The comet appeared suddenly.
It hadn't been there the night before; but one night, it was just there—a starlike light beside the moon, with a luminous streaming tail soaring behind it.
Far below, the people of Earth glanced warily up at the sky, whispering among themselves. The comet had appeared many times throughout the centuries, and it always seemed to bring bad tidings. The Earthlings viewed it as an ill omen, an unpleasant reminder of the menace that hung above them. So they kept their eyes cast downward, pretending it didn't exist, hoping the comet's presence meant nothing.
One pair of eyes on Earth, however, were riveted upon the comet with excitement and wonder. Endymion stood on the balcony that looked out over the palace gardens, staring at the brilliant light that he now knew was a harbinger of the Ethereals. Serenity had promised that he would be able to meet them; but when?
As he pondered this, a shadow appeared on the balcony. "I thought I'd find you out here," Kunzite's voice broke through the darkness. "I presume you're admiring the comet everyone's been talking about."
Endymion grinned, beckoning for Kunzite to join him at the balustrade. "I'm sure everyone's saying it's a sign of imminent disaster, correct?"
Kunzite smirked. "Of course." He followed Endymion's gaze up to the brilliant comet shimmering beside the waning moon. After a long moment, he said, "My Prince... the time has come. You have to make the announcement."
Endymion nodded, avoiding Kunzite's watchful eyes. "I know. It's past time. I can't avoid it anymore."
The night the Ethereals' comet arrived, the members of Serenity's court were bedecked in their best finery. Representatives from every planet in the solar system were present, for a visit from the Ethereals was as important, if not moreso, than even the Millennium Ball had been. Full of anticipation, Serenity sat regally on her throne, positioned on the dais to the right of her mother's empty throne, which would remain unoccupied until Serenity's twentieth birthday, when she would become queen in her own right.
The Ethereals appeared precisely at the appointed time, as they always did. Without fanfare or announcement, a small group of glowing beings simply shimmered into existence in the center of the throne room, glowing mystically. Serenity rose to her feet, stepping forward and greeting them with a deep curtsy. The Ethereals, now in humanoid form and enrobed in filmy draperies, returned the reverence.
"Esteemed Ethereals," Serenity began cordially, trying to maintain a regal control over her features. It was difficult not to grin broadly when she saw Luna and Artemis standing slightly behind Phoebe, the Ethereals' leader. "It is an immense pleasure to welcome you to our palace. We have all eagerly anticipated your arrival, and are looking forward to hearing of your travels throughout our galaxy. You are welcome to remain as our guests for as long as you deem fit."
Phoebe smiled serenely. "Thank you, my princess," she said. "I'm afraid we are planning on only a very brief visit this time, but we trust that our short stay will be a pleasant one. If I may, I would like to request a private audience with you, after which we will be only too happy to spend the evening in attendance of the court. I know we would all love to hear about the celebration of the empire's millennial festivities, which we so regrettably were unable to be present for."
A glimmer of confusion passed across Serenity's face, but she composed herself quickly. "Of course," she replied. "Please accompany me to my private study." She led the way into a small room adjacent to the throne room; Phoebe, Luna, and Artemis glided weightlessly after her. The Senshi watched them go curiously, before turning to greet the other Ethereals in the party.
Once inside the study, the Ethereals' formality diminished. Serenity embraced each of them in turn, hugging Luna especially tightly. Luna giggled, her sweet voice filled with delight. "Have you been well, my little Princess? I trust you haven't gotten into too much trouble?"
"None at all!" Serenity replied brightly, and even Phoebe let a smile slip at that, for anyone could see through that lie. Serenity continued unabashedly, "But tell me, how have you been? I want to hear all about your adventures!"
"There will be plenty of time for that, Princess," Phoebe interjected. "Now I must tell you the reason for our visit. We are here because it is time for your instruction in the ways of the Silver Crystal to begin."
Serenity looked confused. "My... instruction?"
"Indeed." Phoebe nodded. "Ordinarily, your mother would have taught you; but as this is not possible, Luna and Artemis will be serving in this capacity."
Serenity's eyes widened. "You mean... Luna and Artemis will be staying here on the Moon?"
"That's right, Princess," Artemis said, his smile reaching his bright green eyes.
Serenity could hardly believe it. Tears of joy stung her eyes, and she covered her mouth with her hands.
Phoebe continued, "Up to now, you have had excellent guardians to protect you and teach you about politics and government... but no instruction about the Silver Crystal. That is unacceptable." She paused, as if to ensure the gravity of her words was getting through to Serenity. "As you know, the Crystal was a gift from the Ethereals to the first Queen Serenity. It is a shard from our comet, and as such, its powers are tied to ours. You could have no better teacher than an Ethereal, and it is imperative that you learn how to control the Crystal as quickly as possible."
Serenity nodded her agreement, although her mind was not really on Phoebe's words. She was still in a thrill over the news that Luna and Artemis would be staying on the Moon. It was too good to be true! She struggled to suppress the grin that was itching to form on her face.
Luna could see Serenity's attention was not fully engaged. "Princess, this is serious," she said urgently. "It's not all fun and games. You're going to have to work hard."
"Of course!" Serenity agreed easily. "I know! And I will work hard! I promise." She beamed at the three Ethereals.
Phoebe sighed. "I hope selecting Luna and Artemis to be your mentors was wise. They are rather young, so not as experienced with their powers as an older Ethereal might have been; but we felt their pre-existing relationship with you and your mother was a bonus..." She trailed off. Serenity was clearly caught in a daydream, and didn't seem to be willing to emerge any time soon. Phoebe turned to Luna and Artemis in exasperation.
"Don't worry, Exalted," Artemis said soothingly. "She's just excited. Once the newness of all this wears off, we won't have a problem."
Phoebe smiled tightly. "I hope you're right." She turned back to Serenity. "I shall retire now. I'm sure your court is anxiously waiting, wondering what ever we could be saying alone here." She regally swept out of the study and back into the main receiving hall, without waiting for Serenity to lead the way. Court etiquette had no bearing on the Ethereals, but Serenity didn't mind—she barely even noticed. Luna and Artemis hung back, waiting for the Princess to snap out of her daydream so they could speak. But after another brief moment's preoccupied silence, Serenity bounded out of the room in a blur of petticoats.
"Everyone!" the Princess cried out excitedly as she rushed back into the throne room, a startled Luna and Artemis at her heels. "I have wonderful news! Artemis and Luna will be staying on the Moon!"
There was a collective gasp from the room, then the masses descended upon them, every member of the court wanting to express their pleasure and welcomes and congratulations. Luna glanced at Artemis in alarm. Now they'd never get a chance to speak to Serenity in private.
It can wait, Artemis' voice rang reassuringly through Luna's mind. We'll speak with her in the morning.
Luna nodded and steeled herself for the enthusiasm of the multitudes. Readjusting to corporeal form always took some effort, and it wasn't helped by being crowded by a throng of well-wishers, especially when her mind was elsewhere. She was relieved when at last the numbers thinned and she sensed a familiar, calming presence at her shoulder.
"Ami," Luna said affectionately, turning to embrace the Guardian of Mercury.
Ami returned the greeting hug joyfully. "I'm so happy to see you, and happier still to learn that you'll be staying with us!" she enthused. "But Serenity didn't mention why you're staying. There hasn't been any trouble among the Ethereals, has there?"
Luna smiled admiringly. "Always observant, Ami!" she remarked. "No trouble, but..." She looked around. "It might be best if we spoke privately."
"Of course," Ami agreed, leading her out a side door to a small veranda opening out to the palace gardens. "I had something I wanted to ask you about, as well," she added as soon as they were out of ear's reach.
"Oh?" Luna commented. "What's that?"
"Well..." Ami hesitated, then plunged forward. "I was wondering if you've ever heard of something called the Great Evil."
Luna stared at Ami for a moment in stunned silence. "Where did you hear that name?"
Ami explained her discovery of Mariel's secret library as Luna listened gravely, her edges shimmering as her concern grew deeper.
"I'm worried about what this means," Luna said thoughtfully. "You see... I'm afraid we haven't been entirely honest with you about our visit." She turned, gazing off at the blue orb of the Earth in the distance. "The real reason we Ethereals came here was because we... sensed something from this part of the galaxy. If what Mariel wrote is true, it could mean that she's awakening." She turned back to Ami resolutely. "It's imperative that the Princess learn to control the Crystal as quickly as possible. If Queen Metallia awakens, we will need the full power of the Crystal to stop her."
"Should we tell the Princess about what I found?" Ami asked.
Luna was about the respond when Phoebe's voice echoed through her mind, and Luna realized she'd been listening in on the conversation all along. No. If the Princess was already in control of the Crystal, that would be one thing; but based on that outburst we felt from her... The Crystal is too strongly linked to her emotions. She must not have any more distractions until she learns how to properly wield it, or she could lose control.
Only a moment had passed, and Ami was still awaiting an answer. Smiling evenly to conceal her internal conversation, Luna said, "No. I don't want to worry her unnecessarily. Since Artemis and I will be staying here, we can wait and see if we sense anything. It may turn out to be nothing at all."
Ami smiled hesitantly, as if not quite convinced, but agreed. "But if you and Artemis are staying here," she began, a thought occurring to her, "will it be all right for you to be away from the comet?"
"Oh, certainly," Luna replied, happy for the change of subject. "Our powers will be a bit weaker, but the Silver Crystal will sustain us. We'll be fine."
Ami beamed. "I'm glad," she said, and the two started to make their way back into the palace. "Oh, I'm so happy you're staying!" she went on brightly, "I made you and Artemis each gifts, I can't wait to show them to you!"
The festivities continued late into the night, with the Ethereals at last retiring to their comet—all save Luna and Artemis, who were shown to chambers of their own that Serenity hastily had made up for them. Luna was grateful for the chance to rest. Ordinarily, she had no need to sleep, but being away from the comet was weakening her already, and it would only get worse when the other Ethereals left. She and her companion would have to get used to the feel of more limited powers.
She lay back in the unfamiliar bed, reflecting back on the overwhelming night. Ami's news had disturbed her deeply. Before the other Ethereals had left, Luna had confronted Phoebe one last time. "Are you sure we shouldn't all stay until we know for sure what's going on?" she'd asked. But Phoebe had reminded her that the Ethereals had other responsibilities, obligations to more than just this solar system. It wouldn't do for them all to stay here indefinitely. "You and Artemis are more than experienced enough to handle this," Phoebe had reassured her. "If Serenity learns to use the Crystal properly, there should be no trouble from Earth." Luna had acquiesced; now she just needed to find the same faith in herself that Phoebe had vested in her. Metallia would not awaken under Luna's watchful eye. Repeating that mantra to herself, the Ethereal at last managed to drift off to sleep.
Luna awoke the next morning and discovered that she'd shifted into the more comfortable form of a cat in her sleep. Smiling to herself, Luna stretched luxuriously, digging her claws into the rumpled blankets of her oversized bed. Cats had always been her favorite corporeal manifestation, as well as Artemis'; knowing this, Ami had presented them each with the gift of hand-stitched feline figures the night before. The plush handicraft was now displayed on Luna's bedside table. She admired it once before hopping down from the bed and slipping out into the hallway. She'd slept late; it would be time for Serenity's first lesson by now.
Indeed, both the Princess and Artemis were waiting for her when she slipped through the door of the Crystal Tower. "Well, Princess," Luna said, shifting from her comfortable cat form into the more versatile humanoid, "are you ready for your first lesson about the Mystical Silver Crystal?"
"Luna!" Serenity exclaimed, rushing forward and grasping her guardian's hands. "I just remembered! I can't believe I forgot! Endymion wants to meet you!"
"The Earth Prince?" Luna repeated, taken aback.
"Yes! I told him all about you and Artemis, and he said he wanted to meet you! He invited us to stay at the palace at the first opportunity, when do you think we can go? I was thinking sometime later this week, and—"
"You told the Prince about us?" Artemis interrupted, looking alarmed. "Are you sure that's wise?"
"Of course it is!" Serenity protested, offended.
Artemis made to reply, but Luna placed a hand on her partner's arm, staying him. "It's just... some of the rulers of Earth in the past have been less than trustworthy," she tactfully pointed out, as Artemis shifted uncomfortably.
Serenity jutted out her lower lip. "Endymion's different. That's why I want you to meet him. If only you knew him, you'd see!"
Luna frowned pensively. "But we have your lessons to think about, those really shouldn't wait, and—"
"Maybe we should take the time to meet him," Artemis broke in softly. Telepathically, he added to Luna, It might not hurt to go down to Earth and see if we can sense anything about the Great Evil.
Luna nodded in agreement. "All right, Princess. I think we can squeeze in a short visit to Earth."
"Really? Hooray!" Serenity squealed. "I have to go tell Endymion!" She lifted the Crystal off its podium.
"Wait, what are you doing?" Artemis cried.
Serenity turned, bewildered. "I'm using the Crystal to go down and tell Endymion."
Luna's eyes grew enormous and she found she could barely maintain her form for a moment. "Serenity, you can't do that!"
Artemis shook his head in exasperation. "Minako told me about this, but I could hardly believe her."
"You mean... all this time, you've been taking the Crystal down to Earth?"
"Yes," Serenity replied, abashed. While Venus' chastisement had made her angrily defensive, hearing it from Luna filled her with sudden remorse.
Luna glanced quickly at Artemis. If she's been bring the Crystal directly down to Earth... Queen Metallia...
Artemis nodded but did not respond, turning instead to address Serenity. "It's all right, Princess," he said soothingly. "That's why we're here, to teach you these things. And the first thing you need to know is that the Silver Crystal must never leave this tower, under any circumstances."
"But then how will I see Endymion?" Serenity protested.
"You can still use the Crystal's powers without interacting with it directly," Luna explained. "The power of the Crystal is bound to you. Although others would need to hold the Crystal in their hands to use it, you have the power to control it from a distance."
"Only me...?" Serenity repeated, amazed.
Artemis could see the direction her thoughts were headed, so he clarified. "The ruler of the Moon Kingdom was given these powers when the Ethereals entrusted her with the Silver Crystal a millennium ago. The power has passed down through her line. When your mother died, that power became yours."
Serenity struggled for a reply. Some of this information she had known or suspected, but the part about not needing to touch the crystal—that was new. "So I can go see Endymion without taking the Crystal?"
"Yes, but not now," Luna said firmly. "It's clear that you desperately need some training and practice before you do anything else. Who knows what might have happened, what with you taking the Crystal everywhere willy-nilly, with no idea how to properly use it?" She watched Serenity's crestfallen expression and smiled in spite of herself. "If you promise to give us your full attention during your lessons through the next few days, we'll go see Endymion at week's end. Does that sound agreeable?"
"Oh, Luna!" Serenity squealed with glee, flinging her arms around her guardian. Luna laughed, but over the Princess' shoulder she could see Artemis gazing at the Crystal, a frown deepening on his lips.
Far below them, Endymion was taking a deep breath, attempting to steady his nerves. His court was gathered before him; the time had come. In truth, it should have come long before this, and he knew it. He'd just been afraid. Afraid of their reactions. Afraid of spoiling the happiness he'd so miraculously found with Serenity. Afraid that, despite all their promises and determinations, that maybe he and Serenity might not belong together after all.
No. That was impossible.
Summoning all his strength of will, Endymion began.
"My people. Last night, as I'm sure you are all aware, a light appeared in the sky next to the Moon. A comet." There was a murmur of assent among the courtiers. Endymion continued, "This comet brought with it uncertainty, and fear as to its implications." He swallowed. "Well, I am here to tell you that this comet is not an ill omen. It is an omen of peace."
The murmur among the courtiers rose to a confused buzz as Endymion went on: "You all know that I will come of age in a few short months, and be crowned king. At this time, I will be wed... to Princess Serenity of the Moon Kingdom."
There was an instant of stunned silence, then the court erupted into a roar of shock and protestation. Endymion raised his own voice authoritatively to be heard over the din. "Our union will signify an end to a thousand years of hostility. The time for peace has come. This is to be a time of celebration; it marks an end to a millennium of fear. We owe the children of Earth this: a life without fear. A life of learning, understanding, and peace."
Endymion spoke on against the wave of discontent before him, but, from his position at the Prince's side, Jadeite's eye was caught by a movement at the back of the audience chamber. Beryl was edging toward the door, her face white and her eyes glistening with tears. Surreptitiously, Jadeite excused himself, moving away from the other Shitennou to follow her out the door. "Lady Beryl," he whispered.
Beryl turned, seeing Jadeite and choking back a sob. Compulsively, Jadeite stepped forward, pulling her into a comforting embrace; and for a moment, she let him. Then suddenly, violently, she shoved him away from her. "How could you not tell me?" she demanded, her voice breaking.
Jadeite looked down guiltily. "It was not my secret to tell," was all he could say.
Tears flowing freely, Beryl pressed on. "That girl I saw in the gardens, then... she was..."
"Yes," Jadeite admitted. "The Moon Princess."
Beryl looked as if she'd been struck. "This is treason!" she cried raggedly.
Jadeite took exception to that. "This is the act of a king," he said firmly. "The only treason is to speak against him." His voice softened as he went on. "It is also the wisest choice he could have made. The time for peace has come, Beryl." Jadeite looked at her imploringly. "Surely you must see that. Imagine, a life where we can look into the sky without fear, without a constant threat hanging over our heads... we all deserve to have that. Earth deserves it."
For a moment, he thought Beryl was going to argue with him. But the moment passed, her eyes hardening into a determination of a different kind. Then she smiled at him. "You're right, Jadeite." She rose up on her tiptoes, kissing him gently on the cheek. He felt fairly certain that his heart stopped. "Of course you're right. I just needed a moment to adjust." Jadeite nodded, feeling giddy, as she added, "I just need a few more minutes to compose myself before I go back inside."
"Would you like me to accompany you to the gardens for some fresh air?" Jadeite offered, but before Beryl could reply, he heard someone behind him clear his throat.
Jadeite turned to see Kunzite standing in the hallway just through the door. "Don't forget, Jadeite, you have prior commitments."
Jadeite turned beet red as Beryl hastily said, "I'll be fine, Jadeite. The Prince needs his generals," before turning and hurrying away.
As soon as Beryl was out of earshot, Kunzite spoke, his voice gently chiding. "Honestly, Jadeite, when are you going to stop wasting your time on her? She's never going to return your feelings. She's in love with someone else."
"You're wrong!" Jadeite protested, his cheeks hot with shame. "It might take time, but you'll see—in the end, she'll choose me. I'm right for her, and I'm not going to give up until she sees that!" He stormed back into the audience hall, leaving a stunned Kunzite in his wake. The black haired general wasn't sure what shocked him more: Jadeite's uncharacteristically emphatic outburst, or the fact that he was suddenly seeing himself in the youngest Shitennou.
The roar of the crowd through the open door quickly brought Kunzite back to his senses, however. There was no time to think of such things. The Prince needed his guardians now more than ever.
Three days passed largely without incident on the Moon. Serenity absorbed herself in her studies, spending long hours training with Luna and Artemis in the Crystal Tower. The first two days were spent in tedious information sessions, as the Ethereals explained to Serenity the ins and outs of the Crystal: its origins, how its power draws from the Ethereal comet, how its life-giving energy sustained the nine worlds of the Silver Alliance. It was dull, but Serenity did her best to focus, the excitement of her impending visit to Earth with Luna and Artemis driving her.
On the morning of the third day, Serenity found even more reason to rejoice at her daily Council meeting: Uranus and Neptune had conceded to Pluto's compromise, and were offering their conditional approval to the union of Serenity and Endymion. All that was left was for Endymion to make the announcement to his homeworld, and then wedding planning could begin in earnest.
After this news was relayed, Artemis noticed Minako slip away from the group. He watched her go, curious, but found to his frustration that his powers had diminished so greatly that he couldn't even sense what she was feeling.
"Don't worry about her," Rei told him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. "She's just sulking because she didn't get her way. She'll get over it."
Indeed, Minako spent the rest of the day in her room, reflecting on all this. A very discomfiting thought was beginning to weigh heavily on her mind. What if I'm wrong? she wondered. What if the Prince and the Princess' love really won't spell the end of the union? She sighed. What if... the real problem has been me all along?
As the hours past, she found herself preoccupied by a very disturbing notion. I wish Zoisite was here. He's the only one I can talk to about this. It was a disgusting thought, but it was true.
Meanwhile, Serenity was throwing herself into her training with renewed fervor. Her excitement made it difficult to focus; but fortunately, today Luna and Artemis shifted the lessons away from lecture and began putting her studies into practice. They began with teaching Serenity how to use the Crystal's transportation powers from afar, since this was the ability she'd need for tomorrow's trip down to Earth. Eager and impatient, Serenity showed a dedication she'd never been able to muster for any of her other obligations.
Finally, the day came. Luna and Artemis had set some ground rules for the impatient princess: in addition to leaving the Crystal on the Moon, they commanded that she no longer take trips to Earth unchaperoned; the Sailor Guardians would be coming with her from now on, starting today.
This was how, with some trepidation, the four Senshi and Serenity found themselves standing together in a circle, hands clasped, Luna in her cat form on Serenity's shoulder and Artemis on Minako's.
"Remember how we did it in practice," Luna reassuringly whispered in Serenity's ear. She closed her eyes, breathed in... and in a flash of light, they were gone.
When the light enveloping the Senshi's forms died down, the group found themselves standing in a wide open field. They each looked about with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, amazed at how truly like the Moon Kingdom this place was. It's just as Nephrite said, Ami thought in wonder. It's one thing to hear about it, but to actually see it...
"Usually Endymion and the Shitennou are around here training at this time of day," Serenity explained brightly, hurrying forward and looking around. "I wonder where they could be?"
"I think I hear voices on the other side of that hill," Makoto commented, gesturing. Beyond the hill and over the tops of the trees, they could see a dome looming in the distance.
"That's where the palace is," Serenity said. "Let's go!"
"Princess, wait!" Rei cried, but Serenity was already rushing over the small hill.
"What's wrong?" Minako asked, worried by the tone in Sailor Mars' voice.
"I sense something from over there. It seems hostile."
Artemis leapt out of Minako's arms and sprinted after Serenity. "Then what are we waiting for? Hurry! Protect the Princess!"
The Senshi raced over the hill to find Serenity standing just past the crest, looking down on the scene below her in horror. A crowd of people was gathered in front of the palace gates, shouting angrily. Their words were lost across the distance, but the sentiment was quite clear.
"What's going on?" Serenity dully wondered aloud. "I've never seen anything like this."
"Princess, this is dangerous," Minako cried, rushing to her side. "We need to get away from here."
"But Endymion could be in trouble!" Serenity contended, pulling away from her guardian. "I won't leave him!"
"Princess, be sensible!" Luna urged, hopping back up onto Serenity's shoulder. "You can't get to him through that crowd!"
Serenity was about to argue when a sweet-sounding voice broke in, "Excuse me." Everyone turned to see an auburn-haired young woman in a long dress. "You couldn't possibly be... Princess Serenity?"
The Senshi stared, agape. The woman stepped forward, but Sailor Jupiter moved between her and the Princess. "Who are you?" she demanded. "How do you know who we are?"
The woman blushed. "Oh, I'm sorry. Please forgive me." She curtsied, inclining her head. "I'm Lady Beryl. I'm a member of Prince Endymion's court. You must be looking for His Highness."
Serenity pushed past Makoto and approached Beryl. "Yes! Is he all right?"
The noblewoman nodded, smiling reassuringly. "He is well. He's in the palace, and the Shitennou are standing constant guard."
Serenity exhaled in relief, but Sailor Mars broke in warily. "Who are all those people?" she queried, gesturing at the crowd. "What are they doing down there?"
Beryl rubbed her temple uncomfortably before answering, hesitantly, "Yes, them. Well... unfortunately, His Highness made a little announcement before your visit... regarding your betrothal."
Sailor Venus spoke up. "You mean... all those people down there are protesting the Prince's engagement?" This was too good to be true. I knew it, I was right all along, she thought triumphantly. Surely the Princess would see that now.
Beryl nodded reluctantly. The Senshi stared at the mob for a moment, horrified, before she added in a rush, "But not everyone agrees with them!" She smiled prettily as she added, "Myself, for example. I think that it's marvelous, and high time."
"Still, Princess," Rei said, still looking at the angry crowd. "We can't stay here. Those people seem violent, and—"
"Would you like me to take you to Endymion?" Beryl interrupted. "I know a secret way into the palace."
"Yes, please!" Serenity exclaimed.
"Princess!" the Senshi protested as one, but she silenced them with a look. "I have to see Endymion," she stated emphatically. "I'm not leaving here until I've spoken to him, and I know he's safe." She turned back to Beryl. "Please, lead the way."
"Of course," Beryl replied, smiling complacently as she turned to guide them into the palace.
Prince Endymion sat slumped at the desk in his private study, his face in his hands. Zoisite stood to his left, leaning one arm against the bricks of the fireplace, gazing out the window. The sounds of the angry protestors outside, and the shouts of the other three Shitennou outside, trying to placate the mob, drifted in loud and clear even through the closed window; but the two men inside remained silent, neither willing to state what had become painfully obvious.
This was a mistake.
Surely the master must see that now. He'd made his announcement, and the people had rebelled, just as Zoisite had warned. Endymion would have to see the light now, call off the engagement, and everything would go back to normal. Order would be restored.
So why didn't Zoisite feel more reassured?
He glanced over at Endymion, the tension showing so clearly on the Prince's usually carefree features. Was this all too much of a burden to place on his young shoulders? Even once this nonsense with the Moon Kingdom was resolved, would things ever be "normal" for Endymion again?
The situation suddenly seemed overwhelming, and Zoisite felt he was drowning in it. Through the desperation, a single, incomprehensible thought flashed faintly through his mind: I wish Venus was here.
The notion was unfathomable. Zoisite felt revolted with himself for even thinking it. It was just that... sometimes, he felt like she was the only other sane person he knew.
A sound in the hallway interrupted his internal conflict. Both Endymion and Zoisite looked up. It must be Kunzite coming back to report on the situation out front. Based on the sounds of the angry crowd still wafting in through the window, Zoisite felt certain the news could not be good, and braced himself.
The door was flung open, and in flew Princess Serenity. Endymion and his remaining general stared in astonishment; then the Prince leapt to his feet as the Princess rushed forward. "Endymion!" she cried, flinging herself into his arms. "Thank goodness! I was so worried, what with that crowd, and everything!"
"Serenity, how did you—?" Endymion began, but he broke off, noticing Beryl standing in the doorway, the Senshi just behind her. "Beryl... you..."
"She led us here," Serenity explained, turning to face the noblewoman. "She was a great help to us!"
"Please forgive my impertinence, Your Highness," Beryl broke in, bowing. "It's just... I saw the Princess and her guardians outside the palace and thought... you know, with the protestors, it just wasn't safe for them out there."
"Thank you, Beryl," Endymion said earnestly. "You did well. It's good to know some of my subjects are still loyal."
"As ever, Your Highness," Beryl replied, inclining her head.
As the three talked, Zoisite approached Sailor Venus surreptitiously. "I'm glad you're here," he murmured in her ear. She felt her heart catch in her throat for a moment, and she stared at him, baffled; but he was continuing, "We need to talk."
She silenced him with a finger to her lips. "Later," she whispered, glancing nervously at a white cat that had followed the group in, and was currently staring at Zoisite with eerily human-like green eyes.
Meanwhile, Endymion had dawn Serenity over to the sofa in front of the fireplace, beckoning her and the others to sit. The Senshi remained standing, wary, but Beryl took a seat in an armchair across from the sofa. The Prince and Princess began filling each other in on what had transpired since they'd parted. Artemis shot Luna a concerned look, trying to think of some way to stop the Princess before she blurted anything out about the Ethereals. The Prince was one thing, but these other Earthlings—certainly, the noblewoman had helped them, but were they absolutely sure she could be trusted?
Fortunately, they were spared from having to intervene when, after several moments, the door flew open once more and Kunzite rapidly strode in. "Master, we've managed to—" He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Sailor Mercury standing just inside the door. "Ami," he breathed; then, quickly pulling himself together, he took a quick survey of the room and noted the presence of the Princess and the other Senshi. "This is unexpected."
"Yes, we have some unexpected visitors," Endymion explained. "Please, come in. You were saying?"
After a moment's hesitation as Kunzite tried to pull his addled mind together, he continued, "We've managed to calm down the crowd... for now, at least. Nephrite and Jadeite are still out there dealing with the remainder, but they've dispersed for the most part."
Endymion exhaled, a large amount of the tension leaving his shoulders with the breath. Serenity watched him, concern written all over her face.
"I don't understand," Makoto said. "All this was just because of the Prince announcing his engagement? I mean," she shook her head in bewilderment, "aren't they overreacting?"
Kunzite shifted uncomfortably. "Our people see things a bit differently than yours do," he began, but Endymion cut him off.
"They are overreacting!" he shouted, leaping to his feet. "They're acting like I just signed all their death sentences! Do they trust me so little as their ruler? Do they really think I would do this if the Moon Kingdom wanted anything other than peace?" The others in the room stared at him, astonished by his angry outburst. The Prince breathed heavily, trying to calm himself. More quietly, he added, "Don't they realize that if the Moon Kingdom had wanted to destroy us, they would have long ago?"
Serenity reached up and took his hand, rubbing her thumb reassuringly over the back of it.
"Your Highness," Ami began, hesitantly stepping forward. "I think we're forgetting that things weren't so different in the Moon Kingdom when the Princess first told us what was going on. True, our people didn't openly rebel," she added when Endymion scoffed, "but that doesn't mean that they weren't unhappy or distrustful." She paused. "But all that changed when we met you and the Shitennou. If the people could just meet us, see that we pose no threat..."
"That's a brilliant idea!" Beryl exclaimed. Kunzite's eyes flew over to the noblewoman in surprise as she continued, "Your Highness, could not the Princess and her guardians attend our Solstice Festival three days hence, as honored guests? The whole kingdom will be there, it would be the perfect opportunity!"
Endymion looked at Beryl oddly. "I don't think that's—"
Serenity interrupted him. "I want to do it!" She looked up at the Prince imploringly. "Please, Endymion."
The Prince hesitated a moment longer, then smiled. "Of course," he agreed. "The people will love you as soon as they meet you, just as I did."
Beryl squealed and launched into a flurry of enthusiastic plans and suggestions. Kunzite watched her apprehensively for a moment as she prattled, before finally allowing himself to turn his attention to where he'd longed to place it for the last ten minutes: upon Sailor Mercury. He moved to her side, and murmured in her ear, "That was an inspired suggestion, Ami." She beamed up at him shyly.
Before either could speak further, Endymion broke in. "We'll have time for planning later, Lady Beryl. Right now, I'm sure Princess Serenity and the Senshi are exhausted from their journey and the shock of what greeted them upon arrival. If you'll excuse us, I think it's high time to track down my chief steward and have some rooms made up for them."
Endymion ushered the group out of the room. "I'm going to check on Nephrite and Jadeite," Zoisite said, making to excuse himself. Minako, however, hung back, pulling him aside as he turned to leave.
"Is this a good idea?" she whispered to him.
"Of course," he replied. "It fits perfectly into our plan. The Master will see when all this goes awry."
"But why didn't he want us going to the Solstice Festival?" Minako prodded.
Zoisite hesitated, avoiding her eyes. "It was nothing." Then he looked at her, smiling wanly. "Everything will be fine." He put his hand on her shoulder, for just an instant; then he strode away. Minako watched him go, absentmindedly holding the spot on her arm that his hand had touched.
And, from the shadows, Artemis watched them both.
Finally, the last of the crowd had dissipated. Nephrite felt exhausted to the bone. He'd never seen people so upset about anything in his life. He tried to think back to two months ago. Had he really been this angry? It seemed unfathomable.
And if what Zoisite said was true, then...
"Nephrite," Jadeite's voice cut through his thoughts. Nephrite looked up, following his friend's gesture. Just inside the gates, he saw a familiar, shy face peeking around the corner. Zoisite was right, a voice in the back of his mind confirmed. They walked right into the middle of it. Despite the worry that caused him, though, Nephrite felt a shock at how much he'd missed her.
"Well, don't just stand there," Jadeite admonished with a laugh. "Go talk to her!"
"We're still on duty," Nephrite protested, his face as red as his hair.
Jadeite laughed even harder. "We're done here. Zoisite said we could go as soon as we made sure the perimeter was secure."
"The side entrance, from the gardens..." Nephrite pointed out.
"I'll check it," Jadeite said, rolling his eyes. "Go talk to her." With that, the youngest general strode off, leaving the pair alone. Behind him, Jadeite faintly heard Nephrite mumble, "Zoisite said that you were here." A moment's pause, then, "I... I'm glad to see you." Silence followed. Jadeite snickered to himself as he entered the gardens. Nephrite is hopeless.
Just as he reached the garden entrance, the palace's side door opened and a slim figure slipped out. "Lady Beryl!" Jadeite exclaimed in surprise as she turned to face him.
"Jadeite!" she cried in reply, startled. For a moment Jadeite thought she looked guilty, like he'd caught her doing something she shouldn't. But it only lasted for an instant, and then she was all innocence, beaming broadly up at him. "I'm so glad you're all right," she said. "I was so worried about you, out there with that mob. They sounded violent." She reached up, hesitantly, her fingers stopping just shy of his face. "You're not hurt, are you?"
Jadeite blushed like a schoolboy and found he could do nothing for it. "I'm fine," he blustered. "But... thank you for worrying. Would... would you like me to walk with you?"
Beryl smiled coyly, offering him her arm, which he enthusiastically took. As they walked, Jadeite said, "I heard what you did. Helping the Princess and the Senshi like that... That was very good of you, Lady Beryl."
A demure blush pinkened her cheeks. "I just wanted to be helpful."
"Yes, but..." Jadeite wavered, trying think of the right way to phrase it. "But why? After Prince Endymion made his announcement the other day..."
"Oh, that," Beryl said, waving her hand dismissively. "I was upset, but I thought about it, and what you said..." She stopped walking, letting go of his arm but turning to face him. "I realized... the Prince was never mine. Not really." She smiled up at him. "I want what's best for him. I want him to be happy. And if the Moon Princess is what makes him happy, then... I'm glad for them." Her voice sounded more disappointed than glad, though; a lone tear slipped out of the corner of her eye.
Jadeite spoke her name softly, his voice laden with concern. He lifted a hand to brush the tear off her cheek. Beryl reached up, catching his hand there.
"Jadeite, please," she murmured before he could say anything more. "I... I realized something else, too. I've been a fool. I couldn't see that what was best for me was right in front of me all this time."
Jadeite's heart swelled with joy; he leaned down, and Beryl met him halfway, rising up on her tiptoes to brush her lips against his. Their kiss was gentle, sweet, and agonizingly brief. She rested her head against his chest for a moment. "Please, Jadeite... just give me some time," she whispered into his jacket.
"Of course," he replied in a daze. She smiled up at him for a lingering moment, then turned and slipped through the garden gate and out into the town.
Jadeite watched her go, then turned back to the palace. About ten feet behind him, he was surprised to see Kunzite standing, staring at the young man in disbelief. Jadeite felt his face melt into a smug grin. "Told you," he said as he walked past Kunzite and back towards the palace.
Kunzite stood frozen for a moment, considering what he had just seen. "I'm right for her, and I'm not going to give up until she sees that!" Jadeite couldn't have been right about that... could he?
Finally, Kunzite went on his way back to the palace. On the other side of the garden gate, Beryl visibly relaxed.
You did well to distract him, the voice whispered in Beryl's mind. That man pays far too much attention to your actions. You must be wary of him.
Beryl smirked. "Jadeite is besotted with me. He'll be easy to manipulate."
I hope, for your sake, that you are right about that. Now, about that other matter. The Solstice Festival was quick thinking.
"Of course," Beryl replied complacently. "Quick thinking is what I do best."
But we will need more power to achieve it. The energy from the angry populace has been excellent. But if we are to follow through with your plan... I will need more. I am still weak from my imprisonment.
"Never fear, Queen Metallia. You will get your energy," Beryl assured the voice in her head as she melted into the crowd.
"You're sure the woman who helped you was named Beryl?" Nephrite asked for the third time. Dusk had set, and he and Ami were still conferring in the secluded corner of the palace courtyard, sheltered by a high wall. When they'd told each other about their respective discoveries, Ami had wanted to set out for Deukalion's temple right away to see for herself, but Nephrite would have none of it. After today's riot, within the palace walls seemed the safest place to be for someone who was sure to be persona non grata if her identity were discovered. And some facets of Ami's story were still weighing uncomfortably on Nephrite's mind—such as their unexpected benefactress.
"I already told you that it was! And you said Zoisite told you, too!" Ami giggled. Then she froze. "Is there something wrong with that?"
Nephrite sighed. "Maybe not. It's just that... the Beryl I know does not strike me as the type to help the Moon Princess so easily. She had... personal reasons to oppose the union."
Ami looked at him intently. "Maybe she had a change of heart," she suggested. "It's not unheard of, you know," she added pointedly.
Nephrite laughed. "You're probably right," he conceded. Then he sobered. "But still, just keep your eyes open, okay?"
The intensity of his gaze brought color to Ami's cheeks. "I will... worry-wart."
"I have a right to worry!" Nephrite argued good-naturedly. "You walked right into a den of snakes."
"I'm a soldier, you know," Ami pointed out. "I'm not afraid of a few snakes." She smiled, and kissed him lightly on his lips. "But thank you for your concern."
They were silent for a long while, surrounded by the song of crickets in the warm evening air, so familiar to Nephrite and alien to Ami.
At last Ami spoke. "Why didn't the Prince want us at the Solstice Festival?" she echoed Minako's question.
Nephrite sighed, looking away. "I'm sure Beryl didn't tell you what the Solstice Festival is."
"A celebration of the first day of summer?" Ami guessed.
Nephrite snorted. "Well, I suppose it is that, on top of everything else." He looked up at the moonless sky; the thin sliver of the waning moon wouldn't rise for some time yet. "The Solstice Festival is a celebration of the reign of King Deukalion." He paused, watching her astonished reaction. "I thought that would get your attention. Means something different, now that we know what we do.
"They hold it on the solstice since it's the longest day of the year. Least amount of moonlight." He exhaled. "That especially foes for this year. This year the solstice falls on the Night of No Moon."
Ami stared at him, speechless. Suddenly, Nephrite's reservations about Beryl's eagerness to "help" seemed well-founded.
Nephrite studied her face a few moments more before leaning over and kissing her gently on the forehead. "So keep your eyes open, okay?" he repeated.
Ami smiled at him, the kiss clearing her mind. "I will," she agreed, standing and taking his hand. "But I still have faith," she added. "I still believe that the idea will work, regardless of the circumstances under which it's held. We'll make the people of Earth see," she finished resolutely.
With a grin that felt optimistic at best, Nephrite rose, and hand-in-hand, the Princess of Mercury and the Third General of the Earth Prince entered the palace.
Rei shielded her eyes against the late afternoon sun. Beryl really hadn't been exaggerating when she'd said the whole kingdom would be in attendance for the Solstice Festival. The celebration was being held in a large common green in the center of town, and it was packed. Dense crowds of people milled between myriad stalls of goods, wares, food and sport. There were musicians, animals, untold activities.
The crowd seemed to grow even thicker as the day went on. Apparently, the real festivities were slated to start when the sun went down. Rei took a deep breath, trying to steady her shaking nerves. Ever since the Earth Prince and his guardians had come into their lives, she'd had trouble controlling her spiritual powers; but nothing had been worse than this day. The unfamiliarity of the Earthlings made it hard to get a reading on them, and in these mass numbers, it was downright overwhelming.
At least they seem to have calmed down from earlier, Rei told herself. Now the group seemed to be a mixture of wariness to cautious interest. She supposed she had Lady Beryl to thank for that.
Her mind wandered back to that morning, when the festival was just beginning. Luna and Artemis had agreed to stay behind in the palace; only Endymion knew the cats' true identities, and they wanted to keep it that way, for now. The Senshi were, of course, attending as Serenity's guardians, and had opted to transform to be ready to protect the Princess if need be. But Serenity was dressed in traditional Earth garb, wearing the robe of Pyrrha, wife of Deukalion. It was customary for the Earth Queen to wear this dress every year at the festival, while the King would wear costume representing Deukalion. Endymion had taken over this role when his father had died, but it had been many years since Pyrrha's robe had been worn. Rei had seen the way Endymion beamed with pride when he saw Serenity in the beautiful gown he'd last seen his mother wear, and she knew he was imagining a joyful future for the two of them, a happily-ever-after where they lovingly celebrated holidays side by side.
The people of the Earth Kingdom did not seem to share in his joy, however.
When Serenity and Endymion had walked hand-in-hand out onto the platform at the head of the festival grounds that morning, there had nearly been a full-on riot. Seeing the Moon Princess dressed in the robe of their beloved Queen, Rei was certain they were going to openly rebel. At Minako's command, the Senshi moved to form a protective chain around Serenity.
But, suddenly, a voice rang out over the crowd. Beryl had given an impassioned speech, begging the people to give peace a chance. "The Moon Princess is trying to adopt the customs of our own world," she explained. "If you will just take this time to get to know her as I have over the past few days, I think you will realize that we truly have nothing to fear!"
To Rei's shock, the people had actually listened to Beryl's words. Later, Rei overheard some of the Prince's guards talking about how Beryl came from a respected, prestigious family, and that many people had expected she would be the one the Prince would ultimately marry. The fact that she publicly supported Serenity and Endymion's marriage seemed to carry a great weight with it.
But it seemed to Rei to have been more than just that. Beryl's words seemed to have an almost hypnotic effect on the crowd. They'd calmed immediately, almost unnaturally. Really, something about that girl just seemed off to Rei, but she couldn't put her finger on it. With her spiritual powers already confused by the unfamiliar Earthlings, and her general ability to sense anything, even regarding her own friends, seemingly so off-kilter the past few months... she didn't know if she could trust her own instincts right now.
"Look, Mommy!" a small child's voice broke through Rei's contemplation. "Why are those ladies wearing such funny outfits?" Rei looked down to see a young girl standing in front of the royal platform, peering up at her. The child's mother tried to silence her, instinctively trying to pull her away from the stranger.
Rei smiled, crouching to be closer to the little girl's level. "It's all right," she said soothingly. "This is my uniform. I wear it as the Princess' guardian."
"You're a soldier?" the child asked. When Rei nodded, the girl looked at her in awe. "Wow... we don't have girl soldiers on Earth!"
Rei furrowed her eyebrows in confusion, and was about to ask why when the child's mother pulled her away. As she disappeared into the crowd, the girl waved enthusiastically.
Rei sighed, rising to her feet and turning to Makoto. "So much for 'taking this opportunity to get to know us better,'" she said.
"Baby steps," Makoto reassured her. "The little girl seemed to like you, at least."
Rei had to smile at that. "Can you imagine? No female soldiers here?"
Makoto shook her head in disbelief. "Well, that will change once Earth enters the Silver Alliance officially."
Rei nodded, trying to suppress the strange feeling of uneasiness that was creeping over her ever more strongly as the sun sank lower in the sky. Something seemed wrong. Why couldn't she understand what her powers were trying to tell her?
"At least the Princess seems to be making headway," Makoto was continuing, gesturing to Serenity, who was standing at Endymion's side, speaking to yet another high-ranking courtier. She'd been surrounded all afternoon, trying to answer all the nobles' questions about the Moon Kingdom, and what an alliance might mean for Earth. Egeria would have beamed with pride at how beautifully diplomatic the Princess had been today. Rei smiled in spite of herself. Serenity could be the perfect Princess when she wanted to be. Endymion seemed to bring out the best in her.
The sun was just about to disappear over the horizon when the sound of a low horn rang out over the crowd. The Senshi whipped around in surprise. Endymion laughed. "Don't worry," he said. "It's the signal that our ritual is about to begin. When the sun sets, an archer at the top of that hill—" he gestured to a low mound of earth on the fairgrounds' edge, "—will fire a flaming arrow to the west, in memory of King Deukalion."
Serenity, eyes wide with curiosity, approached the edge of the royal platform and eagerly peered at the hill. She could just see the silhouette of a figure nocking his arrow.
A sudden, strong wave of nausea overwhelmed Rei, and she snapped alert, her eyes quickly scanning the crowd. She sensed something.
The archer drew back the string, aiming expertly towards the disappearing disc of the sun.
"Princess!" Rei screamed, hurling herself towards Serenity.
The arrow was loosed with a twang.
And at the same time, a second arrow was fired from the shadows, directly at the Moon Princess. Rei shoved Serenity aside just as its sharp point hit home, driving itself deeply into Rei's back.
All hell broke loose. The remaining three Senshi rushed forward, swarming around Serenity and Rei. They could barely hear themselves think over the panicked screams and shouts of the crowd.
"Princess are you all right?"
"I'm fine! But Rei!" Serenity shrieked, her voice breaking. Thunder rumbled in the distance. "Please, someone help Rei!"
Minako's ears were roaring as she knelt beside her friend. She was unconscious, but still breathing... for now. "We have to get her out of here!" Minako faintly registered the touch of a hand on her shoulder, and then out of the corner of her eye she saw Zoisite, sword drawn, rushing past the group, leaping off the platform and racing into the lightly falling rain. "Where are you going?" she wanted to scream, but she couldn't find her voice.
"Shitennou, push this crowd back! We have to get the Master and the Princess to safety!" Kunzite's shouted order cleared the haze from Minako's mind. She rose, drawing her chain belt from around her waist. Together, Makoto and Nephrite managed to lift the unconscious Rei, and Ami and Jadeite flanked the group as they quickly pushed their way through the pandemonium back to the palace.
As they fought their way through the mayhem, Rei's pale, unconscious face kept flashing through Minako's mind like a lightning bolt. Amidst her jumbled feelings, only one thought stayed clear as day in her mind.
Whoever did this will pay.
Artemis found her sitting alone in a dark room, hours later.
When the Senshi had returned to the palace with a wounded and unconscious Rei, Luna and Artemis had nearly lost their ability to maintain a corporeal form. Although his first inclination had been to berate himself and Luna for letting them go to that ill-begotten festival unchaperoned in the first place, there hadn't been time for that; the Senshi were beside themselves with grief and Serenity was hysterical, begging the Ethereals to help her, heal her, do something for Rei.
They'd lost no time. An Earth physician removed the arrow from Sailor Mars' body, but the wound was deep. Luna warned Serenity that she hadn't had enough training to perform very powerful healing spells, and it would be difficult to do anything without the physical presence of the Crystal. They were arguing about whether or not Rei could be transported in her weakened condition when Artemis noticed that Minako had slipped out. He'd been worried about her since then, but he couldn't leave the Princess until she'd done all the spells she could and had cried herself into exhaustion. When, at last, Rei seemed to be in a stable, albeit still unconscious, condition, and Serenity finally drifted off to sleep, Artemis finally felt comfortable leaving her in Luna, Makoto and Ami's care so he could seek out Minako.
He'd searched the palace before finding her here. It seemed to be a music room of some sort; a large harp stood in the back corner, and in the center of the room was a black grand piano. Minako was just sitting there, at the piano, staring numbly at the keys.
"Minako?" Artemis whispered, padding softly over to her on white paws and hopping up onto the bench beside her. "Rei will be all right. She's still unconscious, but... the power of the Crystal will heal her. Don't worry." She blinked mutely. Sighing, he placed a paw on her knee. "I heard them say Zoisite ran after the assassin. Surely the Shitennou must have caught up with him, and they'll bring him to justice." The Ethereal thought he felt Minako freeze for just a moment at Zoisite's name, but apart from that she showed no response. Minutes passed, with no sound save the murmur of rain falling outside.
"What's the matter with me?" Minako finally wondered aloud, her voice a hoarse whisper.
Artemis looked at her in concern. "Minako, this isn't your fault."
"It is," she argued weakly. A single tear escaped the corner of her eye. "She tried to tell me. All this time, she's been trying to tell me... everything... and I wouldn't listen to her." Minako drew a ragged breath. "She's the only one of us who's been able to see clearly, and nobody would listen to her. Maybe if we'd been paying attention, maybe if we'd been doing our jobs to protect the Princess and not getting caught up in all this intrigue, all these secrets..." Her voice broke and she cried, "It's all my fault!" Tears were flowing freely now, and she buried her face in her hands.
"Minako..." Artemis tried to shift into a humanoid form so he could hug her, squeeze her hand, something; but the best he could do was form a shapeless patch of energy. His powers had been weakened more than he'd anticipated by the comet's departure; and now, on Earth, away from the Crystal, and on a moonless night with all the powers that supported him so agonizingly far away... he felt completely useless. So he just shifted back into the white cat and watched helplessly as Minako sobbed.
Ami closed the door behind her and sank back against it. The strain of the evening was too much to bear. How could this have happened? It all seemed to be going so well, and she'd truly believed... she'd truly believed that it was all going to be okay, that Earth and the Moon Kingdom would unite and they'd all live happily ever after. And then someone tried to assassinate the Princess.
I was completely blind, she thought in disgust. After everything I read in Mariel's diary, after everything Nephrite and I had discovered... how could I have believed that everything was all right?
She looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. A haggard Kunzite was making his way down the hall towards her. "Have you caught the assassin?" she asked as soon as he drew near.
He shook his head. "Zoisite ran after him right away, but the archer seems to have disappeared. Nephrite and Jadeite are out with him now, though, still searching."
Ami bit her lip, her eyes stinging. Kunzite watched her. "How's Sailor Mars?" he asked after a moment.
"Still unconscious," Ami responded.
"I'm sure she'll be all right," Kunzite started to say, but broke off as Ami burst into tears.
"It's all my fault!" Ami sobbed, her shoulders shaking. "It was my idea for us to try to meet the people! I put her in danger! And now, if Rei dies, it will be all my fault!"
"Ami," Kunzite said, putting a hand on her shoulder in concern. "You can't blame yourself."
"But I should have known—"
"Ami," he said firmly. "Stop this. Stop blaming yourself. The only person to blame is the assassin himself." She tried to break in, but he raised his voice, talking over her. "The only thing you're guilty of is having hope. You believed that we could find peace. You see the best in people, you see the inherent goodness of humankind. It's just your nature to believe that it was possible for our people to come together."
Ami had stopped crying now, and was looking up at him. He brushed her tears away with his thumb. "And it is possible. Sure, the day ended badly—because of one hateful person. But up until that point, you know what I saw? People coming together, learning to overcome their differences, being willing to try to reach out and understand each other. I saw a wonderful thing. Today was the first day that I really, truly believed that peace was possible. And it was all because of you." He rested his hand on her cheek. "You see the good in people, Ami. And that's why I love you."
Ami drew in her breath in shock as Kunzite leaned down and kissed her.
Next chapter: Kunzite's kiss turns Ami's world upside down, and she finds herself with a heartbreaking decision to make; Serenity learns about the Crystal's powers and limitations as she desperately tries to save Rei; and a trap is set for Zoisite and Minako.