Echoes Of A Distant Demon

By: Sailor Doc

 

Chapter Eleven

Venus entered the cool darkness of the quarters she shared with Mars and closed the door softly behind her. Standing alone in the quiet of the empty room she felt a numbness begin to overtake her emotionally worn frame.

There was a darkness coming and for once in her life she had no idea how they could possibly stop it.

The emergency council meeting she had just left had not gone very well at all. The Intel they had gathered was all bad, and despite their best efforts at diplomacy it looked as if war with Earth would be unavoidable. That by itself would have been disturbing, but under normal circumstances the Moon Kingdom would have had no problem whatsoever overpowering the still weak and slightly backward planet.

But these were decidedly not normal circumstances.

Rei had been right again.

There was definitely something very dark and very evil poisoning the hearts and minds of the good people of Earth. A blinding madness seemed to have swept over the common people of the planet and their leaders, with the exception of Prince Endymion, appeared to have been seduced by the sinister machinations of a rather bizarre woman calling herself Queen Beryl. This Beryl, in turn, swore allegiance to an entity known only as Queen Metallia, whom no one but she had ever claimed to see.

What kind of insanity was this?

Still, no matter what was causing it, there was no doubt that the dark seductive power was there, and it was so strong, so undeniable, that even she and the others could feel it now as well.

Rei had known it was there for over a year, yet even she was shocked at the speed and strength with which it had grown and multiplied to levels which now the Guardians might not be able to overcome.

Venus was faced with the grim reality of what was shaping up to be a hopeless situation.

Moving farther into the dark room, Venus finally allowed her transformation to fade way. Quietly donning a favorite nightgown, Minako began her nightly preparations for bed, subconsciously hoping the normalcy of such a mundane task would help her brain deal with the helplessness she felt at their current situation. Sitting down at her vanity, she picked up her matching silver brush and mirror, a surprise gift from Rei during a romantic trip to Mars, and began the nightly ritual she had followed since she was a small childÖ

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"One hundred strokes," her mother had said as sheíd gently begun to brush the unruly blonde locks into place. "Fifty on each side, mind, and no cheating, Minako! Venusian women are known across the universe for their beauty, but their Princesses are always noted for the silky perfection of their glorious hair!"

"But it pulls!" the young princess had whined as she squinted her eyes shut.

"Hold still, silly!" her mother had chided her with a gentle laugh, her hands never stopping their motion as the unicornís hair brush moved slowly and steadily through the long golden curls. "It pulls because you neglected it last night, didnít you?" her mother asked with a knowing smile.

Minakoís lowered eyes and pouty lip were all the answer she had needed.

"Oh, such a face!" her mother had laughed. Pausing in her ministrations, she had swept the child up into her arms and hugged her close to her heart. "My little ĎKo-chan, how I love you! How much I will miss you when you go away."

Minako had hugged her back and kissed her cheek. "But thatís not for a long time, mother! A whole," she thought deeply a few seconds, "three months!"

Her mother had cuddled her close, her nose buried in the little girlsí hair as if to memorize her scent. "Mmm, youíre right, sweetie. Letís not think about that right now," she said, barely covering the break in her voice. "Letís talk about you hair instead."

"But, mom!" Minako had protested.

"No Ďbutsí, Minako," her mother had said firmly, her pointer finger coming up to emphasize her point. "This is a Venusian beauty secret that has been passed from mother to daughter for generations in our family, and now Iím passing it to you! I promised my mother, and now you must promise me!"

Minako had looked at her in horror.

Her motherís eyes had suddenly softened and then Minako had seen it for the first time: her motherís fear of losing her.

"I promise, mother," she said solemnly.

"One hundred strokes a day?" the older woman had asked softly.

"Fifty on each side," the young girl had confirmed.

"Thatís my little princess," her mother had smiled, and hugged Minako close again. "Now, would you like to brush my hair tonight?" sheíd asked, and Minako had nodded enthusiastically at such a rare treatÖ

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Mother," Minako said softly, the single word dropping like a tear into the silence of the empty room.

They had lost all outside communications with the other planets two days ago, and had heard nothing in the interim.

Slowly Minako continued the long strokes, cherishing this one unbreakable connection to her home and far off family.

She needed Rei.

Rei was obviously still locked in her meeting with Sailors Uranus and Neptune. Two of the outer guard had been called in to add their strength and expertise to the situation, leaving Sailor Pluto at the Gates of Time, and Sailor Saturn, well, sleepingÖ

They werenít quite ready to take that step.

Surprisingly, the two Outers had encountered quite a fight just to get in to the Moon. That fact alone had given them hope. They had broken through. The enemy could be defeated. The fact that both Jupiter and Mars had been deployed to aid them was beside the point.

The enemy was not invincible.

Minako continued the long, slow strokes, her eyes unseeing and unfocused as her hand mechanically continued itís age-old task.

Her soldiers had barely made it back, and all had shown the scars and bruises of a desperate fight. Rei had barely been able to put one foot in front of the other.

The Moon was totally surrounded. Cut off by an enemy that seemed hell-bent on their destruction and had an unlimited ability to replicate themselves. The Sailor Senshi and the forces of the Moon Kingdom had struck down their monsters by the thousands, only to see them replaced in the tens of thousands.

Her hand stilled, the brush coming to rest in her lap.

What could they possibly do against such numbers? Against such ruthlessness? Against a foe who could not be reasoned with?

Lost in her troubled thoughts, she never heard the silent approach of her dark partner, and she started as the brush was removed from her nerveless fingers.

"Do I need to count for you?" Mars asked, her practiced strokes firm, yet surprisingly gentle.

Tilting her hand-held mirror, Minako looked back to see the beloved face of her second in command. Calm and serene, the Martian warriorís face betrayed nothing of the apprehension that had filled her own heart. Yet Minako could sense a certain tension and she could smell the wood smoke and incense from a very recent fire reading.

"No, I donít think so," Minako answered, her voice soft, with just the slightest rasp that betrayed a dry throat. Rei met her eyes in the mirrorís reflection then, her hand continuing itís gentle ministration. "How did your meeting with Uranus and Neptune go?"

The hand slowed momentarily and the eyes dropped before continuing on at the same pace as before.

"Pretty much as youíd expected," Mars said evenly.

"Neptuneís mirror confirms your suspicions?" Minako asked, trying again to meet the Martianís eyes in the mirror.

"Mmm," was all the answer she received.

Minako looked forward and straightened her shoulders. "So, when will they attack?"

"The night of the Princessesí Formal Masked Gala," Mars said firmly. "They will attack en masse, and they will not relent until they have swept us from the surface of the Moon." Her voice trailed off. "One way or another," she added softly.

Minakoís eyes raised quickly to the dark brown and lavender orbs that would not meet her own. "Then youíre saying itís hopeless," she asked.

"No!" Mars said sternly, her hands coming to a standstill on her partnerís tense shoulders. "Iíll never say that!" she swore, her eyes determined and desperate. "Not as long as I have breath in my body and blood in my veins! Iíll never surrender, do you hear me? Never!" Minako could feel the hands on her shoulders begin to tremble with the force of her loverís declaration. "I will fry, blanch, sear and scorchÖ I will incinerate and or eviscerate anything or anyone who dares to come near the ones I love and have sworn to protect!" Eyes flashing dark violet flames, the Martian warrior continued. "Before the Goddess and Great Mars himself, I swear it!"

Minako held her breath. She didnít have to turn and look at Mars to see the clenched jaw and angry scowl. The way the tense hands gripped her shoulders would have been ample indication of the strength of her partnerís emotions, and so she waited, knowing Rei needed a few moments to recompose herself after this rare, practically unheard of emotional outburst.

The latest fire reading must have been very bad indeed.

After several minutes the fingers on her shoulders began to relax, and the brush began itís steady journey yet again, despite the slight tremor of the hand that wielded it.

"Rei, should we reconsider awakening Saturn?" she asked at last. "Is it time? I mean, if itís really that badÖ"

Rei shook her head sadly, still emotionally shaken by her violent outburst. "No, we canít," she said grimly. "You know as well as I do that the Queen has forbidden it for the Princessí sake."

"Perhaps if the OutersÖ"

Again, Rei shook her head and frowned. "They went to her today and presented their case. Her Majesty still would not hear of it. She is totally convinced that the Princess possesses all the power we will need to defeat Beryl, if only she will awaken it."

"But, doesnít she understand?" Minako cried. " There is no time for that! Her powers are totally untested and far beyond her ability to control, both emotionally and physically. Itís a disaster waiting to happen!"

"We all know that Mina," Rei soothed, " but unfortunately, her mother sees her only with the eyes of love. She sees her Ďpossibilitiesí, but not the reality of the here and now."

Minako shook her head sadly. "The Princess is not herself," she observed pensively. "She hasnít been since this whole ordeal with Endymion and the Earth started."

"Mmm," Rei agreed. "You said it yourself. Sheís in love with him."

"True," Minako said. "But, I canít help remembering your warning that night so long ago. You said it had the potential to cause us great harm." Her eyes dropped to the mirror now resting uselessly in her lap. "As usual, you were right."

"Minako."

"Why didnít I listen to you, Rei? Or at least take your warning more seriously," she asked, not really expecting an answer in return. "If I had just paid more attention to the warning signs, I would have seen how deeply the PrincessÖ"

"Thereís nothing you could have done that would have changed it," Rei said as she placed the silver brush back on the vanity. Softly combing her fingers through the vibrant, silky locks, she finally allowed her transformation to fade away and leaned forward to bury her face in the beautiful, fragrant mass of Minakoís hair, her warm breath caressing a delicate earlobe. "Dear Goddess, you are so beautiful to me," she whispered with trembling lips.

Minako couldnít have repressed the involuntary shudder that shook her body if she had wanted to, as a gently insistent tongue and lips explored the delicate curves of her ear. "Reiko," she groaned, her hands convulsing even as her head tilted to allow her lover greater access. "We shouldnítÖ we donít have time for thisÖ" she protested weakly. "WeÖ we need to be planning our defensesÖ weÖ need toÖ finalizeÖ ourÖ" The questing lips, which had now completed their gentle journey across her cheekbone, were now teasing the corner of her mouth, and Minako could no longer resist the urge to turn her head and meet them half way.

She groaned at the sweet contact, the moments passing slowly before she finally broke their heated kiss and looked up into Reiís eyes.

"Lets not worry about that right now, Mina"

Gently insistent fingers traveled softly down the length of her arm, removing the silver mirror from her hand. She never saw Rei place it on the vanity as she looked directly up into the most beautiful face she had ever seen, made all the more beautiful by the deep and abiding love she saw there.

All for her.

Reaching up she caressed Reiís cheek, her fingers softly ruffling the long, dark hair that would have cloaked the beloved face from all but her own view, even if they werenít in the privacy of their own chambers. Fascinated, she watched as Reiís eyes closed briefly, and she felt the shiver as her lover responded to just this simple touch from her. Then, those eyes appeared again, this time aglow with a much deeper burning light that the avatar of Venus knew well and cherished. As she turned to meet the approaching passion she could both feel and sense, she felt Reiís arms surround her and pull her into the fire of her love and devotion. Reiís lips touched hers and this was no tentative request for her affection. It was the sure and certain kiss of her beloved partner. Her one and only. The other half of her heart.

And she needed her now and always, even as she needed water to drink.

Rei revived her soul.

"ReikoÖ"

"Shhh," Rei whispered, as she gently pulled her to her feet and guided her back toward their bed. "Shhh," one finger rose to touch her tender lips. "Let me take this away for now. Let me ease the burden just for tonight, Mina."

"But Rei," she protested weakly, even as she willingly sank back against the cool comfort of their sheets. "How can IÖ"she started, only to have Rei gently place the tips of all four fingers against her trembling lips, dark, haunted eyes searching her own.

"No Mina, no. Not now," she rasped, as she gazed down at her only love. Softly, her fingers moved to caress Minakoís cheek. "Now is for us. Only us. I love you, Minako! I love you now, as I always have and always will! I love you", she repeated, her tone urgent and insistent, "and I need you to feel how much. Right now."

"Reiko... my Reiko-chan" she whispered, as she tenderly brushed the dark hair back behind the Martianís ear and cupped her head with trembling hands. "I need you desperately and I love you so muchÖ please," she beseeched her waiting lover with desperate, hungry eyes. " Make love to me."

Passionate lips stole her breath away. Strong, sure arms pulled her willingly into the warmth of loveís embrace. Gentle fingers freed her from unnecessary restrictions and urged her to heights that only Rei could take her to. The Moon, the Earth, the Stars themselves fell away for a timeless while.

And love became their refuge for the night, against the inevitable and relentless darkness of the coming storm.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Wednesday Afternoon

 

Minako had fallen in love with the suite.

Quiet and private, it consisted of several features that were not only comfortable, but beautiful and romantic as well. In addition to the incredible view that took up two full walls from floor to ceiling, there was a fireplace that was central to the suite and its unique design allowed it to be enjoyed in both the living area as well as the bedroom. A 52-inch flatscreen HDTV was mounted on the wall over the fireplace and the "L" shaped couch in front of it made the area seem both inviting as well as relaxing.

The adjoining bedroom was cozy and intimate, yet still roomy with beautiful European style furniture including a gorgeous wooden vanity table in addition to a matching chest of drawers. An armoire housed a second, smaller widescreen television behind doors that were designed to hide it from view if the roomís occupants were not in need of unnecessary distractions.

ĎWhatever they may be,í the unsolicited thought flitted through the idolís mind. Blushing lightly, she dropped her eyes without chancing a closer glance at the massive, curtained four poster that dominated the room and turned to inspect the adjoining bath.

Walking into the enormous bathroom had been almost like a religious experience, its opulent design created to give the impression of being in a natural cave, with stone and tile work in varying shades of brown and taupe and fixtures in a dark, matte brown. Minako looked with longing eyes at the enormous sauna tub, greatly looking forward to a long, relaxing soak. It looked amazing.

And big enough for two.

Face still flushed from her unruly thoughts, she turned and re-entered the bedroom where her attention was finally drawn to the lovely, elevated four poster bed that was the center of the room itself. As beautiful and plush as it may have been, it vanished from view behind the bouquet of long-stemmed red roses resting on its center. Ignoring the fact that Rei was standing in the doorway watching her, Minako wordlessly, moved toward the bed and picked them up, her mind quickly doing the math even as she inhaled their intoxicating fragrance. Three this morning with her first note, then three more with each note Hiroshi had delivered.

Sure enough, here were the final six to complete the perfect dozen.

Closing her eyes, she smiled softly. Reiko had thought of everything.

"What do you think?" Rei asked from the doorway, trying not to let her nervousness come through in her tone of voice.

Minako turned toward her, still clutching the roses to her chest, and her smile widened. "I think itís wonderful! I mean seriously, whatís not to like?" she asked. "The view is spectacular, the accommodations are world-class, and so far Iíve been waited on hand and foot. What more could a girl ask for?"

Reiís relief was almost palpable as her facial features relaxed into a more natural smile. "Iím glad you approve, however there is one rather large deficiency Iím afraid I didnít foresee."

"What could that possibly be?" Minako asked.

Rei merely nodded toward the walk in closet where their clothes were already put away.

An inspection of her available wardrobe revealed a nice assortment of stylishly warm attire for a variety of occasions yet was sadly lacking in actual skiwear. At the news that Reiís clothing options were in the same shape, Minakoís eyes lit up with an emotion that could best be described as pure joy.

"You know what this means, donít you?" she asked Rei, who grinned in response. She was no fool.

"Shopping trip!" they chorused in unison.

Happy grin still in place, Rei took a small earpiece that looked like a bluetooth receiver from her pocket. Inserting it into her ear, she tapped it once.

"Haruda Shopping Arcade," she said softly as she turned to look for her jacket. After a brief pause she looked at Minako and then her watch. "Two minutes."

Minakoís eyebrows rose in amused surprise as she continued to look while the other young woman tapped the earpiece again. "So, what was all that about?" she asked pointedly.

"Just letting Hiroshi know whatís happening," Rei told her matter-of-factly. "Heíll meet us outside in two minutes."

Minako frowned, slightly disappointed that her time with Rei would have to be so closely monitored. Though it was no real surprise to her, she was still hoping to spend these precious few days getting closer to the normally reclusive priestess. Nevertheless, she retrieved her jacket from the back of the couch and as she turned toward the door found Rei right in front of her, concerned brown eyes looking into hers.

"Whatís wrong?"

Minako blinked. She had been pretty sure she had hidden her disappointment well, but from the look on Reiís face she had not.

"Itís nothing," she said, not wanting to spoil the day with her selfish feelings.

"Maybe," Rei answered. "Maybe not. Iíd still like to know."

Minako looked up at her, a tiny, sad smile quirking her lips. " I guess Iím just sorry we canít simply bolt out the door, skip down the street, and prowl from shop to shop without having to have an armed escort following our every move."

Rei nodded, understanding how the idol felt. "I hate that, too," she said. "I guess it canít be helped, though."

Minako shook her head. No, it really couldnít. Even in areas that were known for celebrity appearances, there would still need to be a barrier kept between her and those that might become too enthusiastic at her presence. It was a price for her popularity that sheíd had to pay for years now. A trade off sheíd had to learn to live with.

That didnít make it any less annoying.

But, for Reiís sake as well as her own, she smiled, grateful anyway for this time together. Besides, she really didnít want to dampen the mood. "Itís okay," she said. "Weíll still have a good time."

Reiís answering smile showed her relief. "Iím sure we will," she added.

And they really had.

Shopping had been a blast with Minako in her element, finding outfits for the slopes that were both stylish as well as warm. Rei hadnít been a slouch in that department either and both had returned to the hotel suite laughing and laden with boxes and bags.

Hiroshi had left them at the door, and Minako had been very pleased to see he was everything she had hoped he would be. He had an uncanny ability to blend seamlessly into any crowd and seem to almost vanish, only to reappear when needed to encourage potential snags in the afternoon to move along.

It hadnít taken much thought for them to decide to spend the evening in. It had been an early morning and a busy day for both of them and the thought of room service, a hot bath, and a movie had been kind of a no-brainer. Curled up on the couch in her warm, comfy PJís her fuzzy orange slippers on her feet and Artemis contentedly snoozing behind her head, Minako gave a happy sigh of contentment. To her right, a fire crackled merrily in the fireplace. Directly in front of her, the TV showed the latest comedy/action flick. To her left and behind her, a cloudless sky filled with millions of twinkling stars shown through the full-length windows, giving a spectacular view to the appreciative idol. She smiled, though, as her eyes dropped to the floor next to her and a sleepy Rei. Worn out from the dayís stress and activities, she dozed quietly as she sat on the floor next to Minakoís hip where it had been Ďeasier to share the popcorní, she had said at the time. Minako reached out and idly began to run her fingers through the dark, silky hair, the strands gently sifting through them, only to fall softly back to her head and shoulder as Minako mindlessly continued the relaxing motion. She remembered that sheíd always been a bit jealous of Marís hair. While she had religiously followed the routine her Mother had made her promise to, Mars couldnít have cared less about her own locks. She washed it, she dried it, and she let it go. That was it. Yet somehow it was the thickest, healthiest head of hair she had ever seen. It was typical of the oh, so serious minded Martian.

Minako sighed around a wry smile as she continued her appreciative observation. The priestess was incredibly cute, the warm hotel robe wrapped around her rather practical flannel PJís and her feet covered with the cutest pair of thick red socks sheíd ever seen, all covered with little black Scotty dogs chasing each other and saying ĎArf!í As she watched, though, she started to notice a change. Sweat began to bead on Reiís brow, and her breathing pattern changed to a much shallower rhythm. Subtly, the fire flared just a bit, and Minako noticed that the movement behind Reiís closed eyelids had increased significantly.

"Artemis?" she said softly.

"I see it, Minako" the cat said, and they watched as the priestess frowned in concentration.

As for Rei, the place she found herself in looked barren, yet oddly familiar. Hazy red and gray smoke seemed to billow and drift lazily too and fro, and Rei easily recognized that this was the plain that most of her fire readings sprang from. She found this only mildly surprising because she had always known that it was possible to utilize any flame available to her or no flame at all on rare occasions like Makotoís accident. Still, the fire must be trying to show her something very important for it to be reaching out to her here.

Not moving from her unusual position on the floor, Rei took a deep cleansing breath. Releasing it slowly through her lips, she tried to see what was shadowed behind the smoky landscape of her mindís eye. Frowning darkly, she began to realize that whatever she was seeing did not want to be seen. Sweat began to slowly roll down her forehead as her concentration deepened and she finally caught a glimpse of a male figure that seemed to be talking to several other beings she could not identify. He seemed to be vaguely familiar, but try as she might, she was unable to get a clear view of him.

Then as swiftly as it had come the vision was gone, and she was left with an intense feeling of dissatisfaction and dread.

Exhaling heavily, her frown only deepened. She could tell that was all she would be able to see tonight. Still, she was troubled not only by what she had seen, but also by all she knew she had not. She knew she would have to be patient, but sometimes patience was really, really hard to do. Especially when her senses were telling her this was directly connected to Minako.

Trying to look discreetly up at the other young woman, Rei was surprised and just a little embarrassed to discover that the idol and her guardian cat were watching her closely, no longer showing any interest at all in the movie still in progress.

"I take it you saw something you didnít like," Minako stated softly as she continued to study the obviously uneasy priestess. Reaching forward, she gently straightened a wayward piece of Reiís forelock. "Anything I need to be concerned about?" she asked, sitting back against the cushions once again as Artemis curled up in her lap.

Rei started to shake her head no, but changed her mind, feeling it was only right to be totally honest with her as it really could concern all of them.

"Iím not sure yet," she said, shaking her head in doubt. "It was pretty unclear. Really just vague shadows and images."

"But, it was something?" Artemis questioned more directly.

"Yes," Rei answered firmly. "I just canít say what."

"Canít or wonít?" Minako asked pointedly.

"Canít," Rei insisted, turning to look directly at her. "I wonít hide anything of real relevance from you, Minako, I promise. But, whatever this is does not want to be seen."

"Do you think youíll be able to pin it down?" Artemis asked.

"If itís the Kamiís will, whatever this may be will be revealed to us in..."

"...the fireís own time." Minako finished with her, smiling at the look on Reiís face. "Yes, Iíve heard that a time or two before."

"All I really know right now," Rei continued, pretending to ignore the amused idol, "is that Iíve seen all I can for tonight. The fire will show me no more."

"Well, I guess thatís it then, " Minako admitted reluctantly. As much as she may hate it, she had been around long enough to know that no matter what anyone else may want, Reiís fire operated by itís own rules. There was no negotiating around that. "How do you feel?" she asked, studying the young woman next to her. "You look exhausted."

Rei nodded her head in agreement, really too tired to argue against the obvious.

"Are you ready to turn in for the evening?" Minako was feeling pretty tired herself, but knew Rei had been up even longer.

"Yeah, I think so," Rei admitted and slowly rose to her feet.

"Why donít you go on ahead," Minako offered, discreetly cutting her eyes toward her plush cat, "and Iíll join you in a few minutes."

Nodding her head in understanding, Rei started toward the other room and that nice, big, soft, wonderful bed.

She was asleep before her head even touched the pillow.

Back in the other room, Minako turned off the television and with Artemis still curled up in her lap continued to enjoy the peace and quite of the lovely room, its warm fire a comfort in the silence around them. Artemis purred contentedly as the idol singerís restless fingers stroked his fur. He knew she had something on her mind, but he also knew she would weigh her thoughts carefully before she spoke. So he waited, knowing that the incident with the fire had raised questions that demanded answers they didnít have any way of getting yet.

"Artemis?" she said, her voice gently piercing the companionable silence.

"Hmm?" he answered patiently.

"Why now?"

"What do you mean, Minako? Why what?" he asked.

She frowned in thought. "Seriously, Artemis. After all this time? After the Princess reset everything? Why has this returned to haunt me? To literally threaten to take my life? Why now?"

Artemis shook his head. "I wish I knew, Minako-chan."

"Could it be some sort of personal attack?"

He started a bit at that suggestion then gave it serious consideration. "I suppose so, that could be a possibility. But you have to remember that this also affects others as well as yourself."

"Do you mean Reiko?" she asked softly.

"Yes," he answered, taking note of her use of the personal endearment. "But on a larger scale it could also affect both Mercury and Jupiter. Even the Princess herself."

Minako shook her head thoughtfully. "I see what youíre saying, but somehow this feels more, I donít know," she said searching for a better word, but still come back to her earlier description. "Like I said... personal."

Artemis looked at her with renewed interest. "Personal?" he questioned. "Really? How so?"

Her frown deepened into a worried expression. "I canít really say, but what I could feel through my connection with Rei was an overwhelming sense of vindictiveness."

The plush catís eyebrows rose. "Connection with Rei? You just had your hand on her head! Minako, are you saying thatís returned too?"

Minako blushed profusely. "I guess," she murmured. "You know I never could see what she was seeing, but I could get a feel for it. The same thing happened just now." She shook her head. "No, I get the distinct impression that whatever is going on here is a personal attack..."

"But?" Artemis prompted, knowing there was more to come.

"Iím not totally convinced itís only against me," she concluded.

It took Artemis several moments to fully digest this new information before he could ask the obvious. "Why didnít you say anything to Rei about this?" he asked, truly concerned. "Iíd say itís something she definitely needs to know."

Minako nodded her head in agreement. "Youíre right, and I will tell her," she insisted. "But honestly, I just needed a little time to process this, on top of everything else thatís going on right now." She shrugged sheepishly. "I honestly forgot that could happen until it did, and then I wasnít sure how she would respond to it."

"Afraid youíd set her off?" he asked knowingly.

"Pretty much," Minako agreed weakly.

Artemis smiled at his charge and rubbed his head against the palm of her hand in reassurance. "Iím sure sheíll be okay with it," he told her confidently. "She may be a little surprised at first, but I think sheíll be more concerned about you and this new information than your ability to get a read on her visions."

Minako blushed again, but only nodded and looked away from her mentorís teasing eyes.

Silence descended once again, the only sounds the crackling of embers from the dying fireplace. Rising slowly from the sofa, Minako walked quietly into the bedroom, pausing a moment to observe the sleeping priestess. Then, moving over to sit in front of the mirror over the vanity, she watched as Artemis jumped to the vanityís surface and settled comfortably to her left.

"How are you doing with all this?" the plush cat asked, indicating Reiís sleeping form reflected in the mirror behind the idol singer.

With a heavy sigh, Minako reached forward and took the brush from the vanity top. Allowing it to fall to her lap, her eyes closed and her face showed a fascinating mix of both pleasure and pain. "Oh, Artemis," she whispered softly, so as not to risk waking the other occupant of the room. "I love her so much, and I want to be with her so much... itís all Iíve ever wanted really. You know that," she added.

He nodded in answer, though he knew she couldnít see it.

"And here we are," she continued, "and its so-o-o real, and so-o-o close." He watched as a deep sadness darkened eyes that still could not look at him. "And now someone or something is trying to take it all away. Again," she added, the last word almost inaudible as she dropped her eyes and stared at the brush resting uselessly in her lap. "Artemis," she said, her voice a mere whisper as the cat moved up to her, his soft paws resting comfortingly against her lowered head. "Why?" she finally demanded, looking up at him. "Why, canít we be happy this time? Donít you think we deserve it?"

Artemis saw and was encouraged by the defiant light he saw in her eyes. "Yes, I most certainly do," he said, insistently. "I canít think of any two people I know of who deserve it more."

"So, what do we do? Against an enemy we canít see and have no way of negotiating with?" she asked.

"I donít know yet," he answered seriously. "But I do know what you donít do. Donít you dare let whoever this may be take away whatís yours. What youíve worked and fought and prayed for, for so long! Fight, Minako-chan. Thatís the best advise I can give to you for the time being!

Fight!"

Determined eyes looked at Reiís sleeping form reflected in the mirror before meeting her mentorís serious teal gaze, and she had made up her mind to do just that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thursday Afternoon

Sounds of laughter filled the air around her and Minako was happy just to take it all in. Sitting in a small park outside the lodge, she had a clear view of most of the trails and where they ended as she sat and waited for Rei to conclude her last run of the day. So far this trip had been a rollicking success.

Earlier that morning, Minako had talked to Rei about what she and Artemis had discussed the night before concerning her vision. At first the priestess had been a bit taken aback by the revelation, but then she had remembered that Minako had been able to do that in the past and it had often given them an edge that had come in handy for the entire group.

"Couldnít other people actually see what I was seeing sometimes?" Rei asked Artemis, who confirmed that they could, but only if both Mars and the fire wanted them too.

"You didnít do it very often, as it was extremely draining for everyone involved," he reminded her. "But only Minako could actually get a feel for what you were seeing, even when she could not actually see it herself."

"So thatís because of this Ďconnectioní we share?" she asked the guardian cat.

"Yes," he confirmed. "Because of it, you could often communicate telepathically."

"Is that also why I was able to use her weapon when she..." Rei asked, not bothering to bring up the circumstances that had happened under.

"I believe so, yes" he answered. "But remember, she was also able to use yours when you were unable to join the fight against Mio."

"But, you donít know for sure?" the priestess asked, surprised.

"Not for sure, no," he answered back. "Donít be so surprised at my lack of knowledge here," he defended, as Rei frowned in confusion. "You have to understand that what you and Venus had in the Silver Millennium was rather unique. As the only avatars of your planets and the two highest-ranking senshi in the Queensí Guard, you both had an overwhelming duty to the Kingdom. But you were also in a deeply committed, long-term relationship with each other. Luna and I believe that manifested as this physical and spiritual bond that you both still have to this day."

"I see... I think," Rei said slowly, and looked up at Minako with serious dark brown eyes before slowly nodding her head in acceptance. Minako knew Rei had to process all this new info and wondered briefly if Rei would withdraw from her a bit after that. But, to her pleasant surprise that had not happened. Rei had seemed perfectly fine as they had gotten ready to leave the suite. Her excitement about the coming skiing lessons was fun to watch, and so she had relaxed, counting yet another tiny victory in her favor.

When they had arrived at the lodge, Minako had discovered that Rei had arranged for them both to receive private instruction from two different instructors. One for beginners, to help Minako find her inner ski vixen, and the other for Rei, who was curious to find out just how much she still remembered. They had both started out on the beginner slopes and done surprisingly well. Minakoís years of intensive dancing had conditioned her body perfectly for the physical challenges of the slopes. And Rei?

Rei was a natural.

In less than an hour, she was whipping down the slopes, a wide, happy grin splitting her face like a happy five-year-old. Minako, who was no where near Reiís level yet, couldnít help but grin in return. Reiís obvious joy was a beautiful thing to behold. Minako determined to work hard and improve so that in time sheíd be able to keep up with the other woman on future trips.

She fervently hoped!

By lunchtime, both young women were pretty pooped, but after a light lunch, Rei indicated that sheíd really like to take Ďjust one more runí, so how could Minako refuse?

As Rei had sprinted of to catch the lift, Minako had settled in to patiently wait for her return. Even though she had done very well with her lessons and was very pleased with her progress she knew she was going to be extremely sore for the next few days. She imagined Rei would as well. Skiing required muscles she had never known existed, but the memory of Reiís happy face made every ache and pain in her future seem worth it.

ĎWonder what my chances would be of talking her into a date with that incredible tub,í she mused. A mental picture of Reiís reaction to such a suggestion came to mind, and with a private smile, her mind wandered off to a very, very happy place indeed.

The ringing of her cell phone brought her back down to earth and she smiled again as she saw who was calling.

"Hey! I thought youíd be halfway down the slope by now. Whatís up?" she asked playfully.

"Got stuck on the lift," Rei answered. "We just got up here, I wanted you to know, so you wouldnít start wondering where I was."

"Afraid Iíd think you were stuck in a drift somewhere?" she teased, and Rei huffed in offense.

"Whatever!" she returned. "Youíd like to see that, wouldnít you," she accused.

"I never said that!" the idol said in feigned innocence.

"Yeah, but I bet you were thinking it," Rei answered. "Not gonna happen," she said, and then hung up before the other girl could respond.

Minako could almost see the saucy grin she just knew Rei was wearing right now as she stared at the phone in surprise for several seconds before snapping it shut. "I canít believe she just hung up on me!" she said in total disbelief.

Who was this woman, and what had she done with her usually serious minded and prickly companion?

But she smiled, fully recognizing the playful and funloving side of her former partner. She had only been able to experience it once in their current lifetime. Could she dare to hope that she would start to see it more often now?

She certainly hoped so.

As she waited for Rei to return, Minakoís thoughts began to wander back to the revelations of the night before. They were relatively sure now that the return of her tumor was not just some random happenstance thrust upon her by a cruel fate. It was a deliberate and vicious act of revenge meant to both punish and send a message.

But from who? And for what?

As Minako sat on the park bench and waited for Reiís return, her mind began to work the problem. During the Silver Millennium the Sailor Senshi had created far more friends then enemies, however those enemies had existed, and most of them would never have hesitated at a chance to take out any of the Queenís elite private guard if the opportunity presented itself. However, this particular attack just seemed more cruel than evil. There was an element to it that just screamed Ďrevengeí to her.

And who could be this vindictive?

Her brows furrowed as she struggled with the questions. And why here? Why now? Why so totally out of the blue? Why...

THAWACK!

The impact against the back of her head was just as unexpected as it was cold, and Minako sat in shocked surprise at the suddenness of this obvious sneak attack. Icy particles of snow feathered her left cheek and dusted her exposed hair as she turned to stare into the wickedly amused eyes of one Hino Rei, who stood not ten yards away, slowly tossing a second snowball up and down in mocking challenge.

"Dozing in the mid-day sun, Venus?" the other young woman teased. "Who would have ever believed our leader could be caught..."

THAWACK, THAWACK, THAWACK!!!

And just that quick, Minako was up and on the move, her previous thoughts left in the dust of this new challenge. Rei secretly grinned to herself as she wiped snow from her face and dodged around the nearest tree. Minako had been looking entirely too serious when she had returned and Rei would have none of it! Firing the round in her hand, she scooped up her next shot on the move, quickly forming it in her practiced hands as she ducked and moved.

Mentoring all those children at the shrine had taught her as much as it had them, and her snowball fighting skills were second to none.

Luring the unsuspecting idol around a smaller tree, Rei popped the trunk sharply with the palm of her hand as she passed and every inch of snow on the overhead branches descended in an explosion of white that covered the other girl in a thick layer of the cold, white stuff. Momentarily blinded, Minako was a sitting duck. Rei unloaded her quickly stockpiled mound of snowy ammo in a rapid-fire and unrelenting attack of historic proportions.

Following her last snowball, Rei easily tackled her hapless target into a nearby drift and began to tickle her mercilessly, until she could see tears of laughter begin to roll down her cheeks.

"Do you surrender?" she demanded, her busy fingers digging into the heavy coat as Minako squirmed beneath her.

"No!" the idol gasped out before bursting into laughter yet again as Rei increased her efforts.

"Do you surrender?" Rei demanded again, her eyes alight with her amusement as Minako giggled and fought against her all the harder.

"No-o-o-e-e-k!" Minako insisted, though the effect was ruined by the small squeal she couldnít avoid as Reiís fingers found a particularly ticklish spot. An almost piratical grin swept over Reiís features and Minako felt a delightful flash of faux fear that she knew the priestess automatically picked up on. Leaning in closer to redouble her efforts, Rei was almost unseated as Minako used the weight shift to roll them both over in the snow. Quickly adjusting to the change, Rei forced the roll to continue and once again wound up on top looking down at Minako from her position astride the idolís hips, her hands finally trapping the other girlís on either side of her head.

"Surrender!" Rei repeated, her face now mere inches from Minakoís as she used every bit of her body weight to press the idol back against the snowy ground.

Suddenly Minakoís mouth went dry as she looked up into the most beautiful pair of eyes she had ever had the privilege of gazing at from such a short distance. Unable to find words she continued to simply look into Reiís eyes, a soft smile gracing her lips as her struggles, and time itself it seemed, came to an abrupt halt. She watched in wonder as the wild gleam in Reiís eyes slowly softened, becoming instead a gentle smile. Releasing one of Minakoís hands, Rei raised her own to gently move the hair that was resting against the idolís cheek, and then of itís on volition lingered there. Tenderly caressing the skin beneath her fingertips, Reiís hand then stilled, only to cup Minakoís cheek as if it were the most precious thing in the world to her, even as her thumb began anew, continuing to stroke the chilled flesh with gentle care.

Minako forgot how to breathe as Rei closed her eyes, and with a deep breath, leaned forward and rested her forehead against her own. Minako compulsively closed her eyes in anticipation as the priestessí sweet breath mingling with her own and she could sense both their hearts beginning to race, the air between them suddenly charged with an energy that was almost palpable.

Then Rei was gone, and Minako opened her eyes in shocked confusion.

Standing with her back to the idol singer Rei stood as if frozen in place, but the energy pouring from her form was electric. It was as if part of her were screaming to run, to put as much distance between herself and the attractive young woman behind her as she possibly could. But, then there was the other part.

The part that kept her anchored where her heart told her she needed to be.

Behind her, Minako had slowly risen to her feet fascinated by the silent battle she could sense raging in Reiís stoic form. Something had definitely passed between them. Something powerful and scary... and decidedly delicious. She herself knew exactly what it was. She had always known her heart and how she felt when it came to the strong, if somewhat introverted priestess. The jolt of emotional contact between them had made her battered spirit sing and her heart pound with pure joy. If she had ever had any doubt before, it had been banished by the look in those dark chocolate eyes and the gentle touch of Reiís gloved hand against her cheek. No, it was crystal clear to her now!

Rei did love her. Very much in fact.

But. Was the dark haired priestess ready to except and embrace her feelings? Minako wasnít as sure about that aspect of things, and the last thing she wanted to do was push Rei.

That had never worked out well for anyone.

She would have to proceed cautiously.

Eyes still watching the silent form in front of her, she slowly reached out to touch Reiís jacket. "Rei," she began softly, only to find herself the one startled.

"Let me show you my parentís house," Rei said, her voice a bit husky as without looking behind to see whether Minako was following or not, she moved purposefully toward the parking lot. "Iím sure you have to be curious," she threw back over her shoulder.

Minako stood in shocked surprise for only a few seconds before hurrying to catch up with Rei, who was notifying Hiroshi of their plans, as well as her fatherís residential staff, that she was on her way.

A few minutes later, with Rei herself at the wheel, they made their way through the streets of the busy resort town. From the front seat next to her, Minako found herself fascinated at Reiís memory, as well as her knowledge of her old hometown, and greatly enjoyed the journey as the priestess pointed out various sites and points of interest, some historic, some more personal, along the way. Soon they had passed through the outskirts of town and the car began to steadily climb up the mountainside into a more heavily wooded, yet still very upper class looking residential area. Turning down what looked to be a side road, they hadnít traveled very far before a massive set of gates covered the entire driveway. Rolling down her window, Rei spoke briefly into the speakerbox next to the drive and the gates automatically opened before them.

"He really likes his privacy, doesnít he?" Minako commented as the car continued toward the still unseen residence, the gate closing almost silently behind them.

Rei shrugged. "I guess," she said, her tone non-committal. "The gates werenít here before. He must have had them installed after we moved to Tokyo."

Arriving at the classically traditional, older home, Rei soon discovered that the only other change to the house she remembered was the staff. Where before it had been fully staffed with several members in both house and garden positions, now only two full time employees remained, neither of whom had been there during her time there.

Rei was not surprised.

Her father had pretty much distanced himself from anything that reminded him of the family heíd once had. True, he had not totally turned his back, but neither had he remained involved. Rei, sadly enough, had never been able to understand if the memories were too painful for him or if he really just didnít want to be bothered with it anymore. It was probably a bit of both, she mused.

Entering the house, Rei accepted the respectful acknowledgement of both the housekeeper and the gardener. Still, she couldnít help but draw a parallel between herself and the immaculately kept home of her youth. Touring from one room to the next, it was becoming obvious to her as she observed the highly polished furniture and spotlessly clean floors that both she and the house had been well taken care of and maintained.

But neither of them had really been nurtured.

The house itself, despite its tastefully opulent furnishings, expensive artworks, and beautiful floral arrangements still held an aura of emptiness. The walls seemed to echo its loneliness, and that hollow sound reverberated in Reiís mind, even as they entered another room that was exactly as she remembered it.

This had been the Ďfamily roomí, and Rei couldnít help the bittersweet smile that crossed her lips as her eyes fell on her motherís needlework basket, still resting by her favorite chair. A matching chair sat next to it, separated only by a small table with a reading light, and Rei remembered that her father had sometimes sat in here with them in the morning and read the early editions of the news before he left for work. A few of her toys and books were still scattered here and there, and Rei found that rather touching, if not slightly odd. It was almost as if the whole house had become a time capsule. The last dying proof that once upon a time a happy, vibrant young family had existed, and that here, in this very place, they had lived and loved.

"Itís beautiful, Rei. What a wonderful house to grow up in," Minako ventured carefully as she reached out to touch a sturdy, if well worn rocking horse.

"We were happy here," Rei acknowledged, looking over at Minako with a slight smile. "But she made it a home," she added, her eyes warming as they traveled across the room to the formal portrait mounted over a lovely antique side table by the wall.

It was the first real look Minako had ever gotten at Reiís mother. The small and rather grainy old snapshot she had seen in Reiís quarters at the shrine had really not done her justice. While short in stature and very petite, she exuded an elegance and confidence that was undeniable. Long, wavy black hair framed a small face that was dominated by large, dark brown eyes that seemed to sparkle with the joy of life.

"Sheís beautiful," Minako said, and even as the words left her mouth she knew that she meant it on every possible level. Both inside and out, there was a beauty to this woman that ran soul-deep. Rei came up next to her as she continued to study the portrait.

Reiís resemblance to her was pretty clear, but Minako could see his influence as well. Rei was definitely taller than her mother, and the broader shoulders and firmer jawline came straight from him. But the eyes. Those unbelievably deep, dark brown eyes. Those were her motherís eyes.

No wonder her father could barely stand to look at her.

"When I was a little girl," Rei began softly, gazing up at her motherís serene face, "my world pretty much revolved around her." She turned a brief grin on the idol before looking back to the portrait. "Papa was never home, and the other kids thought I was Ďweirdí." A self-conscious smile flitted briefly across her lips. "Somehow, when I was with her, it didnít matter. She made everything we did exciting and fun." Her fingers reached forward to rest gently against the frame. "I still miss her."

Minako didnít know what to say, and felt almost paralyzed by her own sense of loss. Mercifully for her, Rei hadnít seemed to notice as she turned toward the doors leading outside.

"There should be a formal tea garden out this way, if youíd care to see it?" the priestess asked.

Wordlessly, Minako nodded and followed the other young woman out into the beautiful, serene garden as they continued the tour of Reiís old home.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thursday Evening

Rei had actually enjoyed the visit home, which made her very happy, as it had been something she had actually not been looking forward to. She couldnít help but smile as she realized that it really was still Ďhomeí to her. Even if her mother was no longer there, there was still a sense of Ďbelongingí for her there, and she was pleased that she had been able to share that with Minako.

The idol herself had been strangely quiet since they had left the house, and Rei felt as if she had withdrawn a bit into herself. After dinner she had disappeared into the bedroom, leaving even Artemis to fend for himself as she had retired for a long soak in the bath.

There was no doubt she had fallen into a funk, and Rei was starting to blame herself. Frowning to herself, she remembered once again her brief moment of insanity outside the lodge, and really hoped she hadnít hurt Minakoís feelings.

If she had sheíd have to make it right, she determined, and she headed purposefully toward the other room.

"Minako?" she called out, before entering into the room.

Looking around the corner, Rei peered into the semi-darkness and finally found the missing idol. Sitting on the backless stool at the vanity, she seemed to be staring pensively at herself in the mirror, her hands resting idly in her lap, still clutching her forgotten hairbrush.

Not wanting to startle the other girl, Rei entered the room softly and moved to stand behind her. Then, she watched quietly as Minakoís eyes finally came into focus and rose to meet hers reflected in the mirror. In their depths Rei could see the worry she was trying to hide and just the faintest flash of fear before Minako clamped down on it and tried to smile.

"Did you miss me?" the idol asked softly. "I didnít think I was gone all that long."

There was something in her voice that told Rei she had been dangerously close to tears. The priestess felt her heart clinch in response, and found that her eyes were suddenly unwilling to meet the other girlís. Afraid of the emotions Minako might see there.

"Are you okay?"

The question fell from Reiís lips before she could stop herself and she frowned, not sure if her show of concern would be rebuffed, mocked or taken for what it really was: an honest question from an open heart that cared more deeply than she was comfortable showing just yet.

Minako could be such an enigma at times.

Cold and unfeeling one moment, giddy and silly the next. Not to be confused with the maddening mix of all of the above in which you never knew if she was serious or not. Rei had been stung by the idolís capricious mood swings more than once and had the emotional scars to prove it. It made her wary of being too open with Minako, even now as her heart told her she must.

Minakoís first instinct was to deny anything was wrong. But even as the words rose to her lips, she saw Reiís eyes cautiously rise again to meet her own and the compassion and concern she saw there was more than she could bare. "Honestly?" she asked, eyes beginning to brim with the tears she had not yet allowed to fall. "No."

Kneeling quickly, Rei caught Minako in her arms as she turned to her for solace and felt the idolís arms wrap around her convulsively. As she cried out her pain and fear, a veritable storm of tears fell from her soul and dampened the side of Reiís neck and the front of her shirt, soaking through the material to rest against the warmth of her skin. But all that mattered to Rei was that Minako needed her.

Her.

And she was there for her.

"Hold me," she sobbed, and Rei tightened her arms as she pulled the distraught young woman closer against her chest.

"Iíve got you, Mina," she consoled gently. "Iím right here," she whispered into the chestnut colored hair against her cheek.

Eventually the storm began to pass, and Minako reluctantly pulled away from Reiís warm and comforting embrace. A little ashamed at her momentary show of weakness, she dropped one hand to rest on Reiís forearm, the other stopping at her shoulder as the priestess reached up, and with a gentle smile, smoothed several wisps of disheveled hair away from Minakoís face.

"I think Iím better now," Minako said, slightly embarrassed at her loss of control.

"Itís okay," Rei answered, her hand dropping from its previous ministrations. "Youíve been needing to get that out. Feel better?" she asked.

"Mmmhmm," Minako answered, only mildly surprised that it was a truth she had already known.

"Youíve been awfully quite since we left the house," Rei observed softly. "Can you tell me what brought this on?"

"My own overactive thought process, I guess," Minako admitted with a bit of embarrassment. As a questioning eyebrow arched over one of the priestessí eyes, she continued. "I was drawing parallels between your mother and myself."

Rei looked at her in shock, and Minako rushed to explain herself.

"I know itís probably foolish and selfish of me, but I couldnít help myself! As I saw that portrait of her, all I could see was a vibrant, intelligent young woman who loved her life and her family and still had so much to give to this world. You can see love and humor in her expression so vividly, yet within just a short time after it was taken, she was gone. She was so young! She still had her whole life in front of her." She looked up at Rei with haunted eyes. "I donít want to die! Not now! Not again! Not..."

Rei gently pulled the frightened idol back into her arms again and held her firmly against her chest. Drawing a deep breath, she tried not to dwell on additional parallels she saw as well. Instead, she determined to concern herself with Minakoís immediate fears.

"She didnít want to die, either," Rei began quietly. "She fought it as long as she could. I remember just how hard she fought. But, thereís a big difference here that you seem to have forgotten, Mina."

Even though Minako didnít move from her position, nestled against Reiís chest, the priestess knew she was listening to her every word.

"By the time my motherís condition was discovered it was basically already too late. But still, even though she knew it was terminal, she fought. She fought until her last dying breath." Reiís arms tightened slightly and Minako felt her swallow heavily before she continued. "I know, because I was there."

Minako raised her eyes to meet Reiís serious expression. "So you see, unlike her, itís not too late for you like it was the last time you went though this."

"And youíll be there with me as well?" the idol asked, needing to hear again the answer she already knew.

"Every step of the way," Rei promised.

They each took comfort in one anotherís presence and close proximity for several more peaceful minutes before Minako reluctantly pulled away from Reiís protective embrace. Lifting her hand she lightly rifled her fingers through her now tangled locks and gave a soft, self-conscious laugh. "I bet I look a sight."

Rei laughed, relieved that Minako seemed to be getting back on track again. "Yeah, wouldnít your fans love to get a look at their idol now," she teased lightly. Regaining her feet, she stood next to where Minako was still seated in front of the mirror as she turned to check her appearance.

"That was mean!" Minako protested, looking up at Reiís reflection. "I never realized how mean-spirited you could be!" she teased, frowning a bit to emphasize her point as she lifted the long forgotten brush to her hair.

Rei grinned as she realized Minako was actually flirting with her. "Maybe I should take a picture and post it on your webpage," she returned. "I bet Saitou would help me."

Minako feigned horror at the threat. "He would not!" she insisted. "He loves me!"

Rei shrugged and said only three words: "Hey. Team Minako."

"Hino Rei!" Minako protested, the brush coming to an abrupt stop. Reiís smile widened broadly.

"Gotcha!"

Minako looked sternly at her for all of two seconds before they both burst into laughter.

Almost of its own accord, Reiís hand reached forward and took the natural bristle brush from Minakoís hand. "Here, Iíll do that," she insisted, never noticing the momentary look of shock on the other young womanís face.

"Are you sure you want to..." Minako began, only to be cut short by her companion.

"Of course," Rei said as she ran the brush gently through Minakoís hair. "The memories are kind of vague, but didnít I use to do this for you a lot during the Silver Millennium?"

"Y...yes," Minako said, covering the slight shiver that swept though her at the touch of Reiís hand against her hair. Well, that certainly hadnít changed.

Back and forth, back and forth, Reiís hands moved rhythmically through the idolís hair. Automatically, her other hand moved forward to skim and sift the soft strands through her fingers, searching for knots and tangles. Minako could feel her face begin to flush as she shivered again, this time more intensely than before.

"Mmm," Rei mused as she searched her memories. "You use to do this every night before we went to bed, right?"

Eyes closed, Minako almost missed the question. "Yes," she managed, her eyes opening slowly to the sight of Reiís reflection as she continued to run the brush though Minakoís hair. Quickly closing her eyes again for fear Rei would see what she was doing to her, Minako choked out. "One hundred stokes a night."

" Mmm, " Rei murmured, her head nodding in agreement as her hands continued their steady progress. "Didnít you moth..."

"Yes!" Minako blurted. "Yes, youíre right. My... my mother made me promise," she managed.

"Mmm," Rei murmured again, pleased that she remembered this little detail of their past life. Silently she continued, enjoying the quiet intimacy of this simple pleasure. Unconsciously her motions slowed and her strokes became longer and more caressing. She loved the feel of Minakoís hair. It was very soft and light, yet strong and buoyant to the touch. Taking another handful, she marveled at how it filtered gently through her fingers. And the smell! Leaning forward, her eyes closed she never noticed Minako had begun to quiver. Resting her cheek against the other girlís hair as it hung gently down the side of her face, she took a long deep breath and hummed in approval. It was always so clean and fresh, like the flowers in the shrine gardens.

The instant Minako heard Rei hum in her ear she almost came undone. She knew herself well enough to know that the slightest touch was all it would take and she would spontaneously combust on the spot. But what could she do? She was helpless in Reiís hands, and Rei hadnít even figured it out yet.

Or had she?

Leaning over Minakoís shoulder, Rei put the brush back on the vanity and then gently ran her fingers through that silky hair once more before resting them on Minakoís shoulders. Minako felt the wisp of Reiís breath against her ear as the other girl rested her cheek against her own. But then Reiís hands began a slow, caressing decent down her arms and the idol lost all ability to think. Cool fingertips burned against her bare flesh as Rei claimed one of her hands, raising it to rest, still clasped in her own, against the idolís heart, her other arm reaching around Minakoís middle in a possessive embrace.

And then she felt it!

The barest touch of Reiís lips as they caressed the side of her cheek. Soft and warm and so very welcome! Without thinking, Minako involuntarily gasped at the wonderful sensations that swept through her, automatically leaning her head to the side to present her sensitive neck to the priestess as well.

And Rei froze.

She had almost missed it, caught up as she was in the moment. One minute she had been happily brushing Minakoís hair and the next...

She honestly had no idea what had come over her. Looking down to where her arms were still holding Minako tightly against her chest, she finally noticed that both of them were shaking and Minako...

Well, Minako was beyond beautiful.

Head thrown back and lips slightly parted, her eyes were still closed as she trembled on the brink of emotions almost beyond her ability to control. As Rei watched, Minako slowly opened her eyes and looked up to meet hers in confusion. "Rei?" she began.

"Iím...Iím sorry, Minako," Rei said, appalled at what sheíd just done. "I just...I...it...Iíll just...I need some air." Rei finally got out, dropping both hands from Minako and taking a step back. "Iíll be just...out here. Right. In there," she indicated the livingroom, and then without another word, she left the bedroom and a very confused and wanting Minako.

Minako looked at the doorway Rei had just vanished through for several seconds before turning to regard her own shocked expression in the mirror. Then leaning forward she lightly began to bang her forehead against the tabletop.

"Idiot, idiot, idiot," she repeated softly with each drop of her head. Pausing with her forehead still resting against the hard wood, Minako took stock of what had just happened and closed her eyes in frustration.

"One step forward and two steps back," she sang softly. Smiling softly to herself, she remembered the oh, so recent touch of Reiís lips against her skin and found solid comfort there.

"Baby steps, Mina," she reminded herself. "Baby steps."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

An hour later Minako found the priestess standing in front of the large window, looking with sightless eyes out over the moonlit snowscape below them.

"So," she began gently, "I guess itís my turn tonight to ask this question: Are you all right?"

A wry smile crossed Reiís lips as she continued to look out the window, still not quite ready to face the woman she was starting to wonder if she couldnít control herself around anymore. "Iím not sure," she confessed.

"How do you mean," the idol asked cautiously.

"Well, Iím doing things and feeling things Iíve never really felt or done before, thatís for sure." Looking up toward the starry sky, she continued in confusion. "I donít really know... where I end and Mars begins anymore."

Minako was startled. "Rei..."

Finally turning to face Minako, Rei continued. "What I feel for you, itís strong and itís powerful and itís real," she said, stressing the last word forcefully, her eyes asking the idol to understand that.

"But?" Minako asked, encouraging the other young woman to continue.

"But I need to know that these are my feelings! My emotions! Not just the memories of Mars Reiko! Not just borrowed reflections of a past life long since lived and lost!"

There was a pregnant silence after that, then Rei moved forward, taking both of Minakoís hands into her own. Giving them a gentle squeeze she caught her eyes and said as simply as she could.

"I love you."

As tears, this time of happiness began to slowly trickle down Minakoís cheeks, the priestess continued. "Please, donít ever doubt that. I do love you. Iím just asking you to let me sort this out. I want to be fair to both of us. I want your whole heart..."

"Itís yours! Itís always been yours," Minako insisted emotionally.

"I know," Rei soothed gently. "I know, and I canít begin to tell you how that makes me feel," she added, reaching up to once again cup the softness of the idolís cheek. "But in return you deserve all of my heart as well. I just want to be sure that the heart I am giving to you is truly all mine to give." She searched Minakoís eyes for understanding. "Does that make any sense?" she asked.

And oddly enough, it really did. Nodding once in understanding, she smiled and was then pleasantly surprised to feel Rei pull her once again into her arms, only this time front to back so they could both enjoy the breathtaking view of the stars and sky stretched out before them like a private light show.

After several minutes, she heard Reiís voice whisper against her ear. "So, when I used to brush your hair for you, was it always..." her voice trailed off into nothing.

"Foreplay?" she answered.

"Yes," Rei said, after only the slightest of pauses.

Minako grinned. "Pretty much."

"Wow. I didnít realize..." the priestess replied.

"That you touching my hair was such a turn on?" Minako asked completing the rest of Reiís unspoken thought.

"I remember now," she murmured, but Minako still caught it.

Minakoís hands caressed the ones that rested gently around her waist. "I guess I should have stopped you, but I was so surprised and I really didnít know what to say," she admitted with a soft smile.

"No, itís okay," Rei allowed. "And I was pretty insistent."

Minakoís gentle smile turned dreamy. "Yeah, you really were."

It was Reiís turn to grin. "Iím glad you liked it."

Minako lightly squeezed her hand before continuing her slow caress. "There you go again, with that incredible gift for understatement."

Reiís grin broadened. "Glad I could add to your enjoyment of the trip."

"You have no idea," the idol confessed.

"True, but Iím working on it!" the dark priestess promised.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

END CHAPTER 11

Authorís Note: This chapter is dedicated, as promised, to my dear, dear friend, Kanzaki. Without her help and encouragement Minako may have never gotten her ski trip with Rei. Miss you, girl...

Sailor Doc