The Gift of Love
* * * * * * * *
Nephrite and his trio of youma watched as Joe was transformed back to his normal state by the crescent moon wand, listening to the exchange between Luna and the senshi that followed.
The star shitennou allowed the image to dissolve, deciding he already saw what he needed to, so whatever happened afterwards was of no significance to him. He could only smile at the irony of Zoisite's jab about him being a sentimental fool, especially given the sakura king's love for Kunzite. 'His hypocrisy knows no bounds. Well, there are far more important matters to deal with.' Although he hadn't expected the moon senshi to defend him, he knew he would be lying if he said he wasn't appreciative. After all, it certainly wasn't something he would have held his tongue on in the past. 'I'm indebted to Sailor Moon.'
"Wow," said Yukari in an awed voice. "Sailor Jupiter is really something, isn't she?" Zoisite complaining about the brunette senshi messing up his face still lingered in her mind. She had a good laugh at the scenario and it took every ounce of self-control she had not to lose it in laughter again. 'It serves him right.'
"That she is," agreed Miki. "I have never seen a human with such great strength before. " The sight of Jupiter hoisting Gamecen over her head in her civilian form had made the youma's eyes look as if they would roll out of their sockets. 'Not to mention she is also pretty statuesque, although not quite as tall as Yukari, Ruby and myself.'
"Neither have I. Of course, her sailor friends have proven to be stronger than they look. As the humans say, appearances are deceiving, which is very true overall."
"Indeed. The other senshi should be in good hands with her addition to their team. Also, if I recall correctly, there is one more."
"And Naru-san should be safe under their protection, too," added Ruby. She got a pensive expression on her face as she recalled her master's promise to take the young teen out in a few days. There was no doubt in her mind he would do everything in his power to keep it, bad ankle or not. 'Hopefully that annoying vermin will leave them alone, too.'
"I certainly hope so, and that our method of assistance is enough at this time." There was a touch of worry etched onto Yukari's features as she knew it was not safe for direct interference.
Nephrite sensed the deep apprehension in the young woman, which he understood. One thing he had learned during his tenure of being the senshi's enemy besides not underestimating them was things didn't always go according to plan. However, he also knew it would be best to leave matters up to the warriors of justice for the time being. "I do believe so."
"Hmm?" Yukari glanced up at her master.
"Listen," Nephrite began, speaking gently but firmly. "Sailor Moon has come a long way since her awakening. If she continues to grow, there should be no need for a direct intervention. For now, the senshi are our only hope." Although it was Yukari he was addressing, his words were meant for all three henchwomen.
The henchwomen absorbed everything their master said, and knew as usual there was nothing to dispute. They remembered all too well how wimpy the moon senshi used to be, and how they viewed her as a thorn in their side at best. It was seeing her scare Nephrite half to death by throwing the tiara that made them realize they shouldn't dismiss her so easily. Yukari looked thoughtful. "You're right. I will try to have a bit more faith."
Nephrite gave a hint of a smile. He wanted her mind to be at ease. "Good."
Yukari managed a small smile, too. The "pep-talk" also gave her hope that the senshi would eventually accept the olive branch Ruby had extended. 'I just have to be patient, I suppose. It's not going to be easy, considering it has never been my strong suit.'
* * * * * * * *
(three days later)
Mamoru slept soundly in his apartment, snoring softly. A light breeze blew in through the curtains inside his room and slightly tickled his nose, making it twitch. He stirred a bit, but otherwise remained asleep. He appeared peaceful for awhile until he began tossing and turning.
The earth prince prepared to leave the moon queen's property to avoid being caught by the security guards again. Even when the monarch spoke in defense of him and said he was welcome, it was no use trying to convince the men. 'I owe the queen my life for her kindness. However, one of these days they will succeed in capturing me.'
The young man let out a heavy sigh, clearly becoming weary of all the sneaking around he and the princess had to do for fear of getting caught. 'There has to be some way both of us can be free without losing our lives. In fact, I KNOW there is…' He truly cared for her and couldn't bear the thought of them being separated. 'Perhaps if we…'
All of a sudden, he saw a shadow different from his own, which caused his heart to skip a beat. He turned to run, but a female's voice called out to him, "It's all right. You have nothing to fear. It's only me. "
_'That voice…' The prince let out a deep sigh of relief, then slowly turned around and glanced up. Standing just a few feet away was his one true love. Her pigtails, delicate features and ballgown all made his heart race. "Princess…that was much too close," he finally responded.
The young girl smiled. "I know. Well, I've come to tell you time is running out for you to find the ginzuishou. Once you do, nothing in the entire universe will tear us apart, and all of the mysteries of your past will be solved."_
"I know, and I will. I look forward to being with you."
"So do I. Remember, you do not have much time left…" The princess' voice trailed off.
Mamoru sat up with a jolt, panting heavily. His head throbbed and he felt sweatdrops pouring down his face. "That dream…what does it mean? And who is that girl? Why do I have the feeling I've met her before?" he pondered aloud. 'I must say, not knowing who I am and what's my purpose in this life is getting old, though.' He rubbed his forehead before climbing out of bed to freshen up and prepare some breakfast.
* * * * * * * *
Not wishing to keep Queen Beryl waiting, Zoisite appeared before the witch queen as soon as he heard her summons. He bowed respectfully before his ruler. "Yes, Queen Beryl-sama?" He put on his best attentive look.
Beryl gave the young man a tiny smile, then her smile faded so that she looked stern. "I commend you on successfully retrieving the first nijizuishou. However, this is no time for celebration. You still have a long way to go."
"I am aware of that, my queen. As a matter of fact, I was just about to seek out the next target." Clutching the ebony coloured crystal, the sakura king held it in front of him, allowing it to leave his hands and levitate in the air. "Dark crystal, I command you to show me the second nijizuishou carrier!" The kurozuishou emitted a bright glow, revealing an image of a middle-aged gentleman. He was dressed in a black suit and tie, covered by a soutane. Zoisite's lips stretched into an evil grin. 'So, a priest. How amusing. I imagine it'll be quite a shock when those ridiculous humans find out he is actually a devil in disguise.' He inwardly chuckled.
A small, deadly smile escaped Beryl's lips again. "Judging from your expression, I take it you know what to do."
'Rats! So much for trying to disguise my emotions. What's next? Am I going to burst into tears in front of Beryl? Oh, the horror.' Zoisite changed his facial expression to look more neutral and secretly swore, annoyed with himself for always wearing his heart on his sleeve. "Yes, your majesty."
"Good. I wish you success."
"I thank you, my queen." The sakura shitennou gave another respectful bow, and with that, he disappeared from the throne room.
Ruby, who had made herself invisible before entering Beryl's quarters to eavesdrop on the meeting, also disappeared, heaving a sigh of relief once she was out of earshot. She still didn't want to tolerate the evil sorceress more than she absolutely had to. 'However, if I must bear her in order to give aid to the senshi, so be it. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I do agree with her on one thing. This is nothing for Zoisite to celebrate, and it remains to be seen what he's capable of accomplishing without Kunzite holding his hand.' She re-entered the den, where Miki and Yukari were sitting on the couch, looking at a recipe book. "Hey, girls. I'm back."
The twin youma glanced up from the book, suppressing their surprise at seeing Ruby return sooner than they had anticipated. "Well…that was fast," commented Miki.
"I know," came the reply. "That's how brief the meeting was, and it's a very good thing, too, if you ask me."
"I can't say I disagree with you there."
"What did you find out?" asked Yukari, adjusting one of the pillows on the couch to better support her back.
"The next victim is a priest of some sort." The malevolent grin Ruby saw on Zoisite's face produced a bit of uneasiness in her stomach, along with a strong urge to erase the smugness from his features once and for all.
"A priest?" Miki furrowed her brow. While she was a long shot away from calling herself an expert on the vocation, based on what little she did know, he was generally held to a high standard. "How ironic. I imagine Zoisite will have such a field day."
"Even so, we can't allow Zoisite to succeed this time, or any other time, for that matter," pointed out Yukari.
Ruby nodded, then remembered Nephrite was working in the office and his request that no one disturb him. "You're right. I had better get my butt in gear. Do me a favor and please let Master Nephrite know about the next victim, and that I've gone to pass this information on to Sailor Moon, if he completes his work before I return."
"We will," Miki assured the red head youma.
"Thank you." Ruby left the den.
* * * * * * * *
Ms. Haruna wrote the last bit of notes on the chalkboard for a homework assignment she had given to the class, and then turned to face her students with a gracious, but firm facial expression. "I'm giving you until Thursday to translate this kanji. That's 3 days, so there is no excuse." Her eyes were focused on Usagi with the last statement.
Usagi squirmed a bit in her seat, obviously embarrassed at being put on the spot. She chose that moment to shoot a quick glance at Naru. She couldn't help smiling at the glint of happiness in her best friend's eyes. 'She must be excited about her date with Nephrite tomorrow. Hard to believe not too long ago I would have been horrified at that. But now…'
Moon didn't think it would do much good to explain why it was imperative to hide her identity, but she decided to try anyway. "You don't understand. I really have to. Do you realize what could happen if Beryl learned the truth? Please, I really don't want to fight." The blonde senshi stopped, listening to herself. Although she hadn't planned on saying the last words, she realized how true they were. 'Great…he must think I'm a wimp or pathetic, but I can't help it.' She looked down at her feet.
Nephrite studied the young girl before him, and could see in her eyes that although she had a brave front, she was at least mildly afraid. Not that he blamed her. If he were in her shoes, he would be afraid of him, too. And he could very easily take advantage of her fears and attack if he wanted to, since he generally enjoyed seeing her on her knees.
'Please, Nephrite-sama, say you and Usagi-chan will try to come to an understanding,' said a voice in the star shitennou's head. What struck him was that it sounded a lot like Naru's voice. He wasn't sure if he was entirely ready to do that just yet, but he hated the thought of Naru being in distress. He thought of a good way to prove her right. "Not to worry. I do not intend to reveal your identity to Queen Beryl." There. It was a start, but better than nothing and a huge step where his enemy was concerned.
"Nephrite…" Sailor Moon looked surprised by what her one-time foe just said. She was tempted to ask him what brought on the change. Surely it wasn't her plea, since she never knew him to be relenting. 'I think I know. It must be Naru…he must love her after all. I thought he was toying with her emotions again.' She dared herself to look at his facial expression, to make sure he wasn't patronizing her. To her surprise, she saw that he looked serious, and almost thoughtful. "I appreciate that, Nephrite," she managed to reply.
'It's amazing how much love can change a person.' Usagi smiled at the fact that her wish upon the shooting star had come true, then it faded and was replaced by a serious expression. She knew Naru also held some concern for the reformed shitennou, about whether his sore ankle was completely healed or if it was still bothering him. 'I have to say I'm concerned as well. I mean, let's face it, a sprained ankle is no fun, and his and Naru's safety is far from being out of the woods.'
"Do you have any questions?" the teacher asked, interrupting Usagi's musings.
'Yes. How long will it be before Nephrite and Naru-chan can live in peace?' The blonde then realized her teacher was talking about the homework assignment. She snapped out of her thoughts, lest she would be yelled at or given detention for being inattentive.
Ms. Haruna set her mouth in a line. "I'll take your silence as a no. Please have this written down by the time the bell rings for lunch. I will be erasing it afterwards."
"Yes ma'am," the students chorused. They all began to write down the notes, making sure they did so correctly. The room was so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. Ms. Haruna took the silence as an opportunity to grade the English examination from the first period. Her grading was halfway complete when the bell rang for lunch, and she got up from her desk to erase the board whilst the majority of the students raced out the door. Once the board was wiped clean, the auburn-haired young woman grabbed her bag and exited the classroom, too.
Usagi cleared her desk and took out her bento box, removing the lid as Naru pulled out a note Ruby had given to her, as well as an envelope. "Hey, Usagi-chan?"
The blonde teen rested the lid of the bento box on her desk and turned to face her friend. "Yes, Naru-chan?"
"Ruby asked me to give this envelope to you, for Sailor Moon." Naru handed the envelope to Usagi.
"Thank you." Usagi took the envelope and dropped it in her semi-opened backpack, twisting her mouth to the side. 'It must be about the second nijizuishou carrier. I have to meet with the others after school anyway, so…' She grabbed a jelly bun from her bento box, munching on it as if there was no tomorrow.
Naru smiled to herself about her best friend's appetite, shaking her head before slowly unfolding the note. She braced herself for some bad news, like Nephrite having to cancel on her or something worse. 'I would understand if he did, though. It's more important that he heals.' Contrary to her fears, it read:
_"Hey baby doll. If you are free this upcoming Saturday, what do you say we have what you humans call a girl's day out? There are several sites on Earth I have yet to see and this would also give us an opportunity to know each other even better. If you are able to, I look forward to it!"
The red head refolded the note, placing it in her bag. She didn't know if she had looked worried before or not, but if she did, it was now replaced by relief. Her lips curled into a small smile as she reminisced about how kindly Ruby had been treating her ever since they had been properly introduced; watching over her after she was rescued by Nephrite and then taking her to visit him the following day. 'Now she wants to spend the day with me. It would be fun! I enjoy spending time with her. Whatever homework we're given to do over the weekend, I can work on during Study Hall on Friday.' Humming one of her favorite songs, she took out her lunch to eat.
* * * * * * * *
Later that day, as soon as school had ended, Usagi said a quick farewell to Naru and then went home to drop off her book bag. She retrieved the envelope Ruby had sent, her cell phone, brooch and crescent moon wand, knowing the enemy could strike again very soon, not to mention she wasn't in the mood for anyone getting on her case for being irresponsible. 'Even if they do, I just have to keep the promise I made to myself, Luna and Mako-chan that I will at least try to be a good leader. They believe in me, after all, so I have to believe in myself.' She retrieved her purse, slipped the wand, brooch, cell phone into it, and snapped it closed before slinging it over her shoulder. With the envelope in hand, she exited the bedroom and ran the stairs. Almost instantly, an appetizing stench penetrated her nostrils. She sniffed it like a hungry puppy. 'Those smell like muffins.' She made her way to the kitchen and sure enough, her mother was removing some muffins from the baking pan to set on a plate. "Hi Mom! Boy, do those look so good." It was all the blonde could do not to start drooling.
'Huh?' Ikuko rested the pan down and turned to face her daughter with a smile on her face. "Well, hello there, sweetheart. I take it you had a good day at school? No detention?"
Usagi gave her mother a bright smile. "Yes, it was fine…for school anyway." The last part she said rather hesitantly. "And nope, no detention today," the blonde continued with a small grin before Mrs. Tsukino could question her about what she meant.
Thankfully, all the blue-haired woman did was smile at the fact that her daughter didn't get into any trouble again. "I'm glad to hear that." She eyed the envelope and purse Usagi was holding. "So, what are your plans for this afternoon?"
"I'm off to Rei's place to meet up with her and my other two friends. Also, depending on what happens, I may meet up with some other potentially new friends afterwards," Usagi responded.
"That's fine, as long as you are home before dinner time."
"No problem, Mom." Usagi mentally sighed in relief that her mother didn't inquire about who the other friends were. She wasn't sure how she would explain they were her former enemies without risking giving away her identity. 'Plus, the idea of me having enemies who want me dead is bound to make her worry.'
"Good." The older woman paused as if she were unsure of whether she should ask what she intended to. "Would you like a muffin before you go? And perhaps take some for your friends to enjoy?"
Usagi's face lit up. "Yes to both questions!" She grabbed a muffin off the plate and started gobbling it down. 'If I do show up a little late, surely Rei will forgive me with this yummy treat in front of her.'
Mrs. Tsukino chuckled awkwardly at her daughter's enthusiasm, although she expected it. "Well, all right, then." She removed the other muffins from the baking pan, setting them on the plate. She set aside several of the muffins and then got a container from the cabinet, placing the pastries inside. After sealing the container, she handed it to the blonde. "There you go, dear. I hope you and your friends enjoy!"
Usagi got a big grin on her face as she took the container of muffins from her mother. "You bet we will. Thank you, Mom!"
"You're welcome honey. Now get going. You wouldn't want to keep your friends waiting for too long."
"Oh of course not." Usagi shuddered at the thought of enduring another lecture from Rei. Because her hands were full, she gave the older woman a peck on the cheek. She exited the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, "Bye, Mom! See you later!"
Ikuko watched as the blonde took her leave, giving a light chuckle. 'That girl is something else…but she's a darling in her own right. If only she would realize her true potential and that Kenji and I only want the best for her.'
* * * * * * * *
Makoto, Ami and Rei sat on the top step of the Hikawa Shrine with Luna just a few feet away from them, waiting for Usagi to arrive. Ami opted to review her notes from the previous week's cram school sessions to pass the time.
Makoto peered over at Ami and got a curious look in her eyes upon seeing the blue haired teen look so studious. "Hey Ami, what are you working on?"
Ami glanced up from her notebook at the brunette. "Oh, just some notes from cram school," she answered. "I like to be prepared just in case my teacher gives a surprise test."
"Oh wow." Makoto looked genuinely intrigued. She recalled everything Usagi had told her about the ice senshi, but witnessing how hard she worked was a different thing altogether.
Ami more or less expected Makoto to be in awe, just like other people who were total strangers or at least had yet to really know her well often were. "Yes. I actually have to go to cram school after this meeting, so I'm hopeful Usagi will be here any minute. Of course, we could always have it without her, but this one is important."
Before Makoto could respond, Rei cut in, "She had better be here."
Ami said nothing, whereas Makoto looked a bit surprised by such vehemence. The raven-haired teen continued in a more mellow tone, "I mean, unless she has detention or she's facing some type of emergency, there is really no excuse." She knew she sounded like she was mothering the blonde, but she deemed it necessary for people who didn't do their best. 'Besides, enough time has passed. It's time for her to get her act together.'
The brunette felt like jokingly telling Rei she needed to take a chill pill before she gave herself hypertension, but something told her it was a bad idea. 'Seriously, though, she's being kind of harsh.'
"Well, I'm sure she'll at least call if she is unable to come for some reason. Or we could contact her," said Ami, trying to appease the senshi of fire.
Rei drew her lips in a line. "I suppose."
All of a sudden there were footsteps and a cheerful sounding voice announced, "I'm here!", making all three girls and Luna glance up. The voice belonged to Usagi. She let out a deep breath and smiled before sitting next to Makoto. "Hi guys! What did I miss?"
"Nothing, don't worry," Ami reassured the blonde. "We waited for you."
"You're lucky about that," said Rei a-matter-of-factually. "Although, I must say, you didn't do too badly this time, given your track record."
"Rei is absolutely right," stated Luna.
Usagi grinned. It felt great to be commended instead of criticized. "Oh, I almost forgot. Mom sent some blueberry muffins she baked. Help yourselves if you want." She held out the container to Makoto as she was nearest to her.
"Awesome!" The senshi of thunder took out a muffin and then passed it around to the other girls, who each took one and started eating. Makoto nibbled on hers as well. "Wow! This is terrific!"
"Mrs. Tsukino is a fabulous cook," piped up Rei.
"That I can tell." Makoto slowly finished off the remainder of the pastry.
"Tell your mom thanks so much, Usagi-san," said Ami. She examined her notebook page and skirt to make sure there weren't any crumbs on either of them.
"Will do." Usagi helped herself to another muffin, gobbling it down.
Luna gave the girls a look that was between amusement and exasperation. She cleared her throat loudly, making Usagi nearly fall over. "If you girls are through stuffing your faces, there is important business to discuss. Remember, Ami has a cram session to go to."
"Oh, right." For a moment, Usagi looked a bit sheepish, then realized she was still holding the envelope Ruby had sent. "Now that you mentioned it, I have something from Ruby again." She cocked an eyebrow when she noticed it was a little thicker than the first one she received. 'Weird. I wonder what else is in here. Guess there's only one way to find out.' Wasting very little time, she tore the envelope open and pulled out its contents. As she unfolded the paper, a second piece landed in her lap. 'Whoops.'
Clearing her throat, the blonde read aloud, "The second nijizuishou carrier is a well-known priest. I am certain your crescent moon wand will guide you to his exact location. I have also included an address to the mansion for when you are ready to schedule a meeting." She refolded the letter, slipped it back into the envelope and retrieved the other folded paper that had dropped into her lap. "So this must be the address..." she concluded, handing it to Ami for safe keeping.
Ami took the folded piece of paper. "We really do need to contact Ruby or else she will think we're not interested. Not to mention we should thank her for the help she's given to us so far."
"Yes, I have to admit, the information has been quite helpful. That way we know to be prepared before the enemy strikes," said Rei. 'I have to hand it to Ruby. She's really doing all she can to earn our trust and she has to be acting on orders. It's time we hear from all of our former enemies, especially Nephrite.'
"I'm probably a little out of the loop here, but who is Ruby?" asked Makoto, frowning a bit.
Usagi waved her hands in a "don't worry about it" manner. "Oh no, you're fine. You just came onto the scene, so you wouldn't know. Ruby is one of Nephrite's henchwomen," she explained. Then, to minimize even more confusion, she gave a brief account of Nephrite's tenure as an enemy, including his conversion to the side of good.
"Wow," gasped Makoto, when the blonde was through. "Naru's love must be really powerful to be able to melt an enemy's heart like that."
"It is," confirmed Usagi. "And while I'm happy for both her and Nephrite, they, along with the youma could be in big trouble."
Rei gave both girls a "that's enough" look, prompting them to cease their chatter. "While that may be the case, we need to stick to the matter at hand. We still have yet to find out all the goals of Nephrite and his youma, if they're no longer a part of the Dark Kingdom."
"Don't you think I know that?!" snapped Usagi, not wanting to endure a lecture from the raven-haired teen. "I was only trying to help her understand about our potential new allies."
Rei was about to chide the moon senshi, but Ami spoke up in a very stern tone of voice, "That's enough you two! You're giving me a headache!" She wearily rubbed at her forehead.
The two bickering girls immediately fell silent, although not before sneering at each other. They meekly turned to face Ami. "Sorry," the girls mumbled.
Makoto let out a soft whistle, then caught herself and gave the blue-haired teen an understanding look, as she knew even extremely patient individuals had their limits. 'Still though, I need to remember never to get on her bad side, either.'
Ami let out a heavy sigh as she rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Now," she proceeded in a calmer tone. "It's time that we at least speak to Ruby. You brought your cellular phone with you, right, Usagi?"
"Yup!" Usagi answered with a grin. She reached into her purse and pulled it out. "Got it." She had an idea of why Ami was inquiring her about that and wanted to be prepared.
"Good. I think you should be the one to call, since it's you she gives the information to."
"Um…ok, sure. I just need the number," the blonde conceded, making an effort to sound dutiful. Under normal circumstances she would have balked at it, but on top of being compelled to comply, she saw no reason to refuse. 'I just hope I don't forget what I need or want to say.'
"I know. I will search for the number and write it down for you. You should save it into your phone as well." Ami got her own cell phone to search through the contacts for Ruby's number. Once she found it, she tore a piece of paper from one of the notebook pages and scribbled it down, handing it to Usagi.
"Thank you. And don't worry, I do plan to save it." Usagi dialed the written number, then put the phone on speaker mode in case her friends wanted to talk to Ruby as well. She gathered her thoughts whilst waiting for the red head youma to answer. 'Oh, please don't let me forget what I want to say. And I hope this isn't a bad time, either.'
The phone rang twice, and before it could ring a third time, a female's voice answered, "Hello, this is Ruby speaking."
Usagi inwardly grinned that her call was accepted. "Hi Ruby, this is Usagi Tsukino," she said in a perky voice.
"Oh, Usagi-san. Hello there. So, I finally hear from you, huh? Well, better late than never, I suppose."
Usagi squirmed and awkwardly giggled at the slight guilt trip. "Oh, sorry about that. But here I am now." From the corner of her eye, she saw Rei and Luna giving her impatient looks that said to get on with it. "By the way, I got the envelope you sent today, and also the one you sent before. Sailor Moon said to thank you for the information; it has helped more than you can imagine." She smiled to herself. 'If she only knew…but it's not time for me to reveal my identity yet, although I will have to at some point.'
"Good." On the other end, Ruby was smiling, both at hearing her former enemy's voice and her efforts being appreciated. "And the pleasure is mine. I regret that my comrades, Master Nephrite and I cannot be of even more use to the senshi. However, it is too risky right now."
"It's all right. I'm sure they understand completely. As a matter of fact, Sailor Moon would want you guys to be careful. She knows the potential danger of you four helping us out in the open. Besides, she and the other senshi have it covered, no matter what the Dark Kingdom creeps decide to throw. Right, guys?" Usagi turned to face her friends with the last question.
The girls had perplexed expressions on their faces for a brief second at the way Usagi spoke as if she were acquainted with the senshi instead of actually being one of them, but quickly caught on to her strategy. "That's right. Your information is quite valuable to them," concurred Ami.
"So don't worry about a thing," added Rei. She fell silent, listening to herself. It was in her nature to be a bit hasty at times, yet she couldn't help but notice how empathetic she sounded as opposed to being against the idea of teamwork. 'Is Usagi rubbing off on me? After all, she has the most forgiving nature of all of us.'
"Yeah, don't beat up yourself too much," advised Makoto. While she had yet to actually cross paths with the ex-villains, she had tremendous respect for anyone who was on the path to redemption.
Usagi gave her friends a thumbs up sign before turning her attention back to the conversation. "You hear that, Ruby?"
Ruby let out a light chuckle at the level of enthusiasm. "Indeed I do." The idea of the senshi granting forgiveness so easily was incredulous for the reformed youma. 'You should be grateful, for it means your good deeds will not be in vain,' a voice chided her. She drew in a deep breath before managing to utter the words, "I-I thank you."
"Think nothing of it," the blonde responded warmly. She could hear in Ruby's voice that the outpouring of support was extremely overwhelming. 'Not that I blame her.' Eager to help the young woman feel more at ease, she inquired, "Not to change the subject, but how is Nephrite doing?"
"Today has been extremely busy for him, but if you're referring to his physical state, he's completely healed, which is a relief. Although the accident had been nothing but a minor setback, the twins and I could tell when he was hurting, despite his efforts to hide it from us. I know this will be good news for Naru-san, too, given her deep concern for the master," answered Ruby. "Thank you for asking."
Usagi got a knowing look on her face at the idea of Nephrite shrugging off his discomfort. "Definitely sounds like him," she remarked. 'Then again, I'm the same way, too, sometimes.' She continued, "Seriously, though, it's awesome that he's all right again. You bet Naru-chan will be happy."
"Again, thank you for your concern. It is really very kind of you." Ruby went quiet for a bit, noticing how sentimental she was beginning to sound, despite regarding such an emotion with disdain in the past. 'However, it is not something I can help.' Not wanting the silence to become too awkward, she asked, "Is there anything unclear about what I have revealed to you thus far?"
Usagi scrunched up her face in thought for a good question, then it came to her, as it was something her friends were also curious about. "Now that you've mentioned it, what do you know about the nijizuishou? Like, what is their purpose, exactly? And why is Zoisite going after them? Also, did you find out more about the ginzuishou Princess Diamond was thought to have had at first?"
"That is a mouthful. Actually, I thought you would never ask." Ruby took a moment to replay what was said whilst she eavesdropped on Beryl's meeting with Zoisite and Kunzite. "The nijizuishou are fragments that were sealed within seven mortals formerly known as The Seven Great Youma, following the destruction of the Moon Kingdom. Beryl's intent is to set them free, and so she has sent Zoisite to capture the nijizuishou."
"What will happen once all seven monsters are set free? And does the ginzuishou tie into all of this?" asked Usagi, ignoring a disapproving look from Rei that said to just let the young woman talk. 'At least I'm making an effort to find answers to certain questions so we don't screw up this mission.' She knew if the latter happened, she would be held responsible for it.
Ruby simply answered in a patient tone, "I'm coming to that. And yes to your second question. You see, once the seven youma are freed and united, they form a formidable force. When all seven nijizuishou are gathered, they combine to form the ginzuishou, a crystal with immense powers that can be used for justice or evil. When used for the latter, the results are quite catastrophic." She felt a pang of shame striking her in the chest as not too long ago, she was also aiding and abetting Beryl's nefarious plans. 'Not to mention Master Nephrite, Miki and Yukari…wait a minute! This isn't the time to be dwelling on the past! Also remember, I do know better now.'
"Because its evil is capable of destroying the world, right?" concluded Usagi.
"Exactly. You've got it. You're quite perceptive, you know that?"
"I am? Thank you! I take it as a compliment." Usagi felt her cheeks becoming flaming hot. It wasn't every day she heard things like that unless she was being mocked by an enemy or something. Although Ruby was an enemy at one point, her tone was uplifting and sincere, not condescending. She had a strong urge to get up and do a happy dance, but decided against it, knowing it would only result in more scolding or breaking her phone. Possibly both. Neither sounded pleasant to her.
"Good. I meant it as such. Is there anything else you need me to clarify?"
"Umm…" Usagi thought of other possible questions to ask, and found there were none…at least none that the red head youma would be able to answer. As she pieced together all she had been told, it all came clear to her. She also realized how high the stakes were, which meant she and her friends would have to become even tougher on the Dark Kingdom. 'The question is, will I be able to handle it? Or should I step down as leader?'
The blonde shook her head to rid it of all doubt and then answered, "No, I think you've covered everything."
"Excellent. I'm glad I can be of use to you."
"You're more than that. The information you've been giving to the senshi is very helpful. And Ruby?"
"Thank you for the address to the mansion as well. I'm pretty sure the senshi would love to hear what you, your friends and Nephrite have to say. When I find out which day will be good for them, I will send you a text to let you know."
"All right. That's fine. Until then, tell the senshi to remember to be on the alert. I wish them the best of luck."
"I will. Thank you…for all you've done to help so far."
"My pleasure. Later."
"Later." Usagi hung up, and created a contact for Ruby in her phone with the number while she remembered. She then turned to face her friends and Luna with a proud-of-herself smile escaping her lips. "Well, guys, there you have it. What do you think?"
Ami stretched out her right leg a bit. "The reason our enemies seek the nijizuishou and ginzuishou has become clearer now. There is no doubt they will stop at nothing to get them, either. "
"Ruby seems to know an awful lot about our enemy's agenda, which makes sense, considering she once associated herself with them," opined Makoto. A curious frown made its way onto her features. 'I can't help but wonder how she knows about the nijizuishou if she no longer works for the Dark Kingdom. Has she found a way to spy on them? Very risky, given her predicament, but she's got guts. I'll give her that.'
"Our battle with the Dark Kingdom has just gotten tougher, but we can crush them if we take our game up a few notches," said Rei, punching the palm of her hand.
"Now, now, Rei, let's not get too ahead of ourselves. You and the other girls have grown stronger, but there is still a long way to go before the Dark Kingdom can be utterly annihilated," Luna told the raven-haired teen wisely.
Rei looked a bit sheepish. "You're right. I guess I forgot myself for a moment there."
Luna smiled warmly at the senshi of fire. "No worries." She then averted her attention towards Usagi. "I'm quite impressed with the way you handled the phone conversation with Ruby. You were actually very mature," she said, eliciting a grin from the blonde.
"Yeah, for Usagi, anyway," Rei agreed. "Although it would be nice if you could save the idle chatter for the appropriate time."
Usagi's grin faltered and she shot Rei a dirty look. "Hey! I resent that! Excuuuuse me for wanting to know if Nephrite is okay now!"
"For your information, Usagi—" Rei began, but Ami placed up a hand and gave her a "don't start" look. Rei's mouth clamped shut, as she knew not to question the blue-haired senshi.
Luna heaved a sigh, wondering if the two girls were ever going to be on the same page. "Anyway, it was quite fitting for you to ask about the nijizuishou, Usagi. It's one of the things I intended to address at this meeting."
Usagi's eyes brightened up a bit. "Really? Well, that's good to know. " It really wasn't a big deal for her since she also wanted to know about the gem. 'Whoever can't see I am capable of thinking on my feet, too bad for them.'
Luna lowered her eyes in surprise at the blonde's lack of enthusiasm, but shrugged it off, opting to ask her about it later. "Yes, and the fact that you took initiative is a sign that you're on the path to becoming a true leader."
Rei's ears jumped at that and her eyes went wide. "What?! Leader?!" she yelped. "What do you mean?"
Luna didn't flinch at the shrillness in the young girl's voice, for she expected such a reaction. She knew an explanation was in order. "During the battle with the first warrior, I gave Usagi the crescent moon wand, which signifies her leadership. She will need it for this portion of the mission."
Rei pressed her lips together as she felt a mixture of emotions surging through her, chagrin, doubt and confusion being the most dominant. She exhaled through her nose in an attempt to control them. "But why her? You know she's not leadership material, nor is she the world's most responsible person. She would probably use the wand as a hammer or something." A look of horror appeared on her features as the image popped into her head.
"I heard that!" Usagi yelled.
"Girls, that is quite enough for today," Luna scolded, refusing to allow yet another argument to ensue between the two senshi. She watched as the girls gave each other looks and folded their arms, letting out huffs. The feline guardian shook her head as if to say, 'Oh for heaven's sake.' She cleared her throat, switching her tone back to its normal state. "Rei, I hear and understand your concerns, but I felt giving Usagi the wand would provide great motivation for her. Also, she is making steady progress as a senshi. However, now is the time to address any differences or friction. If we are to defeat the Dark Kingdom, we cannot afford to be divided in any way."
Usagi took that moment to send a text to Ruby, telling her how much she enjoyed their phone conversation and thanking her once again for her time. 'At least if I appear to be doing something constructive, they can't get on my case for slacking off. If only I had a manga with me…'
"Well, I am sure no one will argue that if I were leader, I would take my role far more seriously and I can be trusted with the wand," insisted Rei with an air of vehemence.
Luna let out an "oh dear" type of sigh as she had a feeling the task would be more complicated than she had hoped. She turned her attention to Ami, who always tried her hardest to be fair-minded. "What do you think, Ami-chan?"
"To be honest, I agree with you, Luna. Usagi-san has grown considerably as a senshi," the senshi of ice responded cautiously, as if she were unsure if saying so would bode well. She yelped in pain when she felt a sharp pinch on her ankle, which she had a feeling came from Rei. Her suspicions were confirmed when she heard Makoto hissing the ebony-haired teen's name. As her nose and ankle turned bright red, she slumped over slightly. "Still, we should wait and see how she performs before making a final decision."
Rei gave a small smirk and turned to face Usagi, who avoided her eyes. She shrugged and directed her attention back to Luna.
Makoto could only shake her head in disbelief at everything Rei said, most of which left a bitter taste in her mouth. It seemed to her like the senshi of fire was going beyond giving a simple critique to encourage Usagi to improve. 'She seems almost jealous…and manipulative too with what she did to poor Ami-chan. Well, if she pulls that stunt with me, all hell will break loose.' Deciding she had been quiet long enough, she spoke up, "Now hold on. I may not know Usagi very well yet, but she does have potential. Even if she does have the flaws that's been pointed out, she'll never improve if all you're doing is harping on them." She glanced over to her right to see Usagi gathering her belongings and getting up, walking down the temple steps. "Hey girl, what gives?"
"I'm leaving. I can't believe I'm sitting here and taking this!" was the response. The blonde continued walking. The other girls and Luna looked gobsmacked at her outburst. While they knew her to be sensitive to some forms of criticism, they didn't expect her to walk away.
"Usagi, wait!" blared Makoto. "The meeting isn't over yet!"
"We weren't trying to offend you," said Ami.
"What about the enemy? You have to remain close by in case Zoisite strikes again," Luna reasoned with the moon senshi.
"Yeah, only cowards walk away from problems instead of facing them!" chimed Rei.
"Well I guess I am one and Makoto was wrong about me!" Usagi shot back over her shoulder. She marched off without looking back.
Rei released a frustrated sigh and placed her head in her hands as if it were on the verge of exploding. "See what I mean? She can't even accept criticism in a mature manner."
Makoto had the urge to say something like, "Well, you do a lousy job at it" but she didn't want any more arguments to ensue. Instead, she diverted her attention to the feline guardian. "What should we do, Luna?"
"I will talk to her. While we have yet to solve this issue, we have managed to get through the most important matters. You girls may go now." Luna ran off to see if she could find Usagi and talk some sense into her.
* * * * * * * *
A well-known priest, affectionately known as Father, was about to leave the graveyard to prepare for a funeral he was set to officiate when all of a sudden, a young woman with fluffy blunt cut platinum blonde hair approached him. The morose expression she wore broke his heart. 'She must be going through a difficult time in her life.'
The young woman cleared her throat. "Excuse me, sir, I'm sorry to trouble you, but my name is Ayumi and I would like to speak with you if there's a moment to spare."
The priest gave Ayumi a warm smile. "Of course. You're no bother at all. It's not in my nature to turn away anyone who appears to be in distress."
"Thank you, Father." The young woman exhaled a deep breath, trying to compose herself. "I lost my husband two years ago, and today happens to be the anniversary of his passing."
The middle-aged man nodded. "Yes, the death anniversary is always a difficult day, regardless of how much time has passed."
"It always is for me. And what's worse is, I knew his health was failing him, but every time I told him to see a doctor, he said the discomfort was nothing. On the day I had decided enough was enough and that I would call our family physician, he had expired. I'm convinced he would still be here if I had followed my instinct, but I didn't, so I've been riddled with guilt." Ayumi just barely managed to maintain control of her voice. She let out a slight sniffle and swallowed a lump in her throat.
The priest rested a hand on the young woman's shoulder, causing her to stiffen a bit but she relaxed and locked eyes with him, seeing the compassion in his. He spoke in a gentle but paternal tone. "Come now, you know better than to fault yourself for someone else's choice. We all have events in our lives we wish had happened differently. However, ask yourself this—would he want you to spend the remainder of your life feeling guilty?"
Ayumi's palms started to sweat. "No," she admitted in a barely audible voice. "But I still feel so alone and like I have nothing left."
"You are never alone."
Ayumi looked a bit surprised. "Huh?"
"You still have your friends and family. They should be your support system during this difficult time. Also, your husband's soul and memories will live on for all eternity," said the priest.
Ayumi looked thoughtful as the priest's sage advice resonated with her. She had heard similar words of comfort in the past, but they were less sincere. "I understand. Thank you for your time."
"My pleasure. Try to remain strong."
"I will, although it won't be easy."
"Wow, what powerful and inspirational words for a touching situation. It's a pity they couldn't be further from who you truly are," mocked a silky tenor voice.
The priest's head snapped up, and Ayumi felt her heart skip a beat at the sudden voice. She clutched her chest to calm her rapid heartbeat as she whirled around sharply. Standing behind her was a medium height young man dressed in a military type blue-gray colored uniform with long blonde hair pulled into a ponytail and green eyes. The smug look on his delicate, child-like features made her skin crawl. "Who are you? Don't you know it's rude to interrupt someone's conversation?!"
Zoisite sneered at the young woman. "Spare me your lecture, wench. And to answer your question, I am someone who can be your worst nightmare if you trifle with me. However, it is not me you should be worried about, but the so-called priest."
The priest remained silent with a grim expression on his face, whereas the cornsilk blonde woman stared at the shitennou as if he were insane. "Whatever are you talking about? This gentleman is a powerful man of God!"
Zoisite let out a chuckle. "You are such a naïve fool. This man is what you call a wolf in sheep's clothing, as you mortals say."
By this time, Ayumi had to clench her fists to calm the deep annoyance that arose within her. "You know what? Believe what you wish. I have no time or desire to get into meaningless debates with total strangers who think they know it all." She turned on her heel and stiffly walked away, muttering to herself about how rude young people were.
Zoisite chuckled again. "Such a foolish woman. Well, at least my task has just become easier." He directed his attention to the priest. "Now, my dear man. I am pleased that our paths have crossed. You may not remember me, but I'm about to refresh your memory."
The clergyman gave Zoisite a blank stare, unsure what to make of him. "What can I do for you, young man? I must say your treatment of Ayumi was uncalled for."
Zoisite flinched slightly at the second piece of scolding he received, then it relaxed into a smirk. "It's not about what you can do for me. It's about how I can help you. I imagine it must be torture for you to live a lie." He pulled out his kurozuishou, spinning the tip of it around on his finger.
"You're about to face some torture if you don't leave that poor man alone!" yelled a female's voice.
Zoisite cursed as he nearly dropped the kurozuishou, slightly turning away from the man to glare at the person who dared to interrupt him. "Who's there? Show yourself!"
Sailor Moon hopped off the gravestone she had been standing on. "You should know me by now. I'm the pretty sailor senshi of love and justice, Sailor Moon! Shame on you for attacking such a great pastor and desecrating sacred ground! In the name of God, I'll punish you!"
Zoisite eyed the moon senshi up and down, a sneer appearing on his lips. "You should know by now things are not always what they appear to be."
The priest gave the superheroine a look of admiration and then gaped at the sakura king. "What are you saying? I'm only a simple priest, just as the young lady said."
"Not anymore. I'm about to prove it. Zoi!" The sakura shitennou thrust out the ebony-colored crystal, emitting a beam from it, which struck the bewildered priest in the chest and caused him to cry out in pain. Zoisite gave a malicious grin, reveling in the older man's agony. He maintained the kurozuishou's power level, holding it until an orange coloured nijizuishou flew out of the man's chest, soaring through the air and landing in the grass. The sakura king swore under his breath, but watched with a gleeful expression as a billow of smoke surrounded the man.
When the smoke dissipated, it revealed a humanoid shaped vulture-like creature with low-cut bleached blonde hair wearing an undershirt, shorts and boxing gloves. He unleashed a mighty roar.
Sailor Moon's eyes looked as if they would roll back into her head. She let out a low whistle. "Omistars! That's one creepy looking monster."
Zoisite gave an evil grin. "Welcome back to the Dark Kingdom, Boxy. Get rid of that impudent little pest at once!"
The creature known as Boxy complied by taking his boxing stance, poised for combat. "I am Boxy, champion of the Dark Kingdom! Listen to the crowd cheer me on!" He raised an arm upwards, creating an illusion of screaming fans. "I have a massive following, and do you know why? No one has ever survived my Lovely Punch attack! It is the will of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords that I crush you!"
Moon crouched down on her knees and got into a combative stance of her own, not caring if it was shaky in comparison. "I know nothing about boxing, but I'm not letting you win this."
Boxy unleashed a diabolical laugh as the bell he donned on his belt rang. "You're about to get a taste of my true power. Lovely Punch!" He fired the boxing glove from his left hand. The moon senshi screamed and got out of the way just in time. The glove hit one of the gravestones, causing a massive explosion to ensue.
The sakura shitennou laughed heartily at his arch-enemy. "Very good, Boxy. Now beat her until she's a bloody mess."
"Noooo, I don't want to be a bloody mess!" Sailor Moon wailed. She shuddered at the thought, for it brought back unpleasant memories of when she was viciously attacked by Nephrite's youma Regulus.
Zoisite laughed again. "I see I have invoked a rather traumatic experience for you. However, you won't survive to speak of it this time. " He went to go search for the lost nijizuishou.
"Not to worry, Master Zoisite, I will see to it that she doesn't." The vulture-like youma faced Sailor Moon with a malicious grin. "You won't escape my attack this time! Lovely Punch!" He shot his boxing glove again, this time from his right hand. Again, Moon dodged the attack, tripping in the process. "Owwww," she moaned as pain seared through both of her knees. She buried her face in the grass. 'Oh, why did I have to go and take on this monster alone? That never works out. I guess this is it.' She closed her eyes, anticipating for death to claim her.
At that moment, the senshi of the moon felt a pair of strong and sturdy arms lifting and sweeping her into them. Her eyes fluttered open to see Tuxedo Kamen peering down at her. She gave him a big smile. "Tuxedo Kamen, you came to rescue me just in the nick of time!" she squealed. "I thought I was a goner for sure." It took everything in her not to be distracted by the butterflies fluttering around in her stomach.
Zoisite paused in his search for the nijizuishou to see what the commotion was about. A look that was between displeasure and amusement made its way onto his features. "So that's Tuxedo Kamen. He's more foolish than he looks if he thinks he's going to meddle in my affairs," he mused aloud.
The caped hero returned Moon's smile and then glanced up at Boxy, giving him a hard look. "A true boxer never uses his skills to harm women, but instead embraces and protects them." He gently rested the blonde superheroine down, but made sure to remain close by in case the youma attacked again.
The sakura shitennou let out a huff, showing how unimpressed he was. "Boxy, knock out this pathetic nuisance as well." He then turned away to continue his search.
"I do so with great pleasure!" The vulture warrior matched Tuxedo Kamen's hard gaze with one of his own. "You will pay the price for entering my battle uninvited. Now you and your lady friend can die together. Triple Punch!" He launched three boxing gloves at the pair, which the masked young man evaded by twirling his rod around, thus creating another explosion. This one was greater than before, which prompted Tuxedo Kamen to pick up the young girl once again and leap out of the way.
Boxy coughed loudly from the smoke. "Curse you both!" he managed to choke out. He coughed some more before taking three deep ragged breaths. "All right, you fools! I'm going to send both of you to hell! Take this!" He thrust out both arms, preparing to launch the boxing gloves once again.
"Not if I have anything to say about it!" a husky female's voice blared out.
Boxy growled, clearly losing patience with the interruptions. "Who dares to oppose me?" he demanded. Moon, on the other hand, had an excited grin on her face as she recognized the voice. 'Mako-chan! I guess Luna must have told her. Leave it to both of them to always look out for me, even when I screw up.'
The newly awakened senshi emerged into full view, wearing a fierce warrior expression on her features. "If you think you're so tough, try taking me on! I'm Sailor Jupiter! I fight for love and for courage! I'll fill you with so much regret, it'll leave you numb!"
Sailor Moon's grin grew wider. "Sailor Jupiter..." she acknowledged in an awed voice.
Boxy let out a huffy laugh. "I will make you regret interfering! The more challengers I face, the stronger I become!" He held out his left arm, preparing to launch his boxing glove at the considerably imposing senshi.
"Ha! Not likely!" The brunette senshi put a meditative expression on her face and crossed her arms in front of her. "Jupiter, my guardian planet, bring forth the storm, summon the clouds and bring down the thunder so I may defeat this youma! Supreme Thunder!" She launched the powerful burst of thunder at the creature, damaging the boxing glove on his extended arm and trapping him.
"AHHHH! Curses on all of you!" the vulture-like youma screamed. He was short of doing anything to counterattack, with the lightning bolt radiating around him, freezing him in place.
Jupiter gave a small smirk of self-satisfaction for a split second, then allowed it to disappear. "Now, Sailor Moon!"
"Yes, take advantage of all opportunities you have and you'll be able to achieve much greatness," added Tuxedo Kamen. As if on cue, he took his leave, deciding to let the two girls handle the rest. 'I can't let Zoisite get his hands on another nijizuishou.'
The moon senshi felt such a boost to her confidence from the masked hero's words of encouragement that she forgot to be fazed by his exit. "Right!" She twirled her moon wand in the air and caught it before waving it around in a circular fashion. "Moon Healing Escalation!" Healing magic poured from the wand, raining down on the ensnared youma. He belted out, "Refresh!"
Instead of collapsing like the previous nijizuishou carrier, negative energy was purged from the priest's body, and he held a Bible in his hands. "Do you believe in God? I do, for I have experienced his mercy and blessings on many occasions. Love and take care of each other."
Meanwhile, Tuxedo Kamen had been looking for the missing nijizuishou, determined to find it before Zoisite did. It was proving to be a bit challenging, but after running his hand a bit through the grass, he finally felt something smooth with a slightly pointed edge. He peered down and sure enough, there was the small, orange coloured crystal. 'Aha! Found it!' Wasting no time, he snatched it up, letting out a smug laugh as Zoisite appeared in front of him with a look of chagrin. "Hey, Zoisite, look what I found," he taunted.
Zoisite looked indignant and had to clench his fists to keep from shaking. "That crystal belongs to me! Hand it over or I'll take it by force!"
The masked young man gave Zoisite a smug grin. "Sorry, I don't see your name on it anywhere. Finders, keepers." In a flash, he was gone.
The sakura king gritted his teeth, barely holding back an angry growl. "I'll get that crystal back from him somehow," he muttered before disappearing in a flurry of cherry blossoms. He could just hear the verbal beating he would no doubt receive from Beryl for his failure and he wasn't looking forward to it one bit.
* * * * * * * *
Naru allowed a tiny smile to form on her lips as she put away her books, only packing the ones for the subjects there were reading assignments on. To say she appeared happy that school was over for the day would be a severe understatement. It had been a major struggle for her to contain the excitement and remain focused during the lessons, but through some miracle, she managed to succeed. 'It's a good thing I've already done the homework we were given yesterday.' She wanted to show her mother that she could remain hands-on in her studies even while dating. 'Besides, I'm sure Nephrite or his lady servants would be willing to help me when I need it.'
Usagi gazed around the room and took a quick peek out the window, looking relieved to see Umino was nowhere in sight. He was in the dark about Naru's "date" and she wanted to keep it that way, as did the red head. Neither of them thought he could be trusted to keep his mouth shut about the news they shared with each other. 'Besides, knowing him he might tell her to stop seeing Nephrite. While I may have done the same, I now see there's no need for that.' She turned to her best friend. "So, are you excited? No, wait, don't answer that. The answer is written all over you."
Naru's face turned red with embarrassment and she let out an awkward giggle. "That obvious, huh?"
"Yes, not to mention I know you've been looking forward to this for the past few days. Well, have fun, and don't forget to tell me all about it."
Naru giggled again, this time at how overly-eager the blonde was. However, she had no qualms complying as it felt good being able to mention the reformed shitennou freely around her best friend. 'It's definitely a welcoming change, considering all the doubts she had at first. I'm glad that's all over and done with.' She nodded. "Of course. You'll be the first to know," she promised, zipping up her bag.
Usagi grinned. "Good. I'll let you get going now. You don't want to keep Sanjouin-san waiting for too long."
"Definitely not. I'll call you later." Naru grabbed her backpack and exited the classroom, her heart racing as she left the building. Not to mention her legs felt like jelly and there were butterflies fluttering around in her stomach. 'Oh please don't let me fall flat on my face or forget how to speak coherently. Or even worse, say or ask the wrong thing.' She exhaled a few deep breaths through her nostrils to calm herself.
Just as the red head and Usagi had anticipated, there was a red Ferrari parked outside the school gate. A small smile crept upon her lips at the fact that Nephrite had actually remembered and her longtime dream was about to become a reality. She never doubted he was serious about it, but at the same time she knew there could always be a change of plans at the last minute. 'Then again, he would have told me.'
As Naru got closer, she heard the engine running and saw Nephrite climbing out to go over to the passenger side to open the door for her. 'Awww, he's such a gentleman.' She picked up the pace a tad and placed her backpack inside the car on the floor, then briskly walked over to her soulmate, throwing her arms around him in a warm, tight embrace. "Hi!" She had to resist the urge to stroke his hair, instead opting to show restraint. 'Mmmm, he smells so good.' She could feel people staring and some of them were undoubtedly jealous, too, but she didn't really care.
Nephrite chuckled lightly before giving the young girl a gentle squeeze in return and pecking her on the forehead. "Well, hello to you, too, Naru-san. I must say, you've given quite the greeting."
Naru gave a sheepish grin, all the while waiting for her racing heartbeat to calm down and the butterflies in her stomach to disappear. "I'm so happy to see you."
Nephrite smiled. "As am I." He broke out of the hug and went back over to the driver's side, climbing back inside. "Come. Let's get going," he told the red head before closing the door.
Naru didn't need to be told twice, as she didn't like wasting time any more than Nephrite did. She climbed in and shut the door, fastening her seatbelt. She put a blissful look on her face as he pulled out of the schoolyard and into traffic, which was extremely hectic that day. 'I can't believe this is happening, that I'm actually riding with the man I love…in the coolest car, I might add. Somebody pinch me to let me know this is real.' She clasped her hands in her lap, debating within herself whether she should break the ice or leave it up to Nephrite. The idea of riding in awkward silence didn't exactly appeal to her. 'Something simple will do. And remember to speak from the heart,' a voice inside her head urged. "Thank you for picking me up today, Nephrite-san."
"The pleasure is mine alone. I have been looking forward to this day, as I'm sure you were. I trust you are well."
Naru felt her heart melting at the young man's admission and concern for her wellbeing. "Oh yes! You have no idea. I'm doing pretty good. How are you? Are you still feeling pain in your ankle?"
"Actually, no, not at all. It's fine now." It was a relief for the star shitennou. Although he was grateful to his henchwomen for their assistance, he disliked not being as mobile as he was accustomed to. Yet he was no fool, either, so he knew not to allow his pride to triumph.
A part of Naru was tempted to ask if he was sure he wasn't just saying it to make her feel better, but she hadn't noticed him limping, nor was there a hint of a wince when he put weight on the ankle, so she knew he was being truthful. 'Besides, he did promise me he wouldn't lie anymore and so far, he has made good on it.' Her eyes brightened. "That's awesome news, especially considering you hurt it just over a week ago."
"It was a moderate sprain. However, the healing process for myself and those associated with my former organization for any type of wound is considerably faster than that of an ordinary human."
Naru nodded, remembering when Usagi had mentioned the young man wasn't human in her warning against him. "Gotcha. Um…there is something else I've been wanting to ask you, but I'm worried you might consider me nosy for it."
Nephrite came to a stop as the traffic light turned red. "No, it's fine. Go on." He didn't want the red head to feel like she had to walk on eggshells around him.
"I was just wondering, how old are you? My guess is nineteen, or twenty, but if you don't want to tell me, you don't have to. Will you at least tell me whether I'm far off or not?"
The chestnut-haired young man furrowed his brow in thought. It wasn't a question he was asked very often, certainly not for the purpose of getting to know him. In the past he might have considered Naru intrusive, but not that moment. "Hmm. Let's see. I became an agent of the Dark Kingdom at nineteen years of age, which was the last birthday I celebrated. No aging took place during my service there, so technically, you are correct."
Naru breathed a light sigh of relief that Nephrite was super gracious, although his silence did worry her a little. She also looked pleased that she was right. 'Five years difference isn't so bad.' A smug smile threatened to escape her lips at the thought of being able to silence critics screaming about how inappropriate a possible relationship would be, even when she reached the age of majority. "I understand. When is your birthday? That is, if you can remember."
"Oh wow! That's two days after mine." Something else to add to the list Naru had in common with the reformed shitennou. 'I knew it wasn't coincidence we met.'
"Oh really?" A small reserved smile escaped Nephrite's lips. "I'll make a note of that." By then, the traffic light had turned green again, and he continued driving to the café, which was just up ahead. The other cars headed in different directions, making the journey that much easier. He sped up a bit, causing the wheels to produce a screeching sound. The maneuver caused Naru's stomach to do flipflops and created a ticklish feeling. 'Well…I heard stories of the reckless driving before, but this is mild in comparison. Plus, he's wearing a seatbelt like I am. People sure love to exaggerate.' Both sensations eased when her love interest slowed down a bit to pull up to the eatery, parking in a space in front of the door.
Naru unfastened her seatbelt and watched as Nephrite did the same before getting out to open the door on her side. As she climbed out and shut the door, Nephrite offered her his hand, which she accepted with a smile. She gave it a gentle squeeze, eliciting a look of mild surprise from the young man, but he returned the gesture, sending a shiver through her. Entwining his fingers with hers, he proceeded to lead her up the steps to enter the café. He pushed the door open, and it was held by one of the waitresses. Nephrite gave the older woman a nod of acknowledgement and gratitude as he led Naru inside.
"Thank you, ma'am," said Naru.
"Of course," replied the waitress. She gave the couple a quick glance over before asking, "So it's two of you?"
"Yes," answered Nephrite. He heard his cellphone buzzing in his pants pocket but merely ignored it, believing it could wait until he and Naru were seated. 'It is most likely Ruby informing me of her arrival.' He had instructed the red head youma to remain invisible and keep watch in case Zoisite or Kunzite got word of his public appearance and decided to try something. 'No meaningless interruptions will be tolerated.'
The waitress smiled slightly. "Right this way."
Nephrite and his female companion followed the woman as instructed, ignoring the curious stares and whispers they received along the way. They knew the fact that they were holding hands would raise eyebrows and their appearance screamed odd couple, but they refused to allow it to deter them.
"Here you are," said the waitress, showing the couple a table for two in a somewhat secluded area. She had also noticed the scrutiny that had ensued and wanted them to have a bit of privacy. 'A pity some people cannot mind their own business. These young people are only here to enjoy a meal, after all. Not to mention I've seen far stranger couples than this one in my day.'
'Hmm. Perfect.' Nephrite pulled out Naru's chair for her before sitting down.
"Thank you." Naru took her seat as well and gave the star shitennou a shy smile. He smiled back and was about to compliment her when the waitress stood on the opposite side of their table, getting their attention. "What can I get for you both today?" she asked.
"One large chocolate parfait, please," responded Nephrite without hesitation.
A wry smile formed on the woman's lips. "Sharing, I presume? Well, perfect choice." She scribbled something on the notepad she held. "Anything to drink?"
"Hmm...I don't suppose you serve espressos, do you?"
"We do, actually. That's your choice?"
The waitress wrote down the order before turning to Naru. "And for you, Miss?"
Naru wrinkled her brow in thought and clasped her hands on top of the table. "Cocoa, please."
"All righty then." The waitress wrote on her notepad again. "I'll be back in a few." With that, she left.
Now that the waitress was gone, Nephrite turned his attention back to Naru. He took ahold of one of her hands, squeezing it lightly. She squeezed his hand and gazed lovingly into his sapphire colored orbs, eliciting a smile from the reformed general. "Your eyes are more beautiful than the ocean itself," he told the red head.
"Awww, Nephrite-san…" Naru's face turned deep shades of red and her heart felt as if it would turn into mush. "I can say the same about yours...not to mention they're very captivating."
Nephrite chuckled a little. "I thank you. However, it is through your eyes I see your kind, fragile soul, and I do not say that lightly." Of all the words he uttered that were intended to be lies in the past, this was one that had much truth in it.
"I know that, and neither do I."
"I can tell. After all, you are a young woman of integrity, which I would like to gain more of, but enough on that. I take it this is your favorite place?"
Naru gave a bashful smile. "One of them." Not wanting to seem too abrupt, she added, "I can't say enough how glad I am I got to come here with you today. I hope I get to go to my other favorite spots with you as well…I mean, besides the tennis club."
Nephrite smiled wryly at the young teen. "That can be arranged when circumstances permit. I look forward to it, as well as becoming more acquainted with you."
"Me too." It was all Naru could do not to burst into tears of happiness. Here she was, with her ideal soulmate, having a candid conversation with him, and led to believe it wouldn't be her last. 'I certainly hope not, but at least I still have this moment I can cherish if something were to happen.' She shut down that train of thought as she didn't want to spoil the moment. 'Remain positive,' a voice reminded her. "This may sound kind of funny to you, but even though we've only met three months ago, I feel like I've known you forever."
"No, it doesn't. It sounds rather heartwarming. Pardon me for a moment."
Naru nodded. "Okay. No problem."
Nephrite retrieved his cellphone from his pocket to see who had texted him whilst the waitress was showing him and Naru to their table. Sure enough, it was from Ruby. It read: "Greetings, Master Nephrite. I hope you and Naru-san are having a wonderful time. I just wanted to notify you of my arrival and inform you that so far, there are no problems."
Nephrite texted back, "Good. Do keep me posted. And yes, Naru-chan and I are enjoying each other's company very much." He placed the phone back inside his pocket. Just as he was doing that, the waitress wandered back over to the table, holding a large tray. She set the utensils and beverages down on the table, before placing the parfait (which consisted of chocolate mousse, hazelnut, brownie, coconut whipped cream, and almonds, complete with a cherry on top) in front of the couple. "I hope you enjoy." For the second time she left.
'It looks so good. Please don't let me spill any on my uniform…or scald myself with this cocoa. That would be mortifying.' Naru slowly unwrapped the napkin holding the utensils, placing one of the spoons in the cocoa before glancing up at Nephrite. "You can go first."
"All right." The chestnut-haired young man retrieved his spoon and scooped up some of the dessert, eating it. "Mmm." It was rich, yet extremely delectable, and somewhat addictive. 'Who would've guessed I would discover something that surpasses cheesecake, which happens to be a favorite?' He ate another spoonful.
Naru, who had been waiting with a look of apprehension on her face, asked, "What do you think? You like it?" She didn't know all of his preferences, but she sincerely hoped the experience would be worth it. 'He does seem to be impressed enough, but the question is, to what extent?'
"I do, immensely. It's positively divine. Thank you for introducing me to it."
Naru's anxious expression transformed into a grin. "I'm so glad. And you're more than welcome." Naru got her other spoon and ate some as well. She and Nephrite continued to eat their fair share until the glass was empty.
Naru got a napkin and dabbed at the edge of her lips to make sure there was nothing on her face. She gave the star shitennou a curious smile. "So tell me, is the food in the evil organization you used to work for anything like this?"
Nephrite let out a humorless chuckle. "No, there is no comparison whatsoever. Quite frankly, the Dark Kingdom's concoctions aren't even worthy to be called food."
The red head blinked in surprise at her "love's" strong statement at first, but once again the curiosity was evident on her features. "That bad, huh? Give me some examples." She braced herself for some of the worst food combinations imaginable.
"Well, many meals involved liver, kidney, brains, and occasionally chitlins, as well as goat's tongue and sardine sandwiches, just to name a few. Mind you, some of the common human foods were also in existence, but they were rotting, accompanied by mold and mildew due to the absence of refrigerators," answered Nephrite, his face turning a tinge of green. He knew not to mention any more due to the girl's face matching his.
Naru wrinkled her nose. "Ewwww, that's so disgusting!" she exclaimed, barely managing to keep her voice muffled. A tiny part of her wanted to burst out laughing, too, which she suppressed with her horrified, repulsed and sympathetic countenance.
Nephrite laughed a bit, fully expecting such a reaction. "Exactly. However, disgusting is too kind of a word. Just the mere thought of them alone is enough to bother my stomach."
Naru gave the young man an apologetic look, feeling guilty for letting her curiosity get the best of her. She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb. "I know what you mean. Really, though, that's horrible! You must have had terrible stomachaches. I know I would."
"Yes, I have had my share of those on quite a number of occasions, and so have my servants. That is, until I reintroduced myself to food here on Earth. It instantly became a permanent change."
"Good for you. I don't want you guys hurting." Naru picked up her cup of cocoa to take a sip. Hearing about the terrible food had left her with a funny taste. 'That's better.' She took a few more sips before resting the cup back down. "Is that how you've become familiar with espressos?"
"Yes." Nephrite took a sip of the coffee beverage, drinking it slowly. Once finished, he rested the cup down and pulled a miniscule jewelry box out of his other pocket. He faced Naru, who had just finished her cocoa. "I've bought you a gift."
Naru's eyes were full of curiosity. "You did?! What is it?"
Nephrite only smiled in response as he opened the jewelry box and pulled out a ring with a garnet stone in the center. Naru let out a little gasp, but allowed him to slip it onto her ring finger on her left hand. She held it up a little to get a better look. "It's beautiful! I love it! Thank you!" A look of confusion then crossed her face. "May I ask what it is for? My birthday isn't for another 2 ½ months."
"It's a promise ring," explained the former Dark Kingdom agent. "It is a symbol of my love for you and regret for how much I had lied to you in the past. With it, I declare my promise to be truthful to you and protect you from harm's way. I'm not worthy of you, but I swear on my very existence I will do all in my power to earn your heart and treasure it."
"Nephrite-san…" Naru felt tears welling up in her eyes, but she blinked them back, determined not to turn into a sobbing mess, especially in public. She couldn't help feeling deeply moved by both Nephrite's gesture and the reasoning behind it. 'He's told me before how much he regrets tricking me, but I never knew he would go to such lengths to show it.' Composing herself, she placed a hand on top of his, looking him directly in the eye and speaking in a firm tone. "You already have. The fact that you saved me those two times speaks volumes, and this does as well. You don't owe me a thing. Just continuing to follow the path you stepped onto is good enough for me."
Nephrite didn't dare argue with that. In turn, he brought Naru's hand up to his lips, kissing the back of it, which made her skin tingle. Just then, the waitress who had served them came walking back to the table, removing the empty glass, mugs and soiled utensils to place inside the cart. "So, did you two enjoy?" she asked.
"Oh yes," answered Naru.
"Very much," Nephrite added. He truly did, although recalling the putrid meals in the Dark Kingdom hadn't helped.
The waitress smiled. "Wonderful. Here's the bill." She set the cheque book with the receipt attached to it on the table, taking her leave afterwards.
Nephrite picked up the cheque book to peruse the total on the receipt. He then retrieved his wallet, took out several bills and laid them on top of the cheque book, resting it back on the table. He glanced at Naru. "Are you ready, Naru-chan?"
"Yes, let's go." The red-head and Nephrite rose from their seats, pushing them in. "Thank you for bringing me here today, Nephrite-san, and again for the ring. I love you very much."
Nephrite gave Naru a warm smile. "You are most welcome. I love you, too, Naru-chan…more than you know." He placed an arm around her shoulders, hugging her close to him and planting a kiss on her temple. He took her hand in his, leading her away from the dining area to head for the exit. The risks of him coming out of seclusion didn't matter then, for he was able to enjoy quality time with the girl who had become most important to him.
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A/N: Although Ayumi will only be featured in this chapter, she is my OC, so if you steal her you will feel my wrath.Nephrite's age here is based on what Ms. Naoko herself gave in the Materials Collection Artbook, so it is official. Also, I hope I didn't disappoint with the Neph x Naru scene on their date. You may want to have a waste basket handy. *shifty eyes* Other than that, please feel free to let me know how I'm doing so far.
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return to Index / go to Chapter 7
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury