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: It lives! I am so sorry this chapter has taken me so long to get up. The past year and a half have been crazy, what with work, drama of the male persuasion, and everything else that happened…not to mention getting stuck on a few key scenes. (Mina and Malachite couldn't make up their minds.) Then after I finally managed to get this to my beta, she pointed out a couple of plot holes I missed and I had to rethink a few things again. At any rate, it's done and I am so much happier with the way it's turned out.

To everyone who has taken the time to review, both here and at dotmoon-thank you, thank you, thank you! You've encouraged me, guilt-tripped me, and otherwise reminded me that people are still reading this story and I need to finish it. So thank you. :)

Special thanks also go to artistamonique, DaughterofBastet, Goddess Usagi, xxeclipse-of-the-soulxx, Elen-Di, Suzums63, skyhighdreamer, myconstant, Zylvie Meinfield, S01, L.5914, and Kazeijiu Fuuka for all of your PMs encouraging me to get off my butt and post. I appreciate it.

And, as always, thanks go to Dejana Talis for being a fabulous beta reader.

Also, while I haven't had anyone bring this matter up recently, I probably ought to mention it because it did cause some confusion a few years ago. Though I have read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Iryl's "A Study of Venus", FLOD is in no way shape or form based on it, nor did I take any of Iryl's ideas and change them around for my own purposes. FLOD is entirely my own creation, and any similarities between it and "Study of Venus" are completely coincidental. They're two SilMil stories utilizing the same characters in totally different ways.

Finally, if you haven't read any of A. Cullen's Senshi/Shitennou fanfics, you need to do so ASAP. They're good.

Hope y'all enjoy!

"For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." ~ Psalm 30:5 NIV

For Love...or Duty

Part 8:

Hope Springs Eternal

"Do you have any idea how we're going to explain this? Everyone wants to know what happened. You can't just keep her under guard and never allow the Healers in to see her! We're drawing enough suspicion as it is."

"I don't intend to keep her here."

"Maybe we could pass this off as the product of some kind of Venusian healing technique…or better, a Mercurian technique."


"No, no, that won't work. We'd never be able to duplicate it if someone asked."

"Keep it down. She's still asleep."

"My apologies. Perhaps we could simply refuse to explain and let everyone think it was a miracle."

"No one with a modicum of sense would believe it."

"Do you have a better idea?"

"I may."


"We'll need to discuss it with the Prince first."

Mina awoke slowly, drawn back to consciousness by the hushed conversation taking place at the other end of the room. What are men doing in my room? she wondered groggily. Malachite will—


His name snapped her to awareness and she recognized the voices. Unwilling to deal with either Malachite or Zoicite at that moment, she lay still and pretended to be asleep. It was not difficult; she felt drained. The flood of memories from the past day dancing through her mind did not help.

A moment later, light footsteps moved across the room and stopped. "Are you coming?" Zoicite asked.

Say yes, Mina thought. There's no reason to stay. I'm not ready to face you yet.

"In a moment," Malachite replied quietly, and Mina suppressed a sigh.

She heard the door open and close as Zoicite left, and then more footsteps and the faint swish of a cape as Malachite approached her bed. She continued to feign sleep, but she was well aware of his presence beside her. What is he doing?

Her question was answered when gentle fingers smoothed her hair and a warm, calloused hand suddenly cupped the side of her face. It took all her willpower not to react—his touch sent sparks shooting through her nerves. She struggled to keep her breathing steady as his thumb brushed her cheekbone and prayed he wouldn't hear the pounding of her heart.

She didn't know why he was touching her, but he mustn't know she was awake. Not yet.

Malachite placed a light kiss upon her forehead and withdrew his hand. Then he exited the room, closing the door silently behind him.

After he left, Mina lay there for a few moments, absolutely stunned. Am I dreaming? She wondered hazily. What's come over him?

Ami's words drifted back through her mind. He cares for you.

Mina shook her head in mute denial. He doesn't. He can't. But, remembering the concern she had seen swirling in his eyes during their last conversation, her thoughts trailed off into uncertainty.

It's pointless to keep torturing myself, she decided finally, opening her eyes and easing her body into a sitting position. When she was comfortably propped up against the headboard, she took a look around.

She was still in the Healer's Wing and, judging by the bright sunshine outside, it was at least noon. Running a hand through her hair, which was, she noted, in dire need of a brush, she glanced down at herself and made a face. The front of her bodice was torn and stained reddish-brown from her blood. It was not a pretty sight. Why hadn't anyone changed her gown?

Her fingers hovered over the tear in the fabric as she mustered the courage to examine the scar that must be lurking beneath. She took a deep breath. You're alive, she reminded herself. What's a little scar to that? Still, she couldn't help biting her lip as she pushed the fabric aside and found…

…absolutely nothing.

She blinked in surprise. Her skin bore no mark, not even a bruise. If it weren't for the fact that she was obviously in the Healer's Wing, she might have thought she imagined the knife burying itself in her chest. Ami said he used his healing ability to save me. How? I didn't even know he had a healing ability.

Pondering that question brought back the rest of their talk and then her thoughts promptly continued on to her conversation with Malachite. What did he mean when he said he wouldn't be able to bear it if something happened to me? In the light of day it almost sounded like—No, Mina decided abruptly, it wasn't. She rubbed her temples. Reading too much into his words would not end well. You know that, she reminded herself.

Forcing her thoughts away from Malachite, Mina glanced out the window. Her eyes fell on a pitcher and goblet standing on a table beneath it and she suddenly realized how thirsty she was. Pushing back the covers, she swung her legs out of bed and stood. So far so good.

She managed one step before the world spun madly around her like a child's toy and her legs buckled beneath her, refusing to hold her weight. She collapsed to the floor in a heap. Resting her head against the side of the bed, she closed her eyes and prayed the dizziness would stop. I thought…I thought he healed me…

Mina was not aware of how much time passed before the door swung open again and Malachite strode into the room carrying a tray. He took one look at her lying crumpled on the floor beside the bed and hastened to her side. Setting the tray on the table, he knelt beside her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Mina, are you all right? What happened?"

Still fighting dizziness, Mina opened her eyes and waved a hand weakly. "I tried to get some water," she murmured. She was well aware of how silly it sounded.

"You shouldn't be up yet," he admonished, his deep voice oddly gentle. "You lost a great deal of energy last night and your body will be weak for several days." He looked down at her pale face, feeling the knot that had clenched his heart slowly relax. Don't scare me like that, he wanted to tell her.

Shaking his head slightly, Malachite slipped one arm around her shoulders and the other under her knees. He lifted her effortlessly and settled her back in the bed, pulling the covers up around her with more care than she would have expected. Then he filled the goblet with water and placed it in her hands.

The water was cool and sweet; Mina drank it gratefully. "Thank you," she said when she finished.

Malachite reached for the tray he had been carrying. "Do you think you can eat?"

It took Mina only a few seconds to realize her dizziness had passed and she was in fact ravenous. Her face brightened.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," he said dryly, to cover the sudden surge of pleasure her smile brought him. He placed the tray on her lap, his hand not-so-accidentally brushing hers in the process.

Once again, Mina felt sparks. She was not quite able to meet his eyes as she murmured, "Thank you."

Malachite inclined his head. "You are welcome."

For a long moment, he stood there watching her. And yet, Mina noted as her gaze flicked up to him once, he was not looking at her so much as through her. Something else clearly occupied his attention.

Regardless, it was disconcerting to feel his eyes on her and a mass of butterflies awoke in her stomach. Her appetite dwindled and all she could do with her food was poke at it nervously. What is he doing?

Presently, Malachite snapped out of his reverie. "The Princesses have requested to see you. Are you feeling up to visitors?"

Mina looked up quickly and found herself meeting his eyes. "Serenity as well?" she inquired. As much as she wanted to see the Moon Princess, she wouldn't be able to interrogate her friends as to what had happened if she was present.

"No, I believe Her Highness is still abed."

"Good." Mina didn't realize she had spoken aloud until she saw one of Malachite's silver eyebrows tilt upward. She waved her fork with a blithe smile. "I'm sure Serenity needs her rest after all the excitement last night."

It was difficult to tell whether or not he believed her, but all he said was, "Indeed."

"Are they here now?"

Malachite considered her a few seconds. "I'll send them in if you like."

"Please do."

He crossed to the door, his cape fluttering behind him, but stopped with his hand on the doorknob and looked back over his shoulder at her. His lavender eyes were serious, swirling with the same strange concern she'd seen earlier. "Don't try to get up again," he said quietly. "You are not strong enough."

Then he was gone.

A few minutes later, though it felt like an eternity to Mina, the door opened again and Ami, Lita and Rei entered.

Their faces were so somber that Mina dropped her fork in surprise. "What's happened?" she demanded.

"It's all right," Ami hastened to assure her. "They haven't decided yet how to explain your healing, so Malachite told us to be very quiet when we came in, as though we expected to find you quite ill. He's posted a guard at the door as well."

"Oh." Feeling rather relieved, Mina waved them into the room and patted her bed. "Have a seat."

"How are you feeling?" Ami asked, tucking a lock of sapphire-blue hair behind her ear.

Mina shrugged and smiled slightly. "Better. I'm tired, but I think I'll live." She looked around at her friends' rather grim expressions and raised an eyebrow. "You didn't come in here just to check on me, did you?" She didn't bother hiding her pleasure.

Rei shook her head. "I'm afraid not. I talked to Jadeite—"

"I talked to Nephrite," Lita put in.

"And I talked to Zoicite," Ami added softly.

"—and we've managed to piece together what they know about the assassin," Rei finished crisply.

"Which is precious little," Lita grumbled.

Mina leaned forward, a serious, suddenly predatory glint in her blue eyes. "Tell me."

—- —- —- —

Malachite had duties that required his attention while the princesses visited Mina, but he returned as soon as he was finished. Resolution coursed through every inch of his body. He'd had a great deal of time to think since his disastrous conversation with Mina and it forced him to realize that something between them had irrevocably changed.

He loved her—it was inescapable fact.

At present, he was quite certain she held no such love for him. The thought gave him pause, but he merely squared his jaw and reminded himself it was his own fault. The distance between them was all his doing.

But—he had a vague glimmer of hope. Mina had told Princess Ami she wanted to be loved. She wanted to be treasured and cherished. I can do that, he thought.

Malachite had no doubts courting her—gaining both her trust and affections—would take time. It would likely be difficult, and he was sure there would be bumps along the way. He couldn't begin to fathom the way her mind worked, but he was willing to give it a try.

His steps slowed as he neared her room. At long last, he knew what he wanted. He wanted Mina to greet him with the same look of love he so often saw Serenity bestow upon Endymion. He wanted the quiet conversation Zoi and Ami exchanged and the simmering playfulness he saw between Jade and Rei. He wanted the comfortable contentment and devotion Neph and Lita exuded.

In short, he wanted them to be truly husband and wife.

He found Mina propped up in bed, twiddling her fingers. Her lower lip was caught between her teeth and she worried it absently while staring blankly out the window. She seemed lost in thought and it was a few seconds before she turned to see who had entered.

"Malachite," she said, her voice a strange blend of relief and trepidation.

He found he much preferred this reaction. "How are you?" he asked, moving closer.

She tilted her head to one side. "Still a little tired."

He nodded and stopped by the window, seemingly engrossed by the leaves visible through the lattice.

Mina was happy to see him—there were several burning questions foremost in her mind—but she happened to meet his lavender gaze once and the conflicting emotions there gave her pause. She couldn't decipher them. She began twisting her fingers together anxiously and then stopped as she realized what she was doing. Ask now, she reminded herself. Ask while he's here and while you still have the courage. "Malachite?"

"Yes?" He turned to her, a faint, questioning look on his face.

Mina swallowed; her mouth had suddenly gone dry. "How—" she cleared her throat and began anew. "How did you heal me?"

Malachite considered her a moment. He had been wondering if she would be curious. "I was born with a gift," he said with a shrug.

Mina waited for him to elaborate, but he did not. Well, that was…informative. Brushing aside an odd, almost anticlimactic feeling, she moved on to her next question. "How long am I to stay here?"

It was a good question. Fortunately, Malachite had an answer. "Would you like to return to your room?"

She nodded, her blue eyes steadily meeting his gaze.

"Well, then, Princess," he said briskly, "there is no reason for you to remain. Can you stand?"

Mina pushed back the covers. "I think so." She got to her feet slowly and found the world did not spin as much as it had previously done. A small, triumphant smile flashed across her face, only to be replaced by confusion as something was draped over her shoulders. Startled, she looked up to find Malachite had removed his cape and was wrapping her in its gray folds. Blinking, she stared at him. "Mal—"

"We've decided to let it be known that you were slightly injured," the silver-haired man said calmly, casually brushing her hair out of the way, as though he did this sort of thing every day. "Nothing serious, but enough to keep you in bed for a few days." And before Mina could ask what he was doing, Malachite scooped her up in his arms—cape and all—and carried her to the door.

Mina suppressed a gasp as she was lifted into the air, but the tension gradually leaked from her body. Malachite's arms were both strong and comforting, and in her tired state it was very easy to just let her eyes slide shut and enjoy the ride. Besides, it was unlikely she would ever be this close to him again. Best to make the most of it, she thought wearily.

Malachite was acutely aware of the moment Mina relaxed against him. He looked down at her face, taking in the curve of her mouth and the sweep of her eyelashes against her cheek and found himself swallowing a lump in his throat. There was something so fragile about her at this moment; as if she was a delicate piece of china he hardly dared to touch for fear of breaking her. It still shocked him how close he had come to losing her altogether.

They attracted a great deal of attention on their journey—most of it silent gawking. No one dared whisper aloud. Malachite was fully aware that palace gossip would be running rampant now, but he couldn't bring himself to care. He loved Mina, and if the whole world knew it, so much the better. Perhaps it would help convince her.

When Malachite reached the door to their quarters, he found himself wishing he had further to go. Nonetheless, he swung the door open and carried his wife into her own room, where he gently deposited her onto her bed. As he unfolded a blanket and spread it over her, he missed the way Mina's eyes fluttered open and the puzzled look she bestowed upon him.

He started back to his own room for a small satchel of medical supplies he always kept on hand, but he had barely reached his desk when a muffled thud, much like that of a body hitting a hard surface, immediately captured his attention. Without a moment's pause, he spun on his heel and rushed back. The sight before him sent a wave of irritation coursing through his veins.

Mina lay sprawled on the floor. She had evidently attempted to rise and discovered the hard way that she was incapable of walking. Not to be deterred, however, she rose to her knees.

"If I can't walk, at least I can crawl," she said to herself, almost cheerfully.

And to Malachite's astonishment, crawl she did, half-way across the room, until her body was moving faster than her skirt and she promptly fell flat on her face. He started, but Mina merely lifted her head and pushed a few wayward locks of golden hair out of her face with a grimace.

"I hate dresses," she muttered. "I hate dresses, I HATE DRESSES!" She smacked the floor with her hand for added emphasis, grimacing again.

The grimace—that of pain—shook Malachite out of his frozen stupor and he stepped forward. Grasping Mina by her arms, he gently raised her to her feet and slid a supporting arm around her waist. "Ladies should never need to crawl," he said quietly in her ear.

His deep, husky voice sent chills down Mina's spine, but she forced the embarrassed blush rising in her cheeks to return whence it came and said petulantly, "They do if they can't walk."

"I see." Malachite gave her a grave little nod, though one corner of his mouth was twitching suspiciously. His irritation was all but gone. "If I may…" he motioned to the bed.

Slightly confused, Mina tilted her head to one side, but before she could say anything, Malachite had scooped her up again and was settling her once more in the bed.

"I trust you have a good explanation for getting up?" he asked, rather mildly.

She scowled. "I was trying to find clothes without bloodstains." She looked down at her ruined bodice and wrinkled her nose. "I can't stand to wear this any longer." Inspiration struck and her face brightened. She turned eager blue eyes to Malachite. "Would you be so kind as to fetch my maid?"

To her surprise, he frowned. "That won't do, Princess. We'll have to attend to your wound first."

Mina stared at him. "But I don't—" she began, before breaking off. "Oh, I see."

"I dislike the deception," Malachite said, distaste evident in his voice, "but unfortunately, we must have evidence of injury."

"You're sure no one's going to be curious as to why I am not at death's door?"

Malachite's lavender gaze rested on her for a few seconds, as if he was surprised by the alacrity with which she had grasped this. In truth, he was merely thinking again how much he had underestimated her and wondering what other surprises lay beyond that lovely face. "Quite sure."

Mina nodded. It makes sense, I suppose.

The silver-haired General disappeared into his room for a moment and then returned with the satchel. He sat down on the edge of the bed beside her and pulled out a tightly rolled bandage. "You'll need to wear this for a few days," he said.

She regarded it briefly before looking up at him. "Are you going to apply it?" Her stomach had started twisting itself into knots again and even a twinge of amusement at the sheer absurdity of the entire situation could not alleviate it.

By way of answer, he said, "I hope this dress is not one of your favorites."

That was an understatement if Mina had ever heard one. She hesitated and then shook her head once. "I never want to see it again." There were far too many bad memories bound up in that dress.

He nodded, but made no movement of any kind. After a moment, he said quietly, almost awkwardly, "I'm going to have to cut your sleeve open. We've let it be known your shoulder was injured."

Mina's cheeks pinked a little, but she thought she managed to retain her composure. His proximity and the confusing mass of emotions he evoked were playing merry havoc with her nerves. She lifted her chin. "Very well, then. Proceed, General."

Malachite produced a slender dagger. He caught her eye, trying his best to convey that he meant her no harm, and slit the fabric of her sleeve. Mina immediately grasped the front of her bodice and held it in place on that side. This is truly torture, she thought, fighting the rising heat in her face. You're angry at him, she tried to remind herself. He doesn't love you. He never will. Stop reacting like this.

For his part, Malachite worked as quickly as he could, oblivious to the fact that the merest brush of his fingers left tingling trails on her skin. He did notice her pulse was beating rapidly in the hollow of her milky throat and rightly surmised she was nervous. Suddenly he frowned.

"What?" Mina asked in spite of herself.

He looked at her. "In order to properly secure this bandage, I'll need to cut your other sleeve as well." He watched her eyes widen and then narrow.

"Do what you must," she said simply.

In a moment, it was done, and Mina sat holding her bodice up with both hands. Her body was tense and there were two pink spots high on her cheekbones, but she was otherwise quite calm.

Malachite suppressed a sigh. I can't blame her for that. Anyone would be uncomfortable in such a position. Abruptly he said, "Where do you keep your night clothes?"

Slightly taken aback, Mina blinked at him. "I beg your pardon?"

He gave her an impatient look. "Your night clothes. You can't spend the rest of the day like that."

She opened her mouth, intending to tell him she had no intentions of remaining thus and that everything would be fine once he summoned her maid, but not a word came. She finally closed her mouth and peered at him intently.

Somewhat surprised by his offer himself, and unsure what the thoughtful look on her face meant, Malachite crossed to an armoire by the window. He pulled open the doors and was met by a bevy of glittering dresses. Frowning at them, he asked over his shoulder, "What do you need?"

Mina was still staring at him. He's serious. I never would have thought— She blinked once, twice, and then lifted her shoulders in a prosaic little shrug. If he's not discomfited by handling my clothes, then there's no sense in me being embarrassed about it.

She settled back against the pillows and said, "My negligees are in the armoire next to that one."

Without a word, Malachite closed the doors and stepped over to the other armoire. This one held dresses as well, but there were also a number of items made from a variety of light, silky, and occasionally frail-looking fabrics. As none of them were the kind of clothing a respectable woman would wear anywhere other than the privacy of her own room, he concluded they must be Mina's negligees—whatever those were.

A soft, translucent-looking silver caught his eye and he pulled it out, taking great care not to damage it. A stray corner of his mind thought Mina would look beautiful in it. Don't journey there, he warned himself as he turned to her and raised a questioning eyebrow.

She nodded. "That will do nicely."

He handed it to her and then asked, "What else?" He caught sight of a strange object hanging from the armoire door to his left; an oddly-shaped piece of cloth stiffened with bone with strings dangling from it. Holding it up between two fingers, he asked, "What is this?"

"That? Oh, it's a corset."

Malachite dropped it as if it had burned him. He had heard of corsets, but had never actually seen one before. "Looks like an instrument of torture," he said dryly.

Mina couldn't help herself. The look on his face was priceless. She burst into peals of laughter.

Malachite simply stood and watched her, feeling bemused.

When she could speak again, Mina gasped, "Sometimes wearing it is torture."

"What else do you require?" Malachite asked

Mina shook her head, her blue eyes still dancing. "Nothing."

He looked at her. "You are sure?"

She nodded, completely oblivious to the fact that she was in danger of losing her hold on her bodice.

Malachite inclined his head. Was it his imagination or was the room growing warmer? "Very well. Please get dressed." He started for the door. "I'll return in a moment."

Mina stared at his retreating back, feeling some of the awkwardness seep in between them again. "I beg your pardon?" Her words came out in more of a squeak than she would have preferred.

Malachite's broad shoulders stiffened. "The dress," he explained without turning around. "I plan to dispose of it."

"Oh," Mina said. I should have known that.

As soon as he closed the door behind him, Mina let go of her bodice and pulled the silver negligee over her head. The bandages interfered with her movements, but not enough to cause a serious problem. She carefully got out of bed, pleased to note she was no longer dizzy, and shook her skirts out. The remains of the ill-fated orange dress tumbled to the floor, along with a small pearlescent coral compact tucked within its folds.

Mina scooped up the compact and thrust it hastily beneath her pillow. It would have been a novel trinket on Earth regardless of its other capacity, and she had kept it hidden to avoid unwanted questions. Then she climbed back into her bed and settled the covers around her waist. "I'm finished, Malachite," she called.

She was staring at the dress on the floor and missed the look on Malachite's face when he reentered. The negligee fell around her in graceful silver folds and he thought she had never looked lovelier. Ignoring the spiteful voice in the back of his mind telling him she would never see him as anything but the man she had been forced to wed, he stooped and gathered the dress up into a bundle. He would take great delight in burning it.

"I'll send your maid in to you," he said quietly, turning to leave. He had barely taken a step when warm fingers caught his hand, sending a jolt of electricity through him. Startled, Malachite looked down at the fingers and followed them to an outstretched arm, which eventually led to Mina's serious face.

"Thank you," she said. A faint flush suffused her cheeks as she met his eyes. "Thank you for saving my life, Malachite." The words tumbled out of her; words she could no longer hold inside.

Without thinking, he brought her hand up to rest against his heart. "It would have killed me to lose you."

Mina froze. "Why?" she asked through suddenly stiff lips.

Malachite held her gaze and his grip tightened on her hand. This was his moment—a golden opportunity fate had dropped right into his lap. He would be a fool not to take it. "Because you hold my heart," he said simply. The words came far easier than he ever would have imagined. Now it was up to her to decide whether or not to believe him.

Mina drew in a shaky little half-breath, completely stunned. "What?" She blinked and tried to wrap her mind around the magnitude of those five words. "You—you mean you…" she trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. Ami's voice drifted through her mind again and hope lifted its weary head.

Malachite seemed to know what she was trying to say. "Yes." He inhaled and a muscle in his jaw twitched. "But I couldn't admit it to myself until I nearly lost you."

Mina's eyes widened still further. A dozen different thoughts collided in her head and fizzled out into nothing. Hope rallied and lifted its shield against bitterness, extinguishing poisoned arrows before they could inflict any damage.

And then it happened.

In one smooth movement, Malachite closed the distance between them and kissed her. If he had seen disgust, disinterest, or any similar emotion in her eyes, he would have retreated, but the glimpse he caught of a tiny, almost imperceptible flare of vulnerable hope was his undoing. It awakened answering hope in his own heart.

Hope that perhaps the task of making her fall in love with him would not be as difficult as he feared.

Caught by surprise, Mina could only close her eyes as his lips slid over hers. It was better than anything she could have imagined. His free hand came up to frame her face, his touch sending fire coursing through her, and she responded by instinct. She leaned into him, her free hand traveling up to tangle in the hair at the back of his neck. A dim portion of her mind reflected it was a good thing he was supporting her; otherwise she would have collapsed into a boneless heap on the bed.

After a long moment they parted and stared at each other in awed silence. Mina was the first to break the spell. With a dreamy smile, she asked, "Do you know how long I've waited for you to do that?"

For a few seconds, Malachite was incapable of speech. Then he asked gruffly, "You have?"

She nodded and bit her lip. "I…I never thought you would. I thought you hated me."

Malachite raised her hand and kissed her palm before relinquishing it to envelop her in his arms. "No. Never." He swallowed. "Mina, I—"

She reached up and laid a finger across his lips. His eyes told her everything she needed to know—more than she had ever hoped to find there. "It doesn't matter," she said quietly. "As long as you love me and don't push me away again, it doesn't matter."

The sincerity in her voice was overwhelming. Malachite kissed her again and then buried his face in her hair and closed his eyes. Her arms hesitantly slid around his waist and he felt the rapid thud of her heartbeat against his chest. This is real, he told himself. It's really happening.

It was with great reluctance he recalled he still had duties awaiting his attention. Regretfully, he pulled away from Mina and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I have to go."

She raised her head from its place on his chest and offered him a soft smile. "I know."

Malachite ran a gentle hand through her hair, unable to find words to express everything he felt at this moment. "Rest well, Princess. I'll see you later."

He stepped toward the door, glanced at her one last time, and then he was gone.

Mina remained kneeling on the bed in a daze, her heart swelling to the point where she was sure it would burst. He loves me. The thought—the remembrance of his words and the quiet devotion in his eyes—washed over her in a happy tidal wave. She wanted to laugh, she wanted to dance...she wanted to kiss him again.

He loves me, her heart sang, He loves me, he loves me, he loves me! She fell back against her pillows, unable to restrain joyous laughter.

Night was over and the glow of happy dawn had come, sweeping away the bitterness and unhappiness she had been harboring.

—- —- —- —

Malachite's heart was light the remainder of the day. It felt as though a huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders, and the loss of it made a staggering difference. For the first time, he had an inkling of what his Prince and fellow Generals had experienced since their return from the Moon.

He reported Mina's progress to Serenity, who was vastly relieved, and narrowly avoided being interrogated by Jadeite. The younger General had not missed his change of humor and was curious as to the cause.

Dinner in the Great Hall that night was a subdued affair. Even Serenity was more silent than her wont. Glancing around, Malachite couldn't help but think Mina's presence would have livened things up a little. She would have laughed and teased Serenity until the Moon Princess snapped back to her bubbly self. She, he realized, would not have let the attack become a taboo subject no one was willing to discuss.

He could not wait to return to their quarters, though he scarcely knew why. Part of him wanted to be reassured that he had not imagined what happened that morning, that Mina was alive and well and his. At the same time, he was unsure how to proceed. Had she truly understood? What would she expect from him?

Vague wisps of ideas chased each other around his mind until he finally dispelled them by telling himself he would just have to ask her. It was sure to be an enlightening and…conversational…experience.

When Malachite reached their quarters, he was therefore both disappointed and a little relieved to discover Mina was asleep. He dismissed her maid, who had been keeping watch over her, and stood for a long moment looking down at her still form. She was sleeping peacefully, her golden hair fanned out in a silky mass.

Very tenderly, he smoothed her hair out of the way and pulled the covers up around her. Then he bent and brushed a gentle kiss across her lips. "Goodnight, Mina," he murmured. She smiled in her sleep.

A warm glow filling his heart, Malachite retreated to his own room for the night. Perhaps, a quiet voice in the back of his mind whispered, perhaps soon you won't be sleeping alone. Perhaps soon he would be able to cradle her in his arms for the rest of their lives.

—- —- —- —

In the still of the night, a persistent beeping roused Mina from her slumber. For a few seconds, her foggy mind could not process the tones. All she could think was that she must have fallen asleep before Malachite returned. A crestfallen look flitted across her face before she registered what the beeping signified. My communicator.

For a second, she closed her eyes. Then she took a deep, bracing breath and slid her hand beneath her pillow until her fingers closed on the coral compact. Flipping open the lid, she pressed a button.

The beeping ceased and a familiar face filled the tiny mirror. "Princess Mina," Luna said in hushed tones. "Are you alone?"

Mina nodded. "Yes."

"The Queen needs you to transform and teleport here immediately. She will assist you."

Mina could not honestly say she was surprised. The only question was how the Queen had learned of the attack. "As Her Majesty wishes," she said, inclining her head. "Let me tell—"

"No," Luna said sharply. "You may not tell anyone anything. Time is of the essence."

For a few seconds, the two of them stared at each other. Then Mina bowed her head again. "Very well."

Luna ended the transmission and the mirror reverted to its former state.

Mina's mind was a swirl of conflicted thoughts. Someone had informed the Queen of Serenity's near brush with death. Her mind flicked over possible candidates and settled on Ami. She's the only one logical enough to see the long-term ramifications, she decided.

Shaking her head, Mina pushed her thoughts aside and reached into her space pocket for her transformation pen. Then she slid out of bed and took a few tentative steps. She was relieved to find the dizziness gone.

Sure that the lights of her transformation into a Sailor Senshi would awaken her husband, Mina laid a blanket along the bottom of the door. She hated to keep this from him, especially now that things between them were changing, but orders were orders.

Still, as she held her transformation pen aloft, she felt a surge of guilt. If she was gone for more than a few hours, what would Malachite think? I love him—I don't want to hurt him. She closed her eyes. You can't think of him now, she told herself sternly. Duty calls.

"Venus Power," she whispered.

A flurry of familiar lights surrounded her and Mina felt stronger from the resulting wave of energy. It had been so long since she last transformed she had almost forgotten how good it felt. She pressed another button on her communicator to indicate she was ready and closed her eyes.

"Venus Teleport."

With a boost from the Silver Imperium Crystal, she was gone.

—- —- —- —

Despite the day's events, Malachite did not sleep well. He tossed and turned restlessly and, when sleep finally found him, slipped into a terrible nightmare. He dreamt Mina's wound reopened and that she bled to death before he could reach her. He could only clutch her cold, lifeless body in his arms and beg her to come back while ominous lightning flickered around them.

He woke up in a cold sweat. The sensations were so real he almost expected to find her blood on his hands. She's fine, he thought, in an attempt to reassure himself. It was only a dream. But, try as he might, he could not shake a nagging sense of disaster.

Finally, just to prove to himself that absolutely nothing was wrong, he threw back his covers. The palace was dark and silent, with the stillness the hours after midnight bring, but he could see well enough to find his way to her door. He pushed it open and nearly tripped over a blanket lying on the floor. With a grunt of annoyance, he shoved it aside and glanced at the bed.

It was empty.

He stared at it in surprise. The covers were folded back as though she had just left and his hand went out automatically to feel them. Still warm.

He waited a moment, and then hesitantly checked the water closet they shared. It was empty as well. Panic rose in his chest, but he forced it down. "Mina?" he asked aloud. "Where are you?"

There was no answer.

Malachite ran a hand through his silver hair as he stared at the bed where Mina should have been. Where had she gone? Why had she gone? What is going on?

He drew a sharp breath to dispel the wave of hurt confusion threatening to engulf him and fought to detach his emotions so he could look at the situation logically. There had to be a rational explanation for this. Lighting a candle, he studied the room with a critical eye.

A moment later, he was forced to concede that everything was as it should be. A pair of shoes or slippers—or whatever they called those flimsy things court women wore on their feet these days—lay on the floor beside the bed, as though waiting for her, and nothing else appeared to be missing or out of place. His confusion only deepened.

Malachite began to pace her room, thinking furiously. Spurred by a sudden inspiration, he crossed to the window and peered out, but the grass beneath her window was conspicuously free of crumpled bodies. There was no trace of a rope or anything else—and if she had jumped from this height, he knew she would have broken her legs, or her neck, or both.

No, the window was out, which left the door as the only other means of egress. It was possible Mina had left their quarters of her own volition, even though she was still weak. It was also conceivable she had been kidnapped. His hands clenched into fists. He had, after all, oiled that infernal hinge to keep it from squeaking.

But after considering both alternatives, he concluded they were unlikely. His senses remained on high alert; he would have known if she left—or was taken. No, it looked like she had simply vanished into thin air.

The thought hit him hard and he stopped to lean against one of her bedposts. He was still recovering from having nearly lost her yesterday and now...now… The memory of their kiss and her dreamy smile flashed before his eyes. Oh, Mina, he thought, passing a hand over his face. Where are you? Don't leave me.

Head bowed, the general stood beside her bed and fought to regain control of himself. It was only then, when he forcibly emptied his mind, that the hair on the back of his neck tingled. He raised his head, lavender eyes narrowing.

A faint tinge of magic lingered in the air.

Teleportation magic, by the feel of it.

A muscle in Malachite's jaw worked. Consumed as he was with more practical methods of disappearance, he had almost missed it. A cold knot formed in the pit of his stomach as he glanced one more time at his wife's empty bed. Then he spun on his heel and returned to his own room. If Mina had been teleported off of Earth, there was nothing he could do about it until morning.

Perhaps not even then, a bitter voice in the back of his mind whispered.

—- —- —- —

Venus's teleportation was almost instantaneous. Upon coalescing, she found herself in Queen Selenity's outer chamber and dropped gracefully to one knee. "My Queen."

"I apologize for calling you here so abruptly, Venus," Selenity began without preamble, "but your assistance is required." Her face was shrouded with worry and her voice tense. Luna stood beside her, looking grave.

Venus rose to her feet. "What is wrong?" Her own unhappiness disappeared, swept away by an alert suspicion.

Selenity glanced at Luna and moved to her bedchamber. There she settled herself into one of the comfortable chairs scattered around the room and motioned for Venus and Luna to do the same.

Venus hesitated for a split-second before obeying. The Queen's informality was at odds with the gravity of the situation and she found it more than a little unsettling. Something was going on…something much larger than the attack on Serenity.

Once Luna had taken a seat as well, Selenity turned her full attention to Venus. "I understand you saved my daughter's life."

Venus waved one gloved hand. "I only performed my duty."

Selenity nodded. "Are you in need of a Healer?"

Blue eyes met blue eyes and Venus realized Selenity only knew part of the story. Ami didn't tell her everything. She shook her head. "Thanks to General Malachite's quick thinking, I am fine." She half-expected the Queen to press for details, but Selenity did not.

Instead, she pressed her fingers into a steeple on her lap. "I am aware," she began slowly, that your absence from Earth will temporarily upset things, but we have a legitimate cover story in place."

"As Crown Princess of Venus," Luna broke in softly, "the Venusian government will of course be anxious to know how you fare."

Venus suppressed a frown. "With all due respect, Your Majesty, this plan would have worked better if you had teleported me during the day. As it is, there will likely be a good deal of suspicion." Most of it directed toward me.

Selenity's shoulders lifted in an elegant shrug. "It cannot be helped," she said tersely. "Mercury will convey the news discreetly."

Venus dipped her golden head in a bow.

There was short pause, and then Selenity said abruptly, "I want to know everything about the attack, Venus. I want to know who he is, who sent him, and why he was allowed into the palace in the first place."

Her voice wavered on that last part, effectively quenching the flash of anger Venus felt at the implication that Endymion and his Generals had allowed a would-be assassin to waltz into the palace unhindered. "The assassin did not gain access to the palace," she said evenly. "He was outside with several thousand innocent Terrans."

Selenity gestured for her to continue.

"He called himself 'Nemo', but his real name is unknown."

"'Nobody'," Luna observed.

Venus nodded. "Exactly. Not helpful at all." She flicked a lock of golden hair over her shoulder. "The only thing they learned from interrogating him was that he had been sent to rid Endymion of the Lunar witch ensnaring him."

Luna gasped. Selenity's mouth tightened. "Anything else?" she asked sharply.

Venus shrugged. "Apparently, he started chanting something about a beryl over and over again and they were unable to get anything else out of him." She stopped. Selenity's face had drained of all color and now bore a great resemblance to the pale marble walls. "My Queen?"

Selenity ignored the question. "Where is the assassin now?"

"Dead. He killed himself, but they're not sure how." Venus rubbed the back of her neck. "Supposedly, he dissolved into a pile of dust."

"A pile of dust?" Selenity's tone could have split marble. "Did you see this?"

Venus squelched the urge to stiffen. "No, I did not personally witness his death, Your Majesty," she said coolly. "Nor did the other Senshi. We have kept our oath. Naturally," she added wryly, "this makes acquiring information problematic."

"I take it you learned of it through the Generals, then?"

She inclined her head, but did not miss the wary, almost frightened look Luna and Selenity exchanged. "You know something of this." It wasn't a question.

Slowly, the lavender-haired Queen nodded. She was still pale, but had regained her composure. "I'm afraid so. There is a darkness spreading, Venus, a darkness unlike anything any of us have ever seen." She shook her head. "In the past month, Neptune and Uranus have experienced a number of riots and other problems. Jupiter has also been bothered, but not to the extent of the Outer Planets."

Venus's eyes widened in astonishment. "Riots?" she echoed. "On Neptune and Uranus? What could they possibly be upset about?"

Selenity glanced at Luna again before answering. "Ostensibly? Earth's inclusion in the Silver Alliance." She lifted a hand to rub her temple. "However, the large amounts of negative energy present on each occasion have led us to the conclusion that these uprisings cannot possibly be natural."

"Even if they were natural," Luna said dryly, "it wouldn't explain the culprits responsible for instigating the riots."

"Oh?" Venus's eyes flicked over to rest on the black-haired Mauan.

"These creatures—they call themselves youma—have unnatural abilities that appear to stem from some dark power source. And more than one of them has mentioned this Beryl."

A chill ran down Venus's spine. They sound a great deal like the creatures rumored to be popping up all over Earth, she thought. Surely it's not the same.

Selenity picked at the folds of her gown. "Whoever Beryl is, and wherever she came from, her minions are trying to throw this solar system into an uproar. They seem to be working their way toward either Earth or the Moon. Perhaps both. I fear for Serenity's safety."

Venus nodded sagely. It didn't take a genius like Ami to see that coming. "Do you think Beryl is that much of a danger?"

Selenity briefly closed her eyes. "Yes. Judging from the havoc she has wreaked on the Outer Planets, I fell sure that if she turns her attention to Earth, it will fall. And its people with it."

Venus narrowed her eyes. Her feeling that this was a bigger issue than it appeared to be on the surface still remained. "There's more to this than you are telling me, Your Majesty," she said bluntly. "The Terran Royal Guard is more than capable of holding off a few monsters."

The Queen held her gaze for a long moment before dipping her head in a nod. "This Beryl, or her minions—we do not yet know for certain—have also demonstrated an uncanny knack for warping people's minds and turning them against everything they hold dear."

Ah, now we reach the crust of the matter, Venus thought.

"Should she warp inhabitants of the palace, or the King and Queen, or worse, Endymion—"

"Endymion is strong," Venus interrupted. She did not miss the disapproving look on Luna's face, but chose to ignore it. "He and Serenity have a soul bond, my Queen. He would die for her." She shook her head. "It would take a tremendous amount of effort on Beryl's part to sway him, and even then, there is no guarantee she would succeed."

"He's only human," Selenity replied shortly. "If she turns the Crown Prince, Earth is hers for the taking and the Moon itself will be in jeopardy."

"Endymion has more power than you give him credit. He won't fall," Venus said confidently. Just like Malachite, she thought, and then blinked. Where did that come from? She had no time to contemplate it.

"We'll see," the Queen said, her lips compressing into a thin line. "In the meantime, I plan to bring Serenity here if Earth experiences problems."

In the back of her mind, Venus had been expecting something like this, but the words still surprised her. "Your Majesty?"

"If these riots spread to Earth, you and the other Senshi are hereby ordered to conduct my daughter back to the Moon," Selenity said grimly. "And here she will stay."

"Endymion—not to mention the Terran Crown—will not stand for that."

Selenity shrugged. "She is the only heir to the Lunar throne and as such must be protected. Of course," she added, catching the skeptical look that passed over Venus's face, "I'll allow him to visit her."

Venus inclined her head in a deferential bow. No good would come of arguing this particular point. She felt a twinge of guilt and bit her tongue. Part of her knew she should mention the problems plaguing Earth of late. The other part of her argued there were mostly unsubstantiated rumors and she had no real proof.

And I won't uproot Serenity—or everyone else—on a whim. But, she told herself grimly, I will be having a little chat with Malachite.

Aloud, she said, "My Queen, in the interests of protecting the Princess, might I suggest that it would be wise to allow us to inform the Prince and his Generals of our status as Senshi?"

Selenity and Luna both frowned.

"Please, Your Majesty," Venus pressed. "At least consider it."

Finally, the Queen nodded. "Very well. It shall be taken under consideration."

It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Venus repressed the smile that rose to her lips and listened as Selenity moved on to other matters.

"While you are here, Sailor Venus, I need you to check the Moon's planetary defenses, inspect the city Guard, and calm the people. Having even one Senshi among us has always had a soothing effect. Report to me if you find anything unusual."

Sensing she was being dismissed, Venus rose and bowed. "As you wish, my Queen." She spun sharply on her heel and marched off, her golden hair swishing behind her.

—- —- —- —

As the click of Venus's shoes faded away, Selenity sank back in her chair and rubbed her forehead. Thank goodness I have the Senshi to rely upon.

"Majesty, are you well?"

Selenity glanced over at her old friend. "I'm tired, Luna. Just tired."

Luna nodded sympathetically, but said in a gentle voice, "You are worrying yourself too much about the Outer Planets."

The Queen's eyes suddenly blazed with renewed energy. "I should be worried, Luna," she said tightly. "I am the head of the Silver Alliance and they are all looking to me for answers—answers I simply don't have! I don't know why this is happening or what Beryl plans to do. I don't even know how we are going to protect ourselves against her. If she can turn our own people against us, everyone could be a potential spy."

Luna laid a hand on her arm. "We will find the answers, my Queen."

"We must," Selenity said gravely.

—- —- —- —

The first rosy tendrils of dawn were just beginning to unfurl from the eastern sky when Malachite's eyes snapped open. Awareness flooded his mind immediately. In another instant, he was standing at Mina's door, hoping against hope to find her asleep within. Swallowing the lump that had mysteriously formed in his throat, he pushed the door open and stepped inside. "Mina?"

An exuberant bird trilling outside the window was his only response and his heart sank.

The room was still empty. She had not returned.

Malachite swallowed once more, and then he was himself again. Striding back to his own room, he resolved he would get to the bottom of this. He knew exactly where to start.

—- —- —- —

Ami was sleeping quite peacefully when a loud, insistent banging startled her to wakefulness. Beside her, Zoicite mumbled something incoherent.

The banging continued, and as the last gauzy traces of sleep fell away from her, Ami realized it was coming from the other side of their bedroom door—not the outer door. Sitting up, she leaned over and shook her husband's bare shoulder. "Zoi! Wake up."

For a few seconds, he blinked at her in groggy silence. Then his mind registered the noise as well and his leaf green eyes widened. Rolling out of bed, he grabbed his sword and padded over to the door, barefoot and bare-chested.

Ami slipped into a dressing gown, one part of her mind observing that her husband's fearsome appearance was rather lessened by the wild state of his red-gold hair. The other part of her mind feared she knew exactly what had happened.

Zoicite flung the door open, brandishing the sword. "This had better be important," he began irritably, but he broke off abruptly as he found himself confronted with Malachite, grimfaced and fully dressed. "Mal?" he asked. His gaze slid past the First General to rest on the group of people at the far end of the room, who were not dressed and looked as confused as he felt. "What's going on?"

"That's what we'd like to know," Jadeite drawled. Beside him, Rei said nothing; she was studying Malachite thoughtfully. Lita and Nephrite both looked concerned.

Malachite raised an eyebrow at the sword being pointed in his direction and Zoicite hastily laid it aside. "By all means," he said, stepping past Malachite and gesturing to the rest of the room. "Please invade at the crack of dawn without a word of explanation. It's not as though any of us need sleep after yesterday."

It was the closest Jadeite and Nephrite had ever heard him come to criticizing Malachite.

Ami came out of the bedroom, clutching her dressing gown. Malachite might appear calm, though he had yet to say a word, but his eyes gave him away. He was confused, angry, hurt…and frightened. She felt guilt claw at her insides. It was for the best, she reminded herself.

Zoicite posted his hands on his hips. "All right, what's going on?"

"Mina's gone," Malachite said quietly, standing ramrod straight.

Lita and Rei both gasped. "What do you mean 'gone'?" Lita demanded. Her face drained of all color. "You can't—she can't be—"

"I mean she has vanished and I have not yet located her," Malachite said stiffly.

In brief, succinct terms, he told them everything he knew. Ami bit her lip as he finished. She had contacted Luna to tell her of the attempt on Serenity's life only because she had thought it would be more beneficial in the long run if the Queen learned of it sooner rather than later. She had included the fact that Mina was injured, but hadn't expected Selenity to actually call her away.

Her azure eyes flicked to Malachite again. It was difficult to tell if he suspected Silver Alliance involvement, but it was obvious that not knowing was killing him.

Jadeite glanced around the room and his eyes met Ami's. "You know something, don't you, Princess Ami?" he asked calmly. Almost too calmly.

Everyone turned to look at the blue-haired princess. She willed herself not to flinch or, worse, blush. "I may," she agreed gravely. She forced herself to meet Malachite's lavender gaze and Luna's words came easily to her lips. "Mina is the Venusian Crown Princess. It's possible her government heard of the attack and appealed to Queen Selenity for an emergency teleportation in the interests of making sure Mina is unharmed."

It sounded plausible, even to her own ears, and she prayed they believed her. They had to believe her.

Zoicite tilted his head to one side, regarding her with a suddenly sharp look in his green eyes that she did not like. "And how, exactly, would they have known about that?"

Rei spared Ami from answering. Flipping a stray lock of hair back over her shoulder, she said testily, "You'd be surprised how quickly information travels these days."

Jadeite's gaze flicked between the two of them. "Why wouldn't they have teleported Mal as well?" he asked. "He's her husband."

Rei harrumphed and crossed her arms. "I've never accredited the Venusians with an overabundance of brains."

"But they put a high value on things like love," Zoicite pointed out.

This time, it was Ami who answered, to soften words that would have sounded too harsh coming from Rei. "Perhaps, Malachite," she said gently, "they are aware of how difficult things have been between you and Mina and wished to spare you both unwelcome attention."

"How magnanimous of them," Nephrite observed. It was the first time he had spoken so far, and Ami was surprised by his restraint. Of course, she reasoned, he could only just now have fully awakened. Lita shot him a glare.

"They do intend to send her back, don't they?" Jadeite was smiling, but a cold edge had slid into his voice.

Lita looked positively aghast. "Of course!" she burst out. "She'll probably be back before the day's over!"

Malachite cut in smoothly before things could escalate into an argument. "Then there's no need to worry, is there?" he observed, in as calm and unruffled a voice as he could muster. His words had the desired effect. Everyone shifted their attention to him. "Endymion and the Princess must be told," he continued, "but I think the matter should be kept to ourselves for now."

Nephrite snorted. "Yes, it might be a little upsetting."

Rei's eyes flashed, but Jadeite laid a hand on her arm. "There are some in the palace who might consider this rather high-handed on Queen Selenity's part," he said softly.

Ami nodded in understanding. "And tension is high enough as it is." She looked at Malachite again. "You'll need someone to stay in Mina's room for the day, won't you?"

He inclined his head. "I would prefer the servants know as little as possible."

Ami nodded again. A plan was already swirling together in her mind. She outlined it to Malachite and then they watched him stalk from the room, his cape fluttering regally behind him. He looked, Ami thought, incredibly alone. But perhaps that was simply her imagination.

For a long moment, the room was silent. Then Nephrite shook his head. "They're meant for each other. The stars have said as much. Why do they have so much trouble?"

Lita scowled. "Because they're too stubborn to admit they care for each other," she grumbled. Her husband wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed comfortingly.

Ami could feel Rei's eyes on her. She looked up, willing her face to show as little of what was running through her mind as possible. They couldn't speak now—not without opening themselves up to questions sure to jeopardize Queen Selenity's faith in them.

Worse, Jadeite was studying them. She knew he could tell something was amiss and he was smart enough to start putting things together.

Ami was so intent on covertly studying Jadeite that she missed the contemplative look in her own husband's eyes.

—- —- —- —

Ami's plan was simple in theory. She and the other princesses would visit Mina and Malachite's quarters in shifts and prevent Mina's maid from realizing her mistress was not there by refusing to let her carry anything into Mina's room. Doing so would seem strange and would no doubt cause talk, but Ami was confident the palace staff would chalk it all up to the oddities of off-world royalty. And as she took the first shift—ostensibly to keep Mina amused while confined to her bed—Rei and Lita were left with the task of explaining the situation to Serenity.

Zoicite caught the grim looks they exchanged upon leaving the breakfast table and watched as they smoothly intercepted Serenity and hurried her away. His leaf green eyes narrowed. Something is not right here. Every instinct told him there was more to this situation than met the eye.

Casually, he strode after them. His morning duties could wait a few moments. Ami would probably scold him later for eavesdropping, but he knew they were hiding something.

Something involving Mina and the Moon Queen.

Zoicite followed the three princesses all the way to Endymion and Serenity's quarters, but there his plan was thwarted. When he put an ear to the heavy door, he realized the Princesses were taking no chances of being overheard and had retreated to the inner chamber. He scowled and rubbed the back of his neck. So much for that plan.

Three seconds later, he brightened. Maybe…just maybe…he could persuade Ami to tell him the truth. You have not because you ask not.

Several hours later, he found his chance.

—- —- —- —

Ami had just emerged from the library, engrossed in a medical textbook she intended to take back to Mina's room for her next shift, when someone called her name. She looked up and smiled as she saw her husband striding toward her. The smile faltered as she took in his stern expression. "Zoicite, what's wrong?"

Zoicite took her arm and pulled her back into the library, shutting the door firmly behind them. Then he proceeded to walk her to a secluded corner. "Ami," he said quietly, "I know you're hiding something from us. And," he added, "I know it's important."

The book fell from Ami's suddenly frozen fingers and hit the stone floor with an echoing crack. "What?"

Zoicite grasped her shoulders and peered down into her eyes. "Ami, whatever it is, you have to tell us. Malachite deserves to know what's really going on. We deserve to know."

Ami swallowed, her eyes wide and uncertain. She had never been particularly good at lying—just as she had never been particularly good at knowing when other people were lying. She did, however, know her husband well enough to know nothing but the truth would satisfy him.

Truth she could not give.

Her dark blue eyes filled with grief. "I—I can't tell you."

"Why?" he asked sharply.

"Because I promised I would say nothing."

"You can't even tell me?"

She shook her head. "Zoicite, please—you must understand. I—we—we swore an oath. We can't break our word!"

Zoicite studied her face for the better part of a minute. "Do you trust me?" he asked finally.

Ami blinked. "Of course I trust you," she said without missing a beat. "I trust you with my life." She took his hands in both of hers and looked up at him earnestly. "Zoi, I don't want to keep this from you, but I have no other choice. Believe me, I'll tell you everything as soon as I can. Please don't be angry with me."

He held her gaze for a few seconds longer and then nodded once, his expression softening. Ami wouldn't lie to me. "You promise?"

"I promise."

Zoicite wrapped his arms around her. "I'll try not to pry. It'll be hard, but I'll try."

"Thank you," she whispered, burying her face in his shoulder. "I'm so sorry."

Okay, I'm all revved up now. The best part? I've only got three more chapters that need intensive revision—the next six after that only need to be tweaked, and Part 18 (which is brand-new) is practically finished. So there's hope, never fear. :)

Again, I'm sorry it took so long, but I do hope you enjoyed this revised installment. Don't forget to let me know what you thought!

Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year!