“In an hour, at the most, Serenity.” Setsuna made a shallow bow to Serenity, then turned and gave one to Endymion too. Serenity and Endymion ignored her, however, and turned to each other in reserved excitement. Hotaru saw her friend’s face twist a little at that. She felt Setsuna’s pain as she was ignored in the all cosuming heat of the King and Queen’s love for each other. Hotaru quickly ran down from her seat at the Queen’s side to greet her old friend, and ease that old, surpressed pain.
“Setsuna! Did everything go all right in the past?”
Pluto blinked, then gave her an odd look. “What do you mean?”
“Did I meet Chibi Usa--I mean, Usagi--in the past and become her friend? Did everything go as I remember it?” She couldn’t keep the real worry out of her voice.
Setsuna smiled down at her. “We both love the Small Lady, don’t we? Yes, everything’s as you remember it. She’s very eager to see you.” Her smile suddenly faltered, and she brought her right hand to her forehead with a faint moan. Hotaru leaned forward.
“Setsuna? What’s wrong?” She put a hesitant hand on Pluto’s shoulder, but Pluto wrenched herself up straight with a grimace, and shrugged of Hotaru’s concern.
“It’s nothing, just a headache.” She planted the end of her Garnet Rod in the ground, and seemed to hold herself erect with it. The Time Door suddenly shimmered into existence before her. “The Small Lady is calling me with the Time Key. I’ll be back in a moment.” She turned with a last glance at Serenity and Endymion, then walked through the door. Serenity and Endymion noticed the Door’s presence, and stepped apart, eagerly awaiting the first sight of their daughter in over a year. Hotaru stepped back behind them, letting them have the first sight of Usagi. She wrung her hands until they hurt, breathlessly waiting. Why, oh why was Setsuna taking so long.
“Puu!” She heard a familiar voice echo out the doorway. “I’m finally coming home! Where are Mother and Father?”
“Follow me, Small Lady.”
A familiar head, with huge pigtails and pink rabbit odangos popped out of the time door, surmounted by a small gray kitten.
“Diana!” Luna and Artemis ran into the room and happily greeted their own daughter back in her proper time. Diana mewed happily and leapt off her mistress’ head to run to her parents. Serenity and Endymion were more restrained, but still eagerly rushed toward their daughter, and they were all engulfed in a huge family hug. Hotaru couldn’t interrupt their reunion. She lowered her head and slipped out of the room. Maybe she could see Usagi later.
She sat in her room and pulled out one of her most precious possessions. The copy of the Holy Grail Chibi Usa had given her long ago, before she knew she was Sailor Saturn. Before she became Mistress 9. She rubbed it gently with her fingers as she sat on the edge of her bed. How often she’d sat down back in her castle, cradling this precious symbol of her most treasured friendship. A friendship that, in one sense, still didn’t exist, until Usagi was her friend here again, in the future. Why had she ended up so alone? Was it her own unconcious choice? Or just a nasty twist of fate. Maybe the senshi of death and ruin didn’t deserve to have friends. . .
She jerked her head up from her reverie when she heard a knock at her door. “Yes?” she called out. “Who is it?”
The door opened a crack.
“Can I come in, Hotaru-san?”
Hotaru quickly got up off the bed as she recognized that voice. “Chibi Usa-chan!” She ran to the door and threw it open to envelop the surprised girl in a hug. “You came!” She stepped back and motioned for her friend to come in. Usagi walked up to her and lifted one of Hotaru’s hands, still holding the replica Grail. She traced her finger along the stones, then looked up at the older woman.
“You kept it? All this time, you kept it?”
“Of course I did! How could I not keep such a precious gift from my best friend?”
Usagi let go of Hotaru’s hand and clasped her hands nervously behind her back. She stared fixedly down at the floor as she scrubbed her big toe across the floor. “I-I thought maybe you didn’t want to be around me anymore, now that you’re grown, and I’m just a kid. I mean, you never were around when I was little. . .” Her voice trailed off to an uncertain whisper.
Hotaru carefully placed her cup down before reaching out to lift Usagi’s lowered chin. “Chibi Usa-chan.” She smiled. “I mean, Usagi. You have no idea how much I wanted to be in the Crystal Palace when you were little, how much I wanted to be a big sister to you. But I didn’t dare. I couldn’t do anything to disturb the time line. What if we hadn’t been able to defeat Pharoh 90 because of something you did different, because you knew me from the past?” She gently wiped at Usagi’s moist eyes. “It was as hard for me as it was for you. I thought,” Hotaru tood a deep breath before continuing--it was so hard for her to talk about her emotions. “I thought you wouldn’t want to come back and be my friend, now that I’m so much older than you. I mean, it’ll obviously be different for us here in Crystal Tokyo, but. . .”
Usagi reached out with that instinctive kindness that made Hotaru love her so much, and they silently hugged each other. “I’m so glad you’ve finally come back, Chibi U--sorry, I meant-”
Usagi interrupted her, still tightly clutching her arms around her in a tight embrace. “You can call me Chibi Usa if you want to.” She let go, and the two girls stepped back. Usagi wiped her eyes yet again. “I’m used to it now anyway. To tell you the truth, everytime someone calls me Usagi I look over my shoulder for my onee-san.” Hotaru and Usagi joined in tearful laughter.
They talked for hours, about what had happened to Hotaru in the intervening years, about events while Usagi was in the past, and about old times together in the past. Darkness fell over the city, and Hotaru got up to turn on some of her lamps, and made the round to light the ones that ran off flame. When her room was bathed in a soft, yellow glow, she sat down in front of Usagi, and they laughed over the little joke Hotaru had played on Haruka when she’d arrived for her visit to Crystal Tokyo.
Usagi was laughing so hard her eyes were tightly closed. “Oh, I wish I’d been able to see that! The look on her face had to be priceless!” Usagi gasped and held her stomach. “I have to stop laughing! I’ve been doing it too much--my stomach hurts!” She heard Hotaru begin to cough and immediately sobered. She leaned forward and reached out to her friend, who was bent over in a coughing fit. “Hotaru? Hotaru? Are you okay? Do you need me to get Ami?”
Hotaru shook her head, still coughing, and clutched at Usagi’s arm with one hand while she held her chest with the other. Usagi stayed next to her, hovering worriedly. Finally, when she was just about to run off for help, Hotaru quieted, and leaned back into Usagi’s supporting hold to breathe in shallow, tired gasps. Her eyes were half closed in weariness, but they rolled up to look into Usagi’s worried gaze.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered, her throat too irritated for her to manage more, “I haven’t had a fit in ages. Guess I was about due.” After a few more minutes she levered herself back to an upright position just at Usagi let loose with a large yawn. “Goodness!” she reached out to her young friend and clapped a hand on her shoulder. “You look beat. I’m sorry I kept you you up so late, Usagi. You should get to bed.”
Usagi nodded and got up off the bed. “I--it was nice seeing you again, Hotaru.” She suddenly seemed uncomfortable, as if Hotaru’s sudden fit had changed something. She rushed out of the room without a backward glance.
Hotaru stared at the closed door sadly.
“Welcome home, Usagi,” she whispered into the night as she slowly reached up to turn off her lamps.
“Pleeeeeeeease, Mother? I just want to go on a picnic with Hotaru! Pleeeeease?” Usagi leveled the full power of her charisma on her mother in an attempt to be allowed to leave the palace grounds.
“I’m just worried for your safety, Usagi. What if someone realizes who you are out there? At the very least, you’ll be mobbed. At the worst you could be seriously hurt!”
Usagi cast a glance at Hotaru, who took a quick step back from the argument with outspread hands. She wasn’t going to be stuck between these two! Getting involved in an argument between the two most potent personalities in the world wasn’t her idea of a peaceful way to spend the day. Usagi stuck the tip of her tongue out at Hotaru and turned back to argue the case with her mother.
“But I went back into the past to learn how to fight, and protect myself! I’ll be fine! Really! Besides, Hotaru will be with me, so even if something does happen, she’ll be there to help!”
Neo-Queen Serenity’s face softened, and she relented with a smile. “Very well, but I don’t want you wandering far, Small Lady. And you have be back before nightfall.”
Usagi know when she’d won. She curtsied to her mother, then turned with a flash of pink hair to her friend. “C’mon! Let’s go! There’s this favorite spot I used to have by the river! I haven’t seen it since I came back!” Usagi snatched up Hotaru’s hand and pulled her down to the palace kitchens just as Setsuna strode into the throne room with a worried look on her face. The two girls arrived at the kitchens in time to see an efficient Makoto directing the preparation of lunch.
“Usagi! Hotaru! What can I do for you?” Hotaru stepped up.
“We need a picnic lunch. Usagi and I are going out to eat by the river and-”
“Hey!” Makoto’s voice boomed out in a yell, “No you don’t!” She snapped the wooden spoon she’d been using at Usagi’s questing fingers. “That’s a delicate dish! You’ll ruin it!”
“But it smell so goooood,” Usagi groaned, eyeing it longingly. Makoto grinned and ruffled Usagi’s hair.
“Well, some things never change. I guess packing that picnic is the only way I’ll be able to get you out of here before you ruin lunch, hmmm?” Usagi assumed an innocent expression, but Hotaru giggled a little and nodded. Makoto sent a few of the kitchen helpers off to gather a basket and cloth, the turned to the two girls. “Well? Any special requests?”
“Mmmmm...nihon soba, please. And tea.” Hotaru licked her lips in anticipation.
Usagi threw her arm wide. “Anything at all, except carrots!” Makoto smiled, gave one more warning glance to Usagi as her hands began to twitch toward the simmering pots again, and walked off to pack their lunch.
“I wonder what has Setsuna so worried,” Hotaru mused as the stood in one corner of the kitchen, near the door, to keep out of everyone’s way. “She hasn’t been herself since I’ve come back.”
“Puu did seem worried,” Usagi agreed. “There might be a problem, but let’s not worry about it now. This is the first time I’ve been able to see you since the night I got back.” She cocked her head. “How are you feeling? I’m sorry about running off that night, but your coughing. . .” Usagi looked down uncomfortably, then met Hotaru’s eyes again. “It worried me, a lot.”
“It’s really nothing, Usagi. Don’t worry about it.”
Usagi still looked a bit doubtful, but nodded just as Makoto thrust a heavy, well filled basket in their faces.
“Here you two go. Now scat, before any more muffins mysteriously disappear!” She winked at Usagi and gently pushed her out the door as Usagi guiltily hid a nibbled muffin in her hand. They walked to the park, and Usagi spread out the large checkered cloth on the bank of the river while Hotaru began to pull out their food. Hotaru ate slowly, savoring the rare experience of sunshine falling on her face while she at a delicious meal with a friend. She listened to Usagi chatter between mouthfuls of food, and began to enjoy the sounds of life around them. When Usagi polished off her piece of cake for dessert she pointed at a group of people about her age who were playing an energetic game of Frisbee. “C’mon, let’s go play with them! That looks like fun!”
Hotaru leaned back with the rest of her cup of tea and smiled indulgently. “I don’t think I’m up to it. I’ll just sit here and bask in the sun while you play.”
Usagi nodded and ran off eagerly, and they played energetically for a while. Then one of the boys walked up to Usagi and pointed to Hotaru’s reclining figure, making her strain her ears to catch what was said.
“That’s my friend Hotaru.”
“Why’s she just sitting there like that?”
Usagi immediately took a defensive stance. “She’s tired. What’s it you?”
“But she’s so much older than you, and look at how she’s just wearing black! Why are you hanging around someone like that?”
Usagi stepped back a little. “She’s my friend, like an aunt.”
“Hey, leave her alone!” one of the girls called out, “Let’s get back to the game!”
The inquiring boy shrugged and drew back his hand to throw the Frisbee when Hotaru suddenly sat up with a gasp. Something was wrong--she could feel it echoing through her soul. “Usagi!” She stood up and packed up the blanket and the remains of their lunch, then ran up to the children, who’d stopped their play at her cry. “Usagi!” Hotaru placed a worried hand on her shoulder. “Can’t you feel it? Something’s wrong!”
Usagi shook her head. “Feel what, Hotaru?” Hotaru opened her mouth to answer when one of the girls close to the river bank screamed. Everyone turned in time to see a creature made of an oily substance pull the girl towards the suddenly churning water of the river.
Other girls screamed at the sight, and one of the boys asked shakily, “What can we do?” as a couple others took either a step forward or back, depending on their bravery. Usagi didn’t waste a second on hesitation.
“Moon Crisis Power! Make Up!”
Hotaru gasped as Sailor Chibi Moon ran over to rescue the girl, then let loose with her own cry. “Saturn Crystal Power! Make Up!” She watched the children around her draw back in fear as she lifted her Silence Glaive and ran after Chibi Moon.
The creature had dropped the girl on the bank of the river when it saw Chibi Moon and realized she was a greater threat to it. Saturn caught a glimpse of the girl crawling to safety as she ran forward to protect her friend. The Small Lady was in her care! She couldn’t let any harm come to her! “Silence Wall!” she screamed and aimed the forcefield at Chibi Moon. Now that her charge was safe, Saturn spared a glance for the shocked children watching a pitched battle take place in front of them. “Get down!” she ordered them, then turned toward the slowly advancing monster. Chibi Moon was watching her with worry, obviously wanting to join in on the fight, but Saturn couldn’t allow that.
She raised her glaive, and an unnatural silence descended on the field. Saturn brought it down with a cry of “Silence Glaive Surprise!” The monster flew into disgusting bits of oily goo, splattering against nearby trees and the forcefield surrounding Chibi Moon. Saturn looked at Chibi Moon, and the shield dissolved into nothingness. Chibi Moon ran up to Saturn, who stood leaning on her glaive.
“Saturn! Are you all right?” Chibi Moon ran her eyes over her friend with worry.
“I’m fine. It’s almost as dangerous to onlookers for me to fight as it is for them to be attacked.” Saturn closed her eyes and detransformed. She place a hand on Chibi Moon’s shoulder. “Let’s go check on your new friends, hmm? Make sure I didn’t hurt any of them too badly.” Hotaru felt herself turn from Chibi Moon’s friend into the authority figure, and she could feel Chibi Moon pulling away because of it, but she didn’t have a choice. She still had that uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she wanted to get back to the Crystal Palace as soon as possible. She checked over the children, and most had nothing but minor cuts and scrapes, so she quickly healed their hurts, then went to the one boy who’d been hurt badly. As she stepped up to the nervous boy she recognized him as the one who’d given Usagi trouble about her. Chibi Moon was holding him in a sitting position. She looked up at Hotaru.
“I think his leg’s broken. He didn’t get down fast enough when you told everyone to.”
Hotaru winced in sympathy. “I’m sorry, young man, but I didn’t have time to give you more warning. Let’s see if we can do something about your leg.”
“Y-you’re Princess Serenity? And Sailor Saturn?” the boy stammered, overwhelmed. “But you were just playing Frisbee with us!”
Chibi Moon sniffed. “So? Can’t princesses play Frisbee?”
The boy just looked at both of them, and didn’t say anything else. Hotaru ran her fingers along his injured legs, then smiled in relief. “It’s just a bad sprain. Here, let me heal that for you.” She sent her power into the boy’s body, and felt everything knit back together. As soon as she drew her hand back again, she felt the boy shy back in fear, and bile rose in her throat. Even when she helped them, they were afraid of her.
She covered over her hurt with official briskness. “Well,” she stood and clapped her hands together as if brushing dirt off of them, “you’re healed as good as new.” She turned to Chibi Moon. “We have to get back to the palace, Chibi Moon, I feel something’s still not right there.”
“I believe you!” Chibi Moon pointed toward the center of Crystal Tokyo, where the spires of the palace were visible over the other buildings. “Look!”
Hotaru saw the tips of the spires had changed from clear sparkling diamond to a flat, black color. Immediately she transformed back into Saturn, and the two of them ran back to the palace.
Sailor Saturn and Sailor Chibi Moon dashed onto the palace grounds. The guards took in their uniforms with surprise, and let them through without questions, but didn’t make any move to follow.
“Can’t they see something’s wrong?!” Chibi Moon gasped out.
“Maybe it’s something only a senshi can see,” Saturn answered as they pounded down the long, column lined corridor that led to the the throne room. They burst through the large double doors, and stopped to gasp in horror. Uranus, Venus, Endymion and Serenity were standing back to back, defending each other and trying to hold off more of those odd, oily creatures. All the other senshi were lying on the ground, whether unconcious or dead, Saturn couldn’t tell. “Chibi Moon! Go to your mother! I’ll shield you again, and attack them from out here.”
“No! You’re not going to be able to stop them all, Saturn!” Chibi Moon grabbed the front of Saturn’s uniform. “You can’t always protect me! I can fight! I have to fight!” She immediately turned from Saturn and closed her eyes to concentrate. Suddenly a pink light suffused her hands, and a smaller version of the Kaleid Moon Scope appeared in her hands. She held it out and yelled, “Moon Gorgeous Meditation!” in an exact copy of Sailor Moon’s attack years ago. Saturn opened her mouth to ask how Chibi Moon had done that, but Chibi Moon’s attack on the oil creatures had distracted them from their attack on the four beleagered fighters, and brought their attention to Saturn and Chibi Moon standing in an exposed position at the entrance to the throne room. They began to move toward the two senshi.
“Small Lady!” Saturn heard the desperation, fear, and relief all mixed up in Neo-Queen Serenity’s cry, and Venus and Uranus stepped up their attacks as they realized help had arrived. Saturn pulled Chibi Moon after her in a frantic dash for the other Crystal Tokyo fighters, and pushed Chibi Moon into her parents’ arms before pulling Uranus and Venus in closer to form a tight group. She could see that both were about spent, or she would probably not have been able to budge them in the first place. “If my attack doesn’t work, you’ll have to protect the Moon family,” she gasped out, then held up her glaive in preparation for putting up the Silence Wall.
“Saturn!” Serenity called out in a voice of command, “Don’t use your ultimate attack!” Saturn smiled.
“I was not planning to, your Majesty. Silence Wall!” She didn’t even watch her shield envelop her friends, but spun around, holding her glaive out to slice at any creature within her reach. Then, before the ones that were out of reach could move in she brought down her Silence Glaive for the second time that day. “Silence Glaive Surprise!”
All but the few creatures farthest away from Saturn fell as the concussion ripped through them. Saturn put the butt of her glaive to the scorched and cracked marble floor, and leaned heavily on it as weariness crashed over her. She’d simply done too much. She fell to her knees and banished the Silence Wall to give the others a chance to clean up the last of the attackers. After a few more explosions and shouts, the creatures were all done away with, and Chibi Moon ran over to her. “Saturn!” Sailor Saturn rocked back as Chibi Moon crashed into her and wrapped her arms tightly around her. “I was so frightened! I-I didn’t think we’d make it that time!”
Saturn put an arm around her smaller friend. “You were very brave though, Chibi Moon. You helped in the fight.”
“But I hate fighting, and I hate being afraid!”
Saturn tried one more time to avoid something unpleasant. “You did what you had to do when you had to do it, Small Lady.”
“I don’t want to have to do it though! Why can’t everyone just leave us alone! That’s all I want!” Her voice began to take on the quality of a whine.
Saturn hated herself for what she was about to do. “That’s enough of that, Princess.” If only she could ignore her duty, and embrace Usagi as a friend. But she had to be Usagi’s senshi and advisor right now, instead. “You don’t have time to be weak. Your kingdom is under attack, and you are Sailor Moon, protector of Crystal Tokyo and the whole kingdom!”
Chibi Moon looked up at her, tears in eyes. “But I’m not Sailor Moon! I’m only Chibi Moon! I can’t do this without my onee-san!”
Saturn squared her shoulders. Usagi had to hear this. If only she didn’t have to be the one to say it. “You are no longer Chibi Moon. Your training is over, you are Sailor Moon! You don’t have anyone to fall back on now--you are the most important senshi, Sailor Moon. You have to be strong!” Oh, Chibi Usa-chan! I’m so sorry! If only you knew how much I want to hold and comfort you, instead of push you away! Tears gathered behind Hotaru’s eyes, but she fought them back. Can’t I have any friends? Am I going to be separated from everyone I love by my duty?!
Chibi Moon--no, Sailor Moon--looked deep into Saturn’s eyes, searching for any softness in Hotaru’s eyes. Hotaru forced them to be as cold and dark as deep space as she stared sternly back. Sailor Moon pulled back, confusion and hurt warring for dominance on her face as she backed away. She stood a few feet from Saturn, stared a few seconds more, then slowly raised her fists to scrub the tears from her eyes, and turned, and walked away. Saturn simply watched her go.
She may have done the best thing for her country and duty, but her heart was bleeding tears.
Uranus walked up to her and knelt by her side to place a sympthizing hand on her shoulder. “That was very hard, and very brave.” Hotaru looked up into the face of the woman she still often thought of as a parent and smiled weakly.
“Then how come it hurts so much?”
Uranus shrugged. “The reason duty exists is because it’s not always something we want to do, and we need something other than our desires to control our actions.” Uranus stood up agian, and offered Saturn her hand. As Uranus pulled her up, Saturn rememered something important. “How is Neptune? And everyone else? They’re not--” she didn’t finish her sentence, but Uranus understood.
“They’re hurt.” Uranus’ face darkened. “Some of them are hurt badly. But everyone survived.” Uranus closed her eyes and became Haruka. Saturn followed suit. “Maybe you could try to heal the worst hurt, if you’re not too weak.”
Hotaru followed Haruka to the prone senshi, and knelt between Mercury and Neptune to take stock of their condition while she spoke with her. “Can you tell me what led up to the attack?”
“It was the strangest thing,” Haruka turned to Neptune and held her limp hand with a concerned look on her face, but her voice remained level. “Setsuna suddenly popped out of nowhere, saying something was wrong, and some dangerous enemy was coming, then she simply fell to the ground in a dead faint. Ami went up to examine her, and said she was sick, in something like a coma. Then those things were pouring into the throne room, and we barely had time to transform before they were upon us.” Haruka shook her head. “If you and the Small Lady hadn’t arrived when you did. . .”
“We were at one of the parks by the river. I was with Usagi while she played with some children her age when one of those creatures attacked one of the young girls. Sailor Moon and I got rid of it, then we both noticed that the spires atop the palace had turned pitch black, so we ran here. None of the guards realized anything was wrong. I wonder, did the enemy somehow find an unguarded entrance? Or did he gate them in somehow?”
Haruka shrugged. “I don’t know how they got in. I was too busy fighting the bas-” Haruka bit off the rest of the word and took a deep breath to calm herself down. “They were coming at me too fast. I don’t remember.”
“I’m surprised Venus was one of the last ones left standing. I thought it’d be you and Neptune, if it ever came down to two senshi.” Hotaru kept her voice neutral.
“I was surprised myself. They all fought well, considering the odds. Especially Venus.”
That was high praise, coming from Haruka! Hotaru simply nodded, then moved on to examine Setsuna and Jupiter.
Haruka pulled her up short. “How’s Michiru?”
“What? Oh, she’ll be fine. She got a nasty bump on her head, but it didn’t feel as if anything was permanently hurt. Sorry I didn’t tell you.” Hotaru blushed a bit, and looked down as she bent over Pluto, to hide her pink cheeks. “I guess I’m just distracted.” She cocked her head. “This is odd. . .” she muttered under her breath, and began to probe deeper.
“What?” Serenity’s concerned voice pierced her ears.
Hotaru looked up. “Your Majesty. Neptune and Mercury appear to be fine. They’ll wake up with bruises and scratches, but nothing serious. I haven’t had a chance to examine the others yet, but the problem is Setsuna.”
“Why? What’s wrong with her?”