The Darkest Road
by Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs

Episode Nineteen: Love's (a) Bitch

* * * * * * * *

He was slumped in what appeared to be an uncomfortable fashion in the tree chair, long lanky legs drawn up underneath him. Long in comparison to the rest of his body, that was – during the fourteen years that had passed since his arrival to this world, the delicacy and fragility had not left him.

Giving birth to Nephrite had taken forty hours (I’d had to do it without any magical assistance because of his inherent powers), even though I was broadly built and well trained in both muscle and will. With small, slender Zoisite, the procedure had been over within ten hours. Of course, for the likewise petit Tolina-san, it would probably have been worse.

I’d never much liked the impetuous young woman, never admired the quicksilver temper and infectious mood-swings that had enchanted so many others, but I was not one to question the decisions of my superiors. And Relisiana had never been so fond of anyone except her son as she’d been of Tolina. Which was clearer proof than anything of the latter’s charm, since Martian morality generally doesn’t allow for affairs outside of marriage. And Tolina had had a very tainted reputation before the Queen took fancy in her – not only had she run away from her arranged wedding, she’d also dumped the lover who’d helped her escape within a month’s time. Reckless was a flattering description.

My second son was very much like her, more so than he himself could ever know. It was the same face, though the glimmer of magic made Zoisite prettier, the same sparkling green eyes that changed expression faster than they blinked. Indeed, the youngest Tennou was doubtlessly the one who resembled his mother the most.

Kunzite had Isila’s pale hair and tallness, but darker skin and heavier build than she, and their temperaments were vastly different. With Jadeite, it was mostly the same – Sosaya too had been blonde, but their personalities were nothing alike.

It’s always hard to pass a fair judgement over your own life, but as far as I could tell, Nephrite and I were rather like that as well. He was tall where I was short, had blue eyes where mine were brown, and he was more slenderly built, for being a male. And even disregarding the natural differences inherent in his being a Tennou and my being a magic-null human, our minds worked quite differently. Only the brown hair, the stubbornness and the disrespect for ceremony were the same.

Of course, compared to Zoisite, Nephrite was as good as my clone. As opposed to the other three Tennou, my youngest son featured an almost uncanny semblance to his mother. Maybe it had something to do with her dying while still carrying him; maybe it was simple coincidence, or my mind fabricating an excuse for why I had never understood him. I’d never regarded him as mine in quite the same way that I did Nephrite, most likely because he was so obviously the child of a woman I had never taken to nor comprehended.

Still, he was my son and I loved him. Seeing him sitting there so obviously miserable made my heart ache with need to soothe his pain, my arms with desire to hold him. Yes, I admitted to myself, like any other weak woman I wanted to embrace my child and stroke his back and ask what’s wrong, honey? Just tell Mommy and I’ll make it all better.

Since the Tennou had grown old enough to be regarded as unattached individuals rather than someone’s children, I’d dropped out of the queen’s inner circle – though the reports from all the spies frequenting the palace were as plentiful as ever, I’d only managed to get my hands on enough of them to get the rudimentary idea that there was something wrong with Jadeite.

With the third Tennou, not the fourth, yet it was my Zoisite who sat crying in the chair.

I approached him cautiously, stopping at a few feet’s distance before gently calling his name.

His expression, when he lifted his face, was less than pleased – teary and pale and somewhat frozen, as though in order to stifle a mien. “Mesala-san,” he replied, tired and listless voice only a tad too deep to be mistaken for Tolina’s. “What do you want?” It sounded almost like an accusation. Then again, I’d never seen him cry before, so perhaps he had reason to question my motives for approaching him like this.

“I was concerned, seeing you sad,” I said, choosing my words carefully but still uncertain whether they were the right ones to speak.

He stared at me incredulously, eyes wide and their brows halfway up his forehead. And then he laughed.

It was a sharper sound than I’d believed possible for his soft tenor to produce, genuine but bitter.

“Yes, I’m sure you were,” he replied at length, words dripping with acid sarcasm.

“I was,” I argued. “Of course I was. Zoisite, I’m your mother, of co –”

“No you’re not!” he screamed, rudely cutting me off, green eyes sparkling with fresh tears. “You’re not my mother! You’re just another one of the thousands of flies who want their piece of the rotting meat! Don’t ever call yourself my mother!”

I stared at him wordlessly, my mind a blank. Oh, I’d never been foolish enough to expect him to readily love or trust me, but this…this was more than I’d thought I deserved, more than I could handle unprepared.

“Leave me alone,” Zoisite said, the calm overlaying the agitation in his face like a blanket of new ice over an ocean. “Just…stay away from me, all right?”

“I see,” I replied tonelessly, offering a low but respectful bow. “Zoisite-tennou.”

I could feel him staring at me as I turned and started walking away. After a couple of meters, I heard the scraping of moved furniture, the taps produced by boot-clad feet walking toward me – convinced that he had changed his mind, left the bad mood behind for a good one as suddenly as was his habit and his heritage, I smiled a little as I stopped to let him catch up.

Nothing happened. When at length I turned around, smile frozen, the only remnants of Zoisite’s presence were the over-tipped chair and a few scattered flower petals on the floor.

If I’d been able to choose, it would have been a couple of days between the Zoisite incident and my running into Nephrite. Now that it wasn’t, I only had a few minutes to regain my calm before suddenly standing face to face with my oldest son.

If I’d been a little faster, I could have passed him before he turned away from the window he’d been leaning out through – if I’d been a little less stubborn and proud, I could have chosen another corridor and avoided the encounter altogether.

Persistent fool that I was, I stopped scant feet before him, regretting not having taken a different way. Oh, normally I wouldn’t have backed down from meeting him, but I wasn’t certain I could handle another rejection so soon after Zoisite’s.

I met his eyes for a few seconds before nodding deeply, skipping the requested bow. I ought to be in possession of at least a few privileges after carrying him inside me for nine months. “Nephrite-san.”

He actually smiled a little instead of looking somewhat stressed and uncomfortable, as he had the few times we’d bumped into each other since the obligatory lessons had ended. If they wished to study something these days, they did it on their own.

“Mesala-san.” His expression was surprisingly friendly, a little weary and a little sad. “It’s been a while.”

“Yes, it has, hasn’t it? How are you doing?” A question the answer to which would clarify how close we were, a question open enough to receive a dozen different but truthful answers.

“All right,” he replied. “It’s very calm here, after Verena.” He threw a quick, wistful glance out the window, the continued in a lighter tone, “Except when Zoisite has one of his tantrums, of course.”

“He seems down,” I said tentatively. Nephrite gave me a look, and I could almost hear his thoughts racing – how much did I already know? How much would I tell, and to whom? How much was safe to reveal?

“He and Kunzite have some things to work out,” he supplied at length. “Jadeite’s condition isn’t precisely helping.”

“But they’ve always gotten along so well,” escaped from me. Well, I had known there must be some reason for Kunzite’s sudden departure and long stay on Neptune. I just hadn’t connected it to Zoisite.

“Yeah, they do,” Nephrite agreed, appearing to be stifling a laugh. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear about Hertig’s ball?”

What? exploded in my mind. “I’d presumed the spreaders of that particular rumor were too drunk to know what they were talking about,” I said. “Are you saying it’s true? But Zoisite’s so young!”

“Kunzite’s been saying that too.” He shrugged, the good humor bleeding out of his voice as he added, “Love’s a bitch, right?”

“I guess,” I mumbled, preoccupied. Little baby-boy Zoisite and grown-up, stone-cold Kunzite? My young child in an intimate relationship with anyone?

“I’ll see you around, Mother.”

Shock snapped my head back up, focused my undivided attention at the spot where Nephrite had been standing mere instants ago. Mother. It was the first time he had ever called me that.

Though I would continue trying, there was nothing I could do about Zoisite’s attitudes to either me or Kunzite – what I could and would do was realize that if I handled my cards well, I might have a chance to repair things with Nephrite. Better late than never, indeed.

* * * * * * * *

The capital in which I had emerged was named after the first Sailormars history knew, a certain Laindra that had lived a little less than three thousand years ago. It was a bustling, cramped town sculptured in red and black stone, filled with the smell of people. Despite my familiarity with descriptions of it, it was not the sort of place in which I could readily see Rei grow up. Yet a part of the feel of her had been the feel of this metropolis.

Holding my magic passive and unnoticeable as best I could, I hurriedly pocketed the ofuda and scurried over to the gigantic Shrine on the other side of the plaza I was standing on.

I realized immediately upon entering the huge, impressive building filled with worshippers that my coming here had been completely unnecessary, merely a way to win my anxious mind some time. The decision to go to the Moon had been made long before. I stared at the miniature statuette of the girl I loved, the girl who was my world, and acknowledge shakily that I could live or die for her, whatever she chose, but I could not be without her.

I would go to her, and either we would live, or she’d tell me no and I would die.

Either way, the pain would stop, so I really had no reason to feel as nervous as I did. But I was, so much so that I almost forgot to confuse my seal with the ofuda when transporting to the Moon Kingdom. I’d visited it briefly before returning to Earth after my short stay on Venus, but even if such hadn’t been the case, there was no mistaking the pure light that penetrated everything. It might have been a good thing that I’d done my sightseeing already, because it was nigh-on sinful not to stand in crestfallen awe before the home of the Heart of Light, and I just couldn’t find anything that did not have violet eyes and black hair beautiful anymore.

The green trees and blossoming flowers and porling rivers were nothing but means with which to locate myself. Not that they were very helpful, since, according to description, ninety percent of the Moon consisted of similar idyllic scenery.

Fortunately, the tip of the Crystal Tower was visible in the distance. So, not wanting to waste energy on a teleport, I started to walk.

At pass two hours later, after acquiring a pair of “winged shoes”, I made my way through the City of Moonlight, hoping that I wasn’t sticking out too badly. The real question, of course, would come when I entered the palace grounds, but at least I wasn’t wearing my uniform. And if worst came to worst, I was pretty certain I had enough magic to do things the hard way.

Stopping not far from Serenity’s castle, I closed my eyes, struggling to pinpoint her without jeopardizing my hands.

There. My entire being shuddered in bliss. Finally, finally (thank the Harp) I could feel her. Her aura had suffered minor changes, but it was still hers, and she was so close now. Indeed, even if the planetary energy was more dominant than it had used to, even if thin lines of golden light connected her to the other Senshi, it was unmistakably my Rei.

This was where I should carefully have sneaked into the palace, discreetly disguised – this was where I couldn’t bring myself to give a damn anymore and without further ado teleported.

I emerged above a training range, a stone-plated area littered with spells and targets that had been pressed down into the ground so that the surrounding land was several meters higher. All of that was meaningless, forgotten, never truly registered at all – the warm beacon that was her aura was glowing before me, bathing me in the passionate heat that did not burn, that I had not dared to miss. I could see her. Oh gods, I could see her. It wasn’t a dream or a memory or in any way uncertain, it was she and she was real and she had always been real.

She was practicing her Senshi-spells, her slender white arms describing a graceful arc before releasing the familiar bolt of fire. My right hand went subconsciously to my chest, absently fingering the spot that had received her Mars Flame Sniper. She was beautiful beyond words, her movements controlled and accurate and most alluring to watch, but considering how long it took to manufacture one simple single attack, it was probably fortunate that the Senshi’s spells sort of froze the target for a few moments, or she’d never hit anything that could move. Her miko magic was likely more efficient than the Fire Soul.

All of which I only had a split second to observe before her violet eyes froze me more thoroughly than any spell ever could have. She looked less surprised than I would have imagined, but perhaps the fire had foretold her of this. Though I hated what it represented, the seeraafuku did offer a splendid display of her magician-perfect figure and endless legs. I was suddenly and violently jealous of everyone else who’d seen her like this. But what mattered, what really mattered, was the mien of stunned sweetness on her face; softly colored cheeks, parted lips painted in pink that I knew tasted like summer.

I didn’t realize I had moved until I was standing scant inches from her, teary and panting and washed with the warmth of her body. She made no protest, indeed, responded in kind when I wrapped my arms around her, pressing her as close as she could possibly get, kissed her with the suppressed emotion of three moons’ time.

I might have raped her. That’s because…it was so magical, so consuming, and suddenly she was pushing at me, trying to force me away, and why couldn’t she see, why couldn’t she understand? And I couldn’t just let go of her, I couldn’t let her get away, and I needed her to remember the feeling.

She bit my lip, stamped at my foot, but even the dull, hardly-noticed ache in my hands was worse than such slight injuries. If anything, she had taught me to endure pain.

Finally, when the struggling had tripped one or both of us so that we landed on the ground, she went for the magic. I released her, forced myself through an act of utter discipline and forsaking to let go of her, because with the ingenious improbability of her action came laughter, and from laughter the realization of how sick and ridiculous a situation we had ended up in.

I laughed until I had to blink not to allow the tears to flow down my cheeks as I pushed myself off the ground, extending a hand she warily gripped to drag her to her feet as well.

A King of Heaven and a bishoujo senshi wrestling on the ground, love’s fool Jadeite attempting to hurt his precious princess tormentor. The Fire Soul that melted away on my shoulder, absorbed by my wards, only served to underline the absurdity.

But even during those few precious seconds free from thoughts of consequences and logic and loss, her level violet stare was boring into me, melting away my fancied merriment. It was a gradual process, but accelerating, faster and faster. I went from wild all-out howling to civilized laughter to hiccuping to swallow the sounds until we stood facing each other in a quiet, serious fashion so infested with emotion as to vibrate with them, so infused with feeling that I was afraid to move for fear they would explode.

“I love you.”

It was so simple, suddenly, when at length I said it – I’d come here to tell her that. Everything else, all the rest of my live and being and the universe, were nothing but byproducts of this one overwhelmingly genuine fact.

I guess it was too much to expect that calm, serene feeling to remain with me for more than a few moments. As I waited silently for a reply that never came, I felt myself tense up, my eyes hot and my breath trembling.

“Rei, please. We can go away somewhere. We can live anywhere you want, we can even go back to Mars if you’d like. They wouldn’t hinder us, not if we used the magic. We can do anything you want, anywhere you want. Just come with me. Please.”

I’d realized long before, when daydreaming, that of course we could not live on her home planet. Its people would hardly welcome a princess who had betrayed her duty and the lover that had persuaded her into eloping. None of the Inner Planets were likely to receive us with open arms, though I found it unlikely that the Mercurians or Venusians would come after us with fists and flames the way I might expect from the Martians or the Jovians. Even in the Outer Realms we might be treated with less than exceeding courtesy, but Earth was fine by me. Hell, everywhere was fine by me, if only she was with me. I’d live a perfectly happy life in a filthy dungeon if it were with her.

But that wouldn’t be necessary. Certainly she was a valuable asset to Serenity, but it ought to be possible to find another Sailormars. Even if she refused to lay down her wand, we should be able to come out all right in the end. I was quite powerful, after all, and even if I was wary of the ginzuishou and the Moon Stick, I doubted that their wielder would give me too much trouble if I could get the other Tennou on my side.

Nephrite likely wouldn’t care one way or the other. If he did, I figured he’d be against me – he wasn’t the type to believe in true love. Not a romantic bone in his body, the lady-killer. But the important one was Zoisite, because he was the key to Kunzite. The first of the Shitennou was more than likely a more than even match for the Silver Queen, with or without silver crystal, and the Earthen monarchs wouldn’t act against him. And getting Zoisite on my side shouldn’t be too troublesome.

“I cannot leave Serenity-ohimesama. Just look at these.” She closed her remarkable eyes, and her aura brightened until I could perceive it with my bare eyes. Stormy red and violet; bound in layer upon layer of lethal golden chains originating from the henshin wand and the ginzuishou. She was twinned so tightly in them that even if I could cut her loose, she’d be injured. Badly. “It’s not possible for me to leave her. Not even with you.”

I assume it’s true what they say, that one sees one’s life when one is dying, because mine flashed before me now.

some unexplored unevenness in the floor tripped me, made me fall towards her. Her concerned face, her hands catching me – sensations far too exquisite for me to steady myself with levitation or somesuch

i’d never reflected that hair could be so heavy. But it was a silken, purple-black waterfall pooling over my chest, seeming a greater weight than her actual body, the thin bird-like frame that

she licked her lips slowly, presumably to catch the droplet of blood that welled up from the little cut she’d inflicted upon herself with a sharp tooth when the color rose in her cheeks and the movements were faster and

a pale expanse of thigh between the folds of the dark robe

slender fingers stretching an ofuda

My memories of what transpired next are fuzzy, as though halfway eradicated from my brain, scattered fragments whose validity I cannot with full confidence guarantee.

I think I remember hitting her hard. Slashing out desperately with my fear and my anger and my hurt.

I think I remember hulking into her skirt.

I am almost certain I remember pleading with her to the extent of, “Then I could stay here with you too. You know you can use my magic. Surely Serenity would be happy for a Senshi with additional powers and a Tennou?”

I have no idea whatsoever what she answered.

The next thing I remember is sitting up confusedly in my bed back on Earth.

* * * * * * * *

Ignoring the beginning ache in my leg muscles resulting from sitting frozen in this less than comfortable kneeling position for several minutes, I kept my hand outstretched towards the little animal that regarded me with such very green-golden eyes.

It was a less than healthy-looking kitten, actually, with dull fur attached to skin that seemed too abundant for the thin body. Between that and its scared/hostile reaction to my presence, I had no doubts that the stable boys not only neglected to feed it, but had likely tried to drown it as well. Much as it galled me, that was the normal procedure with the stray kittens whose mothers had not hidden them well enough to escape discovery. Usually, the stable boy that’d found them had first rights to skinning them and selling the fur.

Now, if the youths working with the castle’s animals had been in dire need of the little money such affairs could give them, I might not have blamed them, but I knew well and good that they earned more than enough to support themselves. Relisiana might have been economic, but she wasn’t cheap, and she did care about her subjects, in the distant, paternal way that most monarchs do.

“Nyan,” I whispered to the cat, trying to keep my voice soft and trustable in spite of the increasing uncomfortableness inherent in remaining in this position.

The kitten gave me a long look from behind half-closed lids, then promptly sat down and started licking itself clean, still keeping its gaze on me as if to ascertain that I didn’t sneak up on it.

You ungrateful little…! Were it not for my apparent fancy, the animal would doubtlessly be gloves by now, as slow as it had gotten after injuring one of the hind legs. And even though the reason I’d grown to prefer cats to dogs was that the latter were far too easy to charm, this was completely unreasonable.

“Come here,” I mumbled, this time coating my words with a layer of magic. The kitten might not have understood them, but it approached me immediately, tail wiggling. Smiling thinly, I scooped it up in my arms as I rose, grateful to ease the cramp in my right leg. The animal purred contently and kneaded my tunic with its claws as I scratched its stomach. Cheating is gratifying.

I was ripped from my occupation with the warm softness of the creature I cuddled by a panting voice calling, “Zoisite-sama!”

I turned partly around to face the girl who’d spoken. -Sama was not an honorific I was very used to; I was usually either Zoisite-tennou or just plain Zoisite. Once, years ago, some of the teachers had used to call me Zoi-kun, but no human would dare take such liberties with my name these days. “Yes?”

The girl, big-boned and honey-blonde, stared at me as she made a deep courtesy. Partly, that was doubtlessly due to every mortal’s curiosity of things divine, but a great part of her fascination undoubtedly steamed from my less than immaculate appearance. Gods, young or not, human-created or not, just aren’t supposed to show themselves in filthy clothes spotted with dust and fur.

“Lord Nephrite-sama sent me; his lordship wished to speak with your lordship about a matter of some significance. His lordship said it concerned a third party, and that all three of you would benefit from your lordship’s haste. That was all, your lordship.”

I’m a lordship? Should that rather make me flattered or insulted?

Dismissing both the girl and the frivolous thought, I gently put the cat down as I honed in on Nephrite’s presence and teleported. Normally I would have strayed simply for the pleasure of annoying the second Tennou, for whom it was more than due time to learn that I wasn’t someone he could summon at his leisure, but when it concerned Jadeite I couldn’t afford such luxuries. The fact that Nephrite had found it necessary to veil, however thinly, the blonde’s being the issue was slightly alarming.

I’d more than half expected to end up in Jadeite’s quarters, but these unfamiliar rooms obviously weren’t his. I had never been here before, but the star-theme of the design as much as the feeling of him imprinted in it left no doubt that this suite was Nephrite’s.

The man in question presently turned from the bed on which lay another Tennou. “Zoisite. So glad you could ma–”

Ignoring his words completely, I haughtily/worriedly/tiredly brushed past him to sit on Jadeite’s bedside. That was something I’d done much too often for my liking since his disastrous affair with Rei.

“He’s fine,” Nephrite said, which didn’t halt my examination of our unconscious comrade. Nephrite sighed but kept otherwise quiet as I ascertained for myself that nothing lethal had befallen Jadeite. While I generally hated Nephrite being right about anything, I was ready to make an exception this time. It was no doubt relieving to see that Jadeite had apparently suffered nothing worse than a few scratches and bruises. Dust and grass stains adorned his clothes, but all in all they looked no worse than my own. The glowing red mark on his left cheek was a bit on the naughty side, but not enough so to merit a healing. Even so there was something oddly off about him, a feeling not so much of wrongness as of…I wasn’t sure how to describe it, and I couldn’t pinpoint it, but there was a subtle sensation of his magic being different from normal. Yet the only tangible thing I could find to that effect were the familiar remaining injuries in his hands, and that wasn’t it.

“What’s he done this time?” I finally asked, deciding that either whatever explanation Nephrite could offer would give me the answer, or I was imagining things.

“I’m not entirely certain,” Nephrite admitted, “but what I do know is that at pass twenty minutes ago, the queen summoned me to the Moon Kingdom’s Ambassad, where everyone was in a panic. Evidently Jadeite had turned up on the Moon and had an encounter with Rei that looked dangerous enough for the Moon Queen to use the ginzuishou on him, and they wanted me to retrieve him. Upon arriving, I found Jadeite in exactly the same state he’s in now, a crying Rei and a bewildered Serenity. ‘S far as I now, they are the only ones to know of this except the ambassador and Relisiana.” He was quiet for a while, then added, “So he and Rei were in love. I was never certain.”

I snorted. “Yes, good taste is something you can’t accuse Jadeite of having, that’s for sure. What exactly did she do with that damn crystal?”

No wonder his magic had made me feel weird. At least the ginzuishou’s energies didn’t seem hostile.

You could just kidnap her or something, you know. It appeared he’d taken my advice at last, which I supposed was good. Not so brilliant was the intervention of the Moon Queen, damn her and her Senshi-idiocy alike. Physically he’s all right, but I might have to enlist Nephrite’s help if he’s suicidal again…

“I don’t think we’ll find that out until he comes to,” Nephrite said. “I asked Serenity, of course, but she wasn’t all that coherent, and I had no desire to stray. Figured we should have a talk with Jadeite before we let the others on him. Relisiana saw the sense in not barging in before we’ve ascertained that he’s reasonable, but that won’t keep her away for all that long.”

I shrugged. “As well as he gets along with Mamoru, the queen should be no problem.”

Nephrite raised an eyebrow. “She’s a queen before she’s a mother. She’ll do what she thinks she has to, regardless of her son’s eventual feelings on the subject.”

I gave him a look before informing him that, “You’re blind, you idiot. She’d sell her soul and her kingdom both to the demons if that was the prize for Mamoru’s happiness.” Anyone could see that.

Any reply he might have intended to make was halted by Jadeite’s stirring. Both our gazes were immediately drawn to the pale, sweat-bedded face whose eyelids flitted, as though uncertain whether they really wanted to crack open, unsure which world they would see.

“Jadeite,” I called softly, then turned to Nephrite as blue eyes blinked open dizzily. “Would you leave us alone for a while?”

“I’m not sure that’s wise,” he retorted. “We don’t know how sane he is, and he could overpower you if he tried. Plus, I’m more likely to come up with a good cover story to give Relisiana. And it’s my room.”

I resisted the urge to yell at him, and said in a tightly restrained tone of voice, “He couldn’t overpower a mouse. If you want to tell Relisiana stories, then you do that. It’s my friend. You really think he’d tell you anything when we’re all aware you feel nothing but disdain for him?”

“You’ve got ten minutes.” His mien was sullen, but he did leave the room, if not the suite.

“Zoisite?” The sleepy, slurred voice refocused my attention on the bedded boy.

“Yes. How are you feeling?”

He blinked slowly, his eyes clearer when they opened again. “A bit on the drowsy side, but that’s receding. Where am I?”

“Nephrite’s bed, disgusting as that may be. What were you doing, going off like that?”

“I…” He touched a hand to his head uncertainly, then laughed. “I’m not sure. But I’m fine now. I’m…healed – or rather, it’s like there never was a wound.”

“The power of the ginzuishou was used on you. Are your energies normal or is there anything we need to check immediately?”

“I’m fine,” he repeated. “If this is the result, then I’m grateful the silver crystal was applied to me.”

The bed creaked as he pushed himself into a sitting position. His smile was very sweet and very sad as he embraced me. “Thank you, Zoisite, for everything. You don’t have to stay here any longer.”

Incredulity warred with suspicion and guilt as I asked, “Are you quite certain? This isn’t just temporary – or a facade to lure me away and thus enable you to do something stupid? You’re all right with Rei?”

I spoke her name, the name I’d been so careful not to utter during the last several weeks, and carefully observed his reaction. He looked tired and melancholy but otherwise unfazed.

“I promise you I’m fine. Go to where you belong. After all,” and he gave a little laugh, for the first time since Rei without bitterness or hysteria, “now that I’m over Rei, I might fall in love with you again if you stay.”

I wasn’t at all certain how seriously he meant that, but right now that wasn’t the issue. “Are you –”

“Zoisite. Leave.”

I smiled at him as I did, a genuine, grateful and excited expression. Because reading people was one of the things I was reasonably good at without magic, and Jadeite never had been a great actor. However much I might cringe at the thought of the ginzuishou used against an unwitting Tennou, the end glorifies the means.

I normally hated that saying, yet I could not wipe the smile of my face even as I approached Nephrite.

Deciding to forestall any utterance from my colleague, I was still left groping for words. “He is…suddenly all right, with everything. I’m leaving. But you’ll keep an eye on him, won’t you?”

“I agree that that’s for the best. All of it.”

You sure are happy to be rid of me, ne? But that didn’t mean anything, didn’t stir my ire as it normally would have. There was only one person who mattered now.

* * * * * * * *

return to Index / go to Chapter 20

The Nephrite and Naru Treasury