"Mama, Mama!" The little girl clapped her hands in delight as her mother entered her bedroom.
"My little Serenity, are you ready for bed?" the woman asked as she
crossed the room.
The little girl burrowed industriously under the covers until she was almost hidden. "Yes, Mama, I'm ready! Is it story time?"
"Yes, dear, it's story time," the woman said, smiling. "But first . . . . You have to take your hair down for the night, you know that."
The child wriggled further into her pillows, pouting. "I want to look like you, Mama! Please, can I keep them in?"
The mother smiled gently. "No, dear, it's not good for your little head. Even I have to take my hair down at night, you know."
The child brightened and scooted forward. "Really? Will you show me?"
She patted her child's head, adroitly unpinning the two buns of hair and letting the little pigtails loose. "Right after I do yours," she promised. She combed her hand through the golden hair, smoothing out the kinks, before reaching up and unpinning her own hair. She shook her head to encourage her silver hair to fall loose and straight. "Better?" she asked, smiling.
Her daughter nodded, leaning forward. "What sort of story will you tell tonight, Mama?"
She pretended to think about it. "Hmmm . . . . How about the story of the very first Queen Serenity?" she asked. "You know, you're named for her, and so am I." She tweaked her daughter's nose gently. "Would you like to hear about her?"
Her daughter's eyes widened. "Really?"
"Yes, really. Well, then." Queen Serenity composed her thoughts before beginning. "Long, long ago, not very long after the Sailor Wars ended, and well before our own peaceful Silver Millennium began . . . ."
"Queen Serenity, you cannot wear something so, so . . . war-like!" The speaker was a dark pink cat with a golden crescent moon on his forehead.
"I refuse to be without my brooch," the queen, a petite woman with red eyes and shoulder-length pink hair hanging in two straight pigtails, snapped back. "Even in my mother's time, there were still rogue senshi attacking us and we're on the very fringes of the galaxy." She turned back to the mirror and adjusted the position of her henshin brooch. "I will not cater to the sensibilities of those of my court who have no idea how to use what powers they do have. As their queen, it's my responsibility to stand between them and danger, whether or not they like it. And I refuse to do so without my greatest power close at hand."
"No. You know how my mother died and you try to tell me this?"
The mooncat heaved a heavy sigh and jumped to the floor. He walked around her, eyeing her critically. "I suppose it looks decorative enough," he allowed stiffly. "At least you agreed to a proper dress. Perhaps there's even some hope for a crown someday?"
The queen grinned mischievously and spun, letting the skirt flare out. "The day I have to deal with a crown pulling my hair is still a long way off, Hermes."
The mooncat sighed again and shook his head. "Sometimes, I despair of ever turning you into a proper queen."
She stooped down and scratched his ears. "Ah, but that's the kicker, isn't it? The thing about being queen is that I get to define what's proper or not."
"That's not how it works, your Majesty!" Hermes protested. He shook himself out of the slouch her fingers had relaxed him into.
She cocked her head at him and grinned. "And just who is supposed to make me do anything I don't want to?" When there was no answer forthcoming, she laughed again. "Fine, then what's on the schedule for today?"
"There is still the issue of your marriage," the mooncat said delicately. "And, of course, of the continuation of the royal bloodline."
Serenity heaved a sigh of her own. "And I've told you," she said firmly, "that no one has caught my eye, much less my heart. Besides, the royal bloodline will continue regardless."
"Waiting for the Moon's starseed to be reborn is hardly 'continuing the royal bloodline'," Hermes said stiffly. "There's all that time until the child is old enough to rule effectively, the appearance of weakness to out-system visitors, the lack of proper leadership while the child is growing--"
"I get it, Hermes," Serenity cut in, rolling her eyes. "Yes, I do know all of that, but it isn't something I've had a lot of time for."
The mooncat sniffed. "Yes, well, if you can wear your brooch on the pretext of an attack, then I can use this supposed threat to convince you to do your duty."
Serenity sighed again and shook her head. "I'll start thinking about it," she said. "What else?"
Hermes flicked an ear, clearly showing his belief in that. "Your Majesty said you would inspect the Archives today--Princess Mercury still has to show you the final prototype for the super computer. Princess Jupiter has requested your opinion on the plans for your birthday festival--"
"But that's months and months away!" Serenity protested.
"Nevertheless, Princess Jupiter would like to see you. And, of course, there's always practice--Princess Saturn is your instructor today."
Serenity blew her bangs up. Saturn, for all her power over death and rebirth, had no powers that would work in a regular battle, except, perhaps, as a threat or a bluff. As a result, the line of senshi from Saturn had developed some kickass fighting techniques and, well, kicked ass at hand-to-hand combat. And, of course, the royal personage had to be able to defend herself, no matter what. And that meant a thrice-weekly hand-to-hand training session with the princess of Saturn.
"And . . . after that is general practice," Hermes added.
Serenity brightened. Assuming she wasn't too bruised, that was likely to be the best part of her day.
Hermes chuckled indulgently as she left her suite of rooms with a bounce in her step. She was shaping up to be a good queen, despite her decidedly tomboyish inclinations.
It was a hard time for everyone. Her mother, Queen Veris, was not even a year dead; he had confidence most of the conflicts between the new queen and her duties were simply through the relative unfamiliarity of them. Goddesses bless her, he was trying and it was hardly her fault the minutae of ruling even such a largely peaceful system would hardly excite interest in most active young women.
He hopped off the Queen's dressing table and followed his ruler, thinking all the while.
Princess Mercury, for example, held many desirable qualities for a queen. Excepting that she was of Mercury and not of the Moon, she would have been an exemplary ruler. Princess Jupiter also had plenty of experience ruling--even if it was over the smaller 'kingdom' of the palace kitchens.
Truly, if the Queen should need help and advice, she was surrounded by wells of knowledge and experience. There were queens in the past who had not been able to rely on even half of the accumulated knowledge Queen Serenity had at her fingertips.
But those had been the more . . . unsettled times of the galaxy-wide series of Sailor Wars. He prayed to the goddesses those times would not return.
"Whatcha got for me, Merry?" the queen asked as she swung into the library.
Princess Mercury shook her knee-length blue hair out of her way and jammed her hands on her hips. "A queen should not refer to her subjects by diminutive names!" she scolded laughingly.
Serenity groaned and flung herself into one of the big, comfortable chairs Princess Mercury had installed right after taking over the Moon Palace's Archives. "Don't even start!" she said. "Hermes has already started giving me the Duty lecture!"
Mercury just laughed at her. "Hermes is a big old softy," she scoffed. "Just nod and smile and scratch his ears."
Serenity groaned again and dropped her head to the chair's arm. "I tried that," she said, her voice muffled. "It didn't even work for a minute." She lifted her head with a sigh. "Anyway, Merry, Hermes said something about a computer?"
"A super computer," Mercury corrected. "And it's just a prototype, so far--there's still some bugs to work out, but it looks to be mostly software issues."
Serenity nodded. "And the hardware?" she asked.
Mercury waved a hand dismissively. "All dealt with. In fact, I even managed to surpass the goals set."
"Merry. You are the person who set those goals." A pale green mooncat jumped up beside Mercury.
"Orpheus, I've told you, that's not even close to a logical diminutive of my name!"
Orpheus set himself down and just looked at her, amused. Then he switched his gaze to Serenity and bowed his head respectfully. "Your Majesty," he murmured. She waved a hand in acknowledgment.
Orpheus' head whipped back around and he favoured the blue-hair princess with a particularly baleful stare. "I will bring you spiders," he threatened.
Mercury tossed her head. "But you can use illogical nicknames?"
"As your second-in-command, I take my duties seriously," he said, lifting his nose in the air. "One of them just happens to be to make sure you don't get a swelled head from all the thinking you do."
Mercury gasped in mock outrage. "I'll show you who's got a swelled head!"
Orpheus coughed politely. "Perhaps now is not the time?" he suggested. "After all, her Majesty's time is a precious resource; you can abuse me as you like after you've shown her the super computer."
Mercury brightened, ignoring everything else the mooncat said. "Right! The computer!" She rummaged around on her desk for a moment, then pulled a very small something out of the mess. "There it is! I think the only problem with it is that it's so small, it's so easy to lose! Well, that and the software issues, too." She offered it to Serenity, who took it gingerly.
It was small enough to fit in her palm, even when it was flipped open. Blue, of course--this was Mercury. The keypad had all the standard keys, plus a whole slew of unfamiliar ones.
"And what can it do?" Serenity asked, fascinated.
Mercury reached forward and plucked it back out of the queen's hands. She typed rapidly--and with only one hand, Serenity noted, impressed--for a few seconds, then showed the screen to the queen again.
"It has a direct connection to the Archives," she said, pressing a key and causing the screen to changed rapidly. "Research at our fingertips! Plus, I've managed to hack it into my own starseed, see?" She tossed it to another chair, then close her eyes and frowned. A second later, the mini-computer materialised in her hand.
"You--what? Is that even possible?" Serenity asked, bewildered. "It's a starseed, not a computer!"
Mercury shrugged. "When you get right down to it," she said philosophically, "the universe is all made of numbers. Besides, I needed to hook it in somehow, or I wouldn't be able to do this." She pressed one of her earrings and a clear blue visor appeared over her eyes. "With this," she said, typing again, "we can do on-the-fly analysis of enemies to find their weak points. Why waste time using the wrong attack when you can get rid of it right away?"
Serenity sighed. "You make it sound like we're vermin exterminators," she complained.
Mercury pressed her earrings again, losing the visor, and shrugged. "We kind of are," she said. "With the Sailor Wars mostly done, there's only the odd youma that pops up and those are easy enough to take care of."
"If we can find them while they're still weak," Serenity countered.
"Once I've got the bugs worked out of this, I'll work on a proper monitoring system," Mercury promised. "Well, after I make one of these for everyone."
"Everyone?!" Serenity squeaked. "But that was super complicated! Not everyone has your brains, Merry!"
With a chastising look at his superiors, Orpheus rejoined the conversation. "This is still a prototype, your Majesty," he said. "The real thing will be much more . . . intuitive."
"I like that," Mercury said indignantly. "Not the real thing! This is a perfect gem of workmanship!" Then she calmed down. "But, yes, I plan on tailoring them to each senshi's strengths. I'll just keep this one for myself."
Serenity breathed out a sigh of relief. To try to make use of what Mercury had put in that would have been frustrating at the best of times, much less in the middle of a battle. Sometimes, she wondered if Mercury really knew just how far she surpassed everyone. Only a senshi of Mercury would have the idea to tie a computer to a starseed and have the brains to actually do it.
"--and I was thinking about asking Mercury to provide some of her bubbles to enhance the mood and also to cool everyone down," Princess Jupiter finished. She waited a beat, then asked, "What do you think?"
Serenity shook the dazed look off her face. "Why does everyone want my permission?" she asked plaintively. "Jupiter, you know you're the best at organising stuff like this--that's why you've been in charge of royal functions and stuff for years! I know anything you do will be perfect."
Jupiter blushed a bit, but shook her head. "I know all that, Serenity, but this is important. You'll be turning twenty-one; that's an important milestone."
"Hurrah," Serenity interjected dryly, "I'll be able to drink my celebratory wine."
Jupiter shot her a quelling look. "Hush. It's important for your people, too, especially in light of your mother's death. Your kingdom will see your birthday as the metaphorical start of your reign."
Serenity flung her arms up in exasperation. "But I was crowned almost nine months ago!"
Jupiter nodded. "Yes, but you're still--technically, so quit it with the evil eye already--a child. You've been a wonderful queen, but not everyone knows all the little things that happen in the Palace and there is, understandably, some concern about your age."
Serenity sighed and pointed out, "It's not like I'll be magically wiser on my birthday."
Princess Jupiter shook her head again. "These things are never about reality," she said firmly. "They're always about perceptions. And the perception we want to give is of a calm and capable woman."
"Instead of the excitable clutz?" Serenity quipped.
"Stop that. Appearances, Serenity," Jupiter admonished, although she wasn't able to hide her smile. "And may I say how happy I am to see you in proper, lady-like clothing?"
Serenity gave a distinctly unlady-like snort. "Uh-huh, right. Don't tell Hermes, but I can step on the edge of the skirt if I need to fight and it'll detach."
There was a pause and then Jupiter sighed. "Oh, Serenity, whatever shall we do with you?"
"Plan my birthday party without me?" the queen suggested brightly. "C'mon, you know I trust you. As long as you're not planning on emptying the treasury for it, it'll be wonderful. And," she added as an afterthought, "if you are planning some treasury emptying, you'll have to fight it out with Hermes." She stood up decisively. "Are you going to attend practice this afternoon?"
"Wasn't it a royal command to do so?" Jupiter asked dryly and Serenity blushed.
"Not a command," she protested. "More like a, a suggestion."
"A royal suggestion, one that might as well be a command?"
"A suggestion," Serenity said firmly, still blushing. "Just a suggestion, not even a royal one."
Jupiter laughed and waved her out. "Of course I'll be there," she said. "My very first duty is as a senshi--to protect others. I can hardly do that if I don't my skills sharp."
"How can you say I've improved," Serenity asked the Earth in the sky, panting, "when I still end up flat on my back?"
"But you are getting better, my Queen," Sailorsaturn said, offering her a hand up. "Now, would you like to transform and try the sequence again?"
Serenity sat up in a hurry. "I thought the point was to do this without transforming, to train me in case I wasn't able to transform?" She pushed herself up slowly, wincing as her bruises made themselves known.
"There's still a hesitancy," Saturn replied. "You're still not in the right mindset and, thus, are not getting the proper flow. If you transform, you should automatically put yourself in the right frame of mind. If you can go through the sequence properly while transformed, you should be able to see how to do it even when not transformed."
Serenity sighed and flipped a pink pigtail over her shoulder. "And I thought I was doing better," she muttered.
"You are!" Saturn insisted. "You're just not progressing as fast as I'd like. Besides, have you ever considered what would happen if someone managed to disable your tiara?"
"Cry really, really loud?" Serenity suggested facetiously.
"That's hardly a proven power, your Majesty," Saturn chided. "It seems to depend far too much on your emotional state to be relied upon."
"Trust me, if someone manages to stop my tiara, I'll definitely be in a suitably emotional state," Serenity muttered. She scrambled the rest of the way to her feet and pulled her brooch off. She held it up and called out, "Moon Power, Make Up!"
The familiar rush of power filled her even as she felt it wrap itself around her protectively. The sensation was one she'd known since she could read. Her mother had shown her the way to open to the power, to let it flow through and around her, to use it in the name of love and justice and the name of the Moon, the source of that power. She counted herself lucky she, and all of the senshi of the Moon before her, had only been able to harness a small portion of it; she had studied the Sailor Wars and knew what damage power without limits wrought. For all that she chafed at the demands of her position, she knew it was better to rule peacefully, with love and understanding, than to use power like a fist to get things done.
"Now," Saturn said as the power subsided, "try it again."
She did--spin, kick, duck, spin again, kick--and immediately felt what Saturn had meant. There was a difference to her moves, now, a fluidity that hadn't quite been there before.
"Is it the starseed?" she demanded, still breathless with the perfection of her movement.
Sailorsaturn shook her head. "It's your state of mind," she insisted. "You're in senshi form, so you're ready for a fight. Your body responds faster and you're more willing it use its flexibility." Then she shrugged. "And maybe it's a bit of the power of the starseed. But that's another habit of mind we'll have to break. Just because you only have a tiara to throw as a senshi doesn't mean that's all the power you hold. You are your power, not the form you wear."
Sailormoon nodded thoughtfully. It made sense, the way Sailorsaturn put it. Mind over matter--she had convinced herself she could only access her power, she could only fight, while transformed. But, as Serenity, she still held the Moon's starseed inside her and she could still, theoretically, access it. After all, a starseed's power didn't just manifest itself in a transformation or as attack powers, it was just the other advantages given--speed, strength, endurance--were mostly invisible and were even taken for granted.
"Now," Saturn said, "de-transform and try it again."
Sailormoon sighed, but nodded and laid her hand over her brooch again.
"And then she thrashed me!"
Princess Mars tugged at a short pink pigtail and laughed at her queen.
Serenity pouted. "You should have more sympathy for my pain," she said sulkily.
Mars tucked an errant strand of her short red hair behind her ear. "I'd have more sympathy," she replied, "if I thought you hadn't enjoyed it. Serenity, we all know how much you love fighting practice, even when you're not allowed to transform. You live for fighting."
Serenity drooped. "Why can't I ever be the competent, yet distant, queen?"
Mars laughed again. "You were never meant to be distant," she said. "You love life far too much to be able to distance yourself yourself from any part of it. That's part of your charm, you know."
Serenity sighed again. It kinda sorta sucked to be so transparent to everyone.
"C'mon, your brutal taskmistress may have let you out of her practice, but the rest of us still have to attend our own.
Serenity trailed after the princess of Mars as she wandered, apparently, randomly, through the halls of the Moon Palace and, almost accidentally, managed to gather up the rest of the senshi, so it was a full group that entered the courtyard they all used for practice. She sometimes--all right, a lot of the time--thought Mars would have been an excellent Queen for the Moon Kingdom, all artless elegance and unconscious authority. Some of it came from being High Priestess, of course, but some of it had to be natural talent. The chasm between what Serenity was and what she thought she should be never looked quite so large as when she saw Princess Mars in action.
She watched, envious, as Jupiter--coaxed away from her planning--then effortlessly organised everyone into separate groups to start work. There was another one who would make a good queen. A bit abrupt at times, true, but still able to motivate people to do what needed to be done. The poise, the character, the grace . . . .
As a matter of fact, even as Serenity added her own henshin phrase to the chorus filling the practice courtyard, she could not deny the crush she had on the princess of Jupiter. Not that anything could ever come of it--always supposing Jupiter was willing--not with Hermes after her to chose a husband and make little Moon princesses the old-fashioned way. Still, it was undeniably there.
The hesitant voice pulled Sailormoon out of her musings and she smiled reassuringly at Sailorvenus. The young girl had only recently assumed her post as the head of the Queen's security--the previous holder of the post had been untimely killed during the last incursions from the Sailor Wars. The Venus starseed had been reborn, of course, but the girl it had been reborn into was still shy and unsure of her place in the scheme of things.
"What's the plan today?" Sailormoon asked, flicking a glance beyond her to Sailormars and Sailormercury, who were both waiting patiently.
"I--thought . . . perhaps we could try combining attacks?" Venus suggested nervously. "It can require precise timing, sometimes, and it's--it's good to practice," she finished lamely.
"That's not a bad idea," Sailormercury said thoughtfully. "We're still not sure why some powers meld and others stay separate. I'd like to watch, if I may--my super computer may be able to analyse the phenomenon and tell us why."
Sailormars rolled her eyes. "We're not your personal science experiment, you know," she said.
"Aw, please?" Mercury wheedled. "I promise it will be useful!"
"For whom?" Mars asked skeptically. "Never mind, I think I already know the answer." She looked at Sailormoon and Sailorvenus. "I have no real objections; what about you two?"
Sailorvenus just shook her head while Sailormoon grinned and clapped her hands. "What shall we do first?" she asked eagerly.
"I was thinking perhaps Mars and Venus could go first," Mercury said absently, already typing on her super computer.
Sailormoon drooped. "Oh. I'll just . . . wait over there."
"Oh?" Mercury looked up, startled, then laughed. "You'll get your chance soon enough, Sailormoon!" She turned to the other two senshi. "I'm ready whenever you are."
Mars glanced at Venus and raised an eyebrow. She got a nod back and she set herself up. "Fire--"
Venus reached above her head. "Crescent--"
"Soul!" Flame roared towards the target.
"Beam!" A pinpoint shaft of light left Venus' pointing finger and pierced through the flame and, trailing fire along its length, impacted on one of the specially made targets in the courtyard.
"Fascinating," Mercury murmured, fingers dancing madly over the tiny keyboard.
"Well?" Sailormoon asked impatiently.
"The data won't analyse itself, you know," Mercury said calmly.
The pink-haired senshi was almost dancing with impatience. "But I want to try!"
"You'll get your chance," Sailormercury said, still calm. Too calm--Sailormoon looked closer and finally saw the smile twitching to escape.
"Oooo! You're just winding me up!"
Mercury's badly hidden smile turned into a laugh. "I did need some time to complete the analysis," she offered, but Sailormoon's attention was caught by something else.
"'Did need?' Does that mean you're done? Is it my turn?"
Mars reached forward and patted Sailormoon on the head indulgently. "Yes, it's your turn."
Sailormoon jerked her head back and glared half-heartedly at Sailormars. "I'm not a child, you know."
"Technically . . . ," Mars said, drawing it out, "you are. And you're certainly as excited as one."
Sailormoon crossed her arms and huffed. "I just want to . . . help Sailormercury with her data-gathering stuff, that's all."
Mercury shook out her hand, gathering everyone's attention. "Hmmm? Oh, hand cramp," she said, and motioned with the super computer. "The next version will definitely have a bigger keyboard."
Sailormoon took another look at the tiny keyboard and shuddered. "Definitely," she agreed. "Not all of us have tiny and nimble fingers."
"Uh-huh," Mercury said, once again focused solely on her super computer. "Sailormoon, if you and Sailormars are ready, so am I."
Mars rolled her eyes at that and tipped her head at Sailormoon. "Ready when you are," she said dryly.
Sailormoon gave a single nod and lifted her hand to her tiara. "Moon Tiara--"
"Action!" Her tiara, now spinning and glowing with the power of the Moon, left her hand.
The brilliant white disc was engulfed in flames. That was when the two powers melded; the spinning tiara turned turned golden and red as the fire was absorbed and incorporated into it.
The result was a spectacular explosion that rocked even the sturdy target.
"Oh, my," Mercury murmured, her fingers flying once again. "Okay, and for some baselines, could I have each of you alone?"
"Why would you need baselines?" Sailormars asked curiously, even as Sailormoon enthusiastically let her tiara fly again.
"Hmmm? Oh--my computer's already picked on several energy patterns I've never heard associated with these types of combined attacks. I'd like to know if those unknown energy patterns are just associated with combined attacks or if they're part of each separate attack. In fact," she said thoughtfully, even as she nodded for Sailorvenus to have her turn, "I'm going to have to get new data on everyone's attacks."
"That kinda makes sense," Sailormoon said, frowning. "A lot of work, but it could be worth it."
"And how could this sort of information be useful to anyone outside of the ones analysing it?" Sailormars asked skeptically.
"C'mon, it'll be useful!" Sailormoon protested. "Won't it, Mercury?"
"Ummm, yes, it will, but," with an apologetic glance at her queen, "not necessarily to anyone who isn't analysing it. I mean, eventually, it can probably be put to practical use--like seeing if we can increase our access to our starseeds' power--but that will be a ways down the road."
Sailormoon stuck her tongue out at Mars "See? It will so be useful!"
Sailormars reached out and gently pinched Sailormoon's tongue. "In the future," she said, smiling. "And aren't you the one who was complaining about being treated as a child?"
Sailormoon pulled her head back and pointedly ignored Sailormars. "Is there anything else we can help with?" she asked Sailormercury.
"If you wanted, I don't see why you couldn't try a triple attack," the blue-haired senshi said with an indulgent look.
"Awright! Moon Tiara--"
"Action!" The tiara was released.
"Soul!" It picked up and incorporated Mars' fire.
"Beam!" And, once Venus' attack hit it, it . . . disappeared.
A concussive thud made everyone present whirl to the cloud of dust rising from the target Sailormoon had been aiming at. At the remains of the heavily reinforced target, now shattered into smoking pieces.
Mercury was, of course, already analysing the data. "That's--the instant Venus' attack hit it, your tiara's speed jumped drastically," she said. "I wonder . . . . Is it because it was three attacks combined or because of Venus' Crescent Beam alone?"
"Further experiments are going to have to wait," Sailoruranus said firmly, approaching the three of them.
Sailormercury blinked at her. "But why?" she asked. "This is absolutely unprecedented--"
"Because," Sailorneptune said, following her partner and grinning impishly, "we'll need to figure out how to make sure your experiments won't demolish the targets or the walls behind them." Sure enough, there was now a definite crater in the courtyard's wall directly behind the demolished target.
Sailormoon sighed. "Hermes is going to have my head."
A beautiful blue planet. Her scouts had found it for her, a rare, rare jewel she was determined to add to her collection.
"Snow Dancers!" The gloriously icy wind spun itself into five creatures of ice and cold.
"Go to the blue planet," she commanded. "Prepare it for my arrival."
Her Snow Dancers broke into excited chattering, pleased at the opportunity presented to them. Perhaps one of them, if they only tried hard enough, would be left as the caretaker of this jewel in their Mistress' collection!
"Mama, Mama, what are S-snow Dancers?" Princess Serenity asked, tugging--gently--on her mother's white hair.
Queen Serenity smiled at her daughter and stroked her fingers through golden hair. "They are beings created from snow and ice," she replied. "They did the bidding of Princess Snow."
Princess Serenity stuck a finger in her mouth. "She was a Princess? I thought princesses weren't allowed to do bad stuff!"
Queen Serenity shook her head. "No, my dear, princesses are not allowed to do bad things. But, at the end, she looked like one and that was why she was given that name."
"Are Snow Dancers like snowmen?" her daughter asked. "Were their arms sticks and their eyes stones and did they wear scarves?"
"No, they were actually very beautiful creations," Queen Serenity said. "They looked like pretty ladies all dressed in white and, when they danced, it was said they could captivate anyone watching them."
Princess Serenity thought about that for a bit. "They should be ugly," she said decisively. "Evil should always be ugly."
"But it isn't, dear," the queen said gently. "Evil can hide behind a pretty face just as easily as one you deem ugly, always remember that, Serenity. And just because something's ugly, that doesn't make it evil."
"An' just because something's pretty doesn't mean it's good?" The princess clapped her hands when her mother nodded. "I won't forget, Mama! I promise!"
"--and that concludes the old business," Hermes ended. He flicked his tail and asked, "What is there for new business?"
"We need a new target," Princess Uranus said dryly. "Again."
"Again?" Hermes echoed, aghast. "What happened this time?"
"Mercury had Venus boosting an attack again." Princess Venus blushed at Uranus' explanation and tried to become one with her chair.
Hermes sighed. "Princess Mercury. If you could please concentrate on creating a durable target, perhaps this would not happen once a week." He coughed. "If not more often."
Princess Mercury flushed, but held her head up high. "That was one of the new prototypes," she said firmly. "It was significantly stronger than the previous ones and was, in fact, almost through the testing phases. That it was unable to stand up to the level of power necessary was unfortunate, but an important piece of information to have. Orpheus and I have already started on the next prototype."
Hermes harrumphed, the wind quite taken out of his sails. "Just make sure you're exercising all due caution," he said before flicking his tail again. "Was there any other new business?"
Princess Mercury held up a finger. "Actually, yes, there is," she said. "there's a strange energy signature in the system. Unfortunately, it's so faint, I can neither pinpoint its location or guess what it's doing."
"And how is this relevant to the Council?" Hermes asked pointedly.
Mercury shrugged. "I don't know if it is," she said. "I don't know if it isn't. What I do know is this is a new energy signature, something we've never seen before. Because of that, I can't tell you if this is a threat, a natural anomaly, or something entirely different."
"What would you recommend?" Serenity asked, interrupting whatever pompous thing Hermes had been about to say. Hermes could pretend he presided over the Council all he wanted, but, when it began interfering with real business, enough was enough.
The pink mooncat deflated with another cough.
Mercury smiled at the queen gratefully. "At this point in time, there's nothing to recommend," she replied. "I'll be keeping an eye out for it, certainly, but, until I can actually find it, there's nothing anyone can do."
Serenity nodded. "Keep me updated, please," she requested. She looked around the table. "Anything else?"
"Don't forget your role as Moon Priestess," Princess Mars said.
"That's tomorrow," Jupiter added, as if she thought the queen would have forgotten.
Sometimes Serenity wondered just why she had a kinda sorta maybe crush on the princess of Jupiter. "Yes, I know," she said testily. "I also know what to say and my ceremonial robes have been through their final fittings and are ready for tomorrow's ceremonies."
"Just making sure," Princess Jupiter said calmly, a faint smile on her face. "After all, it wouldn't do for the priestess of the Moon to look . . . rushed."
Serenity flushed and thought dark thoughts. As if it had been her fault she'd been locked in the security field. Just because someone have forgotten she was to replace her mother and had, therefore, forgotten to key her into the system . . . .
"Anything else?" she asked, pointedly not looking at Princess Jupiter. There was a general murmur in the negative. "Good. Then I declare this meeting to be over and we should adjourn to the kitchens for snacks." The murmurs took a decided turn for the happier.
"I have just one last thing," Hermes said and Serenity collapsed back into her chair, wondering just how much more of her day was to have the joy sucked out of it.
The hymn rose higher, then subsided to a barely audible murmur.
Queen Serenity stepped forward with a measured pace.
"We give praise to the life-giving Moon," she said, he voice ringing clearly.
"Praise to the Moon," came the response from the chorus.
"We give praise to the life-giving Sun," Princess Jupiter said, stepping forward.
"Praise to the Sun."
"The Winter is over and life runs through all the planets once more," Princess Mars said, pacing right to the altar. "With the opening of the Gates of the Sun, we rejoice. We rejoice in the renewed life." The three of them dropped the deep blue Winter robe off their shoulders to the ground, showing the sleeveless pale green spring robe underneath.
"Life creates life," Mars said.
"Life creates life," came the chorus.
"Praise to the moon," Serenity said.
"Praise to the Moon."
"Praise to the Sun," Jupiter said.
"Praise to the Sun."
Her part of the ceremony done, Serenity stepped back with Jupiter, allowing Mars to take the full focus of the temple, her vibrant red hair shining in the sun's light. She covertly admired Jupiter, justifying it with the knowledge that, at its heart, the ceremony in progress was to ensure increasing life--that is, fertility. Her conscience wanted to know just how fertile two women would be together, but she ignored it until it was distracted by Jupiter's bared arms.
The Earth truly was a paradise--a paradise she would ensure last forever.
Lush green plants, just waiting for their leaves to be frozen into sparkling perfection. Majestic mountains needing a draping of snow to bring out their true beauty. Lakes, seas, and oceans teeming with life forms . . . . Of course, such a paradise only really thrived when the planet's temperature was just right. Unfortunately, that perfect temperature required a greater expenditure of energy than her crystals normally held.
Her circumstances demanded a change in her strategy--she had lost several of her crystals before the last addition to her collection had succumbed to her. She had created new ones, of course, but, new and old, her crystals did not--quite--have the amount of power she needed for a decisive victory. If she truly wanted Earth's paradise to be frozen and, yet, untouched by her frost, she would need to proceed slowly.
Her crystals could be placed right away, of course. Then she would need to wait while the new crystals absorbed enough energy. Once they were completely charged, then she could use their power to speed her ice around the planet, covering--and preserving--it for all time.
It would be a beautiful addition to her collection.
She blew out a breath, shaping the howling snow and wind into more of her servants.
"Snow Dancers, place my crystals!" she commanded. "Guard their placement well and feed them carefully until the time comes to add this most beautiful planet to my collection!"
The line of five Snow Dancers chittered and curtseyed before carefully gathering a crystal each and flying out for Earth.
"Sorry I'm late," Princess Mercury said breathlessly as she swung into the room.
Princess Neptune smiled at her. "You're not late," she said, gesturing at the people seated on the floor with her. "We haven't started yet."
Mercury blew out a breath of relief and stepped carefully into the neat rows until she got to an empty spot between Jupiter and Pluto. She sank into the spot gratefully and cleared her mind as Princess Neptune began to lead the meditation session.
The information she had been analysing--that had caused her to be nearly late--wouldn't leave her alone. With the calm imparted from the meditation exercises, she examined it again.
The Earth was growing colder. Not just in the southern hemisphere, but in the northern--which should have been gearing up for summer--as well. It wasn't much, just a few degrees difference, but there was nothing she could see to account for it and it was on a planet-wide scale. There were some strange energy readings, of course, but they fluctuated wildly and even the type of energy wasn't consistent. That, at least, pointed to the maturation of Earth's starseed, but there was still the aggravatingly unknown in-system energy spikes to consider, as well. That had nothing to do with Earth's starseed, mature or not.
And then she blinked. Why would her mind take two unrelated incidents and try to put them together? She compared what she remembered of the two sets of energy readings and slowly became more concerned. Even given that she was comparing memory to memory, there were some disturbing similarities between the in-system energies she had never been able to identify--much less trace--and some--but not all--of the mystery readings from Earth.
Later, as soon as her super computer finished its analysis, she searched through the results, feeling a cold ball settle in the pit of her stomach.
"That's not good," Orpheus said quietly. He looked up at her from his spot in front of the monitor she had hooked her super computer to. "That's--someone's sneaked past our defenses and have done . . . something to Earth. That's right in our backyard and we didn't notice anything out of the ordinary."
"I know," Mercury said, almost whispering. "But we still don't know what it is, much less where. Without that--"
"We still have to alert the Council," the mooncat interrupted. "Whatever it is, it's on Earth. We don't know its purpose, we don't know if it will go by us or not. And if it doesn't . . . . How can we hope to fight what we can't even find?"
Mercury straightened and nodded. "You're right," she said. "As always. If I could prevail upon you to alert the rest of the Council, I'll contact the rest of the senshi."
"Consider it done, Merry," Orpheus said, jumping down and heading for the hall at an easy trot. "I'll meet you in the Council's chamber. And don't forget your computer--it's going to be hard enough to convince everyone if you have to run back and get it."
"Phooey!" Mercury shouted as he accelerated out of the Archives. "As if I would," she muttered, disconnecting the monitor carefully.
"--but, when all is said and done," Princess Jupiter said, "it's Earth. Its starseed still hasn't matured, by the Goddesses! They're little more than barbarians."
"Barbarians or not," Princess Uranus said crisply, "they are under this Kingdom's protection. As such, we have a duty to investigate, at least." Princess Neptune nodded, adding her weight to her lover's opinion.
"Compassion also has its role to play," Neptune added firmly. "What sort of people would we be if we turned out back on someone under attack merely because the way they conduct their affairs is different from ours?"
"Different?" Saturn asked, raising an eyebrow. "They still don't acknowledge women as good for anything but babies. They kill each other as often as disease runs through them They have no one interested in learning even basic logic skills; their idea of logic is that thunder causes sour milk."
"Earth is a harsh planet," Venus said, unexpectedly entering the discussion. "When just surviving is hard, when are they supposed to devote time to thought exercises?"
"Life isn't hard everywhere on Earth," Arachne, the burgundy mooncat attached to the head of the queen's guard--Venus--said gently. "There are quite a few places where Earthers live a less troubled life."
Venus flushed and looked for a moment like she would subside as she always had in the past, but then she tilted her chin up defiantly. "And where the Earth is gentler, so are its people," she said. "It's hardly fair to call all of them savages and barbarians when you think of that. Besides, our own history is not quite as enlightened as some of us clearly wish--the effects of the Sailor Wars are going to be around for a lot longer than any of us. Excepting you, of course, Pluto," she added hastily. The green-haired princess of Pluto inclined her head in acknowledgement.
"Talking it back and forth like isn't going to solve anything," Queen Serenity said, intervening before someone else decided to get offensive with their opinion. She glared at everyone impartially, noting who made themselves relax and who just held themselves even tense. "Mercury," she said, transferring her gaze to the one who had called the meeting. "What do you suggest we do?"
Mercury shrugged a little helplessly. "I need to do more research," she said. "I'd like to get some better equipment out to the edges of the solar system, see if I can't see just where whatever it is came from. But I also need to get some more detailed readings around Earth and I want to check out Earth personally. Maybe, if I'm actually there, I'll be better able to find out what's happening." She shrugged again, clearly unhappy with her own answers. "Plus, I need to do some calculations regarding Earth's cooling. It may just be a perfectly natural trend we've not seen before. It may also point to something more sinister."
"Yeah, we don't want the Earthers to freeze their little toesies," Jupiter muttered not quite quietly enough.
Serenity stuck a new glare on her in particular. "I said, that's enough. Forget about the Earthers if you have to so you can remember just how little we know about this potential threat to our nearest neighbour. A threat, I might add, that we are only now becoming aware of. What happens if we're its next stop? Should we be unprepared because we were unwilling to do something when it was someone else on the line? The role of a senshi is to protect those who can't protect themselves. Until Earth's starseed matures, we are its protectors."
Abashed and pale, Jupiter dropped her eyes.
"Uranus, Neptune, are you willing to help Mercury's examination of the outer limits of the solar system?" Serenity asked. "You two are the best at inter-planetary travel."
Uranus tossed her head, her hair ornaments chiming like bells. "We would be glad to," she declared.
"Thank you. Mars, can I count on you to provide support to Mercury around Earth?"
The red-haired priestess nodded. "Whatever you need, Mercury."
"Orpheus, if you need help crunching numbers, I'll release anyone who wants to help, to work under your authority."
Orpheus cleverly hid a wince and bowed. Not everyone was suited to information analysis, Serenity knew, but, with that authority, Orpheus could set the less-able to other tasks more in line with their capabilities and she hoped he realised it.
"This meeting is hereby adjourned," Serenity said, hoping she didn't sound too relieved, because-- "If anyone still has concerns they wish to voice, they can come and see me privately and we'll discuss them." That was just asking for a headache and an ulcer, but she wasn't going to be a queen who ruled by decree. Or at least she'd try not to be. "Everyone, you have your marching orders."
Serenity had been trying to relax. She'd hoped she would be able to steal a few hours for herself to better understand what Mercury had brought to the Council's attention before she had to deal with the Council's own thoughts, reservations, and wild ideas about how it should be dealt with.
But that was not to be. Before she could even escape the room, Hermes had cornered her, intent on delivering his own opinion in a long, rambling, very Hermes-esque monologue. That, at least, had some good to it--no one had wanted to wait for the mooncat to finish, so it had been just the two of them. However, that had not stopped other Council members from lurking in various places around the Palace until she, desperate to escape and do her own thinking, triggered their ambush.
Even her own rooms were not safe from intrusion, as the knock on her door proved. She tensed, then finished taking her hair down while she worked on relaxing herself enough to not be a bundle of tenseness.
"Just a minute!" she called as she stood. She frowned at her image in the mirror. With her hair no longer in the traditional style, she hardly looked imposing, even though she still wore the rest of her "official" outfit. But there wasn't enough time to change even into a robe without being even more rude than she'd already been.
"All right, come on in," she called, still frowning at her reflection. She hated to think appearances were everything but it was, to an extent, true.
"Am I interrupting you?" Princess Jupiter asked quietly, having entered on soundless feet.
Serenity whirled around. "Oh! Jupiter! It's you!" Although after the discussion in the Council room, she wasn't exactly sure she should be overjoyed to be alone with her crush.
Jupiter took a few steps further into the room. "I apologise for disturbing you," she said, "but there was something I wanted to talk with you about and I didn't feel comfortable bringing it up in . . . public."
Serenity eyed her friend and fellow senshi. From her stiff formality to her pale complexion, something was bothering Jupiter. And, since it wasn't something she felt comfortable bringing up except in private, it was unlikely to be a re-hashing of Earthers were all primitive barbarians who deserved to have their toes frost-bitten off.
"You know my door's always open to any senshi," she said, pasting a smile on her face. "It's not like we aren't all almost sisters, after all." Even that only pulled a half-hearted smile out of the brunette. "Sit down," Serenity said, trying not to make it an order. "Please. Now, what can I help you with?"
Princess Jupiter clutched her hands tightly together and didn't answer for a long, long moment. In fact, Serenity had just decided to say something of her own when Jupiter blurted out, "Did I offend you?"
Okay, and that came out of nowhere, Serenity thought, blinking. "How would you have offended me?" she asked, confused.
"In the--the meeting," Jupiter said, still not meeting her eyes. "About . . . the Earthers."
Serenity's eyes widened. "Why would you think that?" she asked inanely, trying to buy time. Yes, it had been a bit offensive--not that Jupiter considered Earthers primitive and barbarian, which they were, but because she had not seen that a senshi's duty was to protect all, barbarous and civilised alike--but she was hardly going to start ignoring Jupiter or anything!
"I--You didn't give me a job," was the almost whispered answer.
"I didn--Jupiter, I didn't give you a job because you already have one!"
Jupiter gave a short, bitter laugh. "And planning parties is all I'm good for, huh."
"No, that's not it at all!" Serenity struggled to organise her thoughts. "I mean, you do good parties--I mean, really good parties! But that's not all you're good for!" She pulled herself together and said firmly, "Talk to Orpheus--he'll need people who actually know what they're doing. Talk to Mercury, too, if you prefer. I'm sure she has other jobs only a senshi can do."
It wasn't exactly what Jupiter wanted to hear, Serenity could see that, but it was the best the queen could come up with after being blindsided by her in the first place. And . . . maybe it wasn't exactly a diplomatic thought to have, but Jupiter perceived her own big mouth to have left her out--which was stupid; neither Saturn nor Pluto or even Venus had been assigned anything specific, either, and, most likely, had already talked to Orpheus on what they could do to help--and, maybe, if she was told to do the obvious thing, she'd think a bit more the next time she opened her mouth. And Serenity, while she truly didn't want to be the queen with the iron fist, also did not want to have to coddle her own people, especially after such a frustrating day.
Mercury sighed and leaned back in her chair. "How're you doing?" she asked Orpheus who was looking in the data she and Mars had brought in.
"Hurrah," he said dryly. "There are energy patterns around Earth." He stood up so he could stretch. "The good news," he continued, "is that the ones you picked up are much more distinct than anything we've had to work with before. I can tell you they are related to what we were studying before. I can also tell you what element drives the power."
Mercury sat upright. "Really?" she asked, interested. "I didn't know we were able to analyse that deeply!"
Orpheus shrugged a little. "It's mostly due to your super computer," he said. "The recordings you made with it carried a lot more information than we've ever had before."
She laughed. "That's exactly why I was doing it," she said. "Well, and to play with my new toy, of course." She sank back into her chair again. "This is going to be useful," she said thoughtfully. "I'm going to need to get a lot more samples, of course, for all the elements we don't have access to, but I can definitely see this as being useful."
Orpheus coughed. "Did you want to hear more about the analysis?" he asked. "Or would you prefer to pat yourself on the back some more, Merry?"
She glared at him. "Phooey! Of course I want to hear more about the analysis! And I wasn't patting myself on the back! And Merry--"
"--is not a proper diminutive," the mooncat completed smoothly. "Of course, of course. What I was going to say, was: The power seems to be based in ice and wind--I was able to enhance a previously recorded wind attack to get that part of the profile. Unfortunately, I can't tell you if the person--or thing--leaving all these energy patterns lying about is still around or not. Yes, these patterns are more recent than what we were seeing before. But I wasn't able to trace their path well at all and certainly not enough to be able to say whether or not they're still in the system or where they would be if they were; the patterns have dissipated a little too much. If it is still around, the reason I can't find anything could very well be because it's too small for us to find until its trail dissipates. Which, of course, makes it that much harder for us to determine where it's coming from or going to."
"At least we learned something," she said optimistically. "And it gives us something to look for. And," she continued thoughtfully, "it may provide a link to the Earth's cooling."
Orpheus coughed politely. "You may be jumping to conclusions if you follow that line of thought," he said. "Yes, the energy patterns near Earth seem to be stronger than the ones we detected closer to the edge of the system, yes, the Earth started cooling around the same time we first saw the energy patterns, but, unless we can find those same patterns on Earth and figure out how they're influencing Earth's climate, there's still nothing to connect them directly to Earth's cooling--which may still be a natural process."
Mercury reached over and ruffled the fur on Orpheus' head, laughing when he batted at her hand with annoyance. "I know," she replied. "But it's still something that can't be ruled out quite yet; I'm still keeping my mind open to all possibilities right now. You're quite right in saying we don't have nearly enough information yet. Which is why Mars and I are going to be heading out to Earth as soon as Uranus and Neptune bring their data in."
Her assistant cocked his head at her. "Which begs the question: Why are you waiting?" he asked. "I'd think you'd be all a-fire to get some supporting data."
"No, that would be Mars," she said dryly. They both chuckled. "No, I'm waiting to see what those two bring in. After all, if they bring evidence showing whatever is causing these energy patterns is, or was, on it's way out of the system after just passing through, then that'll influence what sort of things I'll be looking for on Earth. Or if I even have to go to Earth at all. Although," she mused, "I would like a definitive answer for why Earth is cooling, so I guess I'd be going anyway."
Orpheus laughed. "The day I see you giving up the chance to learn something new will be the day I give up Jupiter's special cupcakes," he said fondly.
"And the day you give up those, I know it'll be the day you die!" Mercury returned, laughing with him.
"Who're we laughing at?" Neptune asked, poking her head around the door. Uranus passed her to enter the Archives completely.
"We have your data," the princess of Uranus said easily, handing over the recorder Mercury had sent out with them. "I'm hardly technologically inclined, but there didn't seem to be much of anything out there."
Mercury flashed a questioning look at Neptune, who shook her head. Although her intuition was not yet fully under control, it was still formidable when it came into play. "We're laughing at Orpheus, of course," she said to Neptune. "And the thought of him giving up Jupiter's cupcakes." She plucked the recorder from Uranus' hand and extracted the data chip from it.
Neptune nodded solemnly. "That's a good reason to laugh," she said, trying to keep her face straight. "Why, the only thing more lasting than your inability to let a chance for knowledge pass you by is his love for them."
"That," Orpheus said with satisfaction, "is exactly what I was saying, thank you. Here, give me that." He carefully batted the data chip out of Mercury's hand and slid it neatly into his terminal. "Thank you."
"Hey!" Mercury began, outraged. "I wanted to look at that!"
"But I already have the relevant programs open," the mooncat countered smoothly, already scanning the data as it appeared. "And I did the analysis of the data you brought in, so I'm already familiar with it."
"If you don't need either of us," Uranus interrupted, "we'll be leaving."
"Hot baths," Neptune said, a dreamy look on her face. "Or one, at least." She slanted a glance over to Uranus, who was suddenly--fetchingly--pink.
Mercury watched this with a tolerant smile. Even though Uranus was older than Neptune, it was clear who was in charge of the relationship. "No, go ahead," she replied. "I anticipate long, lonely hours until Phooey is done his analysis."
"Don't be bitter just because I beat you to it," Orpheus said absently as Uranus escaped and Neptune followed. "And go read a book or something! Your bitter vibes are messing with my concentration!"
Mercury cast him a sardonic look, but only tweaked his tail before going, as he suggested, to find a book. On wind and ice energy, of course, but there was nothing that said she couldn't combine business with pleasure.
"Are you ready?" Sailormercury asked, and received a nod from Sailormars. She began calling up the energy of her starseed. "Mercury Power!"
"Mars Power!" the red-haired senshi echoed. The energy of Mars swirled around her.
Of course, the Sailor Teleport couldn't get them all the way to Earth, but it moved them a lot closer and provided them with a bubble of energy to protect them on the way.
"Anything yet?" Mars asked.
Mercury, of course, could not use her hands, as they were the conduits used to merge her and Mars' power, but she had activated her visor before initiating the Teleport and she was using it to scan all around them. "Nothing," she replied. "Although I have to say it's really fascinating how our energies are melded."
Mars laughed. "Always the observer," she said fondly. They hit Earth's atmosphere then, the friction creating a flare of heat around them. "Where do you want us?"
Mercury looked around, frowning. "Arctic," she decided. "North for now and I'll give better directions when we get closer." Accordingly, their trajectory shifted north a bit.
"Works for me," Mars said. "But . . . why there? I'll be fine, because I'm a fire senshi and you'll be fine because you're a senshi of ice and mists, but why can't we get the readings in a more tropical location?"
"Hmm? Oh, because I can analyse the ice itself and and look in it for clues about other possible cooling periods for the Earth."
"The ice, huh? How will you do that?"
"Right here," Mercury said, diverting Mars' attention. "This spot looks eminently suitable. Let's land here."
"Gotcha." With practised ease, they both released the holds on their starseeds' power and dissolved the Teleport's protection. That it left them still in the air was nothing to be worried about--regular training with Serenity meant all the senshi had a lot of experience with disrupted powers.
Mercury whipped out her super computer as Mars dusted herself off with a grimace. "Why are we in snow again?" the red-haired senshi complained.
"Ice," Mercury said absently. "Trends. Finding them."
Mars looked startled. "What, already?"
Mercury looked up. "Already what?" she asked blankly, before blinking and shaking her head. "Oh--yes, I've found evidence of past warming--and cooling--trends, but nothing like this, this fast."
Mars cocked her head to one side. "Okay," she said slowly. "So what now?"
Mercury checked her computer again and turned around. "Now we go that way," she said, pointing.
Mars groaned at the thought of walking through the snow in high heels and looked longingly at Mercury's more practical and, more importantly, knee-high boots. "Why?" she asked. "You found your evidence, even if it doesn't match the current situation, so why can't we go back? Then you can analyse it and I can take a hot bath."
Mercury started off. "Because I'm getting a much stronger reading of that energy pattern," she said, "and the source of it seems to be close by."
Mars stayed where she was for a moment, then ran after the blue-haired senshi. "How close?" she asked, catching up. "I have no objection to walking, you see, only I don't want to do too much of it."
A small smile played around Mercury's mouth. "High heels no longer sexy enough for you?" she asked.
"Can we teleport if I say yes?" Mars asked hopefully.
"No need to, we seem to have landed practically on top of it."
Mars sighed, then looked around. Woo. Snow and ice on all sides. Was ice really supposed to grow up in spiky crystals like that? Maybe it was. Okay, obviously it was, because there were clumps of icy crystals all over and no one around to make them, but still.
"That's odd," Mercury said, frowning at them. "That ice--it's like nothing I've seen before."
"It isn't?" Mars said, her heart sinking.
"No! Ice just doesn't act like crystals! It should be more . . . feathery, more nubbly, even! And definitely less like a block of quartz crystals! There's nothing to account for it! Maybe--and I do mean maybe--there could have been, oh, an open area of water that possibly froze such that a spire would rise up from its middle as the ice forced the freezing water up, but that only really happens with purer water than salt water! And it wouldn't be angular! And, and--"
"I get it," Mars said, flicking her eyes around them. So many places for an ambush, especially when they didn't know what could be ambushing them. "Do me a favour and keep an eye on the energy patterns around us."
Mercury nodded, grasping what Mars was thinking almost instantly. "Normal," she reported. "Or . . . nearly normal--that damned anomalous ice-wind energy has left traces everywhere." She turned to face one of the clumbs of angular ice crystals squarely. "And it's concentrated in those clumps."
"Same energy we're heading for?"
Mercury snorted. "You know it is."
"Then at least we're expecting it."
"If only we knew what 'it' was."
Silence fell between them and the natural sounds of Earth's north became more prominent. The creaking of the ice and snow, the howling of the wind . . . . Or was the wind getting louder?
"I think this is it!" Mars said.
"Huge spike in energy!" Mercury shouted back. "Coming from the north-east, right where we were headed!"
High shrieks rode the wind and snow was pulled into the air, blinding them. Mars looked around desperately for the enemy. Clear the mind, clear the mind, she chanted to herself. Her intuition would only serve her if she could hear it. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
More than one enemy, her intuition told her. In the air, in the ice--of course, ice and wind energy. One heading right for them.
She brought her hands together and pivoted to face the threat. "Fire Soul!"
The ball of fire left her fingertips and burned its way through the shrouding wind and snow. It also burned its way through the white figure that had been diving at them. It--she--it gave one last shriek and plowed into the snow, its momentum still sending it towards them.
"Jump!" she cried, but she hardly needed to.
The two senshi landed easily and moved to be back-to-back.
"Anything?" Mars asked.
"Not yet," Mercury replied. "It looks like you surprised them. Am I to assume their intentions weren't friendly?"
Mars re-examined what her intuition had told her. Menace, cruelty, glee-- "That would be a good assumption," she said tightly. "Any ideas?"
"I vote for retreat."
Startled, Mars turned her head. "Retreat?"
"Retreat," Mercury said firmly. "There's a lot more of them converging on us and I don't think my powers are going to be very helpful in this fight. Right now, no one knows about this and, if we die here, all they'll know is that we died. They'll be cautious, yes, but cautious enough?"
Just then, the wind died down and the snow it had been blowing fell, revealing fourteen of the enemy surrounding them. They all looked eerily alike, graceful statues of snow and ice, a beauty that did nothing to hide their malevolence.
"Point," Mars conceded. "Although I think you sell your own powers short. Especially in this situation."
"Get ready to teleport," Mercury warned as she banished her super computer to wherever it went to and crouched slightly. "Shabon Spray!"
Ice-cold mist spread out, shrouding them from view. Mars could faintly hear the questioning sounds the, the Snow Dancers made as they were concealed.
Just before they both said, "Sailor Teleport!" Mars heard them shriek and attack. But it was too late--their combined powers had already taken them out of reach.
Mercury sighed in relief as they materialised outside of Earth's atmosphere. "That," she said, "was too close."
"Don't you have other mooncats to bother?" Orpheus asked, still focused on the data he was analysing. "Hermes, perhaps?"
Serenity started guiltily and stopped trying to tickle the tip of the green mooncat's tail. "Sorry," she said meekly. "If I promise not to bother you anymore, can I stay?"
Orpheus sighed and paused his analysation. "What's wrong?" he asked bluntly. "And please remember I'm not Hermes--I won't be telling you about the glorious traditions of the Moon Kingdom this and the royal responsibilities that." The pink-haired queen started a little and he nodded.
"It sounds like you already have a good idea of what's bothering me," she muttered, hunching in on herself a bit.
"My Queen--" he began, then stopped and shook his head. This called for a far less formal tone. "Serenity--it isn't hard to see. I think there are maybe two people in the Palace who haven't seen it and they're Hermes and Jupiter, and I wouldn't be too sure about Jupiter--she has a good head on her shoulders."
Serenity stared at him, looking far more disturbed than the situation called for. "Everyone?" she squeaked.
"It's not like it's a hard stretch," he said. "Uranus and Neptune don't have any trouble."
"Until one of them is reborn as a guy," she countered.
He shrugged. "Still not a problem," he said. "They both seem to prefer the person and only then the body they're in."
"B-but guys can't be senshi!" she protested. "There's a problem with them accessing their starseed's power! They can't even transform properly!"
"I still don't see the problem," Orpheus said. "Sure, if you and Jupiter get together, maybe one of your starseeds will be reborn as a male. But we haven't seen male starseed holders more than a handful of times. And don't let Hermes feed you that old-fashioned ways are the best ways crap--there are at least two documented cases of a male holding a starseed coming from a more traditional pairing."
"But--" Serenity straightened. "Wait, there are?!"
Orpheus shrugged. "If you know where to look," he said. "Now, given what I've just told you, what will you do?"
Serenity frowned at him. "You kind of surprised me," she complained. "How am I supposed to know what to do without taking some time to think about it?"
He sighed. "Right. Okay. Forget about that. If you were just a normal person," he said, "what would you be doing? And don't say you haven't thought of it--you wouldn't be human if you hadn't."
"But a starseed can't be given up!" she protested.
"Stop focusing on the problems!" he snapped. "Focus on what you want to have happen--otherwise, all you're doing is convincing yourself to fail." Serenity blinked at him and he sighed. "Look, you have to decide what's more important to you--fulfilling a duty that would be fulfilled anyway or having love."
"--would say have the child for the good of the kingdom," he interrupted. "Because he thinks male senshi only have a chance of showing up if the starseed doesn't pass down through blood."
"He had some other good points, too," she said reluctantly.
"Like--it could cause unrest and uncertainty, because people would worry about when the starseed would be reborn."
He snorted. "That sounds just like Hermes," he said. "Serenity--I can't tell you how to live your life, because it's your life. Only you can make those decisions. But, for what it's worth . . . ."
She leaned forward eagerly. "Yes?"
"For what it's worth," he continued, "I'd go for it. Love doesn't find you every day and I think you and Jupiter have a better than good chance of finding it."
"Finding it," she repeated, annoyed.
He gave her a jaundiced look. "Are you telling me you love her already?" he challenged. "Or that you'd rather like the chance to find out if you could?"
She shot him a nasty look, but nodded. "You've given me a lot to think about," she said. "Thank you, Orpheus."
"Just get out of my fur," he grumbled, ducking the hand she sent to ruffle his fur. "I have work to do. If you're really feeling grateful, you can get some of Jupiter's cupcakes for me; that will give you a fine excuse to go see her and I'd get cupcakes out of it."
Serenity stood, amused at how long it took to go from queen to maidservant--just about three seconds, it looked like. On the other hand, Orpheus had just done a lot to break her out of her repetitive thoughts; getting him some of his cupcakes was the least she could do. She went to slip out of the Archive and nearly ran into someone just about to enter.
"Queen Serenity!" Princess Jupiter exclaimed, flustered. "I--I'm sorry, I didn't see you there!"
Serenity steadied her fellow senshi. "It's okay," she said, smiling and only faintly--she hoped--blushing. "I wasn't really looking where I was going, either." She looked at what was on the tray Jupiter was holding, "Oh, you're bringing Phooey his cupcakes? I was just going to go and beg some out of you for him."
"I--yes, I brought these up for him," the blonde princess said. "I--Serenity? Could we . . . talk?"
Serenity blinked, surprised. Before she could answer, Orpheus walked out of his workroom.
"I can hear you, you know," he said, glaring impartially at both of them. He shook his head. "Just bring the cupcakes in and go away, unless you want a nickname like Merry's."
Serenity and Jupiter traded a glance. "Uh, no," Serenity said as Jupiter stepped over the green mooncat to place the tray on his desk, "we're fine without the nicknames. So sorry to bother you, gotta run, bye!" With that, she grabbed Jupiter's arm and pulled the other woman out after her.
"And don't you forget it!" Orpheus shouted after them.
"Don't forget what?" Jupiter whispered to Serenity, prompting a round of giggles.
"Don't forget he's the creator of bad nicknames?" They both giggled some more.
"I can still hear you! Go away!"
"Just eat your cupcakes!" Serenity yelled back.
"Goddesses," Jupiter gasped, trying to control her expression, "you do believe in pushing things."
"Life's not fun if you don't," was Serenity's smug reply. She turned to face Jupiter expectantly. "Okay, what did you want to talk with me about?"
Unaccountably, Jupiter began to blush. "I--perhaps somewhere a little more private?" she suggested.
Serenity looked at the other woman for a long moment, then shrugged and head for one of the little nooks Mercury had insisted on when she had over-hauled the Archives. They weren't exactly private, but there weren't a lot of other options; Orpheus had co-opted most of the available space for his assistants, new and old, to use.
Jupiter, however, still looked uncomfortable and Serenity only hoped the topic wasn't the same one Jupiter had needed privacy for before--she didn't want to leave the Archives and miss out on new information, but she also didn't want to have to reprimand one of her senshi in the semi-public setting they were in.
"I hope this is okay," she began apologetically, "but Orpheus . . . . He's taking his power to heart."
Jupiter looked first startled, then amused. "I hope he doesn't expect us to bow before his 'benevolent' dictatorship," she said dryly. "No, if this is the best we can do, then this is the best we can do." And she lapsed into silence again.
"You wanted to talk . . . ?" Serenity prompted again.
Jupiter sort of shook herself, then visibly squared her shoulders. "Yes," she said firmly. "I . . I overheard your conversation with Orpheus."
Serenity blinked. There hadn't actually been a lot of talking, once he'd updated her on the situation. She didn't think tickling the mooncat's tail was something that would make Jupiter nervous, but . . . . Then she paled and swayed, alarming Jupiter enough to have the other woman grasp her arms to steady her. She had just remembered the other conversation she and Orpheus had had.
"Sorry," she said faintly, then stronger. "I'm sorry, I didn't realise you were, were there and of course I'd never dream of insulting you in any way and anyway Orpheus and I were just talking, I wasn't really going to do anything--"
Jupiter, incongruously, started smiling and her grip on Serenity's arms softened. "Now, that would be a shame," she murmured, sliding her hands down in a comforting caress until she could catch hold of Serenity's hands.
Serenity blinked again, confused. "Why would that be a shame?" she made herself ask.
Jupiter laughed softly. "Because I was hoping to talk to about about our current--and future--relationship."
"Current . . . and future--?" Comprehension dawned and leant itself to a funny feeling in her stomach. "Did you--I mean, are you . . . suggesting?"
Jupiter nodded. "I am suggesting," she answered. "I know there will be problems--starting with Hermes!--but I'd like to try for . . . something more."
Serenity started smiling until her face felt like it would split with her joy. "That's . . . wonderful!" she said, gripping Jupiter's hands in turn and bouncing them up and down a little. Jupiter smiled back at her and was opening her mouth to say something when they were interrupted by a commotion. It was by the entrance to the Archives, it sounded like.
Serenity rolled her eyes. "No doubt they'll be calling for me," she muttered. She offered a half-smile to Jupiter. "Sorry--interruptions are a way of life."
Jupiter laughed. "Don't I know it," she agreed wryly. She loosened her hold on Serenity's hands reluctantly and gestured to where the disturbance was coming closer. "Shall we?"
The queen sighed. "I suppose we should," she muttered. "Do you suppose Mercury and Mars are back, yet?" she asked as she exited the nook, Jupiter following behind her. She glanced back in time to catch a shrug from the other woman.
"I wouldn't have thought so," Jupiter replied. "From what I understood, Mercury had a whole slew of tests she wanted to do, preferably in more than one location. Unless they were all tests along the lines of 'let's see how fast we can hit all these spots and be home in time for supper', I really don't think it could be them."
Serenity grimaced. "True, Mercury is really dedicated to those in-depth tests of hers."
"Unlike you," Jupiter teased. "You would be the one wanting to race around the planet as fast as you could. My bet would be on Hermes trying to track you down with a bunch of people on his tail."
Serenity laughed, blushing. What could she say? Racing was fun and racing using the Teleport was even more fun. That, and the image of a harassed Hermes with a stampede of people behind him, was infinitely amusing.
"The Queen!" someone cried, snapping both women's heads around. It was Mercury after all--Sailormercury--and she looked a bit dishevelled. "Where's the Queen?"
"She and Jupiter just left, why?" Orpheus said, exiting from his area. He glared at them. "And an Archivist should be more proper. Where's Mars?"
"Gathering everyone," Mercury said brusquely, calling out her super computer and doing . . . something with it. "Dammit, Orpheus, where's the queen, this is important."
Her interest well and truly piqued, Serenity lengthened her stride a bit and called out, "I'm here. What's going on, Mercury?"
Mercury glanced at her, relief showing. "Big things," she replied. "Do you know where Jup--oh, she's with you, good. We need to get everyone together for this." She took a deep breath. "Mars and I were attacked while on Earth. Not by Earthers, either. They were creatures of ice and wind and they were definitely hostile."
Serenity's eyes widened and she heard Jupiter's breath catch behind her. "Attacked?" she repeated. "B-but why?!"
Mercury turned back to her super computer and called up what were probably relevant readings. "Their energy signatures match the anomalies we found in-system and elsewhere on Earth," she said, pointing to similar peaks and troughs. "I'd say we found our culprit and that it's not exactly peaceful."
There was resistance, after all. She hadn't thought there had been anyone with any power of note on the blue planet, but, as the melted Snow Dancer before her showed, that was obviously not the case. She held a hand over it and shuddered at the heat still pouring off of it. According to the Snow Dancers she had set to guard this crystal, it had been one person who had done this. One. The power implicit in such an undertaking was worrying. And there had been two intruders. And both had disappeared after that shocking display of power.
It could only be a challenge. Someone else wanted Earth for their own and they were challenging her claim to it.
Her timetable had been abruptly stepped up and she needed to protect her planned addition to her collection. To protect it, she needed more Snow Dancers. To make more Snow Dancers, she needed more energy. She snapped orders to the waiting Snow Dancers, sending even more of them on a hunt for suitable energy to bind to her crystals.
Perhaps the primitive humans on the planet could be useful after all.
"--and that's when we headed back," Mercury concluded. "There were fourteen of the enemy left and I judged it best to retreat and bring word back."
"A wise decision," Arachne murmured. Her tail curled around her feet as she perused the data Mercury had provided. "Any indication if that was their only base?"
Mercury shook her head. "With the data I gathered, I found another four sites with similar concentrations of energy."
"So how are we going to deal with these interlopers?" Uranus finally asked, breaking the silence that had sprung up.
Saturn leaned forward and tapped the image of the Earth that had been created to show the locations of the five bases. "Are we sure they're enemies?" she asked. "Maybe they're not hostile. Maybe we can reason with them."
Mars shook her head firmly. "I felt them," she said, "just before they attacked. They are evil."
"In that case . . . ." The princess of Saturn studied the Earth, turning it this way and that. "Five bases, and we're only nine. And not all of us have powers we can use in battle. I'd say, pair a strong attack with someone who can watch the other's back." She looked at Mercury. "Do you think these will be easy to destroy?"
Mercury nodded. "All it is, is ice," she replied. "Even if it grows in un-ice-like ways. One good hit should take care of it. But . . . the one Mars and I visited, it's increasing in strength. I think . . . it's being reinforced, somehow."
Saturn nodded. "Then--send out four groups to deal with the lesser locations and we all go the the last one to make sure we get it."
Uranus leaned forward, an eager light in her eyes. "So how are we going to split up?" she asked.
It took a lot of discussion to trash it all out, but it was eventually decided that Mercury and Venus would hit the one at the South Pole, Jupiter and Pluto would hit the one on the small, cradle-shaped island, Uranus and Neptune would take care of the one on the largest continent, and Mars alone--by virtue of her fire--would deal with the one on the other side of the world.
"At least this one is in the tropics," the red-haired princess sighed.
Everyone would then converge on the strongest one. Until then, Serenity and Saturn would remain on the Moon.
"But--!" Serenity protested.
"No buts," Venus said with an unusually fierce expression. "You, we protect at all costs. This might be a feint to draw all of us out and leave you unprotected."
"It's not like my starseed wouldn't be reborn," she said sulkily.
Jupiter reached out, then, and touched Serenity's arm. "That may be so," she said quietly, "but you would be gone forever."
Serenity looked at her, startled, then sighed and sat back, nodding reluctantly. "Fine. I don't really like it, but--fine."
Mercury looked at them speculatively, then nodded. "Tomorrow, then," she said.
"Tomorrow!" Neptune exclaimed. "Why are we waiting? I wanna kick some butt now!"
Mars frowned at her. "Mercury and I have had a long, tiring day," she said. "And all of us need to prepare for this. Senshi die in battle and, as Jupiter pointed out, only the starseed is reborn."
Everyone sobered at that reminder.
"Until tomorrow, then," Princess Pluto said, breaking her customary silence.
"I don't like it!" Serenity burst out, breaking the silence she had been uncharacteristically cloaked in.
Jupiter watched, just a little amused and--it had to be said--just a little turned on at the display her Queen was putting on. Sitting back and letting someone else fight her battles had never been Serenity's way.
"This--this is dangerous stuff we're dealing with!" Serenity continued heatedly. "And I have to sit on the sidelines, like--like a child." She spun around when Jupiter opened her mouth. "Don't even say it," she said warningly. "Don't even think about saying it. If I'm old enough to be queen, dammit, I'm old enough to fight my own battles."
Jupiter stood up at that and crossed the room to take Serenity's hands in her own. Serenity gave her a disgusted look at the obvious ploy to keep her still, but allowed it anyway.
"This has nothing to do with your willingness to fight," Jupiter said gently. "This has to do, in part, with protecting the kingdom. If we fall, you can still learn from our deaths and, hopefully, triumph. If you fall with us, who will protect your kingdom and its people?"
Serenity jerked at her hands half-heartedly. "I don't want to talk about it," she muttered. "Or about death. Those are both very depressing topics, you know."
Jupiter laughed and tugged Serenity, sulking like the child she insisted she wasn't, closer to her and looped her arms around her queen's waist. "We could talk about our relationship instead," she offered. "That sounds much less depressing to me."
Serenity began to smile reluctantly. She rested one hand on Jupiter's shoulder. "That does sound less depressing," she allowed. She hesitated. "How--how should we start?"
Jupiter tilted her head back and regarded the pink-haired woman soberly. "There's the actual serious talking," she said. "We can talk about how big a fit Hermes will have, how your court will deal with it--the senshi will stand behind you regardless, but we're not the only people at court--what sort of role you want me to have, all things like that."
Serenity winced. "That's . . . still pretty depressing."
Jupiter began to smile. "Or . . . we could try kissing," she offered.
Serenity brightened up so much, it was like she was an entirely different person.
"I guess I don't have to ask which you'd prefer," Jupiter teased.
Serenity blushed and laughed. "Less talking," she commanded. "More kissing."
"Everyone! Be careful!" Queen Serenity shouted just before the seven senshi disappeared into the Teleport. She sighed and looked at the rose earring in her hand.
"Missing her already?" Saturn asked, unexpectedly right behind her.
Serenity squeaked and closed her hand. "Wait, you know?!"
Orpheus coughed pointedly. "I believe I mentioned only you and Jupiter didn't," he said. Serenity blushed.
Hermes stepped forward. "While we are waiting, your Majesty, there were some issues I hoped to go over with you."
Serenity was just about to protest when Saturn did it for her. "The queen needs to be ready, both physically and mentally," she said with just a touch of sharpness. "This is not a play fight, Hermes, nor a training exercise. Serenity doesn't need to be bogged down in the bureaucracy you manage just before a fight."
While Hermes stammered out an apology, Serenity looked towards the Earth-rise. She clutched the earring Jupiter had given her--"To remember me by," the blonde princess had whispered with a grin just before kissing her again--and prayed to the goddesses everyone would be all right.
"Incoming!" Mercury called, alerting Venus to the danger coming for them. "Straight ahead, five Snow Dancers!"
Venus looked and could barely make them out. "I've gotta get me one of those," she murmured, making Mercury laugh. She blushed; she hadn't meant to say it that loudly.
"You'll be first on my list," the blue-haired senshi promised. "Plan?"
"Not enough for a proper attack," Venus said, thinking furiously. "Evade until we get closer? And then land and fight. If we can both get clear in time, we should be able to take out a few of those things with the leftover energy from the Teleport."
Mercury nodded and tightened her grip on the other senshi's hands as the Snow Dancers came closer and closer.
"Ready?" A long moment fraught with tension. "Now!" They rolled in the air at the last minute, close enough to hear the angry chittering the Snow Dancers made as they swiped and missed. "Again!" Another roll and turn and the ice crystal they were headed for was getting bigger.
"From behind!" Mercury called and Venus risked a glance back.
"Left!" But that took them into another Snow Dancer and the protective bubble of energy that powered the Teleport exploded, throwing Mercury, Venus, and the Snow Dancer that had collided with them in different directions.
Venus landed and rolled, using her momentum to get back to her feet. She looked around, but couldn't see Mercury anywhere. On the other hand, none of the Snow Dancers seem to have realised she had survived. She looked around again, assessing the best approach to the ice crystal. There was fog between her and it, which would definitely help hide her, but it could also hinder her; she wouldn't be able to see any obstacles--such as Snow Dancers--until she literally ran into them.
Then she grinned and breathed out, "Mercury." There hadn't been any fog when they had first approached. It pointed, very promisingly, to her sister senshi having survived the disruption of the Teleport as well.
Mercury crouched in the crevasse she had managed to squirm into just before her mist had been blown away by the concerted efforts of the Snow Dancers. There had to be someone in charge of them because, as a whole, they didn't seem like the type to be able to think on their own very well. She eyed the footprints leading to her crevasse with a grimace. Point in fact--none of them had seen them or, if they had, had connected them to the intruders they were searching for.
She peered out again, automatically activating her visor. She made a mental note to modify it so she didn't have to physically call it forth--there were plenty of times she couldn't spare a hand to activate it and while using the Sailor Teleport was only one of them.
She wasn't that far, actually, from the ice crystal. She had been thrown forward when they had collided with the Ice Dancer and had used her Shabon Spray on the way down to hide her landing place. She didn't know exactly where Venus was, although her super computer insisted someone with her energy signature was somewhere behind her. It couldn't get more specific than that; apparently, there really was something different about the ice, different enough to muffle her readings.
Without being able to confer with Venus--dammit, communicators were going to be her next project--she was going to have to figure out a way to get to the crystal and disable it herself. She sighed and shook her head. How in the world was she going to do that? She had only the barest link to her starseed when it came to using its power offensively and--
But she didn't have the barest link to her starseed. She had hacked into it for her super computer. Could she--?
She worked on the problem before finally deciding, a little grimly, that she could. If she didn't mind the possibility of blowing herself up. All she needed to do was program it in and she could tap a lot more of the power of her starseed than anyone she had ever heard of. And she could always remove it after, in fact, it was a good idea to remove it after, in case one of her descendants decided it was the only way out of a bad situation.
"Like I have," she muttered as she programmed it in. On the other hand, the senshi of Mercury had always been blessed with superior intelligence. Removing the programming to do it would not stop it from happening again. She just hoped no one else would be in her situation.
The mist was both a blessing and a curse. But Venus had known that before she had made her decision to travel in it. As it was, it was far more dangerous for the Snow Dancers than it was for her; she, at least, was alert and watching her surroundings. If anyone was going to be surprised at coming face-to-face with an enemy, it wasn't going to be her.
She wondered where Mercury was. Other than the mist, there was no indication that the other senshi was even there. That Mercury would do something rash, she dismissed out of hand. If she had been partnered with Uranus or even Neptune, it would have been a concern, but Mercury had a solid head on her shoulders and would think things through before acting on them.
Which didn't always negate the possibility of rash actions, she had to ruefully acknowledge. But it was still less likely to happen with Mercury.
A disturbance caught her attention and she froze. She heard Snow Dancers flying above her and something told her this was a good time to find a hiding place. And just in time, too; the Snow Dancers she'd heard were working together to blow away Mercury's mist, leaving the approach to the main ice crystal clear.
Venus held her breath, but, aside from a few cursory sweeps, the Snow Dancers didn't seem to be looking too hard for the intruders. Which was unbelievably lax of them, but it wasn't like she was in a position to complain.
She eased out of her hiding place cautiously and darted forward from one clump of crystals to the next. She laid her hand on one for balance to push up and sucked in a breath at the feel of it. She turned and stared at it disbelievingly. A crouched figure could be faintly seen in the ice's white depths. A human, an Earther, judging from its garb. And already dead, its energy harvested and stored in the ice it was encased in.
She removed her hand and muttered a pray to the goddesses. Earthers were barbarians, to be sure, and not even remotely civilised, but no thinking being deserved such a death.
Another commotion grabbed her attention and she looked at it. A knot of Snow Dancers had descended and were rising--slowly and with a lot of trouble, it looked like--into the air again.
"Let me go!" Mercury's voice carried clearly over the cries of the Snow Dancers and Venus' heart plummeted.
"No," she breathed out, stuck behind her concealing crystal. But it was. She could even see bits of blue occasionally showing between the white bodies of the Snow Dancers.
There was another cry from Mercury and that jolted Venus into action. She ran forward, dodging clumps of ice crystals until there was one too big to go around. She went up instead, grabbing for desperate handholds and leaping from one precarious ledge to the next. "Mercury!" she cried. She lifted a hand to the sky and called out, "Crescent--!"
But before she could complete her attack and come to her fellow senshi's--her friend's--aid, there was an outpouring of power from that clustered knot of the enemy, one that destroyed all of them and propelled a limp body clad in blue to the ice crystal that was their target. Venus heard the sharp crack as Mercury collided with it, saw her fall to the ground far--too far--below.
"No!" Without even realising what she was doing, Venus scrambled her way back down the ice crystal she had used as a viewpoint. She was almost to the ground when something came up behind her and snatched her into the air. "Let me go! Let me go, let me help her!" she screamed, vainly trying to free herself from her captor's grip.
She bit her lip bloody and forced herself to stillness. She was being taken to the main crystal, probably to be entombed in ice and killed, just like that poor Earther. What would the energy of a senshi do to that crystal, so much more plentiful than that available in a normal human?
No. She wouldn't let that happen. A senshi's duty was to protect everyone, just like Queen Serenity had said. How could she do less than that?
Wild with grief, Venus squirmed and got one hand free of the Snow Dancer's grip. Mercury was dead, she was captured, and the ice tower was still standing. She was too close to it for what she was going to do, but all that meant was she wouldn't miss. They wanted energy? She'd give them more energy than they could handle.
"Crescent . . . ," she breathed out. She touched the jewel in her tiara, the outward expression of her starseed and drew upon it more fiercely than she ever had before. Another Snow Dancer flew in front of her, looking at her curiously. "Beam!" The Snow Dancer's face melted as her attack ran through it and hit the ice crystal behind it. The concentrated power of Venus poured into it, lighting up the cracks Mercury's body had made with a golden glow.
It shattered. The Snow Dancers, already in a frenzy at the bold attacks, shrieked in pain and started plummeting to the ground.
As the one holding her fell, Venus twisted to keep up the flow of power. She wasn't going to leave anything to chance, even if it meant her own death. And it would, she knew. Either the strain of channelling all that energy would kill her or the rapidly approaching ground would.
"And so, after much effort and sacrifice, Sailormoon and her senshi defeated the Snow Dancers and their mysterious Princess Snow," Queen Serenity said, finishing the bedtime tale.
"And they all lived happily ever after!" her daughter exclaimed, giggling. "Momma, will I get to fight with the other senshi?"
"If necessary," Queen Serenity said, hiding the pang that hit her at the innocent question with a practiced smile. "Now, it's time for bed, little Serenity."
The covers, which the princess had drawn over her head, huffed. "I don't wanna go to bed! I wanna fight evil!"
The queen pursed her lips, amused. "How about this: If you go to sleep right now, I'll declare a Winter Festival tomorrow. Princess Jupiter can teach you to skate." It wasn't as if she wasn't going to declare one--the conditions were perfect for it--but her daughter didn't need to know that.
A blonde head popped out of the covers. "Really, Momma? Really?"
"If you promise to go to sleep right away," Queen Serenity said sternly.
That prompted a flurry of movement under the covers as her daughter twisted and turned until she was comfortable. "I'm going to sleep, Momma!" the little girl proclaimed. "Good night!"
Queen Serenity leaned over to give her daughter a kiss. "Good night, my little Serenity," she murmured. She didn't get up right away, her mind still occupied with her daughter's question about fighting as Sailormoon. May the goddesses keep that pain from you, she thought, her heart aching. She rested her hand on her daughter's head. No, she had no intention of allowing her daughter's heart to be broken as had the hearts of all the queens of the Moon.
"I suppose you can't tell what's going to happen here," Jupiter muttered as she and Sailorpluto crouched behind some handy ice crystals.
Pluto shook her head. "Were I to look ahead and bring back news of a future, who could tell if that future would come to pass?" was her reply.
Jupiter shot her a look. "Interesting," she said. "You're saying the future isn't immutable?" At Pluto's nod, she sighed. "Not that it would help us all that much. If we're destined to fail, then knowing that we're going to fail wouldn't help us at all. And, if we knew we would win, that knowledge might make us over-confident and change that future. Marvelous."
Pluto laughed softly. "And that's why I prefer to stay hidden," she said. "Most people don't understand that. Or prefer to think that I mean everyone but them."
Jupiter grinned at her. "Yeah, I've known people like that," she agreed. She turned her attention back to the crystal that was their destination. "I don't think Mercury and Mars' counts were accurate," she said. "Look at that! At least fifty Snow Dancers and there's always some leaving and some returning." Bearing things that looked too much like human bodies for her comfort. No, she didn't like Earthers, not at all, but that was one thing. What it looked like the Snow Dancers were doing with them was another thing entirely.
"I don't think their count was off," Pluto said thoughtfully. "I think perhaps their presence alarmed whoever is in charge of these creatures."
Jupiter nodded slowly. "And whoever that is sent more to protect the crystals. Of course." She surveyed the situation one last time before turning to face Pluto squarely. "What'll be our plan?"
Pluto thought on it for a long moment. "I don't think our plan needs to change too much," she said thoughtfully. "We get close to the main crystal, we destroy it, we meet up with Saturn and Serenity and everyone else."
"Granted, but how are we going to get close?" Jupiter asked. "There's Snow Dancers everywhere!"
Pluto shrugged. "But there's also ice crystals everywhere," she pointed out. "And the Snow Dancers don't seem very organised or attentive."
"Great," Jupiter muttered. "Let's sneak and hope no one sees us. In our colourful fuku in the middle of a frozen wasteland." Although the land outside the ice and snow was rather pretty. The main crystal itself seemed to have been based in the middle of a grove of trees.
She mapped out a possible path and pointed it out to Pluto, who offered some suggestions. In the end, though, it was still nerve-wracking to stroll--or sneak, but the sentiment was the same--through enemy territory, unseen, to their objective. Every time a Snow Dancer flew overhead, chittering to itself, Jupiter's tension snapped tighter and tighter. She almost lost it entirely when one of the bundles that were being ferried through the air dropped something. She knelt down to pick it up.
It was a set of reed pipes. Obviously a child's instrument--a grown-up would be hard put to make music with it. She brushed the snow off it and stood slowly, faintly trembling. If Pluto hadn't put a hand on her shoulder, reminding her of just what was at stake, she may very well have lost it. As it was, the rest of the way to the base of the tower of ice was spent in absolute silence.
Once they reached the base, Jupiter was somewhat at a loss. "Now what?" she muttered helplessly. "Do I just blast at it?"
Pluto touched the ice gingerly, although her grimace and quick withdrawal spoke of her distaste for it. "Perhaps," she said. "Perhaps not. It's possible that without an avenue inside, all that will happen is your lightning will light it up. It may even serve to fuel it in some way."
"Oh, hell, no," Jupiter said fiercely. "There is no way anything I do is going to help this blighted monstrosity." She eyed the ice and fisted her hand thoughtfully. "What do you think will happen if I direct my attack into, say, a crack?"
"A crack might allow the lightning to penetrate far enough inside to do the necessary damage," Pluto said. "Shall I--?" But Jupiter had already balled up her first and swung it at the glassy surface.
To no avail, it seemed. Jupiter stepped back, rubbing her sore knuckles. "Maybe a kick?" she mused aloud. She was startled when Pluto gently, but firmly, pushed her to one side.
"Please allow me," the green-haired senshi of time said. She held her hands together for a moment, then lashed out with a hand. "Your entrance," she said as she wiped the ice dust off her glove.
Jupiter gaped at her. "I--How did you do that?" she demanded.
Pluto smiled secretively. "Who do you think Saturn spars with?" she asked. "We both of us have no battle powers and no weapons. And what is a senshi if that senshi cannot fight?"
Jupiter shook her head, although she held a new respect for the other senshi. "I hadn't really thought about it, I guess," she admitted sheepishly. She turned her attention back to the tower of ice. "I'd stand back," she warned, shaking her hands out. When Pluto had stepped back, she faced the ice again. "Supreme Thunder!"
It worked. She could feel her lightning travelling ever deeper into the ice. She held it as long as she was able to, then broke her attack with a gasp and started running. She shouted to Pluto, "It should go right about--!"
The rumbling started behind them, as the lightning-weakened ice--she made a note to tell Mercury that lightning seemed to do wonders when it came to melting ice--started to collapse into itself. Adding to the cacophony were the Snow Dancers--they were reacting badly to having what was presumably their source of power destroyed. She risked a glance back and saw an expanding cloud of ice dust rushing towards them.
Pluto grabbed her and swung her behind a set of ice crystals, facing and covering Jupiter with her own body as the dust cloud roared past and around them for long moments.
Finally, though, the dust wave subsided and Pluto backed up.
"Thanks," Jupiter said sincerely, wiping at her cheek. She made a face when she saw the blood on her glove. "Marvelous. And where are the Snow Dancers?" she asked. "I would have thought they'd be on that most definitely former ice tower like bees in a hive."
Pluto wordlessly pointed to the ground around them and Jupiter's eyes widened at the human-like figures--but for the snow that was slowly breaking down--littering the ground.
"They just . . . fell?" she asked incredulously. Pluto nodded. "Really?" She started to laugh. "These are the worst excuse for enemies ever."
Pluto's eyes widened and she reached forward just as Jupiter was yanked backwards into the ice.
"What the--!" Jupiter looked down to see many white hands holding her down and, still slowly after that jerk, pulling her into the ice. She screamed as something happened and energy was sucked from her. An impact beside her made her look and she saw Pluto readying another hit. "No!" she gasped. "Get back!"
"The crystal is growing again," Pluto told her, trying again to smash the ice holding her. "They must be using --"
"--my energy," Jupiter finished. She screamed again as the cold drew energy from her. "Get away!" she told Pluto. "Far away! And . . . . tell Serenity--Aargh!" When she could see again, Pluto was backing away, tears in her eyes. The senshi of time nodded once and Jupiter gritted her teeth as she began to build the power she needed. "Go!" she gasped out again, trickles of lightning already escaping her control, and, when Pluto was gone, shouted out one last time, "Supreme Thunder!"
"Deep Submerge!" Sailorneptune called out, drenching another group of Snow Dancers. "You'd better hurry," she said with a coquettish look at her partner. "I can't keep them off of us forever.
Uranus laughed at her. "I have faith in you," she said. "We need to be a bit closer."
Neptune pouted. "But I'm cold," she complained.
"What if I promised to warm you up later?" Uranus said, catching her hand for a moment and squeezing it.
Neptune pretended to think it over. "Well . . . if you promise," she said, laughter hiding in her eyes.
"And I do." Uranus turned her attention back to the task at hand. "Pity they weren't on the ground," she said. "Or at least closer to it. My attacks don't like to jump as high as yours can."
"But that's what makes you so perfect for the final blow!" Neptune said. She pointed at the remains of Snow Dancers she'd only glanced with her attack. "See? If I don't hit them perfectly, all that happens is they melt a bit." The pile she was pointing at stirred and a Snow Dancer pulled itself free of its companions. As Neptune had said, the ocean senshi's attack had left its features weirdly melted and mis-shaped. And, as they watched it try to get into the air, apparently flightless. "Look!" Neptune exclaimed. "And you say I never give you anything."
Uranus laughed and lifted her hand. "What a thoughtful partner you are," she agreed. "World Shaking!" The Snow Dancer, and the pile of its compatriots behind it, was blasted back to the snow it came from. "Surprisingly fragile, aren't they?
"Mercury did say her readings indicated they could be harmed just as easily with physical force," Neptune said thoughtfully. "It would be interesting to see how Saturn and Pluto would deal with these."
"You'll have to ask Jupiter, then, when we meet up," Uranus said. "Pluto's silent a lot of the time, but she can definitely fight!"
Neptune linked her arm through Uranus' as they walked through the devastation caused by both the Snow Dancers and themselves. The Snow Dancers left seemed to be hesitating to come any closer, which was a testament to the senshis' destructive power. "Are we close enough yet?" she asked.
Uranus looked down at her, concerned. "What's wrong?"
Neptune closed her eyes and shook her head. "It's nothing, really," she tried. She sighed when Uranus stopped and made her stop, too. "The energy . . . it's different from what we sensed when we were looking for it in-system. It's . . . people have died, now, to create some of these Snow Dancers."
"Will you be okay?" Uranus asked.
Neptune smiled at her. "Of course!" she said. "It just takes a bit of getting used to, that's all."
Uranus looked at her measuringly and then at the tower of ice. "I'm close enough," she decided. "If you could stand back, please . . . ?"
Neptune made a face, but obediently backed off a few steps. She cast an eye over the Snow Dancers wisely keeping their distance and smiled. "Ready when you are!" she caroled.
Uranus laughed at her before turning to face the ice tower. She concentrated on her power, letting it build until she glowed with it. This had to destroy the crystal, the source of the Snow Dancers, with one blow. "World Shaking!" she cried, throwing everything she had into it.
The globe of energy, when it impacted with the huge ice crystal, did the trick. It shuddered violently and started collapsing. What Snow Dancers were left started shrieking and plummeting to the ground
"Well?" she asked, turning to look at. "Do you think that did it?"
But Neptune wasn't looking at her, she was looking up over her and Uranus turned to see one last fool-hardy Snow Dancer diving for them even as it disintegrated into snow.
"Oh, hell," Uranus said with feeling.
"Deep Submerge!" Neptune cried behind her, the globe of water flying just beside Uranus and finishing the disintegration job on the Snow Dancer. Neptune walked forward to investigate what had happened. She turned to face Uranus with a happy smile. "Even better than hitting a whole group of them!" she proclaimed.
Uranus laughed at her. "Thanks for the save," she said. She offered her arm. "Shall we?"
Neptune took it with a grin. "Of course!"
Sailormars shook her head at the increased numbers of Snow Dancers. She wouldn't be able to sneak close enough with all of them about. This called for some creative thinking. How could she get her fire to the main crystal without being frozen herself?
She eyed the crystal cluster she was hiding behind speculatively.
"I don't want to touch it," she muttered even as she tugged her glove off and laid her hand directly on the glossy ice. She supressed a shudder at the death-energy tied to it and tried to probe for a pathway she could use. She found it almost immediately and followed it as close to the main crystal as she dared. It was easy, far easier than she thought it would be. The main crystal seemed to be designed to pull energy from its satellite crystals and there didn't seem to be anything preventing those satellites from being used as a point of attack.
"Whatever," she muttered, pulling away from it and shaking the thin coat of ice that had formed off of her hand. "If it works, it works." She tugged her glove back on and took a deep breath, preparing herself. She placed her hand back on the crystal and shouted, "Fire Soul!"
The crystal under her hand grew warm, then hot with the power she was channelling through it. The main crystal sucked at her energy greedily and she resisted its pull, keeping her energy under her control and in the form she chose--fire.
Around her, she was vaguely aware of the shrieks of Snow Dancers. As her fire jumped from crystal to crystal to Snow Dancer, she was even aware of them briefly, the agony they felt as the fire destroyed their cohesion. Some even tried to get at her directly, but she was the fire now and they flared briefly when they touched her and were destroyed. She gasped and held on grimly, determined to see it through to the end.
The main crystal was taking forever to heat up, but it was happening. She could feel small bits of it start to crack and then fall off. She redoubled her efforts, pulsing a huge wave of fire into the heart of it.
The explosion took her by surprise, flinging her back. She stared up at the blurred sky, wondering how she could feel grass below her and see leaves above her.
But haven't the Gates of the Sun already opened? she thought hazily as her vision finally blurred into darkness.
"And that's the fourth one," Orpheus said. He looked up at the last two senshi waiting. "That should be it. Everyone should be on their way to the last one."
"Awright!" Sailormoon said. "Time to kick some icy butt!"
With a shocked cry in the background from Hermes, Sailormoon and Sailorsaturn linked hands.
Once they were gone, Arachne turned to Orpheus and asked gently, "What's wrong?" He had been giving off subtle signals of distress, something, perhaps, no human would have noticed. But she wasn't human and she had noticed those signals, though he tried to hide them.
He turned haunted eyes to the other mooncats. "I don't know if everyone survived," he said reluctantly. "I've tried contacting Sailormercury and she isn't responding. And I can't find everyone's energy signatures."
"Goddesses," Hermes whispered, his fur slicked down flat. This was not like the Sailor Wars, where senshi had been pitted against senshi and only one would win. There hadn't been an enemy rivalling a senshi's power for decades. To lose even a single senshi was a tragedy. To lose more than one senshi against only one enemy was unprecedented.
The three mooncats bowed their heads, hoping their worst fears weren't about to come true.
It felt like her stomach dropped straight to the ground. All the elation at the thought of seeing Jupiter again, all the nervousness of going into a real battle and not a training simulation suddenly felt cold. "What do you mean, you're all that's left?" Sailormoon demanded.
Sailorneptune, eyes bright with tears, bowed her head. "I--I'm sorry," she said. "Uranus and I--we just heard ourselves."
Sailormoon swayed violently, barely feeling the hand Sailorsaturn used to steady her. "Everyone?" she whispered. "Mercury, Venus, Mars . . . . Goddesses, Jupiter!"
"Forgive us," Uranus said, her eyes also downcast.
"I--Are you sure?!" Sailormoon's eyes started looking a little hysterical. "Did you go and check them out?"
"I did, my Queen," Sailorpluto said, stepping forward. "There wasn't . . . much left, when I found them. I marked their resting places, so we can at least bring them home."
Sailormoon closed her eyes, feeling tears slip down her face. "We have to bring them home, yes," she said in a tight voice, struggling to control her emotions. Oh, Jupiter! She opened her eyes again. "But first, we have some unfinished business to attend to."
"Surely it would be better to--" Saturn started, objecting. But what would they be waiting for?
"And wait for what?" Sailormoon said. "For their starseeds to be reborn, for the babies they will be to grow up, for Earth to be lost to us and their deaths unavenged? No," she said, slashing her hand down, "there's nothing to wait for. We attack."
Saturn bowed her head. "As you wish, my Queen." She turned to look at their target. Even at this distance, it was easy to see the masses of Snow Dancers that awaited them. "If you wish, I can accompany you back too--"
"Back to, what?" Sailormoon snapped, turning on her. "Back to the Moon, where I can only wait and hope I won't have to hear of anyone else dying?" She wiped the tears off her cheeks. "No. We all go, or none."
'None' was not possible. Saturn, as Venus' backup, quickly arranged everyone to best protect the queen of the Moon Kingdom.
While she was doing that, Sailormoon slowly took out one of her earrings and let it drop to the snow. Almost without conscious thought, she replaced it with the one Jupiter had gifted her. It was the last link she had to the blonde senshi and she wasn't going into battle without it.
"I'm ready," she said distantly.
There was no question of sneaking up to this one. Surprisingly, after an exploratory probe was soundly defeated by the combined attacks of Neptune and Uranus, the Snow Dancers let them come almost all the way to the base of the main crystal.
There, the group of senshi stopped.
"How will we do this?" Sailormoon asked, still distant.
Uranus hesitated, then spoke. It was unnerving to have the normally cheerful senshi of the Moon sounding so . . . flat. "I was able to shatter ours," she said. She looked up at the crystal. "But . . . it wasn't quite so big as this one and there weren't nearly as many satellite crystals around it."
Sailormoon nodded. "They'll be feeding it energy, of course. We'll have to meet it with more, then. What about a Sailor Planet Attack?"
Saturn shrugged when everyone looked at her. "It's possible," she allowed. "Everyone would contribute to the attack, instead of only those with offensive capabilities. No one senshi would be the focus of all that energy, so it should be safe enough."
"Then we'll try it," Sailormoon said. She took a deep breath and shouted, "Moon Power!" as she opened herself up to the power of her starseed. However, in doing so, she opened herself up to the anguish the day had brought her, as well. She gasped at the sharpness of the pain mingling with the sweetness of the power. She barely heard the others--all she had left of her court, of her sisters-in-arms--as they called upon their own starseeds.
There was a long moment of silence before she realised they were waiting for her to signal the attack. She took in another deep breath and, with the other senshi, shouted, "Sailor Planet Attack!"
The energy poured through her, heating her blood so much more than her anger had, chasing away the chill of her sorrow. She could feel the other senshi in the power collected and she brought up a hand, sensing the others do the same. Facing the palm out, she let the mixed energy flow through her and everyone else.
The energy pooled for a moment, casting a swirl of colour over the snow surrounding them, before a single beam shot towards the tall crystal.
She held it up as long as she could and then a bit longer, hoping against hope to see the ice shattered and melted when the blaze of power faded. She could barely hear the shrieks of the Snow Dancers as they attacked the blazing senshi and were destroyed.
A bare breeze touched the back of her neck and she thought she heard someone call her name. Gasping, she was abruptly dropped out of communion with her starseed. She tried to pull it back, but everyone else was letting go of their own power, taking her own exit from the attack as the signal to end it.
She sagged, barely held up by the others and still seeing the perfect meld of power they had created. It had been lacking the completeness she had grown used to, but it was still an impressive amount of power. Surely the crystal was gone, surely she could go home and weep and rest . . . .
She looked up and a sob broke free. Far from being shattered, the ice tower looked barely singed and that healed even as she watched. Not only that, but she could see even more Snow Dancers than had been there before the attack. They were being crated by the crystal as it spawned its own defenders.
"It didn't work," Uranus said, her voice gravelly with exhaustion mingled with defeat. "Dammit, it didn't work."
"Must we?" Neptune pleaded, clutching at Uranus' arm for more than support. A tear slipped down her face.
"We are senshi," Saturn said steadily. Neptune bowed her head, but her stance firmed up and she no longer looked like she wanted to retreat. "Pluto, get the queen out of here. We'll take care of the threat."
Sailormoon only reacted when Pluto took her arm gently. "How?!" she demanded of Saturn. She gestured angrily at the crystal. "It just took the best we could give it and practically shrugged it off!"
"My Queen," Saturn began, determined, "there is no question of you putting--"
"Myself at risk?" Sailormoon answered sharply. "Of what, dying?" She shook off Pluto's hand. "I am a senshi, too. First and foremost, I will always be a senshi, protecting those who cannot protect themselves, even at the cost of my life. And you will not take that away from me."
"And who will rule if you die?" Saturn replied angrily. "Who will watch over us who will die, who will keep the memory of us alive? Your duty is to survive, to give our sacrifice meaning."
Sailormoon stood proudly. "It won't be me," she said. "I won't stand by again while someone else sacrifices themselves for me. How can I be worthy of your sacrifice if I'm not willing to do the same?"
"It has nothing to do with you throwing your life away!" Saturn shouted. "There's a reason you are the queen and we are not! You must survive!"
"So I can be forced to live alone?" The pink-haired senshi slashed her arm in negation of that. "No. Never. How could I call myself a senshi--a queen, even--if I did that? How could I live with myself?"
"But you would live," Saturn said, pleading.
Sailormoon held her hands in front of her brooch and reached deep inside herself. Already exhausted from the futile attack, it took longer than she expected to touch her starseed again. This time, though, she wasn't just calling on it. "In the name of the Moon," she murmured, "I call you forth."
"Sailormoon, no!" Neptune cried, her intuition warning her too late of what Sailormoon was going to do. "You can't manifest your starseed, it's as good as a death sentence!" She fought against Uranus' hold on her for a moment before sagging as the Moon's brooch glowed, first softly, and then with increasing strength.
Sailormoon could feel it, feel the power of the starseed as it was pulled out of her. Gasping at the pain of it, she still kept pulling at it until it was fully manifested, cradled by her hands. She raised her hands, preparing to spend the full might of her starseed. It was enough, she knew, to destroy the crystal. She had only ever been able to touch the smallest part of it and had been able to briefly see, in those times of conscious connection, the immense power born in her.
She opened her eyes, shocked out of her preparations. Sailorpluto's face was in front of her and her hand was on Sailormoon's, preventing her from fully raising them.
"Not alone," the senshi of time said.
Comprehension showed on Saturn's face and she nodded. "Never alone," she echoed.
"Not one as the focus, but many," Neptune murmured. She studied Uranus' face for a moment and nodded. "We stand behind you, my Queen."
"To death," Uranus said as the four of them took up positions around Sailormoon.
"Moon Power!" Her starseed glowed even brighter as she called upon it.
"Neptune Power!" A swirl of ocean-like power curled around her.
"Uranus Power!" The earth itself thrummed beneath her feet, adding its stability to her.
"Saturn Power!" The cold touch of death made her shiver as the power threaded around her protectively.
"Pluto Power!" Time slowed and almost stopped as the last senshi added her power.
The energy condensed in her hands and she added it to her starseed, dimly feeling the changes she was forcing on it--and herself. But it wasn't enough, she wasn't able to touch enough of the energy.
And then the impossible happened.
The kiss of icy mists rose about her. "Mercury Power!"
The heat of a flame too close rose about her, a corona of power that melted a Snow Dancer who had incautiously decided to investigate this strange new activity. "Mars Power!"
A low rumbling of thunder and the scent of roses made her weep as a snapping green energy joined hers. "Jupiter Power!"
A vast ocean of love engulfed her, drying her tears as it added its power to hers. "Venus Power!"
"Neptune Planet Power!" Inexplicably, more power from the senshi of Neptune flowed, reflecting and condensing the already-collected energy into something infinitely stronger.
"Uranus Planet Power!" The cold depths of space sharpened the focus of the energy, creating a single point of power that would be used as the focus of the attack.
"Saturn Planet Power!" The warmth of rebirth chased away the chill of outer space as it added a certain confidence to the accumulated energy. Yes, they would die. No, it would not be forever, even if the face presented to the world was not the same.
"Pluto Planet Power!" A breath of foresight touched her. She knew she would stand like this again, and had before, too many times to count. But never alone, not ever again.
"Silver Crystal Power!" nine voices shouted as one, releasing the newly forged power upon the enemy.
Even through closed eyes, she could see it hitting the ice tower. The crystal tried to contain it as it had before, but the sheer strength of it was too much and it could only be directed up for a long moment before it couldn't handle channeling the power anymore and exploded.
There was a timeless moment as the disparate energies found a perfect balance within Sailormoon. But it was too much, even for her, and she had to let it go with a shout.
The arctic wind chased the barely heard word away.
Truly exhausted, Sailormoon opened her eyes. Her eyes refused to focus properly and she saw two blondes in front of her. One smiled, green eyes full of love, before it wavered and coalecsed with the other. She blinked again, bringing Uranus's face into focus.
"Sailormoon," the other senshi breathed, awe evident in her voice.
Numbly, she looked down, as if to make sure, yes, she was there. Instead of the familiar blue skirt, instead of the familiar uniform, she had something . . . different. White skirt with a band of colours around the edge. Long trailing ribbons blown forward. Even as she slipped down, something clattered to the ground and she saw a covered chalice lying in front of it. As she watched, it faded until it was only a pale shadow against the snow and then it was gone.
She closed her eyes at the odd in-rushing of power and, when she opened them again, she saw only what she expected to see--the familiar blue skirt of the senshi of the Moon since time immemorial. Where the chalice had been was a wand with a crescent moon on the end and a beautiful crystal of exceptional brilliance held safely within its arms.
"Sailormoon." Saturn. Calling her.
She forced her eyes open, not sure when they had closed again. The senshi of Saturn was kneeling in front of her, one hand holding up a tall, tall weapon. A glaive, she saw as she followed the line of it up.
"Sailormoon," Saturn called again, a bit more firmly. She returned her gaze to her, only to find it lingering on the shoulder pieces of Saturn's uniform. Surely there had been no feathers there before.
"It's no use," she heard Saturn say as the senshi got to her feet, making her dizzy as dark and light slid together. "It's a mercy she's not dead yet after holding all that power. Uranus, would you be able to--?"
"It would be my honour," Uranus said gravely. She watched as the senshi of the earth and sky knelt in front of her. "Sleep," she was told gently as she was gathered into strong arms. She leaned her head against a convenient shoulder and closed her eyes obediently.
As she was carried off into sleep, tears slipped down her cheeks and she couldn't remember why . . . .
"--and I call this Council meeting to order," Hermes finished crisply.
Serenity ignored the covered chairs with an effort, the pain of loss still too much for her to dwell on. She let Hermes control the meeting--he was going to do it anyway and fighting against his determination still took too much out of her, even a year after the . . . events on Earth.
"--and so we come to the question of a royal marriage," Hermes was saying when she tuned in again.
Oh, no, for that she'd fight. "What marriage?" she asked, leaning forward.
Hermes, caught off guard, opened and shut his mouth a few times before managing to say, "Why, yours, your majesty. Indeed, it is far overdue already. Surely you cannot deny the necessity of it!"
She cast a sharp glance at Orpheus, whose job as the Archivist was to let her know of the secret things that happened. He winced a bit and shrugged, saying without words that he'd had no knowledge of this either.
She returned her gaze to Hermes. "The subject is closed," she said calmly.
Hermes hesitated. "It . . . is? I haven't heard anything--never mind," he said, obviously not himself. "When will the date be?"
She stood up, intent on escaping as soon as she could. "There is no date," she said. "I refuse to take part in a false marriage just to soothe your worries, Hermes. The starseed of the Moon with continue, with or without my marriage."
Hermes gaped at her. "B-but, your Majesty! We . . . we don't know if, if your starseed has been affected by the . . . events last year!"
"It hasn't," she said with absolute authority. It was, after all, her starseed. And she couldn't forget that hint of prescience she had been gifted with at the end. For her to be standing as the focus of power again and again, there would need to be other senshi of the Moon in the future. She had seen so many selves . . . .
"Forgive me, your Majesty, but no one has ever manifested a starseed and lived!" Hermes protested. "And no one, in all the histories we can find, has been able to continually manifest their starseed!"
She glanced at the table in front of her, at the Moon Stick and its maboroshi no ginzuishou. They had decided to be discreet about their origin, lest an enemy hear of it and try to steal it from the Moon Kingdom. She had no idea what would happen if someone stole part of her starseed and tried to use it and she absolutely did not want to chance it.
"No," she said. "There is no discussion on this topic. I declare this meeting adjourned."
That left Hermes opening and shutting his mouth again, but everyone else on the Council was moving out of the room with rather more speed than was strictly diplomatic. Serenity herself had just reached the doors when Sailorneptune nearly ran into her.
On seeing their battle uniforms, she grew cold and touched her brooch--no longer the familiar crescent she had grown up with--in preparation for a quick transformation. "What is it?" she asked sharply.
Sailorneptune blinked, her smile falling. Then she looked down and seemed to recognise what was prompting the cold welcome. "It's--Serenity, we just got back," she said, gesturing down the hall. "There were babies! Babies! Uranus is in the nursery with them!"
Serenity blinked for a moment, not understanding what Neptune was talking about. Then she remembered what Uranus and Neptune had been tasked with--watching over the other senshis' castles until they were reborn.
Suddenly, she was running, Sailorneptune beside her and guiding her. Dear Goddesses, she had only seen the nurseries once, when she had made sure they would be ready for the new occupants she had hoped would fill them. And they were here.
She stopped right in the door, feeling unaccountably nervous. She knew it was, in part, because of Jupiter, her Jupiter who would never be again. But all of the senshi had been her friends and the thought of seeing them--but not seeing them--was almost more than she could bear.
She shook her head and removed her clenched hand from the doorway. Princess Uranus had turned to face the door, obviously ready to protect these small lives with her own. She made an incongruous picture, clad in her dress, but with a sword--one of the gifts of last year's . . . event--belted around her waist and a baby in her arms.
Uranus seemed to understand, but came closer anyway. "You need to know them," she told her queen firmly, holding the babe wrapped in fine yellow cloth out to her.
Serenity shook her head mutely. She couldn't do it, she couldn't look at these babies and not see her friends, she couldn't and she wouldn't be able to hold them, knowing she would never see her friends again.
"You must," Neptune said insistently. She squeezed around Serenity to enter the room and took the baby from Uranus' arms and pressed it into Serenity's. And then Serenity had to hold it, or it--she--would have fallen.
She looked at the baby she was holding. Reddish hair topped the head and cloudy green eyes gazed drowsily at her. And yet . . . there was an echo there, an edge of familiarity. "Venus," she breathed. The embodiment of the starseed of Venus seemed to smile for a moment before the eyes closed and the baby drifted off to sleep. She looked up. Four cradles, each decorated with the symbols and colours of the senshi that slept with in, each holding a part of the future.
Princess Neptune poked her head into the queen's chambers.
"Your maj--" she began, before cutting herself off and scowling at the emptiness inside. "Oh, where could she be? I thought for sure she'd be here!" She fingered her mirror--like Uranus' sword and Pluto's staff and Saturn's glaive, it was a bittersweet gift of their last battle--absently and wondered if it was worth trying to use it to find where Queen Serenity was hiding.
She thought she heard a child-like laugh and she turned to look down the hall. "The nursery, of course!"
Sure enough, she found her queen there, watching over the littlest members of her Court as they played and laughed.
"They're not self-conscious at all," Serenity said, although Neptune hadn't made a sound. The queen had shown an unsettling intuition since they had fought--and destroyed--the Snow Dancers and Neptune was well aware she was a pot calling a kettle black whenever she thought that. "It's something they learn from their elders, I think," the pink-haired queen continued. She turned to look at Neptune. "I wish they didn't have to learn it."
Neptune gathered her thoughts carefully. Discussing philosophy was not the reason she had searched for the queen, but her errand wasn't urgent and there was no harm in philosophy. But before she could offer her own observations, Serenity shook her head a little and, once again, became the woman Neptune knew.
"You look like you've been looking for me for a while," she said, her lips twitching. "Did Hermes collar you into finding me?"
Neptune's mouth curved into a smile. "No, your majesty," she replied, "but not for lack of trying!"
"What does he want now?" she asked, half amused and half exasperated.
"You know Hermes," Neptune said diplomatically, shaking her head. Hermes had, in fact, wanted her to pressure the queen into thinking about marriage again, but Neptune wasn't going to take advantage of her friendship with her queen to influence her into doing something she'd already shown--adamantly--she was against.
Serenity sighed. "I bet I can guess," she said, sounding sour. "Oh, why won't he give up on it?"
Another question Neptune tactfully did not answer truthfully. Hermes had had to culture his stubbornness in the face of Serenity's own.
"You must have tracked me down for a reason," Serenity said, giving Neptune her full attention. "What can I do for you?"
Neptune paused to make sure she had exactly the right words lined up. "It's more what we can do for you," she said at last. "The Snow Dancers--and whoever or whatever was controlling them--caught all of us off-guard. We--that is, Saturn, Pluto, Uranus, and I--we'd like to start patrolling the edges of our solar system. It's no exaggeration to say we could probably have stopped this--this Princess Snow if we had managed to find her before she got to Earth and was able to boost her power with the energy stolen from those poor Earthers. As well, the Sailor Wars may be fading, but there are still rogue senshi out there--it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye open for any kind of threat from out-system. We wouldn't leave you unprotected, of course," she hurriedly added at the quickly hidden expression of abandonment that crossed Serenity's face. "Definitely not until our new senshi are able to take on their duties."
Serenity's expression eased, although there was still a hint of anxiety around the edges of it. And, with what she--what they all--had been through, it was no wonder. But, for it to not happen again, they would need to be prepared and, to be prepared, they could not let their past hinder them.
"That sounds reasonable," Serenity said at length. She nodded. "I should be able to manage with, say--two?--senshi as bodyguards. More than that is starting to give me fits."
"Two?" Neptune echoed, surprised. "But--your majesty, we were thinking to wait until the children were ready before starting these patrols!"
Serenity shook her head, a tired smile on her face. "Why wait?" she asked. Her smile faded. "We should have been keeping watch already. There was no indication we actually dealt with whatever was controlling the Snow Dancers, this--Princess Snow, you said? What if she came back and we were still unprepared?"
Neptune coughed gently. "We've already done a few . . . unofficial patrols," she murmured. "As far as we could tell, Princess Snow high-tailed it out of our system and hasn't returned yet."
Serenity smiled again. "Then I have no concerns with your proposal. Remind me before the next council meeting and I'll be ready to block Hermes' objections." She leaned forward eagerly. "Now that business is out of the way, what can you tell me about the new powers?"
Neptune smiled and began explaining what they knew of the new powers granted to the five of them after the battle with the Snow Dancers. It was nice to see, even for a little while, the same enthusiasm Serenity had been known for.
Princess Serenity slid the slim volume back into its place, keeping an eye open for the exceedingly proper Archivist. After what she had read, she wasn't really in the mood to deal with the excessive formality he always showered her with.
Her mother had definitely softened her favourite bedtime story. For a moment, she was upset, but then . . . . She shuddered. The complete re-telling would have given her nightmares, there was no doubt about it. No, it was better she found out this way, from the recounting of the events by the very Queen Serenity who had fought and lost.
She felt a tremendous amount of respect--and awe-- for her ages-old predecessor. She had fought against unbelievable odds and won, even if her victory wasn't a complete one.
And yet . . . she couldn't imagine sending her friends out like that, to hope they wouldn't die. She thanked the goddesses for the peaceful times they were in, because she didn't think she could be half as strong as that long-ago Serenity had had to be.
Of course, the solution to that was to make sure she never had to order her senshi--her friends--into a situation like that. But even if she had to . . . .
No, she decided suddenly. My friends mean more to me than anything. I won't--I can't--sacrifice them.
"Princess Serenity!" The familiar voice echoed between the rows and rows of bookcases. "Hurry, Serenity!"
Princess Serenity brightened and dashed to the Archives' entrance. "Princess Venus! What's happening?" she asked eagerly, banishing the dark thoughts of before.
The blonde princess of Venus grabbed her by the hand and started dragging her down the hall. "He's here, he's here!" she hissed excitedly.
Princess Serenity's forehead furrowed for a moment. "Who--? Oh! The prince from Earth?" She took the lead, pulling the head of her guard behind her as she had been pulled. "Venus! Why didn't you say so?"
Venus laughed. "What do you think I was doing, silly?"
"So, is he as cute as they say?" Serenity asked. "And--" She stopped, suddenly realising she had no idea where he actually was. "And where is he?"
"You need to pay more attention, Serenity," Venus scolded laughingly. She leaned in and whispered, "And, yes! He's so cute, Jupiter has almost walked into several columns!" She tugged at her princess' hand. "They're being greeted by your mother, of course! You were supposed to be there, remember? You're lucky the queen said you would meet them at supper instead."
Serenity sighed dreamily, already imagining what he would look like. Tall, of course. Maybe with red hair, like the red soil she had heard about. Brown eyes, of course. Or red, to match his hair. And strong and handsome.
Then she shook herself. There was no point in imagining about him, she knew. Earth had only just come into its power and its senshi had not been found yet. There would be no alliance-by-marriage between the Moon and the Earth unless it was with the house of the senshi. She grimaced. Besides, the prince was probably not that cute, Jupiter's column-walking aside. Still . . . . A small smile grew on her face. It did no harm to dream.
And in the furthest reaches of space, a being made plans to re-visit that beautiful jewel again, to claim it as her own. The journey would be long and arduous, but it would be worth it to get the crowning addition to her collections.