As always the shrine was quiet when Rei arrived home from the evening committee meeting. She hadn't planned to go; concern for her daughter and a desire to keep their relationship from further damage had been foremost in her thoughts. But Rio had all but pushed her out of the door, saying she wanted some time to herself to think about everything that had recently happened.

It was later than she normally got home, so Rei was surprised to see a light visible through the window shades of her daughter's bedroom. She stood outside the house, gazing at that light as if it held the answers to every question she had ever had. She was aware that a part of her wanted, almost desperately, to avoid the conversation that she knew she had to have with Rio, and that knowledge flooded her with shame. She had spent nearly all of her daughter's life avoiding important conversations, and it was past time that she straightened up and faced it.

The sound of the door opening drew a response from Rio's bedroom; a creak from the wood of her desk chair. The bedroom door slid open before Rei even set her keys down on the table that sat just inside the front door.

"Mom."

Rei didn't look up immediately after her daughter spoke. She pretended to be absorbed in making sure her keys were placed just so on the table top, and then she picked some dead petals out of the vase of flowers. Something, anything, to put this off even half a moment longer.

"Mom."

More insistent this time. And closer. Rei finally lifted her eyes to see that her daughter had come a couple of steps nearer. She opened her mouth to speak but Rio beat her to it.

"I kept some dinner for you," Rio said, turning and starting to walk to the kitchen. "Won't take long to warm up, if you're hungry."

Rei was taken aback and didn't follow right away. When she entered the kitchen the microwave was humming, and she slid into a seat at the table as Rio moved about the room, gathering the meal together. It was such a strange sight, to see her daughter so calm and collected, that Rei had to fight the urge to pinch herself to prove she was awake. Instead she tucked into the food, with enthusiasm, having only just realized how hungry she was.

Once the kitchen was cleaned up and everything put away Rei knew that she couldn't avoid reality any longer. With a cup of green tea in hand she resumed her seat at the table, ready to face whatever was coming. She must have shown how tense she was, however, because Rio chuckled softly.

"Relax, Mom. I'm not going to bite your head off."

Rei met her daughter's eyes and saw that the younger woman meant exactly what she said. She smiled. "I'd deserve it if you wanted to," she commented, sipping the tea. "But since the past can't be changed I suggest we go forward from here." She took a deep breath. "Whatever questions you have I'll answer them as honestly as possible."

"I really only have one question," Rio said, and laughed at her mother's surprised look. "I've had all day to think about everything, and I think I understand. There's also a sort of peace in all of this; a feeling that I've finally attained something I never even knew that I wanted." She laughed again and pushed a hand through her hair. "That probably doesn't make any sense."

Rei shook her head, reaching out to clasp one of Rio's hands. "It makes perfect sense, believe me," she said. "But that's a story for another time. Ask your question."

"I just -" Rio began before clamping her mouth shut. A flush crept up her cheeks and she blinked rapidly, fighting tears. She knew she needed - maybe even deserved - an answer to the question in her head, but she wasn't eager to speak it. Not when she also knew that it would hurt her mother. She raised her eyes to the ceiling as if saying a quick prayer.

"Is all of this why Dad left?" she blurted out, still with her eyes on the ceiling.

Rei couldn't have been more shocked if her daughter had turned into a tree before her eyes. It wasn't so much the mention of her absent husband as it was the implication that the reality of the sailor guardians had forced Yuuichirou out of their lives. She had expected something more along the lines of Does Dad know about all of this?; at least she could honestly admit that to herself.

And she could be completely honest with her daughter. "No, it's not," she replied, watching carefully as Rio dropped her gaze from the ceiling and their eyes met. "And before you ask me how can I be so sure - well, it's because your father doesn't know the entire truth. Maybe he has a few suspicions that things were not always as they seemed, but know beyond a doubt? No, he doesn't."

Rio looked confused and almost deflated, as if she had puffed herself up in preparation for a much more difficult conversation and was now having to let all of that air out. As much as it made her want to smile it was also a painful reminder to Rei of just how fragile their mother/daughter relationship had been for so long, and how much work needed to be done. That and how young and inexperienced Rio was, despite her tough-girl act. And she realized what the real question Rio wanted an answer to was.

"It's not 'all of this', is it?" she asked, her voice soft but still managing to fill the room. Rio tried to look away but Rei gently grasped her chin and held her still, watching every nuance of emotion on her daughter's face. "It's about you, am I right? You've had time to think about it and you think that your father left because of what you were to become; that he somehow couldn't handle that part of it." A tear slid down Rio's cheek and Rei wiped it away with her thumb. "It was never about you, Rio. Not about you in general and not about you as a sailor senshi."

"Then why?" She sniffed loudly. "Why?"

"You know why, Rio. Neither your father nor I have ever made a secret of it."

Rio gave one last sniff. "You're right, I do know." She laughed quietly. "But three years? I think that's probably enough enlightenment to last into the next four lifetimes."

Rei laughed also. "Well, he's never done anything by half measures, not in his entire life." She stopped speaking abruptly as emotions got caught in her throat. She didn't often dwell on Yuuichirou's absence, which was why conversations like this one tended to hit her hard. It was difficult to talk about him, especially with his daughter, without missing him so much that it felt like a fist squeezing her heart.

Rio noticed her mother's sudden withdrawal and, reaching out, laid a hand on Rei's. "I'm sorry, Mom. I shouldn't have brought it up."

Rei emphatically shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. You had every right to ask. And I - " She took a deep breath before continuing. "I never should have let your father's absence have such a huge impact on our relationship. These last three years - you and I not even knowing each other - it's all my fault." She closed her eyes for a brief moment, almost as a prayer. When she opened them again she looked determined. "We're going to fix the things that have gone wrong between us, Rio. I promise that, on my life as Sailor Mars."

Rio grinned. "I know that, Mom. And I already know what our first joint project will be."

"Really?" Rei asked with a smile. "What's that?"

"You must teach me how to use my powers without setting myself on fire!"

"This week just keeps getting better and better," Chibiusa muttered to herself as two books and an assortment of hair ties tumbled from the top shelf of her locker, scattering across the floor. She knelt and quickly began to gather the items up, but not before the bell rang to warn her that she was in imminent danger of being late to class. With a stifled curse she jumbled everything back into the locker (in such a way that it was guaranteed to spill out again) and raced at top speed, arriving, breathless, in the doorway of the classroom just as the bell to start rang.

It was the last class before the lunch break, and lucky for Chibiusa it was English, one of her best subjects. She took advantage of that fact to disengage most of her brain from school and focus on other things that, at the moment, were more important.

It had been one weak since the incident in her bedroom in which Seiya had been revealed as the true heir of the Moon Kingdom, and the master of the Silver Crystal. In a fit of panic he had begged her not to say anything and she, her mind still reeling with the shock of it all, had agreed. It was a decision that she was starting to bitterly regret, as the intervening days had proved that she was now completely incapable of transforming into Sailor Moon. And there had been no more visions, or any other sign of the priest who called himself Helios, to confirm that she was now on the path to becoming Sailor Earth. She was stuck; unable to go either forward or back.

And if there was one thing she well and truly hated it was being stuck.

The bell to end class rang out, startling her out of her thoughts. With a sudden, urgent need to see blue sky and breathe fresh air Chibiusa all but ran to her locker, grabbed her lunch, and made her way to her favorite spot on the school's grounds. Under the spreading branches of the enormous oak tree she could take the time to gather her thoughts together and decide what she would, or even what she could, do next.

For even though her mind had mainly been focused on Seiya's abrupt transformation she hadn't forgotten the news that he had imparted to her once he had returned to being nothing more than her younger brother The news that he had gathered and gleaned during his visit to this school the day after Rio's awakening as Sailor Mars.

The news that neither Akemi nor Mariko had reacted to having the Mercury and Jupiter pens in their hands. At all. Not even a glimmer.

"Great. Wonderful. Just perfect," Chibiusa had replied to Seiya's news. "Between that and whatever the hell is going to become of me the second generation of Sailor Guardians is looking awfully weak, wouldn't you say?"

Seiya had wisely not replied to that. In fact, in the days that followed he had gone out of his way to avoid her, always making excuses so that he barely even sat in the same room with her for more than ten minutes at a time. Their parents had noticed, but not asked. Oddly enough that made Chibiusa feel much better about the entire situation; at least they had faith in their children's ability to work things out between them. It was she who was starting to have doubts.

"That's an awfully cloudy face for such a sunny day."

The statement jolted Chibiusa out of herself and she glanced to her left, shielding her eyes from the sun's glare. When she recognized Rio she couldn't hide her surprise; her friend just laughed as she dropped to the ground and unpacked her lunch. "I think I should probably be insulted that you were so surprised to see me," Rio said, taking a bite of her sandwich.

Chibiusa pressed her lips tightly together to prevent a grin from escaping. "It's not an insult," she replied, casually sipping her drink. "More a reflection of how anti-social and - well, bitchy - you've been for most of the school year."

Rio choked on her sandwich and turned a wide-eyed and shocked gaze on her friend. When she saw the corners of Chibiusa's mouth twitching she tentatively smiled, then let out a whoop of laughter. Chibiusa joined in, and soon the pair were leaning against each other for support, grasping their sides and laughing fit to burst.

Rio recovered herself first with a last giggle, a deep breath, and a swipe of the tears on her cheeks. "Okay, I suppose I deserved that," she said as soon as she felt capable of speech. "Although to be honest I would have expected Mizuki to be the one to say it, even without first hand experience of my 'bitchiness'."

Chibiusa made a noise that seemed to indicate her agreement with that. "I'm surprised she hasn't hunted me down yet," she commented, looking around as if she expected Mizuki to appear suddenly from behind the next tree. "We haven't been able to talk very much since. . ." Her voice trailed off and she cast Rio a look that was half apology, half embarrassment.

"Shall we just call it my fiery epiphany and leave it at that?"

Chibiusa relaxed, glad to see that Rio at least seemed to have accepted her future as Sailor Mars. "That's as good a description for it as anything," she said. She went back to eating, but continued to study her friend out of the corner of her eye, alert to any sign that Rio wasn't as blasé as she appeared to be.

But Rio, like her mother, had more than her fair share of intuition and perception. She didn't miss any of Chibiusa's nervousness or scrutiny. "It really is fine, you know," she said after a few minutes had passed. "Mom and I had our first real, proper, conversation in a long time. Hashed a few things out. Promised to talk a hell of a lot more." She paused and looked up at the sky, sighing. "It's not perfect, not by a long shot, but it is okay."

Chibiusa's eyebrows rose. "Is it? Honestly?"

Rio shrugged. "Hard to tell after just a week, but I think it is. Mom's been a tremendous help, of course. With the physical powers, especially. I haven't randomly set anything on fire in nearly a day."

Chibiusa couldn't prevent a giggle. "That's progress, I suppose." Having finished her lunch she stretched her legs out and lay on the grass, her arms behind her head. She wanted to be happy for her friend, so she ruthlessly pushed away thoughts of her own backsliding. "I used to get this unreal head-rush when I transformed. Dizzy, light-headed, ringing in my ears, the whole deal."

Rio grinned. "Yeah, me too. The first time that Mom had me command the transformation I though my head would explode." She looked down at her friend. "I can't believe that you were dealing with all of this when you were just nine years old."

Chibiusa snorted. "Seven years and done," she said, sounding bitter. "But what a run, huh?"

"What?"

Chibiusa jack-knifed to a sitting position, horrified at what she had said. "Nothing! Nothing!" she exclaimed, pasting a false smile on her face. "Just thinking out loud about nothing important." She quickly packed her things away in her lunch bag, hoping that the burning she felt in her cheeks wasn't as visible as she feared it would be.

Her friend didn't say anything, but Chibiusa could feel Rio's eyes on her as she studiously kept her face averted. It wasn't until she heard Rio sigh that she looked that way again. And then looked a little harder.

"Out with it." Rio glanced at her, a phony confused look on her face. Chibiusa grinned. "I know you, and I can tell that there's something more on your mind. Something bigger than your own troubles. So spill."

"I didn't want to bother you with it right now," Rio began, a definite tone of reluctance in her voice. "But I've been thinking. . ."

Chibiusa waited for what felt like an interminable minute. "About?"

Rio gave her head a quick shake. "Akemi and Mariko," she quietly replied.

"Ah."

"So you know?" Rio asked, looking askance at her friend before giving a genteel snort. "Of course you know," she answered her own question. "Seiya grilled Mizuki that day, and he would have told you."

Chibiusa nodded. "I know the what," she added, wanting to be clear. "But I certainly don't know the why."

Rio coughed. "Yes, well. . ." She coughed again. "I kind of - well, sort of - have a -"

"Theory?"

Rio shook her head. "I don't think you could call it a theory. Theory would imply that I actually know something of what I'm talking about. And although Mom told me some things it hardly qualifies."

Chibiusa was silent for a moment, mulling over Rio's words. "She told you about things that happened when our mothers were where we are now. You know about the altered destinies."

Rio nodded. "And that started me thinking; if some wires got crossed, destiny-wise, why not others?"

Chibiusa sighed, feeling a touch of exasperation. "Stop tip-toeing around it and get to the point."

"Okay, the point." Rio took a deep breath and then plunged in. "Sailor Mercury is known as the Warrior of Water and Intelligence and the Guardian of Wisdom, right?" When Chibiusa nodded she continued. "And Sailor Jupiter is the Warrior of Thunder and Courage, the Guardian of Protection. My point is. . ." She paused for a moment, taking time to gather her last thought. "My point is do those descriptions really sound like Akemi and Mariko to you?"

No. No, they certainly did not. But if not them than who?