Disclaimer: Sailor Moon does not belong to me. She belongs to Tuxedo Mask. In, of course, a nonmachiavellian, totally girl-empowered sort of way.
A/N: Not to start the chapter out on a sour note, but the review feedback on the last two chapters was pitiful. Those were each fifty-page chapters. Added together they had almost two thousand hits but only sixty reviews. I'm going to leave that at that and make your own conclusions.
For those of you who DID leaves reviews, thank you so much. I can't tell you how much they meant, especially the ones that told me how you felt about the characters and what they were going through. Serenity-hime, you were, literally, my third-first reviewer ever, and here you still are, cheering me on and leaving lovely corpulent reviews. Thank you SO MUCH.
Subject to Change
Chapter Thirty-Three: Changes
Lita raced out of the gym, tearing through a jungle of chiffons and crinolines and silks. She barreled through the doors and swung up into a tree. Lightning flashed and Sailor Jupiter dropped back down to the cement transformed with bracelets of electricity crackling down her arms and hissing like snakes.
Lightning-fast motion snatched her eye, but not in time to save her. A hand seized her throat.
"Where is she?" Venus hissed up at her, lifting her into the air and boring into her with radioactive eyes. She slammed Jupiter down. "She was supposed to be here!"
Jupiter lashed out with her foot. Venus plowed into the ground. Jupiter grabbed her throat.
"You tell me!" she snarled. "What did you do to them?"
"I did nothing!" Venus shouted, digging her nails into Jupiter's fist. "Neither was here!"
"You didn't do anything?" sneered Jupiter. "Then how do you explain that?" She wrenched Venus's head in the direction of the parking lot, where, lit under a street light, sat a smashed and glass-littered red sports car.
Venus's intake of breath was an asthmatic rasp under the pressure of Jupiter's grip. Her expression flickered several times before stilling back into her impassive stoniness. She pointed.
"What?" Jupiter glanced in her finger's direction, at the sport's car.
Venus dug her thumb into Jupiter's wrist to loosen her hold. "A portal," she said hoarsely, inhaling.
A dark shape leapt atop Venus's shoulder. Reddish eyes glowed out, and rustles came from the bushes. Sailor Mercury tumbled out of the bushes after the cat, and Mars stalked out of them a second later. Both had reddened eyes, as though they had been crying.
"What were you thinking?" Luna demanded of Venus. Jupiter saw dark spots appearing on Venus's white sleeve where the cat's claws dug in. "How could you confront Sailor Moon without asking me – "
During all this, Venus's hand had not dropped. Venus, indeed, seemed not even to have registered Luna's presence. She was still as death, pointing at the mauled car.
Luna followed it, and her words cut off.
She leapt down from Venus's shoulder and bounded towards the car. "COME!" she shrieked.
Jupiter, strangely enough, was the quickest to follow, bolting after the black cat. Her movement snapped Venus back to life, and she blurred after them; Mars, not to be left behind, sprinted after, and Mercury was left to shamble in their wake.
"No!" Venus bellowed as Luna screeched to a stop. She was blacker than shadow in the moonless night, but she looked gray against the night sky behind her – wait, that wasn't night sky –
"A portal!" Luna hissed in agitation. Her fur stood on end. "You know what this means, Venus!"
"No, it is not – "
"The Dark Kingdom has shown their hand," Luna interrupted, eyes glowing. "This is Mask's vehicle. That is a Dark Kingdom portal. They've left, and with a struggle. They must have the princess!"
"No, they don't – "
But Venus was too late. Lita had already leapt in after the word "portal" and Luna, with a yowl, had shot after her. Mars seized Mercury by the bicep and leapt in, too.
Venus stared in horror.
"NO!" she shouted. "DAMN IT!"
Then she jumped in after them.
Minako sensed his presence before she tumbled out of the portal. A point of light in a sea of dark. A lighthouse in an ocean.
Youma surrounded him. The portal had regurgitated them into Beryl's throne room, and a sea of youma swarmed within it. Malachite stood isolated on the dais.
Battle cries rang out already, bursts of fire and flashes of electricity sizzling across her retinas. Mars' new attacks consumed youma by the pairs, and a thick fog was rolling over youma, freezing them in their tracks, and crackingfilled the air, mixing with hisses and crackles to make a deafening static, and Venus was shocked to feel a rusty feeling cranking to life within her.
Pride. It was pride.
But there was no time for it. No time even to think, to calculate in her mind if she should hold back because Beryl would be angry – that feeling, lit to motion within her, began to spin, spinning and spinning and whirling and shrieking, and so was she, whirling and shrieking like a dervish, hurling out golden sparks of death with every degree. Damn Beryl to hell, these were her Senshi, this was power, this was death, this was what they had been made to do.
It may have been hours or days before the youma all lay still and Venus's consciousness widened from the narrow tunnel vision she had plunged into. But judging from her Senshi's skills, she was thinking that it was more like minutes.
She lifted her head, sweat dripping down her bangs into her eyes. Something zinged through her, painful and sharp, like the sting of a bow string snapping.
A firebird hurtled towards Malachite. Its maw gaped in flames, its beak sharp as an arrow.
Was the scream from her? She heard it as though from a distance, as she tore towards him – a horrible holler ripped out of his chest and entwined with the wail spilling out of her throat.
She couldn't even get to him – she slipped on his blood and went sprawling feet away, her cheek slamming into the rock floor. She scrabbled up and scrambled to him.
He lay on the ground, eyes rolled back in his head so that only white showed. Black and gold light crackled across his form, wrestling fiercely with one another until finally something bright as a shooting star bulleted out of the gaping hole of his chest and sucked the golden light away from it, tailing like a comet.
Minako knew what it was, and she shot to her feet, stumbling, grasping drunkenly across the floor for it and grabbing it. "Malachite, no, Malachite, Malachite…" The words gushed out of her mouth without her notice as she ran. She pleaded with him, sobbing as she shoved at his chest, trying to push the object that had shot out back in.
After a minute, his eyes rolled back into their spot. But the pupils had bled outward; his eyes were black. They looked down at the golden head.
"Idiot princess of Venus," he said. His hand rose, flicked.
Venus shot backwards as though an invisible wall had rammed into her and crushed her against the cavern wall. She slid slowly down the rock, leaving behind a glistening black trail.
"She was in league with them all along!" Mars' scream pierced out suddenly. "Just like Serena!"
"No…Mars…you don't understand…" Venus's voice smeared with tears as she struggled to her feet, using the bloody rock behind her to help her. It left a black, tarry stain on her gloves.
"I understand perfectly! This is a trap! You led us here to die!" Mars' voice sounded as though it was peeling her throat apart.
"You are exactly right, Sailor Mars." Malachite flicked his hand again, and all four Senshi slammed into the wall. "Venus was the instrument of your downfall."
"Malachite…" Venus pleaded. "Malachite, wha - ?" Her question died as her ribs crunched suddenly inward. She doubled, vomiting black.
"How does it feel?' Malachite smiled. "To be killed by the one you love? The moon brat will find out how it feels, too, very soon – "
Thunder rumbled suddenly. A huge stalagmite behind Malachite crashed down; at the same time, he yelled and crouched – then crumpled. His body crumbled into dust.
"Malachite!" Venus screamed. She struggled, stumbled up –
Luna slammed into her chest. "Give me one reason I shouldn't slit you!" she snarled. "ONE REASON!"
"Kill me!" Venus screamed at her. "Kill me!"
"This place is caving in." Mars spat out blood, eyes aflame. "Leave her here. Let her die in this pit."
Luna raked her claws across Minako's face. Black stripes sprang up. The cat leapt nimbly down, then darted to the pile of ashes and spat on them.
A growl escaped Minako, but she was on her knees. Black blood pooled around her, dripping from her mouth, her face.
"Mercury! Let's go!" Mars ordered, beelining for a set upward curving stairs carved into the rock, for the portal had vanished.
Lita watched them go. The stalagmites crashing down all around her warned her that she should follow them, and quickly.
She looked at Venus.
"Go," the blonde mumbled from beneath her hair. Her words were wet and sticky.
Lita didn't move.
"You're going to die," the blonde said.
"Since when do you care?" said Lita, but she moved towards Venus. She slung the Senshi's arm around her neck and lifted her. God, she was lighter than Serena!
"No." Venus was definitely slurring now, her body twisting away like an eel. "Leave me alone…just let me die."
"You're not gonna die," said Lita impatiently, grabbing her by the waist and securing her arm again. She began to drag her along toward the stairs.
"Do not tell me that…" Venus's head lolled. "Pluto…why did you let her…? Pluto…!" Her body shook, and Lita realized she was sobbing.
"Um…shh," she said awkwardly. "It's okay…"
"I've given everything to her!" Mina cried out. "I would have killed her, Pluto! I would have given my soul for her again. Why couldn't you have killed me…"
"Mina…" Lita stared down at the golden hair.
The Senshi's head lolled back. Water-filmed blue eyes stared at Lita.
"Jupiter," she said. "He did not kill her. I see now why they must be together. Jupiter, you must protect them – both of them. She will not – she will not, Jupiter, you must, he did not kill her. She killed herself. And I – I tried to save her, Jupiter, I tried to do it, I turned the sword around and stabbed her, but it was too late!"
"Shhh." Lita urged her, as much for Venus's own health as for her own. Her head was spinning. And she still had no clue where Serena was –
They had reached the top of the stairs. The world was white all around – except for the roiling black sky swirling above them. Jupiter set Mina down, shielding her from the chill wind with her body –
And that was when it all exploded.
The Senshi watching over the time stream was not a being to be disturbed lightly. The Senshi who had been sent to this solar system had taken that into consideration. So had her superiors, who had warned her not to reveal her presence to Pluto unless the most desperate of situations demanded it. So this Senshi had not approached Pluto when Luna of Mau's unexpected actions brought about a dangerous turn of events, nor when Sailor Venus made an unexpected and unwelcome appearance.
Now, however, she had entered Chronos' Realm. Now was the time to reveal herself to Pluto. And reveal what must be done.
"No. Now is not the time."
The Senshi spun. A figure seeped out of the grey fog. Sailor Pluto stood before her, dark and grim as death. She lacked the horns and fangs that she had been drawn with in the fairy tales books the Senshi had read as a child, but more menace hung around this version than that one.
"Now is not the time," Sailor Pluto repeated. The fog all around them was spinning. Circles were forming, cyclones of color.
The outside Senshi gathered herself. "Senshi Pluto, I'm Sailor – "
"I know who you are," Pluto cut in. "And you are not welcome here. The time is not now, or ever."
"She's dying!" said the other Senshi. "You have to do something!"
Chaos creatures like Metallia for eight centuries," said Pluto.
"Why don't you get rid of her?"
The Senshi's fists clenched. Pluto smiled faintly.
"Because that's not what the Council sent you for." She turned to watch the images swirling around them. "Unless, of course, the princess's life is put in danger, but if that situation arises, your orders are first to seek me out and convince me to return her memories." A small chuckle drifted out into the still air. "To 'reveal yourself to me.' Has the High Council grown so ignorant that they believe I would not detect an outsider in this system? Not to mention that the threads wove your arrival eons ago."
The Senshi glowered. This was not at all going according to plan.
"So you're just going to let the princess die?" she challenged.
Pluto, who had been stroking her staff with her thumb, stilled. The grey mist swirling around them seemed to thicken.
"You believe that I would let my princess die?"
The other Senshi stayed silent but jutted her chin out.
Pluto narrowed her eyes at her. "There is a time suspension field freezing time within her body. She will not lose any more blood until the spell is lifted."
"If you can do that, why not just accelerate time within her body to heal it?"
Scorn curled Pluto's lips. "Three of her ribs are snapped, one has punctured a lung; her shoulder is dislocated, and there are slivers of glass and stone embedded in her skin. What would happen if I allowed her bones to regrow in their current positions and foreign objects to stay within her flesh?"
The Senshi frowned, flushing slightly. She was a veteran among her own, and not accustomed to such condescension. This was REALLY not going according to her plan.
"The downside," continued Pluto, "is that she is now unable to move the parts of her body the field encompasses."
"So you're just letting her lie there unable to move while Metallia absorbs her body," translated the intruder Senshi.
"No," said Pluto. "The suspension field won't last forever."
"Then you're returning her memories so she can use the crystal to defeat Metallia."
"Keep dreaming." A small smile crossed Pluto's face as she said this, and it only incensed the other Senshi further.
"She has to summon the crystal, Pluto! She will summon it! You can't fight the prophecy!"
Pluto turned to face the other Senshi squarely. "Do you know how many Chaos entities will come tearing into this system when they sense the Crystal's reawakening?"
"Of course I know," said the other coldly. "As you're so obviously aware of, I've been out fighting them for the past eight centuries, unlike certain Senshi who have stayed safely in their hidden dimensions – "
"You know how many of them there are, how powerful they are, and what they're capable of," cut in Pluto, "yet you want to sic them on my princess."
"When it's a choice between her and the trillion innocents in the galaxy, yes, I do," snapped the Senshi. "Try as hard as you want, Sailor Pluto, this is what she was born for. Even you can't change the prophecy."
Pluto reached down and slid a key from the belt hanging around her hips. The other Senshi followed the movement warily with her eyes.
"What are you doing?"
Pluto lifted a finger to her lips. Her eyes were swirling like a hurricane. The other Senshi took a step back.
Pluto pointed her staff at one of the portals. The eddying colors within it slowed, and revealed the image of Endymion as he was right now, clad in a tuxedo and being crushed within Metallia's snakelike black aura as he grabbed Serenity's hand.
Then Endymion wasn't in the portal anymore, he was floating in midair above them. All according to Pluto's plan. Except –
Both Senshi's eyes widened. Serenity's reincarnation lay crumpled on the ground right beside Endymion's, their hands clasped.
Endymion was struggling up. With disbelief pouring off him, he lifted his free hand to his face, his eyes. They were pupil-less, iris-less, white-less – they were pure gold, as though they'd been dipped in a vat of the precious metal. They were unsettling.
Serenity was moving. Lifting her head.
His blind eyes turned toward her. "Serena!"
Serenity was staring at them. At the two Senshi. "You're – "
Pluto blurred into motion. Her booted foot slammed into Enydmion's gut, and he barely got to his feet in defense before she swung her staff into him. He flew backwards, dissolving into the swirling colors behind him.
Serenity gasped and fought to her feet. Her eyes flashed hatred –
But Pluto touched one long finger to her forehead, and Serenity sank to her knees. Silver peeked out from beneath her sinking lids.
"Pluto…" she murmured, then was out cold.
Pluto sank to her knees and reached out towards the princess's hair-hidden face. Her hands trembled. "Hime-sama…" she whispered.
"So you'll take away her memory of this, too?" The other Senshi looked on without sympathy, arms crossed. "It's no wonder she's so dim, all the brain cells you're depriving her of."
If the ploy was meant to goad Pluto into returning her princess's memories, it failed. The dark Senshi rose to her feet. Her eyes swirled like the maelstroms of motion that surrounded them.
"You know too little of your own universe." A chorus of voices, high and low, loud and soft, spilled from her mouth. She brushed the hair from her princess's face. "The Silver Crystal is not the only way to defeat Metallia."
It was yet another youma attack in the park. Sailor Jupiter had just freed the young mother from Fish-Eye's mirror and returned her dream. Sailor Moon fighting Fish-Eye back, sweat dripping from her face.
And it was then that the black shape plummeted out of the sky.
Sailor Jupiter's head snapped around to scrutinize it; Fish-Eye planted a kick smack in Sailor Moon's middle and sent her flying backwards so that he, too, could turn to watch the strange meteorite.
Thus Sailor Moon, wincing and panting, was the last to see the shape. But she was the first to realize what it was.
"Oh, God! Oh, God…!" She fought to her feet.
"What the hell…?" muttered Jupiter.
Fish-Eye flew towards the shape. "Ooh, pretty Fish-Eye, he likes new guy!" he sang, and with a mighty leap, snatched the black-clad youth out of midair.
"He's got someone else!" Jupiter shouted.
Sailor Moon was kicking off from the tree, shooting towards the two. "No – please!"
A mirror materialized below Fish-Eye. "He'll have your dream for his pretty queen," he crooned to his bundle, then –
"NO!" Sailor Moon screamed.
Slammed him down onto the mirror.
Tuxedo Mask's body arched. The impact squeezed a gasp out of him.
Ribbons sprayed out of the mirror and seized his body. They slithered around his limbs like snakes and squeezed tightly as bandages. Then they dragged him down, down, down, into the liquefying surface of the mirror.
Golden light shot out of it and reflected in all directions.
Sailor Moon wailed and threw herself at Fish-Eye. "Let him GO!" She screamed. "Let him GO!"
"You're the biggest wailer of a Sailor," complained Fish-Eye. He sucked in air and puffed out his cheeks – his body expanded and sprouted spikes. They sank into Sailor Moon's arms like fangs.
"Moon, you get him, I've got Fish Face!" exclaimed Jupiter, sprinting in, but Fish-Eye pointed an arm at her and the needle-like spikes shot out and pinned her to a tree. "Ugh!"
"Little cheat, just take a seat," Fish-Eye cackled. He turned back to Sailor Moon, only to find himself face to face with a glowing gold tiara. "Oh."
Sailor Moon slashed down; Fish-Eye dodged – just barely. As he leapt out of the way, Sailor Moon darted past him toward the mirror –
Only for Fish-Eye to seize her by the waist and swing her around into a bench.
Sailor Moon used it to kick off from and slam into Fish-Eye. They went tumbling.
Then came the yells.
The Senshi looked at Pluto, who had risen to her feet. "What's happening?"
Pluto wore a mild flush of excitement. "Those mirrors are a weapon of an enemy that will come to Earth if certain events come to pass. They transform a person's deepest dream into physical form and extract it."
Pluto's eyes were glued to the section of fog which showed the events unfolding. "Endymion will have seen his most cherished dream, but now the mirror is extracting it. Which means agony, of course, and also being plunged into nightmares. He's living those out now."
The Senshi stared at her, contemptuous. "You sent him there just so you could watch him suffer?"
Pluto bared her teeth in a feral smirk. "Not only."
Tuxedo Mask's body convulsed within the mirror like a fish trapped on the beach and desperate to return to water. A golden spike was rising like an iceberg out of his chest.
He was screaming, yelling.
Sailor Moon's head shot up. Fish-Eye yanked it back down; she punched him, he slapped her, she stabbed her Luna Pen into his eye. He shrieked and snaked his arm around her throat, hauling her up – then threw her away from him, streaking towards the crystal tearing itself out of Tuxedo Mask's chest –
Sailor Moon twisted in her airborne voyage and slammed down on Fish-Eye's back. Her tiara had materialized in her hand again. She stabbed it deep into his skull.
He crumpled beneath her. Before he hit the ground, she had jumped off of him and was pounding toward Tuxedo Mask.
The bloody crystal hovered above him now in a nimbus of golden light. She grabbed it.
"That's his dream?" said the Senshi.
"More than that," replied Pluto, the excitement fading from her cheeks. Endymion's misery was over. "Terra's Golden Crystal."
"Darien – Darien – oh, God, please, Darien!"
His hand scrabbled to his chest like a spider. The bloody hole.
"Don't touch it!" A familiar voice. A familiar worry. "Here, here…"
Serena's voice. Serena's hands, cupping his. They felt so warm. He was shivering. He was wet.
Another dream? Another dream, what if it was – please, just don't let it be like the last one, take him back to the first one, with her –
"Odango," he croaked.
Her fingers uncurled his. The warmth increased.
Something touched his face. "Make a wish, Darien."
Something spiky and hard and warm pressed into his cold fingers. He could see her, even if his eyes couldn't….
Endymion appeared at their feet, hand once more entwined with Serenity's. Pluto seemed shocked. She took a step backwards.
Endymion cast a glance around them – and although surely he couldn't see, surely it must have been coincidence, his gaze lingered on the two Senshi.
Gold and unblinking, unseeing… Then he, and Serenity, vanished.
The Senshi looked at the wan Pluto.
"A Terran traversing time fields," she said. "That's…" She was unable to hide the amazement in her voice. "That's as powerful as the Silver Crystal."
Metallia never had a chance.
Darien and Serena rematerialized within her black, phantom body, and golden light spilled outwards in a colossal tsunami. Metallia dissolved without even a shout, and every quanta of black energy within a three-planet radius was obliterated.
At last, the light ebbed away to reveal the black-clad youth on his knees in the snow, still clutching the dumpling-headed girl.
Darien stared down, panting. He felt a bead of sweat trickling down his nose. Movement in his arms.
"You did it!" He felt her slip out of his grip. "You did it, Your Highness!"
"Wait!" Darien reached out blindly. "Serena, you've lost half your blood – " How could she still be moving?
And yet, he was surprised. If she could move, why wasn't she throwing her arms around his neck or throwing herself at him the way she usually did when she was thrilled?
Her last words hit him. Your Highness.
Darien reached for her again. "What are you doing?"
He could almost hear that damn fake smile in her voice. "I'm kneeling to you, Your Majesty!"
His heart sputtered. "You heard all that? But it's not true!"
"You're holding a golden crystal, and you just wiped out Metallia." The smile was becoming strained. "Who else are you, the Red Power Ranger?"
"But – Serena, I didn't kill the princess – " He tried to explain.
Something touched his face. Her hand. "I know you didn't."
Darien's chest felt much lighter. His death grip on the crystal in his hand loosened. He grabbed the hand on his face and used it to pull Serena to her feet as he stood.
"If you EVER do that again," he said, referring to her kneeling, "I will PERSONALLY chop your hair off – "
She tried to detach his fingers. "But you're the prince of the planet!"
"Maybe, but before I'm that, I'm Darien Shields, jerkwad extraordinaire and your friend!" His voice was fierce.
There was silence, and uncertainty stabbed him. What was Serena doing? Surely he hadn't gone too far by calling them friends?
Then arms knotted around his neck and sent him stumbling backward. He hugged Serena back just as tightly. Glee filled him, and he swung her around in a circle. His burst of enthusiasm was spoiled, however, when he tripped over something and they both crashed to the snow.
"Ow…" He heard Serena's moan. "My hair!"
"Since when was your hair that long?" Darien demanded.
"Must have reacted to your magic." He felt some of Serena's silky ponytail slither across his hand; she was pulling it. "It did that the first time I transformed into Sailor Moon, too, grew a foot."
"You mean I can control the length of your hair?" said Darien, feeling suddenly very wicked. The possibilities…
"Only if you want to wake up with a buzzcut one morning." Serena's finger flicked him in the forehead. "And it'll be a lot worse for you – mine grows back overnight, yours won't. Hopefully. Hey, did you see that?"
Darien stiffened. "Serena, I can't see anything."
"You…what?" Serena stared at Darien. He couldn't see? Because of the gold stuff covering his eyes? She'd thought that must just be a side-effect of using the golden crystal, like her hair growing longer.
"I can't see," Darien repeated, staring straight at her. "Anything. I haven't been able to since Beryl ate your brooch. It exploded in some white light; it must have burned my retinas or something."
"Ate my brooch?" Serena's hand flew to her front. But there was only ragged ribbon. She pushed away her dawning sense of horror to concentrate on Darien. "But it's not permanent, right? Your vision'll come back, right?"
"Of course," Darien assured her. "It was just overexposure to light…your vision comes back after you get sun in your eyes, doesn't it? Just – well, I need a little help to get where we're going. Or would if we knew where we were going, that is."
"That's what I was saying." Serena turned to point, then remembered and lowered her hand. "I could have sworn I saw a flash of light over there, like fire. Should we go check it out?"
"By all means, let's leave the frying pan for the fire," said Darien. He shook his cane out of his sleeve as Serena placed a hand on his arm, and readied his thumb over the blade release. "I've got no other ideas to get home."
The snow was cold. Serena's legs were bare. One of her shoes had fallen off, and now she kicked off the other because walking in one shoe was more troublesome than walking in one. At another time, she would have asked Darien to carry her. But in this situation he needed her to walk in order for him to know where to go.
She squared her shoulders. A little cold was nothing compared to what Darien was going through now, being blind. Nor was it anything compared to the pain burning all across her body. But if she told Darien about that, he'd only worry, and there was nothing he could do about it.
They were struggling up the snow slope one-handed when Darien next spoke.
"You haven't healed at all," he said. "And you're cold."
Serena looked at him sharply. How had he known…? "Are you sure you can't see?"
"No…" Darien's voice held puzzlement; his brows knit together. "I…feel it. You're cold on the outside, but there's fire inside."
Serena passed her hand through the air for the string. "Is this with our bond?"
His forehead creased deeper. "No, it's not a taste…it just is."
"Well, I am cold," admitted Serena. "And I do hurt. But I'm not bleeding anymore, and that's the important part, right?"
"Right," said Darien, but without much conviction. "Are we there yet?"
"Almost…" Serena let go of his hand and scrambled up a few feet further. Her eyes widened. "Lita!"
At her shout, the brown-haired Senshi's head snapped around. So did those of the other two Senshi standing opposite her.
"Darien! It's Lita! And Ami and Rei!" Serena grabbed his hand and urged him up faster, fidgeting in excitement. "How did they get here? Do you think they'll forgive me now? Now that the Dark Kingdom's gone?"
"Well, they're not running to you, and neither is Lita," said Darien. The silence dug into his ears like plugs. Why were there no shouts of recognition or joy or murderous intent? "I don't think everything's over just yet. Especially if – you said Venus isn't here?"
As they drew closer to the Senshi, Serena realized how right Darien was. Sailor Jupiter stood with her arms crossed tightly against her chest. Her expression was that of a guard. Mars and Mercury's faces, in contrast, were pale and sickened. Luna sat by, her slitted pupils watchful and wary.
Serena stopped a few feet away from all of them. "What's wrong? Where's Mina?"
Lita shot a poisonous look at Luna. Then she hooked her head at Serena, beckoning her closer. Serena stepped forward, bringing Darien with her, and an impossibly round snowdrift came into view behind Lita.
Lita, without taking her eyes from Luna, reached back and touched the snowdrift. Electricity crackled from her fingertips. The snow hissed into steam. The fog boiled and billowed away.
Revealed was a round, semi-transparent gold force field. It shimmered as the snow melted away from it, then pulsed brightly, and flickered out of existence.
Serena stared at what the force field had been protecting. A skeleton. No, not a skeleton – a body. Limbs as thin as toothpicks and a head that was barely more than a skull. Red stained the snow beside it – but surely that couldn't have been from this…body? It seemed too thin to have any blood left within it.
Serena wasn't speaking, and Darien grew impatient to see what had silenced her. He released her hand and crouched forward, reaching out, his hands skimming the snow. His fingers brushed the body, and knowledge flashed into his brain. A Senshi of the princess, born in the Silver Millennium, fought against Beryl's attack but did not die, a long imprisonment. Beatings Darkness Anguish Reawakening Pain a white-haired general –
"Venus," he gasped out, tearing his hand from the emaciated limb. His breath came in hard gasps; he rocked back into the snow. "This is Venus!"
Serena's eyes shot to Lita. The solemn Senshi nodded grimly.
"She was working for the Dark Kingdom." Luna entered the conversation. "She turned on us."
Serena looked at Darien. He still faced the body, black hair hanging over his eyes.
"She was supposed to die," he said slowly. "To be reincarnated like us. But Beryl captured her and has kept her captive since the end of the Silver Millennium. She kept her from dying…then she brought her back to life? To find the Silver Crystal before we did. And she had to do it because she loved that general. The one with white hair. But she was trying to find a way to the princess…?"
He seemed to be talking to himself now. Serena moved toward him, but he reached out again. His hand traced lightly along one of the body's arms, and uncurled the tightly clasped fingers.
A green stone glowed within them. As Darien's hand drew closer to it, it dimmed gleam by gleam and finally, when Darien's fingers touched it, extinguished altogether.
A flash of memory – a white-haired man, a golden-haired Senshi, a dark night, desperation –
"Malachite," he murmured. After a moment, he closed the finger bones around the stone again. You protected her…like you always wanted to…
His hands sank into the snow. He spread his fingers, his eyelids falling closed. The snow around Venus's body began to melt. It flowed down the snowdrift. Dark soil pushed up from underneath. Green tufts sprouted from it and quickly enlarge to carpet the exposed ground. Then flowers curled up and unfurled, twisting around and over Venus's remains in a bed of bleeding hearts.
More ice sublimated around this display, twisting upward in a curl of almost invisible vapor, then spread in a pattern that defied the laws of physics. Then the vapor froze over again, and a frosty pane of ice housed the tiny grave.
Darien sat back, breathing hard again. Awareness slowly re-encircled him – Lita's muffled snorks of smothered crying, Luna's disapproving hmphs, Serena's soothing murmurs that hiccupped with tears themselves –
Then he heard a quiet gasp. He spun around, ears straining. Who had it come from?
"What is it, Mercury?" Luna's sharp voice.
He heard crunching – feet crossing the snow. Serena's continued crying, the almost inaudible growl rumbling in the throat that Lita had used on him so many times. She'd stopped crying?
"What happened to Serena?" Mercury's voice. More urgent than it usually sounded. Steadier than it usually sounded.
"What do you mean, what happened to Serena?" Lita's aggressive voice. A rustle of movement – "Oh my God, Serena! Your stomach!"
"There's blood spreading on her back, too." Ami's voice, and now it was louder, not only because she had raised her voice but because Darien had leapt to where they were and was seizing Serena.
"Odango!" He half-yelled. Something welled up inside him, contracting his throat. "You said you were fine! You told me you weren't bleeding anymore!"
She wasn't responding. Why wasn't she talking? He was crying. "Why isn't she talking?"
"Darien, she's unconscious – "
"No! She said she was fine! It fixed everything else, why didn't it fix this, DAMMIT! – " He couldn't even see her, dammit, he couldn't even see what was wrong, couldn't see to make it better, to fix it – where was the string? Where was the damned string!
"Give her to me – please, Tuxedo Mask, let me touch her – "
No! Who was this
trying to hurt her again? He tore away, but the fingers seemed to be
everywhere! Why couldn't they just leave her alone? Why couldn't
they all just leave her alone! All they did was hurt her!
"Yes!" It was a sob, it was anguish, it was Mercury, it was insistence – "Just let me touch her! Please!"
It was a scream it was loneliness it was desperation it was the moster inside him personified it was resonance it hit a chord within him and spread.
It was her her hand grasping Serena's and him letting it. It was the ground disappearing from beneath his feet and cold mist whooshing past his face. It was sirens, wailing in his ears and light making dents in the darkness cloaking his vision. It was screams and pleas and shouts and relief and salvation. It was paramedics lifting Serena from his arms and shouting for blood, stat!
He reached out to grab an arm and follow them. Arms grabbed him, and he bucked wildly, memory of those arms, clinical like this, logn ago, igniting in him and lighting him on fire. They dragged him down, and pushed something sharp in his skin, and then darkness swallowed all five of his senses.
They were in the arcade. Serena was in front of him, saying something. He couldn't hear and leaned closer to make out her words, and she leaned back to look at him. Their noses brushed as she blinked up at him. Her mouth was still moving, and he still couldn't hear her, but this time it was for a different reason. All his senses had frozen; everything funneled into concentrating on the unbelievable Serena-ness of those eyes staring up at him.
"Lita, I do believe I hear Serena and Darien exchanging sweet nothings in each other's ears." Asanuma's voice, arriving like the stroke of midnight. He blinked and straightened. "Tsk tsk. Isn't it your job to prevent shameless displays of public affection like that?"
"THEY WEREN'T SWEET NOTHINGS!" He found himself and Serena jumping apart. "Oh – jinx! Jinx! JINX!"
Lita's knuckles cracked.
Motoki unwrapped a roll of coins to put in the cash register, sighing. "I suppose it wouldn't be the same arcade if Serena and Darien weren't in it arguing."
"Or if Super Attractive Asanuma wasn't there instigating it!" Asanuma hopped up onto a stool.
"Of course, they're probably going to scare away customers…" Lita trailed off.
Motoki nodded. "Good point. Hey, you two!" Darien felt a towel hit the back of his head. "Free drinks if you two get over here and stop making a scene!"
Serena grabbed him by the collar and zoomed up to the counter. "Strawberry milkshake, please, Motoki!" She yanked him down onto the stool beside her. "Sit!"
"What'll you have, Dare?"
He grunted at the smirk Motoki was giving him. "Something with caffeine to keep up with the Odango."
"Oh, and also, Motoki, Darien owes me a free drink because I beat him at jinx," Serena added cheerily.
Darien turned and speared her with a glare. "You cheated. I couldn't talk with your hand over my mouth."
"All's fair in love and war!"
"Yeah, and we know which category Serena and Darien belong to," Darien heard Asanuma mutter behind his hand to Motoki. He lifted his voice. "Hey, I want a free drink too!"
"Free drinks? I want one, onee-chan!" Buji popped up, scrambling up onto the stool beside Darien. He climbed across him, kicking him in the face as he did so, and "oomph!"ed into Serena's lap.
"Join the club, kid," Asanuma said, slugging him in the arm. Buji speared him with a freezing glance. "Whoah!" Asanuma took a step backward. "Dare glare alert! Dare glare alert!"
Darien crossed his arms disdainfully. "Don't compare that fungus to me! And get off the Odango," he added to Buji. "She's not a couch."
"Man, I was so sure Darien would be ones of the ones who waited till marriage," mused Asanuma, slanty-eyed. "I can't believe he did it before me! And had a kid, no less! How old is this thing?" He pinched Buji's ear and leaned down close to peer at him.
"Mount Darien is going to explode," Serena warned Asanuma as she turned away from him with Buji in her lap. "I would take cover if I were you."
"Aw, he knows I'm just kidding – "
"I was kidding. KIDDING!"
Buji smacked his lips. "Nee-chan, watching Darien-baka beat up that other baka makes me thirsty. Can't I have a drink now?"
Serena patted Buji's head absently. "Just a minute, Honey Bunny-chan, nee-chan has to make sure Darien doesn't kill Asanuma, okay?"
Something icy splashed onto Darien's neck. "AHHHHHHHHH!" He jumped up from pounding Asanuma and stared at Motoki, who was holding two empty cola glasses.
"What's this?" said Asanuma, glancing at Darien conspiratorially. "Motoki wants to have a wet t-shirt contest?"
They grabbed Serena's milkshake and dumped it on Motoki.
Lita blinked. "Um – wow."
"Ditto that," said Asanuma, equally impressed. "How do you get abs like that from standing around in front of a counter all day? Motoki, are you on steroids? How come you didn't share with me?"
Darien wasn't paying attention to them. He was watching Serena, who wa starign at the empty milkshake glass in his hand. A vein was throbbing in her forehead. "You wasted my milkshake…"
"Uh-oh…" he swallowed and shoved the glass at Asanuma.
"Oh no! Not me!" Asanuma shoved it back.
"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" Serena sprang forward with an ululating battle cry. She landed on Darien's back, squeezing his throat with her arms. "I'M. GOING. TO. KILL YOU!"
"Help…me…" Darien staggered around.
"Darien-baka!" Buji shouted, jumping up on his stool. "You're going to let Onee-chan beat you up?"
"She's not as weak as she looks," Darien croaked out.
"You have to feel sorry for him," Motoki remarked. "He's really Serena's only conduit for her wrath."
"Hmm, let me check…" Lita paused. "Nope, not feeling any pity."
"Nope, just tough. Like your abs."
"Lita!" Motoki flushed.
"Odango…if you kill me…who will help…you with math?" Darien heard himself rasping.
The rage in Serena's eyes sputtered a little. "Hmm, that's true…" she admitted pensively.
He snatched her distraction and loosened grip to go for her ticklish spots. A second later, Serena was curled up on the floor laughing her guts out.
He brushed his hands off. "Just for that I'm not lending you my graphing calculator for parabolas anymore."
"What?" Serena jumped up. "NOOOOOO – Darien, I'll do whatever you want!"
Darien opened his mouth, but then Asanuma whapped him in the head with a mop. "Hey! Motoki says we have to clean up the milkshake and colas if we don't want his dad coming after us."
"Ooooh." They all went fearful-eyed, thinking of Motoki's scary and very buff dad.
"Oh, so that's where Motoki gets his six-pack from!" Serena snapped her fingers.
"That's funny how Motoki has a six pack, and six packs are drinks, and Motoki serves drinks…" Asanuma trailed off as they all stared at him, unimpressed, even Buji.
"That was dumb," said Buji bluntly.
"Okay, no one else thinks it's funny?" Asanuma attempted a grin. "No? Okay. Never mind." He grumbled to himself. "Sheeeeeesh, tough crowd…."
"More ironic than funny, actually," Darien mused.
Asanuma punched him. "Why do people only listen to me when I make bad jokes?"
"Anyways, time to clean," Motoki said. "Hop to it, Janitor Team!"
"Man, I feel like a mother cleaning up after her bratty son," Asanuma grumbled as he scrubbed. He looked pointedly at Darien.
"What, I'm the bratty son in that analogy? You were the one who suggested the wet t-shirt contest," he retorted.
"Ohohoho!" A chuckle caught their attention.
Asanuma pushed his hair out of his forehead to look at the old lady who had laughed at them. "Do you need something, oba-san?"
The old lady hobbled up to them with her walker. "No, no, sweetheart."
Darien exchanged a toothy grin with Serena. Senior citizen hitting on Numa!
"I was just watching the group of you strapping young things," the old lady said. "You make such a family! It does an old heart good…"
She hobbled on out the door, still chuckling to herself.
Everyone looked around at each other in silence.
"Eheheheh…crazy old lady," laughed Asanuma, rubbing his neck.
Serena's head tilted, and they were all subjected to an intense examination by her bright blue eyes. Darien felt a jolt as she stared at him.
Then a smile sparkled onto her face. "No, she's right!" Serena clapped her hands. "We are a family!"
"Really?" Lita bit her lip, looking around at all of them. Darien found himself doing the same thing.
Serena nodded happily.
How so? Darien wondered.
Serena looked up at him as though she'd heard his thought. "Silly, people don't need a reason to be family," she said. "If they want to be, they are. It's not like a sports team where you have to try out to be part of it." She grinned and scooped Buji up, squeezing him in a tight hug and mashing his cheeks. "Right, Honey Bunny?"
"Ack! Onee-chan!" Buji squirmed. "Stop being all mushy! Darien-baka! Help me!"
"Geeze." Serena pouted and dumped Buji in Darien's lap. "You like Darien best now?"
"Darien-baka doesn't try to strangle me!"
"I don't strangle you!"
"You hug me like a teddy bear!"
"You're cute and cuddly like a teddy bear! Enjoy it now, before you get old and un-cuddly like Darien!"
"Uncuddly?" Darien lifted an eyebrow. 'That's a compliment, I guess…"
"How so?" Serena crossed her arms. The argument had now gone from Serena vs. Buji to Serena vs. him.
"Well, being cuddly would be an insult to my manliness," he reasoned, his eyes twinkling. "So you calling me uncuddly is like calling me manly."
"Hmm." Serena tapped her chin. Then flashed a grin. "Nope, in that case, you are even cuddlier than Buji!"
"Cuddlier?" Darien repeated amusedly.
"If he's so cuddly…" Asanuma cackled and crept up. "You should cuddle him, Serena-chan!" He shoved her onto Darien.
"Hey! I punched him at the same time as you! JINX! JINX! JINX! ARRRRGGGGH!"
"I guess this is where they got Serena's name from. She does look kind of serene when she's sleeping. Just not the rest of the time."
"You're one to talk. We all know where your mom got your name from, ASS-anuma – "
"You know, Toki, that joke's staler than your banana bread tastes – "
"My banana bread does not taste stale!"
"How can you be going out with this guy, Lita? Listen to him! 'My banana bread does not taste stale!' He's practically screaming out his homosexuality."
"How comfortable he is with his feminine side just shows how manly he is."
"I show my feminine side all the time. Does anyone ever call me manly?"
"Shh! I think Usa-chan's waking up!"
Who could keep sleeping with all that squawking? Serena thought foggily.
That was her first thought. He second thought was that her first thought sounded like something Darien would say. Her third thought was, Oh my God! Darien!
She bolted up in bed. "Where is he? Is he okay?"
"Whoah, whoah." A hand pushed down on her chest, forcing her back down to the bed. She stared up at Lita's familiar green eyes. "Lita!"
"That's me." Lita smiled down at her. "God, you scared us, Serena!"
Serena opened her mouth, but Lita placed a hand over it. "No, wait a second," she said. "Before you talk anymore, look down at yourself."
Serena looked down. She was lying in a hospital bed. Her arm hung in a sling, bandages covered her body. She could feel them tightly hugging her ribs beneath the thin hospital gown and blanket. Only then did she become aware of the pain throbbing in her shoulder, the mild burning sensation all along her torso, upper legs, and arms. Only then did she feel the tube running under her nose and the gauze bandaging her cheeks, and the stinging cuts beneath them.
"From…Zoicite?" she said.
Lita still stood in front of her, her back to Motoki and Asanuma so that they wouldn't catch the warning glance she shot Serena. "From the youma attack," she said firmly. "Can you remember anything?"
"Being pulled out of the car…" Serena said slowly, trying to sort out her memory. The prom, Venus, Zoicite dragging her out of the car…that was where most of these injuries had to have come from. She couldn't remember ever feeling such incredible pain in her life. She couldn't believe she had managed to move later, much less walk and talk… "What happened…afterwards?"
"The Sailor Senshi brought you back to the school parking lot. Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter," Lita said. "You were unconscious. Bleeding badly, too. Thank God there was an ambulance already there, or you might have died. They said you'd lost so much…"
Her voice cracked. Serena squeezed her hand and stared past her at Asanuma and Motoki. They, too, looked so solemn…they didn't look like themselves at all. They looked like different people. Strangers.
"What happened, Serena?" Asanuma gazed back at her. "Venus went outside, and we followed… Darien's windshield was all smashed up, and there was blood everywhere… You were both missing, we called the police, we didn't know if it was someone kidnapping you or Sailor Venus or a youma – "
"Where is Darien?" Serena asked urgently. She looked up at Lita. "He's not…?" Her heart seemed to hang in the air.
"He's not dead!" said Motoki hastily. "He's just…do you remember what happened after the youma took you guys, Serena?"
Lita's hand tightened around Serena's. The blonde shook her head. "No…"
"I think we've tired Serena out enough for today, guys," Lita said, slipping her hand out of Serena's. "C'mon, let's go."
"No!" Serena sat up. Pain lanced across her stomach and panic across her mind. "No! Lita, you can't just leave!"
Lita opened the door, back tense. A nurse could be heard in the hall: "She's awake? Oh, let's see her, then – Dr. Itsuka, 630's awake – "
"Lita!" Serena cried as Lita left. "Please – !"
Motoki followed the brunette out into the hall, throwing Serena an apologetic look. Asanuma placed his hand on the doorjamb and hesitated.
Then he turned and ran back to Serena.
He gripped the bedside rail and stared down at her intently. "They're got Darien sedated," he told her lowly. "He was going berserk when he woke up and found out he was in a hospital. He told you what happened when he was little, right? When his parents died? Well – the nurses told us not to tell you until they'd checked you out and made sure you weren't going to freak out like him, but Serena, he's gone blind. I snuck in to see him – he's just lying there. That youma did something to him. His eyes are all gold, there's something wrong with them. Can you remember? Did the youma spray his face with something? Poison him? Did – ?"
"Young man!" A nurse hurried in with the doctor striding behind her. "Your friends are waiting outside for you! And the doctor needs to check on your lady friend now, so come back tomorrow, okay?"
Asanuma threw Serena one last glance, then let himself be herded outside. But as he opened the door, his hand crept behind his back. He flashed his fingers: six fingers, fist, five. 605.
"Well, then." The doctor drew Serena's attention back to him. "How are we feeling, young lady?"
"Sir," Serena blurted out. "My friend – Darien – Darien Shields – please, is he okay?"
"Well, now, I'm not the doctor in charge of his treatment, but I'm sure he's just fine." The doctor smiled at her. "Now, let's worry about you, shall we? Take a deep breath, please. In, out…"
"Darien – I'm sorry. Your parents didn't make it."
"They didn't survive the car crash, son. I'm so sorry."
"What car crash?"
"The car crash you were in – don't you remember it?"
Clutching his head.
"I don't remember anything."
'He's just lying there.'
'He was going berserk.'
'Do you remember, Serena?'
The tray of supper a nurse had brought her still sat untouched on her lap. She had been staring at the trembling orange surface of the gelatin since they brought it, after her parents had finally stopped hugging her and crying to go pick up Sammy from camp.
'He was going berserk.'
'He's just lying there.'
'He's blind, Serena.'
But he had told her his eye would heal! He'd TOLD her his vision would come back!
'He was going berserk.'
The pressure her fingers were exerting on the fork bleached her knuckles white.
'He's just lying there.'
Her eyes flicked to the door. 605. It was nighttime now; the halls had grown quieter. Would the nurses come to check on her?
Even if they did, what would happen, Serena? her mind demanded. They would scold you? Big deal. You just survived Zoicite and the queen of the Dark Kingdom, for God's sake!
Decision filled her limbs. She set down the tray and scooted down the bed. A minute's work removed the tubes from her – she willed them not to beep or set off an alarm, and they listened – then she slid down off the bed. Her body complained with every centimeter.
A shadow obliterated the beam of light streaming through the crack in the doorway. She froze. But it passed – just a nurse walking by.
An idea hit her. She reached into her Sub-Space pocket and withdrew the Luna Pen.
"Luna Pen," she whispered. "Can you turn me invisible?"
Not only could the Luna Pen turn her invisible, it also did it subtly. At first, Serena thought it hadn't worked, because there were no flashes of light or sparkles, but she looked down at herself and saw nothing. She waved a hand in front of her face, and still, nothing.
A smile lit her face. "Thanks, Luna Pen!" she whispered, stowing it back in her pocket.
Now… she crept to the door. Peeked out the crack. Squeeeeeeezed out the crack. Looked left, right, left. Where would 605 be? This way or that way? Or that other way? Argh!
Then she bonked herself on the head. Well, duh, Serena! Just use the string! In fact, you could have just used the string in the beginning to check on Darien.
But…part of her protested. She wanted to see him, whether he needed her or not.
She passed her hand through the air a couple of times in a motion that was quickly becoming familiar. It only took her three passes to find the string this time, and she brushed her fingers tentatively across it first. Grogginess and a sense of detachment unscrewed her brain from the rest of her for a moment. She kept only the lightest of contact with the string, grazing it lightly as she followed it lest she become so detached that she walked into a nurse. Was this the sedatives' work, or Beryl's? Or the Golden Crystal's? Or Darien's own mind's?
The walls as she walked were white, and so was the floor. So were the doors, and the signs with direction to the elevators and cafeteria. Everything white, and she realized that this must be the exact opposite of what Darien could see right now: all black.
But she still couldn't believe it. He couldn't be blind still. Just like he couldn't get sick. The golden sparks would just heal it, like they healed everything else. The doctors had to be wrong. Or it was something magical causing Darien's blindness, something that could be gotten rid of.
So absorbed was she in her thoughts that she totally missed the placard beside the door reading 605. Instead, she continued along the string's path, totally oblivious to her surroundings, and walked straight into the closed door, BAM.
She stumbled back, blinking back stars and hurriedly digesting her surroundings. A brown-haired nurse came hurrying into the hallway, and she flattened herself against the wall.
"Mr. Shields?" the nurse called, opening the door. "Are you alright?"
Serena took advantage of the opened door and slid in behind the nurse.
The room was dark. The blinds were drawn, and the bed was totally reclined. An IV stand loomed over the bed, bearing a fat bag of clear liquid. The nurse approached it and checked it, but could apparently find nothing wrong with it. "But I swear I heard something…" she said, staring at the motionless body on the bed.
Something on the nurse's waist chirped. She picked it up. "Yes?" Pause. "What?" … "Yeah, I'll be there right away. Yes. Bye."
She clicked off the phone and ran out of the room. Serena waited a few beats until she was gone, then closed the door quietly behind her, keeping the knob turned so it wouldn't make a noise. Then she stood with her ear pressed to the door for a moment, listening to make sure no voices approached.
But she heard a voice. And it came from behind her.
Her whole body froze. Inside, her organs shriveled up. Was it Darien's ghost? Had he died?
She turned slowly. The shadow on the bed had half-risen. Irrational fear gripped her, and she had to force the whisper out of her mouth. "Darien?"
"It is you?" The shadow sat up all the way, but not for long, because Serena hurled herself at him, choking the life out of him and dripping tears all over his neck.
At last, she loosened her grip and looked up at him. It didn't make any difference, though, because it was so dark in the room that she couldn't see his face.
She opened her mouth, but he spoke first. "You're bandaged all over."
She felt his hands brushing across the gauze on her face. "I'm okay," she told him.
Darien snorted bitterly. "That's what you said before you fainted, too. I'm not believing you anymore."
His hands slid from her face. She grabbed them. "Asanuma said your vision still hasn't come back."
Within hers, his hands tensed.
"Have you tried to heal them? With the crystal, I mean?"
"It didn't exactly come with an owner's manual and instructions."
"You haven't tried, then." Serena's voice lifted a note higher in excitement. "We can figure it out! There has to be a way – "
"I have tried." For an instant, Darien's voice seemed about to break. He pulled his hands free. Then he cleared his throat. "As well as I could, I mean."
"What did you do?"
"Before, it just worked when I wished something." He paused. "So I tried wishing to heal my eyes. But nothing's changed."
"Maybe it's because they have you on medication," Serena suggested. "It's interfering with your ability to use the crystal – "
"Serena. Can we just not talk about this right now?" There was forced gentleness covering the bite in his tone, like frosting on a crowbar.
"O – of course!" She slid quickly off the bed. "I'll go – "
How he managed to grasp her wrist so quickly without being able to see it was a mystery to her. She sucked in a breath and stopped moving.
"Don't leave. Please talk to me. Just not about this."
Serena bit her lip and looked at the featureless shadow that was Darien in that pitch black hospital room.
"Okay," she said. "Just let me do something, okay?"
A moment passed, then he released her wrist. She felt her way carefully across the room to the window – was this what Darien would have to move around, feeling his way? – and opened the blinds. Bars of silvery moonlight slid into the room, across the bed. Darien's gold eyes ignited with silvery sparkle under its fingers.
He waited until she returned and climbed back up on the bed to say, "I can't see that, you know."
"I know," she said. "But it makes a difference knowing it's there, doesn't it? I mean, even if you can't see light at the end of the tunnel, it still helps a lot to know that there is an end, you know, somewhere where the sun will come out again. You just have to hold out until you reach it."
There was a long silence.
Then at last Darien said, "Liar. You just wanted to be able to stare at my handsome face."
Serena guffawed, but was secretly glad that Darien couldn't see her blush. "That's so crazy there isn't even a worthwhile response to it!"
"Yet you're responding," retorted Darien.
"Someone being sedated shouldn't be this sharp," complained Serena. "Has that medicine gone bad or something? Speaking of which, how are you even awake?"
Darien shrugged. "Beats me. More superhero anomalies?"
"I'll pretend I know what anomalies means and just say, 'Why did the sedation work on me, then?' " Serena frowned to herself, chewing her lip. "No, but the medicine's affecting you a little. When I felt for the string to find you, you felt all stuffy-headed."
"Thanks," said Darien dryly. He lay back down, resting his head on his pillow and directing his face at her. She sensed that he did this for her benefit, since he couldn't see her. "Speaking of you finding me, why are you here?"
"That's a dumb question," said Serena indignantly. "What kind of a friend do you think I am?"
"A severely injured, in critical condition one," he retorted. "Not exactly in the condition to be able to wander around hospitals. That was you who ran into the door, wasn't it?"
"Now you're going to tell me that was how you knew it was me?" said Serena sourly.
Serena sweatdropped. "Let's try this again. You were supposed to say, 'No, Serena darling, I knew it was you by the fragrant perfume of flowers that wafted into the room.' "
Darien's forehead creased thoughtfully. "Hmmm…" He shook his head. "No, no, I'm sure it was the thunk your huge forehead made against the poor door."
"Urrrgghh…. If you weren't in a hospital, I'd be strangling you right now." Serena glanced around, avoiding his unblinking stare. She spotted a flower on his bedside table. "Hey, who brought you that?"
"Brought me WHAT?" His tone held caustic reminder.
"Oops. Sorry." Serena winced. "Forgot. There's a rose on your bedside table."
"Really?" Darien said absently. She looked at him in annoyance at his lack of attention and saw that he was twirling some of her hair in his fingers.
"Who said you could play with that?" Serena demanded. "Don't touch it, who knows how long it's been since it was washed – "
"You've got so much hair that oils can only reach what, the top half of it?" Darien cut her off. "Besides, don't bother me, I'm enjoying it."
"I hope the irony doesn't escape you," Serena said. "The hair you're deriving such pleasure from right now is the same hair you always ridicule so much."
"Oh, the irony just makes it more fun." Darien closed his eyes. "You talk more like me these days, Odango."
"Do I?" Serena frowned. She replayed her words in her head. "What, just because I use big words I'm imitating you? In that case, YOU talk more like ME lately."
"Meaning I use smaller words and make less sense," muttered Darien.
"Let's remember whose hair it is you're playing with right now," Serena reminded him pointedly.
"Mine," said Darien slyly. "I made it grow, remember?"
Serena crossed her arms. "I don't know why I came. You don't even need any cheering up. I thought I'd have to offer you a shoulder to cry on or something."
"You expected ME to cry? I'm offended by how unmanly your perception of me is."
"It's not UNMANLY to cry."
"Actually, it is. It's scientifically proven that men, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are biologically predisposed to internalize their emotions. Our emotions don't take place in the same region of the brain that females' do."
"Well, gee, thanks for ruining every romance novel I ever read," muttered Serena. "I liked the wimpy guys."
Darien slid a hand behind his head. "Aw, a wimpy guy couldn't handle you, Odango. You need someone who can keep up with your detestable neverending supply of energy. Not to mention deal with with all the youma, admirers, and murderous Senshi you're so prone to attracting." He smirked. "Of course, I got rid of all the youma for him, so I guess his job is a little easier now."
"We'll send you a thank you card with our wedding invitation," said Serena dryly.
Darien was quiet for a minute. She nudged him with an elbow. "What's up?"
He resurfaced with a sigh. "Hmm? Nothing. I was just thinking." He paused. "I had a dream about getting your wedding invitation."
Her forehead crinkled. "When?"
"During…all that weird stuff."
"What, you fell asleep in the middle of fighting Beryl?"
"No, when…" he trailed off. "You weren't there…? I thought you were, but – no, that wouldn't make sense. Maybe that was a dream, too?"
Serena watched him, her brows furrowing. "What are you talking about?"
Darien explained to her how he had gotten the golden crystal; the strange beating, etc.
"No way," Serena breathed. She stared at him. "I don't remember any of that. I remember that black stuff…eating me, and I remember seeing all the gold light coming out of the crystal and making everything disappear, but in between that everything's a blank."
"No, you were awake," Darien insisted. His brow was creased intently. "I remember you talking right before I got kicked."
"Are you sure it wasn't this other Serena you heard?"
Darien tried to make sense of it in his mind. It was like untangling a huge knot. "No, because when I came back, I picked you up and brought you back with me. Why wouldn't you remember? Whoever kicked you must have done something to you, too…"
"But who kicked you?" Serena said. "Who took us out of Beryl? How? It seems like they helped us, but if that's true, why didn't they talk to us?"
Darien was silent. She drew her knees up to her chin and watched him. He was in musing mode.
"It's like a deus ex machina," he muttered to himself.
"What's that?" Serena asked. "Is it bad?"
"Not necessarily," he said slowly. "I mean, it's usually considered poor writing skills to use one. But in ancient Greek plays, the dues ex machina was a force, usually a god, that swept down at the end to fix everything. He would punish the people who were bad and reward the characters who were good, for instance."
"But…" Serena thought of Sailor Venus's body. "What if some of the people who got punished weren't really bad?"
"Well, that's the problem," said Darien. "By the god coming down to fix everything instead of just letting the story settle itself, the god ensured that events played out the way he wanted, to his benefit."
"So…" said Serena slowly, "you think that someone manipulated everything that happened to work out the way they wanted it to."
"Why else would they have helped us? If nothing else, it means there's greater forces at work than us or the Dark Kingdom at work."
"You mean we're not done fighting?"
"You are!" Darien sat up straight. "You can't transform anymore, Serena – "
The door opened. Serena dropped to the floor, hunching as small as she could, pressed against the bed.
"I heard a noise here earlier tonight, Doctor, and he's been in such an excitable state I thought I should alert you just in case… Mr. Shields?"
Serena peered up beneath her bangs. Darien was still sitting up! He must have thought he had to hide her – crud, she hadn't told him she'd become invisible!
A deeper voice now, a man's. "Why are you awake, Mr. Shields?"
"You're the doctor," Darien said. Serena marveled at how nonchalant he could sound. She would have been tangling her words left and right! "You tell me."
"Well, you're much calmer now than you were the first time we met, at least," said the doctor dryly. "How are you feeling?"
The doctor sighed. Then Serena heard the sound of chair legs scraping across linoleum, and the hiss of a cushion depressing. "Would you like the news now or shall we wait till morning?"
"Morning and night are pretty much the same to me now, Doctor."
"In time, you'll be able to tell the difference pretty well."
Serena hugged her legs tighter. In time?
"That's your roundabout way of telling me I'm going to be like this for a very long time," Darien said.
A sigh. "Basically. I'm very sorry, Darien. We still can't even figure out what happened, much less how to fix it. We've never treated a youma-inflicted affliction like this before. We know virtually nothing about it. If there was some way we could contact the Sailor Senshi, ask them if they knew anything about it…"
A bitter laugh. "Trust me, they don't."
"Well… The M.D. cleared his throat. "There's a very good chance that the loss of vision has only been caused by trauma and it could return at any time."
"You don't think I should hold my breath for it, though." Delivered flatly.
"I really don't know, Darien. I just don't know." The chair scraping back. "Not that it worked before, but would you like medication to sleep?"
"No," said Darien firmly.
"Alright. Good night, then."
The two let a moment pass before they dared speak.
"Serena?" Darien whispered.
She got up. "Right here. Whew, that was close." She kept her voice light.
"You stayed in here the whole time? How'd they not see you?"
"Oh…" Serena rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. "I used the Luna Pen to turn me invisible when I came here. Sorry, I forgot to tell you."
"Oh." Darien sank back down. "Yeah, that would have been nice to know before I jumped down that doctor's throat…"
"How would being grumpy to him keep him from seeing me?" asked Serena skeptically.
"Who knows? I wasn't thinking," answered Darien vaguely.
Serena's fingers moved of their own accord and brushed his hair back. "I think you're getting sleepy."
"I don't want to sleep," he whispered.
Serena stared at him, then it clicked. What he said about dreams… "What did you dream, Darien?"
"Just…" His eyelids drifted shut, then struggled back open. "I'm not going to Yale, Serena – "
"Shhhh…" She stroked his forehead. She felt so incredibly serene even though his words had stabbed her heart and made it burst with happiness at the same time. The need to soothe him was like a wall, muffling all her other feelings. "I know. You're staying right here with us."
Darien's lips opened again, but instead of words just a sigh drifted out. His chest rose up and down. Serena gazed at him.
The shadows beneath his eyes suddenly lightened. She turned toward the window, alert.
But it was a shooting star. Streaking through the sky like a spear.
She grabbed Darien's hand.
Make a wish, she thought.
Ami looked down at the ticket in her hand. Its edges were darkening from the perspiration of her palm. Her bag threatened to fall from her other, sweat-slickened hand. Was this a sign? Her fear made her lose everything. The sweat and tears she always shed made everything too slippery for her to hold onto.
But she was changing that. She was changing it right now. She would, she would…
She had been telling herself this for half an hour now. And her feet still hadn't moved one inch.
She heard a caw. She looked up. A black bird hovering above her. Great. Another bad omen.
Then awareness trickled through her. She looked back up at the crow, then over her shoulder.
To lock eyes with Rei.
"You're leaving," Rei said matter-of-factly, her violet eyes boring into Ami's.
Something about the way she said it – maybe because Rei could see the future – unlocked Ami's body. She took a step forward.
Rei looked around them, at the bustling people. "I hate this place," she said bleakly. "They can't expect us to protect it if we don't like it."
There was a backpack over Rei's shoulder, Ami suddenly noticed. And her hair was cropped short, to her chin.
"You're lucky, you know," Rei continued, looking up at the sky. "There's no strings tying you here."
Ami had to press her lips together to keep them from trembling. "I wish there were."
"No." Rei snorted. "You don't."
Ami swallowed the words she wanted to say. Instead, she asked, "Where will you go?"
"The same place I've been headed all my life." Rei tore her eyes from the sky and looked at Ami. "Nowhere."
Ami gripped the transformation wand that was in her pocket. "Do you feel guilty?" she blurted out.
Rei's face hardened. "No. Like I said…they can't expect us to protect something if we don't like it." She spun on her heel. "Bye, Ami."
"Bye…Rei…" Ami watched her back grow smaller and smaller. Then the dribble of hesitation that had been dripping inside her solidified into an icicle, solid and sure. "Rei!" She ran after her.
Rei turned slightly, eyes narrow. "What?"
Ami halted in front of her. "I hope that we see each other again someday, Rei. And that we can be friends when we do."
It would have taken someone far more social-savvy than Ami to notice the subtle change in Rei's face. But it was there, even if neither of knew it. And after staring at Ami for a moment with that change spreading through her, Rei turned again and strode away, faster and faster until she was running.
Ami didn't wait to watch her disappear this time. This time, she turned, planted her feet firmly one in front of the other, and headed toward her destination.
"Well, look who it is!" exclaimed Motoki as Serena and Darien entered the repaired arcade. Then he blanched. "I mean – not look – um – damn it – "
"Stop while you're ahead, Toki," Lita told him.
"But I – "
"This is probably the only time you'll hear me say this, but listen to Lita, Motoki." Darien sank into a stool and leaned his cane against the counter.
"Where's Asanuma's voice recorder when you need it?" Lita joked. They all laughed. "You want a milkshake, Serena?"
"Um…yes, please." Serena stared at Lita. "But Lita, why are you behind the counter?"
Motoki grinned and snaked an arm around Lita's waist. "Say hello to our newest employee!" he said.
"Lita's working here now?" Darien muttered. "I don't think I feel comfortable with her handling my drinks…"
"Don't worry." Serena patted his arm. "Lita knows I steal sips from you, so she won't try to poison you."
"Heheheheh…" Lita placed a milkshake in front of Serena and a cola in front of Darien.
"Anyways," said Motoki. "Long time no see. You guys got out of taking final exams, you know."
"I know," said Darien dryly. "It nearly cost me my sense of hearing too. Serena squealed louder than car brakes when she found out."
Serena, who had been watching Darien very closely, glanced over and caught the relief that flitted across Motoki's face. "What is it, Toki?" she wanted to know.
"You looked all relieved," she said.
"Oh." Motoki scratched his head. "Well, I'm just glad Dare's okay, that's all. I was afraid he'd, you know, cut us all of. Or be really tense. But it's practically like nothing's changed!"
"Says you," muttered Darien. Louder, he said, "It is hard. But more than anything, I don't want you guys to treat me differently." He smirked a little. "I'm still the dashing, suave, unbelievably handsome genius guy I've always been."
Guffaws broke out all around.
"Dashing?" gasped Lita.
"Suave?" laughed Motoki.
"Handsome!" giggled Serena.
"At least no one's arguing with me about the genius part," Darien told his sympathetic soda.
Darien's head drooped. "I spoke too soon."
"Why, did someone call for me?" Asanuma's voice shoved itself into the arcade. He slid into the stool beside Darien. "All those adjectives that perfectly describe moi – "
"Motoki, do you have a fork? Someone's ego needs to be stabbed to let some of the hot air escape."
Asanuma clapped Darien on the shoulder. "Ah, you're still as grumpy as ever, Dare-Bear. Nice to know that some things never change."
Serena grinned and looked around at all her friends bickering and laughing. Then she felt a hand slide into hers. She looked down and saw that it was Darien's. His fingers were counting down from three for them to dump their drinks on Asanuma. She laughed delightedly and thought back to only a few months ago when she had gone home and cried over some of the things he said to her.
Yes, she thought as they jumped up and upended their icy cold drinks on Asanuma's head, it was nice to know that some things never changed.
But it was even nicer that some things did.
(of Season 1, that is.)