"Sailor Moon" is the property of Takeuchi Naoko.
Expecting to awaken in her dimly-lit, strawberry scented bedroom with Luna lying at her feet, her senses were momentarily thrust into confusion upon finding herself in a completely dark place, feeling enclosed, surrounded by a strange, unfamiliar smell, and the sound of soft, steady breathing off to her side.
She blinked into the darkness, then let out a huge sigh and flopped back down onto her pillow as memory returned to her.
Of course. She was in the Dark Kingdom. That was why it was so dark. There was no sun, no moon, and were no stars in the Dark Kingdom. She was in the Dark Kingdom, in Kunzite's private quarters. Sharing his bed, no less. That was why there was no night-light. That was why the mattress under her was softer than she was used to, the sheets more silken, the coverlet heavier. That was why the pillow beneath her head had a strange scent to it, smelling of some sort of rich blossom, underlayed with a more solid, more masculine scent. Also slightly musky. It was somehow familiar, even while it was entirely new. It reminded her of--
She jerked back up, her cheeks flaming so that she thought they might glow in the darkness about her. It reminded her of the dream she had just awakened from, and perhaps explained it. And it was *not* a dream she felt comfortable remembering.
She lay back down, her face and ears afire, her heart pounding wildly in her chest, which felt too tight to allow her to draw a complete breath. She was hot all over, and her hands, clutching the coverlet, were shaking. She felt shaky through and through, and her muscles all were warm and loose, yet tightly wound at once. Her stomach hurt.
Beside her, Kunzite rolled over. She gasped and started into a sitting position once more.
"Blast it, girl, will you lay still?!" A light flickered into life somewhere in the room, filtering dimly through the velvet hanging which enclosed the bed, and falling through the crack in this curtain to stripe across the black coverlet over Usagi's legs.
Kunzite blinked at her irritably, propped up on one elbow, his silvery hair stringing in his dark face and trailing over the shoulders of his black shirt, his pale silver eyes narrowed. "What are you popping up and down like a Ferris Wheel for?"
Usagi's eyes widened. "You know about Ferris Wheels?"
Kunzite gave her a queer look, though she had thought it was a perfectly reasonable question. "What's your problem anyway?" he asked, scowling.
Usagi flushed again. Now there was a question she couldn't, and wouldn't, answer! "N-n-nothing."
Kunzite stared at her for a long moment, then snorted and rolled over, casting the room into darkness once more. "Well, lay still, goddamn it, or you're going to end up on the floor. Which hasn't grown any carpeting, by the way."
Usagi stifled a sigh and sank back within the warm sheets, trying to relax. Oh man, if Luna knew where she was right now, she'd kill her! Usagi shifted before catching herself. In spite of Kunzite's assurances, she was suddenly consumed with fears that someone -- Mamoru! -- would find out she had shared the Dark Kingdom ruler's bed. Even though nothing had happened in it -- outside her dreams.... She blushed again, then forced her mind away from *that* subject. Even though nothing had happened, even though it was perfectly... well, *mostly* innocent, and was going to remain so as far as she could foresee, it would certainly look bad. Especially to those ready to believe the worst, like Rei-chan.
Suddenly she wondered how the other senshi were doing, how they were dealing with her disappearance. She scowled. Rei-chan had probably already declared her a traitor, and taken over the leadership. Then she grinned. Not that she thought Mako-chan would stand for that! And Minako-chan just might have a say in the matter as well. She just hoped they wouldn't do anything stupid and get in the way of her mission. Perhaps inner squabblings would keep them out of the way. But she couldn't count on that. Not that there was anything she could think to do to prevent--
"If you're having trouble sleeping, I'm sure I can work something out."
Kunzite's voice was smooth with menace and deep with barely contained anger. Usagi was suddenly aware she had been tossing and turning, and the sheets were all twisted about her bare legs and slender hips. Not to mention, she had been annoying her bed partner. To put it mildly.
"Gomen," she whispered, trying to free her legs with a minimum of movement. "I'm just... I'm just wondering how we're going to set about killing Queen Beryl." Only a small lie, and she suddenly found it to be true.
Kunzite was silent. Usagi finally got herself untangled, and tugged the sheets and coverlet back into some sort of order, then settled back against her pillow, staring up at the darkness overhead. That made her eyes ache, however, so she closed them. The scent from the pillow was strong, especially with nothing else to concentrate on, and her stomach began hurting again.
"That depends," Kunzite said finally, startling her. She heard him shift position slightly and she tensed unconsiously, before forcing herself to relax.
"Whether we want to live through it or not."
"Of course we do!"
Usagi's eyes snapped open and she looked over at where Kunzite lay, even though she knew she wouldn't be able to see him. "What's that supposed to mean?" She hadn't liked his tone of voice. It had sounded too bitter, too hopeless, too drear for her.
He sighed. "What do you think is going to happen to me after we kill Beryl?"
"Uh...." That wasn't something Usagi had thought to think on. "Um...."
"Let me tell you. I will either become a traitor to the entire realm, hunted by each inhabitant, with a very short remaining life-span, or I will have to take up the rulership of the Dark Kingdom in Beryl's place, which would bring me into direct conflict with you. And that is something I cannot do, thanks to the bonding we undertook."
Usagi drew in a long, quavering breath. "Oh. I hadn't considered...."
"That's all right. As long as the bitch is dead, no price is too great."
"But-- But-- That's just not right! Why can't you come and live on Earth?"
Kunzite laughed. "Oh, I can just see that. How many job openings are there for misguided peons out for world-domination, do you think?"
Usagi bit her lip. "But you can't just give up!"
"And do you really think Prince Endymion will let me live, with the bond there is between us now?"
Usagi felt her eyes prickling with sudden tears. "But you-- But I-- Wh- why didn't you mention any of this before?"
"Would you have agreed to attempt it then?"
"Then that's why I didn't tell you."
The tears were trickling hot down her cheeks. "There's got to be something...."
"What does it matter? I'll make sure that you get through this in one piece, and you'll have your beloved Tuxedo Kamen back."
This time there wasn't the slightest hint of mocking in his voice. Usagi choked on a hard sob. "But--"
"Just go to sleep."
"But--" But she couldn't think of anything further to say, any more protests to make. She held onto her sobs in the dark silence until it became too painful, and one slipped out, accompanied by a fresh gouting of tears. She rolled over, burying her face in the pillow, hoping that might help. It didn't.
"Are you crying?" Kunzite suddenly queried from the darkness.
Usagi felt him move closer, and his hand hovered in the darkness just over her shoulder, but he drew it back before it touched her. "Why are you crying?" He sounded confused. "I told you you'd be fine."
Sudden anger flared in her chest. "How can you just give up like that?!"
She rolled over and sat up. "How can you give up? Coward! You damn coward!"
"What?" He was too surprised to become angry, yet.
"If you're going into this planning on not coming back out, then you can just forget about it!" Usagi was snarling. She gripped the coverlet tightly to keep from striking out at Kunzite. She couldn't remember ever having been this angry before, not when Jadeite tried to kill her, not when Nephrite had used Naru-chan's affections so callously, or even when Zoisite had very nearly succeeded in killing Tuxedo Kamen. But then, everyone she had become angry at in the past had been set on destroying her or someone she loved, about which she could do something. This was different. This was someone who wanted to destroy himself. Life and the love of living flared hot in her, and burned away any remaining hesitance or fear that might have lurked in her heart. If he said one more word, she truly *would* hit him, hard, and the consequences be damned! She glared into the darkness which she knew cloaked his face, and continued, her voice as passionate and strong as the flames burning in her chest. "You might just as well send me back home or kill me here, because I'm not going to help you self- destruct! I didn't agree to help you with anything that stupid!!"
"Now wait a minute!" He was finally, belatedly, growing angry. But he was too late, and Usagi continued her furious tirade.
"No! I will not! I'm not going to let you do it! Either we both come out of this, or we both die! There will be no compromise!"
"And what happens afterward, with Endymion?" He almost sounded timid, but there was still a great deal of bitterness and hopelessness in his voice.
"I don't know" Usagi admitted. Another thought had occurred to her, and she decided to try another tack. "What happens to me if you die?" she demanded. "Will the bond just break, like that? Somehow I really don't think so! Had you considered that?" She wasn't certain how much this would impact Kunzite, as they had been enemies up until a few hours ago, and could at any time revert back to that, breaking their uneasy truce. But Nephrite had grown to love Naru-chan, at least a little. And on that cruise ship, Jadeite had not been unaffected by Usagi in her photographer disguise. Not to mention, Kunzite seemed to have sincerely cared about Zoisite -- why, she had no clue, the slimy, sneaky, effete little weasel -- and had been clearly distraught at his death. So perhaps true emotions weren't lost to him. And anything was worth a shot. Besides, she couldn't have stopped her mouth if she'd tried, if she'd wanted to.
Kunzite was silent. "No, I hadn't. I should never have--"
"No!" A point gained, though she wasn't certain what the score was. "No regrets! For one thing, it does no good. For another, this is the only way to do it, so this is the way we *will* do it! We're going to go through with this, and we're going to do it in such a way that we bring everything down! Do you hear me? Everything! And afterwards, you're returning to Earth with me, and you're going to build a new life for yourself."
"Bring down the entire Dark Kingdom?" He was incredulous.
Kunzite suddenly chuckled wearily. "When did you become so ambitious, little senshi?" he asked, his tone very nearly affectionate.
Usagi shrugged, feeling her anger fading away, though it did not die entirely. "I only want to get everything over with and finished. And most of all, I want both of us to come out of this and have a chance."
Kunzite sighed and flopped back down on the bed. "You don't ask much."
Usagi lay down in her turn. "I don't like unhappy endings," she said firmly.
The only reply was silence, and slowly she began to drift off, worn out by her burst of vehemence.
"I'm tired of being lonely," Kunzite suddenly whispered from the darkness. "I don't want to be alone forever. I don't want to be alone anymore."
"You're not alone," Usagi whispered back, blinking sleepily. She could feel his pain throbbing in the back of her mind, and she was just too wiped out to speak anything but the truth. "Look inside," she urged. "I'm there."
"I'm afraid to. You're too light, too innocent, too *good*. There's too much there."
"Then I'll have to be *here*." Usagi scooted over beneath the covers and wrapped her arms around Kunzite's broad chest. "Nan-nanii?!"
She frowned as he tried to pull away. She could feel his heart pounding against her cheek. "Just relax," she grumbled.
"No. Now, be quiet, and go to sleep!"
And to the infinite surprise of both of them, he did just that, Usagi falling into slumber scant moments later.
Ami blew her short blue bangs up in exasperation and raised her eyes from her computer to give her tall brunette friend a hard look.
"For the fourth time in the last half hour," she said, fairly calmly, "I'm working on it as fast as I can, and your periodic nagging is not going to get anything accomplished any more quickly. In fact it just may impede--"
"All right, all right, forget I asked!"
Makoto flopped heavily down on a convenient cushion and brooded. They had all gathered in Rei's bedroom, having risen before dawn for this purpose. That is, if any of them had slept at all. Mako knew she hadn't, not even a wink, and from the looks of the other three girls, she wasn't alone in that. Ami-chan didn't look too bad, only a slight shadowing beneath her deep blue eyes, and a mild disarray of her cropped locks. Rei-chan was in worse shape. Her eyes were dark, her face wan, and her normally shiny hair hung flat and limp. Mako cast a glance over at the girl's bed. The sheets and blanket were tangled and bunched, so evidently Rei had attempted to rest, but it looked as though she had failed, and further, hadn't even had the energy or inclination to tidy up before her friends came over. Not that Mako blamed her at all for this. A quick glance in her own mirror before she set out had had her wincing, but she hadn't done anything about her appearance, beyond dragging a hand through her tattered ponytail. She hadn't brushed her hair, and unless she actually looked, she couldn't have told what clothes she was wearing at the moment. But it was Minako that worried Mako the most, and while she found it surprising that, for all appearances, the other blonde was the hardest hit by Sailor Moon's rash actions, she could not deny that it was so. She looked at her new friend, frowning.
Minako huddled miserably in a corner, her arms wrapped tightly about her up-drawn knees, her head bowed so that her golden hair fell to curtain her features. But Mako had seen her when she had come into the room, and had been shocked. The lovely blonde had looked as haggard as a fourteen year old could, deep, bruised-looking bags beneath her pale blue eyes, eyes that took up just too much of her face, wide and blank above cheeks pale, nearly translucent, except for the two hard spots of red jarring across her cheekbones. Her lips were nearly colorless, and the lower had been clearly chewed until it had bled. She was still wearing the same clothes that she had had on the night before, the warm ocher sweater now soiled and tattered looking, the sharp, crisp pleats of the short orange- brown skirt now limp. Minako had retreated to the corner immediately upon entering the room, and hadn't involved herself in any of the conversation or quarreling that had taken place so far. Mako might have hoped that the blonde was getting some rest, except that she could see from the tenseness of her limbs, stiffness of her torso, and the way her white fingers were plucking obsessively at the sleeves of her sweater that any such hope would have been a vain one.
Not long ago the two cats had departed, saying they would be back shortly. Luna had been beside herself most of the evening before, and probably much of the night, though Mako wasn't going to be crass enough to ask Ami-chan, with whom the small black cat had stayed. Luna had known something was wrong even before the senshi had brought her the news of just what had occurred. She had felt it. And things only got worse when they found out Rei-chan had the moon stick, and Usagi had left the rest of her things -- apart from the brooch -- on her bed. Luna had fainted dead away at first, then had a strong set of hysterics, before settling down a little. But only a little.
Artemis, on the other hand -- or was that paw? -- had been a rock. It wasn't that he didn't care; he was as worried as the rest of them, though he didn't perhaps take it quite as personally as all the females. But Mako wondered how they would have gotten through the first couple hours without his steadying presence. Her heart told her that if they hadn't had Artemis, someone else probably would have risen to the challenge, and it probably would have been her. So, all in all, she was very grateful the slim white cat had been present. She didn't feel up to being the strong one.
He had helped calm Luna as much as possible, had directed Sailor Venus to go retrieve Usagi's discarded Sailor Moon paraphernalia, and, when it became painfully clear there was nothing they could do that night, had ordered everyone off to their respective homes.
Mako sighed. Whatever he and Luna were off doing must be important, for him to leave Minako's side. Before the two felines had left, he had drawn Mako aside and very seriously begged her to keep an eye on his charge. Mako bit her lip, recalling his stern words.
**"None of you know Minako-chan as well as I, nor as deeply as you think. I feel that there's the strong possibility she may try to slip away and do something stupid. She's more likely to be rash than you, and more likely to try something aggressive than Rei-chan. Believe me."**
And, strangely, she did. So until Artemis returned, and probably afterward as well, Minako wasn't even going to the bathroom alone. Mako would see to that.
"What the hell was that air-head thinking?!" Rei was ranting, asking the same question for the hundredth time. Mako noticed a little resentfully that Ami-chan didn't yell at *her*. But then, Rei hadn't been speaking directly to Ami, nor had she managed to draw the girl-genius' attention away from her computer. Mako sure hoped Ami-chan would start making some progress soon, or someone was going to blow up. And as she bit back a sharp retort, she thought it was probable it would be she and Rei, and that any ensuing battle would not be a pretty sight.
But again she was wrong, and again it was Minako that surprised her.
"Of all the stupid things that stupid little snip has done, this has got to be the stupidest!" Rei was not even close to finished, though she had been going on in this vein for over an hour straight. "How could she do this? Now the Dark Kingdom has her, and we're dead meat! We might just as well give up now! What was she thinking? Even someone as brainless as Usagi must know she can't take on the entire Dark Kingdom herself! Not and-- "
Three heads whipped around to Minako. She was now standing, every joint in her body locked, an expression of pure fury distorting her lovely face. She had screamed the two words at the top of her lungs, and almost immediately Rei's grandfather peered in the room, concerned. But after one quick look at Minako, he swiftly retreated, closing the door firmly and padding away as fast as his short legs would carry him. Whatever problems Rei and her little friends were having, they could deal with them on their own! No one had ever accused him of being a foolhardy man.
"Minako--" Mako began, knowing she was being imprudent, but not able to hold her tongue.
"NO!" Minako yelled, rounding on the tall brunette now. Mako drew in a painful breath at the cold blue fires that were Minako's eyes, burned into cavernous holes in her white face. She had never seen anyone this furious, nor this anguished. Her own green eyes stung with sudden tears of sympathy, but Minako hadn't the capacity to see them at the moment, nor would she have cared if she had.
"No! You don't understand! None of you understand! Especially not you." She rounded venomously on Rei, nearly hissing the last word. Now her eyes were narrowed to slits, but were no less enraged. "You've never understood, and obviously you never will!"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Rei was getting over her shock, and was growing angry in her turn. But her irritation was a small leaf in the gale-force winds of Minako's fury, and the blonde swept right over her words, only barely acknowledging that they had been spoken.
"All you see is a blonde ditz. You think she's a loser and a 'wimp'. But would you have entered the Dark Kingdom for Tuxedo Kamen? Is your love that strong?!"
A hurt look flashed across Rei's flushed face, and Minako acknowledged it with a look of triumphant disdain. "Think back to what you said in the Starlight Tower. If Usagi was really so unworthy of his sacrifice, then why is she so willing to sacrifice herself for him?"
"Minako, please--" Mako began again, but Minako slashed the air in a negatory gesture.
"No! None of you get it, do you? Usagi did what she did because she couldn't do anything else. You don't realize what she represents. You don't know what she *is*. Don't you see?" She was nearly pleading as she aimed this last question at Makoto. But she got no response beyond a blank look. An expression of pure agony rippled across her young face. "You don't know what she's given up. You just don't understand--"
"What's going on here?"
Mako breathed a heavy sigh of relief. The cats had returned. Maybe Artemis could talk some sense back into Minako.
The blonde fell to her knees before the white cat, clasping her hands, her burning eyes wide and pained. "Tell them, Artemis! They have to know!"
"No. They can't know unless they *know*," Artemis replied, almost sadly. "And, dearheart, be careful that you don't get yourself confused with our princess."
Minako gave him a betrayed look and retired back to her corner without any further words.
The silence that descended upon the room seemed as thick and heavy as a soaked blanket. Mako bit her lip, hoping Rei wouldn't be dumb enough to light back into Minako. But the dark-haired girl just stood, looking extremely confused and very nonplussed. Ami was back to tapping away at her computer. Luna and Artemis still stood in the doorway. Luna was looking at her companion curiously, clearing without a clue as to what he and his charge had been talking about.
"So, what were you two doing?" Mako asked, hardly daring to break the stillness, but not able to stand it any longer.
"We had to--" Luna began, but she was interrupted by a triumphant crow from Ami.
"I found it!"
"Found what?" Mako asked.
"Duh!" Rei shot her a scathing look. "What was she looking for? It's an entrance to the Dark Kingdom, of course!"
Mako glared back, tempted to belt her fellow senshi a good one. She knew Rei must still be smarting from Minako's attack, and was just taking it out on her, but she still would've smacked her anyway, if she hadn't been so eager to hear what Ami had to say.
"Where is it?" she asked.
"You're not going to believe this."
Ami looked up, her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining. Something that looked almost like a silly grin hovered around the corners of her mouth. "It's just beside the back door of the Crown Arcade."
Rei looked confused as Mako burst into hearty laughter.
"Whoo-hoo! Who woulda thought!" Mako hooted, slapping her knee.
Luna looked shocked, then chagrined. "All this time, and I never felt it," she muttered. "I mean, I went there at *least* once a week before I found out Artemis was Central Control!"
"Best place to hide something," the white cat said, amused. "Under your enemy's very nose. That's the last place anyone thinks to check."
"Be that as it may," Luna said, sitting and thrashing her tail over the floor, "We have a bigger problem."
"What's the problem?" Mako inquired. "Now that we know where the entrance is, we just go in, grab Usagi-chan and Mamoru, do as much damage as we can, and get out!"
Artemis gave her an exasperated look. "First off, Mako-chan, it wouldn't be even close to that easy. Secondly, our problem, while concerning the Dark Kingdom, is somewhat off the subject of our princess."
"What is it?" Ami asked, looking anxiously from Luna to Artemis. Cat's faces weren't as easy to read as humans', but it was clear both of them were beyond worried.
Artemis took over the telling, Luna gratefully allowing him to do so. "We went out to check on something. You know you girls affect our extra senses, even when you're not transformed. Well, as soon as we were far enough away, we felt it."
"A great amassing of Dark power. It's far away, but strong. Ami, see if you can find the source on your computer."
It took her less than a minute.
"Goddess!" she gasped. "There's a huge sink in the north! Greenland I think. It's like a doorway to the Dark Kingdom, only it's about ten hundred times larger than that would need to be, and its growing every second!"
"That's what we feared," Artemis said, his head drooping.
"So, what's the problem?" Mako asked again.
Luna looked heartbroken. "The problem is, we cannot allow this amassing to continue unchecked."
"We can't...." Mako's voice trailed away as she realized exactly what it was the black cat was saying. "NANII?! You can't be suggesting--"
"We have no choice," Artemis said, raising his head as Luna bowed hers. "This is clearly the presage to a full-scale attack."
"But we have to rescue Usagi!"
"And what if we rescue her, and there's no world to come back to?" Artemis countered. It was clear that the words he spoke pained him, but it was equally clear he was going to stand his ground.
"You can't be serious!" Rei gasped, only just coming to realize the full import of the conversation.
"I can be, and I am. Girls, we always realized that the good of the whole is more important than the good of the individual. That's easier to apply to ourselves, but it's not any less true when we must apply it to another."
"No!" Rei protested. "You can't-- we can't--"
"We can't just leave her there!" Mako finished for her. She glared at Artemis, but he was unflinching.
"If Queen Beryl defeats the world while we are in the Dark Kingdom," Ami spoke up, "Then we won't be able to rescue Usagi-chan from the Dark Kingdom, because there won't *be* anything else."
Mako bit back harsh words, for she could see the conflict in Ami's dark blue eyes, and could sense that while the girl-genius gave utterance to the plain and simple facts, her heart was not behind them. Ami was just brave enough to face what Mako and Rei weren't able to yet.
"She's still alive," Artemis put in. "We all would be able to sense if anything really bad happened to her, and so far she's alive and unharmed. The gods only know how, but if she's made it this long without getting killed off, she should be good for a while yet."
"Yeeeesss...." Rei was reluctant to accede the point, but there was little denying the truth, and the truth was, they really didn't have a choice.
"Great Zeus," Mako muttered beneath her breath. "All right. I guess we have to do this. The sooner we get it over with the sooner we can rescue Usagi-chan. So, how do we get there? We're not taking a plane, I assume."
"A Circle of the Planets should do," Artemis said. "It will be more difficult without our leader and princess, but I think we can use the ginzuishou to make up for that."
"Then let's book!" Now that her mind was made up, as much as she hated the plan, Makoto was eager to get underway.
Luna stood, then paused for a long moment. "Uh.... Artemis? Girls?"
"Yes, Luna?" Ami asked as she tucked her computer away.
"I think we may have another small problem on our hands."
"Another one?" Mako groaned, brushing her bangs from her eyes.
"What is it?" asked Artemis.
"Just wondering, really.... Where's Minako?"
Artemis and Mako whipped their heads around to the corner, now conspicuously empty.