use. It was as if it knew her incompetency with the weapon; the beast let out a roar before its claws came down at her. She rolled off to the side, just in time to see the beast's claws sink into the ground.

This was her chance. Kayura altered her grip on the sickle and chain before lunging forward. The curved blade sank right into the beast's skull; it thrashed around, roaring wildly. The noise grated against her ears, but she clenched her teeth and stood her ground. The beast's eyes rolled to her—she could see its fury before it shrieked even louder than before.

The beast thrashed one last time before twitching and falling. Kayura yanked out her sickle, flicking the beast's guts off of it—then she tensed, whirling around. She relaxed once she realized who she was sensing. "Anubis!"

"Rajura sent me," Anubis said, glancing at the beast's remains. "I see he wasn't being paranoid for no reason."

"You knew this would happen?" Kayura narrowed her eyes, approaching the Yami Masho with her hands on her hips. "Explain yourself."

Anubis frowned. "I should clarify," he said. He met her gaze evenly. "There was a brief wave of energy that spanned across all three lands. The priest of Elysion consulted us on the matter, and we explained to him that you were on leave. Rajura felt it necessary that we contact you directly."

"And so you came here?"

"Apparently just in time," Anubis said. Kayura's eyes darted around as she thought. She didn't even want to ask the next question, dreading the answer.

"Rajura has stayed to watch over the Youjakai?"

"On the contrary, he is visiting Rekka and the others as we speak," Anubis said. He smirked when Kayura paled. "Is something the matter, Empress?"

"Naaza's in charge?" Kayura whispered. When Anubis's smirk grew, she moaned and rubbed at her face. "Oh no, our world will be destroyed."

"And yet you are the one who ki—"

"Oh shut up," Kayura said, nibbling on an armored knuckle. Eventually she decided that Naaza was better than no one at all. She sighed, bringing her gaze back to Anubis. "Thank you for coming."

Anubis inclined his head before another roar deafened them. The two of them exchanged grim glances before hurrying in the direction of the roar; had there been another beast they had overlooked? They didn't have to search long—a creature even larger than the previous one loomed over the buildings, baring its fangs and swiping with its claws.

"What the hell are these things?" Kayura hissed as Anubis raised his nodachi into the air. Before he could do anything, however, the beast turned its attention away from them. "What—"

"That stupid girl," Anubis growled. There, atop a building, looking so small compared to the sheer size of the beast—Hotaru raised her glaive above her head and jumped at the beast. It swiped at her, but at the last second she brought her glaive down, slicing through claw and flesh.

Hotaru didn't stop; she drove her glaive straight into the beast before gravity pulled her down. She landed with a bit of effort, but all sound was drowned out by the magnificent cry of the beast as a dark violet light burst from within it. It staggered around before it finally crashed into the ground, split into two.

"Hotaru!" Kayura cried out, rushing forward. Hotaru slowly got to her feet, still staring at the beast's corpse. The corner of her lip lifted when Kayura was near enough.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine," Kayura said. She frowned as Hotaru turned to fully face her. The front of her dress was bloody, torn by claws. "You're bleeding."

"I've already healed the wound," Hotaru murmured, reaching up to press her hand against the scrape on Kayura's temple. The Silence Glaive disappeared into thin air as she focused on healing.

"Oh," Kayura said, her smile suddenly diffusing the dark atmosphere, "your lover is here."

"Eh?" Hotaru said, temporarily distracted. She blinked a few times before she looked over her shoulder. Anubis was approaching, with two wolves in tow. He would have wolves, she thought. She quickly finished healing Kayura before focusing her attention on Anubis.

Anubis nodded at her. One of the wolves slowly circled her, brushing against her legs. Hotaru absently ran her fingers through its dark fur as she glanced back at the beast she had slain; her eyes narrowed as she witnessed it slowly disappear from sight.

"What in the world," Kayura said, staring at the spot where the beast had been. The ground was still cracked and the buildings around it were in shambles, but the beast was nowhere to be seen. "Where did they come from?"

"We should get back," Hotaru murmured. She quickly led the way through the streets, choosing to take quicker shortcuts through the back roads. Although the area had been empty when the beasts attacked, there was no telling what the roars had attracted. They came upon the cliff-side villa in minutes; Michiru met them just outside of the door.

"I see you ran into trouble as well," she said grimly, taking note of her daughter's appearance. Her eyes flicked towards Anubis. "It's good to see you again."

"Neptune," he greeted just as cordially, bowing slightly. Michiru led the way into the house; they were intercepted by Haruka, who looked just as battle-harried as Hotaru was.

"Let me guess," the blonde said wryly as Kayura let her armor disappear. "Big, scaly, fangs and claws?"

"Big, scaly, fangs and claws," Hotaru confirmed, pushing her hair out of her eyes. She leaned against the back of the sofa, gesturing for Kayura and Anubis to sit. "Setsuna-mama?"

"Here," Setsuna said, coming from the hallway. She smiled briefly at Anubis before turning to Michiru. "Ami says her scans show nothing abnormal."

"So Usagi isn't in danger," Haruka said, still trying to brush the dirt off her pants. "The wind still doesn't feel right, though. We should head back."

"No," Michiru said, her brow furrowed in thought. She was perched on the arm of the sofa, a hand at her lip. "The seas are stormy, but not in a familiar way."

"The priest of Elysion contacted us," Anubis said, drawing their attention. Michiru's eyes narrowed the slightest.

"Helios? What did he say?"

Anubis was quiet for a moment before he spoke again. "I'm not sure why it seems as if you have not felt it here," he said, "but there was a wave of energy that briefly spread across the three barriers. The priest wanted to confirm what he had felt. He said he did not want to concern you just yet."

"Of course he wouldn't," Hotaru said quietly, but Anubis picked up her words. He turned to her expectantly; when she merely tightened her lips and glanced away, he sought answers from her parents.

"He's Chibiusa's boyfriend," Michiru supplied with a slight smile. "Hotaru doesn't approve."

"He's a horse," Hotaru said shortly before turning back to the subject at hand. "Haruka-papa, did you feel anything weird about these creatures?"

"Other than their scaly scales?" Haruka shook her head. "No, why? What did you feel?"

Hotaru glanced at the floor, her eyes narrowed in thought. The fact that Haruka hadn't sensed anything wrong had confirmed it for her. "They felt like the banished demons."

Anubis and Kayura weren't quite sure what that meant, but they saw the varying degrees of shock on the older Senshi's faces. Michiru's eyes widened just the slightest. "Are you sure?" she asked as Haruka ran a hand through her hair.

"I'm sure," Hotaru said, thumb at her lip. Setsuna closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. "I haven't felt anything like it since the Silver Millennium."

"Can someone explain what all that means?" Kayura piped up, head tilted curiously. "You know what these beasts are?"

"Maybe," Hotaru replied. Her gaze was dark as she glanced out the window. "Probably. Yes. During the Silver Millennium, Beryl had enslaved a race of demons she had goaded out of Hell. Selenity managed to get rid of the ones that invaded the Moon, but Setsuna and I were sent to Hell to deal with the revolt."

"We had to confine their leader to one of the gates in the Underworld," Setsuna murmured. It was all coming back to her. "He vowed revenge on Beryl for allowing us to get to him in the first place, so we weren't concerned with if he was going to attack us or not. It's been thousands of years, though. For him to suddenly start acting up..."

"We'll have to go," Hotaru said, picking up her train of thought. The two of them met each others' gazes for a moment; Setsuna found this to be one of the rare times when Hotaru embodied Saturn completely. It almost—almost—made her feel inferior, facing the stare of the infamous soldier of ruin. Then Hotaru smiled softly and the image was broken. "Just like old times."

"I'm going with you," Kayura said automatically. Hotaru was ready to decline, but Kayura stood her ground. "You can't leave me behind, Hotaru. I'll follow you if you go without me."

"Actually, Empress," Setsuna said, "I'm afraid you actually can't come with us. The gates to Hell open only to those with the power of darkness."

Kayura's mouth shut as she brooded for a moment. Haruka mirrored her expression almost perfectly. "You really can't expect us to let you two just waltz into Hell," the blonde said. "Things have changed since back then. You don't know what to expect."

"We didn't know what to expect back then either," Setsuna replied. "Why, are you worried about my well-being, Haruka?"

Any other time, Haruka would have easily brushed off her teasing with an insult of her own. Instead, she sighed and buried her fingers in her hair. "I just don't want you two to get hurt."

"This concerns my world as much as yours," Kayura said, drawing attention to her. "Anubis will go in my stead."

Anubis looked very much like he wished he and Rajura had traded places. He kept quiet, however, for all his sulking. Michiru nodded. "Very well. I trust you, Anubis."

The words made him uncomfortable. He glanced away, saying nothing, but he bowed his head. For the Senshi of Neptune, whose cold person Rajura had expressed his concerns about, to freely admit that she had faith in him... Kayura, however, looked satisfied. "How long will this journey take?"

"To you? Seconds," Setsuna said. The Garnet Rod appeared in her hands. "For us, I suppose it depends on how cooperative everyone is."

Hotaru stood up straight. The Silence Glaive appeared once more. Twice in one day, she thought as her gaze flicked to Anubis. He met her gaze evenly, and she found herself embarrassed for thinking about the conversation she had with Kayura earlier. Stupid teenager problems, she thought.

"Your friends will have to stay," Setsuna said, giving the wolves a pointed glance. Kayura quickly ushered the wolves to her side. Anubis fought against a sigh, placing his helmet on his head. Setsuna nodded before holding her staff into the air. The Garnet Orb pulsed with a dark light.

And they were gone. Then, true to Setsuna's words, they reappeared mere seconds later—with evidence that something had gone terribly wrong. Anubis, his armor charred, was carrying an unconscious Hotaru in his arms. He staggered to his knees, but he kept his grip firmly on her. Setsuna, beside them, planted the Garnet Rod into the ground, leaning on it to catch her breath. She was openly bleeding from a wound on her abdomen—the same wound, Michiru noted, that she had sustained in the battle against Death Phantom.

Kayura gave a shout, starting forward, but Haruka reached the group first. The blonde reached for Hotaru, but Anubis shook his head. Haruka then saw that Hotaru's hand was pressed against Anubis's chest. There was a faint, black glow—one that made her cold just looking at it. "What—"

"She's drawing on my powers to heal herself." Anubis covered Hotaru's hand with his own armored one. His wolves soon were by his side, licking at Hotaru's face. Haruka then saw that there was a large gash across her chest.

"What," Haruka repeated faintly, sitting back. The worry was evident on her face; she was chewing on her lip, feeling absolutely useless. "What do you mean?"

Anubis remained silent as he allowed Kayura to remove his helmet, revealing the wound that matted his hair with blood. His armor slowly faded to his sub-armor. Kayura gingerly touched his wound, frowning when he hissed in pain. "Oh, Anubis..."

"What happened?" Michiru asked, meeting Setsuna's gaze. Setsuna shook her head, her fists clenched. The small gesture was unusual on the normally cool Senshi.

"Empress, you need to take up your role as Kaos's heir," Setsuna chose to say, glancing at Kayura. The girl's expression became burdened, but she nodded nonetheless.

"Setsuna," Michiru said. "What is going on?"

"Contact Helios immediately," Setsuna finally responded after a long moment of silence. In Anubis's arms, Hotaru suddenly lurched with pain; he continued to hold her as Haruka smoothed her hair down. Kayura, not knowing what else to do, placed her hand on Anubis's shoulder in an attempt to transfer some of her own energy to him. With her free arm, she embraced one of the wolves.

Michiru pulled out the Deep Aqua Mirror. Helios answered at once; his graceful features were knotted with worry. "Neptune."

"High Priest." Although she seemed composed, Michiru couldn't fight against the anxiety that buried deep in her stomach. She cast a glance back at Hotaru, whose wounds seemed to be healing too slowly.

"Helios," Setsuna said, moving so that she could see him. Michiru noted that her sister senshi was limping. Just what on earth had happened?

"You visited Hell," Helios said, almost breathless. He shook his head. "How—"

"Prepare yourself." Setsuna cut him off. Her gaze was troubled. "We may be at war."


an so this chapter with the outers sort of leads into the plot of the (planned) sequel... setsuna, hotaru and anubis in hell? wow i wonder what kind of trouble they accidentally released!

shin and touma's scene omg i didn't know how to write it bc it's shin and touma! hopefully it wasn't too out of character; i mean, these guys have been to the end of the world and back for each other, and while i do doubt that they would let a girl get in-between them... it's touma and he's kind of an idiot (for all his wonderful smarts). he's actually the only trooper that i could see doing something like this; shuu and ryo too bromancey, seiji too scared of girlies, and shin too shin. so yes! i hope that wasn't disappointing or weird to read; i tried to write it in a way that was still in character, so hopefully it came across as so. constructive criticism very much welcome hahahahaha ;;

as always, thank you for reading!