24 Hours to Life
by Moon Momma
11:00 am Tokyo
* * * * * * * *
Chieko finally showed up about two minutes after eleven. "I'm so sorry," she said, panting for breath as she bowed to Mrs. Osaka. "The bus was late and it was very crowded getting off. I had to run to get here."
"It's all right," Mrs. Osaka said, looking at her diamond watch. "Naru-chan, you may have an hour off. I need you back here at twelve."
"Thank you, Mama!" Naru said. "Can I use the phone?"
"One call," Mrs. Osaka said.
"Thanks. I'll be right out, Ne - Sanjouin-san!" she called across the room to Nephrite. He nodded in response.
Naru ran into the office and dialed Umino's number on the phone on her mother's desk. He picked it up after just a few rings. "Hello, this is Umino Gurio speaking."
"Umino-kun, it's Naru. I need to talk to you."
"Naru-chan! I thought we were going to study today!"
"No, we weren't. I thought I told you, I have to help my mother in the store today. But I need to talk to you about something. Can you meet me at the Crown Cafe at 11:30?" The cafe was only a short walk away; Naru hoped that would give Nephrite enough time for what he needed to talk to her about and get out of sight before Umino showed up. "I have my break then, but I have to be back at work by noon."
"Okay, Naru-chan. I'll bring my books and we can -"
"No, Umino-kun. There won't be time to study. I need to talk to you."
"Well, okay. See you soon, Naru-chan!"
She hung up, then grabbed her purse from the shelf and hurried out. "Let's go," she said to Nephrite. "Umino-kun is meeting me at 11:30, so we don't have much time." She headed out of the store, and Nephrite followed close behind her. The other three men trailed at a distance. "What did you want to talk to me about?" she asked Nephrite as she led him to the cafe.
"How did you remember me?" he asked. "I mean, what was it that made your memories come back?"
"It was... hmm...." She tried to remember. The events of the night had been so chaotic, and she had had so little sleep, it wasn't clear. "Let me think. Like I told you, I always had a sense that something wasn't quite right with my life. So I was kind of already halfway to remembering, anyway. So, last night I was thinking about seeing you, and how I knew somehow that I knew you, I just didn't remember you. There's always been a fuzzy place in my memories from when I was in eighth grade, so I got out a box of stuff I kept from that year. There were a couple of things, a newspaper article about one of Rui-chan's tennis tournaments, and the letter you wrote inviting me and the other girls to the department store, when you disguised yourself as Tuxedo Mask -" Her cheeks burned at the memory of how she had said, I love you just as bold as anything; she wondered if he remembered that, too, but felt too embarrassed to ask. "Anyway, that was when they started coming back, then I found the - the bandage, from when your arm was hurt and I tore off a piece of my pajamas to tie around it -" Her voice choked and she had to stop speaking. His hand, big and warm, closed around hers, surprising her. She looked up at him.
"I remember it very well," he said softly.
"And that was what brought it back. I kind of passed out for a while, and slept, and when I woke up I remembered everything."
"So, an object..." he said. He still didn't let go of her hand; she hoped he wouldn't until he had to leave. "Something closely associated with me, that has meaning for the other person. That was what bridged the gap a little, allowing you to remember. And what allowed the monsters, or ghosts, rather, from this reality, to escape."
"If you could find some objects that are important to the people involved in your plans," the blond man said from behind them, "that might help them remember, too, and bridge the gap a little more. That might be enough for everyone else to start remembering without having to actually move the Earth from this reality track to the other one."
"And if any monsters do appear, we can have the Senshi waiting to deal with them," the silver-haired man added.
"So that takes care of that," the blond man said, "except it won't matter if we can't pay off what we owe."
"If the two realities are bridged closely enough, maybe my bank accounts will reappear and I can withdraw all my money from them," Nephrite said.
"But it has to be our own -" the tawny-haired man who had once been Nephrite's killer said.
"Use your winnings to pay as much as you can, then," Nephrite said. "If it isn't enough, I'll give you the rest of what you need, free and clear as a gift, to do with as you please. Or," he went on as they started to object, "as a loan, if you prefer. We'll work the terms out later."
"Think that'll work?" the blond man asked.
"It's worth trying," the silver-haired man said. "We've got nothing to lose by not trying, and everything to gain." Naru glanced back at him; he and the tawny-haired man were walking hand-in-hand, too. So, it was what she guessed. It still seemed strange, that someone would love that horrible little man who had killed Nephrite. But that horrible little man didn't seem quite so horrible now.
"Yeah," the blond man said. "But there's still the matter of..." He trailed off, looking unhappy.
It now occurred to Naru that he was the odd one out, the only one without a partner. Was there someone he had loved that he was supposed to get back together with too?
"We'll figure out a way to work that out, too," Nephrite said. The blond man shrugged.
"Rui-chan's tennis racket," Naru said, suddenly thinking of something.
"I already went and talked to her," Nephrite said. "She didn't remember me."
"I think she still has that old tennis racket," Naru went on. "She kept it because she won her first tournaments with it. If she gets it out and holds it, she might start to remember. And Kijin... He might remember me. I modeled for him on that swimsuit shoot. If he still has that camera, that might trigger his memories. Let's see..." She started digging in her purse for the notebook she'd kept for years of friends' phone numbers. "I hope I have enough money for a pay phone..."
"Use this." Nephrite handed her his cell phone.
"Cool! Thanks." She smiled at him. "I keep asking my mom for a phone, but she doesn't seem to think I need one." She paged through the notebook until she found Saionji Rui's number, and dialed.
"Rui-chan, it's me," she said when her childhood "big sister" answered the phone. "There's a friend of mine here who needs to talk to you. He says he tried to talk to you last night, but you didn't remember him. He was asking about that old tennis racket of yours, that you won your first tennis tournaments with. I told him I thought you still had it."
"Yeah," Rui said. "Someone came over last night and said he used to know me, he was one of my early tennis coaches, but I didn't remember him. He's a friend of yours?"
"Yeah. I can't explain now, but it's really, really important. He wants to examine your old racquet. Can he come over in, oh, an hour or so -" She glanced at Nephrite, and he nodded "- and take a look at it?"
"My old racquet? That's weird. He told me he owed me an apology." Rui sounded doubtful.
"Yeah, well, like I said, it's complicated, but it's really, really, super important. You know I wouldn't bother you on Sunday if it wasn't important, Rui-chan."
"Well, ok, if you say it's important, Naru-chan. I have a game later this afternoon, so it'll have to be before then."
"Ok, thanks." Naru looked at her watch. "He'll be over at your place at about one o'clock, then, okay? I can't come with; I'm working in the store today, and anyway, I'm grounded. But he's a friend of mine, so you don't have to worry about him, I promise."
"Okay," Rui said, then hung up.
"One o'clock," Naru said to Nephrite. "And you know where she lives, right?"
He nodded. They arrived at the cafe, but Nephrite looked at his watch and told Naru he didn't have time to order anything if he was going to leave before Umino got there. "We'll have that chocolate parfait once all of this is taken care of," he said with a smile and a wink.
"Okay," she said, and smiled back, hoping desperately that this time he would have the chance to keep his promise. "I'll call Kijin really quick, if I've got Rui's phone number here I probably have his -"
"It's already in the phone." Nephrite showed her where he had entered the young photographer's phone number and address in the directory on his phone. "Just push this button to call the number."
Naru pushed the button to dial, and after only a couple of rings a young man's voice answered. "Hello?"
"Hello? Shinokawa Kijin-san? My name is Osaka Naru, I don't know if you remember me."
"I'm afraid I don't."
"I modeled for you once, though I'm sure you don't remember that. Anyway, a friend of mine said he tried to see you yesterday but you didn't remember him either."
"Yes, the guy who came to see me. It was weird, he talked about a swimsuit photo shoot I did, and said he owed me an apology. But I'd never met him before in my life, and I've never been interested in photographing swimsuit models."
"Well, you did one once. That was what I modeled for. And it kind of didn't turn out very well, so I'm not surprised you lost interest. Anyway, my friend was the one who suggested it and helped set it up, and he feels like he owes you an apology for the embarrassment it caused you, and he's also afraid your camera was damaged. He wants to inspect it, and replace it if necessary." She glanced at Nephrite and he raised an eyebrow. She knew he and his friends were short on money and they needed a lot to repay people and pay damages, but this was a good excuse to get Kijin to get out his old camera. If he still had it. And anyway, if the camera had been damaged, the rules did say that Nephrite had to replace it.
"Well, sure, I guess... The camera works fine, but if it would make him feel better, I can let him take a look at it. Weird, though. I think I know who you are - you know Hino Rei and that crowd, right? I still don't remember anything about a swimsuit shoot, though if you say you modeled for it I guess I'll take your word for it."
"It didn't go well. Trust me. You've probably repressed the memories." She hoped he would believe her; it was as good an explanation as any for why he didn't remember.
"If you say so. When does your friend want to come over?"
"About one-thirty? Is that okay?"
"Sure. I'll be in my gallery - that's where he saw me yesterday."
"Great. I can't come with because I'm working in my mom's store today."
"That's the OSA*P Jewelry Store, right? I've been wanting to do series of still-life photographs of jewelry and metalwork; would it be okay if I came over to the store one day to do that?"
"Sure! I'll talk to my mom about it. And my friend will be at your gallery in a couple of hours."
"Okay. I'll be waiting for him."
Naru hung up. "That's two. Is there anyone else?"
"The dollmaker girl. Mika Kayama."
"I think she's friends with Usagi-chan's younger brother. I'll call Usagi-chan and ask her to set that up. For two o'clock, if that works for Mika-chan and her mother?"
"Please," Nephrite said. He looked at his watch. "I'd better leave if your friend Umino is going to be here soon."
She handed him back his phone. "Okay. I'll call Usagi from the store -"
"Actually, I'll call her. I'll try to come back to the store later and let you know how things are going."
"Okay. Good luck, Nephrite-sama."
"Thank you for your help." He gave her hand a squeeze, then left with his friends, who had been sitting at another table.
About two minutes after they left, Umino came in. Looking puzzled, he walked over to the table where Naru sat. "Hi, Naru-chan, what's up?"
Her stomach twisted with nerves. This wasn't going to be so easy, after all. "Sit down, Umino-kun. You want a shake or something? My treat. I'm working today."
"Thanks!" he said with a big smile. A waitress came over and he ordered his favorite rum raisin milkshake, and Naru ordered chocolate.
"Umino-kun, I've been thinking -"
"You're right, Naru-chan. We need a better study schedule."
Naru gritted her teeth and tried to suppress the growl of frustration. "No. Just listen to me for once, Umino-kun."
"I listen to you," he said, looking bewildered.
"No, you don't. You never do. You think you know what I'm going to say, because you know what you want me to say. But it isn't what I want to say. So just listen. Okay?"
"I think we'd be happier seeing other people." There, she'd said it.
He was silent a moment. "But I don't know anyone else I want to see."
"I don't mean anyone specific, not necessarily. Besides, there's Asuka-san. You like her. I feel like maybe you'd be happier dating her. You guys have a lot more in common than you and I do."
"Oh. Is that what's got you upset? It isn't like that, Naru-chan. I like her, but not like that. And anyway, she doesn't even like boys that way. She prefers girls. So we're friends, and that's all."
That bit of information made Naru feel like she'd been caught going the wrong way down a one-way street. "Oh." Well, shoot. Now what do I do?
"So," Umino went on, "if you're mad because of that, you don't have to be."
It was time for complete - or almost complete - honesty, Naru realized with a sinking feeling. "Umino-kun, how much do you remember about when we started going together?"
Behind his glasses, he squinted his eyes in thought. "Not a whole lot, actually. It's kind of fuzzy, but it's been more than three years, so it's not surprising I don't remember every detail. It just kind of happened, from what I remember."
"There's a reason why you don't remember, and it's complicated. It has to do with the Sailor Senshi."
Umino's face lit up. "You mean they're real? Cool!"
"Yeah. They're real. A bunch of things happened around that same time that they were involved in, and when it was over they changed reality so that people wouldn't be troubled by the bad memories. At least, that's what I heard." It wasn't quite true, but getting too close to the truth would reveal that she knew who the Sailor Senshi were, and she didn't want Umino pestering her to tell him. "But my memories came back last night. Back then, there was someone I was in love with, and something bad happened to him, and I thought he was dead." Again, telling him that Nephrite actually had died would bring up more questions than she wanted to answer. "You were there for me when I really needed a friend - although you didn't know what was going on - and I was grateful, and that's how it happened."
"Oh." He didn't look quite as happy as he had a moment ago. Naru hated having to do this to him.
"I like you a lot, Umino-kun. You've been a good friend. But I don't - I don't love you in a romantic way. And, to tell you the truth, I don't think you really love me, either."
"But I do love you!"
"No you don't. You love an idea of me that you have in your head, where I'm like you and like the same things you do, and want the same things and have the same goals as you. But I don't. I'm not like you, and I don't want the same things. And you never listen to me when I try to tell you that."
"I can try -"
"No, Umino-kun. I think you know what you need in a girl to be happy with her, and I'm not it. I can't be what you want, and you can't be truly happy with me the way I am."
The shakes arrived, and Umino took a long pull from his. "You've never told me any of this before."
"I've tried. You would never listen, or even let me finish what I was going to say."
"Why are you telling me this now?"
"Partly because we're getting to the time in our life when we have to be serious about things, with college entrance exams, and deciding what schools to go to. I don't want to go to Juuban Polytechnic with you, not if I'm going to be a nurse or a teacher. And that's what I really want to be. And also..." Honesty, Naru reminded herself. It was time for honesty. "The guy I lost three and a half years ago came back. He's alive, and I still love him and he loves me. I want to be with him. I'm sorry, Umino-kun. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, and I know that's what I'm doing. But I loved him before I ever started going out with you, and I loved him all this time even though I didn't remember him, and I still love him and I need to be with him. I just hope you'll find the girl you need to be with as much as I need to be with him, and that she'll really, truly be everything you want in a girl, and that you'll truly be happy with her."
Umino sucked down about a third of his milkshake in one gulp. "Is that the guy we saw on our date last night?"
"Yeah. I remembered him later, and we talked. He left it up to me, whether or not we were going to get back together. He didn't want to steal me from you, and he also didn't want me to hurt you. Believe me, I don't want to hurt you, either." She studied his face; behind his thick glasses and the milkshake straw, it was hard to tell what he was thinking. "Are you going to be okay?"
He slurped up the rest of his shake. "I think so. My parents keep telling me it isn't good for me to tie myself down to one girl while I'm so young. They keep telling me there are other girls who like me and I should give them a chance. I never listened to them, but maybe I should."
"You should," Naru said. He was taking this better than she had thought he would. In fact, she seemed to feel worse about it than he did. "They want you to be happy, and I want you to be happy. And you could never be truly happy with me."
"Maybe you're right," he said. "We're still friends, though?"
"Of course, if that's what you want." Naru looked at her watch. "I'd better get going. I have to be back at the store by twelve. And I'm grounded for the next ten days, but I'll talk to you at school." She put down the money to pay for the shakes, then stood, gave Umino a quick kiss on the cheek, and left.
* * * * * * * *
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The Nephrite and Naru Treasury