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It's the End of the World as We Knew It (and I Feel Fine)

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Darien Shields snapped his wrist communicator off, sighing as the tiny lights faded and died. He pulled Prince Endymion's dark cloak closed across his chest, blessed the magic armor for its enchanted warmth, and shut his eyes against the midnight darkness, more total than any he had ever known. The image of Sailor Mars grimly reporting that there was no one left to save in what had once been New York City was the only thing for which he had dared spare power that day. The few flickering lights in the refugee camp below the bluff on which he stood smoked of the wood and grass and garbage they consumed.

"His" communicator — he ruefully realized he had begun to think of it so. Actually, it belonged to Sailor Venus, but Mina would not be needing for a long time, if ever. He forced himself to add the "if ever." Mina had been badly wounded and her legs crushed in the same earthquake in which Doctor Mizuno had died, under the collapse of the stadium where the survivors of Juuban District Hospital had set up after the bombing. The warring coalition responsible claimed that it was a mistake, and it probably was — but that didn't heal Mina's legs or resurrect Sailor Mercury's mother. Darien had seen the future, more times than he could count, and it included the Soldier of Love, as straight and strong and beautiful as in the simple days before the war, when all they had to fight were demons and aliens, not starvation and despair. He refused to depend on those visions. He and the Scouts would make the future this time, he swore to the chill earth under his feet and the bright moon hovering over the displaced people below. Make it, not just fulfill it. Never again would he sacrifice anyone to what was "supposed to be."

That was the lesson he had tried so ineptly to teach himself through those nightmares about his beloved Serena — back before they had ever heard of the Negamoon, or in ages hence when he would be King of the Earth, depending how one looked at it. Never trust any vision of the future. Make the present for yourself, and drag the future where it ought to go. Pluto and he fought about that whenever they saw each other, these days. Ever since...

A pile of sticks tumbled to the ground next to him. "So what did Raye have to say?" Jupiter asked, kneeling to scrape away a place for a fire. Darien glanced at the tallest Sailor Scout, noting that she was out of uniform in worn jeans and a dirty pink sweatshirt.

"The UN is dust," he answered at last. "The Secretary General might have gone home to Australia just before the attack. If she didn't—" Darien threw up his hands and sat down heavily beside the little dome of sticks. He felt very young, and very helpless. "Prince of the Earth" was a crock — he wanted someone else to take charge, someone older and wiser and... legitimate. "The slide into feudalism is accelerating, Jupiter. People are getting more and more isolated. These wrist-units of ours may be the only worldwide communications network still functioning."

"And so while we're trekking around the globe like crazy, putting out fires—" she directed a finger-point burst of lightning into the center of the twigs, sparking them to flame "—we're becoming the only globally recognized... well, whatever it is we are."

"Human beings instinctively look up to famous people, whether we deserve it or not. It's an evolutionary holdover, from when survival depended on knowing your relation to the pack leader."

"And it doesn't now?" Jupiter crossed her long legs and placed her hands in her lap. She pursed her lips as she searched for words, a habit Darien recognized as one she had picked up from Mercury. "Look," she said, pulling her knees up to her chest and crossing her arms under her chin. "I know you and Amy and Raye are all passionate about restoring parliamentary democracy, and I know you're the smart ones, so we should listen to you. But it has occurred to you, hasn't it, that we could just, well, take over the world and put a stop to all of this?"

"Yes." Darien met her calm green eyes over the merry little fire. "Yes, of course it occurs to me." Every day, most minutes. The cost in human life would be horrific, but within a few months, they could rule humankind. If Pluto consented to help, days.

"But we're not going to do it, are we?"

Darien lifted his eyes to the harvest moon. In the early autumn night, it loomed huge, an optical illusion he welcomed. "A 'temporary' coup, a 'benevolent' autocracy... It's occurred to you, to me, to Mercury, Mars, Uranus, Neptune, Luna, Artemis — even Saturn." Hotaru cried when she raised the possibility; she felt so guilty. "But you know who's never thought of it, not even once?"

"Oh." It was a rhetorical question. Sailor Moon, Soldier of Sanctity, could never imagine such a thing, not the deliberate seizure of power, not the desecration of human life.

"Not after her father and brother died, not when Mina fell. Not after Molly was captured. Not after what happened at Beijing and New York. Not even after the poison gas made her lose—" Here, his voice broke. The optical illusion faded, and the moon seemed very far away.

After a long, strained silence, Jupiter offered, "It wasn't Rini, you know."

"There may never be a Rini." His words chilled with the same resolution that had admitted that Mina might never recover, no matter how many futures they had seen. Pluto had said the baby was never meant to be — that timelines had tangled. He had hated Pluto for months afterward, the hate a cancer in the loves that kept life worth living.

"I'm sorry, Darien. I am so sorry."

"I know." Words had never been Jupiter's strong suit, he recognized. She thought with her heart and spoke with her fists. Given the first, it surprised him that she had ever come to the point of articulating the power-grab option, for all she was the last. Given the second, however, he wondered why she had not been the first. Distracting himself from his own griefs and responsibilities, Darien stared at Sailor Jupiter across the fire she had kindled and realized that he had not thought of her as simply Lita in... how long? "Lita," he began, and the fire reddened her wavy brown hair as she turned to look at him. "How are you?"

"Huh? Um, I'm fine."

"None of us are fine. No one on Earth is fine anymore."

She uncrossed her legs, leapt up, strode to the edge of the bluff and paced slowly between it and the fire. Darien watched her silhouette before the moon. With no other people around to contrast her height and strength, and civilian clothes in place of her uniform, she did not look extraordinary — she looked like any other young woman who had somehow so far survived this war with her health and sanity intact. Trying hard to think of her as his friend Lita, not his soldier Jupiter, her situation suddenly stabbed Darien in a way he suspected it could never quite penetrate their other friends. Like him, Lita was an orphan, with no parents or family to turn to. But Lita had no one the way he had Serena; Lita must be as alone as he had been before Serena. For all his grief for the child they had lost, and for all the burdens accumulating as they tried to hold civilization intact against attacks above and below, he and Serena were together. Lita was alone.

"Darien?" she spoke from the edge of the embankment, and the increasing wind unfurled her ponytail like a streamer behind her. Darien suspected that the wind rose with her emotions, and the administrative part of his mind filed away the observation; if the Soldier of Storms could learn to control the weather, they could finally fight the droughts ravaging North America's farmlands... His mind ticked over the details and possibilities automatically, as he rose and went to Lita.

"I'm not going to put this right, I know." She crossed her arms. "But without Amy to explain what I really mean, or Mina to make it sound pretty, you'll just have to take it as it comes. Darien, we have to end this. Soon. You asked how I was, and I'm... fine. I'm actually fine. It's not—" Her eyes pleaded with him to understand, and suddenly she dropped to one knee. "Endymion, my prince, my liege — no one else on Earth is as lucky as I am. Serena, Amy, Raye, Mina, you — everyone I love is still alive."