There was a moment of stunned disbelief on the bridge of the Swordbreaker as Mitsuki's fighter exploded into a wash of flame on the viewscreen. "Asuka," Minagi barked out the order, "did she make it out?"
From the tactical station Asuka worked her sensors frantically but had to report, "No lifesigns registering, ma'am."
Rei spoke softly as she tried to use the communications gear to contact her, "Mitsuki, please respond. Mitsuki, if you can pick up this signal, please reply..."
"Is she... " Sasami said weakly, "she couldn't be..."
Misaki began to cry softly, even as Funaho put her arm over her shoulder. "She may have ejected in time," she reassured her gently.
Rhione turned around, leaving the bridge silently.
"I didn't want to loose anyone this time," Ryouko murmured to herself softly. Standing on Ryo-Ohki's bridge her expression was serious as she asked, "Ryo-Ohki, have all the remaining Terran ships retreated back to Earth?"
"Myah," Ryo-Ohki picked up her mood as she answered softly.
"It appears so," Ayeka agreed, "they've suffered serious losses in ships." There was a moment of silence, "Do you want to tell Kiyone about...?"
"No," Ryouko sighed, "but I'd better be the one, just because of how long we've known each other." She spoke up, "Connect us to Swordbreaker."
A moment later Minagi's grim face appeared on the viewscreen. "I've got the fighters out on patrol in case the Terrans try something else," she reported to her sister seriously, "as well as performing a search pattern."
"We're heading down to the Moon Kingdom itself," Ryouko informed her, "to get a idea of the over all situation." She paused uncomfortably before adding, "And I'll let Kiyone know about Mitsuki being missing."
Minagi nodded grimly, "Thanks. We'll keep on looking."
"Please," Ryouko said softly. The connection closed as Ryouko said to Ayeka softly in explanation, "Minagi and I, we've always tried to at least bring a body home for the grieving family."
"There's little chance she's alive?" Ayeka softly asked even as Ryouko gave Ryo-Ohki the order to descend to the Moon.
Ryouko's expression was grave, "Not much. Even if she ejected before the explosion, there's decompression to deal with. The flight suits provide some protection, but..."
Ayeka nodded grimly. Changing the subject, "Why would Earth launch an attack on the Moon Kingdom? From my research, they've been peaceful neighbors for centuries."
"I don't know," Ryouko said grimly, "but I intend to find out. And discover what they've got to do with the attack on our wedding, too."
They set down in the courtyard outside the Palace, Ryo-Ohki smoothly reverting to her cabbit form. They barely had a chance to sort themselves out when a blonde came running out, her long hair streaming behind her in two tails.
"Ryouko," Queen Serenity threw her arms around the Empress then burst into loud tears, "thank you so much!" Before Ayeka could muster any objection the weeping queen threw her arms around Ayeka, too.
"You're people?" Ryouko asked softly.
"We've been quite fortunate," Serenity let Ayeka go reluctantly, "there's been only a few casualties." Her expression darkened, "We saw one of your fighters destroyed."
"We haven't confirmed the pilot's status," Ayeka said softly, "but..."
Serenity turned to signal one of the young men standing guard, "Jadite?" The blonde threw a salute as she continued, "Organize search parties. If the pilot was near enough to the surface when the ship exploded, he or she might still be alive."
They walked into the Palace together as Ryouko asked, "What started all this?"
"I'm not entirely certain myself," Serenity admitted softly. They passed through a reception area, "We had good relations with the last Terran king, Endymion, but for some reason the latest king seemed to bear a grudge against the Kingdom."
They entered the command center, where Lady Ami of Mercury, Washu, and Yume were working on bringing the systems back on-line. The blue haired lady bowed, "Defensive shields are back on line, mostly due to Washu and Yume's expert assistance."
"Could you give Ryouko and the others an update on the tactical situation?" Serenity asked.
"Of course," Ami slipped her glasses on, "the Terrans launched their attack almost as soon as we returned home from your wedding, using a degree of military power that we were unaware they had possessed."
"The cloaking devices," Washu murmured, "they must have used them to get the warships past your sensors."
"That's my theory," Ami quietly agreed. She turned back to Ryouko and Ayeka, "They maintained a blockade to keep us from getting word out, then attempted to reduce our defenses."
Serenity looked curious, "With that blockade still in place, how did you get word that we needed assistance?"
"We were able to rummage through the cloaked attackers navigation computers," Yume spoke up, "and traced them back to Terra."
"Terra knew they wouldn't stand a chance against our fleet," Ayeka murmured, "why would they risk launching a strike against us?"
"They were probably counting on their strike to succeed," Ami quietly pointed out, "if they had managed to slay either you or Ryouko, the Empire would have been thrown into chaos, it possibly could have started up a civil war."
"I don't think I like this Terran king very much," Ryouko scowled, "what's his name?"
"We don't know his birth name," Serenity said, "but he calls himself Tenchi."
"Tenchi?!" Ayeka looked surprised, "That was the name of my brother Yosho's sword."
"An interesting coincidence," Yume noted.
"I'm not so sure I believe in coincidence anymore," Lady Rei of Mars remarked as she entered the chamber. Long black hair flowed over her shoulders, and her eyes sparked a fiery red.
Serenity looked at her, and from the sudden sparkle in her eye it was clear she cared deeply for this intense woman. "Have you learned something more?" she asked her softly.
Rei's face was softened for a moment by a gentle smile directed to the queen, then she turned to Ryouko and the others. "It seems that this 'Tenchi' claims to be a lost prince to the Juraian throne," she explained grimly, "and has convinced much of the Earth he is the true heir."
"All right, now I'm certain that I don't like this Terran king very much," Ryouko said grimly. She looked over at Ayeka, "It looks like we're going to have to take steps."
"Indeed," Ayeka agreed.
Rei and Serenity exchanged a glance, then Serenity spoke up firmly, "We'll offer whatever assistance we can. I have no wish to remain neighbors with such a hostile force." With a slightly rueful smile she added, "Sadly, at this point our assistance doesn't amount to much."
"We'll take what we can get," Ryouko was looking quite thoughtful, already considering the overall situation. She shook herself once she noticed the odd looks she was getting, "Sorry."
"I remember how you work, warlord," Rei smiled slightly, "and I look forward to seeing what you come up with." She offered her hand to Serenity, "Shall we leave them to it, Usagi?"
A slight blush colored Serenity's cheeks as she said, "Of course." She took the lady's hand, and they left the chamber with remarkable haste.
"Usagi?" Ayeka raised an eyebrow, "Wasn't that what she asked you to call her?"
Ryouko nodded slightly, "Only Serenity's most intimate friends, or lover, is allowed to call her that." A slight smile, "Rei is a lucky woman."
"Do you miss it?" Ayeka asked softly, not an accusation but merely a question.
"No," Ryouko shook her head as she reached out to take Ayeka's hand in hers, "because I'm a luckier woman by far."
"Charmer," Ayeka smiled fondly.
Washu cleared her throat loudly, "Could we get to work, please?"
Just then Kiyone walked into the chamber. The black haired officer instantly knew something was wrong, "What happened?"
Ryouko sighed softly, "It's about Mitsuki..."
That evening Minagi felt a flash of irritation as she and a few other crew disembarked on the Moon's surface to attend a victory banquet. "A banquet," she growled, "we haven't even won this yet."
Ruri gave her a calmly assessing look, "You're angry because we haven't found Mitsuki yet, not because of any banquet."
"I shouldn't have let her go out in that fighter," Minagi growled.
"And if you hadn't," Ruri pointed out to her coolly, "the Palace we're walking up to would be a smoking crater right now."
"A great comfort to her family and friends," Minagi scowled.
"Yes," Ruri said intensely, "because she was living her life the way she wanted to. Her own choices brought her to that moment, not yours." A moment of silence, "You can not change the past Captain, not even you have that power."
"Hmm," Minagi was nodding slightly. "Have you ever considered becoming a captain yourself?" she asked Ruri suddenly.
Ruri looked up to see if the woman was kidding or not. "No," she answered simply.
"You might want to think about it," Minagi commented as they passed through the outer gates and inside.
Upon seeing the hostess and guests Minagi felt just a bit better, seeing black armbands being worn by almost everyone. Probably in honor of their own losses, too, but she felt comforted that the dead were being remembered tonight as well.
Ryouko and Ayeka made their way through the crowd to their side. Ryouko smiled grimly, "Good to see you, sis. You too, Commander Ruri."
"Thank you," the blue haired, almost elven woman nodded slightly. Ruri looked up at them thoughtfully, "Any news on ..?"
"Nothing," Ayeka shook her head before adding grimly, "They've found the wreckage, but haven't positively identified her yet."
Serenity made her way to the four woman, and nodded respectfully to Minagi. "I understand that the pilot that saved the Palace was launched from your ship," she said softly, "I hope that you will pass on my deepest regrets to her family."
Minagi nodded, "I will."
"That won't be necessary," a firm and very recognizable voice came from the doorway not too far from where they stood. Mitsuki leaned on the shoulder of a dark haired young woman, looking a complete mess except for the broad grin on her face. Her hair was stubble, seemingly burned away, and her uniform was in tatters, blood staining the fabric. But strangely, her body appeared whole beneath the wrecked uniform, her wounds healed.
"Mitsuki!" Minagi was across the room and joyfully pounding on the redhead's shoulders like a shot, "You're alive!"
"Of course I'm alive," Mitsuki nearly fell over except for the dark haired girl bracing her upright, "I couldn't hurt this bad if I was dead."
"Go easy," the girl scolded Minagi, "she was gravely wounded when we found her. If not for my healing gift, I don't know if she would have survived."
"Thank you very much," Ryouko stepped up to say. She smiled slightly, "Lady Hotaru of Saturn, am I correct?"
Hotaru nodded slightly, "Yes I am."
"Know that Ryouko, Empress of Manticore owes you a debt. Call on me, and I will answer," she said to the young woman firmly.
"You're welcome," Hotaru smiled slightly, surrendering the slightly scorched Mitsuki to their care. She walked away, but was soon met by a pink haired girl who clasped the slightly older Hotaru's hand in her own.
Kiyone looked into Mitsuki's eyes, and the redhead was surprised to see tears glistening, "Don't you ever do something that stupid again."
Mitsuki smiled wryly, "I'll try not to."
A figure made her way through the crowd, cutting across to where they stood. Rhione had the oddest look on her face as she gazed at Mitsuki thoughtfully. Softly she said, "I'm glad to see that you're all right." She looked her over, "Well, mostly all right."
"Thanks," Mitsuki smiled back slightly. She looked over at Ryouko, "So, what did I miss?"
To be continued...