Stitch in Time - part 3

The stars were fading when Pluto and Endymion finally retired. That night, as they made ready for bed, Pluto turned to Endymion. "We need to talk," she said.

He shot her an inscrutable look from under his black bangs. "What's the problem?" he asked, his voice without inflection.

She got up in quick concern, giving him a hug. "Forget it. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he said quickly. "Just my headache, that's all. It's making me touchy. What did you want to talk about?"

"Your generals." Pluto sat beside him on the bed. "They've been acting a little odd - but we'll talk about that later. What's bothering you? Don't bother to hide it; I can tell that something's wrong."

He stared at the wall. "We never really talked about Princess Serenity."

Dread coiled in Pluto's stomach, freezing her limbs; she forced air into suddenly tight lungs. "There was never a need." She looked at his face; the blue of his eyes was dark with pain, and his mouth was tight. "Was there?"

He swallowed; she could see the muscles in his neck working. He took a breath, and then another, and finally spoke. "I slept with her last night."

Shock and denial washed through Pluto in dizzying flashes, and her body chilled. She stayed perfectly still, clenching her teeth against words she might later regret, against cries she was too proud to release.

Silence echoed through the room for a moment, and he met her gaze. She wasn't quite sure exactly how she felt, but what he saw in her eyes made him flinch. "I'm sorry, Pluto. I love her. I knew it was wrong, but..."

She still couldn't bring herself to speak.

"...but I love her, Pluto, even though I was promised to you. Love and duty." His blue eyes held hers. "What kind of a choice is that?"

"Beryl was right," she whispered. "Oh, gods! Why, Endymion? Love and duty?" Rage shot through her, hot and quick, driving her to her feet. She spun and glared at him, mingled anger and shame heating her cheeks and raising her voice to a shout. "You already made your choice, don't you know that? You chose me!"

"Before I knew her..." he whispered. "I'm sorry, Pluto, I'm truly sorry." He looked up at her. "I had hoped... that when you heard, you'd understand..."

"No, Endymion!" she flared. "No, you are not leaving me! You were married to me. You are still married to me. You are mine!" Her heart raced in near-panic at losing him. Long years of closeness gave her the words to best trap him, to keep him forever. "You gave me your word, Endymion," she said intensely, and saw it cut him to the quick.

He bent his head. "I did," he whispered. "Gods help me, I did, didn't I. And you won't release me from it."

"Why should I?" Pluto asked, her voice steady. How dared he ask such a thing? "Endymion, you're mine. I love you!"

"And I love you," he managed. "Just not... as much. Gods, Pluto, do you think I haven't tried? All these years, I've been trying to stop - and still I love her! Pluto, please - set me free..."

Pluto's heart twisted at the thought, and she made the only possible answer. "No."

He covered his face with his hands, and she remained standing before him. There was nothing more to say. They could quite possibly have stayed unmoving throughout the entire night had it not been for Princess Serenity's sudden, wild screaming.

Endymion pelted frantically down the hall, Pluto running right behind him. Planet senshi in various states of undress burst out of the doors to either side, transforming even as they ran. By the time they reached the suite assigned to Queen Serenity and her daughter, all of them were battle-ready and prepared for anything.

Endymion flung the door open and they all piled inside... and then stood stock-still, staring at the bed in the center of the room.

Princess Serenity was standing at the head of the bed, her screams hysterical and unceasing. Her mother, Queen Serenity, lay sprawled unbreathing across the blankets. A knife handle protruded from between the Queen's breasts, and her blood had stained the white sheets with lurid crimson splashes.

Venus and Jupiter moved to flank Princess Serenity, calming her. Endymion went to the Queen's body, and reached out to touch the knife. As he did, he called on his own power - that of reading auras.

As his fingers touched the knife hilt, confused pictures flashed before his eyes, and voices babbled in his ears. One particular sequence was very, very strong, and it pulled him in.

Knife sinking into warm flesh ... Queen Serenity's blue eyes opening wide, so wide with pain ... Laughter as he twisted the blade... "Where's the Silver Crystal, Queen? Give me the Silver Crystal!"

Endymion broke free of the vision with a shock as someone shook him roughly. "Wake up," Mars said unnecessarily, letting go of his shoulder. "You were stuck in trance. What did you see?"

"Jadeite," Endymion whispered unbelievingly, closing his eyes against the shock and betrayal. His headache pounded in his temples, making it difficult for him to think clearly. "Gods. It was Jadeite who killed the Queen."

Pluto shot to her feet and ran for the generals' quarters, the other outer senshi at her heels. Mercury gently closed the Queen's staring eyes, and Mars removed the knife and briskly arranged the body in some semblance of a decent position, covering the angry bloodstains with a blanket. Endymion remained kneeling on the floor, unable to believe his own vision.

The sounds of a struggle in the hallway announced the return of the outer senshi. Endymion looked up in time to see Jadeite struggling in Uranus' grip. The blond senshi had the general's right arm twisted painfully up behind him and was holding the Space Sword against his throat. Neptune had an unconscious Nephrite slung over her shoulder.

"Where are the other two?" Venus asked.

"Pluto's caught them out of time," Neptune answered. "She wants you to be ready to subdue them when she brings them in - oh, like now."

Pluto appeared suddenly in the middle of the room, holding two stunned generals by their collars. Kunzite recovered quickly, bringing his hands up to blast them.

Venus kicked him in the head, her foot connecting solidly with his temple. He went down without a sound.

Zoicite stared, wide-eyed, then surrounded himself with a sphere of protective energy. Unfortunately for him, Pluto still held his collar, and was included inside his shield. Taking her cue from Venus, she felled him with a well-aimed chop to the neck.

"Good call," she complimented Venus as Zoicite slumped to the ground. "I'd almost forgotten that we could use purely physical attacks."

Venus nodded. "It tends to take our enemies off-guard when they expect us to use our powers." She turned to Jadeite, who glared at her. Beams of energy shot from his eyes, which Venus calmly blocked with her chain. "Why did you do it?" she demanded.

"We needed the Silver Crystal," he growled. "When she didn't give it to me, I killed her." He winced back as Uranus' sword bit lightly into his neck, drawing a thin trickle of blood. "I was under orders!"

"From whom?" Endymion demanded. He rose to his feet and stared into his friend's steel-blue eyes, pushing his headache aside. He kept his face still, letting no hint of his grief through, no hint that he wanted badly for Jadeite to be his old self again... "Whose orders are you following?"

"Orders from her Majesty, Queen Beryl," Jadeite answered without hesitation. This new betrayal sent a knife into Endymion's soul, and he found himself unable to speak.

"Queen?" Pluto echoed incredulously. "Queen of what, may I ask? And why were you obeying her orders to begin with?"

"I have sworn my loyalty to Queen Beryl of the Dark Kingdom."

"And these others have also, haven't they." Mars indicated the unconscious heap of generals with her chin.

"That's right," Jadeite affirmed. "But you can't stop us now! With Queen Serenity dead, it's too late - no one can defeat us now. We didn't get the Silver Crystal, but none of you did either!"

"What's Beryl doing?" Venus demanded. "What are you talking about? Do you mean to say that you're responsible for the sickness of the Earth? The black pillars, the mad people, Queen Terra's death - all of it is the doing of your Queen Beryl?"

"Yes," Jadeite whispered, his eyes alight with unholy joy. "It is Queen Beryl's great victory." He seemed to focus on them again. "She will destroy those who fight against her," he intoned, "and purify the world of your taint. The battle is coming soon... soon all will be hers! But she will spare all of your lives," he said, looking straight into his prince's eyes, "for this one thing - for Endymion to come stand by her side."

"You must be joking," Endymion growled. "You know how I feel about her, Jadeite! Wake up in there!" He slapped Jadeite across the face.

Jadeite snarled and aimed a kick at him. Endymion dodged, and suddenly Jadeite was a crumpled heap on the floor. Uranus had knocked him unconscious.

"The conversation wasn't going anywhere," Uranus explained. "There's no more to be learned from him. We need to eliminate Beryl before she destroys your world."

Neptune nodded. "We'd best get moving. Every minute we hesitate is one more minute that she can use to build those black pillars and further corrupt this world."

"But how can we defeat her without the power of the Silver Crystal?" Pluto asked. "Queen Serenity was the only one who knew how to use it."

"No," a soft voice interjected. All heads turned towards Princess Serenity, who'd stopped her quiet crying. She held out a cupped hand, upon which rested a cut gemstone; the gem was glowing with a steady white light. Bathed by the shimmering light, Endymion's headache melted away like spring snow, and he felt energy return to his body. "We do have my mother's Silver Crystal," Serenity said, a new steadiness in her voice. "And I know how to use it."

An ugly black pillar had sprang up in the middle of the palace courtyard; Endymion's heart twisted at seeing the evil so close to his own home. Serenity reached out and bathed it with the light of the Silver Crystal. "Please..." she murmured. "Heal, I beg you... by the light of the moon!"

The white light flashed blindingly, and then faded back to its soothing glow. The black pillar was replaced by a shard of translucent crystal, which shone like purest diamond in the faint starlight. It gave off its own glow, of health and joy and love.

Endymion's heart lifted as he beheld this evidence of Serenity's power; around him, the senshi made muffled exclamations of jubilation. "That's it!" Jupiter said. "I knew we had a chance."

"Not for long," Beryl's harsh velvet voice said. They all spun to face her; she was standing on one of the courtyard walls. Beryl regarded them all with trenchant contempt; then she threw her head back and raised one arm high in the air. "Metallia!" she cried. "Give me power!" Crackling black energy surrounded her, and she laughed as it sank into her body.

"Abomination!" Venus cried. "Venus Love and Beauty Shock!" Her chain whipped through the air, beating back the evil by only a fraction.

"Can't you see that it's taking you over?" Mercury added. "Evil power doesn't just fill you, Beryl, it eats you up! Please stop, before you lose your mind altogether!"

"Who cares?" Beryl shrugged, flicking a bit of black energy towards the water senshi. Mercury dropped and rolled, and the attack hit the wall behind her; the stones of the wall dissolved as if struck by corrosive acid. "With power like this, I can do anything!" She pointed to the ground, and a black pillar heaved itself out of the floor. The senshi leapt out of the way.

"Jupiter Oak Evolution!" Jupiter cried, launching herself at Beryl. The healthy scent of green leaves and growing things filled the air, and Beryl was knocked back by the attack - but she recovered, drawing even more black energy about herself, soaking it into her body, and collecting it about her hands.

"You think to defeat me?" she snarled. A whip of crackling blackness flung Jupiter aside, sending the senshi of storms into the nearest wall; Beryl giggled insanely at Jupiter's moan of pain as she crumpled to the ground. Serenity ran over to tend to her friend. She played the light of the Silver Crystal over Jupiter's wounds, and they began to close over and heal.

Uranus pointed her sword at Beryl, sending white lightnings flickering along the length of it. "World Shaking!"

Beryl staggered as the ground beneath her crumbled, and was momentarily distracted. Neptune lifted her mirror. "Deep Submerge!" Wind and sea tore at Beryl, but all the woman did was call up even more evil energy. Endymion shook his head in despair as Beryl's giggling spiraled upwards into a cackling frenzy.

Beryl was now laughing hysterically, her eyes completely insane. She gestured grandly, and a pulse of pure evil emanated from her hands. It was aimed directly at Serenity, who happened to be on her knees beside Jupiter's body.

Fire suddenly crackled in Mars' clenched fists. "Princess!" she shouted in warning, but the flames she sent raging at the enemy were not strong enough. The other senshi threw their attacks at Beryl, who fell back - but none of them could counter the deadly evil heading for their Princess.

Serenity moved too slowly, her blue eyes wide with terror. She would die, this young Princess, and with her would die all of Endymion's hopes, his dreams, his heart...

"No!" he cried, lunging forward desperately.

Pluto watched incredulously as Endymion threw himself between Serenity and Beryl. His tall, lean body intercepted the blast at the last minute, shielding the blonde princess from harm. He knocked her to the ground, crying out horribly as the black, cloudy evil ate through his body. In almost no time at all, there was nothing left of him.

"Endymion!" The despairing, anguished scream tore harshly from two throats. Pluto collapsed to her knees, shock and loss pounding through her mind. She was dimly aware that Serenity had gotten to her feet, but there was no room in her mind for anything but the fact that Endymion was dead.

And that he had died protecting another. The Moon Princess.

"No..." She gripped her time staff so tightly that it cut into her hands. "Please..." Tears tracked down her cheeks, and the rest of the world faded away as she huddled on the ground, lost in grief - and even then, the grief was flavored with anger. How dare he give his life to save Serenity? "Endymion..." She couldn't tell if it was a sob or a snarl.

Even in death he had not been hers.

Venus' clear voice cut through the silence, rousing Pluto from her mourning. "Princess - no! You must not!" Pluto looked up. Serenity had seized Endymion's sword, and was about to plunge it into her chest; Venus had grabbed the hilt, preventing the suicide.

"But he's dead," Serenity whispered. Venus put an arm around the Moon Princess, and Pluto was consumed with sudden bitterness. Why was Serenity being comforted? She hadn't been Endymion's wife.

"He is," Venus agreed, "and it is truly a great loss. But would you lose the rest of the Earth as well? Without you, Princess - without your powers - we can't defeat Beryl. The Earth will die, and the Moon with it!"

Serenity's face was streaked with tears, but she nodded grimly. "You're right, Venus," she whispered. Then she took a deep breath. Her voice rang out like silver bells across the evening, filled with renewed confidence and resolve. "My senshi, I need you!" The Silver Crystal sparkled brightly between her hands, casting a glow of healing and reassurance over the wreckage of the Earth. "We must work together now! Please, everyone - don't let Endymion's sacrifice have been in vain!"

"We can do it! Venus Power!" cried Venus, casting her strength towards the Princess.

"Mercury Power!" The blue-haired senshi of water sent a beam of pure liquid force to join that of Serenity and Venus.

Jupiter staggered to her feet. "Jupiter Power!" She had but to put her hand on Serenity's shoulder, and the mesh of energies around the Moon Princess was interlaced with faint green sparks.

"Mars Power!" shouted Mars, and the energies flamed redly as her powers were absorbed.

"Uranus Power! Neptune Power!" The boyish Uranus and her very feminine partner thrust their talismans out together, the sword and the mirror crackling with force.

"Saturn Power!" The senshi of destruction brought the Silence Glaive around, adding her own notable powers to the mix. Serenity now had in her hands a ball of fiery energy that was on the threshold of completion. They all turned towards Pluto, who was still crouched on the ground, clutching the Garnet Rod.

"Now, Pluto!" urged Jupiter. "We need you!"

Pluto felt the demands of her fellow senshi buffeting at her, pulling at her to give up her strength to the Moon Princess. The energies drew her powers, tugging her to say the words, to give up her power... She gathered a protective cloak of Time around her, shielding herself, and managed to turn away. "He died for you," she accused Serenity, her voice hoarse from crying. "You stole him from me, even as he died. How could you do this? He was mine. Mine!"

"Endymion and I were meant to be," Serenity replied sadly. "I'm truly sorry that it had to be this way, Pluto. He would have loved you, had he the choice."

Pluto bowed her head, bitter mourning overcoming her once more.

"Please!" Serenity's voice was urgent, piercing through her grief. "Beryl will recover, and this time we may not be able to turn her back. She has let the evil take her over completely, and she has more power than any of us! We need you now, Pluto. If we don't defeat her right away, we are lost!"

"Defeat her on your own," Pluto snarled, and locked Time securely around herself. "I won't help you."

"Pluto!" Shock and betrayal rang through Uranus' voice. "What are you doing?"

"How dare you?" Mars added, her purple eyes flashing. "This is your duty!"

"She stole my love," Pluto snapped. "Even in death, she claimed Endymion, and she had no right. She even slept with him! She stole everything from me. I owe her nothing, and she will not ever touch my power!"

"We respect your feelings, Pluto. But you must see that Serenity's not the issue here," Mercury said softly. "If you hold back your powers, you're hurting all of us. Help Serenity or not, as you please, but don't sentence the rest of us to death. We don't deserve that."

Pluto bowed her head. Mercury was right. Of course. She held out the Garnet Orb, calling up her strength, the complete, total power over Time. She drew a deep, bracing breath. "Pluto Pow-"

Beryl attacked.

A stream of dark, smoking power left her hands, and streaked directly towards the Moon Princess.

The mesh of energies around Serenity had been wavering on the edge of completion, and the sudden influx of dark power overloaded them into explosive deadliness. The Moon Princess shrieked, once, before she died.

The senshi, their own powers tied up with the princess, were thrown back by the backlash. Mercury fainted, and Jupiter barely managed to catch her; Venus and Mars simply collapsed where they stood, like puppets whose strings were cut. Neptune staggered backwards into Uranus' arms, and Saturn sank to her knees.

Pluto alone was unaffected. She watched, stunned, as Beryl laughed triumphantly, calling dark powers onto them all. Blackness surged over everything, slowly obliterating the living glory of the Earth.

"My fault..." Pluto whispered, watching the Earth wither, blacken, and die. "My fault..."

Blackness flickered against the prone forms of Venus and Mars, and they dissolved away as Pluto watched, paralyzed with shock. Saturn raised her glaive in futile resistance as the smoke flowed over her body. Uranus' sword glowed feebly against the rising tide of darkness, but could do nothing; Neptune groped weakly for her partner's hand and held it as the black, smoky energies enveloped them. The evil cloud took Mercury, then Jupiter, and licked at Pluto's boots. She stared down at it, horrified.

At that point, self-preservation took over. Pluto's mind finally reacted, and she began to run away - more out of reflex than conscious thought. She sensed the surface of the dying timestream, and cast herself outward... and felt unexpected, sudden resistance. She could not get through.

She could feel the strength of the time current fighting her; events were moving very quickly and they were dragging her along. She fought frantically against the current, pain and anguish forgotten for now; all she wanted was to ... survive ... she drew on long-unused skills, reserves of energy that she did not know she had, and threw herself against the barrier of the surface.

She broke ... breaks ... free of the rapidly moving events of the dying timeline, and feels the cloak of her immortality settling itself around her once more. Here there is no past, no future, no aging; all things are one endless moment, and here, in Time's home, Time itself has no power.

And the senshi of Time, the powerful Sailorpluto, curls into a fetal ball in the middle of emptiness... and weeps.

When she has recovered -- although she knows that she will never completely recover -- she turns to look at the timestream that she had left behind: the timestream in which she'd thought she could live forever. Shining broad and silver at first, it slowly darkens, and then abruptly twists itself into nothing, vanishing into oblivion, its former brilliance completely gone. She snarls silently at it. How dare it fail her so? This was supposed to have been her paradise - why did everything go wrong?

She shakes her head. Maybe Father was right when he told me not to meddle... The sheer thought that this dying timestream could be her fault brings tears to her eyes once more. "No!" she cries aloud in denial - but she cannot escape this possibility. What if she had not meddled? What if Endymion and Serenity had fallen in love naturally, and had fought Beryl together? Would they still be alive?

Horrifying thought: Had Pluto killed Endymion?

"It can't be my fault," she whispers. "I won't let it be my fault. Oh please, please don't let it be my fault..."

Turning away, she begins to flee into the "future." She runs blindly across the various timestreams, some still gleaming silver with potential, with light and love. Not caring where she goes, but knowing that she needs the passage of time to heal, she dives headlong into the nearest glowing timestream.

She breaks -- broke -- into relative peace. She found herself in the middle of a forest. Quiet. Deserted. Perfect. Vaguely realizing that her scorched senshi fuku was not appropriate for the surroundings, she summoned up her princess gown. Once she was decently dressed, she sank down on a stump, leaned against a mossy log, and began to cry.

Soon she sobbed herself into exhaustion and fell asleep, her head pillowed on her arms.

After an interminable time, the sound of quiet voices roused her. Not knowing how to react, she did not move. She kept her eyes closed, her breathing steady, and listened.

"Do you think she's all right?" It was a female voice, sounding concerned.

"What I think is that she's messed up in the head," a lower voice replied tartly. "Come on, Michiru. Who in their right minds would wear a formal gown into the deep woods, sit on a stump, have a crying jag, and fall asleep?"

"Be a little easy on her, Haruka," the first voice answered. "There's obviously something wrong here." A hand settled gently on Pluto's shoulder. "Miss? Wake up a little, hmm? Is there something we can help you with?"

Pluto opened her eyes cautiously. She gasped as her eyes met a familiar aquamarine gaze, soft with worry, set in a beautiful face and framed by a cloud of blue-green hair. "You -!"

"Do we know each other?" asked the woman who looked like Neptune's senshi. "What's your name? Are you all right?"

Pluto recovered her wits. "Who are you?" she asked. "What do you want?" She thought rapidly. She knew full well that she'd never been to this timestream before - so this must be Sailorneptune's current incarnation...

"My name is Kaioh Michiru, and that's Tenoh Haruka over there," she smiled. Once graceful hand indicated a tall, lanky figure who looked eerily like the Sailoruranus of the other timeline. For a dizzying moment, Pluto wondered what the odds of meeting this pair were...

"We stumbled across you in the woods here," Michiru continued, "and we were worried... are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine," Pluto said, and shrugged Michiru's hand off her shoulder. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Well, if you don't want to talk, at least eat something with us," Michiru coaxed.

Haruka rolled her eyes. "Yeah, why not. Michiru wants to mother everything she comes across. Seriously though, you'd better eat something. You look a little lost. Come on, I promise we don't bite."

Pluto smiled shyly, consoled by the unexpected kindness. "I'd love to," she replied. Haruka held out a hand to pull her up, and Pluto clasped it. She felt a slight tingle when their palms touched, and glanced sharply at the other woman - but Haruka merely looked puzzled for a moment, and seemed to dismiss the feeling. Pluto sighed with relief; these young women were not yet awakened to their full potential as Sailor senshi.

"So," Haruka said as they began walking, "what did you say your name was?"

Pluto groped after an innocuous name. "Uh - Setsuna. Meioh Setsuna. Pleased to meet you."

The serene quiet of the forest was balm for Pluto's shattered nerves, and she propped herself against a tree trunk as Haruka and Michiru prepared soup. The sound of their teasing voices mingled with the chattering of nearby animals and the rustling of leaves. The trees surrounding her were tall and green, and the sky above was comfortably blue, with little puffy white clouds. Pluto leaned back and let the peace soak into her tired body. Meanwhile, Haruka and Michiru tried to keep her amused.

"Watch out for Michiru's cooking," Haruka warned as she did her best to start a fire. "She's killed people with that stuff before - given them indigestion at the very least. Sure, you think it smells good, but she doesn't know a thing about those plants she's slicing into the pot. She could be feeding us hemlock for all we know." The blond young woman grinned mischievously at her friend.

"I know what I'm doing," Michiru protested as Pluto grinned. "These mixtures aren't lethal. They're supposed to be nourishing. Look, if anything, it'll be germs because the fire wasn't hot enough, and Haruka, you're responsible for that. I want this water boiling, do you hear me?"

Haruka fanned comically at the spark that she had so painstakingly started. "There won't even be a fire if you keep distracting me. Watch your step, Michiru." But as the spark blazed and Haruka rose to get fuel, she drew her long fingers across the other girl's neck in a tender caress.

Pluto blinked, then winced and looked away.

"Yes, we are lovers, and we do love one another," Michiru murmured quietly, as Haruka left the clearing. "Does that disturb you? That we're both female?"

Pluto shook her head. "It's not that... I'm envious, that's all. I was in love, once."

"Ah." Michiru shook spices into boiling water.

"That explains the crying, then," Haruka said from behind her. She dumped a pile of dry sticks onto the fire. "Don't suppose you want to talk about it?"

"There's nothing to say anymore," Pluto said dully.

"Well, look who's the optimist," Haruka snorted. She narrowed storm-colored eyes at her. "Pain never heals unless you face it, girlie, crying jag or no."

"Go easy on her, Haruka," Michiru said softly.

"I know, Michiru," Haruka replied. "But love is a wonderful thing. She shouldn't close herself off from it just because she's having a bad day."

"Maybe we're not all as lucky as you are," Pluto said, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice. "Maybe we don't all love someone who returns that love. Maybe for some people, love only brings pain."

Haruka cocked an eyebrow at her, but she kept mercifully silent.

"What would you do, Haruka-san," Pluto demanded, "if you loved someone - loved someone so much that you'd do anything for him. And you got married, thinking that you'd spend the rest of your life with him." Her voice rose. "And then some other woman comes along and even years later, he can't think of anything but her, can't be with anyone but her, and he runs off and sleeps with her? What then? What would you do? He said he loved me -" and her voice broke off as sobs clawed up out of her body again, making her hiccup. "He was supposed to be mine!"

Michiru held her while she wept, stroking her hair.

"Yours?" Haruka echoed in disbelieving tones. "Supposed to be yours?"

"I loved him, didn't I?" Pluto replied brokenly.

"Loving someone is not owning someone," Haruka retorted. "I love Michiru, but she isn't a possession. I don't keep her from doing what she wants to do!"

"What if she wanted to leave you?" Pluto asked. "What if she said that she loved someone else?"

"Oh, I'd be devastated," Haruka replied candidly. "I'd probably say absolutely horrible things to her, and regret them later - but I wouldn't try to keep her with me. That's a downhill road all the way, I'll tell you that. That's no basis for a healthy relationship, one person feeling trapped into it, and the other one unhappy because of that. I'd probably end up chasing her out, and hoping secretly that she'd come back... but what did you do, girlie? What did you say to your man? Did he leave you, or did he stay?"

"He ..." Pluto thought. "I asked him to stay, and so he stayed," she answered finally. "Because he'd promised to stay with me. We were married, after all."

"But," Michiru pointed out gently, "neither of you were happy."

Pluto swallowed. "No," she whispered. "I guess not. But what was I supposed to do? I loved him!"

Haruka shook her head. "No, you didn't."

Pluto leapt up and drew back a fist; Haruka caught her wrist midair and held it there, seemingly without effort. "You didn't let him follow his heart," she pointed out. "What kind of love is that? Pretty damn selfish sort of love, if you ask me."

Pluto struggled and stammered in incoherent rage.

"Haruka-chan," Michiru murmured. "Enough. Let her calm down. She's not really listening to you."

"Let me go!" Pluto cried. She shook herself free of Haruka's grip. "How dare you? I loved him with all my heart!"

"Sure," Haruka snorted. "Just because you love someone, girlie, it doesn't mean that they're obligated by law to love you back."

"He had no right -" Pluto began.

"He had every right," Haruka shot back. "You're the one who had no right, to dictate what he should think and feel. Other people's feelings are their own."

"Did you want him to be happy?" Michiru interjected quietly. "That's what love really is, you know. I'd give anything to see Haruka happy - even my own happiness. Even my own life."

That one soft-spoken statement somehow brought Haruka's arguments hammering home. The truth of it pierced straight to Pluto’s heart and crumpled her onto the ground.

"Oh," she whispered. Loss surged up in her again, accompanied by a horrible, leaden guilt. "Oh..." She fell to her knees, and then curled up into a fetal ball, their words echoing back and forth in her head. Neither of you were happy ... Pretty damn selfish sort of love, if you ask me ... Did you want him to be happy? That's what love really is ...

She sobbed as her heart broke all over again, and the world spun dizzily and darkened.

"Oh, dammit," she heard Haruka say from a distance. Then Pluto dimly realized she was being held and comforted, and kind hands patted her back reassuringly. Her head was supported on a firm shoulder, and Michiru was pushing a handkerchief into her hands.

"This is not what I wanted to do with my vacation," Pluto heard Haruka complain.

"Nor I," Michiru admitted. Pluto could hear the smile in her voice. "But we've got a couple of days left. Right now, comforting poor Setsuna-chan here is the least we can do."

Pluto sniffled, and sighed. "I'm sorry to be such a bother," she whispered.

"Don't worry about it," Michiru reassured her.

Pluto rubbed at her eyes. "Oh, gods. What have I done? I’ve made such a mess of things... hurt so many people..."

"The question is, what should you do now?" Haruka countered. "We obviously can't go back in time and change things, but the least you could do is go set things straight with the people involved. You owe them that much, at least."

Pluto caught her breath and stared at the blond woman. "Haruka-san, you're a genius," she said, a smile dawning on her face.

"Huh?" Haruka responded.

"You're a genius!" Pluto cried, jumping up. "Thank you, thank you both so much -" she whirled, hugging first Michiru, then Haruka. "Thank you, gods bless you both!" While they stared, she turned and ran off into the woods, calling on her powers as she did.

"Wait -" Haruka managed, then stared unbelievingly as their guest's body seemed to ripple - and then vanished without a trace.

"Did she just -" began Michiru, her green eyes wide.

"We didn't see that," Haruka said definitely. "We don't have to deal with it. We're on vacation, and I'm not investigating any weird girls who cry their heads off and then disappear. We will not let anything like this ruin our vacation." She crossed her arms over her chest, and her expression boded ill for any other strange happenings in the area.

Michiru had to smile. "Then do you want some soup?"

On to Part 4

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