24 Hours to Life
by Moon Momma

6:00 pm, Tokyo

* * * * * * * *

Nephrite stirred and awoke. He was lying on the narrow cot he'd put in his Tokyo headquarters for the times when he was too tired, or too sick of the cold dampness and bruised-looking light and constant scheming and backstabbing of the Dark Kingdom, to go back to his rooms in the Dark Kingdom to sleep. At first, remembering pain and explosions and Naru's weeping, he thought he'd been having some very strange dreams, then he looked down at himself and realized they weren't dreams at all. He was wearing his uniform boots and pants, and the undershirt he'd been wearing under his jacket the night he'd rescued Naru-chan from the Plant Sisters. The shirt was ripped to shreds and stained with the substance that had served him for blood in the Dark Kingdom, and five holes on the top right showed where the thorns had gone in. Carefully, he probed at his chest near his right shoulder; the area was tender but scarred and healed over. He raised his right arm to the front, side, and straight up, rotating it, and found the shoulder weak but serviceable.

So, it hadn't been a dream. His death, the time in the void, the opportunity he'd been given to earn a second chance; it was all real. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the cot, then stood up, aching and stiff. He only had twenty-four hours, but fifteen minutes to shower and change wouldn't set him too far back. He couldn't appear in public like this, much less approach people who might not have fond memories of him. And he didn't want to scare Naru-chan. Goodness knew (how long had it been since he had sworn by the quality of goodness?) she was going to get enough of a shock.

He showered, and shaved, which he hadn't needed to do in the long years in the stasis of the Dark Kingdom, and dressed in the expensively tailored casual trousers, silk shirt, and sports coat he had worn in his disguise as Sanjouin Masato. Looking in the mirror, he noted that he hadn't aged at all in the centuries he'd spent in the Dark Kingdom. He still looked just as he had at the age of twenty-three, when he, the other Generals, and Beryl had been banished to the stasis after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom. Though maybe there was a shadow of hard-won wisdom and experience in his face that hadn't been there when he was truly young.

He thought about Naru-chan. She had been, what, fourteen? A girl in junior high school; far too young for him or for the kind of relationship she had wanted to have with him. But now she would be seventeen, still young but not too young to be dating a man who appeared to be in his early twenties. Of course, the age difference between them was far more than it looked like, but some things transcended age and years. He wanted to think that what Naru-chan felt for him, the feelings that had started to grow between them, was one of those things.

On the other hand, now that he was freed from the stasis of the Dark Kingdom, he wondered if he would suddenly start to age quickly. By the end of his allotted twenty-four hours he might look forty, or fifty, or even seventy or eighty years old.

He banished the thought. He'd been given a second chance at life; why would he be given the chance if he was going to die of old age in just a couple of days?

He straightened the lapels of the designer jacket, ran a comb through his hair one more time, and collected his cell phone, the file folder of notes he had kept on his targets, and his wallet. He checked to make sure he had plenty of cash on hand, then left the house.

His Ferrari was still parked in front of the mansion, where he had left it that fatal night. A thick layer of dirt and dried leaves had settled on it. He swept it away with a magically-summoned burst of wind. He got in the car and, holding his breath in fear that it wouldn't start, turned the ignition key. The car came to life with a deep, smooth, powerful sound like the purring of a tiger. Smiling - he had missed driving this car during his time in the void - he stepped on the gas and took off down the driveway with a squeal of tires.

* * * * * * * *

He had driven to the dollmaker child's house once, and now his excellent sense of direction kicked in and led him straight there again. He stopped the car at the curb with a loud screech of brakes, then walked to the house and knocked on the door.

An attractive woman in her thirties opened the door. "Yes?" She looked at him, no sign of recognition in her face.

"Mrs. Kayama? I don't know if you remember me. I'm Sanjouin Masato. I visited you a few years ago, to speak to your daughter about commissioning some dolls from her. Is your daughter at home now?"

The woman looked more puzzled, and a little suspicious. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sanjouin. I'm afraid I have no idea what you're talking about. I hope you understand; as a mother, I'm suspicious when strange men come around asking to see my daughter. Goodbye." As firmly as possible while still being polite, she shut the door in his face.

Nephrite stood still on the front step of the house, trying to understand what had just happened. He would have thought that the woman would have remembered the young millionaire who had taken an interest in her daughter's art. Surely that sort of thing didn't happen so often that he had been lost in the crowd. Had the sinister turn of events at the time caused her to block him from her memory? Or was he just that easy to forget? He didn't think it was just arrogance that made him doubt that. Strange. Well, maybe he would have better luck with the tennis player or the photographer.

* * * * * * * *

In the doorway of an apartment near the Juuban tennis club, Saionji Rui stared at him, a puzzled look on her face. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Sanjouin, but I don't remember ever taking a tennis lesson from you. I'm sure I would remember if I had, but I'm afraid I don't. I'm sorry you've come here for nothing."

"That's all right," Nephrite said, and she closed the door.

Very strange, he thought as he walked down the stairs of the apartment building. That was two people he had thought for sure would remember him. Did young millionaires take a personal interest in strangers' success more often than he thought?

No. He clearly remembered how surprised - almost stunned - and flattered the Kayamas and Miss Saionji had been at his attention. Again, the only explanation he could think of was that the trauma caused when he had released his youma to complete the job of taking their energy had somehow blocked or erased their memories. Feeling a little less optimistic about his chances for success, he got in his car, consulted his notes, and headed for the photographer's home.

* * * * * * * *

"I'm afraid you must be mistaken, Mr. Sanjouin," Shinokawa Kijin said. "I've never had any interest in photographing girls, or any human subjects. My interest is landscapes, and always has been. I don't even have any negatives in storage of photos of girls."

Nephrite looked around at the young photographer's new studio, which had taken him longer to track down than he had hoped it would. Indeed, the large framed photos on the wall were all of various landscapes from around the world. The young man had done a lot of traveling in the last three years. "And you don't remember when I caught you when you nearly fell off that seaside cliff?"

"I'm sorry. I don't remember ever putting myself in such a risky situation. My mother always worries about me getting into dangerous spots for my photos. I couldn't do that to her."

Nephrite glanced at his watch; his first hour was almost up, and he had made no progress at all. In fact, he seemed to be getting drawn even deeper into a mystery; why didn't any of the people he had targeted remember him or any of the things that had happened back then? And the explanation that the trauma of being overcome by his youma and having their energy stolen didn't explain why Kijin had no negatives or records of having ever photographed girls.

It was almost as though the events of three years ago had never happened.

The thought took him by surprise. He apologized to Kijin-san for interrupting him, then left, mulling over the strange, somehow frightening possibility that his work on Earth had been something he had imagined, an illusion. How could he possibly atone for things he had never even done? If he had imagined everything else, had he also imagined Naru-chan?

But he knew that couldn't be. He had the scars of his death wounds to prove that those events really had happened. And he had other proof that "Sanjouin Masato" had existed. Or did he?

He jumped into his car, started it, and slammed down on the gas. With a squeal of tires, the Ferrari pulled away from the curb, headed back to his mansion.

* * * * * * * *

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