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A Plague of Swans

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Kunzite isn’t sure how it all began, really, between Prince Endymion and Princess Serenity. There are details preserved in myth, of course—a gaze across great distance, the touching of lips, the battle lines—but what words passed between them before they stumbled into love and doom and loss? Did the iron taste of a coming war sting the back of their throats when they spoke them? Did they feel it then, that their love’s biggest test would be not time, but disaster?

The most Kunzite is ever able to understand about that first fateful meeting is that the royal couple slammed a door in Nephrite’s face to fend off his chase—and he’s been upset about it ever since. But Kunzite remembers exactly how it all began between him and the Moon Kingdom’s fierce general.

The first time he meets the warrior from Venus, Kunzite thinks her sheer fury will melt the icy teammate behind her. Mercury seems to think so too, because she steps back as Venus seethes in the garden outside the door that leads to Endymion’s quarters. The two women are so fresh from the moonlight that Kunzite can see it spilling off of them in waves, but only Venus glints like something fallen straight from the sun.

Here, he thinks, watching the moon's fearsome general stalk across the garden's geometric perfection, is a woman like he’s never seen before. (He still thinks of them as women, then.)

He has been sentineled outside Endymion's door ever since he found Jadeite, Nephrite, and Zoisite clustered around it some two hours ago. They had been arguing in hushed whispers about whether they should accept their fate or storm the prince’s quarter—there are agreements to sign, shipments to authorize for villages suffering after an earthquake in the north, and they can't very well do it all on their own, though, Kunzite knows, their minds never stray far from the thought of how easily they could have had such power—and Kunzite does not doubt that they would have chosen to break down Endymion's door if he had not shown up at the time he did.

He commanded them to get to bed, and they'd obliged, with dignified yawns and shuffled feet. The peals of laughter that echoed down the hall not shortly after, though, told Kunzite that they would avail themselves of their newfound freedom at the bars in town. That his three generals are so brimming with youth, and all the improprieties and impulsiveness that comes with it, is part of the reason Kunzite values them so, but he wishes they weren't so quick to unleash their fortunes on the girls in town.

“Twice in one week!” Venus spits, halting the fine line she has tread across the middle of the garden and turning to her teammate. Neither of them have noticed Kunzite, leaning against the wall in the shadows. A bench might be in order, if Endymion and the princess keep this up. “The queen is going to have my head.”

“It seems like you’ve lost it already, so what's there to worry about?” Kunzite asks, and already he savors the sight of Venus startled: the shift of her legs into a wide ready stance, instinctively placing Mercury behind her, the flex of fine fingers to fists. Even taken off guard, she is no kind of prey—not ready to jump away, but tensed to turn and lunge.

“You!”

She advances before he can blink, moving toward him like light through prism until her fist is balled in the front of his shirt. She has to look up to meet his eyes, but even then, her hand lifts him slightly lighter on his feet.

"I didn't mean to startle you," he lies just as Mercury lays a hand on her teammate's shoulder. Venus jerks her own back as if she's suddenly found it in fire, leaving Kunzite to straighten his collar and gather his face back from smirk to stone.

"Who the hell are you, talking to me like that?" Venus demands, still ready to lunge, but Mercury holds firm.

"So the princess hasn't gossiped about us? My men and I have heard much about you, sailor guardians."

"Endymion's guard," Mercury says, but Venus is already folding herself up into reluctant retreat, eyes moving from Kunzite's sword to the regalia on his chest—not typically there, but leftover from negotiations earlier in the day, hours and hours of tit for tat with the ruler of a small state in the north over who would send more grain to the villages, how many teams of horses it would take to dig out the roads, while every moment more families went hungry, already far from the sea and newly cut off from the outside world.

Kunzite remembers visiting those villages, back when he dreamed of ruling them. They’re nothing more than mud huts built into craggy slopes, inhabited by people who walk a narrow path between the dangers of bandits and the gem mines they depend on to make their living.

"Guard or not, he has no right to talk to me that way," Venus says. Kunzite watches her face, fallen back into neutrality, and notes the almost imperceptible movement of her mouth as she chews the inside of her lower lip. That small movement belies more than anything the general in her, miffed at losing control of a simple situation: Keep the princess off of Earth. Neither of them ever stood a chance to begin with.

Before he can continue this odd style of diplomatic relations—mockery, banter, something bordering an edge—a chorus of laughter and skin bursts out of Endymion's door. Venus is on the princess in a heartbeat, already wrapping her hand around a fine wrist and failing to wrest two lovers apart.

"What are you doing here?" Serenity gasps, pulling away to be closer to Endymion, fixing the strap of her dress with a free hand. She almost succeeds in composing an expression of pure shock, but Kunzite sees the irritation that wrinkles her nose.

“I can’t believe you’re here again, Princess,” Venus scolds. “We have to go home! What will your mother say?”

The princess’s eyes widen, as if this is the first time she’s realized she has done wrong by someone in her visits to Endymion and the Earth. Kunzite isn’t deceived by this display—the princess has admitted to him already the difficulty of staying away from a world so brimming with newness, with change and discovery. She knows that every time she flouts the embargo to visit the sparkling blue planet is a betrayal, but what does the moon have to keep her away? A kingdom trapped in crystal. He doesn't blame her, was himself so young so recently, and reckless—willing to risk everything for the very same man.

"Why bother?" the ruler earlier had asked, waving a jewel-encrusted hand over the elaborate caravan and shipping routes laid out on a map of the mountains. "How many people live there? At most, five hundred. We could lose just as many trying to help."

Kunzite tried to imagine what Endymion would reply: An appeal to goodwill and charity. A blistering defense of compassion. The same virtues that had convinced Kunzite to abandon his own throne and bow down at the feet of a boy. But Endymion wasn't here—instead tucked away in the castle's private gardens, dancing with the Princess. And Kunzite knew this ruler, before Endymion united the four kingdoms around his own. He remembered clearly the hardness of him, the skepticism, even in youth. Those characteristics had only become more solidified, in the man. It did good to remind Kunzite that not everyone was swept away by Endymion's beauty, for better or worse, even if they claimed to be.

“At least pretend you remember that you've vowed allegiance to Prince Endymion, who has ordered us to find a way to help these people,” Kunzite answered. “But if you insist on being difficult, why not consider that these people are the ones who mine many of the jewels I see you're fond of. The finest you will ever find, in the opinion of many. It takes generations to learn to extract them, to cut them into the ideal shape.” Then, pushing back his hair to reveal the diamond stud in his ear. “I, too, have a fondness for them, if it’s any consolation.”

"What would the prince think of such blatant manipulation, Kunzite? I wager not much," the ruler laughed. Kunzite could only rest his chin on his fist and frown. This man was the same age as him, had proven himself to be not only cold, but cunning in their discussions. Even more, he could go back to a place and rule it—whatever lip service he paid to Endymion did not diminish the control he had over his own lands, day to day.

"I simply wish to help the people affected by the earthquake. Your troops and supplies are closer. Convenience wins out over idealism, sometimes."

"They're dying already. We'll see how many you actually manage to save. You know, Kunzite, many of the other rulers don't understand why you relegated yourself to this task, of shadow rule for a man who still needs babysitting, of doing all of the dirty work for none of the praise. They don't think it becomes a man of your stature."

"What makes them think I'm babysitting?"

The ruler laughed and stood, then walked lazily around the edge of the table. He leaned on it when he reached Kunzite's seat, looked down on him with a guarded smirk. His expression was not quite cruel. Kunzite thought he detected something lost in it, a man looking on at a horse he had failed to win at auction. It unsettled him.

"Have you not walked two feet out of the palace? I hear the way the townsfolk talk—about your generals, about the women Endymion is rumored to entertain. Endymion is still deeply loved, of course, and who am I to judge, but such rumors travel quickly and other rulers are not so forgiving. To have given their rights up for a boy who can sweet-talk them when convenient, only to gallivant off the moment they've turned their backs—they think it preposterous."

Kunzite shoved his chair back from the table at that, stood and turned with a flourish of his cape. He did not look back, too blinded by fury.

"You needed to hear it from someone," the ruler calls. "I do so want Endymion to succeed."

Kunzite stopped at the door, opened it, but still did not turn.

"Send over the agreement, as we've discussed. I have been more than generous in compensating you for your loss, and you know it. Guard," he called to the man standing just outside the door, "please make sure this man and his entourage leave immediately."

Endymion will not be happy to hear about another agreement reached through appeals to base desires rather than equality, brotherhood. Kunzite will once again explain that the means to such ends aren't always so simple, will once again gloss over the deep divides that tremble through the kingdom, even years after Endymion's ascent. The prince is naive and impulsive, no matter how much he argues otherwise—all Kunzite has to do nowadays to prove this point is remind himself how much time Endymion wastes chasing after the moon—but his dream of peace is worthy, is not invalidated by the shortcomings of youth.

"Venus, you're hurting me," the princess whines. Venus still has her grip on the princess' wrist, struggling to disentangle her from Endymion as much as she ever will. The melodramatic absurdity of the day, the late hour, the scene—its futility, the equal amounts of teeth-bared possession both Endymion and Venus show over a guileless girl who, perhaps by appearances only, could not imagine waving a fly from her room, all the chaos that threatens to come of her, only outlined to him, not quite yet understood—makes Kunzite laugh. Everyone stops and turns to face him.

"It must be hard," Kunzite says, looking past the royal couple's shock and right at the pretty general, "having a bundle of curiosity for a princess."

"Kunzite!" Endymion chides, releasing the princess to bury his face in his hands. The princess raises her own free hand to her face to stifle a laugh. That amusement will be enough to save him from a dressing down later on.

Mercury stares, but Venus, to his surprise, does not advance in reawakened fury. She just looks at him, eyebrows pinched, mouth open as if to say something, but she must decide better. He wonders if she’s stifled some sarcastic comment, some repressed complaint about the indignities of serving royalty. He can’t help himself: He laughs again, truer this time. What a delight, to make something that falls like sun from the moon almost reveal the weight of its burden.

“Venus?” Mercury ventures. The general springs into action at her name, turning to grab the princess away from Endymion and stalk, dragging her behind, toward the moonlit garden.

“Don’t get dirt on my new dress!”

“You should’ve thought of that before you brought it to such a dirty planet,” Venus spits. “We’re going home. These Earthlings clearly don’t have any manners. Couldn’t pick out a lady if she walked up and flashed her breasts at them. I don't understand the attraction.”

Mercury trails along after them, casting a last glance backward before they disappear into silvery nothing. The garden seems to grow dimmer once they go, like they’ve taken some of the light with them, but he can’t think of any way to prove that’s the case.

“Gee, Kunzite, what was that?” Endymion prods, a smile spread over his face. “Didn’t I tell you to be polite if they showed up? Aren’t you worried you’ve ruined any chance at, what’s the ridiculous phrase you use—diplomatic relations?”

Yes—Endymion, like his generals, is young, but at this time of night he no longer has the energy to put up a fight against it. There will be time tomorrow for lectures on propriety, for a talking to about why "diplomatic relations" is anything but a ridiculous phrase. For now, Kunzite shakes his head and rubs his thumb and forefinger over his eyes to hide a smile.

“I was perfectly cordial. She’s the one who let anger get the better of her.”

“Well, you certainly threw Venus for a loop,” Endymion laughs. “Did you see how red she got at the end there? Can’t wait to hear what kind of lecture Serenity gets after that.”

“I didn’t realize you two left time to talk,” Kunzite replies, and now, it’s Endymion’s turn to go red.

“I hereby order you to mind your own fucking business, old man. And go to bed! It’s three in the morning. Why are you people keeping me up so late?”

Endymion slams his door, leaving Kunzite to turn back to the empty of the garden.

“Happily, my prince.”

---

Kunzite takes the long way back to his own quarters, stopping at each of his three generals' doors to listen for the scratch of writing, the clink of ice in crystal glasses, the soft laughter of a woman. When he hears only silence within each room, he smiles. For once, maybe good sense got the best of them in the bars.

Back in his quarters, there is a fresh stack of papers teetering on the corner of his desk, left, no doubt, while he was staking out Endymion. On top, there is a letter, folded and stamped with a seal. He opens it—the diplomat from before has finally agreed to send a fair share of grain and men. The day's chief crisis is solved, at least. It often does not go that way, not when Endymion's idealism runs amok in men who can't see past the mud.

Instead of rifling through the rest, Kunzite pushes open his balcony doors and leans against the railing to stare up at the moon. Even from so far away, he can make out shadows of its craters and the broad gray planes of its seas. Another world, just beyond reach and ruled by something inconceivable—the music of the tides, the upside down of a mirror, some alien force he already fears he will never understand. When Princess Serenity first appeared—only over a month ago, though it feels somehow longer, like that moon white face had been gleaming by Endymion's his whole life—they knew nothing of the moon and its people. Why they've chosen to keep their kingdom secret, he has not ventured to ask. The princess had mentioned they only meant to protect something—but what? What else did they know of Earth? What plans might they have for it?

That such a world could produce both the fierceness he spied in Venus and something as seemingly breakable as the princess takes the edge off these questions that gnaw at him. Surely it is a society that reaches toward the good, that has hopes of compassion and fairness from its rulers. The way Princess Serenity marvels over every living thing—the kaleidoscope hearts of flowers, the cries of birds as they burst through the trees—must be evidence that they do. She is a sea of questions, she dares to reach out time and again from the safety of wonder she has found in the forbidden. He envies her that curiosity, almost, the daring and newness granted by her falling.

But there it is, that edge again. He worries about the day she demands to see the rest of this new planet, already knows that Endymion will be powerless to bind her into the walls of the castle. The people would not know what to do with a whole new world, with these women that float down from it, colored and soft like the sweetest of cakes. The people of this world—Kunzite sighs. Their hearts are too hard with bad bread and labor.

If only it was a hundred years from now. If only this princess could wait until Endymion has blanketed this world in the strange softness of his hopes. It would be a better place for her, Endymion or none. What will she say, when she hears of war? The Prince has surely already told her. What will she say, when she sees its pain?

Kunzite rubs at his face, covered in stubble. He's stumbled across some magical elsewhere, and all he can think of is war and the loss of it.

When he was young and still dreamed of becoming a king in his own right, his father brought back for him a telescope from a distant land, the finest of the times. Each night, they would pore over the star charts painstakingly drawn by the royal scientists, and his father would tell him a new story each time he picked out a heavenly body through the eyepiece. Stories of misery and rape and conquest, but also, from time to time, mystery and impossible distance.

His father’s favorite, he remembered, was the tragedy of Phaethon, picked up from a bard he met on the side of the road during one of his first trips to see the newborn Endymion. Kunzite was ten or eleven when he first heard the tale, full of jealousy over the hope his father held for this child who had achieved nothing but birth. His father must have known, for he did not leave Kunzite's side for five days after returning. Deneb was shining bright at Cygnus’s tail that season, and one night it launched his father into the myth.

“How does the story go?” Kunzite asks the moon. He lowers his gaze to the lake below, whose silver spun waters turn the world above into a dream.

Phaethon, rattled with insecurity, one day decided to ascend the steep path to the Palace of the Sun, where his father sat in his throne, attended by the court of Time. The Years and Months and Days and Hours looked on as this little human thing strode right up to their great king and demanded proof of his divine lineage.

Apollo did what any father would do: Promised his child the moon to protect him from the pain of uncertainty. At this part, Kunzite’s own father would turn to him and grow quiet before continuing. What Apollo did not expect was for Phaethon to demand the sun.

To the shock of Apollo and everyone in his court, Phaethon demanded to drive his chariot and horses for a day, to ferry the light of life over the earth. Apollo objected, explaining that not even Jupiter himself could be granted such a wish, but this only made Phaethon more resolute. What better proof, for who but the son of Apollo could do such a thing?

When he could not convince Phaethon to ask for something else, Apollo led the boy to his shining chariot, led by four horses with hooves and eyes and breath of fire. Darkened with dread, he warned his son to hold them fast, to stay the course, and never to look down, but as soon as Phaethon was spirited away by those great beasts he knew that all was lost.

Phaethon was consumed by his hubris and fear, unable to control the power he had craved. And as the chariot exploded through the heavens, the Earth was consumed by fire and smoke. Only when the Goddess of Earth herself cried out for mercy did the great Jupiter intervene. The price paid was Phaethon’s life when the great god struck him down from the sky with a bolt of lightning.

Kunzite had listened, rapt by his father’s oratory—his father could spin a yarn better than any street bard, he was sure– but complained later to his mother when he remembered: What did this have to do with Cygnus?

His mother did not care much for the tales her husband brought back from foreign lands—she preferred to instill in her son the virtues of piety and humility by telling him stories of the Prophet, a noble and compassionate man who, she claimed, her family served generations ago. But she entertained this question and stroked his already-platinum hair out of his face (he still remembers the tickle of her fingers through his hair, the weight of her on his bed, the warmth of her voice whispering ya amar—my moon) before answering.

After Phaethon’s death, his friend, Cygnus, was struck with such grief he abandoned his own kingdom to wander the forests, singing out in sadness. The gods were moved by his voice enough to take pity on him, so they transformed him into a swan in hopes of relieving his pain. Even then, Cygnus remembered Jupiter’s deed and hated the sky, choosing instead to dwell in the reeds and shadows of still lake waters. Apollo, ignoring Cygnus’s rejection, placed his likeness in the sky so he would have something to share in his grief.

Sometimes, his mother finished as she watched him drift to sleep, the gods smile on devotion and not great deeds.

Like the sahabah, he’d mumbled, always hoping to prove he listened to her stories, too.

It was an inelegant comparison, he knows now, but his mother had smiled and pulled his blanket higher around his chin: Yes, little one, like the friends of the prophet.

Kunzite dwells in these memories of a time when the stars and planets beyond were nothing but stories to him, distant realities made to feel close by a lens. He goes to bed only when the glint of Venus appears in the lavender haze of the dawn.

Chapter Text

The next time Kunzite sees the princess, it is Mars, not Venus, who steps down with Serenity from the pale of the moon, which is quickly fading from view as the sunrise stretches slowly over the palace. On the rare mornings he has for himself, Kunzite likes to walk a loop down the grand veranda, through the gardens, around the lake, and back again. The sound of the water soothes him, however faint its lapping, and lulls him into a sort of meditation not unlike the kind he engaged in during the year he spent cloistered in a monastery that once gained his mother's favor.

There was no lake there, to aid reflection. What would the monks have thought of this grand mirror to wander around? When the sun peeks over the horizon and dips into the waters, it transforms the lake’s lackluster marshes into gemstone. Kunzite rubs a finger over the diamond stud in his ear.

He hasn't seen anything of the Moon Kingdom since his encounter with Venus a week ago, which has given them blessed time to prepare for a coming journey to a sacred island in the near eastern reaches of the kingdom. The prince has made progress learning the language, though not as much progress as Kunzite hoped with the elaborate rituals that will guide the once-in-a-century festival to be held during their visit. They require concentration, solemnity—not the tendencies of someone drowned deep in love.

Even in the princess's absence, Endymion spends his time wondering about her, as if she is a puzzle he is incapable of finishing, or one that he has not quite realized is already complete. Kunzite has known his own sort of love, as quickly kindled as lost, and he knows that the words the prince uses—impossible, endless, beyond thought, eternity—win any argument Kunzite carries within himself over the irrationality, the pace of it. It pains him, almost, to see Endymion lost in something that promises to transform him beyond understanding. It pains Kunzite that he cannot understand what the prince is feeling for himself.

A week for him without the moon, then—but not a moment of freedom for Endymion. And even in the absence of night-long trysts, Jadeite, Nephrite, and Zoisite are on edge. Kunzite needs to address their unrest, over time lost for studies and training, over the increasing number of meetings Endymion sees fit to neglect, over long nights spent standing outside of a door. Surely, the princess's guards do not require constant companionship in their insistence on staking their princess out. He turns over the risk in his mind like a coin in his pocket, rubbing at its familiar features: The rumors of unrest among the lower rulers of the kingdom, the potential gossip that could come from knowledge of these women running amok in the castle. The castle guard has clearly taken notice, slipped up during their off hours in the town—Jadeite has complained to him of being badgered at the bar.

Endymion is already known to be a boy, but Kunzite would really rather not the populace know how little time he spends ruling these days. Already, though, news from the south has it that their king, who could not be convinced to give up his claim to serve Endymion, who could barely convince to give up his own dreams of uniting the nations, grows impatient—Endymion already had little time for travel, and now Kunzite has been forced to decline a proposition for the southerly court to visit. How will they know the promises he made will be kept? To send men for irrigation, to build ships for faster trade. It's the largest and most remote segment of the kingdom, cut off from the rest by a sea, plagued with drought. Skirmishes still erupt weekly between the tribes. Conspiracy theories fester.

Another problem to solve.

Before Kunzite can turn and start his walk to the marble stairs that lead back up to the palace, a flash of light bursts across the now-sparkling lake. Serenity and Mars alight over the water, coming to a soundless landing just on its edge near where he's standing, and Kunzite thinks a moment of the swans that used to swim across the quiet surface.

"You look well-rested, Kunzite," Princess Serenity says with that smile of hers. That smile is a sword sheathed in lily, so lovely and fine that Kunzite would never think to complain if it left him bleeding.

"That's strange. I haven't done anything different," Kunzite replies. "The prince is finishing his lessons. I'll have someone send for him shortly—but he does need to brush up for a coming journey. If you don't object, you'll have to put up with me for the moment."

The princess just smiles on, serene as her namesake, and steps to stand beside him, to grab his arm and pull him forward into a walk toward the palace. He casts a glance back over his shoulder to see Mars following at a distance. She is dark, with a deep frown etched across her face, just as fierce and tense as Venus. There's no glint to her, though. Instead, she almost smolders, black hair catching red in the sun. Another fierce woman, to remind them any feeling of control is illusion. Something grips at his stomach, the same feeling that makes him neglect sleep any time he finds one of these guardians standing outside Endymion's door. Do they know how fragile things are, on Earth?

"Mars today," Serenity sings, slipping her hands off his arm. She bunches them into the gossamer fabric of her dress and skips ahead a few steps, feet bare in the grass. "She keeps to herself. Were you hoping for someone in particular?”

“Not at all.”

“Well, you caused quite the ruckus. Venus was slamming doors and drilling the girls on battle tactics for days. I don't think I've seen someone get under her skin quite like that.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about."

Serenity stops and laughs, as if the sound is too much to handle in motion. “You two are the same, you know.”

“Perhaps it’s time we were formally introduced,” Kunzite suggests. “My generals and your guardians.”

“Perhaps it is.”

The princess falls silent as they walk up the stairs. When she stops at the top to lean against the railing and look out over the lake, he stands behind her. On the marble, standing in the sun, she looks even more otherworldly than usual—all that white, glowing as her skin reflected the light of everything around her.

"Do you like the water? Endymion says you walk around the lake often."

He frowns, unsure if the princess has asked him a question quite like this during the short catches of time they share waiting for Endymion to appear. About the prince, she has asked everything, about Earth, too, but not himself.

"I do," he says, grateful when the princess leaves it at that.

As a child, the only body of water he ever knew was the sea. His family built their estate along the rocky coast in the north of the kingdom, and the sound of the waves filled the home. The sea was a fickle thing that threatened even in its stillness—its currents ran deep, against logic, to the thrum of a heartbeat no man could hear. He loved to look at it from his parents' balcony, to imagine he could see the channels stretched out beneath it. He once told his mother he wished to lose himself there, in a world ruled by water.

The lake, its waves rhythmically lapping, never rollicking into madness, could never match such majesty, but after years in the palace, he has finally found he can abide in it. Looking now, though, the comfort it brings spears him open into something now and something lost, as if in a dream. Something tame and something shattered—the same as wherever his mother's reply to his wish for self-destruction had gone, vanished in a wave of white noise.

Endymion and Jadeite's voices break Kunzite out of his reverie. They stride onto the veranda, arguing in hushed voices, which Endymion only tolerates if Jadeite is speaking on one of his few expertises—namely, women and, of all things, meditation. Judging by the “come hither” gesture Jadeite is trying to get Endymion to emulate, they must be arguing about the former.

“I’m just saying you should believe me, Master,” Jadeite says as he and the prince brush past Mars, who has leaned herself against a window. “Sometimes simplicity is key.”

“Jadeite,” Kunzite calls, cutting off their argument. “I trust you can guard the prince this afternoon, along with Princess Serenity’s attendant. Don’t disappoint me.”

Jadeite turns and eyes Mars, who pointedly looks past him to the gardens below. Kunzite knows Jadeite is gauging whether he can get away with an obstinate comment in her presence, and he’s glad when his general thinks better of it. Of the three, Jadeite has always been the quickest to hold his tongue, despite the fact it is all but dipped silver—though, there is not much competition. Still, his ability to maintain a serene face in the worst of brawls and even, Kunzite has seen, the nastiest of foreign visitors, is valuable.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Jadeite says, turning back to Kunzite and giving him a short bow. A formality meant for the company, more than him. Mars raises an eyebrow, but Kunzite cannot hope to dissect its meaning.

“Good.” He turns to Endymion. “I’m assuming you want me to craft a response to the king in the south in your stead?”

Perhaps the king won’t notice, but it is unlikely—there is always a tell, it seems. He is a shrewd man, already on constant look out for deception in a kingdom that changed rulers each decade until his ascent.

“Yeah, yeah, Kunzite, you’ll do great,” Endymion says, all smiles and charm after a morning with Jadeite. He is already wrapping his arms around the princess, pressing lips to her ear. Kunzite sighs and turns to spare himself the sweetness. “Jadeite's got me covered.”

"Mars will talk to Venus about a meeting," Princess Serenity calls. "You better prepare yourself."

---

Kunzite and his three generals meet the sailor guardians properly the following week, under a bright spring sun on the training grounds. The eight of them are clustered around the tree at the field's edge, on a hill that offers a fine view of the lake and the palace in the distance. The prince and princess wade in the water, happy, Kunzite is sure, to be rid of their meddling guards for an afternoon.

More than ever, this is a time for diplomatic relations. Except for the fact that what has been suggested is nothing peaceful, but a fight. The guardians' way of determining worthiness, he guesses, but, he must agree, a valuable way to determine what threat they could hold, what use.

“Since this is the first time we’ve properly met, I suppose formal introductions are in order,” he begins. “I am Kunzite, knight of virtue and affection. These are my men: Nephrite, knight of wisdom and comfort; Jadeite, knight of patience and harmony; and Zoisite, knight of purity and healing. We have given up claims to our kingdoms and sworn to serve and protect Prince Endymion and the Earth he rules at all costs, against any assailant.”

He intends the last part as a warning and sees it land in Venus’s narrowed eyes, bluer than the sky above. The other guardians share a look.

“Well, we are the Sailor Warriors of the Moon Kingdom,” Venus counters. He wonders if she expected such formalities from heathens. “I am Venus, guardian of love and beauty.”

“And I am Mars, the guardian of war,” the woman in red says next. She steps up to stand next to Venus, hand notched on a hip. They are a fearsome pair, standing separate from the others in the blaze of their contempt. Out of the corner of his eye, Kunzite sees Jadeite flinch.

“I am Jupiter, thunder guardian of protection.”

“And I am Mercury, guardian of justice and wisdom.”

Mercury is the only one of them who smiles.

“We, too, have sworn to serve and protect Princess Serenity and the Moon Kingdom at all costs,” Venus continues. “Given our charges’ insistence on rendezvousing down here so often, it appears our interests have become unfortunately mutual.”

“Which is precisely why this meeting is necessary,” Kunzite says. “If we are bound to protect two people who insist on being attached at the hip, it seems logical that we should learn to work together. I thought that we could best begin by getting a measure of each others’ skills on the battlefield.”

“Heck yes,” Jupiter says, pulling her clenched fists in to her sides. Lightning crackles between them, and Kunzite’s men take a step back.

“Jupiter!” Venus chides. “You know Earthlings don’t have magic. I don’t think he means those types of skills.”

“I do not,” Kunzite concedes. “People here are quite wary of anything to do with magic. For the sake of not causing a panic, we suggest using it only in an absolute emergency. With the exception of your mode of travel, of course.”

“Of course.” He can’t tell if Venus is mocking him.

“However,” he continues, turning to his men, “we will be using real swords, today. If any of you get killed, you will have done me a favor. I’d rather root out weakness here than in the heat of battle, if it comes to that.”

Venus turns to her own teammates. “Ladies, let’s split up. I’ll take the one who talks too much.”

“Mars,” Jadeite blurts out, and it's uncharacteristic enough to startle Kunzite. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Zoisite stifle a laugh into his arm.

“Patience, right,” Mars says to Venus.

“My sincere apologies,” Jadeite says into a clenched fist. Kunzite doesn’t think the boy has heard the jab, too taken over by embarrassment. “I would like to practice with the guardian of war, if she will have it.”

Jadeite brings his clenched fist to his opposite hip and bows, clearly taking Mars off guard, but perhaps not impressing her: She looks at Venus and shrugs.

“I still don’t think this is a productive use of our time,” she mutters as she starts to walk down the hill, loud enough for everyone to hear. “But if you insist.”

“The four of you, pair off as you see fit,” Kunzite says, waving his hand and turning to pick up his sword and shield from where they are leaning against the tree. He buckles the scabbard around his hips and walks toward a flat spot near the lake, away from but still in sight of the royal pair. His generals are on their own. When he turns, Venus is standing about five feet away. Even in the harsh sunlight, she glimmers like a precious stone hidden in shade. The fear returns at this glimpse of her strangeness, but he bites it back, loses it in the adrenaline already pumping through his veins at the idea of a fight.

“We meet again,” Venus says, waving her hand out to the side. A sword pierced with a diamond crest appears in her hand. It does not look like its made of steel—he makes a note to see if Endymion can figure out what they mine up there on the moon.

Kunzite draws his own sword and leaves his shield on the ground. For all his height and might, he detests the chaotic flurry of offensive battle; he prefers to take the defensive and wear his opponent down until he can knock them out without murder or at least spare them suffering with a quick blow. But Venus, he already knows, from the slack in her wrist and the jut of her hip and the way she casually pushes her hand through her sunfall of hair, will wear him down long before she ever breaks a sweat. These women and their magic are miles ahead of any Earth warrior.

“Before you—how did you put it the other evening? Before you feel the need flash your breasts at me, rest assured I can tell you are a lady. Though that will get you no special treatment,” he says, widening his stance and sinking low. He raises his sword.

“Don't try to deny I piqued your curiosity,” Venus smirks before lunging forward and slashing diagonally across his body. He parries, the clash of metal singing out between them. What he doesn’t expect is the force that emanates out from her sword with the sound. It’s not much, but he has to brace himself against it. The cold wind that accompanies it burns his lungs. He wonders if the taste of it—metallic and foreign and infinitely rich—is magic.

Venus retreats and advances with a forward jab. He parries again, making sure he connects with her blade beneath the diamond detail so he can push back until her sword hits the hilt of his.

“Trust me,” she says, pushing back against him so their blades are locked. “I’ve heard all about your Earth men and your fascination.”

They break, Kunzite jumping backward while Venus uses the momentum to spin back like a dancer, only to launch herself forward again. She sinks low and swipes one leg toward his feet. Kunzite staggers backward, barely blocking the jab that follows. They stop again, straining against each other, but neither breaks their hold.

“What else are you so ashamed of on Earth that you have to pretend like it doesn’t even exist to get by?” she asks before sliding her blade free of his.

She ducks the horizontal slash he takes, dancing nimbly backward, and Kunzite retreats far enough to consider her question at a safe distance, sword still held defensively across his body.

“Most Earthlings certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with a group of warrior women running around,” he offers. They circle one another, blades ready. He notes the way Venus holds her free arm behind her back, the way she sets her feet down toe first, silently.

“Well, from what little I've seen, your women are nothing like us. What use would they be with a sword?”

Her words eat at the anxiety lurking in his stomach—he wonders what she has seen, whether his suspicions are true, that Endymion and the princess have snuck into town, or the neighboring farms, or somewhere beyond the palace, already. Or maybe—have the guardians themselves given into their own curiosity, abandoned their posts during long nights of boredom? He tries to imagine Venus, lurking in the shadows of the palace—surely she wouldn't be so reckless as to walk straight into town herself, Endymion has insisted Serenity outline the dangers to her guard, just as Kunzite insisted Endymion outline the dangers to her—spying on the women in the kitchens. How docile they must look beside her, to her. Just sacks of flour, tugging at skirts and barely harming their bread as they throw it, again and again, to the counter. Even the greatest beauty would be nothing beside these creatures that have alighted upon an unsuspecting world.

In his momentary reverie, Venus lunges forward, feints right, and lunges again when he flinches. He parries hard enough to knock her back this time and drives forward, the tip of his sword aimed somewhere near her throat, but she lunges to his left and backsprings out of reach.

“Anatomically speaking, you seem the same,” he ventures, shutting away everything that could go wrong. He indulges himself for one moment, lets his eyes dart up the bare legs as they disappear into what is barely a skirt, over the sharp cuts of muscle pressing against the thin fabric of her bodice and gloves. She raises her eyebrows, so he dares: “Perhaps you can enlighten me.”

This is the yank on the line that brings her leaping toward him. Their swords clash again, ringing out across the training ground, and they pivot back, lunge, clash. She is grace, easily bowing out of reach of his sword, and he is force, knocking her back with each block, until they adapt and steal the other’s techniques, forcing them to change roles. At one point, Kunzite finds himself bending forward as her blade flies over his back. He sweeps his sword arm out to hit her right side with the pommel as he jumps out of the way. The shock on her face when he stands back up is delicious, but it isn’t long before she’s rushing at him once more.

“Bold,” she mutters when their blades are locked again. He sees her chewing on the inside of her lower lip again and is glad to know she is at least having to concentrate. “You better be glad I agreed not to use magic.”

He won’t let her know, but he is. He and his men have already speculated just how long they could last in an all-out fight with these soldiers, given how little they know about their powers. The answer they agree on always seems to be some duration of not fucking long.

They break again, clash again, equally matched save for the pesky knowledge that she is by requirement holding back. At one point, he slams his shoulder into her chest to avoid a thrust, then grabs her sword arm and swings her to the ground to avoid circling right back into the attack. She grunts when her back hits the dirt, giving him enough time to admire the ripple of her muscles beneath her tight bodice, the arch of her back as she tries to gain traction. He almost offers her a hand up, but is glad he doesn’t when she catapults back to a standing position and launches herself at him again. She brings the flat of her sword down on his right bicep and he staggers to the left, barely parrying another jab.

“If you’re really curious about comparative anatomy, you should know that on Venus we walk around topless as a rule,” she offers before lunging again.

He’s just regained his balance, is ready to meet her lunge, but this statement—the perplexity of it, the picture it paints of Venus, a world he has never even thought to imagine—makes him pause long enough for her to thrust her blade between his arm and his side. It catches the fabric of his shirt and slides clean through and he can feel the magic pulsing off of it, just centimeters from his skin. Venus doesn't pull back from the movement, either, shoving into him hard enough to send his breath clean out.

“Dead,” she breathes, peering up at him.

They’re pressed together now, her shoulder planted firmly against his chest, leaning into one another in their lunges. She does not move away. He realizes that she is shorter than him. He can feel the flex of her hands around the pommel of her sword where they brush his clothes, feel the quick rise and fall of her chest moving through her bones. For the first time, he comprehends her as a living thing, moonborn or no. No, not even moonborn—his mind spins around her words, the idea of Venus not as homage, but title and planet, someplace as real as here, spinning forever away through nothing, out of reach. It takes the breath out of his lungs again.

She laughs, and he looks down. She’s still peering up at him, but she isn't chewing on her lip now. Instead, he sees a new expression that already feels like the back of his hand: Her lips cocked in a cruel smirk, eyes shining like pools of molten blue from behind a curtain of hair. She must have seen the understanding bloom across his face, the confusion. “All because you men get yourself hot and bothered over a body part. How pathetic.”

Those two words make him want to wrap his hands around her swan’s neck and squeeze. What would it take to break her? He’s surprised at the thought. He's never wished a woman harm before, never even thought to torture his most hated opponents. This irrational desire—not for rage, or hatred, or destruction, just power, the power he knows must lurk somewhere deep in the swan-fine bones of this woman, if he could dig deep enough to get it, break into her until it revealed itself from the pieces—twitches in his fingertips. To dispel it, he focuses on the weight of her against him.

“If that’s how you feel," he says carefully, knitting his brows to focus on keeping each word cool and even as the lake. "I’ll save you the trouble and remove myself from your presence."

He steps back and to the side, out of reach of her icy blade. She stumbles forward at the sudden loss of balance, eyes wide as she drops the sword as she reaches out to catch herself in the grass. Kunzite is already halfway to the hill to check on the others when she claws her way out of speechlessness.

“That’s—that’s not fair!” she yells after him. “I won!”

“On Earth, we have a saying,” he yells. “All’s fair in love and war.”

He laughs and lifts a hand in departure, but he doesn’t look back.

---

Zoisite, Jadeite, and Nephrite fail to appear at the morning briefing the next day. Kunzite and Endymion sit in the silence. He busies himself by reviewing the supply list for their journey east and puzzling over an update from the mountains. Along with grain and caravans, it seems the diplomats he consulted with have also brought the threat of a war.

"The hell are they?" Endymion asks, pausing his concentration on the chessboard in front of him. "And what's got you looking so upset?"

"Raided gem stores, missing miners in the mountains, everywhere the relief troops have passed through. Reported only by one messenger, though," Kunzite says, leaning his cheek on a balled fist. "I'll write to my contacts, figure out if others have seen the same."

"Why would they rob people who already have nothing? It's despicable. They should be sent to work in the fields if that's what they're doing."

"People with nothing are vulnerable. And I'm sure the troops sent to help are hardly the best—I can guess at the logic. Why spare good men for nothing more than tedious work? I will worry about it, for now."

"But what hope does that give us, if even relief troops can't be inspired to care about the people? It makes me afraid that there's no better way for humanity to go."

"Don't doubt yourself, Endymion. These things take time, allies. The villagers will remember the kindness you showed them."

"Is it my kindness, though? How do they know?"

"They know that you are the one who convinced the north to send troops out, trust me. No one would think that ruler would do it on his own. Now, please, master, worry about other things. May I suggest you focus on not offending the entire eastern division at the Festival of Thalassa?"

"Gods, your people and their ridiculous rituals. I don't want to think about it. Why can't you do it for me again?"

"Master, you know—"

"Yeah, yeah, you've said it a hundred times. The rightful king is meant to participate, don't want to offend the ocean goddess. Do you actually believe that stuff?"

"You're being petulant."

"I know. I'm sorry, Kunzite. I'm tired, and hungry."

"And lovesick."

Endymion sulks, fidgeting with his pawns. "Let's talk about something happier. How were Serenity's guardians, anyway? You all looked beat whenever I looked up. Serenity found it rather hilarious."

A dreamy look crosses Endymion's face even at his own mention of Princess Serenity, and Kunzite finally sees the bags under the prince's eyes. What ungodly hour did the princess leave this time? Which of her guardians was forced to stand vigil? Did one of his men join them? After the spar, Kunzite had cordoned himself off in his room to lick his pride and ponder the data proffered by the experiment. He itched to know what their magic looked like, how long they could hope to hold themselves against it if needed. Would it only destroy? Could it aid in Endymion's vision to build a better world?

Magic aside, it was still concerning that his spar with Venus had lasted by far the longest of them. By the time Kunzite returned to the hill, Jadeite and Zoisite were sprawled across the grass, winded and dirty and, in Jadeite's case, soaking wet, while Nephrite, hair pulled into an uncharacteristic ponytail, stood at a safe distance from Jupiter, talking her through their various weapons as she swung them from side to side. Mercury and Mars stood in the distance, heads pressed closed, the latter examining the former's hand. The most he could make of it was some squawk from Zoisite insisting he meant no harm.

"It certainly solidified my preference for keeping them as allies. As your adviser, I recommend against dumping the princess anytime soon."

Endymion bolts up at that, knocking a few pieces over.

"Kunzite, don't even say such a thing!"

"You know I'm just teasing, master. I do wonder, though: Has the princess spoken about magic?"

Endymion sits, leaning his head on a fist, ignoring the chess pieces for a moment.

"Magic? Not too much. The most I understand is that they use it like breathing. Serenity keeps trying to teach me, but we, uh, get distracted. Do you want me to ask something specific?"

“No, no," Kunzite says. They fall into a silence again, Endymion tapping one chess piece against another and turning his gaze out to the overcast morning. No moon, no visitors. When the tapping threatens to send Kunzite into a frenzy, he stands. “I think it's safe to assume the other three are indisposed, after yesterday. I'll go find out if they need anything. You should use today to focus on your studies. Maybe write the south an apology, for your distraction.”

---

He finds the three sprawled out in the palace baths: Nephrite reclined with his head back on the tile floor, arms spread out wide on either side of him; Jadeite, resting his head in his arms on the platform in the center; and Zoisite, submerged up to his chin in a corner, head leaning on the bath’s edge to keep him upright.

“Playing hooky, I see,” he says, standing right over Nephrite. All three men startle, Zoisite losing his traction on the bath floor and going under for just a moment.

“Kunzite, those women did us in. We can’t move,” Nephrite pleads, turning to sink into the water up to his nose. He floats closer to Jadeite, who only moves to turn his head away on his arms.

“You got yourselves here,” Kunzite points out.

“Jadeite forced me into it,” Zoisite parries, surfaced again. He hears his own falseness and scrambles to make up ground: “Besides, we haven’t had time to linger in the bath in weeks, all the hours we’ve spent running around after the prince and that moon girl, then preparing for that fight. Some of us would rather not end up looking like you, old man.”

“Princess Serenity,” Kunzite says. “And next time, send notice.”

Jadeite lifts his head suddenly, eyes wide open now. The three share a look.

“Nephrite was supposed to have the servant let you know we were here,” Jadeite accuses.

“No, we agreed Zoisite would tell the servant,” Nephrite counters.

“I would never—“

“It’s fine,” Kunzite says, much to their surprise. "The water's still hot?"

He laughs, the sound echoing off the tile walls, and begins to undress. He does not fail to notice the suspicion that passes between the three generals as he folds his uniform and sets it on a finely tiled ledge. It isn't often he joins them for an impromptu bath—though it is often they decide to take one. As he slides into the water, he finally notices just how sore even he is after the spar. A bath will do him well.

"Move over," he mutters, stepping into the water. The bath is huge, but they are well aware that he prefers to stretch his arms out along the wall with a clear shot of the door. Nephrite and Zoisite retreat to the other side.

Kunzite crouches into the warm embrace of the water and inspects himself: An impressive bruise is blooming on the upper part of his right arm, and a thin white line has appeared where Venus’ sword cut through his shirt. Funny, he thinks—he doesn’t remember the blade touching his skin. He passes his thumb over it. It is raised slightly, perfectly straight, like a blade. It is unlike any scar he has gotten before.

“Did you hear the orange one say you talk too much?” Jadeite asks.

“We've never had the heart to tell you," Nephrite laughs.

“You’re one to talk, Jadeite,” Zoisite shoots. “What was that whole disgusting display you gave the red lady?"

“We’re knights,” Jadeite bristles. “We’re supposed to be chivalrous.”

“She wasn’t chivalrous when she knocked you into the lake. And, gods, Jadeite, what in the world made you—" Nephrite lets out a guffaw, despite his usual composure, then manage to tamp it down. "Why did you ever think kissing her hand was a good idea?" Nephrite doubles over in a burst of laughter at the memory. So that's why Jadeite had been soaking wet that day, picking mud out of his hair. Jadeite doesn't look too pleased to have Nephrite retelling the memory.

Zoisite takes over: “You better be glad those awful swans and their shit are gone."

Still failing to find his composure again, Nephrite tries to say something else: “And then—“

Jadeite’s shoulders rise up to his ears.

“And then—then she—oh man,” Nephrite tries. Kunzite hasn't seen them this worked up in months, not since news of the earthquake and the sudden burden of babysitting interstellar royalty fell on their plate. Finally, he manages: “And then she held you under with her foot.”

Jadeite shoots up and rips through the water to shove Nephrite’s head under, nearly slipping as the older man flails his arms, wraps them around Jadeite's thighs. Jadeite saves himself, though, and brings a knee to Nephrite’s chest for stability, pushing down more. Nephrite splashes violently, sending a wave of water in Zoisite's direction.

“Hey, you assholes,” Zoisite hisses, but he jumps into the fray when Jadeite accidentally elbows him in the ribs after a particularly hard shove from Nephrite.

Kunzite watches the younger men for a moment before sliding silently out of the bath and walking over to the fountain at the entrance. He picks up a bucket and sticks it under the cold mountain water running out of an elegantly carved lion’s head just as all three of his generals slip under. Zoisite pops up first, snaking out of what looks to be a chokehold, and jabs out with his knee, never too good to take a cheap shot when he can get away with it. Jadeite surfaces in a fit of coughs

“Fuck, Zoisite, that was almost my dick,” Jadeite yowls, scrabbling to land his palm against Zoisite’s jaw. “You pinched my fucking—“

Zoisite clutches at his face. “You shit, I thought you were chivalrous.”

The bucket is half filled now. Not much longer.

“Not to someone who threatens my dick.”

“If that’s the case, then why did you bow to Mars after you clawed your way out of the mud?”

“I wish she would’ve just finished the job and drowned you,” Nephrite mutters. Zoisite backs up to fall in line beside him, just out of reach when Jadeite swipes at him with a hand.

Kunzite grabs the filled bucket and walks, unhurried and still unnoticed, to the edge of the bath.

“Yeah, maybe if someone actually did away with your dick you wouldn’t keep us all up yowling into the middle of the night whenever you can’t get some.”

“Which is every night." Nephrite manages to grab Zoisite by the hair and pull him closer. At the same time, Jadeite lunges.

And that’s when Kunzite dumps the bucket of water onto his generals’ heads. For one blissful moment, they are completely silent.

Then, a gruff mutter from Nephrite: “Fuck, Kunzite, you could’ve just told us to shut up.”

Then: “I think we deserved that.”

Kunzite can’t tell which of the other two says this—whispers it really—probably Jadeite, possibly even Zoisite, in one of his more lucid moments. Soon, they’ve all sunk into the water again, half-lost in reverie.

“How did your spar go, old man?” Zoisite asks, a child testing the metaphorical waters after he’s thrown a fit. Kunzite has never paid attention Zoisite’s favorite insult, leveled at the color of his hair more than anything. Genetic, of course, though incongruous with the other desert tribes. Old man or no, he never tells any of them that he wouldn’t in a thousand years go back to being a teenager.

“It was interesting,” he says, eyes closed and head reclined onto a towel.

“You lost,” Nephrite accuses.

“In one sense,” he replies. He hears one of them sigh in irritation.

"Never a straight answer." Zoisite never has had an appetite for nuance.

“We need to learn magic,” Jadeite mutters, still sulking from what he surely considers a brush with death, “or we’re going to get our butts handed to us if they ever decide to say to hell with the rules.”

Zoisite: “For once, I agree with him.”

"How do you think it works?" Jadeite asks. "Do they say spells? Do they have familiars?"

“There's a sorceress in my kingdom who could teach us. My mother knows her.” Nephrite again. An interesting thought, Kunzite thinks through the haze of the bath.

What he says: “Former kingdom.”

His men are loyal, he knows, but sometimes they forget themselves, fall back into old patterns of ambition and cunning. For now, they fall into silence. As he dozes in the heat, Kunzite’s mind wanders to the curve of limb-fine fingers stretched around the pommel of a sword, the stretch of white neck, those eyes, impossibly deep, roiling with currents that he hasn't seen in years, laughing him into nothing but a speck of sand in the wind.

Chapter Text

The third time they meet, Kunzite sees Venus before she sees him. He is making his first round of the palace for the evening, starting from the library, weary after an argument with Endymion. After two months confined in the palace, Princess Serenity has grown more insistent about her desire to see the world beyond it. He is not surprised, nor does he blame her; the overflowing font of her curiosity about this world is what brought her to Endymion in the first place. They must be strategic, he tells himself for the thousandth time, just as he has told the prince over and over. There are allies with eligible daughters to offend. There are entire mathematical religions based upon the moon being a dead place, whole monotheistic sects devoted to the execution of witches. Swaths of the population have never thought the moon and magic and even true love anything more than a dream.

“Come on, old man,” Endymion said earlier that evening in a burst of bravado. “Get with the times. What are we doing if not trying to show people they don’t need such silly beliefs anymore?”

But not even Zoisite, with all his youthful swagger, and Nephrite, being from the kingdom most comfortable with magic, could not chime in agreement of that. Jadeite remained as serene as ever, but even his kingdom, Kunzite knew, relegated godship to men and beings beyond comprehension. Nothing so ordinary as women. Kunzite watched his three generals, the way their eyes slid to the side and out to the moon’s reflection, dancing in the still of the lake. Were they scared? He doubted it—they were too stubborn to acknowledge fear. Unnerved, maybe. Turning over and over in their minds the question of how this strange new world fit into the order of things. Where they fit into its own order. Drawing odds to see which one might come out on top.

“Your people worship the moon, don’t they?” Endymion asked, fixing his eyes on Kunzite like a sword just slid from its sheath. “Why don’t we take Serenity to the festival?”

“Master,” Kunzite said. He brought his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know if the fact of their moon worship makes her existence better or worse. Besides, this island is only part of—”

“Don’t bullshit me, Kunzite. You and I both know they think the moon incarnate will usher a millennium of peace into existence. What the heck do you think you’ve been making me read for all these months?”

Without fail, the prince paid the most attention to his studies when it would somehow make Kunzite’s life more difficult. Kunzite couldn’t argue—of course he knew what the texts said. If only the early acolytes had known what would woo down the moon was not the fickle tides of the sea gone momentarily symmetrical, but a man as fierce as he was kind, as open as steady, as deserving as love as willing to give it to any who passed before him.

“Checkmate.” Endymion couldn’t resist. The spell over the others broke at this. Zoisite smirked before barking in laughter, soon joined by Nephrite. Jadeite only shook his head, but the smile tugging at his lips was obvious. It was rare enough that Kunzite lost to Endymion on a technical error.

“We’ll see,” was all Kunzite would allow. But, as he walked out of the library to begin his rounds, he knew he had already lost.

Perhaps, Kunzite thinks, deep in thought as he passes from the palace’s center to the residential wing, they can pass the princess off as the obscure heir to a throne deep in the kingdom's far reaches. She certainly looks the part of the unknown north. All that white and glow.

He is rounding the corner past his own chamber to the path toward Endymion’s when he sees the flash of gold in the garden ahead. This time, Venus is alone. Kunzite pulls back into the shadows behind a pillar and watches her under the light of a fingernail moon.

As always, she’s quite the sight—gold and grace and something impossibly old, dressed up in the dazzle of youth, sharpened into the fine arc of a blade—and the moonlight dances around her, pulled from its earthly fall to dip into the ripples of her muscles, under her jaw, which stretches out of the impossibly perfect column of her neck. A picture of heaven, maybe, painted with light on stone.

She looks around a moment, staring intently into the hall, away from where he is standing. When she sees nothing, she starts to pace. She is chewing on her lip again, and he remembers the cold of her sword, the warm heat of her shoulder against his. He thinks of all that magic buried somewhere deep inside her, hidden away until she steps into the moon and sends its light swimming in swoon. A chill runs up his spine.

He takes a few more moments to watch the flash of her fingers as they comb through her hair, to gauge whether it’s irritation wrinkling up around her eyes as best he can from such a distance. He doesn't know her, can't be sure that's where it would appear, but he likes to think he might be so insightful. It's best to idealize such power as friend, not foe.

When Kunzite moves to walk toward the garden, she turns in an instant, gliding perfectly into battle-ready position. She does not relax when she sees it is him.

"I didn't mean to startle you," he says, hands raised. This time he means it.

“I really don’t appreciate being ambushed like some thief.”

“I said I didn't mean it. You act as though I’m the intruder in your palace, and not the other way around.”

“As far as I’m concerned, anywhere that Princess Serenity decides to be is mine to protect.”

Kunzite laughs. “I would say the same of my master, but I doubt you would be accommodating if I brought that attitude to the moon.”

“Like you simple men could ever make it there,” Venus scoffs. “No matter, you’re not going to get rid of me until I can leave with the princess.”

“She must have just arrived. I was with Endymion no more than an hour ago. Are you ready for the long haul?”

“Do I have a choice?” Venus rolls her eyes and flicks her wrist to Endymion’s door. She’s relaxed now, neutral, and he lets the tension that has built up in his own shoulders drop down his back, roll off into nothing. “Remember when they were happy with an hour? This is ridiculous, and we can’t even revolt. They've locked themselves in again.”

“Have you tried knocking?”

Her face goes barbed and mocking. “Oh my, what a genius this earth is blessed with. The princess sealed the door with magic. Even I can’t open it.”

Kunzite has never considered that he couldn’t barge into Endymion’s room and break the couple up on nights like these even if he tried, hasn't quite believed the other three when they explain how the door is impossible to open. But how to tell when it’s being used? Kunzite walks over to the door—made with wood from the forests of the north and finely carved with Endymion’s crest—and peers at it to see if it looks different under the enchantment.

“You can’t see it, if that's what you’re looking for. You have to feel for it."

He looks back at Venus, sidelong, not sure if she’s just given him a dare.

“You want to know how to tell the door’s enchanted, don’t you? Then touch it.”

He opens his right hand out wide and hopes she does not see him hesitate before he presses it to the wood. He feels nothing but the grain until it suddenly pulses underneath his palm. The power is cool to the touch, traveling up his arm like a stream of water.

“Press harder,” Venus tells him, so he does, leaning all his weight into the surface until the pulse grows stronger, moves farther over his body, and finally pushes him, gently, until he stumbles back, but hard enough to send him straight to his ass. Venus tuts.

“The princess is too nice. If it were my magic, that would’ve blown you straight to the other side of the room. I’m kind of disappointed it didn’t.”

Kunzite doesn’t quite register her words. He is still looking at his hand and, through his spread fingers, the door. He can feel the magic still lingering in his reddening fingertips, can feel a lifetime of physics and logic unspooling in his gut. He had never believe the accounts of magic and wonder his father loved so dearly, was always more privy to buy into the devotion and moral living of his mother’s prophet, but the appeal of the former sparks in him now. He wonders if he could take this power, push it into something new—if he could bind something, keep another out, through suggestion, thought, sensation.

“You’re really wowed by that, huh? I didn’t really believe my tutors when they told me you didn't have magic, but I guess I should’ve. Maybe you can be taught."

He turns to look at her, finally lowering his hand. She is smiling a wicked smile, so similar to the cruel twist of her lips in battle, eyebrow cocked, hands on her hips. She laughs and holds out a hand, but he doesn’t take it, instead stands on his own, brushing the back of his pants and adjusting his cape, and her expression shifts into surprise.

“Another saying: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Maybe next time.”

“Well, my saying would be I hope there never is a next time, but I'm not naive," Venus mutters. "Not that I'd teach you anyway."

"No matter,” Kunzite says, “you’ve proven your point: They won't come out until dawn. Isn't it futile to think we can stake them out every night now?"

"You're not wrong," Venus says. "But the Queen has ordered us to stay with her when she's down here. The exact order, really, is to bring her back as quickly as possible any time."

“And you’ve got your head to worry about, if I remember correctly.”

“Just my sanity, really. We only behead foreigners now.”

She must see some kind of look cross his face, because she laughs. “I’m kidding. I don’t know if anyone has ever been beheaded on the moon. Though I’m sure there have been people to deserve it.”

They wait for a time in silence, so Kunzite leans against the wall, his eyes sliding between Endymion’s door and Venus, who paces the same line into the garden. He entertains the thought of leaving her, of going to bed, but only briefly. It would be a shame to leave such an enchanting thing alone to the night; the promise of camaraderie, too, is strong. His generals are fun and kind people, but Kunzite feels as responsible for their upbringing as Endymion’s, feels more parent for now than friend, even toward Jadeite, with all his icy calm.

"Kids," Venus mutters, looking at the door. He laughs and thinks he sees the sound echoed in the glimmer of her eye. This fine young thing, he thinks, but the tone of the word makes him look again at her, and he sees in the line of her shoulders and back not the soft slump of reluctance but the hardness of apprehension, built up against first loves and, he thinks, the cost of battle.

What has she paid? He thinks of his family, impossibly far away, of the letters they send and the wetlands of the northern coast he has resigned himself to believing he will never see again. His mother is growing old, his father already gone, and his siblings—scattered to the wind, to schools and monasteries and militaries in other lands. They can still enjoy their prosperity, no matter where they are, while he, impossibly and, to some, unwisely, stays in the confines of a palace and the radius around a single person, castrated from wealth by choice, spending day after day hoping to transform a boy into a god—hoping to transform other boys into more than the shadows of men. Is he even a man himself, now? Would his father look at all he's given—time, and power, and the sweet abandon of youth—and be proud? Mother? Of course. She had always placed duty to an ideal above all else.

This line of thought, Kunzite thinks, will most certainly not get him through a night of silence in any semblance of sanity. It doesn’t do to dwell on homes beyond reaching.

"The doors are all guarded. They can't go very far," he offers, standing straight. "Besides, we can't wait all night on them in perpetuity. Why don't you come with me on my second round?"

Venus turns and considers. He wants to think the same line of thought—the endless battle against the instinct to tally everything that has been given—drives her to say yes.

---

Even though they are his rounds, Venus winds up leading their perusal of the palace, past more gardens and closed doors. She runs a finger down the wall as they walk, nail scraping lightly against the grout, and they are silent until the stone floors of the outer wings turn into the rich wood and carpet of the central palace.

The summer has been mild, and the doors are thrown wide open to the air. The guards do not acknowledge them as they pass. Kunzite hopes they are not sleeping.

"What are these?" Venus asks, stopping so abruptly that he almost runs into her. When he looks up, she is gazing at of the exquisite tapestries lining the main halls of the palace. A breeze dances behind the heavy pieces, which bloom with foliage and teem with half-hidden creatures, almost real in the dark, but he cannot tear himself away from the intensity of her gaze. How strange that she would be transfixed by something as mundane as a wall hanging.

“Tapestries,” he answers, half-thinking. Perhaps they do not have art on the moon. The rest of his mind is lost in the darkness of the hallway, in how easily it could be home if only there were the sound of the sea.

“No, the pictures on them,” she says, pointing up at a group of animals in the forest. He peers up, as if seeing it for the first time, and laughs. “What are they?”

"It would take a very long time to name them all. I'm not even sure if I know all the names."

"We have time, don't we? And how would I know if you make something up or forget it?"

It must be the first time she has acknowledged a potential limitation, because it jolts him into silence. Her eyes—blue like the lapis lazuli he once saw pulled in buckets from the earth, he saw people murder and die for, he saw people starved in the absence of, he wore on his fingers until then like a trophy, like he'd done something to be worthy of it—search his face, and he instinctively steps back. The eyes grow cold, no longer searching, instead filled with confusion, then contempt, threatening to turn back to stone and disinterest. She steps back, too.

There's no harm, he tells himself. He thinks this is something he wanted, to have his own closeness to the moon. He takes a breath and lifts a hand, drags it across the tapestry until it passes something he knows.

Fox and foxglove. Dogs, dogwood, deer—fawn, doe, stag, a family. Forsythia, the color of her hair, which hangs like a summer afternoon around her face, autumn leaves, drops, drips, dripping needles falling from the fronds of a pine. A swan snaking its way through moonlight. Petals, pollen, stamen—wilting, bloomed, burst like little hearts of lyre flower. Wisteria, perfumed waves particularly beautiful on a midsummer evening, when the heat has broke but the scent remains. Sweet pea, chrysanthemum, hydrangea, and holly. Clover and laurel and myrtle. Hummingbirds sip honey from petal cups, a pair of birds delight in the bower of an apple tree, one last fruit hanging at its top, almost hidden from view.

She repeats him as he goes, dragging her own finger over the rough fabric behind his. With each new word, he finds that he only wants to hear her cradle more and more of them on her tongue. She does not have an accent, but it’s clear from the way she rolls over the syllables that the sheer range of life of this world is new to her. It strikes him that, for all its beauty, the moon must be a barren place—Venus, too, if that is where she is truly from.

As she harnesses each word, though, she breathes something new into it. He strains to hear the soft breaths of air behind them, wonders whether they hold magic. Each time, it's like he's seeing that life for the first time, and each time she comes closer, as if she's hoping to pry it all out of him to take for herself.

“Wisteria,” he says by the tapestry of spring, drawing out the word’s silent beginning, snaking the air through the gentle part of his lips. She is leaning uncomfortably close to his face, trying to parse out the physics of the word. A puff of his breath ruffles the hair on her forehead. Everything has been fine until now, but the softness of these sounds seems to evade her.

“Wha-sta-ria,” she tries, but already she can hear the mistake. She laughs, shakes her head, and looks back up the tapestry, runs a fine finger over the woven mass of purple blooms that eat up the lower corner.

“The first time I saw the word Earth,” she admits, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear and walking again, “I thought it was pronounced Ee-arth. My tutor made fun of me for weeks.”

“They don’t sound like a very good tutor,” he replies, following her lead.

“Oh, no, she was the best of the best, meant for royalty. All Venusian tutors are supposed to teach their students how to stay composed in any situation." She turns and smirks at him. "To graduate, we have to win three out of five rounds of public debate—with no rule against personal attacks. They’re encouraged, really. The debaters pace around each other in the middle of a circle of their classmates, clap their hands together as loud as they can when they’re done with their argument to invite the other to start ripping it apart. If you let something like a silly mispronunciation trip you up, you’re done for.”

He does not ask about the distinct lack of composure she displayed at their first meeting, and he decides right then he never will. It’s the most she’s said to him without expecting repartee. In his silence, he hopes they each recognize a truce; for what, though, he’s not sure. She continues walking down the hall.

Starling and starflower, morning glory. Hawks, regal and perilous, preying on rabbits and hares. Prey, praise, praying, prayers pried open like jewel boxes of violet and gardenia. Heliotrope, iris, forget-me-nots that pale next to brilliant eyes of columbine. Larkspur spun next to bluebells spun next to light of brilliant goldenrod, lurked in by little sparrows and swallows escaping the night-eyed owls. Glacial streams spill into glass-plate lakes, swam through by swans, again, whose white wings span the dark distance of space. Frostbite feathers float over the deep.

“So many swans,” she says. She holds the word in her mouth, round and airy and right from the first time. He imagines her tongue curling down and her throat closing to create the negative space that breathes life into a billowing bird. He wants to taste the sound of that word on her lips, more than anything he's wanted in years.

“In mountains far from here, where Jadeite is from, swans are considered holy,” he says. “Hamsa, I think he said they’re called. They are revered for their ability to swim without getting wet, just as some people strive to live in the world without being attached to it.”

“There’s the talkative one,” she says, gazing up at the tapestry again. Her fingers fall over the fine blue thread of water, trace along the curves of the swans’ necks. Kunzite isn't sure if she heard anything he has just said, so he looks up at it, too, peers into the needlework where the birds’ reflections disappear into the water.

“Are there any here?”

“No." When he glances down from the tapestry, Venus is looking at him, not the swans. She is completely still, completely silent. He cannot even see the rise of her chest, hear the hiss of her breath. Is there air, on the moon?

"But this tapestry is clearly of the lake." She taps the palace in the distance.

When Kunzite first came to Endymion’s castle, the lake was teeming with swans. He liked to watch them as he walked, gliding over the water, heads bent into each other like a wedding vow. Every day, though, they would come closer and closer to him, craning their necks and and feinting back from closeness with a great gust of their wings, threatening even in retreat. It wasn’t long before they lost any concept of proximity, before they forget that the lake was never theirs to begin with, and even Kunzite feared they would overwhelm his world into soft white and the sharp bite of beaks.

"The lake in the castle gardens became infested with them a few years back. They’re mean—territorial. And they mate for life, so they come in pairs, but don’t stay so few for long. No one could go near the water, after a while, and then they started attacking anyone who cut through even the gardens. So we had to get rid of them. This was back before I had recruited the other generals—Endymion was quite young, and he cried for days, so I promised we would bring them back forever, along with the spring.” Kunzite looks up at the tapestry, swirling with white. “So now, we keep our swans here.”

In all his years of studies and feasts and balls, he had never had to kill something before. The blood that day, mixed with the shock white of the feathers, stays with Kunzite. The servants refused to eat the swans, refused to serve them to anyone. So he had walked them down to the village, given them for free to anyone who wanted. Many were hungry enough to take.

“Weren't you young then, too?”

"I had to grow up quickly," he says, looking away from her.

"Here?"

"No, another kingdom. Or what used to be another kingdom, in the East. There were many expectations. I rose to meet them. Killing swans is hardly worth mentioning."

“That’s sad, though, to kill something so beautiful."

"Is beauty enough to protect something from death? Destruction? Can the beautiful count themselves above the rest by virtue of it?"

She turns to glance sidelong at him, and he wonders if she is looking for a challenge in his voice. The question poses a test: A gauge of hubris, an attempt to judge where these women think they fall among the ranks of the Earth.

"Why did you leave your home?"

"I found my duty in the prince."

"Another thing, then, we have in common."

She's quiet after that, dwelling, he thinks, in her own thoughts of home, and she moves on to the next tapestry, the only one dedicated to the sea, and he lets loose another cascade of words, except now she does not repeat him, just outlines the shapes and mouths the sounds to herself. She grows softer, somehow, with each soundless saying, and he grows wearier, shrinking from the warmth that rises out of her despite the evening’s chill.

Moonlight, man-o-war, monstrosity, the sea—ocean, tides, dark and churning, behemoths and leviathans of the deep, unimaginable darkness. Has she ever known it? Maritime, mariner, married women, wives, waiting on widow's walks for a whisper of light, signs, whether husbands will bring in their hauls—hake and herring, haddock and halfbeak, halibut—whether they'll come back heroes, brimming with hubris, or aching with the wounds and wages of war. On the sand, among the surf and seaweed and turtles and dunes, Nereiads, immune to wanting and loss, at home in an unlit sea. Unbreakable waves, unfathomable, blue all over, no trace of gold or sun.

When they’ve exhausted the tapestries, the return to the garden near Endymion's door, and he points out the real versions of the flowers she’s learned. Unlike Serenity, Venus does not fall to her hands and knees to see each petal in the most painful detail. Instead, she gives a magnanimous nod and jumps up to sit on the stone ledge of a window.

“Why do you even bother sewing flowers onto fabric when you have them all right here?” Venus asks.

“Because we still want to appreciate them in the winter,” he answers.

“Winter?”

“Some parts of the Earth, here included, grow cold for a few months every year. Most plants grow dormant, lose their leaves, and many animals go underground to sleep until spring returns. Birds migrate south, to warmer areas.”

“The Queen always says that nothing on Earth lasts long,” Venus muses. She's no longer looking at the plants. Her blue gaze is again planted on him, big as a sky, and if he took four steps forward he is convinced he would fall into it forever. Can she lace magic through a look like that? Would he feel it if he reached out and touched the impossible smoothness of her? Silk-fine threads of hair fall over the blue and its power releases him.

When he looks down, his hand is raised as if to reach out and brush her hair away, to cup her chin and figure out whether he is being bewitched into thinking this already beautiful thing somehow more beautiful than he knows she is. The last time he felt for a woman—long ago. He tries to call up the memory for comparison, but falls short. He is already foundering in this shallow taste of whatever he thinks she can be.

"Kunzite?"

Her voice returns him to himself. He clasps his outstretched hand to his chest, hidden under his cloak, and shakes his head as if to dispel a dream. It's the first time she has called him by name.

“It’s nothing,” he says. They return to silence, until Kunzite catches her dozing. The moon is high in the sky now. It must be the middle of night—still a long time to go until morning.

“Venus?” he asks, and as the word rolls off his tongue, he realizes he was nervous to say it. She startles awake.

"Your princess is safe with Endymion, I promise you," Kunzite ventures, but he sees the flash of suspicion that dances across her face. He proceeds nevertheless, speaking as if choosing a flower for a bouquet, as if aiming a bow in meditation at a target. "I mean no impropriety by this: My quarters are quite near. I'm sure you, like me, require sleep to function, and I am sure you, like me, have duties that go beyond waiting night and day a certain distance away from your charge. If you would like, you are welcome to go sleep there for a while and I can come get you after two hours or so. If they come out, I will bring the princess right to you. You can still fulfill your orders. Though maybe it's time to have a frank discussion with your Queen."

"You trust me enough, to leave me unwatched on your planet?"

"You may not show the same love for Earth as your princess, but I see no reason to doubt someone who seems to be driven by the same duty as I am. Besides, if you trust me enough to leave me alone on watch for your princess, we are on even ground."

Venus considers this for a long time, not looking at him. Her fingers trace the bloom of a rose.

"And you know to bring Serenity to me the minute you are able.”

“Yes.”

“Fine."

This time, she follows, trailing cautiously behind as he winds the three short corners to his own door. He inserts the key, pushes it open so she can walk in first. She steps in slowly, the hard-pointed heels of her shoes going soft on the rugs he has strewn about the wooden floors. His quarters are a mess, by his standards—strewn with papers and maps, with wall hangings and trunks, and fine textiles from home.

"Sleep wherever you please. Just don't disturb the papers on the desk. I already have enough chaos to deal with."

She nods and walks to take a seat on the couch. He doesn’t watch her for very long, not this close. The proximity sends a jolt of electricity through him, like a thrill or a warning. Instead, he walks quickly to grab a roll of paper left on his desk, to turn and walk back to the door.

“Sleep well,” he decides to say as he pulls the door shut behind him. When he glances behind she is still sitting, looking out toward the moon, which hangs low in the sky over the balcony.

---

When he returns to his quarters, though, she is fast asleep, hair draped across her like a gold spun blanket. She's pulled an actual blanket, heavy and fur, over her legs. The dark material, so connected to the earth and its violence, looks strange against the light of her.

She does not wake when he closes the door, nor when he sets the stack of papers back on his desk. He unclasps his cloak, opens his bureau to hang it, closes it not quietly, and then he sits to remove his boots, to rub the ache of sitting on the cold grass for hours straight out of his knees. Still, she slumbers.

It's been years since he has had a woman in his chambers. The last time—he has to stop and try to remember. Something rushed and half and un—. He cannot remember enough even to supply the words. Women have never appealed as a way to fill his already limited time. He has nothing to give them—no inheritance, no title, no home. The pomp and circumstance of occasional duty, maybe, but nothing real or lasting. All his love has been for Endymion, for the other three. A strange love, he gives them. A strange love they return.

"Venus," he says finally, touching her as softly as he can. Her skin is warm in a way that has nothing to do with the air, even against just the tips of his fingers. She comes to life slowly at first, then in an instant, snapping up and then away from his hand.

"How long has it been?"

"Three hours, I think. I got rather engrossed in a report."

She doesn’t look like she believes him. It’s half true—he hadn’t taken his eyes off the thing the entire time, but his head had been nowhere near it, swimming with visions of spring and magic and the woman sleeping on his couch.

"Then I'll take the rest of the night."

The runs her fingers through her hair, takes a brush when he offers it. They sit a few moments in silence as she pulls it back and reties her bow. He watches from his desk, head resting heavy on a fist, already drifting into half-sleep.

She says nothing when she leaves, but she turns to give him one last glance before closing the door.

---

Kunzite wakes at his desk to an overcast morning. He doesn't remember falling asleep, but he must have, after Venus left. He moves slowly in the absence of the dawn, as if he's half-trapped in crystal. He throws water on his face from the newly refreshed basin (that he did not even hear the servant come in troubles him), neglects the brush to untangle his hair with his fingers, and finally undresses to put on a fresh uniform, buttoning the shirt up to the top. When he sits on the couch to pull his armored boots over the fabric of his pants, he has to brush a few stray strands of gold off the dark cushions.

Has the princess gone yet? He hopes Endymion won’t be late. The festival is just three weeks away, and beyond his studies, there are preparations to make. Kunzite needs to go to the docks to check on the ship, which will inevitably lead to drinking with the captain—a friend, perhaps, in the loose sense of the word—and he’ll lose a night to that, there’s no way he’s drunkenly tottering on horseback back to the palace at three in the morning. Unless one of the others weasels their way into going, though, if he’s going to ask the captain to take on another passenger—no, two, at least, he thinks, remembering Serenity’s guard—he’ll have to be ready to pay in a merry time.

Before he leaves his quarters, he grabs the slice of bread and cheese left for him to eat on his walk to the library.

"Endymion isn't here yet?" Kunzite sighs when he walks into the library. Jadeite, Zoisite, and Nephrite are clustered around the table, still eating, reading various papers. Hopefully the update that came in this morning from various field scouts, and not some dithering or another from a new love.

"The princess and the orange one only left about an hour ago,” Zoisite says. “I'm sure he's still eating, getting dressed."

“Zoisite, let’s not gloss over the elephant in the room,” Nephrite chides, mouth already sliding into a smirk. “Endymion’s not the only one who’s late. Losing your touch, Kunzite?”

Kunzite laughs, pulling out the chair to the right of the head of the table. He leans across and picks a grape off of Zoisite’s plate.

“Some of us were up late entertaining the company’s company,” he says.

“Oh? Then where were you this morning?” Nephrite replies, casually filing through the stack of papers in front of him.

“We came to an agreement, traded off shifts.”

“So you trust them enough, to let them run free in the palace?” Nephrite is tugging the wax seal off of a letter now, folding its pages open. The seal looks the same as his family’s.

“I trust Venus enough.”

Zoisite and Nephrite snicker, share a look. Jadeite leans back in his chair and casts his gaze out the window.

“They’re noble, the same as us,” Jadeite says, almost dreamily.

“They’re strangers,” Zoisite retorts. “Though I’m convinced the blue lady wouldn’t hurt a fly unless it bit into her. She barely speaks.”

Nephrite doesn’t chime in, engrossed in his letter. It’s hard to tell when he cares about something, Kunzite has learned—even now, he’s relaxed in his seat, sitting back, one leg draped over the other, head propped on his fist. But his eyes are narrowed, his lips in a tense frown.

“No opinions on the women from you, Neprhite?”Kunzite says. “Now who’s losing their touch?”

"I wrote my mother about the sorceress," Nephrite replies. He does not look at any of them, cannot see Kunzite's face fall from jest into dark glare. Such a letter is reckless to have sent without careful planning—any servant on either end could have read it, could spread rumors of magic and women from the moon. "She says Beryl is happy to teach us the ways of magic. That the magic we can know is different from the moon's."

"Then I think we should send for her immediately," Zoisite says. "After all—"

Kunzite brings a hand to his face, squeezes his forehead between thumb and forefinger.

"Jadeite, Zoisite, leave. Go find Endymion. All three of you, get started without us at the training grounds."

They must hesitate, because he hears no movement. He snaps his head up to glare at them.

"Did you think that was a suggestion?"

"Anything you have to say to Nephrite you can—"

"Jadeite, your bad judgment disappoints me. If I cared what you thought at this precise moment, I would have asked. Leave."

Zoisite throws a particularly nasty expression at him. It's enough to make him push the chair back, legs scraping loudly across the tile, and slam a fist down on the table. He keeps his tone icy, low.

"You will have your say in this discussion. You know that. Stop being difficult and do what you are asked."

Thankfully, Jadeite and Zoisite slink out of the library at this show of threat. Kunzite turns to Nephrite now, resisting the urge to grab his collar and hoist him out of the chair. Nephrite has always been the one most ready to balk at Kunzite’s decisions. They are closest in age, though Nephrite is still younger—they are both the ones who were closest to power before shunning it.

"What did your letter say?"

"Why are you blowing this out of proportion?" Nephrite replies, keeping his tone casual. Kunzite leans in closer to him.

"Maybe you don't appreciate how hard I have worked to keep the princess and any news of her contained in the castle. Maybe you don't appreciate the number of wars that have started over even a whisper of magic in the past. Maybe you don't appreciate what a tenuous grasp Endymion has on the four kingdoms." Nephrite is glaring now, leaning in closer to Kunzite, aggressive. “Maybe I haven't appreciated just how incompetent you truly are behind that veneer of education."

"Of course I appreciate those things," Nephrite hisses. "How dare you think I would be so idiotic to say something that could harm this?"

"Then why am I just now hearing that you sent this letter?"

"You don't control us. We are equals. I don't need to come crawling to you for permission every time I seek to act."

"We are a team, Nephrite. We must recognize when an individual alone cannot appreciate the risks and pitfalls of an action. You failed to do so, where you usually do not. I want to know why."

"Because you would have kept us paralyzed by fear," Nephrite says.

Kunzite grabs Nephrite's collar at this, pushes him back in his chair. It's instinctual, and he doesn't quite recognize what he's done it until he understands that Nephrite is looking at him with an expression bordering contempt, not fear or anger.

"What's gotten into you two?"

Kunzite lets go of Nephrite and turns to see Endymion standing in the entrance to the library. Jadeite and Zoisite are not with him.

"Just a disagreement, master. Please go ahead to the training grounds. We'll follow shortly."

Endymion hesitates a moment, but thinks better of himself and leaves.

"It didn't say anything of the princess," Nephrite says. "It didn't say anything of why we were wondering about magic beyond strategies to keep the kingdom safe."

"Then how do you know Earth's magic differs from the moon's?"

"I didn't say anything about it," Nephrite says. "Mother mentioned on her own—she and her court have already heard rumors about the princess and her guardians. There's talk among the nobleman of people watching us from the moon. They dislike the idea of it, grow restless. She asked if it was true.” Kunzite sits back down now, too, drags a hand down over his face. Nephrite’s next words surprise him a bit by how genuine they sound. “What do I say?"

Kunzite hadn't thought to call the feeling that's been growing in him fear before, but now he recognizes it, churning uncomfortably somewhere between his heart and his gut. Nephrite is right, though, as much as he hates to admit it.

"I don't know right now. I'll have to think."

Chapter Text

True to his threat, Endymion pulls rank and decides to introduce Princess Serenity to the world as part of his ten-day trip to the east for the Festival of Thalassa. Venus and Kunzite accompany the pair, leaving Jadeite to take over his duties at the castle. Kunzite doesn't ask about the state of affairs on the moon.

The first day’s journey is a slow-going caravan from the palace to the outlying town to the docks, where they will board a ship and set sail to the Isle of Thalassa. Venus stands warily apart from the Kunzite and his generals as they double check their preparations, go over protocol during his absence. Only when he begins to close the door behind her and the royal couple in their carriage does she look at him, the barest trace of emotion—is it panic?—flashing in her eyes.

“If you’re all settled in,” he says, panning his gaze to Endymion and the princess even though they pay him not an ounce of due, “I’ll be off to find my horse.”

Kunzite thinks he sees Venus relax at that, maybe lean just a bit farther back into her seat. He could ride with them, of course, but he prefers to avoid being confined to the small, dark space of the carriage, especially on such a glorious end-of-summer day. The next nine and a half days will be spent in varying degrees of discomfort—walking long distances to the temple for the ceremony, entertaining wild theories about his abandonment of the eastern throne from old family friends, turning his back once again on home and the sea. And now—anxiously watching whether the princess and her guardian send up a panic amongst the populace. It will do him well to have a moment alone with nothing more than an animal, though he cannot help but watch Venus’s taciturn expression—the rise of her shoulders and twitch of her mouth ever downward—from the corner of his eye as he rides alongside the carriage.

In town, though, the throngs begin. Kunzite abandons his horse to hold perimeter around Endymion and the princess as a small crowd of people begins to gather as soon as they disembark the carriage.

"This is Princess Serenity, of the Moon Kingdom," Endymion says again and again, open hand tan and large against Princess Serenity's white skin. Venus, too, stays close, keeping a hand held lightly against the princess’s arm until she is shaken off. Kunzite can only watch and try to gauge the reactions, the risk of backlash.

In town, the women swoon over the princess's unearthly beauty; they wrap fingers around her moonglow hair, examine her skirts, ask after the material, the thread. They have been chattering for weeks now about the pretty woman roaming Endymion’s halls, impossibly pale, prone to disappearing into moonlight, so they are not surprised—just bursting with curiosity. They want to know: What is the moon like? Does it have men as handsome as she is lovely? Might they be interested in an Earthling, too? The princes demurs, laughing with them behind her hand, showering them with inscrutable kindness. It makes Kunzite realize how little he knows about even Princess Serenity, who has always struck him as an open book. Is she so kind as to be the same person wherever she goes? Does some vein of meanness—of petulance or avarice or sloth—run deep?

When they disembark after the long carriage ride to the docks, though, the men there hold back, not quite sure they heard Endymion correctly; they turn to whisper among themselves once Endymion and the princess push past, but Kunzite cannot quite catch their words. On the ship itself, the crew gives them a wide berth, practiced in the ways of avoiding royalty, but even still uncharacteristically wary. Kunzite overhears a cabin boy whispering to the cook about his mother—dead, he’s convinced, by magic’s hand, body found in the eerie light of a southern moon.

They all stare at Venus, too, as if it wondering if she is also not of this world. Her fierce gaze holds them at arm’s length, and the guardian has garnered herself some camouflage by abandoning her bizarre uniform for an Earth-style dress: Still orange, flowing over her shoulders in loose curtains, obscuring the litheness of her frame except for the gold braid cinched at her wasp’s waist. The fabric whispers when she moves, trails behind her like a petal not quite fallen from its stem.

On the ship, she turns her still-sullen gaze on the ocean stretching endless out to the horizon, standing apart again from the rest of the group as they account for luggage and chat among themselves. The gangway has been pulled up, but the ship’s crew is still loading on boxes and trunks and great misshapen things covered in sheets and bound in rope into the ship’s belly. Venus twists her left wrist in her right hand, hard enough to send her knuckles white, and it strikes him that, for the first time since she has ventured down to the Earth, she is truly a trapped thing. The moon is nowhere to be seen in the clear sky, and he imagines there is no hope of a teammate coming to relieve her. Has she ever been bound to something as insignificant as a boat in the middle of the sea?

“Are you nervous?” he asks, walking up to join her at the railing. Venus does not turn her eyes from the water.

“Of course not. Why would you ask that?”

Kunzite holds his hands up in response, and her expression settles into something more mollified than than apologetic. She drops her grip on her wrist and passes her hands over the fluttering expanse of her dress before settling them on the finely carved wood. Her eyes narrow with something that could be self-contempt, disgust.

“I’ve never spent this much time down here before, away,” she says. Her grip on the wood goes hard, and strength ripples through the fine flex of her muscles. “But the Queen commanded—” She takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Kunzite sighs, drumming his fingers on the railing before leaning on his forearms, but does not speak. How little he knows about what life is like on the Moon, whether the Queen has sent Venus here despite protests. If another teammate has not joined, it is surely because Venus has been overruled.

Instead of speaking, though, he merely shifts his weight, brushing his arm against hers for the barest of moments.

---

The entirety of the first day is spent at sea. After Kunzite steals Endymion away from the princess to drill him on final preparations for the festival—to go over seating arrangements and names and titles and prayers and schedules and taboos—he retires alone to the bow, pulling his cloak firmly around himself. The weather is mild, but the winds whip themselves into a frenzy of cold and spray, and he revels at the sight of the foam licking up sides of the boat, luring it into the sea’s dark fold. Above the glistening black, the sun has just begun to disappear from the sky, and the moon hangs not-quite full, its own star sea slowly emerging around it.

“He lives.”

Kunzite turns enough to see Venus approach, picking her way up the steps. Despite the cold, she still wears only a dress. Today’s has just one sleeve, tied in a knot at her shoulder, leaving her other bare—similar to a style popular in the south, but not quite the same. Its color matches the ocean. He wonders if she conjures her wardrobe from magic.

Even though the ship isn’t very large, he hasn’t seen her all day. Does she get seasick? Surely not. Perhaps he really did just spend that much time locked with Endymion in his state room. The princess and Venus have received one of their own, not quite as large or grand, but more spacious than the quarters Kunzite has taken up with the crew deeper down.

“Is the princess enjoying her first day at sea?” he asks.

“She’s done nothing but stare out the window of our room,” Venus says, still carrying some of the sullenness from the day before and still avoiding his eyes. “She’s somewhat frightened, I think. Won’t come up to the deck without Endymion.”

She moves beside him, putting her hands on the wooden rail so she can lean over and peer at the finely carved woman gracing the prow. The farther she leans, the more he tenses, ready to reach out and clutch her, to keep her from toppling over into froth-dark nothing.

Kunzite resists the urge, though. Instead, he says, “You’ve never been out this far either.”

Thankfully, she leans back, a hand rising to keep her hair from obscuring her face. Kunzite relaxes and leans his forearms on the wood.

“Not much water on the moon,” she says. “This isn’t as interesting as your tapestries. There’s nothing out here. Where are the—what’s the word? Fish-jellies? Or wheels?”

“Underneath. The magic of the ocean is that we can only imagine what’s down there—unless, of course, it comes up to the surface, whether on its own or in a fisherman’s net. You hear strange tales of what’s possible, from fishermen.”

“Like what?”

“Creatures without eyes, creatures with a hundred eyes, creatures that glow and give off electric shocks. Creatures bigger than this boat. Creatures with the top half of a woman, the bottom of a fish. Creatures that sing to sailors, convince them to abandon their lives forever.”

“But not creatures with the top half of a fish and the bottom of a woman.” The barest of smiles tugs at her lips.

Kunzite smiles back. “It’s possible. Maybe not what the sailors would prefer.”

“You people and your myths.”

Venus turns, but still does not look at Kunzite. He follows her gaze to the rest of the ship, where some men are working to adjust the sails. Others are sitting with their legs dangling off the deck, wrapped around a railing, smoking and talking and playing cards. The captain is walking from the wheelhouse to the lower decks, probably for dinner, his arm slung around another man. Other passengers mill about—the odd servant from the palace, a handful of other noble people en route to participate in the festival. Two of them are wrapped in shawls like Kunzite’s mother used to wear. They are dark like her, too, with bright eyes. During moments when the wind dies down, he can hear the thick roux of his native tongue waft out between the other conversations. He wonders what it will feel like to immersed in that world again as he watches them meander past the sailors and their cards.

“What do you think?” he asks. This finally gets her to turn to him, even if it is with a look of confusion. He will not rephrase his question; he truly wants to know what she thinks about anything—the sea, the boat, the people. Himself. She draws her lower lip between her teeth and turns back to the water.

Never in his life has Kunzite seen someone gaze out at the big black of the ocean with such ferocity, bordering contempt. In his experience, only the most juvenile souls approach the open water with swagger or any hope of conquering. Venus looks as though she could part it and walk calmly upon the bottom, if she wanted.

“It’s strange, that your people are willing to go where they are so small,” she finally says. “There is nothing out here but danger for you. Why bother?”

“There’s danger yes, but opportunity. For new lands, for a big catch. To explore and discover and get rich. You can’t get that if you stay in a town for your whole life.”

“It’s completely at odds with the reality of you though. You’re so fragile, you humans.”

Kunzite wonders if she means to sound so pitying. She does not amend herself, though, or walk back her assessment. It’s honest then—her thoughts of them, the fact that she sees herself as something apart.

“Do you and others on the moon think we’re weak?” he asks.

“What?” she asks, in a way that tells him she heard the first time. “No, of course not.”

“You're a worse liar than Zoisite.”

"Then don't ask questions that only aim to antagonize me."

"Fair."

"The Queen thinks the Earth needs to be protected."

"From what?"

"Everything that lies beyond it." A pause. "Ourselves, maybe."

"And what do you think?"

"I think it's hard to know, just how strong you are."

They fall back into silence, standing side by side and staring out at the water much like the day before. In the disappearing light, though, Kunzite remains as transfixed by Venus as she does by the moon. While the rest of the world has faded into shadow, she remains perfectly legible, as if lit from within. It is subtle—he hasn’t quite noticed it before, in the gardens and torchlight of the palace—but undeniable in such complete night.

"Serenity doesn’t understand how I cannot love this world as much as she.”

"You haven't come to love it, even a little?"

Her face goes soft, like a clenched fist falling open. He wonders if she’s trying to love it right this moment, if she has to tell herself to do so. How difficult it must be to bottle up whatever contempt she has for this world and wait for it to turn to love in duty of her princess. Is that, Kunzite wonders, something required of them? To love what their liege loves? Does duty entail a total sublimation of self to the whims of another? A shackle that only traps one half of the equation?

He pushes the thought from his head. Endymion has never felt like a shackle—only light. Like being weightless, in the world of that boy’s dreams. Kunzite hopes that can be enough for his wanting, but when he looks back to Venus, it roars up in his belly, eclipses the steady thrum of rational thought and chivalry. He decides just then, he is doomed to something. When she turns and looks at him, he wonders if she has thought the same.

"I enjoy the colors of it, the words you seem to have for every little thing—not that I remember them. I enjoy the smells, and food, and endless people. But that’s a far cry from love.” She looks at him, a smile just barely letting loose at the corner of her lips. "Maybe, Serenity is right, though. Maybe I can learn."

---

"So this is where you're from?" Venus asks when the Isle of Thalassa comes into view late in the afternoon on the third day. Its cliffs are verdant, overflowing with life and spilling into the jewel-bright waves beneath them. On its northern end, a great palace stretches right up to the isle’s edge, balconies hanging off of sheer drops into the rocks below. To the south, the Temple of Thalassa rises, its great white dome shining like a beacon in the sun.

Kunzite and Venus are standing on the bow again, whittling away the remaining hours of the journey. Endymion is prepared as he’ll ever be, though Kunzite hopes he will review the last day’s prayer at least once more before disembarking to the feast. Once the wine starts flowing, he knows there’s no hope.

Venus is more relaxed today, back in her dress of orange. She lets him stand so close that their shoulders brush.

"No,” he replies. “But very much like it. What makes you ask?"

"I overheard you talking to the prince this morning.” She goes however close she can get to sheepish, diverting her eyes. “You know a lot about this place—the language, the rituals, all the people who will be here. He is lucky to have such a guide."

"I was raised practicing for this ritual. My parents thought I would be the one to carry them out."

“What makes it so important?”

“It marks the one time each century when the moon is full and the tides reach their lowest point, before immediately returning to their highest,” he explains. “The first day, we ride out to the temple, and circumambulate to just before its center, in time with the rising of the moon and the tide’s retreat—when you start, the moon has not yet appeared in the sky, and the sea is almost full. By the time you reach the center, the moon is at its zenith and the sea has receded completely from view, and the sun has just disappeared underneath the horizon. We walk back over the bay after that, to celebrate Earth’s emptiness with a feast.”

“Strange,” Venus remarks, fine face crumpling into disagreement. He laughs.

“My people, we love to eat and drink. Remember that, and it won’t sound like nonsense. Though, the pilgrims used to not return to the palace until the end of the ritual—on the afternoon of the third day. It was a fast, then, before this kingdom was prosperous. Over time, we came to believe the goddess of the ocean was more satisfied with our revelry than our piousness.”

“A self-serving wager.”

Kunzite laughs. “Indeed. So now, at noon of the second day, we walk back out over the bay to the temple, where we will stay until noon on the third. That day is spent in fast—the journey must be timed precisely and completed swiftly before the tide starts to come back in, so there isn’t much room for supplies. Back at the temple, Endymion will circumambulate it again, this time alone and to its very center, which he will reach just at sundown. He will spend the night in meditation, and when the tide reaches its highest point it will submerge the temple up to the inner ring. The pilgrims will keep watch and pray from the high ground nearby, then rest up once Endymion comes out in the morning and make our way back to the palace for yet another feast beginning at sundown on the third day.”

“And the point is?”

“To show appreciation for the powers of the moon and her consort on Earth, the sea.” Kunzite can’t bite back his smile at this. “I never imagined it could be so literal. The other reason, of course, is to show respect for the workings of nature, and yet another to mollify the pious and powerful of the eastern kingdom. Purposes worldly and otherworldly and personal, like most things.”

“Do you believe in it?”

“I believe it’s important to contemplate things beyond yourself,” he replies.

"Do you wish it was you, then, who was completing it?"

The question takes him off guard. It’s one he has avoided asking himself, instead preferring to focus his energies on helping Endymion understand why some significance may be taken from this event beyond diplomacy and a few days of feasting. The festival was one thing both his mother and father placed stock in—guiding him through the names of ancestors who had the honor of completing it, sourcing a monk from the island itself to tutor him in the ways of their particular sect. He wonders now whether this is the source of his great awe of the sea—whether this awe is the source of his respect for the festival. Either way, by the time he had come of age, he found within himself a net made of these beliefs—in the power of the unknown, in giving it the respect it commands—that he could not dislodge, and a great desire to display it, to speak it, to make it real. That, he supposes, is the promise of the rituals. To prove to whatever lies beyond him that he understands his insignificance in the face of its totality.

He becomes painfully aware that Venus is peering at him, as if nothing is around them, as if searching. Perhaps she is looking inside herself as much as at him; perhaps she hopes he will give them both a way to feel about these things, nameless and strange and as yet unfelt, they have abandoned. His answer—his lack of one—catches in his throat.

"I'm sorry,” she says, looking away in what he hopes is not shame. “I shouldn't have asked."

---

They have one full day in the palace before the festival begins, which is spent in a flurry of faces and preparations and introductions. The women swoon over the princess and her guard, steal them away for hours, leaving Endymion to sulk behind Kunzite as he makes sure gifts get to the proper people, as he fields questions about Endymion’s tutoring, progress, and beliefs. Thankfully, Endymion’s mood slides right off him when the time comes for him to be charming. His mastery of the local tongue impresses more than one of Kunzite’s previous tutors.

“You’ve done well,” his favorite compliments, hand heavy on his back. Endymion’s attention is taken up by a child in the party, and Princess Serenity is giggling at their antics. “It’s a shame that you aren’t the center of attention. But it seems you’ve picked as good of person as any to take your place.”

“It takes quite a man to say no to all the things he could have had,” the tutor’s companion, an elderly woman, observes.

That night, during the feast to welcome Endymion, Venus appears at his door just after Kunzite has retreated to his room for silence, already overwhelmed by the familiarity and strangeness of it all. It is enough just to be surrounded by the sea in the familiar architecture of his youth—the calligraphy looping around the tops of the walls, the bulbous arches tapering into fine points overhead. To be surrounded by a hundred questions about his mother, his siblings, his decision to serve Endymion, all while the prince is sitting just an arm’s length away, is too much. They’ve no shame in their quest for power, his people—they are as proud as they are loyal and would be just as happy to have one of their own to call a uniter of men.

They’ve also no shame in their unabashed curiosity about Endymion’s pretty consort and her guardian, reaching to tug at hair and give advice about worldly pleasures uninvited. Kunzite is not surprised that Venus has just as little interest in joining the festivities.

“Endymion and Serenity have gone to bed,” Venus says, as if trying to give herself an official excuse for being there. Then: “I can still hear the feast from my room.”

“Do you want to come in?”

She brushes past him to fall on the couch instead of answering. They sit for a while, he at the desk, reading a novel he found on the bookshelf (a classic tale, about a man who went off to sea looking for glory only to find that he can never make it home again), she stretched out and running her hand over the fine velvet of the cushions.

When she finally speaks, it’s hard not to startle: He’d almost forgotten she was there.

“Why did you decide to serve Endymion?”

It’s a question he’s been waiting for. He does not need to ask her about the Moon—imagines the story is the same, knows he will not get an answer beyond the shift of her face into unreadability. He sets the book down without marking his place.

“When I was young and Endymion was first born, I was deeply jealous of him,” Kunzite says. “Everyone, even my father, was so in awe of this little useless boy. They seemed so confident he would grow up to be the ruler they all dreamed of, talked about him constantly. I met him the first time when he was about seven years old, and all I saw was a petulant child, more interested in getting his way than other people.”

"How old were you, then?"

"Sixteen, fresh back from a year of almost silence in the monastery. A year away from assuming my father's role."

“So what changed?”

“About two years later, after I decided to delay the transition of power and study philosophy and the workings of divinity, to see if I wanted to be a scholar—

“A scholar? You?”

“I wasn’t a very good one,” he admits. The smile she returns is genuine and comforting. “The point is, I was restless, unsure about taking my father’s place. The kingdom was less stable than it is now, full of clashing religions and plagued in parts by famine. I could see now way out of it, and I didn’t think anyone with such a lack of answers had the right to rule.

“During my studies, the university sent me to serve for a year as Endymion’s tutor. We spent the year traveling to each of the four kingdoms we could reach by land, learning about their culture and traditions. In Nephrite’s kingdom, we were invited as guests of honor to their annual tournaments, when they still used prisoners to fight until one was knocked out, or often worse. Endymion was asked to pray with them, before the start of the tournament. He saw how even then, in what was supposed to be a moment of reprieve, these men suffered, and had pity on them—these prisoners, some of whom had murdered and even tortured others. He questioned the official who led us mercilessly after the first chamber—how long had this tradition been carried out? Who began it? Did he not feel some shame at throwing away the lives of others?—then grew quieter after each prayer. But I saw the way he gripped their hands harder. How he was unafraid to fall on his knees with them. How he refused to be done after a simple prayer, and instead demanded to listen to their stories. It was heartbreaking. After, though, he turned to the official—who himself looked shaken, who had probably never thought to ask questions of these men like they were human—and hugged him.

“I learned later that the official went immediately to the queen, Nephrite’s mother, and asked the tradition be done away with, all without any such request from Endymion. The only inspiration to be had was kindness itself.

“Before that, though, when we returned to his quarters, Endymion collapsed in tears,” Kunzite continues. “He saw it startled me, and apologized, and that—well, that was it—I decided to serve him then and there, fell to a knee and begged him to take me on as a guard, a tutor, anything. A complete conversion, on the spot. That someone would put their distress aside at even a moment’s sign of my discomfort…”

Kunzite has never been able to explain that feeling, in that moment and the entire evening visiting those wretched men. He knew prisoners were no more or less than any other man—just a matter of circumstance, really, of the right opportunity to do something wrong. But would he have ever thought to get down on his knees and pray with them? To wonder about their lives? Now, of course, because—he sighs, rubs his hand across his forehead, and leans his head back on the chair—somehow, this petulant, love-struck boy has made him a better man.

“For those years in university, I studied what many men before me have considered the defining marks of great leaders—the ability to guide the masses with metaphor and turns of phrase, the knowledge to lead them toward what the ruler thinks is right, the mental acuity to understand the basic tenets of a particular philosophy. But in that moment I knew none of these things were true, and therefore realized that none of my ideas of how to be a good leader were true. I knew that the magnitude of Endymion’s compassion then would make him a great ruler, if only it could be cultivated correctly. If only he would not be ashamed of it, if he could hone his instinct for it. So I decided to serve him, though I soon left the philosophical tutoring to better minds.”

Venus stays silent for a long time, and Kunzite does not see why he would break it. He does not open his eyes. Instead, he swims in the churning memory of that time—the doubt that ate at him, the fear that he would only repeat the mistakes of past rulers, the relief he felt when he took a knee in front of Endymion. He had been ready to beg for acceptance of his servitude. Had he known, then, what that meant? He hums to himself. He would do it again.

“There must have been something to draw you to it. To the life of the mind.”

He is grateful that Venus sidesteps this tale, the meaning of it. It is inexplicable, the sense of duty Endymion sparked in his wandering heart. Kunzite knows, after mulling it over for endless nights.

“Shining by night with borrowed light, wandering round the earth,” he mumbles. “Always straining her eyes to the beams of the sun.”

“A poem?” Venu’s voice is almost a hum, threading out from the border of sleep.

“Part of a possibility of being. As only Parmenides could glean. I very much admired his work, however little there is left of it. I wanted to understand how great men lived, how they saw the world. I still do.”

He looks over at her after a while. She is still lying like sun’s splendor across the couch, even in the deep of night. Her eyes are closed, and her chest slowly rises and falls.

“It's funny, though. Once, I would have said that was written about the moon.”

He closes his book and snuffs out the candles and climbs into bed without a sound.

---

The first day of the festival comes on the summer solstice and begins at moonrise out at the massive temple on the opposite end of the island from the palace. Kunzite stays close to Endymion throughout the journey over the rocks, then as they climb up the steps, and even as they circumambulate the outer four rings of the temple to begin the ritual prayer. They walk to the movement of the moon, which is pale in the sky, and the tides that bow to it, and each step brings them closer to the heart of something he has never been able to name: The mystery of the sea, in all its power and chaos, its waves so loud they fall into a new kind of silence.

As they finish rounding the first great ring, the tide is still high and violent, spraying Endymion with white salt foam as he makes the first offering—a great bowl of golden grain, a bundle of the kingdom’s finest herbs—then kneels down to pray. Kunzite holds the words of that prayer close to himself, willing his own faded devotion into his charge. He is proud when Endymion’s voice does not waver in the face of the howling wind and surf, but the feeling is mixed with something more subdued. Not quite envy—not quite regret. Loss, perhaps.

When they complete the fourth ring, the the sea has almost disappeared from sight. The temple is built to be enveloped to the core at the end of the festival’s third day, but at the end of the first, it is as far inland as it will ever be. That inhabitants of this Isle knew such subtleties of their goddess centuries ago—before start charts or math or any possibility of complex prediction—almost makes him believe again, like he did when he was a boy. He was in awe of Thalassa, then. The sea could have anything she pleased, if the mood struck—and for three days out of a hundred years, humans abandoned their battle against her to offer her whatever she pleased. Once, young women were left at the center of the temple, either to perish or to be carried back to her family half-goddess. Kunzite wonders if the goddess misses the girls. If she’s lonely.

They return to the palace by walking over the now-exposed bay, just as the sun sinks beneath the horizon, leaving only the lights of the grand feast waiting at the palace to guide them. He and Endymion walk shoulder to shoulder, silent. Even as tired as Endymion is there’s still a spring to his step. It’s almost inconceivable. Kunzite’s own legs turn more to stone with each moment, as if the sea is reaching back over wetland to trap him. His exhaustion feels like a tide of its own. He knows it will overtake him, swift, but he is powerless to move away from its approach.

Kunzite forgoes the great feast, and instead asks for a simple plate of steamed fish and fragrant saffron rice from the kitchens. Endymion can hold his own among the revelry, with the princess by his side. He wants to sit and forget himself for a moment in the strange liminal space made in his mind by the temple, maybe remember what it is like to care about nothing. This constant attention to deities beyond his comprehension is tiring.

Venus finds him sitting against a wall out on one of the palace’s most remote balconies, far from the wing set aside for visitors or even residents. It took him an hour to find, at least, between hiding from passersby and winding up stairways. How she tracked him, he’ll never know.

"I couldn’t find you,” she says. He’s still half awake and manages to open his eyes just enough to look back out at the sea. He doesn’t have enough energy to decipher her tone, can’t even turn his head to look at her. All he sees is the great black nothing, beyond the reach of the palace’s insignificant light. If he fell into it, would he find a bottom?

“What are you looking at?”

He can feel the fall. Things become weightless, he remembers, when they fall far enough. How whoever knew that knows, he can’t quite piece together, but he wants that, to be nothing while still remaining of the world. To feel like light, even for a moment.

"Kunzite? Are you still with me?"

“The sea,” he says, but his eyes are closed again. Her voice is far away, out with the rest of the waves in the darkness.

“Did you eat?” she asks, closer now. He hums, and then hands are on him, pulling him up, and he knows he has to follow them. She gets a shoulder under his, slings his arm around her to take some of his weight. He cannot find the energy to spare her it. This close to her, though, he can feel her strength, her magic: Bright and radiating into him. “I think it's time for you to get some sleep, maybe somewhere you can’t tumble off into nothing. You’re not leaving me here alone with these people."

They walk, slowly, taking the stairs two feet at a time. One foot, two foot. Next stair. He reaches out to press his hand against the cold stone wall, but finds he has no strength to press his weight into it.

“Do you want to walk on your own, now?” Venus asks when they reach the bottom of the stairs. “There will be people. It’s not far.”

He shakes his head, and she adjusts, removing his arm from her shoulders, hiding her own under his cloak. He can still lean on her this way, just enough to stay balanced. It must look as if she is hanging off his own arm, at a glance.

They move more quickly, down the hall, past the great doors of the feast, where he turns and just glimpses the flurry of fabric and joy on the dance floor. When they reach his door, he stumbles into his room, to the bed, not quite letting her free of him, but she doesn’t pull away. In fact, she falls beside him like a dream, a fan of yellow skirts billowing out around her. Not even Princess Serenity could pull off the rays of the sun in quite this way.

“What are you doing?” she asks when he reaches down to draw her left hand up in front of him. He opens it carefully, like the petals of a paper flower. Across her palm is a diagonal line, as perfectly straight and white as the one her sword left on his side.

“A mark of hubris,” she mutters, closing her fist around his thumb. Still, she does not move, those bigs eyes gone narrow in calculation. Her skin is warm and smooth, and he could mistake it for a normal woman’s were it not for the power humming beneath it where blood might be. Does she bleed? Would he ever want to know?

“Do you have one?” she asks.

“What?”

“A mark.”

He rolls over onto his back and laughs once, weakly, still holding on to her hand. “You'll have to do more than ask to know.”

Venus moves beside him, and when he cracks open an eye, she is propped up on an elbow, peering down. She slides her hand out of his to push her hair behind her ears.

“Was it so bad today?” she asks.

“Hard,” he sighs, “to glimpse another life.”

She does not speak after that, at least not before he slides into a dreamless sleep. When he wakes, it is still dark, and she is gone, but he can still feel the hum of her skin under his fingertips.

---

The second day marks the beginning of the longest part of the festival, bleeding as it does over into the the third. Kunzite rises uncharacteristically late in the morning to quickly wash and put on fresh clothes, limbs and mind still heavy with the experience of yesterday, with anticipation for the rest. He will not sleep again until well after dawn the next day, after Endymion has emerged from a watery keep and returned to the entourage meant to watch over him from afar.

When he steps outside, he almost startles: Venus stands not two feet from his door. She is in red today, but her bow is absent and her hair hangs loose around her.

“Do I need to look for you again this evening, in the darkest corners of this place?”

“We stay the full day and night in the temple today,” he replies. "I'm sorry for causing you worry."

“You think that’s what a goddess wants?’

“It is just the way of it.”

“And what am I supposed to do, stuck here?”

“I’m sure there’s much to see, around the palace. You can watch the tide come in.” He smiles when this clearly offers no comfort. “I’m sorry, that I can’t be here to entertain you.”

“Me, too,” she says, almost so softly he doesn’t hear. Then, louder: “You seem to be the more knowledgeable of your kind. At the very least, you can string together a sentence.”

He pushes past her and smiles to himself, but doesn’t say anything. Best not to pick at the compliment. So they walk to breakfast in silence, where Endymion and the princess have yet to appear. It does not concern him; as both the honorer and honored, Endymion is not expected to help load the supplies they will carry across the bay to camp. Kunzite enjoys the mindless work of tying hunks of cheese and bread into packages, of securing the barrels of water to the horses. No one in the group needs to be told what to do. They operate on pure knowing.

Endymion appears just as they depart, and by then, Venus is nowhere to be seen. Comforting Serenity, he’s sure, who must be aghast at the idea of Endymion stranded in a sea without her. For one night, Endymion will not be hers.

---

The rest of the festival passes like a dream. Kunzite falls into himself halfway across the bay, forgetting even that Endymion is near him. The temple glows like a star in the light of the full moon, like it is the center of a world and he cannot dream to reach it.

He does not speak to any of the other pilgrims as they sit in vigil for Endymion, nor does he flinch from his strange meditation when, above the temple, something pale and bright like a flower floats down to Earth. Of course the princess could not abide the idea of her love alone and lost at sea. A murmur goes up around the camp, and Kunzite breathes, sets his mind to the sun and the darkness swimming out at sea with the waves, to a distant star glinting just above the dawn. He wonders if Venus is watching, from a distance. What she thinks of her own lot in life, to perpetually chase after a girl who slips out of her hands like water.

Eventually Endymion stumbles out of the temple on the arms of what Kunzite understands can only be a goddess. Something like envy breaks through Kunzite’s calm, but maybe it’s only something empty instead, vacated by all the things he could have had—power and honor and love. The camp falls into slumber, then winds their way back to the palace, and it is a blur, like his life passing before his eyes—he goes from man to child to man again, undone and remade in each step, head pounding with the lines of a poem his mother told him years ago. When he goes to speak it to himself, the words won’t come.

Ahead of them all, Endymion and the princess walk, heads pressed together in some great meeting of secrets. If they are tired, they do not show it. Maybe she shrouds him in power like a veil, or a blessing. Maybe the festival has been completed by their love, never to be done again. What is it like to have such comfort? Duty, he realizes, has never provided a moment’s respite from his worries.

When he reaches his room, he’s stumbling, slurring the words of his mind. He wants to cry—he misses his mother—and the tears pricking at the corners of his eye surprise him so much that he can’t be shocked when his door opens on its own and Venus pulls him in, gently, but the wrist.

“I couldn’t keep her away,” Venus says, and maybe she’s apologetic, but he can’t imagine why. His knees hit the back of the chair at the desk and he sinks down into it and she’s still talking, saying something about magic, that this Isle must be full of it, the way the tides behave, but soon she stops talking and instead puts a hand over his eyes, warm but not oppressive, soft like tropical waters. His mind goes clear and sharp again—or, at least, sharper. When she removes her hand he digs the heel of his own into one eye.

He wants to ask her a million things—regrets that he has spent their days in proximity toeing cautiously around a border. When he speaks, though, he cannot control want tumbles out.

“How old are you?” He looks at her now, draped golden across his couch. She must be tired, he finally realizes, by the constant assault of the new that makes up every day on this planet. By losing again and again the one thing she is commanded to protect.

He thinks he sees pity tense up around her eyes when she decides to answer.

“Old enough to have seen your myths placed fresh in the sky. Old enough to have seen the first time this strange ritual was acted out.”

The child in him wants to know if those myths really happened, whether there has ever been a goddess of the sea. The man knows that’s not the point.

"So you’ve been to Earth, before Serenity brought you down?"

A pause, long, hangs between them, until: "Yes."

"Have you been in love before?"

She pushes herself up on the couch at this, plants her feet on the ground. Her face has descended into the beginning of storm clouds—not violent or tempestuous, yet, but dark, hiding the promise of something awful.

"Of course. Hundreds of times. A million even. Every second of every day. Love is my kingdom, as much as Venus was."

“Have you ever loved a human?”

Her pity sharpens into warning as she stands and walks toward him, holding his gaze. Trapped in that unearthly blue, he feels like he’s hurtling through space. She stops at just a step away, looking down at him, hands raised to the straps of her dress.

“Is that what you really want to know?”

He knows he is being seduced, but it’s never felt quite like being asked to walk off of the edge of the world—like being asked to breathe without air.

"Not really, I suppose."

She pushes the straps off the sharp angle of her shoulders. The top of her dress drops down, almost decomposes, revealing the full swell of her breasts and the cut of her muscles, bunched over delicate ribs. She hums, almost, with irreality. How he ever thought her a woman, he cannot know.

“Then ask,” she commands, taking that last step forward, but stopping just before touching him, the words like her blade again on his skin. “Ask what you’ve wanted to know, long before this ridiculous field trip.”

He reaches up to cup the back of her neck and draw her down toward him.

“Can I know you?”

He hopes it’s a question she hasn’t heard before, that he sees surprise opening her expression and not something more ominous. He doesn't have time to entertain the possibility of it being both.

“You can try.”

He closes the distance and kisses her once, lips barely parted, hand moving to weave through her soft hair. She feels like melting into bathwater. The sensation spilling out from the skin of her lips makes him shiver with renewed life.

“Such a gentleman,” she sighs when he pulls away. “The holiest Venusian priestess would blush in shame at your chastity.”

He smirks and stands, moves his hands to the tops of her arms to turn and push her back to the desk until she's sitting on it. He presses their lips together again, swiping his tongue out for just a moment before pulling back, leaving her with her mouth half open. It's hard to deny the power that rushes out of her—warm and sharp, unlike the cool, liquid magic that poured out of the princess’s charmed door. How easy it must be for Venus to convince a lover to stay by her side forever, just to fill the cup of them again and again with the promise of her. Who would have a head left to care whether it went unfulfilled?

Kunzite dips his nose down her cheek, her jaw, then leans in to bite that soft swan neck as he drags his fingertips up her thigh and past the soft folds of her dress. He slides a finger through the warmth of her almost without touching, circles at the apex of her pubic bone, spiraling down slowly, lazy, just grazing the soft skin, even when she shifts her hips and pulls him closer, trying to deepen the touch.

Not scandalous, maybe, but when he pulls away from the curve of her shoulder to look at her face, the barest trace of a smile is on her lips and she hums, eyes closed.

"More?" he asks into her neck, licking, now, and sliding his hand back down her thigh, gripping the inside of it. She is deliciously fleshy, hard muscle soft in her relaxation.

Venus lets out a breath, nods before looking at him through heavy lids. "Maybe the bed?"

He moves in an instant, lifting her into his arms and turning. She laughs, and it puts his heart on wings, and before he can lower her to the bed she's grabbing him around the neck and pressing their lips together again, forcing her way in, biting at him until he tumbles down on top of her. He fights to get an arm out from the snarl of his cloak while he holds her lower lip between his teeth and sucks, flicks at it with his tongue. He has to let go though, to pull back and curse and laugh himself when he finds he is utterly trapped. He tugs at the cloth. Venus wiggles but doesn't set him free, instead smirking up at him.

"Roll over, or I'll never escape this damn thing."

"Maybe you should take off some other things, while you're at it," she says before obliging. She looks at him over her shoulder as he unclasps the cape, tosses it aside. The muscled length of her back ripples as she gyrates her hips almost imperceptibly into the mattress. The sight of her—still half-clothed, and still, perhaps, half-invested in whatever is about to happen—sets his blood aflame.

"Shirt and pants," she says, rolling onto her back again as he starts to unbutton his uniform. She bends a leg and sends the fabric of her dress falling back over it, almost revealing the core of her. His fingers only stutter, though, at the last button, when she palms a full breast and dips two fingers of her other hand between her lips, lewdly lets him see the way her tongue threads through it.

She removes her fingers and traces a trail of wet to her dress's waistline, skips down to dip behind that curtain of fabric. He shoves the shirt off, popping the last button, leaving on his pants so he can walk on knees over the bed that separates them and sit over her. He doesn't lean down, just watches her, watching him—the flex of the arm that's disappeared between her legs, the lazy back and forth of her thumb over a dark nipple.

"Feeling left out?" He feels her wrist move more firmly where it's now pressed against his thigh, and she sighs, teeth sinking into her lower lip when he presses his leg hard against that hand. She bites back a breathy sound. "I thought I said shirt and pants. I like to see before I buy."

He doesn't answer, only hums, moving to straddle her, to pull that hand up out of herself, because he knows she is happy to proceed without him. She has for eons until this moment.

"I promise you'll get the full display before you're asked to commit," he says, biting at her wrist, grazing the translucent skin and sucking before moving up, up, to take those glistening fingers, still warm from where they were inside her, into his mouth to taste. She moans at that, flexes her fingers, and he descends, replacing them with her lips, distracting her with another tangle of tongues as he pushes his own hand down, slides his own finger through her wetness to her opening, pressing one in, then two. He curls them ever briefly in her, captures the long sound of her pleasure when he pulls them out to circle broad strokes around her clit. She repeats the lovely sound—a wave of its own, a sonorous gasp of the changing tide—when he spreads his hand wide over her, grinds the heel of it into her pubic bone, pushes the broad plane of all five fingers against her.

"Still too chaste for you liking?" he asks, pulling back to let her breathe, to push the silk of her hair out from between them. She presses herself against his hand, pries at it with her own fingers and sneaks one between a gap.

"Better," she hums. "Can't your mouth do other things than talk?"

He doesn't need any other encouragement. He pushes himself down the length of her until he can lick round the curve of her breast, nuzzle into the cleft between them before doing the same to the other side. She swirls her finger where it is trapped under his hand,

"Damn this thing," she hisses, sliding up from under him to pry at the knot of braid around her waist. He follows her to kiss up her thighs, to lick broad strokes up to the center of her when she finally manages to tug the dress off.

"Yes," she hisses, falling back into the pillows. Her hands come up to push through his hair and move him straight to where she wants him to be, but he demurs even against the force of her suggestion and lets her writhe under the heat of his breath.

She whines at that, throwing her head to the side and pushing her hands farther in his hair. "What are you doing?"

"Waiting," he says. He lets out a lick, just to the left of her apex, lowers his lips to brush the hard stretch of tendon where thigh meets pelvis. She sighs and moves, but before she can get him where she wants he pulls back again.

"Kunzite, I swear to all that you hold holy—"

"What do you want?"

"You know what I want."

He licks again, this time to the right, drags the tip of his tongue down, swirls it briefly in her entrance, then pulls back again when she tries to move ahead of him. She's propped up on her elbows now, glaring down at him, fighting against an exasperated outburst.

"Suggestions don't count. Indulge me."

He darts out his tongue, passing just briefly over her clit. Her entire body jerks, thighs coming up around him to squeeze, hand tightening in his hair, but he presses back, turns his face to nuzzle her leg.

"Is this what you like? Dirty talk?"

"I simply aim to please. But that's not bad either."

Her hands scrabble at his back then, clutching at muscle to pull him up. He follows, but lazily, dragging his tongue up her sides, over pert nipples again, savoring each moan that comes with the swirl of his tongue, until they're looking into one another, noses brushing.

"I want," she breathes, holding his face between her hands and looking right into him, lacing her words with honey and bite, "you to eat me out like I'm your last fucking meal. And then I want to blow you until you're begging, so I can climb on top of you and fuck you until you don't even know who you are anymore."

For the first time, his hips stutter down into her. He grinds the heavy weight of himself against her own heat and revels in the buzz of her, like the primordial hum of the sea lurks in her every atom. The feeling of that vibration climbing up his arms and looping around his every sense makes him feel more light-headed than the wine. He presses his face into her neck and groans, flexes his fingers against the sharp bones of her hips.

"What do you want?" she whispers, grinding back against him.

"That. Exactly that."

Her hips drop and shift out of comfortable reach.

"Then get to work. Your pants are still on."

He sighs and stands so he can address the offending clothing, taking his time to unbuckle his belt, to slide it out of its loops and undo the buttons of his fly. He turns when he drags the waist down over his legs so as keep from her what she wants—what he hopes she wants—and when he turns back to the bed it is almost too much to see how hungry she is, already on her knees, ready to lean forward and kiss the flat expanse below his belly button. She carefully avoids his dick where it stands stiff against him, instead licks up his hip muscles, his abs, grazes her teeth over his own nipples until he's sighing and leaning down to drag his nose across her hair.

"You're distracting me from more important things," he says, pushing her back again into the pillows, hiking those lovely long legs over his shoulders so he can drag his nose down their length and bury his face, with no hesitation now, into her center.

"Kun—" she shudders, hands once again caught in his hair, pulling him closer. He passes the flat of his tongue over her again and again, slowly, taking his time, getting used to the taste of her, to the sounds she makes, to her reactions. There's no rush, after all, not now in the safe of the evening. He entertains the possibility of staying here forever—impossible, but endlessly appealing—and hums. Her hips grind up against him, and when she starts to go quiet and still, he sucks lightly, flexing his tongue to lap at her more firmly.

She calls out her approval, and he presses in more against her, adjusting his grip to move her closer to the edge of the bed, still flicking lazily, so he can slide off and press into her more comfortably.

"Yes, yes," she hisses again, hips stuttering. He quickens the pace, pushing his tongue round and round in circle, pulling her ever so gently between her teeth. He slips his middle finger into her to stroke softly at the velvety skin inside, pressing up more firmly the tenser she gets. He alternates each flick with a long lick, now, and her moans spill out in building waves, and in between, instructions—harder, down, a bit, just to the left, suck, suck and flick, faster, yes, don't stop—and he wouldn't stop if the prince himself broke down their door now.

He has four fingers pressed into her now, curling up against hard warmth and rubbing with barely a movement, and he’s winding quick circles around with his tongue, burying it against the skin. When she comes, she calls out in broken syllables his name, followed by some string of beguiling he cannot even think into language. He has to fight his own moan as the rush of it ripples out of her every inch in waves of fragrant myrtle and static-shivers. Then she disintegrates into a low "oh," dropping her full weight down into his hands, which are cupped around her ass. He squeezes, sucking now, worrying the heat of her, removing his hands.

As she comes down, he slows each pass of his tongue and turns to press against the side of her thigh. He peers up at her from that warm place. Her eyes are shut tight, and her palms are pressed into them, and he is not surprised to see that she is chewing on the inside of her cheek.

"Another?" he asks, and she comes to life again under him, rolling those beautiful hips and breathing a barely auditory “Yes.”

He dips his head once more, moves quicker this time—starting off with sucks and nips, moving fast to butterfly flaps over her, pressing his thumb between the cheeks of her ass to graze the muscle there, sighing into her when she lets out a sound of lewd approval—until she's clenching again. He moves to bury three fingers back in her wetness, pressing up as firmly as he can into her, and all that magic spills into him a second time, sends his vision blurry, sends even more heat to the hardness between his legs. He can’t go much longer, he knows, without some kind of touch.

"Gods, I knew that tongue would be good for something," she says after a moment, punctuating the words with a hum and tugging at his hair gently. "Let up. I need a moment."

Kunzite pulls back and she rolls onto her belly, burying her head in her arms. He wipes his mouth and moves back onto the bed, holding himself up on one arm to the side of her, running his other hand down her back, over her ass, until he's lazily stroking himself, his tip bumping up against her hip. She moves into the slickness beading out of the head, rubs her soft skin against it.

"Get on top of me," she mutters, not moving from her arms. He's happy to oblige and rolls over to hold himself above her back. He doesn't expect for her to lift her hips and grind her ass against him, light as a cloud, then again, firmer, so he sinks back down with her and presses the length of himself between that cleft of skin.

"Exquisite," he breathes, dropping to his elbows and pressing his face into his hair. She pushes up, up, to meet him and he doesn't budge, moans when she curves her hips in figure eight around him, when she shakes with him pressed tight between her.

"You sound pretty, when you moan." She twists under him to catch his lips, adjust until she's on her back again. When she is, she pushes at his shoulders until they're rolling over. "I have my own pledge to fulfill now, I think. Unless you don't want—"

"No, no, I want it."

She must hear the desperation that's starting to tinge his voice, feel how hard he is underneath her, because she doesn’t waste time with teasing. She brings her face to hip-level in one fluid motion and sucks his testicles gently between her lips once before licking broad strokes up his base, his shaft. He lets out a flurry of curses that end in a groan, and she rewards the sound by locking her lips around his tip, bringing her fingers to press up to the skin just underneath his balls. Just that is almost too much, but he breathes deep, steadies himself. It becomes decidedly more difficult when she takes more of him into her mouth and pulls back, lips perfectly wet, to swirl her tongue around his head.

"That, more of that," is all he can groan, lifting up on an elbow to watch. He pulls back the curtain of her hair with an index finger, slides his thumb down her jaw to loop it and his index finger around himself. Her own hand quickly replaces his. When her gaze flicks up, full of something that might be fondness mixed with lust, he collapses down again and pulls his hands through his hair and moans, presses his hips up into that delicious mouth just enough to feel her pull him deeper before she backs off again.

Never does she increase her speed, never the pressure, just passes over and over again, stopping right before he goes numb with it, starting up again just when he thinks he might regain his sanity. He bucks his hips gently, receives a scrape of nails in return which soon circle down past his balls, perineum, to the taut ring of his ass, and it's too much, he lets out a shaky gasp and sends his hands to clutch at all that golden hair. He pulls her off and up and kisses her deep, tasting the own musk of his arousal, trying to bury deeper into her until he's lost forever.

"Please," he says when they separate, "please, I'll beg, please fuck me now. Do whatever you want with me, really. Just don't let this stop."

She grins at that, and she is even more beautiful—it lights her up, and he can't help but pull her back toward him to drink of that joy. She kisses his lips, his nose, his forehead, bites at his jaw, slips a hand between them to pull him back to her entrance, then presses down, slowly, until he aches, and she must ache, too, because a sound bubbles up out of her that he drinks in and returns. They aren't quiet until she is fully seated on him, and then, they take a moment to breathe in the others’ air, damp foreheads pressed together.

"Sit up," she finally says, hips twitching ever so slightly. She must be fighting the urge to roll right into abandon. He is happy to follow her command. He leans into her, wrapping his arms around and moaning into her shoulder as she wraps her legs around him and starts to grind, to lift up and down. He moves down when he can to lick at the top of her breast, to nuzzle, and finally to catch a nipple when she leans back. It's heavenly, this pace, but not enough, and she must know it, because when he looks up she is smirking.

"More?" she asks. When he nods she pushes him down on his back, grinds down harder until the slap of their skin sounds around the room. She's planted a hand on the wall behind them, but as much as he loves the sight of her abs flexing on each thrust, the bounce of her breasts, the sight of at least some part of him becoming part of her, he drags her closer, drinks in the quiet moans that are starting to rise up out of her, echoes them with his own. He plants his feet on the bed and adds thrusts of his own to meet her now, gasping into her mouth, mumbling her name into her lips when she squeezes. All that velvety slick—he pushes up more forcefully, groans at the lewd slap that sounds out between them when he repeats it, over and over, falling into something delicious that only gets sweeter when she brings his hand to her clit and moans, touching herself through him until she abandons his hand entirely. He pulls back into half thrusts, grinding himself into a sort of meditation until she goes off pace with the reemergence of her own climax. He slows to match her, staying deep, letting the added pressure of his pelvis aid her fingers, and then she's clenching around him and collapsing onto his chest, going still. Only now is it torture, with the full weight of her on him—he wants to move, to buck and fuck and die a little death inside of her, and she must notice it, because she is kissing his chest now, snaking her hands down to drag her nails up his sides.

"Can we turn over?" he asks into her hair, and she nods, but when she slips off of him, she doesn't roll onto her back, only moves onto all fours, hand again sliding between her legs to part herself as he scrambles to get back inside.

He sinks back into her and hisses when she pushes back to meet him. He brings a hand around to her chest, to tweak at a nipple and then spread broad across the flat above her breasts, to press her up against him when he leans over her and sinks his head into her hair. He grinds into her and savors the slick of it and her squeeze as she builds back up to a height.

"Stop worrying and just fuck me," she mutters, turning to grab his head and kiss him sloppily before he rises up, happy to comply. Free of his weight, she sinks down on her arms until her chest is flat against the bed, and he has to scoot her hips higher to keep them connected. When she throws a forearm over her back, he tangles their hands together and thrusts, hips slapping into her faster and faster. He can't tell where his own voice stops and hers begins, and before he can bear to finish, he grabs her hips and flips her over, presses into her once, twice, three times before sighing and stuttering into silence.

"Pull out?" she asks into his hair. He does, moving off of her, and her left hand snakes down while her right clutches down his arm, braiding their fingers together at the end. Those fine fingers tense when she squeezes out a final climax, shorter this time, less bodily, but still enough to send a slice of magic and the wave of her hum tumbling out into the room. Their breaths slow together into sated calm.

"Not bad," she says, rolling to lie on top of him She kisses him again, slow and meandering and somehow familiar. When they part, she rolls back off. “You managed not to disintegrate into a blubbering mess. Or maybe I just had mercy on you, since you’re so ragged.”

He looks at her through the combined mess of their hair and sees her eyes closed in a smile. She wipes her fingers on the bedspread and pushes through the strands to cup his jaw. They share one last kiss before falling asleep, not touching except for the tangle of their fingers. He dreams of precious metals melted down in pleasure.

---

“I know what you are,” he says in the morning when the long rays of early sun turn her hair into gold fire across his sheets.

She rolls over and draws a hand out over the sheets, searching for him. He grabs it, presses his lips to the palm and then bends her fingers so he can do the same to the cat's teeth of her nails.

“And what is that?” she asks, voice rough with sleep.

“A goddess.”

Her lips twitch like they can't quite form a smile. She opens her eyes, but keeps them fixed steadily on the sheets.

“Silly man,” she says, the smile finally catching. She looks up to meet his eyes. “I’m a guardian. It’s what I’ve chosen. I’m a guardian and nothing more.”

He sees her, then: Immeasurable. A power too much for even herself to contain. A power that is not hers to cast off, even in the name of duty. He wants to drink of it, to keep some part of her with him for centuries so that even his bones will show proof of the fact that he knew at least some sliver of her being. That he at least glimpsed his utter ignorance of her magnitude. He doesn't know if he will be able to, but he tries, dipping his head to capture her lips and press their bodies together again.

---

"What are you doing?" Venus asks early on their last day on the Isle. Kunzite is standing in the sea, naked, in the middle of a prayer. He is not, however, displeased to see her.

"You followed me here?" he asks, turning to smile.

"You woke me when you left."

"A tribute, before we set sail. Since I didn’t really get the chance during the festival."

"And what have you brought her?"

"My dreams. My self."

"Can I join you?"

"Of course."

Venus casts off her dress, which crumbles to gossamer in the wind. The sea almost parts to welcome her, like the waves are offering their own tribute to something beyond even them.

"It's warm!"

She rocks with the waves as they lap at her, already at home. When he pushes out farther into the surf, she follows, taking his hand when he reaches out to her. She lets him fold her close against him, presses his chest into her back.

"Do you know the legend of Thalassa?"

She cranes her head back over his shoulder to peer up at him.

"Of course I don't. You all change your stories every other decade, why bother to keep up?"

"Once upon a time, a farmer saw a ship sink at sea.” He presses his lips into her neck and inhales the deep wood of her scent. How something from so far can smell like forest, he doesn’t know. “The farmer mourned the men lost and cursed the ocean for her fickleness and violence.” He slides his tongue down the perfect curve of her shoulder and brings his hands to cup her breasts. “The tide went out from under him, and she rose to regard him. Can you guess what she said?”

“Of course not.”

The shudder she lets out when he presses his lips to her ear nearly undoes him. “She said, ‘Do not spread evil lies! I am not the cause of these things which befall you: Blame the winds to which I am exposed. Look at me when they are gone, sail upon me then, and you will see I am even gentler than the land.’”

She turns to catch his lips and wrap her arms around the whole of him. It feels like she binds it all together again, a part of her.

---

On the ship again, he can only watch her from afar, afraid to close their distance in such proximity. They are silent, watching—they roll around each other like waves crashing into opposite shores.

---

When they return to shore, Serenity has acquired so many gifts there is not room for Venus in the in the carriage. He waves the princes and princess along and, once they are out of sight, grabs Venus’s hand to lead her to the stables.

"It’s very easy," he tells Venus when her face falls. "You are welcome to sit in front."

She does just that, and Kunzite is happy not to complain about a few hours more of privacy. Something like dread eats at him at the thought of returning to the palace—the nights of patrolling and waiting and serving and briefing and reading, anxiously, reports from a constantly falling world. He presses his face into her neck and does not answer when she asks what inspires such closeness. With each step, he can feel the rigidity returning to both of them, the weight of duty pressing down.

When they come in sight of the ramparts, Kunzite dismounts and leads the horse on foot. As they approach the palace entrance, however, Venus draws the horse up short.

“Who’s that woman?” she asks, voice tense with something Kunzite cannot place. He follows her gaze to his generals, grouped around a woman he has never seen before. Her hair is like blood, and her skin as pale as the moon, and he does not know the answer, but something cold crawls down his spine.

Chapter Text

The sorceress Beryl is beautiful in a way wholly other from that of the princess and her guardians. If Serenity is moonlight and grace, and Venus is the shock-bright heat of a sun, Beryl is the embrace of a cool cave on a stifling day, the promise of shadowy refuge alluring even if it pricks in the traveler a fear of the unknown. Kunzite is always on edge around Beryl, those shadows—just as much, Kunzite admits to himself, as he is around Venus. The knife of Beryl’s gaze is exposed and gleaming, no sheath to hide threat—of power, of cunning, of something Kunzite cannot name—from view.

“The magic of Earth is far more pliable than the magic you will find beyond,” Beryl tells them at the beginning, gesturing up to the sky with the swan-neck arm of a dancer. “Nowhere else in the universe is every element so purely present. Magic is drawn from these essences, distilled and changed by the thinking mind if only it knows where to look, what to ask. On the moon, there is only sunlight to draw from, gone cold without an atmosphere to trap it. Mercury’s water and ice come from the cold of its dark side, blown frozen into a comet’s tail by the wind flying off the sun’s surface. Venus’s thick veil keeps the sun’s rays close, bakes them down into precious metal and never lets them free, while Mars blazes red with the sun’s fire and sets flame to anything. Finally, there is great Jupiter, whose self-made storms rage with electric life. I will show you how to combine these elements into your the purest expression of your strength.”

The magic she pulls from them is astounding and cruel—it freezes and forces and fakes. The first time Kunzite calls a shield of energy around him, he wonders how he didn’t feel this potential all along, the power that runs from the bottom of his feet to the trees and water and animals. Jadeite’s power is most elemental, shooting forward in flurries of ice and snow; Nephrite, meanwhile, spins shadows, casting flame to darkness. Zoisite gloats over his cunning, masking himself in fey faces and charming the servant girls into a tizzy, to the point that Kunzite must chide and remind him that robbing another of their faculties, however briefly, is not becoming of a royal attendant.

Only Endymion struggles. Beryl seems convinced that she will be able to coax from him some power other than healing, or at least that’s what Kunzite takes from the long hours she spends at the prince’s side, coaching and and laughing and moving his arms just so, staying close until the princess appears. Kunzite watches her tutor the prince quite often while pretending to do something else. If she stands too close, she tells him more than once, it’s because she must pay rapt attention to every one of his muscle movements. Even the smallest mistiming, she claims, can stop the power cold in its tracks.

“She’s just trying to help,” Endymion says. They are all wrapped in the thrill of the things they can accomplish now, and Endymion is no exception. “Serenity tells me that she’s not wrong, to focus on those kind of details.”

So Kunzite abides it. Who is he to argue, after all, when this strange woman enables them to do things they once thought only existed in dream?

---

“Who is that woman, again?” Venus asks one night near the end of the first month of Beryl’s tenure. She is pacing his room, pulling books out of their place on the shelves to flip through them, thumbing through the clothes in his wardrobe, even though she has seen everything before. He has discovered during nights like these that her fidgeting is a habit that intensifies the more agitated she gets, and her agitation has increased every time she has returned to find Beryl’s presence has grown in the castle. There is no cure for the agitation, though, so he ignores the invasion and runs his finger down the latest report from the Eastern mountains. The roads have been clear, but violence threatens—trade has not resumed and one entire town is held now by a hundred men who have deserted the army and are on the hunt for riches.

“A sorceress from the west. Nephrite’s kingdom,” Kunzite replies like he always does, rolling up the report and retying the seal. He leans his forehead into clenched fists. “He says she came to offer her services amid reports of unrest in her village and other parts of the west. She wants to prepare us in case we need to protect the prince.”

Nephrite swears he had nothing to do with Beryl’s sudden appearance during Kunzite’s absence, but Kunzite is still irritated by Nephrite’s insubordination, however well-meaning; Nephrite surely hasn’t grasped the risk of his actions and surely doesn’t understand the deep skepticism—no, hatred—of anything unknown that sleeps deep in the hearts of common people. Reports of unrest over rumors of the moon, of invasion, of something watching have begun to flood in from the South and West, in addition to the continued deterioration of circumstances in the mountains. The South’s rebellious king is still anxious for some kind of recognition from Endymion and his kingdom, is probably looking for the first opportunity to discredit Endymion’s rule. These kings are all the same: greedy, conservative, mistrustful of anything they cannot control. On top of that, the Southerners are an insecure people, from what Kunzite understands, and proud of the great civilization they once built, which stretched even farther than Endymion’s centuries ago before turning to sand in the clenched hands of corruption and bloodshed.

And on top of that, now, the West—Beryl traveled from its far reaches to get to the palace, and quickly. How many people must she have spoken to on her way? How many people know of her reasons for travel? Surely a woman of such magical strength as hers grasps the fear of others, wishes to change them. What better endorsement to flaunt than a call from Prince Endymion to learn her arts?

“You’re use magic,” Kunzite says jerking his head up. “Aren’t you interested in an earthling sorceress? Who can teach us to use it too?”

“Interested, sure,” Venus replies. “But magic comes with many risks, responsibilities. And Earth’s elemental resources are far greater than anything we were taught to wield. In the wrong hands…”

“You think our hands are the wrong ones?” Kunzite means it as a tease, but Venus’s reaction is serious, all knitted brow and the corner of her lower lip moving slightly inward. He thinks of his own discussions with his men—what threat the Moon poses, how scared they should be of these women and their strength, and how vulnerable Earth is, just one technologically defunct planet against who knows how many others—and thinks then of what discussions Venus and the others must have among themselves. Surely they cannot fear a planet with no widespread knowledge of anything beyond their grasp. Could Earthly magic tip the scales that much?

“I was teasing,” Kunzite says when Venus still has not responded. Her face shifts into confusion, then a nervous laugh, but she still guards something behind the sound.

“So,” she says. “How is your magic coming along?

Kunzite is suddenly wary of tipping his hand. Will showing too much progress only serve to panic the Moon general? “It’s improved,” he decides to say.

“Then show me.”

Kunzite looks at her with an open mouth, but no words come out. He feels like a child again, the same as when father would interrupt his studies or music lessons to demand he spar some visiting noble or another. It wasn’t that he could not do it—but the tone of father’s voice always carried the assumption of winning and the risk of losing something more than dignity in the event of anything else.

Kunzite holds up his hand and concentrates, skirting around the heat that burns out of Venus’s every inch as he reaches out for the power around him. He pulls the energy from the air and the moonlight and the distant lapping of the lake until it has formed a ball in his palm. He cannot deny the pride he feels at accomplishing even this small task; the thrill he feels as previously unknown power surges through him. Just a few weeks of training have turned the sensation from overwhelming into a promise: a promise of equal footing with anything the Moon can throw at them. Kunzite solidifies the ball into green and white, then lobs it at Venus gently. She catches and examines it a moment before snuffing it out.

“Not bad, for a beginner,” she says. Her energy is focused now, fingers stilled. Perhaps Kunzite has stumbled upon some possibility of allaying whatever could worry a goddess. “But why don't you watch how it’s really done.”

Light blooms from her hands link by link, until it’s looped like a lasso in her fingers, and whatever thoughts of power crowded his mind moments ago are burned from his memory, replaced with warmth and wanting. She weaves the chain around her fists and advances toward him, wrapping him up until he is trapped in her light. He marvels at her ability to leave him with no desire for escape. No desire to see beyond her.

---

As the days pass, Kunzite’s control of the energy he has now learned to gather becomes finer, sharper, and almost second-nature. So, of course, do the powers of the other three generals—to the point that Kunzite must be prepared to throw up a shield against shadow and ice even at breakfast. Zoisite’s powers are harder to protect against, Kunzite learns one afternoon when he stumbles across who he at first takes to be Venus in the halls.

“What occasion calls for sending two of you? Not that I’ll complain if I’m to benefit,” Kunzite asks. He is returning to the library after leaving Endymion with the princess and Jadeite with frosty Mars. No matter how many times Beryl explains that her element is fire, he will not believe it.

“I just so wanted to see you,” Venus trills. The sound is strange enough for Kunzite to see: A beauty mark where one doesn’t belong, the fingers too short, the eyes a wrong shade. The entire miscalculated image comes into focus at once, and he balks.

“What, exactly, were you hoping to accomplish here, Zoisite?” Kunzite is unable to hide the bite of irritation in his tone, which threatens to spark into anger. He cannot decide whether or not this is a betrayal, but it is certainly some kind of abuse, to assume the visage of another in trickery against your own, however lightheartedly. Not that Zoisite’s heart had ever been particularly light...

Zoisite curses in his own voice, now, shifting back to himself. Still beautiful, in his own way, but sharper and cruel in a sense only youth can be.

“You’re no fun, old man. I just wanted to know whether you’re any nicer to the Moon general,” he says. “Though she’s got a stick up her ass as much as you, I’d say. Two peas in a pod.”

Zoisite is a covetous thing, and Kunzite does not miss the tinge of jealousy in his voice, even if he has to wonder at its provenance. Kunzite sighs and waves a hand in front of him, tries to muster a smile for sportsmanship.

“Don’t you have work to do?”

“Yeah, yeah, I was just coming back from some report from some scout or another. I’ll write it up and put it on your desk, so please don’t feel the need to nag me.”

“Now, Zoisite. Is that any way to talk to your elder?”

Beryl’s voice is a chilly thing that never fails to precede her. She seems to take residence in shadows, never appearing before she is ready to be seen, like now, sauntering forth not around a corner or through a door, but from the dark cast of a column.

“Sorceress,” Zoisite says, bowing uncharacteristically. “My joke fell flat, unfortunately. Better luck next time.”

“Better luck indeed. I believe Nephrite is looking for you in the library, you know.”

This puzzles Kunzite—Nephrite is not one to spend time in the library on his own—but Zoisite responds so quickly, bowing again and turning on his heel to walk off, that he second guesses his own knowledge. Perhaps the presence of this studious sorceress has changed something in these still-boys. Perhaps the influence a woman—however unromantic—is something he cannot emulate.

“Such a talented boy,” Beryl says, walking up beside Kunzite. “Though perhaps not the most observant. He will learn.”

“I’m not sure that’s for the best,” Kunzite replies, half-thinking.

“Yes, well, it’s good he has someone like you to teach him responsibility, then. There are worse deficits to work with.”

“I suppose we will find out.” Kunzite nods stiffly and turns. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare for tomorrow’s briefing.”

“Be careful, Kunzite,” Beryl says as Kunzite begins walking back toward his quarters. The secret in her voice makes him stop and turn, and he hates how weak he is to his own unknowing.

“Those girls,” Beryl continues, falling into line beside him once more. When she wraps her hands around his arm, Kunzite thinks of a snake curled in a basket, coyly appearing as though it answers to the call of a horn. “Magic, you know, does more than destroy or create. I’ve seen greater men than you fall captive to a well-placed spell and never know better for as long as they lived. Such a pity, if you don’t know what to look for.”

“And I suppose you do?” Kunzite asks. He lets Beryl pull him forward, walking some unknown route.

“Of course,” she replies. “Every woman, earthling or no, is familiar with the basics—a little warmth and honey to draw in what’s wanted, like moth to flame. The magic keeps them coming back for more—clouds the mind, convinces a man to forget his own desires. An old art. Older than the moon, some say.”

“Have you heard the legend of the goddess of the sea? I’m told every culture has one; I have always been curious whether the legends are the same from place to place.”

“Please, go ahead.”

“In our language, she was once known as Inara, and she was worshipped for bestowing mankind with both magic and carnal knowledge,” Beryl says. “The legend has it that once, after millennia spent adrift in the wide and empty ocean of ancient earth, Inara came upon a pair of lovers on the shore. She watched them and could not understand why any sentient thing would want to be so close to another—she, after all, had spent her life alone and content in her seas. She left the waters to consult her brother, the master of land, and asked what his dominion saw in companionship, but her brother merely evaded the question and bid his sister return to her realm.

“As Inara made her way back into the waves, the nymphs of the forest (which Innana’s brother made to report back to him on his creation) emerged from the trees lining the beach and bid to her with coy cries and fingers. They had heard the question she brought to her brother and whispered that answers could be found in the underworld, which lie beyond even the deepest depth of her kingdom. An entrance, the nymphs continued, wrapping their hands in wave-bright hair that gleamed gold in the twilight, could be found deep in the heart of her brother’s country, a tunnel that twisted and turned until it led right to the heart of the knowledge she seeked. Inara need only convince her brother to lead her there.

“Inara thanked the nymphs for their help and asked if there was anything she could give in return. The nymphs rang out in their coy laughter again and said they wished only for one thing: That Inara share whatever she learned with them upon her return.

“Inara agreed and, instead of returning to her home, went back to beg her brother to show her the way to the underworld. Her brother resisted, offering a litany of excuses until he revealed that not even he had managed to gain access to the place she sought.

“He led her to the cave, whose mouth was blocked by a door, and Inara pounded for three days and four nights with all the force of a typhoon, battering the cave’s clearing until it swelled into new sea. On the fourth day, drowned and at home again, the doors open, and Inara descended.

“What she found at the end of that tunnel was not a god or demon, but a tree of fruit, and when she ate of it, she knew a sweetness she could not have before imagined. The pleasure she felt took shape in many forms: the seas suddenly brimmed with life and magic spilled out from the shores into the plants and animals and hands of the people her brother had created from stone and sand. It was the last gift that she gave to the nymphs in new form—the power to speak words that drew in those who before had no power to see beyond themselves. Inara ruled with them over this strange dominion: The unknowing allure of the seas, the lives that stretch out beneath it, and the power of knowing the words that can make one thing want another.”

There’s something warm in Beryl’s smile, which stretches and lingers far past the end of her tale, along with a silence that Kunzite can’t place. The warmth, however, if nothing like Venus’s sun. It is the cold metal glint of candlelight on crown, or the intangible sparkle of a sea. He cannot quite grasp the complexities of her myth, wonders if the inscrutability is intentional or simply the effect of time. They are stopped now, he sees, at the top of the veranda. The gardens below cannot be seen in the newly fallen night.

“Have you ever been told you’re quite handsome?” Beryl uncoils herself from him, but does not take her gaze off of his. “You would make a good king yourself. What a shame that Endymion so completely steals all the glory. I know you’d never admit that, of course. Our secret….”

Before Kunzite can reply, she has disappeared into the evening.

---

Somewhere in this dream—of fine fingers rifling through clothes and trinkets and hair; of magical sensation and the power that comes with creating from elements something of one’s own design; of not-quite-comfort, but the hope of it, the first glimpse Kunzite has gotten in years—the end appears, abrupt and beautiful: One night, a swan takes wing down onto the moonlit expanse of his balcony, singing sad words he can only put together into harmony. He watches the creature for what feels like a millennia, watches feathers bloom into radiant starburst before falling to flower, to the fine frost of a winter morning, to the face of ageless legend. When he reaches out, he has hands not of flesh, but stone, the fingers obscured by the proliferation of great crystals. Their perfect symmetry encrusts him, entombs him, and he sees history play out through rose-tinted distortion on the blank slate of a mystery. Swans and moons and white sea froth, coils and labyrinths and twists, swimming with dark abyss that grows until pink-rose is obscured into nothing, until it shatters into red and sickly green, the color of a shield made from something he cannot understand—

“Kunzite!”

Not the end. A hand, warm and heavy, honey-light on his cheek. He leans into it and dreams again of green and gold and sky.

---

An end of a dream: A scroll, warning of disrest-turned-violence. A hope for peace spread across kingdoms, dashed. Expected, really, Kunzite thinks, staring down at the writing without seeing. He’s read the message countless times by now, and the things scattered across his room—candlesticks, books, paperweights—a testament to his anger over the sheer inanity of it: Consider this a formal declaration of war for trespasses against the sovereignty of mankind.

The note has paralyzed him, halted him in his tracks as he moved to undress from an already long day of magic, mentoring, mending ties between town and palace after a particularly rowdy night by the others. He reads it again—war—and curses; reads it again—trespasses—and runs a hand through his hair. He reads it a final time—sovereignty of mankind, as if that is a concept everyone has decided on, as if the south has any better record of treating people with dignity and kindness—and slam a fist on the table, sees red, sprouts a wave of green energy from his hand unbid.

“Pompous, pricklish, ignorant fool,” Kunzite hisses for not the first time since a trembling messenger appeared at his door, jerking up out of his chair so hard it sends the rug behind it into a wrinkled mess. His hands find the closest thing to them—some chalky stone figurine, sent by some family member or another—and he hurls it, already relishing the sound of it shattering against the balcony floor as he turns to stalk into his bedchamber. The sound does not come.

“You shouldn’t let your anger get the best of you, you know.”

Kunzite reels around, drawing power into his fists, ready to throw something more harmful than a trinket—but (and he knew this, he knows, even as his mind refuses to) the voice is only Venus. She looks shaken herself, even if she will always be infinitely more composed, and she is dressed in neither uniform nor some sightly thing, just a shift of orange silk, a royal blue shawl to cover her from the cold.

"There's been an uprising, in the south,” he explains, hands rising to pinch his nose. “Ships sail toward our coast. Is the princess here?" No matter their courting, Venus has never appeared separate from the princess. Kunzite does not blame her. There are appearances to keep, some sense of propriety to try and maintain, even if only its specter.

"No," Venus admits. "I came on my own. I saw great billows of smoke to the west of you. When I went to see why, troops were marching.”

She pauses, looking away, chewing at the inside of her lip. Her arms wrap her shawl tighter around her shoulders. The action sends Kunzite into movement automatically, picking up a blanket from the couch, freezing when Venus does not move to accept it. He is focused entirely on her, does not want to hear the news she brings, even if he has already. Everything inside of him is a rebellion of its own: Against the fact that he has refused to see this inevitability, against the fact that this outcome may have been out of his hands. Against his own complicity in a perceived betrayal, on part of the god-fearing masses. Perhaps he was never meant to enjoy a thing on his own. The thought is red and burning in the black smoke that moves through Kunzite’s mind.

“I think,” Venus says slowly, drawing him out of some spiral, “you have more than those ships to worry about."

It takes a moment for her words to sink in. He doesn't reply, once he realizes the implications—an assault from both sides, the predictions of Nephrite's mother come to life. He stands, strides to the bureau to slide on his shirt, which he only buttons up part way, leaving the flap open. He hopes Venus can't see the tremor in his hands as he laces his leather boots, pulling his pant legs over them to hide the mess of the bows.

"Wait here. Or return, if you must, but I'd rather you wait. I have to find Endymion."

Venus grabs his wrist before he can make it to the door.

"Kunzite," she says, still firm, her thumb passing over his pulse, spilling her familiar warmth into him. She does not pull him back, but her grip is firm. For a moment, he does not want to escape her or face whatever advances beyond the palace walls. "Whatever it is, we'll face it."

--

Kunzite enters Endymion’s quarters without knocking, and the fact that he has never had to do this must hit Endymion at the same time Kunzite, because they both pause, and a look of shock that must mirror Kunzite’s own comes over the prince’s face before turning into confusion. He was reading, it seems, stretched out on the couch, a half-written letter on the low table next to him. They stay frozen for a moment, Kunzite gathering himself while Endymion must try and piece a proper response together. Perhaps if the words never come, Kunzite thinks, this will all go away on its own.

“Couldn’t button up your uniform to see me?” Endymion finally says.

"Master, there are reports of ships sailing to attack from the south,” Kunzite replies. “And Venus brings news of similar unrest in the west."

The air in the room changes from the cool, uncaring night to foreboding.

"What?” Endymion demands. He rises from the couch. His fists are already clenched. Why? What is the meaning of this?"

"Not everyone can love like you do.” Kunzite is surprised by the bite in his voice. The bitterness. “People fear the idea of an outsider ruling over them. People fear the influence of the moon, of magic.”

“You’re my advisor. My general. The oldest of us,” Endymion snaps. “Put an end to this.”

“Is that an order?”

“What do you think?” Endymion mutters. “We have to tell Serenity.”

“I believe we have more pressing concerns, master.”

“Yes, you do. So deal with them,” Endymion replies. “I’m going to Serenity.”

Kunzite cannot ask Endymion how, exactly, he plans to achieve this, because Endymion moves to storm out of his quarters just as Jadeite, Zoisite, and Nephrite walk in, a cacophony of voices drowning out any other thought that might hope to permeate the moment. Endymion escapes between them, and the other three are so distracted that they don’t spare the prince a second glance.

“Beryl says we should have seen this coming,” Zoisite says. The excitement in his voice makes Kunzite feel older than his years, weighted down with dread. “Says that everyone out there has heard of and hates the moon. The idea of them watching us.”

“We’re idiots not to have known,” Nephrite adds.

“I thought we did know,” Jadeite says. “The girls in town told us. We just ignored it.”

“Nephrite’s own mother warned us,” Kunzite says, pinching his nose. “We don’t have time to discuss whose failure of foresight was greatest. We need to act.”

“We clearly have no choice but to attack before they do,” Zoisite says with an arrogant throw of his head.

“We could defend, buy time to work out treaties,” Jadeite counters.

“The Prince will have none of treaties if they involve banning contact with the Moon,” Nephrite snaps. He is right, but Kunzite hates to admit this, that their Prince would fail to realize the choice he has already made. A choice between a kingdom and one—person? He is not sure if he should give Serenity the word. The thought of her right now inspires some lick of hatred in him, surprising him enough that he rears back from himself, as if burnt.

“Has this happened before?” Jadeite asks.

“In legend,” Kunzite replies. “Selene, maybe. But we don’t have time to dwell in the past. Please assemble your designated troops. I will look over the reports to develop an idea of where to send them.”

---

Kunzite is surprised to find Venus still waiting when he returns to his quarters near dawn. He has been gone for upwards of six hours—alerting the regional commanders, deciding which towns to bolster, where to send troops. They have three days at most before either army will make landfall. His head rings with the preparations, with the implications—he will need to go make camp with one of the regiments, will need to pack and travel and brace himself for inevitable war, for battle. A declaration will surely arrive from the west. Endymion—Kunzite, really—will have to issue a reply. Something strong and sure and self righteous.

Venus bursts into an uncharacteristic flurry as soon as Kunzite closes the door. She pulls at his uniform, her hands pushing up underneath the fabric to press against every inch of his skin as if checking for wounds. She's speaking, too, in a language he doesn't quite catch until it shifts and—

"Just abandon this world, come with Endymion to the Moon Kingdom. We’re prosperous. We’re happy. We’ll protect—"

She sounds angry, frustrated, as if she has been sitting here for hours talking herself into renewed contempt of this planet, of Kunzite’s home. He grabs her shoulders, pushes her away just a little too roughly. The regret already pangs in him, but it's overtaken by exhaustion and anger and what can only be fear. Fear of what, though? The urgency of the moment and the feeling that Venus has somehow betrayed him crowds out any hope of examination.

"What are you saying?” Kunzite demands, hands still locked around Venus’s shoulders.

"I didn't—" She tries to slip from his grasp, but he only digs his fingers in harder to her skin. She will not bruise and will not meet his eyes. Despite the fact that she could break free at any moment, she stays.

"Has this time meant nothing? Have you gained no understanding of how much there is to lose? This is not about Endymion, or Serenity, or you, or me. It's about the hundreds of thousands of people who will get caught in the crossfire, no matter where we are."

"That's not what I meant. I'm trying to understand," Venus snaps, and she seems to be genuinely struggling behind the flame of her irritation. "The only people I've wanted to protect—they're—I can hold you all in the palm of my hand. A whole world...it seems impossible. Why try to save it?"

She is still an otherworldly thing, straining her eyes to take in the breadth of a world unlike any she could imagine on her own. No matter how many times she walked it before, he knows she never let herself be of it. And he knows now that she has never loved a human—never loved something that could so easily slip from the embrace of her power. The idea of such naivete paired with such power exhausts him more even than the coming war.

"I know you didn't mean to say that the world is worth nothing," Kunzite says. He sighs, walks over to the couch and sinks into it. Venus follows close behind, but does not touch him or sit by his side.

"What I did mean—I can't—"

"You don't have to try and say it." He reaches out to take her hand loosely in his own. "Sit with me? I’m exhausted."

He doesn't have time to appreciate her fingers on his cheek and the weight of her in his lap before he plunges into a broken sleep, cut through with fear and power and red.

Chapter Text

The last time they meet on Earth, Kunzite is camped in a battlefield, six weeks after fighting broke out along the borders of Endymion’s core kingdom. He has new scars, now, and aches, constant pain from the strain of riding every day to check on camps and villages and caravans. By some small grace, the Moon has cobbled together a smattering of fighters to join them. However Endymion did it, it has served a purpose at least: To heal the sick, to keep attackers at bay with less bloodshed. With no end in sight, though, he wonders how long it will be before the boon finally turns against them.

Even Endymion’s troops, the other generals tell him, are growing ever more suspicious of the Moon and its soldiers. Brawls are breaking out, with people from both sides accusing the other of betrayal, conspiracy. The Moon’s warriors do not understand how a war can go on so long. The Earth's men think such disinterest disloyalty. They must also hear the fears growing like weeds at home—chiefly fears of plans for the Earth beyond any earthling’s conception. Kunzite cannot blame peoplefor being scared—after all, that is humanity’s natural reaction to what it does not know—but the foul mood of the rank and file has distracted him, even kept him from sleeping. He has always prided himself on molding and leading men who stand above the fray of the villagers and townspeople. Now, even his most rousing appeals to peace and fidelity fall on deaf ears, met with nothing but fear and bloodlust.

Somehow he must convince them that these interplanetary gods and goddesses are nothing to fear. But he is not fully convinced that is true himself.

Kunzite knows he once was: He struggles to remember the time. A time when these women were nothing but light. A time when the Princess was only pure. It’s not that they are no longer those things. But something eats at the edges. Kunzite cannot name it. The deterioration is only a feeling, a nag, an itch without a location. His head is fogged with the strain of fighting day and night for some glimpse of an end; not even Venus can cut through anymore. Not completely. His head is also fogged by the strain of magic, used most recently to bolster a wall in a neighboring encampment under attack. There is no time to try and name a thing which has not yet manifested directly as threat.

“So. A heavenly king?” Venus asks. Kunzite realizes he has already forgotten she is here, in his tent. For how long? No matter. Her voice is a purr, rolling across the makeshift room in a wave, and from what he can tell she has draped herself across his couch. “Don’t you think that’s a bit, I don’t know, provocative?”

“If a warrior of Venus weren’t in front of me, I would say no,” he replies.

The slow pace of his work bothers Venus—no need for handwritten reports when the Moon has technology that transforms speech into print, as she likes to brag. But he likes making the letters, smoothing the ink over the page into thrusts and parries. Besides, everything in his mind is a blur, so it’s more important, now, to try and catch it in some kind of permanence on a page. What is he writing? He pauses to think. An update: His discussion with Beryl today, for the prince. He pulls at the memory, which is tangled with ones from previous days. Their discussions have become the same, repetitious, bleeding into one another: Fruitless. Impossible. Beryl insists that they must look beyond all borders for a solution. The cause of this is not man, but Moon—they must apologize, or cede some kind of power. The logic feels right, feels twisted, feels like the only explanation they have left to graps, feels right again—

“But a warrior of Venus is, in fact, right in front of you,” Venus says. Kunzite’s writing comes to a halt again. “And somehow you haven’t looked at her since she walked through your door.”

He hears her move on the couch, hears the soft swirl of fabric across thighs and wrists. He wonders what she’s wearing, like she wants him to, he’s sure. Silk? Some fabric spun of Venusian gas, left to float off sun-bleached skin and tangle in hair like rays of light?

He wonders, but briefly. Then, he continues to write. No progress with diplomacy, insistence on removing the threat from above, increased anger at the presence of Moon in ranks—

“Kunzite…”

Stop.

“I think you’ll find an excuse to make anything provocative,” he sighs. “Especially when you have no idea what you’re provoking.”

“Oh? What don’t I have an idea about?”

“You’re still naïve when it comes to how this planet operates, what motivates its people,” he says, thoughts hanging above the smack-talk of soldiers crowding the training grounds. He’s seen the way they look at the guardians, like rabid dogs who have lost all knowledge of their place in nature—who have forgotten the line that separates lust and a single-minded desire to destroy.

The thought of their leers makes his breath catch in his throat, and for the first time since Venus’s arrival he stops writing completely. He puts down his pen and clutches his forehead between his middle finger and his thumb, draws them inward across his skin, tanned and rough now from days in the field.

“The men of earth are not your soft Venusian courtesans.”

“And what do you know of Venusian courtesans?” she counters. Venus says the new word slowly, and he imagines she’s wrinkled her nose in the silence that follows, because then she asks, “Wait, what is a courtesan?”

Kunzite laughs, just once, deep in his belly, thinking of flowers, of the innocence looks on her face in front of the tapestries, and leans back, eyes closed, trying to savor the memory before it is overtaken by worry and fear. He still hasn’t looked at her.

“A courtesan is someone you pay for—well, for companionship at night.”

“Why would you ever need to pay someone for sex?” Venus’s seductive purr has vanished. She’s guileless, he wants to say, but he knows better. She is more worldly than any other woman he's met, while at the same time, so very beyond it.

Kunzite lets himself get lost in the thought of her, like lying down on grass in the afternoon light. Gaseous is what she really is, there’s no other word—uncontained and directionless until a burst of pressure sends her hurtling toward a target, sends them tumbling to the ground in pain or lust or bewilderment or all three. She doesn’t have to settle for courtesans. He’s sure the men of Venus threw themselves at her feet for the chance to—he catches himself with a sharp inhale. Inappropriate.

“Because we don’t all possess the unabashed confidence of a Venusian warrior,” he finally says.

“I think calling yourself a king of heaven suggests otherwise.”

He hears fabric rustle again, the sound steps on the fine rug his mother gifted him on his thirteenth birthday. She would kill him if she knew he had debased it, reduced it to nothing more than a floor rug in a tent on some battlfield. He used to pray on it and nothing more—he remembers the rough fibers pressing into his forehead as he begged whatever celestial being controlled things above to tell him his duty, his destiny. He’s found it, he knows, but what good is a general who can barely inspire love and affection for a future king in his men, much less a begrudging respect for the terrifying women who have descended on their planet like a plague of swans?

“You know, some wise man once told me Earth has a saying.” The purr is back, serrated, from somewhere in front of him. “Every warrior needs a consort.”

“That’s not the saying,“ he mutters, opening his eyes. He stops because he finally sees instead of hears that she isn’t in her uniform for the first time in weeks: the tight fitting bodice is gone, replaced by the soft folds of a navy blue toga tied with a braid of gold. It is much more scandalous than the pneumatic dresses she donned for the festival: The front dips low over her chest, and the slits of the skirt run perilously high up her legs. The sight makes him forget to correct her.

This time, Venus is the one who laughs. The sound fills the tent with the warmth of her pleasure. He wants to be wrapped up in it—it’s more comfort than he’s found around any fire. But the chill of her moon-white skin keeps him at a distance. He hadn’t felt it, before.

“Does it offend you?” she explains, running a hand up her thigh. He does not follow it.

“I have other things I need to do.”

“Y’know, you can be pretty uptight,” she says. “You’re no fun these days.”

“And you have no sense of propriety,” he shoots back. “You will be the downfall of us all.”

“You say that like you won’t help.”

There is no generosity in the tug of her hands on his uniform, the scrape of her nails on his hips, the press of her teeth on his lip. There’s just pure need and entitlement. He’s happy to indulge her: He wants her to smother out every molecule of oxygen that’s ever sustained him, fill him with the smell of myrtle and roses and sweat and strangle any part of him that wants to remain human or fight to be so doomed. He knows by now that no mortal has the power to bend the will of a goddess—that the best he can hope for is the opportunity to be bent into her design.

But at the very least he can try.

He clutches her arms and lifts her up onto the desk. In a cacophony of ripped paper and flying ink he climbs onto the surface, his hand spread in a V around her fine collarbone, pushing backward until her head hits the wooden top. His knee pushes between her legs and she rolls forward into it, straining against his palm until his fingers tighten into a grip around her neck and she gasps in surprise.

They are terrifying, these warrior women with whole swaths of the human experience wrapped around their fingertips—with lives that span the rise and fall of empires, memories that he will disappear from once he has gone from this world. That gasp, though, the delicate rattle of wind underneath his palm, turns the rising tide of his contempt into pleasure. He presses down even firmer, delighting in the moment of panic that dances through her eyes, and then raises his hand upward to brush the gold out of her face and press their lips together.

While he drags the tip of his tongue along the fine line of her teeth, tempting her to bite it, his other hand pushes the skirts off her thighs in a scrape of calloused palms, yanks at his belt and his trousers until her knees around a cage around him and he’s pushing into the warmth of her. He pulls apart from her to press his forehead to the desk by her ear and groan, to soak in each gasp she gifts him to the pace of their fucking.

Soon, though, she’s clutching at his arms and pushing him back, scrabbling to her feet and turning around, and he’s on her again, grabbing all that fine hair in a hand, her ass in the other, pulling and squeezing and biting into her neck to stifle the lewd words that threaten to spill out as he sinks in again, treating her like she is woman and nothing more. He wants to leave some kind of mark on her, moves lower to bite her shoulder, and he cannot tell whether she cries out in pleasure or pain.

She’s rubbing herself out, he can feel it, and when she peaks, she does not hold back. Her magic swims over him. Her ferocity—is that anger, there, in the bite of it?—knocks the wind out of him, sends his hips stuttering, sends him to climax more quickly than he can process, like she’s pulling it out of him and he has no choice but to follow. He throws his arm around her waist for some kind of leverage, pressing her forward onto the desk and disappearing into the curve of her neck.

It’s minutes before either of them move to the bed, silently, as if she is also scared to acknowledge the tint of rage that has crept into their meetings.

---

Kunzite jolts awake, unsure of where he might be. He shoves a weight off of him, pulls his hands back like he’s been burned—no, he thinks, he has been, and he clutches at his hair as if that might help the hurting. His vision goes dark against the fine light of morning, swimming with shadows, and his head throbs, suddenly, with red. He clutches harder, as if he could dig out the cause through the roots of his hair or force the pain out of his eyes with the press of his palms. Some broken sound falls from him, something strangled.

"Kunzite?"

There, in the darkness—a blade, bright and threatening, striking out to cage him in light. The arc of it blinds him anew.

“Witch,” he snarls, thrashing out against the invasion. He recoils into a ball when the pain comes back sharper and tries to roll over away from the light, but whatever it is holds him firm.

"Stop clutching your head like that. Look at me, Kunzite."

Cool hands pry his fingers from his skull, then rise to frame his face. Kunzite calms under the touch, leans into it. Tears sting the corner of his eyes. He can't quite grasp where he is, struggles to understand what, exactly, is here with him.

“You’re tired,” something soft murmurs. The hands do not move. When his vision shifts back into being, he is surrounded by a curtain of gold. Not a cage. “You did nothing but mumble in your sleep all night.”

"What?"

"Hush. Come back, now. Open your eyes."

Her face has broken into sadness when he is finally able to see her. The endless blue of her eyes is shallow and closed off from him, but her hands are there, warmer now, and strong. A thumb swipes softly over his lashes, gathers the tear waiting to fall.

"What's gotten into you?"

Kunzite cannot speak. He cannot put words to the feeling growing in the deep of him. Guilt and lust and hatred, like some primordial wave unleashed, surging forward on a mixture of magic and delusion. Only steady breaths bring the world back into focus. Hydrangeas in unwavering eyes. Marigolds spilling down oleander shoulders. Their hands wind together. He is not sure who reaches out first.

“I think it’s time I get going.”

Venus stands and begins to dress, and Kunzite finds he can no longer look at her.

Chapter Text

The moon is cold, like Kunzite always knew it would be, but the cold is not the same as winter. With no atmosphere to mediate it them, the sun’s rays washing out faces into black and white, flatten the world into meaningless images that rob even the memory of beauty from Kunzite’s mind. There’s no life coursing beneath the ghost-limbed trees, no hope embedded in the palace’s jewel-crystal gleam. Between skirmishes, which are becoming fewer and far between, Kunzite stares at the specter of this place he has grown to fear, to hate. It disgusts him, to think something so barren felt as if it could rule the infinity of life stretched out beneath it. The feeling curls hard around his heart and he no longer thinks to break through the grip.

“Beryl was right. There’s nothing here but arrogance and contempt,” Zoisite hissed when the first arrived. If any part of Kunzite was left that could disagree, it was soon washed away by the unending brightness, an assault on the eyes that not even the black spill of blood could relieve.

When he sees Venus advancing down the grand steps of the entrance hall, though, he knows he’s looking at the end of him. At this last meeting, they do not smile at each other like lovers, only look at each other like ghosts.

When the bright of her catches in that dead light, though, Kunzite suddenly cannot remember if that morning, through tears and terror, was the last day he saw her. It was months ago. Have there been other times, since then? Everything in sight, in memory, is cut through with darkness. His hope and love and happiness is always being eaten away by something he still cannot name.

"Is this what you really want?" she asks, hand on the pommel of her sword. She stands ready to kill, alone, already smeared in the blood of fallen enemies.

“Just return the prince—”

“He doesn’t want to return. Not to the mess you’ve made, Kunzite.”

Rage billows up in him. The idea that he alone is responsible for the wars tearing apart the Earth below—he refuses to entertain it. He snarls, and the rage turns to fire inside of him.

“Need I remind you who flouted your precious embargo to begin with?”

Kunzite closes the distance between them, arcing his sword down to connect with hers, green magic spinning out from the pommel to guard his wrist. The force of her blow sends him backward, but he maintains his footing and manages to pull a protective barrier together against her lunge. Kunzite cannot maintain the magic, though, not in a place where life is so scarce—where life is growing scarcer by the second. He no longer sees the bodies around them, does not think of the fights his companions inevitably failed, even if they tasted momentary victory. Nothing will come of this game. There’s no hope at redemption.

He and this goddess-turned-rage dance, determined not to break and, in that, not to break the other, or so Kunzite gathers by the way Venus feints instead of furies, pirouettes back instead of charging ahead at a point. Some kind of respect still manifests between them. Some kind of heartache. He does not feel bad, though—not when—the words become jumbled here, the logic of it—not when the Moon stood idly by, recalled its troops, was fine to let mankind suffer under the weight of itself.

Venus lashes out with a chain of gold and magic, wraps it around him and yanks. He hurtles toward her, caught off guard in the struggle against himself, and manages to break away again, to lash out, catching her side with a parry and blow. But she does not stumble, does not even wince, and he retreats, blocks that fine chain but gives up his sword in the process. When he calls on the magic to protect him from the next lash of her whip, there is nothing to give it. She gives one great yank on the chain that has wrapped itself around him and he hurtles toward her without a fight, straight into the blade that marked him months ago, the metal turning his blood to ice.

“Traitor,” Venus hisses, dropping to her knees to follow him as Kunzite sinks back into the ground. She straddles one of his legs. When she brings her face close to his, her shadow passes over him, and the darkness makes her face almost bearable. He feels clear, now, free of that mesmerizing light, clear enough to see the adrenaline that surges through her eyes, to see that her teeth are clenched behind a tripwire jaw.

The words come: She’s angry, hurt even, and, inexplicably, he wants to ask why. Which betrayal hurt most? He saw the grief that shook her when Serenity brought herself down on the sword now impaled in his chest, yes, but he also saw the rage. The princess never respected the charge of her guardians, not really, and that might have been the deepest insult Venus had suffered during this battle. Does she regret trading her own kingdom for this doomed destiny that they didn’t know? Has she ever stopped to consider that she could die before now? The words don’t come—his lungs are heavy with blood, which clutches at the back of his throat. It dawns on him now he will never get to ask.

“You’re not human,” Kunzite manages to mumble, bringing a finger to Venus’s blood-crusted cheek. It’s an accusation, a lament—the answer to his questions. His thoughts are dark, darkening, yet somehow fading into white, and he sees less of her now. Funny, he thinks. The exposure has gone wrong.

“That’s why I'm not weak,” she snarls.

She twists the blade in his chest, and Kunzite’s black-and-white world pangs red. He uses what’s left of him to spread out the rest of his fingers and grip her fine head, to bring her toward him. She doesn’t resist, despite the fury welling up with tears in her eyes. She doesn’t resist, either, when he presses his forehead to hers, savoring the only other source of warmth left on the Moon. Despite herself, he thinks, she tilts her head and presses her lips, closed, against his, finally finding her own chastity in a moment of death.

When she remembers herself and pulls back, he sees that she is biting the right corner of her lower lip, painted brilliant with his blood. He wants to wipe it off—he can muster the last bits of his strength to do that much, he thinks—but he is done, now. His hand is paralyzed, tangled in the threads of her hair. She wraps her fingers around his wrist and squeezes, but not out of passion. He knows she aims to break him. She knows she already has.

When she finally draws her blade out, she takes with it her love. He feels the vacuum it leaves behind, winces as it fills with pain and hate and broken edges. She is just as broken—the pieces of her lay scattered across the Moon, their blood gone black in the light of an unforgiving sun.

Despite the wave of darkness that crashes into him, cut through with Beryl's fury, he cannot hate her. The last thing he sees is her face, frozen in terror. Perhaps the power of her love has not seeped back into her bones to sustain her. Perhaps she has finally given up something she cannot recover.

The last thing Kunzite thinks is: Where will it go?

---

Kunzite remembers, on his knees before these women again, after what must be centuries in darkness: The fealty he pledged to his master. His devotion to Endymion was all-consuming once. This feeling does not return.

Kunzite remembers something else—as incomprehensible as a star to a child, but caught between his fingers, like some unimaginable gift.

“Venus,” he says, understanding for the first time in what must be centuries what is right in front of him.

“Hello, Kunzite.”

Her eyes are soft and big like blooms of hydrangea, like the cloud-light touch of a finger feeling petal for the first time. A new loss comes to him (there will, he learns in these last moments, be an infinitude): He hasn't seen flowers in a millennia. Shrouded in the haze of delusion, he hadn’t thought to look for them. Her eyes, then, are from another time, like her smile, gentle and sad. Has she smiled like that every time he’s seen her in this life, new and short and over again?

Then she is gone—no, he is gone—but there is no pain, not like last time. He suddenly cannot remember how a body feels, how anyone can move around with all that weight. The space where he exists (can he call it that?) is warm. It smells of myrtle and roses and, occasionally, blood. Everything is white. He suddenly wants to cry.

“Where will I go?” he asks. This realm ebbs like power around him. He wants to fill it with a garden—stalks of golden forsythia, moon-white jasmine, brilliant columbine cut through with scars of camellia—or maybe with the sound of a sea. He wants to fill it with blossoms dewed with his grief, to beg the gods take pity and bless him with some new form he can use to find everything else he's lost.

He lets out a broken sound and the crack of it blends with some word from another world: A cry for help.

The white nothing fades. In front of him, Mamoru stares at him like he is a ghost because that is precisely what he is.

---

“Kunzite!” Endymion cries one evening and, as ever, Kunzite bids his call.

Endymion—now Mamoru and realmless—is crouched on the ground of his bedroom, hands over his head. What a sensitive boy, in any life, Kunzite marvels before falling spectral to his side. The devotion is tempered,

“Master, tell me what is wrong,”

“Kunzite, I—it’s time for my own apology,” Mamoru says, placing his hands on the ground and staring at the point between them.

“Master—“

“Kunzite.” Agony drips from the fangs of the consonants. “He—Endymion—no.” Mamoru sucks in a breath. “I abandoned you. I abandoned you as much as you did me. We lost faith in each other. And I lost myself in another.”

Kunzite reaches out a ghostly hand, but draws it back when Mamoru sits up. He stares straight into Kunzite’s eyes, fierce and serious in a way Endymion never was.

“I’m sorry, Kunzite,” he says. “I’m sorry for trying to shove the kingdom off on you. If I hadn’t forced you to be king for me, long before Beryl came into play, none of this would have happened. I will never ask you to bear such a burden again. I never want to ask someone to give up their entire life for my sake ever again.”

He’s almost yelling now, in a dramatic way that is surely the result of spending too much time with Usagi. This only makes Kunzite smile, though, which is perhaps not the most appropriate reaction to have. He sees how the action shakes Mamoru, sees the self-doubt flash across the twist of his own lips.

“What is done is done,” Kunzite says, before Mamoru can rebuke him. “You shouldn’t doubt yourself.”

“I was a coward,” Mamoru sighs, sinking to lean back against his bed.

“You gave your life to protect the one you love,” Kunzite points out.

“I took my life.” None of the tension leaves Mamoru’s shoulders. This new man, it seems, cannot be distracted by compliments.

Kunzite offers, “Perhaps we were all cowards, back then.”

“This second life sure is something,” he mumbles. “I wish you were here for it.”

“You should get back to studying.”

One day, Kunzite reaches out to try and hear Mamoru’s voice, but is met by darkness.