The spring day breezed through the window, carrying scents of fresh grass and flowers, the warmth of the sunlight carrying lazy motes of dust on the air and the pervasive, not unpleasant smell of rock. The distant hum of activity wafted through his open window and tempted the man sitting behind the large desk with the first songs of the growing year. Scribbled notes, snatches of drawings, samples of different materials were strewn around the room. The man currently was occupied with the study of a blueprint carefully rolled out on the desk, only occasionally sparing a long suffering look to the day outside. He was dressed casually, he could have been an engineer or architect to judge by the clutter around him. Meticulously he made notes on the drawing, correcting subtle errors and adding notations to the builders for the correct materials for use.

He studied each print intently, the afternoon making its slow curve towards the distant, cool dusk. When the aching of his hand and mind grew too much, he paused to drink long swallows of clear water from the pitcher left enticingly for him. He brushed long, untended black hair from his eyes, promising himself absently to have it cut sometime soon. Leaning back in the creaking chair, Mamoru wistfully thought of throwing all the paper out the window, letting it all drift to the ground like some kind of odd butterfly and walking away from all this responsibility. To say the planning and building of Crystal Tokyo was a momentous challenge didn't even scratch the surface of the task. Even now, there were no doubt several vital problems collecting outside in his antechamber, eagerly awaiting their turn to sink their teeth into his flesh.

Mamoru winced, but could not really deny the aptness of the predatory analogy. Someone had to be in charge, someone to give order to the chaos and increasingly it looked like it had to be him. People had always deferred to him even as a young man, and now he could not shake the trappings of power and respect that chained him here. Holding the cold glass to his forehead he closed long eyes and wished mightily that he was in the north with Mako and Rei. That border had always been uneasy and had recently erupted again into near open conflict.

As commander generals of the home army, both women were on the front line, assessing damage and making vital decisions concerning defense and retaliation. The northern problems must be solved for good this time vowed Mamoru silently. The constant bickering did nothing but drain resources and kill men on both sides - a distressing reality. There must be a way to resolve the political differences, to bring the northern lords into alliance with the growing hegemony that was centered on the building of Crystal Tokyo. Mamoru's mind worried at the problem like a dog with an old bone, too meatless to chew but too stubborn to give it up. With a sigh, Mamoru knew that Mars and Jupiter were the best choices to be there, and that he was stuck here to give clear leadership to his people and reinforcing visibly the surety of his dominion of this land.

His dominion. The phrase struck warning bells in his psyche and he gave up all pretense of studying the latest revisions in front of him, leaning back into the complaining embrace of his chair. The plans were for the new phase of the palace to be erected for the Emperor and Empress, their Supreme Majesties Neo King Endymion and Neo Queen Serenity. Mamoru winced again at the pompous phrasing but knew that the people lived and died for that certainty, that the King and Queen ruled the empire and that all the world must now bow to their combined authority. And that was the problem on his horizon - * his * dominion should rightfully be * their * dominion. Increasingly, Usagi was absolving herself of responsibility, allowing Mars and Jupiter to take command of the empire's defenses, Venus controlling the court and all its machinations, balancing the power of the world's leaders against the desires of the imperial court. Mercury continued with what she did best, researching and discovering many useful things, delving into mysteries that sometimes proved invaluable to them. Even the wandering souls of Michiru and Haruka aided the growing power, acting as diplomats in foreign courts - sometimes as persuasive mediators and sometimes as spies. Setsuna remained as she always had, Guardian of the Time Gates, although thankfully not alone at the moment, having Hotaru there keeping her company.

And despairingly, Mamoru knew he did all of it - liasing with the war effort and its generals, soothing the fears of political guests in court, trading diplomatic insults and power maneuvering on the dance floor of the imperial residence, increasingly becoming more involved with Ami and her research assistant Natia as they moved ever closer to the solution of the machine ruins that had been found so near to the palace grounds. Increasingly he had seen less and less of Usagi, usually breaking his fast with Mina sometime in the early morning to discuss diplomatic solutions to the escalating problem of the northern provinces. Then came a full and overfull day that left him working way into the night, only to crawl into a cold bed as Usagi distracted herself with fawning courtiers and late parties. He was up with the dawn while she slept late, only to begin another round of giddy butterfly dances the next day.

Lord knows, he had tried to give her more responsibility, to make her feel more involved and to show her the vital need for her involvement. The problem was, she tended to things only half-heartedly, usually leaving more problems in her wake that if she had never been involved at all. Look at that near disaster with the minister of Orana Province! Only Mina's skillful maneuvering had saved that situation, and a certain amount of her disarming smile. He had thrown his hands up at the time and Usagi had retreated emotionally into petulant sulking, an unattractive trait she still resorted to in times of stress. It had seemed simpler to let her go her bubble headed way, to allow her to charm her way into the affections of the people around her without forcing her to mature before she was truly ready.

Intellectually Mamoru knew she was frightened of the responsibility that was increasingly laid upon them as the governmental figure heads, that her retreat into vacuousness was a typical Usagiism for avoiding making any decisions at all. But that left him holding her reins of power as well as his own, and worse, being seen by other as the only one with control. If this trend was allowed to continue much longer, it would soon be King and consort, not a ruling pair of joined powers.

She had to grow up, to make her mistakes and learn from them although it made his head swim on how he was going to accomplish this character transformation alone. It was an annoyance now, but it would be real problem in later years if Usagi was seen as merely his mate, and not as a ruling power in her own right. If she ever needed to wield that power, it would not answer her . . . and that could prove a catastrophic error.

Yet that was a problem for tomorrow - he hadn't seen Usa in days, knew she was gadding about with some of the younger courtier set and discovered he was only able to feel a pale shadow of the anger that usually came over him. He was just so tired, exhausted by the long hours and decisions that multiplied like locusts. She had so much more to offer - her star was brighter than anyone's when she let it be, was the true match both for his heart and mind - but fear ruled her soul. He couldn't even talk to her about it, they always ended up shouting at each other, saying hurtful things that neither of them truly meant. Then would follow long days of silence and stiff conversations. He truly didn't think he could deal with any of that tonight and sneakily hoped she would be out when he returned to their apartments. He loved her with all his heart, knew she felt the same - but still, they couldn't even talk civilly to each other anymore.

Sometimes he would be walking a corridor with someone, discussing some weighty problem or other, and he would suddenly smell her perfume and know that she had recently walked this way and his spirits would rise for no reason. Once he had smiled to her across a room, delighting in the colour of her hair and she had tentatively smiled in return, blooming like the honey child she was. He loved her desperately, fiercely and was totally at a loss as to how to give her confidence in herself. He, who handled the fate of an entire empire in his hands every day, couldn't handle the frustration of one frightened, not-so-little girl.

As the sun sank towards evening, Mamoru mused on the twin problems of a kingdom in turmoil and a girl with hair of golden light.

It was a similar afternoon a few months later when Mamoru knew that their solution to at least one of their problems was working. It had been a missive from Rei that had triggered it, as she reported the quelling of the hostilities along the hilly northern routes earlier in the year. To Neo-King Endymion from Commander-General Hino:

Greetings. As you are no doubt aware, the uprising along the Kinshan Province border has been dealt with and I remain to make certain the clean up is complete before returning to the capital. The root cause seemed centered with the local clan lords, and after much talking through their thick skulls, it seems to have boiled down to concern over the taxes the northern provinces pay to enter the trade fairs in this area. The sheep they are bringing into the local area is starting to drive down the price of wool and our people are justifiably worried that a drop in pricing will ruin the local economy.

This may be a calculated plot by the rebel leaders to bring conflict to this area, or it could simply be unfortunate timing. I have taken the time to enter the rebel territory myself and this year's floods have been particularly severe on the grazing ranges. The clan leaders seem to have no choice but to bring their surviving herds into our trade fairs and although they are paying the appropriate taxes in all but a few cases, a glut is a growing concern.

I give this problem back to you, my king. Things are as settled as they ever are in this area but there must be some way to turn this to our advantage - I leave it to your clever thoughts to find the benefit in this.

By my hand and seal,

Rei Hino

As he had read the short note, an idea had begun to bloom and after a number of discussions and refinements with Venus, he had implemented the new plan. They had decreased tariff taxes on sheep and wool for all the other producers within that trading area. Now the threatened glut of wool and mutton in that area was a harsh reality, and the rebel provinces were being forced to trade their goods at a much lower price than they had bargained for when they had brought them over from their own flooded lands. It had hit their government where it hurt most, the treasury. And now they had a diplomat from the North dancing courtly steps with Venus in the evenings and whirling his way closer and closer to inclusion into the hegemony of the empire. It had taken the astute eyes of Mars to discover the root cause, not an easy thing to do in the midst of a bloody guerrilla war. Silently he raised a thought to the sharp notice of Rei Hino and was rewarded by distant laughter in the farthest reaches of his awareness. Brat of a priestess he thought with warm amusement. She was psychically tethered to all of them now, that her insights and visions could be given directly to them should the need arise. They had worked that out during the Great War when her warnings could be given mind to mind, as quickly as she was aware of it. It had saved them all on at least one occasion.

They all had grown in surprising ways, he mused to himself as he leaned back to stare out the window blankly, even the pretense of work abandoned. Each of the warriors had transformed into mature women, in power and outlook even as their bodies had slowed in their growth. As the most mystic of them, Rei had naturally bloomed into a deeper understanding of her power, both as the warrior of fire and as a true priestess of her element. She could light a candle sitting on her desk - or cause a firestorm to rival any that nature could unleash.

Each had delved into understanding of their birthright, Jupiter commanding the forces of weather and wind, although her strongest affinity was still for storms. When not otherwise occupied, she monitored the weather, handling minute adjustments that diverted or reduced the worst nature had to offer. If you needed Makoto, she would probably be found supervising the seedlings in the palace gardens, communing with the slow growing oak trees. When he had asked, Mako had replied with a dreamy voice that oaks were the most tranquil of trees and that the surge of sap in their trunks felt like the universe breathing. Mamoru knew his lack of understanding must have shown on his face, for Mako had laughed before she patted his cheek and sauntered off.

To Venus fell all the frightful power of the sun and its healing, destructive strength. It had been in the middle of the true war that brought the peace that was Crystal Tokyo when Neo-King Endymion had commanded Venus the Warrior of Love in a voice that he hadn't recognized as his own - and she had answered with a living column of light too bright to look upon. Beams of coherent light had hurtled from her fingers like daggers from her soul - and every machine arrayed before them on the battlefield had fallen smoking to the ground, pierced through their metal hearts.

The light did not discriminate between metal and flesh and many had died simply for being in the way of the fearful light. It was nearly a human generation since that battle, all the blood long ago soaked into the forgiving earth, but Mamoru knew that Minako still grieved for that instant of radiant power. And it was that power that complimented her but still did not consume her. Venus was many things that he knew Usagi would eventually be; accomplished, confident, graceful and competent in the arenas of diplomacy and tact, a true boon in both the court and the council chamber. Many looked to Venus for guidance, seeing in her a true power. Already there were subtle questions and machinations of the court, that Usagi should be put aside and that Venus should ascend the double throne in the yet unfinished room that would be the final seat of power in the empire.

Mamoru had never formalized their match, knowing that their marriage would be in that unbuilt hall of power, but the short-sighted conspirators saw only a love match made in their youth and two people desperately far apart from each other. Venus was logically a better match, but impossible for all the reasons he could not explain if anyone had dared to broach the subject directly. Mamoru clung to the hope that Usa would eventually grow into that same self assured power - and finally match her life to his in full equality.

Mercury was the quietest of all, as she had always been, a voice of reason in the chaos that had been their lives for so many years. A doctor and a research scientist, Ami had studied and measured their powers, a mystery she enjoyed tracing to its roots. It was she who had discovered why they stopped aging, why Jupiter's affinity was for oak trees but not pines. Her own mastery of the waters of the deep were as complete as she knew how to make them, surpassing even the priestess of fire which miffed Rei no end whenever she thought about it. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Jupiter and Mercury had become the best of friends, tall war-like Makoto balanced by the gentle healing nature that was Ami. Jupiter's command of the forces of nature meshed beautifully with Mercury's dominion over the waters of life. They were a formidable team, if the most unlikely.

As if his musing had cued her, Mamoru looked up from his pondering to see the door opening lightly and Ami walking with a quick step towards him. He grinned and stood up from his seat, bowing gracefully over the intervening desk and planting a small kiss on her offered, upturned wrist. Wrinkling her nose, Ami sat on the nearest available space, in this case a piece of cool gray marble that would eventually become part of the floor of the reception hall. She swung her heels naughtily against the stone, making small clicking sounds of impatience. Her eyes shone at him with laughter at his courtly behavior and a certain something he wasn't sure of, but thought might have been understanding. It wasn't often anymore that he could share the comfort of having a friend to tease - and he was glad it was Ami who always had interesting things to say.

'Practicing your manners, you lout?' Ami inquired sweetly, needling him with long familiarity. Mamoru grinned into her sparkling blue eyes and settled back into his chair.

'Such beauty deserves notice.' he quipped back. Ami was normally a bright person, but today she brimmed with some irrepressible news. Mamoru grinned laconically and waited for Ami to spill it in her own way. She kicked at the rock a few more moments then hopped down to wander the small space, poking at papers and peering intently at the clutter that littered the place. She looked like an incorrigible child at this moment, all bright eyes and restless movement - a far cry from the accomplished doctor and princess she was.

'You don't need a good broom, you need a good fireplace,' she observed wryly, wrinkling her nose again but this time at the mess. Ami could only be described as compulsively neat at the best of times and the chaos that he lived in probably had her fingers twitching in nervous reaction. Finally, Ami could contain herself no longer, and with a sly glance at the long suffering look on his face, mentioned casually, "Natia's figured the machine out, she thinks."

Lightning excitement straightened his spine and he leaned forward eagerly against the once polished desk surface. "Really?! That's great! Is it something we can use? What does it do exactly? How did she figure it out?" Mamoru brimmed with a thousand instant questions but settled for the more urgent ones in his head. Laughing, Ami held up both hands to fend off the deluge.

"Who knows, not sure, how about we go ask her? I've only got the message myself and I knew you'd never forgive me if I didn't include you in on the juicy details." Ami's eyes were just as eager as his, this was unexpected good news.

When Usa and he had walked over this site so long ago ( was it really that long ago? Surely not! ) and had made plans for the vision of Crystal Tokyo, neither of them had realized that the area held another treasure - a buried complex dating from ancient times, perhaps even older than the Silver Millennium. When the first buildings had been started and the foundations dug, the ruins had been discovered and a research team had descended like so many birds come to roost. It had all seemed fairly straightforward at first, a few remnants of building, broken unidentifiable items of no discernable purpose, strange patterns on the surviving fragments of wall and floor. It had been interesting enough, but he had been much more concerned with the living city, not a dead one. That had changed drastically when the archeological team had widened their sampling area and had discovered another building away from the main complex, intact in every regard. The structure was domed and quite large, made of some reddish brown material that looked like stone but instead had proved to be a metal alloy that resisted any attempts to pierce it, even with conventional plasma welders.

The outside walls were most remarkable, thickly carpeted with weird designs that one moment resembled twisted, looping script, the next looking more like fanciful animals and birds. After the earth had been cleared away the structure had stood alone and naked in the bare bones of the earth, its single door carefully outlined and impenetrable. Although unusual in its size and location away from the first group, it hadn't been odd enough to captivate Mamoru's interest. It had taken Ami and a young archeologist, the daughter of the project leader as it happened, to solve the problem of opening the door. After months of careful study, Ami had made the breakthrough of finding the designs responded to minute heat sources, and the daughter, Natia, had connected that to the intricate scroll designs and had traced the correct opening pattern. And then all hell had broken loose. The place had contained intricate machinery, apparently in good working order, and totally incomprehensible to anyone.

The first time he had entered the structure, he had thought he'd been fooled by the walls outside - it seemed much larger inside than outside. The effect was achieved with the subtly reflective surface that coated the interior of the dome. The walls carried no decoration at all surprisingly, considering the surplus of it on the outside. The only things in the single room were squarely in the center - a dais of pale grey stone that contained within its borders a ghost image of a translucent shimmering fire - flames that reached perhaps a man's height high, twisting and reaching languidly, subtly reflected by the walls surrounding it. It was Ami who dubbed the place a temple, since nothing else really seemed to describe its function. Mamoru had had to agree, it had a feeling of presence that he really only noticed in churches.

In a half arc around the dais was the machinery that looked to control the quasi-fire. The control surface was raised and tilted at a comfortable working level for a standing person, arguing for terrestrial origins. The whole panel was covered with the scrollwork designs, looped and relooped on itself, so intricate it made his eyes swim to stare at it. The whole thing could have been a weapon, a place of worship, or an object of art - there was no way to know. As Natia had had the insight as to the working of the entry door, she had been given sole charge of this puzzle as well. Personally, Mamoru felt she was a little young for the responsibility, but she seemed to be handling it brilliantly. A number of times he had talked with her regarding her progress on the workings of the machine and thought her capable if a little unstable, too involved and mono-focused in her work to be a balanced individual. Like he was one to talk, he thought wryly. After the first few sessions with Natia, he had seen something like hero worship and adulation in her eager eyes, and afterwards he had confined himself to receiving updates through Mercury. He had been on the receiving end of possessive adoration a few times - it was not a feeling he cared to encourage in anyone.

But this, this was momentous. If Natia had indeed solved the puzzle, if she had figured out even a portion of why the machinery worked and what it was good for, it would be invaluable if only for the prestige of it. Mamoru was not above using any tool for the enhancement of the empire, even snob appeal could work with some touchy lordlings. With a smile that was rarer that it had been in times past, he stepped away from his desk and gave a casual glance at himself. He was wearing simple, comfortable clothes that were easy to work in for long periods of time. He shrugged mentally, it didn't really matter if the court saw him in relaxed dress and he wasn't going to waste the time to go and changed into something more formal. It was with a sense of true anticipation that Mamoru paced the long lengths of hallway and corridor with the dimutitive Ami at his side, leaving his chains of paper aside for the moment.

Natia waited, and her attention was more dangerously focused that anyone around her truly realized. It had taken many months of dedicated, patient work to reach this point, where it had finally fallen into place. Natia knew she had run her team to the edge of exhaustion and beyond with correlating the designs on the outside of the temple with any matching patterns on the control panel. Natia herself had laboured long hours over the patterns, trying to repeat that moment of insight that had shown her how the doors opened. Young and brilliant, Natia had struggled to prove herself, to outshine her illustrious father's success in this field. For every success she had, for every theory formulated and proved correct, she had hoped for her father's approval, to force him to say that she was good at this, that she was worth something. But her father had never seemed to notice or to care, had always been too busy with his own work, his own pet theories.

But this . . . this machine could be the break she had been waiting for. If she could get the panel to respond, could figure out the rest of the sequencing of the markings . . . that might finally earn her the attention of her abstracted father. And even sweeter, the attention of Neo King Endymion.

Natia ran caressing hands over the golden alloy that made up the half arc of the console. This hunk of machinery would give her the means to entrap the Neo King, would make him her very own for as long as she wished it. And after having gazed into those deep blue eyes, Natia knew she would wish it for a very, very long time. She gazed pensively into the translucent, swirling flames and waited for the moment of her greatest desire to arrive.

Oblivious to Natia's intentions, Mamoru strode with Ami along the corridors of the palace. Looking out the passing windows, he could see the bones of the palace grounds being raised into place, even the completed sections still with that raw look that spoke of their recent erection. It would be many years until it was completed, many more until it would truly be the center of the empire, but Mamoru was not displeased with the progress they were making. The spring sunshine shone over everything indiscriminately, and unconsciously he started to breathe easier and to stand a little taller. It had been a long time since he had gone anywhere for pleasure, longer yet with someone who shared that pleasure. A glance to the side showed the look on Ami's face was as keen as his own. He understood Ami's protectiveness towards the young Natia, perhaps seeing in her an echo of her own childhood, the aloneness Ami had felt before the discovery of the senshi that had given her friends to rely on. Mamoru grinned at the alert expression in Ami's normally calm eyes. Ami looked up and caught the quirky smile, giving him a mock punch in the shoulder for his insolence.

'This is what is missing with Usa,' he suddenly realized with a pang of anguish, his casual gaze sharpening suddenly. ''I can't remember the last time that we were together that we laughed . . . that we did anything that wasn't state related. Political dinners, construction plans, restructuring of supply routes . . . I probably wouldn't even recognize her unless she disguised herself as a damned map. I need to make more time for us . . for her and I to be together again the way we were before." Mamoru's step faltered a little as he mused silently to himself. Ami gave him a questioning look, but he missed it as his sharp perception focused inwards. He tried to remember the sound of Usagi's laughter, and when he had last heard it for him alone. "We've been together so long . . . gods how I miss her." Lost in this moment of revelation, Mamoru failed to notice the gradual increase of voices ahead of them until they rounded a corner and stumbled into a large gaggle of people congregating in a hallway intersection. Looking up, Mamoru realized something strange was going on but tall as he was, he couldn't see over the backs of everyone to the middle where the action seemed to be. Loud shouts of encouragement and excitement echoed around the large open area, and with a quizzical look to an equally mystified Ami, he started to work his way forward along the corridor edge.

Finally they managed to worm their way into a spot of vantage to see what all the shouting was about. In the center, surrounded by a rough circle of onlookers, two men were blindfolded with paint brushes in their hands. As witnessed by their stained clothing, both men had scored hits, although apparently not 'fatally' so as the match continued. The smaller of the two, dressed in a peacock wardrobe of scarlet and gold, seemed to be the crowd favorite, the hoarse shouts ebbing and flowing like water around the combatants.

"What's going on?" he asked of his nearest neighbor, a dimutitive woman of indeterminate age, who was presently trying to peer through several thick bodies to see the fight. Without turning, the woman replied, Mamoru straining to catch the answer through the roaring of the crowd that was getting larger and more unruly as the contest went on.

"Oh, 'tis truly a sight isn't it? I was with Lord Priaric's party as we were travelling in some haste to attend the summer pavilion in the gardens. When we came to this intersection, m'lord himself did not pay as much attention as perhaps he should have, and bumped into yon lad as he carried his pail of paint. The poor lad spilled the paint, through no fault of his own I might add, and m'lord Priaric got his lovely shoes splattered. For a moment it looked quite ugly, as m'lord is not a patient man, but then she appeared down the other hallway with such laughter on her face that both lads couldn't help but be enchanted." A roar went up through the crowd, and the woman strained on tiptoe to see the commotion, Mamoru noting that one of the combatants had fallen to one knee. He strained to hear her through the increased hilarity.

"She said that such an insult needed to be avenged, and that as no one could determine who had bumped into who, the duel should be equal and with the offending paint. The loser must finish the bas-relief and the victor a kiss from the lady for the defense of his honour." As she finished her brief summation, a large howl arose from the crowd and Mamoru looked up swiftly to see the young lord in scarlet and gold who had slipped in the half congealed paint covering the floor. The other boy, with clothing now revealed to be a painter's smock liberally splashed with colour, seemed to sense his momentary advantage and started swinging the paintbrush with wild abandon. A number of spectators too close to the fighting area got their own dose of justice, and cries of foul play were raised into the air to be ignored by the majority of eager participants.

Finally the end came abruptly as the standing boy bumped into the retreating lord on the floor and with a quick swipe was able to plaster the smaller boy with a faceful of paint. Howls of laughter and groaning were heard, and Mamoru saw many an item change hands as the bettors were forced to pay up their wagers. It was with a sense of deja vu that he heard an all too familiar voice raised in laughter, calling an end to the conflict and proclaiming the winner.

It was with fresh eyes that Mamoru watched from the anonymity of the crowd as Usagi stepped gracefully forward, clutching skirts to keep them from trailing in the sticky paint. Both boys lifted their blindfolds and stood arrayed before her like knights errant about to receive roses from their lady fair, or perhaps more like school children about to receive a scolding from the head mistress.

And queen she was in this moment of comedy and laughter. It was with grace and a sparkling good humour that she dubbed the worker lad as the winner with a swift peck to the one clean spot on his cheek. And with equal grace, Usagi praised the young lord Priaric for his valiant fight, successfully forestalling the incipient anger in his body and even coaxing a true smile to his face. Lord Priaric was granted a stay of judgment as it was deemed that all the paint for the wall had been used in the fight and none was left for the work. Like a mother goose with unruly chicks, Usagi lifted white hands and started to shoo everyone away, sending the young labourer to find a work crew to clean the mess.

Mamoru slipped down silently from his perch of observation, and sinuously glided mostly unseen through the dispersing crowd, approaching Usa unobtrusively from the side as she laughed with the court followers. A once familiar quirky smile was on his lips as he slipped up beside her, noting absently the belated obeisances of the nobility, most of them awkwardly dropping into formal courtesies as his approach was seen. Usagi looked around in startlement and her face mirrored confusion for a moment before she realized they were not suddenly bowing to her. She turned quickly and a look of astonishment crossed her precious face as she came nose to nose with the silent Mamoru. He didn't give her a chance to say anything, but grabbed her by the waist and hauled her in for a long kiss. It was just like it always was for them, the moment he kissed her he forgot the rest of the world even existed, that they had ever said hard words to each other. He loved her so much it seemed that his soul shook with it. When they finally broke the kiss, Usagi's eyes were dreamy and soft, the look he so much loved to see. He gazed deeply into her beloved eyes and leaned forward to kiss her again. It was the silence that made him raise dazed eyes to the people surrounding them, most still in formal obeisance around them. His sharpening gaze caught some looks of embarrassment, in a few women a look of undisguised lust. But wonderingly he also saw no few gazes that held respect and some undefinable emotion that might have been wistfulness. He turned back to Usagi in time to see her look of love fade back into uncertainty and wariness. He forestalled her slight movement as she tried to get more distance between them, tucking her more closely into his side. Leaning down, he tickled her ear with his lips, delighting in the gooseshivers he gave her. Wickedly he whispered in her ear, ignoring her blushes. " I'm kidnapping you. Don't try and fight me, I'll only chase you. It could prove embarrassing if I have to carry you away from here over my shoulder."

Usagi's eyes flew wide and she looked up uncertainly at him. Whatever she saw there must have convinced her, for she blushed even more furiously but nodded shyly at him. Hesitantly she pulled away, but only to twine her fingers in his. With a wave, Mamoru acknowledged the courtiers and grandly announced that the Neo Queen had pressing business elsewhere at the moment. Her heightened colouring said everything, and with knowing glances, the glittering ensemble paraded out to attend the summer pavilion's entertainment. Soon they were alone with the drying paint and the tactful, out of easy earshot presence of Mercury.

" I'm tired of being cooped up indoor, Usako," he murmured. " Let's go outside and sit in the trees and feed birds or something. I love the sunlight in your hair . . . " he said, reaching to tug caressingly at her long tresses. " Ami and I were just going to talk to Natia for a moment, then how about you and I find a quiet spot and we'll pick flowers for your hair?" Mamoru smiled coaxingly at Usagi, and was rewarded by that famous pinball smile that lit her whole face. .

" I'd love that Mamo-chan, that sounds just heavenly," Usagi replied hesitantly, ducking her head and blushing still for no apparent reason. Sensing the intimate moment was lessening, Ami walked up and the three of them paced the hallway together, passing the approaching workmen as they attended to the scene of the accident. Mamoru and Ami chatted amiably about the possibly discoveries Natia might have made, wondering which of the lines of research had paid off. Mamoru knew this kind of talk made Usa either bored or anxious depending on how much self esteem she had at the moment, so as they walked he frequently raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. Usagi made no demure, instead opting for stately dignity as they walked. Eventually they reached one of the palace exits and proceeded into the courtyard.

It was perhaps a half hour's walk to the excavation site, and Mamoru blessed the fact that the temple structure was away from the main working archeological dig. They wouldn't have to trek through the inevitable dust and grime that was raised at the main site. They wandered to the right of the dig and slightly behind, passing by the young tree plantings and flower beds of what would eventually become another extension of the royal garden. Over a slight rise they looked down into the slight pit where the house stood. It's scrollwork decorations shone iridescent in the spring sunshine, creating a lovely, if slightly disturbing effect. Personally, Mamoru found the patterns made him slightly nauseous if he looked too long at them so he studiously avoided looking at them directly. Ami on the other hand professed no such sense of vertigo and would blithely trace patterns for hours on end, a pastime he privately thought was better off left to those employed to figure them out. He grinned ruefully at himself, an amused glance passing over the shining blue hair of Mercury at his side. Of all people, he should understand the acquisition of knowledge simply for its own sake. Heart light for the first time in many days, Mamoru held the hand of his beloved and walked down the incline into the slight shade of the depression, keen with anticipation of the promised outing to decorate her hair with flowers, and to renew again the reasons he loved her to distraction.

Natia heard the echoing footsteps in the outer entry, and then the warm voice of Ami Mizuno calling out. Anxiously she smoothed down her research coat, and turned to smile brightly at the approaching party. Her shining gaze fell immediately on the tall form of Neo King Endymion, and she drank in the sight of his broad shoulders, narrow waist and the flex of strong thighs under the smoothness of his softly worn denims. Reflexively her tongue licked her lips, and she jerked her eyes back to his face. Even halfway across the room she could tell the exact shade of his eyes, and her body shivered slightly in reaction to his nearness. He raised a hand in greeting and Natia knew her mouth was dry, her loosely clasped hands shaking a little with the approaching moment and her mind suddenly blank with awareness of what she was about to attempt.

Endymion turned to his other side slightly to whisper something behind him, away from the familiar form of Doctor Mizuno, and with disbelief Natia saw that he held the hand of a radiant blonde woman. For a moment her mind went white and her eyes went flat and narrow. Her memory struggled to give her a name - Neo Queen Serenity. Her anger started to rise under her momentary confusion. She had heard that the king and queen barely spoke and she had mentally relegated Serenity to non status in her proposed conquest of Endymion. Yet suddenly she was here where she was most definitely not wanted, a third party when Natia had bargained on only two. Natia seethed silently at this sudden turn of events, but stepped forward crisply with her bright grin still firmly attached to her lips.

" Your Majesties," she said as calmly as she could, inclining her head in acknowledgment. Endymion waved away the need for anything formal as they closed the final few steps. " I didn't expect to see you so soon."

"Wild horses wouldn't have kept us away," Endymion said smoothly. His expressive eyes looked down into hers and Natia was sure they held more than a trace of warmth for her. " If half of what Ami was saying is true, you've done a miraculous job. If you've managed to get even a portion of the controls working, I'll nominate you for the highest medal in your profession myself." Natia knew she was going to blush like a schoolgirl under that intense gaze and hastily she stepped back, lowering her eyes to maintain her composure.

"Perhaps even better, my king, for not only have I determined the working of a portion of the panel, I can also tell you what the machine is." Natia was rewarded by the sudden indrawn breath from Ami and the eager expression on Endymion's face. She looked up firmly again, this time fixing her eyes studiously on the familiar face of Ami. "Come here and I'll show you," she said calmly.

Obligingly, Ami quietly stepped around and Natia retreated to indicate the nearest portion of the control surface. "The charts and progression chains you can read over later, but for now I'll give you what I've found," she said briskly, putting the first motion of her plan into action. "Here and here," she said, " controls the opening of the portal." Her suddenly graceful hands traced certain patterns on the surface, fingers stroking the brilliant designs. Under her warm fingertips they began to glow an intense blue, seeming to raise slightly from the cool surface around them. The dream like flames on their dais began to deepen in colour.

"Portal?" queried Ami in a fascinated tone. Natia gave Ami a grin and confirmed it.

"Portal. This sequence opens the smallest power connections and causes the colours of the tendrils to reflect the increase in energy consumption." Natia reached casually and a few more patterns sprang to life under her knowing fingers. The mock flames began to reach upwards and became a deep hue of gold and red. Natia dared a look over Ami's bent head to see how Endymion was reacting. He was leaning forward eagerly and his rapt expression was everything she could have hoped for.

"As you can see, power flow and consumption are clearly visible simply by visual observation. This 'machine' had been left in power down state, with only minimal energy requirements. I'm not sure what energy it uses, although I suspect the outside designs are photosynthetic to some degree and that reserve energies are stored throughout the network. That can be studied at leisure now that I know how to get the 'machine' to respond, and to be in active mode."

Ami looked at her pupil sideways. "You keep saying 'machine' Natia, as if you really mean to say something else."

"You're right. I say machine, but it isn't really, precisely, a construct. From the little I've been able t o discover, the framework is what we would consider a machine, but the physical flame wall holds something alive - or at least, very definitely not machine. It's entirely possible that there is intelligence of some degree sorting through the machine responses to the console. But was for what that thing is - if its even really there - that's a little too complex at this stage of investigation." Natia tried to take an unobtrusive breath. Then smoothly, in the tone of voice she had rehearsed for hours - "My king, would you care to be the test subject for the next revelation?"

Endymion chuckled and inclined his head, as she had earnestly hoped he would. "Is it going to hurt?" he said warmly.

Natia smiled but inwardly rejoiced. "Assuredly not my liege. What I would like to demonstrate is a part of the machine's capabilities. Dr Mizuno, if you would care to stand here, I'll show you the readouts. My lord, if you would care to stand in front of the platform, perhaps a dozen even paces from it."

Ami shifted over to Natia's left, bright gaze focused on the now actively lit console. Endymion moved to comply, pacing into the center of the room and leaving Serenity looking a little lost at the console's edge. As he stepped away from her, Natia's sharp gaze saw her indrawn breath and furrowing brow, as if she sensed something amiss. Hurriedly, she started her rehearsed patter again.

"The machine itself has a number of functions that I have been able to determine, and probably several dozen more that I have yet to figure out. This one that I am about to demonstrate, is simply a medical scan. It seems to be sampling DNA, circulatory and respiratory rates, measuring brain wave patterns - in short, just about every test you might want to run, and without the pain of even having to remove a stitch of clothing."

Watching out of the corner of her eye, Natia saw him walk into the required distance from the flames and her body tensed with the peak of excitement screaming along her nerve endings. Lightly, her hands stroked the panel one more time. Dusky lines of green and silver flared to life, and a questing tendril of flame lifted away from the writhing mass and began to lean out towards Endymion. He eyed it warily but did not move as it encircled his waist like a snake made of light, wavering and then firming into a solid connection. Natia's smile grew larger and more predatory, and she began to point out to Ami the various readings that now flickered across the console. At this crucial moment, almost her whole attention was attuned to the machine, the unattached part of her brain continuing to respond to the anticipated presence of Ami at her side. Her eyes flickered over the more sinister displays, waiting for the moment when the machine finished sampling the Neo King for identification. The seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness and Natia made a conscious effort to breathe normally, all senses at hyper-alertness. An eon later, a previously dark section flared to life and her heart bumped painfully in her chest. She watched her own hand as if it was in slow motion, raise to the new lights and casually trace their patterns. She heard the sudden roar as she opened all the power channels to full potential and the flames rushed to the ceiling, the sudden crazy light nearly bright enough to make her wince. She raised her head just in time to see the outline of her beloved Endymion encased in living flame, as the flame drew him into its uncaring embrace.

In a sudden move, before Ami could appreciate the sudden horror that had happened, Natia's hand dived into her pocket and suddenly the deadly length of a gun was in her grasp. Ami had already turned, testament to her battle reflexes with arms raised to attack. Natia's arm whipped back and with a madman's sudden strength brought the heavy metal across in a vicious attack that caught Ami on the temple. She dropped almost without a sound, bright blood streaming across her face, blood that now stained Natia's hand. With a delicious, heavy feeling, Natia turned to face the unwanted presence of Serenity.

Usagi screamed in rage and terror, the ghost image of Mamoru against a backdrop of writhing flames burning in her eyes. She ran forward with outstretched arms but there was only air where he had stood. She whirled in the dancing light and in her suddenly raised hand the ginzuishou flared to incandescent life, a point of diamond clarity against the incipient madness in her eyes. "Bring him back!" she shouted wildly, taking a few steps towards Natia. Her pretty features were twisted by rage and Natia fell back in sudden fear. "Release him!" Usagi demanded again.

Natia's spine stiffened, and she raised the gun she had unconsciously lowered. "Never!" she hissed vindictively. " If he can't be mine, I'll make sure he'll never be yours!" Then unbelievably, she turned and the gun flared to life, burning half the console into slag in a few short moments. With an insane light in her eyes, she twisted to face the stunned queen. "You had everything," she snarled, the light playing mercilessly over her contorted features. "Wealth, power, friends . . . and you had him, and you didn't care. Everyone could see how little you cared - he should have been mine!" The last was nearly howled, and Usagi was frozen in her own terror and sudden, overwhelming guilt.

Natia continued, oblivious to everything but Serenity's stricken face. "Well, he's not yours anymore - he's right there where you'll never see him again." Natia waved wildly with the gun at the raging flames, and Serenity stepped forward a few paces. The gun swung back instantly, and Natia's eyes refocused on hers over the gleaming barrel. "All mine," she whispered calmly. "All mine, never to be taken away."

Usagi hesitated, unable to attack, knowing only that Natia might still be able to operate the damaged machine. "He'll die in there Natia, please, please let him out before he dies."

Natia drew her lips back in a crazy grin, but the gun barrel didn't move. "Oh, he won't die, pretty queen, he'll just - exist - there forever. Perfect and inviolate. Mine, where only I can reach him." Natia's gaze began to turn back again to the roaring flames, and Usagi dared one step, then another. Natia's eyes returned to her and she smiled at Serenity, long and slow.

"Mine," she dreamily repeated. Then casually, Natia turned the muzzle of the gun around and Usagi had time to draw in one horror-stricken breath before the finger tightened on the trigger. Dazedly, she saw the body crumple behind the slagged console. "Oh god, Mamo-chan," she whimpered and slowly sagged to the ground herself, her mind automatically denying the horror around her, him lost and beyond retrieval.

When Venus found her there she was in a dead faint, long hair pooled around her like blood in the flickering flames.

It seems he fell, although there was no real sensation of movement. The once pallid flames leaped around him, fierce red and sullen orange, inflicting him with a sense of vertigo as they whirled in front of his eyes. His sudden fear and rage were overwhelming, threatening to cloud his mind as the flames blinded his eyes. He had to get back, had to get out of this trap before Natia attacked his beloved Usako. He raged, and the flames leaped higher as if in mocking response, the sun-bright cage a perfect shield over and around him.

He raised his fists and struck out wildly, trying to physically push his way back to the world. Like hissing snakes, the flames curled up and over his wrists and arms, covering his flesh in a carpet of writhing colour. He felt no pain, only the pressure of restraint as the shield wall contained his movements with instant smooth response. His panic peaked and with wild eyes filled with the searing light he struck out again and again, fists coiling and uncoiling with trained speed and desperate intent. Exhaustion stopped him, his heart pounding with sick terror and the strenuous attempt. His blood pounded in his temples but his harsh breathing was lost in the omni-present growl of the fire.

His world hadn't changed in the slightest, the shield wall curling up and over him like a possessive lover, its breath in his ear and filling his eyes with pulsing, hypnotic movement. Swallowing convulsively, he purposely closed his eyes and forced calm on himself, his self discipline kicking in at last. Struggling to breathe in time with his heart, he removed his mind from the sick feeling of helplessness that tasted like wood in his mouth. His thoughts cleared and sharpened in hard, diamond edges of clarity. Her danger rumbled in his blood like a thunderstorm, and he * reached * for the core of his strength, intending to punch his way out with raw power if he had to.

There was nothing, no lightning leaping to his hands in instant response, no flowering of potential across his nerve endings. His eyes flew open with shock and the glimmering light seemed to mock his efforts. He tried again, plunging ethereal fingers into what had been the source of his limitless energy. There was an absence so profound that he reeled with it, as if it had never been, had never filled him with life giving light and power. In a mental anguish so profound it bordered on insanity, Mamoru recklessly opened the soulgates of his power and plunged headlong into the gaping void in his heart, grasping desperately for any trickle of what had once been a raging torrent. Where his earth sense had been was as empty and echoing as the empty stretches between stars, and as mind numbingly cold. He wailed in anguish and loss, and the heart-rending sound was swallowed uncaringly by the consuming, flickering flames.

It was hours before they could convince Usagi to leave the room now brightened by the towering column of flame in the center. In a heart-rendingly small voice she told Venus what had happened and then had lapsed back into apathetic silence. The ginzuishou still shone above her as if she had forgotten it, and its bright light played down mercilessly on her haggard features. She seemed numbed to everything, her mind in a frozen shock that Venus couldn't break through. With bleeding heart, Minako had the princess sedated and went to see to the state of Ami in intensive care in the hospital. With her own mind struggling to comprehend the sudden loss of Endymion and the collapse of Serenity, she clutched at the news that Ami would live, that the healing powers of Mercury were already working on an injury that would have killed another. Venus viciously shoved her own sense of loss firmly behind doors in her mind, and turned her attention to the ones still within her reach to care for. Although she knew that Makoto and Rei would have been aware the instant that Usagi was in danger, she stopped and concentrated, sending along an emphatic pulse to Rei to tell her to get back to the palace as quickly as possible. The body of the young researcher she ordered to be available for autopsy should the need arise. Ami was doing as best as could be expected and with Usagi in sedated shellshock, Minako went back to the temple where everything had gone so disastrously wrong. With a warrior's callousness, she ignored the wash of blood over everything and studied the console with care. Even her unfamiliar gaze saw the extend of the destruction made by the illegal plasma weapon and she bleakly doubted that anything would ever be able to be done with it again. Moving away, she returned to face the dais proper with its contained firestorm, unconsciously mimicking Mamoru's last position.

Concentrating, Venus expanded her mind. She was not as skilled as Rei perhaps, but she was still formidable. Reaching out, she traced her connections to the sleeping Usagi, and from her to the unbreakable bond that held her to Mamoru. The fine cord still existed as it always had, shining silver in her othersight but when she attempted to trace it to Mamoru himself, she hit a wall of flame, a force that resisted any attempts to pierce its secrets. No matter how she tried, it repelled her with ease and finally she was forced to give up the attempt with the beginnings of a serious reaction headache starting between her temples.

In defeat Minako returned to the palace. Usagi was still unconscious and Mina had her examined as well while she couldn't resist, in case anything else had happened that didn't show. When the doctor had finished his private examination, he whispered to Venus his findings and then had left the room, leaving the two senshi alone for the moment. In a different kind of shock, Mina walked to the bedside of her beloved friend and slowly sank into a chair there. Her helpless gaze fell over the features of her fragile queen, still drawn and anguished in her forced repose. Almost unwillingly her gaze travelled down the length of Usagi's body, resting on her flat stomach lifting with the gentle sway of her breathing, a body that still betrayed nothing of the changes taking place. 'Oh Usa-chan,' she thought despairingly, ' what will you do now? And how will I hold you together until Rei can get here and heal your heart? '

Venus lowered her head into her heavy arms and night began to fall on the palace proper.

" You will, Usagi! You will walk down that aisle and you will ascend the double throne if I have to carry you there myself! " Rei was angry and her long hair nearly crackled with the force she was flinging it around with. "You don't have any choice in this!"

Usagi's face was pale but determined, and again she shook her head to indicate her refusal. " I will not Rei-chan. I will continue to refuse until you turn blue in the face and die on the spot. I will not rule without . ." her voice shook for a moment, and then firmed again, " . . without him. Let Minako take the throne, I don't care anymore. She would rule better than I would anyway." Usagi's eyes and voice were bleak and reflected none of the day's brightness visible through the windows.

It was three months since that fateful day when Mamoru had been lost, and each day Usagi died a little more. Now it was all any of them could do to get her to eat, to do anything but stare out the window lost in the darkness of her thoughts. Rei had finally confessed in worried conference the night before with all of them that she couldn't reach the mind of the princess anymore, that all she could get was a roil of guilt and anger, a formless mass of aching loss that defied description. Mina had desperately hoped that Usagi would pull out of this despondency on her own, but Rei's admission of defeat had forced this confrontation. With a renewed sense of determination, Venus joined her voice into the argument.

" You are the Neo Queen Serenity." Usagi's face fell a little farther at Mina's voice and she turned away from them again to face out the window. " I do not want the throne, it is not mine by right, and I will personally help Rei carry you down there if you won't walk. Give it up Usagi-chan ! You can't get any of us to take that burden away from you, and you have to face it ! Each day you delay the empire falls that much farther into confusion. The northern borders are troubled again, and Rei wastes time here trying to mend you when she is needed elsewhere." Mina deliberately couched her phrases to hurt, silently urging Usagi to argue with them, to get angry, to show any sign of returning life.

" The people need a leader, and they have the right to expect that person to be their princess! Mamoru-kun spared you that responsibility while he was here, but he's not here to protect you anymore," Minako continued inexorably. If possible, Usagi's face became paler at the mention of his name, but she didn't turn back to face the room. Mina threw up her hands in disgust and despair at the fixed stoniness on Usagi's profile. Nothing was sinking through it seemed. She looked for help at the tall figure of Jupiter leaning in the corner, but surprisingly it was Ami that spoke up next.

"Usagi-chan." Her soft voice seemed to cut through the rising tensions like a swimmer through swift water. " I will tell you why you will take the throne and learn to rule, why you already know this fight is futile. " Usagi looked up blankly at Ami, and her expression of refusal began to waver into confusion. Ami continued calmly, only the white lines around her mouth showing the strain she endured with all of them as their princess sank slowly towards a self willed death. " You carry in you the next heir to the throne, the one who will be Small Lady. " Almost unwillingly, Usagi's hands drifted to the now unmistakable swell of her belly. " And in order for her to be the next princess, you must be queen. We know this. And we know that Endymion-sama will rule with you, for we have all foreseen it. Remember, we know at least this part of the future. That Neo Queen Serenity and Neo King Endymion rule Crystal Tokyo and that Mamoru-kun cannot rule if he is trapped. Somehow, some way, we will find him again and restore him to you. You know that he lives - we are tied to you and you are soulbound to him - we all can sense his presence that is still connected to you. Do not lose faith ! Live for your daughter and trust that the fates will restore him to us. Believe in yourself Usagi-chan. You can do this ! "

Ami sank back down again, easily exhausted after that devastating head blow and the emotional impact of her speech. Mina looked hopefully at Usagi, and realized after a few moments that something was happening. Usagi's hands were clasped over her unborn daughter and she was rocking a little. Her eyes were still blank but they appeared to be focusing inwards on Ami's words. Her lips moved slightly, and Minako realized that she was trying to reach Mamoru again, calling along the lines of destiny that tied them together. Usagi's shoulders slumped and Mina cried inside at the inherent sadness in that repeated admission of defeat. None of them could reach Mamoru - although they had squandered shocking power resources against the column of living light that held him. Each time they had failed, Usagi had wilted a little more. Eventually she had even stopped going to the chamber of light, preferring instead to sit in her lonely room, ignoring everybody and everything, until the senshi were nearly as haggard as she was with worry for her. Mina waited with baited breath and firmly told herself not to hope too much.

The moments ticked by and Usagi continued to commune with herself. Rei silently walked over to Mina and sat beside her on the low bench, resting her heavy head against her friend's shoulder. With a sharp glance she saw the dark circles under Mars' eyes and knew that she herself probably didn't look much better. Venus hadn't realized herself how much Mamoru had held on his shoulders until she had had to take on that shockingly heavy burden. And now she was forcing her friend to take that tortuous load, when she knew better than anyone that Usagi was woefully less than prepared to accept it. But truthfully, there was no other choice. Venus couldn't hold the hegemony together - only one of royal blood could hope to do that and for each day that passed, that hope grew fainter as the princes and lordlings began to carve up the power between them. Venus leaned her fair head against the darker one on her shoulder and waited for her friend to choose between her death wish or life without the one she lived for.

Finally Usagi's eyes cleared of reverie and she turned to face the inner senshi. Jupiter still leaned in her corner and Usagi saw with painfully clear eyes that the only reason she hadn't fallen down was because she had wedged herself carefully against the stonework. Ami sat on a chair and although the bandages were gone, she could still see the livid red scar on her temple where Natia had struck to kill. On the other wall, Rei had collapsed on Venus' arm, Minako herself seeming to hold together with nerves of twisted steel and a mind that refused to admit defeat. In that flash of insight, Usagi groaned in remorse at what she had done to her closest friends. With a hesitant smile, she opened her arms and they all staggered forward to collapse in her urgent embrace and their tears of relief were like a benediction to her.

" If you really can't live without me, I guess I can't leave you yet," she said hoarsely. As if in response, the child kicked for the first time.

Mamoru drifted in soulshock for a time that could have been hours or aeons. Flames dancing and swirled in his unknowing gaze, his prison reaching insurmountably high overhead. Mesmerized he watched the dancing lights, little flame creatures sporting fancifully in his surreal vision. His sense of earth was a raw, aching void deep in his heart, a gaping maw of darkness where there had only been purest light. For all the years of this lifetime, that light had sustained him, had fed him the strength to defend his planet against threat, had upheld his spirit in the worst of trials. Now there was less than nothing, an absence so profound he could have wept from it.

The tie that had bound him to his planet had never been threatened before. His life, his mind, his memories even had been taken from him, and he had survived. Dimly, he wondered how this could have happened - he was the guardian of this blue planet, it should not have been possible to separate him from the source of his power, from the golden crystal that was both symbol and anchor of his mastery. Jolted from his apathy, Mamoru attempted the smallest of things - to call forth the crystal into his cupped hands, to make it manifest itself as a physical item. For a wild moment he thought he felt it, a shimmer of light behind his eyes and a thread of melody in his ears that came through the hiss of the flames. And then it was gone, so elusive that he thought he had imagined that lightest of touches. The crystal was a part of his physical being, like the colour of his eyes, it should have been impossible that he couldn't even touch it. He felt his soul freezing over again with bleak despair and he lapsed back again into semi-consciousness, flamelight playing over his stark features. Unable to move, unable to summon even the remotest spark of power, he drifted in solitude as a single point of darkness in the conflagration around him.


Serenity turned and gazed down at her daughter. Small Lady was looking at her feet, her voice seemingly rising in the air from no apparent source since all she could see was a shock of pink hair and hands busily engaged in playing with Luna P's ears. Gently she replied, "Yes, sweetheart?"

"How come Jamis has a daddy and I don't?" said the little girl bluntly. Now she did raise her head and Serenity could see the budding determination on her face. With a sigh, she leaned back in her chair and contemplated how best to describe the indescribable to an eight year old. It was early morning and Serenity had been having a quiet breakfast with her daughter, something she tried very hard not to spoil with matters of state. Intellectually she knew this moment had been brewing for a long time but emotionally she still wasn't really prepared for the dull ache the idea brought.

Letting her mind ruminate on the proper approach, Serenity sipped her hot tea and appreciated the fine beauty of the daughter that was all she had left of him. The directness - that came from her for sure, and the wide eyes as well. The eyebrows, the shape of her exquisite heart face, even her occasional displays of temper - these were Tsukino Usagi all over again as she hadn't been for years. Nothing seemed at first glance to be anything but the birthright of Serenity and the indefinable something that made Small Lady an individual, complete in herself.

It was the look in the child's eyes that reminded Serenity most of who she had lost - the solemn, wounded expression deep in the gaze that told her this was truly her beloved's child. Mamoru had carried deep, unseen scars on his soul from two lifetimes of nearly unrelieved duty and pain. No one knew the depths of emotion that had ruled his soul - more sensitive than any could have guessed - save her. It was part of her burden and her joy that no one else knew the doubts and desperations that he had whispered to her in the nights, the easing of his soul in her arms and body, safety and assurance in her love. On a day filled with sunshine cruel as knives and heavy as sand, he had called with a voice as cold as iron for Venus to kill - and only she knew the unashamed tears he had cried into her hair for the nights after. And now his daughter faced her over another sunlit place with hands about to tear apart her comfort toy and Serenity had to find words to explain why he was not here.

"Small Lady," she started slowly, trying to find her way through the minefield of words, "do you remember when Alis cried because her mama was hurt and in the hospital for so long?"

The little girl's hands still momentarily and a small, hesitant nod was her answer. "I remember mama, I remember Alis was really sad for a long time." Small Lady thought a moment but then said accusingly, "But her mama came home after a while, and I still don't have a daddy!" Her little mouth trembled but then firmed into defiant mutiny. Serenity tried hard not to laugh even through the ache in her heart, and hid her mouth behind another swallow of tea.

"Your father's name is Chiba Mamoru, which means Protector of Earth," she told her pouting daughter. "We were in love for many years, he and I, and we made you to be our daughter. He would have loved you very much but . . . well, something bad happened and he was . . lost, very far away from here." Well, that's one way to say it, she thought to herself wryly.

"But is he ever going to come back mama, you know, so I can have a daddy too, just like Jamis?" Small Lady's expression was hopeful as she peeked out from long lashes. "He could take me to the lake, and to the park to climb trees, and even," she said with a wistful look, "read me stories in bed?"

Serenity's heart thumped painfully and she wondered how much truth was the right amount to say, how much a child could understand of the complexities of the adult world. She opted for as much truth as she herself could bear to say. "I'm sure that one day you will have a daddy too, and that he will love you even more than I do. But," she said gently as she saw the growing joy in her daughter's eyes, "it could be a long time. A very long time. He was lost so far from here it could take all the time until you grow up before he can find his way back."

"Grown up?" she squeaked breathlessly, clutching the mangled Luna P tightly. "All the time until I'm grown up?"

Serenity nodded slowly and let her daughter try to assimilate that cautionary word. She hurt for telling her daughter this particular truth, for letting her know that some things nobody could fix. She tried to take cold comfort from the knowledge that bleak as it was, it was still a truth she believed in every day of her life. One day he would return and one day she would see his beloved face again in truth instead of in the reflection of his daughter.

"You promise mama, you promise that even if it takes until I'm grown up, my very own daddy will come back?" she insisted of her mother.

"I promise Small Lady, I will swear it upon the Illusion Silver Crystal that one day your father will find his way back to be here with us," she said firmly, seeking to give an assurance that even her daughter could not doubt. It seemed to work as her eyes got really large at the mention of the legendary power of her mother's, but it seemed to satisfy her and the meal progressed without anymore undue bumps to Serenity's peace of mind. She might have been a little less calm if she could have read her daughter's mind that day.

Throughout the day, Small Lady turned the problem over in her head. It was obvious, once you knew that you might have to wait a long time for something. She didn't know how long it took to grow up, but it sounded like it could be a while. "If I'm all grown up," she whispered to Luna P quietly, "he might not recognize me. He might think some other little girl is his daughter and he might want to be with her instead of me. Well, he'll be MY daddy and I have to make sure he knows who I am." Small Lady tried to figure out how to make sure somebody she'd never seen would recognize her as his daughter and not mistake her for somebody else.

It was night before she figured out the obvious solution. Happy at her new thought, she hugged Luna P tightly to her chest as she snuggled down into the covers. "I know what I'll do!" she crowed happily. "I'll just never grow up! That way, I'll always be a little girl, and he'll know who I am. That was pretty smart of me, don't you think?"

Luna P beeped at her in what she assumed was agreement. Small Lady smiled happily and settled down for sleep. "That's it," she thought warmly as she drifted off, " I'll just never grow up and he'll have no trouble finding me when he comes looking."

It seems he drifted like a forsaken child, an abandoned doll. At times it almost seemed his prisoning walls comforted him, supported him in his overwhelming despair. Times untold he checked the soulgate, peering within to find the absence as chill and bleak as before. The flames writhed and swirled in his desolate gaze, at times resembling dancers or storm-tossed trees. He imagined he saw whole armies marching to battle, heroes on horses that dissolved into falling cascades of brilliant butterflies. He hung suspended in flameflowers and dreamed he had been a man.

How long he stayed in that suspended animation he could not after say with anything approaching certainty. Slowly, the flicker of his unconquerable spirit began to rise again, and he roused from the stupor he had fallen into. Unflinching, he once again opened the pathway to his power and felt the chill of that intimate loss reaching out to him. With a callousness that had a border of self-destruction to it, he slipped deliberately into that void, drawing it over his head like a sea of black water, a whirlpool of loss that matched in intensity the firestorm that raged outside his mind. With singleminded focus he began to reweave that darkness into the framework of his psyche. With endless tenacity he followed the absences where they lead; myriad branching pathways leading from the main core of his lost power. He traced each minute pathway, each slippery connection a reminder of the vibrant power that had once poured through it. With delicate touch and intent of steel, each cord began to rework itself. Dimly he began to realize that he traced a web of power conduits that ran through his body like a tissue overlay of his blood.

As he slowly assimilated and absorbed the knowledge contained in these empty corridors, he realized how extensive the network was and how instinctive his reactions had been to it. It had always served his needs and he had never needed to question its workings before. As the pattern became clearer and more complete in his mind's eye, he marvelled silently at its complexity. His power did not spring into simple life when he needed it, as he had always assumed it did, a miracle granted to him by being born the guardian of this planet. He traced all the minute connections back to their origin, where the great strength of the golden crystal had rested. The core was bare and empty, a shimmering curtain of flame seeming to stretch endlessly across the place where his power should have been, just as the flame wall trapped his body in this nowhere place. He dared not approach that greater strength yet, and he retreated back into the smaller branches and lost himself in exploring their enchanting lacework patterns.

As he discovered the way and reaches of his absent power, a flickering from the world of his consciousness gradually filtered through his awareness. Like a diver, he swarmed up through the darkness in his soul to full consciousness in his body. Looking around, he realized that the flamelight was shifting in front of him - fingers of agitation curled and spasmed in front of his startled gaze. In a reflexive action he tried to summon power to build a shield of protection, knowing the futility of his cause. He * felt * the newly discovered pathways flexing to channel an energy that wasn't there, something he had never been aware of before. And in a different awareness, he realized with a growing excitement that the light in front of him was wavering in a locked rhythm to the beat of his opening channels. The movement was small but unmistakable. Somehow, the shield energy was reacting to him and his unfilled, open channels. He experimented a little, his scientific mind making cold calculations. It definitely was responding - perhaps if his channels were void of power, the flame wall was drawn to try and fill the emptiness. Coldly, he decided that the makers of this trap may never have expected it to contain someone versed in the uses of power channels. And he had all the time in the world to make this discovery work to his eventual benefit.

He went back to his frustrating, elusive efforts. With conscious effort this time, he traced his entire power network, leaving only the guarded central core of himself untouched. Like muscles trained with repeated test his control grew stronger and more conscious. With each mental effort he was rewarded as his channels began to open and close in a demanding rhythm. It was heartbreakingly slow; at first only the smallest of pathways responded. He continued doggedly, not knowing what else he could do and resting only when the mental strain grew too great to bear. Soon larger conduits were responding and then the smaller nexus points where pathways joined to each other. He trained himself to open them wider and wider, struggling to affect the shield wall. When the nexus points began to react, the pulsing of the flames was obvious and he exulted that he was on the right track. It was as if the emptiness of his channels were drawing on the nearness of the shield energy, attempting to draw its power along the pathways. He allowed himself the hope that if enough pressure could be built up inside his channels, enough force of energy, he might be able to burst apart the shield wall and free himself.

In the deserted temple, the flame on the altar began to pulse with a steady regularity, faint but noticeable in the shifting complexities of fire. Crystal roses in urns around the chamber reflected the pattern of light over the walls, making the room like a living altar to a fire god.

Neo Queen Serenity smiled remotely at the courtiers she passed in the hallway, leaving her body on autopilot as it greeted people on her behalf as she continued along her way. With measured tread she paced the great length of her chosen route, and eventually gained the outside. Breathing with careful control, she continued to walk with steady pace, winding her way along the paths to the house she visited every year on the anniversary day when her heart had died. In her hand she carried one long stemmed crystal rose, carefully crafted for her by the best artisans the empire could employ.

The walk did her good, freed at least temporarily from the dull matters of state. With a pang she saw the beautiful flowers of spring surrounding her, fresh fragrances mingling in the crisp air. She remembered again that last promise and the look in his eyes when he had said for her ears alone that he loved flowers in her hair. Stooping, she picked a pretty little orange one and with a wistful smile tucked it behind her ear. The long rolling land of the palace grounds flowed all around her, more formal structured gardens within her gaze should she choose to visit their calming confines. Yet her feet followed where her heart insisted she had to go, and eventually she looked down into that hauntingly familiar depression. For a moment her eyes insisted she still saw the bare earth that had been there that day instead of the carefully tended lawn that existed now.

With a heart nearly inured to the sight of it, she walked down and forward to the main entrance, sealed as was proper for a tomb. Only she and Ami remembered the sequence that opened the great door and she preferred it that way - it kept the curious and the disrespectful away. Spring sunshine over her shoulder, she traced the opening pattern and the doors swung open as they always had, mysterious machinery still working as it must have done for millenia. She stepped out of the growing warmth of spring into the coolness of his burial chamber.

The column of flame was undiminished, as bright and vivid as the day he had been stolen away from her. With heavy heart Usagi paced forward with measured stride to place the crystal rose with the rest that she had created for him. Absently she noted the profusion that surrounded the dais, one for each year that she came here, and noted absently that she really should get some more urns to place them into. Her face was calm as she looked into the swirling flames, only her eyes betrayed the bone deep sorrow that still existed there - the mourning that she only showed here, where only he could see it.

She let her thoughts drift with the flames - all her words had long since been said and all her tears had been cried, so many years that she had almost forgotten what it had felt like to have him at her side, to turn and to see him there with that look in his eyes that was meant for her alone. Only her faith still remained unshakeable, that Ami had to have been right those many years ago when she had said that he had to return - that someday she would be complete again. With a sigh, she let her gaze wander over the flames, idly wondering if she looked hard enough if she might see his face in them. Let the lordlings and petty kings maneuver for position, dreaming of the empty seat of the double throne and her hand in marriage. She knew, as the senshi knew but would not mention in front of her, that only one man could sit there beside her. Each year the jockeying for power became fiercer and each year she cared less about it. Only Small Lady could make her laugh anymore with anything approaching joy. She took comfort in her friends, and ruled Crystal Tokyo with gentleness and a firm touch - but her heart was frozen in stasis in a day that was nearly four hundred years gone.

Serenity knew the common gossip that said that this little place was a burial chamber for her lost love, that she came here in remembrance each year on the day he had died. One rumour had said he was a rogue, a pirate that had stolen her heart and been executed by the palace guard on her orders. Another had disagreed, saying that he was her betrothed husband before being cut down by an assassin of a rival lord. Others had affirmed that he had been a peasant lad that she had loved in her youth and had been forbidden to marry. Serenity had ignored them all and continued to bring her roses, hoping against hope that she would open the door and find him standing there, with blue eyes that contained all of her sky in them. And each year that hope became a little more faded with time, until it had etched a soft groove in her heart that really didn't hurt all that much anymore when he never answered her silent calling. He still lived behind his prisoning walls, she could feel it, but she knew no more than that. No call she made was ever answered.

She stayed a little longer, watching the pulsing, hypnotic flames that seemed to beat in time to her heart, and then she returned the way she came. The door closed softly behind her, and the flames were softly mirrored again by the walls that contained them, their steady cadence a comforting rhythm in the room.

He laboured and his control became more and more sure. As each pathway opened, his mind's eye saw the framework filled with the essence of his life spirit. He stretched himself to greater and greater capacity, until finally only the great nexus remained untapped, its great void as daunting as before. The shield around him was now anchored to his heartbeat, flexing inexorably to his imposed rhythm. As he opened himself on each pulse, he felt the wild rush of his soul essence streak out, spreading the pathways to their maximum carrying capacity and creating pressure on the inside of the shield wall. He held it as long as he dared and then reversed its direction, drawing the energy back down and away, incidentally causing his prison flex in the other direction as it yearned to follow in the open pathways. He held this demanding rhythm for long moments, testing his control and nerves. Then, with a sense of fatalism, he reached for the final, core nexus.

It seemed that he floated again in a vast sea of darkness and loss. Inside, he could see branches that lead away and a braided cord of silver, gold and deepest black that plunged into the blocking flame wall across his soul. When he touched the gold one with ethereal, spirit hands, he heard an echo of faint power and a sense of earth that was so faint he hardly recognized it. The black he knew was himself, despair and loneliness forged into a physical presence. But when he touched the silver, it vibrated like a small bell and it sang softly of Usako. He wrapped grateful hands around it and realized that she still lived somehow, that wherever she was, she was safe. His joy was like a heady draught of brandy to his senses and with reckless abandon, he filled the nexus with his awareness and forced it to respond to his wishes. When the great nexus began to beat in controlled time, his mind sang with crystal clarity of purpose. His eyes opened for the first time in aeons and he began to deliberately force the pace.

The flames fluctuated wildly around him and he forced his abused channels to straining point time and time again, watching with cold calculation for the moment when the pressure would become too great and it would break outwards. In a physical mimicry of what he was trying to do, his arms and legs spread wide and with unastonished eyes, Mamoru saw the silver pulse of his power channels overlaid on his skin. He knew without thinking that this was unheard of. He knew that Rei could see the power networks, and could even trace the connections that bound them all together, but he doubted she could have remotely conceived of the control that had every conduits down to the smallest of branches flexing in perfect time and under total conscious control. His world narrowed to steadily increasing beat, and he knew in cold blood that this solution would either kill or free him. With grim determination, he set out to do either.

Finally, his will straining to the bursting point, he felt the shield wall start to give a little. The web of his power blazed with a silver light that rivalled the golden flames around him and he felt the wall crumbling. His heart exulted and he * pushed * with all his might.

And then with an unbelievable, unforeseen movement, the shield wall twisted against the pressure and did something he could never have expected - it turned and struck back at him like a coiled serpent might strike, with deadly force and ferocious intent. His pathways were opened to their maximum and Mamoru knew in that instant of disaster that to close them would destroy him instantly as the power would backlash against his physical body, annihilating him. In that same instant, he knew the shield was broken entire, his earth power surging back again through the reestablished connection. He chose to fight instead, and he retreated back along his channels, the roaring flames flashing after him. He struggled to absorb that overwhelming energy desperately, healing himself again and again as it tried to destroy him from the inside out. He realized in a moment of no time that he couldn't contain it, that he would reach the core nexus before enough energy had dissipated and that it would roar into his final sanctuary and blow it apart in a maelstrom of fire. He had no power reserve to fight it off, to hold it to a standstill long enough to dissipate the energy harmlessly. Still he fought, unable now to give up, absorbing vast amounts of energy that he threw away as fast as he got a hold of it, still burning himself with every tortuous moment.

In the chamber where nobody was watching, the pulsing, towering flames burst outwards, crystal roses flying everywhere as a disruption wave shocked through the air. The flames whirled upwards as if drawn by a cyclone, and then suddenly turning in a vicious movement downwards again. In the middle of the broken wall, a form of a man could be seen with arms and legs flung wide and neck outstretched in a soundless scream. Golden flames poured from the figure, his eyes twin beacons of light. Sentient fire swirled around the figure, hiding and revealing him like a shifting cloak of fog. Crystal shards lay like a carpet of diamonds.

Mamoru fought and knew he was losing. Too soon he reached the core nexus and he despaired, knowing that too much overload remained - that as strong as he had become in power manipulation, stronger perhaps than anyone ever had been, it would not be enough for this conflagration. With a final supreme effort, he grabbed the remnants of his power and fled deeper inside himself, letting the flames begin to consume his physical body as he sought to protect himself. He knew that he only delayed the inevitable but he retreated through the nexus. Finally he stood in the core of himself and turned to die. With incorporeal hands he grasped the braided cord that was his soul and lifted its essence into himself, the remains of his earth power covering him like a tattered cloak. As the ravenous flame roared towards him, he lifted his hands and opened his fingers so that the light shone through like an offering. "Guard her for me," he said simply.

The flames struck him and he screamed in a cascade of blinding pain. Dying, he curled himself around the light in his hands and tried futilely to protect it from the final blast. Broken he lay there like a discarded doll, streaming flames flickering over and around him. Faster and faster they whirled until they joined into one entity, a thing with golden scales, eyes of sun bright intensity and cold red talons. One eye dipped down as the being cocked its head at the dying man.

"What do I guard her for?" it asked, it's voice like sweetened smoke. Mamoru had no fear anymore, no curiosity at this sudden, sentient being in the heart of what he assumed was cold machine. held up his final light in wavering hands, a small globe no larger than his fist.

"Guard her for memory of my love," he whispered. The globe brightened and softly an image of his Usako came clear. She was asleep, her hair tumbled around her shoulders in an artless grace she never possessed when awake, lashes a sooty smudge against rose cheeks in the pale dawnlight. He had watched her sleep thus so many mornings, his love an irresistible surge of ocean for the moon. As his life faded, he entreated again helplessly, "Protect her."

The beast whirled in front of him, breaking into individual flames again. It sounded like they were talking to each other, each dervish raising a voice of fire into the roar. Then just as quickly, they merged again, this time into the shape of a young man. With a numb shock he realized that he looked into his own face, as if he had been the one to turn to flame. His sight started to dim as his body reached its limits and died; he looked into eyes that were still bright as sunlight as the other's face dropped down to his. Hands reached out and cradled his face; a kiss of surpassing sweetness brushed against his lips. "Guard her yourself," breathed that honeyed voice.

For an instant, Mamoru despaired utterly and his life began to gutter out. The mock-Mamoru melted again, and a small salamander ran on red feet to the small globe he still held tight. With unhesitating accuracy it plunged into the light that was the very soul of Mamoru and melded instantly with his power. The firestorm exploded outwards now, sealed with the earth power that was his by birthright. The healing flooded through his channels and into his body, mending the damage caused by the last few moments of agony. He breathed normally, a great gulp of air untinged with exquisite pain. With an ease that would have astonished anyone else, he tapped his core and contemplated the inviolate globe that held the core of his soul. In his mind's eye she still slept, daylight streaking over her beloved face. A small lizard slept on her pillow. One bright eye opened and looked at him with amusement, then contentedly closed. Dazed, he looked around.

Sunlight drifted down lazily through motes of diamond dust. The interior of the room was dark, the only light was coming in from the crazily twisted doors ahead of him. He drew one breath, then another, marvelling at the absence of pain. In a daze, he stepped down from the dais, automatically looking around for Usako where she had last stood. There was nothing, only the crunching of glass under his feet. He looked down but could make nothing of it, the light not reaching that far into the room. Gingerly, he walked towards the light. With each step, his body sang with power and he could feel the earth singing its song of possession in his soul, a thread of melody he had always heard but had never understood before. Tenderly he touched the silver light that was Usagi and revealed in the feeling of love that poured out of that fragile connection.

As he walked closer to the light, he saw with some amazement that the doors hung on crazily twisted hinges, one of them having been blown off entirely. Looking down near the entrance he saw something that wasn't just glass shards, and carefully he picked up an object that looked to have survived somewhat intact the destruction that had levelled everything else in the room. As his hand closed around it, an image shocked through his mind in crystal clarity.

Usagi knelt, a crystal rose in her hand and tears poured down her beloved face. Her sorrow was unmistakable and the tears fell from her eyes onto the fashioned rose she held. She was unchanged in form, but somehow older, a look of self possession still in her eyes that he hadn't seen before even through her grief. The image faded, and Mamoru was left shaken in the hazy light as he stood in the doorway. He passed a slow hand over his eyes and he walked through the wreckage into the daylight.

The sunlight shone down indiscriminately over the landscape. He knew that time must have passed while he was trapped in his nightmare, but this - this was beyond comprehension. The depression where the temple stood was carpeted in thick, soft grass where there had been only bare earth. He passed the large piece of door that had been blown away and walked steadily up the incline. At the top he halted again, his blue eyes startled.

Under his stunned gaze, the details began to pick themselves out of the horrifying whole. The palace seemed complete in every respect, its towers and walls scintillating in the sunshine. The gardens spread out lushly, at this distance a hazy green interspersed with patches of darker shade. But the object the drew his anguished gaze were the trees. Hours ago, when he had entered the room that had become his prison, the saplings had lined the walk where he and Usagi had held hands. Now towering oaks had impossibly mushroomed, growing into stately old age with large canopies shading the walk underneath their spreading branches. He walked slowly away from the temple, his mind blank with the horrid realization of the passing of ages. Eventually there was no where left to climb, and Mamoru sank down on the small hill and looked over the beauty that was Crystal Tokyo, as he had always imagined it would be.

His mind remained blank as he looked over the palace grounds. It was as if his heart wouldn't, couldn't accept what his eyes saw as fact. Again and again his gaze fell upon the oak trees, their height and power telling him incontrovertibly how much time must have passed. The warm summer sunshine felt good upon his hair again, and the breeze that drifted by seemed created especially for his delight. He would never have thought that he would miss the smell of pollen. If he had been gone so long . . . what was Usa doing now? Did she still rule in Crystal Tokyo? His eyes closed halfway and he checked again the silver cord that held him to her. She lived and was in good health - more than that he couldn't say. A faint pull on the connection told him what direction she was in and it pointed towards the palace proper. That told him that she must still rule there - he couldn't imagine her living in the palace if she was not queen of it. But so much time! . . . his mind couldn't comprehend it.

The sun began its descent from the high heavens and Mamoru watched with serious eyes as the light played over the sparkling spires of Crystal Tokyo. With aching heart he slowly came to the realization that there was no way to know what had happened, the passing ages seemingly taking place in so short a span of time. His mind kept blanking out, his emotions tumbling over each other in chaos. The lowering sun was shining in his eyes before he moved, finally stretching long bones before gazing soberly down the small incline that lead through the palace grounds. He had to know, had to understand for himself how things had changed - even though he knew that if he truly let himself appreciate what had happened to him, he might go mad from it.

With hesitant stride he began to walk towards the palace proper, descending into a formal garden that was well cared for, lushly surrounding the crystalline presence of the palace. As he wound his way closer and closer his pace got slower and slower until finally he halted unmoving by a small copse of trees, shade reaching out and enfolding him. People and activity had been apparent even from a distance and skillfully he had avoided either, evading notice and scrutiny until he stood here, almost near enough to the walls to touch them. Everyone seemed to be passing through a number of inset doors, moving back and forth from inside to the gardens. Bright jewels glittered on both the men and women, as couples and groups swayed back and forth in easy formation. Snippets of conversation drifted past his mute ears and Mamoru wondered idly what would be the best way to get inside, to see Usagi. His heart spasmed and his face closed down in a grimace of pain - that casual thought hurt him as a knife might, bright and keen.

Usagi. His Usako, now uncountable years of living behind her. "Oh gods of my fathers," he thought to himself in sudden despair, "how much time has it been? Oh cruel gods, will she even recognize me?" He breathed shallowly and willed his emotions back into some semblance of order. People passed him unaware as he struggled to control himself, a darker shadow among others. Minutes passed and Mamoru held himself as still as midnight, sharp confusion in his mind. Desperate to restore his faltering sanity, he grasped desperately at his bond to her, the silver cord falling into his spirit fingers like a lifeline. Still as strong and bright as the day he realized he loved her, his golden child, it sang its simple song into his soul.

safe and happy alive and well safe safe safe . . ., the little song went round and round his heart, his Usagi singing her contentment into his deepest awareness. Fiercely he willed himself to believe that that was all they needed, that her love sang to his like music across the waves of their separation. That was all they had left, it would have to be enough.

Conversations whirled and coalesced around him and he realized vaguely that there was some event coming due, that each person was anticipating it to judge by the references and sly tones. The doors apparently led to the Great Hall where this event was to take place. Mamoru blinked as he picked that tidbit out of the passing air - he didn't recall commissioning doors to be opened onto the gardens, the Great Hall should have been totally enclosed. It seems someone had changed the plans, another jarring note of discontinuity, a certain sense of the surreal settling over him.

And then a passing group, louder than the rest, spoke of something that sealed his nebulous intentions - Neo Queen Serenity was to be there, presiding over the ceremonies and he knew without even thinking about it that he would be standing inside the hall when she appeared. His hunger for her was acute and abrupt in his body, and his intentions crystallized in that moment. It didn't matter that she might not know him, as much as that might kill him should her gaze pass over him without recognition. It didn't matter at all - to see her was enough at this moment, to know she still walked the earth as he did, breathed the same air. A memory of her perfume in the long ago corridors of the palace was a taste on his tongue, a deep burn in his spine.

He started to step forward but realized suddenly that all these new courtiers had been dressed in their finest, regardless of the earliness of the hour. He looked down and realized that at the last he had been looking over maps and schedules and was dressed accordingly; a comfortable pair of faded denims snugged to his long legs that had been popular in his youth, a loose shirt of softest gray tucked haphazardly into the waistband, tied with careless cord at his throat. Hardly the attire of someone attempting to gatecrash an imperial party. He stepped hastily back into the concealing shadows and began to summon a quick change of clothes, his form as Prince of Earth or even the protector of Sailor Moon with its formal tuxedo. The energy gathered as it always had before, its familiar presence soothing his anxiety that he would be unable to do this, a legacy of the hours when he had tried to call power in to his hands and it had not answered. Potential swirled over him, sparks shifting in multihued tones over the edges of his body but it refused to frame itself into a familiar pattern. He struggled in long moments to make his mind form the image of his transformation but it kept breaking apart into flame tipped chaos.

Realizing futilely that it wasn't responding as it should, Mamoru attempted to release the summoned power back into the earth that he had called it from but was unsuccessful. As soon as reversed his grip on it, pale flame leaped up around him, startling him as it drew on the unchained earth power and coated him in liquid light. It only lasted a few heady moments and then began to recede in lapping waves down his body. He heard faint, amused laughter in his mind and his heart chilled at the dawning horror that the flame creature had taken him as its new host, abandoning the machine in the instant he had broken it. An intense feeling of smug satisfaction radiated through him for a moment and then it was gone as if it had never been. Shaken, he wondered if he was always going to have an interfering alien entity joined to his soul - but then had to grin wryly to himself that Usagi was joined there as well.With a shrug that was pragmatic in its acceptance, he determine not to concern himself with ramifications, his sanity was questionable enough as it was. So far the creature had only asserted itself to amend his choice in clothing. He decided to hold judgment in abeyance, realizing that his emotional stability was in a much more precarious position than his physical one. Looking down at himself he wondered idly if the flame creature had any sense of fashion.

It seems that it did, for he was still dressed in his accustomed black although in a style wildly different from his own. The colour was the only similarity, for the material seemed to be of some cross between heavy silk and softest suede. Soft black boots graced his lower legs, comfortable with the ease of long use. The pants were snug down his thighs, flaring slightly at the bottom to accommodate the boots, a slim piping of gold running down the outside seams. It was the tunic however that made him wonder what era the vortex creature had pulled this outfit from. Cut from high neck to his mid thigh it was heavily embroidered with gold patterns and glinted with gemstones. Fingering the high cut collar, he could make out the heavy scrollwork design that seemed to continue down the front of the tunic in geometric patterns. There were no sleeves, baring his muscular arms to the caress of the slight breeze and it fastened asymmetrically over his right breast, narrowing to a triangle at his waist. Slit at the side to allow for his long stride, crimson jewels blazed at each fastening and a chain of them ran from his shoulder to the fastening seam on his chest. The whole seemed a study in black, gold and bloodred and seemed a trifle barbaric against his normally restrained dress choices.

In concern he ran his hands through his hair but encountered no other decorations that might have magically appeared. On a sudden hunch he touched his left ear and winced as his fingers encountered a cold stone. With trepidation he unfastened the earring and brought it to where he could inspect it. Perhaps half the size of the tip of his smallest finger, it seemed to be a ruby of such a deep red it was nearly black. It winked somberly at him in the lowering sun and he passed a thoughtful finger over its finely etched facets. It was beautiful, no question, and Mamoru replaced it slowly back into his ear. Wistfully, he wished he had an idea what he looked like from the outside, but suspected it was more than formal enough to pass muster. With luck, everyone would mistake him for some outland prince and not the interloper he was.

Stepping forward, Mamoru let himself be drawn into the light streaming from the open doors that led to the place his heart might break.

The assembly was glittering, enchanting. Encircling the room was a promenade that led to the gardens, blocked off from the main room by tall graceful columns of marble - the same marble he had chosen to grace this place with its warm pinks and cool greys. The throng of people wove in and out between the columns, adding sparkle and wit to this place. Between the rising columns the dome arched high overhead, the bright crystal reflecting and spangling the main floor with streaks of rainbow. Stained glass windows paced the length of the upper walls, adding to the sense of brilliance and life as the descending sun struck chords of transparent colour along the floor.

To his left were a set of ornate double doors, perhaps twice the height of a tall man, imposing and regal. To his right was a dais, tiered with six long and shallow steps that lead up to a double throne. Each step had an ornate chair that led down in alternating sides from the throne itself, forming a staggered wide triangle with the two imperial thrones at the apex. It was difficult to tell at this distance, but each chair appeared ornamented differently - it was obvious each of the senshi sat there for formal recognition. In the back of his mind where his logic was hiding, he approved of the arrangement. Anyone needing to reach the Queen would have to run a gauntlet of her strongest warriors. Whimsically he wondered what would happen if he just walked up and sat down on that second throne. A wicked sense of humour filled him and he toyed seriously with the idea, almost taking a step towards the open area, imposing and so far away.

A man and woman walked by, wrapped in each other and their laughter jarred him out of his black humour and he stared at them with something approaching shock. He was suddenly overwhelmed again, seeing this room finished and vibrant with life. This was the place where he would have been married, where he and Usagi should have ruled together for the years he seemed to have lost. Overcome with mental vertigo, he leaned against the nearest column and let its cool strength support him. Every time he thought he was beginning to get a handle on this, it overwhelmed him again.

The people ebbed and flowed around him, his inward gaze and barbaric clothing a deterrent to them all. He almost seemed a malign presence in the brightness that encompassed this hall, dark and brooding, and all but one avoided his direct gaze or notice. This one was bolder than the rest, a young woman dressed in butter yellow with curly dark hair and inquisitive eyes. From some space away, she studied him under lowered lashes. Although this was not her first High Assembly she was not so far away from it. It still fascinated her, the power contained in the individuals in this room, the maneuverings and struggles that took place behind open fans and with quiet conversations in corners. And although it was impossible to know everyone in this place by sight, she knew she would have noticed this man before.

He was stunningly handsome, his blue gaze a casual study in brilliance and danger. His clothing was almost unrelieved black, but with a wealth of scintillating gems gracing the high points of his lean form. Black hair gleamed softly, framing a face seemingly made entirely of sharp angles and predatory intent. He shifted restlessly, and a stray beam of colour tinted sunlight hit his hair and for a moment he seemed encased in a rainbow before it faded away. He leaned casually against a column, so still and contained that he seemed almost a frightening force, as if at any time he would uncoil like a serpent or a fierce animal and rend everything in the hall. She shivered delightfully in the vividness of her own imagination, eyes bright with mischief and curiosity. His slow gaze seemed to piece right through everyone, as if he could see everything and cared nothing for it. His eyes drifted in her direction and suddenly she felt exposed, immediately turning to talk to the nearest person to her. When she dared to glance back at him, his smouldering gaze had returned to the center of the room. With perfunctory words, she excused herself from her unwitting accomplice and began to wind her way closer to him. She had this feeling that something infinitely more interesting than another marriage proposal for the queen was about to occur tonight, and she knew it centered on this strange man somehow.

Mamoru stood there and watched the sparkling crowd flow by him. He could see into the main room past the gently curving archways and his eyes kept being drawn back to the double throne at the end away from the main doors. It was achingly empty and a cool analytical voice told him that the queen would need to arrive soon -- after everyone had assembled but before the power machinations got too far under way. As he stared broodingly at the empty dais, his peripheral vision told him someone was approaching - not simply passing by, but making a line directly for him. He waited until the butter yellow dress was nearly at his elbow before he turned his gaze away from the fascinating panorama before him.

Her gaze was direct and inviting under heavy curls of glossy brown. Mamoru had met many such gazes before but this little slip of a girl seemed more kitten than coquette. Her eyes seemed as full of mischief as they were of curiosity and the rosebud of her mouth seemed quivering on a grin. Although he didn't let his expression cool to warn her off, neither did he answer that incipient smile. Instead he waited for her to say whatever she felt she needed to say -- soon Usagi would enter this room and everything else would be background any ways.

" I haven't seen you before and I thought I knew everyone. Is this your first time for a Great Assembly?" she inquired sweetly, trying to draw this stranger into conversation. This close, the hairs on the back of her neck were rising, as if he exuded some potent force that she couldn't see but her body could sense. For a long moment she thought that he wouldn't even acknowledge her, but then that long neck inclined in assent and a smoky voice said, "Yes. I don't believe that I have been here before."

She tried to smile brilliantly, knowing that nothing less than her best effort would interest this man. "I am well pleased that you are here though," she attempted to say with the correct amount of warmth and flirt, "I thought I would die of boredom before the ceremonies started."

The man seemed to visibly hesitate, and his eyes raked scathingly over the crowd before returning to her. "This ceremony. I came here . . unexpectedly and I am at a loss. Why is this gathering here?" Again there was that slight hesitation and she wondered what he had really meant to say there. She almost dared to put a hand on that tight arm but a small glance to his closed face warned against such overt familiarity. Instead she opted to answer his strange question. Didn't everybody in the empire know what this day was? Maybe not in foreign, faraway places that this man obviously came from. His blue gaze was steady upon her and she felt a small trembling inside caused simply by the pressure of his regard.

"Why, today is the day of each year that the Neo Queen allows those with titles and lands to challenge for the right to sit on the double throne of Crystal Tokyo." His indrawn breath was sharp and she looked at him in astonishment. If possible, his face had become cruel ice and his gaze was like lethal shards of glass. A frisson of fear touched her heart before his expression melted away, as if he simply turned another countenance to the world while his true face lurked still in the taut eyes. She was spared any possible rejoinder as a subtle movement through the air warned her of imminence and she turned with the rest to face the center of the hall, his keen gaze passing over her head like a cold wind.

A man dressed in sombre clothing now stood near the dais, unmoving in the ebb and flow around him. An ornate staff was in his hand - otherwise he was unremarkable. He stepped forward the three precise paces that placed him directly in front of the double throne. The room seemed to be waiting for this man to move as the crowd began to clear away from the center aisle. He raised his staff and brought it down sharply on the marble floor - by the second tap the room was quieting and the sound echoed clearly through the hall. Upon the third stroke, the room was eerily hushed and his voice rang out distinctly in the calm. "Lords and ladies of the court, I give you Neo-Queen Serenity, Princess of the Moon and Queen of Crystal Tokyo." His voice was melodious and deep and Mamoru took a moment to appreciate the sheer artistic merit of having that voice in the court.

And then all thought ceased as through a small archway to the side of the dais came the senshi. He straightened unconsciously, making his companion give him a sharp look that he didn't notice. Like a phalanx or an honour guard, they came in pairs - each dressed as the princesses they were. First Rei and Minako arm in arm, followed by Ami and Makoto, looking as fresh as morning sunshine in their regal splendour. At the last came Michiru and Haruka, Michiru resplendent in a dress of ocean green. Mamoru grinning wryly - all of them were dressed in ball gowns of rarity and beauty, except for the rebellious soul of Haruka - who cut a shining figure in a white suit with accents of the same deep green as Michiru's dress. Each of the senshi pairs took their places on the smaller chairs on each of the dais steps, with Rei and Minako sitting closest, most able to have a quiet conversation with whoever sat on the throne.

And then she came.

His throat clenched unexpectedly and his vision swam with an onslaught of sudden emotion. This was not his Usa, his beloved girl of the sunbright hair and explosive temper. This truly was Serenity - dressed in a gown of purest white that had only tracings of gold in its embroidery, stately and regal as she paced to the dais. Silver hair flowed to the floor and her face was calm and composed before her court. In one slim hand she carried her staff of office, its delicate length supporting the quiescent power of the Illusion Crystal, seemingly a mere decoration at this moment. Cradled in the crook of her other arm a small gray kitten was softly seen. As she passed each pair of guardians on the dais steps, they sank to one knee before her presence. She mounted the steps under his hungry gaze and then turned and sat regally on the double throne. On cue, the senshi rose and seated themselves, turning their still faces to the assembly.

The small ceremony was apparently over as the room began to move again, small conversations springing to life around him. Mamoru took his first breath of release. He questioned why he was here; so much time having passed, it was almost ludicrous to think that she would still need him, still love him the way she had always done. She had ruled here alone for so long, and had ruled well by all appearances. The beauty on the throne had only a picture's resemblance to Usagi; only an artist could have traced the memory of a beloved face in that of a stranger's.

He stood in blank shock for long moments, with a half hysterical feeling that he should just walk out the way he came in and let the memory of her fade from his heart, no doubt the way hers had done. As his dizzy thoughts whirled around his head, the melodious man stepped forward again and this time the buzz died down with an aura of predatory anticipation.

"You are called before this assembly and before her Majesty the Queen to hear the petitions of the claimants to the double throne, that you may hear their voices and see their contest. On this, the 430th year of the reign of Neo Queen Serenity, we ask that all claimants step forward and announce their candidacy."

The people began to murmur and reshuffle, and then a single man strode forward into the emptiness before the imposing dais. His hair was a bright red, his eyes a piercing blue and he walked with the arrogance of confidence in every line of his body. Mamoru detested him on sight. He walked the requisite number of paces to the center of the aisle and as if by pre-arranged formula, announced himself.

"I am the Alain Vissan, Lord of Orinai Province, Baron of the Wisenden Reaches, Grand Marshal to the Northern Levies, and I claim my right to vie for ascension to the throne of Crystal Tokyo and the hand of Neo-Queen Serenity in marriage."

Mamoru's lips drew back in unconscious savagery and he leaned forward, hands flexing at his sides. The girl in the yellow dress stared at him in curious appraisal but he continued to ignore her, concentrating on the drama in front of his unbelieving eyes. How dare this upstart announce his intention to marry his Usa! It fell out of his head that he had just been contemplating leaving himself, and instead focused with burning intensity on the man standing alone in front of the assembled court.

Lord Alain seemed poised and calm as Serenity inclined her head in regal dignity from the throne. Haruka was the one to rise from her chair on the lowest step of the tier, pacing forward so that she stood directly in front of the young Lord. Her eyes were steady on his and Mamoru could sense the seriousness of her intent even from where he stood.

"Your first test to prove your worth to ascend the double throne is to show the strength of purpose that will guide the empire. You stand before me, star of wind, fighter of skies and you will defend yourself." With that, Haruka reached elegantly to her side as if grasping an invisible sword hilt. As she drew her empty hand forward, the blade of legend appeared as if being drawn from an invisible scabbard. The court stirred restlessly at its appearance, its menacing gleam unwavering before Lord Alain. With calm determination he drew his own sword from its elaborately jeweled sheath. The blade itself was unornamented and Mamoru's estimation rose a small notch at the economy of movement in its motion. Here, it seemed, was a master swordsman.

This seemed to be a test of purely physical skill as the advance and riposte danced before his eyes. Haruka did not release the deadly striker attack that he knew the blade was capable of. It was hard to say since he was no real expert on swordsmanship, but it seemed she was holding her own skill back a little. Eventually the contest ended as if by pre-arranged signal as Haruka stepped back and saluted her opponent, silently declaring the draw. Lord Alain seemed as calm as before but Mamoru could sense the faint sheen of the exertion on his brow. Haruka might not have been exerting her full strength but it had not been a walk in the park either. She stepped aside to stand silently before her chair, the sword of legend apparently resheathed at her side in an easy motion, although he knew it was merely reabsorbed into her body.

Lord Alain ascended one step to stand on the lowest tier of the dais. Now it was Michiru who stepped forward to confront the claimant, and Mamoru wondered what she could do for a test of worth. He privately doubted that drowning the man in a Reflection would really prove anything worthwhile. From the same space that Haruka had used to bring forth the sword, Michiru reached and brought forth her Mirror.

"You have passed the first test, that of outward strength. Now you face me, star of deep waters, fighter of embrace. Mine is the test of truth. Face yourself." And with that, Michiru brought up the Deep Aqua Mirror and a blinding white light burst out of it to surround the form of Lord Alain. The light was pure and cold and Mamoru had a sneaking suspicion that the hapless, paralyzed Lord saw the truth about himself at all levels, all dark corners illuminated in the merciless light of the mirror. After long moments, the light faded and the mirror again reflected only dark shadows. Lord Alain looked shaken but still undeterred, his private battles with his own demons obviously long conquered. Michiru remained stone faced as she returned her mirror and stepped aside, gracefully waving him onward to the next step on the dais.

The butterfly at his side brought her hands to her mouth in burgeoning excitement. "Oh, he's doing so well, Sailor Neptune is such a difficult test! I wonder what he will do for the next one though . . ." Lord Alain had already taken the next step, so she was spared Mamoru's sharp question about the nature and purpose of these testings. Frustrated, he turned back to the drama, unwilling to miss any nuance.

This time it was Ami who stepped forward, her soft blue hair a specially welcome sight to him. He wondered abstractedly if she had gremlins deep in her eyes as she always had before during important occasions, but it was too far away to tell with any certainty.

"You have passed the second test, that of inward strength. Now you face me, star of water, fighter of wisdom. From water comes life and with life comes death. Mine is the test of courage." She brought her hands together and suddenly a fog began to swirl over the dais floor. Mamoru watched in astonishment as the droplets condensed out of the air and realized how great Ami's control had become. The created cloud began to swirl in earnest and then with an audible sound hardened into solid ice, trapping Alain's feet to the ground. The fog continued to climb his body and the ice rose like a creature with a mind of its own. Quicker than he would have believed possible it rose to cover his head and where the Lord had stood was an ice statue in the rough shape of a man.

He looked down at his companion in concern and realized that she was gnawing on her fingertips in her distraction. She smiled at him haplessly and whispered, "This always makes me nervous. I know that if he doesn't free himself quickly she will dissolve the ice and let him go - but I'm always afraid she'll wait too long."

"How many have passed this test?" he asked in a voice of question.

"In all the years of the trials, only two have made it past Mercury and of those two, neither passed the next test."

The statue didn't move and Mamoru began to wonder just how long Ami would continue to hold the impudent Lord in suspension. The crowd began to stir in its anxiety and Mercury began to raise her hands again. Suddenly the ice began to shake and then shake again. Finally the chest section fragmented entirely and the ice burst away in shards. Mamoru noticed absently that the fragments became fog even before they hit the ground but his attention was taken up with tense posture apparent in Lord Alain's posture. His chest was heaving and Mamoru imagined that he must look truly shaken now, perhaps the sheer feeling of being trapped had unnerved him somehow. Mamoru winced and realized that he could sympathize. Mercury inclined her head and stepped aside to allow him to take the next step. The woman in yellow clutched at his arm in glee, but Mamoru noticed that the man took the next step only after a long moment to compose himself.

The next one to step to the forefront was Makoto, beautiful with her hair in lustrous strands and the warm brilliance of her green eyes. "You have passed the third test, that of life in the face of death. Now you face me, star of thunder, fighter of protection and mine is the test of death in the face of life." Makoto reached outward and a long rod coalesced in her hand. It looked like ordinary wood, dark and smooth with the patina of long use. It was perhaps half as tall as she was, yet she handled it easily, grasping it firmly in one hand at the full extension of her arm. Lord Alain reached without haste or hesitation and held it firmly, wrapping long fingers around the core of it.

Mako's expression became fierce and Mamoru could almost hear the thunder in the skies echoing the call of her power. For long moments the two stood there, facing off with the staff between them. Then the staff began to crackle with lightning, sharp and brilliant. Streamers of blue white energy began to surge and snap up and down the length of the rod. Makoto seemed unaffected, her hair beginning to wave gently in an unseen breeze but Lord Alain was obviously suffering. Standing on the cold marble as he was and holding a rod of chained lightning the electrical charge was routing through his hand and down to the floor. Mamoru could almost smell the singing cloth from where he stood. He watched the unequal struggle, wondering what the purpose of this test could be for. Lord Alain struggled to hold fast to the staff as it became increasingly more painful. In a burst of insight Mamoru realized that was the point and the purpose. Makoto had temporarily created a powerful energy source and was requiring Alain to simply hold it. It mimicked to him the way he needed to support Usagi when she used the Crystal. Her whole body would become filled with the pure merciless energy and touching her to give her his strength was like plunging his hands into the raging heart of the sun. Makoto was testing the man's ability and determination to hang on through intense pain.

It seemed he would win this contest as well, and the crowd began to murmur with anticipation as he continued to grimly hold on. The lightning twisted like a living thing in Makoto's control and it almost seemed to snarl at the interfering man. The power leaped higher and Mamoru could feel the intense light imprinted itself on his eyes. With a muttered curse not far from a real shriek, Lord Alain jerked his hand away from the rod and cradled his spasming fingers in his other hand. His handsome features twisted into a brief snarl of rage and disappointment, but then he bowed most correctly to the illuminated form of Sailor Jupiter and retreated back down the steps of the dais between the guarding presences of the senshi. At the bottom he turned and bowed again, this time to Serenity who still sat unmoved on the throne. Then he moved away into the crowd, his supporters enclosing him away instantly from prying eyes. On the steps, Jupiter stood until the Lord had disappeared before retreating back to her own seat of power, small lightning still crackling in her hands as she finished the discharge of energy back into the air she had drawn it from.

The non descript man stepped forward again and rapped his staff of office on the floor twice, echoing sharply in the rising hum of conversation. "The first claimant to the double throne is defeated." He rapped the stick once again on the floor. "We call on any others to step forth and announce their candidacy." The murmur of the crowd swelled and died as eager eyes searched the room for more sport but no other brave figure stepped forth. The man rapped his staff twice and called again for any other challengers to appear. He was raising his staff to call for the third, and presumably the last, time when there was a disturbance at the large double doors that marked the entrance to the great hall.

It almost seemed as if it was some sort of scuffle, and Mamoru could only make out a few guards and their waving weapons clustering around someone who was making a lot of noise. The crowd exploded into a frenzy of whispered excitement as a hundred necks craned to see what was happening. Although he couldn't make out was was being said, it seemed fairly urgent going by the tone of determination in the voice of the central speaker. The guards seemingly made a collective decision and the mob sorted itself out into an impromptu escort and began to move rapidly down the center aisle towards the queen on the dais. The senshi all came to their feet in a rush and Mamoru watched as the little group hastily made its way before the queen. The man with the musical voice and the staff uncertainly stepped to the side as the four guards came to a halt perhaps a dozen paces away from the lowest step. Hesitantly, an older man in a stained smock took a few shaky paces away from the safety of his hulking escort. The senshi obviously knew this man and Mamoru saw Makoto and Ami exchange a quick, baffled glance before turning back to the unfolding scene.

One of the guards spoke up into the silence, Mamoru couldn't see which one from his angle. "My queen, we bring to you this one, the head of the gardens, your servant Shinra, who claims an urgent matter he needs must lay before you now."

At the sound of his name, the man sank to his knees and started to visibly tremble. Serenity looked a little astonished herself but raised a slim white hand to still the incipient whispering. "Speak your news worthy Shinra, you have come before your queen bearing news of great import and we will hear your words now, in this place and time." Her pure voice washed over Mamoru like a benediction and he lost the next few moments in the sudden noise inside his mind.

When he was able to focus again, the man named Shinra had bowed his head over clasped hands and although Mamoru couldn't see it, he knew the man had to be shaking convulsively. It wouldn't be often that a man of his stature would come face to face with his Empress on a formal occasion. Tentatively he started, "My queen. . " He stopped to clear his throat again and tried again, this time a little louder. "My queen, the doors of the Shrine to the Eternal Fire are cracked wide open and in monstrous pieces upon the ground. The roses are dust and the Great Fire burns no longer!"

They all sat stunned upon the tiered rows, Serenity seeming to absorb only the surface words and not their deeper meaning. Then the crowd cracked open into uproar as Serenity's face began to register shock and her eyes became large pools of deepest marine. Her head started to shake slowly in the negative as she said, "You jest worthy Shinra, surely you jest. No one could force those doors open with anything less than the full power of the Illusion Silver Crystal." She licked her dry lips unconsciously and rose to a standing position, one hand clenched convulsively on the staff that held the Crystal, the other flexing agitatedly at her side. The senshi mirrored her bewilderment, and the assembled court was hushed again observing her rigid stillness. She reiterated again, slowly and clearly as if trying to get the man to reconsider his words, "No one could have broken in to extinguish the Great Fire."

"My queen," said Shinra in a humble voice, "the doors were shattered from the inside. It's as if the Great Fire exploded, tearing them from the very walls."

"From the inside?" she nearly whispered. She was unmoving on the elegant dais, cold and serene as a wax doll, face pale and sharp.

"Mamo-chan!" she cried and instantly the senshi turned to her as one and began to feed her power. For so many years had they been together that physical touching was not necessary anymore and Mamoru could almost see the instant linkage of power as Serenity's call went forth on a wave of pure raging emotion. He knew that she would instinctively be attempting to reach him on all the lowest levels where they were connected, and he could only close his eyes in helpless anticipation of that undeniable grasp around his heart. Inside, he could feel the silver soul cord swelling with the strength of her desire to find him, and wildly, futilely he tried to shield himself away from her demanding summons.

The imperative call of Serenity began to surge through him and with slitted eyes he braced himself for that irresistible summoning, waiting for his soul chain to stretch to an intolerable level, a low groan of pure agony rising through his chest. The silver tie in his heart began to tug on his will, and he realized that this one thing he never had control of. He could feel the golden fire of heady power reacting in confusion, a bright heat in his veins as if it sensed a threat to its new host. Animal-like, he could almost taste its indecision, its desire to protect him from outside invasion. But this overwhelming power surge was as much a part of him as the colour of his eyes or the flavour of destiny, part of his soul and the power division inside him began to tear his mind apart. It seemed to want to defend him and his body was awash with conflicting waves of pure fire and silver call. He felt as if his sanity was starting to fragment in those two conflicting necessities. In his mind's eye, Mamoru envisioned the form of a containing shield like the one that had held him, a passive resistance against this new unexpected torment; and in a heartbeat it was there - a shimmering wall of cradling force that encased but did not damage Serenity's call.

Dimly he realized that she still called him, still pulled on his heart, but it was not an urgent thing anymore. He stood there in shock and let the waves roll over his psyche, finally realizing after long moments that whatever he had taken away with him from out of the fire meant he could walk away now, that nothing forced him to remain. For perhaps the only time all his combined lifetimes he could leave, that the love of Serenity was not a strangling silver hair wrapped around his heart like a chain.

His back was braced against the cool marble and his fists were aching from the strength of his grip clenched against his side. His dazed eyes opened and his brilliant storm eyes fixed on the wavering form of Serenity. He blinked, and the vision of silver and gold shattered and reformed.


It tasted like salt and a fierce unequalled heat. He swallowed convulsively, his love and confusion lodged in his throat. He flexed his abused fingers unconsciously and licked dry lip, passing a hand over the tight planes of his face and straightening from the slight crouch he had fallen into.

Beautiful Serenity. Visions of his beloved Usa formed and reformed in his mind's eye. Hair as golden as the purest sunlight, a questioning hand on his arm and the love and trust in her eyes. Tears of pain, tears of joy, a spirit as bright as the Illusion Crystal and as indomitable. The girl she had been, the glimpses of the woman she would become - that was his Usako, the girl-not-yet-woman who had loved him unconditionally through all their lifetimes together. Never before had she been this figure of power and authority, the cold light of the Crystal summoned effortlessly, the true authority of a queen on her face and in her body. This was a stranger on the dais, no matter that his soul was connected in all its deepest levels to her.

His head came up slowly and his sight slowly hardened as he watched with an impassive face as the call of Serenity faltered and died, all the senshi stepping towards her as the linkage broke apart into a visible shower of crackling sparks. "Why doesn't he answer?" she nearly whimpered. In unaware mimicry of his earlier pose, she passed a shaking hand over her face, tears streaking down her cheeks.

"Mina, there's nothing," she said brokenly. "It is still as it has always been, and the fire still encloses him, pushes me out." Her voice was raw but still bell pure, all her own agony laid out for his sensitive ear to hear. "Mina, he can't hear me!" she cried aloud, and Venus took her hand tightly as Rei moved in to gently push the queen back into a sitting position on the throne. The shocked silence of the court burst into hysterical babbling and Mamoru realized he was breathing again as a shaken intake of air made him give a queer half-sob.


The voice was small and clear. Mamoru had forgotten his inquisitive companion at his side and he turned in startlement to look into her eyes fully for the first time. Her brown eyes were wide and clear and he noted absently the small green speckles that floated across the iris. She gazed up at him with a measure of conviction, certainty and a growing excitement. "It's you," she breathed again.

His face spasmed into a grimace of pain and he tried to bring himself back under conscious control. The past few minutes had shaken him badly and the realization of his new strength had left all his emotions raw and scraped. He began to edge himself away, thinking of escape away from this scene of agonizing confusion too strong to be endured. His mind began to clamor at him, a quiet place to think, to reevaluate who he was, who she was.

The young woman laid a light hand on his arm, preventing his motion away. He looked at her with a face as closed as granite and waited for her to remove the intrusive arm. They presented a picture of tense calm in the furor of the room.

"She's calling for you," said her soft voice, low and wondering in his ears. "She's been waiting for you for longer than anyone can remember. And, oh gods! You're here . . now. Why are you standing here? Go to her!" Her expression was wide open, trusting and vulnerable. Mamoru could see the instant hero-worship, the adulation in her eyes as the image of romance thrilled her naive soul.

He deliberately made his voice harsh as his gaze sharpened to a sharp, smouldering fire. "She is not the person I loved." He stiffened and his fists clenched again in agitation. Her soft mouth opened in imminent denial and he brought one hand up in a swift, slashing motion. "I have changed beyond recognition and she is not as I remember. The girl I loved was as pure as summer's light and as open as a flower. She . . ." he said, waving a hand at the cluster of women next to the double throne, " . . . has been queen for longer than I have lived. I don't think we would have anything to say to each other anymore." His angry eyes were intent upon hers and her face was shocked white under that smoky glare.

She whet her lips and made as if to speak but the words seemed to freeze in her throat at the cruel ice in his expression. He waited for long moments, eyes raking her soft features and pale, shaken skin. Finally he stepped back and turned away, her hand losing its tentative grip on his arm. Unwillingly his eyes moved beyond her again and rested on the woman in the white dress, the one that looked so much like, and yet unlike, his Usa. His breathing was harsh again in his ears and the noise and motion of the crowd was like a swarm of crazed mayflies beneath his gaze. Waves of confusion, anger and unreasoning love coursed through him, shaking his fragile emotions like a leaf in a windstorm, a faint trembling in his limbs whispering to him of the need for control. Never before had he been given this choice, all compulsions fallen away, his soul solely his own if he chose it to remain so. He felt so raw with aching need that he wondered if he would fall away from the world.

A breath of springtime air was at his shoulder, her clean scent washing over his nostrils. He didn't turn to acknowledge the hesitant touch on his shoulder, and her hand fell again to her side.

"Faith," she finally whispered, nearly in his ear as she stood behind him. His spine stiffened in shock and his eyes went blank. "Such a small word, that," she mused, "that it can encompass so much. Four hundred years ago, two lovers were torn apart. And now two strangers meet across a crowded room and wonder what it is that they see in each other's eyes." He closed his long lashes and let the waves of truth run through his heart. The small voice faltered, then spoke again at his shoulder. "The only thing that anyone can say is a truth when nothing else is certain . . is that what was right and true once can be right and true again." The small sounds ceased and Mamoru could only feel the easing of his heart and the sudden quiet of the raging storm of his emotions. Once before he had heard truth into the echo of another's words; it was not something he would mistake again.

Faith. He had loved her for so long and she had been the princess in his dreams, the one that held him, that relied on him, that enfolded him in a surety that had never wavered. Surely his Usako still existed in the strong slim body of this imperial queen. It had taken a small slip of a girl to remind him of something that he ought never to have forgotten.

He opened his eyes, looking again upon the frantic noise and motion of the court, the tense knot of private despair on the dais. "Yes," he breathed gently, all of his life wrapped up in that unadorned word. He turned to face her, this nameless girl who had said a truth that he had lost. "Thank you," he said simply and raised one of her slim hands to his lips. "You have returned to me something that I had feared forever lost beyond retrieval."

She blushed and slipped her hand from his after a moment. Her eyes twinkled and she gave a lopsided smile. "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I am pleased to have met you . . . my lord."

Mamoru smiled back, looking but not seeing the echo of regret deep in her soft eyes. He turned purposefully this time, and began to walk with long, unhurried strides to the still clear center aisle. People began to eddy and swirl around him, making way like waves parting in a sea. Something in his countenance brooked no argument and the whispering began to center on his presence. He strode out into the clear space, a lone figure in black, winking jewels at wrist and shoulder. He walked forward down the aisle and the court moved as one, falling silent before that imperious, commanding stride. The drama and tension was obvious and the room once again attained that crystal silence of anticipation.

As he drew closer, the senshi on the dais turned back to face the room and Mamoru could see the expressions of shock and dawning realization in his peripheral vision. But it was Serenity's face under his calm gaze, the pale shaken skin and the beloved blue of her eyes. Her lips formed his name but no sound emerged.

Soberly he came forward, long legs covering distance like a panther on the hunt, and he stopped where the Lord Alain had so many eternities ago. The court was hushed, waves of tension and eagerness in the air like a shimmering curtain.

With a clear ringing voice he spoke, his eyes fixed on the face of the queen. "I am Chiba Mamoru, Prince Endymion of the Earth, Guardian of Illusion and bearer of the Golden Crystal. I claim my right to the throne of Crystal Tokyo and the hand of its beloved ruler."

The senshi were frozen as if in stone, a tableau of surprise and confusion. It was Haruka that moved first, drawn back down to the first step of the dais as she had done for years untold. He met her eyes as calmly as he could and saw the fierce joy contained in her own gaze.

She whet her lips and spoke huskily at first, then with more assurance. "I am Ten'ou Haruka, king of the distant sky, fighter of wind. You must prove your strength of purpose before this assembled company. Defend yourself." Again the legendary talisman appeared in her hand and with a powerful grace she brought it up and down over her head in a beautifully executed strike. It would take his head from his shoulders and for a moment Mamoru had no idea what to do about the gleaming death above his head, curving for his throat. Then his two hands came up with swift motion and with simple economy trapped the bright blade between his upright palms. He gazed at her, the straight edge of the keen steel between their eyes. His eyes went blank and unexpected fire bloomed between his hands, travelling the swift length of the blade. Haruka recognized the immediate threat and with a shocked curse threw herself backwards, releasing the blade into his hands as she fell backwards to avoid the power strike. She looked at him with wonder in her eyes as he grabbed the hilt of the sword with swift movements and reversed it, offering it back to her over his arm. Shakily she arose from her fallen position and with a smoky smile he released the captured sword to her hand and she resheathed it. Then with an unexpected move she sank gracefully to one knee and brought his right hand to her cheek, cropped blonde hair under his startled gaze. "Welcome home Endymion-sama," she said simply.

She stood and moved back to her seat, standing before it like an honour guard. Mamoru took one step to the next level, this time meeting the eternally calm gaze of Michiru. For the assembled people she gave her name and titles but her eyes spoke only of contented happiness to his. Her Mirror came up and the white light of forced truth washed over him, and his doubts and fears became apparent in the cruel twisted shadows of his soul. His own demons were as if exposed again in the flickering flames of his long entrapment. He silently accepted that he would never be perfectly worthy of the love of Usagi. The light left him and Michiru repeated the same greeting as her lover Haruka, her cascading hair soft under his hand. "Endymion-sama," she said clearly, and then moved away to her place of honour.

This time it was his Ami, her fierce joy barely contained in the mobile quivering of her lips. Shaking, she spoke her words and with a fluid motion the mist began to swirl at his feet. As the cold air began to wrap around him, he flexed his power channels, bringing a surge of nearly living energy through his veins. He could feel the ice trying to form around his body but the heat expanding from him prevented it. Mist and rain and shattering ice crystals surrounded him as Mercury strove to encase him. The crowd began to murmur in quiet astonishment as it became apparent that Mercury couldn't even begin to hold this tall, proud stranger.

With awe in her eyes, Ami gave up the unequal struggle and the mist streamers melted away into the air. To one knee she went, bright hair a coronet under his gaze. She clutched his hand to her face and he could feel the dampness on her cheek as she cried for joy. "Mamoru-kun, we have missed you so!" she whispered softly, her fingers threaded through his.

Unnoticed by any in the Great Hall, a small gray shadow blanched and bolted from the room on paws of streaked lightning.

After long moments she stepped aside, proud face held high. Makoto came forward and the long rod of power coalesced in her hand in a heartbeat. Her expression was eager and Mamoru met her gaze unflinching as his lean, strong fingers grasped the smooth wood. Lightning flashed between them, lighting Mako's face like a demon in a play. Her hair lifted in the energy currents and Mamoru could feel the surge and twist as lightning danced along his body. Higher and higher she drew her power and Mamoru opened his channels to absorb it, letting the overflow wash over and through him to crackle ominously against the floor. The light was intense and difficult to look at, two dark shimmering figures standing in the midst of a storm of thunder.

With a grin as wide as a wolf's, Mamoru ended the contest. Rooting himself to the earth he sank his awareness into the planet, the deep slow beauty enfolding him. He opened his nexus points and began to deliberately pull the lightning into himself, routing it through his body and down into the earth, faster and faster. Makoto realized instantly what he was doing and her eyes widened in consternation and respect as her own energy was being pulled from her control. She struggled to retain it, but Mamoru's control of energy forms was too strong and with a gasp she released the rod before he could drain her entirely. Lightning crackled a few more times in his grip and then the staff was only wood again, held in the grip of a tall, black-haired man who smiled at the woman who went to one knee in front of him. Makoto gave him no words of greeting, only the tears on her cheeks giving her away. Strength and beauty were hers as she stood again, taking back her wooden stave to let it vanish back into the power grid she had pulled it from. She stepped aside to allow him free passage, the wisps of her hair nearly brushing his face.

Now there was Mina, the shining star of her planet. With unhurried pace she stood before him, her softly lit hair like a fire's corona on her shoulders. "You have passed these the tests, but now you stand before me, star of beauty, fighter of love. If you would stand beside our queen, your love must be as true as the eternal stars." As she spoke she unwound her girdle of linked hearts, dropping the coils gently into her hand. With a fluid motion, lazy and quick she snapped her belt forward and he brought up his hand to instinctively defend himself. The chain wrapped itself over his arm instantly like a living snake might, constricting gently. It glittered dully there and Mamoru had time to wonder what this test actually was. His answer came in a few seconds. "Love me," she said simply and the chain flashed a rainbow of color.

Mamoru felt the power slam into his partially open channels, a wave of imperative force and intent. Under his shocked gaze, Minako began to glow with soft radiance and stars shimmered in her hair. She was beauty incarnate, the singing power in his veins whispering a song of maddening desire. The urge to worship at her feet was nigh irresistible and his sight saw only the deep blue turning of her eyes.

She smiled at him and her beautiful voice matched the feeling thrumming through the strangling heartchain. "Name the one that you love," she commanded.

He looked at her with brilliant eyes, his arm tingling in the grip of her subtle power. "Tsukino Usagi," he said clearly, "the Princess of the Silver Millennium and the beloved of my heart."

Mina's smile was brilliant and the heartchain slithered away from his arm to coil once again around her slim waist. She knelt and kissed his hand, pressing her long lashes into his palm. "Does this mean I'm not your favorite anymore?" she said slyly even as tears dampened her cheeks. His chuckle was low and delighted and she raised her bowed head to smile into his eyes. "Welcome home Endymion-sama," she said huskily.

He ascended the the hard won step, this time to meet the chill gaze of Rei, she of the warrior's spirit and priestess of the world. Her eyes were like agates and Mamoru wondered in alarm if he was going to have to face a trial by fire or art of combat. She looked cold enough to try and roast him alive. She didn't announce herself as had the others, throwing aside all convention and ceremony.

"Who are you to come here and give my queen grief with the memory of a long beloved face?" Her voice held neither anger nor challenge, merely implacability. This was not what he had expected and he could only look at her in a kind of shock. Rei's face was all cold lines and austere expression and Mamoru began to feel that chill in his bones. "You wear the form and face of our lost one, but your clothes are outland and your power is alien. I do not accept you and you shall not pass."

Mamoru gaped momentarily, his mind blank with the sheer rejection of it all. This was Rei, the one with clearest sight, the brightest perception. There was no way she could not know who he was under the outward changes. Anger and betrayal tinged his voice as he replied.

"What has changed?" He challenged her clearly, his bold eyes seeking some recognition from hers. The thought formed that he could simply push her aside, physically or mentally but immediately rejected that simplistic view. This exchange of words was a test somehow - he had to discover the riddle and solve it to gain that crucial step. "I am still Chiba Mamoru, protector and guardian as I have been through three lifetimes. Yesterday I walked into a carefully laid trap - today I have freed myself to find things changed beyond all belief and recognition. It is you that have changed, warrior of Mars, not I."

Her long eyes narrowed in contemplation and her gaze travelled the length of his lean body, seeing the tension and anger coiling in his bones. "Show me your power," she said simply, switching her attack and throwing him again off balance. Mamoru scrambled to follow her thinking as rapidly as he could, realizing that she didn't mean him to raise power against her but not able to immediately grasp the deeper meaning. Long moments passed as Rei waited and Mamoru thought about power. The smallest connection was made in his quick mind and he suddenly flashed a wolf's grin at her. If she wanted to see his power, he'd give her an eyeful.

He planted both feet firmly on the tier, shoulder width apart for greatest balance. He began to raise his hands up as if in supplication to the heavens even though he maintained eye contact with Rei, a small laugh still upon his lips. As his palms came level nearly level with his head, he began to open his power conduits, to show her what his strength had become during the long fight of his entrapment. He knew that Rei would be able to see the channels even when empty but he wanted them all to see, to understand. Earth was under his feet, deep and slow; fire was in his heart; fierce and bright. He stood as if a statue of himself, ice pale and draped in deepest black.

Green fire began to bloom as his feet, drawn from earth's heart, a singing force that was clean and bright. Sinuously it climbed his body, drawn through the vacuum of channels that he opened effortlessly to guide the flow. Unknowingly his head tilted back and his long eyes closed, savoring the pure feeling of the earth's heartbeat coursing through his body. His arms and legs shimmered with the coiling streamers of energy - wrapped as a long forgotten statue might have been with vines for support. He knew vaguely that he shone in the sight of the mesmerised crowd - that the senshi would sense the true source, unmistakeably scented with earth's roots. Rei would see further yet, would know that only the major channels were filled - something that any of them would do when holding power before striking.

With an uknowingly cruel smile, he drew on what they did not know, what Rei had subtly asked him to prove. The deepest black of his hair began to wave as fire bloomed between the soft threads. Golden flame, scintillating and brilliant raced down from the sun's corona on his head, flooding through and around the pure earth source, filling him down to the smallest passageways. Elation filled him - he had been fighting for his life when this had happened before - the feeling was undescribable. He let the two powers play over and through him, revelling in the exquisite sensation of near limitless energy. Dimly he wondered if this was what Usagi felt when she handled the Crystal in all its glory.

To those of the court, the tall man on the stairs had become a creature out of legend, crackling with unbridled colour that surged and flowered over his straight form, rivalling the spangled light coming through the stained windows. Myth had spoken of the birthright of the queen's warriors, but few indeed had seen any more than the smallest manifestations of strength. The one that stood and accepted the challenge of Mars was frighteningly alien to them. The crowd stirred uneasily, but waited for the judgement of their warrior princess.

The senshi saw differently - all were born to this power, familiar with the singing voice that whispered to them in the midst of battle. They all saw past the outward play of shifting color to the true source he was drawing it from - solid earth beneath his feet, a bright fire that came from within. Wonderingly, they waited for Rei to proclaim him prince and lord.

The princess of Mars saw the open channels, saw with carefully disguised shock the precise control that separated the two forces into discreet entities. To her othersight he stood as the Tree of the World, Yggdrasil, the roots of the planet holding him together, bright power whispering along the branches, and a corona of leaves that rejoiced in limitless strength. And her straining perception saw further yet, past the man on the stairs, through the Tree that stood in the otherworld to the core of Mamoru - that was still untouched, untapped. All that he showed her was not all that he was - the Golden Crystal remained quiescent, hidden from her direct sight.

If Serenity saw anything else, she remained silent.

Mamoru allowed one last caress of power to thrill along his spine, and then with soft reluctance began to release his hold, letting the pressure ebb as the passageways began to empty. Rei watched with outward calm, inner turmoil carefully hidden as she picked her way through the minefield of words that she needed to say, for the test he had yet to pass. Finally he stood before her again, a tall man with eyes still reflecting beauty.

"I see you, Chiba Mamoru, prince of earth," she said in a deceptively simply voice, acknowledging what she had seen to all - the intimate connection of earth that only a starseed bearer would be able to command. "But I still do not recognize you," she continued implacably. "You have hidden the greatest part of you, the part of you that has changed beyond all reckoning. If you would pass, you will show me all that you are, and all that you are not."

Mamoru's face went blank as stone and Rei thought she might have seen anger, or perhaps fear in his eyes before he shuttered his eyes with long lashes. The room was deathly quiet as everyone waited for his response. Ami bit her lip but remained quiet. She had to trust that Rei knew what she was doing, was attempting to reach some unseen goal that Ami couldn't immediately fathom. Provoking Mamoru would not have been wise at the best of times - Rei was courting disaster with her blunt rejection.

All Mamoru could feel for long moments was a wash of rage followed by soul deep reluctance. He had given her what she asked for, proof of the most intimate kind that he was all that he claimed he was, and all that he had learned in his long struggle. She was demanding the unreasonable, and she knew it too by the light of battle in her eyes. His frustration leaped to new heights and his hard fingers began to clench. This was too much to ask, and he raised hot eyes to tell her so.

Eyes of softest brown looked directly into his from her vantage point on the step above him. Her face was cold, sharp lines telling him that she disapproved of him, the tension in her body saying as clearly as if she had spoken it that he had failed somehow. It was her eyes that stopped him, for he could see clearly into their depths, saw the hope and encouragement that she was trying to give him. He was missing some crucial understanding, and he hesitated, sharp blue eyes searching the unseen currents buried in his opponent.

Finally he spoke aloud, voice strong and deep. "You are asking me to open my very soul, to let you stand in the heart of me and see with my eyes."

"You understand me perfectly, prince of earth," she said unperterbed by the dawning horror in his voice. Rei saw Ami and Makoto trading shocked glances, saw in one sweeping look the odd grin on Haruka's face. She dared not wonder at what Serenity's expression might hold so she ignored them all, conscious again only of the tight face in front of hers, and the heavy prickles of the queen's stare on her back.

"You are skilled, priestess, and you do not need my permission to see into the soul of someone," he countered deftly, searching for a way to avoid this requirement.

She nodded her head in agreement and her mobile mouth twisted in acknowledgment of his parry. "Then you will still hide the true essence of yourself and I will not let you pass without this. You were strong before this, earth's joy, but now your power is beyond my skill. You will give yourself to me, wholly and without reservation, or you will leave here without that which you most desire." Rei hoped fiercely that her inner turmoil didn't show, that Serenity didn't demand an explanation before she was able to force this admission from him. This was necessary, and she didn't have the luxury of time to explain it to anyone.

Mamoru was silent a moment longer, sullen jewels winking in the diffused sunlight as demons howled in his mind. When he spoke again his voice was still deep and strong, but his words were pleading. "Rei, you of all people understand exactly what you are asking of me. In all of my lifetimes, only two have stood where you demand entrance." He stopped a moment as sharp memory overcame him. His voice was husky as he continued. "In a garden under moonlight I saw a girl with eyes of bluest summer and she has lived within me ever since." He opened his hands in supplication. "The second time a demon broke open my body and ravaged my soul with fire - I live only because the demon loves eyes as blue as sky as much as I do. Both times," he said, his eyes steady upon the face of Mars, "I was violated. Neither time did I choose the invasion to happen, although one is the reason I live, the other nearly my death. Do not ask this of me, Mars! I don't think I can bear another voice in my heart."

Rei was as still as a statue, but she forced her heart to harden against the desperate plea in his voice. Her body ached with the force of his unconscious rejection and her voice was correspondingly harsh. "This is required of you, prince. If you would pass me, you will give me the keys of your power and you will give me access to what you most wish to remain secret."

The room was deathly quiet, and Mamoru could only hear the frantic racing of his heartbeat. He swallowed convulsively, unwilling to define to himself why his reluctance bordered on hysteria. Finally he nodded his head in abrupt assent. "Only because it is you that asks this, sister of my soul's twin. Only for you, and only for this reason," he said finally in a voice of smoothest silk. He spread his arms wide in a gesture of welcome and Rei could see the lowering defenses. Before he could change his mind, she slipped in and down with the lightest of touches. She had barricaded herself tightly for this, but was still nearly overwhelmed with the sudden onslaught of pure emotion that roiled through his mind. Like a bright bubble on a maevolent sea, she desperately cast line after line of tethering thread back to her body, trying to find stability in this frightening maelstrom of surging power. One of her lines caught, held tenously to something and she recklessly poured more strength into the bond. With a shock she realized that she had grabbed Serenity somehow, and that her queen was beginning to feed her the power to ride the turbulent waves. Secure now that she would not become lost in the complexity that was the prince, she rode the surface tensions of anger and betrayal, dark despairs lurking underneath the smoother patterns that comprised his very self. She balanced there for a moment, before braving the darker waters that contained what she needed to know.

To the others, nothing changed except for the unnatural stillness of the two figures. Mamoru remained with arms outstretched, Rei with one hand that she had reached out to touch the smooth curve of his breastbone. Serenity sat on her throne, eyes closed, watching closely what her friend was doing to her beloved. She allowed this because she had no choice and because she believed that somehow, Rei knew what she was doing. She trusted to her friend to do whatever was right and she played out her strength to hold Rei to her body, not willing to trust that Rei could find her own way back. His soul had the most complex, compelling and dangerous beauty she had ever seen and she had fallen in love with him before she realized the cruelty of it. She would not let him trap another.

Rei let Serenity's tenuous grasp settle around her before she took the plunge into the darker depths that surrounded the emotion wracked consciousness of Mamoru. What she needed to know was buried deep, intertwined with his power and the Golden Crystal, a dark thread of some carefully hidden thought that she had sensed vaguely when the pure light of the Deep Aqua Mirror had flashed. Down and down she plunged, a bright spark of fire in a world of flaring madness and coiling darkness. Power rippled and surged through her sight and she clutched Serenity's passive awareness to her breast as she fell. Rei realized coldly that she could die here, cut off from her body if Mamoru's restive power surged against her in anger or terror. Silently she accepted that risk, and that if she did perish here, Serenity would know what had triggered the upwelling of death in his heart. It would have to be enough.

Finally she stopped falling and she looked around vaguely, trying to get her bearings. Power conduits branched everywhere, and she extended her essence to feel the strength of his body tied up in this small chamber. The light began to brighten around her and suddenly he was there, Prince Endymion of her youth, armour and sword at his side - the way he had looked the night he died. Rei knew that was Serenity's thought and felt her queen shiver through their linkage before she pushed that connection out of her mind.

"Where are we?" she asked the manifestation of Endymion, waiting to see he would admit to this deeper knowledge.

"We are where you wanted to be, warrior of Mars," he said mockingly, stepping forward with unhurried step. The light brightened again and she realized that it was his form that was glowing faintly, casting the shadows around them into deeper relief. A small pedestal was revealed in the burgeoning light, a crystal couched upon it in seeming negligance. Mamoru stopped by the small stand and rested a possessive hand upon the round form. "You stand in the heart of Chiba Mamoru, priestess, a place you seemed to desire most greatly to be in. And now that you are here, what is it that you wanted to see?"

Ami watched in astonishment, shivering a little at how uncanny they looked. When Mamoru spoke, his voice was clear and strong, yet Rei's lips moved with his in perfect mimicry. Rei was bathed in the lightest of red glows, touching highlights in her hair. Mamoru also showed the barest traces of golden power and his body seemed to shiver every now and again. If she didn't look at them straight on, she thought she saw the faintest reflection of silver over the two of them but it was gone as soon as she thought she saw it. She compressed already worried lips and listened in frustration with the rest of them as the ghostly conversation continued.

Rei looked around and raised her hands to her arms, shivering a little. "So cold Mamoru-kun, so bleak." The walls were stripped to bare rock, echoing passageways leading from the small space. The only decoration was the pedestal and crystal under his hand, smaller still in the darkness of this place. "Where is the light of your heart Mamoru, the joy of any life that lives under the sun? I see only cold and barren walls, sense only power feeding through the darkness.

The spririt form of Endymion grinned wryly at her and waved a negligent hand, which only made her shiver more. "You look priestess, but you do not really see. This is all that there has ever been. I have always been this empty at the core of me, holding only power and responsibility. Look at the darkness that surrounds us, Rei, tell me what you see in its depths."

Rei looked at the deeper shadows, the darker places that fled from the golden light around his form. At first she didn't want to truly see what it contained, suspecting already that she had demanded more from him than she was really ready to take. She cursed her pure sight, for she couldn't even pretend not to understand what she saw there, coiling and snaking through the currents of emotion. "Has this, too, always been here Mamoru?" she said as gently as she could.

"Always," was his equally gentle reply. "Only she ever saw this part of me, saw it, accepted it, and still tried to change it. Only she keeps it from devouring me entirely." As if in reponse to his acknowledgement, the dark current swirled towards him, wrapping tendrils of its unique power around his shimmering form. He seemed all the brighter for the darkness coiling around him, not diminished by the shadow, but enhanced by it.

"Someday you will die of it, you know," she said vaguely, struggling to maintain some sort of conversational tone. She had known he was a driven man, with greater depths that only Serenity really saw into - but this was a more that she could really cope with. Her long memory of friendship with a man of casual laughter suddenly cracked into a different picture, broken edges softened with raw, wounding compassion. A small current of silver strength flowed into her and she tried to stand a little straighter, to accept what she saw only too clearly now, what Serenity had somehow known all along. "None can stand against a death dream that strong, that complete, for long and remain alive or sane." Frighteningly, she wondered if that was what she had sensed earlier when he challenged Michiru for dominion, the start of the final dissolution between his iron will and his nigh overwhelming desire to die.

Endymion laughed a little and then his form blurred and reformed into the more familiar form of Mamoru, casual clothes hugging his lean body. He lifted the small crystal away from its cradling stand and walked towards her, dark shadows flickering and flowering around him. Here in his center, his form was that of an avatar surrounded by an whispering evil, a light against the greater dark. Rei wondered if that was a deliberate image that he gave her, or something unconsious, that he would percieve himself always surrounded by shadow. She was distracted from her musing as he came closer to her, his eyes carrying a soft smile. "I will never die of that particular shadow," he said with surprising calm. "Once that might have been a truer statement than you know, but it has not been that way for years beyond counting. That depth of despair might have claimed me once - but a moonlit girl changed that and I will never allow myself that easy escape. Look at what you came to see Rei, look and be at ease with me." With unhurried hands he raised the crystal to her and gave it to her grasp. Wonderingly she raised it to her eyes, crystal lights playing over her awestruck face.

The interior of the crystal was murky gold, depths a slow turning wealth of color. It began to brighten in her hands and Rei suddenly realized that she held the Crystal itself, its only match the one carried by her queen. Before she could panic entirely, his hands came up to cup hers and his face bent to watch the brightening globe. Her gaze travelled with his and she saw what he was giving her to see, to know.

Ami's heart was beating like a trip hammer. Mamoru - a death dream? Strong enough that she could sense Rei's terrible fear even from where she stood, her linkage vibrating with the horror and compassion streaming from the warrior of Mars. Ami risked a look at Serenity, where she sat as cold marble upon the double throne. Her long eyes were closed but her face reflected none of the horror that reverbertated through the rest of them, none of the despair that that only now leaving them through that instant's linkage. The truth that had shocked Rei had washed right over Serenity, leaving her untouched. Looking at the calm face of her queen, Ami suddenly understood. Mamoru had always been the darkest of them all, always the one driven by mysterious forces and desires, always the one to walk his way alone. And whatever Rei had found, Serenity had already known - known and had not flinched. Ami resolved that her faith in her friend would not be shaken, no matter what terrible thing Rei had discovered.

Rei watched the globe as it cleared, a soft image forming in its center. Mamoru's hands were warm over hers in this chill place and she shivered again in a different kind of reaction. The vision became closer and she bent towards the Crystal. Suddenly it snapped into place and Rei clearly saw the soul of Mamoru.

Usagi slept on the bed, a dawning sun playing over the brilliance of her long hair. Every line of her face seemed as fresh as clearest water, loving drawn from his memory. Her eyes played over the scene, noting absently the detail in the recollection, the pure truth of his regard for her. The image was as beautifully etched in the Crystal as the rest of his soul was coldly bare. Then her sharp regard saw the lizard on the pillow, a painfully bright image against the softness of the rest of it. Her eyebrows frowned, and carefully she reached out to touch the image contained in the Crystal with her othersense, trying to get an idea of the nature of this incongruity.

It wasn't like putting her hand in a raging fire, but only because it did not burn her, merely overwhelmed her sight as a bright light in darkness might have. Scintillating power ran through her and she let it slide through her mind, carefully sorting the tastes and textures of it. The lizardbeing was not natural to the Crystal, but seemed to be melded with it just the same. She caught the flavor of metal, and a sense of an unnaturally long memory, flavored with alien experiences. It seemed to regard her at the same time as she watched it, but she sensed no overt threat, no hostile intention. Carefully, it gave her mind a brief touch, a taste of who/what/why it was and Rei withdrew back to her ethereal body, eyes thoughtful. Alien it was, but not malignant - not in any way that she could sense. It was the source of the strange fire that had bloomed in Mamoru's hands, a quasi intelligence that had been constructed at some point in the far distant past - one that had been set to guard. Its brief touch had told her that it had shifted its intent from the machine it had been with to the man who housed it now. Rei worried, but realized that it was merely another type of power, and not immediately dangerous. Mamoru seemed to have accepted it unconditionally - the fact that it had become an icon in his framework told her more intimately of its nature than if he had described to her what had happened. To try and remove it now - it would be like ripping his power entire from him, guaranteed to drive him to insanity before he died.

Rei brought her eyes up again, and looked at the avatar-form of Mamoru as he held her and the Crystal. More and more clearly, she could see the cords that held him - the gold light of the Crystal which contained his power, black darkness of cord that was his tortured soul - and the silver that wove the two together, kept them from destroying him. With hands of spirit, she reached to touch those esssences - this was what she needed to see, needed him to understand about himself before he could pass this test. She touched it and then she swarmed up her link to Serenity, back to the world of the living, carrying her stolen treasure with her.

In the world above, Mamoru suddenly stiffened and his eyes opened in horror upon the girl in front of him. Rei's hand clenched against his breastbone, and Mamoru's breath left him in a rush as pain and fear crossed his features. Jolted out of the spirit realm, his features mirrored sudden confusion, his hands beginning to rise to defend himself. "Rei, what are you doing?" he cried as her hand pulled upon something unseen. The look on Rei's face was still calm, but her outstretched, clenched fist was like iron.

"This is your test, Mamoru-kun, and you face me, star of fire, fighter of war," she declared abruptly. "Three desires bind you, each of which would destroy you, each of which would destroy those around you. You are the most dangerous creature I have ever faced, a beloved friend returned changed beyond all recognition." Her free hand came up uncannily, guided by whatever she still saw in the spirit world and made a gesture in the air, one that looked like she was threading something. That hand suddenly clenched into a fist, raised above her head as if threatening him with something terrible. "Answer me with full honesty Mamoru, your life depends upon it," she warned as tears began to leak slowly out of his unknowing eyes. "Which desire do I hold in my hand?" she demanded.

His voice was nearly a cry, sharp and terrible. "Power," he said and his fists clenched suddenly against his side in an agony of restraint. "Pure power, earth's heart next to my heart, fire singing in my veins like blood," he continued, answering Rei's question.

"How much power, Mamoru, how much power do you hold?" she asked intently.

His face was tight with suffering but Rei's hand didn't release its punishing grip. "Down and down, warrior of Mars, you can feel the heat of the molten rock against my skin," he whispered in answer. "Rain falls upon my cheeks, the rise of the oceans caresses my hands. My power is the earth, immeasurable. If I should desire it, continents would crack and the oceans would boil. How much power is that, Mars? This planet is a marble in my pocket, a plaything if I should choose it." His voice was rising in power, and the forgotten courtiers began to react in shock, a murmuring swelling in the crowd, approaching a terror that none of them could see. Alone, a woman in a yellow dress went numb with the idea, a white light in her head.

"Power corrupts Mamoru, and I know longer understand you as the friend of my youth. What is to keep you from using that power to rule absolutely? None could withstand you, none would dare try. What is to keep you from tearing open this planet on your whim?" Her voice was again cold as cracked ice, her tone a whip of pure command.

Mamoru's breathing was harsh with agony, the long muscles in his body wracked with the pain of whatever Rei held. Ami knew she didn't want to know, didn't want to understand what the far-seeing priestess saw, what drove her to hurt this man who was the best of all friends. "Nothing holds me, priestess," he said finally through clenched teeth. The crowd stilled again to frozen immobility as the tall man knelt on the stairs, proclaiming his dominion. "Nothing holds me. The ginzuishou alone would destroy me but the damage would already be done. I alone keep myself in check, I alone claim responsibility to hold the power inside me, untapped."

"And if I do not accept your word, your strength to keep yourself in balance with such a great power?" Rei said remotely.

His voice was calm suddenly and Ami at least could hear the wry humor running through it. "Then you must destroy me now priestess, for none will ever hold me in this bondage again. My word is all I can give you, and it is the only thing that binds me. Here on my planet of birth, my power wells beneath my feet like water." Suddenly he grinned and Ami blinked at the pure insolence of it. "You ask me of the strength of power, yet you hold it yourself and can feel its depth. Why are you even asking me, Mars?"

Her voice softened as she looked at him. "You needed to admit that to yourself, that you alone are responsible for what you do, for what you can do. The ultimate judge and jury is yourself, for you alone know when you have abused this strength."

Mamoru closed his eyes and nodded at her. "I have always known Rei, I have always understood this," he said.

"Then this part of the test you pass, for strength defines what you are, and what you will offer to the people of Crystal Tokyo." She made a releasing gesture with her second hand and Mamoru's face eased a little, his breathing less harsh. Her deft fingers made another plucking motion and although his expression didn't change one iota, his tension became apparent. "And this desire, what do I hold in my hand?" she asked again.

"Love," he said gently.

"You lie, Mamoru," she said equally softly. "Love is a pale shadow to this. Name this desire that unbalances you to the point of insanity."

His teeth snapped at her but the smile still tugged at his tight lips. "O brat of a priestess, that I ever agreed to let you see this," he said. "Love is the right word, the same way you could say that a lighted match is similar to a firestorm." Mamoru's face suddenly became drawn and tight as he gazed up into the eyes of the listening woman. It was as if he spoke only to her, as if the room full of listeners did not exist. "It has been my obsession for years and it kept me alive even before I met her when I wanted only oblivion. My life is consumed with it, subsumed by it. At her demand, my life is as nothing. Twice I have died to protect her and even if I knew it to be the final death, that I would never again stand at her side, I would step into it with my arms wide. Only power contains it, distracts me from it. Obsession doesn't even touch the surface of it - she is everything to me. I would sacrifice this planet if I thought it would save her."

"Then where is the balance of it, Mamoru-kun?" Rei asked quietly, eyes intent upon his drawn face. "That overwhelming need to protect her is as dangerous as the pure power you hold. You would strip a planet of life in order to save one woman, simply because you alone could do such a thing."

"She is everything to me - and she holds the keys that keep me balanced between power and oblivion. Her smallest laugh is more important to me than food - the touch of her hand more dear to me than water. And she alone gives me the strength I need, gives me light to show me the tightrope I walk." His mouth twisted into something like cruelty and his voice was suddenly accusing. "Damn you Rei! That need is deliberately buried deep inside me, through the Crystal that contains its power. Why have you forced me to examine it again?! It nearly drove me mad the first time I understood it - why do you force me admit its hold over me again?" Rei continued to look at him and finally he dropped his eyes as his palms spread upwards in mute supplication. "She is the balance for it," he snarled at her in admission. "If she were cruel, mad, power-hungry . . . I would give her my world because I would have no choice. But she loves me Rei. Loves me as no other ever has or ever will again. She would never demand it, never wants more of me than that I love her in return. She holds me fast like the moon over the tides - and she keeps me locked in the blue of her eyes." He took a deep breath and again looked squarely into the eyes of Mars. "She keeps the balance, because I cannot."

"Then this part of the test you are freed from, for you depend upon another's strength instead of your own." Her second hand moved again as if releasing a puff of down, and Mamoru's head dropped with the release of emotion roiling through his heart. His chest heaved with a deep breath and he raised stiff hands to rub the tears from his cheeks. Rei's hand, outstretched through all this time, came back to her chest, still clenched with the third, unseen smoky thread. "Then name the third desire Mamoru-kun, name your last and final test."

The room was as hushed as a church, the last of the day's sunlight still somehow colouring the room incongrously with the joy of life. "The last desire of my self," he mused quietly as stray light touched the depths of his hair, flickered alien fire in his eyes. "O you know the third thing you hold Rei - something that you never knew before until you stood within my heart." She nodded at him, her expression suddenly desperately compassionate. His small smile tried to absolve her of its guilt, its necessity.

"Death." The word was clear, unadorned. Now that he had said it, Mamoru felt a sudden easing in his chest, a lightening of the darkness he had carried so long. He raised his eyes finally to the woman on the throne, the one that had understood this right from the start somehow - had understood and had recklessly pledged herself to him anyway. "All of my life, in this time or that, it calls me somehow - so tight inside me that each day that I wake I am somehow surprised. It follows me, holds me, waits for me around this corner or around that one. And each time that it comes for me - I have to remember to fight, that it can't have me just yet." Serenity's eyes were accepting upon him, clear and bright and for an instant, he saw only the love in her eyes as pure as the first time he met her in a moonlit garden.

"Never have I seen such a darkness in another before Mamoru, never would I have thought to look for it in you." For the first time, Rei's voice shook with her own emotion. "What keeps you fighting such a geas? For so deeply is it wound through you, that to attempt to cleanse it away would drive you to dangerous unblance, and the oblivion you so desperately crave at the heart of you."

His gaze returned to her soft brown eyes. "Life keeps me here, Rei. You of all should know, should understand. Shadow only makes the light taste sweeter." Rei remembered the spirit world, where he had been wrapped in shadow and glowing like the son of a god. "Understand me Rei - death is what keeps me alive. Always I live because I know that death calls me. One day," he said raggedly, "it will have me. But not today Rei. Each day I say, not today."

"Then the third test you pass, because you understand that some things no strength can resist. And because you know the demon in your heart so intimately that you call him friend." Her hand opened and the watching court could almost see the release in his body as the plucked spirit thread sank once more into him. "Power and responsibility, obsession and love, death and life . . . three desires bound into one whole, each of which alone would destroy you and destroy those who love you." Her voice lit with joy and suddenly her face was transformed with the release of tension. "You have passed the last test Endymion-sama, that of spirit. Welcome home, my prince!" She cried silently and her arms came around him in a hug that was as much a need as a greeting.

Finally she stood aside as all the others before her had done and he ascended the last step to face her - the pale queen on the throne. All expression slipped from his face and his breath caught in his throat as she rose to stand steadily before him - slim and imperial in her moonlight gown and silver hair. Tears were on her cheeks like softest rain but she seemed not to notice or care. Without taking her gaze from him, she reached up to her long staff and the Illusion Silver Crystal was in her hand, a glowing diamond rose of pure power. The room was as still as midnight and Mamoru could hear his breathing echoing in his blood.

"Prince Endymion of Earth," she began in a strong voice untainted with hesitation, "you stand before the double throne of Crystal Tokyo, having passed all the tests to prove your right of ascension. Now you face me, fighter of justice, star of mystery - I am Neo-Queen Serenity of Crystal Tokyo and you will prove yourself to me that you are still the equal of my heart."

The motion was fluid and familiar and Mamoru felt a keen sense of deja vu as she brought the Crystal in cupped hands to between the soft swell of her breasts. The ginzuishou lit like a silver flame and power, raw and uncontrollable slammed into him. The ginzuishou was incomparable and he struggled to retain his identity, absently healing his body again and again just as he had done once before. It threatened to blow him away, to shred his very self apart in the wind of its light. Concentrating, he brought his hands up in front of his chest, mimicking the stone statue pose of Serenity.

The golden light sprang forth like sunlight, like a raging firestorm, like an irridescent curtain of liquid gold. Silver shot through the golden light, mingling and twining like two flowers and Mamoru stood before his queen, the Golden Crystal a ball of power between his strong fingers. No longer subsumed by her raging power he stood tall and unconquered, matching the effortless beauty flowing from her. Her tears were falling again and the two Crystals floated out of their hands to rise above them as he stepped towards her. "Beloved," he whispered as her arms came up and he stepped into her desperate embrace.

Kitten paws are soft as velvet and Diana made no sound as she careened down the long hallways. Her breathing was harsh in her own ears and she ran as if a pack of hungry wolves chased her. He was here - as Diana at least had never truly believed he would ever be. The faces of the senshi, Serenity's frozen gaze had said it all. Thrilled and scared beyond words to say, she ran for the one that truly needed to hear this before any other.

Skidding, she turned the final corner and plied to an abrupt halt in the middle of a small room, sumptuously painted a rather interesting shade of purple. Pillows were scattered everywhere as usual and Diana noted in a corner of her attention that her mistress had no doubt been trying on all her dresses again - probably to figure out which one she was going to wear at the formal reception tonight. It was a matter of much concern judging by the plethora of outfits discarded on the floor, bows and fripperies draping the chairs and bed haphazardly.

A muffled sound drew her attention and Diana was finally able to make out the direction of her friend. A pair of legs wiggled out from under the bed, closely followed by the rest of a small body, bright pink hair made dusty by her excursions into the nether regions of childhood nightmares.

"Found it!" cried the little girl triumphantly, clutching a ribbon in one chubby hand. She stood up, unconcerned about the state of partial undress she was in and turned, brushing her hair back absently with one hand and leaving a grime streak on her face. Her happy eyes fell upon the panting form of Diana in the middle of the room and a wider grin appeared on her face.

"Hi Diana, what are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be attending that boring Assembly so you could Luna all about it when she got back." Question seemingly forgotten as soon as she uttered it, Chibi Usa moved away from the bed and towards the child sized mirror hung upon the wall. Already her hands were tugging on her hair in preparation for the new ribbon addition.

"Small Lady," started Diana urgently, " You have to get dressed NOW! You need to come to the Great Hall right away!" Diana jumped onto a convenient chair in her agitation and then again to a desk so that she was more nearly a height with the dimutitive form of the princess. "You have to come now!" she reiterated, tail lashing.

Chibi Usa barely looked over her shoulder at the tense cat, hands busy with trying to braid the gray ribbon into her bouncy ponytails. "Diana, can't you see that I'm BUSY right now? What's so important that it can't wait til dinner tonight? I'm sure mama is busy with things right now . . . I'll see what she wants later, ok?" Patting her hair, she inspected the ribbon decision carefully before clapping her hands in approval. "You've haven't seen my grey dress anywhere, have you Diana? The velvet one . . you know which one I mean. I thought it was in the chest but I couldn't find it anywhere. . ." One hand waved around in the air as if to indicate the current shambles of strewn clothing, no doubt made in her dress finding mission. She looked about ready to dive back into the offending closet again, and Diana spoke hastily, trying to break into Chibi Usa's monofocused concentration.

"Small Lady, you have to come now! Get dressed right away and come to the Great Hall with me - there's no time to waste with searching around!" Her impassioned plea brought no response and Diana mightily wished her mother hadn't decided to take these few days off with her mate. Luna could have spoken to this child-not-child and gotten what she wanted within the first few words. Mumbles and various noises started to emerge from the yawning closet as the small girl began again to quest for her favorite dress. Standing on all fours, Diana fluffed her fur and yowled warningly, sparks nearly flashing from her eyes in her anger.

"Princess Usagi Small Lady Serenity! Get out here, get dressed and get going! I said there's no time to waste and I MEANT IT!" The last was nearly howled and she was smugly gratified to see a small shocked face peeking out from the closet door.

"Wow," said Chibi Usa appreciatively. "That was really loud, even for you. What's so exciting in the Great Hall that I have to go right now? It just people pretending to be important in front of mama."

Diana sat down on her haunches again and contemplated the bemused princess. Carefully, realizing the desperate importance of this news to her charge, she enunciated slowly, "Get dressed. Come to the Great Hall. A tall man with black hair is challenging the senshi - and winning. Princess Haruka greeted him as a prince." Diana watched the still puzzled face of Chibi Usa intently.

Finally the girl said hesitantly, emerging a little more from the depths of the closet, "Diana, other men have challenged before and won the first few matches. I don't understand what is so * urgent * that I have to drop everything now."

"Small Lady," she tried again, "He passed the first three tests without even trying. Neptune knelt before him and I heard her name him Endymion, speaking as if he were higher royalty than she." Chibi Usa's gaze was still blank and Diana grew impatient at the denseness of her student. "Endymion, Small Lady, Endymion. Surely you remember ancient history better than this - Endymion, beloved of the moon goddess Selene." A dawning light began to grow in Chibi Usa's eyes and Diana completed the sentence Small Lady had been waiting all her long life to hear. "I think it's your father," she said softly.

"Oh." The only thing that moved in the entire room was Chibi Usa's eyes as they got larger and larger. Suddenly her face flared into a fierce flush and she raised shaking, unknowing hands to her hot cheeks. "Oh!" she said again, helplessly.

The moment of paralyzed immobility passed and without another word she dived to grab the nearest clothing, regardless of colour. For the first time Diana changed herself to human so she could help her princess dress to meet her lost father.