Usagi's tears were slow to dry, so Mamoru had simply continued marking her papers while gently clasping her right hand in his left. He somehow sensed that saying anything further would be the wrong choice at the moment and chose to merely be there for her. Though his masculine nature tortured him, Usagi loved him all the more for letting her just feel and not have to justify her emotional outburst.
Mamoru left her alone in the apartment for a short time, once he was sure she was feeling better, so that he could run out and get them a couple of bentos for dinner. Their argument had cost them precious time and he didn't want to distract her from her work while deciding where to order food from. Usagi, for her part, worked industriously and had fully caught up by the time he returned.
They sat at the table and ate quickly. They didn't speak much, but it wasn't an awkward silence. Usagi was trying to remember the story ideas she'd dreamt up during their walk. Mamoru was still caught up on the concept of Ami and Rei being more senshi than schoolgirl.
"So," Mamoru blurted out awkwardly, "I have a question or two about your story. First, I noticed that Hanako's horse changed genders from male to female."
Usagi blushed, but smiled gratefully, "Thanks for catching that. I'll fix it for the final draft. I like her horse being a mare."
"Should you really care so much about a horse you're killing off, though?"
Usagi tensed, but saw only teasing in his eyes. "If the writer doesn't care about the horse, then will the readers? I'm not confirming the mare dies, mind you."
Mamoru conceded her point, then continued on, "Also, in the beginning of the story, you said Takeshi was charged by the white mage Satsuko to deal with Akemi. Now you have him sending Hanako off to the house of someone named Gaelph."
Usagi nodded as she chewed a mouthful of rice. "Yeah, I know. Gaelph will help her find Satsuko."
"Okay," Mamoru returned. "I just wanted to make sure you had your characters straight."
"I do, but Gaelph is a new addition. He's not on my list of characters yet. I should add him now, so I don't forget." She yanked out her notebook and jotted some notes down, keeping the character list shielded from his eyes. "You're a great editor, Mamoru-san."
The look she gave him was so beautiful that Mamoru sort of forgot how to breathe for a moment. As they gazed at each other, his hall clock chimed loudly, nine times. Usagi's face took on a slightly panicked appearance as she realized how late it was. Mamoru laughed, finally releasing that pent-up breath, "Uh-oh, Usa-chan," he teased, "pumpkin time."
Usagi groaned. "If only I really did have a horse-drawn carriage. I'm too tired to walk all the way home."
Mamoru grinned at her. "I suppose my car will have to do, won't it?" Usagi squealed gratefully and hurried about, gathering up her papers, scraping and rinsing her plastic tray, and bouncing into her shoes. Deftly avoiding Whirlwind Usagi, Mamoru pulled on his jacket and snagged his car keys from the hall table. "After you, Princess," he intoned with mock-solemnity as he held the door open for her.
"You can be such a dork sometimes," Usagi giggled, bounding out the door.
Mamoru merely looked at her with mock-heartbreak on his handsome face and turned his back on her while he locked the door. Usagi was grateful for his inattention because even his fake hurt at her fake rejection of his fake flirtation had turned her very real knees into jelly.
Unaware that his little game was playing very real havoc with Usagi's heart, he caught her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm, escorting her gallantly into the elevator and down into the parking garage, where Usagi was certain the sound of her heartbeat was echoing loudly in the most humiliating manner possible. She didn't care, though. She was going to enjoy every moment she could with him. Even though it was just a joke between them, she would cherish whatever this was forever.
Hanako clung to the mane of Takeshi's stallion, weeping uncontrollably. She could imagine no escape for her only ally and she hated herself for being so weak and helpless that another had to lay his life down for her. As the stallion thundered on in the general direction of north, the princess castigated herself over and over. If only she had let Takeshi leave her behind, then he would be succeeding at this quest instead of dying as a distraction. What hope did she have of completing this quest when the only clue she had was to find this man named Gaelph? Would Gaelph know what to do when she found him? Would Akemi know where she was heading and beat her there? How could Takeshi abandon her like this?
Slowly, Takeshi's horse began to tire and dropped from a full gallop to more of a trot. His change of pace jerked Hanako out of her self-pity and self-loathing. She realized that she had reached the southern edge of the Northern Forest. She sat up and drew back on the long-forgotten reins, cold seeping into her body as she did so. She swiped at her wet face and concentrated on her surroundings, trying to get her bearings. Head west, Takeshi had ordered. She quickly decided west was left and turned the horse's heavy head, hoping that dawn would illuminate a mountain range ahead of her. For now, the darkness lent her no aid and they rode slowly, carefully. She gave the stallion his head and he kept it lowered, nose near the ground, picking his way along the rough path as carefully as he could. They couldn't risk speed on such a dark night.
Meanwhile, Takeshi was flattened against the door he'd recklessly burst through. He'd already tried the handle, but it seemed to be locked against him. The woman who had spoken so menacingly stood just a few feet away, icy amusement in her cold eyes. Candles cast fickle light over the room, but she was fully illuminated. Her face and torso were human, and gorgeous, but where her hips and legs should have been was instead the body and legs of an enormous black tarantula. Her skin was preternaturally white, as if she hadn't seen the sun in decades. Her eyes glittered in the candlelight, as did her pointed teeth.
About her legs scuttled perhaps twenty tarantulas. All of them were the size of German Shepherds. They were agitated and Takeshi thought that they really weren't all that concerned with him. One, the largest of them, made some kind of clicking noise at the woman. She cocked her head to one side, but did not take her malevolent gaze away from Takeshi.
The clicking stopped and she moved closer. "Tell me about your companions," she ordered.
"Companions?" Takeshi repeated dumbly.
"The were-dogs outside," she snarled. "Why are you here and what are you looking for?"
"The only companion I have out there is a mare," Takeshi retorted. "Those were-dogs are hunting me."
She clicked quickly at the tarantula leader and a few of her guards disappeared into the shadows. "Why?"
Takeshi wasn't sure what he should tell her. A woman of her appearance could well be an ally of Akemi's. But he decided to be truthful, to a point. "I'm on a quest and they have been ordered to stop me."
"A quest, how interesting. Tell me about it."
"My king has been cursed. I'm seeking a way to set him free."
The spider-lady hissed suddenly. "I do not like your evasiveness. I wish to know exactly what is going on. It's your choice, I can drag it out of you or you can tell me freely." She smiled darkly, "Believe me, you would much prefer the latter."
Takeshi shuddered as he realized a spider above him was beginning to weave a web about his body. "Do you know a witch named Akemi?"
Venom burned a hole in the door behind him.
"I'll take that as a yes," he muttered, impressed both by her accuracy and her talent at expectorating. "She has bewitched King Nobuo and attempted to murder his daughter. I'm trying to find a way to destroy her. She's sent this pack of were-dogs to stop me."
"She's afraid of you?" the woman hissed, slightly impressed. "I've never seen her afraid of any man."
Takeshi shrugged. "There are many men and women in my kingdom whom she should fear."
The regally terrifying woman drew closer to him, a speculative appreciation in her eyes. "I think we could be allies," she whispered, reaching out one hand to strip away the webbing from his arms. "Akemi destroyed my kingdom long ago. I've been longing to return the favor." She lifted him away from the door as if he were a small child and seated him on her rump. "I can take you far from here, while my spider army dispatches those foul beasts. But we must travel for a few days underground and you must trust me completely."
Takeshi wasn't sure he could trust her at all. He opened his mouth to ask how he could, but she continued on.
"And you must promise me something else. You must promise to return to this lair when you have freed your king and princess. You must help me regain what Akemi stole from me."
Takeshi sighed inwardly. He hadn't wanted to rescue one damsel in distress, now he had to rescue another? "What exactly has Akemi done to you, anyway?"
Usagi rolled over in her sleep. Spiders were chasing her, their evil red eyes glowing in the dark as she raced through a dark, dank cave. She was gasping for breath, fighting against the terror that was consuming her. Webbing wrapped around her body and she began to fall. Kicking and screaming, she fell off the bed, trapped in her blankets. In her dream, a spider bit her ankle and the pain felt unbearably real. She kicked her leg out as she broke free of the dream and sent an angry Luna skidding across the room.
"Luna!" she yelped, "You bit me!"
Luna was about to retort when Usagi's mom burst into the room. "What is with all this racket, young lady? You've woken your father and your brother!"
Usagi glanced at the clock. 5:30 am. "Sorry to wake everyone, mom. I just had a bad dream."
Ikuko studied her daughter with irritated amusement. Usagi had always had the most vivid nightmares. Usagi used to burrow into their bed when she was younger, frightened too much to bear sleeping in her own room. It had been annoying back then, but now she had a bit of nostalgia for when her little girl had needed them so. "You didn't wake me, Usagi. Just them."
Usagi's mouth rounded in surprise as she realized her mom was already dressed and wearing her apron. "You get up this early every day?"
Ikuko laughed, "Someone has to get breakfast and lunches ready." Then her appearance hardened, "After all, someone decides to sleep to the very last minute and seems to believe in a bento fairy."
Usagi blushed, embarrassed that her mom had already been forced to break her vow that she would no longer prepare Usagi's lunch for her. "I'm sorry, mom. I want to be a better person, but I'm really very tired all the time."
Ikuko sat down on Usagi's bed, drawing her daughter out of her tangled blankets and up into her arms. "Sweetheart, you are a wonderful person. This is just a difficult time in your life. You have so much growing to do, physically, mentally, emotionally. It's normal that you are tired. But the world doesn't care, so you have to try to adapt to it. Even waking up just a few minutes earlier could have a huge impact on your day." She kissed her daughter's forehead and smiled down at her. "Of course, as punishment for waking everyone up, you don't get to go back to sleep." She winked at her protesting daughter as she swept up the sheets, pillows, and blankets from the floor and bustled out of the room. "Bring me your bottom sheet and pajamas," she called back, "so I can get everything washed and dried before you get home from school!"
"Perfect," Usagi grumbled as she obediently stripped the bed. She quickly changed into her school uniform and chucked her laundry over the staircase railing. Luna shook her head disapprovingly as she watched Usagi fix her hair.
"Honestly, Usagi-chan, your poor mother. Can't you even take those three pieces of cloth into the laundry room for her?"
"I will, Luna, as soon as I'm finished getting dressed and packing my satchel. Or were you hoping I'd trip over the sheet as I carried it downstairs and broke my neck?" She stuck her tongue out, teasingly, at her bossy furball.
Luna bit her tongue and tried to roll her eyes. "Some days you drive me batty," she announced stiffly and then stalked from the room.
Usagi watched her go with a frown. "I'm tempted to take that as a yes."
Across town, Mamoru was just exiting his building to start his morning run. He hadn't slept very well. Dreams of Usagi and dreams of the Princess had both haunted his sleep. He wasn't sure which were more disturbing. As he attempted to prevent his mind from running through his dreams yet again, his route took him toward the park, where he could push his body more strenuously than was safe on the sidewalks.
The morning dew glistened on the grass and a cool breeze danced through the trees as he ran, seeking the runner's high that obliterated every extraneous thought or sensation. His sneakers thudded on the track in a steady, soothing rhythm. Birds began to sing as they awakened to the new day. Everything seemed to be perfect.
And then the pain hit him, washing over him like a tidal wave. He stumbled awkwardly, out of control. He tumbled into the grass as his body lost all sense of coordination and he found himself lying on his back, staring up at the brightening sky through his domino mask.
"Usagi!" he muttered, worry providing fresh adrenaline to his system. He clambered gracelessly to his feet, batting grass and leaves from his cape and snatching up his top hat before letting their link pull him towards her.
She was also in the park, of course, so it didn't take him long to find her. Both Sailor Moon and Mercury were battling a youma that looked rather like a weeping willow come to life. The youma's body was long and slender, with many feet, but no legs. They allowed the creature to scurry about very quickly. It used the long, drooping appendages that gave it the weeping willow appearance like whips, enabling it to attack from a distance. He couldn't see any kind of face, but guessed it was hidden under the thick faux foliage.
Both girls leapt over and ducked under the whips, appearing to be doing a very complicated jump rope routine. Moon called out to Mercury as her legs were swept out from under her, "Time for an early frost?" Her words ended on a grunt as she collided with Tuxedo Kamen's firm chest and his grip on her stomach squashed the air out of her body. He jumped backwards, drawing her out of the youma's immediate reach.
The youma immediately swiveled in their direction, scuttling away from Mercury and giving her time to summon up a freezing fog. The temperature dropped rapidly and the youma became stiff and slow. Sailor Moon broke free of Tuxedo Kamen's grasp and quickly unleashed her tiara attack, shattering the enemy into a pile of dust and ice. The creature's howls lingered in the air, just as a panting Sailor Mars arrived. She skidded to a halt on the icy grass and stared at the dust in disgust.
"Well, then," she groused, kicking the pile, "glad I skipped breakfast for this."
Moon laughed. "One missed breakfast won't kill you, you know."
Mars sent her an evil glare, unamused by Moon turning her own barbs against her. "Of course it won't. I'm just disappointed that I missed the fight."
Mercury glided over, seeming to skate on the icy grass. She was still a bit red in the face from all the jumping. "I don't know how you do all that dodging and weaving every battle, Sailor Moon. I'm exhausted."
Moon grinned. "It was fun. Well, not the threat of being lacerated by those whips. But the jumping rope aspect was fun, for me at least."
Mars turned her back on Moon to mouth "lacerated" at Mercury in surprise. Mercury merely nodded proudly. "I loved your idea of an early frost, Sailor Moon. I should have thought of that."
Tuxedo Kamen cleared his throat suddenly. "You both did a great job, but we need to leave now. We're drawing a crowd."
Mercury and Mars turned to see a number of people converging on their group, murmuring excitedly. As they turned back to agree with him, they discovered both Tuxedo Kamen and Sailor Moon were gone.
"I'm not sure I like this," Mars muttered before she raced off in the direction of her school.
"I'm not sure you have any choice in the matter," Mercury told Mars' retreating figure. She gazed again at the group of approaching civilians, who seems unfazed by the fact that she was the only one left. Taking a page from Usagi's playbook, she struck her pose and then flashed them a huge grin before waving goodbye and summoning a gentle fog to conceal her disappearance.
After a short rest, Hanako raced onward. Sleep was not her friend, but she had to think of her steed's needs. Every time she closed her eyes, visions of Takeshi dying in various ways tormented her. She was filled with dread that Akemi would find her through her dreams, as well. By daybreak of the next day, she finally crested the tallest hill yet and saw the mountain range rise up before her. "Finally," she breathed, shivering despite having layered on every scrap of cloth she had. The stallion, whom she had decided to name Fortune, stamped his feet impatiently, unimpressed with the view.
She smiled down at the back of Fortune's head. "I'm sorry. We need to hurry, don't we?" She spurred him back up to a trot as they headed down into the valley. "I hope this guy's house isn't too deep into the mountains," she confided to the horse. "I am sure Takeshi wouldn't want us to have to ask anyone for directions." Her eyes watered as she said his name out loud. If he'd survived somehow, he would meet her at Gaelph's, she kept telling herself. She prayed to anyone who was listening that he was alive and would find her soon.
By noon, they had started climbing the first of the mountains. Judging which of the mountains was tallest from the valley had been impossible, so Hanako reasoned that the summit should provide her with a better perspective. The trail she followed was wide and smooth, obviously the main path used for transporting goods and mail over the mountain range. She wasn't sure if following it was the best option, but she felt she had no other reasonable option, as she was such a novice at traveling that she could get turned around and lost forever far too easily.
Fortune was also content to stay on the path, as he had never traveled this far from home before. In fact, if he could have, he would have told her that he despised this disgustingly cold and sticky white stuff and that he'd rather eat moldy hay than forage for dried leaves on the ground. But he, too, was a proud creature and would do his duty.
Meanwhile, deep underground, Takeshi and Kumoko get better acquainted as she carried him towards Hanako. She told him her story and he felt she could be trusted with his. One of Kumoko's spiders joined them after a while, reporting to her that the were-dogs had been killed or had fled back to Takeshi's country. They wanted to know what to do about a horse that was refusing to leave the cliff.
"Send Sanae to take the mare to this Gaelph's house," Kumoko decided. "Sanae is an orphan child that I have been raising. She is strong and clever. Akemi will not easily discover her."
Takeshi was grateful. "I was afraid she was killed," he admitted. "Hanako has a great fondness for her and as a pampered mare in the royal stables, I doubt she could have survived on her own."
Kumoko laughed, "Don't underestimate those raised in gilded cages, young man. We are stronger than you think."
Takeshi had to agree, when he pondered everything Kumoko had been through. Though it was clear that her suffering had soured her temperament, she had obviously managed to rebuild and carve out a life for herself. He wondered if she would join them when they returned from Satsuko with the means of saving King Nobuo and destroying Akemi. He did wonder, though, how Hanako would react.
Akemi stood before the council of advisers, regretfully informing them that King Nobuo's health was still too fragile to allow him to meet with them, but that he had sent her in his stead. She knew there were those on the council whom she had still not won over, but she trusted her special concoction, hidden in the wine, to resolve this situation. A few of them expressed words of condolence, while others harrumphed and called her presence there "unusual" and "without precedence". She waited out the chatter and demurely claimed a seat in the back of the room, as if she agreed with those opposed to her presence but had to stay to honor her husband's wishes. From there, she could observe her potion's success or failure on each of those that opposed her and plan how to deal with them.
Fesilus, the most senior of the council and one she had not yet converted, rose to call the meeting to order. "First on the agenda, we must discuss the whereabouts of Princess Hanako. The palace guards have been unable to find her. She has not been seen since Queen Akemi observed her sneaking off with a man. We've since discovered that Lord Takeshi, the suitor who so boldly defied Queen Akemi's judgment at the ball, is also missing. Despite offering a hefty reward, we have received no reliable information from the general populace, either."
Akemi bowed her head and wrung her hands, putting forth the appropriate display of worry for her stepdaughter. When Fesilus asked her if she knew anything more of Hanako's disappearance, she raised a guilt-stricken face to the council, "I knew that she was enamored of Lord Takeshi, but her father and I had thought we could find a better match for her. I fear she has decided to elope with him and now dreads our disapproval so much that she dare not return." She sighed dramatically, wiping away a tear. "If she knew her father was ill, nothing would have stopped her from returning to his side. Either they have traveled beyond our borders to somewhere she wouldn't hear the news or," she paused for dramatic effect, "Lord Takeshi is deliberately preventing her from hearing about it."
There was a lot of discussion after this comment and she returned to her seat. Fesilus soon addressed her again. "What reason would this young man have to conceal the news?"
Queen Akemi rose to her feet again, playing her part perfectly. "Forgive me for thinking the worst of one of our nobles, Lord Fesilus, but if they married and returned while her father was still with us, we could force an annulment. But if he can keep her away from us until King Nobuo passes, then right of inheritance would make him King Consort. We could do nothing to prevent him from rising to a position of great power, though we know nothing about his aptitude to rule. Of course, we all pray that my dear husband will pull through this illness, but if he won't allow her to return now, when we need her, why should we expect he will present himself to our king at a later date?"
Her words seemed to make sense to everyone at the table and with just an hour's work, Lord Takeshi's reputation was shredded and he was all but branded a kidnapper and betrayer who had vilely seduced Hanako in a plot to take over the kingdom. Akemi had basically used everyone's suspicions about her to simultaneously cast aspersions on their erstwhile hero and re-create herself as the loving wife and stepmother who had no designs on the crown. Her crimson lips lifted in a triumphant smile, even as she kept her head demurely bent as she sat silently through the rest of the meeting.
AN: Thank you all for your patience. I am now the mother of a very charming, but very demanding baby boy after a very rough pregnancy. I am hoping 2014 will be full of continued inspiration. Special thanks to my beta, Cat, and to all of the positive people who have messaged me over the years. The Princess Problem 9 should be up soon as well. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!