DISCLAIMER: Sailor Moon and its characters are not owned by me, blah blah blah, and other legal junk. Sparrow Migoto is owned by my friend Christina, and used with her permission.
Author's Note: This fanfic is a direct sequel to Looking Up To You, a Sammy/Ami romance fanfic that I wrote about a year ago. It's still on my profile, so I recommend that if you haven't read Looking Up To You, it would be best to stop, don't pass GO, don't collect $200, and go immediately to my profile to check it out. Otherwise, you'll be kinda confused.
Second Author's Note: This fanfic takes place after Sailor Moon Sailor Stars. (Serena, Ami, Rei, and Mina are 17. Lita is 18. Sammy is 14. Darien is older than all of them.) Also, if you're confused about some of the Senshi's attacks, that's because they got a whole set of new ones in Looking Up To You. So like I said, go check it out.
"Moon... Blessed... Salvation!"
The powerful magical wave flew at Cestari, catching him off-guard and hitting him squarely in the chest. A bright, pink explosion engulfed Cestari, and the blast knocked him to the ground, flat on his back.
"Surrender now, and we'll go easy on you!" Sailor Moon shouted, pointing the Sword of the Moon at Cestari's chest.
"Oh, if you think one pathetic attack is going to put me out of commission, you truly are a fool..."
Cestari pointed his arm at Sailor Moon and blasted her in the hands with a black spark of electrical energy. She stumbled back, her trembling and stinging hands still clutching her sword as Cestari rose to his feet.
"Sammy, we'll take care of this," Sailor Moon whispered, turning her head back toward her brother, whose energy aura was pulsating and whose fists were clenched as the boy was clearly preparing for a fight. As a disappointed look began to appear on his face, Sailor Moon gave him a new task. "See what you can do about freeing Ami, okay? You've got a lot of power right now, it should be a piece of cake, okay, Sammy?"
Sammy nodded as the four Senshi and Tuxedo Mask rushed forward to confront Cestari, cutting him off from the area around Sailor Mercury's transparent prison.
"Sammy, what are you planning to do?" Sailor Mercury asked, looking down at Sammy with a calm, hopeful expression on her face. "I know that you can save me, Sammy..."
"Alright, Ami...." Sammy said, smiling up at her. "I know I can too... I'm just trying to figure out how to break this thing without hurting you."
Meanwhile, just a few yards away toward the back of the room, the Senshi's battle with Cestari was just beginning.
"Whatever sort of evil revenge you have planned, you can kiss it goodbye, buddy!" Sailor Mars shouted angrily. "You've done horrible things in the past, and you're just as bad now! Mars Flaming Cannon!"
A burning cannon of fire appeared in Mars' hands, and fired a volley of fiery artillery directly at Cestari. Cestari pointed his arm at the flames, seemingly unfazed by their intensity.
"Gravity Compression," Cestari said calmly. Suddenly, the air around Cestari's hand seemed to ripple around him, like waves in water. As the flames slammed into the ripples, they slowed to a crawl, and then bent around the sides of the oscillating waves of air, causing them to blast harmlessly behind Cestari. Sailor Mars gasped in shock.
"No fair..." Mars said, a hint of fear in her voice.
"He manipulated gravity itself to stop your attack," Sailor Venus said. "That's incredible..."
Once all of the flames had burnt out, Cestari threw out his hand, and suddenly, the tiny waves turned into a crushing gravity blast that crushed the floor beneath the Senshi's feet and toppled all of them to the ground. Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask were the only two left standing, and Tuxedo Mask was standing only with Sailor Moon's help, as she used her incredible magical strength to hold him up and allow him to keep his balance. Even Sammy, standing some distance away, was knocked to his knees by the gravitational shockwave.
"Sammy!" Sailor Mercury screamed, her hands flying to the sides of her plastic prison. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, Ami..." Sammy said, standing up along with the fallen Senshi. "And I'm... I'm getting you out of there, Ami!"
"You'll never get her out, you pathetic boy," Cestari said, smirking at Sammy. "You're too weak to save Ami...."
"You leave Sammy alone!" Sailor Venus shouted. "You're fighting us now!"
"That's right!" said Sailor Jupiter. "Jupiter.... Axe... Of Lightning!"
"Venus Arrow Of Beauty!"
The two powerful attacks combined into one, Venus' arrow flying at Cestari's chest with a powerful electric field sparking around it.
"They've got him!"Sailor Moon thought as she watched the attack rush toward Cestari. But again, Cestari smiled. He had other plans for the seemingly unstoppable attack.
"Interrupt me, will you?" Cestari shouted, flying toward the flashing and sparking arrow. "That was a big mistake!"
Cestari thrust his hands forward, and suddenly, the arrow changed course. It flew up into the air, and then spun around, flying directly at the Sailor Senshi. They gasped as the arrow rushed toward them, and even Sailor Mercury, watching from above, could sense the danger that the Senshi were in.
"No!" Sailor Mercury gasped, and Sammy turned around to see what was going on. But it was too late. When the arrow drew close to the Senshi, it exploded in a brilliant flash of light and energy, knocking all of the Senshi to their knees once more. Cestari stood facing them, surveying the damage with a smile on his lips.
"None of your attacks are effective against me," Cestari said, chuckling as the four downed Senshi and Tuxedo Mask stood up, moaning painfully as they felt the full effects of the attack's sting.
"I've got to help Serena!"Sammy thought. "But Ami's still trapped up there... she's safe, for now... I have to get her out of that thing so she can help her friends fight!"
Sammy pointed his arm up at Sailor Mercury's prison and charged a small amount of dark energy. Sailor Mercury grimaced as she realized what Sammy was going to try to do.
"Be careful, Sammy," Sailor Mercury said, backing up against one of the prison's plastic walls.
"Don't worry, Ami...." Sammy said, an intense look of concentration on his face. "I will be, I promise."
Sammy fired off the blast, a small sphere of magical energy that quickly flew up to the ceiling, toward Sailor Mercury's prison. But when it hit the powerful plastic barrier, it was immediately dissipated on contact, and a powerful blast of energy ripped through the interior of the capsule, hitting the defenseless Senshi like a freight train. She cried out as pain tore through her body, and then fell to her knees, smoke coming off of her costume.
"AMI!" Sammy shouted, pain gripping his chest as he sensed his lover's own pain. "Oh my God, I hurt her..."
Fists clenched in rage, Sammy turned to face Cestari, just as the Senshi and Tuxedo turned the other way to see if their comrade was alright. Sammy pointed his finger past the Senshi, in Cestari's direction.
"You... you made me hurt Ami," Sammy said quietly, his voice lined with hatred. "How dare you!"
"I didn't make you do anything," Cestari said, still retaining his smirk. "You hurt Ami... you're dangerous to her, Sammy. She hates you."
"That's not true!" Sailor Mercury shouted, rising to her feet despite the immense pain still coursing through her body. "I love Sammy, with all of my heart... and he loves me! He'll save-"
"SHUT UP!" Cestari shouted, blasting Sailor Mercury's prison with another energy blast and sending even more pain through her body, collapsing the Senshi to her knees once more. Sailor Mercury's blood-curdling scream sent an overwhelming amount of pain and rage through Sammy's body, as well as his soul. He ran at Cestari, powerful dark energy waves surrounding his body. His fist flew at Cestari's face, and as Cestari met the punch with his own wrist, a loud boom could instantly be heard, and a large shockwave flew outward from the two warriors. The Senshi simply looked on in awe.
"Sammy..."thought Sailor Moon as she watched Sammy's devastating attack, unable to find any words that could describe how she felt for her brother. Sailor Mercury, recovering from the second of Cestari's deadly blasts, was at even more of a loss for words or thoughts, the only emotions she was able to feel at that moment being love for Sammy and fear that he would die at Cestari's hand.
"You... are so strong," Cestari said, his teeth clenched. "Admirable attack... but not strong enough!"
Extending his hands, Cestari blasted Sammy with the same attack he'd hit Sailor Mercury with just seconds earlier, and the impact was similar. Pain ripped through Sammy's body, and the headstrong boy was instantly flung to his knees, giving Cestari just the opportunity he needed to strike. He dove upon Sammy and pinned the boy to the ground, his knees on the boy's stomach and his hands gripping the boy's neck. Sammy's dark energy aura rapidly began to fade, his anger and frustration apparently spent on just one punch. The Senshi and Tuxedo Mask were still dazed after Cestari's last round of attacks, and could only look on in horror as Cestari slowly choked the life from Sammy's body.
"If you.... kill me..." Sammy said through gritted teeth, "you won't... get the... Dark Crystal...:"
"Who said anything about killing you?" Cestari asked. "I'm just going to make you suffer before I kill your friends... and your precious Ami."
Sammy struggled furiously, despite the fact that he could hardly even breathe. He tried to channel his anger, but while the Dark Crystal's energy was strong, Cestari had gotten the jump on Sammy, and he was unable to move... he could only look into Cestari's furious, glaring eyes. Sailor Mercury looked down at the two, and tears started to slowly work their way down her face. She was crying for Sammy, like she had done so many times in the past. This time seemed no different from all the others... Sammy was in trouble, hurt trying to rescue her from some terrible fate at the hands of a sadistic villain. And yet... this time seemed different from the rest. Cestari was trying to channel Sammy's rage by hurting him and using her as a pawn... and Sailor Mercury wasn't about to let that happen. Not again.
"I can't... I can't let this happen!"Sailor Mercury shouted. "Sammy, I'm coming!"
Channeling all of her strength, Sailor Mercury pointed her arms at the walls of her prison. With icy magical energy encircling her shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands, she prepared herself to strike the blow that she desperately hoped would free her... and rescue Sammy.
"MERCURY... ICE.... JAVELIN!"
The jagged spear crashed through the wall of the prison, shattering it instantly and continuing down, toward Cestari and Sammy. Cestari barely had time to look up before the spear slammed into the ground next to him, shattering into pieces and bombarding him with shards of razor-sharp ice. He leapt off of Sammy and rose to his feet, just in time to see Sailor Mercury leap down from the shattered plastic egg and onto the floor. Though she had fallen more than fifteen meters, she landed on her feet and dashed over to Sammy as quickly as she could, falling to her knees and caressing his face.
"Ami?" Sammy asked, slowly lifting himself into a sitting position. "You escaped... I knew you could do it... you're so incredible, Ami!"
Sailor Mercury smiled at Sammy and accompanied him off the ground, the both of them standing at the same time. Cestari, who was busily picking the remaining shards of ice out of his back, silently observed the two lovers as they wearily leaned into each other and exchanged a brief, yet passionate kiss on the lips.
"Who do you think you are, doing this to me?" Cestari shouted violently, growling in rage. "ANSWER ME!"
Without a word, Sailor Mercury broke off the kiss and turned toward Cestari, a solemn frown across her lips.
"We are the Sailor Senshi, and we fight for love and justice," Sailor Mercury said quietly. She briefly turned her head toward Sammy and whispered a brief command to him. "Go and stand by Tuxedo Mask... he's behind the other Senshi. We'll take care of Cestari, and this time, we'll take care of him for good."
Sammy nodded, confident in the fact that he could trust his beautiful, sweet, strong lover Ami, his wonderful, sometimes obnoxious, yet just as strong sister Serena, and their kind friends, Rei, Lita, and Mina. He ran over to Darien as the other Senshi joined hands with Sailor Mercury and formed a circle around Cestari, as wisps of power began floating off of them and into the air.
"A Planet Power attack..."Tuxedo Mask thought. "It's strong, but will it really work on Cestari?"
"I know this will work,"Sammy thought. "I believe in you, Rei... Lita... Mina... I believe in you, sis... and I especially believe in you, Ami... I love you so much..."
"What is going on?" Cestari shouted, beginning to get annoyed as the Senshi closed their eyes and concentrated all of their magical energy. "Stop this foolishness right now!"
Suddenly, the Senshi stopped gathering their energy. Their eyes snapped open, but they continued to link hands, as their energy had now gathered into a large, rainbow-colored mist, hovering over their heads. Their eyes now focused on Cestari, and now they were truly determined to defeat him, once and for all.
"You're finished, Cestari!" Sailor Venus shouted.
"You've hurt too many people, and now it's your turn to feel pain!" shouted Sailor Jupiter.
"You're going down, for good!" Sailor Mars shouted.
"I won't forgive you for everything you've done to Sammy... to all of my friends!" Sailor Mercury shouted, with even more intensity in her voice than the other Senshi.
"Consider yourself history!" Sailor Moon shouted.
"SAILOR ULTIMATE PLANET POWER!"
The huge wave of energy crashed down onto Cestari, with far more intensity than he'd ever anticipated. The Senshi were pouring their hearts and souls into the blast as well as their powers, and they weren't about to let Cestari attack them again.
"This.... can't be happening!" Cestari shouted as his body began to dissolve under the vast cloud of energy.
"That's it, Ami!"Sammy thought, a smile on his face. "Take that jerk down once and for all!"
"My plans... if the Senshi destroy me, my plans are ruined!"Cestari thought. "I just have to hold on... just a little bit longer.... aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrgh!"
A brilliant flash of light engulfed Cestari as all the Senshi's powers were released upon him. Immediately, the Senshi released each other's hands and collapsed to their knees, and Sammy and Tuxedo Mask were immediately there to congratulate them as Cestari's lifeless body collapsed to the floor, covered in burns and bruises. His cold heart had finally stopped beating.
"Ami.... are you okay?" Sammy said, catching the exhausted water Senshi in his arms. "You did it... oh my gosh, Ami, you guys did it!"
"Serena, that was amazing!" said Tuxedo Mask, slowly helping Sailor Moon to her feet. "You finally defeated Cestari..."
"And we... we couldn't have done it without you two," Sailor Mars said, standing up and brushing herself off
"Yeah... Sammy, and Tuxedo Mask... both of you really helped us out," Sailor Jupiter said, smiling as the two helped Sailor Mercury and Sailor Moon stand upright. "And that was really impressive, Sailor Mercury... how you busted out of that cage you were in and rescued Sammy, that was awesome!"
"I've got to thank you for that, Ami..." Sammy said, gently brushing some of the dirt and dust off of Sailor Mercury's face. "You saved my life, and... and when you said you'd always love me, it gave me the confidence to face Cestari down. Thank you, Ami...."
"No, Sammy," Sailor Mercury said, her hands firmly wrapped around Sammy's waist. "Thank you..."
The two lovers leaned in and kissed, and Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask began to kiss as well, as Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and Sailor Venus looked on.
"You guys... I really need to start going steady with someone," Sailor Venus said. "You know, like Andrew or something... I wonder how his tongue would taste?"
"That's gross, Venus," Sailor Mars said, glaring daggers at the amorous Senshi. "Besides, I'm sure Chad would kiss a lot better than Andrew would."
"Guys, stop fighting," Sailor Jupiter said, smiling brightly. "Let Sailor Moon and Sailor Mercury have their moment... they've earned it. Oh, Ken... when will I ever see you again?"
Suddenly, the Senshi's thoughts and embraces were interrupted by a weak groaning noise from behind them. As they turned around, they gasped as they witnessed the badly-beaten Cestari, blood dripping from almost every part of his body, struggling to get to his feet.
"How many times do we have to blast you to get you to stay dead?" Sammy shouted.
"Shh, Sammy," Sailor Mercury whispered. "It's okay, we beat him before and we can beat him again..."
"No need.... for that," Cestari groaned, a smirk appearing on his face. "In about a couple of minutes... I'll fall for the last time... you can be sure of that... that attack was incredible, Sailor Senshi, I must compliment you... I'm just... trying to make... every second count... you know?"
"What do you mean by that?" Sailor Moon snapped, pointing her henshin stick (detransformed once again from the Sword of the Moon) at Cestari's battered face. "Just stay down..."
"Where... is the fun... in that?" Cestari chuckled, finally able to stand upright. "What fun is the glorious spectacle of death... if you don't... get to take... someone... with you?"
Cestari pointed his arm at Sailor Mercury, and pinched his fingers together in a tight, squeezing motion. Sailor Mercury immediately clutched her neck and began gasping for breath.
"Can't... breathe!" Sailor Mercury shouted frantically. "He's cutting off... my windpipe!"
The Sailor Senshi gasped in horror, and at that moment, the rage within Sammy grew monstrous, and the Dark Crystal's influence returned with a vengeance. Sammy turned toward Cestari and unsheathed his sword, his energy aura flaring up to incredible proportions.
"LET HER GO NOW!" Sammy shouted. "OR I'LL-"
"Kill me?" Cestari said, continuing to chuckle, even as he coughed up a large amount of blood. "Boy, I'm already dead..."
Sailor Mercury gasped in agony, collapsing to her knees once more. Sammy, his anger growing to an apex, ran at Cestari and slashed his sword across the vicious warrior's throat. Immediately, Cestari's powerful grip on Sailor Mercury's neck and fell to the ground, a smile on his face. He looked up at Sammy, who was standing over him, his sword dripping with blood.
"Why... are you smiling.... when I've just... cut your throat?" Sammy growled, rage still coursing through his body.
"Because I've just won..." Cestari half-gurgled, blood filling his mouth. "The Crystal's secret... my secret... it only activates... when I... am killed by its possessor... so... this entire time, Sammy... you were my time bomb... gathering energy... for the day... I'd finally have you come here and end my misery... my suffering... my wait is finally over, Sammy... my revenge is.... complete...."
Cestari's eyes closed, and his body vanished in a brilliant flashed of energy. Sammy and the others shielded their eyes from the explosion, and when Sammy opened his eyes again, he looked down at his chest and gasped. Over his heart was now a black wisp of energy, hovering over the exact point where the Dark Crystal had been planted. He immediately knew that its energies had been released. Within moments, he would be in the crystal's complete control... he would become the crystal itself. He turned to the Senshi and looked into their eyes with the last loving glance he could muster before the crystal's energy would turn him into a vile being of pure hatred. His eyes met with Ami's, and a single tear fell out of them.
"Ami..." Sammy whispered.
"Sammy..." Sailor Mercury whispered back, slowly walking toward Sammy, her arms outstretched toward him. "It's over now, Sammy... it's all over... the Dark Crystal is gone, we can go home now!"
Clearly, none of the others in the room had heard Cestari's dying words. It would now be up to Sammy to warn them... before it was too late.
"Ami.... I love you," Sammy said. "But... you have to go... take the others and get out of here, right now!"
Sailor Mercury gasped, and stopped just short of Sammy. Her eyes reflected a pained, hurt expression, not quite understanding the meaning of Sammy's words.
"Sammy, I don't... I don't understand," Sailor Mercury said sadly, her arms still reaching out to him. "We can... go home... it's over now, Sammy..."
"Ami, please... please get out of here before it's too late! The Crystal has me, Ami!" Sammy managed to shout, even as he felt all the negative emotions swelling through his body, into his heart, almost to his brain... he saw Sailor Mercury and the other Senshi recoil, and that was all he could do to save them... he couldn't contain the explosion. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!"
A huge burst of dark energy exploded around Sammy, engulfing his body and instantly killing the old Sammy that Rick, Mika, Mei-Lin, Miss Haruna, Rei, Mina, Lita, Darien, and countless others had known as a friend, that Mr. and Mrs. Tsukino had known as a son, that Serena had known as a brother, and that Ami had known as her one eternal true love. Now, the Dark Crystal had emerged, and it was ready to unleash its wrath upon the entire galaxy, hijacking the mind, body, and soul of Sammy Tsukino for its evil purposes. Sailor Mercury and the others could only watch through the column of pure destructive force as the one they had loved was lost to them forever.
Sailor Mercury's voice seemed instantly defeated, her arms slumping as she sorrowfully hung her head. She had forgotten Sammy's warning to leave and never look back, and she was the first to see the new being that had emerged from the crystal.
The being had taken the form of Sammy, but had radically transformed his body. His hair had turned completely black, and it flapped slightly upward, suspended by the incredible column of black energy surging around the boy's body. His skin had turned sickly and grey, like the pale horse of the apocalypse, and hundreds of throbbing veins had appeared all over his body, crisscrossing his chest, arms, and legs, with smaller scars across his face. His fingernails had turned into pointed spikes that protruded a little more than an inch from his fingers, and his eyes were completely black, giving the being a soulless appearance. Sammy's clothes had been disintegrated by the transformation, but the being wore a black garment that resembled briefs, with black tassels hanging down from it that went down to just above the transformed boy's knees. Everything about Sammy was gone, replaced with features far more suited to a demon, a being of pure evil. The Senshi and Tuxedo Mask kept their distance, but Sailor Mercury courageously stood up to it, her eyes locked on its own. She was determined to find some sort of spark left of her beloved Sammy... the boy she loved now more than ever, and was determined to see him again.
"Sammy..." Sailor Mercury sobbed, tears streaming down her face. "I know... you're in there.... I know you can hear me, Sammy... I love you, and... and no matter what... you're going through right now, please... please know, please know.... I love you, and I'll always love you, Sammy... I promise I'll find you."
"Ami, we have to go!" Sailor Moon shouted, sobbing almost as much as Sailor Mercury was. "Sammy's gone now.... I know it might seem like he's here, but he's not! We have to go and recover our strength so we can beat this thing and bring Sammy back!"
"Sammy is trapped INSIDE this thing!" Sailor Mercury screamed back at the other Senshi. "And I am NOT leaving, Serena! I refuse to go! Sammy's life depends on me!"
"Is that... what you think?" said the being in a horrible-sounding voice, resembling Sammy's, but twisted into a sick, demonic screech that immediately made Sailor Mercury begin to tremble. "Sammy is gone, and he will never come back! I am the Dark Crystal, and you're about to die!"
With incredible speed, the being dove upon Sailor Mercury and slammed her to the ground on her back. She hit her head on the ground and screamed in pain as a small gash formed on the back of her head from the incredible force of the fall. The being slammed its hand over her mouth and dug its powerful claws into her face, as it used its other hand to rip away the top of her Sailor outfit, tearing the fabric of the dress to pieces, and ripping its beautiful blue bow in half. The being then ripped its claws across Mercury's chest, but her screams of pain were completely silenced as the monster's other hand gripped her face even tighter. The Senshi rushed toward the being, who stopped tearing into Sailor Mercury's midsection and fired a powerful blast at them, knocking all of them into the wall except for Sailor Moon, who stood her ground and took out her henshin stick, pointing it at the being's head as it again went to work on Sailor Mercury, striking her in the forehead while keeping its other hand firmly over her lips.
"The boy can't hear you!" screeched the being as Sailor Mercury frantically struggled to escape its grip. "HE'S DEAD!"
"No... he's not!"Sailor Mercury thought. "Sammy, I know you're alive in there... you have... you have to stop this terrible beast, before-"
"Let her go now, your fight is with me!" Sailor Moon shouted, an incredible strength welling up from within her body. The Silver Crystal on her brooch began to glow with a bright, warm light, and she put away her henshin stick, pointing the Silver Crystal in the direction of the beast. "The Imperium Silver Crystal senses your presence, and it's about to destroy you!"
"It is a useless toy!" shouted the being, pointing its hand at the glowing crystal and extending a dark energy thread that effortlessly ripped the brooch from Sailor Moon's senshi uniform. She stumbled back and fell to the ground, gasping in terror as the brooch skidded across the floor, hopelessly out of her reach.
"The Crystal... no!"Sailor Moon thought. "This can't happen!"
The brooch skidded across the floor and right into Sailor Mercury, lightly bumping into the side of her body. The being ignored it, striking her in the forehead with a punch that nearly knocked her unconscious. Mercury's eyes met the crystal, and she desperately began groping for it on the ground. Both of her arms had been broken by the being's attacks, but she ignored the pain and clasped her fingers around the brooch, closing her eyes and desperately hoping it would help her in some way.
"Sammy... I love you so much... I'm going to find you, Sammy... I'll save you... the Dark Crystal's taken your body, but it can never take your heart... not from me!"
Suddenly, the arm with which Sailor Mercury was clutching the crystal felt completely lighter... completely healed. A wave of healing energy swept through her entire body, and as the being went to strike her again, its hand stopped just short of her forehead. All of the wounds, bruises, and injuries on her body were disappearing as rapidly as they had been formed.
"What's going on?" shouted the evil being, its hand still firmly clamped over Sailor Mercury's mouth. "You bitch, what are you doing?"
"Her love for Sammy... it activated the Silver Crystal... I don't believe it!"thought Sailor Moon. Sailor Mercury's tattered Senshi fuku instantly repaired itself, and then, a wave of energy swept outward from her body, knocking the being off of her body and sweeping it almost to the other side of the room. The Senshi of Water picked herself up from the ground, with not a mark or wound on her body. Sailor Moon's brooch was still glowing in her hand as the Silver Crystal's energy continued to flow into Sailor Mercury's body. She closed her eyes, and when the being glanced in Sailor Mercury's direction, all he could see was a bright white silhouette, completely bathed in light. The Senshi and Tuxedo Mask were witnessing the same spectacle, and only Sailor Moon, who had experienced the incredible event before, fully knew what was happening to Sailor Mercury.
"She's transforming again... she's ascending... she's becoming Eternal Sailor Mercury!"
When the light disappeared, Sailor Mercury's Senshi fuku was gone, replacing by a flowing white gown. Sailor Moon's brooch, containing the Silver Crystal, was now in the middle of Sailor Mercury's chest, shimmering against the gown's white reflection. Brilliant, angelic white wings had emerged from Sailor Mercury's back, their feathers glistening even in the room's dim light. Her face reflected a look of calm serenity, and the first to see it were the Senshi, as Sailor Mercury turned to them one last time.
"I'll take care of this...." said Eternal Sailor Mercury, smiling warmly at them. "Please, the rest of you... please go. I'll rescue Sammy... and we'll both come back, together."
"Ami, you.... you can't...." Sailor Moon sobbed, stunned beyond belief at Sailor Mercury's transformation. "He'll... he'll hurt you again..."
Eternal Sailor Mercury simply shook her head.
"No, no he won't," she said quietly. "Please, Sailor Moon... I love Sammy, and I won't let him fall into the abyss..."
"Serena, Ami can do this," Tuxedo Mask said, gently tugging on Sailor Moon's arm. "We've got to go, like Ami said... we have to trust her on this... like Sammy did."
"Sammy did.... he did trust Ami,"Sailor Moon thought, blinking a tear away from her eye. "And now, I have to trust her as well..."
Tuxedo Mask, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and Sailor Venus rushed out of the room, but Sailor Moon remained, just to give her friend one last bit of encouragement.
"I do believe in you, Ami," Sailor Moon said, smiling at Eternal Sailor Mercury. "And if there's anyone who can free Sammy, it's you.... I know you love him, Ami..."
"Thank you, Serena," Eternal Sailor Mercury replied. "I won't let you or Sammy down..."
Sailor Moon left the room, leaving Eternal Sailor Mercury alone with the embodiment of the Dark Crystal, who had been waiting patiently for the Senshi to say her goodbyes.
"It's too bad, Sailor Mercury.... they'll never see you again... or Sammy," said the being, flaring up a dark energy aura that looked exactly like Sammy's had the day he'd fought Jekelai. "And when I kill you, there will be no one left to protect the solar system... you're the Silver Crystal now, just as I am the Dark Crystal. You have no chance to defeat me!"
Sammy's katana immediately materialized in the being's hand, flashing with an even darker energy aura than the rest of its body. Eternal Sailor Mercury held out her hand, and suddenly, a beautiful, curved blue blade appeared in her hand. It was shorter than Sammy's, but its blue color gave it a beautiful shine, and it also pulsated with a bright, silver aura of its own.
"I will fight you the same way Sammy fought every fiend that imprisoned me," Eternal Sailor Mercury said, a smile of determination on her face. "You have imprisoned Sammy, and this sword shall free him from the bondage you are keeping him in. I am not afraid to harm your body, for my love will heal him like his love healed me... he is still alive, somewhere inside of you... and I will not stop fighting until he is free."
"Believe all that you want," the being said in its screeching, sickening voice. "He is dead... and you will soon go to join him!"
Just as it had done just a few minutes earlier, the being ran at Sailor Mercury, quickly spanning the gap between the two warriors. But instead of moving to counter its charge, Eternal Sailor Mercury simply raised up her sword and held it in front of her, like a protective shield. The being swung its own blade at Mercury's head, but it quickly met her own blade, and the two swords clashed, making a loud, metallic clang and throwing off a large shockwave of energy. The being slashed at Sailor Mercury again, but its sword was yet again stopped by hers, sending off another shockwave. Eternal Sailor Mercury never moved to position her own blade in front of the being's, holding it out in front of her chest with her hands gripped around the blade's hilt, holding the blade upward in a prayer-like gesture, with her eyes closed to complete the effect. The being began to strike at her again, but instead decided to stop his rain of slashes and take a step backward, curiously eyeing the fixated Senshi.
"You do not step forth to attack me.... why?"
Eternal Sailor Mercury's eyes opened, and she suddenly lowered her blade into an attack position.
"You didn't ask."
Showing speed similar to that of the being's, she lunged forward and slashed her blade across the being's chest, creating a bow-shaped shockwave that sent the monster flying back like a meteor. He flew across the room and almost into the opposite wall before barely managing to stop himself. He was angry now, and his bulbous veins were pulsating with energy, even as the large cut on his chest began rapidly dripping blood.
"You will pay for that!" shouted the being, as the room suddenly turned dark as night. "You will pay with your miserable life!"
Several dark energy spheres began to rotate around Eternal Sailor Mercury's head, and soon, they turned into large, boulder-like objects, each of them shining with a black glow, which could be seen even against the darkness of the room.
"I won't let myself be intimidated by this monster's attacks!"thought Eternal Sailor Mercury, even as her entire body began trembling in fear despite her own immense power. "Sammy, just hold on a little while longer..."
Again, the female warrior's hands flew to her chest, and again she closed her eyes, bracing for the attack. With atrocious ferocity, the meteors began to rain down upon Eternal Sailor Mercury, but as they drew close, they smashed against an invisible barrier of magical energy protecting the Senshi, each meteor exploding in a huge burst of red and black as soon as it had hit the barrier. After twenty such blasts, the evil embodiment of the Dark Crystal ceased its attack, and light once more filled the room. When Eternal Sailor Mercury opened her eyes, she could see that the vicious, pale being had become more frustrated than ever, and his face lit up with rage.
"How... how could you?" shouted the being, pointing its sword directly in Eternal Sailor Mercury's direction. "That was one of my most powerful attacks, and-"
"You're just like every miserable youma and enemy that the Senshi and I have come across," replied Eternal Sailor Mercury. "You think that evil is the strongest force in the universe... but it's not. The most powerful force in the universe is love, and right now, you're holding the person I love prisoner... and I want him back!"
And for the first time in the entire fight, Eternal Sailor Mercury went on the offensive. She lunged at the being and slashed her sword all over his body. But where its slashes had failed, Eternal Sailor Mercury's blade, guided by her love for Sammy, didn't miss a single mark. When her attack had ended, the vicious being was left writhing in pain on one knee, with deadly cuts criss-crossing its entire body. Eternal Sailor Mercury placed her blade at the being's neck, ready to strike the final blow. But of course, she couldn't... Sammy was still trapped somewhere inside the being's ravaged body, and she was determined to pull him out.
"Give back Sammy," Eternal Sailor Mercury said, in a tone completely opposite her earlier serenity. "Leave this plane, and never come back!"
Suddenly, Eternal Sailor Mercury was staring into a pair of eyes that she had desperately been hoping to see again. The being's expression had changed into that of Sammy's, but something was definitely wrong. The boy's eyes were filled with tears, and his face was twisted into an expression of pain.
"Ami... why?" cried the being, seemingly Sammy returned from the abyss. Immediately, Eternal Sailor Mercury took a step back, and let out a loud gasp, her hand flying to her lips.
"It can't be... his body is still pale, like the being's... but his eyes... his voice... they're Sammy's!"Eternal Sailor Mercury thought, horror filling her mind. "I thought his body would be healed once he was brought back... no, this can't be possible!"
"Why did you hurt me, Ami? I feel like I've been ripped to shreds... Ami, do you hate me?"
"Sammy, I love you!" Eternal Sailor Mercury cried.
"It's a lie, Ami! You hurt me! You hurt me, and you hate me! And I... I hate you!"
Driven nearly to tears, Eternal Sailor Mercury suddenly stopped in her tracks. Her eyes, once wide with fear, began to narrow again, and she looked straight into the being's own eyes, disguised as Sammy's loving blue orbs. Her face became serious once more, and she pointed her hand at the being, as the Silver Crystal on her chest shined with its full radiance.
"You creepy little bastard... all you can ever think about is hatred."
The being immediately knew its vile ruse had been uncovered, and its eyes changed back to their normal, black appearance.
"Sammy would never, ever say he hated me.... no matter what," Eternal Sailor Mercury said quietly, her entire body beginning to glow with a bright blue light as her sword disappeared. She would no longer need it now. "We have both pledged our eternal love to one another... and now I will show you the full strength of that love!"
The being itself began to glow, and let out a loud, painful cry as it found itself unable to move.
"And now.... you will release Sammy!"
An incredible blue light engulfed both Sailor Mercury and the being, and as the Silver Crystal's energy pierced into the being's body, it quickly discovered the Dark Crystal, pulsating within the monstrous creature's heart. The energy flew into the crystal, shattering it on contact, and ending forever any influence that it would ever have on another living soul. But the Silver Crystal didn't stop there. A wave of healing swept out from the Silver Crystal, instantly restoring countless other lives that had been shattered by the Dark Crystal's influence. The wave of healing swept across the entire planet, and then made its way back to the Silver Crystal. The huge amount of magical energy slammed into Eternal Sailor Mercury with immense force, immediately transforming her back to Sailor Mercury and sending her to her knees, gasping for breath. The use of the Silver Crystal had taken a lot out of the Senshi of Water, and she was obviously exhausted.
"Sammy.... I... I think I got him..." Sailor Mercury said, slowly climbing to her feet. "But where-"
And then, she saw Sammy. He was lying on his back at her feet, his clothes in tatters. He didn't have a single flesh wound on his body, but his eyes were closed, and he appeared unconscious. She fell to her knees next to him and began to gently brush her hand through his hair, which had been disheveled by the intensity of the battle.
"Sammy, it's going to be okay..." Sailor Mercury whispered, her hand moving down to Sammy's face. "The Crystal's gone... it really is over this time..."
Sammy let out a weak-sounding groan, and a wave of relief rushed over Sailor Mercury's body as Sammy slowly began to stir to life. His eyes fluttered open, and he raised himself into a sitting position, turning to Sailor Mercury.
"Ami.... we really won?" Sammy said weakly. Sailor Mercury simply nodded her head, and then swept Sammy into her arms, tears of joy freely flowing from her eyes.
"Sammy... I never want to lose you again," Sailor Mercury whispered, her arms tightly wrapped around his body. She wanted to hold Sammy forever, and to never let him fall into the hands of evil again. When she finally broke off the embrace, Sammy looked into her eyes, and with the biggest smile he could muster, said...
"You never lost me, Ami... I was in your heart the whole time," Sammy replied. "That's what I'm uh... supposed to say, right? I'm not really good with this whole mushy stuff, and-"
Not needing to hear another word, Sailor Mercury leaned in and pressed her lips against Sammy's, and Sammy reciprocated by tightening his grip around her waist. The two lovers kissed for what was only a few seconds, but to them seemed like an eternity... an eternity in each other's arms.
Meanwhile, the Senshi and Tuxedo Mask had been standing at the base of the Tokyo Tower for the last few minutes, having used a Sailor Teleport to get from the bottom of Cestari's floating fortress to the street below. Sailor Moon had been crying the entire time, intensely worried that something terrible had happened to her brother and best friend. All Tuxedo Mask could do was allow Sailor Moon to cry on his shoulder, while giving encouraging words to the four Senshi forced to wait on the sidelines.
"Sailor Mercury is strong... and she's got your Silver Crystal with her, Serena," Tuxedo Mask reassured her. "She won't lose..."
"Yeah, how many times has that thing saved our butts before?" Sailor Mars quipped. "Lots of times. Sailor Mercury knows how to use it just as well as you do..."
"And it's fueled by love, remember? As long as she wields it in the name of someone she loves, the Silver Crystal can't fail!" said Sailor Venus.
"So cheer up, Sailor Moon... your brother and Sailor Mercury are gonna be fine, I know it!" Sailor Jupiter said with a smile.
"Yeah, I know..." Sailor Moon sniffled. "But... but..."
The Senshi and Tuxedo Mask turned toward the entrance of the tower, where the voice had originated. There, they saw Sammy, carrying the exhausted Sailor Mercury out of the tower in his arms. Sailor Moon let out a squeal of delight and ran toward Sammy, tears streaming down her face.
"Ami, I'm going to have to put you down for a second, okay?" Sammy said quickly, and Sailor Mercury nodded, allowing Sammy to set her down on her feet next to him just as Sailor Moon nearly tackled Sammy with a powerful bearhug.
"Sammy, you had me worried so much!" Sailor Moon shouted, scolding Sammy while wrapping him in the tightest embrace she could muster. "Don't you... ever do that again!"
Sailor Moon giggled gleefully as she released Sammy from the hug, and Sailor Mercury turned around and placed Sailor Moon's brooch, containing the now dormant Silver Crystal, in her hand.
"Sailor Moon, I believe this belongs to you... but thank you for allowing me to borrow it," Sailor Mercury said gratefully.
"And thank you for saving Sammy," Sailor Moon said, placing the brooch back on her chest and hugging Sailor Mercury as well.
"I didn't save Sammy so much as he saved me," Sailor Mercury said, looking over at Sammy while hugging his overly excited sister. "In fact, I believe he saved all of us..."
"So did you, Ami..." Sammy replied. "So did you..."
Sammy walked into his classroom the next morning, at a new facility that had been especially chosen to accommodate the students of Crossroads Junior High while the extensive repair process was being completed. He sat in a desk next to his friends Rick, Mika, and Mei-Lin. Rick and Mika, along with several other students, had been moved into Sammy's classroom, as the new facility didn't have enough rooms to accommodate all of the students. Sammy sighed as he remembered the terrible fate that his teacher had suffered at the hands of one of Jekelai's vicious mercenaries, frowning as he thought he'd never see her again.
"I wonder who our teacher's going to be... you know, now that Miss Haruna is-"
"Sammy, what are you talking about?" Mei-Lin said, causing a surprised expression to come across Sammy's face. "She got out of the hospital this morning... you saved her from that guy, remember?"
"I did WHAT?"Sammy thought, shaking his head. "I thought Miss Haruna was-"
"Good morning, class!" said Miss Haruna, confidently striding into the room. Only a small bandage was on her cheek, and another small one on her neck. The rest of her body was completely untouched. Sammy did a double-take in his seat. "Now, I know that class will be confusing today because of the new building, but bear with me, and-"
"Miss Haruna!" Sammy said happily, hopping out of his seat and running toward his resurrected teacher. As she let out a gasp of surprise, Sammy wrapped his arms around her, and the class immediately began to laugh.
"Sammy, why I... I know you're happy about me being safe after leaving the museum in a stretcher, but I assure you I'm fine.... please return to your seat!"
"Yes, Miss Haruna," Sammy said, sadly trudging back to his seat. The class continued to laugh, even after Sammy had sat down, but Rick shot him a comforting glance.
"Hey, we all saw everything that went down at the museum, Sammy... remember, we were there!" Rick said, smiling in Sammy's direction.
"You were so heroic, barging into the bathroom and knocking that guy off of Miss Haruna... then you beat him up until Sailor Mercury came and froze him into oblivion... that was awesome!" Mika said, giving Sammy a thumbs-up.
"So the Silver Crystal's energy must have changed some of the past, too..."Sammy thought, a smile on his face. "I'm just glad Miss Haruna's alright..."
"Now class, don't laugh at him," Miss Haruna said, brushing herself off as she sat down at her own desk. "Sammy's actually a pretty big hero... he saved my life, you know. Thank you, Sammy..."
After school that day, Sammy, feeling a skip in his step after Miss Haruna's return, began walking toward the nearby building where Serena and her friends, including Ami, now attended school until their own schools could be repaired.
"Sammy, are you sure you don't want to go to the arcade with us?" Mei-Lin asked, walking the other direction down the sidewalk with Rick and Mika.
"I'll catch up with you guys later... I promise I'd meet Ami after school, but I'll be there later, okay?"
Sammy smiled at his friends one last time, and then quickly made his way to the other school building, meeting Ami as she left the school with Serena and the others.
"Hi, Sammy!" Ami said, a smile on her face. "You seem really happy today..."
"You're glad we don't have to fight Nega-jerks today, aren't ya?" Serena asked, playfully giving Sammy a noogie.
"Cut it out, Serena... and of course I'm happy!" Sammy said, smiling back at Ami and the other girls. "And guess what? I don't know how it happened, but somehow, the Silver Crystal-"
"Brought Miss Haruna back to life?" Serena asked. "Sammy, I was so relieved to find out... she called us last night thanking you for saving her, and I'm like 'what the hell, you're supposed to be dead... wait a minute, you're alive? Yay!' I wanted to get you, but you and Ami were asleep together on the couch... you looked so cute resting your head in Ami's lap like that!"
"I did what?" Sammy said, an embarrassed blush appearing on his face.
"Don't worry, Sammy, I was just as embarrassed when I got up this morning," Ami said, kissing Sammy on the cheek. "And all of the kids from my school that were killed by Jekelai came back too... only with minor scratches and bruises and stuff... I was so happy!"
"I saw Greg and Bianca in journalism class," Mina said, a devious smile on her face. "Caught them making out in the corner of the room... isn't that exciting?"
"You would think making out with someone is exciting," Rei groaned.
"Don't look now, you guys, but..."
Lita pointed at Ami and Sammy, who had just started a make-out session of their own. Serena turned her head away and pretended to gag, while the other three girls simply giggled at the young lovers.
"What's so funny?" Ami asked, breaking off the sensual kiss and turning back toward her friends.
"Aw, keep making out!" Mina said, whipping out her cell phone. "I've got to get a picture on my cameraphone... now, keep your tongues in view of the camera, and-"
"Ami and me are going to the park," Sammy said, gently pushing Mina's camera back toward her face. "See you girls later!"
Ami giggled, and then followed Sammy to the park, leaving their friends standing in front of the school, giggling hysterically.
The days passed, and the tranquillity and peace that greeted Sammy, Ami, and their friends was an enjoyable contrast to the violence of their struggles against the Dark Crystal and its equally evil seekers. For Sammy and Ami, it was a time to appreciate one another and the bond that they both shared, taking as many opportunities to be together as they could. One of those opportunities was the Japanese Open, the chess tournament that Ami had told Sammy about. Ami had given Sammy chess lessons over the past two weeks while also studying herself, both to spend time with Sammy and to build his confidence up enough to enter the tournament.
"Well, Ami... I'm 6 and 3 going into the final round," Sammy said, looking at the standings that had been posted on the wall near the entrance of the convention center where the tournament was being held.
"That's really good, Sammy..." Ami said, smiling at him. "You beat some strong players today!"
"Yeah, but I didn't do as well as you... Ami, you've got a perfect record. You're playing for the championship next round!"
"And against Japan's defending national champion," Ami said, looking at the pairings. "He's an international grandmaster... he's so brilliant, I'll never beat-"
"Now... just listen to yourself, Ami... you sound just like me before the tournament," Sammy said, trying his best to encourage Ami. "You can beat this guy, I know you can do it! And when you do, you'll be Japan's national chess champion! Its youngest ever!"
"That's why I'm worried," Ami said, looking down to the floor. "I'm only 17... I'm too young to be a national champion of anything... this guy's been playing twice as long as I've been alive."
"But does he have the talent that you do, Ami? He might have the experience, but he's not nearly as smart as you... Ami, I believe in you, I always have, and-"
Ami leaned over and briefly kissed Sammy's lips, and then smiled at him while looking into his eyes.
"I know you believe in me, Sammy.... and I believe in myself," Ami said. "You'll be cheering for me, won't you?"
"Of course I will, Ami!" Sammy said, holding up a pennant-shaped flag with Ami's name and picture on it. "You'll always be #1 in my heart!"
"Hey... hey, psst!" whispered a voice from the nearby ladies' restroom, causing Sammy and Ami to turn around. An arm was sticking out of the room, beckoning both of them inside.
"I can't come in there, I'm a guy!" Sammy said, chuckling.
"Both of you, quickly!" whispered the voice. Sammy and Ami quickly looked around to make sure the coast was clear, and then ducked into the bathroom to see who had called them. When they realized who it was, their eyes lit up with joy.
It was Sparrow Migoto.
"You guys seem happy to see me... yeah, I guess it's been a while, hasn't it?" Sparrow said in her sweet, cheerful voice.
"Sparrow.... how did... how did... you?" Sammy stammered, a shocked expression on his face. "Sparrow, oh my gosh, I-"
"Don't mention it, Sammy... the Dark Crystal had a hold over you, I understand... I'm just glad the two of you were able to beat Jekelai and his boss while I was away."
"Wait, did the Silver Crystal revive you too, or-" Ami began before Sparrow raised her hand, cutting Ami off.
"Actually... I resurrected myself," said Sparrow, "using an energy reserve I'd stored deep within my body... however, I can only perform the resurrection technique once, so..."
"If you die again..." Ami began.
"I'm dead for good," Sparrow said, finishing Ami's sentence.
"Sparrow.... Sparrow, I-"
Sparrow wrapped her arms around Sammy in a tight hug, her hand gently caressing his back as a tear fell down his cheek.
"I forgive you, Sammy... you're a hero, and don't ever forget it. Sammy, Ami... I'm glad to call you my friends."
Sparrow slowly stepped to the back of the restroom, glowing a warm, white glow.
"Sparrow, where are you going?" Ami asked.
"I'm going back to my world... but I promise to return to visit you all someday," Sparrow said, one last smile on her face. "Goodbye, Ami... goodbye, Sammy... may your love last forever more!"
A bright flash appeared, and then Sparrow was gone, returned to her homeworld.
"Ami... did you see what Sparrow... what she said, she said-"
"She forgives you, Sammy.... but I think she believes something else about you, Sammy," Ami said, walking over to Sammy and stroking his cheek. "You don't need to be forgiven, Sammy... nothing that happened was your fault."
And for the first time since Jekelai had attacked them so long ago, Sammy believed Ami... none of what had happened was his fault. Nothing at all...
"Guys, this tournament is Nerd Central," Serena said as she walked through the halls of the convention center. "I should've brought my CD player, or my Gameboy, or my boyfriend or something. I'm so bored!"
"Quit whining, Serena... we're here to support Ami and you know that!" Rei snapped.
"Yeah, be nice," said Lita. "Besides, this tournament has some great food, and the people are really friendly!"
"I thought for sure you'd be interested in the food, Serena," said Mina, waving a small paper nacho container in front of Serena's face.
"Eww, you're eating those stale nachos with the crusty cheese?" Serena asked, turning her head away.
"They're actually really good, Serena, and the money goes to local schools all over Tokyo... you have to at least buy something," Lita said.
"Right now, the only thing I have to do is use the restroom," Serena said, as the four girls turned the corner and began walking toward the ladies' room. "I promise I'll buy something afterwards."
"We'll hold you to it, Serena..." Rei said, pushing open the door to the ladies room. "Because remember, you pro-"
The girls suddenly stood with their mouths agape as they saw Sammy and Ami, passionately kissing in the corner of the room. Sammy was madly running his hands through Ami's hair, and surprisingly, Ami seemed to enjoy it. The sight of Sammy and Ami making out deeply disturbed something within Serena's psyche, and she began another one of her loud tirades.
"Okay, that's-" was all Serena could get out before Rei, Lita, and Mina all covered her mouth at the exact same time and began dragging her out of the room.
"We'll find another restroom," Rei said.
"And then you're going to buy some food, and you're going to like it," Lita told her.
"We can't disturb the happy couple, Serena..."
As soon as the girls had left the room, Sammy and Ami stopped kissing and continued to stare into each other's eyes for the next few seconds.
"You know, Ami... I had a dream about what was going to happen," Sammy said.
"You told me that dream, Sammy.... it was the one where I was in the darkness, and-"
"And I was trying to find you, but I couldn't, because that evil version of me was in the way," Sammy said, his lips curving into a frown.
"Sammy..." said Ami, her face becoming sadder by the second.
"But Ami," Sammy said, looking up into Ami's eyes and smiling again. "The dream had it a bit wrong... instead of you lost in the darkness, it was me... and you found me, Ami."
"No, Sammy... the dream was right," Ami said, smiling at Sammy and kissing him on the cheek. "But it was just unfinished... it was you that found me, Sammy."
"Contestants in the Japanese Open, Final Round matches will begin in five minutes, so please head to your boards immediately."
"Well, I guess I'd better get to my match now, Sammy," Ami said, starting toward the door.
"Ami?" Sammy said, walking up to Ami and taking her by the hand, looking into her eyes one last time.
"I'm glad.... we found each other," Sammy said.
"I'm glad I found you too, Sammy Tsukino...."
And they walked out of the room, hand in hand... looking into each other's eyes.
Ooooh, that was so sweet! ^_^ I finally finished by longest (and I think best) story ever! And by the way, anyone who wants to know if Ami won the chess tournament... you'll have to wait for Looking To The Stars, the final installment in this series, coming summer 2005. But for now, my next project is A Collision Of Souls, the sequel to my Ami/Mirai Trunks crossover romance fic Love In A Ruined World! Thanks to all my loyal readers, and I wish you peace, joy, and love for many days to come!