Fall From Grace

© 1998 by E. Liddell

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Author's Notes:

There is one thing that I would like to make absolutely clear from the beginning: This is not a Crystal Weaver story. The next Crystal Weaver story, tentatively titled "An Ill Fate Marshalling", will not be appearing until late October at the earliest (I've got about 5-6 chapters of it done right now.)

Instead, this is a different version of Zoisite's first meeting with Kunzite. I wrote it while I was struggling with the second rewrite of the end of "All Darkness Met", but it wasn't until just now that I got around to sending it off to my beta reader or formatting it for posting. Just to confuse everyone, this story uses the Japanese names exclusively. I think this is probably the shortest thing I've written since my old Gargoyles 'fic "Cycle's End".

The darkness was all-encompassing. It was his world.

He wondered how long he had been lying there staring at nothing. He felt strange -- dizzy, and yet filled with a fiery vitality, and his mind seemed almost preternaturally sharp, although his memory was clouded.

Zoisite, he thought. Yes. That's my name.

With that realization, his recent past came flooding back. The youma attack on the outpost -- there's no way I should be alive -- that green one tore me almost in two! He ran his hands over his chest, expecting to find bandages, or at least a scar. There should have been some evidence of trauma, even if they had somehow gotten a mage to the battlefield in time to save him. He found nothing. Nothing at all. The scars he had gained in his five years as a soldier were gone as though they had never been. Furthermore, the body under his exploring hands was wiry and thin, not muscular as it should have been. Something is badly wrong here.

He forced himself to sit up, holding his head in his hands as he waited for his dizziness to recede. His fingers tangled in long, unkempt hair. And that was wrong as well. His hair had always been short. He was a sergeant in the regular army, after all, not some dandified officer of the Palace Guard!

He explored his face with his fingertips. The scars there were gone, too, both the long one running along his jaw from ear to chin and the shorter, broader one that had nearly taken his left eye two years ago, during one of the first youma attacks. His nose was no longer bent to one side where it had been smashed in a barroom brawl during his days as a recruit. None of that surprised him, not after the absence of the other marks. But the face he touched seemed finer-boned than the one he remembered, almost... delicate.

How he wished he could see!

As though he had cast a spell of some sort by wishing, there was a creaking sound and a door in the far wall of what he now saw to be a tiny room swung open, admitting faint light and a ...creature. A youma.

Captured by Beryl!

He rolled forward off the bed. There was no time for questions, now, no time for hesitation. He had to escape or die trying. There would be no rescue. No one had ever been able to find Beryl's secret base.

The youma laughed, a rasping sound holding little real humor. "So, you wake. Our Queen will be glad to see you in such fine spirits. Do not waste your time. You are unarmed and still physically weak, and I am not about to risk my own life by killing you. However, if you attack me, I do have the means to render you unconscious again." It bent down and deposited a tray on the floor, then reached up to touch a globe attached to the wall beside the door, causing it to glow with a sickly green light. Then it smiled, showing all its teeth. "Don't worry. You won't be here for long."

The door slammed shut behind the youma. Zoisite's lunge slammed him into the closed portal, and he leaned against it for a few moments, panting futilely, before making his cautious way back to the narrow cot upon which he had been lying. He sat down and stared at his hands. They were slender, fine-boned, and had none of the calluses he had built up in his years of wielding a sword in the army ranks. He leaned forward to stare at his reflection in the bowl of water that formed half of the contents of the tray, afraid of what he was going to see.

The face was as delicate as he had imagined, androgynously pretty. Huge, slanted green eyes stared back at him fearfully. The sickly green light made it difficult to tell exactly what color the long, fine hair that framed his face was, but he guessed that he was blonde.

They've turned me into some sort of... of... Words failed him. He forced his mind back to more immediate questions. Why? What use can they possibly have for the mind of an army sergeant in the body of a well-born pretty boy?

He scooped up the plate of stew and half-loaf of coarse brown bread that lay on the tray beside the bowl and began to eat. This thin, helpless body needed some feeding up! He would have to exercise, too, in the hopes of regaining some of the strength he had lost in this transformation --

Odd. I should feel weaker. As he ate, more of the unnatural fire he had first sensed in himself upon regaining consciousness flowed through his body, making him light-headed with power.

They can't intend to keep me here for long, he realized as he glanced around the room again and observed the lack of sanitary facilities. They wouldn't have given me a bed if they expected me to live in my own filth like some animal. Damn! I wish I had some clothes... Clothing would serve a dual purpose, concealing his body not only from the eyes of others, but from his own view as well.

He had barely finished the stew, and was gnawing on the end of the loaf, when the door opened again. A youma threw in a pile of folded grey cloth, then shut the door before he could get anywhere near it. An examination showed this new gift from his captors to be a grey uniform in the style worn by Beryl's human officers. The green trim, he noted with something that was almost disgust, matched his new eyes perfectly. Under other circumstances, he might have spurned such clothing, but here and now, it might make him blend into the background and give him a better chance at escape.

I probably look pretty sharp, he realized as he pulled on the high black boots. Underneath the pile, he found a comb, and went to work on his tangled hair. He wished for a pair of scissors as well, but Beryl was hardly likely to allow him such an obvious weapon, even if he only wanted to use them to trim his overlong mane.

He tied the offending mass back with a length of ribbon that had come with the comb (Beryl had apparently thought of everything) and examined the door. Try though he might, he could find no way of getting it open from the inside. There was no handle, and whatever sort of lock it used was inaccessible. Shrugging, he sat down again to wait.

He thought it was several hours before anyone else came. Certainly he waited for long enough to become thirsty again, and have to drink from the bowl. It was some time after he set this down that another youma opened the door. There were three others waiting outside this time.

"Come with us," the leader ordered him.

He sneered, the expression feeling oddly natural on this strange face. "And if I don't?" The voice wasn't his either, a light tenor with an accent that belonged to the educated classes, not his own humble peasant origins.

The youma grinned at him, showing any number of sharp teeth. "Then we carry you. The Queen is not renowned for her patience."

They positioned him in the middle of their little group, a youma on each side, one in front, and the leader following behind. They also bound his wrists with heavy iron manacles. He found the elaborate precautions vaguely amusing. Surely they didn't think he had the strength to take even one of them, much less all four! But the ease with which he carried the chains made a liar of him. There was more to this stranger's body than there seemed to be.

They led him to a huge, empty room and forced him to his knees before the throne at the far end and the woman who sat there.

"Unbind him and leave," Beryl ordered the youma.

Zoisite waited until the creatures had removed his chains and gone before springing to his feet again. Beryl watched him lazily, one hand resting on the crystal ball that floated in front of her, the other on the arm of her throne.

"What have you done to me, bitch?" he snarled. Like the sneer he had aimed at the youma, the expression of anger and outrage -- and, yes, hatred -- that he wore felt right and familiar.

"Your body was rather badly damaged in our attack," the queen said, stroking the crystal ball in a gesture that Zoisite found obscene. "I arranged to have it replaced."

"And now I'm supposed to fall all over you with gratitude and swear my undying loyalty, I suppose. Forget it."

Beryl smiled. "You have very little choice, really." She waved her hand in his direction.

Warmth drained from his body, taking his strength with it. He fell to his knees, hands clawing at his chest, trying to tear out the source of the sudden, sharp pain that he felt.

"Your body is flawed," Beryl told him. "Without the power which Metallia has so generously given you, you will die in a matter of hours. If you complete your first mission successfully, I may consider repairing the damage." Another casual gesture, and the fire roared along his nerves again, warming and sustaining him. He felt ill. It's magic, her magic, evil, unclean... and without it, I die. He understood why anger and scorn came so naturally to him now. Metallia's evil would tend to amplify and reward those sorts of qualities and emotions.

"What mission?" He pulled himself upright again, staring her proudly in the eye, but promising nothing. Maybe, if I can get home, one of the mages will be able to fix this...

"You are to corrupt General Kunzite and seduce him to our side."

Zoisite's mind reeled. Kunzite! She wants me to corrupt or kill the supreme commander of the Earth's armed forces? He glanced down at his slender hands. Make that, 'seduce, then corrupt or kill'. Kunzite was widely known not to be particular about the gender of what he slept with, and Zoisite's new false, fragile beauty would be sure to appeal to him.

"You will enlist in the Palace Guard," Beryl was saying. "I have already made the arrangements. This will place you close to Kunzite. You will bend all your efforts to corrupting him. You will have a year. If you do not succeed in that length of time, you will have to kill him."

Zoisite bit his lower lip. Oh, I can succeed. The question is, do I *want* to? It was a difficult choice: his oath of service to the King of Earth against his survival... He wasn't certain what he would do when push came to shove, but his first step was to get out of here. Once he was out of Beryl's control, he would be able to decide his course of action more freely. But it would be best not to give in too easily.

"I can't join the Guard," he protested. "I don't have any magic." There. Hopefully, Beryl will think I'm weakening. Plotting came naturally, too... another little gift from Metallia, no doubt.

"Metallia's power will supply you with what you need. Those sent to test you will not suspect the source of your magic."

He hesitated again. "I... still can't..."

"Need I remind you again that you have no choice?" Beryl lifted her hand as though to wave it at him again.

"N-no. My Queen," Zoisite added. There. You've won, at least as far as anyone here will ever know. Are you happy now?

Beryl stared at him for a long moment, as though suspicious. Then she summoned the same four youma that had brought him in.

"Take him down to Supply and see that he gets what he needs," she ordered them.

As he turned away from the throne, Zoisite felt his lips twist into a terrible smile. So we've both made our first moves in the game. I wonder who's going to win?

Zoisite drummed his fingers impatiently against the bench, waiting for the sergeant in charge of Palace Guard recruitment to get back from wherever he had disappeared to. Damned Guards are slow as snails, he jeered, the reflex of an army regular.

"Zoisite, is it?"

The blonde man jerked his head upward, annoyed at himself for being startled. There was the sergeant, and with him, the young prince.

"I'm Endymion." The prince nodded to him.

"You honor me, your Highness." Just in time, Zoisite remembered to bow instead of salute.

"Not at all. If you join the Guard, we're probably going to see a lot of each other." Endymion stared at him for a long moment, and Zoisite found himself blushing for no apparent reason. "From the north, aren't you?"

"Yes, your Highness." My name should make that much obvious.

"Well, welcome to the capital, then."

There was a long, uncomfortable pause.

"Take him to join the others," the prince at last ordered the sergeant, who saluted and gestured for Zoisite to follow him.

It was the first time that the blonde man had ever been so far inside the palace, and he didn't have to fake the awe expected of him in his persona as a northern boy who had never been to the capital before.

Their path led through the public parts of the castle and on into the servants' quarters. The sergeant stopped outside a plain wooden door and unlocked it, using a key from a ring on his belt.

"The testing takes three days. During that time, you'll be living here."

Zoisite nodded.

"Make yourself comfortable, then," the sergeant continued. "Do you have any baggage?"

The blonde man shook his head and tapped the light bag slung over his left shoulder. "This is all."

The Guard snorted. "Probably just as well. Cadets don't have much space to stow stuff. Well, good luck."

After he had left, Zoisite perched on the edge of the bed that was the only piece of furniture in the room and hid his face in his hands, feeling vaguely sick. He was here, yes, free of Beryl for the present, if not of Metallia's power, but he didn't know where inside the palace complex he was or how to find a mage who might be able to help him.

There was a tentative knock on the door. He sighed and raised his head.

"Come in."

A blonde head several shades lighter than his own poked itself around the edge of the doorframe. "You don't sound too enthusiastic," said a cheerful voice.

Zoisite forced a smile. "I'm just worried, I guess. I really wouldn't mind some company."

"I'm Jadeite." The stranger hesitated, seeing that there was nowhere to sit but on the bed.

"Zoisite. Feel free," he added, indicating a spot near the foot of the bed.

"Thanks." Jadeite sat down. "I thought I was the only northerner trying to join up this year."

Zoisite shrugged. "I just got here. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether I could handle the physical side of things. I was expected to wash out in the preliminary round of testing. Instead, well, here I am." He wondered who Beryl had sent to take those preliminary tests for him -- or had she just bribed the examiners? What difference does it make? he wondered morosely. I'm still here under false pretenses, as an enemy spy. Metallia's power, coiled inside him, gave him no chance to forget that. "How many of us are there?"

"Would-be cadets, you mean? Seven, including you and me. They say two or three of us can expect to pass."

"Huh." Zoisite hitched himself further up on the bed so that he could lean back against the wall. "Well, may the best man succeed." He offered Jadeite his hand.

"May we both succeed," the boy replied, and shook it.

Zoisite grinned crookedly. "They do say that northerners make the best soldiers."

It was the third day of the tests. On the first day, the examiners had tested the prospective cadets' intellectual abilities. One boy, rather slow-thinking, had failed right there. Zoisite had passed easily. It had occurred to him to wonder whether Beryl had somehow increased his intelligence, which would have explained the feeling of preternatural mental clarity he had been experiencing since he had awoken in the Dark Kingdom. Jadeite had also passed, albeit with a bit more struggle. The second day hadn't required much of the candidates. A junior mage had been sent to verify that they all had at least rudimentary magical powers, which were required to attune them to certain defenses within the palace. Zoisite had almost broken down and explained his problem to the young woman, but had held himself back, doubting that her magical powers were strong enough to exorcise Metallia.

The last day of the tests examined the candidates' purely physical abilities. With Metallia's power flowing through it, Zoisite's apparently weak body was performing far above the required minimums. Two more candidates had washed out that morning, one for lack of strength, the other for lack of endurance. At least two more were expected to fail the tests of coordination, speed, perception, and weaponskill that would take up the afternoon.

The prospective cadets were led into the weapons arena by a sergeant. Zoisite, last in line, surveyed his competition with a slight smile. Jadeite and the three other surviving candidates, two boys and a young woman, looked tired from their exertions of the morning. Zoisite, on the other hand, knew he looked as fresh as when he had started the trials that morning.

"You there. Pretty boy." The sergeant in charge of the Guards' weapon training beckoned to Zoisite, who stepped forward. "See what you can do with this."

Zoisite took the sword from the sergeant's hand and received a nod of startled approval when his fingers shifted automatically to grip the weapon correctly. He backed away a few steps, never taking his eyes off his prospective opponent. It felt good to be holding a sword again.

He had been good when he had been an army sergeant. He was better now, with this quick, supple, young body that was still equally as strong as the one he had lost. Scoring two touches in quick succession, he won the match.

The sound of applause caused him to glance toward the edge of the practice ring, where a man in the uniform of a Guard officer stood leaning against the wall.

"We're keeping this one, I think," the officer remarked to the sergeant. "You should have known better than to underestimate him, Jiro."

"I didn't, Captain." The sergeant wiped sweat from his brow, glancing over at Zoisite. "He's good."

Zoisite studied the officer. So this was Nephrite, captain of the Palace Guard. Kunzite's friend. Actually, there were rumors that they were more than friends. The blonde man felt a stab of irrational jealousy. Not only was Nephrite beautiful, but he exuded an air of strength that Zoisite knew his delicate body could never match.

He sat down on a bench to await the end of the others' trials. One of the other boys had apparently never held a sword before in his life. He failed. Jadeite passed, as did the girl and the other boy, but that last, Zoisite suspected, had reactions just slightly too slow to pass the other tests of the afternoon. It would be just him, Jadeite, and the girl, then. He thought he could handle that.

"So, what do you think of our new crop of cadets?" Kunzite asked without looking up.

"I'll never understand how you do that," Nephrite complained, seating himself in the padded chair the general kept for visitors. "It looks like we're going to have three of them. A southern girl, name of Keiko, who's going to be a solid, but not outstanding, officer. And two northern boys, Jadeite and Zoisite."

"Zoisite," Kunzite said. "Odd."

"How so?"

"Just coincidence. An army sergeant of that name died in Beryl's most recent attack. We think. Most of the bodies were never found, and his was one of them."

Nephrite shrugged. "Well, unless Sergeant Zoisite was a petite, fragile, green-eyed blonde with enough magic for three Guards, they can't possibly be the same person."

"No, he was twenty-three, built like a brick wall, with sandy hair and dark eyes, and magic-null, according to his file."

"Twenty-three? A bit young for his rank, wouldn't you say?"

Kunzite shrugged. "Unusually rapid promotions. He was good, and he had an instinct for being in the right place at the right time. Anyway, go on with what you were saying. I didn't mean to interrupt."

"Well, those two are the prize. Jadeite's one of the most charismatic creatures to come through here in a while, and brighter than the average. He has a good instinctive grasp of tactics, and should make a decent general officer in a few years' time."

"Trying to replace me already?" Kunzite asked.

The two men grinned at each other.

"Zoisite is... well, he's one of a kind," Nephrite continued. "His appearance is going to make people underestimate him most of the time. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he's got the highest test scores recorded since you and I went through. He's very sure of himself, but there are signs that he may actually be that good. On the down side, he has quite a temper. He nearly killed some other poor kid for shoving him in the mess hall this morning. Oh, and he whipped Jiro's ass at his weapons trial. I think we should have him trained for covert operations."

Kunzite frowned. "You do realize that I'm going to have to see him myself before I approve that."

"Be my guest. I think you'll like him. He's just your type."

"I won't ask which way you mean me to take that. Does he have enough magic to actually do anything with?"

"The mages say he does. He doesn't appear to have any training, though."

Kunzite nodded slowly. "All right. Can you arrange for him to join you for supper in the officers' mess tomorrow? I don't want to make this look too formal."

"Consider it done."

Kunzite waited until Nephrite had left the room again before he slid a thin folder out from under the stack of papers in front of him and opened it again. And what would you say, old friend, if you knew that I'd already decided what to do with this one?

He stared into the green eyes of the boy in the photograph, trying to understand why he thought the young man was important. His magical talent often chose to manifest itself in unusually accurate and complete intuitions, but this time, his feeling remained frustratingly vague.

Who are you and why do I feel like I should know you?

The image remained mute. With a frustrated sigh, the general slid the folder to the bottom of the stack again and went back to reading reports.

Zoisite accepted his supper tray in silence and sat down at a corner table, with his back to the wall, not willing to risk a repeat of what had happened the previous morning, when an innocent stumble by one of the other candidates had caused him to fly into a rage, which had been intensified by Metallia's power. He had almost ripped the unfortunate youth apart, and the fright might have contributed to the boy's failure in the tests later that morning.

"Hey there, Zoi." Without waiting for an invitation, Jadeite deposited his tray on the table across from Zoisite and sat down. "So how do you like the military life so far?"

Well, I can tell you that the food's much better in the officers' mess, the slender man reflected wryly as he picked up his chopsticks. If you ever have to subsist on that slop we ate out in the field, it's going to kill you. I must admit that I could get used to living like this.

"I think I'd like to give it an entire week before I decide," he said instead, and shoveled rice into his mouth to avoid having to speak again.

"You seem to be taking it all pretty well. Then again, you always seem to know what you're doing. I don't think I noticed anyone yelling at you all day."

Zoisite shrugged. "Just call everything that moves 'sir' or 'ma'am' unless you know you should be calling it 'my lord' or 'my lady' and do whatever you're told without complaining or asking questions unless you're specifically given permission to do so. Easy as falling off a log."

"Yeah, right." Jadeite tackled his own meal with gusto.

"Cadet Zoisite. Cadet Jadeite. Do you mind if we join you?"

Zoisite looked up... and froze. The tall, broad-shouldered shadow looming over him belonged to Captain Nephrite. Odd enough to find him eating here in the mess, but seeing the man who loomed behind him was still odder. My god, that's Kunzite himself!

"Of course you may join us, sir," the blonde man said, finally finding his tongue. Nephrite slid into place beside him, and Kunzite sat down beside Jadeite. Noticing that his -- friend, yes, he thought he could consider Jadeite a friend -- was turning blue in the face, Zoisite kicked his ankle under the table, and was gratified to see him start to breathe again as he winced.

Then Zoisite made a mistake. He looked up, inadvertently meeting Kunzite's eyes across the table. And the world froze around him again.

Well, Nephrite was right, Kunzite thought wryly as he sat down beside the other cadet. Zoisite is exactly my type. I don't think I've ever seen anyone, man or woman, who's more beautiful.

Then the boy glanced up. Emerald green eyes met crystal grey, and Kunzite felt a distinct shock, as though the world had tilted.

Damnit, what is it about him? My intuition is definitely trying to tell me something.

Someone touched his wrist. Nephrite. He tore his gaze away from Zoisite to look down at the other man's hands. Nephrite had put aside his chopsticks and was signaling frantically in a form of sign language which the cadets would not learn for some time. Are you all right? his hands asked. Kunzite nodded slightly, and used his free hand to form, I'll tell you later.

What in hell is going on? Zoisite tried to sort through the tangle of emotions, some of them amplified by the dark power he bore. Curiosity and apprehension. Lust, strongly amplified. Well, it would be. And something else. Something unfamiliar, that Metallia was almost choking off. Love? Am I... ? That's ridiculous! At best, Kunzite is nothing more than my superior officer. At worst, he's a means of buying my freedom from Beryl and Metallia. Hell, I don't even like boys. Unless Beryl tampered with that, too, which would explain why I haven't been feeling all that interested in the women here. Another piece of his identity gone. As soon as he was freed of his dependence on her power, he was going to crucify that bitch!

Kunzite looked away, and Zoisite realized that he could breathe again.

"So, Zoisite," the general was saying, "what made you decide to join the Palace Guard? It isn't exactly the choice of profession one would expect of one of your..."

"Stature?" Zoisite suggested. "I wanted to prove everyone who's said that wrong, sir. I've always been stronger than my size would suggest."

"Subconscious magical amplification, perhaps," Nephrite said.

Zoisite shrugged. "If so, I have no idea how I'm doing it, sir."

"Which is part of what we wanted to discuss." Kunzite toyed with his chopsticks. I don't think he's touched his food. Which means that it's just a prop. Which means that he came down here specifically to meet one of us, probably me, for some purpose that I can't fathom. "You're aware that you and the others are going to be assigned mentors in the next week or so."

"Of course, sir. One of the first things they told us was that we were each to be paired with an experienced officer, since there are so few of us that the Guard makes no provision for formal cadet classes." Zoisite realized that he was babbling, telling this man things he surely already knew, and bit his tongue.

"The Palace Guard accepts only the best of the best." Kunzite put his chopsticks down, abandoning, to Zoisite's eye, even the pretense that he was here to eat. "You two have proven yourselves exceptional even by that standard. For that reason, Jadeite, you will be working with Nephrite here --" the blonde boy choked on his rice, and Zoisite detected a flicker of some emotion (surprise? irritation?) crossing Nephrite's features -- "and you, Zoisite, will be working directly with me."

Zoisite's chopsticks fell to his tray with a clatter, even though he had sensed it coming. Beryl, did you know about this? Was that why you saved me, instead of one of the others?

"This is, of course, a purely informal announcement," the general continued. "The official assignments will be made later. I thought it was best that you be prepared."

"Thank you, sir," Zoisite choked out.

"What in hell do you think you're doing?" Nephrite hissed the moment the cadets were out of earshot.

"I don't know," Kunzite said. "It's just that the feeling was so strong... It was almost a compulsion."

"Kunzite, you idiot, don't you realize what's going to happen? Generals don't take apprentices. It's just not done. They'll think you want him as a bedwarmer or worse."

The general spun around to face his friend. "Nephrite, do you recall a little game we used to play, back when we were very junior officers? It's called "Count the Stripes". Now, on my sleeve, I see, hmmm, one... two... three... four... five... six stripes in all. On yours, I only see four. Do you know what that means?"

"That you give the orders and I take them," the auburn-haired man replied with a grimace. "Although I seem to recall that you still only had four stripes yourself at this time last year."

"You know my intuitions are usually right," Kunzite said to his friend. "If they weren't, I would have died in that ambush last year. Please. Trust me." I only wish I knew what you'll be trusting me with.

The morning after the assignments were officially handed out, Zoisite appeared at Kunzite's office door immediately after breakfast. The white-haired general waved him in and put him to work sorting papers. They worked companionably enough for an hour or so.

"Permission to speak frankly, sir," Zoisite said suddenly.

"Always," Kunzite replied, wondering where the young cadet had picked up that particular turn of phrase.

"You have no idea what to do with me, do you? This --" he waved a hand in the general direction of the papers on the little table in front of him --"would be better done by an aide or a secretary, someone with inside knowledge of your work. I don't have that. Therefore, I have to conclude that it's just make-work. Sir."

"Is it?" Kunzite said blandly. Oh, he's sharp, this one.

"I wouldn't venture to contradict you, sir."

"Wouldn't you?"

They stared at each other for several seconds. Kunzite felt as though he was balanced at the edge of a cliff.

"Carry on, Cadet," he said at last, and continued to watch Zoisite as the younger man turned back to the papers.

This is getting to be extremely frustrating. I like this boy. I like him very much. But there's something about him that's profoundly disturbing.

Zoisite swiped a brimming glass off a servant's tray and grinned. His smile faded as he drank, however. He had been at the capital for a month. A month during which he had done nothing to free himself from Metallia. In fact, he had tried to avoid thinking about Beryl, Metallia, and his mission at all, inasmuch as that was possible when he had the demon goddess's magical fire burning in his veins and was working shoulder-to-shoulder with Kunzite every day. When he did think about the problem, he made rather lame excuses to cover for his inaction. The truth was that he just didn't want to lose his place here, and that, he suspected, was exactly what would happen if he revealed himself to the Council of Mages. Or to Kunzite. He'd had to throttle back the latter impulse increasingly often over the past two weeks.

"Enjoying the party?" a soft voice asked him from behind.

Zoisite jumped. "Yes, sir." He didn't have to turn to see who it was. Didn't want to turn to look into those piercing grey eyes.

"Good. This only happens once a year, and you should take advantage of it."

That's not all I'd like to take advantage of... Zoisite blushed, and then cursed the fair skin of the body that Beryl had conjured for him. He gulped wine in an effort to forestall further conversation. I think this had better be my last glass. His vision lost focus for a moment, and the glass split into two overlapping images. My last two glasses. Damn it, I am *not* going to giggle!

Kunzite chuckled and reached out to steady him as he swayed. "I think this is when I'm supposed to give you the lecture about drunkenness being unfitting to the dignity of an officer, but judging from your expression, you're already angry at yourself for ending up in this state. And anyway, I'm not in the best of shape either."

"I didn't think I was sh... such a cheap drunk," the blonde man complained, leaning against his superior. Metallia's fire leaped hotter wherever their bodies touched, a sensation that was really more pleasurable than painful. "Ish there anywhere we can sit down?"

"Come with me." The general wrapped his arm around Zoisite's shoulders -- a wise precaution, because otherwise I wouldn't be sure which one of him was real -- and pulled him gently toward the entrance to a narrow corridor. "I assume you want to get out of this crowd. My quarters are a lot closer than yours."

He can't mean what he's making that sound like, but, oh, I hope he does... The alcohol in his system had made all of Zoisite's second thoughts about Metallia and his mission evaporate, and there was only one thing that he wanted to do now.

He also wished that his uniform trousers weren't quite so tight.

A few minutes later, Kunzite pushed open a carved wooden door. "Here we are."

Zoisite had never been inside the general's private quarters before. It was difficult to inspect them when the room seemed to be swinging in slow, lazy circles, but the furniture seemed to be just as plain as that in the quarters of the cadets and junior officers down on the lower levels -- there was just a little more of it.

"Sit down." Kunzite tried to push the younger man down onto a chair, but Zoisite wouldn't cooperate. Instead, he tangled his fingers in Kunzite's hair and refused to let go.

"Jusht want... t'touch you," he mumbled.

He really is too pretty for his own good. I need to get him out of my sight before I do something stupid. Kunzite tried to concentrate, to gather his own minimal magical talents in order to nudge the cadet over the line into unconsciousness, but it was difficult with Zoisite leaning against him. One of the boy's hands disentangled itself from the general's hair and reached up to stroke his face. My own damned fault. I should have taken him down to his own bed while he could still walk. Now I'm probably going to have to carry him if I want to move him.

He realized that Zoisite's hands were unfastening the front of his uniform jacket. Time to end this.

He caught the boy's wrists. "Enough." He tried to sound stern, but detected a note of wistfullness in his voice nonetheless. Hopefully, Zoisite was too drunk to notice.

"Y'don' really wan' me t'shtop," the boy slurred.

"Even if I wanted to cooperate with you, you're too drunk to do anything about it," the general said with asperity.

"No, m'not," Zoisite protested. "Why's th'room moving?"

Kunzite gave up. The boy was obviously past the point of rational thought, and the older man doubted that he could carry the cadet the full distance down to the boy's quarters without damaging his back, which left him with exactly one choice. He glanced over the selection of chairs and winced. I really should have something more comfortable brought in. I *hate* sleeping sitting up.

He slid one arm around Zoisite's waist and the other under his knees, and carried him through to the bedroom. Once there, Zoisite refused to let go of him again, and managed to pull him down onto the bed. Then the cadet's lips brushed against his, and Kunzite discovered that his willpower was crumbling.

I'm really going to regret this in the morning, Kunzite realized as he kicked off his boots. Then there was no time for thought at all.

They fell asleep with their limbs tangled together, Zoisite half-lying on Kunzite. Unconscious, the blonde man failed to sense Metallia's realization that he had taken the first step toward the completion of his mission, or notice the demon queen's dark power bleeding over into the body of the unsuspecting general.

And so the choice was made.

Kunzite was the first to wake in the morning. He looked tenderly down at the face of the still-sleeping Zoisite, and realized for the first time what his intuition had been trying to tell him.

This isn't going to be just a brief fling. This -- him and I -- it's forever.

I don't think we're going to be able to hide it for long, either. Nephrite was right. This was a stupid thing to do. It will probably ruin my career. He sighed.

"Mmmm... Kunzite?" Zoisite's eyes flickered open. "So it was real after all."

"Of course it was real."

"My head hurts," the younger man complained.

"You're hung over," the general replied. "I'll try to find you something for it while you get dressed."

"Do I have to?" The boy closed his eyes again and snuggled closer to him.

"I'm afraid so." Kunzite threw the blankets off them both. "We should try to keep this secret for as long as possible, although we don't have a hope in hell that it won't come out eventually. The moment anyone finds out, you'll be dismissed in disgrace, and I'll be court-marshaled and demoted. If we're lucky."

Zoisite groaned, but he managed to sit up. "Whatever you say, sir."

Their idyll lasted some two months before they were discovered by one of the servants. Within days, the news was all over the palace. The king called for an official investigation. Kunzite accepted the inevitable consequences with wry fatalism. Zoisite hated himself for what was happening, but couldn't bring himself to confess.

An hour before the court-martial was scheduled to hand down Kunzite's sentence, Zoisite straightened the collar of his lover's dress uniform, unable to bring himself to meet the general's eyes until Kunzite reached down and tilted his head back.

"Why so depressed?" the older man asked with a smile. "They won't convict me, Zoisite. They can't afford to. I'm their best strategist, and Beryl's been stepping up her attacks."

"Are you sure?" Zoisite asked.

Kunzite looked away.

"I didn't think you were," the younger man said. "Please be careful."

"It's too late for that," Kunzite said. "But one way or the other, we'll be together. I promise."

As Zoisite watched him leave, he felt something damp trickle from the corner of his eye. A tear. He hadn't cried since his capture by Beryl. He hadn't even been certain that his new body was capable of it.

Well, I've effectively completed my mission. What Beryl really wanted, I think, was to have Kunzite removed from a position of tactical authority, and I've probably done that. She'll be willing to fix my body now.

But there was a hollow place inside him. Suddenly, he realized that it was a Kunzite-shaped hole, and understood why Metallia had tried to manipulate his feelings during that first meeting with the general.

What good will it do for me to be healthy and free of Beryl if I've destroyed the only person I've ever truly loved? It was for me that he went so calmly to that trial, and threw his career away. I can't let him do it. I have to go there right now and confess. If I let them believe that I ensorcelled him, they'll let him go.

He stood straight, head unbowed, before the tribunal, and waited.

"General Kunzite." It was the prince that spoke. "In view of the unusual nature of this case, the court has decided on a compromise. Will you hear our verdict?"

Kunzite nodded, not trusting his voice. Zoisite, my love, it's fortunate that you aren't at risk...

"In view of your otherwise unblemished record and the dire straits in which we now find ourselves, we consider your dismissal both unnecessary and unwise," Endymion continued. "Your demotion is likewise counterindicated. We need you too badly. However, abuse of the privileges of rank is a serious crime, and we cannot let it go unpunished. Therefore, a black mark will be placed in your records. You are also to be fined six months' pay."

Kunzite relaxed slightly. Those were far less severe consequences than he had feared.

"Furthermore, Cadet Zoisite will be dismissed from the Guard, in the interest of keeping you from... further temptation." Endymion winced as he said it.

No, no, no!

"My liege," Kunzite said. "Please do not punish Zoisite for my actions. The fault is mine alone."

"I'm sorry," the prince said. "It's out of my hands." And he held up a paper bearing the royal seal.


"Then I resign my commission," Kunzite snarled, "and I hope you enjoy trying to fight Beryl off by yourselves." He knew his anger was foolish and self-indulgent, but something was causing it to surge out of control. Rudely, he turned his back on the prince without waiting to be dismissed, and strode toward the archway that provided the room's only exit.

He should have been able to walk straight through it, as he had done when entering. Instead, there was a flash of white light, and he was paralyzed, trapped like a fly in amber. The members of the tribunal, shocked, became absolutely silent.

The wards guarding the chamber were ancient. They activated only when perceiving a being possessing evil power.

Kunzite was just as surprised as everyone else, but fought the emotion down. They must have reprogrammed the damned things. Very slick: reprimand me, then get rid of me, and pretend that I'd been corrupted. There have to be at least a dozen people at Court who would like to see me die in disgrace. Right now, I have to get loose before I'm hauled off to the temple for an exorcism. If he had been free to move, he would have shuddered. An unsuccessful magical exorcism would leave him a vegetable, if he survived at all. But I don't have the power to break these wards. I was never that strong.

Nevertheless, he had to try. If he could find a weak point in the spell, he might yet be able to unravel it and escape, even using his relatively small abilities. He turned his attention inward and concentrated on bringing his weak magical powers to the surface.

He was rewarded with a remarkable surge of energy. This is a mage's power! It isn't possible... The wards snapped, freeing him. Then, sickened, he realized what must have happened.

The wards were right. Something *has* corrupted me. This power isn't really mine. It comes from the outside. And that's why I was so angry.

His feet were automatically tracing the path back to his quarters. Zoisite. I have to warn him -- he'll be under suspicion. At least one of us should be able to get away intact. His remaining choices were all bad: betray king and country, or hand himself over to the temple for exorcism, and, if he was fortunate, die. I think I'll run away with Zoi. Under the layer of searing fire that was the evil power -- how did this happen? When was I vulnerable to this sort of attack? -- he still loved the younger man, and wasn't willing to give him up. He wanted to live.

"Kunzite? Kunzite, what's wrong? What happened?"

"Zoisite! Thank the gods!" He pulled the younger man into a tight embrace. "Everything went wrong. I'll explain later. Right now, we have to get out of here."

"Stop, traitor!"

Kunzite whirled frantically to run back the way he had come, only to find that path blocked as well.

"Please, Kunzite. I don't want to have to use this." Nephrite held a drawn sword in his hand. Jadeite, beside him, was unarmed, but still provided a potential roadblock. Kunzite had no weapons; he had not been permitted to bear them during his trial.

"Nephrite, they're going to want to exorcise me! Don't you know what that means?" Kunzite appealed to his friend.

The blue eyes remained cold and hard. "Come with me, Kunzite. I won't ask you again."

"At least let Zoisite go," the former general pleaded.

"He comes with you. By order of the king."

Kunzite gathered his powers. Nephrite had only weak magic, concerned mostly with divination. The evil energies that had betrayed him might well save his life.

But before he could attack, black fire fountained through the hall. Kunzite lost consciousness as it enveloped him.

"He did what?" the king asked.

"Disappeared, Majesty," the guard reported nervously. "He took Captain Nephrite and the two cadets with him."

"Very well. Dismissed." The king frowned. Kunzite's corruption meant that he would have to conduct a thorough investigation in the upper echelons of the military to see how many other officers had joined him. It was a nuisance, especially in the middle of all these youma raids, but it couldn't be helped.

Zoisite returned to consciousness slowly. He was lying on his side, on a hard stone floor. The damp smell in the air indicated that he wasn't in the palace.

"Are you all right?"

"Kunzite?" The blonde man opened his eyes and saw the former general kneeling beside him. "Where are we?"

"I don't know, my love, but Nephrite and Jadeite are here too."

I know, Zoisite realized as he took in a few more details of his surroundings. This is Beryl's throne room.

As if on cue, a voice wafted out of the darkness.

"Congratulations, Zoisite. You have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations"

"Beryl," Zoisite snarled. "Damn you! Why didn't you just kill me?"

"Because I still have a use for you."

Ignoring her, the green-eyed man turned toward Kunzite. "Please. I didn't want to do this to you. I love you, and I never wanted to hurt you. She tricked me. I should have confessed while I had the chance."

"You..." Kunzite whispered.

"I was captured in a raid," the boy was saying. "I had to pretend to go along with her. Metallia's power is all that's keeping me alive. I never thought... never thought she could..."

"You betrayed me?" Kunzite asked.

Miserable, the boy nodded. "I didn't want to. Didn't intend to. I don't really understand what happened..."

"Oh, Zoisite..." Kunzite drew his lover into his arms. "I don't think it was anything you did. As you said, she tricked you. It's only to be expected. I doubt she could deal honestly with anyone to save her life."

"I don't agree," rasped another voice. Nephrite was slowly pulling himself to his feet. "He's responsible for all this. Now all four of us are in Beryl's power, and it's his fault!"

"I'm glad someone remembers me," the red-haired queen murmured.

Kunzite prepared himself to attack. By using evil power to destroy a greater evil, he might yet redeem himself.

Rays of darkness lanced out from the crystal ball under Beryl's hand, striking Kunzite, Zoisite, Nephrite, and the still-unconscious Jadeite. The three waking men slumped back to the ground. At the last moment, Kunzite forced himself to turn so that his body would cushion Zoisite's fall.

She walked around the bodies sprawled on the floor of her throne room. Excellent catches, one and all.

She frowned as she noticed that Kunzite still clutched Zoisite against him. She would have to break all his fingers if she wanted to separate them, she realized. It was probably easier to leave them together, even though it would take longer to brainwash them that way. Fortunately, Zoisite's unexpected efficiency had left her with plenty of time before the attack.

This time, when they woke, they were lying in bed together, covered with a single, thin blanket.

Kunzite, the white-haired man thought slowly. My name is Kunzite. I am a warrior of the Dark Kingdom. And this person is... Zoisite. My love.

Nothing else seemed to matter to him. That one piece of knowledge was enough.

The End

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