Irina

The Outer Soldiers Saga

 

Part Five. The Labyrinth of Fate

 

 Chronos was waiting near the high double doors for more than two hours already. “Why does it take so long for a woman to get dressed?” he thought almost in despair. They all were invited to the Moon Palace where finally the date of the wedding of Princess Serenity and Prince Endymion would be announced tonight. It was a great event and the ball was coming.

 At last, the doors opened and his wife appeared. He smiled at her. A long dress without sleeves with emerald-colored top and black skirt was tracing exactly every line of her body, back was left half-open. Her greenishly black hair was put into several rather thick tresses, each one wound round by the long string of little black pearls. Two earrings – emerald hole heart with a big black pearl placed inside - were decorating her ears. Emerald-colored shoes were completing the picture. Prince bowed and took her hand. She was absolutely beautiful! As for himself, he was as usual all black and silver: silver long shirt with high collar was fixed at his waist, silver trousers were outlining his long legs, his feet were provided with knee-length black boots, to his shoulders silver back-length cloak, black on the inside, was fastened.

 

 Haruka was standing in front of the mirror and looking at her own reflection. For this evening she decided to wear a dress. She knew Princess would be pleased. Gentle peach-colored long gown fastened at each shoulder by the golden clasp, with falling elbow-length sleeves, outlining her waist was wrapped around her strong body and long legs. She put on the golden crescent-shaped earrings, Princess presented her with, and a golden necklace. The girl bent down her head to examine two peach-colored shoes with low heels and shifted from one foot to another.

 She heard the rustle beside her and on lifting her head saw Michiru in a long aquamarine gown that was showing all of her back and upper chest fixed by the two long wide strips that were tied at the back of her neck, ends falling down her back. Long gloves were outlining her arms. Her aquamarine curlish hair was put up, secured by the sapphire clip. Two long thin sapphire earrings were shining in her ears. The aquamarine-colored shoes made her look almost as tall as Haruka. Michiru smiled encouragingly at the blonde and joint their hands.

 

 Finally, they all arrived. The Moon Palace was shining with white and golden lights. All the court was there to greet the Princess and her future husband. The inner soldiers, all beautifully garmented were smiling to the guests. Rei was wearing a long red dress, outlining her figure, with high collar and long sleeves, wide at the wrists. Her feet were provided with red shoes. Her thick waist-long black hair was falling down her back, her ears were decorated with two star-shaped ruby earrings.

 Ami was standing beside the Mars Princess in a blue dress with an open top with little sleeves tracing her body down her waist and a long skirt made of several layers of light fabric, blue shoes were put on her feet. Blue wrist-length gloves, blue neck-ribbon and sapphire leave-shaped earrings were completing her garb.

 Minako, all shining with happiness, was running around in a deep-orange long gown with a square cut in front, short sleeves and a bow at her small waist. Her long yellow hair was fixed at the back of her head with an amber clip. Two amber heart-shaped earrings were put in her ears. The soles of her deep-orange shoes were shown already to everyone in the Throne Room.

 Makoto was standing in the jade-green long strapless dress. Long wide green scarf wrapped around her shoulders was falling through her elbows along the lines of her legs to her feet. Her long brown curlish hair was fixed at the back of her neck by the emerald clip. Two long thin curlish tresses were falling along both sides of her face. Emerald rose-shaped earrings were placed in her ears. Her feet were provided with jade-green shoes.

 They all were shining with smiles and happiness, seeming to forget about all the worries. When they saw the inhabitants of the Chronos Palace arrive, they all began admiring their attires getting compliments in return.

  At last, the Princess and the Prince appeared. The bride was dressed in the long strapless sleeveless pink dress, outlining her waist that was beautifully embroidered with white crescents. Her hair put in her usual hair-do was decorated with two white opal clips in the shape of three feathers joint together. Two opal bluebell earrings with thin golden stems were hanging in her ears. Pink shoes were put on her feet.

 Endymion was dressed in white thigh-length shirt fixed at his waist, white trousers outlining his long legs, grey knee-length boots. A long white cloak grey on the inside, attached to his shoulders, was falling down his back. The long dark sword, his usual companion, was fastened to his waist belt. They smiled down at people greeting them and bowed. Queen Serenity appeared between the two. She was wearing a long glistening silver gown with long outlining sleeves and a crescent cut in front. Silver shoes were put on her feet. Her ears were decorated with two crescent diamond earrings. A thin crescent diamond necklace wrapped her neck. Her eyes were shining.

 The date of the wedding was announced. The greatest ever mistake had been made. The end of the Silver Millennium was coming. Now they were doomed. But they didn’t know it yet and were dancing, laughing, holding hands and exchanging congratulations and best wishes.

 

 Endymion and Serenity left the guests after some time unnoticed and went to the balcony where they stood watching the night sky with shining stars scattered all over it. They turned to each other and as Prince was leaning to the face of his future wife it became scarlet at the cheeks. But she did not pull away, she accepted his pure kiss, their first ever kiss with calmness and simplicity. Prince lifted his hand and wrapped her in his long cloak feeling her arms embrace him. The red rose petals came flying: they were falling down on the heads, shoulders and to the feet of two beloved. And there they stood not knowing that very soon they would be parted forever. But the time would come and they would discover that even forever ends someday.

 

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 This evening Prince of Time was really pleased, he even broke off his habit and during all the ball was dancing what he, to the surprise of the entire court, was doing irreproachably. He was dancing with his wife, holding her very close in his arms, her garnet eyes shining at him; with Michiru, who seemed to be the gentle sea breeze threatening to fly away from his hands; with Haruka, who felt quite comfortable in his arms, and he only now fully realized what a beautiful woman she actually was; with Rei, her burning black eyes seeming to look right into his soul; with Makoto whose strong grasp he felt at once; with Ami smiling at him through her soft blue gaze and even Minako whose garrulity and enthusiasm were, as usually, endless and at all the other times tired him to death, now was waltzing around the Throne Room with her hand on his shoulder. And Queen Serenity, who shared everybody’s bewilderment at the pleasant manners of the Prince that suddenly there appeared, complied with the same fate.

 Finally, he went to the Princess and bowed before her, stretching out his hand in invitation. She blushed but put her hand in his. They never had been so close before and now were looking at each other with great curiosity. Chronos felt energy glowing inside her body, his hands became warm, he was sinking in the loving light of the blue eyes.

 Suddenly, his vision blurred. He saw the Moon Palace ruining, its columns falling down burying people under them. He heard evil laughter, but could not understand where it was coming from. He saw the inner soldiers with their sailor suits torn lying near the remains of the Palace. And while he was wondering why they were not moving he realized they were dead. He saw the Princess and the Prince with their arms stretched towards each other, their faces filled with despair and pain as they were flying farther and farther away disappearing in infinite Space. A shock came through him.

 His heart stopped, he ceased dancing realizing through some mist in his head that the Palace was really falling apart and that he was hit with one of the huge white stones. He slowly stood up thinking that his mind again was playing tricks with him mixing the present and the future in the most inappropriate moments. Everyone was running around him in panic. Prince saw Setsuna trying to make her way towards him, she was saying something but he could not hear a sound because of the noise. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

 Turning round he saw Queen Serenity standing in front of him. “All the four of you should go back to the Chronos Palace immediately. If it all ends well we will meet again. If not I am only asking you to take care of the girls, they are still children comparing to me and you.” Her voice sounded strange: as if she knew that the end was inevitable and was not even willing to fight this inevitability. Chronos was about to object, to give reasons for them to stay and fight together, but the moment he opened his mouth Queen’s eyes filled with anger and prayer. “Go! It is an order!”

 Prince didn’t turn a hair. Only one of his black brows slowly went up. All his pleasantness disappeared leaving the usual determined and a little arrogant look on his face. Serenity realized he would never accept such a treatment even from her. She bent down her head for a few seconds. Then she raised it and said in a calm voice: “There is the end to everything and when it comes you should face it with dignity. There is nothing you can do because I accept my destiny and I know my sacrifice is necessary. It is not your place to interfere. You should know this.” Prince was looking at her and suddenly found the right answer to the question he was asking himself for so many times. He understood what she was talking about that day when there were only two of them in the Throne Room. Him and her lived or even were created for the only purpose: to raise these girls, to make them the ones they were supposed to be and to finally sacrifice themselves for their sake. And now her time had come.

 Prince of Time took the gentle white hand and bent his head. Serenity felt the energy coming from his hand and in a moment soft warm touch of his lips. She smiled sadly and put her other hand on the head with silver-black curls. Chronos felt the warmth coming from the hand and the weakness of its touch. When he raised his head his face was determined and a little arrogant. He was still holding her hand in his, he didn’t want to let go but he knew he had to. Prince squeezed the gentle white hand with all his strength looking straight into the Queen’s eyes: the pain was hardly bearable but she didn’t notice that.

“Your Majesty.” It was for the first time he was calling her that. For the first and for the last. Serenity understood that it was his way of saying “Farewell” to her. She smiled faintly and nodded. “The Silver Millennium will end today. We will never see each other again, Prince Chronos. My last request is for you to never leave them and to make sure they will survive. Please.”

Prince bowed his head and turned to go.

 He quickly spotted Michiru and Haruka, who took off their shoes to make it easier to reach him and Setsuna. When they joint their hands to transport themselves to the Time Palace they heard the laughter again and saw huge dark spheres coming.

 

 

 The beautiful Moon Kingdom was ruined. Queen Serenity knew they did not have enough strength to fight this evil and would be destroyed. So she sent away the outer soldiers at least for them to be saved and to protect the solar system afterwards. She was looking at the houses made of white moon stones falling apart, she heard people, her subjects, screaming as they were being killed, she felt the inevitability of the end. The Silver Crystal was too weak now for them to win. She saw the girls in their sailor suits attacking the black spheres but their powers were diminishing, their wounds enfeebling them. She saw Endymion with the sword in his hand protecting the Princess. But he too was wearing out. She took the Silver Crystal in her hands. It was shining dimly with white light. The Dark Powers from Earth wanting to capture this enormous source of good energy would never reach their target. Queen looked at the stone for some time then put her arms down. She saw the Crystal fly to the body of the Princess and melt into it.

 She knew she had to defend them, to give them another chance to live. She knew she was prepared to sacrifice her life, her powers, everything she had to save her daughter, her friends, her Kingdom. And as she was swearing to this promise again and again she felt something shiny inside her growing. With utter amazement she saw a flower made of shiny pink light appear from her body; enormous energy  was wrapping her, slowly all of her was becoming the pink shine. It was covering the Palace, the Moon Kingdom, the Moon itself. The Dark Powers were drowning, melting into it. And the moment flower exploded in billions of pink droplets that were shaped as tiny flowers, Serenity knew all of them would be saved.

 

                                                                                        *

 

 They stayed alone, absolutely alone. They felt emptiness inside as if an integral part of them was taken and there was nothing they could substitute it with. They had lost their friends, their fellow soldiers, simply people they were so close with. Strangely, they were not crying just staring into nothingness and being silent for one, two, three days… not exchanging a word with each other. Only when they stayed alone Setsuna’s eyes filled with tears and she was weeping in the arms of her husband who was kissing her hair and gently stroking her back. He himself was overwhelmed with the grief and its irretrievability. Michiru and Haruka were standing near their bedroom windows every night looking at the soft light of the stars, holding their hands clasped tightly as salty droplets were falling down their cheeks. Only now all of them fully realized the support and love those people granted them, only now they knew the importance of them all being together. But, as it always happens, such things are understood when there is nothing more to be done. Now they had only their memories left.

 

 And they remembered Rei with the usual determined look on her face and the way she was smiling saying another teasing thing to the address of the Moon Princess and the way she was fighting looking straight in the face of danger holding her burning fire sniper in her hands. They saw Ami, with her soft calm smile and soft blue eyes sitting on the steps of the Moon Palace turning the pages of another book. They saw her with concerned look on her face as she was trying to find the easier and better way to attack the new enemy. She used to be very good at planning the attacks. They saw Minako, her blue eyes shining with joy when she was running through the Palace and already on her way screaming about her new love. They saw her with the golden chain of love in her hands, serious, determined, completely different. They saw Makoto, pale after several days spent by Rei’s side when she was sick, but her dark green eyes shining. They saw her standing still, shielding her friends, willing to take the blow at herself. And these pictures seemed so real, so alive, they seemed to hear their voices, to feel their presence. And tears came running again and again.

 

 They remembered their Princess when she came to tell them about the wedding and invite them to the ball. She was sitting in the chair in one of the sitting rooms: so young, so gentle, so simple and, at the same time, so wise and so strong. There were times when she was comforting them looking with her deep blue eyes straight into their souls, her soft voice taking away their worries and troubles. She was never fighting with them but they always felt her presence: she was their safe and reliable rear. They remembered Prince Endymion his black eyes burning with indignation when Haruka, looking straight at him with her cold grey gaze, suggested him to leave their Princess alone. They remembered him smiling at them and holding the Princess’ hand as he was accepting their congratulations about his engagement. They remembered Queen Serenity with her calm kind smile helping them with her advice, healing them with the warm white light of the Silver Crystal, ruling her Kingdom with justice and wisdom.

 But all of them were no more and they still had to fight and protect the solar system. Slowly, very slowly they were coming back to life. The bond between them grew stronger, because now they had only each other.

 

 They spent most of their time guarding the boundaries of their solar system, changing each other: Prince and Sailor Pluto gave their post to Sailors Uranus and Neptune. The times were more or less peaceful. But still if anyone was harmed now Chronos was healing their wounds with the Silver orb, as it was the greatest source of energy they were left with.

 One day when Michiru was walking in the garden she saw two figures fighting. She smiled and thought that if Haruka and Chronos were practicing with their staff and sword, it meant they were in a good mood. Things were gradually coming back to their usual ways and though many changes occurred they learned to live with them. They themselves became different: calmer, more caring, more decisive and may be cruel.

 

 After the death of Queen Serenity and the disappearance of the Moon Kingdom there were attempts of the rulers of the other planets and stars that used to obey the Queen to declare themselves the new Kings and Queens. But the outer soldiers quickly explained to them that without their help they didn’t have a chance to protect the solar system and that they would obey only Prince of Time. He still was the guardian of Time and Space and again the sole Ruler of the solar system. The rebellions stopped, though after quite a long time. May be after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom the inhabitants of the planets and stars did not think the sailor soldiers that powerful any more: they witnessed their deaths and realized they too were mortal.

 

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 Chronos was lying on the grass in his silver shirt, silver trousers and black boots with his hands put under his head. His wife was sitting beside him turning a flower in her fingers, the skirt of her long garnet gown showing the lines of her beautiful legs. Prince was watching the clouds passing before his eyes. He looked at Setsuna and with some difficulty said: “There are things I need to talk to you about. About me.” Plutonian Princess lifted her brows in mute wonder: she knew everything about him. Prince smiled at her, reading her thoughts.

“You see, I am different from you and from the girls. You have the ability of rebirth and I don’t. If I lose my powers I would become an ordinary man.”  

“But you are much stronger than we. You used to protect this Solar system absolutely alone. And the possibility of your… death is smaller than ours. And even if you became just an ordinary man it wouldn’t matter to me. I would love you anyway.” Setsuna could not understand why he was telling her that. Prince smiled at her as if she was a child who had not seen the meaning of his words.

“Yes, I know you would. But I can never be the ordinary man.” His wife frowned, she was completely lost. Chronos was looking at the flower in her fingers and did not try to explain things further. She knew that if he wanted he would make everything clear to her. Just now he chose to speak by riddles.

“So you are saying you would…,” the word was frightening for her, ”die when you lose your powers?” Chronos shook his head.

“No, I cannot die. I would just become what I used to be: the substance of Universe.” His wife was feeling more and more uncomfortable.

“I don’t want to discuss your death. Why should you die? You are so strange today.”

“But there is the end to everything, darling. Even eternity has its end. And what is predestined will happen.”

 Setsuna was silent for some time. “But what about Hotaru. She was fighting her destiny and she had won.” Prince sat up putting his arms on his bent knees and turned his face to hers. He was very serious.

“No, my dear, she had lost because fighting her destiny _was_ her destiny. So she just followed the path she was born for. But she had won the battle with herself and this was infinitely harder than a battle with destiny.”

“But if she had won the infinitely harder battle why she could not defeat her destiny?” Setsuna didn’t want to give up. Prince smiled at her as if he knew that what he would say would be in vain.

“May be because she simply didn’t want to fight it. Fate is sly and wise, Setsuna. It offers you a destiny you would never fight. And not because you are a coward or a weak man but because you would never want a different destiny. So you simply don’t need to fight it. And all the sufferings you would go through you would agree to because you would choose to go through them yourself and because without them you wouldn’t be the one you are. And the price that you would pay would be so high not because Fate is so merciless but because you yourself would not value your life, your love, your happiness lower. And may be those who defy their destiny and think that they are higher than Fate are really following their predestined road?”

 Setsuna was silent. She understood that was he’d just said was very important but only later she would ultimately perceive the meaning of his words - the highest wisdom, that she would be struggling to explain to others herself and would be failing, just like him. It would come to her the moment she would be attacking Hotaru with the only intention to obliterate her; the moment she would see Uranus and Neptune, their eyes filled with hatred and mirth of malice and desire of the star seed, her star seed; the moment she would witness a baby with huge purple eyes grow in seconds and endow them with the powers they lost so long ago; the moment she would be protecting Small Lady risking her own life. And she would realize that all of that - all the good and the bad they did, all the sufferings they went through - all of that they bore at their own choice. And none of the four of them fought their destiny because they would have never agreed to the different one.

 

 But now she was only surprised by his calm voice. If she did not know him to be brave and honest she would think that he was simply looking for justification of inaction.

“So you suggest that we should accept what is offered and never disagree?” She was a bit irritated. Prince sighed: she did not understand him.

“Everything is more complicated, Setsuna. Fate is giving you what you wish but instead is asking you to pay for it. Don’t you think it is fair? And if you are not able to see you are granted a chance it is not Fate’s fault. There is always a chance. And it is up to you to use it or pass by. And sometimes it seems that the sufferings you are assigned to are unbearable and that there is no one else who is as unhappy as you. And it is very important to understand that it is not Fate that is testing you but you yourself are finding out how strong you are. And if you are able to defeat yourself and still believe in love, kindness, in other people it is you who are the winner. And Hotaru was aware of all that. She, like no one else I ever knew, could feel the Balance of Universe because she herself was the part of this Balance.” Chronos was looking at her with kindness and sadness. “And you would understand what I mean, because one day you would be the one to watch the Balance.” 

 Setsuna felt he knew what would become of her, like he knew the destinies of all the outer soldiers, and suddenly became afraid. The depth of his knowledge frightened her, she was looking at the man beside her and was seeing someone else, the stranger.

Prince looked at her, suddenly took in a deep breath and slowly said:

“I have met Fate, Setsuna. In my dream, but I knew it was real.” His wife was silent: she was amazed and a little scared. And Prince continued talking in his calm voice and with a strange smile on his lips.

“At first, it was the ugly old woman with grey disheveled locks, dressed in rags and when she stretched her dirty, shaking hand to me I felt the fear I have never felt in my entire life. And when I looked into her eyes I realized she was blind. But still I took her hand and she led me through the dark labyrinth. We were walking for a long-long time and finally I saw the light. A beautiful young woman in the simple long dress and long hair put up at the back of her head was standing in front of me. And when I turned my head I saw that the old woman disappeared. They both were Fate, ugly and beautiful. And when I looked at the young woman I saw that bandage was covering her eyes. In her hand she held scales. And in her beautiful voice she offered me something I was dreaming about all my life, long before I met you and after, but never thought possible. She offered me eternal existence.” Setsuna felt a dark cold hole inside her. “But she asked for a Balance to be kept, she asked for a payment.” Prince was smiling and looking in front of him.

“And what did she ask?” the Pluto’s Princess was afraid of the sound of her own voice. Prince still was smiling and being silent. Setsuna threw away the flower, singled out a thick tress of her dark green hair and began braiding and undoing it at the same time: the sign of her being very nervous.

“She asked for you. My wish would be granted to me if I would repudiate my love for you.”

“And what would happen to you and me then?” Setsuna asked in the low voice. She suddenly thought she was going insane, or may be he, or may be them both.

“We would be the way we were but neither you nor me would ever remember the love we shared. You would have another destiny, just like me. You would be guarding the Time in our solar system instead of me and would never remember me, like no one would. And I would live forever in another world but never have love because you were the only one I could have ever loved ultimately. And Fate knew this and this is why she put you and my most cherished dream on the scales. She smiled slyly at me and what she said afterwards were my own thoughts, something I had no courage to admit. She said to me:

“Prince of Time, are you sure she married you for your own sake and not for the sake of your position and powers or may be it was just gratitude? Are you sure she was faithful to you all these centuries, such a beautiful woman as she? Are you sure her love for you is as strong as yours? Is she worthy of such a sacrifice as eternal existence? Is she worthy of the price you would still pay for the love you were granted? After all isn’t love just an illusion like you were thinking of it for so long. May be you were right and what you are feeling now is a voluntary self-deception? Think, what you will have: all the knowledge you were craving for all your life, the impossible will be at your feet, the mysteries of the Universe you don’t have the Time for now would be solved by you. And what you will lose? You wouldn’t even remember you loved her and she wouldn’t remember she loved you. Nobody would be hurt. And such offer is very rare because such a wish is almost impracticable. Only the most worthy witness me and are bargained with. Choose.” The scales in her hand began trembling. The greatest temptation of my life and Fate knew that. And I felt the fear again, but now it was different. It was the pleasant tickling fear you feel when you are about to have something you were waiting for so long but never stopped wanting, and at last it is there and you can get it. The fear I felt when I was kissing you for the first time and when was asking you to marry me.

 And I looked at the young woman and said that I would never choose to change my present destiny for any other, that I agree to the price because I am aware of it already and that I would never doubt your love for me because illusion is powerless in the face of dangers and life trials and your love was always supporting me and making me stronger. And Fate smiled at me and disappeared. I was standing in the labyrinth again but it was brightly lighted up now and I knew where to go. And I was not lost even for a moment and when I reached the end of it I saw you standing there waiting for me with your calm smile and at that moment I realized that all my life, in the dark labyrinth of doubts and suspicions, it was _you_ I was coming to.”

 Prince was looking at the grass at his feet. Setsuna felt hot tears rolling down her cheeks, she suddenly was again a little girl beside a man who was so much wiser. And now she knew the price of his wisdom.

 Chronos stood up, took both her arms at the elbows and almost lifted her from the ground. Setsuna was looking down, she was afraid to put up her head. Prince raised her chin and waited for her to look straight into his eyes.

“Setsuna, listen to me. It was my choice. And for you there would be choices. Just be honest with yourself and what you choose would be right even if the whole world would think you are wrong.” She slowly nodded. She looked lost, like a little girl who felt she was for some reason guilty but didn’t know her own misdeed.

 Prince of Time was looking at her and suddenly smiled. He wound his arms around her, pulled her close, leaned to her lips and while he was kissing her he felt as if he was drinking sweet and precious wine and she herself was holding the cup that was bottomless. When he let go her lips Setsuna thought she would faint, she was standing on her feet only because Prince was still holding her. The head with silver-black curls bent to her ear: “I would never regret a single moment of my life I spent loving you.”

 He turned and walked away leaving her standing motionlessly. It seemed to her that the lightning struck her but surprisingly she was still alive.

 

                                                                   

 Setsuna stayed in the garden for the rest of the day, for the evening, for the night. She was overwhelmed, her thoughts were in a mess, something was worrying her: it seemed to her that he had said something she failed to understand, something that would explain everything to her once and for all. Sometimes she felt that being a sailor soldier was not her real duty, that there was something else she needed to do. But she never knew what it was. And now Prince’s words were coming to her mind again and again:

“One day you would be the one to watch the Balance.”

“You would guard the Time instead of me and I would live forever and never have love because you were the only one I could have ever loved ultimately.”

“Prince of Time, would you agree to the price you would still pay if you refuse?”

  “I agree to the price because I am aware of it already.”

 And suddenly she understood what she really was created for. To guard the Time. Yes, then she would become what she was supposed to be. But the moment she realized that she wished with all her heart she had never been born.

 She understood that one day he would disappear for her to become what she was supposed to be and all these centuries he knew that. He knew that and still was able to love her, was able to risk everything he had and revive her and to make the choice he had made to stay with her. Her, whose birth was the beginning of his end. That was his price. Setsuna thought she would die right now, she wasn’t even able to cry: so great was her shock.

 

 When she saw in the darkness Prince’s silver figure coming for her she turned round and ran as fast as she could. She heard him running after her. She didn’t know for how long she was running, running without even knowing where and from whom. She was running from herself, she didn’t want to know what he did just to stay with her, she was not worthy of that. She felt as if she had killed him. And now she knew that one day she would. And this was her gratitude for his love!

 Finally, his hand grasped her shoulder. Because he was running for so long after her he pushed her slightly but it was enough and she fell. Prince kneeled beside her, turned her to face him and looked straight into her eyes. It was night but the light of the stars was enough to see everything. The garnet eyes were filled with tears and were looking with anger and almost hatred at him.

“Why did you tell me all that? I don’t want to know it. It is too hard for me,” she was not yelling she was whispering. And it was even more frightening. “Setsuna, look at me. I knew it wouldn’t be easy for you but you had to know.” - “What for? To realize how much you love me and how unworthy I am?” her voice was sarcastic. Prince closed his eyes for a second. “To realize that it is possible to accept your destiny and bear everything Fate would put you through if there are things you believe in. And I believe in you.”

 She closed her eyes and tears were rolling down her temples disappearing in her dark hair. “How can you believe in me if one day I would kill you? And you know that. You knew that all the time. There can never be two guardians of Time. Even a child knows that. When you understood who I was?” Prince was still holding her shoulders. “That day when I brought you chocolate for the first time. I saw a vision that evening. I saw you in your sailor suit with a Time staff in your hand and I understood that one day you would take my place as a guardian of Time.”

“It was even before we got married. And you could love me the way you do? Knowing that it is me who would… would take away everything you had.” Chronos shook his head. “No, you gave me everything I have now and I don’t regret I love you. I told you before. I don’t want to change anything.” Setsuna was looking with malice at him and suddenly smiled evilly: “You know, you could have destroyed me so many times. I always trusted you so that it wouldn’t be even difficult for you. And then you could live.” Prince’s face became white with horror and pain. He seated her on the ground and shook. “Stop this! I love you!”

 Setsuna was looking at him with a countenance hard to define. “I didn’t know you till today. And I thought I knew you so well. You knew about Hotaru and never told us. And because of that the whole solar system was in danger but you believed in her though she was the soldier of destruction and we won. And you knew that the Moon Kingdom would be ruined. I understand now why we left. Her time had come, hadn’t it? And you knew that one day I would destroy you but still was able to refuse such a wonderful opportunity and revive me risking so much. You know, girls told me afterwards they were so afraid that if not for you they would have complied with the Queen’s orders. And you could live with all that. How can you still exist knowing that the person you love would one day kill you?” Prince was listening to her and thinking about the day when her best friends would kill her and she would understand them and accept it and would be able to forgive them because she would still be loving them and believing in them. And she would live with that. One day she would understand him. But not today.

 He looked straight into the garnet eyes still filled with tears. “Don’t say you would kill me. You will not. It is just my destiny. It will be done at my choice.”

“Suicide.”

“No. Sacrifice.”

 Setsuna was sitting on the ground motionlessly. She felt so weak, so empty, so out of reality. What was all of this for? May be it is better not to know anything at all. Knowledge is a lead weight and if you are not strong enough you would sink. She felt Prince taking her in his arms and slowly lifting from the ground. She wanted to pull away but his hands suddenly squeezed her so she couldn’t move. He stood up and carried her to the Palace. Setsuna turned her head and looked at his face, face that could be arrogant, cold and unpleasant but could be tender, kind and loving, face she loved so much. She was thinking that one day she would not see him any more. “How much time do we have left?” Chronos stopped walking. He was standing with his head down for a very long time and was holding her in his arms all this time as if she was not a grown-up woman but a baby. Finally, he looked straight at her and smiled a little: “Not much at all.”

 

                                                                                     *     *     *

 

  It was late evening. Michiru was lying in bed in her blue nightgown watching Haruka who was sitting on her knees beside her on the other part of the bed in her silver pyjamas embroidered with white clouds. She singled out a tress of Michiru’s long curlish hair and was doing with it whatever was coming to her mind. The latter did not object at all, she liked it when Haruka was playing with her hair. They were silent for the whole day and did not speak much now. Finally, looking at the blonde with serious eyes, Michiru said: “You know, you never told me you loved me.”

 Haruka left the hair’s tress, glanced at Michiru, then turned away and began examining the wall in front of her. At last she parted her lips: “You know very well that I do and there is no necessity to make me say that.” She was angry. Michiru put up her hand and turned the girl’s face to hers. “I am sorry. I never wanted to upset you, just…” She was silent, she could not explain that it was very important to her if Haruka would have said that from time to time. But she was always avoiding such conversations, sometimes becoming almost rude. She loathed showing her feelings and never spoke about them. Michiru did not know how to break this barrier. Haruka was still staring at the wall, her knees brought under her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs.

“Why are you so closed when it comes to your feelings? You know I will never hurt you. With me you can be absolutely open.” The girl’s voice was pleading. She never asked like that before, but now she didn’t care. Haruka tightly closed her eyes, then turned to Michiru and after a while said: “There were times when _I_ wanted to hurt you.” Blue eyes filled with amazement and disbelief, but she said nothing.

 The blonde was again staring at the wall. She was silent for some time as if unsure was it right to say what she’d just said and should she continue or not. Finally, Haruka took in a deep breath. Never before and never after Michiru heard her say so much at once. Words were pouring out of her mouth so rapidly it seemed a dam inside had been breached.

                                                                                                                                                                               

 “When I was in love with you and you were just laughing and passing by it made me mad. Sometimes I wanted to tear you apart, to cause you pain so that you would understand what I was feeling. But then I knew that no pain would be like the one I had inside. And after that time when I saved you and you became so kind to me I could not believe it. And I could not believe everything what was happening afterwards. I could never dream about you being so devoted to me. I was always thinking that the time would come when you would turn away from me, leaving me alone again. And I knew that without you now, when we had been so close, I just would be broken forever inside. But still I was taking this risk, I just could not refuse seeing you beside me. I was afraid that if I would even mention love aloud everything would shudder into pieces immediately. And our relationship lasted and lasted and you were so gentle, so caring and then I thought that probably you really loved me. But the moment I realized that another thought appeared in my mind: that may be it was a good opportunity to teach you a lesson, to make you feel the sufferings I went through. Now I see that it was the wounded vanity crying inside me, wanting to have a revenge. I was almost dreaming about how I would tell you that it was all over and how you would be upset, no, not upset, how miserable you would be.” Haruka’s face was pale, her arms were clasped so tightly around her legs her knuckles became white. As Michiru was listening to this confession her face was turning white too, her eyes filled with pain.

“I was cherishing this thought, it became my obsession. But then, one night, when I was looking at your face smiling at me, your eyes filled with so much love and trust I felt I was a traitor. I understood that your love was sincere and honest and that I was only ruining everything; that without you I just could not live, that I needed you even more than air. I never told you because I was ashamed of myself and was frightened you would turn away from me forever. This was burning inside me all the time. And because of all that I cannot say I love you. When I want to say it I feel as if I am going to say the greatest lie in my life. I am sorry.” Haruka bent down her head to her knees. Now her face turned red, Michiru felt the body beside her becoming almost hot as blood was running faster and faster. When she lifted her hand to her forehead she realized it was covered with sweat.

“So you could smile to me, kiss me, sleep beside me and at the same time think about ruining all that just for the sake of your wounded pride?” Haruka nodded.

                                                                                       

 The Neptunian Princess stood from the bed and walked to the window. She was silently watching the soft light of the stars and infinite spheres of planets in front of her. She was thinking about what she’d just heard. She was thinking why Haruka was telling her that. She could have never said and Michiru would have never known. Everything would be as usual. May be she was afraid of the truth she herself was asking about? May be really she didn’t want to hear all that? Was she prepared to deal with it now?

 And suddenly she realized that Haruka told her not because she wanted to hurt her but because she wanted to be honest. With only person she loved enough to make herself vulnerable. Because she wanted Michiru to love her for what she truly was, with her reverse side and hidden thoughts. Because she didn’t want to make Michiru think she was better that she really was. Even at the price of losing her because then her love would be for someone else, someone Haruka was not. And Michiru was thinking how hard it was for her lover to tell her this truth because the moment she said that everything was staked. But Haruka was risking that much because she was hoping. Hoping that if love was there it would show itself. Because real love is not about passion and affection, is not about living together. It is about accepting another person with all the good and evil in his heart and never blaming him for this acceptance. It is about having someone who utterly understands you. And sometimes it is about forgiveness.

 And while she was standing near the window and watching the eternal light of the stars Michiru came to realize all that. And she saw the depth of herself, the depth she never suspected about: and what she saw made her scared. She thought that for the first time Haruka was completely open with her, showed her her true undisguised self, allowed her to see her soul and now Michiru could just with one single word ruin her. But she didn’t want to do that. She had no right.

“Haruka, I don’t blame you. Partly, I myself was guilty. But you just have to believe more in yourself and in me.”

 Michiru bent down her head, she was a little scared of what she was about to say. Her voice was trembling.

“But even …” she took in a deep breath. “Even if you really were a traitor and a liar, even if you did the most horrible thing in Universe it wouldn’t matter to me. I love you.”

 So simple and so hard.

 

 She turned to see Haruka lying on the bed with her knees touching her chin, her arms placed in front of her face. She didn’t move at all when she heard Michiru’s words. Just her lids trembled. Michiru went back to the bed and sat beside her lover. Haruka’s celadon eyes slowly opened, their gaze was filled with infinite depth and something else Michiru rarely saw. With a great surprise she realized that it were big salty drops that were rolling in tears across Haruka’s face, falling on her hands and leaving little puddles on the pillow. “I don’t deserve such love as yours.”

 Michiru put her hand on the silver shoulder with white cloud and laid the girl on her back. She leaned to the face below and Haruka felt soft curls caressing her cheek. When Michiru’s lips touched hers she closed her eyes and suddenly began falling, slowly-slowly, melting into warmth, becoming so light. It was more than a kiss: it was forgiveness and plea, acceptance and promise. The blonde opened her eyes and looked at the face above her own: blue loving eyes were filling the whole world. Michiru smiled. “It is for me to decide what love you deserve.”  

 She stretched the blonde’s legs, dried wet streaks from her cheeks, blew the candles and lay beside her lover, putting her hand across her chest - the heart under Michiru’s hand was calmly beating.

 And they were oblivious that while they were sleeping soft pink shine, warm and caressing, was filling the room.

 

 

                                                                                *    *    *

 

 She was walking, walking alone in complete darkness. Her steps were noiseless. She felt someone she knew so well and never knew at all. A girl with huge blue eyes filled with love so much it seemed she was about to cry and two long yellow tails with knots on the tops appeared in front of her. She looked so familiar but she did not know her. On the blue bow on the girl’s chest a golden heart-shaped brooch was shining. Its light was warm and powerful. A young man was holding the girl’s hand. He was dressed in a black tuxedo and a black long cloak. White mask was covering the upper part of his face. In his hand he held a red rose. Something was telling her they were acquainted but the vision vanished not giving her a chance to remember them.

 A little girl with huge garnet eyes and two short thick pink tails was running towards her, smiling: “Puu!” But the moment she was about to take her in her arms it was not a little girl any more. A beautiful woman with two long pink tails with knots on the tops and a black crescent mark on her forehead was looking evilly at her. A black dress with a high cut on the leg was outlining her perfect figure. She closed her eyes not to see the hatred the woman’s gaze was filled with. When she opened them she saw the inner soldiers. A woman in the golden dress with golden bracelets on her wrists lifted her arms and black lightnings hit the girls. Four little spheres with shining stars inside were floating in the air. The woman smiled, a second ago depriving the Universe of the four of its braveriest protectors. The vision faded leaving her absolutely breathless.

 A vaguely familiar girl of about twelve was approaching her now, her dark purple hair was short, she was all dressed in black. She waved her hand to her but suddenly something golden appeared in it. And the girl was now a woman with long tresses of black hair covering the ground at her feet. In her forehead a black star was shining. She lifted her hands with a Holy Grail in them and grinned victoriously at the girl with long yellow tails standing in front of her. As she was walking further she saw Sailor Neptune, only her hair was shorter, till her shoulders. She saw her falling forward on the red-haired and red-eyed woman with a gun in her hands. Suddenly, Neptune’s body trembled, she leaned backwards and fell to the floor. A shining sphere shoot from her almost at once turned into the deep aqua mirror. She saw Sailor Uranus, her grey eyes so wide they seemed to fill half of her face. Her gaze was full of pain – the punishment she was expecting for the sacrifices they were prepared to make was finally brought to them. She ran, trying to escape these terrible pictures.

 Young woman was now walking at her: white blouse with a garnet bow in front, purple jacket, short purple skirt, black shoes, knee-length greenishly black hair and garnet eyes filled with infinite sadness. It was her! Setsuna thought her heart would blow right there, in her dream. Though it was not a dream, it was a nightmare, the most horrible she had ever seen. She froze. The woman went right through her making her flesh creep. Now she was in the dark labyrinth, trying to find the way out but it was the dead-end everywhere. She was absolutely out of breath, she knew she desperately needed to find something very important, something that was lost for her forever.

 

  She felt someone shaking her, calling her name. Her eyes slowly opened to see the Prince looking frighteningly at her, his face white. Setsuna sighed with relief and put her head to his shoulder: now she was safe. Her husband embraced her, feeling her body still trembling. They both were seeing nightmares from time to time: they knew too much about the secrets and the horrors of the Universe, used to dive in the very depth of the prohibited. But this time it was different. She saw what he saw and he was aware of the meaning of these visions: it was the future, the future they would inevitably face and fight with. And he suddenly knew that only if they would defy fear, treason, hatred and death and still believe in the omnipotent power of love, even when everything would be lost and nothing would be left except for the faith, only then infinite light would fill the future. But something inside was not allowing him to say that: Fate was standing behind him with a finger to her lips.

 

 Setsuna’s body ceased trembling, she was just sitting not wishing to leave his embrace. At last, she said: “May be we have to tell Haruka and Michiru…” There was a doubt in her voice. She felt him shaking his head. “What for? They are happy now. Just look at them. You would get used to knowing things others don’t and to never being able to say those things.” Setsuna nodded.

“Tell me, why you refused?” Chronos leaned a little backwards and looked at her: “You keep asking but the answer is the same: to stay with you.” Setsuna was silent for a few minutes then shook her head. “There is something else.” Next moment she almost regretted it: he suddenly pressed her to the sheets, pushing the pillows away so that she lightly hit her head. His hands were not gentle any more, they were hard, holding her shoulders so tightly it hurt. For a few seconds she was scared.

 Prince of Time leaned over her stopping his face inches above hers. His curls were slightly tickling her face, his hair was silverish in the darkness. He smiled slowly. “So you want the whole truth. You are not afraid of it any more? You think you are already strong enough?” He was not yelling and was not whispering, his voice was as usual calm and even but it seemed different. It sounded like he wanted to hurt her on purpose but at the same time was very sorry for doing it. He was silent for a few seconds.

“Do you realize that I have only months left? No, _we_ have only months left because when I would be gone you would stay alone. Do you realize that every day is bringing me closer and closer to the end, to my complete disappearance, I can feel it. To disappearance of this solar system from my life, my home, something I was caring about for millennia; to disappearance of Haruka and Michiru from my life and they had become the integral part of it long time ago and finally to disappearance of you from my life and I love you so much it hurts. Do you realize all that?” Setsuna was silent but he saw in the darkness something shining filling her eyes.

 Prince sighed heavily. “Yes, you are right. There is something else. I refused because… I want you to never forget about me. And even if there would be someone else when I would be gone I want you to never love him the way you loved me.” Setsuna tightly closed her eyes, she wanted to answer but only after some time managed to pronounce the words: “I am not going to love anybody else.” He shook his head faintly. “Time heals, memories fade, new life begins. And this is nobody’s fault. I don’t want your promises. Never say that again.” His voice was almost begging and at the same time filled with pain that Setsuna never heard, even when Hotaru was gone. In a moment she felt his hands letting go her shoulders, his face turning away from hers: “I am sorry I hurt you.” Chronos wanted to stand up but she caught his hand in the darkness so that he remained sitting beside her. She didn’t know what to say. She was holding his hand and thinking why it was so difficult to love him, why it was so difficult to simply love. And Prince was sitting and looking at the perfection of the tanned strong body clearly outlined by the light fabric of nightgown, at the dark hair filling almost half of the bed, at the face that was so beautiful and thinking why it was so difficult to love her, why it was so difficult to truly love. They often thought the same thoughts.

 Prince of Time leaned over to Setsuna’s face and she saw silver sparkles in his black eyes. “I don’t want to bind you by any promises. You have the right for any life you would choose.” He smiled slowly. “But now you still belong to me.” When he kissed her there was fire on his lips, the heat pouring in, spreading over her body. Setsuna felt her cheeks burn when she heard his thoughts in her head. They were beyond anything he had ever allowed himself with her, beyond anything she had ever allowed him: it was insanity. But she suddenly knew that in the face of the end and the inevitability of its coming this insanity was the only way for them not to go insane. This hot bottomless darkness was a salvation. The garnet eyes slowly closed in acceptance.