It was the most diabolical trap I'd ever seen – perfectly designed to draw me in without a second thought. I never stood a chance.
"I'm so glad you came with us, Mako! We're gonna have so much fun!"
Cute, tiny girls! My one weakness! And there were two of them! It just wasn't fair.
The redhead on Usagi's other side, trapped by the blonde's looped arm just as snugly as I, gave me a sympathetic look. "Sorry 'bout this, Dresden. Usagi insisted."
Naru Osaka was a plain-looking girl compared to Usagi's other friends - not a shy wallflower like Ami, or a cool beauty like Rei, or even a bubbly cutie pie like Usagi herself. She was average in looks and flat in shape, but her Osakan accent gave her words a twang I found adorable and the smattering of freckles around her nose that she tried to hide with the shade from her wide-brimmed hat made my heart go 'hngh!'
She got my 'cute girl' seal of approval.
She would've been even cuter if her eyes weren't slightly puffy and red. Considering we'd only just met, I wasn't going to be tactless and ask why she'd been crying... even though I really, really wanted to. Hey, you have a papa like mine and see how hard it is not to be nosy when someone was obviously bothered.
I must've been staring, because she suddenly ducked her head so that her hat hid her face from view. Great, now I'd upset her. Good job, me.
Things might've gotten more awkward had Usagi not then shouted out, "Naru, don't be so stiff! Call her Mako! She doesn't mind, do you, Mako?"
Naru was in clear discomfort. "Usagi, I don't really think that Dresden would-"
"S'okay," I interrupted. I scratched my nose and averted my eyes when she looked at me from underneath her hat. "I lived in America long enough that being called by either my first or last name won't bother me. You can call me Makoto, I don't mind." I shrugged and smiled crookedly. "Really."
"It's fine. I don't-"
Usagi bonked her head against Naru's. "C'mon! Even Mako says it's okay! We're all friends, right?"
I sighed internally. From anyone else, I'd find the way Usagi acted to be pushy and kinda annoying, but from her I found it oddly endearing. Her being cute probably had something to do with it.
Naru must've felt the same way because her body language relaxed perceptively and she full-on looked at me. "Yeah... Sorry 'bout that... Makoto."
"No problem, Naru."
"See? We're all great friends!" Usagi crowed triumphantly. "Now, let's go!" She yanked on both of us, giggling like an idiot as she dragged us behind her.
Naru and I met each other's eyes behind Usagi's back before we slipped into muffled giggling.
It was almost unnatural how Usagi could defuse a tense situation or make friends with just about anyone. It was like she could induce emotions in people like Uncle Tom did, but instead of NSFW feelings, she just made people happy. If it weren't for my electro-sense, I'd almost think it was some form of magical ability.
It did surprise me that papa would let me go out with her right after my latest episode, but maybe he could sense that Usagi's empathy would do me good. Also, I'm pretty sure he wanted me to do some undercover reconnaissance to determine what she could do and what she was aiming for. He had told me to 'watch out for myself' and given me a look.
Or maybe that was just his stock warning that I'd better not get into a fight because of my chronic hero disorder. It could go either way.
Though considering Naru was here with us and I was fairly certain she wasn't aware of Usagi's alter-ego (she definitely didn't have that kernel of power like the other senshi did), there wasn't much I could talk to Usagi about on that subject without alerting the redhead to her friend's after-school activities. Like I said, I wasn't subtle.
By the time Usagi had stopped dragging us behind her long enough to let us catch our breath (the girl had the energy of the Energizer Bunny), we were in downtown Azabu-Juuban. It wasn't any Akihabara (which I really wanted to visit) or Shinjuku, but it had a nice collection of shops, eateries, and entertainment venues. It almost made me feel like I was back home in Chicago.
Usagi unhooked herself from Naru and I and turned to face both of us. "All right," she said energetically, putting her fists on either hip. "It's Golden Week, I have my two friends with me, and we're going to have fun! I know you two have been feeling down lately, so I'm gonna do my best to put a smile on your faces." She stuck out a finger, reminiscent of her Moon pose, and frowned imperiously. "So you better get ready!"
...Wait, that's why she invited me to go out together? Just because I went all murdery then weepy yesterday and- ok, that was a good reason. Usagi did this just for that? Aww... that was so sweet! I tried really badly to hold back the gooey smile forming, but I think I failed utterly.
Naru had a fond if exasperated smile herself and said, "That sounds great, Usagi. Thank you. So..." She scanned the nearby shops. "What should we do?"
"Everything!" Usagi yelped. "We can go to the arcade or do karaoke or maybe see the new Sailor V movie that just came out..."
Close proximity to complex electronics? Nope, nope, and, unless I felt like getting arthritis in my neck from sitting in the front row, nope!
"How about we walk around?" I suggested. I gestured around us, the signs of spring prominent. "It's a beautiful day. We can go window shopping, maybe get some food..."
Usagi immediately latched on. "That's a great idea," she said with delight, eyes sparkling. "And while we're at it, we can get you some new clothes!"
I looked down at what I was wearing: denim jacket, ripped jeans, slightly scuffed sneakers, and a t-shirt that read, "My Other Starship is the Millennium Falcon" with a picture of said starship behind the English lettering. Pretty standard fare.
"What's wrong with what I got?"
"But Mako!" she said, an almost scandalized look on her face. "You're a girl!"
I glanced down at the two large, shapely lumps on my chest that were drawing the gazes of several male passersby even as we spoke and then back at her, an eyebrow cocked. "Pretty sure I knew that already, Usagi."
"But you're a girl," she insisted.
"Usagi," Naru said, putting her hands up in a placating motion. "You aren't helping by restatin' somethin' obvious."
"But Mako's a girl!" she tried again, pointing at me frantically. "She should be wearing girlier clothes!"
"These are pretty girly enough for me," I offered.
"But you're so cute!" If she wasn't scandalized before, she was now. "If you wore girlier clothes, you'd be even cuter!"
"Usagi, I am not cute. You are cute. Naru is cute." The redhead blushed at that. "I am..." I faltered, looking for a word to describe myself. "...tall," I finished lamely. I mean, papa called me cute, but he was my papa; I had to take his praise as the requisite 'papa gushing.'
"Exactly!" Usagi beamed. "You're cute and cool. If you got some girlier clothes, you'd look even better."
"Ya have good style," Naru added. "With a little careful matchin' and accessorizin'... We really wouldn't haveta do much." She smiled at my blank look. "My momma runs a jewelry store. I've had ta learn how to match the wares to the customers."
I tried to switch to a different tack. "I like my clothes. I'm more function than form, anyway."
"C'mon, Mako, you can do it!" Usagi cheered. She clasped her hands if front of her chest and gasped. "Oh, oh! You can show your dad your clothes afterward! I'm sure he'd be delighted to see you looking so cute!"
Oh, that was dirty pool. Between Usagi's pleading and potential papa praise, my resistance crumbled like a sand castle at high tide. "Fine," I relented. "But no skirts or dresses!" I said before Usagi got too zealous. "I don't like the way the breeze feels between my legs." Bad enough the school uniform required it. Not to mention that... ugghh... outfit.
Usagi seemed disappointed at my conditions but rallied forth. "Yay! You won't regret this. We'll have so much fun getting you all dolled up." She squealed as she jumped up and down, fists to her chin.
I took a step back at the manic look on her face. Turning to Naru, who was laughing awkwardly, I asked, "I've just made a horrible mistake, haven't I?"
"Don't worry, it won't be too painful," she consoled.
Naru, you jerk!
Before I could climb out of the hole I'd dug myself into, Usagi grabbed my hand and pulled, leading me to my doom. I looked to Naru for salvation but all I got was a look that was sympathetic and yet said, "Better you than me." I would receive no help from that backstabber.
What followed were several long hours of Usagi dragging me to every clothing store in the shopping district while trying to shove me into any outfit she could find. Naru was at least merciful enough to veto any outfits that just didn't suit me. I was extremely grateful - Usagi's taste in clothing was much too frilly for me. But even with that tiny reprieve, it was not exactly an enjoyable experience.
I was not the kind of girl that enjoyed shopping trips. Even my friends back home, what few I had, understood that I was not the person to ask for fashion advice when we went to the mall. Blame a papa who bought clothes for their capacity to hide blood and burn marks, a big sis that smelled of sweat and gunpowder, and an aunt that kept a full set of medieval armor in her bedroom closet. I guess I could've asked Moll, but this was the girl who had started to change her hair color biweekly and was actively trying to jab enough metal into her body to set off any metal detector in a three-block radius.
None of them were exactly 'girly.'
Luckily for me, Usagi began to wind down after it became clear that I wasn't going to budge on my style. Compared to the couple of bags she and Naru had gotten my bounty was almost pitiful, with the few print shirts, pair of jeans, and new shoelaces I'd bought. It was a good thing I hadn't relented, too; Usagi had been scarily intent on getting me into a skirt.
"Please, Mako?" she whined again. "You have such pretty legs. A skirt would show them off so well!"
"I already said this, Usagi," I ground out. "No. Skirts."
"Ya do have the legs for a skirt," Naru offered. I shot her a burning glare for her interference, but the effect was greatly diminished. I think watching Usagi lead me around by the nose for most of the morning had destroyed her initial image of me being the 'big, scary foreigner.' "Yer pretty well-toned, so I think puttin' focus on that would work."
"Not helping!" I groaned lightly. "Look, I don't like skirts. They're easy to grab, and if I try to fight in them I'll end up flashing my panties at everyone." Not that I cared much about it happening; I'd lost most of my modesty during big sis's training, and the time I'd witnessed papa fight that water sprite in a speedo had finished the rest of it off. But it was the principle of the matter, damn it!
"Um, fight?" Naru asked nervously.
"Yeah! Didn't I tell you?" Naru shook her head. Usagi gasped. "Oh, it was so cool! There were these thugs and they were like, 'We're mean and jerks!' But then Mako jumped in and was like, 'You mean jerks stop being mean to the cute girl, jerks!' And they were like, 'No way!' And she was like, 'Yes way!' And they were like, 'Make us!' And so Mako went like, "Wa-ta!' and 'Blam!' and..."
Usagi continued making sound effects as she sloppily pantomimed my fight with the bozos the week before. Naru's face grew more and more red as we gained a crowd of curious and amused onlookers. All I got was a rising urge to facepalm. Weren't Japanese people supposed to ignore things that went against the social grain? Though, I guess watching a petite schoolgirl acting out a really crappy kung-fu flick would easily overcome social etiquette.
Eventually Usagi finished up acting the scene, slightly out of breath as her eyes shined. She looked inordinately proud of herself. I chose not to tell her that she'd inevitably flashed the crowd a couple times during her rendition (see, what'd I say about short skirts?). By the look on Naru's face, she was debating whether or not to tell her friend. Choosing to not further make a scene won, and she grabbed Usagi by the wrist and dragged her away. I followed, but not before shooting venom-filled glares at the couple people who suspiciously had their phones out.
Really wished I could just fry them, but a magic user's techbane was not a precise instrument, and I didn't want to risk killing off every piece of electronics for ten meters around me.
When I caught up to them, Usagi whined, "Hey, what'd you pull me off for?"
"Usagi, did you even..." She sighed heavily. "No, course ya didn't. Ya never do." She fell silent and began walking ahead. We looked at each other and chased after her.
The tension from earlier returned, thicker and gloomier than before. Naru wasn't even trying to make polite conversation anymore, and the mood was souring fast. Usagi glanced anxiously between Naru and me, trying to look for something to lighten the situation but obviously failing.
I didn't even know where to begin. I'd only met Naru that morning and hadn't been around her long enough to know what to do. I didn't even know what was bothering her in the first place.
As the redhead's brooding worsened, Usagi, in a fit of desperation, said loudly, "I know! Shorts! Let's get Mako some shorts! They'll show off her legs and they're not skirts!" She grabbed Naru by the shoulders. "Naru, where can we find shorts?"
Naru listlessly looked up and pointed further down the street. "There's a shop that sells sportier clothes a little-"
"Got it!" Usagi slid behind her and pushed her forward. "C'mon, lead the way!"
"Hey, Usagi, what are you-" Naru tried to ask, but Usagi shook her head vigorously.
"Nope! You're our fashion guru! We need you to show us where the choicest clothes are. Now, c'mon, we're wasting time."
Naru sighed at the sad puppy-dog eyes Usagi was shooting at her. "If I do this, will ya promise to calm down?" Usagi furiously nodded. Naru looked at me, some unknown emotion in her eyes. I wisely kept my big mouth shut. Her shoulders slumped a bit. "Fine... if you're so insistent."
"Yay!" The blonde wrapped her arms around Naru's neck, pecking her on the cheek. "I love you, Naru! Chu chu!"
Naru let out a small, helpless chuckle and lightly pushed Usagi off, the smaller girl still making smoochy faces. "Alright, alright," she said. She entwined her hand with Usagi's. "Let's get going." She looked at me. "Well? Can't really shop for ya if yer not there."
"Um, sure," I said uncertainly.
"Ok! Let's go!" Usagi crowed, raising her and Naru's held hands up high.
As we walked down the street, I stayed back a bit to observe as the two talked. Usagi was still as peppy as ever, but while Naru was a bit livelier now, she was still rather subdued. Every time Usagi tried to bring me into the conversation, I gave an evasive, lackluster answer and let them get caught up in each other again. It felt... awkward for me to hop in now. Not that either of them made me feel unwelcome, but I felt like I was intruding on something private between them.
By the time we arrived at the shop, Naru had regained enough energy to actively search for clothes rather than needing to be prodded into it by Usagi. She briefly took my proportions and disappeared into the sea of racks and shelves while Usagi gleefully pointed out 'cute' pieces. I restlessly stood by the changing rooms, forbidden to try and run off. It felt like I was awaiting my own execution.
I nearly jumped when someone latched onto my arm. Looking down, I saw Usagi beaming back up at me. I held back a sigh. Normally I was a lot better with people sneaking up on me, but I must've been distracted because of the tense atmosphere. I mentally chastised myself for getting sloppy.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Nothing," she giggled. "Just thought I'd check up on you. You look like you're sweating bullets! Are you really that nervous?"
I shrugged, my lips crooked. "That obvious?"
She pouted, hands forming into fists. "Rei may sometimes be right when she calls me a ditz, but I can always tell when something's bothering my friends."
Cute girl empathy therapy - it's super-effective.
"Like with me and Naru." It wasn't a question.
Usagi looked down. "I guess." She sounded almost embarrassed. "I am worried about you, Mako. After the first time you transformed and yesterday..."
"It won't happen again."
She looked back up at me. I held her gaze, refusing to look away. She bit her lips and broke eye contact first, looking like she wanted to say something but couldn't bring herself to.
I wasn't embarrassed by what happened the day before - I was completely and utterly ashamed. That was a side of me that hadn't been seen by anyone other than my family or psychiatrist. A weak side, a brutal side, a side I didn't want to show anyone. That was not a side that heroes had... and I was going to be a hero.
Usagi made to speak again, but I beat her to it. "And Naru? What about her?"
"Naru is... Naru is..." Usagi seemed to deflate upon herself. "I don't really want to say, but I guess you're involved, so it's only right to tell you." I waited for her to continue. "Naru, well... someone she had feelings for died recently."
Um... wow. I did not expect that. Now I felt like even more of an ass for butting in on what should've been friend time between the two. Idly, I wondered why Usagi even invited me then if this was obviously meant for Naru to try and heal her wounds. "I'm... really sorry to hear that. It's terrible. But... why would it have anything to do with me?"
"The person that died... he was Nephrite, one of the Dark Kingdom generals."
My mind stopped.
She blinked. "Um... did I not explain well enough? Sorry, Naru-"
"No, no, I get it. I get it, just..." I put my hands to my face, trying to parse what I was hearing. "Did you say she fell in love with a bloodthirsty warlock? Should I be worried here?"
"She didn't know he was a bad guy!" Usagi exclaimed passionately. "He was someone that she kept running across and eventually she just sorta fell for him. She didn't do anything bad!"
"I'm not... I'm not saying that she..." I stumbled at the tears that were beginning to form in her eyes. "Look, all I'm saying is that something strange happened. He was a dark general, right? So he wasn't exactly a nice person."
"Yeah, but... Love is weird like that, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't know. I've never really liked anyone like that before." No one could beat out my papa, after all. "But that's beside the point. Why would she fall for someone obviously evil like a Dark Kingdom general? She doesn't seem like the type to like bad boys."
"Well, I mean, it isn't like she really likes his type. I mean, he was kinda handsome, and..."
I watched as Usagi grew increasingly desperate trying to explain just what made Naru go all gaga over this Nephrite. As far as I could tell (given what I'd seen from Zoicite) the generals were rather handsome, but I didn't think Naru would go crazy over a pretty face.
"I mean, he did make her think he was someone else, and that's a bad thing, sure, but haven't all of us made ourselves-"
"Wait, back up," I interrupted. "He got to know her under false pretenses? So the two didn't just meet and hit it off?"
"Not... exactly. I mean, I tried to warn her off him without actually telling her who he was - Naru doesn't know I'm Moon, right - but she was really super serious about him and I couldn't just hurt her like that, so-"
"Wait, so you knew about this ahead of time? What the hell, Usagi? She could've been really hurt!" What the hell's bells what the girl thinking? She knew that her best friend was mooning after some evil asshole known for sucking people's souls out and she didn't do her utmost to stop her?
"I tried!" she cried. "But she just wouldn't believe me when I said he was dangerous. And then he convinced her to find some special crystal and it was like she wouldn't believe anyone but him and I..."
She kept going on and on, but I wasn't listening. No, I was too busy boiling at the situation while a core of ice began to grow in the pit of my gut. The situation sounded way too familiar to me, at least from the way papa explained it.
Someone who suddenly acted differently from the way they normally did, getting unnaturally attached to a person they'd only just met, ignoring those who'd always been close - all of them were signs of... well, mental tampering.
Papa called it the mental whammy. It wasn't pretty, and the ugly results had long-lasting consequences.
And now I was being told that Usagi's oldest friend had been a victim of that, and Usagi wasn't aware of what it meant? I... I didn't know what to say!
"But, I mean, he did save her in the end!" Usagi hastily spouted out, bringing me back to reality. "He sacrificed himself to protect her from Zoicite!"
"Oh good," I snarled. "He saved the girl that he bloody mind-raped."
Usagi sucked in her breath. "...What?"
"He messed with her brain, Usagi!" I spat with disgust. "He took her mind and made it a play-thing and then he used her!"
"But.. no! I mean, Naru, she isn't-!"
"It's not obvious, Usagi," I said. "But if you know what to look for, it becomes easy to see. And the result's always bad." I looked at her. "Didn't you ever wonder why she became smitten with some guy she'd only just met, to the extent that she would just do whatever he said?"
"Well, I mean, we do strange things for love." Great, now she was just grasping at straws.
"Not like this, Usagi. Not like this."
"But he died to protect her! Surely that means something!"
"One good deed does not excuse a lifetime of bad ones, Usagi! Just because he did something right doesn't mean he's instantly forgiven for all the people he hurt and killed."
She shook her head. "I'm not saying that! But doesn't that one good deed mean he has the right to atone for his sins? I'm sure if he'd survived, he could've become a force for good! Naru even said he was willing to fight alongside us."
I doubted it. People like that were simply a ticking time-bomb waiting to happen. I'm not saying that breaking one of the laws automatically made you a monster, but people like the dark generals - villains who murdered, twisted, sucked dry, and corrupted blindly - certainly were. It was something that was engraved onto their very souls, a punishment for misusing magic and then having that dark taint use them in return.
Maybe Nephrite honestly did want to help, but it was in his very nature to hurt and betray those around him. I was certain that, had he survived and joined the group, it would only be a matter of time before he stabbed them all in the back.
Some love story that was.
Usagi had grown more and more red as we argued, tears brimming in her eyes. In contrast, my face had grown stonier and stonier, my eyes as cold as a winter fae. It was this standoff that Naru came wandering back into, a few different styles of shorts hung over her arms.
She stopped as Usagi and I stared each other down. "Um, is something the matter?"
Usagi scrunched up her mouth and rubbed her eyes clear with her arm. She smiled brightly. "Nope, nothing's wrong!"
Naru looked at me. I looked back, wondering just how much of her had been hurt. I tore my gaze away and stared at the floor. "Yeah, nothing." I kicked at the floor with my toe.
"Well, okay then... I... got these for ya. Think they might look good?"
"Oh, they're adorable!" Usagi cooed a bit too forcefully. "Mako, Mako, come look!" she waved me over, her movements a bit sharper than usual.
I hesitated for a moment but, not wanting to make things worse again, walked over to check out what Naru had picked out for me. This was just something I'd have to look more into and consult papa about later. I didn't really like the look Usagi was giving me as she examined Naru's choices, but it couldn't be any worse than the mental and turmoil I was going through, right?
How naive I was.
"...What is that?"
Naru blinked. "Ah, well, it might be a bit outta of yer comfort zone, but I think it... could... work?"
"Oh, c'mon, Mako! They would look so cute on you!"
I stared at the abomination Naru had on top of her pile and that Usagi was squealing over. It was shorts-shaped, it was made of fabric, it looked like it could be worn.
It was also pink.
Eye-searinging hot pink.
I frantically eyed Usagi. She just looked back at me gleefully. Too gleefully. Maybe there was some a vindictive streak deep within the blonde's effervescent psyche that I'd unearthed with my (completely rational!) dig at her gullibility over the whole Nephrite thing.
But that was just stupid, right?
Trying to back out of the corner I had unwittingly set myself up in, I said carefully, "Uh, yeah, not really my taste."
"Oh, please, Mako? Just try them on?"
"Usagi, there is no way in hell I am putting that atrocity on."
"Never in a million years."
"It feels so breezy... Why did I let you talk me into this?"
"Aw, but Mako, you look so good in them!"
I nervously tugged on my pants in a futile attempt to cover more of my legs. Well, they were less pants and more shorts. Okay, less shorts and more, 'who wears short-shorts?' Seriously, the things were little better than denim hotpants (though they were still better than the actual pink hotpants Usagi had tried to shove my big butt into).
It was bad enough that I felt like I was flashing the world with my pseudo-booty shorts; it was even worse that I was gathering more attention than I usually did just from my tall stature. Walking along with Usagi and Naru (two petite specimens if I ever saw them) just made me seem even more gargantuan in comparison.
The wide-eyed looks I got from some people were embarrassing; the outright catcalls from the more aggressive individuals made it almost intolerable. At the very least, living with papa gave me ample training to scare off the more straightforward with a steely-eyed glare and a general aura of 'you do that again, I break you.'
Too bad Usagi actually considered the harassment I was getting to be a compliment. Okay, yeah, there was some definite passive-aggressive vengeance going on here.
"Ya see? You really do look good in shorts! Look at all the attention and compliments you're getting!"
"I don't think she really likes 'em all that much, Usagi," Naru said.
"What? The shorts or the attention?"
"I swear, if I have to high-kick a dude to get them from staring at me so much, don't think I won't."
"C'mon, Mako, if you have it, flaunt it!"
"Darn it, Usagi, I'll get you back for this!"
...yeah, couldn't be.
At least things seemed to have calmed down a bit since my and Usagi's tumultuous talk at the clothing store (even if it was because my uncomfortable situation had overridden the original awkwardness). I really hated that there was something I couldn't do anything about. Mind magic was not my forte (and thank god for that), so that left me with little ability to fix the problem.
I could always talk to papa about it, as he's had more than a little experience with this kind of predicament, but I really didn't want to burden him with even more on top of what he already had on his plate. Papa may be a hero of justice, but even heroes can't do everything all at once.
I guess I could talk more with Naru, but how would I even be able to broach such a delicate topic? I didn't know her, didn't know what her original personality was like, didn't know what changes could have been made because of magical manipulation.
All in all, it left me frustrated and ornery, and I did not like feeling useless, especially because I couldn't see a quick way to throw off those annoying emotions.
From how Usagi was acting, she probably felt the same way. She looked like she was forcing herself to be a little happier, act a little peppier, have a little more 'oomph' than the situation needed. No way was she that clueless about how I wasn't liking the unwanted attention on me.
Even unconsciously, Naru seemed to be reacting to the atmosphere. We may have all been talking to each other, but it was like we were just going through the motions - there was no real investment in our conversation. Everything seemed wooden and even a bit unnatural. The tension was back, but hidden underneath a thin veneer of normalcy that each of us was trying our best to maintain.
That veneer broke when some shady-looking dude in a snazzy business suit came up to us, a slimy smile on his lips. He was shorter than me and had his hair bleached and slicked back in some sort of 'gang' style. I caught him eyeing my legs and chest, which did nothing for my initial impression of him.
"Excuse me, ladies," he said silkily. Ah jeez, even his voice sounded creeptastic. "I couldn't help but notice just how beautiful all of you were. Would you perhaps be interested in-"
"Not interested," I interrupted, my voice on the edge of growling. I immediately recognized the spiel this guy was about to go on, and I did not want any part of what he was selling.
He seemed startled for a moment but then quickly slipped back into his 'charming' facade. "Now, now, there's no need for that. I just wanted to-"
"Not." I bent over at the waist, suddenly shoving myself into the recruiter's personal space. Metaphorical lightning danced across my tongue and eyes. "Interested."
"A-ah..." he stuttered and licked his lips. "Maybe I'll just… go over there, now." He quickly slipped back into the crowd, like a snake into tall grass.
"Yeah, you do that," I muttered darkly. I turned to Naru and Usagi, both of who were staring at me with wide eyes. "Ah..." I scratched my cheek and looked away from them, a feeling of warmth beginning to color my cheeks. "I don't like pushy guys..." I said lamely.
The two of them said nothing, and quiet descended upon us. Damn it, why couldn't I keep my stupid temper in check? Now I'd gone and made things worse again. What was I going to do with-
"Sweets!" Usagi suddenly burst out. I looked at her like she'd gone crazy, and, judging by her expression, Naru probably felt the same way. Usagi laughed awkwardly at our stares. "Aha, I mean, uh, I... suddenly had a craving for sweets. You know, cause everyone seems a bit cranky and sugar is good for your brain and stuff, or at least I think Ami said that and I..."
She trailed off at the looks we continued to give her. Usagi pointed back the way we came. "I'm pretty sure I saw a crepe shop a little while back. I'll just pop over and grab some for all of us."
"That's okay," I started to argue. "I'm not really-"
"No, no! I insist!" she nearly shouted, cutting me off.
"...Well, at least let me give you some money for my share." I patted at my pockets for my wallet and scowled when I remembered I couldn't actually fit it into the blasted things that dared called themselves pants. "Hold on, I have it somewhere..."
"It's fine, it's fine. It's my treat!"
"Are you sure?" I asked hesitantly. "I don't want-"
"I'm sure," Usagi said, a little too quickly.
I noted the blonde's smile was starting to look forced (well, more obviously forced), and looked to Naru for some form of backup.
The redhead simply shrugged at me, the corner of her eyes taut. "Just let 'er. When it comes ta sweets, it's best not ta argue."
I frowned slightly. "If you say so..."
"Kay-kay! I'll be back!"
With that, Usagi disappeared into the crowd and left Naru and I to stew in the uncomfortable, awkward silence left behind. The two of us moved to the side of the walkway and out of foot traffic, but besides a polite nod, neither of us talked or made any attempt to.
What were we going to talk about anyway? We barely knew anything about each other, and what I did know wouldn't make great conversation.
'Sorry about your mental predator getting whacked. How's your brain been since he scrambled it?'
Oh yeah, that ice breaker would go along swimmingly. Even if I could explain myself without outing Usagi, I doubt it would make a difference to Naru. Maybe she'd had a legitimate crush on Nephrite before the mind rape, but the latter outweighed any real feelings when it came to emotional turmoil.
You just didn't do certain things, especially when you knew (and didn't care) what the consequences were. And I had a special hard and pointy place in my heart for predators of any kind.
I ground my teeth while silently fuming at the situation. Like I said, I wasn't built for this type of thing. I was my papa's daughter after all. Though even papa probably would've found a way to go about the topic without completely screwing it up (I mean, it would've been awkward and messy, but it wouldn't have been a lost cause).
My gaze slid over to Naru. She was staring at her feet, but every once in a while she would look at me from the corner of her eyes and then immediately back down. Her hands nervously played with the straps of her bag, and she was biting her lips hard enough to leave white marks. As time passed, her actions became quicker and more anxious.
Ah heck, I couldn't take it any more. I sighed, puffing strongly. "There something you want to say?"
She jumped straight. "W-what?"
"Look like you wanna ask me something."
"Not really, I..."
I scowled a little more deeply and scratched furiously at my temple. "Look, if ya wanna tell me something, just-"
"Are you an' Usagi in a girl gang?"
Usagi... in a girl gang? Smoking, skipping class, shaking kids down for arcade money, and the like...?
Someone stop the world, it's moving too fast.
While I tried to scoop up the shattered remains of my psyche, Naru pushed on ahead with the sheer psychosis of her question. "I mean, I think it's kinda silly too, but it makes a lotta sense when you start ta think about it sum' more." She shook her hands. "Not that it's wrong. Well, it is wrong, a lot, but Usagi isn' a bad girl, so she won' be doin' too many bad things, and I'mma still gonna-"
"Wait, wait!" I coughed out, holding a fist to my chest as I finally was able to start breathing clearly again. Naru's mouth snapped shut. "Just... just hold on a minute."
I took a deep breath through my nose and stood up straight. Naru cowered a bit as I suddenly must've looked like I was looming over her, but to her credit she didn't back or look away from me. "Ok, so..." I pushed my bangs out of my face. "What in the hell makes you think Usagi and I are part of a girl gang?"
"You mean ya aren't?"
She eyed me up and down skeptically. "Ya sure?"
"Why does everyone always think I'm part of some gang?" I groused loudly. I shook my head. "Look, forget about me for a minute. Why do you think Usagi of all people is in a gang? I've only been around her for a week, and even I can tell she doesn't have the heart or stomach for something like that."
"Well, I mean, I though' that too, but..." She just kinda tapered off at that.
I looked at her, not severely but still. "Aren't you supposed to be her best friend or something? Why would you think that of her?"
"...doesn't really seem like it lately..." she muttered softly, with not a small amount of bitterness.
...I think I may have just heard something I wasn't really supposed to. This was something obviously important to her, Usagi was important to her, and there was some mixed, dark feelings boiling beneath the surface. This could've been result of her mental whammy, or it could've been because of something else, but either way, this was a chance for me to learn more about her, Usagi, and what the heck was going on in the supernatural drama that had invaded their lives.
Besides, there was a cute girl that was feeling bad and looking sad! What kinda hero of justice would I be if I just let her mope without even trying to help out?
I sidled a bit closer. Naru didn't react, too caught up in her own thoughts. "What do you mean?" I asked quietly.
She looked up. Oh jeez, tears in her eyes, right in the heart feels. "I don't... ah don' know if we're really friends anymore," she sniffed.
"But she's spending the whole day with you today, isn't she?"
She scoffed. "Yeah, but yer here too."
"Err, I don't-"
"We 'ad this planned fer a couple weeks," Naru bulled on ahead. She glanced up at me, her narrowed eyes a little more red and bloodshot than before. "Just somethin' fer me and her. But then you..." She waved angrily at me. "Ya just... just barged right on in!"
Ok... looked like I stepped on a bit of a landmine here. I stopped myself from instinctively moving away at her anger but didn't say anything to provoke her further. She didn't need me doing anything to rile her up; she was doing a bang-up job of that on her own.
"We've been friends since ferever, and you... you just came up outta nowhere!" She laughed bitterly as she tried to stare holes into her feet. "Our day, and she... she jus' brings you without even asking!" Another slightly hiccupped and broken chuckle. "I just...jus'..."
...Oh, Usagi, you were a total sweetheart but also a complete idiot. I figured she was just trying to cheer both of us up, but I don't think she knew just how important this was to Naru. This was... well, it was important, and my presence wasn't really helping in whatever healing process Usagi was trying to work on Naru.
Still, that didn't mean I could let this bitterness fester between the two, even if it was only from Naru. I didn't know if this was because of the mental whammy or some other underlying problem, but I had to do something. I couldn't just let myself become some sort of wedge between the two.
Unfortunately, I was not the touchy-feely type, so my avenues for fixing the problem pretty much boiled down to only a couple choices... and I really didn't like any of them. Still, if there was anything I learned from papa, it was that sometimes you had to injure, embarrass, or plain ol' do dumb things to yourself in order to help out another. So yeah... time for me to tell a complete stranger something deeply personal to show that Usagi was just doing her best to help us both out.
I took a slow breath and then exhaled. "Usagi... kinda caught me in the middle of a mental breakdown the other day."
Naru's head whipped up, her eyes suddenly wide and shocked. I grinned nervously. She licked her lips. "Wha... what happened?"
"We were hanging out, and a trauma of mine got triggered. It was... not pretty to watch. Usagi helped me through the crash, but I don't think she wanted to leave me alone after that."
"So she invited you out today?"
"Yeah..." I scratched the back of my head. "I really am sorry. I didn't mean to be a third wheel on your date."
"It's... it's ok," she said. She rubbed at her eyes. "Are... are ya ok now? I mean..." Naru trailed off and went back to staring at her feet.
"As alright as I can be," I said. "I don't really think I'll ever be over it, but... but I have gotten better."
Naru fidgeted with her hands. "Was... was it bad? Do... do ya-" She cut herself off and bit her lip.
Yeah, no real polite way to phrase that question, huh? The small, roiling lump in my gut reacted to the memories. I laughed - a short, harsh bark of a sound. Naru flinched and glanced at me, a sliver of fear and worry in her eyes.
"It sucked." She flinched again at the steel in my tone. "You really don't recover from losing your family in a stupid freak accident. I'm still terrified of airplanes and frightened screaming to this day."
I sighed and lowered my face. "Usagi means well, right? Just... sometimes, she just messes up the execution."
After that, we were silent for a minute or so. Naru was the first to break it. "We used ta do a lot together. Like, all the time." She shifted her arms and pressed further against the wall. "Today was the first time inna while that was gonna be just the two o' us."
She shook her head. "Don' be. This... this's been goin' on awhile." She breathed heavily through her nose. "Ever since a few months ago, Usagi's been really secretive and odd. Cancellin' on dates, runnin' out on gittogethers... Not ta mention how she's been hangin' out with a lotta different, new people lately."
I assumed she meant Rei and Ami. "But she's not totally ignoring you, right?"
Naru shrugged. "She tries, but... well, Usagi's not all that great at balancin' her schedules. She's forgetful and absentminded, an' she'll suddenly remember sumptin' out of nowhere and just run out."
That explained some things, especially with how quiet and passive-aggressive the girl'd been acting. However, there was still one thing that threw me off.
"So, why'd ya think she was in a girl gang with me?" I mean, she was a girl, and she was part of a group with other girls that got into knockdown fights all the time and I wasn't helping myself here so I was just gonna shut up my stupid brain now. "I mean, Usagi? Really?"
The redhead giggled, a mix of mirth and sadness caught in her throat. "Yeah, you'd think that with her bein', well, Usagi, it's real stupid, but..." She rolled her shoulders. "I don't know. I mean, see, I know she's hidin' stuff from me, I can see that."
"What do you mean?" I prodded.
"Well, Usagi might be good at readin' others, but she's also easier to see through than a plastic bag." She looked at me, eyes sparkling with tears but also something... kinder in them. "I've known her fer a long time. Kinda hard for her to hide anythin' from me. So... to know that she is... well, it kinda hurts that she can't tell me."
"So your first thought was 'girl gang'?" I laughed.
"Can't imagine much else she'd be scared to tell me." Natu sniffed and giggled, a hiccup in her tone. "What could she possibly feel was so bad tha' she couldn't tell 'er best friend?"
Fighting monsters that feasted on human souls was a good start. Doubted Usagi wanted to bring her friend into that world, especially since Naru pretty much seemed to be a normal human. Looking at her through my electro sense, she had a higher 'charge' than average, but nothing that made her capable of fighting off supernatural predators.
Still, a lot of things were finally starting to make sense to me. The whole thing with that DK goon did have an effect on the girl, but I think it was more of a 'straw on the camel's back' than the main problem. It was definitely crappy, and there was no way Naru hadn't been harmed by the warlock, but it was... well, yeah.
Usagi's recent dive into the deep end of the magical community had had a lot more consequences than she'd probably realized. It was one thing to try and balance the personal problems that evolved from risking your life to save others; it was another to see the effects your problems had on those close to you.
Usagi was a good girl, of this I had no doubt. However, she seemed to fail to realize that her exploits were taking her farther and farther away from those that were with her before the whole 'senshi' thing took root in her life. It was just something that... that sneaked up on you without realizing it.
Papa had the same problem. After the whole thing with Susan, well... He was so focused on one goal that he missed the forest for the trees. I never wanted to see Papa like that again, and there was no way I wanted to see that kind of thing happening to others.
So, yeah, looked like I had to do something. And with my social skills, well, great...
"Usagi's really not in a gang, you know."
"...yeah, I get it, but..."
"I get it too." Naru looked at me skeptically. I grinned nervously. "Really, I do - get it, that is. It's like... it's like Usagi's going some place you can't reach, and it really sucks, huh." I made vague gestures with my hands. "But, but it's not like you're not friends anymore. I mean, yeah, people can drift apart, but that doesn't mean you have to let it happen. Usagi's got new friends now, and she's paying attention to them, but that doesn't mean she's ignoring you on purpose. I mean, I mean it's like..."
I struggled to find the correct words to put my thoughts into. Dang it, why was it so hard to come up with a poignant speech on the fly? The sentai did it so easily!
"I could just talk to 'er?"
I looked at Naru. The area around her eyes was still a bit raw and red, but there was a genuine smile on her face rather than the skeptic, half-hearted one from before.
"Yeah, just... talk to her. Let her know what you're feeling. This is Usagi, right? Sometimes you just have to lay things out for her." I ducked my head and scratched my temple. "Or maybe I'm completely wrong. You would know her better than any bull I'm spewing."
I could feel my face flush to my ears, a gooey smile tingling at my lips. "So, yeah, uh, I can totally assure you: Usagi is not in a gang." I paused for a second, remembering what caused this conversation. "And neither am I."
For a moment, Naru's eyes darted up and down my body, and she licked her lips nervously. "Really?" There was a hint of strained laughter to her tone.
I resisted the extremely strong urge to groan and roll my eyes. Instead, I closed them and grit my teeth. "Really, really."
"Are ya sure...?"
"Why does everyone always think that?" I threw my hands in the air dramatically. "My papa's a private investigator, my big sis's a police officer, my family's best friends might as well be pre-ordained saints. If I ever tried to do anything bad, they'd tan my hide quicker than you can blink."
Naru blinked. "Wow, really?"
I looked at her morosely. "I once snuck into a bar my papa frequents. You know, to see what it's like. The owner immediately sent me to the back room and called my papa. He and my big sis showed up from, like, halfway across town and gave me the biggest scolding ever."
Think I was still on probation for that one, actually. Also, I'm amazed that Mr. McAnally was able to tell papa everything when I don't think he said more than a couple words.
Literally - two words.
Naru covered her mouth, a small giggle escaping. "Um, sorry."
"Yeah, yeah, yuck it up, why don'tcha'?" I took a look around. "By the way, where the heck is Usagi? Does it really take that long to get some food?"
She followed my gaze. "Maybe she ate them all on the way back and 'ad to go buy some more." I gave her a blank stare. She shrugged, a bemused look on her face. "It's 'appened before."
I hung my head and sighed. "Let's go see what's taking her..."
Naru nodded, and the two of us entered the crowd of people again, heading towards the food shop Usagi mentioned. We got there quickly enough, but I didn't see Usagi in line for food nor off to the side holding what she promised to get.
"You see her?" I asked.
I frowned. Well, I didn't really like doing this, but... I focused on my electrosense, and suddenly the world blossomed into a field of dancing sparks and lightning storms. I held myself from reeling back at the sheer influx of info. Ugh, this was why I didn't like using it in such a populated area - sensory overload almost always hit me like a dump truck.
Shaking my head, I searched for the particular 'ping' of Usagi's bioelectricity. It was easier than I would've imagined not only because the kernel of power in her chest (which I assumed was her senshi 'core') made her shine like a beacon compared to even magically-active folks, but also because there were several individuals scattered around her that had, well, 'dimmer' or 'darker' signals. Strange, yes, but like papa said, there was always something new about my powers I'd learn every day.
Still, it became a lot easier to track Usagi now, and I led Naru to where the blonde's signal was - a side street a little off the main one. When I got there, I immediately stopped and felt a burble of annoyance rise inside me.
Usagi was there alright - along with two goons that appeared to have taken their flirting advice from a bad infomercial. They seemed to enjoy the punk aesthetic - slicked hair, piercings all over, disheveled clothes, one even had a tattoo on his arm. Honestly, they would've fit in perfectly with Moll's crowd, but the way Usagi seemed exceedingly uncomfortable made me not care about any of that.
"C'mon..." the one with a beanie over his hair said. "Just hang out with us for a little bit. We won't bite, we promise."
"I- I can't," Usagi stammered. "I have to get back to my friends."
"Ditch them and come with us," the tattooed punk said. "You owe us after ruining my jacket."
"I don't really..."
"Hey! Back off from my friend!" I shouted.
Usagi looked up with excitement, the anxiety in her eyes shifting to happy relief. "Mako! Naru!"
The punks looked at me, their expressions twisted into annoyance at being interrupted. Upon seeing me (or rather, my godsforsaken outfit), that annoyance turned to perverse delight. Beanie looped an arm around Usagi's shoulder and drew her closer, the girl squeaking in surprise, as Tattoo ambled up to me.
"Ah...? So you're her friend?" he looked me up and down, and I had to hold back the feeling of revulsion, like I could feel him licking me with his eyes. "Maybe we can come to an amiable agreement then?"
I could feel Naru try to hide behind me. I snorted. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, ya see..." Tattoo raised his jacket, and I saw that there was a smear of what looked liked reddish cream on the side of it. A cream that was very similar to the filling of one of the crepes Usagi had squished between her trembling hands. "Your friend got my nice, foreign-made jacket all messy, but she didn't have the money to replace it. So we were trying to come up with an alternate method."
"Then use a napkin and wipe it off before it stains. Isn't even that big."
"Oh no no no," he said, a nasty sneer on his face. "This is imported leather, it's already too late for that. And we need to pay for the mistakes we make." He glanced over his shoulder at Beanie. "Right?"
Beanie tightened his hold on Usagi. The girl squeaked louder. "Yup. Proper Japanese etiquette and all that."
Tattoo grinned. "So..." He leaned forward. "Maybe you'd be willing to pay for your friend instead?"
I raised my eyebrow. "Really? In broad daylight?"
He shrugged. "Like those sheep are gonna do anything about it. You see anyone coming to your rescue?"
I looked behind me. The people who were no more than a few feet away were mysteriously unable to see the clear case of extortion, and their steps even quickened a bit as they neared us before moving to a more normal pace once they'd passed. Really? So they had no problem watching a girl accidentally flash her panties at them, but when the same girl was being harassed it was all, 'oh, look at that something over there'? Stupid 'it's not my problem' culture.
I looked back, my jaw sternly set. Somehow, the whole rescue thing wasn't as fun if I knew the person I was rescuing well enough. "And if I refuse?"
"Then we'll just take blondie here with us as payment."
Again, Beanie squeezed Usagi, eliciting another uncomfortable squeak. My frown got harder.
Tattoo seemed pleased at my realization and reached a hand out to me. "Don't worry, I like big girls like you. I'll treat you re~al good."
When he grabbed my wrist, my hand flowed over his own wrist in a classic Nikyo hold. Not even a second later, he was on the ground with his arm positioned painfully behind his back and me having only shifted a foot or so.
"Aggressive guys like you ain't real popular with girls," I said snarkily.
"Gah! You bitch!" Tattoo bit out.
I added some pressure, and his expletives quickly bled into wordless grunts of pain. I shot a glare at Beanie. The guy reacted by increasing his hold on Usagi and reaching into his pocket.
"Hey, let go of him or the pigtails gets it!"
I wondered briefly if the jerk was about to pull a knife out and stiffened at the idea. It was one thing to fight barehanded, but big sis always told me to never let my guard down if one of my opponents was armed; you could never tell if they actually knew how to use their weapon or not.
Luckily, I didn't have to worry too much. Usagi had been struggling the whole time, but the second Beanie got distracted by me and started searching for something, she made her move. With a heroic squeal, she slammed the remains of her crepes into the guy's face, covering it with cream, fruit, and other goodies.
The guy squawked in surprise and released her to swipe away the junk from his face. Usagi took the opportunity to duck away, and I dashed forward. Beanie barely had time to see me before I flipped his ass over onto the recovering form of Tattoo. There was a meaty crack as their heads collided with each other, and the two collapsed into a boneless heap.
I didn't even get a chance to ask Usagi if she was alright before Naru launched herself at the blonde, tackling her into an all-encompassing hug, and became a blubbering, apologizing mess. Usagi looked confused for all of two seconds before she too started to cry and apologize, and soon the two were a moist clump of 'so sorry' girls.
I looked away, uncomfortable at seeing what was supposed to be a private reconciliation between the two. I noticed that with the two goons were dealt with, only now were people actually paying attention to us, and a person called out for a policeman to check on things.
Ah great, so the rest of the day would be spent answering questions. Awesome. Totally awesome.
Something tugged at my jacket. I looked down to see Naru's finger lightly clutching at the denim. She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye as Usagi wailed and hugged her tight, and then she smiled softly and gave it another tug.
Well, how could I resist that invitation? With a great swooping motion, I scooped the both of them off their feet and gave them the biggest hug I could manage. Usagi squeaked in surprise, and Naru just laughed. Hey, being big had its perks; didn't think I could literally sweep them off their feet if I was the same size.
Ok, so maybe this day wasn't going to be so bad after all. Though I would have to figure out what to do about Naru, I think I could let that slide for the moment and just enjoy the heaping pile of cuties in my arms. Totally worth it.