Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. They are the creations of Naoko Takeuchi, based entirely on her manga.

Valli - Lady Jupiter
Ishtar - Lady Venus
Beset - Lady Mars

the feel of her name

My lover's gone
his boots no longer by my door
he left at dawn
and as I slept I felt him go
Returns no more
I will not watch the ocean
My lover's gone
no earthly ships will ever bring him home again

-My Lover's Gone by Dido

4. the memories

Perhaps it was the long, tiring meetings that made her careless. Perhaps it was the insomnia she suffered that dulled her senses. Or maybe, it was because she had tried so hard to ignore Mars' sudden absence that at the other's unexpected presence she could not help but start. Whatever it was, it could not excuse how she had jumped in surprise at the voice and the face that greeted her. Venus was thoroughly annoyed with herself for not realizing, in the darkness of her own room, the foreign shadow that waited for her by the edges of the half-draped windows. Not until the lights flickered on to show her the uninvited guest, and not even until the woman had broken the silence to greet her, did she even note the shifting of red hair and the movement of another's crimson dress.

"I thought you would have realized that I was here," Mars chided her casually, her fingers steepled toward the ground. The other had turned fully towards Venus then, in such a graceful manner that it almost looked like the half turn of a Venusian dance. It was like Mars had never broke and Venus had never witnessed a small piece of her dear friend's sanity splintering before her eyes.

Yet, as the lights grew in intensity, Beset's haggard face came into detail. The hollows were deeper beneath her pallid skin, not just the usual umbrage cast by lights but from a lack of nourishments and sleep. Her lips were cracked and dry, lacking the rigidity of her usual solemn sternness while maintaining none of the fleeting flexibility that hinted at rarely seen smiles. Still, her eyes were alert and alive, strangely more aware than it had been since she had been retrieved, and her hair gleamed red and gold.

"What are you doing here?" Venus felt the question leave her lips and could not dredge up a feeling of guilt for the hint of hostility there. She was exhausted and Mars was the cause of it, along with much of her current anxieties.

"I have heard that you had sent a notice to retrieve Phobos and Deimos back from their pilgrimage," Mars answered, her face as placid and clear as the still pools of water in the many hidden gardens within the palace. "I cannot allow you to call them back. The pilgrimage is sacred on Mars and, most importantly, to Martian protectors. Even if they wanted too, they cannot forsake their duties. The request would only leave them in a state where they will be unable to fulfill their duties to our gods."

"You're already forsaking yours to your Queen," Lady Venus pointed out coldly. "Why not ensure you recover some bits of what little is left of your reputation with this decree? They are your guardians and they should be here. Call it a sacrifice on their end."

Mars didn't even seethe with her usual pride. She only studied the indignant emotions radiating off of her leader and her harshly spoken words. The Venusian's face remained impassive and unreadable though, beneath her scrutiny. "What remains of my reputation?" Mars finally asked softly, a hint of mockery in her voice. "It is not worth the wrath of already angry gods," she added with a shake of her head. "You must retract that message, and if you will not, I will contact the head of the Martian priesthood to ensure of it. Even if it will bring ruin to me, I cannot allow anyone else to pay for the decisions I've made."

"They will suspect with the message I already sent, giving them evidence concerns me little," Venus answered with a frown. "Yet, as your commander, I have requested that they come back," she added sternly, unwilling to relent. She was more than ready to do what was necessary to get the situation back under control.

Mars laughed a humorless laugh. "You've been very diplomatic until now, why ruin the charade? I will go along with this specious facade if you allow them the right to appease the gods with what little affects prayers have." Those eyes held black frost beneath their reddish hues as Mars spoke as if the words left a bad taste in her mouth. "I can no longer do it for them, I have made my choices and they have made me a heretic. Yet, my gods, they spite me with my visions still."

Venus openly studied her second-in-command and a silence hung between them. Not able to hold back the outrage at the passive expression staring back, she finally spoke. "What happened to you?"

Mars raised a brow but refrained from giving another one of her eerie chuckles. "Why don't you tell me? Are you not the champion of Love?" The last part was almost a sneer but then Mars blinked and the blackness in her eyes finally began a slow fade into shadows. "I apologize," she said carefully, as if still trying to get a hold of herself. "I thought I was getting better."

"For the Kingdom," Venus began again, with difficulty. She could not trust the calmness that settled over Mars. "I have to call them back, Mars."

"Mars," her friend echoed. This time there was no attempt to rein in the darkness that seeped into a once luxuriant voice. "And here I thought we were passed that," the other said, speculatively. "Are we no longer, friends?"

Venus gritted her teeth. "You don't deserve the title if you can't act the part," she snapped angrily, her chin tilting up in defiance.

"Oh?" Mars asked. Her voice was now hard, like the edge of the ancient stone sword that protected the royal family and the Moon. "And what have you done for me lately, Ishtar, my friend?"

"I have sent for Phobos and Deimos, because you need help," Venus said with her face rigid.

"Help you cannot offer yourself?" Mars continued derisively, her head tilted to the side.

She froze as she looked at Mars. "Help that you won't take from me," she said after a long, agonizing pause.

The other was turning away though, just to the side, as if afraid to turn her back. They've never been like this, not even when they strongly disagreed or when they had resorted to yelling at each other, or even when they threw tantrums. Not ever. This made all their previous arguments up to this point seem petty and meaningless, unable to prepare Venus for this moment of confrontation. The Venusian felt a chasm somewhere opening between them, a yawning abyss that her confrontation a few weeks ago had not had the ability to accomplish until now. "What did you come here for?" she finally asked, the exhaustion now in her voice even as she struggled to not show it on her face. She wanted the conversation to end, before their once-close relations became worse than it already is.

Mars did not move but it was as if Venus was watching the other shed a layer of skin, becoming less a stranger and more the person she had called friend. "I dreamed," Mars said at last, voice distant and frail and full of meaning, "of the end, Ishtar."

The end.

She wanted to ask then what the other meant. She wanted to joke about the end of the day or the end of the week, or the end of this horrid depression that made Mars a stranger and blotted out Beset's existence in this stranger's armor. Yet, the air seemed suddenly cold and filled with power, while her body was heavy with fear. Mars always gave off warmth wherever she went. It was a small leakage of the powers she contained. Still, Venus could not sense that warmth now, instead she self-consciously wrapped her hands along her forearms to stave off the shiver that went down her spine.

She wetted her lips but before she could speak, Mars was moving to the window to look at the sliver of Earth appearing over the horizon. The slope of the other's bared shoulders were more relaxed, and that earlier reluctance to show Venus her back was gone, and in its place was the preoccupation of remembering.

"Did you know that in my dreams, Lord Jadeite lives?" Mars asked, a curiosity and wonder in her voice. "Yet, in my visions, there are only monsters and corpses and blood." The red-haired woman put her hands to the glass and pressed her head to the backs of them. "Our shadows are falling away," Mars continued dreamily. "Earth is falling into darkness," she said with a sigh, tilting her head back as she looked up to the sky beyond the glass. "The palace is crumbling beneath our feet, Ishtar, but it will not be our resting grounds. The stone sword ends it all, our happiness, our misery, and the future of this world."

Venus took an involuntary step back at the power in that voice, in the half song beneath the consonants and the half spell beneath the song. "Stop it," Venus whispered, falling to her knees. The other didn't turn, even though Venus clutched her head and tried to tune out that beguiling voice. "You need to stop-"

Mars lifted her head and stared out into the darkness. "We are all of us, shadows in the dark," she continued without hearing. "The Princess, her light is dimming, a dark moon rising," she hummed as she closed her eyes and swayed, her head lolled to the side like a cat receiving a caress, "and our Lady Queen of the Moon, she shines so brightly at her fullest hour, the last hour of our current existence..."

Venus opened her mouth to scream as the spell closed upon her.

"Don't you want to be honest with yourself before the end?" Beset asked her, slippered feet suddenly visible before her dimming gaze. She was caught in the scent of the other's embrace as she fell forward into the other's arms. "Dear Ishtar of Venus, how would you go on to the next life if you refused? For love is so dangerous, dear avatar."

Venus could not speak even as darkness came. She did not want to confront the road she'd walked and the choices she'd already made, long before she knew the true visage of Love and the things she stood for. She did not want to go back or look on the face of a man she could not have, one who understood what it meant to deny oneself of all things except for duty and be satisfied in choosing what was more important. She did not want to look back, only to weaken and regret the things up ahead.

On the tip of her tongue was a plea but it was as soundless as her unfinished gasp for breath.

Lady Jupiter did not like her assignment. For the twentieth time that week, Venus was visited with the other's complaints about the Earth King that Jupiter was responsible for. "Why could I not be escorting the Lord Kunzite instead, for example? You don't like him, do you, Leader?" Jupiter asked suddenly, her verdant eyes glittering with mischief instead of irritation while her pale cheeks pinked at the ideas forming behind her inquiring gaze. "He's very handsome!"

Venus rolled her eyes at this. Jupiter had said similar things about Lord Nephrite when the Kings first arrived. This was, of course, before he opened his mouth. The Jovian was a sucker for strong men, no matter their origins, their manners, or how emotionally stunted they were. This was probably the reason why the other was always having so much trouble with the opposite sex. Lord Kunzite would be difficult for Jupiter, in every way imaginable. Where Lord Nephrite spoke of whatever was on his mind, Lord Kunzite would speak very little, if at all. With Jupiter so eager to please and never too comfortable in the silence of strangers, the secrets of the Silver Alliance would flow out of her like wine at a bacchanalian. Of course, Lord Kunzite would undoubtedly be deliciously distracting eye-candy for everyone while this was happening, but he knew this perfectly well without Venus having to provide the unnecessary opportunities.

"It wouldn't work for you, Jupiter. He can't speak two words without reverting into silence," Venus answered reasonably though her tone remained disapproving as she crossed her arms. "He leads them you know? I'm sure he has a very good grasp of Lunarian too, but do you see him saying a word of it in our presence? If you're having trouble with Lord Nephrite's views of the Moon, think about how much worse the prejudice of their leading commander must be to encourage the behavior! You know that Prince Endymion is the only decent one of the lot, but the Queen and the Counselor Luna are seeing to him themselves." Most of that personal escort service was to soothe whatever insult that might have cropped up due to a lack of introductions to the crown Princess. They were already pushing it with the warnings from every god or goddess from every planet imaginable, no need to jump off a cliff with the prophecy at stake.

Jupiter made a face. "At least I wouldn't have to hear about his prejudices if you switched yours with mine," the other grumped. "Lord Nephrite can't go on two minutes without complaining about the latest thing Counselor Luna has made us show them. I've plain given up pointing anything out in the room. If he wants to complain about it, at least he'll be the one giving new names to the things he's never before seen!"

"I doubt that would deter him," Venus answered drily.

"It makes him think twice," Jupiter replied in a supercilious tone. "I don't want to help him make my life more miserable when his very presence does the trick! At least now I can point out his follies right away when he's being so blatant about it," she said with a bit of malicious intent. Jupiter paused and frowned at her own words then, her previously malevolent expression melting into worry. "Oh dear, he will totally ruin my reputation as being the most amiable one!"

"Not enough compensation with the tomfoolery you put him through?" Venus asked wearily, deciding not to address the last part of her friend's complaints.

"No!" Jupiter answered immediately. The other's eyes suddenly hardened again as she met Venus' steady gaze. "You don't want me to ruin years of difficult negotiations by strangling an ambassador now, would you?" the other suddenly threatened sweetly. Venus stared at her subordinate incredulously, doubt in her unwavering gaze. "I will do it." Jupiter said with her fist hitting her opened palm for emphasis. "I've thought about it a million times already, training myself with visual simulations. I admit, cutting out his tongue was a bit of a distasteful thing even when I was only imagining it but I'mdefinitely imagining it. Don't you think that's a bit... dangerous?" Jupiter wheedled.

Her blonde leader snorted. "I'm not switching you to Lord Kunzite, period, or any of the others, for that matter. You can threaten but if you've still got a head to think about ruining the negotiations, you can still keep your hands off of him I'm sure."

"You make it sound dirty," Jupiter said dejectedly, slouching into her seat for the first time in years. She had stared at her commander a good, long time, but she knew Venus was quite serious about everything the other had stated already. The sparkle in Jupiter's eyes diminished again, knowing that she would not be trading in her ambassador for another's. "Here I am, suffering, and all you can do is telling me I won't kill him, so it's alright? Why, if the Queen could hear you now-!"

"No need," Lady Venus cut in with a bit of jaded humor. "I'm sure even she's been in earshot of you disparaging the Lord Nephrite by now, or at the very least, I'm sure she's heard of it more than once from our Counselor Luna. I don't think there exists a single person in the whole palace who has not been made aware of your sentiments for him."

"It's not like the feeling isn't mutual," Jupiter said in a huff. "You make it sound like it's all my fault!"

Venus forced herself to not roll her eyes again. "You two will just have to learn to get along. Part of the training, you see? We have to learn what and how to get around the road-blocks of negotiating with Earth on a basis of a permanent alliance. You too bring up the most interesting of biases when you're together and we could learn something from that. You can see that your service is for the greater good, can you not, Lady Jupiter?"

The green-haired woman straightened at her title with a proud air before making a face at her commander when the implications set in. "You're an unsympathizing, sacrificial priest, that's what you are!" she told the other, rising with emphasis. "You just want to keep Lord Kunzite all to yourself!" Jupiter tried one last time with an accusing tone, her hands on her hips as she gave her last stand. Venus remained nonchalant as the other began to study her nails on one hand and entirely ignored both the comment and the look being shot at her. Jupiter snorted as this and turned towards the doors when it was the only reaction she got. "Pretend all you want," Jupiter tossed over her shoulder, waving one finger at the ceiling. "Even if I'm not the Goddess of Love and Beauty, I know you want what's in his pants!"

Venus suppressed the irate twitch of her eyebrows at such vulgarity, even if Jupiter couldn't see it. Apparently, the Lord Nephrite was having more influence on Lady Jupiter than just her temper. "We're meeting in an hour to finish the tour of the palace," she said instead to the stiffened shoulders of Lady Jupiter. "Don't forget to bring Lord Nephrite along, this time. We wouldn't want you to accidentally lose him again in the halls like that unfortunate incident before the welcoming ball."

"Just count on me," Jupiter said with a forced laugh before harshly slamming the door behind her. If the material hadn't been Lunarian steel, the door wouldn't have been much of a door anymore.

Venus grimaced after a long silence before she put her head to her hand. Why did she let Jupiter provoke her? She knew the other was under a lot of stress, but there was just no way to switch the Kings to new escorts without insulting their guests. She hadn't lied, after all. Everyone knew Jupiter and Nephrite did not get along. Venus sighed deeply and got up to look out her window. Sometimes, she was sure that friends were far worse to deal with than enemies.

Perhaps it was the parasol, a crescent smile of night-time lilies on a midnight sky, which caught his eye. Perhaps it was the golden spill of hair along her back and the line of her cheekbone, pale but shadowed, against the sparkling waters. Or maybe it was the sound of the wind through the grass and the scent of living things, moving and alive, a sense that almost made this artificial world real while she had stood as if she were a part of that flow of life. Whatever it was, he had noticed her immediately in his wonderings through the lower sections of town, on the edges of the great capital of the Moon, and she had looked natural and at home when he had never been able to think of her as any more real than her alien world until that moment.

He had thought that Lady Mercury would be the one more inclined to visit the cliffs beside the Mare Serenitatis, had been prepared to run into the blue-haired Hermesians, but it was the sight of glittering Venus that greeted him. She was quite like a golden statue beneath the sun. The only thing giving her away had been her pale skin and the rise of her chest from her breathing. These half-hidden nuances belied his impression.

She came to life that day by the sea. There had been more in that moment than the sum of the flow of her words or her careful attentiveness when they had walked side-by-side within the palace. There existed more in her presence than her graceful, dancer's motions whenever she left his side to go about her duties. He found that there was even more to her than her manners or her scent or her breath within those manufactured walls. Here, at the edges of the Moon's capital, the edges of their grand civilization and their grandiose illusions, the lines of her untensed body finally caught his attention.

The city did not sparkle in the day, not like it did in the darkness of evening, but its gleaming walls were still an impressive sight. He had wondered down the winding streets, wanting to see what Lord Zoicite had spoken about in his earlier reports. Much of his time was spent with either the Lady Venus or the Counselor Luna. When there was any free time at all, he spent it with his Prince and sometimes in the private sparring halls with the other Kings, who he only saw late in the evenings on some days and not at all on others. This was the first chance he had of surveying what lay outside the palace, something he had looked forward to with both anticipation and reservation.

She did not acknowledge him as he approached, but they both knew the other was there. "How do you do, Lady Venus?" he greeted as he approached.

"Lord Kunzite," she acknowledged in return with a nod and the same secretive smile that worked on much of the men, and some of the women, at court. "What a surprise to see you, here."

"Hn," he answered and fell into silence as they watched the waves gently caress the rocks below. Some time passed in silence, a surprise in itself since Lady Venus was rarely quiet. He did not feel the need to speak and was not sure what to say to her. There was much more he could learn from the things she told him and Earth was not a topic he wished to divulge unless directly asked. Yet, her stillness and her thoughtful expression was something he was witnessing for the first time.

She was a rather alien creature herself. Not just because she was from Venus but because she was usually so alive and vivacious that this sudden change of temperament was unsettling. "Have you enjoyed yourself, Lord Kunzite?" she asked him at last. He held back a sigh of relief at her voice, before thinking of his answer.

"It is... different," he conceded.

"From Earth?" she inquired but her smile was playful. She was teasing him again about his reticence.

"Yes," he answered without his face showing how much enjoyment he was getting out of her shooting him a look of fabricated impatience. She blew at her bangs childishly and wrinkled her nose at him. He had heard often that her status at court was to be the Princess' shadow, and had often wondered what the duty entailed. If the Princess looked like Venus, then there was little doubt of the rumors concerning the Moon-heir's beauty. Yet, he had trouble imagining another as lively as the woman beside him.

Perhaps the rumored heir had more of the Lady Queen's silver and white colorings than the glittering gold of this Venusian woman. There was a lot of perhaps that followed that particular thought. He wondered if they were related by blood and if so how she was related to the succession of thrones. He had heard rumors of the ancient female warriors called the Sailor Senshi, and wondered if she knew more about them than the terrifying tales that so rarely appeared in the text of ancient monastic libraries and even more ancient temples dedicated to forgotten gods.

She reached forward from the corner of his eye and he stiffened as she touched his hair. A gentle tug and in her hand was a prickly seed. Her cheeks were pink as she finally looked back up at him with a playful smile. She told him its origins before pursing of her lips and blowing it into the sea. "Now it can grow, and you can make a wish," she said with a grin. "Children on the Moon like to call them Falling Stars, because of its shape."

It was strange that despite the years that they had spent, traveling to the Moon, this was the first time she had ever touched him. He smiled, ever so faintly at her explanation instead, turning away from the fleeting feeling that visited him too briefly to acknowledge. He thought of the sun instead, and how it brought such warm light to the living things in the daylight hours, even with the Moon that only showed her face at night on Earth and the barren lands she was sovereign to here. They were, perhaps, not as different as he was used to assuming. "I always wanted to ask you," he finally said. "Do the Venusians worship snakes?" He eyed the golden bracelet that encircled her forearm with some speculation. He had seen her wear many gold and intricate jewelry featuring snakes, and it was rumored that the Lady Venus had real ones as pets.

She blinked at him before bursting into laughter. "Ah, if the Counselor Luna could hear you now!" she exclaimed between her stifled giggles. He shot her a curious look, for she was a creature full of laughter, even though, once in awhile, he saw the deference shown to her by the other Ladies representing their respective planets. Once, he had even caught a far away and solemn expression flit across her face, but it was rare that she showed the thoughts that raced behind her eyes. He often wondered if she wore a different face to the court and the rest of the universe, one that only fell away in the presence of the Lady Queen and the highest circles of the inner court.

"Is my question very funny?" he continued, after her laughter died away.

"Very," she agreed. It was a few moments before she answered, as if trying to decide what to tell him. "I like them," she said, opting for the simplest of explanations. "They do not survive on Venus, but we have many stories about them and they are considered very wise. I have heard that some cultures on Earth see them as evil," she said with a frown.

"They are rather dangerous," he conceded.

"Only when provoked," she defended, her voice rising as if she were the one being insulted. She broke into a smile at his impassive stare, the only reaction he had to her words. "Oh, but they are such interesting creatures! Most people don't even realize what wonderful companions they are depriving themselves of."

"I take it that Counselor Luna does not share this interest with you then?" he finally said instead.

"Oh, she's from the Planet Mau and, even if you can't tell by her manners she's, what's the term? She's a cowardly cat!" Venus exclaimed childishly with a laugh, her parasol shaking in her hands at his rather incredulous expression.

"I don't think I have heard of such a term," he ventured carefully.

"Well, that's what she is!" Venus told him. "One time," Venus continued without pause. "Lady Mars threatened to burn them when I compared them to her planet's dragons. She is so very uptight about her dragons, why I've never seen her so insulted since!" Venus gossiped.

Kunzite suddenly had a strange vision of a very irate Lady Mars, though he had never seen the Lady as anything but calm. "I don't think-" he began.

"Oh, everyone thinks she's not like the stories concerning Martians and how warlike they're still rumored to be," Venus cut in without notice at him closing his mouth in amusement. "But if you pull on just the right levers, she can explode on you. She's very good at keeping her temper in check and she's never slipped in public, but-" Venus stopped herself and glanced at him, twirling her parasol guiltily while pouting. "I shouldn't tell you this, she would never forgive me."

"I'm sure you have many stories to tell," he said diplomatically, unsure if he wanted to hear and goaded into curiosity nonetheless.

"Many," Lady Venus laughed, her expression clear once more. "I admit though, that I never thought Lady Jupiter had such a short fuse either until your Lord Nephrite showed up."

Kunzite gave the sea a rather weary look instead of his companion. "He has his moments," he said drily.

"What do you think of the Moon?" Lady Venus asked after only a very short pause. He was surprised at the sudden change of topic, though he should have been used to it by now. He was also even more amused when she didn't continue and waited for his reply.

"I think it's a beautiful place," he answered at last, half expecting her to cut him off again.

"But you miss Earth, don't you?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied honestly.

"I miss Venus, too," she told him. "It is barren and I am not allowed to visit the cities beneath my home when I do go back, but I had watched out that window many times in my life. I had spent my whole life wondering what the people there, my people, are like. Sometimes, I walk these streets and wonder how different it is from the home I left behind."

"When did you come here?" Kunzite inquired. He had been surprised by the confession but unwilling to push her towards the slow, spreading melancholy in her voice.

"In Earth years? Perhaps I was the equivalent of nine or ten when I was here permanently," she answered. "I had trained my whole life to be here, and I have loved the Princess since her birth," Venus said the last part with a faint and genuine smile, so unlike her usual smiles. It was a small movement of lips but her expression was suddenly full of soft affection and lacked a lot of the effusive warmth that came naturally with her other smiles. "Did you know, it is so rare to meet people who love their duties and their masters," she finally said without a hint of humor. All of a sudden, he could sense all her attention upon him, even though she did not turn once to look his way. "Yet, I see it whenever you and Prince Endymion are in a room together," she turned her head to him at last, her gaze like a soft caress upon his face. The wind blew by with the strange scent of a foreign sea but the moment did not pass like so many moments between them. "Are you very sad that one day he may fall in love, find someone he cares for more than life itself?"

"I hope he finds the greatest of happiness," he answered automatically, refusing to dwell on the slight pang in his chest. He dutifully evaded the look in her eyes at his own refusal to lay bare a small piece of himself, and how she knew what he meant even though he had not been entirely forthright. Down that road was complications he preferred not to dwell upon, no matter how easily he was drawn to wonder at its possibilities since meeting her.

Venus turned her head away, her face the same warm mask she had worn upon greeting him earlier. "Yes," she agreed, and yet it sounded so much like resignation. Her hand only tightened ever so slightly against the handle of the parasol and her lips were curved back into a smile that was full of fleeting, untouchable happiness...

"So do I."

"You like him!" Lady Jupiter pointed at Venus with an accusing finger as she stormed into the meeting room.

"Why don't you say it a bit louder so everyone else in the palace knows," Lady Mars replied steadily as she looked pointedly at her peer. Despite the disapproval in her tone, she was obviously amused by the whole ordeal nonetheless.

For the last few years, a silent battle of wills has started in bursts of guerrilla warfare between Venus and Jupiter. Mercury and Mars stayed away from the conflict as much as possible, but they did begin a betting pool on what started the ordeal to begin with. Mars was sure it was when Venus not-so-accidentally joked to Lord Nephrite that Lady Jupiter threw a vase at his head as a type of Jovian ritual for a marriage proposal. She had said it in such a convincing manner that when she airily added, "Just kidding!" no one who lacked the knowledge of Jovian marriage customs would have believed her. Unfortunately for Jupiter, Lord Nephrite certainly knew no more about Jovian marriage rights than he did about Venusian trickery and it certainly only made an already awkward situation worse.

Mercury, on the other hand, was certain it was something entirely different. She had overheard a conversation between an embarrassed Jupiter and the Counselor Luna earlier that year. She had, of course, been the only other Senshi present for the incident, but she had not realized the all it entailed until this particular conversation enlightened her. Jupiter had thought about how Venus was hiding her passionate affections from Lord Kunzite when Lord Jadeite was about. She had been apologizing to Luna when the other chastised her about it. The man, after all, had turned a rather pale shade of grey at whatever loud thoughts Jupiter was airing that day and Lady Jupiter embarrassedly blurted out in front of Kunzite, and half the court, that she was only thinking of a conversation she had with Venus.

Jupiter added oil to the flame when she mumbled guiltily about affections and dreamy while underhandedly glancing shyly, but pointedly, between the ground and a rather perplexed Kunzite. Mercury had not heard entirely all that Jupiter had said at court that day, but she did hear Venus and dreamy while Jupiter had looked at Kunzite. The only indication of the lasting effects of that particular conversation was the fact that Lord Kunzite had walked away from that incident rather more stiffly than usual. Well, that and Prince Endymion and Lord Nephrite liked to revisit the subject in as many ways as possible whenever they saw Lord Kunzite walking far more rigidly beside Lady Venus than ever before for the rest of the visit that year.

Venus never did find out, though she suspected it right away, until Lord Kunzite had left the Moon. To say she was upset with the spread of "lies", as she called them, was the understatement of the century. Counselor Artemis had expressly forbidden Jupiter and Venus to spar with each other for the remainder of the season, or until they got a hold of their manners (and themselves), whichever came first. The destruction they left in the Northern Wing of the Palace was still something that was whispered about at the market place, though everyone wisely kept those episodes from the ears of the Princess.

It was not even that Serenity didn't hear about the destruction of the wing, but Counselor Luna diplomatically told her a half truth of what had happened.

Lady Mercury didn't even bother to hide her expression anymore and just looked down-right amused. "If only everyone would have this type of enthusiasm for their research and studies," she lamented but no one listened to her on this. Mercury sighed to herself, and if she wasn't already so used to the treatment she got whenever she mentioned their studies, she would have been insulted.

"Who?" Princess Serenity demanded with urgency. The pale princess had already leaped onto her feet, face full of excitement while her hands were on her hips as she swung her full, demanding stare onto Venus.

"Lord Kunzite!" Lady Jupiter supplied with too much relish for Venus' liking. The Jovian was obviously still not over the fact that her commander had denied her turning Lord Nephrite onto someone else, anyone else (or her later suggestions to just strangle him, period). It had been years since that conversation but the feud was still not over.

Princess Serenity looked outraged at this. "Ishtar, why did you not inform me of this?" the girl demanded. The Princess's eyes were sharp and her already mouth set in a frown. Serenity quickly changed as she clasped her hands together, as if in the midst of a prayer or the middle of a day-dream. "It's just so romantic! I mean, forbidden love! Clandestine meetings behind our vast numbers of pillars and gardens! The palace is practically built for this type of thing!" Then, tears formed at the corners of the pale girl's eyes as she turned to Venus full force, once more accusing. "Did you not trust me with this terribly important news?"

Mars looked like she was holding back exasperation and Mercury turned away to the window, unable to witness the scene with a straight face anymore and not wanting to face the full wrath of Venus' unforgiving stares. The blonde glared at them both nonetheless before turning back to the expectant Princess, refusing to even spare Jupiter a look. "I think you're mistaken," Venus said slowly and carefully, trying to soothe her agitated charge. "I am not in love with anyone-"

"She's in denial," Jupiter butted in quickly.

"Valli, I have it on good authority that you are the one in denial," Venus bit back viciously. Mars made a rather suspicious noise at this and Mercury clutched her shoulders hard.

Jupiter snorted at her commander's words before thrusting out her hands, as if to show evidence. "See?" the Jovian demanded. "She obviously likes him!"

Princess Serenity looked suddenly perplexed, unsure who to badger first for information on the love lives she was obviously not partial to hearing about or observing with her own eyes. It was a shame because she didn't think the others would appreciate it half as much as she would. Serenity straightened and with great fortitude, quickly making up her mind and turning to Venus with a determined look on her face. "Are you going to get married in secret?" she requisitioned, eyes fiercely serious. Venus just stared, slack-jawed at the Princess who seemed to have lost her mind. "Because if you are, I just want you to know that I won't stand in the way! I won't allow it! In fact, I will never stand in the way of true love and I will fight against anyone who tries!" Serenity stated imperiously, her index finger pointing to the ceiling as she shook it threateningly at the unseen heavens above. The other girl's usually quiet voice rose to a crescendo on true love and was forceful for much of her impromptu speech. In case anyone, including the gods, disagreed with her on this.

Mars coughed harshly into her hand in a spasming fit and Mercury started shaking by the window so hard she gave up holding onto them, hands clamped over her mouth instead. Jupiter just looked down right smug. "You're very virtuous, Princess," the Jovian said with sycophantic sweetness in the silence of Venus being too busy gaping. Jupiter, after all, was more than willing to fan the flames of Serenity's already overactive imagination. "What with all those unscheduled and secluded meetings between the leaders of our two parties, who knows what might happen next?" Jupiter supplied shameless, adding it all with delicious, theatrical emphasis. The Princess gasped, hand to her parted lips, torn between looking scandalized and fascinated, and ready to burst with thousands of questions concerning this secret courtship going on beneath her very nose.

Four pairs of eyes turned to Venus then while she contemplated between wiring her suddenly unhinged jaw shut and murdering her friends.

"How did you know?" Venus asked quietly, facing a familiar ceiling from where she was lain.

Mars stilled her hands, her silver brush gleaming as she stared at her leader through the glass. Her face was expressionless as she studied the other, though all that was visible was golden hair and the straight line of her nose. "Sometimes you acted like a child, and sometimes, you were serious," she finally answered as the quiet settled. "I have never seen you want to pretend so hard to be something you weren't and unable to decide what mask to wear."

Venus rolled onto her stomach and studied the other through the mirror. "Why did you make me look back? Wouldn't I be less effective knowing this?"

Mars smiled a very small smile, and yet it was full of bitterness. "No," she answered. "Who wants a leader to find her true feelings in the midst of a war?"

"He's never coming back, you know?" Venus mentioned instead, remembering the visions that Beset had spoken off. She would rather be cruel now, after being forced to face her own feelings, than dwell on the emotions she had discovered.

"I know," Mars answered without sadness or pain or weariness. Her face was blank of weariness and her body straight and alert. "At least, not the way I want him to," she added cryptically, in between one breath and the next.

"Was it unavoidable?" Venus asked, still unwilling to delve into how or where her feelings had gone without her consent.

Mars set down her brush and ran her hand through the silken strands. She studied them in silence before looking out her window at the empty sky. "I don't know," she said softly.

Venus understood that look now, but she wished back the ignorance of her denials. Unlike the others, she had always known, long ago, what her answer would be. There had never been any doubt and her treacherous heart changed nothing. Only on quiet evenings, alone in the darkness and her solitude could the lament of her decisions approach without consent. Those moments were shadows in the growing light of her growing Princess, and it was an anguish that she could bear without complaint.

The Senshi of Love and Beauty, Venus thought bitterly as she rested her cheek against the familiar coverings. It was cruel of fate to give her such a mantle, she thought. She would never be able to freely pursue one, even if she wore the mask of the other so well. Perhaps there, was where her tragedy laid.

Lady Beryl gave out a tired sigh as she stepped back into her shadow realm. Revolution was hard work, and even if she was corrupting many of her new minions with dark powers, she couldn't very well flaunt it too openly. At least, not until Lord Kunzite was in her grasps and Prince Endymion was close to falling into the trap she'd set for him. One must practice patience if one was to succeed, contrary to Queen Metallia's beliefs. Now, there was a being that was obviously too powerful to care about the nuances of success or even consider the possibilities of failure.

She often wondered what the witch would do without her, though she was careful not to think such thoughts in the other's presence.

Her dark hair faded into crimson and her peasant dress turned into a gown of royal purple as she entered the long hallway. Rags turned into jewels and plainness to beauty, and that was how Lady Beryl saw herself. The universe viewed Earth like the men in her armies viewed her, a symbol of change but no more than that. Beneath the fragile facade, however, was a treasure and a power unknown, waiting for her to wield it.

The Kings were talking amongst themselves, but their conversations quickly ended at her entrance. They bowed their heads and dared not watch her approach. While she ascended to her throne, they gathered at the bottom of the staircase and knelt in reverence and obedience.

Lady Beryl smiled as she seated herself, pausing in her thoughts of conquest to admire her recent prizes. Of course, her quiet campaign to win over the other Kings had been going very successfully with Lord Jadeite's help. He was so very good at manipulating the minds of others, something she always had an inkling of, but never guessed at the extent of those untapped talents. He had been too ethical in the past, so it had been hard to tell where he could go with what he had, but such habits had made him very discreet. It was a bonus, for Lady Beryl doubted that favor would be on her side completely until all the Kings were hers. Of course, to ensure their future loyalties, Lady Beryl bided her time on how to best bind them to her even more so than they were now.

"Lord Kunzite will be the hardest," Lady Beryl mused to herself, while admiring her own accomplishments. She tapped a long finger against the arm of her chair and watched with curious distrust while Lord Jadeite knelt at her feet as did Lord Nephrite and Zoicite. They were splayed before her, a tally of bodies now in her possessions. Still, there was something she could not put her finger on. A restlessness that visited her whenever she looked at them, it made her uneasy. Until the binding with all four Kings were done in oaths of blood, at the very least, she would not be secure in their devotions.

It had taken some refining to her technique, but she was able to convert the other two without having to resort to bringing in outside help. In the end, their hearts weren't so corrupted and she could trust them to be a bit less likely to remember unpleasant memories. This time, she had whole bodies to work with instead of just parts, though it was always the most important part that mattered.

"Soon," she promised with an anticipatory smile, "my collection would be complete."

Still, Metallia's impatient suggestions could not be fully trusted. To ensure her current Queen didn't betray her with her new subjects, Lady Beryl needed to make sure these men could never betray her. Lord Kunzite, the last of Endymion's supporters and the most challenging, he would be the last piece to the crown she would prepare for Endymion's rise. They would all be hers soon, though she must ensure their loyalties were absolute, as would be her powers when this was all over.

It had been a risky gamble with Lord Jadeite, especially when he had gotten quite a bit further than she had thought he had any powers left to do. He was rather an accident, stumbling upon her when she had been aiming for Lord Zoicite, the youngest and least experienced King. Yet, because of that incident, the Moon had closed off all communications with Earth because of what it had found. Perhaps she should be glad, for now she had one more reason to use against them and it didn't appear they were sharing the intelligence needed to set anyone against her.

And who was to say she was lying? The Moon could very well be planning an attack on the Earth and stealing their resources once oppositions were out of the way. They could very well be threatened by powers they had never thought the Earth could possess.

"Show me the last man standing," Beryl said with an indulgent smile as she trailed her nail along the crystal ball. "All of his weaknesses," she purred. "Hadi, the Middle Eastern King of Earth."

Beneath her, the Dark Generals waited, as still and as silent as marble busts.


For sm-monthly LJ community challenge, theme 10: Plan.