Disclaimer: I don't own Sailor Moon, never have, never will. :( I'm just borrowing the characters. All hail the wonderful Naoko Takeuchi for creating this fabulous series.

AN: Yep, I know. It's been forever. Life happened, what can I say? :shrugs:

Special thanks go to Dejana, as always, for being a fabulous beta reader. All typos/errors/brain farts have been fixed.

Also, thank you so much for all the reviews and pms. You don't know how encouraging they are. Y'all are the best! Enjoy-this one came in around 11,000 words!

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." ~ John 16:33


For Love…or Duty

Part 9:

Of Secrets and Revelations

There was a time when Sailor Venus would have given anything to return to the familiar environs of the Moon Kingdom. Now, as she slipped through the silent marble halls of the Moon Palace, she knew she would never be happy here again. Not without Malachite. Her hand reached up to press against her aching heart.

As strange as it felt, the Moon was no longer her home. Her home was on Earth, with Malachite—or wherever he happened to be.

Venus almost laughed. The last time she had walked these corridors, the idea of Malachite being her home was the farthest thing from her mind. It's funny how things change.

Pressing her lips into a thin line, she resolutely shoved all thoughts of home—and Malachite—to the back of her mind. At the moment, she was a Senshi, not a princess, and there were duties requiring her attention.

The Moon's shield and Palace security topped the list.

Ducking into a shadowed corner, Venus briefly weighed her priorities. Making sure the shield was fully functional was vital—but so was an unexpected, unannounced inspection of Selenity's guards. If she visited the shield control room first, word of her arrival might get out. That would never do. Palace security it is.

For the better part of two hours, the blonde Senshi flitted about the Palace watching the guards make their rounds and perform their routine inspections. She made note of a few men unfortunate enough to have chosen this night to be sleeping at their posts, and marked a few new faces amidst the guards' ranks. Two of them she subsequently remembered had been cadets in training when she left for the weddings months earlier.

Her candid inspection over, Venus moved toward the heart of the palace. The shield control room was protected almost as heavily as the Queen's own chambers, but there was no need to explain her presence to the guards she passed standing watch. Aside from Selenity and a few of her most trusted advisors—Luna included—the Senshi were the only other individuals authorized to freely visit the control room for the shield.

As she approached the carved door and nodded in recognition to the silent guards on either side, she wished fleetingly for Mercury and her computer. Checking the shield's stats had been something the blue-haired Senshi did with remarkable speed and accuracy.

Can't lead from the back, Venus, she reminded herself.

An hour later, having ascertained the shield was in perfect condition, Venus strode away from the shield room with a lighter heart. The technician on night duty had been surprised to see her, but not alarmed. That's always a good sign.

A few corridors later, she turned down the hall leading the guard barracks and stopped at a certain door. A faint smile curved her lips. This next part of her duties would be a little more fun. Raising one gloved hand, she rapped sharply on the smooth surface.

Within seconds, the door opened to reveal a partially-dressed Captain Reagan, head of the Palace Guard. His eyes widened slightly upon seeing the Senshi of Venus at his door, but he did not let her sudden appearance faze him. "Sailor Venus." He inclined his head politely. "Welcome back."

Venus returned his nod. She liked the captain; he was an able overseer, well-suited to his tasks. "Thank you, Captain. My apologies for disturbing you at such an early hour, but my time here is short."

"How may I be of service?"

In answer, she flashed him a smile.

—- —- —- —

"Atten-TION!"

Reagan's voice echoed through the guard barracks like a thunderclap. At the sound, almost all the guards rolled out of their bunks to hit the floor before their eyes were even open. When blurry vision cleared, various murmurs of astonishment swept through the room.

Venus did nothing to hide her amused smile. "Hello, gentlemen," she said brightly. "I thought I'd drop in and see how you're doing."

Despite their various stages of undress, every back straightened.

Venus turned to Reagan. "Captain, I think a run through the obstacle course would be just the way to start off the morning, wouldn't you agree?"

He inclined his dark head. "It will certainly get their blood pumping."

Venus flashed the guards a cheery smile. "Training grounds, five minutes." She spun on her heel and strode out to let the men get dressed, golden hair swishing about the backs of her thighs.

In some respects, overseeing the guards was torture. Being in the coliseum again, standing in the training grounds, made Venus itch for a training session of her own. This was the part of her life on the Moon she missed the most.

While the guards navigated the Senshi-designed obstacle course, Venus filled Reagan in on what she had found during her impromptu inspection. He accepted the blame for the guards' shortcomings without faltering—though she had couched her statements in clinical terms—and promised it would not happen again.

Venus knew he meant it.

At the end of their run, the guards lined up to receive her praise or criticism. As tired as they now were, each man stood proudly. When she was finished, she gave orders that the rest of the guards be cycled through, their results compared to the first group, and changes made accordingly.

At last, she clapped gloved hands together. "Thank you, gentlemen. Dismissed."

"Sailor Venus," one of the younger guards called out. "How does the Princess fare?"

"Princess Serenity is doing well," Venus assured him. "She is enjoying being on Earth."

"I hope she doesn't forget us," someone else murmured.

Venus's blue eyes softened. Sweeping her gaze over the collection of guards, she favored them with a gentle smile. "The Princess could never forget such a loyal, gallant group of protectors. She misses the Moon, but destiny has temporarily called her elsewhere."

When the guards dispersed, Reagan finally spoke. "And what of the other Princesses?" he inquired. "How do they fare?"

Venus inclined her head. "They are content with their place in life, Captain."

He nodded somberly. "I'm glad to hear it. The Palace has not been the same without them." He shook his head. "Nor has it been the same without the Senshi."

She laughed and held out her hand. "Don't worry, Captain, you'll not be rid of us that easily."

"I am glad of it," Reagan replied, bowing over her glove. "If you will excuse me?"

"Gladly."

They parted ways—Reagan back to the guard barracks and Venus to the main part of the Palace.

Dawn had come and gone; the Palace now bustled with activity. She made one more set of rounds, noting that servants and attendants alike brightened when they caught sight of her. The faint tension palpable in the air disappeared. Reagan was right-people had missed the Senshi. The thought warmed her heart.

After a bite of breakfast, Venus ventured outside the palace into the city to fulfill the last part of Queen Serenity's request. She saw many faces brighten with relief as Lunarians caught sight of her and she greeted everyone cheerfully.

Within moments, a group of curious, awestruck children on their way to school had gathered around her to ask questions about where she had been, the Princess, and Earth. Some of their questions made her laugh, but when they worried about Selenity's safety, she promised them that the Senshi were never far from her.

Without a doubt, the silver lining to her entire day was the hour of training simulations she managed to slip into her schedule. It felt good to stretch muscles that had not seen much use in months. At the same time she was appalled at the deterioration she saw in herself.

As she left the coliseum and headed back to the Palace again, Venus thought grimly, We must find a way to remedy this. We'll be of no use to Serenity otherwise.

It had occurred to her that if she had been able to keep up with her training, she might have been able to avoid Nemo's deadly knife altogether. Of course, she realized, Malachite might not have realized he loved me if I hadn't almost died.

Her heart gave a fresh pang and she drew a sharp breath. You can't think of him now, she reminded herself. It was hard, but she shoved thoughts of him away yet again.

There would be plenty of time for that later.

—- —- —- —

That evening, well after the main meal was over, Sailor Venus approached the Queen's quarters to request an audience. She was not surprised to find Selenity was expecting her. Luna met her and immediately ushered her into the Queen's inner chambers.

Selenity greeted her with a gentle smile. "Come in, Venus. How did things go?"

Venus stood perfectly straight, locking her hands behind her back. "Security here is as tight as it should be. The shield is in excellent condition, the guards have been inspected—"

Selenity smiled briefly at this.

"—and I am happy to report the mood among the general population, including the Palace itself, has lightened considerably."

"Good."

Venus swallowed and stood straighter. Her spine could have doubled as a plumb line. It was time to broach the subject of going home.

"My Queen," she began, "I have done everything you required of me. With your permission, I would like to return to Earth."

"I expected as much," Selenity said quietly.

Venus weighed her options and took the plunge. Now or never. "I also request permission to inform Endymion and his generals of our status as Senshi."

The lines around Luna's mouth tightened, but Selenity merely leaned back in her chair and regarded the golden Senshi with thoughtful contemplation. Venus met her somber gaze steadily. After a long moment, the Queen spoke. "Explain your reasoning."

Venus's heart began to pound, but she kept all trace of it from her face. So close. She took a deep breath. "If your fears about Beryl attacking Earth are valid and something was to occur that required our transformation, I'd rather we did not have to explain ourselves in the midst of defending Serenity."

It was the ultimate trump card and she knew it. Normally, she would have saved it for the last, but this was hardly a normal situation.

The Queen, coming to that realization as well, waved a hand for her to continue.

"As Jupiter said several months ago, my Queen, marriage is built on trust. If things grow worse and we do not tell them the truth until necessity forces our hand, they will never trust us again. If they do not trust us, these alliances collapse. And if these alliances collapse…" She shrugged and held her hands out in front of her.

Selenity closed her eyes. When she opened them again, they held grim amusement. "You're getting better at negotiations, Venus."

Venus inclined her head, hardly daring to breathe.

The Queen then glanced at Luna. "What do you think?"

Luna lifted one shoulder in a delicate shrug. "Given the circumstances, I believe the idea has merit. However," and here she flashed Venus a small, wry smile, "were Artemis here, I believe he would disagree on the grounds that there is no guarantee how carefully a secret of this magnitude will be kept on Earth."

Venus's eyes narrowed. "My Queen, I assure you the Generals are trustworthy."

Selenity brushed Luna's concern aside. "I have no doubt, Venus." She drew herself up in her chair. "Very well, then. I have made my decision."

Venus held her breath.

"I release you and the other Senshi from your oath. You are free to inform the King and Queen of Earth, my son-in-law and the generals of your Senshi status, but—" Selenity's voice grew stern. "It must go no further."

Venus gave the Queen a formal bow, barely able to contain the surge of elation those quiet words sent racing through her. "Thank you very much, my Queen. We are most grateful." She glanced up through her lashes. "I have your permission to return to Earth?"

"You do." Selenity focused on the Silver Crystal and, in a wash of pink and silver light, Venus disappeared.

In the silence left behind, Luna observed, "That was generous of you, Majesty."

Selenity leaned back in her chair again with a faint smile. "She presented a sound argument, Luna. She had a good point—several of them, actually." Her smile slipped. "I do wish, however, that I could be sure of the reaction to this news."

Luna shook her head, dark curls bouncing on her shoulders. "You made the right decision. Things will work out."

Selenity looked toward her window, where a sliver of Earth hung in the starry sky. "I hope so."

—- —- —- —

Malachite could not sleep. He had thrown himself into his duties the entire day, alert for any trace of Mina, but she had not returned. His wife's maids were suspicious—and he suspected their suspicion was spreading throughout the palace—but Ami's plan had held. They just had no idea how long it would last.

Tucking one arm beneath his head, he closed his eyes. It was late, but sleep continued to elude him. The hollow ache in his chest had not abated as the day wore on; if anything it grew worse. At every turn he had expected to see Mina. The slightest glint of blonde hair had made his heart skip a beat.

When the still air crackled with faint energy, making the hair on his forearms prickle, Malachite's eyes flew open. Hope raised its trumpet and blew the call to charge. And charge he did. In an instant, he had shot from his bed and crossed the floor to Mina's door, which he had left ajar. He now slipped through, only to stop short.

A slender figure was materializing in a patch of moonlight streaming through the window. Swallowing a lump in his throat, Malachite started forward again, but froze as he got a better glimpse of the figure. This woman had long, golden hair just like Mina—but she was not his wife.

The last tinge of silver-pink faded from her body and Malachite's face settled into foreboding lines. What was Sailor Venus doing here?

—- —- —- —

As Venus solidified in the familiar environs of her bedroom in the Terran Palace, the toll the events of the past few days had taken on her body finally caught up with her. She swayed and would have fallen had she not managed to steady herself on one of her bedposts. Her head ached and she fought a wave of dizziness. Dimly, she became aware of eyes on her and raised her head.

The bottom dropped out of her stomach.

Malachite stood in the doorway, his face in shadows. Venus swallowed and her dizziness grew worse. Oh, no… This wasn't how she wanted to tell him. "Malachite," she said weakly.

Her voice snapped Malachite into action. He strode forward, grim-faced and imposing despite his state of undress, and growled, "Why are you here? Where is Mina?" He did not care that the slender Senshi appeared on the point of exhaustion—he wanted answers. He needed answers.

Venus straightened, dread pooling in the gaping hole where her stomach had been a moment before. This was all wrong, like something out of one of her worst nightmares. She had no idea how to tell him the truth—and the thought of how he would take the news terrified her. "She's…safe," she stammered at last.

Malachite's eyes narrowed. In the blink of an eye, he closed the distance between them and grabbed her by the shoulders. Even if Venus had been at full strength, she would have been hard-pressed to evade him. "Where is my wife?"

It was now or never, regardless of the consequences. Venus lifted her chin. "I'm right, here, Mal."

At first, looking down into those soft blue eyes that reminded him so much of Mina, the words did not register. When they did, Malachite's face darkened further and he snarled. "Do not play games with me."

He sounded oddly like his heart was breaking beneath his harsh words and it strengthened Mina's resolve. "I'm not playing games," she said quietly. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Her Senshi uniform melted away to reveal the diaphanous silver negligee he had brought her just the day before, along with the bandages he had tied around her. It felt like a lifetime ago.

The detransformation left her even more drained; she sagged in his grip. She was afraid to meet his eyes, but forced herself to look up anyway. He was staring at her in shock. "I can…explain everything," she said through dry lips.

Malachite blinked and released her shoulders. He staggered backwards a step and shook his head. "I don't believe, it," he said flatly. "You can't be Mina. Sailor Venus is not my Mina." It wasn't possible. It couldn't be possible.

With a jolt of panic, Mina realized her worst nightmare had come to life. She stretched out pleading hands to her husband. "Malachite, it's really me. I'm sorry I left so abruptly, but Queen Selenity needed me and I had to go."

He had to understand. He had to. Her voice caught. "Don't you recognize me?"

Malachite jerked away from her as though the slightest touch of her fingers would burn him. "You are not my wife," he growled in his iciest tones.

"Malachite—"

White-hot fury engulfed his insides. "It's General Malachite to you. Get out. Go back to your precious Queen and tell her I demand my wife's return." His voice was all the more frightening for its quiet intensity.

Mina's hands dropped to her sides and her eyes filled with bitter tears. Everything was unraveling. She fought to keep her voice steady. There had to be a way to convince him. "I am both Sailor Venus and Princess Mina. We're the same person."

"You're nothing alike," Malachite countered peremptorily. "Get out before I call the guards."

"You saved my life!" she cried. "You kissed me here yesterday!"

Malachite had heard enough. Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode from the room, slamming the door behind him.

Watching him go, Mina knew her world had just imploded. Something inside her snapped. She collapsed to the floor and sank her fingers into her hair. It was all wrong, every bit of it.

She should have known it was too good to last. She should have remembered her initial misgivings about what would happen if Malachite ever learned she and Venus were one and the same. She had been foolish enough to think that he would understand, that he wouldn't hate her.

The tears brimming in her eyes finally spilled over. But he does. He refused to accept the truth. Even if she did manage to prove it to him, he would still hate her.

She began to sob quietly. She couldn't live with that. She wasn't strong enough to live with someone who truly hated her.

She shuddered, chilled to the bone by that realization. He held her heart and he hated her. There weren't enough words in any language in the entire Silver Alliance for the pain she felt at that moment.

—- —- —- —

Head reeling, Malachite marched straight to the door to the outside corridor. How dare they? What gives the Silver Alliance the right?

He started to wrench the door open, but his hand froze on the latch. Angry or not, he shouldn't leave a Senshi alone in the palace. Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead against the wooden door. It can't be true.

Mina couldn't be Venus. Venus couldn't possibly be Mina. They were nothing alike.

In the stillness of his room, he heard a muffled, choking sound from behind Mina's door. Venus was crying. Despite himself, his heart clenched. The sound was all too familiar; it reminded him of the night Mina's tears had woken him.

His hands curled into fists and his face hardened. However much alike they may look or sound, Sailor Venus is not Mina. But then, amidst the broken sobs issuing from his wife's room, Malachite caught his name. Venus was sobbing his name.

He froze, his anger and fury ebbing away to be relegated to the background as his mind began processing information again. There was no logical reason for Sailor Venus to be sobbing his name—they barely knew each other. But Mina…Mina…

In that instant, all of the little pieces of information tucked away in the back of his mind clicked into place, forming a picture he should have seen before. He understood now why he had wondered about the similarity between Venus and Mina when they first visited the Moon, wondered why the Senshi of Venus and her Princess were never seen together. Furthermore, he knew why Mina had taken it upon herself to stand between Serenity and the assassin at the risk of her own life.

Malachite raised his head, eyes wide. They are the same person.

—- —- —- —

Down the hall, Rei sat bolt upright in her bed, beads of sweat forming on her skin as the emotional equivalent of a tsunami ripped though her. She gasped, unable to breathe under the sheer weight of it. An image of a familiar figure spun in her mind's eye, her beautiful features twisted with raw agony.

"Mina!"

Rei's cry, coupled with her abrupt movement, startled her sleeping husband into wakefulness. Jadeite sat up, his fingers reaching for the sword he always kept beside their bed. "Rei? What is it?"

His blue eyes swept the room. Finding it devoid of threatening figures, he turned to his wife. The sword dropped to the bed as he reached out to frame Rei's face with his calloused hands. "Firebird, what's wrong?"

She took several deep, shuddering breaths. "It's Mina."

"What about her?" The covers fell to Jadeite's bare waist as he twisted closer to Rei.

"Pain," Rei moaned. "So much pain." She leaned forward, resting her forehead against Jadeite's warm shoulder.

He stroked her raven hair, wracking his brain for a solution, an explanation…anything. "Is she—"

Rei closed her eyes, swallowed, and concentrated on reinforcing the walls inside her mind. "She's alive," she said faintly, "but, Jade, something's wrong. I've never—I've never—"

She broke off and Jadeite tightened his grip around her.

"I think she's back," Rei whispered at last. "I need to—"

"No," Jadeite said firmly, "you don't. I'll go. You stay here."

Rei tried to protest, but he hushed her. "You're shaking like a leaf, love," he said gently. "Let me do this." He met her eyes through the darkness of their room and at last she nodded.

Jadeite slipped from their bed, pulled on a shirt and pants, and strode to the door leading out of their bedchamber. He knew exactly where to go. If Mina was back—if the Moon Queen or the Venusian government had seen fit to return her—there was only one place she would be.

Stepping out into the corridor, he padded barefoot up to the chambers Malachite shared with Mina. He hesitated only a fraction of a second before rapping sharply on the heavy wooden surface of the door.

There was no answer.

Jadeite rapped again. This time, the door opened.

—- —- —- —

Now that he understood, Mina's heartrending sobs tore at Malachite's soul. It was his fault she was crying. And as for why she was so weak…well, she had almost died two days before, had she not?

A jolt of panic shot through him, drowning out a knock on the door, and he turned toward Mina's room. Before he could take more than two steps, the knock sounded again. His eyes stayed fixed on her door, but years of training kicked in and he automatically turned to see what was wrong.

He wrenched the door open to find Jadeite standing on the other side.

"Malachite," the younger man began at once. "Is everything all right?"

Malachite stared at him for several seconds, taken aback. How did he know? Then Jadeite continued and realization dawned, though it made little sense.

"Rei woke up in pain—said Mina was hurting. Is—"

Guilt knotted Malachite's insides. "She's back," he said gruffly. "Exhausted." Without further ado, he shut the door in Jadeite's face.

—- —- —- —

Jadeite blinked once, twice, and slowly stepped back. Malachite's face had been in shadows, untouched by the torches burning low along the corridor walls, but his lavender eyes blazed with a maelstrom of emotion. Jadeite couldn't pretend to know what was going on, but he knew his friend, and he knew Malachite loved Mina.

Is she all right? Rei demanded through their link.

Jadeite shook his head and turned away. No, he replied honestly, but they're together now and I think she will be.

—- —- —- —

At the moment, Malachite did not care what his fellow General might think of his behavior. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that he rectify the wrong he'd done to the woman he loved.

Crossing the room, he flung Mina's door open, but hesitated on the threshold. Something like a vice tightened around his heart. Mina lay on the floor in a heap. Her sobs were louder now, no longer blocked by the door. The way her golden hair pooled around her in the moonlight, she could have been something from a legend—a lost, helpless nymph—but the hopeless pain radiating from her in waves spoke to her fragile humanity.

Malachite's hands curled into fists again. He had done that to her. The vice in his chest tightened another notch. There was much he still didn't understand, but it would have to wait.

Mina did not seem to realize he was in the room; she continued to murmur his name between sobs. Swallowing, Malachite knelt beside her and gathered her small frame into his arms. Then he stood and carried her to the bed. He sat on the edge and wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly.

For an instant, Mina was stiff and unyielding. She had to be imagining things—Malachite had never really held her before. She refused to open her eyes and continued crying, unwilling to discover this small measure of comfort was a figment of her imagination.

Helpless in the face of her tears, Malachite began to stroke her hair—awkwardly at first and then with growing steadiness—and murmured comforting words in her ear. "Forgive me for not believing you, Mina."

Gradually, Mina cried herself out and her sobs quieted. She clutched at Malachite's loose shirtfront like a lifeline—burrowing into his chest until it was difficult to say where she stopped and he began.

When she was calm enough to speak, though tears continued to stream down her cheeks to drench his shirt, she said brokenly, "I'm sorry. She needed me and I had to go. I'm so sorry." Her fingers tightened on his shirt, as though she expected him to leave.

Malachite pressed a kiss into her hair. "Don't cry. Please don't cry, Mina. Everything will be fine." He continued to hold her and stroke her hair; with every passing second he wondered how he could have possibly thought she wasn't his wife.

Eventually, Mina succumbed to her exhaustion. Cradling her sleeping body, Malachite vowed to discover precisely why she had been called away when she was clearly in no shape to go. What has the Queen had her doing?

Malachite shifted slightly and Mina stirred, murmuring his name. "I'm here," he told her, brushing a lock of golden hair out of her face. She quieted at the sound of his voice and a measure of peace stole over him. She was back where she belonged—in his arms—and even in sleep she seemed to know it. "I'll never let you go again."

Minutes ticked by and Malachite felt sleep beckon to him as well. He couldn't sit on the side of her bed all night and there was no way he was putting her down. Not now. That left only one option.

He leaned back, still cradling her, and swung his feet up onto the bed. Several throw blankets lay wadded up beneath the covers to give substance to the claim that Mina had been confined to her bed this entire time. He grabbed the closest one and draped it over the two of them as best he could with one hand before replacing his arm around Mina.

As he drifted off to sleep, he reflected on what part of him had always known—she fit perfectly in his arms. It was a frightening, yet exhilarating realization. How, he wondered silently, did I live without her all these years?

—- —- —- —

Mina was in no particular hurry to return to consciousness. A warm, comforting presence enveloped her; she was perfectly content to stay here forever. She snuggled up against the source of the warmth with a happy little sigh…and then realized it was breathing. Startled, she cracked one eye open. The other followed.

She was in her room, in her own bed, but she was not alone. Malachite lay beside her, sound asleep. Her head rested on his chest and his left arm encircled her waist protectively.

Mina swallowed as vague memories of the night before returned to her. He had stormed out, furious, but…he had come back. He had picked her up and held her and he was still here. A warm glow spread throughout her. He didn't leave me alone.

Malachite turned a little in his sleep and pulled her closer. Mina splayed one hand on his chest, unable to restrain a smile. Closing her eyes, she listened to the steady rhythm of his heart until it lulled her back to sleep.

When she awoke again, she found him propped up on one elbow beside her. His face bore its usual composed expression, but his lavender eyes held a light she'd never seen before. Not even when he kissed her.

"Good morning," he said softly.

She stifled a yawn and replied, "Good morning."

He reached out to tuck a few strands of hair behind her ear. "Feeling better?"

Mina blinked and smiled sleepily at him. "I think so." Her voice sounded a little hoarse to her own ears, but she was sure it would pass.

Malachite was silent for a moment. The only sounds to be heard were the merry chirps of birds beyond her window. Then he cleared his throat. "Mina, forgive me for not believing you last night. It was —" a muscle in his jaw twitched, "—something of a shock. Finding out that you and Venus are one and the same, I mean."

She dropped her eyes to his throat, unable to meet his gaze. "That's what I was afraid of," she said quietly. Malachite frowned, but before he could press her to explain, she continued, "I'm sorry I disappeared in the middle of the night without warning. Queen Serenity needed me—I had to go."

Once started, Mina found her flow of words would not stop. She couldn't stop. "I didn't want to keep it from you, but she swore us to secrecy and I couldn't—" she broke off, still staring anywhere but at his face. "I was afraid you'd be so angry you'd never speak to me again." Her voice cracked and she shook her head. "I—I can't live that way. I can't." Despite her best intentions, tears welled up in her eyes. Instinctively, she buried her face in his chest.

For a few seconds, Malachite held her shaking frame in silence while he sorted through everything she had said. Then he gently tilted her chin up so he could see her face. "Mina, am I to understand Queen Selenity forbade you from telling me—or anyone—about your identity as a—" his voice dropped to a low, almost inaudible rumble, "—Senshi?"

She dipped her head in a tiny nod.

The revelation disturbed him, but Malachite bypassed his unease to move on to the other statement that had cut him to the heart. "And you were afraid to tell me because you thought—" He couldn't bring himself to finish. The misery suddenly reflected in her blue eyes left him speechless.

Mina bit her lip and then took a deep breath. As difficult as it was, she forced herself to meet his gaze frankly. "Do you remember the first time you met Sailor Venus?" She didn't wait for him to answer. "You acted like you held some respect for her, but you couldn't stand me."

A muscle in his jaw twitched again. "No, I couldn't," he admitted. "At the time I found you rather irritating."

She smiled wryly. "Later, after you told me you thought I was a vapid flirt—"

Malachite winced.

"—I thought that if you found out we were the same person you would loathe both of us for eternity."

A hint of Mina's customary good humor colored her words, but Malachite felt their knife edge nonetheless. He was silent and still for a long moment. Then, quietly, he said, "Forgive me for those words, Mina. I was bitter about our marriage." He paused to clear his throat. "You turned my life upside down and I was convinced you couldn't stand me." His grip tightened on her hand, his thumb sweeping across her knuckles.

Mina bit her lip. That explains a few things…but… She met his eyes again and asked the question that had been simmering in the back of her mind for weeks. "Malachite, who is Clarisse?"

To his credit, Malachite did not even blink. "A noblewoman who thought I was her stepping stone to money and prestige. I was on the verge of asking her father for her hand when she eloped with a wealthier man twice her age."

Mina's eyes widened in consternation and then softened with sympathy. "I see," she mustered. No wonder he didn't like me. Her gaze drifted away from Malachite, until he lightly gripped her chin again.

"She was much like you, Mina, but now that I look back I can see the hard, calculating edge beneath her smile. She was a greedy, self-serving creature." His mouth tightened. "After my initial surprise and public embarrassment, I was not sorry to be rid of her."

Mina bit her lip again and swallowed. "I was wrong too. I called you cold and unfeeling and you aren't really—you just control yourself better than most people." Even now, his tanned face bore no expression, but she knew he was taking in her every word.

Her heart began pounding again as she moved her free hand up to rest it on the side of his face. "I have something to confess."

Malachite stiffened an infinitesimal fraction—she would have missed it if she hadn't been in his arms—but his eyes remained unchanged.

"That morning we said such horrible things to each other…well, you see…" Her heart was thudding so loudly she was half-surprised it hadn't leapt from her chest. "I saw you smile later and I fell in love with you." She wriggled uncomfortably and dropped her gaze to the crumpled cover.

"You what?" Malachite asked blankly.

"I fell in love with you," she mumbled, flushing.

He stared at her rosy cheeks. Her words rang in his ears, but he hardly dared believe he understood them. "Because I smiled?"

Mina glanced up at him again. "Well," she said, defending herself against the incredulous tone in his deep voice, "You are extremely handsome when you smile." She tilted her head to one side. "You should do it more often."

Malachite rarely found himself at a loss for words, but as he stared at his golden-haired wife, nothing came to mind. Only the cool fingers against his cheek and the warm body beside his own confirmed he was in fact awake and not dreaming.

"I love you, Malachite," Mina said firmly. As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt lighter, as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Then she moved her hand to the back of his neck, pulled his head down, and kissed him.

The instant her lips brushed his, Malachite felt a gaping hole inside him heal over. His arms tightened around her shoulders, drawing her even closer as he returned the kiss.

After a few moments of bliss, they broke apart and Malachite rested his forehead against hers. She was looking at him with sparkling eyes, a brilliant smile lighting up her face. He thought he had never seen a more beautiful sight. Not even the legendary Moon Princess herself could rival his wife.

She loves me, he thought with something akin to awed wonder. She loves me.

As if to prove it, Mina ran her fingers through his silver hair and said again, "I love you."

Malachite leaned in to kiss her but not before she'd seen the same sentiment reflected in his eyes.

Eventually, he propped himself up against the headboard and said offhand, "The palace hasn't been the same without you."

She tucked herself into his side with a smile. "I was only gone a day."

His fingers curled around her hand and for the first time he registered calluses. Abruptly, he turned her hand over and marveled. His hand was several times larger, his skin deeply tanned against her fair skin, but both their hands bore the same marks. "You've trained with a sword."

She nodded. "Part of Venus's duties."

Malachite ran his thumb over her palm. "Don't leave like that again," he said grimly. "Tell me first."

Mina looked up at him, hearing all the things he had left unsaid. Reality dropped its heavy veil over them again as she met his eyes. "If at all possible, I will."

He nodded and she hugged him tightly. "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you in the first place. I never meant to hurt you. It's just—"

"Duty," Malachite said flatly. "I understand duty, Mina." He rested his chin on the top of her head.

"I know you do."

"Speaking of duty," he said at last, "I'm afraid I have work to do."

Mina frowned. "True." I just want to stay here, she thought, closing her eyes. I just want to stay in your arms and catch up on all the time we've missed but… Reluctantly, she disengaged herself from him and sat up, pushing her golden hair over her shoulder. "Do you think I'll be able to join you for breakfast?"

It suddenly struck Malachite she was wearing nothing more than a flowing silver negligee and the bandages to hide her so-called wound. "If you feel strong enough," he replied. Tearing his eyes away from her, he swung off the bed and headed toward her door. He briefly explained how they had concealed her disappearance and added, "I shall send your maids in to you—they'll be happy, I'm sure. Half the palace thinks I've locked you up."

To his surprise, Mina laughed and gave him an impish wink. "I'd find a way to escape." Malachite turned away, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, and she slid out of the bed to pick up a hand mirror from beside her bed. She caught a glimpse of herself and made a face. "I look terrible," she muttered. A full night's sleep had done wonders, but she looked tired and drawn. And her hair…

Without warning, warm arms encircled her. "You are beautiful," Malachite said gruffly. He planted a feathery kiss on her neck. "Don't ever entertain a thought otherwise."

Mina blushed to the roots of her hair. "You're just saying that," she mumbled. His kiss made her stomach do strange flips.

Malachite turned her around, fixing her with a stern gaze. "Believe me, Mina. It's not something I say often."

She continued to blush. "You're sweet."

He grimaced. "Don't ever let Jade hear you say that."

"Oh?" Mina laughed. "Do we have a reputation to keep up?"

Malachite arched an eyebrow at her, but the warmth in his lavender eyes offset the reproachful look. "I suggest you get back into bed. Won't do for your maids to find you scampering around. They've been worried."

Mina sighed. "True." She climbed back into her bed and arranged the covers around herself, feeling an odd twinge of regret that he would not be joining her again. The thought made her cheeks flush. To distract herself, she snatched up a hairbrush from the small table beside the bed and began running it through her tangled locks.

Malachite turned to leave, but stopped with his hand on the door as a sobering thought struck him. He pivoted on his heel to face Mina. "You said the Queen swore you to silence?"

Mina winced as she worked out a particularly nasty snarl. "She did."

His eyes narrowed. "Then why tell me now? Because I found out?"

Mina blinked, startled by the change in his demeanor, and shook her head. "No. No. Didn't I tell you? Before I left last night, I asked her to release us from that oath." She smiled brightly at him. "I convinced her we could better protect Serenity if we worked with you Generals."

Malachite continued to stare at her, but for a different reason now. Us. We. The words jumped out him and for the second time in the last twelve hours, all the pieces fell into place. "The princesses are Senshi as well."

Mina held his gaze and slowly nodded.

Any other man would have displayed some sign of the enormous paradigm shift that had just occurred, would have taken a deep breath or a step back. Malachite stood motionless. "Are they going to tell their husbands?" His voice was level, but contained an edge.

Mina reared back as though slapped. "Of course!" she cried. "That was the whole point! I just think they ought to have a chance to—" She got no further.

Malachite closed the distance between them and cupped her face in his hands to kiss her. "That's all I needed to know," he murmured, looking down at her. He brushed the side of her face with his thumb and then disappeared into his room.

Mina looked after him, her hairbrush lying forgotten in her lap, and could not restrain a smile.

Malachite looked around his room with a smile, passing over the piles of work stacked up on his desk awaiting his attention stacked up on his desk. He felt young and strangely light. She loves me.

—- —- —- —

True to his word, Malachite informed Mina's maids they had permission to attend her again, but warned them not to tire her with their chatter. Giselle, Joanna, and Trina descended on their mistress like a flock of mother hens, obeying him by lowering their voices. They fussed over her, gushing about the way her injury and Malachite's subsequent behavior had shocked everyone.

They were taken aback when Mina insisted she wanted to attend breakfast and protested, but she was adamant. In a few moments, they had dressed her in a charming gown of pale green—mindful of her 'injury'—and Mina proved she could walk more than a few steps without collapsing. She dismissed them with a cheerful smile and crossed into Malachite's room.

He looked up from his desk with a faint smile as she appeared in the doorway. "Are you ready?"

She nodded and then frowned. "Who knows?"

Malachite considered her. There was no need to ask what she meant. "Just Endymion, Nephrite, Zoicite, Jadeite, and the princesses."

"Well, this should be interesting," Mina said thoughtfully. She tucked her hand through the crook of his arm and smiled up at him. "I'm ready if you are."

They stepped out into the corridor and made their way through the palace to the Great Hal, garnering many astonished looks along the way. Mina beamed as servants bowed or dropped curtsies; she was not oblivious to the whispers that erupted in their wake. The palace gossip mill would be churning before the hour was up.

Malachite resigned himself to the madness. This could hardly be worse than the entire palace thinking he mistreated his wife.

When they swept into the Great Hall, they found everyone else at breakfast. Serenity caught sight of them first. With a small gasp, she rose from her chair and dashed across the Hall in a fluttering blur of pearlescent pink skirts.

"Mina!" she cried, flinging her arms around the Venusian princess. "You're all right! I've been so worried about you!"

Mina returned her princess's embrace. "I'm fine, Serenity," she said cheerfully. "Healing quite nicely."

After the King, Queen, and everyone else had greeted her, she and Malachite took their seats. The smile she directed at Malachite as he held her chair did not go unnoticed by anyone; more than one set of eyebrows rose and more than one person hid a knowing smirk.

As Mina glanced up and down the table, Rei caught her eye. We need to talk, her violet eyes seemed to say.

Mina nodded imperceptibly. We will.

Whenever someone mentioned the incident—which only happened twice, thanks to the unspoken moratorium on the subject—Mina downplayed both her role and subsequent injury. Within moments, the only visible sign that anything at all had been amiss the last few days was the hint of white gauze peeking out of Mina's bodice.

Serenity laughed and chattered gaily, but every once in a while her silver-blue gaze rested on Mina's face, a sober question lurking in their depths. What happens now?

Ami, Lita, and Rei were in no better shape. They managed to sustain light conversation, but Mina felt the underlying tension slowly build in the Great Hall. That Malachite also picked up on that tension only disturbed them further.

Mina toyed with her goblet of fruit juice, sliding a fingertip through beads of condensation gathered on its surface. As soon as breakfast was over, she knew she would be whisked away and her friends would attempt to pry everything out of her.

Her eyes fell on Ami, who had not said a word throughout the meal. Her face seemed a little paler against the rich blue of her hair, and she had barely touched the food on her plate. Zoicite kept shooting her odd, half-concerned glances.

Mina's eyes narrowed, even as she continued to smile cheerfully. That's interesting. She noticed Jadeite's gaze flicking between her and Malachite and sent him a sly wink. Startled, the blond General turned back to his breakfast.

When at last King Edward and his wife rose from the table, everyone else stood as well. The Queen smiled at Serenity. "My dear, since Princess Mina is up and about again, I shall postpone our embroidery session until later this afternoon."

The Moon Princess beamed at her mother-in-law and dipped a curtsey. "Thank you, Majesty." She turned to Mina and hooked arms with her. "Come with me, Mina. You look pale—I think you need more rest."

One corner of Malachite's mouth twitched. It wasn't true, not by a long shot, but he recognized an excuse like that when he heard one.

Rei stepped away from the table without a backwards glance. "I believe I will join you, Serenity." Ami and Lita followed suit and the five princesses left the Great Hall in a rustle of skirts.

Endymion and his Generals, who weren't quite finished with breakfast, resumed their seats. Before any of them could say a word, Mina slipped free of Serenity's grasp and darted back through the Hall to Malachite. Leaning over his shoulder, she murmured in his ear, "Bring everyone to Serenity and Endymion's chambers as soon as you can."

"Thank you, Malachite," she said aloud, dropping a kiss on his cheek. Then she was gone—as was the blueberry muffin he had just buttered.

Endymion, Zoicite, Nephrite, and Jadeite all stared at the silver-haired general in shock. "What was that all about?" Zoicite asked, his voice tinged with a hint of awe.

Malachite stared down at his now-empty plate. "The little minx stole my muffin," he said ruefully.

Jadeite snorted under his breath. "That's not all she stole," he muttered.

The other men just blinked.

Endymion recovered first. "I'm happy for you, Mal. She appears to be feeling better." He lifted one dark eyebrow in an unspoken question.

Malachite met his Prince's cobalt gaze. "Yes. She took a turn for the worse last night, but she will be all right."

None of them had missed the fact that Mina had murmured something in his ear. And while Zoicite was half-afraid he'd be sticking his nose firmly into Malachite's private affairs, the larger part of him suspected something else. He glanced sideways down the table and asked in a low voice, "What did she tell you?"

Malachite's eyes made a slow sweep of the Great Hall before he spoke. One never knew who was listening. He drained the last of his coffee and set his mug down. "She requested that we join them after we complete our morning rounds."

Zoicite drew in a sharp breath, a tendril of something like triumph unfurling inside his chest. I knew it, he thought. This has something to do with the oath Ami couldn't tell me about.

He slapped a hand down on the table, rattling dishes, and sprang to his feet. "What are we waiting for? Let's go."

Jadeite and Endymion exchanged glances. Nephrite laughed. "Aren't you forgetting something, Zoi?" he asked, staring at his friend in amusement.

Zoicite's eyes flashed. Flicking a few stray strands of red-gold hair that had escaped his ponytail over his shoulder, he glared at the others. "Well? Are you coming or not?"

Endymion sent Malachite a considering sidelong glance. "What is this about?"

The fact that he automatically assumed his First General knew was not lost on Malachite. "I cannot say for certain."

"But you have an idea," Endymion prodded, still looking at him.

Malachite inclined his head.

"Good enough." The dark-haired prince rose from his seat. "Let's not keep the ladies waiting."

—- —- —- —

Serenity and the other princesses drew Mina through the palace corridors at a deceptively smooth pace belying how quickly they were moving. The Moon Princess did her best to maintain a cheerful expression, but Mina could feel the tension vibrating under her skin. They swept into the quarters Serenity shared with Endymion, pausing long enough for Serenity to produce a key and lock the heavy door.

Rei rounded on Mina, her mouth open to demand an explanation, but Serenity spoke before she could say a word.

"What did my mother want?" Though her voice remained level, her slender fingers knotted into her pale pink skirts.

Mina sighed and took a seat in the nearest chair. "She wanted to know what happened and if anything was being done to prevent a second incident."

Rei folded her arms across her chest. "That cannot possibly have taken you a day and a half."

"It did not." Mina lifted her chin and met the Martian princess's furious violet gaze coolly. "She also wanted Venus to do a sweep of the Palace grounds to ensure everything is as it should be."

"Is it?" Lita asked tightly.

"Yes." Mina glanced around the room, her gaze coming to rest on Ami. The Mercurian princess sat very still. "Ami? Is everything all right?"

Ami's cheeks flushed. "We've been worried about you. Malachite was worried about you." She lifted her head to meet Mina's eyes. "I apologize for the inconvenience, Mina, but I did what I thought was best." The stiff set of her shoulders told Mina she had already had this conversation with the others.

Mina smiled at her. "You did the right thing, Ami. The Queen needed to know." She looked from Rei to Lita. "It's what I should have done after we spoke the other day."

Both had the grace to look slightly abashed.

Serenity took a step forward. Her eyes were impossibly large. "What did she say?"

Mina sighed again. "I'll explain in a moment."

Rei's control finally snapped. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'LL EXPLAIN IN A MOMENT?" she exploded. "DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA—"

"The Queen has granted us permission to reveal our identities to the Generals," Mina said calmly, though her heart had begun to pound.

Rei stopped mid-tirade, her face slack with shock. Silence fell over the room. Then chaos broke loose.

"She did WHAT?" Rei shrieked.

"You mean—" Ami gasped, her navy blue eyes widening.

"We're free?" Lita's entire face lit with joy.

Mina waved a hand through the air. "Yes, she released us. I'll tell you the rest when Endymion and the Generals arrive."

Silence fell again. Rei skewered Mina with a deadly calm look that did not bode well for her future longevity. "You told them to join us?"

Mina lifted her eyebrows. "Actually, I told Malachite to bring them here after morning rounds, but knowing Zoicite," she quirked a half-smile at Ami, "they're probably on their way now."

Ami paled. "We'll have to tell them now?" she squeaked. She had been hoping for a little time to compose herself first.

Lita frowned at her. "Don't you think we had better?"

"Well, yes," Ami said, swallowing, "but—"

Serenity slipped an arm around her shoulders in a comforting hug. "It will be all right, Ami." She looked at Mina speculatively. There was something different about the Venusian princess today, a confident, happy glow that seemed to light her up from inside. "I assume you've already told Malachite?"

Mina nodded, stubbornly suppressing the painful moments of the night before.

Rei arched a raven eyebrow. "And he believed you?"

"Not at first." Mina shrugged. "But I convinced him."

A sharp knock sounded on the door.

Serenity jumped up and hastily unlocked it before swinging it wide for Endymion and the Generals. "Won't you join us?"

As he entered, the Prince gave her a keen, searching glance. She tried to smile at him, but he saw straight through her. Without a word, he laced their fingers together and led her over to a long divan.

He was not the only one to sense something amiss. Zoicite noted Ami's chalky pallor and Nephrite took in Lita's half-anxious, half joyful face, while Jadeite was clearly aware that Rei was angry.

They each strode forward, mildly alarmed, but Malachite remained standing just inside the door. His eyes fixed on Mina, the oddly calm epicenter of the room.

Endymion looked from Serenity to Mina and his eyes narrowed. "What is this all about, Princess?"

Mina held his gaze. "We have something to tell you."

Jadeite and Nephrite exchanged glances. Zoicite caught his breath. Malachite and Endymion remained unmoving.

"Something to do with your unscheduled trip to the Moon?" Endymion prompted.

Mina inclined her head.

An awkward pause ensued, until Ami abruptly took matters into her own hands. Rising to her feet, she linked arms with Zoicite and pulled him into Endymion's study. Rei and Lita followed suit, guiding their husbands into the two remaining rooms.

Mina stood up and gestured for Malachite to take her seat. He raised an eyebrow at her, but strolled across the room. Once he was comfortable, she perched on the arm of the chair beside him. Her eyes flicked from door to door and she bit her lip. I hope they're having a better time of it than I did.

—- —- —- —

Ami closed the study door and leaned against it, her heart thumping against her ribcage. Then, taking a deep breath, she gathered her husband's hands into hers and looked up at him.

Zoicite watched her, his expression a blend of uncertainty, curiosity, and hope.

"I've been released from my oath, Zoi," she said quietly.

His leaf green eyes widened in anticipation, but almost immediately, irrational fear slammed into him. All of a sudden, he found he no longer wished to hear whatever she had to tell him—he was afraid of what she might say. "Ami—"

"I'm Sailor Mercury."

He started, staring down at her in shock. That…was probably the last thing he had expected her to say. Sailor Mercury? He gulped. "That's not logical." Even as he said it, the pieces fell into place and he knew she told the truth. It scared him.

Palming her transformation pen, Ami took a step back and held up her right hand. "Mercury Power!" she called softly.

Zoicite could only watch in stunned silence as gleaming ribbons of blue light appeared and swirled around his wife's suddenly transparent body. As the bright lights faded, they revealed Sailor Mercury standing where Ami had been seconds before.

He reached out an unsteady hand and touched the jewel in her tiara, as if to assure himself she was actually real. Then he said brusquely, "You should power down. The energy levels you just radiated could attract that blasted Nemo's friends, if he had any."

Obediently, Ami allowed her transformation to slip away. She was grateful he did not appear to be suffering from sensory overload, but the shock in his eyes smote her conscience.

Zoicite blinked once, twice, and then his nostrils flared. "This is what Queen Selenity forbade you tell me?" he demanded, an edge sliding into his voice.

Ami nodded and bit her lip.

He looked away, clenching his jaw. Why did she keep something of this magnitude from me? Oath or no oath she—

"Are you very angry with me, Zoi?"

The dull pain in her voice was his undoing. Zoicite turned back to his wife to find her standing tall, her hands balled into fists.

His anger abruptly vanished. Oaths… "You didn't have a choice, did you?"

Ami shook her head. "I wouldn't have kept this from you otherwise."

Zoicite sighed and held out his hands. "Come here." He enveloped her in a hug and rested his chin on the top of her head. "I don't blame you." Everything clicked into place. "Let me guess, the Council is behind this?"

"Yes." Ami slipped her arms around his waist and they stood in silence for a moment.

Then Zoicite surprised her by chuckling ruefully. "I should have realized who you were to begin with."

Puzzled, she lifted her head to look up at him. "What do you mean?"

He trailed a hand down the side of her face. "I should have known the odds were slim that two such beautiful, brilliant women would be living on the Moon at the same time."

"Zoicite!" Ami blushed.

"What?" He shrugged. "It's true."

She blushed again, but he could still see the worry on her face, corresponding to the mixed feelings still swirling angrily in his soul.

—- —- —- —

As Rei tugged him into Endymion and Serenity's bedchamber, Jadeite felt a sudden sense of foreboding. His wife's violet eyes still flashed, but she seemed more worried now than angry. He allowed her to push him into a chair and watched as she gathered her skirts about her to kneel before him. His hackles rose.

"I have something to confess, Jade."

His blood ran cold. Mina had just returned from the Moon—had something happened? Myriad thoughts flooded his mind, each worse than the last, all involving him losing Rei. Nevertheless, he attempted to crack a smile. "It can't be that bad, love."

Rei steeled herself. "I am the Senshi of Mars."

At first the words did not register. When they did, Jadeite felt a rush of relief so powerful he almost slumped in his seat. This…this was nothing compared to what he'd expected. "You're joking," he said with a laugh.

When the somber expression on her face did not change, he raised his eyebrows. "You're not joking?"

She shook her head. "Would it help if I showed you?" Without waiting for an answer, she shook out her skirts and thrust her hand in the air. "Mars Power!"

Jadeite stared, spellbound, as fire swirled around her body, threatening to consume her. If he had any doubts, they were burned away as the fire died to reveal a scarlet-and-white-clad Sailor Mars. His blue eyes raked up and down her body, lingering on her legs, and then he froze as reality finally crashed into him.

No.

A memory of Mars sparring with Zoicite surfaced to the forefront of his mind. She's a warrior. All of a sudden, his life grew more complicated.

Rei abruptly detransformed and dropped to her knees beside his chair." I'm so sorry, Jade," she said in a choked voice, reaching up to brush a few strands of golden hair from his eyes. "I never wanted to keep this from you." The anger had vanished from her face and aura, leaving only deep sadness.

As he sat there motionless, staring blankly across the room, tears welled in Rei's eyes. It isn't worth it. How can being a Senshi be worth it if it tears us from those we love and wish to protect?

Anger she understood, could have faced. The blank betrayal on his face broke her heart. Bowing her head, Rei struggled to suppress the bitter sobs threatening to overwhelm her.

Seeing his proud, fearless wife break down into tears snapped Jadeite back to himself. He pulled her into his arms and smoothed a hand over her hair as she buried her face in his chest. "Rei, it's all right. Please, please don't cry."

He shifted her weight into one arm and tilted her tearstained face up to brush away the glittering drops clinging to her eyelashes. "Don't cry, love. It doesn't matter who you are—I love you regardless. I'll always love you."

Rei swallowed and her mouth twisted into a grief-stricken line. "Even though I've kept this from you? Even though my duty may pull us apart?"

What? Jadeite pushed those words aside in order to focus on the first question. "Rei," he asked quietly, taking her by the shoulders. "why are you telling me this now?"

"Because I can." Rei sniffed.

Despite himself, Jadeite smiled. "Good enough." He shook his head. "Doesn't mean I like the fact that you're a Senshi—frankly the idea of you being involved in a battle scares me to death—but I'm glad you're able to protect yourself if something happens to me."

It wasn't a possibility he wanted to dwell on, but with rumors of those…things…floating around…

Rei's fingers tightened on his uniform jacket and he gentled his voice. "I respect that you have the same bond to Serenity as I have to Endymion." He suddenly grinned. "And I must admit it is gratifying to know who gave Zoicite that sound thrashing back when we were visiting the Moon."

"Oh, really?" Rei gave him a shaky smile and arched an eyebrow. "Would you like to know who you were up against?"

Jadeite paused. Then his grin widened. "Tell me."

—- —- —- —

Nephrite regarded his wife with amused curiosity as she all but barricaded them in Serenity's sitting room. Lita drew herself up to her full height and faced him with squared shoulders. She looked, he thought fondly, like a woman ready to do battle. "What is the matter, darling?"

Lita wet her lips. "I haven't been entirely honest with you about myself, Neph. Not because I wanted to," she hurried on, her words tumbling over themselves at the way his eyes narrowed, "but because I was under orders not to tell anyone. Not even you." Her hands curled into fists at her side.

Nephrite stared at her, wracking his brain for some sort of explanation. It wasn't another man—he knew very well she had been a virgin their wedding night—so perhaps…"You are Jovian royalty, aren't you?" he demanded, perplexed.

Lita nodded. "But I'm also Sailor Jupiter."

In spite of himself, Nephrite's mouth dropped open. The stars had said nothing about this; he would have known if they had, wouldn't he? He tried to speak, but nothing came out. He cleared his throat and started again. "You—you're Jupiter?"

Lita threw her hand into the air. "Jupiter Power!"

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as searing flashes of lightning crackled around Lita's body. Before his very eyes, his princess turned into the Senshi of Jupiter.

For a moment, Nephrite could only stare. Jupiter stood before him, exactly as he remembered her from the Moon. How, he thought, reaching out a wondering hand to finger the end of the pink bow adorning her chest, did I not see this before? The same hair, the same clear green eyes, the same everything.

Suddenly, the heavy emphasis the stars had placed on Lita and Jupiter from the beginning made more sense.

"Nephrite?" Jupiter asked tentatively, stretching out a gloved hand.

He caught her hand in his and raised it to his lips. "Delighted to see you again, Sailor Jupiter," he drawled with a charming smile.

It was her turn to gawk. "You're not angry?"

"With you?" Nephrite shook his head. "No. The Council, however…" His smile dimmed and his eyes hardened. "That's another story."

He tugged her into his arms and Lita realized with a happy smile he was still several inches taller than she was.

"I must say," he murmured in her ear, "it is not every day a man finds himself married to one of the most beautiful and powerful women in the universe."

A blush staining her cheek, Jupiter closed her eyes and allowed her transformation to slip away. "What are you talking about?"

Nephrite laughed. "Do you remember when you went up against Malachite?"

"Yes." She made a face. "I lost."

His arms tightened around her. "You almost had him. And that, my dear, is more than most men on Earth can say."


I'm really pleased with how this chapter turned out, though not so sure about the chapter title. Thanks for reading! Let me know what you thought!