From far off, it looked like the palace lawn was covered in crows. People moved differently when mourning, they shuffled and ruffled like birds unable to take flight with grief weighing so heavy upon them. It isn’t even your grief to bear, Rei thought as she drew closer to the crowd, cloaked in black herself. You don’t know anything.
But she was not here to pass judgement. She had been ordered to find one person, one needle in the stack of feathers.
Luckily, the needle was tall and blonde and even less at ease than everyone else there.
Haruka lit up when she saw Rei. Michiru put a hand on her arm, as though to remind her that they were in mourning for the King, and should act accordingly.
“I didn’t think any of you would be out here,” Haruka said anyway. For a moment Rei feared she would hug her, but Michiru reigned her in. “Is Mina coming?”
“No. Only me.”
Haruka frowned. “I know Usagi’s going through a lot, but…” She shook her head. “I should be less selfish, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Rei pressed her lips together. “We’re just… we’re needed. She can’t be alone right now. But she wanted me to be with you today.”
Haruka nodded, but Michiru peered at Rei like she was something in the aqua mirror, something she could see through to the core of. Neither of us saw this coming, Rei thought, so look all you want.
The murmurs of the crowd silenced as the first figures appeared on the balcony— Jupiter and Mercury, black cloaks wrapped around their shoulders to veil the garish colors of their uniforms. They stood to either side of the doorway as Small Lady emerged, followed by the woman everyone waited for.
A black veil was pinned into her odangos, shielding her tear-rimmed eyes from view. Her dress was simple, long and black and loose, pooling at her feet.
“Thank you,” she began. “Thank you all for sharing the warmth of your hearts, today, as we grieve the passing of Endymion, beloved king, gentle husband, kind father…”
Michiru’s eyes widened. Rei stayed silent. She watched Haruka through the speech, waited for any moment of recognition. But there was nothing, save for one shiny tear as Small Lady took the microphone and gave a measured end to the speech over the muffled sound of sobs.
“She should have waited until she was ready,” Haruka said after. “Usagi’s too raw now.”
Michiru looked between Haruka and Rei. When Rei stayed silent, she gave a weak smile. “It’s important that she shows what strength she has. The kingdom cannot appear vulnerable.”
It was the truth in its rawest terms, and Rei prayed everyone would remember that as she approached Serenity’s chambers later.
“I’m here.” She entered, feeling wrong, taking things in piece by piece.
The palace had always been spotless, but now no one was permitted in to clean. Sheets were strewn about the room, soft white curves masking the harsh shine of the crystal floors. The mourning veil sat stark against the creams of the pillows, odangos and loose hair almost blending into their surroundings in comparison. The gown was only half removed, clasps undone to bear back and shoulders, but it seemed grief and taken over after that, and without intervention it would stay half-on for the rest of the night, if not for days.
“Did you find her?”
“I did. She’s doing well.” Rei knew the real question, and spoke carefully. “She had hoped to see—“
“She won’t see Mina for a very long time.” She sat up, careless of how her dress slipped further down. “She doesn’t know, does she?”
Rei cast her eyes away. “No. I think Michiru does, but she will not tell unless I say to.”
“Mmm.” She leaned back. “You can look, you know. I always figured you thought about it. I did. And now why not?”
“Why not?” Rei fought down the fiery bile of anger rising in her throat. Grief warps things, she told herself.
“You can’t tell me you never wanted your Princess.” She stood now, wobbling, drunk on her own tears. “You could have her, now.”
“You’ve taken the knee for your Princess all your life, and now—“
“I said don’t, Mina.”
Mina shrunk away, looking just the way Usagi always had when Rei got too sharp, except it didn’t reach her eyes. Her eyes were still hers, too hard, too forceful, too deep a blue to be Usagi’s.
“If we have to do this,” she said. “I just thought we could have some fun.” Tears welled up, and she wiped them away roughly. “I debated if we needed an Endymion, so you should be grateful.”
Another time, Rei might have been angry at the suggestion. Or maybe have laughed. She couldn’t be sure, now. “Admitting his death gives you a lot of room,” she said carefully instead. “And I don’t think I could play the part convincingly.”
Mina smiled with Usagi’s mouth. “Yeah, I always told you I was the best actress. And now you know it’s true.” The smile twisted, fake now, pain now. “Even my best friend couldn’t see past my disguise. I’m just that good.”
She laughed. “Maybe we should have done this all along. Usagi hated meetings, and diplomacy, and I hated having her vulnerable. Maybe I should have taken her place all the time, and then maybe—“
“They weren’t killed at a state function, Mina.”
“I. Fucking. Know.” Her glamour dropped, and she threw the disguise pen at Rei’s head. “Nothing fucking matters.” Her body, really hers for the first time in days, shook. “I should just go back on my word, who cares if this place burns?”
You do. But Rei knew better than to say it.
“Do you know how hard it is too look in the mirror and see her? To know I failed and she died and still see her?”
“It’s hard to see you look like her.”
Mina barked a false laugh. “Please. You don’t see me look like her. You see her. You wouldn’t know if you hadn’t seen her give me the pen.”
“I would know.” Rei strode towards her and put her hands on her shoulders. “There’s differences, up close. Haruka would see that, too, if you let her.”
“You’re too bad an actress to even lie well.” Mina wavered, broke. She let Rei pull her into her chest as she sobbed. “I don’t want to do this,” she gasped. “I don’t want to lose myself for her.” Rei rubbed her back slowly. “I always feared Venus would take me over someday, but this is worse.”
“You told me to kill you once, if that happened. You claimed to be drunk, but I knew you were giving a real order.”
“And you would have done it for me. You would have kept your promise.” Mina took a few shaky breaths. “I thought she might take over, with Serenity gone. I thought the loss might trigger Silver Millenium memories too strongly. But she doesn’t want this duty any more than I do.”
“You’re stronger than her. Than anyone.”
“I’d rather be weak. I’d rather be weak and have Haruka and you and everyone else see me than be strong enough to do this.”
“I know,” Rei said, knowing exactly how untrue it was. “It’s only for a little while. Just until Small Lady come of age.” The moment she could use the crystal, the moment she could make a show of it and keep enemies at bay, they would end this.
“Which might be tomorrow, or might be another hundred years.” Mina pulled back and retrieved the disguise pen off the floor. “I got a raw deal, Rei. All these years of service, and she finds a way to ask more of me.” She spun the pen in her hand, changing once again into Usagi. “And I’m sucker enough to promise her.”
“I’m here,” Rei said. “I’m here for whatever you need.”
Usagi-Mina smiled. “Loyal as you are, I’ll never be sure who you’re here for.” She stood, now, with all of Mina’s strength and all Usagi’s power. “As your queen and as your general, I command you to leave the palace. I will send for you if your services are needed.”
She did, wondering if it would have been better to defy the order and stay, but wondering more who she really would have been staying for.