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Gifts of Love

The dying rays of sunset slipped in soft crimson streams through the window and puddled brightly on the floor. The room was cast in a quiet red glow, the light lending lurid highlights to the features of the blond girl at the window. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, feeling the expanding whisper of her breath flowing in to fill her lungs. She exhaled softly and deliberately, only to draw air in once more.

She concentrated on her breathing - air rushing out, then back in. Out once more, and in again. Behind her, in the other room, laughter rang through the air as her friends celebrated life... but the blond girl stood alone and still at the window in the darkened room.

"Minako-chan," a voice said softly behind her. "How are you doing?"

Minako heard a whisper of cloth, and felt someone move gracefully up beside her. She opened her eyes. "Huh? Oh, Rei-chan. Konban wa."

Rei waited, but no more answer was forthcoming. "Something's wrong, isn't it," the priestess said softly, gazing at the sunset. One of her long slender hands pleated her kimono restlessly, betraying the tension that did not show in her calm face or her even tones. "You're not at the party... is there something on your mind?"

Minako blew out her breath again, and inhaled once more. Out and in, air flowing into her body and circulating, keeping her alive. Flow of blood through her veins. Heartbeat pounding in her ears. The faint breeze stirring her hair, caressing her face, the wood of the windowsill rough under her fingertips... every little sensation felt and relished anew as if for the very first time. "I'm breathing," she whispered. Her voice was uncharacteristically solemn and far older than her years.

Rei's eyes widened, and she nodded carefully. "I know," she answered in neutral tones. "So am I."

"I never appreciated it before," Minako continued, her blue eyes darkened to indigo by the sunset. "Breathing, I mean. Life." She turned to face the other girl, the light throwing sharp shadows across her face. "I always knew I'd give up everything for her - life, happiness, everything - but I never knew what I was giving. Not really."

The other girl nodded, her violet eyes searching Minako's face. "You didn't know until you actually gave it," she agreed. "And now you have it back."

Minako nodded, but her unhappy expression did not change. She turned back to the window, watching the dying rays of the setting sun disappear behind the mountains. When she spoke again, her voice was biting. "She always gives it back, doesn't she. As if my life's just something to be toyed with. Here, then gone, then returned to me. A toy that she got tired of playing with."

Rei's answer came quickly, almost in reflex. "You know it's not like that, Minako!"

"I know," Minako sighed. "I know that she loves us. But does she know how much we love her?" Her voice was hollow with desolation.

Rei regarded her companion in a mixture of worry and unease. Minako when bubbly and happy was annoying but vaguely reassuring. However, a moody and depressed Minako made Rei think of silent songbirds with their wings clipped, sparkling jewels broken and scattered, bright flowers wilting from lack of care... Rei bit her lip. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked gently.

Silence filled the room, and for a moment Rei thought that Minako had rejected her offer. Then Minako exploded, her voice high and shrill. "Does she think of it at all?" the love senshi flared, her hands clenching on the windowsill. Her sudden vehemence actually drove Rei back a step. "Does she even consider it? Has she ever stopped to think, even for a moment, about me? That I would give up my life, all of it, all of what I am... for her?"

"She knows it," Rei returned quietly. "We all would, and she knows that. She grieved for us when we died, Minako-chan. She fought to save us. She knows what death is."

"But she doesn't know what it means!" Minako cried plaintively. "She doesn't know what I'm giving her! I'm me, I'm Aino Minako, and all of what I am is hers - without question, without reservation - and she doesn't even care. Rei-chan, I died for her, not just once but twice, and the second time I lost my very soul..." Her voice faded away, and one hand went protectively to her chest, where her sailor crystal resonated with her heart. "My soul..."

Rei's hand jerked up to her own chest as well, clutching at her heart. She closed her eyes against the memory of awful tearing pain, and the stealing of her very being... a cold gloved hand closing around her sailor crystal... her very essence, twisted beyond her control, forced to attack those she loved... soundless cries for help and release, unheard... and then, once more, life. Freedom. A benediction from her Princess.

The sun had disappeared completely now, twilight washing shadowed and gray across the room. A faintly chill breeze snaked around the two girls, sending long strands of dark and golden hair twining together. Rei took a deep, bracing breath. "But you got it all back, Minako," she whispered gently into the dimness. "She got your crystal back for you. She loves you, Mina-chan, can't you see it? She loves us all. Never doubt it."

Minako tilted her head up and watched the stars glow faintly in the distance. "I don't doubt it," she whispered. "I never have. And I love her more than anything, Rei-chan, you know that. I just never knew how much I liked being alive." Cobalt-blue eyes searched the sky blindly. "Don't you understand?" she asked wearily. "I feel as if I've lost it - whatever it is that makes me a senshi. Maybe I don't want to give my life for my Princess any more. Maybe I like being alive too much."

Rei went still, feeling Minako's pain through the connection between them. Through the window, clouds raced grey and pale across the sky, sending the stars flickering in and out. The chill of night settled softly around them, but neither girl moved.

When Rei didn't say anything Minako continued, her voice bereft of her usual brightness. "If I don't want to give my life for her, then I'm not a senshi. If I'm not a senshi... Who am I then, Rei-chan? Who is Aino Minako if she's not Sailorvenus? What kind of a leader am I, if I don't even know what I want anymore?" Her despair was almost tangible, a dark fog blanketing the room, and Rei fought against it even as Minako continued to speak. "I want to be a senshi, I love Usagi and I want to protect her... but do I want to die for her?" Minako's tones were those of a lost, broken child. "I'm not ready to die, Rei-chan!"

Unseen in the darkness, Rei's mouth twisted for a moment with sympathy and shared pain. Then she made an irritated noise, a deliberately harsh sound that broke the spell of depression in the room. "Ch'. You'd better not be. What kind of senshi would you be then?"

"Nani?" Shaken, Minako turned and stared.

"Hn. Ready to die, indeed." Rei flipped her hair over her shoulder and sniffed. "If you go into a battle thinking you'll get killed, then you certainly will be. Me, I personally don't intend to die until I'm old and tired. Usagi can have my love, but my life's my own." She faced Minako directly then, and violet eyes bored into blue. "When did you stop separating the two?"

Minako blinked, her normally mobile face blank with confusion. "I - I - Nani?"

Rei blew out an exasperated sigh and took the other girl by the shoulders. "Listen to yourself, Mina-chan!" she cried, giving the girl a quick shake. "Listen to your own words and tell me why you should be ashamed to live. Tell me why!"

Minako shrank back, and Rei regretted her tone. The words had emerged with more vehemence than she'd meant them to. She treasured Minako's cheerful confidence more than she liked to admit, and had been frightened to see it disappear; her fear had bled into her voice. "Gomen nasai, Mina-chan," she apologized quickly. "But you shouldn't be ashamed to want to live."

Minako merely stared back, her blue eyes dull. "Why not?" she asked painfully. "Why should I live but not be able to fight? What good is that?"

Rei clenched her jaw and released Minako before she ended up shaking the girl again. "Who said that you're not able to fight?" she asked. "The will to live is the strongest fighting spirit of all. Don't give up! Live, Mina-chan! She never asked you to die for her; she never wanted any of us to die for her. She wants us to live for her. Live, Minako, and don't leave her alone!" Rei laughed suddenly, easing the tension. "Why do you think she keeps bringing us back? It's because she can't stand to be alone."

Minako blinked. Then a smile quirked at the edge of her mouth. "I wouldn't put it past her," she agreed, some of the old sparkle glittering behind her eyes. "But I still feel guilty - as if I don't love her enough. As if I love myself too much to give Usagi what she deserves."

"You're wrong, Mina-chan," Rei said intensely. "It's not that you don't love her enough, can't you see it? It's that you love her too much, so much that you even doubt your own right to live. You're the senshi of love, after all; you've got a generous heart, and you give yourself so openly... But the senshi of love has to remember to love herself, too. Only then will she be able to truly love her princess, and to know her own feelings clearly."

Silence descended on the room, shockingly abrupt after Rei's speech, and for a moment Rei was afraid that the other girl had not understood. Then Minako nodded slowly, understanding dawning behind her eyes. "I see," she whispered. "I can love life... and love my princess... at the same time, can't I. Ne, Rei-chan..."

Like sunlight spearing through clouds, a grin broke over her face, and she was suddenly the old familiar Aino Minako once again. She rushed forward and grabbed the startled priestess, folding her into a warm and enthusiastic hug. "Ne, Rei-chan! Thank you! Thank you so much! You're such a great girl, Rei-chan, so smart!"

"Hey, wait! Stop that," Rei sputtered, batting ineffectually at Minako's arms. "Hey!"

Minako merely giggled and squeezed more tightly, making Rei gasp for breath. "Thank you for talking to me, Rei-chan! We're best friends, aren't we?"

Rei was saved from answering by Ami's sudden appearance at the door. "Mina-chan? Rei-chan? Oh, there you are!" Ami regarded the other two girls calmly; seeing Rei helpless in Minako's exuberant embrace, the corners of her mouth crooked up with amusement. Rei rolled her eyes, while Minako laughed in welcome.

Rei sighed with relief as Minako finally let go of her. "Let's just get back to the party, all right? They're probably waiting."

"Oh! The party!" Minako clapped her hands eagerly. "Would you believe that I almost forgot? Come on!" She skipped out the door, clearly expecting the other two to follow her. The sound of her laughter sparkled brightly from the other room, and brought a small smile to Rei's face.

Ami bent her perceptive blue gaze on Rei. "Thank you," she said.

Rei fidgeted uncomfortably. "What for?" She wanted to snap at Ami, but one just didn't do such things to the blue-haired girl, who would merely smile gently back and not argue.

"For giving her back her spirit," the water senshi answered. "We all depend on her happiness, not just because she's our leader, but because she's our heart... and with the heart of us hurting, all of us hurt... especially you..." Ami touched Rei's forehead briefly with a gentle fingertip.

"Especially me?" Rei challenged. "What are you talking about, Ami?"

"Shadows to light," Ami smiled. "You're able to be so solemn and prissy all the time because she does your laughing for you. That's the way it works for you two. That's why you need to make sure she's all right, and that's why you went after her before any of the rest of us even noticed that anything was wrong. You two balance each other out, Rei-chan, shadows to light. You need her to be happy, because you love her that way."

"Love," Rei snorted. "Right."

"A gift of love," Ami's blue eyes were calm and peaceful; as ever, she was undeterred by Rei's sarcastic tones. "For that, I thank you in her place. For all that she's the senshi of love, dear Mina-chan can be rather blind when it comes to her own, or that which she receives."

Rei huffed out an annoyed breath and turned away. "If you're done psychoanalyzing, Ami-chan, let's go back to the party."

Ami nodded, a smug smile on her face. "Let's." Then she poked Rei in the ribs, eliciting a startled squeak from the priestess. "We'd better! If we don't get back soon, Mina-chan and Usagi-chan will have eaten all the food."

"Maa..." Laughing, the two girls walked briskly towards the light and laughter in the other room. Behind them, the moonlight shone full and bright through the window, highlighting everything with a pure white glow - the color of hope, and of love.

fin




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