Much Ado About Dragons

By Crawlspace

 

 

Author’s Note: For those coming from ‘Tangled Web,’ this is the complete and unabridged version of Rei’s fairytale.  For those who might have just stumbled upon this story, it stands completely on its own.  No prior knowledge of ‘Tangled Web’ or the ‘Fate’ universe is needed

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            Minako took a deep breath, held it for ten seconds, then released it in short puffs, each one making a small popping sound as it passed her lips.  Lying on the couch with her head in Rei’s lap, she moved her manga down enough to look up and see if her bored fidgeting was having any kind of effect.  She frowned and let out a loud sigh when she realized that, no, it wasn’t.  Again, Rei didn’t so much as budge from the magazine she was reading.

 

            Rather than continue to fruitlessly poke at Rei, she laid her open book on her stomach and gazed around the room to see if anything had changed in the last 15 minutes.  Everything appeared to be exactly as she’d last seen it, though.

 

            Luna and Artemis were curled up comfortably at Setsuna’s feet, while Setsuna indulged in a well-worn paperback.  Usagi was still on the loveseat beside Mamoru, the baby asleep in her arms.  Her attention was fully devoted to Miki tonight, proud of the responsibility Makoto had left her with.  She wasn’t quite sure what Mamoru was doing, but whatever it was, it involved the notebook balanced on his lap, a folder that’s contents were spread out as well as he could get them considering where he was sitting, and a thick tome that was too textbook-like to have been brought along on vacation.

 

            Minako stretched her toes out and strained to see over the arm of the couch.  Hotaru and Chibi-usa had pulled Haruka and Michiru into a game of cards.  It seemed to be getting pretty lively, Minako thought, as Michiru tossed a card into the growing pile on the floor and Hotaru made a grab for it.

 

            I should have played with them, she thought ruefully, glancing one more time at an oblivious Rei.

 

            That was when she felt those eyes on her.  She turned to see Setsuna grinning at her and looking as though she were trying not to laugh.  Minako’s cheeks tinged a shade darker, and she itched at her nose.  Well, she figured, at least she was getting some attention.  Even if it wasn’t the attention she wanted.

 

            Movement caught her eye, and she leaned her head back to better see what Usagi was up to.  The blonde was handing Miki to Mamoru, being very careful not to wake him in the process.

 

            “We could lay him in his stroller for a while,” suggested Mamoru softly.

 

            Usagi shook her head.  “I like holding him.  And he likes it, too,” she added as she readjusted her legs and stretched out her arms.  “That’s why he’s sleeping so soundly.  He feels happy and safe.  My mom always said the same thing about me.  And that I was disagreeable if she tried to put me down before I fell asleep.”

 

            Haruka peered over the cards in her hands and smirked.  “I can see that.”

 

            Usagi stuck out her tongue, then reached back for the baby.  She cooed quietly at him as she resettled him, before addressing Haruka’s comment.  “Shingo was worse than me.  And I bet when I was a princess, I didn’t cry at all.  Right, Setsuna?”

 

            Setsuna looked at Usagi in surprise, and then chuckled.  “I’m afraid you did.  Rather often, and rather loudly.”

 

            Haruka laughed as she threw another card into the pile.

 

            Usagi frowned at the revelation, making Setsuna feel just a touch bad for her.  So she elaborated, “You liked being with others, and always wanted to be held.  You weren’t happy when we left you alone, and you had no issues letting us know that.  It was all right, though,” she consoled, her voice becoming softer, “because your mother enjoyed holding you.  Your temperament gave her the excuse she needed, and kept her from the merciless teasing she would have been subjected to by those she called friends because of how often she carried you around the palace with her.  So you were really a very good baby, and you did something exceptional for your mother.”

 

            That half formed pout of Usagi’s turned into a wide, vindicated smile.  Minako grinned in amusement, partly because she remembered all that crying with considerably less fondness than Setsuna obviously did.

 

            Then Usagi turned her attention back to the baby, and Setsuna went back to her novel.  Minako bit her lip for a moment before sitting up, crossing her arms over her chest and staring hard at Rei.  Seconds ticked by with no more of a response than her other efforts, so she came to a decision, because she was tired of being bored.

 

            “Tell me a story.”

 

            That got Rei’s attention.  The magazine slowly slid away, and she looked down at Minako as if she had lost her mind.  “How old are you?  Five?  You can read a book yourself.”

 

            Minako’s eyes went wide and dewy.  “Please,” she drew out.

 

            Rei rolled her eyes, then sighed as that puppy-dog stare didn’t let up.  “All right,” she gave in, trying to sound put out by the whole thing.  She closed her magazine and tucked it beside her.  “What story do you want me to read to you?”

 

            “Make one up,” answered Minako, a playful sparkle now in her eyes.

 

            “Make… Can’t I just read you something?” returned Rei, very aware of several pairs of amused eyes watching her.

 

            “It’ll be better if you make it up.  C’mon, Rei.  It’ll be good,” said Minako, her demeanor becoming bouncy like that of an excited child.

 

            Silently admitting defeat, Rei acquiesced and sank down further into the couch cushions.  “Okay, let’s see… I suppose we start with ‘once upon a time.’  So… Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle on a hill, overlooking a small village.  The princess was the oldest daughter of the king and queen, and very popular with the villagers.”

 

            “What was her name?” interrupted Chibi-usa as she and Hotaru abandoned their card game to sit on the floor in front of Rei.

 

            Rei tapped her finger against her lips, then grinned.  “Her name was Minako,” she answered, and beside her, the real Minako smiled widely.

 

            “The princess was very beautiful, with long blonde hair and bright, blue eyes,” continued Rei.  “She had also been blessed with a voice that was as beautiful as she was.  These things, along with her lineage, had made her very well known outside the village.  As a result, many admirers came to the castle, hoping to catch the princess’ eye.  But the princess, in her father’s opinion, was very stubborn and overly choosey.  None of the heroes who had come to prove their worth could catch her attention.  As you can imagine, this was making her father very frustrated.”

 

            Rei took a breath and glanced around the room, looking until she had the next piece of her story.  “As it goes, on what would become a most fateful day for the Princess Minako, she was summoned by King Artemis and Queen Luna to appear before another hero.  This hero was much like all the others:  tall, handsome, of impressive means… and full of hot air.”

 

            The girls giggled, and Luna lifted her head from her paws.  “I hope the queen, at least, wasn’t taken in by him.”

 

            Rei shook her head.  “Nope, she was, as was the king.  They were both very impressed with his trophies from battle and tales of adventure in the dragon infested Shadow Mountains.  Adventures that no simple mortal would have ever dared attempt, let alone been able to survive.  However, while the king and queen were dually impressed, Minako’s youngest sister, Usagi, was only slightly more impressed than her older sister.”

 

            “Who wasn’t impressed at all,” supplied Minako.

 

            “No, she wasn’t,” answered Rei.  She tapped the end of Minako’s nose.  “And remember which one of us it is that’s supposed to be telling the story, ‘princess.’”

 

            Minako grinned and nodded, and Rei continued.

 

            “The princess’ lack of awe, or even like, greatly annoyed her parents, which had the added effect of putting the princess in a bad mood.  So when she went up to her room that evening, she couldn’t sleep.  Instead, the princess paced and muttered her displeasure to herself, well after everyone else had gone to sleep.

 

            “’Why do I always have to listen to these egotistical, wannabe crusaders?’ grumped the princess to the reflection in her mirror.  She sat and picked up her brush, continuing to talk as she ran it through her long hair.  ‘After all, it’s not like I’m the only princess in this family.  Sigh.  I wish one of those dragons he kept talking about would swoop down and swallow me, just to spare me from any more of this.  Or better yet, swoop down and swallow him.’

 

            “Princess Minako giggled at her own humor and the image she’d conjured of a dragon using this latest hero as a toothpick.  But then, a shadowy movement at the corner of her reflection caught her eye, and she turned slowly.  Her brush dropped from her suddenly numb fingers, and she screamed as loudly as she ever had before in her life, as a giant eyeball blinked at her through the open window.”

 

            Rei grinned evilly and looked down at the children.  “You’ve heard the saying, ‘be careful what you wish for?’”

 

            The girls, Minako, and Usagi all nodded in response.

 

            “Well,” said Rei, “the Princess Minako hadn’t.  She was, however, about to be introduced to it in a very big way.

 

            “The princess’ screams drowned out the alarm from the already frantic guard,” picked up Rei as Minako settled in against her side.  “They hadn’t been able to see the dragon’s dark form against the blackness of a cloudy and moonless night.  It was the beating of his wings that had let them know he was coming, and by the time they’d realized what was happening, he was already over the castle walls.  They took aim immediately, but their arrows weren’t sharp enough to pierce the armor of the dragon’s scales.  So the dragon had ignored them and headed for the target his master had chosen for him.

 

            “As they headed for the only window in the castle that still held a lit candle, the crystal talisman in the evil wizard’s hand began to pulse a deep purple.  As the dragon took him nearer to the princess, the pulse quickened, becoming an almost solid glow.  The wizard grinned, then tucked the talisman back into his cloak as the dragon slowed and came to hover outside the window.

 

            “Curiously, the dragon peered through the open window.  His cat-like yellow eye blinked at the pretty maiden sitting in front of her mirror and talking to herself.  Then that eye squinted in painful surprise as a shrill, deafening scream tore through the quiet night.  The dragon recoiled, but his master reined him in and maneuvered him so he could climb in through the window.

 

            “The princess’ voice tapered off, and she watched in horrified shock as a dark figure slid into her room.  A heavy, hooded cloak covered the person, the hood completely masking his face.  Dark boots with shiny metal toes peaked out from under the hem of the cloak, and black leather gloves covered his hands.  The only signs of color on the figure were the dark purple trim around the hood and sleeves, and the emblem of fire over his chest.

 

            “That emblem snapped the princess out of her paralysis, for she knew without doubt who this was.  All her life, she had heard tales of the little man with a shiny head and beady eyes who had once preyed on the innocent young women of the village.  Having lost his place among his kin, he had turned to the dragon queen for succor, and she had welcomed him, baptizing him in a river of fire and offering what was left of his soul to the gods who protected her and her children.  She had brought him forth as a powerful and evil wizard, giving him a home in the empty valley at the foot of her mountain.  The kingdom feared him, as they did the dragons of the Shadow Mountains, and the princess was certain of the fate that would befall her if she were captured.

 

            “But the wizard could tell what the princess was going to try and do.  Before she could even take two steps, he raised his hand and called out, ‘Incendere!  A ball of fire materialized around his finger tips, and he sent it hurling towards the door.  The metal handle and lock were instantly melted, trapping the princess in the room and any would-be rescuers out.

 

            “The evil wizard chuckled.  Addressing the princess in a deep, gravely, somewhat hollow voice, he said, ‘Obviously, I am here to kidnap you.  You are pretty, and I favor you above all others.  As you can see, you have no choice but to…’

 

            “’No!’ cut off the princess.  She figured she had nothing to lose at this point, you see, and Princess Minako wasn’t the type to go down quietly without a fight.  ‘No!’ she shouted again, this time picking up the silver powder case from her dressing table.

 

            “The evil wizard barely had enough time to jump out of the way as the object was hurled at his head.  The powder case was quickly followed by her comb, her hand mirror, and her jewelry box.

 

            “’Stupid princess!  What are you doing?’ shouted the wizard as he jumped out of the way of her shoe.  ‘I could turn you into a pile of ash with just one word.’

 

            “Defiantly, Princess Minako answered, ‘So do it.  Burn me to ashes.  I dare you.’

 

            “Now, normally it’s not a good idea to sass off to a fire wielding evil wizard.  Actually, now wasn’t really a very good time to do it, either.  Angered, the wizard raised his hand… and someone started pounding on the door.

 

            “’Princess!  What’s going on?’ she heard, along with, ‘Daughter!  My precious child!’  So she ran over to the door and pounded right back.

 

            “’Get me out of here!’ she called.  ‘That evil, perverted wizard from the valley beyond the Forest of Death has come to kidnap me.  And why is there still a dragon outside my window?  Where’s that stupid dragon slayer?!’

 

            “A tap on her shoulder caused the princess to turn around, even though she should have known better.  She was greeted by a cloud of bitter tasting, gray dust, and immediately, her head started to feel tingly.  The room tilted, and she went with it.  The last thing the princess saw before passing out was her own reflection in the toe of the wizard’s shoe.

 

            “As you can see, Princess Minako wasn’t having a very good night,” grinned Rei.  The arm she had around Minako’s shoulders tightened a little in consolation.  “And it looked like she wasn’t going to be having a very good morning, either.

 

            “When the effects of the sleeping powder finally wore off, it was already early afternoon.  The princess rolled over on the thin, lumpy mattress she had been deposited on the night before.  There was a dull throb in her head, and her mouth felt like she’d been sucking on a cotton ball.  Opening her eyes slowly, she peered up at the leaky, cracked ceiling of her prison.

 

            “’Ugh,’ she muttered, putting a hand to her forehead.  A thin beam of sunlight shone in through the slat of a window in the far wall, but it did very little to illuminate the dark, dingy room.  She should be grateful for that, she supposed, because who knew how long it had been since anyone had taken a mop and dust cloth to this room.

 

            “As her headache began to abate, the princess felt she could try to sit up without any ill effects.  She moved slowly, letting her stocking feet hang over the edge of the bed.  She blinked her eyes a few times, then took a real look around her.

 

            “The room was small and rounded, in a tower she presumed.  ‘How quaint,’ she muttered disdainfully.  There was a pile of straw against the wall near the small window that she chose not to think too hard about, and a chair sitting against the wall opposite the bed.  What sat on the chair surprised her and gave her pause.

 

            “Hanging over the back of the chair was a rose colored skirt and white blouse.  Proper undergarments had been folded and set on top of a pair of somewhat worn shoes.  Attire not of the quality she was used to, but clean, and better than the nightgown she was wearing.  She frowned at what had been left on the chair’s seat, though.

 

            “’A piece of bread and glass of water,’ sighed the princess.  ‘Great way to emphasize that I’m a prisoner.’

 

            “Nonetheless, considering her situation and the desert in her mouth, the little snack was welcome.  So, she said a brief thanks for the consideration, and ate her meal.

 

            “’Okay,’ said the princess after she finished changing her clothes and lacing up the shoes.  ‘Now to let my host know I’m awake.’

 

            “Taking a deep, steadying breath, she walked over to the heavy wooden door.  The iron hinges and bolts were all tinged with rust, and the veins in the wood were a dark, ugly black.  Green that matched that on the wooden beams in the ceiling clung to the edges of the door in a sickly manner.  Wrinkling her nose at the idea of touching the thing, Minako reached for the rusty ring-pull on the latch and gave the door a tug.  The old door creaked unhappily against the pressure, but the latch held tight.

 

            “Frowning, Minako pulled a few more times, then called out, ‘Hey!  I’m awake in here!  Anybody out there?’  When she got no response, she lifted her fists and pounded on the old door, raising her voice even more as she continued to call out.

 

            “The response she got was not the one she was expecting.

 

            “A loud, thunderous crack reverberated through the room, and Minako jumped back in surprise.  The door creaked and groaned as its panels split and broke from her assault, pulling away from its hinges and frame.  The twisted pieces of wood tilted, not sure which way to fall, until finally it decided in was best.

 

            “The princess yelped and scurried out of the way as the broken door came crashing down.  Dust was thrown up in a noxious cloud as bits of stone crumbled from the ruined doorway.  Minako covered her mouth and nose, coughing and trying to swat away as much of the dust as she could.

 

            “After several minutes, the dust settled, and the princess was able to breathe without choking.  She rubbed at her teary eyes, clearing away the last bits of debris from them.  And then she stood and stared at the now completely open doorway.  No alarms, no guards, no strange or hideous creatures to gobble her up should she try to run.  Just a crumbling doorway leading to a presumably empty hallway and her freedom.

 

            “The princess shrugged, deciding it best not to question Fate, then made her escape.

 

            “She moved cautiously through the hallways and corridors, careful not to make noise or attract unwanted attention.  However, as she moved along, she began to believe that the castle was actually empty.  Not just of people, but also of the nightmare army that filled the stories of the evil wizard.

 

            “With her caution level dropping just a bit, the princess began to take a real look at her surroundings.  The gray stone walls matched those from her cell, and didn’t seem to be in much better condition.  She passed paintings and tapestries, all skillfully done, but fading and ragged for lack of proper care.  Intricately carved wooden tables in need of polishing held dusty vases and knickknacks, while objects of the arcane rested in various nooks along the stairways and walls.  The princess shook her head.  What would have been a frightening and creepy stronghold in the dark was little more than old and rundown in the daylight that trickled in through broken stained glass.

 

            “Her wanderings brought her finally to a short set of stairs that led down into the kitchen.  Minako tiptoed down the stairs and peered around the partially open door.  Not seeing anyone, she pushed the door all the way open.  What she saw brought her up short.

 

            “Unlike the rest of the castle, the kitchen was clean and well tended.  Signs of recent life were scattered around in the form a few dirty dishes left to be cleaned, a large bowl of fresh fruit, and a long knife beside a partially wrapped loaf of bread sitting on the cutting block.  And on the other side of the kitchen was the thing she had been searching for – an open exit.

 

            “Minako abandoned her study of the kitchen and hurried toward the door.  She could see sunlight and what looked like a small barn through the barred window in the door.  She would head that way, she thought.  Use the barn as cover to check her surroundings and see how much open space was between her and… well, wherever it was she was heading next.

 

            “She made it the short distance to the barn without any problems.  With a sigh of relief, she leaned back against the wall.  Then, curious, she took a few steps over and stood on tiptoe to see in the barn’s window.  Half a dozen chickens and their coup took up one side of barn.  Various tools and odds ‘n ends were scattered about, and a lone mule was stalled along the far side, keeping the chickens company.  The chickens were perfectly content to ignore her prying eyes.  The mule, on the other hand, saw her and took it upon himself to bray out a hello.

 

            “Under other circumstances, Princess Minako would have been amused and taken at least a few minutes to go in and scratch the beast’s ears to return his greeting.  Even though she was beginning to wonder if there was actually any reason for caution, this time she just couldn’t take the chance.  Putting a finger to her lips, the princess shushed the mule, apologizing for having to ignore him.

 

            “The mule, however, didn’t seem to get the hint.  His ears and muzzle twitched in unison, and his mouth opened to let her know just what he thought about it all.

 

            “GGGRRROOOAAARRR!”

 

            Everyone jumped at the loud roar that Rei suddenly let out.  The storyteller chuckled even as her Minako punched her arm and Usagi shot her a cross look for disturbing the baby.

 

            “That wasn’t the mule, was it?” said Hotaru as she stretched out on her stomach, propping her chin in her hands.

 

            Rei shook her head.  “And it startled both Princess Minako and the mule.  The princess wound up losing her balance, since she was still standing on her tiptoes, and she fell back onto the ground.  Then she heard that roar again, and covered her head, certain she was about to become dragon food for daring to attempt an escape.

 

            “But nothing happened.

 

            “After several long moments, the princess slowly opened her eyes.  Not seeing any horrible creatures about to devour her, she stood and crept along the barn wall until she could see around the corner.  What she saw made her jaw drop.

 

            “A girl, about the same age as she was, stood facing the dragon that had been peering in her window the night before.  The dragon dwarfed the girl, and roared at her angrily, but she held her ground and showed no fear.  Her dark hair hung down her back in a loose ponytail, and she was dressed as a simple peasant boy, her white blouse tucked into tan pants.  And the weapon she brandished in both hands…

 

            “’A mop?’ mumbled the princess, deciding quickly that whoever this girl was, she must be insane.

 

            “The dragon growled low in its throat, an obvious warning.

 

            “The girl waved her mop at him, flinging soapy water onto his dark green scales.  ‘You went and rolled around in the mud with the pigs after I told you not to!’ she shouted at him.  ‘Now you have to take a bath, whether you want to or not!’

 

            “The dragon narrowed its yellow eyes and grunted.  Then, without warning, it exhaled a small stream of flame at the girl’s mop.

 

            “The girl dropped the flaming remains of her weapon.  Then she put her hands on her hips and glared at the dragon.  ‘Bad Orochi!  Bad dragon!’

 

            “The dragon sat down with a loud, ground shaking plop.  His thick tail wagged back and forth against the ground a few times, and his forked tongued rolled from his mouth as he seemed to pant.  The princess hid a chuckle.  If she didn’t know better, she’d swear the dragon was laughing at his mistress.

 

            “Then, suddenly, the dragon’s head perked up and his snout scrunched up.  His ears twitched against his short, dark horns, and he looked around, searching for something.

 

            “’Uh oh,’ said the princess as she quickly backed away from the corner of the building.  But it was too late.  She turned to run, but before she could even make it from behind the barn, the dragon was upon her, snatching her up by the back of her shirt in his fanged teeth.

 

            “The princess struggled, trying to free herself as the dragon trotted back to his mistress.  But it was no use.  All thoughts of escape fled from her as the dragon presented her to her latest captor.

 

            “With her arms crossed over her chest, the dark haired girl glowered at the princess.  ‘How did you get out?’ she demanded.  ‘And where did you think you were going to run to?’

 

            “The princess, ever stubborn even though she was hanging prone several feet above the ground, mimicked the girl and crossed her arms.  ‘Who are you to ask?  And why should I answer you?’

 

            “The girl’s frown deepened, and the deep violet of her eyes met the princess’ full on.  ‘You aren’t in any position to be questioning anything.  Now answer me.  Or Orochi will use you as his pre-diner snack.’

 

            “Defiantly, the princess tightened her lips.

 

            “The dragon’s mistress shrugged.  ‘Fine.  Be that way.  Orochi… enjoy.’

 

            “A low rumble rattled through the princess as it passed through the dragon’s teeth, and her bravado quickly fell away.  ‘All right!’ she conceded.  ‘Okay.  I was pounding on the door, trying to get someone’s attention, and it just fell in.  I had to at least try and escape after that happened.’

 

            “The girl’s cheeks tinged a light pink.  ‘It just fell in?  From you hitting it?’

 

            “The princess nodded and grinned.  ‘No offense, but it really wasn’t a very good door.’

 

            “The girl rolled her eyes, then bent to pick up the charred remains of her mop handle.  ‘I guess I can’t argue with you there.  Still, she’s a good castle, even if she isn’t very much to look at.  Trying to escape was pretty stupid, though.  You’d never make it over the mountains alone, not to mention the Forest of Death.’  She gestured to Orochi, and he dropped Minako to the ground.

 

            “Climbing to her feet, Minako brushed off her skirt.  ‘I was more concerned about the evil wizard and his nightmare army than where I was going to escape from them.  Where is everyone, anyway?’

 

            “’Oh, um… well, the staff around here is pretty nonexistent at the moment,’ answered the girl.  ‘Same with the army.’

 

            “’And the evil wizard?’

 

            “’Not here at the moment,’ said the girl quickly, looking down at the dirt and giving a stone a kick.  Then she looked back up at the princess.  ‘But that’s no excuse for you trying to escape.  I’m going to have to take you back and put you in one of the towers or something.’

 

            “’Come on,’ argued Minako, turning on her best pleading, puppy-dog eyes.  ‘You don’t really want to do that, do you?  What’s your name, anyway?  Tell me that much, at least.’

 

            “The girl hesitated for a moment.  ‘Rei,’ she said at last.  ‘I’m this castle’s dragon master.  And that’s Orochi,’ she added, pointing the burnt handle over Minako’s shoulder.

 

            “That reminded the princess that she had a very large, and now that’d she’d gotten a better look at him, very dirty dragon behind her.  He lowered his head to give her a hello sniff, but she wasn’t having any of it.  With a panicked yelp, she ran around to hide behind Rei.

 

            “Rei laughed at her.  ‘Oh yeah.  Forget the mountains.  You wouldn’t have even made it passed the valley.’

 

            “Minako stuck her tongue out, then huffed indignantly.  Standing up straight, she started marching away from Rei.

 

            “’Where do you think you’re going?’ called Rei.

 

            “Without turning around, Minako answered, ‘Where does it look like?  I’m escaping.  And not only will I make it through the valley on my own, I’ll also get through the Shadow Mountains and the Forest of Death.  Thank you very much!’

 

            “’My dragon, remember?  The one I have trained on you!’ shot back Rei.  ‘Do we really need to go through that again?’

 

            “The princess stopped walking and her shoulders slumped.

 

            “Rei walked over to her.  She crossed her arms, and for several moments stood in contemplation.  Minako’s blue eyes were questioning and curious, and Rei finally grinned.  ‘Tell you what.  Since none of the rooms I can put you in are any more secure than the one you got out of, I’ll help you escape.  Just cause I’m bored.’

 

            “Minako beamed at her, her smile as bright as the sun.

 

            “’But,’ said Rei, ‘we can’t just go running off.  We’ll need to pack some things, and then stop in the valley to pick up the supplies that I don’t have here.’  Then her eyes cut to Orochi, and she mumbled, ‘And there’s still the matter of a certain dragon who needs a bath.’

 

            “’Wait,’ said Minako in confusion.  ‘Supplies from the valley?  You mean there are people there?’

 

            “’Of course,’ answered Rei.  ‘Not near as many as in your village, but enough to make it comfortable.’

 

            “’But the dragons!’

 

            “Rei grinned at her.  ‘As long as you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.  So long as all the residents understand there’s going to be occasional losses to their livestock, it’s all good.’

 

            “The princess once again took on the notion that this girl was completely crazy.  She did, however, have to admit she was also her best shot at freedom.  ‘Whatever you say,’ gave in the princess.  ‘But do we have that much time?  What about the wizard?  Or are you just leading me into some horrible trap?’

 

            “’Don’t worry about the wizard,’ assured Rei.  ‘We’ve got plenty of time, and as long as you’re with me, you don’t need to worry.  Beside that, I wouldn’t need to lead you into a trap.  Not as long as I have Orochi.  Speaking of which…’  Rei clapped her hands together.  “Come on, Orochi!  We’re going bye-bye!’

 

            “Orochi stood, obviously excited at the idea of going on a trip.  But Rei held up her hands as he spread his leathery wings.

 

            “’Not this time, boy.  We have to go quietly, so we’re hoofing it.  Which means we need to make a small adjustment.’  With her palms held up towards Orochi, Rei closed her eyes and said softly, ‘entenare.  A bright, purplish light enveloped her hands and spread to encompass the dragon.  Within seconds, the mighty Orochi was reduced to a winged lizard the size of a chipmunk.

 

            “Rei walked over to him and picked him up.  She scratched his head as he blinked dazedly, and she chuckled.  ‘Travel size.  And now much easier to bathe.’

 

            “Minako cringed in sympathy at the pained shriek that rang out as Orochi was dropped into the tub of cool, soapy water.

 

            “Meanwhile, back at the princess’ village, things had fallen into chaos and panic.  The king and queen were beside themselves with worry, and the youngest princess was in tears.  Their faithful army had slowly recovered after the disastrous showing from the night before, and was ready to go and reclaim their beloved princess.  They put aside thoughts of the losses they knew they would suffer to the dragons of the Shadow Mountains, and of their almost guaranteed defeat at the hands of the evil wizard.

 

            “There seemed no true hope for the princess.  Until the hero stepped up.

 

            “’I will rescue your daughter,’ he intoned, his voice full and strong.

 

            “King Artemis and Queen Luna were extremely grateful to the hero, as was everyone else in the kingdom, the army in particular.  Princess Usagi, however, was less than impressed, and rolled her eyes at his pompousness.  She would have felt considerably better sending their army to save her sister rather than this idiot, whom she was certain would wind up as a grease stain under some dragon’s claw.

 

            “The king, though, did not share his daughter’s sentiments.  So as the hero and his young squire knelt before the king and queen, King Artemis spoke.  ‘My kingdom and my family thank you, brave hero.  Be safe on your journey, and hurry back.  And when you return, as is our custom, you shall be given the princess’ hand in marriage.’

 

            On the couch beside Rei, Minako cringed.  “Ewww.  I don’t want to marry him.”

 

            Rei smirked.  “Exactly what the princess would have said if she knew what her father was doing.  Anyway…

 

            “The hero smiled his perfect white smile at the king.  Then he rose dramatically, took his sword from his squire, and went to begin his journey.

 

            “As the hero was making his way to the Forrest of Death, Rei and Minako had begun walking to the town in the dragon’s valley.  The setting sun had brought with it a drop in the temperature, and Princess Minako huddled into the cloak she’d been given.  She hefted the small bag of supplies she was carrying higher on her shoulder and sighed.

 

            “Several steps ahead of her, Rei looked back over her shoulder and smirked.  ’If you’re ready to give up after only coming this far, I might as well just take you back and give you to the wizard.  Princess.’

 

            “At the taunt, stubborn defiance replaced Minako’s weariness.  ‘Did I say I was ready to give up?’ she shot back.  ‘It’s just that these shoes aren’t the best, and my feet hurt.  We’ve been walking for a long time, you know.’

 

            “’We’re almost there.  When we get there, I’ll find you some hot water to soak your delicate toes in,’ answered Rei, turning her gaze back to the path in front of her.

 

            “The princess scowled at Rei’s back, briefly thinking she’d rather take her chances with the evil wizard than have to continue to deal with his dragon master.

 

            “Sleeping in the hood of Rei’s dark travel cloak, Orochi suddenly awoke.  His head perked up, looking around, before he climbed up onto Rei’s shoulder.  With his tail wagging, he called out in a high pitched version of his usually deep roar.

 

            “Rei kept going, not at all curious about his behavior.  Minako, though, watched him and wondered what it was that had caught his attention.

 

            “Then she heard it.

 

            “The steady, heavy beat of wings grew louder, and the princess’ eyes grew wide as the shadowed figures began to appear against the darkening sky.  All thoughts of sore feet and rude dragon masters fled as her pace doubled until she was shoulder to shoulder with Rei.

 

            “Rei laughed as Minako pressed tightly against her side and latched onto her arm.  Grinning, she watched those wide blue eyes follow the aerial acrobatics of the wild dragons.  Then she reached for Minako’s hand, loosening her death grip and giving it a squeeze.  The princess’ eyes met hers, and she said, ‘It’s only posturing.  They’re showing off for each other and anyone else who might be around.  But if they do decide you look like dinner, I can handle them.’

 

            “Orochi echoed his mistress’ assurance by scurrying across her shoulders to sit on Minako’s.  His narrow, scaly head rubbed against Minako’s cheek, and a low purr rumbled in his throat.

 

            “Minako tried very hard not to cringe.  Not entirely successful, she let go of Rei to lift Orochi from her shoulder.  Cradling him in one arm, she scratched his chin and belly.  She couldn’t help but smile as the tiny dragon went limp and his purr became louder.  ’I suppose you’re not so bad,’ she said to him.

 

            “’Ha!’ snorted Rei.  ‘He’s worse than any of the others because he’s spoiled so badly.’

 

            “Orochi wagged his tail gleefully, ignoring his mistress as the princess giggled and continued to baby him.

 

            “It was well after sunset when the two finally reached town.  The small settlement bore no name, only a marker beside a dim lantern that read ‘Welcome.’  Minako looked around at the mostly dark buildings as they continued along the dirt road.  She wished they had arrived during the day so she would have been able to more fully take in this place.

 

            “Rei led them to a large building in the middle of town.  Unlike most of the others, this was brightly lit, and as they got closer, Minako could hear music spilling out into the street.  Then she saw the sign posted over the doorway, and she smiled.  Inn and Tavern’ was carved in the center of a flowered design, and the princess wasn’t certain which of those two words she was happier to see.

 

            “Inside, about half of the tables were occupied.  Rei stopped at a small counter beside a flight of stairs and looked around the room, searching for someone.  That someone seemed to find her first, and a small girl with dark hair stood from her seat beside the large fireplace at the far end of the room.

 

            “’That’s Hotaru,’ said Rei.  ‘This is her place.  And she keeps it dragon friendly,’ she added, giving Orochi’s head a tap as he sat up in her hood and peeked through the curtain of her hair.”

 

            On the floor at Rei’s feet, the real Hotaru smiled brightly.  “So I own the whole thing?”

 

            Rei nodded.  “Yep.  You’re an excellent entrepreneur.”

 

            “Hmm… the Firefly Inn and Tavern,” grinned Hotaru.  “How’s that sound?”

 

            “Perfect,” answered Rei.

 

            “Do I have a lot of people working for me?”

 

            “I’m getting to that part,” said Rei, trying to wave off some of the child’s enthusiasm over her mythical enterprise.  “So here they were at the Firefly Inn and Tavern, and Hotaru was coming over to greet them.

 

            “’Will your usual room do?’ asked Hotaru after Rei introduced Minako as her new friend and traveling companion.

 

            “’I’ll need a double this time,’ replied Rei.

 

            “Hotaru nodded and put back the key she had picked up, then chose another after a moment of thought.  ‘Would you like the wash room set up for you?’

 

            “The princess’ eyes brightened immediately.  ‘Yes, please.  A hot bath would be exquisite right now.’

 

            “Rei chuckled.  ‘Food first,’ she said, then turned back to Hotaru.  ‘Tell me Makoto still has the dinner fire burning.’

 

            “’Dinner, yes.  Makoto, no,’ answered Hotaru.  ‘She woke up this morning, looked out her window, and saw a rabbit running across her yard.  She took this as the gods’ way of telling her the game was plentiful and the hunting would be good.  So off she went.  Though I expect it also had something to do with Ami threatening to go into the forest and get her supplies herself if Makoto took too much longer about it.’

 

            “If her stomach hadn’t been growling at her, Rei would have been amused by this.  ‘So who’s doing the cooking?’

 

            “In answer to her question, a pair of pink pigtails came bustling through the kitchen door.  Rei sighed as the rest of Chibi-usa came into view carrying two hot plates of… something.  Chibi-usa set the plates in front of her customers, then swiped her bangs out of her eyes.

 

            “Hotaru grinned at Rei.  ‘Two plates?’

 

            “Rei nodded.  Whatever it was, it did smell good.  Orochi nipped at her ear, reminding her he was there, and she amended her order.  ‘And a plate of scraps for the little piggy on my shoulder.’

 

            “That earned her giggles from both Hotaru and Minako, as well as an offended whimper from her dragon.

 

            “Hotaru left her guests to put in their orders, and they went upstairs to leave their things before coming down to eat.

 

            “Several hours later, after a good meal and a hot bath, Minako sat on her bed leaning against the wall, and waited for Rei to return from the wash room.  The tavern had begun to quiet while Rei was in bathing, and the silence of the night was starting to settle in.  A certain uneasiness had come with it, and Orochi’s restlessness wasn’t making her feel any better.

 

            “The little dragon stood on the table between their beds, his front claws perched on the windowsill.  His wings were spread, as if he wanted to take flight, and his tail twitched back and forth slowly.  Intermittently, as he stared out into the star-filled sky, he would let out a soft trill.

 

            There’s something out there, thought Minako.  Something he wants to go after.  The idea of being a dragon’s prey made her stomach turn and her foot tap anxiously against the bedspread.  She was seriously starting to contemplate going and telling Rei to hurry up already, even if she hadn’t been gone for all that long.

 

            “Finally, the door opened, and Rei walked in the room, rubbing her wet hair in the towel Hotaru had left for her.  Minako sighed in relief, then pointed at Orochi.  ‘He’s been doing that for almost as long as you’ve been gone.’

 

            “Rei could easily see the princess’ tension, and made a mental note not to leave her alone with Orochi anymore.  Draping the towel across her shoulders, she went over and sat on the edge of her bed.  ‘Orochi,’ she called.  ‘Come down from there.  Hotaru lets you stay here because you aren’t a nuisance to the other guests.  Don’t make her sorry for that.’

 

            “Orochi turned to look at her, then trilled low and long.

 

            “Rei patted the bed beside her.  Orochi jumped from the table to the bed, and she grinned at him when he sat beside her.  ‘You’ll see them tomorrow.  More of them than either of us really wants.’

 

            “’See who?’ asked the Princess.

 

            “’His brothers,’ answered Rei.  ‘We’re heading into the mountains tomorrow.  It’s going to take several days to get through them, and we’ll be seeing many of his siblings along the way.’

 

            “Minako shuddered.  This was definitely not going to be a fun trip.  Then a dull reflection of the candlelight in the necklace around Rei’s neck caught her attention and gave her a welcome distraction.  Leaning forward to try and see better, she ‘ooed’ at the amethyst crystal that hung on a silver chain.

 

            “’How pretty!’ exclaimed Minako.  ‘I didn’t notice that before.’

 

            “Rei’s eyes widened in surprise, as if she’d forgotten it was even there.  Her cheeks grew warm under the princess’ scrutiny, and her hand reached up to clutch the crystal.  ‘It’s nothing special.  Really,’ she said.

 

            “The princess grinned, amused by the dragon master’s easy embarrassment.  ‘It’s still pretty, though,’ she went on.  ‘Hmm, I think that if we found a pair of earrings made from the same stone, and did your hair up properly…  Yes, yes, that could work nicely,’ she said almost to herself as she mentally refashioned Rei.  ‘We’d put you in a gown, something dark to compliment your complexion, and get you out of those peasant clothes.’

 

            “Rei blushed even harder, and Orochi yelped as she practically jumped from the bed.  Finding herself on the other side of the room with no where else to go, Rei said quickly, ‘We have to leave early in the morning.  We should sleep now.’  She laid her towel over Minako’s on the lone chair in the room, then blew out the candles on the dresser.

 

            “In the darkness, she heard Minako’s slight giggle and the rustle of the covers as the princess climbed under them.

 

            “’Goodnight, Rei,’ said Minako.  Then the room fell into silence, and Rei felt her way over to her own bed to try and get some sleep.

 

            “The next morning came much too quickly for the princess.  She rubbed at her bleary eyes, feeling like she hadn’t slept at all, and tried to turn away from the early morning sunlight streaming in through the window.  With a grumble, she pulled the covers up over her head, then muttered just loudly enough to be heard, ‘Rei, you awake yet?  Rei?’

 

            “Getting no response, she turned back over and peeked out from under the covers.  She frowned when she saw an empty bed rather than a sleeping dragon master.  Grumbling a bit more, she sat up and wrapped the bedspread around her shoulders before going over to look out the window.

 

            “The town was quiet, all of those with any sense still in their beds, the princess mused.  So spotting Rei down on the street was easy.  Minako leaned against the windowsill as she watched Rei say something to Orochi before tossing him up.  The miniature dragon spread his wings and took flight, the purplish white of Rei’s magic enveloping him as he did.

 

            “Rei watched him for a moment, then turned to come back inside.  Minako left the window and climbed back into bed, pulling her knees up and resting her chin on them.  She grinned as the door was carefully eased open, then giggled at the surprised look on Rei’s face.

 

            “’I didn’t think you’d be up so early,’ said Rei as she closed the door with much less care than she’d opened it.

 

            “’I didn’t, either,’ answered the princess.  ‘I saw you outside.  What were you doing?’

 

            “Rei pointed to the window.  ‘Have another look.  You should be able to see him in a few minutes.’

 

            “Minako climbed back out of bed to look out the window.  A few minutes ticked by, then, on the outer edge of town, she saw a flash, and a full sized Orochi was suddenly in her sights.  His flight seemed to pause for a moment, then it resumed with vigor as he gained altitude, chasing his tail in figure eights.

 

            “’He isn’t used to being so small for so long,’ explained Rei as she sat on her bed.  ‘He needed to stretch his wings a bit.  And find his own breakfast.’

 

            “The princess chose to ignore that last part.  Mostly, anyway.  ‘What about our breakfast?’ she asked, sitting beside Rei.

 

            “’The baker is usually the first in town to open,’ answered Rei.  ‘By the time you’re dressed and I’ve got us packed the way we need to be, we should be able to get something.’

 

            “Minako smiled widely.  Perhaps, she thought, this day wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

 

            “Sometime later, Minako sat on the ground outside the supply shop, savoring the last of the sweet rolls that had been their breakfast.  Things had started to pick up around town, though it was still considerably less active than what she was used to.  Most of the faces she recognized from the tavern the night before, and she wondered just how small this town really was.

 

            “The bell on the shopkeeper’s door jingled, and she turned around to see Rei walking out with a small pack.  A coil of rope was tied to it, and Minako wondered what they could possibly need to fill another bag.  They had enough to carry as it was.

 

            “Rei dropped the pack on the ground next to the one she’d put together at the Inn, then sat beside Minako.  She took a chunk of the sweet roll from Minako’s handkerchief, chewed it down in one bite, then said, ‘We have one more stop to make.  Then we’ll get Orochi and be on our way.  And…’ she picked up the new pack and rummaged around in it for a second.  ‘Here.’

 

            “Minako stared dumbfounded at the new pair of shoes being held in front of her face.  A grin spread wide, and she said in happy surprise, ‘You bought me new shoes?’

 

            “’Just hurry up and try them on,’ grumped out Rei.  ‘Because I don’t want to hear any more about your sore, delicate feet.’

 

            “Minako quickly traded the last little piece of sweet roll for the shoes, and as Rei finished off their breakfast, she laced them up and stood.  She walked a few steps, jumped a few times, then looked at her feet, turning them this way and that to admire her pretty new footwear.

 

            “Rei shook her head, more amused than she would admit, then looked down at her own now shoeless feet.  She wiggled her big toe through the hole in the end of her sock, then pulled the princess’ old shoes on and tied them up.  She looked back up to see Minako smiling down at her.

 

            “’Thank you,’ said Minako, genuinely grateful.  She smiled widely and leaned down, placing a light kiss against Rei’s cheek.

 

            “Rei’s breath caught in her chest, and her cheeks grew warm at the contact.  Standing quickly, she picked up the two packs and tossed the smaller one to the princess.  ‘Let’s see if the alchemist is open yet,’ she said, starting forward and trying to ignore the grin on Minako’s lips.  ‘You know, I’ve never liked the way she looks at Orochi.  I always get the feeling she wants to dissect him, jar him up, and put him on the shelves with all the rest of her concoctions.

 

            “Rei probably wasn’t too far off on that, Minako decided as they walked into the small shop.  The flower garden outside, along with the lacy curtains and potted plants hanging in the windows lent a deceptive cheer to the place that was shattered the moment you actually walked through the door.  Dark wooden shelves lined the walls and created a maze of aisles leading up to the counter.  Jars and bottles of every shape and color sat along the shelves, along with packaged powders and things that didn’t look like they’d come from nature.  Plants and herbs hung in bunches on display ropes when there wasn’t room for them anyplace else, the smells from them mingling and merging into things that were pleasant in one corner, but noxious in another.

 

            “Holding her breath, Minako followed on Rei’s heels, trying to hurry her along.  They finally reached the empty counter, and Minako let out a huge breath.  Then she reconsidered the wisdom in that as she spied the small, gently bubbling cauldron sitting next to a half eaten pastry.

 

            “The look on Minako’s face produced an amused smirk on Rei’s.  She rang the bell that sat in the corner of the counter, and this brought out the person Minako assumed was the alchemist.

 

            “’Good morning, Ami,’ said Rei.  ‘I brought a list with me this time.’

 

            “Ami smiled.  She wiped her hands on the heavy apron she wore, then lifted the magnifying glasses from her eyes, and rested them on the top of her head.  ‘A list, as well as a new acquaintance.’

 

            “’Just someone I’m helping get back home.  She lives on the other side of the forest,’ explained Rei, keeping Minako’s royal identity a secret as they’d both decided would be best.

 

            “Ami nodded, satisfied with what Rei told her and not inclined to pry further.  She took the list from Rei, then left them to put it all together.  When she came back, Minako was curiously inspecting a jar of bright green liquid with paper thin silver squiggles wiggling around inside of it.

 

            “’It tastes unpleasant,’ said Ami as the princess tapped the jar carefully.  ‘But it will cure all your digestive aliments in less than an hour.’

 

            “Minako cringed at the idea of trying to drink this down.  ‘I think I’d prefer to just look at it, thank you.’

 

            “Ami smiled, then turned to Rei and pushed the small box across the counter.  ‘I’m out of silkweed, I’m afraid.  Makoto left this morning to collect more, so if you still want it on your return trip, I might have some by then.  Are you not traveling with your dragon?’

 

            “’He’s waiting outside of town for us,’ answered Rei.

 

            “’I see,’ replied Ami.  ‘Your order seemed large for such a short trip, so I thought perhaps you might be walking.  But since he is with you…’  She knelt down behind the counter, pushed aside a few things until she found what she wanted, then reemerged with a matchbox size wooden box.  ‘Makoto discovered this on her last trip through the pass.  She found herself in an untenable situation with an unhappy dragon, and out of desperation, plucked up the braches from the bushes she had fallen into and threw them at him.  Much to her surprise, the dragon was considerably more interested in the branches than in her.’

 

            “’Talk about luck,’ interjected the princess.

 

            “’Indeed,’ replied Ami.  ‘It seems the leaves contain a chemical that acts much like catnip for dragons.  She somewhat accidentally brought back the leaves for me to study, as they were stuck to her clothes since her hasty departure from the scene didn’t leave much time for tidying up.  This is a small sample, ground down for ease of use.  Your dragon might enjoy it, perhaps added to one of his toys.’

 

            “Minako bit her lip to keep from laughing at the idea of Orochi having toys.  But Rei took the little box with thanks, and the princess realized it was more than likely that this spoiled dragon did have a giant ball or some magically enlarged stuffed animal as gifts from his mistress.

 

            “The two left the shop, and after one last check by Rei to make sure they had everything, they went to find Orochi.

 

            “They hadn’t been walking for very long when the ground beneath their feet began to change from the smooth path through the valley to the rocky incline leading into the Shadow Mountains.  Orochi, shrunk back down to travel size, ran on ahead of them.

 

            “’I suppose he knows where he’s going,’ commented Minako with a grin, enjoying watching the little dragon trot along.

 

            “’Not quite,’ said Rei.  Her pace suddenly quickened, and she called out for Orochi to stop.

 

            “Orochi stopped and looked back at her, confused.

 

            “Rei knelt down and scratched his head.  ‘We aren’t going that way,’ she said as she picked him up and put him on her shoulder.  ‘We’re going straight up.’

 

            “Minako walked up to them and looked around to see what Rei was talking about.  The path they were on had started to split.  Orochi had run to the side leading down a path that seemed to stay level, but twisted out of sight into the mountainside.  The path Rei wanted to take lay straight ahead, and while sunny and visible, obviously led up into the heart of the dragon’s territory.  The princess wasn’t sure which one was worse, the one she couldn’t see, or the one she could.

 

            “Rei’s hands suddenly appearing at her waist startled her.  She dropped her gaze from the lifeless gray of the mountains to where Rei was tying them together with the rope.

 

            “’Remember when I said that if you left them alone, they’d leave you alone?’ asked Rei.

 

            “Minako nodded.

 

            “Rei gave her knot a hard tug, testing its strength.  ‘Well, climbing into their home counts as bothering them.’

 

            “The princess blanched, and wondered if Rei waited to tell her this until after they were tied together so she couldn’t run away.

 

            “’So here are the basics on how to deal with an unhappy and untamed dragon,’ went on Rei, ignoring the princess’ sudden lack of color.  ‘First and foremost, don’t do anything that could appear as a challenge.  Don’t pick anything up that isn’t yours, don’t touch anything no matter how unimportant it seems, and when they shriek at you, don’t do anything but put your head down and keep walking.  Just let me deal with them.  And whatever you do, no matter what, do not ever, ever look a dragon in the eye.’

 

            “Minako frowned at her.  ‘And just how long did you say this part of the trip was going to take?’

 

            “’To get over the mountains so we can enter the forest?’ asked Rei.  ‘I’m guessing three days.’

 

            “’And we’re really going to sleep up there?  With the dragons?’ questioned Minako, certain she had missed some crucial aspect to how all this was supposed to work.

 

            “’Yeah, we are,’ said Rei.  She grinned.  ‘Trust me.’

 

            “’Do I have a choice?’ asked Minako sarcastically.

 

            “Rei smirked.  ‘At this point, no, not really.’

 

            “The princess rolled her eyes, hefted her pack higher on her back, and muttered silently about crazy dragon masters getting her killed as Rei led them forward into the mountains.

 

            “Putting aside the incline of the gravelly, untraveled path they were following, the first few hours didn’t seem that bad.  Then they started to appear.  It was only one or two at first, as she and Rei moved further into their territory.  But their numbers slowly grew, and their distant flights started to move closer as they became more curious about the intruders.

 

            “Minako moved closer to Rei and loosely held onto her arm as one dragon with deep red scales started to circle above them.  Several times, this dragon had passed by, getting closer each time until he’d actually started to follow them.

 

            “Minako’s eyes glanced up cautiously to see what it was that made Rei suddenly go tense.  The dragon’s dusty gold underbelly expanded as he took in a deep breath, and before she had time to notice anything else, Rei was tackling her to the ground and yelling something she couldn’t understand.

 

            “The purple glow of the shield Rei threw up around them all but disappeared under the torrent of flames that flowed over them.  The chill of the day was instantly replaced by a burning inferno, and the princess could feel her skin redden and tighten under the heat as sweat poured down her temples.

 

            “And almost as soon as it started, it was over.  The temperature began to drop, and her skin prickled, both in relief and at the horrible shriek that followed the dragon’s fire.

 

            “Rei dropped her shield and abruptly pushed away from Minako.  The princess, feeling suddenly helpless and abandoned, stared in horror as Rei stood face to face with the creature who had just tried to kill them.

 

            “The dragon called out a few more times, his voice a slightly lower pitch, but no less frightening to the princess.  Orochi apparently agreed with her, because he jumped from Rei’s hood and ran over to hide under the princess’ knees, cowering right along with her.  Rei, on the other hand, stood her ground and yelled back at the dragon.

 

            “’We have no business with her!’ she called out.  ‘We wish only to pass over the mountains!’

 

            “The dragon hovered and answered back.  Whatever it said, it angered Rei, the princess could tell.  But the dragon master finally backed down.

 

            “’Fine!’ replied Rei, shouting over the heavy beat of the dragon’s wings.  ‘We will join her shortly, provided we are not hindered along the way!’

 

            “The dragon snorted, and seemed to look almost smug as it flew off.

 

            “Rei’s shoulders slumped and she sighed.  Then she turned around and held a hand down to Minako.  ‘You okay?’

 

            “Minako hesitated, blinking up at Rei.  ‘I’m not sure,’ she answered.

 

            “Rei grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet, whether she wanted it or not.  Then she stared down at Orochi.  ‘You little coward,’ she said before picking him up and setting him on her shoulder.  ‘I don’t blame you, though.  C’mon.  We haven’t got a lot of time.’

 

            “’What for?’ asked Minako as Rei picked up the bags they’d dropped.  ‘What was all of that?’

 

            “Rei’s frown deepened.  ‘She wanted to make sure it was me before she issued a summons.’

 

            “’She who?’ questioned Minako further, certain she didn’t really want to know.

 

            “’The Dragon Queen,’ spit out Rei, venom in her voice.

 

            “Any color that was left drained from Minako’s face.  ‘The Dra…’ she exhaled.  Then she took two steps backward, prevented from going any further by the tether Rei had tied between them.  ‘You know,’ she went on, ‘I think I’m ready to go back to the castle now.  Perhaps the wizard would be inclined to come to some sort of mutually beneficial agreement.’

 

            “Rei shook her head, then grabbed the princess’ arm and started pulling her along.  ‘No deal, princess.  Because even if we did go back, the queen would be so angered by us not showing up, that we wouldn’t have a castle left to hide in.  I won’t even go into what she’d do to us.’

 

            “As she’d noted earlier, the princess didn’t really have any choice but to go along with the dragon master.  So follow she did, tugged along by their tether whenever her steps became too slow as they climbed into the thickening mists.

 

            “After a time, they came up over an incline, and the mists parted.  The princess stared in awe at what was suddenly before her eyes, then rubbed at them, thinking this perhaps an illusion to signal she had finally, truly lost her mind.

 

            “The mouth of a massive cave yawned wide in the rockface.  Around the entrance, the lifeless gray stone had been polished so that it now rivaled the fine marble of her palace.  Into that stone, two guardian dragons were carved, their long, scaled bodies serpent-like as they rose up on either side of the entryway and twined together over the centerpoint.  Above them, set into the stone and surrounded by diamonds in a starburst, was a large, polished amethyst.

 

            “Keeping the guardian carvings company were three real dragons.  Two were identical, from their aquamarine eyes to the black hues of their scales.  These were the true guards, the princess could tell, because of their too calm demeanor and the deadly stare that never wavered.

 

            “The third dragon, by contrast, sat in the middle of the path, impatiently lashing his tail from side to side.  It was the red dragon from earlier, Minako recognized him easily.  And it did not make her feel better to know that they were the cause of his impatience.

 

            “Rei seemed unphased by it all, though, and led the reluctant princess right up to the red dragon.  ‘All right, we’re here,’ she said, obviously unhappy.  ‘Announce us.’

 

            “The dragon snorted, then turned and started walking toward the cave.

 

            “The princess felt like little more than a mouse in an open field, waiting to be plucked up by a hawk, as they followed the dragon into the mouth of the cave.  A torch-lined walkway wound back and down into the cave, and soon they were standing at the entrance to the queen’s main chamber.  Ornate wooden doors opened slowly at the dragon’s low rumble, and Rei pulled her crystal out from where it was hidden under her cloak.

 

            “The pale purple glow of Rei’s crystal was overtaken by the dancing firelight that illuminated the queen’s chamber.  Tall, golden spires held candles that gave off a perfumey musk, and lined the wine red carpet that led to the queen’s throne.  Two more black dragons flanked the large throne, their claws dipped in gold to match the sapphire studded collars around their necks.  And the queen herself…

 

            “Minako’s heart beat in triple time, and she swallowed hard as her eyes took in the dark, alluring beauty of the woman who ruled over these creatures.

 

            “Sharp maroon eyes watched them as they approached, a siren’s smile touching lips of blood red.  Dark green hair was swept up on the sides to form a knot held by onyx, diamond tipped pins, leaving the back to flow over smooth, bare shoulders.  Gold and amethyst jewelry hung around her neck and wrists, reflecting back the candlelight.  The scale-like burgundy of her gown shimmered, and complimented the perfect bronze of her skin.  Her legs shifted, recrossing at the knee, and the gown’s high slit fell aside to reveal long, slender legs.  And when Rei and the princess finally stood before her, she greeted them in a low, seductive purr.”

 

            “Oh, my, Setsuna,” interrupted Michiru with a soft giggle and a sparkle in her eye.

 

            “No kidding,” added Haruka, giving Setsuna and her tailored shorts and knit top the once over.  “How come we never get to see you like that?”

 

            Setsuna’s cheeks became a dusty rose, but she looked at Haruka and answered calmly, “I only wear that outfit on special occasions.”

 

            Haruka laughed.  “So what do we have to do to get something to qualify as ‘special?’”

 

            Setsuna grinned.  “You’ll know when it happens.”

 

            “Awww, you’re no fun,” teased Haruka.  “But we’ll figure it out.”

 

            This earned a large smile from Hotaru that Setsuna couldn’t help but return.  “Perhaps,” she said, then leaned back and recrossed her legs.

 

            Minako giggled, then poked at Rei to keep going.

 

            “They finally found themselves before the Dragon Queen,” picked up Rei.  “’Welcome,’ she purred.  ‘You were taking so long, I was beginning to wonder if I’d see you at all.  Tell me, where is my dear Orochi?  I was told he was with you.’

 

            “At the mention of his name, Orochi popped up out of Rei’s hood and jumped over her shoulder to bow before his queen.

 

            “The queen frowned and made a disapproving sound when she saw the state he was in.  ‘How degrading.  And to think your mistress would do such a thing to you.’  She raised her hand, and a dark purple light surrounded Orochi.  A moment later, he was back to his normal size, and the queen smiled.  ‘Much better.  And now that that’s been corrected…’

 

            “Rei sighed as the queen’s attention fell to her.

 

            “’It’s been a long time since I last saw you,’ went on the queen.  ‘Why have you come to my mountains?’

 

            “’A simple trip, Your Majesty, nothing more,’ answered Rei.  ‘We want nothing, and only wish for peaceful passage.’

 

            “’We?’ questioned the queen.  Then her eyes landed on the princess as if she were seeing her for the first time.  ‘Ah, you’ve brought a companion,’ drew out the queen, her voice cloyingly sweet.  ‘Tell me your name, child.’

 

            “The princess stepped forward.  ‘Minako, Your Majesty,’ she answered as she bowed.

 

            “The queen’s smile grew, and her eyes met and held Minako’s.  Rei cursed and started to move forward, but was stopped by the red dragon.  Slowly, at the queen’s silent command, the knot in the tether that held them together loosened and fell away, and the queen motioned the princess forward.

 

            “Minako stared into the Dragon Queen’s eyes, spellbound by the beauty of the flame within.  That smooth voice caressed her mind, and she had to move closer, had to feel the embrace of that deadly warmth.

 

            “She felt like she was floating as she ascended the steps to the throne, and when she reached the top, her queen was waiting for her.  A sharp fingernail, kissed with gold, trailed down her cheek and across her lips, those eyes never leaving hers.  ‘Tell me,’ echoed softly in her mind as a warm hand stroked her hair.  ‘Tell me.’

 

            “How could she refuse such a sweet voice?

 

            “Obscenities pouring from her mouth like water from a faucet, Rei finally managed to get around the dragon.  She ran up to the throne just in time to catch a falling Minako.  Adjusting her grip, she eased the unconscious princess to the bottom of the steps and knelt down beside her, pulling Minako’s head into her lap.  Then she heard the mocking laughter.

 

            “’She thinks you’re taking her home,’ laughed the queen.  ‘What a naïve child.’

 

            “’I am taking her home!’ spat back Rei as she glared daggers at the woman.

 

            “One corner of the queen’s smile quirked up.  ‘Then why bring her over the mountains?  Hmm?’

 

            “Rei’s anger simmered at the surface, but this only amused the queen more.

 

            “’I supposed I don’t really need to ask you that, do I?’ said the queen as she stood.  ‘You amuse me, young dragon master.  So not only will I let you live, but I will grant you passage over my mountains.  And fear not, for I will keep your secrets.  However, in return, you must stay with me for a day.  Allow my dear Orochi a night of hunting with his siblings.’

 

            “Rei looked over at Orochi, then down at Minako, knowing this was a command she had no power over.  ‘Orochi,’ she said as she smoothed back Minako’s hair, ‘go play, but be back by tomorrow morning.  And stay out of the mud pits.’

 

            “Orochi made a small whimpering sound at the idea of leaving his mistress’ side, but slowly he turned and left the queen’s chamber.

 

            “The queen descended from the throne and stood over Rei and the princess.  ‘I have a room prepared for you,’ she said, then started walking towards one of the smaller caverns at the far side of the chamber.

 

            “Rei gripped the crystal around her neck, finding in her magic the only help she was going to get in carrying Minako and their belongings.  Then, she reluctantly followed after the queen.

 

            “Night had fallen by the time the princess began to awaken.  There was a dull throb in her temples, but over top of that, there was a gentle touch.  She squeezed her eyes shut tighter, trying to block out the headache, and heard a soft voice filter through.

 

            “’Take it slow,’ whispered the voice, and a hand brushed across her bangs.  ‘I’m going to move you for a moment, but I’ll be right back.’

 

            “Just as the voice said, her head was slowly and carefully lifted.  She was being held, she realized, and she wanted to see who it was taking care of her.  Minako’s eyes peered open just enough to see in the dim candlelight of the cave.  A back was turned to her as this person knelt beside a small table and poured liquid into a cup.  The person then stood and turned back to her, and she remembered.  The dragon master.

 

            “Rei came back over and sat beside her, then reached for her to help her sit up.  This might not have been the best of ideas, thought the princess, as her head spun and her stomach lurched.

 

            “’Take a few deep breaths,’ said Rei, her free hand slowly rubbing Minako’s back.  ‘When you can, drink this.  It’ll make you feel better.’

 

            “Minako made a noncommittal sound, but after a few minutes, her head and stomach stilled.  She took the gold, diamond trimmed tumbler and slowly sipped back the minty flavored liquid, grimacing at the overly sweet taste.

 

            “’You’re doing better than I did,’ commented Rei, giving her a grin.  ‘The first time she did that to me, I was out for almost two days.’

 

            “’What happened?’ asked the princess groggily.

 

            “’I told you,’ answered Rei, her grin falling away.  ‘Never look a dragon in the eye.  She thinks nothing of stripping a human soul and laying it bare, just to sate her curiosity.’

 

            “A cold shiver passed through Minako, both because of the memory of those sharp, uncaring eyes and the sudden deadly hatred in Rei’s voice.  Candle spires flickered throughout the cave, casting shadows across Rei’s face and creating an image that was so unlike the kind and sarcastic girl she believed her to be.  Those deep violet eyes became dark to their very depths, and for just a moment, the amethyst pendent around her neck shone with a darker hue.

 

            “Minako stared at the pendent for a moment, then asked quietly, ‘Did she give that to you?’

 

            “Rei startled, for a second looking confused.  But when she realized where Minako’s eyes were focused, she reached up and clutched the pendent.  ‘Does it matter?’ she asked, her posture becoming defensive.

 

            “The princess nodded.  ‘To me, after everything that’s happened.  It’s obvious you two have a history, and all I have to do is look around to be able to tell that crystal has something to do with her.’

 

            “Tucking the pendent in her blouse, Rei answered curtly, ‘It was a gift.  But not from her.’

 

            “The princess waited for more, and after a few uncomfortable moments of silence, Rei stood and walked back over to the table.  She sat on one of the large, plush pillows that matched the purple, gold trimmed bedding Minako sat upon, and stared at the gauzy, maroon and purple sheathes that draped the gray stone walls.

 

            “’When my master began to train me,’ continued Rei, her voice so low the princess had to strain to hear it, ‘he gave it to me as a gift.  He never told me how the magic is connected to her, though I know your legends say he got it from her to begin with.’

 

            “Moving slowly, and finding herself grateful that the remedy she’d been given worked quickly and effectively, Minako went to sit beside Rei.  This time when Rei looked at her, she saw not darkness, but a loneliness she never would have ascribed to the girl who had faced down her pet dragon with a strong will and a soapy mop.

 

            “Offering her a grin, Minako said, ‘You aren’t what I expected.’

 

            “With a defensive edge, Rei asked, ‘And what was it you were expecting?’

 

            “Minako thought for a moment, and her grin grew.  ‘Well, when that door fell in, I was expecting a horde of two-headed, six-eyed, mutated goblins.  Then, as I was walking through the castle, I was expecting some kind of phantom, skeletal army.  Instead, I got some chickens, a mule, Orochi, and you.  All in all, I’d say I made out very well.  Still, though, you aren’t what I was expecting.  You’re just so… normal.’

 

            “At that, Rei laughed.  She just couldn’t help it.

 

            “The princess pouted.  ‘Don’t laugh at me.  It’s not that funny.  It is an old, evil wizard’s castle, you know.  What else should I have expected?’

 

            “Rei shook her head.  ‘That’s not it.  We’re sitting in a cave in the Shadow Mountains, forced guests of the Dragon Queen, less than two days after you escaped from a tower in the Evil Wizard’s castle after being abducted by that Evil Wizard and a dragon.  And you just used the word ~normal~.  That, Princess, is what I find so funny.’

 

            “A corner of Minako’s mouth quirked up.  ‘When you put it that way…  But I still say you don’t fit into any of it.  Not really.’

 

            “’Yes, I do,’ answered Rei.  She picked up one of the small silver dragon figures on the table and toyed with it as she spoke.  ‘I like my life now.  And even when I didn’t, there really wasn’t anyplace else for me to go.’  She set the figure back down, then waved her hand over it, whispering, ‘Praestiarum.’  A smoky shadow rose from the figure, its eyes glowing a pale violet as it circled up over the table, then dove back down in a lazy arc before fading out in hazy wisps.

 

            “’You see,’ went on Rei, ‘the wizard was one of those men your parents always warn you about.  The kind that drill peepholes into the dividing wall at the bathhouse.  Everybody knew it, and he had a hard time finding women who would stay on as his staff.  My mom did, though, and for a long time.  It was just me and her, and after she died, he let me stay.  Then he started training me, and one day he put this huge egg in front of me and said I was going to become his dragon master.  You can figure out the rest from there.’

 

            “’Yeah,’ answered Minako.  She grinned a bit self-consciously.  ‘I’m afraid my life has been relatively boring and predictable compared to yours.  Until the other night, anyway,’ she added, her grin dropping.  She leaned forward to place her elbows on the table, then propped her chin in her hands.  ‘Stupid wizard,’ she muttered unhappily.

 

            “Rei bit the inside of her cheek, then asked suddenly, ‘Are you hungry?  You should be by now.’  She reached for their nearest pack and pulled it into her lap.  ‘I told her we’d make do with our own rations.  Probably offended her on some level.’

 

            “Minako grinned.  ‘I can live with that.  What have we got?’

 

            “Rei set out the night’s share of food, and the two went about their meal with random talk about the rest of their journey and the necessary details the princess had missed while she was unconscious.  Shortly after, they settled into the soft bedding and tried to find some sleep.

 

            “That night was a slow one for all involved.  The next morning came eventually, though, dawning sunny and clear in sharp contrast to the mood in Princess Minako’s kingdom.

 

            “In the throne room of the palace, King Artemis paced anxiously, and Queen Luna sat with an unusually somber pall.  They understood it would be days at the earliest before they could expect to hear anything from the hero, but the waiting and worry were beginning to wear on them.

 

            “A loud commotion outside the throne room caught their attention.  Before they could react, the door burst open and one of their soldiers came running in, his face pale.

 

            “The king gasped at what his soldier told him, not believing it could be true.  He and the queen followed the man out, pushing through the crowds of staff and villagers that had gathered in the courtyard.  What he saw almost drove him to his knees.

 

            “The mighty hero, who he had pinned all his hopes to, lay on one of the villagers’ wagons.  His eyes were glazed over and unseeing, his skin ashen and his hair as white as snow.  His lips moved from time to time, but no sound issued forth, and in his hand, he clutched a golden feather, edged in blue.

 

            “What…’ started the king, only to find his throat had gone dry.  He coughed and swallowed, then intoned in something more akin to his normal voice, ‘What has happened here?’

 

            “A young woman stepped out from the crowd.  ‘It was the siren’s call.  It’s a rare mortal who can resist it, and most from my home have the common sense to stay away from the forest just for this reason.’

 

            “’But you said you found him in the forest,’ interjected one of the villagers.

 

            “The young woman smirked.  ‘I’m often told I lack common sense.’

 

            “The king looked this young woman up and down.  Her auburn hair was tied back in a ponytail, her green eyes bright and sharp.  He was certain he had never seen her before…”

 

            A cough interrupted the storyteller, and she raised her eyebrows at Usagi.  “Yes?”

 

            Usagi turned the sleeping baby so he was facing Rei.  “You forgot Miki,” she said.  “He wasn’t with Ami, so he has to be with Makoto, right?”

 

            Rei bit her lip and thought for a moment.  “Okay,” she said.  “Rewind.  The young woman’s hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her eyes bright and clear.  And at her heel, a small brown dog followed faithfully.  The king was certain he had never seen either of them before.  ‘Who are you?’ he asked.

 

            “’My name’s Makoto,’ answered the young woman.  She reached down and scratched the dog’s ears.  ‘And this is Miki.  We knew this fellow didn’t belong to us, so we brought him here, hoping to find his people.  We don’t usually find these poor souls until they’re long gone from this world and their bones have been picked clean.  My condolences to his family, though, because even though he lives, there is no cure for a cursed soul.  Not even our alchemist has been able to find a remedy, and none of the few we’ve rescued have ever recovered.’

 

             “A choked sob issued from the queen, and she pulled her youngest daughter closer to her, her last shreds of hope dwindling away.

 

            “Makoto looked kindly at the woman.  ‘Is he yours?’ she asked.

 

            “’No,’ answered the king, who then went on to explain the situation to the newcomer.

 

            “As it was explained, Makoto became more and more confused.  Shaking her head, she commented, ‘Odd.  I know the wizard.  Not well, mind you, but we are acquainted.  As you described it, though, it defiantly is the evil wizard from beyond the valley.  Well,’ she went on, nodding her head in decision, ‘don’t you worry.  I’ll find out what’s going on, and I’ll bring your daughter back home.’

 

            “The king took one more look at this woman, from her worn shoes, to the patches in the knees of her pants, to the threadbare cuffs of her shirt.  This Makoto made no pretense about who she was, and though she was obviously of a class well below that normally allowed into the royal family, if she could bring his daughter home, he was more than willing to overlook that.  ‘I would be most grateful to you for your assistance,’ said the king.  He looked back at his wife and silently reminded himself that he had another daughter he could marry off properly.  Then he continued, ‘As is our custom, if you save the princess’ life, you may have her hand in marriage.’

 

            “Makoto chuckled.  ‘Thank you, Your Majesty, but that won’t be necessary.  As lovely as I’m sure the princess is, my companion would be most displeased if I brought home another bride.’

 

            “The king let out an embarrassed chuckle.  ‘Very well.  But we will reward you for you help.’

 

            “’Whatever your Majesty wishes to bestow, I’ll happily accept,’ answered Makoto.  ‘There are a few things in town I’ll need to do before we head out.’

 

            “The king nodded.  ‘Do what you need, and refer it all back to the royal accounts.  It’s the least we can do.’

 

            “Makoto accepted, and though the king knew he should find some new hope in this young woman, his heart just wouldn’t allow it.”

 

            “As Makoto began to tend her business in the village, the dragons of the Shadow Mountains were nesting down for the day.  Real sleep had eluded the princess and the dragon master, and when they entered the Dragon Queen’s chamber, their steps were slow and their eyelids heavy.

 

            “The Dragon Queen, looking much as she had the night before, smiled at them in amusement.  ‘Did you not find the accommodations to your liking?’ she asked.  ‘Perhaps I should have left you to sleep out on the ground.  Well, what’s done is done, and can not be changed, no matter how much we may wish it.  Isn’t that right, young dragon master?’

 

            “Rei scowled at her in response, knowing the queen found great pleasure in the little torments she dealt, and refusing to acknowledge any double meaning that might be in those words.

 

            “The queen chuckled.  ‘Don’t look so displeased.  I’m about to do you a favor for being such good guests.’  She looked around the chamber.  ‘Where is my dear Orochi?  He should be here by now.’

 

            “The princess watched with great unease as the queen gripped the ornate gold and amethyst medallion around her neck.  Minako was quite certain that nothing the queen might do for them would be a true favor, and her displays of power, no matter how small, left the princess with a fearful chill.  That it seemed to be putting Rei so much on edge only made it worse.

 

            “Several minutes passed in tense silence, the queen staring down at them like they were specimens on the alchemist’s shelves.  Finally, Orochi trepidly entered the chamber.  He held his head a bit lower than normal, and Minako wondered if it was because of the tension in the room, or if it had more to do with the thick coat of dirt and dust that covered his green scales.

 

            “Even in the dim candlelight, Rei could see the evidence of the fun Orochi had indulged in during the night.  She was in no mood to scold him over it, though.  Truthfully, she didn’t care how dirty he was right now, so long as they could get out of here.

 

            “’Orochi, my pet,’ intoned the queen in a coy voice.  ‘I want you to do something for your mistress.  She wishes to leave these mountains, and quickly I’m sure.  My children would also be much happier without outsiders roaming their home.  Therefore, I will tell the clan not to obstruct you in your journey, and you will fly your mistress and her companion to the other side of the river.’  She turned her attention back to Rei, looking her pointedly in the eyes and smiling.  ‘That should remove several days from your journey, and put you much closer to the forest than if you were to continue along your current path.  My favor to you, young dragon master.’

 

            “Minako bit her lip.  She couldn’t quite find the maliciousness in this favor, but from the angry darkness in Rei’s eyes, and the way her pendent began to pulse in a deep hue, she was certain it must be there.

 

            “Rei gritted her teeth against whatever it was she truly wanted to say.  Instead, she bit out a harsh, ‘Thank you.  Your Majesty.’

 

            “The queen nodded.  Then she yawned, as if she was suddenly bored with them.  She waved a hand dismissively at them.  ‘I find myself growing weary.  Be gone, so that I may rest.’

 

            “It didn’t take more than that.  Rei turned on her heel and headed for the exit, muttering disdainfully as she went.  The princess hefted her pack and scrambled to keep up, with Orochi thudding along behind them.

 

            “Their pace didn’t slow until they’d left the caves and Rei was as far from the entrance as she could get without having to climb back over the cliffs.  Minako held her hand in front of her eyes, squinting against the sudden assault of sunlight that filtered through the mist.

 

            “Then Rei abruptly stopped and barked out a command to Orochi.  He stood still and waited as Minako watched.  Rei raised her hands, ready to shrink Orochi back down and continue on her way, because no evil queen, regardless of how powerful, was going to dictate anything to her.  But her eyes met Minako’s, and the words died on her lips.  Their gazes held for several seconds, Rei’s eyes stormy and full of anger, Minako’s laced with questions she didn’t know how to form.  Rei sighed deeply, her eyes falling along with her hands.

 

            “’Orochi,’ said Rei, sounding defeated, ‘do as the queen commanded and take us to the river.’

 

            “Orochi whimpered low in his throat and bent his head to give Rei a nudge.  The force of it knocked her back a few steps, but she patted his head and managed to smirk at him.  ‘Don’t worry.  I won’t make you take a bath this time.’

 

            “Orochi cooed, and his tail beat against the dirt in heavy thuds.

 

            “Minako, feeling somewhat tentative around a full sized Orochi, moved slowly to stand beside Rei.  Harmless as he may be, she really did prefer him in travel size.  ‘Are we really going to fly?’ she asked, apprehension in her voice.

 

            “’Yeah,’ answered Rei.  ‘Don’t worry.  Orochi hasn’t dropped anyone since his early training.’

 

            “Minako frowned at her.  ‘Oh, well, that makes me feel so much better.’  Then she took a deep breath and looked up.  ‘So, how do we actually get up there?’

 

            “Rei smiled and took the princess’ pack from her.  ‘Like this.  Orochi, time to go bye-bye!’

 

            “Orochi made a happy sound and lowered his head.  Rei grabbed onto one of the small horns that curved back behind his ears, and when she was steady, he lifted her until she was parallel to his back.  As Rei jumped, Minako marveled at the ease and steadiness with which she moved.  A harness materialized at her command, and then she gave Orochi’s neck a hard pat.

 

            “The dragon fairly grinned as he looked down at the princess.  He lowered his head to her the same way he had for Rei, and a soft coo reverberated from his throat, rattling the princess’ bones.  She suspected that coo was to reassure her and ease her tension, and not to scare her further.  However, it wasn’t working.

 

            “Now, Princess Minako may not have been the type to back down from a challenge.  She had, after all, planted her heels and fought back when the wizard came to kidnap her.  However, she also wasn’t truly foolish.  If humans were meant to travel through the air, she reasoned, they would have been given wings rather than the feet that kept them firmly on the ground.  Still, though, there was a certain excitement beginning to work its way up over the wariness.  No one in her kingdom had ever stood this close to a dragon before, let alone ridden one.  Her people would be in awe when she told this story, and her little sister would be so terribly jealous.  And then there was the view.  Seeing the earth from the bird’s view would be spectacular, she thought, especially if the day was clear. 

 

            “The last of her fears melted away as she looked up at Rei.  The proud look on the dragon master’s face made her smile.  Rei found joy in this, and wanted to show off both her skills and her dragon.  And Minako found she very much wanted to be her audience.

 

            “Following Rei’s example, she carefully climbed onto Orochi’s head.  When Minako was close enough to his back, Rei held out a hand to her.  Minako took a deep breath to steady herself, gathered her cloak and skirt into one hand to pull them away from her feet, then leapt the short distance to Rei.

 

            “Rei caught her easily, her fingers wrapping around Minako’s in a firm grip.  She warmed at the childish excitement she could see in the princess’ face, and loved that she was part of the reason for it.  Perhaps this would be good for them, after all, in spite of the queen’s intentions.

 

            “After helping the princess get situated and settling their packs, Rei retied the rope between them, then took the reigns.  Her heart sped up when Minako’s arms wrapped around her from behind, but she took as deep a breath as she could and commanded Orochi in a steady voice.

 

            “Orochi answered back with a loud roar, and his wings began to move slowly, kicking up swirls of dust and dirt.

 

            “The princess squealed, tightening her grip and burying her face in Rei’s shoulder.  They remained surprisingly steady, Minako thought, as Orochi began to move forward, the ground shaking under his feet.  Then the world fell out from under them, and for a moment she felt weightless as the wind whistled across her ears.

 

            “’You can open your eyes now,’ she heard Rei call over the wind.

 

            “With great caution, the princess opened one eye, then the other.  Without loosening her grip on Rei, she moved her head just enough so she could see out over the dragon’s wings.  Her eyes grew wide, and she let out a hushed whisper of amazement.

 

            “From so far above, everything looked different.  The dullness and lifelessness of the mountains became a misty, smoke-swirled gray.  As they circled around, the mountains led into the lush green and bright colors of open fields.  It was more like a painting than reality, and Minako took all of it in with childish wonder.  All her fears fled, and she rested easily against Rei as the dragon master commanded her steed.

 

            “The river she’d heard mentioned became visible after a time, as did the forest beyond it.  But Rei caught her attention, and nudged her to look elsewhere, to something that was barely in their range.  As they approached, Minako was able to make it out more clearly.  Large boulders were the first and easiest things to identify.  But there was something odd about them, because they weren’t quite as clear as they should have been.  Then… mist?  It was a fine mist obscuring the sight, rising from a cluster of pools.

 

            “A hot spring.

 

            “The princess grinned from ear to ear.  She would have kissed Rei then and there if she wasn’t certain it would cause them to either fall off Orochi, or go crashing into the earth.

 

            “Now all she had to do was survive the landing…

 

            “Her stomach lagged behind as they began to descend.  Minako clutched onto Rei, and all her trepidation returned as she hid her eyes against Rei’s back.  They hit the ground with a heavy thud, bouncing harshly as Orochi came to a running stop.  Her insides took a few minutes to realize they had actually stopped, but when they did, she took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

 

            “Rei smiled down at her.  ‘It wasn’t that bad, was it?’

 

            “Minako shook her head.  ‘Only the landing.  I could do with out that.’  Then she smiled widely.  ‘But the rest of it… incredible!  And a hot spring!  You are officially my favorite person right now.’

 

            “Rei’s smile widened.  ‘Come on,’ she said, moving to get them down.

 

            “Minako approached getting down from Orochi with considerably less caution than she had getting on.  She wasted no time in pulling off her shoes and running to the water.  As she dipped her bare toes in, she was peripherally aware of Orochi being shrunk back down to a more manageable size.  She really wasn’t paying much attention to that, though.  Instead, her concentration was on the steamy warmth rising from the spring.

 

            “She moved closer to one of the boulders that surrounded the pools and made this a rocky hideaway.  She placed her palms against the smooth surface and closed her eyes, sighing at the warm feel of the rockface as it helped to gently brush away the morning chill.

 

            “Rei’s footsteps came up slowly behind her, and Minako grinned as she turned to look at her.  ‘Slow poke,’ she teased.

 

            “Rei smiled back at her.  ‘Well, someone had to move all of our belongings and return our ride to his smaller self.’

 

            “’Are you all finished?’ asked Minako, her eagerness showing.

 

            “Rei nodded, and that was all Minako needed.  Within seconds, her cloak was on the ground with her shoes and socks.  She had her shirt unlaced and almost over her head before she noticed the stunned look on Rei’s suddenly very red face.  She paused,  looked around behind her in curiosity to see what it could possibly be that Rei was staring at like that… and then a playful grin touched her lips as she let the hem of her shirt fall back down.

 

            “Trying very hard not to laugh, Minako laced her fingers behind her back, then said, ‘Is there any particular way you’d like to do things?’

 

            “’Do things?’ stuttered Rei.

 

            “’Mmmhmm,’ nodded Minako.  ‘We can’t fully enjoy the water if we have all our clothes on, you know.’

 

            “’Right, right!’ answered Rei quickly.  Her eyes dropped and she turned her back to the princess.  ‘Um, you can get in first, and then I will, and… that should work.’

 

            “Minako giggled.  How easily embarrassed and proper her dragon master was.  This could possibly be even more fun than she’d anticipated, she thought.  So she pulled off her shirt and slipped out of her skirt, taking her time and humming softly as she did.  She folded them neatly and walked the few paces to her cloak and shoes, careful not to walk directly in front of Rei, but staying just within her peripheral vision.

 

            “Guessing she had been spotted the way she wanted to be, she bent down to lay her clothes on the ground, then stood slowly, stretching her arms up over her head, showing off the thin white cloth and delicate lace of the undergarments she wore.  And proving to Rei just how well these borrowed pieces fit.

 

            “Rei’s sudden fidgeting almost sent her into a gale of laughter.  But, rather than laugh, she said in a deceptively sweet and innocent voice as she moved over to the largest of the pools, ‘All right.  I’m all set.  Your turn.’

 

            “Standing at the edge of the pool, Minako looked back over her shoulder.  The hesitation she saw made her wonder if perhaps her teasing hadn’t gone over well, or had maybe scared Rei into changing her mind about coming in.  But then Rei’s cloak slid off her shoulders, and she slowly lifted her shirt.

 

            “When Rei finished undressing, she folded her things and placed them beside Minako’s.  Then she turned around to face the princess.

 

            “Minako’s teasing smile widened.  The color rose again in Rei’s cheeks, but she didn’t turn away, and Minako found she liked the almost shy smile she was being given.  Not quite a flirt, but a good enough beginning.

 

            “Wanting to see if she could get Rei to play a bit more, she turned to the water.  Her movements were slow and deliberate as she stepped in.  And when she found a spot that seemed both comfortable and the proper depth, she eased down into it.

 

            “Rei’s hesitancy began to slip away, and she walked over to the water.  Minako bit her lip and didn’t point out that the way Rei’s eyes were roaming everywhere but in her direction was making it obvious she was trying not to stare at things she shouldn’t.  Even if she was being given more or less subtle approval to stare.

 

             “But, she made it over finally, and sat down beside Minako, a long, soft ‘ahhh’ passing from her lips.  Minako noted that Rei kept what her nursemaid would call ‘a respectable distance’ between them.

 

            “The princess wasn’t having any of that, though.

 

            “Minako scooted over closer, and with a wide, content grin on her face, she sank further down into the water until it brushed under her chin.  Her eyes slid closed as she was enveloped in this heavenly warmth, and every bit of tension and tightness ebbed from her body.  A low, languorous sigh drifted passed her lips.  Even if Rei wouldn’t flirt with her, this was still an absolutely perfect moment.

 

            “Right up until she felt a little tickle on the top of her foot.

 

            “Minako’s nose scrunched up.  She was limp as a rag doll and perfectly content to stay that way.  She didn’t want to have to move to scratch an itch.  She contemplated asking Rei to do it for her, but the reception that idea was sure to get made her change her mind.  Although…  The princess giggled softly to herself.  No, even for the amusement factor, it still wouldn’t be a good idea.

 

            “The tickle started to move up towards her toes.  Minako frowned and flexed her toes.  Then she curled them tight, and when that didn’t work, she splayed them out wide.  She wiggled her big toe, then all of them together, and then…

 

            “’Ow!’ yelped the princess when she felt something clamp loosely onto her big toe.  ‘What the…’ she muttered, her relaxed mood shattered completely.  She wondered if this particular aquatic life, whatever it was, could be fried up for lunch.  So, to find out what had so rudely disturbed her and if it would go good with salt and pepper, she lifted her leg from the water.

 

            “And Orochi, hanging from her toe like a fish on a hook, blinked at her.

 

            “Minako screamed.  Loudly.

 

            “Orochi cringed and let go.  He hit the water with a splash and tried to stay out of Minako’s way as her legs thrashed violently beneath the surface.  A pretty princess she might be, but she really did have much in common with a banshee.

 

            “Minako, for her part, was concerned only with saving herself.  Her toes might not be her best feature, but she had no desire to lose any of them to this man-eating little monster.  So, in the middle of her screaming, she tried to scramble away.  Her feet couldn’t find good purchase on the slick bottom of the spring, however, so her flight was considerably less than graceful as she fell into Rei’s lap.  But Rei’s lap was as good a haven as any, and Minako clung to her as if her life depended on it.

 

            “Having a lap full of an almost naked princess was not the outcome Rei had been anticipating.  Her face flushed crimson when Minako’s arms wrapped around her neck, pressing them even closer together.  Her heart started beating so fast she thought she was going to pass out.  So she did the only thing she could think of, even though it made no sense at all.  She started to laugh.

 

            “Once Minako had calmed down enough to realize the shaking she felt wasn’t coming from her own hysteria, she looked at Rei crossly, though her hold on the dragon master’s neck never loosened.  ‘I don’t see what’s so funny,’ said Minako angrily.  ‘That little monster of yours just tried to eat my foot.’

 

            “’No, he didn’t,’ answered Rei, hoping her defense of Orochi would provide her with at least some distraction.  She glanced over to where Orochi was cautiously sticking his eyes and snout out of the water.  ‘He thought you were playing with him because you kept wiggling your toes at him.  Isn’t that right, boy?’

 

            “Orochi gurgled an affirmative.

 

            “Minako didn’t look terribly convinced.  ‘I wasn’t wiggling my toes at him,’ she felt the need to point out.  ‘I had an itch.’

 

            “Rei smirked.  ‘Well, he didn’t know that.  Here, let me see.’  She reached down and lifted Minako’s foot, then carefully examined it.  She gave her big toe a wiggle, and the bottom of her sole a tickle, before placing it back down in the water.  ‘Not so much as an indent,’ she reassured Minako.

 

            “That really didn’t make Minako feel better, though that tickle had gotten an involuntary laugh out of her.  Nonetheless, she relaxed and loosened her grip on Rei’s neck just a bit, finding her current spot very comfortable, especially with Rei’s arms now resting easily around her waist.

 

            “’So why is he in here anyway?’ asked Minako.  ‘I thought he didn’t like water.’

 

            “Rei shook her head.  ‘He doesn’t like to bathe.  This isn’t bathing, it’s playing.  It’s the soap that makes the difference, because soap is icky and slimy and stings when it gets in your eyes.’

 

            “Orochi poked his head up out of the water to answer with a long, high trill.  That was it exactly.  Though if she understood this, why did she keep making him do it, he wondered.

 

            “’Okay,’ said Minako.  ‘So he wants to play.  How do you go about this without me losing any digits?’

 

            “Rei grinned, then whistled for her dragon.  ‘Go find a stick, Orochi,’ she called.  ‘Minako’s going to play with you.’

 

            “The princess would have objected if she’d been given the chance.  But Orochi’s excitement overtook any words she might have been about to say.  The little dragon trilled happily as he quickly paddled to dry land, and his tail wagged as he pranced off in search of a stick.

 

            “Minako rested her head on Rei’s shoulder and closed her eyes while they waited.  She was in a hot spring with a rather attractive dragon master, and she was going to enjoy it for all it was worth, toe eating carnivore or not.

 

            “Several minutes passed, and Rei gave her a light poke in the ribs.  ‘Here he comes,’ she warned with a grin.

 

            “Minako opened her eyes to see Orochi with a thick stick in his mouth, charging towards the water.  He took a sudden turn and disappeared behind one of the boulders.  But before she could wonder where he was going, she heard the clack-clack of claws against rock behind them.  Then Orochi was sailing over their heads, his wings outstretched.  He glided for a moment, then tucked his tail under him and folded his wings.  The dragon plummeted, hitting the water like a rock and setting off a small torrent of waves.

 

            “Minako smiled when his head popped up.  He had to swim a moment to find the stick he let go of, and then he paddled his way over to them.  He climbed up on Rei’s shoulder before dropping the stick for Minako.

 

            “’You want to play fetch?’ she asked.

 

            “Orochi flapped his wings and bounced on Rei’s shoulder, ready to go.

 

            “’Okay,’ said Minako as she picked up the stick and slid off Rei’s lap.  She gave the stick a good toss, and off he went.

 

            “They repeated this several times, but then Orochi decided he wanted to play another game.  Swimming back to them, his demeanor almost suspicious, he stopped just short of their reach.

 

            “Rei raised an eyebrow at him as he bobbed up and down in front of them.  She waited several seconds, and when he didn’t move, she lifted a hand to reach for him.

 

            “With a yip, Orochi used his wings to propel himself backward.  He stopped and watched them with playful eyes, but Rei shook her head.

 

            “’I’m not going to chase you,’ she informed him.  ‘This is a spring, not a lake.  There isn’t enough room for that.’

 

            “Orochi whimpered piteously at her.

 

            “’Nope,’ she said again, crossing her arms.  ‘That won’t work on me.’

 

            “Swimming a little closer, Orochi whimpered again.

 

            “’Awww, what a mean dragon master,’ cooed Minako sympathetically.  ‘Won’t even play with her own dragon.  And he looks so pitiful.’

 

            “Rei ignored both of them and leaned back against the rock, closing her eyes, though a corner of her mouth did turn up just a bit.

 

            “Thinking he might be able to get the princess to play, since she was suddenly the only one paying attention to him, Orochi swam closer to her.  He trilled at her, the sound lower than before, and she grinned at him.

 

            “’All right, I’ll play with you just a little more,’ said Minako.  She reached forward slowly, and when he didn’t bolt away, she took the end of the stick.

 

            “But this time, he didn’t let go.

 

            “Orochi huffed as she tugged on the stick and told him to let go.  A purr-like growl issued from him as she started pulling from side to side.

 

            “’So that’s how it is,’ smirked Minako.  ‘Okay, then, if you’re not going to let go, neither am I.’  With that, her light tugs took on more force, and she slowly started pulling him in a wide arc, back and forth in front of her.

 

            “The little dragon glided through the water, warbling happily as she pulled him around.  She started pulling faster until, finally, he let go.  Minako laughed at his silliness as he drifted away, spinning in circles as he went.

 

            “Rei, who had been peeking through half-lidded eyes, asked quietly, ‘You sound like you’re having fun.’

 

            “Minako nodded.  ‘Begrudgingly, I must say yes.  I suppose that little creature of yours isn’t too terrible.’

 

            “Orochi swam back over to them, maneuvering himself into Minako’s lap.  The princess stared at him as though he’d lost his mind, but Orochi didn’t seem to care.  Playtime was now over, and he was ready to relax, too.  So he plopped himself down into the crook of Minako’s arm, and laid his back against her, most of his body winding up submerged.  He stretched his neck up high to sun what little of his underside was exposed, then wiggled to get more comfortable.

 

            “Rei looked at him in mock annoyance.  ‘Hey,’ she said.  ‘I’m the one who feeds and shelters you.’

 

            “Orochi only purred, quite comfortable as he rested against Minako.

 

            “Rei huffed, sounding like she was playing, but actually finding herself somewhat jealous of the little sneak.

 

            “Minako sighed, then shrugged.  ‘Stubborn as his mistress, I see,’ she commented.  Then she grinned at Rei.  ‘Well, if you can’t beat him, join him.’  She closed her eyes and leaned back, careful not to sink Orochi as she got comfortable.

 

            “Rei couldn’t argue, so she did the same.

 

            “They stayed like that for quite awhile, taking their time to enjoy the spring.  Reluctantly, though, they acknowledged it was time to move on.  So they got out of the water and dried off, and as they were dressing, Minako brought up something that had been tickling at the edge of her mind.

 

            “’Rei,’ she started tentatively.  ‘Why don’t we just have Orochi fly us the rest of the way home?  We’ve already dealt with the Dragon Queen, so hiding from her isn’t an issue anymore.  And I’m not afraid to fly.’

 

            “Rei stared at her for a moment, seemingly dumbstruck by the question.  Her eyes looked almost frightened as she searched for a response.  But then she looked away and shook her head.  ‘No,’ she said bluntly, busying herself with tying her shoes.  ‘We can’t do that.’

 

            “Why?’ asked Minako.

 

            “’Because,’ stumbled out Rei.  ‘Because I can’t take a full size dragon into your village.’

 

            “’So we stop before we reach the village,’ suggested Minako.

 

            “Again, Rei shook her head.  ‘I can’t take the chance of someone spotting him and attacking.  Your people are too skittish right now.’

 

            “’So we can go after dark and stop just short of where they can see us,’ returned Minako.  ‘We’ll shrink him down and then walk the rest of the way.  Or at least let him fly us over the Forest of Death, since that’s a heck of a lot better than us having to walk through it.’

 

            “’I said no!’ snapped Rei as she stood and faced Minako.  ‘He’s my dragon, and I’m in charge of this journey.  I said I’m not taking that chance with him, we’ll be fine walking the whole way, and that’s the final word.’

 

            “Minako’s fists clenched.  She wasn’t used to being told ‘no,’ especially when the reasons didn’t satisfy her.  And she was well aware that this time, there was nothing she could do about it.

 

            “’Fine!’ she shot back.  ‘Be that way, you stubborn…’ she mumbled as she turned on her heel and walked away to get some space and cool off.  Stupid, stubborn dragon master. 

 

            “While all that was going on, the hunter and her pet had begun their rescue mission.  The midday sun hung high overhead, wiping away most of the chill that had been in the air when they’d started out.  Miki trotted along at Makoto’s heels, intent as his master on the task before them.  Every now and then, though, his steps would slow and he would look back over his shoulder at the sound of a shoe scuffing or a pebble being kicked.

 

            “’I know they’re back there, boy,’ said Makoto when he looked up at her and whimpered.  She spit a salty seed shell out and popped a few more into her mouth.

 

            “Miki yelped, not feeling she was taking care of the youngest princess and her traveling companion the way she should be.

 

            “’What?’ asked Makoto around her seeds.  ‘It’s not like they’re any kind of threat.  They’ll drop off sooner or later.’

 

            “A whimper, followed by another yelp.

 

            “Makoto sighed.  ‘All right, all right.’

 

            “Miki wagged his tail, then sat on the ground and scratched his ear while his master when to deal with the children following them.

 

            “When the Princess Usagi realized the hunter wasn’t just taking a break, but actually turning and walking towards them, she turned white as a sheet and clutched her companion’s arm. 

 

            “The dark haired boy shook his head and smiled reassuringly at her.  ‘You wanted to come with her,’ he reminded gently.  ‘And you knew you were going to have to talk to her eventually.’

 

            “The princess swallowed hard, but before she could respond and point out that she was somehow hoping to avoid actually speaking to her, the hunter was upon them.

 

            “Makoto stared down at them and crossed her arms.  She turned her head and spit out a small wad of seed shells, then frowned at the children.

 

            “Usagi’s nose crinkled.  Such poor behavior was shown in that little display.  Had her father actually been willing to allow this person to marry into their family?

 

            “’What are you doing?’ demanded Makoto, knocking Usagi out of her brief thoughts on finer etiquette.

 

            “With a gentle shove from the boy for motivation, the princess stepped forward to answer.  Wringing her hands nervously, and with only a slight hesitation in her voice, Usagi answered, ‘We’re coming with you.’

 

            “The hunter chuckled.  ‘Are you?’

 

            “Usagi looked up at her, her resolve growing.  ‘We are.  We’re going to help save my sister.’

 

            “’And who are you?’ asked Makoto, looking over Usagi’s head to the boy behind her.

 

            “The boy bowed, then answered, ‘My name is Mamoru.  I was the knight’s squire.’

 

            “Usagi grinned widely, running over to clutch the boy’s arm in a tight hug.  ‘Since the knight doesn’t have a use for him anymore, I’m going to ask my father if we can keep him,’ she said happily, causing the boy’s cheeks to flush pink.

 

            “’And is he going to protect you from all the dangers in the Forest of Death,’ asked Makoto, trying not to show her amusement.  ‘Because it’s a very dangerous place, especially for young princesses, with all sorts of slithering, creepy-crawly creatures that would like nothing more than to have you for a meal.’

 

            “The princess gulped, then turned her big blue eyes up to her squire.

 

            “Mamoru shrugged, apparently resigned to his fate.

 

            “Makoto laughed, deciding it might be fun having these two along to keep her entertained.  She was certain they would slow her down, but assuming Usagi wasn’t a basket-carried princess and could keep up, they’d be in no real danger.  And an extra day or two wouldn’t do the princess she was trying to rescue any real harm, either.

 

            “’It’s a long and tiring walk,’ she reiterated, providing them with one last chance to back out.  ‘The forest is dark, with virtually no daylight, and rarely ever stars or moon.  And we’ll have to go through the Dragon’s Pass.  You’ll need to be able to run quickly if one of them thinks you’ll make a good snack.  And did I mention you have to walk the whole way?  It’s a very, very long walk.’

 

            “The princess nodded.  Her posture straightened as she reached down and found her inner courage.  ‘I’ll be okay.  I want to help save my sister.’

 

            “’Okay, then,’ replied Makoto with a nod.  She turned and started walking back to Miki.

 

            “’Wait,’ called the princess, slightly confused.  ‘Just like that?  You don’t care if we come along?’

 

            “’So long as you can keep up,’ tossed back Makoto with a careless wave of her hand.

 

            “Usagi looked at Mamoru.  He shrugged, then the two of them sprinted forward to catch up.

 

            “When he saw them approaching so close behind his master, Miki stood and growled out a high-pitched warning.

 

            “’It’s okay,’ replied Makoto.  ‘They’re coming with us.’

 

            “Miki stared up at her, then barked in rapid succession.

 

            “’That reminds me,’ said Makoto, snapping her fingers.  ‘Did you tell anyone where you were going?’

 

            “’I told my servant,’ answered Usagi.  ‘But I don’t think she believed me.’

 

            “Makoto smirked.  ’I’m sure she does now.  But just so long as you told someone.’

 

            “With that, the hunter led her small party forward to the forest, not having any idea the dragon master and Princess Minako were doing the same thing.  Or, at least, they were attempting to do the same thing.

 

            “Back at the spring, Minako was taking her time lacing up her shoes and arranging her things.  They had enjoyed the morning so much, but as the afternoon wore on, and the time for them to start through the forest grew closer, that happiness had ebbed away.  Now, Rei was just being mean and disagreeable for no reason.

 

            “The princess let out a deep breath, then stood and lifted her pack to a comfortable position.  She could understand Rei not wanting to take a full sized Orochi into the village.  What she didn’t understand, and found herself more than a little annoyed by, was Rei’s full out and snappish refusal to allow Orochi to fly them over the forest.  They didn’t even want to go into the place, let alone have to camp there overnight, and the blow-up over it all wasn’t settling well.

 

            “With a shake of her head, Minako tried to let it go so they could get on with things.  After all, as she’d already been told, she had very little choice in the matter.

 

            “’Rei, I’m ready,’ she called as she walked around to where the dragon master was waiting.

 

            “Perched on a boulder, Rei threw a thick stick, letting a miniature Orochi chase after it.  As the little dragon ran off in pursuit, Rei slid down.  In silence, she picked up her pack, never once glancing at Minako.

 

            “Minako frowned and put a hand on her hip.  She stared hard at Rei, which only got her ignored further.  ‘How much longer are you going to keep this up?’ she demanded.

 

            “Orochi trotted back over and dropped the stick at Rei’s feet.  She bent down to pick him up, and placed him on her shoulder.  ‘Keep what up?’

 

            “’This!’ answered Minako, gesturing between them.  ‘We’re walking.  I accept that.  Let’s just move on already, because I don’t want to spend the rest of this trip with a cranky, sulking, and silent dragon master!’

 

            “Rei crossed her arms stubbornly.  ‘I am not sulking,’ she said, and even Orochi looked at her dubiously.  Ignoring the looks she got from both of them, she picked up her pack and started walking.  Stepping passed Minako, she added, ‘Stay close and don’t wander anywhere when we get to the forest.  It isn’t as dangerous as most people think it is, but if you don’t know your way around, it can catch you off guard.’

 

            “The princess hurried to keep up, not really believing the part about it not being so dangerous.  She had heard all the stories, after all, and knew people disappeared in there.

 

            “As they walked, the tension in Rei’s posture began to ease, and her steps slowed to a pace Minako much preferred.  Staying close as she’d been commanded, Minako reached into Rei’s hood to give Orochi a scrap of food.  He swallowed it down, then cooed happily as Minako scratched his head.

 

            “The sound made Rei smirk.  ’You are so spoiling him,’ she commented.  ‘I half think he may wind up hiding in your pack so you’ll take him home with you.  How’d you like that, Orochi?  You could be a royally spoiled dragon.’

 

            “Orochi echoed a high-pitched trill, and his tail tapped against Rei’s back as it wagged happily.  Orochi seemed to like the idea of luxury living.

 

            “Minako grinned, thinking this particular animal was already royally spoiled.  She had to tease, though, just a little.

 

            “’A dragon for a pet,’ she mused, tapping her finger to her lips.  ‘It could certainly be interesting, and no one in the kingdom has ever done it before.  And you’d certainly be well tended.  You’d have servants to pamper you, and they’d feed you only the finest foods prepared by the best chefs in the village.’

 

            “Orochi licked his lips and sat up a little straighter.  He really liked that idea.

 

            “Then Minako’s grin turned mischievous.  ‘And after they got done feeding you your fill, they’d bathe you in a pool made from solid marble.’

 

            “She barely finished the sentence before Orochi was slinking back and scowling at her for ruining his fantasy.  He turned his back on her and slunk back up onto Rei’s shoulder.

 

            “’What?  You don’t like marble?’ giggled Minako.  ‘I suppose you’d rather have gold?’

 

            “’He’d rather have a mud pit.  Isn’t that right?’ laughed Rei, giving his hanging head a pat.

 

            “Orochi grunted, deciding to ignore both of them.

 

            “The earlier tension seemed to be behind them, but the forest loomed ever closer.  The sun all but disappeared as they broke through the trees, and Minako shivered at the cold that touched her skin.  She had never been so near it before, and now, rather than just the distant shadow of dull green she glanced from her bedroom window, she saw the forest for what it truly was.

 

            “Death was an apt name, the princess thought.  The vibrant colors that painted the rest of the land had been drained away, leaving behind pale, sickly looking trees.  The leaves that covered the knotted and knurled branches were almost as brittle as those that littered the ground, and the creatures that slithered and crawled through the underbrush were as black as the night.  Something screeched, and Minako jumped.  Rei held her hand in a firm grip, promising not to let anything hurt her, but it did little to ease the creepy sensation as yellow eyes followed them from nooks in the trees.

 

            “The further they traveled into the forest, the colder the air around them became.  Minako pulled her cloak tightly around her, trying to find more warmth.  Rei’s fingers released hers as the dragon master reached absently for her pendent, leaving the princess’ hand suddenly as chilled as the rest of her.

 

            “’We should find a spot to make camp for the night, before it gets much darker,’ said Rei, her voice quieter than normal to match the mood of the place.

 

            “Minako nodded, then looked up into the thick overhang of tree branches, trying to find the sky.  She really wasn’t sure how long they’d been walking, and wondered how close to sunset they were.  But the few patches of dim blue sky she could see really didn’t tell her much other than sunset was near.  And if the forest was this dark and dreary in the daytime, she really wasn’t looking forward to seeing what it was like during the night.

 

            “’Here,’ said Rei, stopping them and tucking her pendent back into her shirt.  ‘This will do.’

 

            “Deciding to just trust Rei’s judgment, Minako let her pack slide from her shoulders.  It hit the ground with a dull thud that left her feeling oddly satisfied.  ‘What do you want me to do?’

 

            “Rei’s pack joined hers on the ground as she answered, ‘You can spread out the blankets, so we have someplace reasonably comfortable to rest.  Right here.’  She gestured to an area that seemed to need only a moderate amount of clearing, then continued.  ‘We need to get some rocks and wood for a fire.  Orochi and I will start handling that.’

 

            “Minako nodded, then got to work as Rei and Orochi set about finding the things they needed for a fire.  When her task was complete, she joined in the search for firewood, and she placed the last piece on their kindling just as Rei completed the stone circle around it.

 

            “They both stood back as Orochi unfurled his wings and took a deep breath.  The dragon exhaled a stream of fire, the wood catching easily.  Pleased with his handiwork, he looked back at them for approval.

 

            “Giving him a wide smile, Minako clapped.  ‘Very well done!’

 

            “Orochi’s wings fluttered, making him look like he was bouncing up and down in excitement.  A happy trill left his throat, gaining him a giggle from the princess.

 

            “Rei smiled at them, then asked, ‘Are you ready to eat?  We might as well make use of the fire, rather than just stand here and admire it.’

 

            “’Sounds good,’ replied Minako.  She laced her fingers and stretched her arms high up over her head.  Then she paused for a moment, and a small frown touched her lips.  She couldn’t put this off any longer.  ‘But there’s something I have to do first.  I probably should have when you did,’ she finished with a mumble, realizing belatedly that her earlier squeamishness now meant she was treading into untouched territory, whereas before, Rei would have scared off anything that might be hiding.  The princess pointed over her shoulder and made a few vague gestures.  ‘I’ll be right back.’

 

            “Rei smirked at her, knowing she shouldn’t find this so funny, but not able to help it.  ‘Do you want me to come with you,’ she asked, only half teasing.

 

            “The princess shook her head to emphasize an emphatic no.  ‘My fear of the dark and whatever might jump out at me are overruled in this instance by my need for privacy.  There are just some things I don’t want accompaniment for, regardless of the situation, thank you very much.  But if I’m not back in five minutes, you better come save me.’

 

            “With a laugh, Rei tossed off a salute to the very serious princess.  Minako huffed, then moved slowly and cautiously away from the campsite to find an adequate amount of privacy.

 

            “Refusing to think about it, she went about her business as quickly as possible.  So intent was she to just hurry and get back, that she didn’t even notice the silence that fell around her.  She did, however, notice the bright golden feather that fluttered down in her path.  How could she not notice it, for this was the only true color she’d seen since entering this forsaken place.

 

            “Minako paused and stooped to pick up the feather.  It was soft to the touch, and she noticed just the faintest edging of blue along one side.

 

            “The rustling of leaves overhead caused her to look up, and her eyes widened slightly as a happy grin formed on her lips.  The brilliant golden feathers were easy to see against the backdrop of dull green leaves and faded brown bark, even in the dim light of evening.  Sharp, black talons held the tree branch as the bird looked right at her, obsidian eyes holding her in a mesmerized gaze.  It opened its wings wide, allowing her to see the dark blue detailing, and the princess marveled at how something so magnificent could survive in a place like this.  Then it sang out to her, the sound something she had never heard before.  The dream-like melody filled her heart and left her feeling light, her soul craving more.  But before she had been given her fill, the bird released the tree branch and took flight.

 

            “She had to follow.  Something in the back of her mind warned her not to wander, but the bird’s glorious song overwhelmed that voice.  She wouldn’t be long, she told herself.  She would only follow the bird to its nest, to see where it lived and if there were others.  Then she would come right back.

 

            “So Minako followed as the bird flew leisurely, singing for her the entire way.  Its pace began to quicken, and the princess’ steps picked up to match it.  She stumbled slightly, but didn’t slow down as they reached the end of their journey.

 

            “Her breath caught as she stepped through the trees and into the clearing the bird had led her to.  Nothing like the rest of the forest, this spot was lush with bright greens and brilliant colors.  A small pond shimmered in light she couldn’t find the origin of, and she walked closer to it in curiosity, the sweet fragrance of flowers foreign to her making her feel pleasantly warm.  Minako bent down to admire a particular bloom, carefully touching the velvety white and aqua petals.

 

            “She had just closed her eyes to let the light scent of the flower wash over her when she heard it.  The faintest hint of laughter, like that of a child on a summer day, drifted to her ears.  She looked up, but saw only the bird perched on a moss-covered rock in the far end of the pond.

 

            “She heard the laughter again, more a light giggle, really, and she grinned.  She released the bloom and stood, then slowly walked to the water’s edge.  Movement caught her eye, and something moved beneath the water’s surface.  A person?

 

            “The movement stilled, and slowly, the figure broke the surface.  At first only peeking up at her, the sea blue eyes framed by soft aqua curls.  Then rising more fully, revealing a playful grin, perfect pale skin, and…

 

            “The princess blushed and dropped her eyes.  It was probably safe to assume that if a young woman was going to swim without benefit of covering, she wouldn’t mind a few stares.  That had been her reasoning earlier this afternoon, even if Rei hadn’t fully caught on.  But she didn’t know this person yet, and the manners she’d been raised with told her that, at least for the moment, staring would be impolite.

 

            “So, keeping her eyes trained on her shoes, Minako introduced herself.

 

            “The young woman giggled again.  ‘Such a pretty girl.  But you’re acting shy.  Why do you hide your eyes?’ she asked, her voice teasing and playful.

 

            “Minako blushed even harder and dug her toe into the grass.  ‘Well, um…’

 

            “A splash cut her off, and she looked up.  Her eyebrows furrowed and she squinted as she caught just a glimpse of a fin.  A mermaid?  She had heard legends, but no one really believed any of them, considering they usually came from drunkard sailors at the village tavern.  But a real, live mermaid was right in front of her.

 

            “Awesome!  Now she was really going to have some good stories to make her little sister jealous!

 

            “The mermaid surfaced again by a piece of floating wood covered on one side in tiny pink blossoms.  She crossed her arms over it, using it as a float and covering what had made the princess blush so prettily.  ‘Now you mustn’t be shy,’ intoned the mermaid, giving the princess a smile.

 

            “Minako smiled back this time, and when she did, the mermaid began to hum.  It was a deeper sound than she would have expected, but pleasant and soothing.  The tune was simple, and she found herself humming along, her body swaying gently at the earthy sound.

 

            “’You have pretty eyes,’ she heard the mermaid say.  ‘Such a pretty blue.  Come closer so I can see them better.’

 

            “Her eyes locked onto the mermaid’s, Minako nodded.  Not only were the mermaid’s eyes the color of the ocean, but they were just as deep and mysterious.  Her feet began to move as she felt herself falling into those eyes.  Water tickled at her feet, her whole body feeling pleasantly numb.

 

            “And than that pleasant sensation was abruptly cut off as she was tackled to the ground, the force hitting her hard from the side.  Her ears were boxed, and the world went completely silent in a burst of purple light. 

 

            “Minako struggled to catch her breath and figure out what was happening as a heavy weight pressed her to the ground.  Her eyes opened just enough, and she realized it was Rei on top of her.  The dragon master shot balls of fire into the air above them, keeping the bird and its deadly talons at bay.  Then she turned her aim out over the water.  Minako’s blood ran cold as she watched her beautiful mermaid bare rows of sharp fangs as she hissed out her vehemence at Rei.  Her sea blue eyes clouded over in her anger, becoming steely gray.  Rei’s lips moved, her pendent glowing as a stream of fire rushed over the water’s surface.

 

            “The mermaid dove, and Rei quickly pulled Minako to her feet, firing off several more shots as she pulled them away from the clearing.  Rei wasn’t wasting any time, pulling Minako as quickly as she could.  All the way back to the campsite, she held Minako’s hand in a death grip.  And though Minako couldn’t hear the words, she could see Rei’s lips moving, no doubt chastising her for her carelessness.

 

            “The princess sniffled.  She was scared, confused, and sorry.  Her clothes and shoes were wet and cold.  She was starting to hurt from the impact when they hit the ground, Rei’s grip was painfully tight, and this total and complete silence was almost as frightening as what she’d just witnessed.  She would rather have listened to the slosh in her shoes and Rei’s virulence than such utter silence.

 

            “When they got back, Orochi ran over to them.  He propped himself up on Minako’s legs, his mouth forming what she knew should be a soft coo.  His way of asking if she was okay.

 

            “Rei released her, and she picked up the little dragon.  She didn’t mind at all this time when he snuggled against her neck.  She was, in fact, quite grateful to be offered some comfort.

 

            “Pacing back and forth in front of the fire, Rei muttered in agitation, her breathing unsteady and her heart pounding.  She did this for several minutes, trying to calm down, then looked at Minako.  She said something, but the words were still silent to the princess.

 

            “Minako didn’t want to, but couldn’t help it.  She started to cry.  Hitches at first, like hiccups.  Her shoulders shook as the tears started to fall, and her hugging grip on Orochi tightened.  Then her hitches turned to sobs, coming out long and hard, because she wanted to go home.  She wanted to go home where she would be warm and safe and no one would yell at her.  And even if they did yell at her, at least she would be able to hear it.

 

            “Rei stared at her, feeling very lost.  She had expected the princess to fight back, to make excuses for wandering off and call her mean for yelling at her on the walk back, even if she couldn’t hear any of it.  She hadn’t thought at all that she would start to cry.

 

            “Orochi, for his part, cooed almost desperately at Minako trying to get her to stop.  He turned his head and hissed at Rei, making her feel worse, before turning his attention back on Minako.

 

            “Rei scratched her head, then moved forward until she was standing in front of Minako.  She raised her hand and placed it on Minako’s shoulder.  When the girl looked at her through teary eyes, she said, ‘You’re safe, and you’ll be okay.  And I’m not mad at you, really.  So don’t cry anymore.  I know you can’t hear me, but just give it a few more minutes.  I promise you’ll be okay.’

 

            “She rambled on, hoping the princess was catching at least some of it.  She wiped away some of the still falling tears, then reached up to stroke Minako’s hair.  When she did, the princess’ face completely crumbled, and she began to cry even harder, which Rei didn’t think was possible.  Then she flung herself against Rei, wrapping her arms tight around Rei’s waist and crushing Orochi between them.

 

            “Orochi yelped and wriggled his way out as great, wracking sobs issued from the princess.

 

            “Rei put her arms around Minako.  Gently, she stroked her hair and her back, letting the princess cry herself out.  She started talking about pointless things, hoping the princess would pick up on it and let her know when the spell was wearing off.

 

            “It seemed a great deal of time passed as they stood there.  Minako’s tears started to taper off, and her grip on Rei loosened a bit as her head rested on the dragon master’s shoulder.

 

            “’… until you tell me.’

 

            “She heard the words, though they were muffled, like someone was speaking into a thick blanket.  Minako pulled back and blinked at Rei, her face coming in blurry through leftover tears.  ‘Tell you what?’ she asked, her voice feeling too loud in her head.

 

            “’Tell me why you’re crying so hard,’ answered Rei with a grin.  ‘I mean, I know at least part of the reason, but if there’s more, I can’t fix it until you tell me.’

 

            “Minako sniffled.  ‘Well, the major issue is that a really pretty mermaid and her pet bird tried to kill me.  And my shoes are wet.’

 

            “’I’m sorry about the mermaid,’ said Rei.  ‘I should have warned you about her, but I didn’t think we’d run into them, and I didn’t want to frighten you any more than you already were.’  She tucked the princess’ hair around her ears and offered her a smile.  ‘Would you like me to fix your shoes?’

 

            “Minako nodded, and Rei told her to sit on the blankets.  As Minako did that, Rei dug around in her pack and came up with a pair of thick socks.  She hesitated for a moment, then reached back in and pulled out a clean shirt.  Removing her cloak, she handed all three to the princess.  ’Here.  Take off yours and give them to me so I can hang them to dry.  I’m sorry I can’t do anything about your skirt, but my cloak is only wet around the edges, and it should cover you up enough.’

 

            “Minako took them, and Rei turned her back, giving her a tiny bit of privacy as she changed.

 

            “’Thank you.  My slip’s mostly dry, so I kept that,’ said Minako as she handed the wet clothes to Rei.

 

            “Rei took the clothes and hung them as close as she could to the fire.  She grinned as she watched Minako snuggle down into her thick travel cloak, and went over to sit beside her.

 

            “They watched the fire crackle and pop, stray embers occasionally escaping to dance on the breeze.  Orochi stretched out, satisfied that all was now well, then curled up beside the fire and laid his head down to rest.

 

            “’Rei, what was she,’ asked Minako quietly after a time.

 

            “’The siren of the forest,’ answered Rei as she watched the fire flicker.  ‘Story goes that she was betrayed by her lover, and in a jealous rage, she slew him by ripping out his heart.  But her bitterness only grew after that, cursing her soul and turning it black.  That curse extended out to the rest of the forest, bleeding the life from it.  Her companion, that golden bird, was the only thing of beauty left in these woods, and as she was about to be consumed by the curse, they struck a deal.  She kept her life in exchange for bringing new souls to the siren for her to feed on.  The bird is given the remains to pick clean, save the heart, which the siren keeps for herself.  That’s why we find so few of those who get lost here.’

 

            “Minako shivered.  What a horrible tale for two creatures of such rare beauty.  And for so much death to come from it.  She wondered if Rei knew what the forest had been like before the curse.  She was about to ask when she noticed Rei shiver and pull her knees up to her chest.

 

            “’Are you cold?’ she asked instead.

 

            “Rei shook her head.  ‘Nah, I’m okay,’ she answered, though the shiver that accompanied it made it plain she was lying.

 

            “Minako’s lips pursed as she thought.  Then she nodded once to herself, focused her attention back on the fire, and scooted over closer to Rei.  Not paying any attention to the stubborn dragon master, she lifted her arm and draped the side of the cloak around Rei’s shoulders.  She felt Rei startle as she pulled her arm back, and grinned.  From the corner of her eye, she saw the curious look given to her, and grinned even wider when Rei scooted closer to better wrap up in her side of the cloak.

 

            “Feeling warm and content, Minako relaxed against Rei, resting her head on Rei’s shoulder.  Slowly, almost cautiously, Rei’s arm moved up to wrap around her and hold her close.

 

            “’Don’t wander anymore, okay,’ said Rei softly, and for the first time Minako heard the worry and fear in her voice.  ‘I don’t want you to get hurt.  I never wanted you to get hurt in any of this.’

 

            “’You’ll save me,’ responded Minako sleepily.  ‘I was just kidding when I said that before, but you keep saving me.’

 

            “Rei swallowed hard, and turned her head so she could look down at the princess.  Her eyes were closed, and she looked as though she would be perfectly happy to stay like this.  Rei smiled at the idea, and without thought, touched the backs of her fingers to Minako’s cheek.

 

            “Minako’s eyes peered open, and she smiled up at Rei.  Such beautiful eyes, she thought, and she could tell that in this moment, they saw only her.  She lifted her head from Rei’s shoulder, wondering what the dragon master saw in the blue of her eyes.  When Rei’s thumb began to gently stroke her cheek, she suspected she had her answer.  They moved closer to each other, her heartbeat speeding up as she felt Rei’s warm breath against her lips.

 

            “As you can imagine, considering what was about to happen, it was quite a jarring and unwelcome surprise when Rei suddenly pushed her away and sprang to her feet.  Orochi was also on his feet, his wings spread as he hissed angrily in warning.

 

            “That was when Minako noticed it.  Something was rushing towards them, crashing through the underbrush and emitting a high-pitched, dog-like yelp.  Her mouth went dry for all the wrong reasons as she braced for whatever was about to attack them.  She started to scream as it came through the trees…

 

            “Then stopped abruptly and stared, dumbfounded.

 

            “It really was a puppy making those dog-like yelps.  The princess laughed in relief as the puppy, without fear, ran up to Orochi, yapping incessantly.  Her laughter tapered off, however, as footsteps came into earshot over the barking and hissing of the two little opponents.  And within a matter of seconds, three people burst through the trees, and princess’ jaw went slack in surprise.

 

            “’Minako!’ cried Usagi when she saw her sister.  She ran over to her and threw her arms around her, overjoyed that she was alive.

 

            “It took several seconds for Minako’s brain to catch up with what was happening.  But when she realized it was her little sister practically strangling her to death in exuberance, she nearly started to cry again.

 

            “’Usagi, what are you doing here?’ she asked, managing to pry Usagi off and hold her back so she could look at her face and confirm fully that it really was her.

 

            “’We came to rescue you!’ answered Usagi with a bright smile.  ‘Me, my new squire, and her.’

 

            “Minako looked over to the woman Usagi was pointing at.  She was a good bit taller than Rei, with a bow tied to her back and an angry look on her face.  Rei looked just as angry, the color in her cheeks rising with her temper as the two stared each other down.

 

            “In the brief moment Minako was taking to observe Rei and Makoto, she didn’t realize that Usagi was observing her.  She didn’t see Usagi’s eyes narrow or the way her lips pursed.  So when Usagi turned her glare on Rei, it caught Minako completely off guard.

 

            “’What did you do to my sister, you deplorable heathen?!’ demanded the child.

 

            “Minako looked at her sister in confusion.  ‘Usagi, what…’

 

            “The youngest princess looked imploringly at her big sister.  ‘You didn’t let her take advantage of you, did you?’

 

            “Minako’s cheeks went bright red as she realized just what it was they’d walked up on.  And even if they hadn’t seen the near kiss, here she was, half reclined after being pushed back, wearing nothing but a peasant shirt, her slip, and socks, with Rei’s cloak pooled around her.

 

            “Makoto sighed and rolled her eyes.  ‘Please tell me you didn’t,’ she said to Rei.  ‘For the love of the goddess!  It’s bad enough that you kidnapped her, but to drag her out here so you could have your way with her…’

 

            “’No, no,’ interrupted Minako, forgetting her modesty and scrambling to her feet to defend Rei.  ‘She didn’t do anything to me, and she didn’t kidnap me.  The evil wizard did.  She helped me escape.’

 

            “Rei flinched as though she’d been hit, and Makoto stared at the princess, incredulous.  Then those green eyes turned a sharp gaze onto Rei.

 

            “’I know she didn’t just say that,’ said Makoto, her voice hard.  ‘What have you been telling her?!’

 

            “’I haven’t lied to her!’ shot back Rei.  ‘Not really.’

 

            “’You’ve just conveniently left out several important details, is that it?’ returned Makoto.  She threw her hands up in frustration.  ‘Look, I know you’re lonely up there, but you can’t go around kidnapping people because of it, and you can’t go taking the princess you kidnapped on a camping jaunt in the woods while you pretend to rescue her.’

 

            “’I’m taking her home!  There’s no pretending in that!’ shouted back Rei, her eyes burning with a furious fire.  They were so close to this being over.  Damn the hunter and her forever intrusive ways.

 

            “’Rei,’ said Minako softly as she stepped up behind her.  ‘Tell her you didn’t kidnap me.  That you saved me, both from the wizard and the siren.’

 

            “Rei’s shoulders tensed at the princess’ voice, and the fight drained out of her.

 

            “’Princess,’ began the hunter, her voice holding a note of sympathy as she answered for Rei.  ‘I am sorry, but she is the wizard who kidnapped you.  She’s the only wizard in the valley, and has been for several years since the old man…’

 

            “’Don’t speak of him so casually,’ bit out Rei, her fists clenching tight.  ‘You didn’t know him and you don’t have the right.’

 

            “Makoto would have responded with a half-felt apology, if only out of respect for Rei’s feelings for the old wizard who had taken her in, but Minako didn’t give her a chance.  The blonde stepped around in front of Rei, moving in closer than politeness would normally allow, and stared her straight in the eye.

 

            “’Stop talking to her, and answer me,’ she said, her ire rising with a sudden fear.  ‘You don’t have a master anymore, do you?  Did you do this to me?  Are you really the wizard?’

 

            “Rei bit her lip, then answered quietly, ‘Yes.’

 

            “Color rose in Minako’s fair complexion, and her eyes immediately darkened.  ‘Why?!’

 

            “Not having a better explanation, Rei replied, ‘Because I’m the evil wizard.’

 

            “Minako’s lips formed a tight line.  Her hands flexed, and if she’d been a woman of lower breeding, Rei would have found herself flat on the ground and in a great deal of pain.  Rather than resort to physical violence, however, the princess chose to yell.

 

            “’What the hell kind of answer is that supposed to be?!’ shouted Minako, causing Rei to shrink back and the others to move back.  Because I’m the evil wizard.  As if that’s an excuse!  You broke into my home, scared me to death with that dragon of yours, threatened me and knocked me unconscious, and locked me in a tower!  And that’s the only excuse you have?  What were you thinking?!  That I would just roll over and play dead, or fall at your feet in gratitude for a scrap of bread and a clean skirt?  As if that would somehow make up for you taking me from my home and family against my will?!’

 

              “’I didn’t think that!’ shot back Rei, her naturally argumentative personality kicking in. ‘Not after the fight you put up!’

 

            “’Then what did you think?!’ threw back Minako.  She took a step forward to the point they were almost touching as they yelled back and forth.  ‘And what about all that stuff about Orochi and you being the wizard’s dragon master?  Why did you lie?  Why not just blast me again and lock me back in that tower instead of going through all of this?!’

 

            “’Because I couldn’t keep you there!’ returned Rei.  ‘Because you got out once, and you would have again and again.  You weren’t afraid of me, and I didn’t want you to be!  But I couldn’t put you back without making you afraid of me.  And you would have gotten away again.  And I never lied to you!’

 

            “’You didn’t tell me the whole truth, either,’ countered Minako.  ‘It’s the same thing!’

 

            “They stood there, both of them breathing hard and red-faced.  The air around them hung heavy with the ferocity of their emotions, and the entire forest seemed to have stopped, afraid to interrupt them.  The hunter, however, having already admitted that she lacked common sense, took a step towards them.

 

            “Two sets of eyes turned on her as one, and in unison, she was told pointedly, ‘Stay out of it!’

 

            “Makoto crossed her arms.  ‘So you two can continue to stand here and yell at each other all night?  I don’t think so.’  She moved forward and got between them, forcing them apart.  ‘It’s over.’

 

            “’No, it’s not,’ said Minako, turning her ire on the hunter.  ‘I still haven’t gotten a real explanation, and until I do, this isn’t over.’

 

            “Somewhat surprised, Makoto looked down at the princess.  She wondered briefly why this young woman’s parents thought she would need to be rescued.  Then she grinned, nodded, and backed away.

 

            “’Well?’ demanded Minako.

 

            “’All right,’ answered Rei, her voice becoming cold.  ‘This is what you want to hear.  What I told you about my mother and the wizard taking me in was true.  I told you he trained me.  What I left out was that he trained me not only as his dragon master, but as his successor.  He died two years ago, and he left me everything – Orochi, the castle, and his title.  And I won’t leave any of it.  The castle may be falling down around my ears, but it’s my home.  Orochi is the only family I have left, and I won’t abandon him just for the comforts of town.  I’m proud of my title, because I worked hard for it, and I earned it.  And I kidnapped you…’

 

            “Here she hesitated, just for a moment, unwilling to say she was lonely in her beloved castle, or that she was afraid of dying alone, without human companionship, the way her master had.  And she certainly wasn’t going to admit that she had no idea how to find the companionship she craved without giving up all of who she was.  So she searched her mind to come up with the words that would give Minako the truth she demanded and deserved.

 

            “’I kidnapped you because I could,’ picked up Rei.  ‘I had heard of you.  And then one day I saw you.  I wanted to know you, but I’m the evil wizard.  I didn’t think you’d fight me, and I didn’t think you’d try to run.  That all threw me off, and when you did…  I thought we could end things without you ever finding out.  You wanted to know why I wouldn’t let Orochi fly us over the forest.  It’s because I wanted a few more days.  I didn’t want things to end so quickly, and I thought I could keep you safe.  So I took you over the mountains when the pass would have been safer and quicker, and I brought you into the forest rather than allowing Orochi to continue on.  That’s it.  That’s your truth.’

 

            “Minako stood silent, gritting her teeth.  Yeah, okay, so now she had the full truth, spelled out for her in plain words.  Now what was she supposed to do?  She was still angry as an inferno, and she still didn’t feel like this was over.  Not even close.

 

            “’Why did you try to kiss me?’ she threw out before she even knew she was going to.

 

            “The question garnered a different reaction from everyone who heard it.  Mamoru held Usagi back to keep her from attempting to avenge her sister’s nearly tainted honor.  Makoto just sighed and shook her head.  Rei blushed deeply, but apparently was done with truth for the night.

 

            “Turning to Makoto, Rei asked, ‘Now that you have her, what are your plans for me?’

 

            “Minako was not pleased to be ignored, and would have made that very clear if Makoto hadn’t stopped her.

 

            “With a hand firmly on the princess’ shoulder, Makoto answered, ‘Nothing.  I have no desire to fight with you or attempt to capture you.  And I suspect you would do far too much damage to the king’s guard in an escape attempt to make taking you back worth it.  The princess is safe, so you may do as you wish.  Though I do request that you not kidnap anyone else.’

 

            “Rei nodded, then turned on her heel, snatched up her pack and blankets, and started to walk away.

 

            “Orochi hurried to catch up to her, and the two of them disappeared into the darkness of the trees.

 

            “The princess hadn’t intended to just let them go like that.  She still hadn’t reached what she felt was closure with all of this.  But once again, Makoto stopped her.

 

            “’Let her go for now,’ said the hunter calmly as sharp blue eyes bore into her.  ‘I don’t know what’s happened over the last few days, and it’s not my business.  However, you won’t accomplish anything further in your current state of mind.  Besides,’ she added with a small smirk, ‘she’s not going to go very far.’

 

            “With that, Makoto released the princess and took stock of the campsite.  They all needed some time to settle down, she knew, and they would need some rest if they were going to head back in the morning.  This place was more than adequate, and she left Minako to Usagi while she and Mamoru laid out spots to sleep.

 

            “Usagi tried to talk to her sister, but only managed to get half-hearted mumbles and abbreviated sentences.  There was something about the dragon queen, an amethyst pendent, and a new pair of shoes.  Another fragment about the siren, a hot spring, and Rei’s fire, which must have been the flashes that led them here.  Usagi frowned in worry, thinking this rescue hadn’t gone at all the way she’d thought it would.  Never mind that she’d never envisioned finding Minako willingly half naked with the person who had kidnapped her.  That Minako was now angry, unresponsive, and, if Usagi was reading her right, more than a little hurt and confused, had the young princess baffled.  She wanted Minako to be happy they were taking her home, not standing here and staring out into the dark. 

 

            “’Usagi,’ called Makoto quietly.  ‘I put some extra blankets down for you beside your sister’s.  The two of you should try and sleep.’  Makoto’s eyes looked out in the direction Minako was staring.  ‘She isn’t coming back tonight.  Not on her own.’

 

            “With great reluctance, Minako allowed Usagi to pull her over to their bedding.  The fire was dimming as they all settled in.  Usagi’s squire sat up a bit longer, poking at the fire to keep it going.  Soon, soft snores drifted over from Makoto.  Her cares and concerns over this situation were obviously not enough to rob her of sleep, Minako noted somewhat bitterly.  She watched Mamoru stretch, then the boy laid down beside the fire and closed his eyes.  Minako knew the thoughts flitting through her head were as unfair as they were unkind, but it angered her that the others were able to find rest while her mind and heart raced in tandem, denying her any peace.

 

            “So absorbed was she in her thoughts, that when Usagi poked her back, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

 

            “’Sorry,’ said Usagi in a loud whisper.  ‘I didn’t mean to scare you.’

 

            “’You didn’t,’ lied Minako.

 

            “Usagi smiled softly at her, then asked the question that had been tickling at her mind.  ‘You like her, don’t you?’

 

            “Minako denied it without hesitation.  ‘Of course not.  Don’t be ridiculous.  She kidnapped me, remember?’

 

            “’But you didn’t know that until just now,’ countered Usagi.  ‘You said she tried to kiss you, and you sounded like you were going to let her.  You like her.’

 

            “’I barely know her,’ returned Minako.  ‘And I’m now inclined to say I don’t know her at all.  She lied to me, Usagi.  She abducted me, and she’s lied to me about it this whole trip.  Regardless of why she did it, or how lonely I know she must be up in that castle, or that she was bringing me home…’  Minako tapered off for a moment, her voice becoming very small.  ‘Am I just supposed to forgive her?  And how do I trust her after all of this?’

 

            “Usagi shrugged.  ‘I don’t know.  I just know that you like her, and that if we go back tomorrow and you don’t talk to her first, you’ll be miserable for the rest of your life.’

 

            “It was a simplistic train of thought, and Minako was surprised to find such great and straightforward wisdom in her little sister.  She thought for a moment, trying to come to a decision.  She didn’t know what she was going to do come morning, but for right this moment, she knew what she needed to do.

 

            “She pulled her blankets up with her as she stood, grabbed her still damp shoes and pulled them on her feet, then headed into the dark after Rei.  She was certain Rei hadn’t gone too far, and that she wouldn’t actually leave until the rest of them did.  Because until then, it wouldn’t really be over, and Rei wasn’t going anywhere until this was over.  Minako hoped that, at least.

 

            “’Orochi,’ she called quietly as she took cautious steps forward.  ‘C’mere, boy.  Let me know where you are.’

 

            “She was starting to worry as several long minutes of nothing passed by.  Then she felt something brush against her legs.  Squeezing her eyes shut and cringing, Minako prayed silently that it was indeed the little dragon.  ‘Orochi?’ she asked hesitantly.

 

            “A trill was her answer, and she sighed in relief.  Bending down and reaching until her hands found him, she picked him up.  ‘Can you help me find your mistress?’ she asked.

 

            “Orochi wagged his tail, then turned in her arms so he was facing forward.  He took a deep breath, then let out a stream of fire, lighting her way and pointing her in the right direction.

 

            “It didn’t take long for them to come upon Rei.  She sat leaning against a tree, her blankets pulled up around her.  She stared up at Minako as the princess came to stand over her.  They stayed like that for several seconds, then Minako released Orochi and dropped her blankets on the ground beside Rei.

 

            “’I am very angry,’ said the princess as she sat beside the dragon master turned wizard.  She leaned against the tree in imitation of Rei, and pulled the blankets up around her, closing her eyes.  ‘I have no desire to speak with you right now, so don’t even bother.  Good night.’

 

            “Rei didn’t say a word as Orochi snuggled into the blankets between them.  Instead, she watched the princess.  She pulled the pendent from under her blouse, the soft purple glow illuminating Minako’s pale features as they slowly relaxed, the tension ebbing away as sleep claimed her.

 

            “After awhile, Rei also closed her eyes.  She couldn’t put off morning forever, but at least, she mused, she’d have one more night.

 

            “Morning dawned as a dreary gray light.  Minako snuggled closer to the warm body beside her and clutched the arm she was hugging more tightly against her.  She felt momentarily content, and her sleepy mind didn’t want to fully wake, because when it did, she knew she would have to deal with the unpleasantness of reality.  She still didn’t know how she was going to do that.  She did know, however, that she didn’t want to let go of the warmth beside her.

 

            “Reluctantly, the princess opened her eyes.  She didn’t see Orochi anywhere, and Rei’s eyes were still closed as she relaxed against the tree.  The look on Rei’s face was much too calm for the current situation, Minako decided.  A tight frown formed as she reached up and jabbed her in the chest, because if she had to wake up and face reality, so did Rei.

 

            “’Ow!’ complained Rei as she jumped at the uncomfortable poking of the princess’ fingernail.  ‘I’m already awake.  You don’t have to poke so hard.’

 

            “Minako ‘hrrumphed,’ then informed Rei curtly, ‘I’m still mad at you.’

 

            “Now, this probably would have confused anyone else, what with the way Minako was snuggling into her side and possessively hugging her arm.  To Rei, though, it all seemed to make sense, and she responded as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

 

            “’And?’ snapped Rei, her eyes fixing on Minako’s.  ‘What?’

 

            “’And…’ replied the Princess, ‘you’re going to have to work very hard to make me not mad you.’

 

            “Rei stared at the princess in silence.  She continued to do this for so long that Minako became annoyed.  So much so that she unlatched herself from Rei’s arm and hit her.

 

            “It wasn’t really a hard hit.  More like a girly punch to the arm.  Nonetheless, Rei scowled at her.

 

            “’What did you do that for?!’ she asked, rubbing the spot on her arm.

 

            “’Because you aren’t saying anything!’ returned Minako, their voices rising and disturbing the stillness of the forest.   

 

            “’What do you want me to say?!’ shot back Rei, her frustration showing in the agitated movements of her hands.  ‘That I’m sorry, and I promise never to do it again?!’

 

            “’Yes!’ answered Minako.  She crossed her arms and frowned more deeply, thinking for a moment.  Then, ‘You really weren’t going to try and kidnap me again, were you?’

 

            “This time, Rei really was confused, because the princess sounded unhappy about this.  She pushed away from the tree and stood, then started pacing.  ‘Of course I wasn’t going to try it again.  I’m evil, not stupid.’

 

            “’Oh, you’re not evil,’ said Minako, waving a hand dismissively.  ‘But I can’t believe that, after everything we’ve been through, you were just going to go off and let them take me back without a fight.’

 

            “Rei’s jaw dropped open.  Words escaped her for several moments, but she finally captured a few to answer with.  ‘Have you lost your mind?!  I kidnapped you.  They rescued you.  Now they take you home.  End of story.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work!’

 

            “’I’m aware of that,’ intoned Minako.  ‘But I can’t believe you didn’t even consider trying to kidnap me again.  Didn’t it cross your mind even once, for just a few seconds?  Because she’s only got a puppy, and you’ve got a dragon, so it really wouldn’t have been much of a fight.’

 

            “’You’re insane,’ proclaimed Rei.

 

            “’Like you can talk, oh great evil wizard,’ smirked Minako.  Then she sighed and held up a hand to stop Rei from saying anything more.  Standing, she continued, ‘Look, I don’t get it, either, so don’t bother asking.  But it irks me that you were just going to walk away, and I hate the idea of never seeing you again.  That doesn’t mean I’m instantly over what you did, and in spite of wanting you in my life, a big part of me doesn’t trust you.  But promise me that you won’t lie to me anymore, and that you’ll work really hard to make me forgive you and… well, if you want, you can stay a part of my life.  If you want to.’

 

            “Rei’s posture relaxed as her confused mind tried to work out what Minako was saying to her.  She was certain she had a rather idiotic expression on her face, but figured it was appropriate to what was happening and didn’t even bother to try to pretend she completely understood it all.

 

            “Finally, though, after realizing that Minako’s expression was one of cautious expectancy, she got it.  Her words were sincere when she found them.  ‘I promise not to kidnap you anymore, or lie to you, or do anything else that will hurt you or make you unhappy.  And I’m going to try really hard to make you trust me again.’

 

            “Minako smiled broadly, conceding that she was happier than she really should be given the circumstances.  ‘Okay,’ she said, clasping her fingers behind her back and rocking on her feet.  ‘To begin the process of making things up to me, you can take me home.’

 

            “Rei looked a bit dubious.  ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?  I doubt I’m high on the list of people your kingdom wants to come for a visit.  And how do I know you’re not setting me up for some kind of trap to get your revenge?’

 

            “Minako grinned mischievously.  ‘You’ll just have to trust me.  And don’t worry about my people.  Everyone will be very nice to you if I ask them to be.  Even Daddy.’

 

            “Rei didn’t feel very secure in that, especially the last part.  But…  ‘If it’s what the Princess wants?’ she said.

 

            “’It is,’ answered Minako.  Then she looked down at herself.  ‘And the princess would also like to find the campsite so she can put on some proper clothing, and perhaps have some breakfast.’

 

            “Rei nodded, beginning to truly relax herself.  She stooped to pick up her belongings, and said, ‘I just have to find my wayward dragon first.  I hope he didn’t wander too far off.  Orochi!  Where’d you get to, boy?!’

 

            “’He’s over here!’ came a call from not too far behind them.  ‘We’ve already got breakfast started, princess, so come and get what you want,’ added the hunter.

 

            “Rei and Minako blushed bright red.  Obviously, there wasn’t as much distance between them and the campsite as the night had made it seem.  So they sucked up their pride and pushed through the trees.

 

            “They found Orochi sharing a large bone with Miki, while the hunter poked at something on a makeshift spit over the fire.  The princess knew not to ask, and figured Rei did as well.  It was, presumably, edible, and that was really all that mattered.

 

            “’So…’ drew out Usagi as she waltzed over to her sister and Rei with a playful grin on her face.  ‘Have we worked everything out?’

 

            “Usagi’s giggle let Minako know full well that the baby princess already had her answer.  So she ignored her and instead said, ‘I’m changing my clothes.  I’ll be right back.’

 

            “Rei almost called out in desperation as Minako abandoned her to Usagi.  But she was a brave young woman, and figured this was just part of her punishment, having to endure the knowing twinkle in those eyes and the playful teasing that would no doubt be a part of the entire trip back to the village.

 

            “Breakfast turned out to be surprisingly good.  Minako made sure the mood stayed light, doing what she could to keep silences from becoming awkward.  It didn’t really seem to be an issue though, as Usagi was having too much fun with her sister’s new-found romance to harbor any vengeful feelings.  Makoto just kept saying it was none of her business, though she did smile widely every time Rei blushed at one of Usagi’s comments, and Mamoru just seemed to go with the flow of things.  The boy didn’t complain about anything, not minding at all the way Usagi clung onto him as they started walking through the forest.

 

            “Minako smirked.  She would get Usagi back once they got home.  This young squire would provide her plenty of material for payback.

 

            “The hunter’s steps were true, and she led them easily through the forest.  The princess had never been so grateful to leave a place as they broke through the last of the trees into real sunlight.  Fresh grass appeared beneath her feet, and she fought the urge to throw off her shoes and run through the lush green of it.

 

            “They walked on, conversation going from what had happened before they met up to the happenings in the princess’ village.  She began to talk about her people and her family, so Rei would know what to expect.  And just as she mentioned her father…

 

            “’He’s going to make you marry her,’ broke in Usagi.

 

            “’What?’ said Rei, stopping dead in her tracks.  She wasn’t sure if her shock was coming from the statement itself, or the calm, matter-of-fact way in which it was delivered.

 

            “Usagi looked up at a suddenly pale Rei and a surprised Minako.  ‘Father’s going to make you marry her,’ repeated Usagi.

 

            “’We got that part,’ said Minako.  ‘But why would you think that?’

 

            “’Because,’ answered Usagi, ‘she saved you.  Both from the siren and the dragon attack in the mountains.  Doesn’t matter that she kidnapped you to begin with.  Father’s desperate enough to overlook that part.  I mean, he was going to marry you off to her.’

 

            “They all looked at Makoto as Usagi pointed up at her.  Makoto spit out a wad of seed shells and frowned at the child, certain there was an insult in there somewhere.

 

            “Minako thought for a moment, then a smile slowly spread across her face.  She practically beamed at Rei, and laughed at the look of pure terror on the wizard’s face.

 

            “’Don’t look so scared, Rei,’ giggled Minako.  ‘He won’t demand you marry me right on the spot.  I don’t think he will, anyway.’

 

            “’Um, you know,’ stuttered out Rei, ‘as much as I want to be with you, this is all just a bit sudden, don’t you think?’

 

            “Minako crossed her arms and tried not to giggle as she looked at Rei sternly.  ‘Let’s remember who started all of this.  You didn’t think you could just lock me in a tower without benefit of marriage, did you?  What kind of girl do you think I am?’

 

            “’No, no…’ said Rei, falling over her words as she sought the right answer.  ‘I never thought… well, maybe thought, just a little… but, no!... not like that!... marriage?’

 

            “Not being able to stand it any longer, Minako broke down in laughter, the others around her already in fits of giggles and chuckles.  Giving a better explanation to her poor wizard, she said, ‘Father has been trying to marry me off for a long time now.  He says I’m too picky, but I disagree.  Anyway, we have this old custom that says the only thing that comes close enough to a just reward for saving the life of a royal - in this case me - is for the one who does the saving to become a royal by marrying into the family, preferably the one they save.  In this case, again, me,’ she finished happily.

 

            “Rei nodded her head slowly as this was explained, and came to the conclusion that this entire family was, indeed, insane.

 

            “Minako looped her arm through Rei’s and giggled.  ‘Don’t worry.  We’ll work out all the details later.  While we get to know each other a little better.’

 

            “A quick wink made Rei blush.  She coughed and ducked her eyes, trying to cover it.  ‘If you say so,’ she answered as the princess nudged her forward and back on their way.

 

            “The sun was just beginning to set as they came upon the village.  A loud commotion had sounded the moment they were spotted by the watch guards, and by the time they reached the gates, everyone was there to greet them.

 

            “The king had tears in his eyes as he pulled Minako into his arms and hugged her tightly.  The queen wept with joy, touching her daughter’s face gently, as if afraid she would burst like a bubble and be gone again.  Hands reached out to shake Makoto’s or slap her on the back in congratulation and gratefulness.  Even Rei was pulled into it, for the villagers figured if she was part of the group, then she was part of what brought their princess back to them.

 

            “The celebration continued uncontained as the traveling party made their way back to the castle.  Once there, and before any questions could be asked, Minako pulled her parents aside.

 

            “The rest of the group was seated at a large, finely decorated table.  A great spread of food was promptly laid out before them, only the beginning of the luxuries they were told they would receive.  Makoto and Usagi dug in with glee.  Mamoru showed a bit more restraint, as did Miki and Orochi when plates were placed in front of them.  Rei, though, just watched the door the royal family had disappeared behind.

 

            “Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they reappeared.  Minako was smiling broadly, but Rei couldn’t read the parents at all.  They both seemed a bit less jovial than they had when they’d first arrived.  Rei stood and bowed as they stepped up to the table, and waited apprehensively as the king scrutinized her.

 

            “’The princess has explained things,’ said King Artemis.  ‘The situation is a bit odd, and certainly not what we were expecting.  However, you and your lizard…’

 

            “’No, Daddy,’ interrupted Minako quietly.  ‘I told you.  He’s a dragon.’

 

            “The king looked down at the little creature who was happily eating his fill of royal food.  Well, he thought, if Minako and this girl wanted to pretend this winged tree lizard was a dragon so they could play Dragon Master and Princess, who was he to question what they did behind closed doors?  Especially if he was finally about to get his stubborn little princess married.

 

            “King Artemis cleared his throat and continued, ‘As I was saying, you and your dragon make my daughter very happy.  And as you did save her from several great dangers, following our customs, I offer both my eternal thanks and her hand in marriage.’

 

            “Rei swallowed hard.  Little beads of sweat broke out across her forehead, and she could feel every pair of eyes in the room on her.  She looked at Minako and the bright smile she wore, and couldn’t help smiling herself.

 

            “Feeling a bit more steady, she answered, ‘I would be greatly honored to have the princess as my bride.  Thank you, your Majesty.’

 

            “’Excellent!  We’ll make the announcement immediately!’ declared King Artemis exuberantly.  Then he leaned down and whispered to his servant, ‘Quickly, before either of them has a chance to change their mind.’

 

            “Minako clapped her hands and ran around the table to Rei, throwing her arms around Rei’s neck.  Rei chuckled and returned the wide grin the princess was giving her, staring into those beautiful blue eyes.  Slowly, their lips came together.  The kiss was warm and soft, and Rei realized fully just how lucky she was.

 

            “The room erupted into applause, and as word of the engagement leaked out, the village found reason to continue its celebration of the princess’ return.  The wedding was planned, the king was introduced to a full size Orochi, and after some stress over working out the details, a grand wedding was held.  And they all lived happily every after.  The end.”

 

            This pronouncement was followed by a round of applause for the storyteller, and the real Rei grinned widely, obviously proud of herself.

 

            “Sounds like we missed something good,” said Makoto as she and Ami walked fully into the room.

 

            Minako nodded.  “You did.  I’m a princess,” she said, smiling broadly.  “And I was kidnapped by an evil wizard and a dragon.  But you saved me, and we all lived happily ever after, so it’s all good.”

 

            “Wow.  And I saved you?” said Makoto in surprise, not that she was really following all of this that well.  But that being the hero part she got, and she grinned.  “Go me.”

 

            “I’m impressed Mako-chan,” replied Ami.  “And it sounds like it must have involved a great deal of danger.”

 

            Hotaru looked over at her parents and giggled.  “Yeah, there was danger all right.”

 

            Ami nodded.  “But I wonder about the living happily ever after part, since it’s usually the princess and the hero who saves her who go about being happy together.”

 

            “Ooo... feeling a bit jealous?” teased Makoto.

 

            “Don’t worry, Ami,” said Usagi as she somewhat reluctantly handed Miki to Makoto.  “This wasn’t your typical fairytale.  And Makoto wasn’t the hero.”

 

            Makoto’s teasing grin fell just a bit.  “I wasn’t?  Well, at least I saved her.”

 

            Rei smirked.  “Sort of.”

 

            “Okay, now I really want to hear this,” said Makoto as she found a free spot to sit in.  “You know you’re going to have to tell me the whole thing at some point before this vacation is over.”

 

            “I’m curious to hear it myself,” said Ami, wondering if she fit into this tale anywhere.

 

            “I think I can be persuaded to do a repeat performance,” said Rei, looking as though she were giving it a great deal of thought.  “We’ve got a few days left.”

 

            Minako grinned at her.  Even if you took the princess away from Mars, she’d still have that irrepressible Martian soul that delighted in an eager audience for her quick and very agile imagination.  An attribute known only to a very special few.  She let her eyes wander over all of them, and her smile grew wider.  There were a few additions to their family now, and most of their memories were still lost in a hazy fog, but some things hadn’t really changed at all.