Title: In the Dark

Author: Lisa

Chapter: 7

Rating: PG

Author's Notes:

Hello everyone! I hardly believe it myself, but here's the last chapter to "In the Dark!" I'd like to thank each and every one of you for your kind words thus far…this past month has been quite a ride. "In the Dark" has been the story I've always been proudest of, and I'm glad that I got to share it with you!

I stared at her motionless form lying mere feet away. There she was finally, her familiar frame so close that just two steps would bring me to her side. I couldn't begin to describe the emotions that swept through me in that moment—grief, joy, anger, fear—all were present and jumbled in a confusing medley that stunned me. Simply watching the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest affected me so violently that I wondered how I'd ever possessed the strength to leave in the first place. I drew in a breath and noticed absentmindedly that my hands were shaking uncontrollably, my palms made sleek by a fine sheen of sweat.

Awash with anticipation, I ignored the sinking feeling in my gut and took one hesitant step toward her bed. Her face was clearly visible now. Dark, angry bruises, in various shades of purple and green, contrasted with her hopelessly pale skin. It resembled that of too-thin paper—almost translucent—a far cry from the rosy tinge that'd colored my fondest memories. She looked so frail and…lifeless. My stomach churned at the sight and, combined with the strong smell of medicine that burned my nostrils, left me wanting to purge myself of the acid brewing within me. A sob formed in my throat but instead came out as a garbled choking sound that was soon swallowed by the room's sterile walls. Still I summoned my remaining shards of courage and took the final step before sinking heavily into the visitor's chair beside her.

Usagi's face, though marred with countless lacerations, was still as beautiful as I'd recalled. No, more even. Nothing could take away her unearthly beauty. I stroked Usagi's hair, and it slid easily through my fingers like strands of golden silk. Leaning closer to her face, I caught an intoxicating whiff of vanilla and Usagi's own distinct scent. Her eyes remained closed, her face slack. I brushed a feather-light kiss to her blond locks, then traced the outline of her face with a fingertip, careful to dodge the wounds there. She continued to sleep but reflexively leaned into my touch. Something wet hit the blankets, and I realized dazedly that it was my own teardrop.

I couldn't stay anymore…maybe I never should've come back. I gritted my teeth as the doubts began clouding my mind once more, screaming taunts made deafening by the silence in the room. I stood and resolved to come back later, as I was useless to her in my present state. With one last lingering look at her sleeping face, I turned to leave.

"I knew you'd come."

I froze mid-step, feeling fresh tears spring anew at the sound of her voice. Her words were a dry whisper, and for a second I wondered if I'd imagined them. My mind, after all, had long since gained a mind of its own.

I faced her at last, almost collapsing with relief at seeing her eyes fixed on me. She was really here and awake; no longer need I resort to fantasy to get my fix of Usagi. It was then that I noticed the machines beside her and the long, fat tubes inserted into her arms.

"Usagi…." Overcome by the million words between us left unsaid, I found myself by her side and grasping one of her hands in an instant. It fit perfectly into my larger ones, just as I had remembered. I held it to my face, and she caressed my cheek gently.

"It took me forever to get here," I managed to choke out. I was surprised that I could still form words at that point.

"An eternity," she agreed, and the barest trace of a smile lifted the corners of her mouth. "But I knew you'd find your way back to me…somehow. Too bad it had to be under these circumstances, ne?" She laughed lightly, and I didn't dare respond. Her lips, which I had once compared to a rosebud, were now thin and chapped. But her eyes frightened me the most. More than ever I wanted to see them sparkle with life again.

"Usagi," I whispered, "I'm so sorry. So sorry…"

The tears ran endlessly now, pouring from my eyes as four years of loneliness burst from my body. I shook from the intensity of my sobs. Usagi watched with understanding eyes but didn't speak. I wanted her to say something. Anything. Did she hate me, as I hated myself? Her face was so calm…

"Mamo-chan…" That one word left me incapable of speech. Only she had that sort of mesmerizing effect on me. I watched transfixed as she took my right hand and left lingering kisses on each finger.

"Forgive me." My voice came out as no more than a squeak when I finally regained the ability to speak. "Forgive me," I pleaded again, because even if I could never forgive myself, I selfishly craved her forgiveness, desperately hungered for her mercy.

"I forgave you a long time ago," she murmured back before offering me a sad smile.

I lifted my head in astonishment as guilt constricted my heart painfully. "How could you have?"

Her eyes dropped from my face, and she sighed. "Why does anyone forgive another? When you left, I felt…lost. I wondered…I wondered what part of me was so repulsing, to push you away like that. Was I too brainless, childish, selfish, ugly? Did I….did I not make you happy? Countless nights I lay awake in bed, crying your name to an empty room. But…I never stopped loving you. I never stopped waiting for you. Never."

A tear trailed down her cheek. I kissed it off, treasuring its saltiness as it dissolved on my tongue.

"I regret it so much," I said. How I regretted it! There in that room, watching as Usagi withered before me like a rose picked before the height of its bloom, I realized the true extent of my mistakes. She was both my salvation and my punishment. "If I could take it back, I would. I'd do anything to take it back. If I could change that morning…"

"No, Mamo-chan," she replied simply. "We shouldn't live in the past."

"The past…" A heavy silence passed, and I couldn't take it. "How could you still love me?" I shouted. I had no right to scream at her, to unleash the self-anger that threatened to rip me in half. But I didn't know what else to do. "It's because of me that you're like this. I should've been there when you…but instead I left you." I faced her, desperate to look into her infinitely compassionate eyes. "You should've forgotten me."

"Love isn't that easy to forget, Mamo-chan."

"Stop it!" I cried helplessly. Each time she addressed me by that endearment, I was forcefully reminded of my weakness in the face of her unshakable strength. "I—I'm not your Mamo-chan anymore! I don't deserve to be called that."

"You do," she replied, "and so much more." As I prepared to refute her words, Usagi suddenly went into a coughing fit. I watched as violent coughs racked her body. They settled after a while, and I gazed in horror as a stream of blood trailed down her lips and landed on the blankets beneath her.

"Usagi, you…" The world was spinning, and all I could see was the blood that ran down her mouth like a crimson waterfall. She wiped the trail easily like it was an everyday occurrence then closed her eyes, as if now lacking the strength to keep them open.

"Mamo-chan…." I wanted Usagi to open her eyes again. I needed her to.

"Please hold on," I chanted frantically, as if my words could magically revive her. If this were a fairytale, my love would've been enough to bar the inevitable force that pulled Usagi away from me. But in fairytales, I suppose, the prince would've never been foolish enough to leave his princess in the first place. "Please hold on. Please, please, please..."

"Mamo-chan," she repeated. Her voice was growing ever fainter. I swallowed the huge lump that had formed in my throat and jumped up, driven to action by a desperate frenzy.

"I…I need to find a doctor," I said, "he'll make you better."

"No," she replied, "there's nothing he can do now…come here." I obeyed because there was nothing that I could refuse her now.

"Why…why won't you call me Usako again?" I had to strain to hear her voice. Because I don't deserve to, I wanted to scream. Because I can't lose you now that I have you beside me again. Because now, more than ever… I remained silent.

Usagi opened her eyes again with much difficulty, and I stifled a cry. They were empty, a vast sky of unseeing blue…frightening in its infiniteness. I leaned down and scooped her body into my arms. She was so small and feathery light, and I feared that she might crumble beneath my embrace.

"Mamo-chan…please…I want to hear…"

"Usako," I breathed. She smiled even as her body began shaking. I squeezed her gently, willing warmth into her broken frame.

"I…I need you…to promise…"

"Anything," I vowed.

"Love again, Mamo-chan…be happy. All I want…is…is for you to…be happy. You deserve happiness, even if…even if you never believed that you did." Each word was a struggle for her now as I sobbed openly into her hair.

"Usako…you are my happiness. You've always been my happiness. I was a fool to think that'd ever change. I was such a fool..." She shook her head, defiant to the end. My Usako would never go down without a fight.

"Mamo-chan…promise…"

I nodded once, unable to verbalize my consent, but she seemed satisfied with my unspoken affirmation. Her eyes fluttered closed.

"Kiss me," she whispered. "One last time…I…I want to…feel your lips…on mine. Just once more."

I nodded again even though she couldn't see. I couldn't kiss Anna before I left because I'd never been in love with her. Yet this woman…

I leaned down and touched my lips to hers gently. Usagi returned it weakly with the last ounce of strength remaining in her body. Her quivering hands touched the hairs at my neck, and I shivered. I never wanted the kiss to end. It felt…heavenly, like pure nectar. When my lungs began hungering for air, I broke apart unwillingly. Our lips hovered mere inches from each other, trembling from the passion that needed not words to express.

"Mamo-chan," she gasped, "I…love—"

"I know." I kissed her forehead. "Aishiteru Usako. Always."

A look of peace flashed across Usagi's face. She sighed, and her head lulled against my shoulder.

I must have sat there for hours, or perhaps only minutes, clutching her lifeless body close to my chest. Time meant nothing to me now. I crushed her tiny frame to me, as if willing her, by some wondrous miracle, to come back to life. If she did, I swore over and over to the heavens that I would never even considerleaving her again. I would be faithful and attentive to her every need and desire. I would pledge myself with all my imperfections to this creature and spend the rest of my life making myself worthy of her love. I sat there, awaiting the miracle that wouldn't come, knowing that Usagi deserved it more than anyone else in this world. She was the last person who deserved to die. I was the one who should've died.

I still had so many things I wanted to tell her. I wanted to share with her those years in America, where I had mistook success for happiness. I wanted to hear her infectious laughter and to breathe in her tantalizing scent. She now reeked of sterility, a nauseating smell that adulterated her natural fragrance. I wished for nothing more than to feel her warm breath against my neck, her fingers wrapped around me, to feel…something…anything.

I couldn't cry. The tears had dried as soon as Usagi exhaled her last breath because I was undeserving of them. But there was another reason. I refused to grieve outright, as then…then she would be truly gone. I drew in a breath of the putrid air, nearly gagging at the overwhelming decay of it all, and peered at her face. Her eyes would never reopen and captivate me with their playful gaze. This…this…body was not my Usako. She had already floated away from my desperate grasp to a higher plane of existence devoid of pain and loss, while I was condemned to live out the rest of my days aching for her presence.

What would've happened if I had never left her? Would Usagi not have been on the street that cursed night? Would I…would I have been able to save her? I wanted to laugh, to scream, to bash my head against the wall until I bled for my idiocy. Just as Usagi had. I touched the dry trail of blood on her chin with a trembling finger.

The room suddenly grew unbearably cold, as if someone had opened the window and allowed the fierce winter wind to bombard the room. And Usagi…Usagi was affected by this drastic change in temperature. She too began to grow cold to my touch. I stifled the cry that rose in my throat—an instinctive, animalistic call of anguish of a creature that had lost its mate. I hadn't the strength left to shout.

Behind me, I heard the gasps as the senshi crowded around their departed leader and beloved friend. I saw Usagi's family and the indescribable grief etched on their faces. To them, Usagi had been their caring friend, their competent leader, their devoted daughter and sister. Their agonizing cries, I thought, would allow me to feel something other than this…this emptiness that suffocated me. But their tears couldn't elicit any of my own.

The cold was too much to bear. I stood, unable to rip my gaze from her remarkably beautiful face. So serene, even in death…my angel. One of my hands found hers as the other traced her closed eyes, her long eyelashes, her lips, her button nose, committing to memory each delicate feature with frantic accuracy. The girls' sobs had subsided, but silent tears continued to run down their cheeks, endless rivers of grief to honor their leader. I didn't belong here. Rei, Ami, Minako, Makoto…they'd been with Usagi. They'd seen her triumphs, her failures, her smiles, her frowns. Yet I...I had left her when she needed me the most. My hands balled into tight fists. I didn't deserve to mourn beside them.

Minako was the first to break the silence.

"Mamoru-san…" She trailed off, unable to voice words of comfort when she was drowning in her own inconsolable sorrow. "I…I'm…" I raised a hand to stop her.

"I should be the only one apologizing here," I whispered harshly.

She nodded hesitantly. "She loved you, you know…right until her last breath. She was holding on for you." She loved me…referring to my love in the past tense was too much for me. "Your return meant the world to her. Look, she's smiling." Her voice cracked. "She's finally found peace…"

Minako paused, perhaps waiting for some input on my part, some reassurance that her words weren't falling on deaf ears. I heard her, but they sounded like gibberish. She sighed and rested a small hand on my shoulder, sending a jolt of warmth through me. Minako reminded me of Usagi's touch, and I gritted my teeth as memories of warm caresses racked my brain.

"I—I was too late," I choked out. "I—it was my destiny to save her, don't you see? It was my destiny! And I…I failed. Now the future…" My world began collapsing in onto itself as I considered the consequences with silent horror.

"Mamoru-san…"

"I…I have to go," I managed finally, still unable to tear my eyes from the woman before me. Usagi looked like she was sleeping...

With one last glance, I looked away. The spell was broken, and reality hit me with such sheer force that I found it literally impossible to breathe. "I have to go," I repeated like a disjointed mantra, "I have to go…"

Go where? I asked myself, even as I chanted the words yet another time. I had nowhere to go, no place to call home anymore. Usagi had been my home, but where was I to find her now? I could travel the world over and never find home again. I was stupid, so incredibly stupid to think home could've been somewhere else, with someone else. I turned, and my eyes caught Minako's bloodshot orbs unexpectedly. She looked as if she hadn't slept for days, which I suspected was the case. Had I come earlier instead of fighting a useless battle against myself, I would've also stayed glued to Usagi's side. Thanks to my foolishness, however, I was only granted a few precious moments with her. As our eyes clashed, Minako drew in a sharp breath. I gave everyone a respectful nod and mechanically walked out the door. I didn't dare to look back at my beloved. If I had, I knew I could never leave. As I increased my strides down the narrow hallway, my ears caught the beginning of Minako's breathless words.

"His eyes…"

By then I was too far away, too tired, and too apathetic to register anything else she had said.

I wandered aimlessly down the crowded streets, detached from the bustling commerce that characterized my hometown. People rushed by me, moving swiftly as they tried to outrun time. I, on the other hand, simply ambled along. Schedules, deadlines…what need did I have for those worthless concepts? We'd all die in the end—the good, the evil, the beautiful, the ugly—and but for a select few, no one would remember the significance of our lives. Usagi...my Usako…how many times had she saved this cruel world? Now she was gone, yet no one knew…no one cared that their heroine no longer lived.

I passed the arcade, and a collage of memories again assaulted my brain. Those seemingly insignificant encounters now held immeasurable worth: Usagi and her video game obsession, the way her face burned red with anger when she lost, her radiance at being treated to a triple chocolate milkshake.

And Motoki, my best friend. I spied Motoki with his familiar mop of dusty blond hair and green eyes. I was drawn to the entrance of the arcade yet refused to move from my place on the sidewalk. By sheer coincidence or perhaps fate (was there even a difference?), Motoki looked outside the window, right into my withdrawn gaze. Our eyes locked for a few seconds before I broke eye contact, just long enough to see his eyes bulge in disbelieving recognition. Unable to face him, I departed swiftly. Perhaps Motoki would think I was the product of his overworked imagination.

I wandered until the throngs of civilians gradually thinned out and the streets emptied. The sky grew increasingly darker until the last traces of sunlight vanished, causing the world to be bathed in a ruthless shade of black.

There was no moon tonight.

Having nowhere else to stay, I checked myself into the first rundown hotel I could find. The receptionist, a kindly woman in the autumn of her years, smiled as I shoved a wad of money into her hand, more than enough to pay for a night's stay. The meager amount had been a considerable chunk of my life savings back when…back when I had dreamed of a future with Usagi. My heart throbbed, but my expression gave nothing away as I turned from the counter.

"Sir, wait!" She called after me, grabbing onto my wrist. The contact sent a shock of electricity into my beaten system. I gasped and suppressed the urge to pull away so as not to scare the poor woman. "Maybe you're mistaken, but this is too much for one night. Unless you're planning to stay longer…" She trailed off when she peered into my eyes, as Minako had in the hospital. I looked away.

"Keep it," I said, "it's worthless to me now."

I expected her to react in the same manner: with no small touch of fear. She surprised me, however, by wordlessly handing me the key, and I began to walk away in search of my room. Her next words caused me to freeze.

"Death is never easy…is it?" I slowly faced her to find a sympathetic smile playing lightly on her lips, which softened the harsh lines that ran across her time-worn features. "You lost a loved one today." It wasn't a question.

I nodded almost imperceptibly. "Hai."

"I know it seems as if the world has ended…but better times will come. Allow time to heal your pain. Someday you'll move on and begin a new life."

"No," I murmured, so softly that I doubted she heard me, "I tried that already. Turns out she was my life." Maybe she had, because she had nothing more to say as I exited the lobby.

The inside of the room was mundanely furnished. The place screamed of desolation and abandonment—a perfect match. The impact of the hours I had spent walking about aimlessly finally sank in, and I felt a heavy weariness seep into my bones. The full-sized bed seemed inviting; I approached it cautiously and lay down on the hard mattress.

This day had already become a blur in my mind, and part of me childishly wished that it had simply been a nightmare. If it were, then I would soon awake from my subconscious' cruel joke, and Usagi would be in perfect health. We'd have a second chance, and I'd repay the million tears she had shed in my absence with loving kisses… I could delude myself, but that wouldn't return Usagi to my side. Had she really died today? It seemed a thousand times that long. How was I to spend the remaining years of my living death without her, if a single day lasted an eternity?

In that moment, I made the connection. My family…Usako…both had been taken from me by car crashes. I was present at one, should've been present at the other, but now I suppose it made no difference. Destiny had the final laugh in concocting the perfect form of torture for me. I would've laughed at the utter irony—the injustice of it all—had I not lost the ability to make such a sound.

I suddenly felt very small, very cold…just like I had over a decade ago, that night, as I lay shivering in the paper-thin hospital gown, memory-less…family-less. I felt it, as I had then, of the darkness that slowly gnawed away my defenses. Then I was able to fight it off, driven by an inexplicable purpose that now couldn't have been clearer. I had been given a second chance to live because of her.She had been the sole beacon of light that kept me from falling prisoner to the darkness that unceasingly sought to possess my soul. Now that light had been prematurely extinguished, and I had neither strength nor reason left for battle.

The light from the lamp grew brighter and brighter until it blinded me. I squeezed my eyes shut, temporarily overwhelmed. Then an inexplicable rush of adrenaline flowed into my veins. I stood and, with a scream of unchecked rage, fell ruthlessly upon the lamp with its cursed brightness and hurled it against the unsuspecting wall. A deafening crash echoed about the suddenly claustrophobic confines of the room.

A blanket of night engulfed my world instantly. I lay down again and drew in breath after breath of the stale air, willing my heartbeat to slow to its normal tempo. I couldn't see; my vision was obscured to the point where I had difficulty distinguishing my own hands resting on the bed. It was then—in that infinitely lonely darkness—that I saw a tiny flicker of light and heard an almost indiscernible laugh of a departed angel.

Or perhaps I was descending into madness.

I lifted my head nonetheless. "Usako?" The raging silence answered me. She wasn't here. She would never be here, with me, again. I fell back against the pillows, and the tears that had escaped me at the hospital finally came, drowning waves of salt that dragged me into oblivion. "Usako…"

After so many years, I succumbed to the darkness, allowing it to swallow me completely.

The ending fits with the title, ne? As to what exactly happens to Mamoru, he basically loses all will to live. That doesn't mean he literally dies, though his soul is dead. I deliberately made the ending somewhat open. I realize it's not the happy ending that many of you wanted…but I've been planning it for nearly a decade. I also hope you didn't find Mamoru's character too heartless, as that was never my intent. While it's true that the blame ultimately falls on his shoulders, the reasons driving his actions—his heartbreaking insecurities and self-loathing—lend sympathy to his character, in my opinion. For those interested in reading my first attempt at Mamoru-angst with a slightly happier ending (which actually makes a nice companion piece to "In the Dark," now that I think about it), check out "Innocence."

As for what's next, I may very well leave the fanfic world for good this time. I'm set to begin working as an attorney at a firm later this year, so I don't know how much—if any—time I can devote to fanfics moving forward. I have, however, given some thought into continuing with "Shipwrecked." That story promises to be quite angsty as well, which, given my new penchant for angst, may explain my rekindled interest in it. Whether that interest ultimately translates into new chapters remains to be seen. For now, this is it for me! Please leave me your final thoughts below...hopefully you're not too angry that I killed off Usagi. Take care! :)

This chapter was written and posted January 2013.