All I am able to say without sounding defensive is: I'm extremely sorry for the very prolonged wait, and I do not own Sailor Moon.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Nothing else to do…
"Serenity, are you ready for our journey?" Ami asked delicately while placing a hand lightly on her friend's arm.
The young woman sat on a large granite rock, gazing into the calm section of the stream that never seemed to flow. Her expression was grave and oddly detached as she scrutinized every aspect of her face, as if to be sure she was really there. A slow scowl appeared over her brow as she glared at her new golden locks of hair, huffing before crossing her arms and pouting sullenly while turning away from her reflection completely.
"I don't understand what's so wrong about my hair color!" Serenity vented for about the thousandth time in fifteen minutes. "If I'm wearing a cloak and a hood it should obscure everything from view, shouldn't it?" She demanded heatedly.
Her fellow companions sighed. "We've already talked about this. You'll be able to take the cloak off in certain…areas," Minako started, for a lack of a better word.
Rei sent the girl a look. "Certain areas where there are no or few people," She amended, leaving no room for argument.
"But for villages and towns, we need to keep you as hidden as possible. We don't want unwanted attention, and Andrew for some reason seems to think it's important that the less people see of you or hear your name, the better," Minako finished.
"Which is why we'll call you 'Usagi' in public," Makoto added.
Serenity raised a single eyebrow. "Bunny? You're going to call me 'Bunny'?" She asked skeptically.
Her friends sniggered. "Of course. You remind me of a little, white rabbit, always munching away happily on food," Rei attempted to say lightly, but ruined the effect when she smirked. "It's a shame you only eat sweets, never leaving room for any juicy vegetables," she added scornfully with a hidden barb.
Serenity clenched her fists while holder her breath, her face a mixed hue of various dark shades ranging from pink to purple. "Why, you…"
"Oh! Look at the time!" Minako cut in before a blown-out-of-proportion argument could ensue and delay their departure, "The suns busily trekking its way across the sky!"
Ami glanced out the cave's entrance and her face took on a business-like attitude. "Minako is right, you two. It's no time for your daily quarrel. We must be on our way!" Ami looked pointedly at Serenity. "Have you sent forth your letter?"
Serenity nodded. "I sent it last night, horseback. Andrew insisted it not be sent any other way."
The others nodded absentmindedly. "Well, it's time we started heading out then, don't you think?" Makoto asked with great spirit and energy, rising and stretching. "It's about time we got out and about, aside from roaming this hillside and occasional visits into town. I'm actually excited about where we'll be going and the new things we'll see."
Ami pursed her lips. "I'm a little worried, truth be told," she murmured hesitantly. "There are so many stories I've heard, and books I've read and studied…I don't think we're quite ready for all of this!"
"Oh, come on Ames," Rei said while rising with the others and walking to their saddled horses. "We've studied all of those books with you. We aren't completely ignorant."
Minako nodded, adding, "Besides, Ann and Andrew have been a great help with teaching us proper etiquette and drilling us again all last night and this morning."
Serenity grumbled while following. "Yeah, but that used to be for fun and games. Now we're supposed to know it and perform curtsies properly and everything!" The others cast her amusing glances, but refrained from commenting.
"Are you ladies all set?" Ann asked as she strode forward, a large smile and a twinkle in her eyes.
The others glanced at one another uneasily before nodding or affirming the question verbally.
"Good! Andrew and I are going to take you through the village, but you five will be on your own after that." Ann's gaze landed on Minako penetratingly. "You memorized the map? You know where you're going?"
Minako nodded firmly. "Yes, ma'am!"
Ann grinned. "Good. Rei, Makoto, you two have the provisions?" Both nodded. "And Ami? You and Serenity have the water skins?" She continued at their nod. "You need to fill them as often as possible. I don't want you getting dehydrated on the ride down. It's cooler here, so you won't be used to the heat or the temperatures. We're in the mountains, remember. Stay smart and stay strong. Try not to be too trusting. There are bandits and pick-pockets. Just…promise me you'll keep an eye out and be careful. I don't want anything happening…to any of you."
"Yes, Mother," Rei and Makoto mumbled in unison, sending small smirks in each other's direction.
Ann huffed. "I'm serious! You five have practically spent your entire lives here! There's a lot you're unaware of. Not everyone will be an eagerly helping friend."
"We understand," Minako stated, mounting up. "We have our bags and bed-rolls. We have water, provisions, and Andrew gave me the copy of his map, saying he could easily get another one elsewhere. Rei's a master at fires, so we won't freeze at night, and the girls and I can easily protect Serenity. You have nothing to worry about. Really."
Still looking dubious, Ann was further silenced when Andrew came over and spoke up. "They're big girls, Ann," he commented, barely containing his amusement in the situation. And to think, a few years earlier Ann had sworn to prove there was so "she-beast," or else when she found the monster she had sworn she would kill it. Now she was nearly to the point of tears, and didn't even bat an eye at the thought of returning to her beloved Endymion. Andrew had the strangest feeling that Alan had something to do with that, along with the people here who needed her help during the harsh winter that was a constant struggle every year.
Serenity must have been thinking about the cold, barren winter as well. "You two will try everything you can to help keep the people as well-fed as possible this winter, right?" She asked, worry as plain on her face as her nose.
Andrew smiled reassuringly. "These people won't starve just because you're gone, Serenity."
"They won't starve as long as Andrew and I are here," Ann amended, nodding curtly. "You needn't worry. Everything will be fine. I promise."
Serenity held her breath, and then smiled, releasing a rather large sigh of relief. "Thank you. Both of you. I'll try to write as soon as possible, but I'm not sure when that will be. Just know that we will be safe as well."
Andrew and Ann nodded, smiling kindly.
"We'd best be on our way," Rei said in an oddly strangled voice. She looked at Andrew pointedly. "You said it is not good to keep the Prince waiting for longer than is preventable."
Andrew nodded seriously.
"Very well, then." Minako looked over her two friend's heads from her mounted position and gasped. It seemed Ann and Andrew were not their only well-wishers goodbye.
"Serenity…" Ami whispered, gasping as she, too, saw multiple people with solemn expressions on their faces, stopping a little way away from the five mounted horses near the cave's entrance. They came from every tunnel in every direction Ami could see. They all came to say goodbye, she thought to herself in utter bewilderment, a vast amount of love and happiness spreading over her and the other four girls.
Serenity was close to tears when she saw them. She quickly gave Ann and Andrew a hug goodbye before scrambling up her own mount with a blurred gaze. Her head, throat, and heart ached. She never wanted to say goodbye.
"Thank you all for coming," Serenity said in what she hoped was a strong and even voice. "We greatly appreciate it. I know I, for one, will never forget your loving hearts and giving souls." Now the tears were in serious danger of falling. "I hope to see you all again, in the near future." Her eyes overflowed, spilling down the length of her pale cheeks. "Thank you all. I love you as my own family."
That said, Serenity quickly urged her mount forward, not wanting the people to see her tears or pain. Her friends followed suit, Andrew and Ann on foot. If they saw the tears in the people's eyes at Serenity's words, they didn't say anything about it. They simply moved forward into the sun, eyes forward, refusing to look back.
Serenity flipped her hood up over her head, shielding her face from view so the few villagers who knew of her wouldn't know she was leaving. She hazily noticed the other girls wearing cloaks much like hers, with their hoods kept back for the time being so it wouldn't hinder their view. Serenity was so carried away in her own thoughts that her moment of freedom out in the open air went completely unnoticed, along with the passage through the village until she felt her mount slowing to a stop. Surprised, Serenity cast a glance down in Andrew's direction as he held her horse's reigns.
"This is as far as Ann and I can go," he said softly as way of explanation. He was gazing up into her eyes with the most serious expression. "You know how to get a hold of us?"
Blinking in surprise, Serenity nodded her head.
"Good." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a parchment of some sort and handed it to her. "You'll understand what it is later. It's the best I could do…to…make it easier for you."
Tears once again welled up in Serenity's eyes. "Don't make me say goodbye to you again. I don't think I could manage."
Chuckling, Andrew shook his head. "I'll be seeing you again, Serenity, so there's no need to say goodbye."
A hopeful expression crossed her face. "And you? Ann? Will you come visit me if you can?"
An unreadable expression crossed Ann's features, her face one of strong concentration and thought. "I…don't know." She looked away, slightly abashed. "I want to see you again, Sere, please understand, but it…depends…on certain things."
Confused, but willing to accept her answer and overall decision, Serenity nodded her head. "I'll miss you. I'll miss everyone. Please try to keep everyone happy and hopeful while I'm away. Do you think you can manage that?"
Ann looked relieved, and nodded gratefully. "Of course. Anything for you, Serenity."
Serenity nodded, her eyes now gazing at what lie ahead. "Until we meet again, I suppose?"
Her friends nodded, and she smiled. Rei, Minako, Makoto, and Ami each said their own farewells of sorts before they all waved and continued on their way. They were headed on a journey to the unknown, hoping they would be ready for whatever came their way. Only time would tell.
"I want to be notified as soon as word reaches the palace. Understand?" Prince Endymion's voice was dangerously smooth, his eyes sparking with barely repressed anger.
His castle-hands nodded vigorously, not wishing to displease their Prince with the mood he was currently in. They had already had to clean and repair three rooms in the space of one day, and it was barely midmorning!
Four Generals stood at attention behind their monarch, trying desperately to conceal their snorts of laughter or looks of wry amusement. Their Prince marched back and fourth in front of his palace servants, scowling and looking intimidating without even trying. He was now glaring and the stone floor, a tightly compressed frown marring his features. No one moved, nor uttered a single syllable. Some were even afraid to breathe.
"If anyone suspicious comes to the palace gate claiming to be Serenity…" he barely choked out the word, suppressing a wince and the sudden need to inwardly cringe, "Allow her entrance, I suppose, but greet them with the royal guard. I don't want any mishaps while she's…here." He paused in his ranting, along with his incessant pacing, long enough to look every single one of his servants in the eye. "If she's here…" he muttered as an afterthought, though it was still loud enough for all to hear.
"I want to be notified if anything that might concern this 'Serenity' person appears at my doorstep. Understood?" He boomed, glaring threateningly, his bad humor doing nothing to calm those around him.
His servants bowed deeply, staying that way until Endymion released them. "You are all excused. Go about your usual chores, and interrupt me even if I'm sleeping! Now go back to work." He muttered, sitting down in a defeated manner while slumping in a rather large chair. The servants in the room dispersed almost immediately, leaving the Prince alone with his four Generals.
"Kunzite, you're dismissed. You have guard duty to attend to. Zoicite will release you in half a mark's time."
General Kunzite bowed and left.
"Me thinks the Prince is tired and aggravated," Jadeite stated, a small grin already having crept onto his face. "Especially after repeating himself during the length of his speech."
Endymion growled, but no longer held the effort to argue back. Jadeite was right. He was tired and aggravated and stressed and simply wanted it all to be over! He didn't want to marry, he never wanted to see or deal with the She-Beast, and he wanted Beryl gone before they ever met!
"Jadeite, Nephrite, I'm taking a nap. I didn't get an ounce of sleep last night, and I refuse to deal with Beryl today unless nothing can prevent it." He glanced at them meaningfully. "I want you both to guard my door so she doesn't disturb me."
Jadeite guffawed before breaking out into uncontrollable laughter. "What's wrong? You can no longer handle her, my Prince?"
Endymion's glare was deadly. "No, but I know if I do deal with her before I have some much-needed rest, I will strangle her fat little neck!" He burst out, mercy no longer shining in the depths of his eyes.
Jadeite gulped. "Point taken."
Nephrite lifted his lip in disgust at his comrade for picking at his Prince while Endymion was of no mind to fight back, and turned and bowed respectfully to his monarch. "It shall be done, Highness."
Endymion nodded, rising to his feet and inhaling a deep breath of what felt like a soon-to-be short-lived freedom. "Very well. Zoicite, you will be in command of the castle premises until Kunzite is called off-duty, in which you will take his place. Jadeite, I then want you in control of castle premises while Kunzite freshens up. Nephrite, my friend," Endymion's gaze turned almost pleading, "Don't leave my door unless someone I can trust takes your place to stand guard. If I find anything…unpleasant in my bed…heads will roll."
His friends winced, but knew it would be an empty threat as much as Endymion did. His guards would never allow that to happen. Jadeite, however, seemed to want to continue along that line of thought for a little while longer.
"Which…head… would that be?" He asked in a voice that raised an octave or two while his face scrunched at a thought of indescribable pain.
Endymion's glare was menacing, and had an evil glint to it that left much to the imagination in the thought of different ways of torture. "For you, Jade, both heads…but I'll make sure to take my time about it and cut the head that's sitting on your shoulders off as a last resort. Sound like fun?"
Jadeite paled and found it horribly hard to swallow. "Oh. Immense fun, Your Highness," he barely managed. "Remind me to stay on your good side."
Nephrite sniffed. "Too late.
Serenity and the girls kept their mounts at a leisurely pace and dropped their guard as soon as they cleared all traces of the village. Serenity's four protectors allowed her to toss back her hood while they made their way down the short bit of mountain and what looked to be green hills beyond. There were few clouds in the deep blue sky, but the air was chilly, which had not been what they were expecting.
"I thought Andrew said it'd be warmer the farther we road down south!" Serenity complained through chattering teeth as she huddled into herself while on the saddle that she still wasn't quite used to.
Minako grumbled something that sounded like a jumbled 'me, too.'
Rei snorted, her teeth chattering as the cool wind continued to press her into the back of her saddle. Her body was shaking from the cold temperature, and her spirits weren't very high at the moment. "R-remind me to s-sk-skin him alive if I ever s-see him again." Her voice shook almost as badly as her body's shivers.
Ami's brow furrowed in concentration. "We grew up in a cave, and even though the weather was cold outside, the inside of the save was always perfectly warm. Even in the summer the cave's temperature would be cooler than the outside air, so if you ask me we have been rather spoiled, not truly able to accustom ourselves to the climate."
Minako grumbled. "He'd said it'd be warmer south. It better be warmer in the south."
Makoto snorted. She was just as chilled to the bone as the next rider, and the wind had a way of sweeping in through her clothes and her cloak that made the chill even less unbearable. "I don't know how much warmer the air could get in only three day's time," she mused darkly.
Minako cast her a look from over her shoulder, wincing as cold air seeped in through her cloak at the neck. "Maybe he galloped the entire way? Or the person who gave the distance did?"
The girls cast her withering glances, not sure if that was a good thing, or bad.
After a short amount of silence as their steeds trudged the remaining base of the mountain, Ami opened her mouth speculatively. "Maybe Andrew was thinking it was warm there during the Summer, and wasn't thinking of the time of year?"
Her fellow companions liked that thought even less.
Endymion rose from his nap refreshed and ready for battle. It was a shame, really, that he couldn't go fight in a war on some land. It would give him a proper way to vent his steam, and a perfect excuse to high-tail it out of his Kingdom—away from Beryl, and away from the She-Beast Demon-Spawn. He shuddered. Just the thought of her caused a bone-cold shiver to rake his spine. If things did not turn out well, he would have his father to blame right along with the horrendously hideous Beryl.
Thinking up a quick excuse to keep Beryl at bay for as long as possible, Endymion opened the door leading from his chambers to the hall and bid Nephrite enter. The man did so silently and closed the door behind him.
"What is it you wish, my lord, Prince?"
Endymion walked briskly over to his armoire and pulled out a fresh tunic before briefly running a hand through his hair and turning to face his General. "I want a General's meeting in my study as promptly as you are able."
Nephrite gave a small bow. "Understood, my Prince. I will notify them."
Prince Endymion nodded, turning away as his mind traveled to other things. "You are dismissed, then, General."
Nephrite turned on his heal to do as he was bid.
The Prince's study was filled with his most trusted Generals faster than Endymion thought possible. Without another word, and after all had arrived, Endymion shut his study door after placing two guards on duty. Tension leaving slightly, Endymion allowed himself to relax and join his Generals who were already seated and looking at him expectantly.
Sighing, Endymion gave in to a look of misery, his gaze roaming over the faces he had come to respect and trust. "Any news?" His voice was almost a sound of defeat.
Zoicite was the one to speak up. "No, my Prince." The look on his face told those in the room he wished there were.
Endymion sighed, which turned into a part groan, part growl. "I hate this! Who does that bitch think she is to do this to me! To put me through this! My own father is making my life a living Hell! He didn't know me! The written words on his will are proof enough of that! If my mother were still alive…"
"But she isn't, my lord," Zoicite said softly, delicately. "We have to make due with what we have. The board has been set before us. It is our move."
"What is it you'll have us do, Majesty?" Nephrite asked, eyes glittering, but his look sincere. All knew Nephrite—along with the rest of the generals—would gladly follow any order their Prince gave them.
Jadeite grumbled under his breath. "I wish he'd stop talking in ways of strategy. Every word that comes from Zoi's mouth has to do with that dumb game."
" 'That dumb game' as you call it, has indirectly won us countless wars, I'll have you mind." Zoicite's brow was beginning to tick as his eyes closed to suppress his growing anger. Chess was a highly skilled past-time that few appreciated the way they should. He would not let a man who held little skill in the strategy of the game dismiss it so quickly.
Kunzite cut in before a raging battle broke out and Jadeite would be subjected all too familiarly with Endymion's wrath. "General Zoicite is correct, my Prince. It is time we moved onward and made a move of our own. I prefer not to stand around waiting for something ill to happen if I can prevent it."
Jadeite blew his top at that last comment. "Prevent it! Who could have prevented this! If Endymion marries Beryl there is no way the crown will stay stable! It's wobbling like a toddler's first spin at a top, as it is! One gust of wind—one mishap—and everything we've worked for and tried to prevent will come tumbling down around us!" Huffing, realizing he blew his temper for one time in his life, Jadeite flushed and sat down, feeling four pairs of penetrating eyes burn into his skin. Jadeite, not to be outdone, added scornfully, "If you ask me, this Serenity business with the Beast from Hell will be a monsoon compared to that little gust of wind I was speaking of."
Kunzite lifted his silver brows in a mild show of surprise and disdain while Jadeite refused to look any of them in the eye, opting instead to pick at his breeches while glaring down at a loose thread.
"You forget," Kunzite added, addressing all present. "Even if the Beast comes here, we have all agreed the Prince marrying Beryl is out of the question."
"Perhaps the monster for a girl will attack Beryl, thus killing her and taking at least one problem away from our already overfilled plates?" Zoicite asked lightly.
Jadeite snorted before smirking. "I'd like to see that, actually."
Nephrite rubbed his chin between two fingers, appearing to be deep in thought. "That's not too shabby of an idea. Then we could kill the Demon Spawn, for that's what she is, is it not? We could tell the people of the 'tragic accident' and spread word that killing is a violent offense, therefore forcing His Highness into giving her the death sentence."
Zoicite's brows were well up into his hairline by the end of the speech. Jadeite was stunned. Why hadn't he thought of that? Endymion looked thoughtful and hopeful at first, before a dark scowl appeared and all could tell he dismissed the idea.
"If…Serenity…" He had a hard time forcing her name from the depths of his throat, "is truly alive and…human…it wouldn't be right to force her to kill and be killed in return. No matter how…deformed she—"
Jadeite snorted. "Who said anything about forcing her?" He demanded, but was silenced by a look from Nephrite, promising pain if he interrupted his Prince again.
Endymion shook his head. "No. I'm afraid we're going to have to be still and wait for news…or company…to come knocking on our door." He looked at his men. "My apologies for making you hold out a while longer."
Heads bowed as one. "Your wish is our command."
After passing through two other small villages and more open land, the girls were sore, but finally warm as the sun rose higher and stayed longer in the sky. Now the sun was dipping down closer to the horizon. Night would be upon them in about a candle mark's time, and they had stopped five times to rest, stretch sore legs, eat, drink, and relieve themselves. Tempers had been high and mightily rising throughout the day, but so far their had only been verbal casualties, despite the promise of strangling or mutating one another.
"We'll have to stop, soon," Minako advised, eyes scanning the horizon and the slowly dipping sun.
Her companions nodded in agreement.
"We should wait until we find water, first," Ami countered softly. "Are we near a water source judging from the map?" Everyone turned to Minako as she unrolled the map once again, a feat she had down perfectly after the tenth time, which she now had down to an art since she had performed the task countless other times.
"If I've been keeping the pace we're traveling at in scale with the map, we should travel slightly due west and should be able to meet with the river before sunset."
Rei nodded. "Good. We'll be able to make camp and get a fire going before it's dark." She cast Minako a warning glare. "Your guesswork had better be accurate, though! If we don't find the river before nightfall, I'll gut you!"
Makoto sighed, grinning wryly while shaking her head. That had been the ninty-eighth verbal casualty of the day, sixty-one of them having come from Rei's very own lips. Usagi, naturally, came in second, most of her verbal threats thrown in Rei's direction. Minako came in third, after her patience wore thin and her anger toward the map increased, and Makoto was close fourth. Ami, however, surprised her and actually had a few painful ideas of her own when arguing had been at a maximum. Makoto snorted and shook her head once again in wry humor. She hadn't thought the elemental attributes of water could be so dangerous. Ami sure had enlightened her!
Turning their mounts slightly toward the right, the five girls continued on their way south-west. They were in hill country, having left the mountain lands behind them. When they came upon the river the sun had nearly set, much to Rei's annoyance. The first thing she set about doing was to build a fire before all daylight fled. Once the fire was largely billowing, no longer in danger of flickering out, she left in a peeved temper to search for extra firewood while the others set up camp. Makoto instantly took command of the flames and created a scrumptious stew that settled even the sharpest nerves. By the time all were fed a hushed calm settled over the group, all feeling the effects of the day in their weary bodies and tired souls.
"I'm out," Makoto mumbled sleepily, standing from her squatted place before the fire to stretch and yawn.
Ami stood, giving a small yawn of her own while nodding drowsily. "I couldn't agree more."
The others stood as well, all relieved at the prospect of sleep and wishing it upon them with every fiber of their being. It took them a moment to realize the huddled form by the fire was an already asleep Serenity. They debated for a moment whether to leave her by the heated glow of the fire, to wake her up and have her get into her bedroll, or to simply lift her lithe form and deposit her in bed while hoping she wouldn't wake up. After much deliberation Makoto groaned outright, hefted her charge into her already aching arms, and tried to carry her as gently as possible to the bedroll, which wasn't too terribly far away, muttering under her breath the entire way. When the silver-haired girl was taken care of, Makoto stood, rubbing her sore and tired back. Her look of slight scathing and pain turned into a calm, serene smile as she watched Serenity hum lightly before curling up more tightly than before, a silver halo adorning her head as her face held an ethereal amount of peace displayed across her features.
"Goodnight," came the sleepy and throaty reply from Rei who was already in her bedroll, mind edging steadily closer to the dream world.
Her words drew Makoto out of her admiring state, and she hopped into her own bedroll, stretching and wriggling to her body's content. "G'night," she murmured, her words barely understandable. She hadn't realized her comrades were already fast asleep, her words falling on deaf ears.
She also hadn't realized the band of men who had been watching them well after nightfall after locating their camp from the smoke of the girls' fire. Nor did any of the girls wake up when their wrists and ankles were bound with rope a few candle marks after they retired…