Panchali

I want to satisfy the undisclosed desires in your heart.

-Muse, Undisclosed Desires

Rei does not know when, exactly, her dreams turned to discontent.

She supposes it's the luxury of every woman in love a little too long, who rests her head on the same chest every night. To put another man's face to her lover's, to imagine a less familiar footfall at her doorstep.

And Rei has more justification than most, that her eye strays from time to time. She sees what everyone does, of course. Five men who walk like god-kings, stride spanning oceans, eyes encompassing Earth's sky and turf in all their changing complexity. They command universal devotion. The Senshi who have stood between the blue planet and the end so many times are worshiped, as their Queen is worshiped, but the Shitennou and their King are loved as Earth's own.

Indeed, she sees much to admire in these men. And privy as she is to their closest counsel, it's natural that she grows as fond of them as her King. But as the years become decades became centuries, and she fights and swims and drinks beside them, gradually, Rei sees more than she should, and wishes sometimes that she'd stayed far, far away from Earth's rightful guardians when she first met them thousands of years past.

Summer breathes her last as Rei observes the sparkling dusk with Nephrite, both quiet in its purple majesty. Papery oak leaves crunch under their feet, and above, Sagittarius draws back his starry bowstring and lets his brightest arrow fly.

"I wonder, sometimes, that she and I both are ruled by the great archer, and you by the martial god," he comments, and Rei hears the piqued curiosity in his words, this man who's always held in his callused fingers a savage spear, a scarred battleaxe.

Stepping closer, she nudges Nephrite's left foot forward with her own and lifts his elbow. Her great, unbending bow flames into life in his hands, and he recoils a bit, startled but unburnt.

"Like this," Mars tells him, briskly, and Nephrite's face splits into a roguish grin.

Rei is a miko no longer, but the shrine is so beautiful at this time of year…it calls to her, to her old home. She tugs futilely at the highest, heaviest bough, before a quick, long-fingered hand closes over hers and helps to pull its weight down. Rei looks on, utterly fascinated, as the shy buds tremble at his touch, unfurling tentatively at first, then blooming rapidly into creamy, flushed splendor.

She thinks that they rival the shade of Ami's cheek, but only just.

Rei holds the branch steady as the copper-curled general efficiently plucks its length clean, and shakes her head no when he deposits hundreds of cherry blossoms in the overburdened folds of her robes.

"At least take some for her!"

"They look better on their mistress," he returns archly, tucking one blushing flower behind her ear. "And she…" Zoisite smiles, leaf-green irises faraway. "She needs no…decoration."

"I want you to perform the ceremony for Small Lady."

"Me?" Brisk footsteps echo down the long, crystalline hallway, then suddenly halt. "No…Helios has always been the priest of your house." Endymion's ageless eyes darken at her mention of the young cleric's name, and Mars bites her lip on a smile. "It wouldn't be right – "

"I want you," her King interrupts her, sounding strained. "Helios is still just a boy. Sere – Usagi trusts you." He takes her shoulders, midnight stare boring into twilight. "I…I trust you, Rei."

"Then I will do it," she answers him simply.

A beat, a stillness. Mars pulls his hands off her shoulders, and takes them in her own smaller ones.

"They're only children, you know. It'll be a long time yet before he steals her heart."

"It had better be," and then their footsteps resume.

It happens again. Venus flings out her molten chain, too bright and fast for them to clearly perceive, and somehow, Jadeite closes his hands around it. Yanks Venus close, and once she's in grappling range, it's over, his blond head bent over hers. Rei laughs, a little disloyally, at her leader's scrunched-up expression. She laughs harder when Jadeite is delivered a kick that hurls him airborne, connects him solidly with concrete. "They are so very alike, " she manages between uncharacteristic, husky giggles.

Kunzite smiles, but his eyes remain on the arena below them, on the glittering valkyrie. Rei's gaze, too, helplessly follows the golden general as he winks in and out of existence, portals shimmering in the air. They're powerless to look elsewhere.

"As are you and I," the mightiest of the Shitennou finally answers her, and they watch as the twin suns before them eclipse the one above them.

Rei knows to expect him – but irritatingly, not precisely when. Wanting to appear terribly busy at his arrival, instead, she sits in her garden, contemplating nothing and everything, when sunshine gleams in a corner of her vision. "Always. Always you surprise me."

"I should know better by now, than to dare and surprise the Oracle." Jadeite speaks her first and most royal title, lost to ages past, before those of guardian and seer supplanted it.

"I didn't expect you – "

"Then your Fire has failed you, miko," and Rei remembers a demon who shadowed her a lifetime ago, laughed to know her human name, took it with him to his frozen slumber. Though she's not a miko anymore, his warm tenor holds that same laughter, and she grows more agitated.

"I meant – I didn't expect you – " she curses her tied tongue, " – you are early."

Jadeite kneels before Rei and takes her face into his hands. "No," he says, the Fire's blue heart in his eyes, burning away the millennia between them. "I'm far too late."

The general's voice cracks. "But you will forgive me. You always have," and his palms on her cheeks are suffused with hot tears.

Rei wonders if it is certainty itself that drives her to wild thoughts.

Her flames have always shared their auguries with her, and in all three of her lifetimes, she has known that Jadeite will come for her – either as friend or foe, but her soulmate nonetheless. There'd been no flirtation for her, no suitors, never a liaison, no one to rival the golden general she'd seen smiling in her Fire. In every incarnation, she'd forsworn all lovers, dismissed any troth – known it was silly to tease herself with distractions if she could not have him.

Her sisters have all wished (Usagi), waited (Makoto), worried (Ami), wanted (Minako)…but Rei has always waded the rivers of the future with implacable sureness. The Fire Senshi envies other women their wistful uncertainty, and wishes she could, even briefly, not know what was to be.

A little more patient in immortality (but not much), she has finally been granted him in this third life, and Rei knows she could love – really love – no other. She can't imagine another man to understand her subtleties as he does, and she loves and guards his mercurial, open heart with equal ferocity. And yet, Mars still jealously keeps his priestess for his own. They do not marry; Rei can't shake her diffidence toward the institution, and Jadeite never speaks of it. Her feeling for him is constant enough, a living and growing thing in her chest, and Jadeite's return brings her fierce, astonishing joy that she had not thought to possess. But still, as the years of her long life loom before her, niggling doubts touch her from time to time, and make her wonder what it might be like to anticipate the unknown, to desire another, even for a day.

And her traitorous heart only wants the best, the kings and keepers of Earth, among whom her own lover walks. It's infrequent, but sometimes she can't brave her fellow Senshi, plagued by her dreams – Nephrite's shadow, Zoisite's knuckles touching her own. The deepening stare of her King, and a breeze playing in Kunzite's pale hair. Rei loves them dearly – her beloved sisters' chosen companions, and more than that, her own close friends. The idea of acting on her frivolous, wayward imaginings never even crosses her loyal mind. But she can't help but ponder occasionally what it would be like, just to be free from fate, to choose one of them for her own.

It starts when Zoisite walks in on her bathing. Rei glances up disinterestedly and nearly shrieks when she sees the back of his reddish head where she expected cropped blond curls. As he works off his shirt, the lean muscles of his back twist and bulk under his skin, acquiring their familiar tan. Glistening dragonwings etch scales into his shoulders, the mark of the Far Eastern ruler, and Jadeite turns around. His customary quirk of the lip fades when he sees Rei so visibly shaken.

"Some warning would be nice," she manages. "Uh, why…?"

"Zoi needed to get out of a conference, and I owed him one," the Shitennou's master illusionist answers her casually. "I'm sure he'd love to see you naked, but not so badly that he'd risk incineration."

Rei scowls and turns her dark head away. "I know that."

"Wishful thinking, maybe," Jadeite teases, and she grabs a towel and stalks out of the bathroom, dripping as she goes. His watchful eyes follow Rei's hasty exit.

He's shifting more often than not these days. With the global summit in high gear, there are hundreds of state functions and forums to attend. Jadeite frequently serves as his King's double for security purposes. As sovereign of the Far East, Crystal Tokyo technically falls under his dominion, so luckily, Jadeite shares enough common ground with Endymion to speak for him with convincing ease. Unexpectedly, though, he also steps in for Kunzite and Nephrite, while they quash drug-fuelled turf wars in Algiers – thirteen tons of Colombian cocaine seized so far, and counting. The public never questions Jadeite's frequent absences from negotiations, as Mars ably represents his interests, and Phobos and Deimos manage hers.

In the past, Jadeite always unshifted before seeing her, but either his tight schedule or sheer laziness prevents him now. Between talks, she's unnerved to feel Nephrite's big hand cupping her ass, find herself alone in a hallway with Kunzite's steely scrutiny molten-hot on her. Endymion corners her backstage after she leads a televised prayer for the lives lost in Algiers. His teeth are sharp on her earlobe, fingers trailing the velveted column of her throat.

"Stop it, Jade," Mars hisses, even as her eyelids slide shut, unthinkingly.

"You know I can't, I'm up next," Jadeite murmurs against her hair, blunt nails raising goosebumps beneath her loose state robes, growing hardness evident against her stomach. He presses a quick, hard kiss to her temple before striding into the spotlight, cape subtly draped to cover his front.

Mars stands in the dark, Endymion's wooded fragrance flaring her nostrils, stomach clenching unwillingly with desire. Is it so wrong to be curious?

By the end of the week, Rei knows Jadeite is doing it on purpose. He's barely Jadeite at all, and neither laziness nor business explains his constant shifting. At the end of every day, a different man collapses in her bed, and before Rei has a chance to speak, a flaxen-curled, smiling-lipped angel takes his place. She wants to ask why, but is afraid that Jadeite might, in turn, ask why her look – as his disguise crosses their bedroom – is one of anticipation and not vociferous objection. So Rei says nothing, and merely turns over and lets sleep and disloyal dreams take her. Her reticence is her undoing, because Jadeite has never known his lover to be so silent. So he pushes her harder.

A few mornings later, Rei meditates, begs the Fire to tell her where the end to these hopeless fantasies lies. She loves him more than she thought possible, so why do others still intrigue her? Why can she not be satisfied with her happiness? As always, when she asks the Fire about him, it shows her nothing but his laughter. Rei can see nothing of her lover's intentions, only his presence, as everlasting as the sun. It is here that Kunzite finds her, lifts her against the granite length of him, coaxes her mouth open with unfamiliar, unyielding lips. Half-entranced by the Fire still, Rei responds, pushing her tongue boldly past his teeth, crushing her body to his before her wits retake her.

She flings herself away and wipes her lips with the back of her hand.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" she rages.

"I didn't see you complaining," Jadeite replies, folding his massive arms.

"Because I thought it was – I thought – " Rei stops, unable to complete the lie. Had she known on some intellectual level that it was Jadeite, cloaked in his leader's shape? Yes. Had she reacted viscerally to Kunzite's kiss? Yes, and the wrongness of it brings tears to her eyes.

"Hey." He strides forward, vestiges of the Middle Eastern king melting away. Jadeite tilts her jaw up. "Don't ever turn away from me. Not in shame."

"I am ashamed," Rei wrenches herself away. "Jade, please, I…"

"I mean it. Look at me." She does, reluctantly, and meets his clear-sky gaze, steady on hers. "It's a fantasy. Nothing more."

"It's more than a fantasy when – when I act on it," Rei whispers savagely.

"You knew it was me. You have a mind and a body, Rei. Sometimes they want different things." She doesn't say anything, and Jadeite continues.

"Everyone thinks about what could have been. We all want that excitement – you know, the unfamiliarity, the chase. Your sisters had a chance at that before we arrived, but you…you saw me coming." He sees that he's echoed Rei's thoughts, re-echoed by her stricken expression. "I know you've never strayed, not even when all you had of me was a vision. It's not wrong to…to wonder."

"But." Rei squeezes her eyes shut, trying to take in what he's said. "But…I love you."

"Don't you think I know it?" Jadeite chuckles, but Zoisite's sensitive fingertips brush the wetness from her eyelashes. "We have eternity. We have to keep things interesting somehow."

"Interesting?" she asks thickly, and hears the odd note her lover strikes, coalescing into the younger European king's.

"I can never deny you anything, Rei. And you know…I'm sure we all of us have...undisclosed desires."

Rei feels Zoisite's palm round her nape; they stand utterly still, seemingly hypnotized by their own precipitous silence. Only the loud beeps of their communicators stir them, and Jupiter demanding their presence forty minutes before the border control talks commence.

Later that night, Rei kicks off her painful shoes with gusto. She still has questions. "How does it not bother you? At all?"

"Explain how it's so different from, say, me dressing you up as a schoolgirl and fucking the living daylights out of you? Hypothetically, I mean."

She does not blush, and continues to strip in the privacy of her large closet. "This isn't make-believe. The King…his generals…they're your friends."

"Does a Senshi have any other equal? Of course they're my friends."

A new, horrifying thought occurs to Rei. She steps outside, and meets with coffee-colored irises and curls in the mirror. "You haven't – have you felt like this?"

"Jealous?"

Now she blushes, fully aware of her hypocrisy, and fiddles with her signet ring, the seal of Mars. "Yes."

"I never wanted any of your sisters, no. But I was no choirboy before I met you. You know that. I got this out of my system a long time ago, Rei." His glance flickers to her white fingers, bare but for her planetary sigil. "I'm all yours."

There is a brief pause, and then he continues, a touch hurriedly. "You would be surprised what your fellow Senshi get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms." A grin. "I haven't mastered teleportation for nothing. Those portals can land you in the most interesting of circumstances if you're not careful."

Rei opens her mouth again, and Nephrite's callused fingers press to her lips. "Shhh. We have an early day tomorrow. Neph's speaking all day, and you have a joint resolution with him – well, me – at noon. Let's get some rest."

They don't speak of it the next day, or the next. Mars knows he's thinking about it, though, because she thinks of nothing else. The challenge of it, the strangeness, the irresistibility. When she lifts her glass to her lips at the closing fête, she finds Jadeite watching her over its rim, his stare like Jupiter's blue lightning. Mars drinks faster, refills unhesitantly, and sees him do the same with his brothers. Having successfully seized several Colombian cartel lords and their Algerian runners, the newly returned Nephrite and Kunzite – especially the former – swig their fair share of liquor. The King joins his Shitennou in celebrating the end of long, exhausting days spent in the spotlight.

But Mars has eyes for nobody but the golden general, which she finds ironic given the peculiar trajectory she knows this warm, capricious night will take.

"Someone's hungry," a familiar voice observes amusedly. Venus joins her, skirts parting fluidly above her lithe thighs as she moves. Mars blinks twice rapidly, the only indication that she's caught off guard. "What?"

"I just rescued the last of the cake from Usagi, before she threw up on the Indian emissary," the blonde's blithe words hold no guile, but Mars still looks at her carefully. Seeing her second's wariness, Venus gives it up.

"I don't think you'll let me rescue Jade from you, though," she nearly sings, "so you'll have to satisfy that…craving in private. Good night!"

She indulgently kisses the tip of Mars's nose and breezes away, leaving an air of lushly white flowers and perhaps too much champagne. Mars briefly glimpses the Holy Blade – temporarily magicked into a dagger, riding Venus's uppermost thigh – and smiles.

A tall, hard body pulls her into its length, into shadow, and Mars yelps at being startled twice in as many minutes before his mouth descends on hers. Jadeite braces his right hand on the pillar behind her and lifts her chin with his left; his weight crowds her into the cool marble and they feel unnatural heat spring between them. Mars fumbles vainly with his ceremonial armor, but her fingernails only scratch the flimsy silver plate, and she hisses irritably against his teeth.

Jadeite lifts his face from hers, and his thumb caresses her bruised lips. "Let's go."

An already dreamlike night is made moreso by far too much drink, but who knows if they would have found their courage without? Almost before Jadeite kicks the door shut, Rei slams him into the wall and accidentally hits the lights. It doesn't matter; she runs her palms over a visage more finely carved than the one she knows, sees the armored glint of a fully pierced ear, silvered like the crescent moon outside. Zoisite's exquisitely long fingers find purchase between the folds of her diaphanous gown. She pants harshly as her thighs grow slippery. The curls twined mercilessly in her grip, though, become long and dark. Rei has to tilt her head almost all the way back to receive Nephrite's hungry kiss. He folds her close, and she enjoys the pliant give of her breasts, puckering nipples to raised scars crossing his chest and stomach.

Kunzite makes short work of her gown; its unwearable shreds are tossed in some corner. He buoys Rei up easily, wraps her bared legs around his powerful torso, carries her to their – their bed. A tendril of unease coils Rei's belly tight, but she reaches for him anyway, smoothing the hard planes of his back and behind, skin and play of muscle beneath like sun-warmed stone. His lips feel a touch softer than she remembers from their first encounter; Rei leans back, black eyelashes fluttering against black. She sees Earth's first, infant sky and final firmament in her King's deathless sight.

Her hands fall limply from his shoulders, but Endymion does not appear to notice, positioning himself between her spread thighs. He traces her lightly from vee to knee, preparing himself, and Rei finally speaks.

"Come back," she gasps.

He pauses, and the bleeding, shifting green-brown-gray-blue of his irises renders them utterly inscrutable.

"Just you," Rei pleads. For a moment, she's not sure he hears her, and then –

"As you wish," Jadeite tells her, features blurring, forming a shape of familiar and infinite tenderness. Rei leans over to switch on the bedside lamp, wanting to see more of his face than moonlight can tell. Just as she twists onto her stomach, Jadeite abruptly grasps her hips and pulls up so her bottom is pressed against his arousal.

"Jade – " she half-giggles throatily before he breaks it off with a demanding kiss, locking his forearm over her head to turn her to him. Rei feels him between her thighs, taunting her slick need, and pushes back forcefully, but Jadeite moves with her, elusive. Frustrated, she reaches behind her. Sinks her sharp nails into the tight muscles of his rear, feels their points break the surface as she snarls inside his mouth – and it's inside his mouth where Rei shrieks when Jadeite rams himself into her with enough force to raise her knees cleanly off the bed.

He tosses her up and brings her down hard, filling her completely with him; perspiration waterfalls between the delineations of Jadeite's abdomen, matting Rei's loose strands until he finally loops them into a handful, levers her rise and fall with his grip. She doesn't even register the pinpricks in her scalp.

"More," Rei demands shakily, shoulderblades sliding wetly against his chest. She maintains her reversed embrace, hands behind her and grabbing at his ass, the backs of his thighs, anything to increase his speed, take him deeper. Her breath comes rattling between her teeth. "Ho – hold me down – and fuck me."

Jadeite complies, now using his fistful of Rei's hair to pinion her to him. The back of her skull presses insistently against his collarbone as he drives into her again and again. His other hand is everywhere, crushing greedy handfuls of her breasts, palming roughly between her legs, but she stays exactly where she is, bearing down to increase the angle of depth while he fucks her totally senseless.

Light stubble abrades the moist shell of her ear. "How does it feel?"

It's a test. Rei is rarely capable of speech when she's close. She thinks she's going to fail this time too, but… "It – it feels – "

Jadeite pushes her forward, and her back separates from his front with a humid, thick sound. Now Rei feels it, that languorous, mad, golden honey that slows the rush in her veins, slows time, fills her mouth and eyes so she can't speak or see. Jadeite takes her sudden, helpless muteness for what it is and slams into her so hard and fast, Rei has to put her hands on the wall so her forehead doesn't crack into it first. And then she flies apart – so rapidly and violently that it actually hurts – screams something long and lewd up into their vaulted ceiling, and hears it reverberate back down.

"Good," her lover finishes for her, ribcage expanding and contracting violently, as he buries himself in her for the last time, hot rush inside her making Rei jerk involuntarily against his hips. "It feels good," Jadeite growls low into her hair, and then she's free of his weight.

She wants to drag him to her, ease his sweaty halo onto her chest, but he's already risen from their damp, fluid-marked blankets. Rei blinks blearily at his silhouette in the shower, puzzled, but wine and weariness lull her to sleep before Jadeite returns. The last itinerant musing before slumber takes her – even as he brought her to ecstasy, her lover never let her see what she craved most – his own face.

Someone had taken a hammer to her sleeping head. Rei unseals one soot-lashed eyelid, winces, and forces the other open as well. Alcohol never treats her very kindly in the morning, a hard fact easily forgotten many nights before. She moans and rolls over, encountering rumpled sheets instead of sleep-warm skin. The events of the night prior rush back into her throbbing skull, and Rei sits up straight.

She finds him in his office, two hologrammed lieutenants saluting Jadeite snappily as he issues a stream of orders. Rei hangs back by the door, but they see her and immediately nod in respectful unison. Jadeite glances at her, but does not pause in his instructions to the young officers.

"Get back to me when you have real news. I don't want to hear about small-time smugglers crossing our borders. Find me the kingpin, gentlemen."

"My lord," they respond simultaneously, and then, "Lady." Their holograms vanish, leaving a silence that neither Rei nor Jadeite have ever known to be awkward before.

He smiles at her, but no mirth reaches his veiled eyes. "Good morning."

Rei knows he is mocking her; she always rises before he.

"I feel like shit," she says plainly, as is her way.

Jadeite's tone is neutral. "Do you?"

Before Rei can respond, he bends his lion's head, busies himself with the reports spread before him. Too stung by his dismissal to retort sharply, she backs out of his office, mind whirling too fast for her to keep apace.

Things only grow worse. At first it's petty, trivial – both of them irrationally upset and trying to conceal anger they know to be indefensible. They are both adults after all, and they have done something, something with consequences. But it's easier to feign normalcy, and failing that, to jibe and eventually snipe at each other with a touch more venom than wonted – eyes flashing, teeth bared – when their pretense thins. When Rei loses her temper first, as she always does, Jadeite falls back victoriously and does not speak to her again. He knows how to push her hard, and pull away just when she falls and grasps at his anchor. Jadeite has always known, and she has always forgiven him, loved him perversely more for knowing how to best hurt her – her, fearsome, born of fire with no discernible weakness. Rei always forgives, but not now.

She wonders, somewhat viciously, if this is the beginning of the end. The slow, inevitable slide toward losing him in this lifetime as Rei has in every other. Once, it had come in an explosion like a great human pyre, light and dancing sparks falling away to reveal blood-clumped ashes and bones soft as charcoal. Once, it had come in the swiftest, coldest sleep, filled with nightmares unshakable in their crystalline grip. Rei thinks this protracted, painful end might be the worst of all, to have held him and loved him and ultimately lost him again. But perhaps they had both played their hands too well, and the game had grown beyond their reckoning. They flounder in its wake, unsure of what rules bind them now.

Trying to track down Ami – she's just heard they're abruptly being dispatched back to Algiers – Rei passes the arena and catches a familiar flash of yellow. She pauses to watch him wrestle with Nephrite, both bare-chested and slicked wet. Jadeite is angry, but there's not another soul in the universe who would know it, save for her. Only a strange set to his chiseled jaw gives him away, an unnatural speed and savagery to his attack. Rei nearly cries out in warning as he aims a nasty kick to Nephrite's jaw, but the taller man ducks it at the last second, and swipes a towel off the floor as he does. He throws another to Jadeite, and without words, they both automatically relax. They grunt something at each other – Rei can't hear what – and Nephrite makes for the entrance. Seeing her, he grins broadly despite the perspiration undoubtedly blurring his vision.

"C'mon, get out those boxing gloves. I know you want a piece of this."

"Not so much," Rei smiles, and is surprised that it feels genuine. Friendly, and without the slightest twinge of fascination. She has not smiled in days. "You smell like warm piss, Neph. Another time."

"Pussy," Nephrite returns with equanimity. He ruffles her hair with a sweaty palm as he passes, and Rei can't suppress a feminine shudder at its unmistakably moist weight. She descends the stairs to the floor. Jadeite steps into her immediate line of sight, and she swallows at his unreadable countenance. They are alone, but conversations leak audibly from the hallway above, and make them cautious with what they say.

Rei wastes no time. "Are we okay?"

The illusionist's face is the furthest thing from expressive. "You have to ask?"

"I don't want to play games," she says sharply.

Something flickers in his eyes. "Have you tired of them, then?"

"Damn it, Jade!" Her shout bounces off the high crystal ceiling and eerily back down again. "Do you want to end this or not?"

Jadeite says nothing, but what flickered in his eyes now leaps, and she feels a knife, silvertipped between her ribs.

She steps closer. "Please," Rei says in a sound nobody else hears, and his shoulders sag.

"I gave you what you asked for, Rei," he exhales wearily. "What more do you want from me?"

"What I asked for?" she whispers. "You were there too, Jade. You pushed us to this."

"Because you wanted – "

"I wanted." Rei holds his gaze, but just barely. "I did. But – but you told me not to be ashamed. That it wasn't wrong – that it was just a fantasy."

Jadeite's eyelids fall shut for a brief, hurtful second, and she can no longer read their fire. "I…it doesn't feel like just a fantasy anymore."

Above the arena, officials and servants alike murmur as they pass by, go about their daily business. Below, that knife slides cleanly up her windpipe and forces speech out.

"You can't say that," Rei chokes out against its blade. "You can't take it back – you told me – "

"I know what I fucking told you!" Jadeite explodes furiously. "I didn't expect it to feel like this after!" He strides forward and grabs her arms. "I thought – I thought I'd share you with your dream. Just for one night. And now…"

"And now?" she breathes.

"Your dream follows me when I wake." His tone is flat. "Will I ever be enough for you, now? Just me? Maybe there's a reason fate kept us apart – maybe forever is too long for us."

"No." Rei can barely speak past the stabbing hurt in her chest. "No, don't – "

He cuts her off, seemingly lost to his contemplation of a point above her head. "You're all I've wanted for so long," Jadeite muses. "I thought if I gave you everything you wished for, I would finally win you."

"Win me? How can you think – you have me, Jade – "

"But in giving you everything…it feels as though I've lost you. To an illusion." Jadeite looks down at Rei as if for the first time. "To myself."

His hands skim up her neck, thumbs tracing circles around her high cheekbones. Rei leans into his touch, willing her tears to dry where they shiver fluidly against her wide, unblinking irises.

"You said something else," and her own coherence surprises her. "You said we…all of us…have undisclosed desires. What…what is yours?"

Jadeite stares at her for a moment, as though he does not understand her question. And then, he brings her near, speaks against her furrowed brow.

"Just you."

Rei had expected to feel shame and regret where her sister Senshi and Queen were concerned, but instead she feels only relief. Her longing – no more than an insubstantial thought, one that she had not borne out to completion. Once Jadeite gave her wish substance, confronted her with his flesh-and-blood answer to her curiosity, she'd found it fled, replaced by an overwhelming desire for his familiar touch. And he was right all along – it had really never been about some secret ardor for her King and his guardians. They had merely given powerful voice to Rei's craving for the unexpected, for the forked path, for choices equal to her stature. There is nothing in these other men to attract her, as great as they are. She knows now that she is not in danger of betraying her sisters or her lover.

He was right. But of course, Jadeite always had surprised her.

Jadeite had heard her unspoken need, pushed her to speak it, made it his own and delivered it. He had been the architect, but she had been the dreamer, and neither of them had thought through the consequences of creating her fantasy.

If Rei now feels shame or regret, it is for letting her lover pain himself so deeply to please her, for infecting him with her own insidious restlessness. Maybe her temptation had been truly wrong, maybe it had only been natural, maybe both – but should they have manipulated his magic to bring it to vigorous life? Tested their limits, only to lick their wounds when they inevitably crossed them? Rei does not know if his doubts surfaced before their strange night together – she doesn't think Jadeite capable of hiding his feelings from her so effectively, but then, he is the master of disguises – or if he'd only suffered in the harsh morning light, after everything that had passed between them. It doesn't matter; she was and is the cause.

Makoto ushers her into her living room without a word, taking Rei's hand in her own warm one and leading her to an overstuffed loveseat. The familiar smells of peppery olive oil and dried roses comfort her, allow her to take small sips of the chardonnay Makoto offers. It tastes like dishwater to Rei, and the redhead watches her closely. But she patiently waits for her friend to speak first, a consideration for which Rei is grateful, and probably has never offered anyone herself. It is why she comes to Makoto, and not any of the others.

She cannot tell Minako, her closest sister. Rei doesn't want the counsel of one nearly as impatient and headstrong as herself, for whom the Shitennou's commander holds such gripping mesmerism, the violent push and pull of magnet to metal. Nor does Rei desire Ami's advice; she suspects the Ice Senshi is as vulnerable to logical hesitation as she is to her own spiritual dubiety, though their insecurities manifest themselves differently. Despite – perhaps, because of – their newfound happiness, neither the mythical guardians of love nor wisdom have really gotten used to finding equals to share their lives with, where they had expected eternal solitude. Usagi? No, love has always come easily to her optimistic Queen, in every life, she thinks fondly, and Rei would not wish it any other way. All the same, it means that Usagi could never understand.

And so, she seeks out someone who has awaited and received love patiently, unwaveringly, in a way that Rei can't seem to manage herself, despite millennia spent trying. Makoto never had doubts; she welcomed her beloved from ages past without indecision or interruption. If anyone could teach Rei steadfastness, it is the Senshi as enduring as the forest whose name she bears.

"I think you need something stronger," Makoto's unasked question gradually filters through her reverie. Her hostess fetches her a vodka on the rocks, and loosens her reticent friend's tongue.

Rei tells her. Not everything, of course – just that she and Jadeite had gotten caught up in her trivial fantasy, taken a harmless erotic charade too far. Not that she had looked into her King's midnight gaze and longed for midday sky – only that nothing had been the same between them since she'd introduced unnamed others into their bed.

She's not shy in the least about sex – many years and many stiff drinks with her fellow Senshi have cured even Ami (well, almost) of coyness – but Rei is glad she's sharing with Makoto, and not Minako or Usagi, both of whom might have been so spoiled for choice of which giggling innuendo to drop that they'd devolve into total incoherence. Even Makoto can't resist, a wicked spark to her bottle-glass irises as she tries to imagine just whose body Jadeite might have inhabited that night, other than the Fire Senshi's, of course.

"Kinky. I'm almost jealous. The stars knowing everything…" she shrugs dismissively. "Not many bedroom perks to that, I'm afraid."

"Knowing everything. I wouldn't wish that cross on anyone else."

Makoto sobers immediately. "I know you've felt…trapped…sometimes…"

"Not by him – never." Rei edgily twists her signet ring round her finger. The seal of Mars has represented the same vow in all of her incarnations – her promise to her sacred flames, to take no other master. "And anyway, the only thing the Fire's ever really known about him is the easiest – that he'd come. I just wanted – I don't know. Something out of the ordinary. Something I couldn't predict."

"Neph says the same thing," Makoto muses, smiling in apparent spite of her friend's predicament. "That divining the stars makes him restless."

Rei snorts inelegantly. "No, he says you're the only thing he's sure of, because the stars never know what batshit thing you'll do next."

Makoto turns that forested, knowing look on her, and Rei meets it squarely. "Don't say it. I know it now," and her words sound quietly in a quiet room. "That no Fire or stars can tell us anything about people we love. They'll always surprise us, no matter how well we know the future. No matter how well we know them. But I never really pictured being happy with someone, forever – I took oaths to escape marriage, not enter it."

"But you still took Jade for a lover, even when your duty strictly demanded chastity. And now you push him away, too? Where is this road going to lead you?"

Rei stops short of replying, because it sounds so stark coming from her friend, but it's true. She's never given herself wholly to anyone or anything. What kind of sickness makes her wander forever, without a home?

She tries for nonchalance, but acid burns through instead, a caustic drip of conjecture. "I always saw him coming, but I never saw myself coping. Maybe that's why it's ending like this – maybe that's why I command flames, Mako. Because everything I hold onto – everything I touch turns to ashes."

"No," Makoto's voice is almost too gentle. "That's not how it works, Rei. You see things we don't, but the Fire only purges lies, disguises, deceptions. You, of all people, should know what the king of illusions wants."

"In the end, I only wanted him, too," Rei murmurs in sudden understanding. "Just him."

"You have to give something to get something."

"I've never known how to do that," she points out the obvious, dryly.

"Then learn." The tallest Senshi picks up their empty glasses. "I'm no Oracle, but there's no future for you both – if you can't learn to give more, and he can't learn to give less."

Jadeite had never been a hot-tempered or possessive man – but then, she had never given him cause. Now, Rei can see that he fears losing her – not really to any of his brothers, he's too arrogant for that particular insecurity – but to something more spectral. To a need for change and chance that he believes he can never satisfy, not with the steadiness of immortality stretching before them. If Rei was not so distraught, she would laugh at the irony of his misgivings – the famously unwed priestess, restless for amorous adventure, and the inveterate playboy of the Silver Millennium, seeking her hand above all others. But she cannot laugh, because she no longer wants anything more than to give Jadeite her hand. If the Fire had never spoken to her, and she'd had the freedom to decide, she would have chosen him. Forever. And now Rei fears that he does not trust her love, that he will not accept it – just when she understands herself able to unreservedly give it.

This is what it should be, and it took me three lifetimes to learn it, Rei thinks wonderingly. We loved…but did we ever love rightly?

The King is scheduled to join them in Algiers, but Small Lady has a fever and – true to pampered form – bawls incessantly at any healer but her father. A softhearted Queen sends Jadeite instead, leaving Endymion captive by his daughter's bedside. She's going to eat Mamoru alive, Mars thinks wryly of the precocious little girl. And of course, this isn't the first time an "illness" has kept either Endymion or Serenity from events of state. It's probably for the best, though, because this is a modest occasion, not really meriting the King's presence, and the city's situation is still too precarious for her comfort. In fact, Mars is certain that Jadeite himself told Endymion to stay back for this very reason.

They haven't spoken since their fight in the arena, and neither knows how to start now, so she and the illusionist (already masked as his King) make themselves the busiest of all, going over speeches, speaking with local staffers. The Senshi and Shitennou have been dispatched to Algiers to cut the inaugural ribbon for Batal Memorial Hospital, built to house and honor victims of the city's recent and grisly struggle. As royal physician and high priestess, respectively, Mercury and Mars lend credibility and solemnity to the proceedings. Kunzite joins them, so that the people of Algiers may see their own sovereign, and Jadeite, so that they might be honored by an even loftier title. Venus rounds out the quintet, stopping here before another speaking engagement takes her up to London, where she's still popular for her teenage heroics. All in all, it's an unneeded number of royals for so small a function, and Mars wishes she could be back in Crystal Tokyo, where their best men are hunting more of those Colombian sons of bitches who raised so much hell here in Algiers.

Although much of Algiers is rubble, slow to recover from the Great Freeze and recently, successive bomb blasts – Mars can see why it was once called La Blanche, blinding-white spires jutting from the bluest sea she has ever seen. It reminds her of his flashing teeth and eyes, and already she likes the troubled city a bit more because of it. Like him nowadays, it also makes her a little wary, and she covertly surveys the crowd when Kunzite and Jadeite – as Endymion – ascend the stage.

They are a striking pair, like moonlight and shadow, and their audience swiftly falls silent. The one who the Algerians call, rather appropriately, Malik il-Abyad, the White Lord – appears forbidding behind the podium, never fond of his public duty. Mars is glad Venus stands by the steps, her incandescent smiles tossed like pearls, instantly charming all observers.

"Yesterday, we suffered with you in darkness," Jadeite begins, "and today, we rejoice as the dust clears. Today, the White City meets the sun and sea again…today, we celebrate!" The last is a shout. Spectators, mostly men, roar in response, and her companion nudges her. "Sometimes, I think he gets them going better than Mamoru himself," Mercury dimples, a little impishly, and forgetting that things are still bad between her and him, Mars tries to stifle a smile filled with obvious pride. Over the shorter Ice Senshi's head, she sees a staffer with a gun.

The seconds are long.

Mars is already shoving through the crowd, leaping chairs, then pillars. But she still opens her mouth to yell, only to watch Venus's lips compress into a thin, furious line as she sees what Mars sees. Her leader is moving too, a blur of bright light, but neither of them can stop the hail of fire and metal that erupts from the assassin's weapon. Mars knows something about lining up a target, and it is with shock that she realizes the mark is not the false Endymion, but Kunzite, ruler of these lands.

Jadeite realizes it at the same time as she; awareness blooms in his eyes like flowers in water. Knowing him as she does, Mars watches the events unfold before her as though she'd already seen them occur. From where he flanks the podium, Kunzite is blind to the gunman, and can make no move to shield himself. Jadeite rams the taller man out of the way, disguise sifting the rippling atmosphere around him.

Then, a lurid spray of blood and dust onstage – a grenade shines briefly in the sunlight – Venus screams at her, but she can't understand – an arrow like a red star shoots it out of the sky. The bomb roars out its fury, interrupted in its deadly trajectory. Its inferno licks hungrily at nothing but scorching air, and for once, Mars can read nothing in the hellish flames.

Mercury is running to the stage, paler than Mars thought possible, when a cry bursts from somewhere – "Down with Malik il-Abyad! Our king must free our prisoners!" – the petite woman is shoved by another staffer. He, too, holds a gun, and gestures it frantically at the audience. Mercury wraps her fingers around the barrel, unhesitant, and his weapon and hand instantly ice over. The betrayer shrieks in pain, but the Ice Senshi has already vaulted onto the platform and vanished in the spreading smoke.

Venus trusts Mercury to see after the Shitennou's wounds – her tight expression says that she does not want to think about their gravity – and their blonde leader is shouting orders from where she stands, a glinting eye in a maelstrom of panicked, stampeding spectators. The frightened people listen, perhaps more cowed by the colossal Holy Blade now in her hand – formerly a tiny dagger hanging innocuously from her hip-slung chain – than by her ringing commands.

And Mars? Mars has not taken a single step since bullets escaped barrel. She already has the best vantage point, perched as she is atop the tallest pillar on the highest ground. From where the Fire Senshi stands, she can see them flee, pick out the ones with weapons, and her smile is vicious. Mars has been a sniper since long before muskets or machine guns; her arrows always fly truer than sight and swifter than sound. She takes aim, and one by one, they each go down, flames peeling away their clothes and skin, its soft thunder drowning out their screams.

By the time Mars descends to ground level, Mercury has completely extinguished her victims. The collaborators are rounded up and put in gurneys – most of them once-trusted local staffers, all of them in agony. Mars hopes that the new hospital is short on supplies, particularly anesthetic and painkiller. They will heal, anyway – her fire burns lesser in body than mind, when she grudgingly commands it so – and she kills youma, not humans. As the betrayers are wheeled away, several aides that traveled with the guardians disperse the milling crowd.

The smoke and dust onstage has mostly cleared – the result of incendiary rounds lodging in the podium. Behind its smoldering ruins, Kunzite cradles the fallen general, whose royal disguise spills like sand from his shuddering form, along with his blood. Mercury attempts to stanch the flow, but it's impossible with tendrils of his failing illusion swarming around her fingers.

"Jadeite." Even almost unconscious, something in Jadeite responds to the authority in his commander's voice; his eyelashes flutter, and Mercury nearly sobs when red trickles from there too. "Jadeite, drop the disguise."

Either he is too weak to sustain it, or he understands Kunzite's order, because a moment later, the man between them slumps, flaxen curls matted against the Middle Eastern ruler's chest. Mercury works over him more efficiently, now that he no longer moves. Venus approaches from behind, attempting to bind Kunzite's own bullet wounds – his shoulder and arm grow darkly red – but he gently shrugs her off, staring intently at Jadeite's slackened features. Mars stands next to the ruined podium. She wants to help, so badly, but she knows all she has in her is to hurt and destroy.

Teleporting back to Crystal Tokyo with their two strongest mentalists down is no easy feat, and they are all on the point of collapse when they arrive. There is a collective gasp in the room at the sight of him – hanging limply from Kunzite's good shoulder, so sodden with blood it seems none is left within. Nephrite lets out a hoarse shout; he breaks through the triangle of Mars, Mercury, and Venus and seizes Jadeite just as the Shitennou's leader sways backward, skin as ashen as his once-pristine uniform. Zoisite ducks under his commander's uninjured arm, supporting him, and his wild, dilated eyes meet those of Endymion. The King approaches.

His palm rests on Jadeite's clammy forehead as he is carefully laid out on a stretcher. They all look on, transfixed by their King's flesh drawing tight over his bones, veins cording and flexing in his trembling hand. He grows haggard before them, but nobody dares interrupt, not when they see the barest flush under Jadeite's waxen skin. After a few uncertain moments, Kunzite finally grounds out, "Stop, my King."

The King stumbles back, as drenched with sweat as they all are, breathing erratically. But he still sounds strong, sure. "He's alive. Get him to the infirmary. Kunzite, too. I will not argue," he adds simply, seeing the flash in his guardian's stormy eye. Kunzite stands upright with the last of his strength, and Zoisite backs away as the taller man sweeps out of the room without a backward glance. Venus watches him go, frustration warring with understanding in her expressive features. Behind her, Makoto wordlessly laces her fingers with Venus's, effectively unclenching her leader's bloodless fist. Serenity throws her arms around an unresponsive Mars, wrapping her guardian in a sweet-smelling, tearful death grip. Zoisite chafes Mercury's cold, red-stained hands, reassuring himself that she's unhurt, but it's Nephrite who finally, unsteadily asks. "What the fuck happened?"

Jadeite recovers. Slowly. Even with all the science and magic in the world at their disposal, it takes time and effort to rebuild internal organs, replenish thirsty veins. He's more than human, as they all are, but still fortunate to live at all. Zoisite's subsequent shrapnel analysis yields no homemade shell, but an explosive powerful enough to take out the whole of the hospital's makeshift stage. Had Mars failed to bring down the grenade…

It is a poignant reminder – immortality is no fortress that human weapons cannot break.

Rei doesn't spend every waking minute and hour at his bedside – she has duties, hers and his both. She continues to prophesy and pray, to guard and govern the Far East. With the last of the Colombian bosses caught, and their money trail to the Algerian hospital and several other respected institutions traced, Kunzite personally and dispassionately oversees their very prolonged interrogation. Nobody wants to be in the room when he does.

Kunzite probably spends about as much time with Jadeite's sleeping form as she does, and for her part, Rei understands a little of his guilt. She, too, has seen Jadeite suffer for her, but too late to spare him pain.

Their conversation sounds gradually louder as she approaches the door, and her steps speed accordingly. Though his voice is the more muted of the two, Rei hears Jadeite's first: "…thank…King…wasn't there." She reaches the doorway just in time to see Kunzite's nod, and clears her throat. The Shitennou's leader rises, his big hand reassuringly on Jadeite's shoulder as Rei approaches.

"Your fool's finally awakened," he tells her, but there's a lightheartedness she hasn't seen lifting his lips since that day in Algiers, despite his brusque words. As he passes, Rei hears his murmur, meant for her ears alone. "Be good to him."

Rei seats herself by Jadeite's bedside, and before she's even aware of it, her fingers are stroking damp curls from his forehead. "He's right, you know," she informs him without preamble. "You are a fool."

"Your fool," Jadeite corrects her weakly, turning his head slightly to take her in. Despite obvious pain and fatigue, his scrutiny is direct and fearless as always.

Rei ignores both him and the pressure building behind her eyelids – only he sees her weep, and only he is the cause. She blinks and goes on as though he's said nothing. "No point in dressing up as the King if you're just going to take bullets for your guard."

"He's my commander. You'd have done the same." He is infuriatingly – and invariably – right.

"I wouldn't have gotten myself riddled with holes in the process."

"No, you were the one riddling our attackers with holes," Jadeite notes wryly. "And stopping bombs midair, I hear." As often, the levity in his tone does not match the somberness in his eyes. Her lover's trembling hand brushes her chin. "You saved me."

Rei seizes his palm and crushes it to her lips. "No. I hurt you," the admission quivers wetly against his paper-dry skin, and they both know she's not talking about Algiers. The frailty of his fingers, once so strong and tanned against her cheek, nearly splinters her. She has to hold this eggshelled, breakable thing together, has to say this to him in one piece. "Will – will you forgive me?"

"What does your Fire tell you of my forgiveness?" his voice is gentler than Rei wants it to be, and she wishes he shouted at her more.

"The Fire knows nothing of you, save your permanence." It emerges irritably, not tearfully, and Rei is grateful for small victories.

Jadeite's abrupt chuckle startles her as much as it injures him; Rei smoothes beads of sweat from his brow as the general winces. But no red mottles the bandages crisscrossing his torso, and after a moment, he smiles painfully. "It's not the first time I've outwitted it. But what little it knows of me is true."

His hand on her face finds strength, and in it, Rei finds forgiveness. She recognizes the feel of it; they have always had so much to forgive each other for. "I will always be here, Rei."

"Always," she echoes blandly, keeping her relief from sounding out loud. Rei reaches out, trails Jadeite's wounds beneath the cloth with her fingertips, willing her touch to heal while knowing it holds no such power. "An eternity – to torment me with 'surprises' like this."

"Yes," the golden general agrees simply, amusedly, and draws her close.

In the peaceful minutes that follow, Rei rests her black head by his blond one, and sighs idly as he laces their fingers together. Against all odds, his warm neck smells of musk and not sanitizer, and she briefly imagines that they lie in their own bed, curled into dappled sunlight, before their day takes them.

"Your ring," Jadeite comments, and she shifts beside him. Her lover traces her bare ring finger lazily, up and down. "Did it break in the – in Algiers?"

Rei takes a deep breath, realizing her brief triumph over her tears is soon to be reversed. "No," she speaks softly against his stubbled jawbone, tiny golden bristles pleasantly scratching her paler skin. Her lips gradually inch near Jadeite's own, as he turns his head to face her. "It broke when my vow did."

"Your vow," Jadeite repeats uncertainly, pulling back and searching her expression. For once, Rei takes pleasure in arranging her features into an unreadable mask, in mystifying the magician himself. She does not have his talent for deception, though, and her eyes betray her.

"My vow. To take no master but the Fire." Rei pauses, watches his lips tighten slightly, and braces herself. "You're not my master, and if you know me at all, then you know you never will be." There's a giggle in her voice, born of mild hysteria, and she rushes on. "But you – you've always ruled my past. My future. For as long as I can remember."

Jadeite's entire face is literally agape with disbelief, and if she didn't feel somewhat like vomiting herself, Rei might have laughed. But instead, she finds herself sobbing when she asks.

"Will – will you replace my ring – " Jadeite's fingers crush around hers " – with – with another?"

Rei couldn't look away from the twin blue flames trained on her if the whole infirmary crashed to dust around them. They're the only thing she can see, haloed brightly in a blurred windowpane of tears.

His voice is unusually rough when he finds it. "I will not replace your ring when your customs do not demand it, miko." She stares at him, not understanding.

"I am sovereign of your homeland, after all, and I think I know something of your old beliefs." Jadeite's lined, peaked countenance softens. "But I will replace your vow instead. If you will let me."

There's only one answer, one Rei's borne deep within herself since the Oracle first laid her burning eyes on the king of illusions, and found someone worthy of eternity. Some things take even a seer too long to see, but she finally recognizes it in Jadeite's fevered, exultantly clear-sky gaze – satisfaction of his long-undisclosed desire.

Minako can't resist a few jibes at the expense of her dearest sister – exquisitely composed on the outside, and clearly a mess internally. She says it for the thousandth time. "You may have been the Oracle, Rei, but I think I know what I'm talking about here. Everything will be fine."

Rei could have the best of hairdressers and makeup artists, but this once, she refuses to stand on formality, and so the blonde skillfully applies white paint to the bride's already pale skin and dots brilliantly scarlet lacquer to her lips. "You're lovelier than I ever will be," the erstwhile Aphrodite tells her, and today, Rei might believe it, but she's still terrified. Makoto coils her inky tresses into submission, and between humming and industrious pinning, she covertly passes a flask down and tells Rei to drink up. "Half the ceremony is drinking, anyway," the redhead reasons, and Rei can see the logic in that, but she only manages a few sips before a scandalized Ami steals it away. "Save it for the wedding night, Rei," the petite woman advises, utterly deadpan, and they all dissolve into giggles as Ami calmly secures Rei's heavy obi. Outside the dressing room, Serenity demands entry, and then belatedly knocks. "I'm bringing in a boy!" their Queen hollers graciously, and Zoisite strolls in on her heels, lips permanently quirked for mischief.

"You know as well as I do, how briefly these bloom," he tells Rei, proffering a carved box. Ami opens it and deftly slips the finely gilded cherry blossoms into her friend's sculpted mass of hair. Rei waits, with retort ready for some pronouncement of bizarre wisdom, but the Shitennou's amateur philosopher keeps it unusually pithy. "Life's shorter than we think. Next time, don't wait for him to get blown up before you make up." With that, Zoisite steals the last hairpin, tucks it behind Rei's ear, and leaves whistling insouciantly. The dressing room degenerates into general chaos until the Queen speaks.

"I have something for you too, Rei," and the room hushes immediately at her unaccustomed solemnity. In Serenity's overburdened arms, there is a mass of white fabric, almost bigger than the dainty woman herself. "I've heard a happy bride's veil is the best luck you can give…but I know you aren't wearing one…so…" She lets the bundle unroll, and all of the Senshi gasp. Serenity's wedding veil has been meticulously embroidered upon the heavy white satin of Rei's uchikake, beaded firebirds alighting upon latticed flowers and vines.

A beat, then Rei blurts it out first. "Usagi, I – what the hell were you thinking?" Makoto hastily takes the wedding robe from her Queen, before she topples with its weight. "This is your wedding veil – are you fu – "

"I already wore it on the happiest day of my life," Serenity interrupts with a stomp of her royal foot. "Why do I need it anymore? Shut up and put it on!" Rei blinks at her petulance, bemused, and Serenity takes the opportunity to step forward and embrace her. "I waited for you because of all of us…you'll treasure it the most," her Queen whispers knowingly against her cheek.

"Is she ready?" Nephrite booms unceremoniously from the hallway, and his wife opens her mouth.

"Yes," Rei answers for Makoto. "I am."

The Shitennou's commander falls into step beside her as she awkwardly adjusts her wataboshi. Being nearly two heads (and shoulders) taller, he simply straightens the voluminous headdress for her without asking. They walk.

"Thank you," Kunzite tells Rei.

"For what?"

"For saving me, that day." He cuts cleanly across whatever Rei means to say. "For saving him, now."

Ahead of them, Nephrite snorts. "From what – being a bachelor? How about you save him from being sniper fodder? Teach him the art of throwing fireballs, or something fucking useful, instead of being tricky assassin bait?"

"How about you stand still and play bullseye?" Rei tosses back at him, and Nephrite shakes his head, still chuckling.

The King greets them at the door. "They're both inside."

"No harsh words for Helios officiating this ceremony, I see," Rei says pointedly.

"Mm. No fear of Helios stealing you away," Endymion responds smoothly. "Or harsh words, for that matter. You're Jadeite's problem, not mine."

"You'll regret that in a few hundred years, when your daughter marries someone like me instead of a saintly Elysian priest." Jadeite emerges from the shrine, resplendent in his emblazoned haori. The dynastic dragon spreads its protective wings between his shoulderblades, mimicking the tattooed skin beneath. Rei appreciatively observes the ripple of black silk over his leonine musculature, perhaps too appreciatively, and Serenity pokes both Makoto and Ami indelicately as they all approach. Minako doesn't bother with stealthy measures. "You're supposed to be a shy new wife, Rei. Spare poor Helios the eyefucking." The latter makes his way from inside the shrine as well, ears red, and Rei wonders how much he heard. As Makoto and Minako snicker softly, Jadeite's eyes deliberately lock with Rei's, sea meets sunset, and as far as she's concerned, the ceremony has already begun.

Helios, quietly authoritative despite his youth, blesses and purifies the Far Eastern king and his bride. As Jadeite passes their first cup of sake to her, Rei reminisces over her first existence, of the oath she left, and the man who left her. She'd learned then, to never give herself easily. That if anything was worth holding onto, it would survive her purging fire. Nothing did, and her self-destruction left her bereft.

She remembers her past as a miko, and smiles at Phobos and Deimos, resplendent in red and white, as they pour the second cup. Jadeite sips slowly, and Rei searches his aspect for signs of the creature he was then. The memories have singed and softened at the edges, but Rei recalls how hard it was to forgive when she was a girl, when her soulmate from the Fire came to her as demon instead of man.

Waiting for the final cup makes her impatient, and she knows a bit of the restlessness and ennui that plagued her in this third life. Rei knows, too, of his quicksilver heart, his endless capacity for the unpredictable. She suspects a millennia's worth of surprises, but she's content not knowing.

With Rei's last mouthful of sake, she prays she has learned the right lessons. Their friends and family come around them, and she catches Jadeite's flashing, triumphant glance just before he makes the vow to her that he's wanted for so long. Rei once again sees the Fire's blue heart in his eyes, burning away the millennia between them.

This time, she thinks, with all the world before them like the draught they have shared – this time, they will love rightly.