Part Twelve: Bond
by Kihin Ranno
Mamoru awoke without suffering from the early morning confusion of where he was; even asleep, he hadn't been able to distance himself from reality. Even without dreams, he had not been able to shake a lingering awareness of what was happening. He woke up thirsty and cold from a fading night sweat. He pulled at his collar and forced himself upright.
Lacking any urgent business and possessing a desire to avoid any, Mamoru looked at his surroundings. After leaving Venus the night before, Mamoru had simply groped his way to the bed in the dark and passed out. Surprisingly, he'd maneuvered his way past a canopy above a king-sized bed clad in pearlescent white. He gently squeezed the comforter, recognizing soft goose down. He'd fallen asleep on top of the covers and decided he'd wait to see if there were silk sheets.
Shaking his head, he pushed back the canopy. As soon as he had, he almost regretted it.
The large room spread out before him, and he realized it was nothing short of a miracle that he hadn't hurt himself. Several alcoves and doorways undoubtedly led to sitting areas, bathrooms, and the like, but he could explore those later. He was struck not only by the size of it, but in its emptiness. The crystalized walls were completely bare save for three paintings.
The first hung by the window balcony, and it was nothing he recognized. It was an odd piece for the bedroom, depressing and unreflective of either his or Usagi's tastes. The apocalyptic seascape depicted a large wave rising over a black beach. When he looked closer, he could see a miniscule figure standing at the center, arms outstretched. He or she clutched something like a scythe in one hand. He puzzled over its presence in the room until he saw the signature. Kaioh Michiru. One of the women who had been brutally slaughtered by Rubeus. He frowned and turned away.
The second was more familiar, though no more uplifting. It was the portrait Yumeno Yumemi had painted after asking Usagi and him to pose for it. He recognized every detail, right down to the locket she held in her hand, though he didn't know from where. Something tugged at the wisps of his lost memory. He narrowed his eyes, trying to focus, but after five minutes, he'd earned nothing more than a headache.
Once he'd cleared his head, he couldn't help but study the painting more closely. Had he ever looked at Usagi with that much softness? With that love in his eyes? Surely he must have the way Minako told it, but every time he considered it, he drew nothing but a cold blank. He had grown to think of Usagi as more of a friend rather than a nuisance over the past few weeks; he'd even begun to tease her less. Was that indicative of some emotion he hadn't acknowledged?
He studied the regal figure Usagi had inspired. Mamoru could neither ignore nor deny the devotion in her eyes. He couldn't look at it anymore.
The third hurt most of all. A childlike watercolor on plain paper in a simple frame of three figures standing in front of tall crystal spires. He recognized his future self in the lavender cape and the queen's fairy wings… but what he mostly cared about was the tiniest silhouette in the middle. She had cotton candy hair and big, bright eyes. The painter had given her the biggest smile.
His daughter. "Chibi-Usa," he murmured, brushing his fingertips over the rise and fall of her pigtails.
This whole experience numbed his mind. He had no idea if he'd make it out sane, much less alive.
"You know, I think you could fit my whole house in here. Well, what's left of it anyway."
Mamoru grinned ruefully, glancing over his shoulder. He wasn't too surprised to see Minako there, though he hadn't heard her come in. He breathed an internal sigh of relief to note that she was not in uniform. Apparently she'd raided her future self's closet and come up with some brightly colored mishmash of future fashion; at least he hoped that wasn't how it should look.
"Well, you know," he muttered. "King of the world."
"True," she nodded, tugging at her sleeves. "You been up long?"
Mamoru took a moment to reconcile this laid-back, collected Minako, with the militant hard ass he had been dealing with up to that point. And then he examined it again next to the boy crazy, ditzy Minako he and Motoki had spoken of a few days earlier. It occurred to him that there might be thousands of other Aino Minakos and Sailor Venuses he had not encountered yet. He found himself wishing he'd emphasized his studies in psychology; she was a case study on legs.
"I'll take that as a no," Minako muttered.
"Right, sorry," Mamoru grunted, pretending to rub sleep out of his eyes. "Not quite awake yet."
"Well, if you need help waking up," Minako said, flipping open a panel next to the front door he hadn't noticed before, "you can have anything short of a Bengal tiger delivered to your room, if you can figure out the right buttons. Coffee, tea, that sort of thing."
He raised an eyebrow. "Guess you've had some time to explore."
"Didn't get much sleep last night."
Mamoru knew the code language for nightmares and insomnia better than anyone. His mouth slid into what he hoped was a sympathetic grimace. "Sorry to hear that."
Minako shrugged off his concern. "No big deal. I had plenty of time to explore my room. Which probably means I've created some horrible time paradox or something." She paused. "Then again, the sail is probably already on that ship."
He frowned. "You mean that ship has sailed?"
"Isn't that what I said?"
Mamoru considered he might have to revise his previous theory about Minako: maybe she was just one person with an infinite amount of personality traits. But at least she wasn't threatening him.
She cleared her throat. "Anyway, if you need help with any of the gadgets in here, let me know. Everything's hidden – I guess so everything looks appropriately stark and depressing."
He ran a hand down his face. "All I want now is a shower."
Minako snorted quietly. "Fifty buttons, and I am so not helping you with that one."
"Wonderful," he groaned, raking his hands through his hair, which more or less resembled a grease pit. "If you hear screaming, send for help."
"What makes you think I'm staying here?"
"So you can snoop."
Mamoru stumbled in the direction he assumed the shower would be, catching sight of a smaller room that looked as though it was done entirely in marble. He paused, thinking he could at least ask Minako for some initial pointers without embarrassing them too much.
When he looked back, he saw her staring at the child's drawing with what might have been tears in her eyes.
He was probably smart enough to figure it out.
Despite her urgency after leaving Mars the day before, Cooan had not been able to do much regarding her misgivings. Information had to be gathered before she put anything into action, and even after acquiring a staggering amount, she'd still had to wait. There was only one person she trusted to discuss this with, and she was still in recovery.
Finally, Cooan got the permission she needed from Saffir to go see her sisters in the infirmary wing. She wasn't the least bit surprised to discover Beruche was wide awake and reading while Karaberas slept on.
"Did you know she talks in her sleep?" Beruche asked by way of greeting. "Actually, I think she has arguments with Petz judging by her tone. It's amazing I got any rest."
Cooan smiled, chewing on the inside of her cheek. She thought about embracing her sister, but thought better of it. They didn't really have that sort of relationship. "I'd ask you how you're feeling, but I don't want to be lectured about stupid questions."
Beruche sighed, twirling her fraying braid between her fingers. Cooan suspected this was to purposefully keep her from fingering the bandage around her neck. "I'm alive; I suppose I shouldn't be too picky about the particulars. Venus did cut the carotid; if Rubeus hadn't found me when he had…. Well, I don't care to think about it."
Neither did Cooan, though she didn't say. She also didn't tell Beruche how even after all the fighting, the memory of Beruche bleeding out in Rubeus's arms would be the memory from the war that haunted her the most. She had never seen that much blood, nor had she ever considered that any one of her sisters would shed it.
"They told me Venus and Endymion got away with Pluto's help," Beruche mentioned blithely. "Rubeus must have been… upset."
Cooan didn't miss the subtle insult. She took a deep breath, ignoring Beruche's obvious curiosity at her self-control. Cooan occupied herself by seeing to her sister's hair and began to comb through the matted braid. "I don't want to talk about Rubeus."
Beruche laughed so loudly it bordered on undignified. "By Nemesis, what happened while I was asleep?"
"It's not like I think about him all the time."
"Funny, I was under the impression that you actually did."
Cooan snarled quietly, provoking a cool smile from Beruche.
"That's the sister I know."
Cooan lightly scratched Beruche's scalp. "Shut up."
"Oh, fine," Beruche sighed. "You're obviously dying to talk about something; go ahead."
Cooan pursed her lips, trying to think of how to begin. "Doesn't this feel weird?"
"Actually, it feels quite good. Unless you're referring to something other than my hair. Specifics, sister."
Cooan rolled her eyes. "I meant the war. Revolution. Whatever this is."
To her credit, Beruche didn't needle her for still more detail. She at least pretended to consider her thoughts before she answered, "Time travel can be disconcerting for everyone. Wiseman warned us about that."
"That's not what I mean!"
"I can't read your mind, Cooan," Beruche snapped. "Either spit it out or focus on what you're doing."
Cooan had rehearsed nothing short of a hundred ways to broach this subject, and she'd come up with no solid conclusions. In the end, she decided it was best to be her usual graceless self and jump in.
"It's the Senshi. They don't feel right."
Beruche froze beneath her palms. Cooan didn't wait for her to ask for more information.
"Our whole lives we've been taught that the four Senshi were no better than monsters. That even when they were young they did horrible things… like how they killed that one general of the Dark Kingdom in front of his human lover. There are so many stories about their injustices in the 20th century, and this one, but… they're not right. Or maybe it's that they're not wrong enough."
Without missing a beat, Beruche yanked down her neck bandage, revealing the angry red scar that would mark her for the rest of her life. "You say the girl who did this to me is not a monster?"
Cooan knew Beruche had a solid defense in that respect. "Look, I'm not saying they're angels sent from on high, but I've been talking with Mars—"
"Oh, yes, the witch with psychic powers. It's not as though she could have manipulated you in any way."
"I'm not an idiot!" Cooan shouted, pulling away before she shook Beruche. "Despite what you and Petz and Karaberas might think, I'm not stupid enough to let myself be controlled like that. I would know if I were under some kind of spell.
"And look, she's a hot-headed bitch on wheels, just like I expected, but… she says things, and they just don't add up." Cooan screwed her eyes shut, trying to explain it. "It's not…. She asked me about Serenity or Sailor Moon or whatever the hell we're supposed to call her, but it wasn't like she felt obligated."
Beruche glared at her, utterly nonplussed. "Your point being?"
Cooan searched all of her human experience for the right comparison to make her sister understand. When she found the words, their simplicity was almost laughable.
"She was worried," Cooan breathed. "Like how Petz always pretends she isn't – exactly like Petz. She can't just come out and say it, so she threatens to tear buildings down until she gets her way. It's not about duty or station. Mars loves her."
It honestly hadn't occurred to Cooan before, but she knew it was true. Mars loved Sailor Moon. If a fiery war lord like Mars could love her, it stood to reason that the others did to… and that they were loved in return. And Cooan knew that if they really were monsters, it wouldn't be about love, not like the kind she'd seen.
The realization floored Cooan, and she was irritated when Beruche didn't react at all. "So?"
"Don't you get it? We've always been told that these girls were borderline sociopaths!"
"And you don't think people can change for the worse?"
"I think that history says they've always been this way," Cooan countered. "I did the research like I knew you'd want me to. I know you've been doing it for longer than I have. Tell I'm wrong."
Beruche's pale cheeks colored, but she did not drop her gaze. "You know perfectly well I only recently looked into—"
"It doesn't matter!" Cooan maintained, barely able to resist the urge to attack her sister for this complacency. "They all say the same thing: they've always been tyrants. I have yet to see one of those girls act like a tyrant. They're our enemies, obviously, but… don't you think there's even a little hope that we could stop all this? Just talk to them and see if we can fix this?"
Beruche stared at her now as if she was speaking a foreign language. Cooan realized too late that this entire exercise had been pointless. It had taken her days to even entertain the possibility; even Beruche couldn't get there this fast.
Her suspicions were proved when Beruche muttered. "And to think, you were the most eager to prove yourself on the battlefield to impress your little crush."
Cooan's cheek stung with the memory of Rubeus's slap. "Would you forget about that?"
"No, I won't," Beruche hissed coldly. "I won't forget anything except of course for this conversation."
Cooan physically deflated. "Beruche—"
"Do you have any idea what you're saying?" Beruche whispered hastily. "This borders on libel. On treason! If Prince Demando heard this, you'd be lucky to just get imprisonment."
"Because I'm asking a question?"
"Because you're suggesting that this entire enterprise is a sham! That we've been lied to since birth, and that we are not justified in our claims to Earth."
Cooan shook her head. "That's not what I'm saying at all."
"No, you just think that the Sailor Senshi are nice little children we can frolic with before the acid rains come down," Beruche mocked. "They sent us here. That should be proof enough of what they are."
Cooan's head swam. Beruche was right about so many things, but it didn't explain just as much. "I'm just confused."
"Of course you are," Beruche countered cruelly.
"As I said, this conversation never happened," Beruche interrupted. "You won't bring it up again, and neither will I. We never spoke; you never came here."
Cooan gaped at her sister. Her own sister would not give her an ounce of credit.
"Goodbye, Cooan," Beruche concluded, her voice chilling as a winter frost.
Cooan didn't bother to return the goodbye. Instead, she stomped out, trying and failing not to feel like a thwarted toddler.
Cooan had thought of all her sisters, Beruche would be the most sympathetic. Beruche would be the one she could trust.
She'd been naïve not to see it coming.
After Cooan left, Beruche immediately turned to Karaberas beside her. She studied the sleeping form with a careful eye, noting the rise and fall of her chest and the intermittent murmurings. She seemed utterly asleep, but one could never be sure, particularly with Karaberas. She leaned over and shook Karaberas as hard as she dared.
The brunette nearly leapt awake, which unfortunately proved nothing. "What the hell?"
"Were you asleep?" Beruche demanded, not bothering to dissemble.
Karaberas scowled. "Saffir gave you something. Clearly, you're high."
Beruche trembled with the effort it took to suppress an outburst. "I am under the influence of nothing. Answer the question: were you asleep?"
Karaberas nodded, clearly wary. "And having a lovely dream about setting Petz's childhood mementos on fire."
"How lovely," Beruche drawled.
"I thought so." Karaberas cracked her stiff wrists, arching an eyebrow. "What? Were you making the moves on Saffir and wanted to make sure there were no witnesses? I always thought you two would be better together, you know."
"I marvel daily that Petz hasn't murdered you."
"She probably does too."
Restless from her conversation with Cooan, Beruche threw the covers off her legs and rose. "I'm discharging myself. Let Saffir know if he asks."
"I'm sure I won't."
"Do as you like," Beruche hissed. All she wanted to do was walk to her quarters and hide from the rest of the palace, perhaps freezing a few droids out of spite. She wished she could marvel at Cooan's stupidity, but unfortunately, that wasn't possible. If anyone could find herself caught in Mars's twisted web, it would be Cooan. It was sheer luck that her little sister hadn't been burned yet. And now it was up to her to make sure Cooan stayed safe before she did anything else idiotic.
So caught up in her frenzied thoughts, Beruche did not feel Karaberas's eyes burning into her back.
When Mamoru emerged from the bathroom later, he was not surprised to find Minako still staring at the same picture. He couldn't blame her; he was already thinking of turning it to the wall.
He retreated to the bathroom again and made a point to loudly knock something off the counter. By the time he came back to the bedroom, Minako had repositioned herself in front of a closet he hadn't seen before. She hadn't been kidding about things being hidden in the walls.
"Do you know you still have that green jacket in here?" she asked, gesturing to the offending tweed.
Mamoru shrugged. "So? I like that jacket."
"We'd noticed," Minako deadpanned, pressing a button in yet another panel. At her command, the row of male clothes moved as if on a track, eventually revealing a plethora of gauzy dresses. She navigated it expertly, leaving Mamoru to wonder if she'd actually gotten any sleep the night before.
"Find anything interesting?" he asked, wandering forward.
"Is that code for, 'Did you find my future self's porn stash?'"
Mamoru choked loudly. This girl really was going to be the death of him.
Minako laughed uproariously, throwing her head back until her hair brushed the backs of her knees. "You should see your face!"
She kept right on laughing, now leaning forward so she could clutch her sides. "No, it's priceless! I can't wait to tell—" All of a sudden, nothing was funny anymore. It didn't really matter who she was talking about; all her friends were in the same dangerous position.
Mamoru thought about reassuring her, but he decided against it. He wouldn't know where to begin, and anything he said would sound baseless and hollow.
Minako collected herself and then turned back to the wardrobe, nosing through Serenity's wardrobe of state. "You know, I think these all have wings on the back. Guess Usagi's designer is a fan of the symbolism."
Mamoru nodded in agreement. "Pretty heavy handed."
"Usagi probably wouldn't like it unless it was obvious," Minako explained. "Either that or she gets a kick out of playing dress up as a fairy queen."
Amazingly, it didn't sound insulting when she said it. Mamoru would have to ask her how she managed that some time.
Minako sighed and pushed a few more buttons. The closet vanished seamlessly into the crystalline walls. "No sense depressing ourselves," she muttered, which was probably as close as either of them would come to acknowledging their mutual loss.
"The sail is probably already on that ship," he repeated back.
She stuck her tongue out at him. It occurred to him that their interactions were bordering on normal. He wasn't sure how much he liked that, considering the circumstances.
"Any idea what we're supposed to do?" he asked, changing the subject.
Minako fiddled with her sleeves again, unsure. He realized on closer inspection that it was a little big on her. He pointedly did not examine where. "I haven't heard anything. I guess we should just sit tight until we're sent for by official royal decree."
Her tone was entirely too dramatic to suggest that this was what she actually wanted to do. It took him all of three seconds to guess her true desires.
"You want to explore the palace, don't you?"
"Oh, and you don't!" she retorted, caving immediately.
In reality, Mamoru was pretty ambivalent about it. He would have been content to brood for hours about his lost memories and the lost girls. But he could tell instantly that Minako was not built for that kind of behavior. She wanted a distraction, and she wouldn't want to be alone. She'd made that abundantly clear several times over.
"Fine," he grumbled, ignoring his inner Motoki needling him about how he always yielded to the requests of women, especially Rei, Usagi, and now Minako. "Can I at least get coffee? You mentioned coffee."
She produced a thermos from midair. "I'm told you take it black."
He arched an eyebrow, mildly impressed, and took it gratefully. "It pays to be the ruler of the free world." He took a sip of the brew, and lost himself in the bliss of a good cup of coffee. It was a dark blend, strong, with just a hint of chocolate undertones. It comforted him to know his tastes in beverages wouldn't change.
"Gross," Minako observed dryly. Mamoru hoped she was referring only to the coffee.
"Heavenly," Mamoru corrected. "Lead on."
He regretted the phrasing immediately when she gave him a sweeping bow. "Of course, your majesty."
Even if there were no other battles, monsters, or crying jags, it was going to be a long day.
Karaberas was the first to admit that she was not what one would call mellow. She was very particular about every aspect of her life: food, clothes, even who she would deign to speak to on a regular basis. Of her sisters, Petz was undoubtedly her least favorite. A consequence of being too alike and born too close together, some supposed. Karaberas generally didn't bother with her unless she felt like picking a fight, which was often.
It was a testament to how dire the situation seemed to Karaberas that she would come to her worst enemy in the Black Moon Clan for help.
Petz whirled away from her vanity, a premature scowl marring her sharp features. Karaberas noted the omnipresent fists, as well as the tension in her posture, and determined that she wasn't the first to grate her sister's nerves that day. Well, it wasn't a day that ended in 'y' if Petz wasn't angry about something. If Karaberas were to wait around for Petz to be in a good mood, she'd be asking Petz favors at her funeral.
"What do you want?" Petz snapped, visibly restraining herself from going on the offensive. Petz did like to pride herself on not attacking her siblings without cause.
Karaberas did her best to look grim without being openly hostile. "Petz, could we leave aside spitting like alley cats for a moment? There's something I'd like to discuss." She stepped into the room, waving the door closed behind her.
Surprisingly, Petz didn't immediately harp on her rudeness. "I was unaware we had anything to talk about."
"Believe me, I wish we didn't," Karaberas informed her sharply. Her hands flexed as if tightening around her whip. She would have called it forth if she didn't think Petz would take it as an overture to a skirmish. She felt so much more comfortable with her weapon in her hands.
"Spit it out then," Petz muttered. "I'm in no mood for games."
"Something we can agree on," Karaberas deadpanned. "I certainly don't consider sedition a game, do you?"
Finally, she had her sister's attention. Petz narrowed her dark eyes, and at last, Karaberas believed she had the woman's full attention. "What are you talking about?"
Petz bared her teeth. "What? Has she threatened Master Rubeus?"
Karaberas blanched. "No, of course not. She's still head over feet for him last I checked. Why would she go after him?"
The way Petz glanced away made Karaberas's hair stand on end. She immediately thought of the worst things Rubeus could have done. She started to panic when Petz threw her a lifeline. "He just hit her," Petz murmured, trying and failing to be reassuring. "It shook her up, but that's all he did."
Karaberas released a shaky breath. She wished she could be relieved, but if Cooan had managed to turn Rubeus against her…. Couple that with what Karaberas had overheard in the infirmary, and Cooan was in deeper than Karaberas had realized. "It had nothing to do with him, though I wonder if he 'helped' the situation along." She took a deep breath. This was not going to be easy on so many levels. "Cooan is… suggesting some things about the Sailor Senshi. Disturbing things."
Petz arched an eyebrow that wanted plucking. "Such as?"
"That we have been lied to by our leaders."
If it had been possible for Petz to be any paler, Karaberas was certain she would be at this news. Petz perched on the edge of her vanity and then, as if finally remembering Karaberas had just recovered from grave injuries, gestured for her to sit in a chair opposite. "Tell me everything."
Karaberas did. And she said it all standing.
Meanwhile, Beruche hadn't been able to get Cooan's words out of her mind either. As far as she knew, she had done everything possible to keep her baby sister from getting into more trouble, but Beruche knew there was more to be done. The problem happened to be that Beruche had no desire to do it.
Contrary to what Cooan had suggested, Beruche knew she was not a complete fool. A little naïve when it came to who to trust and who to fall in love with, but Beruche was also aware that the three Ayakashi sisters had done everything possible to shield Cooan from the brutality of Crimson Rubeus. If she were ever to face the true extent of his darkness, Beruche knew Cooan's opinion would change immediately.
This led Beruche to wonder just what Cooan had seen in Mars. Certainly it had been some sort of spiritual manipulation or perhaps a fair bit of acting, but still, it was necessary to be sure. Unfortunately, it wouldn't do much good for Beruche to go speaking to Mars. The two of them had rarely crossed paths in any time line. She had no way of gauging the red soldier's behavior, and she would not place herself in the danger Cooan had flaunted. Of all the Senshi, Mars was the most dangerous without her powers, and Beruche could not go in unprepared. It didn't help that Beruche had no patience for dealing with such a volatile personality. Perhaps she would have to face Mars directly in time, but, there was only one Sailor Senshi with whom Beruche was familiar. She saw no reason not to exploit the connection, however tenuous.
And so it was that the clan sister ended up at the door to Sailor Mercury's quarters. Beruche was not surprised to see the girl reading one of the books. No doubt the brain trust of the Sailor Senshi would be hard at work trying to find a way out of their prison, and the only way to do that was to gather information. There was no way for the ice soldier to know Beruche and Saffir had selected these tomes specifically because they would lend Mercury no aid. Perhaps she suspected it and would try anyway. Beruche was happy to let her pursue fruitless missions; it would keep her distracted from any real holes in security.
Unable to shake a lingering sense of propriety, Beruche rapped her knuckles against the wall. The girl looked up, a gesture that was sharp but not startled. Beruche nearly recoiled at the sight of the Black Moon's signature earrings dangling on either side of her head. They looked ill-fitting; something about the image disturbed Beruche in a way she could not adequately describe.
"I thought you might come by," Mercury observed, not bothering to mark her place as she set her book aside.
"Why is that?"
"Usagi mentioned that one of your sisters has taken in interest in Rei. Based on my observations, you all have some sort of stake in one of us. Considering you took me, it's not too difficult a leap to assume that you're a… counterpart of sorts."
"Of sorts," Beruche agreed, slipping languidly into the room. She took a seat at the chess table Demando had seen fit to provide, choosing the white side specifically. She selected a pawn with feigned nonchalance, twirled it between her fingers. "What do you think about good and evil?"
Mercury stared, but no one had ever accused the soldier of being slow. She rose and took her place by the black pieces. Folding her hands, she waited for Beruche's first move. "Considering the life I lead, I think on that quite a bit."
Pawn to E-4. "In a game of chess, there are two opponents. Black and white. The relationship between players is straightforward although the game is complex."
Mercury moved her pawn directly in front of Beruche's. "Are you suggesting that one player in chess is inherently evil?"
"Of course not," Beruche chastised, moving one of her bishops to C-4. "I'm saying that there are no pesky third parties to consider. No political complications or ulterior motives. There's one goal: checkmate."
Mercury studied the board for a moment. Beruche expected her to take a piece to punctuate her next point, but instead, she moved out one of her knights. "I'm not certain I even agree with your chess philosophy, but leaving that aside… it sounds as though you're asking me if I believe in shades of grey."
Beruche moved another pawn. "I suppose so."
"You know so," Mercury corrected, carefully considering her options. Beruche noted the deep line that formed between her brows; clearly Mercury was planning several moves ahead, and not just for the game. "If you'd asked me several months ago, I think I would have been inclined to put my faith in absolutes."
Beruche maneuvered her pieces so that both bishops were on the board; the second was now poised to take Mercury's knight. She wondered if Mercury would sacrifice the piece. "Not anymore?"
Without preamble, Mercury pushed out another pawn, leaving her knight undefended. "It wasn't that long ago that I first started being a Sailor Soldier, as I'm sure you're aware. When I started, it… seemed so obvious. People were being attacked; their energy being taken for purposes we couldn't imagine. How could people like that have any goodness in them?"
"Something changed your mind."
Ami nodded slowly. "Our first enemy, they… I suppose I was expecting the one-dimensional villains out of fairy stories. They always had simple motives: greed and jealousy, so often destroyed by their own hubris." Her dark blue gaze wandered away from the board. "No one expected them to be capable of love."
Beruche did not bother to hide her distaste. She took the black knight, and so the first piece fell.
"Never underestimate the power of innocence," Mercury cautioned, moving her queen into the field and paying the bishop back.
"It gets harder to… well, you would say justify our actions. I saw it as another challenge to saving the world. Our enemies were no caricatures. They loved and felt pain as we did." She sighed, tucking her hair behind her ears. "Perhaps more so, since it all began with love anyway."
Beruche frowned. That wasn't the version of the story she had heard. From her understanding, the people of Earth had rebelled against the tyranny of the Moon Kingdom in the past and been defeated by the wrath of the first Queen Serenity. The reawakening of the war in the 20th century had been an attempt to avenge that lost revolution, but the Princess had proved to be her mother's daughter.
By the tenth exchange, they both still had 15 pieces, and nearly all of the black pawns were in play. Beruche had reluctantly moved her queen forward one space, recognizing that there was nothing else she could do without putting more pieces into the line of fire.
"Looking back, I see how much of their ideology was just being misguided…" Mercury paused, delicately selecting one of her bishops and pushing it to E-6. "…by those in charge."
Beruche scowled; Mercury had clearly decided to play a long game. She refused to go on the offense and simply kept moving pieces, enabling strategies Beruche couldn't fathom. Beruche might have normally appreciated the complexity of the game, but not this time. She loathed it, the player, and the obvious implications of the soldier's words.
So she took the bishop with one of her own.
"Are you implying I'm being misguided?" Beruche demanded.
Mercury glanced down at the board. Instantly, Beruche realized her mistake: she'd allowed her bishop to be surrounded by pawns and even the queen. This time, Mercury did take her piece, but she did so with an air of apology, as if she'd expected better.
"I have no idea what you've been told, so it is unfair of me to speak to that," Mercury admitted. "But I know myself and I know my friends. We're not bad people."
Beruche scoffed. "You exiled my people to a… prison planet. An orbiting hell."
"And I've never been given an adequate explanation as to why," Ami challenged. "I can't imagine that we would take such extreme steps unless the situation warranted."
Beruche narrowed her eyes. Was this a story that she was meant to tell? Prince Demando had never explicitly forbidden it, and she had never heard this mentioned in the Wiseman's machinations. In fact, now that the prince had his much longed for princess, Beruche doubted there was much else he would care for. But more to the point, did she want to say anything? Why did this child deserve to know?
Mercury sighed, softening again. Beruche knew chess was often about manipulation of your opponent; yet the look in Mercury's seemed sincere. It grated. "I just want to know why you hate us so much. What could have merited such extreme actions on both sides?"
Beruche studied the board. They'd each had twenty turns, and what Beruche found most surprising was that they had both kept all of their pawns. Usually, they were the first thing Beruche sacrificed. Now she had yet to move five of them.
"Please," Mercury entreated. "Help me understand."
For whatever reason Beruche was certain of one thing: Mercury was sincere. She wanted to know what they had done. It finally occurred to Beruche that the knowledge might hurt them.
Mercury blinked, obviously not comprehending.
"Historical records on both sides confirm Neo-Queen Serenity was the first to awaken from the Great Ice, the calamity that destroyed human civilization one thousand years before. She used her power to literally change the landscape: melt the icecaps, shift continents, and release humanity from its natural prison. She had given birth to a world of refugees, and she and her soldiers offered aid. Even we acknowledge the good you did then, keeping everyone fed and warm.
"Slowly but surely, she used her crystal to construct a sprawling city large enough to contain all of Earth's survivors with plans to build satellite communities later. She gave everyone a home. She made everyone feel safe.
"And then she decided that it wasn't enough."
Throughout her monologue, Mercury and Beruche had continued to play, mainly moving their pieces into defensive positions. A white pawn could have easily taken the black queen, but Beruche resisted the temptation, moving a rook behind her line of pawns instead.
"What did she want to do?" Mercury asked, though the timbre of her voice suggested her suspicion.
Beruche looked directly into those deep blue eyes she had faced on the battlefield so many times before. For the first time, Mercury looked weak, and it was beautiful.
"She wanted to purify every citizen of Crystal Tokyo," Beruche explained, her voice quiet and cruel. "She wanted every person to live for a thousand years without illness or disease. She didn't want people; she wanted a city of angels.
"True, she offered the option to refuse, but those citizens would be forced into the satellite communities. Cities that would not be created by a magical crystal but built by the hands and sweat of its own citizens. People who would not have the benefit of eternal life.
"Needless to say, most people decided to allow her to burn the darkness from their soul. And then, no matter what Venus claimed in her press conferences, they weren't human anymore. Humans are flawed, fragile creatures. That's part of what makes us strong."
"Your ancestors didn't want to be purified," Mercury surmised, "but they didn't want to be denied opportunities either."
"As a result, we were branded and exiled. All the Black Moon Clan wants is to reclaim the Earth for her rightful descendants: humans."
Mercury's eyes watered, but her jaw stayed tight. "No. We would not have done that without cause. It wasn't simply that you disagreed. You did something."
"Yes. We fought back against a legislation that would have left us wandering the desert the wasteland had created."
Mercury remained insistent. "You didn't just quietly protest or picket. The Usagi I know would have tolerated and even encouraged it." Suddenly, her eyes widened, as if having worked out some great quandary. "Your ancestors weren't freedom fighters; they were terrorists. They had to be. It's the only explanation."
Beruche sniffed. "You and I both know that depends entirely on perspective."
"No, it doesn't," Mercury countered. "Terrorists use fear as a weapon by killing innocent people. That's what you did. So we did exile you, but it was mercy, what we did. We could have killed you, and we didn't."
"What you did was worse than death!"¬ Beruche shouted, slamming her (she knew) poorly chosen chess piece down for emphasis. "There's no plant life. We can't sustain any livestock because of poor conditions and terrain. We are dependent entirely on the Earth for sustenance, a further humiliation."
"And how are you doing now that you've made war with them?"
Beruche narrowed her eyes. She had been told that they were not in fact on Nemesis, but that she was meant to keep up the illusion that they were. A tactical reason had been cited, but Beruche knew as well as any analyst that certainly Demando had moved his sources closer to the food. An army would not fight if they were hungry, no matter how righteous the cause.
"We'll get by," Beruche answered.
"I wonder, did you adopt your family's method of warfare?" Mercury croaked, her body shaking with barely suppressed tears of rage. "Did you attack civilian targets? Did you kill innocent people?"
"Hardly," Beruche insisted. "They are neither innocent, nor people. What we do is righteous, and we shall prevail."
Mercury stared at her for a long while. The disgust she felt for Beruche and the Black Moon was evident in every facet of her posture, but there was something else. The way her small mouth curved down, the set of her eyebrows, the trembling fingers grasping her remaining rook. Mercury felt something other than revulsion.
Beruche didn't realize what it was until Mercury pushed the rook forward one space, trapping the white king.
Mercury pitied her.
"Now get out."
Stewardship over the planet of Nemesis had nothing to do with the will of the people, which was one of the few similarities it had with the Kingdom of Earth. Demando and Saffir's grandparents had started the revolution against Neo-Queen Serenity and had been recognized as leaders of the movement. After the exile to Nemesis, it had been a foregone conclusion that they would be in charge of caring for the people.
Granted, a White Moon representative had been sent along to "run" the country, but in reality, they oversaw trade exchanges and served as a watchdog for their majesties Serenity and Endymion. They had known better than to claim any authority, and this was what had kept them alive. For a while anyway.
Saffir had tried to make sense of this decision in their youth, when he had been more or less allowed to pursue his own research unsupervised. According to him, a revolutionary mentality would be far more likely to proceed with a republic or democracy. That they had pursued an absolute monarchy passed down through a single family seemed anathema to their natural proclivity for mistrusting the government. Demando's personal theory was that his grandparents had wished to force Neo-Queen Serenity to acknowledge the Nemesian leaders in title if not in actual stature. As far as he knew, it had worked. Correspondence records showed that Serenity had never been anything but courteous when addressing the previous leaders of Nemesis.
Demando would know better than anyone. He had watched all of the tapes on which she appeared, studying her every feature. It was nothing like seeing her in person, but he had been willing to make due.
Despite the archaic way Nemesis government was structured, it had always been standard practice to gather the opinions of their small community concerning how the planet was being run. Rebellion was in their blood, and it seemed like a prudent idea. Approval of Demando's handling of state affairs had always been high, naturally skyrocketing when he decided to take back the Earth. But long before that, people had always commented that despite his age, Demando was an adept statesman. Extremely intelligent, possessing an ability to place the right people in the right positions, and a fair hand. He was never accused of being lax or easily distracted.
Frankly, it was good that winning the war meant everyone loved him, for if anyone had been paying very close attention, Demando knew they would have had cause to criticize.
Pursuing the Rabbit in the past had been something the prince had delegated and rarely concerned himself with after issuing the order. It had been the Wiseman's suggestion, and Demando had seen no reason not to let the Wiseman oversee the project. Of course, they hadn't counted on the heir apparent to become lost in the annals of time, perhaps never to be recovered.
It had been on Demando's insistence that Rubeus and the Ayakashi sisters alter their primary objective. He had been adamant on capturing Sailor Moon and the rest of the Senshi. True, there were sound political reasons for it, but anyone close to him knew the real reason behind this plot.
Ever since then, Demando had been constantly distracted. How could he attend to even the most minor of affairs when his beloved roamed the halls? He wished he could know what she was doing. He wanted to know if she was happy, or at least getting used to her surroundings. He wanted to know if she was softening towards him. Every moment he spent locked in his throne seeing after the war was a moment spent away from her. He could hardly stand it.
He looked up as if waking himself from a dream; he was certain this was at least the third time he'd been roused in such a manner. "Yes, Esmeraude. My apologies. You were saying?"
He had known Esmeraude since childhood, and so he recognized the signs of an oncoming tantrum. In her youth, Esmeraude would have happily ripped him from stem to stern. He studied her as she carefully swallowed whatever she wanted to screech. "We were discussing fuel allocations for the crystal ships, your highness."
Demando didn't miss the razor sharp hiss in his title; he let it pass unacknowledged. "There's a problem?"
The color Esmeraude's cheeks turned indicated that she'd probably already told him this. "Since you thought to leave the ships in the air as a scare tactic, yes, we are running low on fuel. Saffir is working to manufacture more, but it's difficult to do that, create more droids every day, and care for those in the infirmary."
Demando narrowed his eyes. "Beruche Ayakashi has some knowledge of chemical composition, does she not?"
Esmeraude pursed her lips. "As I have explained to you, Prince Demando, while Beruche is capable, she is not yet available. Saffir would prefer her to continue to rest until her wounds heal further. It shouldn't be more than a few days, but—"
"Then have Saffir get her once he feels she's prepared," Demando interrupted, carelessly, he knew. "In the meantime, pull half the ships back, but slowly. It's possible they won't notice a staggered retreat if the ships keep shifting position."
Esmeraude twisted her fan so hard it threatened to snap in two. "I suggested that ten minutes ago, and you said no."
Demando frowned. "Did I?"
Esmeraude let out an exhausted scream and turned her back on her prince. It was a deplorable lapse in protocol, but Demando had always been more lax with Esmeraude. "If you can't stop drooling over your precious little moon princess, why not go to her and stop wasting our time?" she yelled, vanishing a moment later.
Demando stared at the spot she had occupied. Then he glanced to where the Wiseman sat, gnarled hands constantly circling his dark orb, skin ever changing and face ever masked. "Am I so obvious?"
"Sire, you know Esmeraude is… easily agitated."
"Perhaps she speaks truthfully."
It was times like this that Demando wished he could read the Wiseman with any accuracy. "How so?"
"As long as the future Neo-Queen resists your grace's affections, you're bound to be distracted. If I were in your position, I'm sure I would be similarly torn. Luckily, I have never found myself to be in such a predicament." He let out a dry chuckle that was almost a cough.
Demando nodded. "What would you suggest?"
"Perhaps, sire, as a purely temporary measure, you could cede some more responsibility to me regarding the war with the Earth Kingdom," Wiseman suggested. "Certainly this would not be permanent, and you naturally would still retain the power to undo my decisions. But seeing as your highness so often decides to take my advice, maybe you could grant me the authority to make direct commands. Then you could devote your time to… more personal pursuits."
Demando considered it. He deeply resented the idea of being told what to do, but Wiseman wasn't suggesting that at all. In fact, his advice seemed sound, as always. Decisions could be made with more speed with someone at the helm who could devote his full attention to the war. It would benefit the movement all around and leave Demando with the time he desired.
"Excellent suggestion, Wiseman," Demando announced, rising to his feet and addressing the few other occupants of the throne room, mostly hangers-on who would serve as swift messengers. "Until I say otherwise, Wiseman's word is law, and should be treated like a direct order from me. I'm certain he will continue to guide us towards victory."
He then swept out of the throne room to find the object of his desire, ignorant to the sound of the raspy laugh that followed in his wake.
In fact, Usagi was currently with Makoto, having spent some time with Ami skimming books for information about Nemesis and the Black Moon and far less time with Rei making awkward conversation. Usagi found it far more relaxing to be with Makoto, who for whatever reason had become fixated on Petz and the prince's brother.
"You're sure you haven't heard anything else?" Makoto demanded, throwing ingredients for her supper into a bowl. "I'm dying to know more!"
"It's not like I can gossip with the droids, Mako. They're so creepy." Usagi shuddered. "Besides, I don't get why you're so interested."
Makoto laughed, the first time any of them had done so since they arrived. It sounded jarring, almost forced. "Are you kidding? What else is there to do?"
"No, I'm throwing unidentifiable ingredients together and praying it turns out edible," Makoto corrected. She poured a bit of a purple looking spice into her hand and took an experiment lick. She wrinkled her nose. "Bitter again. Just like everything else."
"I wouldn't expect a lot of variety," Usagi murmured, remembering what Demando had said about Nemesis.
"There's lots of variation on bitter apparently," Makoto sighed, turning her back on the project for the time being. "Come on, aren't you the least bit curious?"
Usagi shook her head. "I'm more interested in getting away from here."
Makoto stuttered as if she'd committed some horrible social faux pas. "Oh, well… obviously, I just…. There's not a whole lot we can do, is there? I'm sure Ami's working on something, but really, I just have to hurry up and wait for her to tell me what to hit." She cracked her knuckles for emphasis. "And I think it's good to get your mind off things as best you can."
Of course Makoto was trying to cheer her up. It was a wasted effort though. Until Usagi was free of Demando and the rest of the Black Moon, she doubted she'd feel anything but fear and sadness. Still, she owed it to Makoto to make an effort. She smiled; her cheeks hurt immediately. "You're right. So why are you curious?"
Makoto beamed back at her, clearly relieved. Usagi struggled to keep her face on. "It just always seems… weird to me when our enemies are in love with each other."
"Well, they go around taking energy or kidnapping people or trying to kill us," Makoto pointed out. "Not exactly loving actions."
Usagi considered this. "I guess how they treat us doesn't really impact how they can feel about each other. Ail and Ann were in love."
Makoto snorted. "Those two had issues."
"Zoisite and Kunzite, too."
"Yeah, well… They were different, weren't they?'
Usagi frowned, tilting her head to the side. "How?"
Makoto blushed for no reason Usagi could determine. "Never mind."
"And then there was Nephrite."
Makoto straightened. "Nephrite…. He came right before Zoisite, right? I don't think you guys ever told me much about him."
Usagi glanced away, realizing she probably hadn't. It had been too hard to talk about after it happened. Even though Makoto had been involved in the fight where Naru had been forced to deal with her loss, she had never heard any of the backstory.
"He fell in love with Naru."
Makoto's eyes bugged out of her head. "What, Naru? Your Naru?"
Usagi nodded sadly. "He changed in the end somehow, I think because of her." She swallowed although her throat was dry. "He died for her."
Makoto's face fell. "Wow, I… I had no idea."
"I didn't like to talk about it."
Makoto clearly understood and didn't press for the gritty details. "So I guess maybe it isn't that weird after all."
Neither of them acknowledged that they purposefully left Beryl out of this discussion. Talking about Beryl meant talking about Mamoru. Usagi couldn't stop thinking about him, but she thought maybe not mentioning his name might make it hurt less.
"And then there's Petz and what-sit… Saffir," Makoto said, switching back to the previous topic before Usagi could get lost in her own thoughts, which was no doubt her aim. "She's kind of… well, awful. And I'm not just saying that because she beat me!"
Usagi tried to look as though she were convinced. "Of course not."
"Be nice to me, or I'll make you taste this," Makoto threatened, gesturing to her dinner. "I just mean that she seems harsher than the others."
Usagi couldn't stop herself smirking a little.
"What?" Makoto asked. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Usagi wished she'd been able to school her expressions better. Makoto wasn't likely to take her opinions well, but Usagi wasn't a good liar in the best of circumstances. She did her best to be kind as she said, "It's just… I think people would say the same thing about you, Mako."
Makoto stared, either floored or perplexed by the suggestion. Usagi was half-tempted to take it back when another person appeared in the room.
"Last room checked, naturally," Demando said smoothly, his cape fluttering around him as he finished his teleportation.
Usagi immediately got to her feet, adrenaline pumping. She had no idea if she intended to flee or throw herself bodily between Makoto and Demando. Certainly, Makoto had similar ideas, though she probably wanted to throw herself bodily at Demando. The brunette had moved away from the kitchenette in her quarters, hands reflexively curling into fists. "What are you doing here?"
Demando stared at Makoto as if she had spoken another language. Usagi tried to speak up to hush Makoto, but she couldn't get her voice to work.
"Sere—Usagi and I have an arrangement," Demando replied, unruffled. "It is nearing dinner time, which is when she is required to spend time with me."
Makoto flushed and began to stalk forward. "She doesn't have to do anything, you—"
"Mako!" Usagi shouted, stumbling forward. "Stop!"
"Actually, it is a condition of your safety that she does what I say," Demando said, still unperturbed. "I think I've been more than reasonable."
"You kidnapped us!" Makoto snarled.
"Mako, please," Usagi pleaded.
"No!" Makoto insisted. "I don't care what happens to me. You know that. Don't do what he tells you. I know the others agree."
Usagi clenched her jaw to suppress the urge to cry. Rei had told her she'd done too much of it lately, and it had done her no good. She took a deep breath and grasped Makoto's arms, gently guiding her away from Demando. Makoto's face swam in Usagi's watering eyes, but she kept blinking them back, willing herself to stay in control.
"Maybe you don't care what happens to you," Usagi whispered, "but I do. So please, just… calm down. I'll be all right. I promise."
Makoto shook with the impulse to defend her. "This isn't right. None of this is right."
Suddenly, a light bulb went off in Usagi's head. It wasn't often that she had ideas, let alone good ones, but she was willing to take a risk on this one.
"Do you remember what we just talked about? About Naru?"
Makoto frowned, clearly confused, but she nodded in assent eventually.
"Remember that," Usagi instructed. "Maybe then you'll understand."
Usagi continued to hold Makoto's forearms until she saw comprehension begin to dawn. Makoto glanced over at the Black Moon Prince quizzically, sizing him up in a way she hadn't done before. "Really?" she murmured, unconvinced.
Usagi had absolutely no idea.
"I'll try," she promised. Then she embraced her friend, holding on to her for strictly longer than necessary. At last she pulled away, then she turned to look at Demando.
She was surprised to find that he'd looked away, as if giving them privacy. He cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable, and said, "I'll give you a few moments to… dress yourself for dinner. A droid will escort you." Then he vanished again.
Makoto bristled. "Why didn't he do that in the first place instead of barging in?"
Usagi sagged. "He probably missed me."
Makoto looked revolted. Then she clasped Usagi's hand and gave it a supportive squeeze. "Do you honestly think that you can change him?"
"I don't see that I have much choice," Usagi murmured, sounding more defeated than she intended.
Makoto didn't look comforted, and Usagi regretted that. Still, she flashed a confident smile. "Good luck."
Neither of them spoke the unmistakable caveat: Usagi was going to need it.
The whole of the Black Moon Clan knew to stay out of Esmeraude's rage during one of her moods. As those had become more and more frequent after Sailor Moon had become the center of the rebellion plan, she spent more time than ever on her own. Now she paced up and down a hallway almost universally abandoned for her tempers. It made Esmeraude feel both powerful and utterly helpless to hear her rage echoing along the vaulted ceilings.
All her life, she had served Prince Demando and his family. Her father had been the closest advisor to the former Queen, and it had always been expected that she would inherit the position. And for a time, she had.
She'd almost been happy then. True, it wasn't what she really wanted; Demando ignored her romantic overtures and stuck strictly to business, but at least she was close to him. At least he listened to her.
Everything had changed with the coming of the Wiseman. He had taken over Esmeraude's title. It infuriated her at first, but even she had to admit, his advice was always sound. Thanks to his influence and power, they had been able to mount the attack against the Earth.
Frankly, the loss of position didn't bother her so much as the loss of attention. Now when she spoke to Demando, she was lucky if he even pretended to take her into account. It wasn't personal, she realized. The same could be said for every courtier. But Esmeraude felt she was entitled above all to resent her demotion not in his court but in his heart.
She loved him. She had always loved him. As a little girl, she'd entertained fantasies of one day marrying him and becoming Queen of Nemesis, a dream he perpetuated by agreeing to her games in their youth. He played the husband, she the wife, and Saffir their petulant child. She'd begun to think of it as an inevitability.
Then Neo-Queen Serenity had to ruin it all.
Esmeraude growled, squashing the urge to release a surge of power against a nearby wall. The nerve of that woman! Coming to Nemesis under the guise of helping them had been insulting enough. Everyone knew it had been a warning to remain complacent little prisoners, but she had perpetuated the illusion, smiling like an insipid child and promising things she never delivered.
She'd done even worse than that. She'd made Demando fall in love with her. Demando, who had rightfully belonged to Esmeraude.
Demando's presentation of the flowers had been concocted by her own father as a political gambit. Wouldn't it be so pathetic to have the crown prince offer the illustrious queen a such a humble gift? A reminder that these were the only treasures to be had on Nemesis, and they had indeed been precious. Esmeraude hadn't seen flowers thrive since then.
It had been Demando's own stupid fault that he timed it wrong and made it seem like he was going to attack. Esmeraude had been so afraid for him as the Sailor Senshi attacked. He'd looked so small. She was sure he was going to die.
He'd lived. It had been the Neo-Queen's wish. Her supposed show of kindness had marked the moment when Demando had fallen in love with her.
It was also the moment Esmeraude vowed to kill the bitch.
Demando's infatuation was sickening. Didn't he see how he was being played? She'd done it all on purpose! Saved him from certain peril, smiled at him just so. She'd been courting him! Her husband the king had stood by and watched as he was cuckolded by a little boy. But of course he allowed it. Who would dare to cross Serenity? Who would risk life and limb to stand up for insignificant dignity?
Serenity was not only a tyrant, but a perversion. She had snaked her way into Demando's heart and mind and changed him utterly. He had never spoken another word against her, and after that day, he never pretended to be Esmeraude's husband.
She had lost him to an angel-queen. And now she had to stand by and watch as she was doubly humiliated. She had to lose him to a little girl.
Esmeraude let out another howl of frustration and whirled, preparing to kick whatever came in her path. She stumbled, seeing that she was no longer alone.
Rubeus applauded slowly. "Your histrionics are amusing as ever, Esmeraude."
Esmeraude's face burned. She hated looking weak in front of Rubeus even more than Demando. Rubeus, after all, would have no problems exploiting it. "Go to hell."
He chuckled at that, leaning against the wall. The day before, he had compared himself to a tiger, and much as she hated to admit it, the comparison was apt. That is, if the tiger was a psychopath. "You came to see me first, remember? I'm simply returning the visit."
She laughed, flipping her hair for emphasis. "More like you want the details on my offer."
"Was there an offer? Here I'd thought you were just passing on information."
"And since you're not off committing genocide somewhere, I suppose you've heard that the mission was a failure," Esmeraude purred. "So you can still have your vengeance on the latest in a long line of women who have disrespected you." She stopped, giggling. "Oh, how I would have liked to see her get the better of you. Actually, I'd like to be front row and center any time any woman hurts you, regardless of what side she's on. It is so satisfying to see you weak."
He snarled and lunged for her, but she teleported away before he'd even processed the insult. She now hovered near the ceiling, laughter echoing throughout the corridor. "Honestly, Rubeus. Temper."
Rubeus glanced up at her, grinning. He looked almost manic. "How long do you suppose, Esmeraude, Demando's protection will mean something now that his one true love is in residence?"
This time, Esmeraude didn't resist the urge to attack. Naturally, he'd vanished by the time it hit, leaving a nasty gouge in the wall.
Now he was laughing, and she would have given anything to rip that smile off his face.
"Quiet!" Esmeraude bristled. "Demando would never let anything happen to me!"
Rubeus shrugged from where he now hovered some twenty feet away from her. "From what I understand, the prince doesn't even listen when you talk. Too busy picturing himself between Serenity's legs, no doubt."
Esmeraude's grip on her fan tightened. She liked to pretend it was that little princess's neck. "Watch your tongue!"
Rubeus still laughed, blithely ignoring her threats. "Yes, however will I survive if Demando's bitch runs off her leash?"
She shrieked and attacked again. She managed to destroy a few light sources, but Rubeus had evaded her once again.
"Can we stop this now, Esmeraude?" Rubeus asked, his voice hissing in her ear.
Her body jerked, instinctively wanting to spin around. She kept still only because he would have known her quick reactions were a sign of fear. She willed her body to relax. "Fine."
Esmeraude could not help but be hyper aware of Rubeus's position in relation to hers. He was very carefully not touching her, but he was close enough that she could feel his body heat. His proximity made her skin crawl. "Yesterday, you implied that you wanted me to do something for you," he murmured. "You and I both know I don't do favors out of the kindness of my heart."
She swallowed, fighting her nausea. "Don't you even want to know what the favor is?"
"I can guess."
Yes, he certainly could.
"You can't kill her," Esmeraude instructed brusquely. "I'd like it if you did, but Demando wouldn't rest until he found the culprit. And let's face it, you and I have … reputations. It would be too easy to trace it back to us."
He snorted at her understatement. "Whatever shall I do, then?"
"Frankly, I'd like you to… ruin her," Esmeraude hissed, refusing to be explicit even now. "But it can't be done. She's too well guarded."
"You think I can't handle a few droids?" Rubeus asked, affronted. "But no, I have no interest in being executed for defiling our future queen."
Tears pricked at Esmeraude's eyes; she was glad he couldn't see them. How easily he mocked her dream.
"So what is it exactly that you want to do?"
Esmeraude took a deep breath to steady herself. She could not let him hear her voice shake. "If you can't ruin the girl, ruin Demando's chances with her. He'd probably manage it left to his own devices. The girl's as skittish as a rabbit in a thunderstorm. Still, I can't leave it to chance."
Rubeus groaned. "You're asking me to be political."
"I'm not thrilled with it either," Esmeraude assured him. "You're as deft a courtier as a bull. Unfortunately, Saffir's too loyal to his brother to meddle. Any of your pets would do, but I won't trust any of the sisters with this; they're too liable to get wrapped up in their own dramas. That leaves you." Neither of them acknowledged why Esmeraude could not do this herself: if she wished to benefit from her schemes, she could not be directly involved in them.
"So I'm supposed to do something I hate, which I'm liable to be punished for," Rubeus deadpanned.
Esmeraude waved away his concern. "This will hardly touch you. People assume you're duller than you are; they'll think you made a mistake. A few days in a cell, nothing more."
In reality, Esmeraude doubted the prince would be so light with Rubeus if it truly did mean Serenity would not have him. She'd consider that a fringe benefit to the operation. The war might benefit from his cruelty in the long run, but she personally thought he was better off dead.
Rubeus leaned in closer. His breath stank against her flesh. "And what do I get in return?"
She managed to suppress her shudder by finally turning around. She looked him dead in the eye and convinced herself there was nothing to be afraid of.
"I'll struggle when you fuck me."
Rubeus studied her, presumably measuring her resolve, though she didn't doubt he measured a few other things as well. She prayed for the day when she could claw his eyes out.
He smiled at her, canines sharp and gleaming. "You've got yourself a deal."
Esmeraude swallowed down the bile creeping up her throat. "You'd better make it worth it."
Demando made a tactical retreat to the dining room after leaving Usagi (the name still left a sickening taste in his mouth, like Nemesian moonshine) alone with Jupiter. Part of him bristled at acceding to her unspoken desires. He was the prince of the planet and supposedly answered to no one, but in reality, he was beginning to answer to her. She'd clearly been uncomfortable, and he'd given her space.
Saffir had told him to go gently with her, to be patient. This was the best he could do. He hoped it was enough.
It did not surprise Demando when she reappeared before him a short time later. If there was one thing he had always known about his white phoenix, it is the strength of her love. She loved her friends with passion that blazed. She would do whatever he wanted to keep them safe, no matter the cost.
And yes, he remembered, watching her pulse quicken against her throat, she loved him too - the prince of a dead realm and future king of Earth. Demando could never forget that, though he could try to erase it from her memory. Even if he could change her mind, he would always know that she didn't love him first.
But no matter. Life on Nemesis had not made him terribly particular.
He strode forward to save her from standing awkwardly at the doorway for any longer. He caught her wrist and felt her begin to pull away. He regretted frightening her. He had not had her youth in mind and credited her with too much strength. So he took care to be gentle as he raised her smooth fingers to his mouth, brushing his lips over her knuckles with the softness of a falling blossom.
She shivered. He allowed himself the illusion that it was from pleasure.
"You look beautiful... Usagi." He spoke her name with enough care that the word may as well have been cracking porcelain.
She glanced down at her gown. She had changed from a relatively casual frock into something more elegant, no doubt with some verbal assistance from Jupiter. It was dusky rose in color, covered with crushed, shining stones. As always, a pair of fabric wings hung from her back, these made out of white and pink taffeta. "Rei would probably think I look like a little girl playing dress up."
He arched an eyebrow. "That's Mars, isn't it? For her that's almost kind."
Her lips twitched as though she might smile, but the impulse faded. Probably she had remembered how easy it was for him to kill her if he so wished.
So much to regret. He had fallen in love with the Neo-Queen for her kindness, but he desired her most when she defied him. How could this slip of a girl compare to the woman she was meant to become?
Would he have the forbearance to wait?
As she picked up her long dress and made her way towards a seat, he knew that he had no choice. He would have to bide his time until she had the wherewithal to defy him, the spirit to do battle with him. He would have her now as she is, making do. It was, after all, better than the shell sleeping in the glass coffin.
It never occurred to him that he might not get what he wanted.
"Allow me," he offered, pulling out her chair.
She gave him the strangest look. Absurdly, he wondered if she's never been shown such courtesy. "Um... Thank you."
He bowed and then swept to the other side of their small table. Tradition would dictate that they sit at opposite ends of an interminably lengthy table, but he selected something round and far more intimate. She ran a finger over the smooth edge of the obsidian top. He hoped it pleased her.
"Everything is so dark here," she whispered. A second later she looked mortified. "I mean-"
"Don't apologize, S-Usagi. Nemesis is the tenth planet, far away from any star. It's in our nature to favor the dark and cold."
She picked up a utensil fashioned from a gem darker than emerald. "If I were in such a black place, I think I'd want that much more color."
Demando shook his head. "For us, it would serve as a reminder of what we don't have."
She colored again, embarrassed at the faux pas, and hastily dropped the fork. "Oh."
They sat in silence for a moment as a pair of droids appeared from the kitchen. They served dinner (living on Nemesis had not acclimated Demando's appetite for multiple courses, and he saw no reason to change this) and poured a merlot he had favored since a raiding party had taken it from a Tokyo winery some weeks before. Usagi tried to decline the drink, but serving droids were not intelligent enough to accede to such instructions. Then she glanced down at the food in front of her. If she had been hoping to see her desired color there, she was no doubt sorely disappointed.
He sipped his wine so that he could have an excuse for the quiet, while she continued to fiddle with her dress, her food, her place settings, and the earrings he commanded her to wear. After five minutes, he lowered his glass with a loud clatter. She jumped.
"Is this how it's going to be?" he asked with a heavy sigh.
Usagi considered the question. He appreciated her hesitancy. "You scared me," she admitted, and he was not foolish enough to think she referred to the plates.
She may not have been the fierce warrior queen, but she was delightfully candid. "I am sorry for that."
"You are?" she asked, obviously shocked by the revelation. "You hadn't said."
His lips curled into a slow smile. "I am not accustomed to making apologies."
Usagi looked utterly befuddled, as if she could not think of why that would be. He found it charming.
"Why did you act like that?" she asked, her voice small. She bunched up the jeweled fabric of her skirts in her fists. "Why did you have to be...? It was cruel, threatening me."
"It was," he conceded. "Unfortunately, darling girl, I am a rather cruel man."
Demando expected her to be frightened by this confession of his. If anything, she looked bemused. "Why?"
The simplicity of her thoughts, the total lack of guile... she truly was a fascinating creature. He was beginning to think that perhaps sacrificing a vengeful siren would not be so bad as long as Usagi was his reward.
He suddenly remembered a fairy tale his mother told him from the days of Earth. A boy climbed a tree into the heavens to steal from a giant. While there, he saw a beautiful songbird trapped within a cage, for her song was the only thing that made the giant happy. But the boy released the bird and the giant threw himself to Earth in despair.
Demando hated that story.
"In order to survive here," he explained, "one has to be cruel."
She wrinkled her nose, appalled. "I don't like that."
He chuckled, raising his wine again. "No, I didn't expect you would."
"Everything works better when people are kind to each other," she explained, her voice wistful. "Everyone's happier, and when people are happy, they're... well, they're at their best. Why is it so hard to be kind?"
"When you have very little, as we do, there is not much cause to be kind. We scrape for what we can to survive. Damn all the rest."
Usagi looked at him with the saddest eyes he's ever seen, and it shook him to his core. He had never been pitied. How could he have been? Everyone he had ever known envied him for his status. They'd loathed him, revered him, perhaps even loved him. He did not know what to make of her sympathy. He nearly choked.
"That's horrible," she whispered with alarming sincerity.
He shook his head, trying to compose himself. "That's Nemesis."
Her fingers reached for her neck, pulling at a necklace he hadn't noticed before. He could she tell disliked its weight. "You say… I've been told that I sent you here."
Demando glanced to where a window might have been placed if he had allowed them in the construction of this place. If they had indeed been on Nemesis, he would have hated to show her how desolate the landscape truly was. He was glad that now he had to shield her from discovering they were not on Nemesis at all. "I do not believe it was your decision, but yes. Your kingdom sent us."
"I can't imagine... myself doing that."
"It was your husband, your guardians." His voice was like a pinprick shoved deep into the skin.
For a moment, Usagi looked utterly lost, as if she could hardly remember where, or perhaps, when she was. Then she spoke, an unmistakable quaver wafting across the table. "I... I can't believe they would do it either."
His temper began to fray, and though he struggled to keep it in check, he could not keep his hands from shaking. "Really. You cannot believe it of Jupiter, whose strength and brutality is so well-known that children claim she hides under their beds at night to punish them for misbehaving? Of Mercury, whose logic is like a razorblade masked with false kindness, who created a thousand weapons to destroy us under the guise of protecting your city? Of Mars, who is cruel even to you, though she claims to do it out of love?" He waited a beat, knowing his last point shall be a grand finale of sorts. "Of Venus, whose crime is so great you cannot even look upon her?"
She hid her eyes from him throughout his speech. When she lifted them again, he expected to see her crying. Demando was both shocked and aroused by her unexpected anger.
"You don't know them," she hissed, straightening her back boldly. "You don't know them at all if that's what you think of them. I wouldn't love them if what you said was true."
His mouth dried. "You do... love them. And so you are blind."
"You're the one who's blind!" she shouted, driven to passion so ardent she leapt to her feet. His blood rushed at the sight of it. This was what he wanted. This was the defiance he longed for, but still, this was not what he wanted. Not at all. "They're good people! We're all good people! Even Venus." This time, it is she who pauses for effect. "Even Mamoru."
The wine glass shattered in his hand. This time, his rage was not like a volcano. It was a snake in the grass. "I told you: never say his name to me."
He saw the spark of fear in her eyes, but she had gone too far to stop now. He could sense her changing right in front of him. Meek no longer, she had grown willful to rise to the defense of her friends. Her loved ones.
Her loved one.
"I can't stand to listen to you blaming them anymore," Usagi yelled, circling the table. "Do you think I don't see how all your people look at me? They're blaming me for something I haven't done yet, something I refuse to believe I would let happen. I can't imagine even being queen, but if I was one, I know I would love all of my people. I wouldn't send them to such a dangerous, awful place with no sun or color or flowers. I wouldn't let my subjects die for want of care or shelter."
She laid her fingertips against his forehead. Her skin was cool, but it felt like she was pushing a coal between his eyes.
"I would never brand them."
For a staggering minute, Demando could not move. His mind was a hurricane with no calm center. A thousand thoughts and sensations swirled through him. She challenged him, which he had longed for, but on all the wrong things. He desperately wanted her to acknowledge the corruption of those closest to her, but she refused to see it. Instead she defended them, and in effect threw all of his people's suffering back in his face.
And worse still, she had touched him. He had craved the feel of her hands for a decade or more, and now when she finally did, it was out of anger.
Though, he hated to admit it, this didn't matter to his body. It still responded with a desire to take her. The self-control he exercised in not pulling her to him made him sweat.
Finally, Demando circled her wrist and pulled her hand away, shaking. She stared at her appendage in shock, as if wondering how it got there. Then all her righteous indignation faded, realizing that she was close to him, that she had disobeyed him, that she had placed her life and her friends' lives in danger for pride.
"I... I didn't mean-"
"You did mean," he whispered, his voice a cobweb. "I think it's best if we dine separately this evening."
Usagi didn't wait for him to say another word. She fled, running from him and probably directly into the arms of one of her friends. Would she go to Mercury to soothe her conscience, or Mars to commiserate in antagonism? Or will she merely incite Jupiter against him once more? And what, he wondered, would she go to Venus for, if she could?
Demando did not have to ask what she would gain from a visit with him.
No doubt she feared for their lives, and she would have been right to under normal circumstances. She could not possibly know how she had changed things for him. For both of them.
It had not occurred to him that lurking beneath frightened exterior, something ferocious lurked. She had a fire all her own that burned brighter than a super nova. She had hidden it well, probably without meaning to, but now he had seen it and he could not un-see it. Nor would he have wanted to.
For the first time, Demando knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that this girl was the past incarnate of the Neo-Queen. And she was more than a phoenix or an angel.
She was a goddess. Enduring and powerful and awe-inspiring.
He knew what happened to men who fell in love with gods. They always met unhappy ends. Demando knew now that she would be his ruin. He was Icarus, flying too close to her sun.
But Demando knew that if he could talk with Icarus, the boy would not regret Apollo's gift of wax wings. Just like Demando would not have traded anything for the look in her eyes or the touch of her hand.
He was not likely to survive this love, but love her he would. And as he lay dying, he would no doubt remember this encounter. He would cherish it in his heart, as she no doubt cherished roses in December. And though he did not relish the thought of giving up this life, Serenity - Usagi - would make it worthwhile.
He would go quietly into the dark for this one blazing moment of burning light. He would regret nothing.
Surprisingly, spending the day with Mamoru had not been as awkward as Minako would have anticipated. For one thing, he seemed to be just as willing as her to forget about most of what had happened between them. To say that she'd behaved badly was probably an understatement.
She knew logically that it wasn't technically his fault that he couldn't remember being Tuxedo Kamen. She'd decided to be honest with herself while she couldn't sleep the night before, painful as it had been. She could admit now that she'd been looking for a scapegoat when really, there was no one to blame.
It didn't mean her opinion of Mamoru personally had changed. She still thought he was unnecessarily mean to Usagi, who was so clearly devoted to him. She thought he had zero common sense despite being a certified genius. She also had no patience for his arrogance, though recent events had humbled him for at least the time being.
Still, wandering around the palace (and getting lost no less than fifteen times) hadn't been all bad. Mamoru definitely had a better sense of direction that she did, which was handy. He could also be funny sometimes. But more than anything, she could tell he was trying.
Minako liked to consider herself a pretty good judge of people, at least when she didn't have crushes on them. Since there was no danger of that where Mamoru was concerned, it was pretty easy for her to guess that if left to his own devices, Mamoru would have been happy to stay in his room and wallow. The only reason he wasn't was because she'd all but asked him to come with her.
She knew she would have gone crazy if left to dwell on what might be happening to Usagi and the other girls. What she imagined would either have been worse than reality or right on the money, but she doubted she would be overreacting. She couldn't stand not being able to do anything, but in fact, there was nothing she could do. As it stood, she had exactly one person to help her get everyone out. From what she could tell, Endymion couldn't waste military resources on the operation because they were needed to defend what was left of the city. Pluto was likely unable to step away from the Time Gate.
That left Mamoru. A resource which would have been valuable if only he had his memory. As it stood, she had no idea what to do with him, if anything. So maybe she was on her own after all.
She shuddered before she could prevent it. Mamoru noticed but didn't remark upon it. Then he glanced forward and blanched, throwing a hand out in front of her path to stop her. Quick reflexes brought her to a halt, but it took her a moment to realize what he was staring at.
Less than five feet in front of her stood a shimmering barrier of light. The sun was setting on what had been an overcast day to begin with, but even still, she could detect the faintest hint of color. Gold.
It was her section of the city-wide shield. Or rather, her future self's.
"Do you… feel anything?" Mamoru asked quietly, almost reverently.
Minako shook her head. "I'm not sure I even noticed we were outside."
He probably would have rolled his eyes at her any other time. "Don't you think that's strange? That you're not like… psychically picking up on something?"
"I'm not as attuned as Rei is," Minako admitted. "Probably if I concentrated or was transformed, I'd feel some… kinship. Honestly, I don't want to go looking for that sort of thing. I don't know what would happen on her… my end."
Mamoru paled slightly and glanced up at the enemy ships that hovered just beyond the wall. "Definitely not," he agreed.
Minako frowned, knowing she was about to push it, but it wouldn't be like her to let lies sleep like dogs. "What about you?"
To his credit, though his back straightened, he didn't seem outwardly offended. "I wish I did."
She remembered telling him the night before that they had to stick together because they were the only two people from the past in the palace. It dawned on her that there were more similarities than that. Mamoru felt just as helpless as she did, perhaps more so, since he could not envision himself being at all useful in the retrieval of their friends. Even a Mamoru without his memories would have wanted to help. He'd tried to save Usagi when the Makaiju had been in the throes of agony. No matter what he felt about her, no matter how he tormented her, he always tried to save her.
Minako looked away from him. "I know."
Suddenly, Minako knew that they were not alone. Senses always on high alert, she turned around, reaching for her henshin wand and preparing to attack. She stopped short when she recognized her companion's silhouette, translucent and garbed in violet.
"King Endymion," Mamoru murmured, clearly having elected to think of his future self as a separate entity for his own sanity.
"I have good news," the king announced, not bothering with niceties.
Minako's heart leapt. "Have you figured out a way to get the others back?"
"Not precisely," Endymion said with genuine regret. Minako felt her spirits begin to slip as the king continued. "But I may be able to get us one step closer."
"How?" Mamoru asked, always keen to know specifics.
Endymion turned his gaze towards the boy of his past. Even as a ghost, his eyes were hard as steel, and before he spoke, Minako knew what he was going to say.
"I think I know how to get your memories back."
I've decided it's best just to bypass the excuses, but I will say that I am feeling confident that I can write and update regularly again, so hopefully there won't be year-long gaps between updates anymore.
First of all, I recently discovered a continuity fail on my part. In an earlier chapter, Karaberas suggested that the Black Moon's exile to Nemesis happened while Petz was a small child, while in the Interlude, I suggested they'd been there for several generations. It doesn't affect much in the grand scheme of the story, but I hatehatehate plot holes and things like that, so I'll be fixing that shortly. For the record, the 'real' story is that Demando and company are second generation naturalized citizens. So basically, their grandparents were part of the initial revolution, were exiled, had their parents, and their parents had them. Sorry, guys; I've got a lot of plot threads going, and it's easy to lose track.
So, yes, I will be going back and fixing this problem and probably punching up the chapters a little. When I go back and reread things, I'm often struck by things I could have done better. Don't worry, nothing major will change, but when you go back and reread (if you bother to do so, lol), hopefully you'll find it more enjoyable and smoother. I'll do this as fast as possible, but chances are good I'll be distracted with updating other stories and such.
You'll also notice that the chapter count went up again… I keep reorganizing this story since it's a lot less episodic then my other WIPs, so I wouldn't be surprised if it keeps changing. I find I have to keep shuffling plot points around.
I assume there will be at least one chess lover in the audience, and I apologize profusely if I did something horribly wrong. I have a very vague understanding of chess thanks to my dad, but I'm pretty clueless on the more minute points. The moves described in Beruche and Ami's chess game are meant to mimic the Smith/Philidor game from 1790.
And I have been getting several comments about people being frustrated with Usagi's passivity… You're not the only one! Hopefully her scene with Demando helped to alleviate some of that, and I promise she won't be a pushover, crying mess forever.
Thanks as always to Yumeko for the prompt and wondrous edits, and of course to all of you readers who read and review. 3
Next chapter, get ready to spend lots of time with Minako and Mamoru as we work to restore Mamoru's memory! Let's hope it works. ^_~ Also look out for some new characters making a cameo appearance, because clearly I don't have enough going on in this story already. Hope to see you before 2012!
Coming Soon – Part Thirteen: Regained