Chapter 1: Belonging
It crept towards her slowly but surely: a tide that was silent and cautious only until it knew that there was no escape. Against the shoreline it shattered and seized the thing it had been stalking all along with a mighty roar, engulfing its prey in whitewater and dragging it back into the depths of the ocean. By then, it was too late to hope for another fate, to scramble to the surface for breath; there was only an infinite ocean and fleeting time.
The thought came to her in the same predatory way, slowly unfurling like a melody in the depths of her mind, until it struck suddenly and consumed everything in its path. A wicked idea rooted itself in her brain with no intent to let go, and she began to slowly wither as it feasted on her.
I don't belong here.
Mindless chatter filled the room with a pleasant hum. On either side of her, her family—though she was beginning to have her doubts—lightly conversed, their words interspersed with soft clinks of metal utensils against porcelain. The weather had grown particularly unpleasant in the recent days. A knife cleaved through the flesh of a chicken. When the next soiree would be. The hilt of a spoon thudded against the wood tabletop. If she was ready to bear children. A glass stirring rod rattled against the sides of a teacup.
"Oh," she blushed, realizing that the last question had been directed at her. "It seems rather early for that, doesn't it?"
Across the table, her husband raised a white brow and paired it with the slightest smirk, almost amused at her embarrassment.
"Six years? It seems rather late, if anything." Esmeraude's lips puckered as if she had just tasted something sour. Huffing a breath, she upended a silver saucer over and drowned the contents of her plate in a deep burgundy-colored sauce.
True, most queens had flourishing broods of heirs to care for by the time they reached her age, but she had remained steadfast in her decision to only consider having a child when she felt that she was ready. She had always assumed that her reservations were natural, but now it occurred to her that perhaps there was a reason as to why she had never felt ready despite it all.
Buying herself time to formulate a worthy retort, she quickly cut off a sliver of chicken and guided it into her mouth, taking care to chew extra slowly. As words, excuses, swirled about in her mind, she silently cursed Esmeraude and her compulsion to argue whenever the opportunity arose. Many an unpleasant conversation could have been avoided if the woman had any mind to hold her tongue.
"Surely you've grown impatient with this, Demando." When she failed to rouse a response from Serenity, Esmeraude directed the topic at the man seated at the head of the table. "Every other king has an heir except for you. What would happen if you were to fall ill?"
"Then I should hope that the others have learned very well what it means to cross me." He mused, chasing his words with a torrent of wine.
Esmeraude frowned. "Still, does it not concern you that your..." Her lips twisted in disgust, "...wife isn't willing to bear you a child?"
The pleasant, light-hearted air around him froze instantly. His smirk hardened into a grim line, his brows knitting together. Serenity could visualize the storm clouds settling above his head, gray and brooding and purring with thunder. As if pondering the question asserted by his general, he sat quietly, watching the wine in his glass swirl in an eternal loop as he tipped the glass back and forth.
"Are you suggesting that something is wrong with her judgment? Or mine for the matter?" He finally asked, tone cool and laced with threat.
"Never," she gushed. "I would never question your judgment."
Saphir grumbled from his place at the table, and Rubeus directed a venomous glare at her.
Brushing off her words, Demando looked to his wife. "My love, your thoughts?"
Pride swelled in her breast at the term of endearment. He could have had any woman he so desired, and he chose her. For a moment, it was almost enough to bay the uncertainty that flourished in her head. But soon the little fiend had found its place ruling her thoughts once more, and so she shyly offered: "I'm not ready."
"Then you have your answer." He declared. Violet eyes, little pools brewing with triumph, flickered back to the subordinate whose shoulders were hunched and whose head was ducked to hide the scarlet that bloomed on her cheeks.
A little murmur of agreement was all that came from her lips.
Victorious, Demando settled back in his chair and smirked, satisfied with himself. He locked gazes with his wife and tipped his glass in her direction, winking.
It should have been enough. His love and all the glory and grandeur that accompanied it should have been enough. He could quiet a room with a single glance, and would happily do so if she desired. She could ask for an entire planet to be razed, and he would never think twice about her request. He would hand her his bleeding heart if it were the only way to prove his love. If he knew about the fears that festered within her, he would force everyone to smile at her and offer infinite pleasantries and be merry, welcoming, every time she entered a room.
And it was that thought that made her recognize that perhaps she truly didn't belong.
Crimson light enveloped her, suspending her in an ocean of blood. All at once she felt her spine snap in two and her muscles lose their resolve and all of the thoughts in her mind empty into the air around. Ravenously, the darkness overtook her, leaking into her veins and slipping into the crevices between tissue, blighting her gentle form. As shadow poured into her and obliterated her light, all she felt was pain—devastating, overwhelming pain.
"Mamo..." her lips moved of their own accord, muttering a name whose owner she could no longer remember.
And then she fell into a deep sleep.
Her nightly serenade was the relentless whisper of uncertainty in her head; it filled her with endless fears: she wasn't good enough for everyone to accept, her resolve in not having a child was unfounded, her husband would grow tired of her antics and leave her for a more accommodating woman.
But haven't I accommodated you enough, agreeing to live in such a harsh place?
She never understood why, especially when she looked out into the inky void beyond the terrace doors, her husband had chosen Nemesis as the capitol of his galactic empire. There were planets far more temperate than their current home, including the damned Earth that wavered between being mostly unpleasant and slightly uninhabitable. At least on that planet there were things to see: ruins of a once-magnificent palace seemingly crafted entirely out of glass, a sky mostly eclipsed by smog but that offered occasional glimmers of blue, little blades of green amidst the ocean of obsidian monoliths.
"This place used to be beautiful?" She inquired, on a rare visit to the planet.
"Once, but it was very sick." He replied at length. Some unintelligible emotion cast a shadow over his features. "I had to destroy it to stop the plague from spreading."
Even in decay, it was still undeniably more beautiful than Nemesis, which was hardly anything more than shadows shrouded in darkness. Often, she wondered what Earth was like in its prime, before her husband laid waste to the land, and why he never considered the possibility of restoring it to its former glory.
"Why do we continue to stay here if there's a whole galaxy of planets that is ours for the taking?"
"It's our home."
She never argued, but at the same time never truly believed him deep down. If she thought back far enough, she would always hit that hole in her memory where things like her home and her family and her childhood existed; daring to explore what lie beyond her earliest memory of waking up in bed the morning her life changed only met her with emptiness and oblivion. And so she had to accept it when they told her that she was born on Nemesis, that she was a daughter of one of the royal houses, that she had miraculously survived the plague that killed off all her relatives despite how wrong all of it seemed.
The door leading to the adjoining bathroom swung open, grabbing her attention. In the doorway, white locks dripping with water, Demando stood with a towel loosely hanging from his hips. "Did you miss me?"
"Always." She smiled.
A pleased grin playing on his lips, he crossed the room with ease, arriving at the bed in only a few strides. Easing himself onto the side, he ran a hand through his white mane and gently shook the water from his locks. Droplets soared, falling to the dark sheets below.
From underneath the covers, she crawled and breached the barrier of space between them, tackling him from behind. Serenity curled her arms around his shoulders and buried her face into the hollow of his neck, peppering his skin with feather-light kisses. Cool beads of water dripped onto her neck and bare shoulders, evoking whispers of chills that slid across the surface of her skin and murmured in her muscles. She felt his hands claim hers, all cold and rigid, so inhuman. She had always thought of him as her perpetual winter: forever cold and white on the exterior, beautiful and dangerous, hiding a realm of warmth that slept beneath.
"Esmeraude," He broke the comfortable silence that had fallen between them, "she's just irritable."
"And jealous too, even after all of this time." She murmured against his skin. "Are you upset with me for wanting to wait?"
He grew still in her arms. Unwinding himself from her grasp, he turned to face her, bringing a hand to her cheek. His palm was ice against the warmth of her flesh, and still, even with six years time to grow accustomed to the sensation, she struggled to bay the cringe that threatened to possess her body.
"I could never be upset with you, my love." He insisted. Violet eyes held all of the softness and warmth that his body lacked. "But I do hope that you'll reconsider. Soon."
Brushing the pad of his thumb across the supple skin of her cheek, he placed a gentle kiss on the inky crescent nestled between her brows.
Guilt flirted with her resident uncertainty, mingling with one another until an awful, aching brew throbbed in her chest. He would be so disappointed with her, hate her, even, if he knew the nature of her reservations. As he pulled back the coverlets and guided her down onto the sheets, she couldn't help but let a new but all too lofty fear nag at her. Winter he may have been in his penchant for apathy, but winter he was in his capacity for ruthlessness. Would all of the love in the universe protect her from him if he suddenly decided her obstinacy was vexing?
The dim candlelight perished as he settled next to her beneath the sheets. He draped an arm across her waist, a motion usually so comforting, but now practically suffocating. The weight resting upon her was but a physical manifestation of all of the wicked storms of fear in her head.
Immersed in total darkness, she was left staring at the one thing that she could still see: those violet eyes that seemed to glow even in the realm of night. Again, they were a usual comfort that now seemed so menacing. The eyes of a predator, not a lover, who seemed capable of devouring her with a single gaze.
And to add insult to injury, in the darkness of her mind, there was a little whisper of water against sand.
Catatonic. Wounded. She was in his arms, bleeding ichor all over his clothes, his skin, his wicked heart. Gold weakly assaulted all—her last pitiful fight—slathering the sleeves of his jacket, eclipsing the lavish embroidery encasing his chest, spilling onto the floors below. Crimson ribbons dripped off her body and fluttered in the false breeze around them, taunting him with the idea of wings.
The very things she no longer possessed.
Chapter 2: Fractured
Gray. Soft and timid and fickle. It was the first color that demanded to be seen each time she opened her eyes and greeted the waking day, the last she beheld when twilight turned nightfall.
The morning was no different than the ones that preceded it or the ones that would come after. With the faintest of chills slipping in through the covers, she woke to the sight of the ivory ceiling and matching walls whose shades were muted by the ubiquitous filter of gray. It was not entirely pleasant—the dullness that seemed to pervade every last inch of the room—but still preferable to the darkness that had once suffocated her when it had belonged only to her husband. She was quite pleased with herself, still, for managing to argue that brooding walls of Jakokuzuishou did not a lovely bedroom make.
"Good morning." Demando greeted as soon as he first noticed her stir.
Gently, he rolled her onto her side so that she was facing him. Always, she first noticed his eyes: brilliant violet, never touched by the gray. And quite alert too, as if sleep had never befell him. Sometimes she wondered if perhaps he never slept at all and just watched over her through the night, warding off any predators that dare lurk in the shadows.
"Good morning." She offered a slightly dazed smile. "Did you sleep well?"
"Well enough." He replied. "And you, my love?"
Cold, as to be expected, his hand came to rest on the side of her head, thumb flirting with the skin of her temple. Even with the thick blanket of golden strands separating his flesh from her scalp, frost still found a way to slip through the crevices in between her tresses and take up residence on her warm skin. The resulting shiver made her body tremble, but quickly he calmed her with a few languid strokes of his hand.
"Perfectly, as usual." She beamed.
Pleased with her answer, he presented her with a warm smile of his own, a common occurrence when they were alone, a rare commodity in the presence of others. Carefully but aimlessly, Demando took to arranging the strands of hair that framed her face, the cool pads of his fingers grazing her skin every so often.
Uncomfortable comfort, she always thought of most things that he did for her. Gentle hands touched her, but were always laced with winter. Cooperation he won for her, but at the cost of forced acquiescence of those around.
You wouldn't have to do these things if I belonged.
"Six years, today." His fingertips skimmed the side of her neck, their temperature such a contrast to the blood burning beneath her flesh.
To temper the chill, she brought her own hand over his, hoping for once that his body's cool stubbornness might recede. "Eight if we count our courtship."
"Nine if we acknowledge the year I spent pursuing your affection." He grinned playfully.
"You were quite relentless." She laughed.
Forcing an arm between her waist and the sheets below, he curled the appendage around her abdomen and reeled her in to where their foreheads were but a breath away from one another's. "I thought that first dance made you as smitten as I was."
"As usual, you're giving yourself too much credit." She teased. "I danced with quite a few men that night. You were hardly anything special."
Feigning injury, he let a frown eclipse the smile dancing on his lips. "You wound me, my love. Truly."
"Come now," She cupped his cheeks, resting her forehead against his own despite the uncomfortable cold that washed over her. "I chose you in the end. Only you."
Softly, Serenity claimed her husband's lips. The hand that had taken up residence on her neck instantly slid to the base of her skull, fingers tangling with her locks. Around her waist still, his arm tightened its hold, bringing her torso flush against his own. Again her contrast, he crushed his lips against hers, as if the kiss was the last they would ever share. Impulsive, passionate, a worthy force in everything he ever did: all qualities that only seemed to magnify in her presence. It never ceased to amaze her of how quickly he could lose himself in a moment.
A low growl rumbled in his chest, and his hands wandered, pawing at the thin straps of her nightdress. He broke their kiss, only to move his lips to the warm flesh of her neck. She shuddered, half in pleasure, half from the relentless cold, as he pressed kisses into her skin and explored her body with his hands.
Lost together, neither of them noticed the knock on their bedroom door until their unexpected guest was occupying the entryway.
"Oh." Esmeraude's nose crinkled in disgust as she beheld the couple.
A look of annoyance passed over Demando's features as he begrudgingly tore himself away from his wife, but it was quickly lost to the apathy that ultimately reigned.
"Is it important?" He all but snapped.
"A man has requested an audience with her." She lazily motioned towards Serenity.
"What man? What does he want?" Violet eyes narrowed.
"He didn't say. Only that he wishes to meet with the Queen."
"Fine." Demando relented. "But this...visitor will entertain both of us."
Her mission fulfilled, Esmeraude turned on her heel, seething with envy, and fled the room that held the man she so desperately loved and the woman she so desperately hated.
Sighing, Demando pushed himself up into a sitting position, offering a hand to his wife to help her rise as well. The soft covers pooled at their waists, exposing his bare torso and her covered, but nonetheless cold, one to the biting air. She had half the mind to return to the warmth of their bed, and knew he would not object to doing so either, but was aware of the consequences that could arise should someone important wish to see her and be stood up.
"We'll continue this later." She assured, stroking his shoulder and brushing her lips against his cheek.
"If this isn't important, I'll kill him." He chuffed and rose from the bed.
Though she laughed at the words as she usually did, she honestly wondered that if perhaps sometimes he wasn't joking.
So cold, but angry still. She looked to her husband, who sat in his throne, stiff, and knew that any minor annoyance or provocation would be a war on his mood. Serenity prayed that whomever her visitor was would be mindful of his tempestuous temperament and graciously bear the aggression he was sure to exercise.
In her own throne, she fidgeted, still unaccustomed to occupying such an intimidating article of furniture and the accompanying title. Never one for politics, it was rare for her to be anything more than a wall fixture at events and even more rare to be requested by other nobles and subjects alike. Her husband was the monarch in existence, well-acquainted with every last element of government and rule, practically fashioned from uncontested power, while she was the monarch in title: a butterfly of stained glass wings and delicate nature.
Perhaps that day, however, was a deviation from her normal grandeur. Whereas she frequently haunted the corridors in ensembles torn from the pages of a storybook, she had only been granted a measly amount of time to dress that morning. A simple, but nonetheless luxurious, gown of softest rouge graced her form with a gossamer capelet of an even lighter shade secured around her frail shoulders to shield her from the cold as best it could.
It seemed even colder, too, than it normally was, as if winter had suddenly descended upon the throne room. And in a way it had; out of the corner of her eye, she watched her husband's fist curl into itself, knuckles turning a ghastly shade of white, only to release but moments later, skin adopting a familiar alabaster tone.
"This man has the gall to arrive unannounced and still can't be bothered to show up on time." He growled.
In hopes of placating him, she folded her hand over his clenched fist. "I'm sure there's a reason why he's late."
Maybe there was, maybe there wasn't. As powerful as ever, Demando's words seemed to summon the man from the depths of which he came. In unison, the doors parted, unveiling the visitor and the entourage of guards that had no doubt been ordered to shadow his every move. Impassively, they prodded him forward, some with the pointed tips of spears, others with magic, and in response he shuffled forth into the den of the beast.
The first thing she noticed about the man was that he hardly looked appropriate for a palace. His appearance teetered between simple and disheveled; one might consider his modest overcoat a step towards refinery in thought, but poor in execution, for it was riddled with crooked seams and frayed threads. His trousers, too, were of similar condition: not quite unkempt to be deserving of the title 'ragged' but hardly the lavish garments her eye was used to entertaining.
His features, however, were perhaps a step in the right direction; she felt comfortable remarking that he was rather handsome, if slightly boyish in his looks. A few years younger than herself, he possessed a full head of unruly auburn curls and anxious hazel eyes. His skin was a lovely shade of tan with a host of freckles blended in, as well as an occasional wrinkle or two on his forehead and around his eyes. And, whether from discomfort or burden, he was hunched over ever so slightly and possessed an awkward, uncertain gait.
Curiously, she regarded him as he took cautious steps towards the pair of thrones before him, head bowed sightly but to where his eyes were still visible. They darted around far too often for her liking, but still she felt that he was a rather endearing little creature.
"Majesties," he offered a shaky bow and sank to his knees.
"Good morning—" Serenity began to say, but was cut off by her husband.
"Your business, boy?" He inquired coolly.
"Ah-uh, yes." He stammered. "I've come with a gift for the Queen."
His fingers dove into the pocket of his coat, emerging with a threadbare handkerchief folded around a mystery item. He raised his eyes, meeting Serenity's gaze sheepishly, before beginning to unwrap the gift. "I found this in one of my village's shops. A curator told me that this had once belonged to the Queen, and insisted that I should return it to her, er...to you."
Carefully, he peeled back the last layer of cloth concealing the item. With the white pall gone, an unassuming locket rested in his palm. Of tarnished silver, it was perhaps once shaped like a star and served the function of being a timepiece but had clearly outlived those days; the face bore a gaping crack and the second hand was nothing more than a broken branch rattling around in the glass prison.
She could never recall owning such an item, nor could she imagine herself losing something important enough to require being returned—though that enormous hole in her memories reminded her that there was much she didn't know about her past. Still, she began to rise to accept it, but was interrupted by Demando, who flew from his seat.
Shock and fury among a host of other emotions had razed his icy exterior, taking her aback and long enough for him to act without her interference. Thrusting his hand forth, he snarled a curse at the boy, and violet waves sliced through the air towards him. Pure, unfettered power screamed as it connected with the boy's abdomen and sent his body hurtling back towards the closed doors. With a deafening crack, his head and spine slammed against the marble doors. His body collapsed in a limp heap on the floor below, leaving an angry streak of blood dripping down the ivory stone.
Horrified, Serenity rose from her own throne and seized Demando's arm.
"Why would you do that?" She cried.
He turned towards her, violet eyes ablaze with hatred, lips curled into a wolfish snarl, black crescent supplanted by that unsettling third eye. "You may be blind to people's malicious intentions, my love, but I am not. That thing is enchanted. Poisoned."
She looked to the pocket watch that lie broken on the floor, chain snapped in two, face a mosaic of glass shards, silver dented and warped beyond repair. Though she could not be sure that the item had ever been hers, she felt a pang of sorrow for the irreversible state of disrepair the item was in. A part of her wanted to collect the fractured watch and retire it to her jewelry box amongst other beloved pieces, but Demando snuffed that desire with his next act.
A halo of violet surrounded the watch and the fallen handkerchief that it had come in, reuniting the pair and subsequently delivering the clump of fabric and metal to her husband's palm. As if it had personally vexed him—and in a way it had—he glared at the concealed watch and slid it into the pocket of his slacks.
Stunned, still, Serenity stared at him as ice reclaimed his features once more, sealing all of his fury beneath a veil of apathy. He tipped his chin up, narrowing his eyes and appearing far more arrogant and ruthless than usual, and delivered his terse orders. "Get him out of my sight."
The guards collected the broken but still breathing boy, ferrying him out of the throne room with little word. She watched as crimson droplets dripped from his auburn curls and onto the floor below, forming a jagged trail of blood that made her stomach churn.
Fearfully, she looked back to Demando, who stood with his hands folded behind his back, assessing the empty room before him with triumphant eyes, as if he had just secured victory after a major battle. The slightest hint of a smirk prodded at the corner of his lips, the faintest traces of satisfaction glimmering in his eyes
"I imagine that our guests will take care of him tonight, don't you?" He mused.
Guilt bloomed in her chest again, not the familiar type that she constantly grappled with, but a kind reserved specifically for the boy whose torture had only begun. She knew that the punishment for an attempted assassination was execution, that if he had really intended to kill her then he had to be made an example of. But the memories of the ruthlessness and violent appetites of their guests made her knees weak, her stomach twist into unbreakable knots. And, if not of their own volitions, Demando would make sure they would drag things out.
Perhaps if she did not love him so, she would have cowered before him in fright. Still, when he held his hand out to her, and she took it, she wondered if she was obeying him out of fear or out of love.
Or if the emotions had begun to become indistinguishable.
Hollow. Healed. She was cocooned in tendrils of shadow, smothered in darkness. He watched as the inky tide swept over her form, erasing every last trace of who she was as it would footprints on the shoreline. Her hair lost its luster, her eyes that blue he had obsessed over. The crescent on her forehead eroded, the bloom of crystal resting on her breast shattering into thousands of pieces.
But slowly, everything returned. Gold infused itself back into every last strand of hair, ocean water returned to her gaze. Her crescent engraved itself on her brow once more, inverted and black as night. And shadows fled into the crystal shards, stitching the bloom back together until it was whole but entirely powerless.
Her metamorphosis complete, the cocoon shattered, dropping her limp body into his arms.
Chapter 3: Resilience
"Power comes from darkness." Demando reminded. He loomed over her from behind with a hand draped on her shoulder and the other flush to her abdomen. "If you want any of that power to be yours, you have to give it something in return."
She was trapped in that dark corridor within the deep recesses of her mind, tethered to the conscious world only by her husband's hands and the shallow, hissing breaths that slipped past her teeth. The space around her was empty, full of that same pitch and hollow black that swallowed all but the things primeval and unholy—things just like the door that stared back at her from the shadows. This was the face of the Jakokuzuishou—the only one she had ever seen—and behind it, creatures were straining against their shackles, begging for release with the sibilant whisper of their claws against wood, howling in displeasure when the barrier remained still. Her own body was just as unwavering as she kept her gaze level with the crystal-studded carvings on the door and felt for the grooves in the stone wall at her back.
Only four years of conscious memory, and still humanity's demons had given her enough darkness to make her both vulnerable to and highly desired by the nefarious entity. Though her husband's cool voice from beyond instructed her to give in, Serenity probed her barricade for any weaknesses and was relieved to find that there were none.
It was not worth it; she had spent years forging a fortitude that could withstand the most fearsome internal storms. Imprisoned, her jealousy of Esmeraude; her discontent with having no past; and her frustration with being constantly surrounded by people who could not understand that tragedy, lie dormant. Her hard-earned happiness was worth more than whatever power the Jakokuzuishou could offer, and she strained against the seemingly insuperable gravity of the bond until it began to crumble beneath the weight of her resolve. Quietly, she slipped back into her conscious mind, eyes full of defiance as she beheld the intact vase across from her.
"I have nothing it wants." She lied, when what she truly meant to say was that she had nothing she was willing to surrender to it.
They had only been married for months, but she knew well what the sudden tensing of her husband's body against her own meant. It was as if time itself had frozen him, had afforded him the time to consider his next course of action and carefully measure his response. "Then you create something it wants and something you can control. It doesn't have to be real. Just something that can make you feel strongly long enough."
"What do you think about?" Was her evasive inquiry as her imagination began to conjure horrible images. Green flashed in her mind's eye—bright, emerald green against her lover's porcelain skin—before she forced her gaze to that of her husband. In her current position, she could see little, but the sudden, rare and genuine anguish in his eyes was unmistakable. She followed them to that vase; without warning, it shattered, hurtling thousands of tiny glass shards into the dark night beyond.
"I think about losing you."
"You scared it." Serenity frowned as the moth darted off the moment Rubeus appeared beside her on the terrace.
"Big deal. Those damned things are everywhere at this time of year. I even found one of them in my shower this morning." He grumbled.
"Big deal," she tossed his words right back at him with a mischievous grin. "You know what they say about moths and flames. Besides, I'm sure that's the least unsightly thing that's been in your shower."
"Why you—" He lunged at the petite woman. Before she could scurry out of the way, his hands were on her, delivering a series of light jabs to her ribs.
Against the dark Nemesian night, Rubeus was a brilliant conflagration. The lights burning on either side of the terrace doors gilded the fiery tips of his hair, the sharp points of his canines, and the deep reds and golds of his military regalia as he attacked her from all sides. She imagined that this was what it was like to be caught in the center of a wildfire; everything was burning—her lungs, her sides, her arms. Helplessly, she swatted at his hands, laughs bubbling from her throat, and pleaded with him to stop.
Mischief danced in his eyes as he continued his assault, finally landing a startling blow to her ticklish seventh rib. Breath left her lungs in the form of a wheezing laugh as she crumpled on herself and plummeted to the floor with pale blue and ivory silk swirling around her. Before her, Rubeus dropped to a knee, extending a single callused hand toward her. He was all wolfish grins and twinkling eyes as he gloated: "I win."
Serenity took his hand, but as he rocked back on his ankles to haul her off the ground, she hurled her weight back with as much strength as she could muster. The momentum sent Rubeus toppling onto his stomach right next to her, with a loud oof.
"Well there's a tiger." He chuckled, propping himself up on an elbow. "I don't suppose you're interested in taking a little of that fire inside and putting some girls in their place. Triton's consorts are as chatty as ever, speculating your whereabouts with all sorts of lies. Rumor has it that your marriage is on the rocks and that you're...not feeling well."
His accompanying gesture coaxed a blush onto her cheeks. Smoothing her palm along her stomach (truthfully, she wasn't sure if it was proof for others or herself, at this point), she asked: "Why is everyone obsessed with me becoming pregnant?"
"Beats me." Rubeus shrugged. One of his gloved fingers picked at a loose thread sprouting from the crimson fabric of his jacket; with a silent snap, it broke away from the rest of the strand, and the summer breeze ferried it off into the night. "Although, from what I heard in the corridors this afternoon, all isn't well in paradise."
Of course it would come up eventually. Staring up at the starless sky, she felt silly for thinking that evading the party and the rest of her family would keep the fresh ghosts at bay. Even all these hours later, when she closed her eyes she could picture those ruby droplets of blood; the boy's pleading hazel eyes; the malevolent glaze radiating from her husband.
"You know, even though you love him, you don't have to agree with everything he does. None of us would ever ask you to do that, even Demando."
You don't know that, she wanted to snap, but held her tongue. There were few moments when Rubeus' fire ever dipped to little lambent flames, when he was transparent and vulnerable; few outside of their family would ever know Demando's first in command as anything other than a beast of flame and darkness, but he volunteered his heart, his compassion, so readily to her. Silently, Serenity reached for his hand, feeling his leather-clad fingers lace through her own.
If she could trust anyone with the secrets festering like wounds in her heart, it would be Rubeus. Serenity knew that if she told him, he would not whisper a word of it to anyone, no matter how horrible they were. They would be safe, she would be safe, and perhaps the burden of them would ease. Perhaps, once aired, they would even go away.
"Well it would seem that the real party is out here." A silky voice mused.
Sitting up, Serenity met her husband's gaze. Half concealed by one of the doors, Demando finally slipped out onto the terrace, holding a plate that boasted a thick slice of chocolate cake in one hand and a tiny fork in the other.
Rubeus hauled himself off the ground with a cacophony of groans and rolled his eyes. Without a greeting, he grumbled: "I know, I know. 'Get lost, Rubeus.'"
And just like that, he left the monarchs staring sheepishly at one another.
It was as if they were nine years younger again—finally seeing each other after hours of stealing covert glances through pillars and partygoers. Serenity found it so difficult to remain convicted in her anger when he began striding towards her, rich cape cascading from the silver epaulettes adorning his shoulders, white hair floating around his handsome face, and violet eyes intense but remorseful still. Against the deep navy night, the White King was as timeless and unearthly as he had appeared in that ballroom all those years ago—a winter that nothing could ever erase. So enchanting, so devastating; lust began to lull her into a trance, but his words sliced through the haze and reeled her into reality.
"Peace offering?" A corner of his lips quirked into a smile as he extended the plate toward her.
She was still on the ground with the gossamer layers of her skirts pooling around her. His violet eyes were guileless, unwavering, as he lowered himself onto his knees before her—a subtle show of supplication, and one that made her blood rush.
"I'm angry with you." She said, but fleeting resolve left her words sounding hollow.
"As you should be. I was not kind to you this afternoon." He agreed.
A light breeze gusted through the terrace, carrying with it the lingering remnants of her anger. With a loud sigh, she stuck her hands out. Cold—his hands, the plate—as he deposited the gift in her awaiting palms, a wide grin baring his pearly teeth. The moment her eyes fell upon the cake, she noticed the thick, uneven layer of frosting cresting the top. Brow furrowed but amused all the same, she let out a curt laugh: "Don't tell me that you made this yourself."
"I might have added some additional chocolate from adjacent pieces." He shrugged.
"You're terrible." She giggled, imagining the regal man hunched over the dessert table, carefully scraping frosting onto the slice of cake before her and slinking off before he could be caught by their guests.
"I am." Demando agreed as he watched her sink the tines of the fork into the mound of pilfered chocolate and take her first bite. He reached for a strand of her golden hair, which was loose and spilling down her shoulders and onto the floors, bringing it to his lips. "You must think that I am so cruel for how I acted today."
She had never been more thankful for a slice of cake, how it saved her from having to lie to him. But her eyes must have told him enough, for he dropped his own to the ground, contrite as she had ever seen him.
"When I realized what that boy was going to do with that locket, I-I couldn't..." His voice tapered off into silence, and his violet eyes darted up to hers. Anguish. Raw agony. Serenity could not remember ever seeing him so tortured. With a clink of the plate against the ground, she abandoned her dessert and reached for his hands. The White King's jaw quivered, and his words came tumbling out. "I couldn't let him take you. Not him, not anyone, not ever again."
Ever again? She wanted to ask, but her attention was wrested away by his following statement.
"I would not be able to go on." He tipped his chin back and looked solemnly at the starless sky. "You are everything to me."
She loved him. In a world that seemed to be slowly crumbling beneath her heels, that much she knew. All of the plaguing uncertainty, the intrusive whispers in the dark seemed to fade in that moment. She had nothing in this world—no past, no blood family. She had nothing in this world except for this man before her; the man who was as cold and ruthless as a winter storm, but who loved her more than anything in a universe that belonged entirely to him. It should have been, no—it was enough.
The truth, every last one of the bitter words that had been straining against her lips for months, finally escaped in a single sentence. "I'm afraid that I don't belong here."
"None of us do." He smiled. Her hands were still enveloped in his own, and he rose from the ground, gently pulling her up onto her feet. Bracing one hand on the railing, he cornered her against the scrolling stone barrier, his other hand holding hers against his heart. "But we all belong here."
Anticipation burned in the small gap between their bodies. Her already shallow breaths seemed to collapse in her lungs as Demando slowly guided her hand upwards and hooked her arm around his neck, his own finding and curling around her waist. Warm, his breath ghosted over her lips, igniting the nerves running along her neck and back. His lips were so close; she trembled against him, full of pent up expectancy. So close...
"—absolutely delightful. And here I thought the war criminal was unrivaled. His highness has truly outdone himself this time."
The monarchs had no time to retreat from their embrace before another couple paraded out onto the balcony.
Dripping with jewels and embellishments, the Prince of Triton emerged from the golden glow of the party with one of his many consorts draped on his arm. The young woman balked at the Nemesian royals, but her partner merely waved his crimson fingertips in acknowledgement. The hot blood burning in Serenity's flushed cheeks froze the moment a ruby droplet plummeted from his fingers to the ground. Horrified, she turned back to her husband, whose wide eyes told her enough.
"Serenity!" He called, but she was already flying, soaring past the doors and into the ballroom.
Gathered around the center of the room, the sumptuous guests lingered in a loose circle, clinking glasses in rowdy toasts, gorging themselves on the remnants of the buffet, and observing the show unfolding before them. As she pushed her way through the labyrinth of ostentatious costumes and jewels of the nobility, all Serenity could hear was a cacophony of drunken laughter, above which blood-curdling screams rose.
Please, she prayed to whatever entity was listening in that moment.
Finally, she exploded into the center of the floor with whatever stones and baubles had snagged on her skirt skittering across the sparkling floors. Instantly, her wide eyes met those that she had once thought hazel but could now see were jade green, rimmed with grime and unshed tears.
It was the boy, bowed on his knees before a consort of Triton, around whom thick tendrils of water curled. Oblivious, the woman flourished her hands and the water responded in suit, collecting above her head until it was in the shape of a lance, pointed tip aimed towards her victim. Helplessly, the boy strained against his restraints, coughing blood and phlegm onto the tiles beneath him.
"Please," was his strangled gasp. The consort barked at him to be quiet, but his attention was fixed onto Serenity. "Please. You have to help me."
Hundreds of prisoners had been in his very shoes, and she had never lifted a finger. With an aching heart, she had always acquiesced and allowed Rubeus—who had just appeared beside her—to lead her away from the hall. The first few times had tormented her with nightmares and restless nights, but she had grown to only lose a few hours of sleep by now. If she turned away, he would become nothing more than a faraway nightmare in little time, one that paled in comparison to what already tormented her. And besides, she had no powers, was what she reminded herself; what made it easy to walk away.
"Come on." Rubeus' hand drifted to her lower back and nudged her forward.
"No." The boy cried weakly as she stepped in the direction Rubeus directed her toward.
"There's nothing you can do." The fiery general was all sympathy as he reminded her of the reality of the situation.
She swallowed, took another step away.
"Please! Usagi, don't let them do this to you!"
Usagi. Her steps wavered, tapering into a full-on hesitation. She had heard that name once before. Then, it had been little more than a whisper in the night, but now it was coming from a real person's mouth; someone who said it with such a striking pain and familiarity that she couldn't help but steal a glance over her shoulder.
His jade eyes were wild with desperation, words flowing ceaselessly from his scarlet mouth along with the blood. "Usagi, please remember yourself. Remember me. It's me, Shingo. I'm your brother!"
Gravity. Insuperable gravity. It was something she had resisted the pull of for nine years, and the very thing that was dragging her back into that corridor now. She remembered everything about it so clearly: the stone wall guarding her demons, the chilling darkness, the door looming before her. On the other side, the creatures she feared snarled and strained, pleading to be released.
"Power comes from darkness."
She had no powers, but plenty to surrender for them. Tension pulsed against her lower back, but instead of Rubeus' hand it was her own, trembling with adrenaline and urging her forth. She could not think, could only imagine the wall behind her crumbling and her darkness catching up to her, searing itself into her flesh, soldering itself to her bones. Every sense was bombarded with anguish. The gut-wrenching ache of jealousy as Demando disappeared into his office with Esmeraude on his heels. The echoing, hollow sympathies of anyone who learned that she had no memories of a life before Nemesis nine years before. The scent of ash as she fled out beyond the palace walls during those first few months and realized that there was a landscape that could mirror her emptiness after all.
Slow steps carried her towards the door until finally her hand was curled around the brass knob, twisting, unleashing whatever demons lie on the other side. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she threw the door open, surrendering in the ultimate sacrifice for a boy she did not even know but felt so obligated to protect anyways.
Breath slammed into her lungs as she was tossed back into consciousness. She saw her husband and the Prince of Triton lingering on the edge of the gathered crowd, just beyond the latter's malicious consort. The moment her husband's violet eyes met hers, she glowered at him, and the blood drained from his face.
A beam of violet-blue light sliced through the room and struck the consort of Triton in the chest.
Chapter 4: Masks
The consort was already unconscious when her body slammed against the crystal floors and skidded towards the crowd of nobles, who only stepped back to make room for the limp heap of limbs and chiffon and jewels. Her water lance promptly shattered into thousands of droplets that scattered in every direction across the floor, soaking the satin heels and leather boots of the guests. Shock rippled through the crowd in the form of amused gasps and sibilant chatter as Serenity stood motionless before the mayhem, her emotions smoothed beneath cold eyes that lingered on her husband.
"It's rude to enjoy a woman's anniversary gift before she's had a chance to, isn't it?" She hardly recognized her voice as it reverberated through the hall with a dangerous edge. A flourish of her hand toward the crowd to her left beckoned a chorus of agreement and laughter, which only fueled the darkness taking root within her.
"My Queen," the Prince of Triton came scampering out of the crowd, contrite as she had ever seen him. He collapsed to his knees before her, grasping one of her hands with both of his own. He pressed a kiss to the single ring glimmering on her finger, "we meant no disrespect. Your benevolence is a treasure worth more than all of the jewels in the royal coffers. I will see to it personally that she is punished for her disregard of your illustrious hospitality."
Her lips curled into a sneer as she pried her hand from his grasp but let it dangle limply in front of her, as though it had been tainted by his touch. How she had always hated him—a greedy, sniveling fool, loyal only when it benefitted him. He did not so much as spare a glance over his shoulder at his consort as his entourage of guards collected her unconscious form from the ground and hauled her away. A year earlier, Serenity recalled watching him vow to love and cherish her until the stars died; evidently, they had burned out tonight.
When she turned away from the Prince of Triton, she found Rubeus' eyes aflame with shock and the faintest traces of awe. Still, his mouth hung slightly agape, the skin between his brows wrinkled, and bewilderment drawn across his features.
"Have him brought to my chambers." She purred, though her stomach lurched as she said the words. Guffaws and tawdry laughs echoed from the crowd, and she reveled in the look her husband gave her—the contrived coolness beneath which jealousy blazed hot as a hellfire.
"As you command, my Queen." Rubeus slipped into the role of complacent guard effortlessly, though she did not miss the confusion still lurking in his eyes— the look that asked, what are you planning?
In truth, she had no plan for what would happen next, but the desperate desire to rescue the boy tangled with the spurn of betrayal she felt for her husband in her chest; Serenity averted her gaze and let instincts pilot her out of the ballroom, Demando steps behind her. When she emerged in the corridor and heard the doors close behind her, her steps faltered, the fabric of her gown gathered into her clenched fists as she waited for her husband's tirade.
"Help me understand why you just did that." The calm and restraint in his voice was almost more unsettling than what she had braced herself for, and she whirled around to meet his icy gaze, bristling beneath his incredible coldness.
"He's just a boy." She argued, her voice rising and tone fraying with anger. "I was not going to stand by and let her torture him to death."
"No!" Demando snapped, and for a moment the cold facade cracked, unveiling the anger that smoldered beneath. She flinched as he advanced on her, the heels of his shoes clicking against the floor like the sound of a predator's claws. "Why would you let them believe that you are not faithful to me?"
Balking at the King of Nemesis—this man before her radiating pure rage and darkness hardly resembled her husband—she stumbled backwards until her back collided with one of the roman columns presiding over the corridor, her spine molding to the stone as though she could melt into the wall and away from the king; all of that burning dark energy that had commanded her mere minutes before dissipated into desolate, cold fear. When Demando had come within a breath's distance of her, looming over her trembling body, she whimpered; his violet eyes softened slightly, but he still braced an arm over her head, trapping her between the wall and his strong body.
He lowered his head towards her, his words whispering warm against her lips, sinking into her skin as much a threat as a promise: "You are mine. Only mine."
When he claimed her lips, it was not gentle or loving or passionate as other kisses had been. Instead, his kiss smothered her, and she felt her lips bruising beneath his, her body tensing as one arm snaked around her waist and reeled her against him, the fingers of his free hand tangling in her silky hair and holding her in place. Her eyes were wide in fear, and all she saw was white—of his hair, of his skin, of his clothes as he overwhelmed her; this was not her husband overcome in a wave of passion, but a man wrought with the need to possess and stake his claim. Cold seared her insides as fear and indignation and some peculiar sense of familiarity at the situation roiled in her veins.
She had to escape. She had to.
In that moment, the same darkness that had been moved by her will before pulsed through her and she shattered out of Demando's embrace.
The sound of flesh cracking against flesh reverberated through the corridor, and by the time her adrenaline had abated enough to where she could feel her palm stinging and tingling, she was already growling: "I am your wife, not your possession."
Demando's palm lingered over the red afterimage of her hand stamped on his pale cheek, his lips parted ever so slightly, eyes glazed over with some unintelligible emotion.
Though she could already feel the darkness waning within her beneath a growing sensation of uncertainty, she straightened her spine, tipped her chin back in the regal way of a queen.
"I don't want to see you until you've realized what you've done tonight." She declared, and without sparing another glance at him, turned on her heel and left him standing alone in the corridor.
Hours seemed to pass before the boy roused from his slumber. Curled up in one of the overstuffed chairs poised before the fireplace in her personal chambers, Serenity roamed in and out of consciousness, every so often her drooped gaze lingering on the still form of the boy buried beneath her softest duvet. The healer had said that his injuries were severe but not irreparable, and after she worked together the jagged edges of his wounds and soothed the angry welts and bruises blooming on his body with her magic, he almost looked as well as he had when he first came into the throne room on that fateful day.
The bed frame creaked as the boy shifted in his sleep, sheets whispering against one another as his limbs began to twitch into consciousness. Sucking in a deep breath, Serenity pushed herself up in her chair and began to rub the sleep from her eyes, watching as he slowly began to come to. She had spent most of the night thinking and then dreaming of what she would say to him when he finally woke, poring over all of the questions she had for him, but the sound of his raspy voice upended her train of thought entirely.
"Did he hurt you?" His question struck her in its simplicity.
Silent, she pondered her answer, ultimately settling for, "No". The lie felt heavy on her tongue.
His faint, trembling growl told her that he knew just as much.
Serenity crawled out of her chair and did her best to tug her gown into some semblance of order, though her slumber had left deep creases in the fabric and the garment seemed to slump off of her in odd places. Smoothing her palms over her hair, she retrieved the tray she had arranged for him for when he woke. As she lifted it from the small table, she was careful to make sure that the broth in the center did not slosh out of its bowl. The boy pushed himself up into a sitting position when she neared, his features screwing in pain.
"Do you remember now?" His voice wavered with hope as she hovered at his bedside and lowered the tray into his lap, ultimately settling at the foot of the bed.
Her heart ached as she shook her head, unable to find the words to tell him that she couldn't remember whatever he so desperately wanted her to, what he had evidently risked his life to help her remember. Defeated, he nodded shallowly, then grasped the handle of the spoon placed beside the bowl and dipped it into the clear broth. Bringing it to his lips, he slurped loudly, stirring the faintest hints of amusement in Serenity's heavy chest.
"Who are you?"
"I told you," his eyes were pained when he met her gaze and rest the spoon against the side of the bowl with a light clink. "I'm your brother."
"I was the only daughter of one of Nemesis' noble houses. My family was killed by a plague, and I was the only survivor." She parroted the story she had been told since the day she had woken up in a bed in a strange estate without a single memory of the lifetime before.
"No." He insisted. When he leaned forward suddenly, the bowl in his lap lurched and broth spilled over the sides, pooling in the tray below. "You were born on Earth, in Japan. You lived with me and our parents, and we're all still alive and we've never stopped fighting to bring you back since they took you all those years ago."
Alive. Hope stirred within her at the promise of a family out there—her family, the people she had always dreamed of. Alive. Missing her. Searching for her.
But the warmth faded when her thoughts wandered to the last thing that he had said, dread and the afterimage of some memory she had lost lingering in her mind.
"Since they took me?" She echoed, lead pooling in her stomach as she anticipated the answer she knew he would give.
Devastation and fury warred in his eyes, and when he met her beseeching gaze he seemed conflicted. He opened his mouth, but the words faltered. Moments—too many—passed where he sat pensive, until finally he asked: "Do you believe that meeting him was just fate?"
Shock crushed the breath out of her lungs. Instantly, memories of that night, the one that had changed her entire life, flooded her mind. She saw him across the ballroom, swathed in white, so handsome and devastating and with eyes only for her. She heard the rich elegance of his voice as he asked for her name as if he had not already known it. She felt his arms embrace her with a resolve that vowed to never let her go.
No, he couldn't have...
"No." She balked at the boy, scrambling to her feet.
She had wanted to believe him when he said that she had a family out there who cared for her, that she had indeed had a different life before all of this that could explain why she had never felt like she belonged. But to believe that her husband, despite the cruelty she was all too aware he was capable of and the darkness that reigned in his heart, could have torn her away from the life she belonged in seemed impossibly wicked.
"He loves me, and I love him." She blurted, unsure if it was to convince the boy or herself.
His protests went unheeded as she stumbled back from the bed in pursuit of escape. As he yelled for her to come back, Serenity sprinted towards the doors, bursting into the corridor and narrowly avoiding collision with a servant who yelped at the sudden appearance of the queen.
He couldn't, she insisted as her surroundings blurred on both sides, her heartbeat thundering in her chest as she raced towards nothing. He wouldn't.
But deep within, though she knew that her husband couldn't, the man that had forced himself on her in the corridor would.
Chapter 5: Interlude
Six years ago
The worst thing about this world was that the Ayakashi Sisters had not lived to see it. Sometimes, Rubeus felt like he was the only one who still remembered them—those four petty girls who had squabbled and fought amongst themselves incessantly, and who he had cared for so despite it all. Though he knew better than anyone of the sacrifices that war demanded for victory, he still found it impossibly unfair that all of them had had to die to secure the future of the Black Moon Clan.
He raised his glass in a toast and drained the contents in a single gulp, finding the wine even more bitter on this occasion as it burned its way down his throat. Swiping away the droplets that had gathered on the seam of his lips with the back of his hand, Rubeus grimaced when he met the stony gaze of Kooan's statuette, which presided over the mausoleum alongside her sisters. Though the gleaming violet-black crystal had immortalized her willowy curves and the lazy elegance of her posture and the malicious smirk that always played at the corners of her lips, her eyes were hollow—void of the fire that both she and Rubeus were made of.
A half grunt, half whine strangled in his throat as he tore his gaze away from those empty eyes. No, maybe the worst thing about this world was that he had only realized he loved her when it was too late and she was already gone.
Rarely sentimental, Rubeus had never grown accustomed to the tightness in his chest or the lump that weighed heavy in his throat or the way that his eyes burned with unshed tears when he retreated to the memories in which her violet eyes were enveloped in flame. This was the worst kind of pain; broken ribs and burns and gaping wounds that bled prolific healed with time, but this only grew ever the more agonizing. After so many years—no, lifetimes—of laboring towards victory, he finally had the chance to explore who he was beyond battle and vengeance.
And she would never know the man that he could be beyond that all.
With an anguished sigh, he fell on his back, staring at the shadowy expanse above.
He tensed as he heard the woman slip into the room. Her heels softly clicked against the crystal floors as she approached, and he found himself squeezing his eyes shut as if being unable to see her would erase her from existence.
When Demando had returned from battle with the heap of crimson ribbons and golden locks and limp limbs of Sailor Moon spilling from his grasp, Rubeus thought he would never have to see her again. Then, he believed that once the White Prince had slaked his lust, he would tire of her and she would wither away into nothing behind closed doors. How wrong he had been; the gasps of outrage that filled the room when Demando had told his generals that she was to become the Queen of Nemesis still echoed in his ears.
"You've been in here all day." She tested. Her footsteps tapered into a delicate silence beside him and, ever mature, Rubeus rolled onto his side, unwilling to face her.
"And the sky is gray. Should we go on naming obvious things?" He chuffed.
Though he could not see her—refused to look at her—Rubeus felt her sink to her knees beside him with that same gentleness and hesitation that one would exercise when approaching something feral. He supposed that, compared to her ethereal grace that neither time nor the dark power of the Jakokuzuishou had been able to erase, he was some sort of savage creature.
"I thought you might want some company." She hedged, and in wake of her words lingered an awkward and expectant silence.
Why couldn't she just leave him alone? It was easy to hate her when he didn't have to see her and constantly be reminded that she was no longer that queen who had wrought so much suffering upon the Black Moon Clan, but rather someone who had always tried her best to care for him, however callous he was to her in return.
"I know that you like to be alone, but I thought that it might be nice to have someone to—"
It was unfair; he knew it was, but just like a fire, Rubeus had never been able to restrain himself. All of that seething hatred and fury and grief that had peeked out from behind his paper-thin hostility over the past three years seemed to burn through in that single moment. Before he was even conscious of his actions, he had already leaped to his feet and was shouting, "No! You don't get to come in here and pretend that you give a damn about me. You don't understand how it feels to lose someone, because you've never had to deal with any kind of real loss."
Trembling on the ground before him, Serenity looked so small and fragile, eyes wide and wounded. He expected her to wilt under the fire of his gaze, to shrivel into herself silently or flee the room; instead, though her knees wobbled and her limbs still quivered furiously, she rose from the ground. Though she stood almost a full foot shorter than him, the resolve and determination in her eyes magnified her presence in such a way that Rubeus stumbled back a step, surprise quenching the indignation that had set him aflame.
"No, I guess I don't." She frowned, and in her eyes flashed something not unlike guilt. "But if you'll help me, I'd like to try."
Chapter 6: Lost
As he roamed the side streets of Adrasteia, Mamoru ran his fingers along the soft creases worn into the photograph that was folded in his pocket. Though people bustled past on all sides, chatting and laughing and smiling—happy in a way that seemed so reminiscent of how the cities on Earth used to be, the dusky sky over head and the pall of gray that it cast over the buildings and faces of the residents of Nemesis' capitol city reminded him that he was far from home.
He met the eyes of two women walking towards him with their arms linked. As they passed, both smiled; he did not.
And no matter how familiar, how human these people seemed, they were the ones who had almost destroyed Earth. Who had taken Usagi from them.
Unprecedented, the press had declared almost a decade prior when a new planet appeared in the farthest reaches of the solar system. For weeks after, a parade of astronomers and astrobiologists had made the rounds on television news networks as they slowly pieced together that not only was it a new planet, but it was a new planet that bore life.
Sometimes, Mamoru wondered that if he had paid more attention to the scientists, if he had participated in the heated debates that broke out in the classroom and on his bus ride home, if he had not lulled himself into the false sense of security that, with Queen Beryl defeated, he could go back to being a regular teenager, maybe he would have been able to stop them when they came.
His fist closed around the photo, the worn paper warping around his fingers.
No, he had tried his best when the warships first appeared in the sky. He had tried his best when the droids infested the major cities and it became all too evident that the best military technology on Earth was centuries behind what their invaders possessed. He had tried his best when the White King of Nemesis appeared with his entourage of generals and he expected a fight to the death only to realize what the looks Demando gave to Usagi meant. But his best had not been good enough, and that almost ten years later he was still fighting to bring her home was proof of that.
Against his leg his communicator buzzed, and he fished it out, ducking into a narrow alley between two buildings as Sailor Mars' voice crackled through. "You there?"
"Listening." He confirmed.
"There's—" she suddenly fell silent, static crackling and hissing in place of words. "There's been a problem."
"What problem?" He dropped to a hushed whisper as one of the back doors opened. An old man with thick jowls lumbered down the steps with a bin of scraps and upended the contents on the ground. He fired a suspicious glare at Mamoru before disappearing back into the shop, slamming the door behind him.
"Shingo was captured when he tried to bring the locket to—"
"Is he still alive?" Mamoru demanded. Guilt twisted in his stomach at the thought of the promise he'd made to Ikuko and Kenji to keep their son alive no matter the cost.
"They brought him out at the ball, and one of the Prince of Triton's consorts was torturing him—"
"Is he still alive?"
"Mamoru, just wait! Let me finish." Rei huffed. "The consort was about to kill him, but then Usagi came into the ballroom. I don't know how, but she saved him. Usagi saved him." After Mamoru's shocked silence hung in the air for two moments too long, she continued, "I don't know if it means she remembers, but I'm telling you this because we have a difficult decision to make."
He knew what she was going to say. Oh god, he knew. Without thinking, he tore the photograph from his pocket and unfolded it, his knees nearly buckling beneath the weight of the gut-wrenching sorrow and fury that strangled his stomach as Usagi's face smiled up at him. He hadn't expected the possibility that she might remember, that she might have spent all of these years waiting for him to come for her, powerless and pretending that she was truly happy.
The thought was too painful; Mamoru shoved the photograph back into his pocket, unable to meet her gaze any longer, stomach churning at the thought of her suffering for all this time, believing that they had abandoned her. His hand now free, he fisted his hair, slumping against the wall behind him and slowly collapsing to the ground.
His voice trembled as he weakly argued, "No, Rei. I can't leave her here. Not if she remembers."
Still crackling, the static was the only indicator that Sailor Mars was still listening on the other side.
Finally, after many moments of silence, she murmured, "I want her back too." But knowing that it was unlike her to acquiesce when they both knew that she was right, Mamoru didn't try to protest and only waited for her to inevitably continue. "All of us want her back. I can't sleep at night thinking about what she's gone through and how I swore I would protect her and then failed her." Rei cried. "But if we take her and leave Shingo behind, they'll kill him for sure. Ikuko and Kenji have already lost one child. We can't put them through that again."
He gritted his teeth, caging the furious cry that welled in his throat. His knuckles were pale as he strangled the communicator in grasp, fighting the urge to smash it against the wall at his back.
Two days. Two days. They were only two days away from rescuing her according to the plan. Though he knew that Rei was right, the guilt, the desire aching in his heart ultimately prevailed.
He brought the communicator to his lips. "Then do everything you can to get him out of there. All of you. I'll figure out how to save her on my own."
Without letting her finish, he crushed the pad of his finger against the 'off' button and terminated the call.
He woke with a gasp, lurching up into a sitting position as his furious heartbeats throbbed in his head. Devoid of any light, the pitch darkness of the room was disorienting, made him feel like he was falling, drowning in a chasm of ink; frantically, he reached for the woman beside him, but when his searching fingers found only empty sheets, he shouted.
No, no, no.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Demando stumbled to his feet and into the shadows. His limbs felt leaden, tension pounding behind his eyes and stars swirling in his vision, but he pushed forward, all but tripping over his own feet in search of the adjoining bathroom. When his hands finally found the carved molding that framed the doorway, he clung to and then slouched against it, listening to his shallow, ragged breaths hiss through the space around him; with a clumsy wave of his hand, the candles nestled in the sconces on the wall flickered on one by one with violet flames, bathing him in a cold, sinister light.
In some ways, the White King had almost forgotten about the time before—only nine years prior but somehow a lifetime away, when he was still enslaved by his futile but all-consuming hunger and the covert machinations of Death Phantom. He had been eighteen and had died under the deception of that monster he had once called advisor, only to wake again and find that the clock had been turned back—deals not yet struck, mistakes not yet made.
And in this new time, he had gotten everything he wanted: the throne, the galaxy, her love.
That he had ever been so enamored of Neo-Queen Serenity in all of her cold regality and her unabashed hatred of him seemed so absurd every time his wife smiled at him, every time she kissed him, every time she said that she loved him above all else. In time, he had almost forgotten the old queen, but just before Serenity had smote Triton's consort, when she had directed that furious glare at him, it had been her eyes looking at him instead. And now that she had returned, she was dredging up the ghosts of that horrible past, haunting him, taunting him with the idea that this perfect world of his had always been as fragile as glass and would continue to crack along the edges if he did not act soon.
He dropped his head in his hands, palms wicking off the sweat that had gathered on his forehead.
God, he needed a drink.