Hands Fall Together
Part Eleven: The Mysterious Silver Crystal
by Kihin Ranno
11/25
R

When Usagi shut the door in his face, Mamoru was overcome with the sensation that he'd lost something very important. Something he'd never be able to get back again.

He wished there was something he could do to fix everything, but he knew it was no use. He couldn't very well explain the real reason why he'd run, and there was no plausible explanation for leaving her other than the truth. He had a choice between putting her in more danger or having her hate him for a coward. He couldn't indulge a selfish impulse to make himself feel better.

As he was walking back to his car, he noticed a flash of white from just outside the top of his vision. Instinctively, he looked up, tensing and shifting his weight to throw himself at whatever new threat could be out there despite the fact that he felt on the verge of collapse. Then he saw the same pale blur land on the hood of his car, and he relaxed considerably.

Well, he didn't so much as relax as scream in frustration, but at least he could be relieved that it wasn't a youma.

"Cats!" Mamoru growled.

The white feline momentarily cocked his head at Mamoru, perhaps marveling at the insanity of human beings and how they could stand walking on only two feet all day. Then, he seemed to forget about Mamoru entirely and began to settle himself in for a nap on Mamoru's car.

"Oh, no. Absolutely not," Mamoru snapped, striding forward and snatching the cat off the car. The tom yowled at first, then hissed, curling around itself and flattening its ears to its head. "I have had enough of temperamental felines for one lifetime, thank you very--"

Mamoru stopped. He had turned the cat around to look at it, a habit from dealing with Luna all of this time. And he had been very surprised to find a very similar attribute on this tom's forehead.

"A crescent moon?" Mamoru marveled. Without another thought, he dropped the cat, backing away from it a bit. The tom fell to the ground, pausing only to flick his tail at Mamoru in indignation. It turned and ran across the street, darting up a tree with a full canopy of leaves that could easily hide a full grown man. If that cat was at all similar to Luna, then he knew the cat hadn't been hiding up there for kicks. And he certainly hadn't appeared when he had at random. It was sending a message.

Without another word or moment's hesitation, Mamoru flung open his car door and climbed inside. He turned his key in the ignition until the engine turned over, and then drove out of sight... but only just around the corner.

He pulled his car out of sight on the darkened street. The subdivision was still under development, so it didn't take him long to find a stretch of houses that were still under construction, and thus, unoccupied. He parked there and closed his eyes.

Moments later, Tuxedo Kamen stepped out of the car and ran off into the night, cutting through several backyards and taking a very roundabout way to get back to Usagi's street. He couldn't risk being seen by anyone, of course, but mostly, he didn't want to be seen by her.

Tuxedo Kamen desperately hoped that this would not turn into yet another battle. Ami was in absolutely no condition to fight, and he did not want to deal with Rei's tantrum at being dragged out two times in one night. The fact that there was another cat like Luna made him hopeful that this was an ally, but just in case, he decided to be cautious and try to get a drop on whoever was probably still in that tree.

Finally, Tuxedo Kamen crept up on the tree in question. He remained as quiet as he could, but he found there was little he could do to prevent his shoes from squeaking or leaves from crackling underneath his feet. All he could really hope was that he had the good sense not to step on a twig.

So of course that's exactly what happened.

"God damn it."

A blur of color muted by the night shot out from the tree. He could tell instantly that the silhouette was female, but beyond that, he was at a loss. It wasn't as if he had time to inspect subtle aspects of her form as he chased after her, trying to keep up with her.

This proved to be more difficult than he would have otherwise anticipated.

She was fast. As a matter of fact, impossibly fast. And she seemed to be well acquainted with his tricks, though he now realized that he probably hadn't originated the idea of taking to the rooftops when speedy passage and avoiding the public were necessary. And she seemed to be a bit more used to it, not even pausing in her sprint before jumping up to the Tsukino's roof. He stayed hot on her heels, ignoring his pain.

She led him out of the residential area and into the heart of Juuban's shopping district. It was there that he got his first good look at her, sailing in front of a billboard. Long, gold hair was drawn behind her like a comet's tail. She was all rose and royal blue, glowing oddly in the unnatural light. And from his distance, he could see a symbol glittering on her forehead when she looked over her should to see if he was still following her.

"Sailor V," he breathed, momentarily stopping. Then he ran faster, knowing it was more important than ever to catch up with her. Not only did this mean that she actually existed, but it meant that she was alive. And it meant that she had some connection to them. It hadn't been some artist that placed that moon on her forehead. She was involved in this somehow.

"Wait!" he called out, panting. "Stop!"

She didn't seem to have heard him. In fact, as the words left his mouth, she bent her knees and leapt upwards, clearing the distance between two buildings in a magnificent show of grace and strength. It awed him, but it didn't stop his irritation. "Damn it, you're the one who went to so much trouble to get my attention. Are you just showing off now?"

He was beginning to suspect this was indeed the case as he chased her over still more buildings. She cartwheeled off one edge and then performed a fantastic triple flip before landing on the other. It was a wonderful show, if entirely impractical.

But he didn't know how much longer he'd be able to keep up this chase. After all, she was fresh, and he felt like he could collapse at any moment. He took in another deep breath and decided to try one last time. "Please stop!"

As absurd as it seemed, she stopped then, landing in a crouch, her arms stretched out behind her to give her the proper balance. But he could tell by the way she adjusted her weight that she wasn't planning on running again.

She straightened, her curtain of blonde hair blowing out behind her. She moved with a smoothness that was surely practiced, used for this occasion for its effect and able to be readily discarded if the situation didn't call for it. She looked over her shoulder through her large red mask, but he could tell she was amused even at this distance. Still, there was something about her that wasn't altogether what he expected. Something different and other. She seemed more than he thought she would have been. It gave him pause.

After a moment without him moving, she winked at him. "All you had to do was say the magic word."

He had no idea how to respond to that.

"It really is you," he remarked, even though he'd guessed it sooner. "So you're not--"

"Dead?" Sailor V finished for him, still amused. She shook her head. "Nah. Not many clothes in the afterlife. You've basically got a choice between togas and being naked, and while I could deal with nudity, I couldn't deal without cute shoes."

He blinked. Very slowly. "Er."

She barreled on, patently ignoring his discomfort. "The public at large, assuming they believe in me at all, thinks I'm dead and so does our enemy. But that's what they get for not checking for a body, right?" She flashed him a grin with a wicked curl in her lip.

Finally, she'd arrived on common ground. "Our enemy?"

Sailor V's grin widened. "Yes. Ours. What, did you think there'd be a Sailor Senshi wandering about with a different objective?" She paused. "Then again, I suppose anything's possible, but boy, that would be inconvenient."

Tuxedo Kamen found himself clearing his throat to give him time to collect himself. He'd never known that talking to someone could make you dizzy. "If you're my ally, why did you run?"

She shrugged casually. "Meeting in residential areas is never a good idea. It's too easy to get caught." She leaned forward and whispered, her voice dropping from soprano to alto. "Besides, I had to see how badly you wanted me."

He coughed. Very loudly.

"Wanted to talk to me that is," she corrected innocently, the pitch in her voice ascending.

"Right," he drawled. In that moment, he decided that he was going to keep Sailor V and Rei well away from each other for as long as he could possibly manage.

"So," she continued, placing one hand on her hip. "I'm sure you have some questions. Fire away."

Since she seemed to prefer to be blunt and to the point, he didn't waste his breath. "Why aren't you fighting with us then?"

Sailor V nodded a bit, regarding this as an acceptable question. He couldn't decide whether or not he wanted her approval. "Because I didn't have help when I fought, and you can't either. And I'm not saying this out of bitterness, but you have to know how to do it on your own."

Tuxedo Kamen thought about this, mulling over the logic. "You don't want us to rely on you."

"Exactly. I want to help you," she said sincerely, pressing her right palm into her chest. "I do. But I know it isn't what's best for all of you in the long run."

"I see what you mean," he admitted wearily. "I'd prefer it the other way around as well."

She smiled reassuringly, sympathetically. "It's not so bad. You're doing all right."

"You don't get the papers then?"

"Well, nobody's perfect," she teased. "I come pretty close though."

Tuxedo Kamen hated to think it, but he was almost glad Sailor V was keeping her distance for the time being. Her constant switching from serious conversation to this… whatever it was gave him a headache.

"Is that all you wanted to know?"

"No," he admitted. "What do you know about the... our enemy?"

She quirked an eyebrow at his hasty correction. "Not much more than you do. But I can tell you that this energy stealing business isn't their primary objective."

He swore fluently, gratified that she wasn't offended but a bit worried that she chose to be… gleeful. "We'd suspected as much. They're not really doing it well enough for it to be."

"They're doing better than you think," Sailor V informed him a bit gravely. "While you've been dealing with the flashier battles, I've been taking out stray youma picking up energy on the sly. And I can't be sure how much headway I'm making."

"Oh, brilliant," Tuxedo Kamen moaned. Why had he thought she'd be full to the brim of good news? "Are they using it as some sort of fuel for another goal?"

"I know that much, but I'm not exactly sure of what that goal is. Fountain of eternal knowledge, I am not. Which is a shame because then I could bend algebra to my will." She sighed wistfully before going on. "All I know for sure is that they're searching for the Ginzuishou, and that's only from a deathbed confession. Well, death-roof." She paused, rolling her eyes. "I'm not completely clear on what that is, mind you."

Tuxedo Kamen stumbled backwards even though he was standing still. He felt a wave of excitement wash over him as the significance of that word washed over him. He'd heard it before. He'd been hearing it a lot lately.

Sailor V noted the reaction and stepped forward, her eyes widening. "You know what it is, don't you?"

Tuxedo Kamen hadn't been inclined to even tell Luna or the girls about his dreams. But somehow, in this moment, he knew that he had to her. More importantly, he wanted to tell her. He didn't think too hard about what that meant.

"I don't," he confessed. "But I've heard about it, too. In dreams... I've had them since I was a kid. They stopped for awhile, but they started up again a couple months ago."

She seemed ready to burst from excitement. He imagined she'd go up in fireworks consisting of primary colors and that they'd burn forever. "What are the dreams like? What do you see?"

"Not much of anything," he admitted. "It's always hazy. All I know is that there's a girl... a princess. I guess the princess we're searching for. She used to just ask me for help, but lately she's been asking for something called the Ginzuishou."

"The Silver Crystal," Sailor V whispered hungrily, though if she longed for knowledge or the thing itself, he didn't know. "But what could that mean? Is it just some piece of jewelry someone's particularly fond of, a weapon, what? Why do they want it so badly?"

"Power," Tuxedo Kamen responded easily.

"Obviously. But why is it so important to them? What's it for?"

He shrugged helplessly, feeling a bit uneasy under her hard gaze. At first glance, she didn't look like she was anything to worry about. She was short, thin, and looked oddly translucent in the combination of moonlight and street lights. Still, when she had him pinned like that with her eyes, he couldn't help but squirm. There was a reason for why she was so legendary and why she had fought alone for the better part of a year.

"Are you sure it's the Moon Princess asking you for this?" she asked. Her voice had a strange lilt.

"It seems unlikely that there would be two princesses mixed up in this. If I told the others this, they'd wonder what any princess was doing talking to me at all."

Sailor V blinked, intrigued. "You haven't told the others this?"

"No," he responded quickly, harshly. "I haven't."

"Interesting," she remarked, smiling again. "Why would they wonder what a princess was doing speaking with you?"

Tuxedo Kamen laughed a bit, but there was hardly any joy in it. "They think I was some common knight or low-level magician of some kind. They can't remember any males of status who played a role in the fall of the Silver Millennium on their side. It's the best Luna's been able to come up with."

Sailor V stared at him, positively gaping. He was just about to ask what was wrong when she burst out laughing. He blanched at the volume and musicality of it. Occasionally, she had to suck in air with a horrible-sounding gasp, but for the most part, her laughter nearly resembled a song. It left him wondering if she could sing and how well, though he had his suspicions.

She even wiped away a tear with her fingertips as it came out from underneath her mask. "Oh, that is too funny. They don't... You don't... That explains so much. It explains everything! Well, not everything, but it explains enough."

Tuxedo Kamen didn't need to be particularly quick on the uptake to understand the implication. "You know who I was?" He had to admit that he sounded more than a bit desperate. If she knew who he'd been a thousand years ago, he couldn't help but hope that she also had a clue to who Chiba Mamoru had been before the car went off the cliff.

Sailor V could barely manage to stop laughing in order to answer him. "Oh, yes, Tuxedo Kamen. I know very well who you were. I will tell you this much, but the rest you'll have to figure out on your own.

"You were very important. In fact, you were and still are one of the most important characters in the story. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary when it came to you associating with princesses. Particularly that one." She halted, considering something. Then she made a gesture as if to say, 'Well, why not.' He got the distinct impression that she was throwing a considerable amount of caution to the wind.

"And unlike the rest of us, you were not part of the Moon Kingdom."

Tuxedo Kamen balked at the last, his eyes widening. "What? What do you mean I wasn't--"

Sailor V shook her finger at him, her other hand resting on her hip. "No, no, no. You don't get to have everything handed to you. That's too easy! You seem clever enough. You should be able to figure it out."

He felt so vexed that his teeth ached, but he knew better than to challenge her. It seemed she had the upper hand in just about everything. "But if I wasn't part of the Moon Kingdom, what was I a part of? And how do you know so much? What makes you different?"

Sailor V regarded him coolly, lifting her head a bit and pushing some of her hair out of her face. The reflection off her goggles receded, and he could see her eyes clearly for the first time, light blue like crystal or the summer sky. They glittered at him, taunting and tantalizing. And then she spoke, her lips emphasizing every nuance of every word she spoke. "Because I was important too."

Suddenly, it hit him, but not at all like a ton of bricks. It felt as if an entire building had somehow picked itself up and rammed into him, completely flattening him. He stared at her, all forced grace and coy attitude and her ability to be playful and play him. The possibility was there, staring him in the face.

"Princess," he breathed, stepping forward. "Are you the--"

She hushed him, reaching up with her gloved hand and laying two fingers on his mouth. "One day, Tuxedo Kamen, you are going to find out exactly who I am. And you're going to know who Princess Serenity is and if she's your princess and whether or not we're all one in the same."

Then she stood up on tiptoe, whispering in his ear, her lips purposefully brushing up against his skin. "But not yet."

He shivered. And then whispered back just before she pulled away. "Oh, you're very good."

She bounced away, giving him a little shrug. "I do what I can. And hey, could you do me a favor?"

"What?"

"Try and keep up next time." With that, she leapt up again. She didn't even bother running this time. She just jumped from building to building, a girl-shaped blur on the horizon.

He stared after her for awhile, long after he could no longer see her. And despite everything he'd been through that day – despite his failure with Reika, Motoki's stress, the near-defeat with Nephrite, and Usagi's hatred – he decided that the day wasn't a total wash.

"Sailor V flirted with me," he muttered, smirking. "Awesome."

-----

A mouthful of blood splattered onto the stone floor, making the black shimmer. It barely missed the toes of Kunzite's boot.

Nephrite frowned in irritation and wiped his mouth, taking care not to stain his sleeves. "I don't need your help."

Kunzite returned his unwavering scowl. "If you didn't, then I suspect you wouldn't have returned looking as though you'd been run over by a truck."

Nephrite snarled and raised his hand, but Kunzite snatched his wrist easily, twisting it around. He pushed forward sharply, shoving Nephrite into the nearby wall. The cold pressure against Nephrite's bruises sang out with pain, but he gritted his teeth. Showing weakness to Kunzite was not an option.

Unfortunately, pretending at strength was an even less promising option. "You forget yourself, Nephrite," Kunzite murmured in a disturbingly pleasant tone. "On a good day, you would be lucky to give me a papercut."

Nephrite yanked his arm away, but he knew it was only because Kunzite had let him. He rubbed the new sore spots gingerly, anxious to see Beryl so that she could heal him. He wasn't fond of relying on her either, but it was a necessary evil. "What does it matter to you anyway?"

Kunzite sighed as if he were speaking to a temperamental child. "If you do not succeed in gathering the energy to awaken Metallia, then training the war youma will have been a waste."

"If you'll remember," Nephrite spat, "I retrieved more energy on the last run than I would have with all the other attempts combined."

"But you lost this time," Kunzite warned sharply. "And you lost because of a human."

"I don't see you getting this upset because of your little fuck toy," Nephrite snarled.

Kunzite narrowed his eyes. They glinted silver, twin razors in the dark. "Zoisite has nothing to do with this discussion. Your missions are separate. And while he has yielded no results as of yet, he has yet to humiliate himself."

Nephrite decided that he was going to relish the day when that little bitch Zoisite finally turned on his lover and cut his throat. He only wished Jadeite were still around to toast their good fortune. "It was a fluke."

"There seems to be an epidemic of flukes going on around you," Kunzite said, his voice stinking of shadows.

Nephrite continued to glare at Kunzite for quite some time before releasing a shaky breath. This stand-off was going nowhere. It was wasting up valuable time when he could be seeing Beryl and then tracking down his next target.

"What do you want then?"

Kunzite never relaxed, but he backed away from the killing edge by a fraction. "There is nothing to be done about this past failure. But what of last time?"

"I'd never seen anything like it," Nephrite admitted reluctantly. "The girl didn't behave as previous victims did. And the youma was just… wrong." Then he proceeded to tell the rest of the story, supplying nuances Zoisite's scouts couldn't hope to supply him with.

Kunzite furrowed his brow deeply, mulling over the tale like a dog given a tough piece of meat. "I can't say that I've heard of or experienced anything similar."

Nephrite snorted and bit his tongue to keep from remarking that he didn't see how Kunzite could have encountered anything like that. After all, he hadn't been a field operative since the London fiasco.

"You're sure you didn't do anything different with the spell?"

"I'm not an idiot."

Kunzite did not look convinced.

"Everything was exactly the same as before," Nephrite insisted. "My only explanation is that there was something wrong with the girl."

"Did you notice anything?"

Nephrite found himself staring at the mouse-like youma, still drinking his fill of the vileness beside his feet. He had noticed something about Reika just before the demon had appeared. Her shadow wasn't like the other humans in the area; it was deeper, blacker. In his mind's eye, he imagined the shadow was like a pit to dive in to, where he would jump and fall forever in an endless void.

"I'm not sure she was human."

Kunzite gave him the same look Nephrite saw him use with youma trainees right before he beat them with whips of fire and venom. "That would have been something to investigate prior to targeting her."

"The stars point the direction. I merely follow it."

It was painfully obvious to Nephrite that in Kunzite's mind, that was precisely the issue. "Should you run into this problem again, would you know the signs?"

"I'd know it by the shadow."

"Very well," Kunzite announced. "I'll look in to the matter in the meantime. Just because it can be avoided does not mean that it ought to happen again."

Nephrite decided he would have to take this as a kind of blessing. If Kunzite was investigating his past, then he ought to stay out of his present dealings. Maybe he'd even get incredibly lucky and this would draw Zoisite off his tail as well.

"Beryl's summoning me."

Then Nephrite vanished without a word, anxious to get back to work and away from the man who dared to call himself his leader.

-----

"You can come out now," Kunzite called.

Zoisite dropped from the ceiling like a bat, his blond hair hanging down in waves of curl and a cloud of frizz. "You knew I was there?"

Kunzite leaned close to his lover's pointed face. "You can never hide from me."

Zoisite shivered, but his irritation at being caught remained evident in his features. "One day, I'll trick you. It might take me a few centuries, but I know it'll happen one day."

If that were true, when that day came, Kunzite was sure Zoisite would be there to kill him. But if it would ever come to pass, it was a long way off. Kunzite saw no need to dwell on it.

"It would do you well not to eavesdrop on him," Kunzite warned. "He didn't sense you this time, but he was reeling from the situation at hand. If he had been focused, he would have known you were there. We both know what could have happened then."

Zoisite glared with unguarded malevolence. Kunzite could never decide whether or not he found his lover's petty rages enticing or not. "Do you think I'm that weak?"

"I think you underestimate him, and I think that's dangerous."

"And he doesn't underestimate me?"

"No," Kunzite informed him plainly, running his fingers along Zoisite's knife-sharp jawline. "He knows how dangerous you are, Zoisite. It's why I know he wouldn't hesitate."

Zoisite shook with rage, and Kunzite watched with vague amusement as he swallowed the curses and insults he so obviously wanted to throw. Kunzite allowed him a longer leash than the others, but it still only went so far.

"And another thing," Kunzite said as he turned to leave. "He did have one point."

"What's that?"

The edge in Kunzite's voice was sharp enough to cut bone. "If you don't make any more progress in your search for the Ginzuishou very soon, you'll have more than just Queen Beryl to answer to."

Without another word, Kunzite left, leaving Zoisite thwarted. The blond snarled and flipped to alight on the ground, his fists clenched and his teeth bared. He stalked forward, crushing the gluttonous youma beneath his feet.

"Not even you know how dangerous I really am, lover."

-----

Rei frowned, folding her arms. Ami had called her an hour or so before wanting to talk, and rather than meeting at the shrine, they had met in the park halfway between their homes. After wandering around listening to Ami dance around what was clearly going to be an awkward subject for no less than twenty minutes with an overwhelming amount of technobabble, Rei had demanded to know what was going on. Now that she had heard the whole story, it was little wonder Ami felt embarrassed.

"So let me get this straight…. You've had this crystal since Reika was attacked, and you're just telling me about it now?"

Abashed, Ami shifted her weight and collected herself. "Well… I've been studying it since then, and with everything going on, it took me longer than I originally anticipated. If it was just some sort of bauble, I didn't want to waste anyone's time."

Rei didn't bother to hide her incredulous tone. "You mean to tell me you thought Nephrite was just carrying this around because he thought it was pretty?"

"We don't know if it's Nephrite's."

"Maybe not, but it'd be my first guess." Rei leaned forward, gazing into the crystal's azure depths. "Although, I'm not sensing anything… distinctly dark about it."

Ami nodded. "The computer didn't pick up on anything either. There's definitely some sort of magical signature, but there's something strange about it. To begin with, the crystal itself does not appear to be either good, evil, or a mixture. It's neutral. Almost as if—"

"It hasn't decided," Rei supplied.

"Precisely!" Ami shouted. A moment later, she covered her mouth with her free hand, blushing.

Rei smirked. "I think I'm beginning to understand why you didn't say anything before. You just didn't want to share."

Ami fluffed her hair but didn't respond. "But there's something else odd about it that I can't put my finger on. It's like… it's just a feeling I've got, but goodness knows compared to you, I have the psychic ability of a block of cheese—"

Rei snorted loudly.

"Well, it's true. Anyway, in spite of the crystal itself not being potently evil, it's like… there's a shadow of something unpleasant. I've run countless tests, and they've either come back inconclusive or yielding results that make absolutely no sense. I think I've taken it as far as my scientific capabilities allow. So I thought maybe you could have a look at it."

"And spiritual picks up where science fails," Rei murmured proudly. "Makes sense. What do Luna and Mamoru have to say about it?"

Ami shrugged and gazed out over the lake where a few couples were rowing boats. "They didn't really say too much about it. Luna's running around attempting to locate more Sailor Senshi, and Mamoru's been spending a lot of time with Motoki."

Rei's eyes darkened. She didn't have to ask why Ami had put off going to Rei. Even now, things were still awkward between them, even if it only manifested in how they carefully avoided touching each other when passing the stone between them. Rei knew there was absolutely no one to blame for that but herself, and she tactfully avoided bringing it up.

"How is Reika?" she asked instead.

"I'm not sure exactly. My mother isn't on the case, and she's not close with the doctor who is. She's been released already, but everyone's more or less mystified by what happened to her."

They exchanged a glance, and the meaning of it was clear enough. Reika's doctors were not the only ones lost when it came to Reika.

"At least she's home," Rei remarked with what she knew was unusual diplomacy. She reached forward and plucked the gem from Ami's hand, holding it up to the sunlight. There was definitely something strange about the crystal – some kind of unidentified power. She sensed something malleable about it, something that made her grateful that Ami had picked it up rather than their enemies, but when she attempted to reach for that power, she could not find it. An adaptable but inaccessible power was both worrisome and frustrating.

"I think I'd better consult the sacred fire." She hunched her shoulders, sniffing in irritation. "Not that I can do that until I can go back the shrine."

"Why did you want to meet somewhere else anyway?"

Rei slipped the crystal into her purse for safe keeping. "Grandpa's been interviewing people to take a job at the shrine to help out with the cleaning and stuff. Since my… availability has significantly decreased as of late, he thought it might be a good idea. He had me sit in on a few and then got upset when I gave him my opinion on the candidates."

Ami folded her hands in front of her dress demurely. "Did you by any chance give said opinion when the interviewees were still in the room?"

"Well of course! They ought to know exactly what their shortcomings are. And then they proved me right by reacting like they did. One of them just burst out crying, and the next said I was obviously possessed by an angry fox spirit."

Ami shook her head. "I think you judge people too harshly, Rei."

Rei narrowed her eyes, but gave the matter some consideration. After a moment, she conceded, "Maybe I do, but I think everyone disappoints you in the end. If I can find something wrong with a person straight off, it's better just to keep them out of your life right at the start. That way you don't get hurt."

Ami's blue eyes widened, staring for one beat and then dropping to the ground in something like shame or embarrassment. It took Rei a moment to realize what she'd said and what it was sure to mean to Ami, whose memory of Rei's disappointment was still so fresh and raw.

"Then again," Rei murmured, moving closer so that her shoulder brushed against her companion's, "I'm not right all the time. Sometimes people surprise me."

She didn't dare look at Ami directly, but she watched as the girl blushed out of the corner of her eyes. Rei exhaled, feeling the knot of tension in her chest relaxing, if not completely unraveling.

Her moment of peace, sadly, did not last. The tension returned like an angry tidal wave as the sound of men shouting reached their ears. Ami and Rei exchanged a quick glance and then sprinted towards the noise, Rei trying to run and dig through her bag for the communicator at the same time.

It didn't take them very long to reach the scene. Rei's jaw unhinged when she saw the construction site, which was rapidly being abandoned by the workers. She saw fifty muscular, usually self-assured men and women fleeing as if their lives depended on it.

From butterflies.

"Oh my," Ami murmured.

Finally, Rei laid hands on her communicator. "I'll get him."

-----

Mamoru made it to the park in record time. Ami released a visible sigh of relief when she saw him. "Thank goodness. I was beginning to think we might have to start without you."

Rei raised an eyebrow at his appearance. "Don't you look… you know, I have so many options, I just can't decide. What would you say, Luna?"

"Well, his hair rather resembles a small dog that's been struck by lightning."

"Not a cat?"

Luna licked her paw and smoothed it over her face. "As if we would ever look so disheveled."

Mamoru held up his hands in mock surrender. "All right, you got your shot in. You said something weird's going on?"

Ami motioned them forward, leading them until they reached what had once been a construction site. It was now overrun with squirrels and what looked like particularly temperamental butterflies.

Mamoru whistled. "Jesus. What happened here?"

Rei and Ami looked at each other in a way that reeked of conspiracy. He wondered if he was the only one keeping secrets. "Ami asked me to meet her here so that we could talk about something that we'll just have to discuss when this is all taken care of," Rei began. "We heard the shouts and saw the construction guys being chased out of here by the wildlife."

"They were attacked by… squirrels?" Mamoru asked.

Luna swatted at his ear. Her tail puffed up to twice its normal size. "Do not mock the squirrels! They are devious little rodents, and they are not to be underestimated."

He craned his neck in an attempt to lean away from Luna, who was obviously losing her mind. "Okay…"

"Anyway," Rei interrupted loudly, "that's not the best part. About five minutes after I called you, I felt an upswing in dark energy. And considering this place was already crawling with negative vibes, it wasn't easy." She beamed, clearly awaiting praise.

Ami had no such need. "She means that she found out who Nephrite's target is."

Rei squawked, "Hey! I was going to tell them!"

"And," Ami pressed on, ignoring Rei's mini-tantrum, "it doesn't seem as though he's been under Nephrite's influence for very long. Rei thinks she might be able to help him."

Mamoru couldn't believe their luck. They had been hoping they might be able to discover this with enough time to do something to prevent it. Mamoru had more or less given up on the possibility, but it seemed that somebody up there liked them after all. "Who?"

Just then, an old man wearing grass-stained khaki's rounded the corner. He was over-tanned from spending many hours outdoors in spite of his brimmed hat. It was also hard to miss the slightly manic look in his eye or the sweat pouring off him on a warm, but breezy day.

"Nevermind."

Rei frowned. "You wouldn't have known that if you didn't know he was here."

"Of course not," Luna soothed, leaping from Mamoru's shoulder to Rei's. "That was very good, Rei."

Rei grinned at the praise, even if it obviously hadn't come from the person she really wanted.

"I know him. He's the caretaker for the park and really very sweet," Ami explained. "He told me a few days ago that the park's been bought by developers. They're going to expand the business district and pave right over it. Aside from the havoc it's bound to wreak on the eco-system, it's really a shame. It's gorgeous here."

"That explains the animals attacking the construction site," Rei observed. "Nature's fighting back."

Mamoru nodded. "I can see on the guy being upset about losing his job, and if he cares about the area, that's more reason to get up in arms. That'll spike anyone's energy." He tipped his head over to where the gardener leaned against a tree, stroking it in a way that was lovingly disturbing. "Think you can break it?"

"It's worth a try," Rei remarked hopefully. "I don't think he's had this guy for very long. I usually feel overwhelmed by the energy when it's close. Now it's more like an itch I can't scratch."

Ami frowned. "But how are we supposed to make him stand still long enough for you to undo the damage?"

Mamoru, Rei, and Luna looked at one another meaningfully and then with one perfectly timed movement, turned their gazes to Ami.

-----

Ami waited with composed impatience as Rei, Luna, and Mamoru concealed themselves in the immediate area. She plucked at the neckline of her dress, but took a deep breath and steeled herself for the confrontation. After all, there was nothing to be afraid of. The others were nearby, and besides, she was a Senshi herself. If he tried anything, she could definitely take care of herself.

But if Nephrite appeared, she was the one out in the open, wasn't she?

Pushing the thought out of her mind, Ami approached the caretaker. He hunched over a patch of multi-colored tulips possessively, as if his mere presence would be enough to save them from being destroyed. Judging by the way the construction crew had run off, Ami found herself believing he had the power.

"Excuse me? Mr. Kunitachi?"

He jerked around, and Ami's heart sank. After seeing so many of Nephrite's victims, she recognized the depraved look in an instant. To think that even someone as despicable as Nephrite had decided to go after such a nice, defenseless old man.

"Unforgivable," Ami whispered.

The caretaker straightened as if roused to suspicion.

Suddenly, it occurred to Ami that Nephrite might have a way of communicating with his victims or with the youma being fostered by his magic. She quickly scrambled to cover her mistake.

"What they're doing to this park, I mean," Ami burst out. "I think it's unforgivable."

The look in his eyes became that much more manic. He reached forward suddenly and grabbed her shoulders, smearing dirt across her skin.

"I'm so glad someone else understands the crime being committed against nature."

Ami wanted to glance back at the others for reassurance, but she couldn't risk it. After all, they had no idea how long Mr. Kunitachi had been underneath Nephrite's influence. She couldn't even begin to guess what might set him off. A grown man scaling a tree might just do it.

Ami nodded as earnestly as she could manage. "Yes. I heard about what the owner selling the land to developers. It's just terrible."

Ami had been worried about keeping the caretaker talking, but like many of her concerns, it turned out to be pointless for the most part. Mr. Kunitachi was more than happy to carry on the conversation all by himself, leaving Ami to simply agree with him when he paused to take a breath. He told her all about what he thought about the decision, and his unwillingness to see nature sullied by the hand of man. He implied – well, more than implied – that he had taken to chasing visitors away from the park. It was only her seeming like-mindedness that had spared her from this fate.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar symbol blazed bright green against Mr. Kunitachi's hat. It flared like an exploding star, and then the green light exploded across the path. Ami cried out and shielded her eyes, throwing herself backward should a monster appear. But when the light faded and Ami was able to look again, she saw only smoke rise from the brim of the hat. It formed the shape of what might have been the youma, shrieked faintly, and vanished.

Ami stared for a moment and then broke out into a fierce grin. They'd done it. They'd actually done it!

She heard a groan and saw the caretaker begin to sway. She moved forward to catch him, but Mamoru appeared at his side before she could.

"Are you all right, sir?" he asked brusquely, beginning to lead him off the path.

"I… don't know," Mr. Kunitachi murmured helplessly. "I felt very dizzy all of a sudden."

"You must be dehydrated in this heat. Let's get you inside."

"Thank you."

As the pair walked off, Mamoru looked over his shoulder and smiled at Ami, holding up his thumb exuberantly.

Ami wanted to follow them, but then she felt something small and furry lean against her leg. She thought it might have been a squirrel still under Nephrite's influence, but was relieved to see Luna.

"We did it, Luna!" Ami shouted now that the caretaker was out of earshot. "It was taking so long that I wasn't sure if it would work, but then it did! Rei broke the spell, and the youma didn't appear! We beat Nephrite!"

"Ami, celebrations will have to wait. Rei needs your help."

For the first time, Ami realized that Rei hadn't come out of her hiding place. She quickly dashed over to the bush Rei had chosen, and gasped when she saw the psychic priestess curled up on the ground, clutching her head. She knelt beside Rei. "What happened? Do you need a doctor?"

Rei clenched her teeth in pain. "I'll be fine. It was just… harder than I thought."

"You should have said something…."

"And what?" Rei snapped. "Give up on the mission? I don't think so." She choked back a cry. "I said I'd do it to try and spare that guy. It didn't matter what happened to me."

Ami's eyes softened, and she gently laid her hand on Rei's forehead. She was burning up, but Ami knew better than to be concerned. She'd learned awhile ago that Rei's body temperature was higher than most, particularly after using her powers. "You know, I find it very interesting that someone who rejected this mission at first has become so determined to see it succeed in so short a time."

Rei blushed. "I don't know what you mean. As long as I'm doing something, I'm going to do it right."

Ami laughed quietly, but quickly returned to matters at hand. "Do you need to stay here for awhile?"

"I don't think that's such a good idea," Luna said, appearing at their side. "I'm sorry, Rei, but I'm certain Nephrite will have felt the unraveling of his magic. If he comes here and sees you like this—"

Rei nodded quickly. "I know. It's all right. I can manage." She started to get to her feet, but Ami could immediately tell she was going to have a hard time of it.

"Let me help you," Ami insisted. She swung Rei's arm over her shoulders and struggled to get the other girl to her feet. It was a testament to how awful Rei felt that she didn't offer more than a token protest.

They slowly started to head in the direction Mamoru had gone when Rei let out a wistful sigh. "It's too bad Mamoru had to go help the caretaker," she mused. Then she winked at Ami. "I wouldn't have minded being carried."

Ami gaped at her audacity for a moment and then giggled quietly. "I can't say that I'm surprised."

Rei leaned closer. "Ami… do you want Mamoru to carry you?"

Ami was very happy there weren't any reflective surfaces nearby. She didn't want to know what color her face had turned. "Wh-what?"

Rei chuckled and then winced. She laid her head against Ami's shoulder. "Sorry. I guess I'm not up for teasing you right now."

Ami didn't bother to conceal her sigh of relief.

"Hey, Ami?"

"Hm?"

Even with her eyes closed, Rei's smile was radiant. "We did it."

-----

Nephrite was taking a rare moment of rest and relaxation for himself when he felt it happen. With the glass of whiskey poised at his lips and the symphony of hushed whispers common to the Dark Kingdom slithering in the air, his careful spell unraveled. Then the potential of the energy and the youma that it would have created vanished as if sucked into a black hole.

He crushed the glass in his hand.

All that work. All that effort. All the promise that this target had held, gone in a second. And he knew who he had to thank for it.

"Sailor Senshi," he snarled. "Tuxedo Kamen."

It was tempting to track the caretaker to his location and see if they were hanging around waiting to ambush him, but he doubted it. After the beating they had taken last time, it was unlikely they would engage him again so soon.

Kunzite would have told him to go, to exhaust all possibilities rather than assume things. But Nephrite had no intention of wasting his time.

Besides, if he'd been thwarted at this venture, there was no reason to panic. All he had to do was look to the stars to find the next target. Beryl would never have to know that he'd been defeated like this. No one would.

He rose to his feet in an instant and projected his consciousness skyward. Normally, this was a slow, meditative process, but he had no time to waste. He had to begin his next mission immediately to avoid arousing suspicion. He looked beyond the rigid ceilings of the Dark Kingdom and cast his spirit to the heavens. His soul disconnected with his body and reached into the stars.

He saw them all in his mind's eye, stars long dead and stars not yet born. He saw their patterns and their mysteries, their rising and falling, their destruction and implosion, their collisions and their metamorphoses. He saw all of these, and he waited for them to show them his next victim.

But they were silent.

Nephrite opened his eyes, disbelieving. He tried again, meticulously performing the same ritual. Still, they told him nothing.

Nephrite's knees gave way, and he collapsed to the floor. It was inconceivable. The stars deceived; they misled; they were purposefully esoteric. But never had they refused to speak to him. There had never been anyone else like him, never anyone else who could hear their whispers and understand their whims. They liked to toy with him, but he knew how to play their game. Why now this irrepressible silence?

The stars knew everything. But for some reason, they were refusing to tell their secrets.

Nephrite bellowed violently and slammed his fist into the ground. The chair behind him burst into flame, but it did not touch him. It burned out in seconds, leaving nothing but a neat pile of ash and scorch marks on the floor.

Is this how Jadeite had felt before his end? Perhaps. Certainly Jadeite had acted with furious desperation in his final hours, and his rash behavior had hastened his death. As the second-ranked of the Shitennou, Jadeite should not have been bested by children, should not have been lured by a mere youma, and should not have been brought low by their bitch queen, Beryl. He should have prevailed in the end and survived despite all his failures. His time had been too short, and now it seemed that history was about to repeat itself.

Nephrite reached up and gripped the epaulettes Jadeite had refused.

He wouldn't be cast aside. Nephrite wouldn't let desperation drive him to madness. Nephrite wouldn't allow this one setback to dictate his destiny. He was going to do what Jadeite had failed to do. He was going to live.

He vanished and then reappeared at one of Zoisite's favorite spots. Beauty of any kind was uncommon in the Dark Kingdom, but Zoisite had always had a soft spot for flowers. He had cultivated a garden in the depths of the D-point, feeding the plants with dark energy rather than water and sunlight. As a result, they had twisted and warped into something unlike their counterparts that flourished above the ground. Still, even Nephrite had to admit, they had a beauty all their own.

Nephrite stayed hidden in an alcove for hours. He did not dare to move or speak for fear of betrayting his presence, and when a youma got too close, he dealt with it in vicious silence. Finally, in hour three, he got his reward.

Zoisite wandered into the garden and took a seat on the makeshift bench. He bent to pluck an amethyst flower, but just before he uprooted it, one of his scout youma appeared before him. It bowed, and Nephrite had to grit his teeth to keep from killing it for showing that worm such respect.

"Master Zoisite," the youma purred, smoothing a paw over its feline ear.

Zoisite leaned back, crossing his legs delicately. "You said you had something for me?"

"I have a lead on the Ginzuishou."

Nephrite listened to the youma's full report and committed it to memory. When the explanation was given in full, he almost smiled.

He might be unable to complete his mission, but that didn't mean he couldn't complete Zoisite's instead.

-----

Mamoru was something of a natural brooder, and his environment reflected that. He didn't have much in the way of lighting, and the curtains for his apartment were almost constantly drawn. Even the furniture had a somber overtone that seemed to dampen the entire room with an ever-present darkness.

But after this morning's triumph, none of that seemed to matter. The room was filled with laughter as it had never experienced before. Ami had thrown open the curtains and Rei had put on the stereo, swapping out his mellow jazz for a pop radio station. And Luna, who usually comported herself with such dignity, ran about the room like a kitten, dancing between people's feet.

It wasn't as if they'd never won before. But this was the first time that they'd won without having to fight. It was the first time they'd managed to thwart Nephrite or any of their enemies. In Mamoru's opinion, it was more satisfying than 20-year-old scotch.

With that thought, he remembered that the two girls in his living room were fourteen. He set down the sake he had reached for automatically, and then pushed it to the back of the refrigerator on the off-chance that Rei got any ideas. He pulled out soda instead, and then turned to see Rei rummaging through his pantry as if she belonged there.

"Speak of the devil," he muttered, just a bit too loudly.

She shot him a withering look. "For your information, after saving the day, I'm starving. I came in here to see if you had anything to eat, and I have discovered that there is nothing but sugar in here. Now I just want to see if there's any variety."

He frowned. She was exaggerating, but not by much. He had a feeling he was going to have to put up with a lecture about this sooner or later.

"What?" Ami called out, making her way into the kitchen and peering over Rei's shoulder.

Sooner then.

Ami let out a scandalized gasp. One would have thought she'd found pornography instead of cookies. "Mamoru, this is awful! It's all processed with refined sugars, and…. Have you ever read a label?"

He was tempted to say something snide, but he didn't like using sarcasm with Ami. In addition to being less satisfying, there was always a flash of hurt in her eyes, as if she had to take a moment to remind herself that it was all in good fun. "There's rice," he said lamely.

"This is just… I cannot… Let me see your fridge!"

Mamoru backed out of the way, sufficiently cowed. Ami on the warpath was just as frightening as Rei, if in an entirely different way. He winced when he heard her let out another gasp of outrage.

"There is nothing in here but soda, beer, and sake," Ami hissed.

"I thought I had a yogurt in there…. Oh, no. That went bad."

"Exactly how many varieties of chocolate cookies do you need anyway?" Rei asked, munching on an Oreo.

"I like chocolate."

"I had gathered that, yes."

"This is disgusting," Ami informed him soundly. Then she opened the freezer. "Three bottles of vodka? Really? Are three bottles of vodka so necessary?"

"They're different proofs," he muttered, realizing that she'd only seen part of his liquor collection and that if she saw anymore, she was liable to label him an alcoholic. "And there is meat in there!"

Ami pulled out a green and white box. "It is meat. In a box. Filled with preservatives. That you heat up in a microwave."

"Ami—"

"How are you not ill?" Ami asked. "You must be suffering from a vitamin deficiency."

Mamoru reached over to the counter and rattled a bottle in her direction. "I take one of these every day."

She sniffed. "That's hardly adequate. My God, your fiber intake alone—"

"And that's my cue to go," Rei said, retreating to the living room.

Suddenly, Luna appeared, winded and clutching a toy mousie between her teeth. She spat it out and asked, "What's all this yelling about?"

"Mamoru is attempting to overdose on Chips Ahoy," Rei explained blithely. "Ami's not pleased."

"Ah," Luna said. "Ami, much as I agree with you on his diet, such as it is, may I suggest that you leave it for the time being? We have just triumphed over the enemy in a big way. Not only have we saved that man from quite a nasty experience, but we've shown Nephrite that we're far more formidable than he gave us credit for. Let's not spoil it with petty arguments."

The three humans in the room stared at her in disbelief.

"What?" she asked, her ear twitching.

"You just passed up an opportunity to lecture me," Mamoru said. "Or have it vicariously done through Ami. I just… I don't even know if the world makes sense anymore."

Luna scoffed and then snatched up the mousie by the tail and threw it into the air. She went bounding back into the living room to continue her chase.

Ami, Rei, and Mamoru burst out laughing at the display, and for the time being at least, Mamoru's fiber intake was forgotten.

For the next hour, he and the girls made considerable headway through his chocolate collection, consuming pocky, cookies, and candy alike. Each of them loosened up in a way they never had before, laughing and joking as if they had been friends for years and not haphazard allies. And Luna purred without shame, butting her head up against willing hands and cuddling up to each of them in turn.

It was a perfect day.

After awhile, Mamoru got up, snatching that day's newspaper from his kitchen table. Then he started to make his way to his in-unit laundry room, such as it was.

"Where are you going?" Rei called out, her watchful eye ever aware of his movements.

He tried not to be bitter about that and answered, "Just changing the newspaper lining around Luna's things. I meant to do it yesterday and would rather not forget."

As he walked off, he heard the three women muttering about his obvious neat-freakedness, a conversation he purposefully ignored. He pushed open the door next to the bathroom. The laundry room was little more than a closet, but there was just enough room for food bowls and a litter box. That Mamoru had to tend to such things was something he and Luna took great care not to discuss.

He pulled out the damp sheet of paper from underneath her food and water dish. He selected a page at random from the newspaper and began to lay it flat.

And then he saw something that made him stop dead in his tracks.

MYSTERIOUS CRYSTAL COMES TO JAPAN
Gemstone of unknown origin to debut in the Tokyo National Museum

He skimmed the article, noting that the crystal was large enough to rival the Hope Diamond, and that it was similar in color and structure. However, no one as of yet had managed to identify the rock it was made from – it was something entirely new. It had been uncovered in an expedition in the Indian deserts along with a great many other artifacts from a civilization that seemed impossibly old in a region that until recently, was assumed to have gone uninhabited throughout human history.

A mysterious crystal of unknown origin made of an unknown substance. A crystal that was white like a diamond, but could be called silver just as easily.

"Shit."

Sighing the sigh of a man who had done the wrong thing and knew it, Mamoru turned back and slowly trudged back into the living room. Not surprisingly, Rei was the first to notice his return, and the first to notice his dour expression. She quieted the others and in her usual way, demanded to know what was the matter with him.

And then he told them the whole long, damnedable story.

Well. Maybe not the whole story.

-----

One could say that anger was practically Rei's default emotion. Though she knew intellectually she must have been angrier than this or at least as angry as this, she could not believe it just at that moment.

She took comfort only in the knowledge that she wasn't the only one.

"I cannot believe you kept this from us," Luna spat. Her earlier suggestion to leave off lecturing vanished like so much dust. "You know we're looking for a princess, and when one waltzes into your dreams and—"

"I told you. I had those dreams when I was a kid," Mamoru maintained. "I thought you might have just… stirred something up. What, am I supposed to tell you every dream I have, because I guarantee that there are plenty that you don't want to hear about."

Understanding instantly, Rei and Ami both blushed. And Rei blushed a little harder when she found herself wondering if she was involved in any of those dreams, as if now was the time to be thinking about that.

"That's crap," Rei snapped, reverting back to more familiar territory: yelling. "I can maybe believe that for awhile, you weren't sure, but at some point it had to become clear that it was more than coincidence. You didn't keep it from us because you didn't want to bother us. You were keeping it from us because you were being selfish."

Mamoru gave her a look that seemed to suggest that he was sorely tempted to make a remark about the pot calling the kettle black.

"Look, maybe it doesn't matter," Ami interrupted. Rei could tell she was upset too, but more hurt than angry. "It's not as if we could have done anything about it, and he came forward as soon as it was relevant."

"But what if there was something we could have done?" Rei asked pointedly. "What if there was a lead only you or I would have known about, and because Mr. Possessive over here doesn't know when to share, we lost it? And what if I'm not just speaking in hypotheticals? What if it's already happened?"

"You don't know that," Mamoru grumbled.

"Well, neither do you!"

Ami moved as if she wanted to cover her ears. "Please, can we not fight?"

"Mamoru probably should have thought of that before he went around lying to us."

"I didn't lie!"

"A lie of omission is still a lie," Luna said. "I should have known. You're always waking up in the middle of the night. I should have known that something was wrong and called you on it." She paused, grimacing. "Or would you have just lied to my face?"

Mamoru blanched. "No!" he shouted, though his eyes showed some uncertainty.

Rei scoffed. "Idiot."

"Stop acting so entitled," Mamoru hissed contemptuously.

Rei leapt to her feet and shouted, "I am entitled, damn it! We're on the same side."

Mamoru stepped closer. She felt certain he was trying to intimidate her with his height, and she nearly laughed in his face. "But that isn't why you feel entitled, is it?"

Rei bristled with rage. How dare he? How dare he bring that up here, in front of the others? How dare he use it as a weapon against her? How dare he throw in her face how easy it had been to tell her no?

She drew her hand back to slap him across the face, and she didn't care if she'd regret it one day.

Ami's cold hands encircled her wrist, pulling her arm back down. "Please, stop."

Rei could have just as easily kicked Mamoru, and it was only for Ami's sake that she didn't.

"I… I don't approve of what Mamoru did either," Ami began, and Rei could tell that she was putting her feelings mildly. "But I'm not sure it matters. We can't change what happened. All we can do is go forward. And if there's even the slightest possibility that this crystal is the one we're looking for, then we need to check it out. Luna, when's the exhibit?"

"A week from tomorrow," the cat answered.

"Fine." Ami's grip on Rei's arm started to relax. "We'll have to wait until then. It will be under heavier guard before the debut than after, so we'll go the night after the exhibition opens. I'll start working on a plan. All right?"

It didn't fix anything. It didn't even come close. But it was going to have to do.

Rei gently extricated herself from Ami's grasp. "All right," she agreed with obvious reluctance. "But Mamoru, you better pay attention to this. You've told us that you've dreamt of the princess, and I can't even begin to speculate as to what that means. You've told us she's asked you to find a crystal. Fine. If it is the Moon Princess and not some ridiculous figment of your twisted imagination, then I will look for it. But if there is anything about this little narrative that you've left out that even has the slightest chance of being relevant to what we're doing here, you had better tell us now, or I swear, you will live to regret it. For about two minutes."

This was not an idle threat coming from her. Mamoru may have had a distinct advantage over a fourteen-year-old girl, but he did not have an advantage over a decidedly pissed off fourteen-year-old girl who could control fire at a whim.

She watched the thin line of his mouth grow thinner. She watched his Adam's apple bob against his throat as he swallowed. She watched his blue of eyes darken as if to herald an oncoming squall.

"There's nothing else."

And even though he had not hesitated too long or looked away from her, she knew that he was lying. Just like she knew that he'd never admit it if she roasted him on a spit for a thousand years.

She slammed the door especially hard on her way out.

-----

"Mysterious crystal, eh?" Minako asked, her head hanging off the edge of her bed. Like all previous attempts, reading in this position was not a stellar success. "Bit convenient."

"These things usually are," Artemis admitted.

Minako nodded, conceding that much. "I suppose we'll have to check it out." She gave him a Cheshire Cat grin. "I wonder if maybe I should invite a friend."

Artemis groaned. "I still wish you hadn't done that."

"Oh, why not?" Minako asked, pulling herself upright. "At the time, I didn't know he knew anything about the Ginzuishou, and goodness knows we need all the help we can get on that front. Maybe I wouldn't have if I'd realized he'd known, but now we know so much more about him and what they know and don't know."

Artemis looked as if he was having trouble following her. She couldn't imagine why. "If he tells the others about you—"

"He won't."

"See, you keep saying that," Artemis ground out, "but I don't understand how you can be so sure."

Minako ruffled his hair, ignoring the sour look he gave her. "You weren't there. You didn't see how… territorial he looked when he was talking about the princess. Oh, he admitted it to me easily enough, but I think that's only because he'd already decided I was her. And since I didn't exactly deny it, I don't think he could be bribed into talking about me with wild horses."

"That's not really how that—"

"Whatever."

Artemis shook his head, sending a quick look heavenward, asking the gods why he was saddled with such a burden. She decided not to pinch him. Not yet anyway.

"Look, I don't think it's likely to be what we're looking for either," Artemis admitted. "But it's not as if we can leave it to chance, can we?"

Minako frowned. "No, I guess we can't. But you know, the others might have seen this. Worse still, the Dark Kingdom might have seen this."

Artemis looked at her with unmasked sympathy. "You think Kunzite—"

"No," Minako interrupted too sharply. "He wouldn't be doing that. The crystal's important, but… we know he was splitting his time between London and training the invasion forces, and look how that turned out? They lost me, they abandoned the city, and they got nothing to show for it. No, they'll have focused his efforts on making sure their army's in working order."

Artemis stared at her. "It is frightening that you work that out so quickly."

"Oh, like you hadn't?"

"Yes, but I'm the centuries-old moon cat. It's to be expected."

Minako opened her mouth to deliver another snide remark when the door suddenly flew open. Minako's mother, Aino Kaida, entered the room. She had a load of clean laundry – unfolded as it was supposed to be one of Minako's chores to do so – resting on her hip. She deposited the laundry and said, "Dinner's nearly ready."

"Okay," Minako said, laying a hand on Artemis's smooth back. "I'll be down in a minute."

Kaida nodded, deeming this acceptable. Minako hated when she did that. Kaida then swept her eyes around the cluttered room with her usual disapproval, lingering on the white cat for a second longer than necessary. She turned sharply and shut the door behind her; the audible click that followed somehow managed to be just as disparaging.

Artemis and Minako let out twin sighs of relief.

"She really doesn't like me," Artemis noted unnecessarily.

"Of course not," Minako grumbled, bending to kiss the top of Artemis's head. "You're mine."

-----

The stars may have felt as cold and silent to him now as a million shining corpses, but Nephrite could still draw on their power. Every spell he cast was in some way connected to the heavens above. So it was with everyone in their own way for the stars governed who were meant to wield power, but his connection was deeper, more sacred. He had received their blessings.

Though perhaps not anymore.

Nephrite cast that thought from his mind like an unwelcome guest. He dare not doubt anything – not his abilities nor his decision to interfere in Zoisite's work. Nephrite knew tangling with the man carried a certain amount of danger. Zoisite was weaker than him, but more treacherous and far more likely to stab from behind. Nephrite was hardly a diehard proponent of fair combat. None of them were. But each of them had their limits in what they would or would not do when it came to fighting dirty. Zoisite had yet to find his.

When Nephrite found the Ginzuishou, Zoisite would be furious. Actually, that didn't begin to cover it. Zoisite already hated him, but when it became known that Nephrite had bested him at his own game, Nephrite would be lucky to escape.

But this was more than enough thought given to Zoisite. He had to empty his mind of these and other concerns if he wanted this to work. Distraction was not an option.

Nephrite closed his eyes and listened. Though he expected the chilling quiet, he still loathed it. With that out of the way, he began to feed off their ancient power. He held his hands out, channeling all of that energy through his body. It spilled out of his palms in ever-shifting hues.

It was more power than he was used to. It was far easier to destroy than to create. A star blast he could send off with scarcely a modicum of concentration. But this was the birth of a tool, the birth of a power. This was creating something out of nothing but magic and intent.

This was about survival.

After what seemed like an eternity, the process was completed. A prism was now suspended between his palms, black as jet and glowing with his power. He caught it with one hand, ignoring the sweat dampening his glove.

This would be the key to everything. This stone would lead him to the Ginzuishou. Nephrite smiled, remembering that this would never have occurred to Zoisite. Zoisite always took the easy way out, sending out his youma scouts to do the dirty work while he fawned over Kunzite and spat at Nephrite's retreating footsteps. It never would have occurred to Zoisite to do anything but wait for the silver crystal to fall into his lap. Nor would it have occurred to him that someone else would do so.

"Get ready for a little competition, you rat-faced bastard."

-----

It took Rei a full day to calm down enough to trust herself to pray before the sacred fire. She'd wanted to do it immediately, but any time she attempted to focus her mind, she went back to being angry with Mamoru again.

The worst of it was that she understood to a degree the impulse to keep things secret. She certainly had plenty of those, didn't she? The secret that her father didn't love her. The secret that her mother had died because she'd insisted on having a daughter. The secret that Hino Rei was not her only name. Part of her could understand why he had done it, and she hated that. She hated shades of grey. She far preferred absolutes.

Fire was an absolute. Fire didn't dither around about morality and personal entitlement and whatever else. Fire just burned.

The least he could have done was tell Luna. He lived with the cat, so it's not as if he was wanting for opportunity. Then she could have carried on the search by herself if Mamoru didn't care to tell anyone else. After all, that's what Ami had done when she'd held off on telling Rei about the blue crystal: told Luna and Mamoru.

"A lot of crystals floating around," Rei muttered darkly, holding the gem in her hand. She peered into it once more, staring into the faceted blue depths. If she forgot herself for a moment and allowed herself be poetic, she could imagine that she'd caught a bit of the ocean in her hand and made it solid. It was a nice thought, even if it wasn't her element.

Rei shook her head. No need to get tripped up in useless metaphors. She needed to figure out what this crystal was, what its intentions were. She liked her idea that the crystal hadn't decided to be good or evil yet. It gave it a feeling of autonomy, which seemed fitting. Strange that the notion didn't cause her more discomfort.

What did set her ill at ease was Ami's feeling that it had brushed with something… unpleasant. Ami was not nearly as sensitive as Rei was, and the fact that either she or her computer had picked up on that darkness was saying something. Rei didn't quite see how; she was able to find subtle traces when she probed for it, but it was hardly something that would be obvious to the technical mind.

Nevertheless, Ami was right, as she always seemed to be. And Rei needed to at least attempt to unravel the secrets of this mysterious… blue crystal.

Rei moved toward the fire. She knelt and began to clear her mind. Once she felt more centered, she began to chant her mantra, but rather than use the hand motions, she kept the blue jewel resting in her open palms. To her surprise, it did not take very long at all for the visions to come upon her, and when they did, they had a cerulean cast, as if she were viewing them through the crystal.

She saw something that was neither shadow nor man nor monster. It glared at her with blue eyes and an open mouth that wanted to swallow her up. And she saw six others behind it, though she could not see their eyes. Only their teeth.

She saw a golden crescent resting atop a pearlescent staff held aloft. She could not see who held it, but she knew it was a woman.

She saw a white pillar crumbling. She saw fountains weeping. She saw storm clouds being ripped apart by black lightning.

She saw someone holding a star in their hands.

And then she opened her eyes.

Rei stared at the jewel, a bit dazed. Then she looked down at the crystal now clenched in her hands. Her knuckles were pale from her grip, but she did not relax. She felt certain that there was nothing on this earth strong enough to crush the stone.

"I don't know what you are," she muttered. "But I don't like it."

-----

A week later, to Mamoru's eternal dismay, his situation had not improved.

Mamoru had tried on several occasions to talk to Rei about what had happened. He was not inclined to deal with her absent Ami to act as a buffer, but he was less inclined for their differences to meddle with their effectiveness in battle. Unfortunately, when Rei hadn't been giving him the silent treatment, she'd resorted to dressing him down so soundly that he'd made a comment about the nuns rubbing off on her.

Predictably, this had not improved the situation.

Luna was equally displeased, and that was worse. Luna had long since faded from being angry with him to being disappointed with him. Motoki had often told him that this was his parents' favorite strategy when it came to disciplining their children. He'd never understood its efficacy until now.

As a result of their chilly demeanors the trip from the Minato ward to the Taito ward had been nothing short of unbearable. The train ride had been long and horrendously cramped. With Rei's elbow digging into his back and Luna's frosty silence from her cat carrier combined, Mamoru had been nearly tempted to throw himself off the train.

Ami was the only one tolerating him, and she had done her best to make the trip pleasant. They had discussed science and the medical field until their throats were dry, and although he welcomed the distraction, he wished they could have found a better topic. In the confusion of the last week, he'd nearly forgotten he was contemplating leaving school.

Still, beggars couldn't be choosers. Mamoru knew that she was too kind not to be supportive. He held no illusions that she agreed with his decision – hell, he didn't even agree with his decision. Maybe she didn't even understand it. But she was willing to understand him, and to forgive him for this mistake, even if the other two women in his life seemed less inclined.

Now the four of them (with Luna safely stowed in Ami's picnic basket) stood on the slate grey pavement that led up to the Tokyo National Museum. In different circumstances, Mamoru would have been looking forward to a quiet day of exploration. He was neither a history nor an art buff, but he had enough of an appreciation to find it an enriching experience. Besides, museums were quiet, something his life sorely lacked as of late.

The trio gazed out over the reflecting pond before the building, making a show of studying the building's architecture when in reality, they were casing the building. Mamoru felt more like a burglar preparing for a heist than he cared to admit, but in a way, he supposed his profession was similar. It required a certain tactical advantage, knowing the lay of the land and all the exits. Granted, most robbers did not have to worry about monsters or blood-crazed generals, but everyone had their problems.

"Everyone know the plan?" Luna called out, her voice muffled by the basket-weave.

"We only went over it ten times already," Rei muttered, and though it was an exaggeration, it wasn't that far off the mark.

Ever dutiful, Ami recited the plan. "Rei will try to read the gem's psychic signature, if there is any. Mamoru will watch her back should it become overwhelming. I'll bring you close to the object to see if you can pick up anything. Should we need confirmation on the identity of the crystal, I'll use the computer."

"How exactly are you supposed to do that? Isn't the Mercury symbol on the front a little conspicuous?" Mamoru asked.

Ami smiled at him cheerfully enough, but he had a feeling there was a patronizing twinkle lurking in her eyes. Shifting the basket to one arm, she reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out her computer. She flipped it open and pressed a few keys. In the blink of an eye, the computer had changed from bright blue to black, with a tiny Motorola symbol in the corner.

"Palm-pilot camouflage," Ami chirped, slipping it away once more.

"How did you figure that thing out so quickly anyway?" Rei asked.

"I practiced, of course."

"Of course," Mamoru and Rei echoed in tandem. She glared, turning up her nose. Mamoru resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but only just.

"It's like I'm baby-sitting three-year-olds," Luna growled, apparently having seen the display through the opening slot.

"Says the only one of us without thumbs," Mamoru muttered.

Rei snickered before she could stop herself.

"We'd best get a move on before the lunch rush," Luna ground out.

"Hold on," Rei called out, suddenly rummaging through her purse. "I almost forgot about this." She glanced around and then just barely pulled the blue crystal into view. "We should probably see if there's any sort of reaction between the two crystals."

Ami frowned. "Is that really a good idea? There are a lot of people around."

Rei shrugged. "If anyone's got a better idea, I'd like to hear it."

Since that was an obvious negative, Ami flipped open the lid of her basket. Rei deposited the crystal next to Luna, who clutched it between her paws. "I'll let you know if anything happens," Luna assured them. "Now let's move."

The trio nodded in a swift, almost practiced movement and then stepped forward, preparing to enter the building.

To Mamoru's dismay, their promptness hadn't done much to beat the crowd. The museum was already packed; it was a Saturday, so Mamoru supposed it hadn't been prudent to get his hopes up too much. Judging by their twin sighs, Ami and Rei were coming to similar conclusions. The crowd seemed to be composed mostly of young families coming to give their children a bit of culture. There were a few sullen faces in the crowd, but Mamoru noticed that by and large all of the little girls were beaming. He supposed seeing a gigantic crystal ranked fairly high in their esteem.

He also noticed a few couples in the crowd. He overheard one girl, who looked a little younger than him, whispering to her boyfriend that perhaps the crystal had been an engagement present of some sort. The boy turned a pasty shade of grey and did his best to give her a smile.

Mamoru pointedly did not look at Rei.

These groups, he expected, but he also noticed a few single people dressed in business suits skulking around the outskirts of the crowd. He was confused, until Ami leaned close and whispered, "They're jewelers. Some of them are carrying briefcases with the store emblems monogrammed into the leather. I suppose they're harboring something of a… professional curiosity?"

"Guess so," Mamoru murmured. "I wish there weren't so many people…. It'll make it harder to watch out for Nephrite or anyone else out of the ordinary."

"Yeah, cause it isn't like you brought a psychic with you or anything," Rei quipped. "Oh, wait!"

"Could you please stop bickering long enough to get to the exhibition room?" Luna hissed.

The three of them continued to move forward, navigating the clogged hallways and slowly making their way toward the special room reserved for traveling exhibits and special items.

It took awhile, and Mamoru kept losing track of Ami, but they finally made it to the room. Rei said she didn't need to get too close to get a reading on the crystal, but Luna needed to be close in order to get a look at it. Ami began to weave through the thick crowd, apologizing for bumping into onlookers with every breath.

Meanwhile, Mamoru craned his neck around a man who had placed his toddler on his shoulders and took a good, long look at the crystal in question. To Mamoru's untrained eye, he didn't think it looked all that special. Granted, it was quite large – easily bigger than his fist – but he'd seen plenty of fake crystals just like it in novelty stores. Still, he'd never seen a stone that glittered in quite the same way. It seemed as if the gem had swallowed a rainbow, and the colored lights were trying without much success to escape. Every inch he turned his head displayed a new mess of color – turquoise and lavender and orange brighter than neon. He supposed it could have been mistaken for a diamond if not for that multi-colored luminescence.

Rei's fingernails sank into the flesh on his arm.

He glanced down and saw that she had paled. He placed a hand against the middle of her back, afraid that she might pitch over. "What is it? Is it the crystal? Is it what we're looking for?"

"I don't know," Rei admitted. "There's definitely something to it. There's magic inside it, and it's very old. I can feel it, but I can't tell what it's for…. But that's not the problem. Your three o'clock."

Although Mamoru had a feeling he knew what was there, he obeyed her anyway. Standing a head above the crowd was a man with auburn curls and blue eyes so light they looked like ice. There was a permanent crease between his eyebrows. He obviously glared a lot.

"God damn it," Mamoru swore, wishing he wasn't hanging around with fourteen-year-olds so that he could use something stronger.

"You're the one who said he might show up."

"I occasionally toy with being optimistic," he said. "Then things like this happen, and I wonder what got into me." He paused. "Shouldn't you be passed out by now?"

Rei took a deep breath, and her grip on his arm momentarily lessened. "I've been getting better at shielding myself from dark influences. However, my head does feel like there's a crazed marching band trying to claw its way out, so the sooner we take care of this, the better."

Mamoru nodded. "We should take Ami and get out."

"But what if it is the crystal?" Rei pointed out. "Should we just leave him here to take it?"

"What do you suggest? We attack him outright? There's too many people."

"We get everyone out," Rei suggested.

Mamoru nearly asked how, but bit his tongue just in time. "And what makes you think he won't attack? I doubt he'll care much about collateral damage to the museum."

Rei frowned, her violet eyes flicking towards the crystal once more. "I don't think he will. There's something… volatile about the crystal. Something tells me that releasing any magical energy in this room without knowing exactly what you're doing could backfire real easy. Nephrite won't care about anyone else, but he definitely cares about his own skin."

Mamoru couldn't argue with that. "All right. See if you can try to get to Ami and Luna."

"And where are you going?"

"To create a diversion."

Mamoru jogged out of the room, thankful that he and Rei had stayed towards the back. He quickly scanned the other rooms, looking for another that seemed to be full of people. He found what he was looking for in an area filled with artifacts from the Meiji area. He sauntered in, trying to look as casual as possible. Then he edged his way along the walls of the room, keeping an eye on the other occupants of the room. And when he was absolutely certain that no one was looking at him, he created the diversion.

He jerked his arm backwards, smashing his elbow through a glass display case.

An instant later, alarms rang throughout the building. Small children screamed and their parents sighed in dismay. Shocked voices began to carry over the high alarms, each of them asking the same questions over and over again. Then museum guards appeared with grim faces glaring at even the most innocuous of faces, urging all of the patrons to please move towards the exits as quickly as possible, where their bags and person would be searched.

Mamoru worried for a moment about them finding Luna, and then saw a tiny black blur streak between the legs of some unsuspecting tourists. He smiled, hoping that no one else saw the feline bolting to freedom.

It took an hour for Mamoru to get out of the building, and he was unsurprised to find Ami, Rei, and Luna waiting for him near a grove of trees. He strolled over to meet them, anxious to find out what had happened to Nephrite, but even more anxious not to attract attention. The guards hadn't detained him, but he swore they'd been giving him suspicious looks.

"What happened to Nephrite?"

"He swore rather spectacularly and then teleported away. Nobody else noticed," Rei said.

"Thank goodness for small favors I suppose."

"How did you get everyone out anyway?" Luna asked.

Mamoru shrugged. "I broke a display case."

"YOU WHAT?"

Ami advanced on him with the fury of a god, and though she had never even come close to scaring him before, she terrified him now. There was a manic look in her eyes that was completely incongruous with her usual demeanor. "What was it? What was in the case?"

"Er… I don't know. I didn't look," Mamoru confessed, trying to back away surreptitiously.

"You. Didn't. Look?" Ami reached forward and grabbed the lapels of his jacket, giving him a good shake. Mamoru saw Rei and Luna gaping at her from behind. "There are irreplaceable national treasures in that museum. There are documents that if exposed to anything other than regulated amount of oxygen will crumble to dust. Priceless artifacts, Mamoru. And you didn't bother to look?"

Mamoru decided that Ami would make one hell of a curator one day if the doctoring didn't work out. "You're welcome for getting Nephrite out?"

Ami let out a strangled scream and released him with unconcealed disgust. It took Mamoru approximately three seconds to realize that he had just lost the only ally he had left on this damn trip.

"Well, what do we do now?" Mamoru barked, lacking the incentive to keep him polite. "Luna, anything?"

The cat shook her head. "The blue crystal didn't react at all, but that might not mean anything. I didn't recognize it; it's possible I'd need to touch it to be sure. Ami didn't get a chance to examine it, and Rei said her probe was just as inconclusive."

"There's something there," Rei agreed, narrowing her gaze. "Something dangerous. I feel like Nephrite would have just taken it guns blazing if it was innocuous."

"Well, we had to assume it was dangerous," Mamoru sighed. "I doubt Nephrite wants the crystal to make jewelry out of it."

Mamoru's brain was momentarily assaulted by the mental image of Nephrite wearing a diamond tiara. He couldn't decide it if was hilarious or cringe worthy.

"He'll be back," Ami volunteered. "Probably tonight."

"I'm certain we can count on that," Luna sighed. "And that means we have to stop him. It's a good thing we planned to stay overnight anyway."

Rei grumbled, "So now we have to break into a museum." She paused. "Actually, that's kind of cool."

"Only if Mamoru doesn't ruin any more history," Ami snapped.

Mamoru sighed. This day had already felt plenty long. Now it was getting a hell of a lot longer.

-----

After fleeing the museum, Nephrite reappeared outside of the building, clenching his teeth. He had assumed that usurping Zoisite of a victory would be a simple affair. It seemed he had grossly underestimated the trouble this would cause.

To begin with, he had not been able to locate the crystal prior to its unveiling at the museum. He had designed his own black crystal to do exactly that, but it had been something of a disastrous failure. Now that he had seen the crystal, he knew why. Regardless of whether or not the stone was the Ginzuishou, it was definitely magical in origin. It reeked of cloaking magic meant to disguise its location from psychic inquiry. It would have taken power stronger than his to have found it. Hell, it took a damn strong psychic to discern that it was magical at all. Someone with latent abilities would have just assumed that it was a pretty rock and nothing more.

And now he'd somehow been thwarted at this turn as well. He'd just been ready to use the black crystal to test the displayed gem when the alarms had sounded. He could have put up a fight and stuck around whether the humans liked it or not, but without knowing what the crystal was or what it did, he didn't want to risk it. Zoisite would have done and probably gotten himself killed.

Speaking of Zoisite, Nephrite believed he had discovered why he had been so rudely turned out of the museum far earlier than he would have cared for.

He felt time and space opening up some twenty feet away. He spun around to see a woman in a forest green business suit and dark brown hair piled on her head. More specifically, he saw her appear out of nothing. He sniffed the air, detecting the stink of youma with a faint hint of cherry blossoms. Definitely one of Zoisite's.

Snarling, Nephrite vanished and then reappeared in the youma's path. The dead grey eyes widened in shock, and she tried to back-pedal. Nephrite, however, was too quick. He lashed out and gripped her arm, holding it with almost enough strength to break her bones.

"Nephrite?" the monster asked, trying and failing to keep her voice steady. "What… what are you—"

"Don't act like you didn't know I was there," Nephrite murmured, his voice deceptively calm – like still waters before the shark attacked. "I know you set off the alarms."

She shook her head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Nephrite squeezed her arm, snapping the bone in two. He covered her mouth with his other hand before she could scream.

"I was willing to let you be, you know," Nephrite whispered. "If you stayed out of my way. I assumed any of Zoisite's youma would at least be smart enough to pretend like they hadn't seen me, and to tell Zoisite that it was all a wild goose chase. Since all of you know I am far more dangerous than your master.

"But then, I don't mind this much either."

With a flick of his wrist, he snapped the youma's neck. The corpse, with its head now facing the wrong direction, crumpled the ground and broke into dust.

He would have to come back that evening, when the museum was empty and the investigation of what had happened was concluded. Then he would see if that crystal was the one he sought.

With any luck, Zoisite would be humiliated and rotting by sunrise.

-----

The majority of the afternoon had been spent planning and scrapping and replanning, with breaks to eat and argue. Ami had mellowed towards him after a few hours, realizing that they were not likely to get anything done unless she resumed her role as peacemaker. Mamoru had also been doing his best not to antagonize Rei.

"You know, Tuxedo Kamen, Mercury and I really don't need you on this one. I mean, what are you going to do? Poke it with a rose?"

Unfortunately, she'd become something of an expert at baiting him.

"I'm here for back-up," Tuxedo Kamen snapped.

Mars shrugged, smoothing her skirt over her thighs. "Funny that our back-up has a tendency to almost get himself killed on a weekly basis, huh?"

"If you two don't mind," Mercury called out, typing away on her computer with her usual impressive speed, "bringing down a security system of this magnitude is not an easy task. Quiet would be appreciated."

Mars and Tuxedo Kamen lapsed into silenced, chastened.

Mercury continued working on the computer for another fifteen minutes. By the end of it, all of them were reaching the end of their patience. Mercury, however, seemed to have a boundless supply. She just kept working, her brow furrowed and her fingers flying over the keys, slowing taking down the museums defenses.

Finally, she heaved a satisfied sigh and snapped her computer shut. "Fire alarms, motion detectors, and everything else is down. We're good to go."

"Thank heavens," Luna groused, stretching her front legs and then leaping into Mercury's waiting arms. "All right, Mars. Get us in there."

Mars gave a curt nod and jumped. Tuxedo Kamen and Mercury followed. It was difficult to keep their footing on the sloped roof, but they managed it with minimal noise. Mars tentatively made her way over to a part of the roof Mercury had selected earlier. Then she aimed a low-powered Fire Soul onto the tile, rendering it ash. She smiled and then leaned over the side, glancing down to the ground. "All clear."

"Tuxedo Kamen," Luna said, flicking her tail back and forth with satisfaction.

As ordered, Tuxedo Kamen pulled the rucksack from his back and opened the zip. He retrieved a large coil of black cable. Within a few minutes, he had it secured and then flung the rest of the coil through the hole.

"I still don't see why we can't jump down," Mars said. The rope had been his suggestion, so of course, she had to find fault with it.

"As I've explained several times now," Tuxedo Kamen countered, "there are still guards. Any loud noises might bring them running, and even if we can subdue them, I'd rather not."

"Feel free to keep arguing," Mercury informed them smoothly. "Luna and I will get going." Then she strode over to the hole, took hold of the cable, and began to rappel down.

Mars moved to follow, but Tuxedo Kamen reached out a hand to stop her.

"I know that you're upset with me," he began, wondering at what point their conversation was going to go differently. "But you really need to let this go."

Mars closed her eyes, her shoulders hunching slightly. He wondered what supposedly clever insult she would fling at him this time.

"Whatever happened with Usagi?"

Then again.

"What?"

"You never said," Mars reasoned. "So tell me. What happened with her?"

Under normal circumstances, he might have told her to mind her own business. But in the interest of improving relations, Tuxedo Kamen hesitated only a few seconds before answering. "She slammed the door in my face."

Her lips thinned. "Oh."

"Well," he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck, "it's not as if there was anything I could do to convince her that I didn't just run away like a coward. Telling her the truth wasn't exactly an option."

"I guess not," Mars agreed. Her eyes flew open again, scrutinizing him with surprising intensity. Then she scowled. "Damn."

God but she was exasperating. "What now?"

"I was hoping that's what you were keeping from us," Mars informed him primly. "But no. I can tell you're still hiding something."

He nearly asked her why and then thought better of it. "I'm not hiding anything," he insisted, doing his best not to remember Sailor V's lips brushing against his ear or the sound of her laughter.

"Liar, liar, pants on… well, you know."

"Did it ever occur to you that maybe it has nothing to do with the mission?" he asked, his temper crackling like a writhing firecracker. "Maybe it's something personal, and last time I checked, we're under no obligation to divulge all of the details of our personal lives."

Mars continued glowering. "And last time I checked, you didn't have a very keen understanding of what's personal and what's to do with the mission. So maybe you ought to err on the side of caution and just tell us everything."

He felt he'd been admirably self-contained throughout this whole ordeal, but he could not resist the urge to laugh in her face. "Are you insane?"

"I sincerely doubt it."

Tuxedo Kamen threw up his hands. "You are unbelievable. Utterly and totally."

"Maybe," she said. "But at least I'm honest."

With that, she turned on her heel and stalked over to the rope. Within seconds, she and her withering gaze had disappeared into the museum.

Tuxedo Kamen took the opportunity to make a rude gesture in her absence. Then, grumbling, he followed her down.

Once he reached the bottom, he caught sight of the girls' grim faces. It didn't take him very long to see why. "They moved it," he groaned. "Why did they do that?"

"Probably because someone tried to steal another priceless artifact today," Mercury informed him with just a tiny bite to her tone.

"Where would they have moved it?"

"I'm not sure. My first guess would be the vaults, but it's also possible they moved the crystal to its permanent location. I'm not sure how long they were planning on keeping it in the special exhibits room."

"Brilliant," Tuxedo Kamen snapped. He'd so been hoping for something to go right for them. "So what now?"

Mars shrugged. "Split up and look for it?"

Luna physically shrank away from the suggestion. "I'm not sure that's wise."

"Why not? We'll cover more ground that way."

"And if someone runs into Nephrite or a youma?" Luna queried.

"Don't get killed."

"Oh, very helpful, Mars."

"Much as I hate to admit it," Tuxedo Kamen interrupted, "I think Mars has a point. It's a sizeable building, and the sooner we find it, the sooner we can see if it's the Ginzuishou. And for all we know, Nephrite may already be there. If someone finds it, just give a call to the rest of us, and we'll come running. Hopefully, we can individually hold Nephrite off for a few minutes until reinforcements arrive."

Neither Mercury nor Luna looked particularly comfortable with this idea – probably because they were the least likely to be able to hold Nephrite off for any amount of time. Tuxedo Kamen was about to suggest that they split into pairs, when Mars intervened.

"Great. Mercury, you head towards the vaults since you're the only one who can actually get into them. Tuxedo Kamen that way, Luna that way, and I'll go this way."

"Wait—" he called out, but Mars had already gone on her way. He groaned, but ultimately, they all did what they were told. Everyone had learned by now that most of the time, it was not worth the energy to argue with Sailor Mars. So Tuxedo Kamen pulled his flashlight from his pants pocket, clicked it to the lowest setting, and then set off in search of the relocated crystal.

-----

"I still can't believe you talked me into this."

Minako glanced down at Artemis, who seemed to be eternally attached to her shoulder. "I feel like you say that to me far more than is normal."

"Hanging around you means the situation warrants it more than normal," Artemis deadpanned. "My entire life essentially consists of being talked into these inevitable catastrophes."

Minako rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Do you really want to chance waiting for tomorrow after what happened this afternoon?"

"We don't know what happened this afternoon," Artemis reminded her. "And I believe the principal reason for that is because somebody couldn't get out of bed this morning and we had to take a later train."

"Bah," Minako said, waving this concern away like smoke. "Big deal. We know something happened, and I'd bet my bottom tooth—"

"Dollar. Or yen, I suppose."

"—that it was Nephrite or my favorite caped crusader," she concluded. She frowned. "Why would you bet your bottom dollar – or yen? Wouldn't you pull from the top?"

"I think the better question is why you mixed it up with tooth. Who bets teeth?"

"Well, maybe it was a gold tooth," she concluded. "The point is that we can't chance letting this go another day. If it's not the Ginzuishou and Nephrite's in there with the Less than Terrific Trio, I'd like to keep an eye on things."

Artemis twitched his whiskers. "And if it is the Ginzuishou, we should get our hands on it first. It'll make you a much more convincing moon princess."

"You don't have hands," Minako pointed out.

Artemis hung his head. "You tire me."

She glanced toward the front doors of the museum again, just in time to see the second of two outside guards returning. "Go! Quick!"

Artemis released yet another disappointed sigh, but hey obeyed readily enough. He darted forward, a white streak in the dark, making a beeline directly for the museum doors. He managed to dart between the legs of the second guard just as the door clicked shut behind him.

Grinning in triumph, Minako burst forth from her hiding place, yelling, "Artemis!" She ran to the two guards, feigning breathlessness. "Did my cat just run inside?"

The first guard, who seemed to be the sterner and more fit of the two gave her a tired look. He rather resembled her math teacher as a matter of fact. "Miss—"

"I swear I saw him come this way," Minako pressed.

The second guard stepped forward, his walrus mustache twitching beneath a large, stately nose. "Hold on, Takamori-san. I think the young lady's correct."

Minako breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Oh, thank goodness! He got out of the house, and I've been chasing him for blocks. If I could just—"

"No one's allowed inside," the first guard informed her, preemptively blocking her bath.

Minako stuck out her lower lip in a way she knew was both pitiful and fetching. "But I need to get my cat. He won't let anyone else get near him. He's very particular about things. The whole reason he ran off was because we switched his food."

She imagined Artemis standing on the other side of the door positively bristling at this portrayal, but hey, a good lie had to be detailed. He'd get over it.

"I don't fancy getting scratched, Takamori-san," the second guard said, mustache still twitching.

"No one's allowed inside."

Minako barely contained her own sigh. She did hate to have to do this the hard way. "Well, I suppose if one of you could go in, that would work. Just don't blame me when he bites your nose."

The second guard was clearly aware of the size of his nose and flinched at the thought. He jerked a thumb towards the doors. "You're the one being particular, Takamori-san. You track him down."

Takamori's face didn't actually move, but there was an imperceptible shift in his gaze to suggest he was growing more and more annoyed with this situation. Unfortunately, he couldn't refuse on the off-chance Artemis managed to ruin one or more of the exhibits. He turned and unlocked the door, pushing it open.

And then Minako took her chance.

She leapt up and launched a spinning kick at the back of Takamori's head. She connected easily, sending him sprawling forward the ground, propping the door open with his prone form. She could instantly tell that he wasn't going to be getting up any time soon.

That left her with the second guard to contend with. He bellowed in shock and rage, drawing his long nightstick from his belt. He swung hard, but she ducked that easily enough, dropping to her knees. She attempted to sweep his legs out from underneath, but he leapt over her outstretched leg like it was child's play. Quickly overcoming her own surprise, Minako began to scramble to her feet as the guard swung his stick again. She caught it, half-crouched and mere inches away from her face, and struggled to hold it back. She was running on pure adrenaline without her transformation to help her, and she knew that she didn't stand much of a chance.

With a yowl, Artemis appeared, flying at the guard's neck. He scratched and bit at what skin he could grasp, catching the man off guard. He leaned back, loosening his grip on the stick. This gave Minako the opportunity she needed to gain the upper hand. She yanked the stick out of his hands and swung it wide like a baseball bat. She hit the side of his head as hard as she dared. She watched, guilty and embarrassed, as the guard's eyes rolled up into the back of his head, and he crumpled to the ground.

Artemis disengaged himself from the guard's entangled limbs, frowning. "I thought this plan of yours was supposed to prevent beating up on civilians?"

Minako just stuck her tongue out.

"To coin your favorite phrase, 'whatever,'" Artemis drawled. Then he turned, picking his way over the bodies. "What are we going to do with these guys?"

"I'll stash them somewhere inside," Minako said, pulling out her crescent mirror by way of further explanation. "Then I guess we split up and track down the crystal."

"Which we wouldn't have to do if you—"

"Okay. Mission now, criticism later, Fuzz Butt. Let's do this!"

-----

At the back entrance of the museum, a sakura petal serpentine heralded his arrival as it always did, though Zoisite didn't feel the need to make it especially impressive considering no one was around to see it. He arrived floating a few inches above the ground, reluctantly uncrossing his legs and touching the ground. He did so hate to wander around such decidedly human soil. It was unseemly that he should have to walk the same path as humans. He was, after all, so much better-looking.

Of course, sharing space with youma was no better, particularly when the youma were too stupid to follow even the simplest of directions. His instructions had been clear as the crystal he sought, were they not? Check on the displayed crystal. Report back to him. Two simple steps. Zoisite really failed to see how the youma could have gone wrong.

"So hard to find good help these days," he muttered, chuckling to himself. "And it's so messy to kill them when they fail you."

He glanced around to see if he could spot the youma in the area, just in case it had somehow gotten mixed up and thought to wait for him, but the feline monster was nowhere to be found.

No matter. Zoisite could deign to get his hands dirty for the sake of a promising opportunity. Anything less, and he may have let it lapse. He certainly had done so already, despite Beryl's posturing. He was confident Kunzite could protect him far more than the man thought he was able.

It would have been nice to have an exact location on the thing, though. That was an inconvenience Zoisite could scarcely tolerate.

So, when he came across the first set of guards at the back entrance, he saw no reason to show mercy.

-----

Nephrite appeared in the special exhibits room that had previously housed the crystal only to discover that it was gone.

"Damn it all."

He strode forward, one hand digging into his hip, when he noticed a round patch of light on the floor. He arched an eyebrow and glanced up, momentarily surprised to see the hole in the ceiling. He crouched down and leapt upwards, getting a closer look at the damage.

Even with only the moon to help him, he could see the scorch marks that lined the rim. And barring that, he could definitely smell the char.

"Mars," he murmured, curling his lip. Then he paused. "Or Zoisite. The man's been known to use fire before."

He couldn't be sure of who had cast the fire spell to gain them entrance. It seemed unnecessary for Zoisite to come in through the roof, but Zoisite had been known to do superfluous things for the sake of destruction before. Mars did seem to be the more likely candidate, though Nephrite was a little surprised at the amount of control she'd shown in doing this if it had indeed been her. Mars had a tendency to burn indiscriminately, collateral damage be damned. This was almost… conservative.

In the end, it didn't really matter who was there. The important thing was that he wasn't alone.

But he had a mind to make sure that didn't last long.

-----

Locking the two guards in one of the offices had been no small chore, even for a super strong, super cute soldier such as herself. It would have helped if Artemis weren't a cat – really whose bright idea had that been – but his usefulness had essentially begun and ended with directing her around corners and making snide comments. It was all well and good for him to hide in plain sight preening his whiskers and tilting his head in that innocent 'who me?' expression, but would it have killed the powers-that-be to make him morph into a tiger or something when she needed a little more muscle?

It was times like this that Sailor V really hated this lone soldier crap.

Sailor V wiped a few beads of perspiration from her brow, reminding herself for the seventh time that day that it was not a permanent state of being. One day, in the unknowable future, she'd drop down into the lives of the other Senshi with the appropriate light show. Then she could chuck her lonely persona for something far more… what? Satisfying? Fulfilling?

"This is why I hate self-actualization," she muttered, parroting a term the school guidance counsel had grown fond of bandying around whenever she got the chance. Come to think of it, she wasn't entirely sure what it meant. But hey, it's not like anyone was around to hear it. Artemis had already skipped off into that good night, and though he said it was to look for the crystal, she had a feeling he'd be proudly depositing a dead mouse at her feet before the night was over.

"Gross," she said with intense feeling and pushed off the door. Then she went in search of the crystal herself.

It occurred to her about five seconds later that she couldn't see three feet in front of her.

Her shoulders slumped and she felt rather like a deflated beachball. "Damn it, Artemis. You know I'm not going to think of these things, and you're a cat. You can see in the dark!" She pouted, stubbing her toe against the ground. "Useless fuzzy little—"

She stopped short when she saw a thin stream of light cross the doorway at her left.

"Hello," she muttered in an exaggerated British accent. "What's all this then?"

Quiet as that mouse Artemis was sure to munch on, Sailor V stole forward, moving on the balls of her feet so her heels didn't clack against the floor. In her own silence, she noticed that her quarry didn't feel the need to muffle his own movements. She heard fabric rustling and shoes squeaking, along with a string of curses that made her blush. Not that she'd ever admit it.

She thought she recognized the voice, but frankly she'd come across so many detectives, policemen, criminals, and others in her time as Sailor V that this was hardly momentous. It was only when she hovered in the doorway and saw the outline of his top hat that she understood who she was dealing with.

She posed in what she hoped was a sufficiently alluring and intimidating manner and waited until he swung the light in her direction. She was rather pleased that he found her legs first, which she'd always considered to be one of her top three features. When he moved to her face, she flashed him a confident smile.

"Heist much?"

-----

Not for the first time, Luna wondered what horrendous sin she had committed in her Moon Kingdom days to earn her this gross punishment.

It had been bad enough dealing with Mamoru on his own – he was smug and overconfident, which would have been tolerable if he had the skill set to back it up. She had gained Ami, who was a sweet girl, but too timid for Luna's tastes. She had to admit, Ami was improving in that regard, but there were times when Luna had to worry about her priorities. And then of course there was Rei, who was a war unto herself. Her temper was entirely unmanageable and this infatuation with Mamoru caused far more problems Luna simply did not have the energy to deal with.

The revelation that Mamoru kept things from them had left her wondering what she was doing there at all.

She had done her best to be Mamoru's confidant if not his friend. Perhaps the nature of their relationship didn't invite easy familiarity, but it should not have made him even more closed off. And for some reason, it had.

Luna didn't know what she could have done differently, and perhaps that was the problem. Maybe she couldn't see her own shortcomings as a guardian. Then again, it seemed equally possible that she oughtn't be so self-centered. It could very well have nothing to do with her.

The one bright spot of this whole mess was that Luna felt fairly certain that she might be able to track this crystal down. At least, assuming it was the Ginzuishou she now sought. Rei and Ami would no doubt be able to track magic in and of itself, but Luna herself could be just a tad more specific. She would easily be able to scent magic tied specifically to the Silver Millennium. If the Ginzuishou or anything else connected with them and their past was here, she felt confident that she would find it. And Luna was almost positive she was on the trail of something. There was really only one glitch.

The signature seemed to be on the move.

Luna couldn't make sense of it. For a moment, she knew it was to her right, and then all of a sudden, it simply wasn't. She had absolutely no idea what it meant and the implications of it unnerved her. Was the crystal somehow sentient? Was it evading her? And why would it feel the need to do such a thing?

Frowning, Luna pushed her nose closer to the museum floor and continued to seek out the magical scent. She padded her way forward, whiskers twitching and tail aloft, making her way along path the magic had made. Something familiar. Something a little too familiar, truth be told.

She rounded the corner and collided with solid matter. She leapt back with a yowl, her paw reaching towards her bruised nose… and paused when she heard an echo of the sound.

Luna's eyes flew open, and just one feet in front of her stood a mirror image of herself. But in negative. It was white where she was black with green eyes instead of brown. She also saw subtle differences between them – her reflection seemed more muscular and sharper where she was softer. And it held its nose with both paws. But more than anything she noticed the golden crescent etched into its forehead, a perfect twin of her own.

She stared for close to thirty seconds before her pale reflection noticed anything amiss. Then its eyes focused on her. Where she clearly felt and expressed shock, it seemed to be… irritated.

Then the reflection very clearly said, "Bugger," turned tail, and ran.

That snapped her out of it right quick.

"Wait!" she called, immediately giving chase. "Come back here!"

It wasn't a crystal, but even she couldn't complain about the discovery of another moon cat.

-----

Sailor Mercury was beginning to suspect that the remainder of her tenure as a soldier was going to peppered – no, saturated – with moments that seemed deceptively simple at the start and then snowball into something altogether too difficult to properly explain. She had been searching for far longer than she had assumed would be necessary, guided by the light of her computer. Thus far, she had turned up absolutely nothing. It was beyond maddening.

Trying to find the crystal, which was not necessarily the crystal, was far worse than finding a needle in a haystack. It was rather like finding a very specific needle in a pile of other varying non-descript needles, but the difference between all of those needles was so slight it was almost imperceptible. Even with the Mercury Computer, this task was proving far more taxing than she ever could have guessed.

She supposed that much could be blamed on Nephrite, though only in part. She'd been in the process of scanning the crystal in addition to saving it to the computer's archives, although doing so had slowed the machine's performance considerably. She'd thought it would be the most efficient way to go about things, but then Nephrite had shown up and mucked up her plans.

Of course, that was her fault, not planning for the likely contingency. It was unlike her, but she had been considerably rattled by the train ride. In truth, it had shaken already weak foundations of her psyche in regards to Mamoru and his reticence.

That was putting it too kindly, she knew, but she had chosen the sympathetic course in order to maintain equilibrium within the group, and she didn't dare deviate any more than she had.

Mercury wanted to be understanding. She truly did. She didn't know Mamoru very well, but she could glean enough. He was a typical Japanese male in many ways, and that meant he had a certain infuriating amount of stoicism. She suspected the dreams had disturbed him, and that was part of the reason why he'd kept them to himself. Men didn't like to show weakness, particularly in the face of women, much less girls like Rei and herself.

Not to suggest that Mamoru was sexist, but there was a certain amount of cultural conditioning at play here, she knew. She was also sure that much of it was simply intrinsic to his introspective personality. There, she could certainly relate.

However, she was also positive that there was more to the story than he had revealed, and this was the part of the affair that disturbed her. There was some mystery here, perhaps more baffling than this crystal they were suddenly chasing. She didn't know if the puzzle lay within Mamoru's past, his past life, or his present. More to the point, she didn't know if it was their prerogative to attempt to unravel. She did know that there was something about this whole affair that left her feeling ill at ease with him.

Mercury glanced up as her computer registered a number of different tones. The first seemed to indicate that perhaps the crystal was close, or at least something of comparable power. She brought out the blue crystal to see if it was registering anything similar, but she could detect no change. The second was a call from one of the communicators. Once she replaced the crystal, she answered the call.

"It's me," Mars's voice panted over the line. Normally, Mercury would have considered this identification superfluous, but given that the screen was displaying nothing but darkness, she found herself grateful for it.

The gratitude froze into fear with the next words spoken.

"He's here."

-----

It had been Luna's suggestion to attempt to use her fire as a light source, Mars remembered. Of course, if she was less selective, she would also recall that she'd been enthusiastic about this notion. Discovering a new way to use her powers, even in a mundane fashion, had been thrilling in theory.

Emphasis on 'in theory.'

Mars wasn't sure if it was the volatile nature of her element or of her personality that made it extremely difficult to control the flame. It was an exercise in frustration. And of course, every time she got irritated, the fire flared again, which helped not at all.

"I like you so much better when I'm burning things," she informed her element through bared teeth.

It also didn't help that she'd been searching the building for the better part of an hour without actually finding anything. She'd hoped that she'd be able to pick out the crystal's magical signature and go directly to it and have done with this whole mess.

But Ami had warned her, hadn't she? There were numerous historical items holed up in the museum, some of which had magical signatures of varying strengths. All that energy was bound to get muddled together over time. And the powers of the items were bound to distract her.

She really wished someone had bothered to tell her that one day she'd be using her psychic abilities on such a regular basis so she could have had some opportunity to prepare.

Still, at long last, Mars felt like perhaps she was on the right track. It was nothing she could pinpoint with any accuracy. She simply felt like she was moving in the right direction, which was more than she could have said for her previous hour of searching. She was bordering on being in a good mood in spite of wandering around in the dark with a jumpy bit of fire in her hands.

In the distance, she heard a footfall.

Before she even registered what the sound was and what it meant, she felt as though she couldn't breathe. Her head began to pound and her skin broke out into a cold sweat. Her knees gave way in the same moment that her flames fizzled out. She knew of only one person who could bring weaken her simply by being close to her, and she knew she had to work fast.

Mars dragged herself behind a prominent display. She shut her eyes and worked on closing the doors of her mind so that she could focus on the here and now. She'd left herself wide open looking for Ginzuishou despite the risks, and now she was paying for it. It was tedious work that had to be done without rushing, but she still needed to work quickly.

But finally, she managed it. She was shielded once again and sucked in gulps of air like it was cold water. She trembled from the aftershocks of the psychic assault, but held her body taut against them. Now was not the time to coddle herself.

She maneuvered slowly to the right, moving as soundlessly as she could manage. She could tell that he was still in the room, but she'd shielded herself so intensely that she could not even venture a guess as to how close he was. She shifted her hips and then leaned out as far as she dared.

There was Nephrite, so close she could have touched him.

She dove back behind the display, biting back a scream. It was all right, Mars assured herself. His back had been to her. He hadn't seen.

But this was bad. Nephrite was more experienced than her, and no doubt he was opening his mind as wide as he dared. He was more experienced. Would he recognize her own power in the room, however stifled?

Mars shut her eyes and did her best to make herself invisible. She shielded herself even more intensely, building up walls that had never been in place before. It was a veritable psychic fort.

Then she held her breath and listened. She heard his soft, practiced footfalls circle the room, and pictured him in her mind's eye. His furrowed, prominent brow, permanently creased from glowering and inward thought. The sharp jut of his jaw and his full lips pressed together so that they almost vanished. Tension in his shoulders, the reflexive clenching and unclenching of his fists, the veins standing out in his neck.

He continued to circle for what felt like hours, scouring the room with a thoroughness she would not have the patience for. She couldn't hold out for much longer. Soon, every defense she had would come shattering down, and then he'd find her, alone, too weak to fight him off.

At last, she heard the sound of his footfalls grow more distant, and then more, until they were gone completely. She exhaled, releasing the extra defenses far too quickly, nearly losing consciousness from the shock. She fell back, twisting so that she could rest her forehead against the cool stone floor. The sensation grounded her, reminded her of what was tangible and real. She swallowed again and again, suppressing the urge to vomit.

When she no longer felt like she was going to be sick, Mars pushed herself up onto her elbows, wiped the stinging wetness from her eyes, and pulled out her communicator.

"It's me," she rasped into the mouthpiece once she was connected. "He's here."

-----

Tuxedo Kamen did not understand why even after months of this lifestyle, he still jumped when someone snuck up on him. "You scared the crap out of me."

Sailor V nodded solemnly. "That's because I'm better at sneaking than you."

"I'll work on it," he drawled. "I'm guessing we're after the same thing."

"Could be. I'm thinking of something mysterious, silver, probably shiny."

"Any luck?"

"Nope," she answered. "But then I don't know where it is."

"Neither do we," Tuxedo Kamen growled, quickly relating the discovery of its relocation, with a few graceful edits here and there.

She frowned, and under the focused beam of his flashlight, she looked positively ghoulish. "I hate when people purposefully make things more difficult. Also, did I hear a 'we'?"

He felt his cheeks grow warm and felt increasingly thankful for the darkness. "The others are here." He paused, wondering if he should mention the strained relations on the fairly good chance they ran into the others. He decided against it. "Did you bring your pet?"

Sailor V giggled, the youthful sound unnerving him. He wondered if maybe he'd been wrong in supposing she was closer to his age than the other girls. "He'd scratch your eyes out if he heard that. He has a very large sense of pride. But yes, he's here. Yours?"

"Somewhere."

"Who disabled the power by the way?" Sailor V asked.

"That'd be Mercury. She has this computer I'm pretty sure could arm the machines against us if it was so inclined."

"Nice," she said, raising her eyebrows appreciatively. "All I got was a pen that could do my homework for me. Well, technically, it was meant for disguise, but I found a few other uses for it."

He chuckled, relaxing more than he'd dared in a week. He'd forgotten what it was like not to be bombarded by resentment and hostility every hour of the day. "That sounds pretty good to me."

He couldn't be completely sure, but he was willing to bet that she actually pouted during her next statement. "Artemis took it away. He said that it was unbecoming of a soldier to cheat on her math homework." She shook her head sadly. "He abuses me so."

"I sympathize," Tuxedo Kamen murmured, shaking his head. "Believe me."

Just then, his communicator chimed. He tossed the flashlight to Sailor V without warning, but she caught it without flinching. He pulled the gadget out of his pocket, pausing when Sailor V coughed in an attempt to cover her laughter.

"Pink calculator?"

He shrugged. "Real men wear pink," he assured her, connecting.

"And tuxedos," she whispered, too softly for the communicator to pick up.

"It's me," Mars's rasping voice breathed over the intercom. "He's here."

Forgetting himself again, Tuxedo Kamen swore, slamming his hand against the wall. "Can nothing go right today?"

"Are you all right?" Mercury interrupted, asking the question he should have voiced.

"Fine," Mars grumbled, clearly thinking that as well. "He didn't see me. I just… wasn't expecting it is all."

Tuxedo Kamen remembered just how bad things could get when Mars encountered dark forces when she wasn't prepared. "Where are you?"

"I am not a damsel in need of saving, thank you," she snapped.

"Why can't you just admit when you need help?" he returned with equal bite.

"Are you not listening? I don't need help."

"Who's the liar now?" he challenged, immediately regretting it.

"Still you," Mars spat. "And if you really want to get into it now—"

"Don't," Mercury interrupted, her voice cold as steel. "Just don't. You are both acting like spoiled children, and I have been doing my best not to get involved, but I promise, if this continues for much longer, I will do something drastic."

He paused. He wasn't sure if he believed her, and he was positive that Mars didn't, but Mercury was right. They were behaving ridiculously, and they had absolutely no hope of dealing with Nephrite if they didn't reign it in.

"Sorry, Mercury," he murmured sincerely.

Mars muttered something, which very nearly set him off again. He had plenty of flaws, but at least he could apologize with dignity.

"Finally," Mercury sighed, sounding weary of the both of them. "Mars, just as you called, my computer picked up on something that could be the crystal. We ought to regroup. Meet me—"

Static erupted from the tiny device so suddenly that he almost dropped it. He heard something like a distant cry and the sound of something falling. It might have been a body.

"Mercury?" he shouted, unable to restrain himself. "Mercury, are you there?"

Dead silence.

"Mercury!" he repeated, knowing it was pointless. A thousand scenarios ran through his mind in the span of a second. Every one of them ended in blood. He stared at Sailor V in dawning horror, unable to ignore the grim set of her mouth.

Mars was still trying to get Mercury to answer from her end. He was about to tell her stop, when she let out what could not be mistaken for anything but a sob. "Damn it! I should have followed him. I should never have—"

"It's all right," he assured her, and he meant it. He didn't know what had happened with Mars and Nephrite, but he knew if she was shaken enough not to disguise her tears, it must have been draining to say the least. "It'll be okay. Is there any chance you can find her? Track her or something?"

"I… I don't know. I've never tried with a person before."

"Try," he begged. Then he shut the communicator down, barely resisting the urge to pelt it across the room.

"I knew splitting up was a bad idea," he snarled. "I should never have let it go. I shouldn't—"

"You're wasting time," Sailor V interrupted with cold assurance. And of course he was. That was part of the reason why he'd stopped Mars before she could go for too long. There wasn't time to spend on self-pity. "If Nephrite's got her, you don't have any."

Part of him wanted to hate her for the honesty, but another part of him appreciated it. "I know," he said. "I've got to—"

"We've got to," she corrected.

He paused. That, he hadn't been expecting. "What?"

Sailor V's frowned deepened, marring her forehead with creases. "I just… I have a bad feeling. I can't explain it, but I think I should help you if I can."

He didn't miss the emphasis on the latter half of the sentence. It wasn't a guarantee, but it was something. And Tuxedo Kamen was not in a position to refuse even the possibility of assistance.

"I'll go left; you go right," she ordered, turning on her heel and running. He didn't hesitate in following the directive, their footsteps echoing concurrently as they ran.

And with every step, he prayed that Mercury was alive.

-----

In Zoisite's opinion, the evening had taken an extreme turn for the better. True, his youma had abandoned him, but he'd managed to work out that aggression in spades already. And now he'd come across one of the Sailor Senshi and taken her captive! And she'd been close to finding the blasted crystal!

Zoisite was bordering on giddy.

He chuckled, twirling the ends of his hair between his fingers as he bent over Sailor Mercury's crumpled form. He certainly hadn't been anticipating on running into one of them here, but perhaps it lent credence to the lead. Though when she'd appeared, he'd hoped for a bit more of a struggle. Really, one conk on the head, and it was over? He expected better.

He would have to be sure to point that out to Nephrite later. On several occasions as a matter of fact.

However, there were pressing matters to attend to, and he wasn't one to procrastinate. Now that he had a Sailor Senshi, there remained the question of what to do with her. The obvious answer was to kill her, naturally. Certainly that would be the ultimate aim, but to simply stab her while she was unconscious felt… unsatisfying.

No, killing her outright was out of the question. Much as Beryl would have appreciated a Senshi's head on a silver – no, platinum – platter, Zoisite had a feeling she'd love a live Senshi that much more. Then they could have a little fun with her. And he felt sure that he'd (because of course he would be given this honor after bringing her to the Dark Kingdom in the first place) be able to extract some valuable information from her. Like the identities of the other Senshi and Tuxedo Kamen perhaps.

Why, Zoisite might have simultaneously solved Beryl's Senshi problem and found the Silver Crystal! It would effectively solve two of the biggest problems the Dark Kingdom had. More importantly, it would impress Kunzite and infuriate Nephrite beyond telling. And once lofted to power beyond what Nephrite's fingers could grasp at, Zoisite could certainly dispose of the vexing general with little trouble.

Zoisite smiled. Life was good.

But first there was the matter of the crystal. Mercury had claimed to be on to something with that little computer of hers…. Now, where had it gone?

Zoisite cast his eyes across the floor until he saw a light blue rectangle standing out against the gloom. He held out his hand and beckoned at the object, calling it forth with a little more difficulty than he expected, but catching it easily enough. To his surprise, the computer had shut upon impact. He moved to pry the computer open.

Sparks shot out from every inch of the device, and his fingers began to freeze where the touched the lid. He dropped it in shock, letting it clatter to the ground without ceremony.

"Fine," he snarled at the machine. "I don't need moon technology anyway." He kicked the computer in a fit of pique, smiling with satisfaction as it went skating off into the darkness.

And then, just because he felt like it, he kicked Mercury soundly in the head.

Oddly enough, this action prompted yet another surprise. His kick had managed to dislodge something she'd had secreted in her fuku. He bent down to pick it up, arching an eyebrow when he saw what it was.

"Wrong color," he remarked, examining the crystal. "Still, could be useful."

He tucked the blue gem away for further study later. Then he gestured at her prone body, and a tiny cyclone of sakura petals appeared beneath her body, lifting her off the floor. "Come along then."

-----

For too long, Nephrite had felt as though he was stumbling around in the dark. The stars had hidden themselves from him, and for awhile, it seemed that the crystal would as well.

And then he'd found it.

He felt it the moment he entered the room, though the trail was so slight he could have missed it had he not been so meticulous. Even knowing it was there did not make discovering it any easier. It still took him a few minutes of searching before he uncovered it, hiding, oddly enough, inside an urn from a long-forgotten era.

The crystal had done its best to evade him and was still in no mood to be caught. However, it was not powerful enough to slip from his grasp once he closed cold fingers around the even colder gem. He pulled it from the urn and held it out, inspecting this bit of mystery.

The crystal was undoubtedly pale, but even in the dim light, he could see it shining as if it contained an aurora at its center. It was multi-faceted and smooth, as if carved by man, but there was something raw about it. Something that made it feel as though humanity in all its blundering efficacy had nothing to do with it. He wondered if it had emerged from the Earth like this, cut and smooth.

Nephrite called forth the black stone. Its slimness felt odd in the left hand with his right containing such bulk. He lifted the black prism, touching one point to the crystal's surface delicately, almost afraid of what it would do. Tension raced out of his shoulders when the black crystal simply began to glow and nothing exploded in his face.

"Stop right there!"

Speaking of explosions.

Nephrite craned his neck to see Sailor Mars standing in the doorway. She looked rather the worse for wear. Her eyes couldn't quite focus on him, and he marveled at her stupidly for confronting him alone.

"Where is she?" Mars snarled.

He arched an eyebrow. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Liar!" Mars declared, stumbling forward and attempting to make it look intentional. She raised her hands, squeezing her forefingers together. "If you don't tell me where she is, I swear to God, I will turn you into a charred mess."

Nephrite scoffed, turning back to the crystals in his hands. He studied them both for a moment, the glowing black and the rainbow white, and then all at once, the dark light sputtered out.

It was not the Ginzuishou.

Hours of effort and countless energy spent on this task, and now this wasn't even the right crystal. A waste. It had all been an utter waste. He didn't have the crystal; he didn't have a victim. He didn't even have the comfort of the heavens. He had nothing now but rage and unwanted company.

"Stop glaring at that stupid thing and tell me where you took Mercury!" Mars demanded. "Or I'll—"

"Is this who you're looking for?"

Nephrite whirled at the sound of the familiar lisp, his fingers curling protectively around discovery while simultaneously vanishing the black crystal. For a moment, he saw nothing but empty space, but it quickly filled with the image of swirling sakura petals. Arriving in his typical overdramatic fashion, there stood the least of the generals, carting around a little blue girl as if she were a dog about to be put down.

"Mercury!" Mars cried out, only just stopping herself from running forward. "What have you done?"

Neither of the men paid the girl any mind. She could be dealt with later. "Zoisite," he snarled, tasting blood. If Zoisite managed to bring Mercury back to the Dark Kingdom, to do what he had failed to do, he would be ruined. If he wasn't dead already.

"Nephrite," Zoisite returned, his voice full of knives and poison smiles. "Fancy seeing you here, looking for the silver crystal. Funny, I seem to remember that assignment falling to me."

Nephrite hid the stones and gathering power into his freed hands. He'd tread onto Zoisite's territory knowingly, and he'd been caught. There was no more room in their feud for a duel of words. Chances were good that only one of them would make it out of this alive.

"Obviously, you needed some assistance," Nephrite returned coolly. "What with your youma falling victim to that unfortunate accident."

Zoisite sniffed. "I should have known that was you. You do have a fondness for blasting my scouts into dust."

"To be fair, I broke its neck."

"How quaint." Zoisite's eyes fell to the crystal cupped in Nephrite's hand. They gleamed with desire and malicious intent. "Is that it? Is that the Ginzuishou?"

The question was enough to set him on edge again. But he swallowed his anger and simply said, "As if I'll be telling you."

Zoisite's pale skin started to flush pink. "Give it to me."

Nephrite flexed his wrists, doubling the power he'd gathered. "Come and get it."

"I am so not in the mood for this pissing contest," Mars spat, stepping in between them. "You're both pathetic, and the only one walking out of here with that crystal and Mercury is going to be me."

Zoisite stared at the crimson-clad soldier for a bare moment before his lips curled into a horrible little smile. Nephrite had to give Mars credit for one thing; she didn't appear the least bit shaken by it.

"Well then," Zoisite said pleasantly, waving his hand at Mercury. The sakura petals suspending her rose up, forming a cage of wind and flowers that looked innocent, but Nephrite knew was deadly enough. Then the blond called forth an onyx dagger. It shone like his teeth, glittering and feral.

"Let's have at it, shall we?"

-----

Sailor V was used to running for her life and the lives of others, but she could not recall when any such race had been so significant. One day, Mercury would be her teammate. Sailor V knew that she would be needed if they had any hope of defeating the Dark Kingdom. If she or Tuxedo Kamen was too late to save her….

Just then, she saw the tell-tale signs of battle up ahead. Her heart told her that she wanted to run in, consequences be damned, but somehow, her feet ignored her. She skidded to a stop just outside the door and peered around the corner.

She saw three people she expected and one she never saw coming.

"Damn it," she swore, spinning away. Retrieving Mercury from Nephrite would have been difficult enough with Mars and Tuxedo Kamen. She would have been willing to expose her identity if it meant getting the girl back. It would have meant killing Nephrite, which she had wanted to avoid and leave for her still learning allies, but she understood that sacrifices had to be made.

Unfortunately, she had not counted on Zoisite being there.

He looked harmless. Zoisite was often underestimated for being the lowest ranked and the least physically intimidating, but she knew better. She hadn't dealt with him often during her time in London, but on the few occasions that their paths had crossed, she had learned he was a deadly and willful adversary.

But more to the point, he would know her instantly. And he would immediately retreat to the Dark Kingdom and bring Kunzite in tow.

One Dark Kingdom general, she could deal with. Maybe two if they could bring Mercury around. But three, particularly when one of those three was Kunzite?

They would all be killed.

Sailor V felt cold and sick, and her knees didn't seem to want to work properly. What was she supposed to do? Without her, Tuxedo Kamen and the others might not stand a chance against the combined powers of Nephrite and Zoisite. But with her, she was signing their death warrants. With her would come Kunzite, and with Kunzite came blood. Always, always blood.

She trembled and her eyes began to burn. Why did Zoisite have to be there? Why couldn't it have just been Nephrite? She could have played the hero and come to their rescue. They would have been grateful. Maybe they would have even wanted to be her friend.

But now she could see no course of action save running into the dark like a coward.

Suddenly, she heard three sets of footsteps echoing down the corridors. She looked up and saw Tuxedo Kamen sprinting down the hallway with two flashlight beams circling him as he ran. Apparently he'd run into some security guards in his mad search for Sailor Mercury. He had evaded them thus far, but now he was about to come upon the battle that would decide his fate.

She couldn't help him with the generals, but she could do this.

Sailor V shot a crescent beam over the guards' heads, bringing them to a grinding halt. She sprang towards the trio. Tuxedo Kamen kept running towards her. And as their paths crossed, she gently touched his arm.

"I'm sorry," she whispered and wondered if he had heard.

She crouched down and leapt over the two guards. She rolled as she landed and then raced in the opposite direction. As she'd hoped for, they followed her, moving away from real danger. She'd lead them outside the museum and as far away as possible.

"I'm sorry," she repeated to the wind, hoping against hope that Zoisite wasn't the only one she'd underestimated.

-----

It hadn't taken Mars very long to realize that this was not one of her better ideas.

Her performance had been average at best when dealing with Nephrite on his own, though she was loathe to admit it. Her chances against two Dark Kingdom generals at once were not good. In the end, her one saving grace seemed to be that the two men were so focused on killing each other that they tended to forget that she was there.

From the moment Zoisite began their tri-soldier tournament, both men had been singular in their focus. Nephrite stood his ground as Zoisite raced towards him, vanishing at a distance and reappearing hovering above the larger man. His knife careened towards Nephrite's neck at an alarming speed, but Nephrite caught Zoisite's wrist with ease. Nephrite started to twist his arm, but Zoisite quickly wriggled out of his grasp. More to exercise his frustration than anything else, Zoisite had turned to her, hurtling sakura petals of all things.

Mars didn't think she'd ever been more insulted in her life.

With a snarl, she leapt above the attack and quickly launched a Fire Soul at Zoisite from directly overhead. He smirked and puffed out his cheeks, blowing his own fire in equal measure towards her. Their twin attacks collided and exploded outwards. She just barely managed to twist away from the flames. Zoisite, of course, had teleported, which Mars really felt was cheating.

Mars landed without sure footing, so it was more luck than anything else that she avoided Nephrite's kick. She rolled away er and threw a few ofunda towards him. He vanished, and then continued attending to Zoisite.

Mars felt like screaming. To begin with, she felt rather like a neglected child. They weren't even trying to hurt her. She ought to have considered this a blessing, but in reality, it made her feel inferior. Didn't she even matter to her own enemies, the people who were supposedly trying to kill her?

She shut her eyes, shoving those thoughts away. Now was not the time to be petulant. As long as they weren't watching her, she needed to check on Mercury. She crawled forward, keeping low as stray starbursts and ice shards flew about. When she reached Mercury, she whispered, "Mercury? Mercury, can you hear me?"

The silence that followed was a sure sign that she did not. Even with the sakura curtain between them, Mars could see the protruding bump on Mercury's head. Apparently, Zoisite had knocked her out but good. She was, however, breathing fairly steadily. It would be a miracle of the girl wasn't concussed, but Tuxedo Kamen could attend to that later.

Well, there was no sense sitting around waiting for the Knight in a Stupid Cape to show up. If she wanted to get this done, she'd have to do it herself.

Against two full-fledged generals when she was already not at her best.

"Yeah, this is going to go swimmingly," Mars muttered. Then she leapt to her feet and rushed back into the fray.

-----

His blood was singing. Part funeral dirge and part battle cry, it thrummed in his veins, his heart dictating the tempo like a bass drum. Nephrite could almost hear the low, rumbling voices chanting in a long dead language, driving him on, directing him towards the kill. He saw no reason to ignore their call.

He lost track of Mars for a moment, giving him the opportunity to focus on Zoisite, the bigger of the two threats. He clapped both hands together, forming a huge ball of energy around his wrists. He spun and sent it flying, quickly following up with two more smaller ones. Zoisite raced towards him, dodging through the obstacle course as if it might not cost him life or limb. Then he sent forth his own volley of sakura petals and ice shards, something Nephrite found to be more annoying then damaging.

Nephrite called upon his own sword, molding it into something broader and heavier than his usual preference. He ducked down and swung it in a loop over his head with both hands, testing the weight. Nephrite swung up again and abruptly changed direction, driving down towards Zoisite's conniving head. The other man snarled and held up both hands, conjuring another dagger and fortifying them for the blow. Nephrite connected, and the stones groaned against one another, chipping and scraping.

"You had no right," Zoisite fumed, his ears darkening.

Nephrite merely raised an eyebrow and kicked, catching Zoisite in the ribs and no doubt breaking a few. The blond stumbled back. "I take what I want."

Doubled over, Zoisite hugged himself and wheezed. "You'll pay for it."

"Maybe," Nephrite conceded. "But you'll collect nothing."

Zoisite howled and raced forward, but as fate would have it, he didn't get too far. Just then, Mars entered the contest once more, barreling her small but considerably powerful fist into his chin. Zoisite reeled, and she caught him by the hair and gave it a good yank. She held him there and kicked him in the kidneys – once, twice, three times – before Zoisite managed to sink one of his daggers into her thigh.

She screamed, clutching the bleeding limb. Zoisite threw his other dagger, aiming for her head. She yanked the first knife out of her leg and used it to knock the other away. Then he held out both hands, calling the knives back to him. She looked at Zoisite with rage paralleled only by Nephrite's.

And then it occurred to Nephrite that they could help each other.

Zoisite raised both knives above his head, but Nephrite sent his sword hurtling into the dark and caught the other general by the wrists and bent held him. To her credit, Mars did not question why Nephrite had decided to come to her aid. She simply spun and propelled her heel backward into his gut, hitting the exact spot Nephrite had already hit. When she drew her leg back, Zoisite's blood spurted out, coating the heel of her shoe.

"Bitch!" Zoisite shouted, kicking upward. He caught her on the chin, and she fell back hard. Zoisite teleported away. Nephrite sensed him reappear behind him and spun just in time to see Zoisite throwing fire in his face.

Nephrite doubled over backwards so that his back was parallel to the ground to avoid the attack. He was surprised by Mars's flashing violet eyes from her position on the ground. She spat a mouthful of blood into his face and kicked him in the back of the head. It sent him upright, and he pitched forward, tumbling into Zoisite, who stabbed him once in the shoulder for good measure.

"So much for temporary alliances," Nephrite growled. He head-butted Zoisite as hard as he could, his vision spotting. He whirled dangerously, precariously balanced. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mars roll back onto her upper back and then spring up, crouching like a tiger waiting to charge.

The violent music in his blood stopped, replaced by a wounded sonata.

Unsurprisingly, it was Zoisite who charged first. "Die!"

"Just try it," Mars challenged, blood pouring down her chin and fire flaring in her hands as she jumped towards them.

Nephrite merely smiled as the music came once more.

Nephrite aimed a volley of energy at Zoisite's wrists. The smaller man dropped the blades instantly, and they vanished in a puff of smoke. Then Mars arrived, throwing fire in their faces. Both generals teleported and reappeared behind her, spinning into twin roundhouse kicks – Nephrite high and Zoisite low.

Mars whirled just in time to see the dual assault. She held her hands up to catch and accept the blow to the chest, leaping over Zoisite's kick. She pushed Nephrite's leg away and elbowed him in the sternum. Zoisite aimed a left hook for her face, but she dodged, dropping to the ground.

Nephrite launched a burst of energy at the red soldier like an underhanded pitch. The blows were beginning to weigh on her, and this time, she didn't have the wherewithal to dive away. It caught her in stomach, and she let out a horrible howl. She flew through the air and slammed on the opposite wall. She coughed and spat out another mouthful of blood, clearly grappling for consciousness. And while Zoisite may have wanted to bring Sailor Mercury back for a public beheading, Nephrite had no such penchant for the dramatic. He had no qualms of bringing in a few warm corpses.

He raised his good hand over his head, preparing for the kill.

Two flashes of red zipped through the air, somehow turning in the air as if on a track. Nephrite didn't have to inspect them closely to know they were a pair of roses, which formed a perfect 'x' in front of Mars's struggling form.

Zoisite and Nephrite both turned to see Tuxedo Kamen posed perfectly in the doorway, a picture of towering and impotent rage. He plucked three more roses out of the air, brandishing them as if they were a threat. "I am so tired of you," he snarled.

"And here I thought we were getting to be such good friends," Nephrite drawled.

"Let them go."

"God, this is boring," Zoisite sighed. "How do you stand this same old song and dance?"

Nephrite began to shoot Zoisite a withering glance, but turned fully when he heard Mars wheeze with effort. He couldn't help but be shocked and mildly impressed that the girl was getting to her feet. What she lacked in skill, she certainly made up for in sheer grit.

"Crystal," she hissed, leaning against the wall for support in a way she thought wasn't obvious. "Nephrite's got the crystal. Left pocket."

That signaled an end to their dazzling conversation. Tuxedo Kamen threw the three roses in Zoisite's direction, forcing the other man to dodge, and then rushed for Nephrite. He heard Zoisite cry out in pain and saw Mars taking up the attack against him, grunting with effort.

And as Tuxedo Kamen streaked forward, Nephrite thought that maybe he was getting tired of the song and dance after all.

Unless of course, he could change the last refrain.

-----

Tuxedo Kamen's mission was clear, if not simple. He had to get to Mercury and see if she was even alive. He had to get Mars to safety where her wounds could be tended to. And above all, he had to get the crystal. His ignorance as to its purpose did not change the fact that anything Nephrite wanted had to be kept away from him at all costs.

He struck with the cane first, ramming the tip into Nephrite's ribs. It connected hard, and knowing that he was unlikely he'd be able to use it in this manner again, he sent it back to parts unknown, prepared to retrieve it should Nephrite care to bring out his sword.

However, for the time being at least, Nephrite seemed to prefer hand-to-hand. He struck with fists and elbows and knees so quickly Tuxedo Kamen was nearly left stranded on the defensive. He managed to fake with his left and then swung his right fist to catch Nephrite in the gut. Then he swung around, driving his heel into the general's thigh.

As he spun, Tuxedo Kamen watched how Mars was faring. She was bleeding badly and was clearly having trouble keeping up with her opponent. It was really nothing short of a miracle that she was even standing. She was fending Zoisite off almost exclusively with her fire and ofunda, and he could tell from the sweat pouring down her face that she wouldn't last much longer.

Nephrite came around with a right hook, but Tuxedo Kamen caught his wrist and held as tight as he could manage. He repeated this defense when Nephrite countered with a left uppercut. And so there they were again, caught in a stalemate Tuxedo Kamen was neither strong enough to hold or break.

"Is it the crystal?" Tuxedo Kamen hissed. "Is it the one we're looking for?"

Nephrite studied him for a moment, as if judging something about the question, the way it was phrased, or perhaps the speaker himself. "Only so you'll stop asking: it's not the Ginzuishou."

For a moment, Tuxedo Kamen dared to hope that he was lying, but there was something in Nephrite's eyes that made him think otherwise. Beneath the usual anger and elitism, there was just a hint of defeat that could only portend one thing. For whatever reason, Nephrite was telling the truth.

Tuxedo Kamen's heart sank. He knew it would have been too easy, too coincidental. It didn't change the fact that he had wanted it to be true. Just once, he wished things could be simple in his complicated world.

"What is it then?" Tuxedo Kamen asked, his voice decidedly more subdued.

Nephrite shrugged. "No idea." He grinned, and Tuxedo Kamen was reminded invariably of a lion. "Doesn't mean I can't use it. We both know it is a thing of power, and I would be a fool to discard any weapons of use in this war."

This brought on another question Tuxedo Kamen had always feared to ask. "And what's your end game? What do you want from us?"

Nephrite chuckled, deceptively relaxed for all of their straining against one another. "Do you really have to ask? We want the world, of course." He paused, the smile shifting from big cat to reptilian. "What you should be asking, boy, is what we plan to do once we have it. I assure you, the answer is far more interesting."

Tuxedo Kamen had never been more certain that this was something he didn't want to know. "I won't let you," he whispered earnestly.

"Try and stop me."

"I'll do more than try," Tuxedo Kamen promised. He released Nephrite's hands and accepted two blows to the chin he could not avoid.

And then he did something truly stupid.

He leapt, tackling Nephrite to the ground. The general was so taken off guard that he didn't immediately teleport out of the way. He had made sure to hit Nephrite on the left side, and when Tuxedo Kamen felt a large bump, he dove for it.

Nephrite grabbed his wrist as Tuxedo Kamen pulled it out. They now held it between them, the strange bauble that had caused so much pain. Caught between their hands, the crystal began to pulsate with light, flashing gold, over and over again.

"This world isn't yours," Tuxedo Kamen growled.

Nephrite yanked the crystal closer to him, even as Tuxedo Kamen countered with the same motion. "It was once. And it will be again."

Tuxedo Kamen's mind reeled. He knew he would never defeat Nephrite in hand-to-hand combat. But he also knew that Mars – Rei, really – had described this crystal as volatile. She had said that Nephrite would be reluctant to use magic around it unless his hand was forced. Clearly it had been, and nothing had happened. But their touch had caused something to stir within it.

Perhaps it needed a direct application.

"Mars!" Tuxedo Kamen bellowed.

"Little busy!" he heard her snap, followed directly by the sound of a fist connecting with flesh.

"Aim here!" he called.

Nephrite's eyes widened in panic, and he struggled furiously to pull the crystal away. "Don't."

Her heels clattered against the floor as she stopped in surprise. "What?"

"Now!"

He could sense her fear and hesitation, could tell that he was asking her for something she didn't want to do. He could also sense that she would answer his call. Heat prickled against his back as she called forth as much power as she could manage before Zoisite attacked.

"What are you doing?" Nephrite hissed, still working to get free. "Do you know what could happen?"

"Of course not," Tuxedo Kamen said coolly. "That's the point."

"FIRE…"

Nephrite's eyes widened in dawning horror. The crystal was heating up between their palms.

"SOUL!"

Nephrite released the crystal and began to scramble away, but he wasn't fast enough. Fire engulfed them, and they were surrounded by red and heat. Tuxedo Kamen felt his clothes spark and singe, and he smelled burning hair and flesh. They were trapped in an inferno of his own design.

Then all of a sudden it was gone. The crystal had sucked it up like a vacuum, and at that moment, Tuxedo Kamen couldn't hold it anymore. He tossed it up and watched as it burned like a giant coal. It flew through the air, shimmering crimson, flickering and waning… until for one brief moment, it stopped.

On instinct, Tuxedo Kamen threw himself backwards, taking Mars to the ground. He ignored her protests and covered her with his body. He looked toward Mercury and hoped Zoisite's prison would be enough to protect her from whatever was about to happen.

Then the room exploded.

Fire easily ten times the intensity that Mars had produced filled the room. It was as if a bomb had gone off. It was hotter than Tuxedo Kamen had imagined even hell could be, and he felt the skin on his back and arms blister. He screamed, listening to Zoisite and Nephrite's own cries until they abruptly cut off. They had retreated.

In the same instant, Mercury's cage disappeared. He threw off his cape and covered Mars with it as the flames raged on. He scrambled forward and gathered Mercury's prone body to his chest.

The room was completely ablaze, and it was spreading like a hungry monster. He straightened as far as he dared, crouching down low as he could manage. He stumbled over to Mars, who was coughing even worse now that he'd given her nothing but smoke to breathe. He reached down to help pull her to her feet, and for once, she didn't protest.

"We have to get out of here!" he shouted above the roar of the fire.

She looked at him with disdain but far less actual anger than she had in days. "No shit," she spat.

"We need to get out the way we came in. Can you make it?" he asked, eyeing her bleeding leg.

She nodded in earnest before fully covering her head. "I'll manage."

They raced forward, protecting their heads as best as they could. They burst into the hallway, which was already beginning to burn. They sped up, and even though Mars was limping, she matched his pace step for step.

Tuxedo Kamen heard a horrified yowl from his right, and both of them ground to a stop. Luna burst out of a side hallway, her eyes wide with panic. She gaped at the flames and started. "What happ—"

"No time," Mars rasped, opening her arms. "I'll carry you. Now!"

With the urgency of their situation evident, Luna leapt into Mars's arms, disappearing under the folds of the cloak a minute later.

They ran on, racing nature fueled and powered by magic. They were neck and neck through every twist and turn, every lengthy hallway. And all the while, the fire was just behind them, growing at a supernatural rate, burning everything in its path. Finally, they reached the room in question. The fire reached it a moment later and already began to climb the walls toward the opening.

Mars skidded to a halt and nearly collapsed. "I can't…" she panted. Tuxedo Kamen couldn't see her face through the cape and the smoke, but he thought she was crying. "I can't make the jump."

"Luna, climb on Mercury," he ordered. The black cat burst from the folds, settling on the unconscious girl's chest as securely as she dared. "On my back," he told Mars. "Now."

She was too tired to hesitate. She dropped the cape and circled her arms around his neck, letting her legs dangle. He saw the flames surging closer, up towards the opening faster than he could have ever imagined. Gritting his teeth, he crouched down and then pushed off the ground as hard as he could. They flew up, each of them praying that they would be faster than the inferno.

They burst out of the opening a are second before the fire swallowed it whole.

Once they hit the roof, Tuxedo Kamen didn't even take a step forward. He simply leaped again, off the roof and streaking to the ground. Mars released his neck as they crested, rolling when she hit the ground. He landed hard, and his knees shrieked with pain. Mars struggled to her feet and helped him up, pulling him along. They kept running until they were well away from the museum and secreted under the cover of darkness.

Hidden and safe at last, they collapsed. Luna immediately extricated her claws from Mercury's fuku and moved over to Mars, who was tremblin. The moment the cat was close enough, Mars gathered Luna up in her arms and held her as she would a childhood teddy bear. Luna allowed the discomfort, mewling sweetly and licking Mars's face with her tongue.

Tuxedo Kamen laid his back flush against a tree trunk, drinking in gulps of fresh air. He coughed and spat out a mouthful of ash. Lungs relatively clear, he began to check over Mercury's injuries.

But then he heard Mars began to giggle. He turned, gaping at her. Her face was marred with blood and soot, and tears were streaming down her face like dirty little rivers on her flesh. She was sobbing and laughing, and he found himself wondering in horror if she was broken.

"Mars?" he whispered, his voice croaking. He cleared it harshly, ignoring the pain. "Rei? Are you all right?"

She laughed and let out a shuddering sob in the same breath. "I've alive," she told him breathlessly. "We're both alive." She drew her knees up to her chest, wheezing. "We survived two Dark Kingdom generals.

"And Ami's going to kill us because we burned a museum down."

Tuxedo Kamen looked back the way they'd come. The entire building was blazing now, a beacon in the dark night. He heard the whine of approaching sirens and the frightened shouts of spectators as they ran to survey the damage.

"She's going to kill us!" Mars repeated, howling.

Tuxedo Kamen looked down at the slumbering girl in his arms. His cracked lips strained against his teeth. Then he began to chuckle, driven on by Mars. The chuckles soon dissolved into full-fledged laughter straight from his gut, matching Mars in volume if not desperation.

Not bothering to examine or over-analyze, Tuxedo Kamen reached over with one arm and pulled Mars to him. She was too addled to even be surprised. She simply clung to his side, pressing her face into the stained fabric of his tuxedo coat. He held her closer, encircling her neck with his arm. Then he laid his forehead against her brow and kept laughing into the night.

And if he cried too, neither Luna nor Mars pointed it out.

-----

The battle was over and done with as far as Sailor V knew. Though really, setting a building on fire was as good an ending as ever.

She'd done her due diligence insofar as she could allow. She'd led the guards away from the battle until they'd noticed the smoke. Then she'd had the good sense to shake them out of their surprise that the alarms weren't going off. After letting her pseudo-prisoners go, she'd even done a quick sweep of the building to see if there was anyone else around, and found a few guards one of the generals (she suspected Zoisite) had attacked. He'd only left one alive, and only just, but at least she was able to retrieve the other bodies before they got burnt beyond recognition.

Now she hid a block away from the museum, watching the smoke and fire from a distance. She clung to the shadows of the alley she waited in, rubbing her arms against a nonexistent chill.

After what seemed like an age, a tiny black and white feline crossed her path. She opened her mouth to speak, but Artemis cut her off. "That damn fool Luna spotted me and chased me up and down the building. And continued to do so after the place was on fire. I never thought I'd shake her."

Now that he'd stopped, she opened her mouth to ask the question she'd been dreading and found she couldn't speak.

He paused swishing his puffed out tail. "It's all right. They're all right."

Sailor V's knees gave out in relief. She hugged herself so tightly that it hurt. "Oh thank God. Thank God. But how?"

"No idea," Artemis confessed. "I rather suspect it had something to do with…." He gestured meaningfully at his singed fur.

On another day, Sailor V would have been curious as to how Mars conjured the firepower for such a display, but at the moment, she was so relieved, she didn't question it. "And the crystal?"

"I believe the correct terminology here is 'a crystal,'" Artemis said. "I managed to overhear that bit."

She rubbed her eyebrows, attempting to ease away a stress headache. "Well, of course not. Why should something go right this evening?"

Artemis set about the task of washing away all of the soot and grime. "Coming tonight was a mistake. I hope you know that."

Thinking back on her behavior, Sailor V couldn't help but agree. "We had no way of knowing. There's a saying about hindsight I'd mention, but I'm too exhausted to have you correct me. She hesitated before continuing, impulsively gathering Artemis into her arms. He protested only a little before settling into her lap, nuzzling her wrist with his chin.

"Do you know what I had to do tonight?" she murmured, shaking even now. "I had to leave a battle. It was one I deserved to fight, one they needed me for, and I had to turn and run. All because I couldn't risk being exposed."

"I'm sorry," he said, and she didn't doubt his sincerity for a minute. "I did warn you that might happen ages ago."

Sailor V held him more firmly to her chest. "I know you did. But I never thought… I always thought I'd just ignore you and fight anyway."

He snorted. "That does sound like you. Why didn't you?"

Fear gripped her so suddenly it was as if something had leapt at her from out of the dark. In a flash, memory arrested her, nostrils filling with the ghosts of smoke and ash slightly different from the scent that the air carried in the present. She heard the sounds of creaking wood and her own screams. She saw a pair of grey eyes gleaming in the distance, telling her to die so casually it had made her ill.

"Didn't want to deal with your lectures."

It was obvious he didn't believe her, but he said nothing to contradict this supposition.

"They could have died," she said, stating the obvious. "They could have died because I left them."

"They didn't."

"It was too great a risk!" she snapped, her voice shaking with barely suppressed emotion. "I was damned no matter what and… Artemis, how could I have forgiven myself? How could they have forgiven me?" She paused, slumping her shoulders. "They may not forgive me even though they did survive. I certainly wouldn't."

And in point of fact, she didn't.

Artemis inhaled slowly and said, "I don't think you should pull your watcher routine anymore."

She opened her mouth to offer the token protest.

"Let me finish," he insisted. "It's been killing you to wait on the sidelines observing, and after tonight… I know you, Aino Minako, and I know that you'll jump in at the first sign of trouble from here on out to make amends. I wouldn't blame you if you did, but we both know that will complicate matters to an insane degree. They aren't ready for you to appear yet." He paused. "And you ran was because they aren't ready for who would come after you."

She dropped him as if he'd clawed her.

"Don't talk about him."

"I know Kunzite—"

She barely stopped herself from covering her ears. "Don't say his name."

"For God's sake, Minako. It's not going to bring him here."

"Do you know that?" she snapped. "No. You don't. You weren't there. You didn't see how it was, so don't tell me that I'm being ridiculous. You have no idea, Artemis. None."

He bowed his head, chastened. "You're right. I wasn't. I won't bring him up again. I promise."

Sailor V swallowed the bile in her throat and nodded. "Okay."

She ran her hands through her hair, mussing the bow she'd tied too tightly earlier that day. "And okay to… the other thing too."

Cats couldn't arch their eyebrows, but his expression carried the same intent. "Really?"

"Yeah," she sighed. "I can't deal with this anymore. So maybe it's selfish, but… I'll stay home from now on."

Artemis looked at her sadly. "Do you really think it's selfish? When you know what we're aiming for?"

"I know it's selfish," she answered coldly, gathering him into her arms again. "But you keep telling me the mean ends are justifiable."

"That's not—"

"I know."

Artemis sighed, but let the subject drop. He came forward and rubbed up against her legs, offering no protest when she pulled him into her arms. She rubbed her cheek against his soft fur, scratching idly.

"By the way," he muttered, purring, "you made sure none of the guards recognized you, right?"

Her fingers stilled for only a moment as she remembered. The flashing lights of her attack and the moonlight spilling in the windows threatening to illuminate her. Still, she had kept to the shadows, ensuring that the secret of Sailor V endured. They hadn't seen her. Couldn't have seen her. Even when she took them by the hand, she made sure to protect herself. She could have been Mars or Mercury or another Senshi entirely. There was no reason for them to suspect that it was her.

And yet….

"Minako?"

"Sorry, spaced out," she said. "They didn't see me. I'm sure of it. Don't worry."

She repeated that over and over again in her mind until she could believe it.

-----

When the phone rang in the dead of night, Senator Hino knew that it could not possibly be good news. No one called you at three in the morning because they were happy. Celebrations could always wait for the dawn.

In his opinion, he'd had more than his fair share of these phone calls. The political and sexual scandals of his mentors and protégés. His mother's suicide. His daughter's birth and his wife's subsequent death. Now it seemed there would be another to add to the list.

Senator Hino fumbled for the phone, knocking his alarm clock to the ground. He held it to his ear and grumbled, "What's happened?"

"Sorry to wake you at this hour, Senator Hino. It's Morita."

Of course, Nibori recognized the voice from the first, and upon doing so, he had realized what the call must be about. All grogginess vanished. "The Senshi."

"Yes, sir. You said to report any new activity to you, day or night."

"I don't need a summary of what I told you, Morita," Nibori snapped. "What's happened?"

Morita apologized and launched into a summary of the Senshi and Tuxedo Kamen's remarkable evening. Breaking into a museum, destroying national treasures, and either causing or failing to prevent several deaths was more than even he expected. It would certainly serve his campaign against them well.

"Thank you, Morita. Please contact my staff so that we can prepare a statement for the morning news cycle."

"Of course, sir. But… there's one more thing."

Nibori paused, poised to hang up the phone but halted by the hesitation in Morita's voice. "Yes?"

"One of the guards described to me how he managed to escape the building once it was on fire. He recounted chasing one of the Senshi for several minutes before she led him out."

"What of it?"

"…sir, he described her as blonde and wearing a blue costume. And he's not sure, but he believes he saw a crescent on her forehead."

Nibori's palms broke out into a cold sweat. He sat straight and turned on the light, nearly upending the lamp in the process. "He is claiming to have seen Sailor V?"

"He's not positive, sir, and none of the other guards can confirm it."

The receiver shook in Nibori's tightening grip. "I was told she was dead."

"That is what Interpol and Scotland Yard believer, Senator, but they were never able to confirm. A body was never found."

"I don't have to tell you that that isn't acceptable," Nibori seethed. "If her existence is confirmed, a significant percentage of the population may change their support. Sailor V may be a Senshi, but she's altogether different than this group. She's managed not to get anyone killed."

"To our knowledge, sir."

Nibori snorted. "A small comfort."

"What are your instructions, sir?"

"Bribe the guard," Nibori said. "We have the funds."

"And if he won't take the bribe, sir?"

The senator reached for the bottle of scotch he now kept by his bed and took a long swallow. As warmth spread through his belly, he said, "Then you take care of it another way."

"Understood, sir."

"Good," Nibori said. "As far as the people of Japan are concerned, Sailor V is either a figment or a corpse. Keep it that way."

-----

When they calmed down, the three of them (plus Mercury) slowly made their way back to their hotel, and Mercury still hadn't come around. Tuxedo Kamen, for once being the least injured party, scaled the building and carried both soldiers to their room. The moment she was in, Mars transformed back into Rei and promptly collapsed on the bed.

"Bloodstains," Luna admonished gently, still hovering over the fire soldier.

"We'll steal the sheets," Rei whispered, thoroughly exhausted from the battle and her minor breakdown. "Or burn them."

Luna sniffed. "Do we really need more fire in our lives right now?"

Rei shrugged and reached over to scratch Luna behind the ears.

Mamoru sighed, laying Mercury down on her bed. His burns ached intensely, but he kept his face straight for the benefit of the others. He could wait and tend to himself later. "I'll be right back with my first aid stuff."

Rei shook her head. "Check the closet. Ami brought some too."

Mamoru sagged with relief. He limped to the indicated closet, and dug for the first aid kit in question. He immediately laid hands on some painkillers. He ripped the bottle open and swallowed three. Then he capped the bottle again and tossed it onto Rei's bed by the window. "Take at least two of those."

Rei eyed them with scrutiny. "Will they knock me out?"

"No."

"Give me the ones that knock me out."

He chuckled. "I think I'll have to go back to my room for that… and I think I should see to her first. She's got to be badly concussed. I felt two bumps on her head."

Rei scowled, and while the effect was usually suitably unsettling, she looked positively terrifying under a mask of blood and soot. "I am going to kill him."

"Get in line," Mamoru and Luna voiced in the same breath.

Mamoru pulled some smelling salts out of the bag and went to Mercury's side. He had to wave them under her nose for a moment longer than he would have hoped, but eventually, she came around. Though she didn't seem too happy about it.

"Ow," she whimpered horribly. "What…? Where—"

"It's all right," Mamoru assured her. "We're back at the hotel. It's over."

Mercury stared at him, uncomprehending. "What?"

"It's a long story," Mamoru started to say.

"There was another general looking for the crystal," Rei grumbled. "He got the drop on you. Nephrite found the thing we were looking for first, but it's not the Ginzuishou. We fought about it. And any resulting fire damage is totally Mamoru's fault."

"Okay maybe not that long," Mamoru amended.

"Give me the details when it doesn't feel like my head is going to explode," Mercury murmured, letting her transformation melt away. It was a sure sign that she was concussed that she ignored Mamoru's presence. "Also, I have double vision. Possibly triple."

It seemed they were all willing to forget about his lies of omission for the time-being. So much the better as far as he was concerned. And maybe later he'd even tell them about Sailor V. He wondered what had happened to her after they split up. He was momentarily gripped by the horror that she might not have gotten out, but he quickly discounted it. The most likely scenario was that she'd been too busy leading the guards away and then getting them out alive. Chances were good he'd be seeing her again soon.

"Do you know I saw the strangest thing tonight?" Luna began, whiskers twitching. "A white… Actually, let's discuss it later. Turn on the television and see if there's anything about the fire."

Mamoru obliged, having his suspicions of what white thing Luna had seen. It took a little flipping to get passed the ridiculous game shows and adult programming, but eventually he landed on a news channel. The image of the decimated museum filled the screen.

Ami shouted as if someone had torn a limb from her body. "What did you do?"

"Did I mention that the fire is totally his fault?" Rei repeated.

"I find that very hard to believe," Ami moaned as Mamoru tentatively levered her up to check on her head wounds.

Mamoru laughed sheepishly. "Actually, it sort of was my fault."

"Why do you hate history?"

"Shh, they're talking!" Luna announced, perching on the end of the bed.

"For those of you just tuning in," a harried voiceover said, "we are filming at the scene of a devastating fire at the Tokyo National Museum. Authorities are perplexed as to the origin of the blaze, as well as the complete lack of response by sprinklers, alarms, or any other security measures."

Ami let out a terrible sounding sob, and Mamoru thought he'd hurt her. "My fault," she whimpered.

"No," Rei soothed. "Definitely Mamoru's."

The voiceover continued. "We'll keep you posted on this story throughout the night as developments… wait. We've just received an update…. Oh! Oh, my! Well, this is…. Authorities have just found evidence that the famous, or perhaps infamous, Sailor Senshi and Tuxedo Kamen, may have been involved in tonight's museum fire."

Ami made another horrible little sound, and Mamoru despaired of cheering her.

"An artifact reputedly belonging to one of the Sailor Senshi has been recovered from the wreckage. No word yet as to whether or not they were responsible for the blaze or what the trio was doing tonight at the Tokyo National museum."

Rei grunted, wiping her arm across her eyes. It came away filthy. "I wish we'd had time to get the crystal back."

Mamoru frowned. "But how would they know that the crystal was ours?"

"They did seem sure it belonged to us," Luna murmured.

Suddenly, Ami's eyes bugged out of her head. She jumped to her feet and began thrusting her hands into her pockets. Both Mamoru and Rei were up in an instant trying to push her down.

"Ami! Ami, what's wrong?" Rei asked.

"Ami, please, you know better," Mamoru chided. "You need to lie down."

"I can't find them," she hissed frantically. "I can't, I can't…" She looked at the three of them with dawning horror. "They're gone. They're not here. I must have… Oh, God. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Mamoru shook his head, completely lost. "Ami, what are you sorry about? What's gone?"

"The blue crystal for one, but that's not the worst of it," Ami moaned.

Luna's hair stood on end. "What is the worst of it?"

"My computer," she whispered in terror. "They found my computer at the museum."

AUTHOR'S NOTES

Well, haven't had one that long in a while, huh? The main reason for that of this update is that several of the scenes – including the first Sailor V/Tuxedo Kamen meet-up, the Dark Kingdom scenes at the beginning, and just about everything to do with the blue crystal – were originally drafted to be in the last chapter. Then my beta pointed out that the crystal stuff didn't quite fit in thematically, and as it tends to go with most of both beta's suggestions, I had to admit that it was the way to go. So that left the chapter at nearly 20 pages of old material alone.

Well, regardless, I hope you enjoyed it! Sorry there was such a gap between updates! I'm hoping to be more regular with updating everything shortly, but let me put emphasis on hope.

To respond to a few reviewers, one pointed out that Mamoru and the girls were talking about how Reika's youma, Rikokayder, was the first one with a name… when I'd forgotten about Tetis! Whoops! ^^; That problem's been fixed now, and I'm very sorry about that mistake! I was bound to lose track of a little continuity every now and again; wish it hadn't been something so obvious, but these things happen. Damn fallibility.

And several have said that Makoto hasn't appeared yet. I just want to point out that this isn't technically true. She has had a very short cameo prior to this chapter. Can you spot it? ^_~ I did try to give her a cameo in this chapter, but every attempt proved to be either clunky or distracting. But have no fear – plenty of Makoto shall appear in the near future.

Up next, our intrepid heroes once again take a page from Ocean's Eleven, Rei swallows her pride - which goes about as well as you'd expect, Zoisite throws a bitch fit of epic proportions, and at long last, Jupiter comes thundering in. See? I told you she'd be here soon.

Coming Soon – Part Twelve: Falling Star, Falling Rain