dedication: to the nugget.
notes: i had a sudden influx of feelings about the space brat brigade gotdamn
notes2: /me, cheerfully bastardizing already bastardized words/ I'M GREAT AT WRITING
summary: My life before hers, or: Ceres has pink hair. — Ceres, Venus.
Ceres folds her arms over her chest in the cool air of the ballroom, and doesn't speak to anyone at all.
It's a grand occasion. Lady Usagi's birthday—she is nine-hundred-fifty-three, today, and the entire Crystal Court has converged on the Crystal Palace to celebrate. The party is held in the ballroom, a glittering cavernous space where the music echoes off the walls and the tinkle of laughter is swallowed up by the ceiling. The chandeliers throw down an unwavering light, dipping the room in a soft gold veneer. The ladies wear their best dresses, and the gentlemen all wear capes.
It's a beautiful party.
A shiver goes up Ceres' spine. Gods above, this place is so exposed.
"You look bored," comes a laughing voice, golden and bubbly as expensive champagne. "Mind some company?"
"Oh, I—of course not, Lady Venus," Ceres says, moves a little so that Queen Serenity's general won't be so squished. Corners aren't really meant for more than one person, but Ceres makes do. It's a little stilted, but of course it is; some of Ceres' first memories are of this woman trying to kill her, but they were both different people then. Chaos is very good at twisting a person until there's nothing left; Ceres knows this better than anyone.
"You're on guard," Lady Venus observes. She glances Ceres over, blue eyes sharp in her face. She's beautiful, is Lady Venus. She's so beautiful that sometimes it hurts to look at her.
Ceres colours all the way to the tips of her ears. "Is it that obvious?"
Lady Venus laughs, but softly. Even still, Ceres can see the way some of the Crystal Court turn to watch the fall of her hair. It must be something, to be so wanted that even when you're trying to hide, people find you. Ceres can't even imagine. If she were like that—
No. If she were like that, she'd never have the time to look after Lady Usagi.
"It was the same for me," Lady Venus says. She tilts her head towards the royal family, standing in the center of the room. They're all aglow, all three of them, lovely and ageless and perfect bathed in the sparkle of the Ginzuishou in Queen Serenity's staff. "I used to watch Her Majesty like that, before she was Her Majesty."
Ceres stares at her, speechless.
Lady Venus kind of shrugs, grinning sheepishly out of the corner of her mouth. "You have no idea. She used to get in all kinds of trouble, sometimes I could barely get her out of it." Sometimes I couldn't get her out of it all remains unsaid.
For a moment, Sailor Galaxia hangs in the space between them. It's been a thousand years, but some wounds never really heal.
Ceres ducks her head. Cotton-candy curls fall across her eyes, and she sees: Queen Nehelenia, a mirror grown from roots, the rancid wet heat of a jungle. Wide red eyes, and fear. Betrayal.
It's a word she knows so well.
"I did it, too, y'know," Lady Venus says, easy, like there isn't a storm brewing ugly in the center of Ceres' chest. She's still watching the royal family, a funny little smile tucked into the corners of her lips. If Ceres didn't know better, she'd call it heartbroken, but this is the Senshi of Love. Lady Venus knows heartbreak better than anyone, and how to mend it.
"Did what?" Ceres asks.
"Wondered if being her would keep her from dying," Lady Venus says. She sips from the delicate flute of moon-peach liquor hanging between her fingertips, golden and bubbly as anyone has ever been. She inclines it at Ceres in a kind of toast. "You've thought about it, haven't you? If you could just—put her somewhere safe, take the knife, or the bullet, or whatever. Keep her alive, even if it means you aren't anymore."
There have been a lot of nights that Ceres has lain awake, thinking about what it means to die. Death is a foreign thing; to simply not be is not something that she has any experience with. Death is not sleep, because sleep is restful. Death is just… an end.
Just an end, and nothing else.
"My life before hers," Lady Venus muses, a cruel little twist to her lips.
"Yes," Ceres says, stricken, but that's exactly it. My life before hers.
"Ceres," Lady Venus says, so gentle. She reaches out to lift Ceres' chin, and her expression is so painfully kind. "Dying is the worst thing I ever did. Serenity never forgave me for it, still hasn't. I haven't forgiven me for it." Her shoulders slump, hair spilling down her back, a river of molten gold. For a moment she's too beautiful to look at; even her sadness is a marvel. She's like the sun. "There are a lot of things I haven't forgiven myself for."
Ceres looks past Lady Venus to where Lady Usagi hovers at her mother's elbow. She was an angry child and a nervous teenager, bright and blinding and brilliant, but the hard sharp edges of her have smoothed over with time. She smiles so freely, these days, always coming up roses.
When she moves, it looks like dancing. Ceres loves her so much she thinks she might die of it.
"Moon princesses," Lady Venus sighs, shakes her great golden head. "They're easy to love, but hard to let go of."
"She could have died," Ceres says, voice hoarse and hurting around the words. There is a still dark pool inside of her, black as ink all the way down. Grief is a fathomless thing, and always so hungry. "If I had been there—"
"Probably you would have died, too," Lady Venus tilts her head back and forth like she's thinking about it, curls the tips of her hair around her fingers to wear like a cloak. "Lady Usagi is too much like her mother. The name fits, at least. Lucky little rabbit."
It stings, but it's true.
"I don't want to die," Ceres says.
"Nobody does," Lady Venus says. She stares out unseeingly at the ballroom, and for a moment, Ceres wonders what she sees. Lady Venus has lived many, many years. Over the centuries, her power's sunk into her all over; even the blue of her eyes is a glamour, a leftover thing from when humanity was still young and hot and mortal. On the battlefield, she is a golden arc of death. Love always did have that capability.
It feels like a long, long time later that Lady Venus returns her attention to Ceres. Her gaze is ancient. Her gaze is tired. "Do you know why you and I lead the Senshi, Ceres?"
It's something that Ceres has wondered her entire life. Now it sits in her stomach like lead, leaking poison into the bloodstream. "No," she says.
"Come with me," Lady Venus says. "I want to show you something."
She turns on her heel, slow and graceful as a line of music, and sweeps from the ballroom. The ribbons on her dress catch the light; Ceres follows them sort of helplessly. She can feel the eyes of the Crystal Court heavy on her shoulders, watching, wondering. Even Lady Usagi. From across the ballroom, Ceres can hear the sharp intake of breath, can feel the momentum as she starts to move to intervene, or to stop it, or something, anything. Ceres can sense it when Queen Serenity puts a hand on her daughter's shoulder.
But there is no denying Lady Venus.
Ceres flees after her, flat shoes soundless on the floor. She is a flash of pale yellow and pale pink, an impression of spring.
The last thing she sees when she looks back before the palace gardens swallow her whole is Lady Usagi's raised hand.
Gods. I'm sorry, my lady, Ceres thinks.
Lady Venus leads a merry chase all the way through the gardens, deep into the bowels of place where almost no one goes. This is a forgotten land, speckled through with white fountains bubbling with clear water, crawling with vines. Lady Jupiter built these gardens from the ground up, gouged out the space for herself, and here strange things flourish. Deadly plants, trees so ancient that their names are forgotten, flowers that eat flesh. It is dangerous, this deep in the gardens.
Ceres follows a path of golden glowing footprints that fade as she passes them, and does not hesitate.
She is not being lead wrong.
"The Silver Imperium ended in fire and blood," Lady Venus says, very quietly, when Ceres finally finds her. She's staring up at a statue made of marble carved so precisely it looks like it was moulded. In the moonlight with the colour leeched out of her, statue and Senshi could be sisters. "They teach that in schools, now, I think. Serenity told me they do, anyway."
Ceres nods, strange and wary. The little she knows of the Silver Imperium is more myth than truth, painted in sunsets and marble, Terra glittering in blue-green in the distance. Sometimes Lady Usagi talks about who her mother used to be, a tiny blonde moon princess who fell in love with a human prince. It always seemed like something out of a dream, or maybe a nightmare.
But not the truth, anyway.
The truth is rarely so clean.
"This is Queen Selene," Lady Venus says, pulls in a breath that expands her chest. It's the kind of breath someone takes before they're about to impart bad news; a fortifying breath, a finding-courage breath. "She was Queen Serenity's mother, my aunt, and the most ruthless ruler this solar system had ever seen."
Ceres blinks. That's not the story she knows.
Lady Venus must see it on her face, because her lips curl up. "You got the sugar-coated kids version, didn't you?"
"Lady Usagi's version," Ceres corrects.
Lady Venus laughs. "Same difference, I wouldn't let Serenity tell Small Lady what she wanted to know. Queen Selene was kind, and gentle, and good. That was all true, she was all of those things! But she was also ruthless—" and she pauses like she thinking about it, long and dark, "—and weak, too."
"I don't understand."
"She could have saved the Silver Imperium," Lady Venus says, so simple.
"Why didn't she?" Ceres asks.
Lady Venus is still staring up at the blank, beautiful marble face. "Because she couldn't bear to live in a universe without Serenity. And I don't blame her for it. I couldn't live in a world without Serenity, either. She could have saved the Imperium, but she didn't—instead, she sent us forwards, to try to build a better life somewhere else."
Somewhere else could mean a lot of things.
For the Silver Queen, it meant Terra.
"I loved Serenity more than I have ever loved anyone," Lady Venus exhales the words. "I was devoted. That hasn't changed, but it's different now—I wasn't born to protect Serenity. I protect her because I love her, not the other way around. In the Silver Imperium…"
"In the Silver Imperium, keeping Serenity safe was my only duty. It was the only thing I cared about. She was my duty first, my cousin second, and my friend third. I would have done anything for her—and Selene knew it. She knew that I would always find Serenity and I would always keep her safe, no matter what face she wore," Lady Venus shakes her head. "Serenity is blonde. I'm blonde, too."
"What does that have to do with anything?" Ceres asks, but even as she says it, she knows that it's a stupid question.
"Have you looked at yourself in a mirror, recently?" Lady Venus grins at her. "You and Lady Usagi could be twins."
Cotton-candy curls. Ceres touches her hair, bound up tightly away from her face, and doesn't have to work very hard at all to imagine what it would take to become Lady Usagi. It wouldn't take much; they've traded clothes before, shoes, hair clips.
And Ceres knows, with sudden, crystal-clear clarity, that if Lady Usagi was to be a sacrifice, Ceres would go in her place.
The knife, the bullet, whatever.
"There's an old name for it, in a dead language," Lady Venus says. Her mouth quirks a little bit, even as she wraps her arms around herself. "Doppelgänger. It meant 'double-goer'. Bad luck."
"Did Lady Mercury teach you that?" Ceres guesses.
Lady Venus throws back her head and laughs and laughs and laughs, really laughs. The night air around them seems to colour with it, perk up and pay attention, and it warms to something sweet and shining, all tinted gold.
Gods, there's nothing in the whole universe that doesn't turn towards Lady Venus when she laughs.
"Are we that transparent?" Lady Venus asks. "Mercury has too many books, I don't know what I'm going to do with her. She's determined to bring them all to the Summer Palace, but—oh, that doesn't matter, does it."
Ceres doesn't say no. The Summer Palace is a safe place, far and away from Crystal Tokyo's busy hum. She's been there before; it is a place for the royal family and their guardians, and very few others.
The two women fall into a comfortable silence. The garden blooms with nighttime flora around them: evening primrose, cereus, moonflowers. They perfume every breath.
Ceres opens her mouth to say something, but Lady Venus gets there first. "Listen, you and I? We're their body doubles."
"We could be them, if we had to. We could die in their place," Lady Venus says, very quiet. She's staring at the statue again, but something's sunk in her face. It looks like the end of the world, such a shattered thing. "That's why we lead. We will always do what needs to be done."
Lady Mars is too wild, Lady Venus doesn't say. Lady Mercury is too cautious. Lady Jupiter simply loves far too hard. Lady Uranus is too devoted, Lady Neptune too motherly. Even Lady Pluto is too emotionally involved—they all care for Her Majesty too much to see her unhappy, even if it puts her in danger. Only Lady Saturn is to be trusted to know what needs to be done.
And Ceres understands.
Vesta is too young, too rash, too likely to sacrifice herself. Juno is too quick to throw herself into the middle of a fight, even when anyone with eyes can see it's a losing battle; too much faith. Pallas is too likely to always think she's right. All three of them would go out burning in a second to keep Lady Usagi alive, but they would never prioritize keeping her alive over keeping her happy. Fight 'til they bleed, but no contingency plan.
Queen Selene was ruthless, but she ensured that there would be a future.
"My life before hers," Ceres says.
"My life before hers," Lady Venus confirms.
It sounds like a promise.
It sounds like a curse.