Author's Note: This is sort of a bridge between the first "season" of STC and the next. Kind of a lot of stuff happens, and kind of nothing at all happens. Basically, this three-part introduction plants the seeds of the change that will sprout in the next season. It's based on the R movie, Promise of the Rose. If you didn't like that movie (as I know a lot of people didn't, including Takeuchi-sama herself), please read this anyway; it moves a lot of things around. (P.S. I'm going to try to post this at the end of the original STC just so that anyone who has an alert for this story notices this intro's existence. I was afraid that if I posted it as a brand-new story, a lot of people might not notice it. By the way, I would suggest rereading the last couple chapters of STC Season 1 before starting this. If you don't, then just remember please that Darien was blinded and Serena severely scarred in the fiasco on prom night.)
Hi this is JadeEye! I know Eight hasn't updated her story but she has a really good reason. Her dad freaked and hasn't allowed her to post any more stories up, so I have decided to post them for her. Because none of us can really live without her story. I just have to say that updates on Subject to Change may not be very frequent because we just started our last year at IB and it is alot of hard work, but we'll try to keep the chapters coming. Please reread Subject to Change in order to really get what's happening.
Disclaimer: I do not own Sailor Moon.
Subject to Change
Part One: Post-Beryl
When you receive you must give.
This is the first lesson taught to the children of the Makaiju. It permeates every corner of their lives. The Makaiju gives them life, and all their lives, they depend on it to give them the energy to survive. In return, they give it their energy. It is a perfect example of the cycle of life – energy being given, being taken, being received. It was used as such an example in classrooms all across the galaxy before the Senshi Wars.
When the Senshi Wars erupted, the Makaiju retreated into the deep wastes of space. Fear and worry weakened its strength. It did not have the energy to care for all of its children. Many died. Grief tainted the Makaiju's strength. Resentment grew within it for the Senshi who had killed its children.
With less children to return their energy to it, the Makaiju had less energy to give to the children who did survive. Some left, some hoping to find salvation for their mother, others seeking only for their own salvation.
Fiore was one of the Makaiju's children that left. He was young by any species' standards, and weak from lack of energy.
So deeply did he retreat into himself to conserve his energy that he did not even realize he had arrived on a planet until some hours had passed after his landing. There was noise around him, a precipitation, and a creature his own size leaning over him with a shield to ward the precipitation away.
That boy had energy. Even as young and inexperienced as he was, Fiore could smell it seeping out of the boy's pores like perspiration. It strengthened him, and he followed the boy into a shelter from the precipitation.
Neither the boy nor the other beings like him that they passed seemed to recognize his power. Fiore wondered what sort of planet this was where a being with so much power was not imprisoned or monarch.
When the boy spoke to him, he understood it. And his confusion increased. Senshi and ecopaths were blessed with the ability to be understood and understand in any language. This boy must be one or the other. Why, then, was he alone in this spare chamber in this place full of still and moaning beings? Were they siphoning off his energy to heal, as Fiore was?
Fiore could not have judged how much time passed while he stayed with the boy – the Darien. He was too absorbed wrestling and playing with Darien to keep proper track of the planet's star cycles. How strange and how wonderful it was to have the energy to move and play, much less someone to play with!
A Day in the Life of Serena and Darien: Post-Beryl
Serena dreamed that she was on a swing – one of those fun bench swings, the kind you sit on and close yoru eyes and imagine your soulmate is sitting next to you, whoever that soulmate is. At that moment, she was pretty sure was she picturing that hot newscaster from Channel Ten.
Then the tugging started – someone was yanking on one corner of the bench and throwing the slow, peaceful swoops off balance, like a boat on choppy waves. She gripped the bench tightly with one hand and reached for Mr. Newscaster's with the other.
But Mr. Newscaster had disappeared, and fog was leaking in everywhere. She was swinging on that swing all alone in the fog, except for she heard coughing, hacking somewhere in all that fog. And the swing was still being yanked, yanked in the direction of the coughing. The coughing was growing closer and closer –
A tremendous yank, more powerful than any of the others, toppled her off the bench swing. She tumbled, falling, falling, falling, screaming as the coughing grew louder and closer –
And then she woke up.
She blinked up at her ceiling, panting.
The tugging hadn't stopped. This didn't surprise her. She was quite used to it by now. In fact, she was surprised her dream self never realized what the tugging was.
That is to say, Darien. Pulling on the rope to wake her up.
She stretched one arm and gripped the rope tightly with the other, sending annoyance down it. Back, she received the phantom aroma of coffee and and sound conversing voices.
"Oh, no!" Serena jumped out of bed and began snatching up clothes. She and Darien were watching Buji today while his mom had a doctor's appointment – and they were supposed to meet her at the arcade at ten! "I'm LAAAAAAAAAAAAATE!!!!!"
Ikuko looked up from the laudry she was folding on the kitchen table as she heard Serena's shout, the slam of the bathroom door, and the shower hissing to life. "Ah, Kenji," she sighed, her eyes bright.
"I never thought I'd miss that sound," agreed Kenji, his face soft. Then he grumbled a little, looking at his watch. "Is she going to see That Boy again?"
Serena avoided looking at the mirror as she dressed. The silver scars from the battle weeks ago wound around her body like silver snakes, and looking at them always made her stomach flip. She yanked on a long-sleeved shirt and jeans shorts, then hurriedly yanked a brush through her wet and very, very long hair.
"Argh!" Tangles! She'd forgotten conditioner!
"Oh, forget it!" She jerked out her Luna Pen. "Luna Pen, make me look exactly the same – only with untangled, dry hair!"
Waiting only long enough to check the result – satisfactory – in the mirror, Serena barreled out of the bathroom, into her room, down the stairs, and out the door. "BYE!"
"TELL THAT BOY I'VE GOT MY EYES ON HIM!" Kenji bellowed after her.
"Kenji!" Ikuko whapped him over the head with a spatula. "He's blind! You can't tell him you've got your eyes on him! How insensitive!"
"Fine, fine," grumbled Kenji. "I have my gun's sights set on him, then."
"Kenji Tsukino!" WHAP!
"You're late, nee-chan." Buji sat on a stool with his nose in the air and his arms crossed over his chest.
"Sorry?" Serena apologized hopefully, hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. She looked up – then burst out laughing.
"What?" demanded Buji.
Serena shook her head, wiping tears from her eyes. Buji sat right next to Darien – who was sitting in the exact same position: his arms crossed over his chest, his chin imperiously in the air. Because he couldn't see, Darien hadn't noticed it – but it was so cute to see the two of them acting so alike!
"She must have had Fruit Loops for breakfast," Darien told Buji, who grinned. "Just ignore her."
"Now, now, no ignoring Usa-chan." Motoki arrived, patting Serena on the head. "You hungry?"
"Yeeeeeeees." Serena looked pleadingly up at Motoki.
He laughed. "Lita, Serena's hungry!"
The tall brunette appeared with a plate on her arm. "Who could have seen that coming?" she said sardonically, but it was with a smile. She set the plate down in front of Serena. "Hey, girl."
"Hi, Lita," Serena greeted in return and dug into the scrambled eggs and French toast Lita had brought.
Lita glanced at Buji and Darien. "Well, if it isn't the respresentatives from Why To Wait Until After Marriage."
"Your use of a joke on me that I already used on Serena merely draws attention to your pitiful lack of creativity, Kino," replied Darien.
Buji looked back and forth between both of them. "Nee-chan." He leaned over to whisper in her ear behind a cupped hand. "What are they talking about?"
"Nothing, nothing!" Motoki sweatdropped, overhearing, and handed Buji some tokens. "Here, why don't you go play until Serena's done?"
"Too late!" Serena set down her fork triumphantly. "Bet I can beat you at Mortal Kombat, Buji!"
They each scrambled down off their stools and tore towards the game, squabbling over who got the red joystick.
"Wow." Motoki looked at Darien. "Are you sure you can handle spending the whole day with BOTH of them?"
"Probably not." Darien set down his coffee. "Which is why my will is written and waiting on my kitchen counter. Make sure it's executed faithfully, Toki. Asanuma gets nothing."
Motoki chuckled. "That's so mean, Dare."
"Well, he can have my toilet plunger," Darien decided. He took a bite of his cinnamon roll, which was now cold, just the way he liked it. "Do you guys know any good movies that are playing? Ones I could take those two, I mean."
"That depends," Lita said. "Are you looking for something that won't bore you out of your mind, won't be too inappropriate for Buji, but won't be too scary for Serena?"
"Surprisingly, Kino, you've summed it up pretty neatly."
"Don't thank me yet." Lita showed her teeth. "There are NO movies out like that."
"None?" Darien echoed. "Well, that sucks."
"Why don't you buy some kites and go to the park?" Motoki suggested. "That's what Lizzie used to do with the kids she baby-sat."
"Yeah, but it's almost ninety degrees outside." Darien took a bite of his cinnamon roll.
"So what?" said Motoki. "You afraid of a little manly sweat?"
"No, wait, he's right, Toki," said Lita slowly. She nudged him in the ribs. "Remember what Serena's wearing."
Motoki's hazel eyes flicked over to the rowdy pair at the Mortal Kombet game. His pupils contracted in realization. "Oh."
"Long sleeves again?" asked Darien quietly.
Motoki nodded, then rembered Darien couldn't see it. "Yes."
Darien's jaw tightened. "I thought so." He stabbed his roll with the fork.
"Have the scars faded at all?" Motoki asked.
"I haven't seen them since she got out of the hospital." Lita shook her head, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "She always keeps them hidden under sleeves. If the ones on her face are anything to go by, though…"
"They haven't healed at all." Motoki unwrapped a tube of tokens. He glanced at Darien. "Does she talk to you about them at all?"
Darien shook his head, pressing his fork down on his cinnamon roll and feeling it smush beneath the metal. "Not really. She's…ashamed of them, I think." His head lifted, and his golden eyes were on them. "Are they that noticeable?"
"They're long and bright silver," Lita said bluntly. "It looks like there's a spiderweb on the lower half of her face. The ones on her body, last time I saw them, were thicker and bumpier than the ones on her face."
Darien smushed more of his cinnamon roll, lips compressed.
In the thoughtful silence that swallowed them, they heard an "ARGH!" of frustration, the triumphant laughter.
"Serena won," said Motoki, his frown turning to a smile. "She must have been practicing."
Buji's gasp whipped Serena's head around and sent her pulse racing. Her hand flew to her chest for her brooch as she stepped toward him – then clenched empty air. The familiar sense of loss snapped at her like a hungry wolf.
"What is it?" asked Darien tensely; she saw his hand inside his pocket – preparing to withdraw a rose, no doubt.
"They have Senshi kites!" Buji exclaimed.
Serena and Darien both wilted.
"That's all?" said Serena faintly. "I thought you'd found a dead body or something."
"Better," breathed Buji, enraptured, wrestling the kites off the store shelf – which was slightly too high for him. Serena reached over and helped him. "Look, this one has Tuxedo Mask!" He laughed.
Serena glanced at Darien, poking him slyly in the ribs. "Is he your favorite?" she asked Buji.
The little boy grinned widely. "Are you crazy? He throws weenie roses! Sailor Moon is way cooler!"
Serena exploded in laughter. "That's – so – mean," she gasped out between giggles.
"Clearly you haven't seen Tuxedo Mask use his cane knife," Darien informed Buji.
Buji snorted. "Big deal, a cane. The Senshi use magic weapons!" His eyes glittered. "I want to be just like them someday!"
"You want to wear a short skirt and high heels?" Darien raised his eyebrows.
Buji made a smothered sound, flushing. "NO!"
"Case closed." Darien smiled. "Tuxedo Mask is so much cooler."
"Ahem." Serena cleared her throat, bumping his hip with hers. "Do I get an opinion?"
Darien grinned toward her. "Everyone knows Tuxedo Mask is your favorite, too."
Color tinted Serena's cheeks.
"Oooh, Nee-chan's blushing!" Buji said slyly. "Don't tell me you have a crush on that pansy, onee-chan? I'm so much cooler than he is!"
"Yeah, when you're not busy making mud pies and eating worms," Darien muttered.
Buji glared at him. "At least I don't burn my mud pies."
"I don't make mud pies," Darien retorted.
"So, you can't degrade my mud pie baking skills if I don't make mud pies – "
THHHBBB! Buji stuck out his tongue.
Serena laughed. "Take it from someone who knows, Shields," she advised him. "You can't fight the mentality of an eight-year old."
"I do it everyday with you," Darien returned.
"Oooooohhhhh." Buji looked at Serena, grinning. "You gonna take that from him, onee-chan?"
Serena made a face at him. "No way! He's paying for the kites now!"
Darien groaned. "Then at least make sure you get me the Tuxedo Mask one," he said.
Serena nodded, laughing, and looked down at the kite to see what Tuxedo Mask was doing on it to see if she could use it for any further insults. But the sight that met her eyes turned her face pink and sealed her lips.
Buji, however, wore Darien's raised-eyebrows expression. "Ew. Why would you want a kite with Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Moon ki – "
Serena slapped a hand over Buji's mouth. "Killing youma!" She finished, laughing loudly. "HA HA HA HA HA! Why not, Honey-Bunny-chan?"
Darien's face creased. As Buji went back to rummaging through the rest of the kites to look for the best Sailro Moon one, he leaned down towards Serena. "What aren't you telling me, Odango?" he whispered in her ear.
Serena blushed harder. "Nothing!" she responded at the same volume. "I just thought you wouldn't want to put up with Buji insulting Tuxedo Mask anymore."
"Hmmm," said Darien, but he moved back.
Serena breathed an internal sigh of relief, looking down at the kite in her hands again. Roses formed the border of the diamond-shaped plastic, and in the center were Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Moon alright – but they were kissing, not killing youma.
Someone sure took some creative liberties, she thought, but she made a note to herself to come back to the store without Darien and buy a copy of the kite for her own. Just, you know. For laughs.
Darien sighed and shifted the bags in his hands again as the polystyrene staps dug into his wrists. "I hate not being able to drive," he muttered to himself, thinking longingly of his red sports car sitting lonely and gathering dust in the parking garage of his apartment. It had been a month, but he still hadn't been able to bring himself to sell it, though in all likelihood he would never be able to drive again, heightened perception or not. Maybe he'd give it to Serena when she finally got her license – though that seemed a rather cruel fate for such a loyal car, he thought, smiling slightly to himself.
Buji elbowed him. "Earth to Darien-baka," he said, and his smile soured as the child's words reminded him of who he was. Or rather, who he was the reincarnation of.
"Dare-Bear, we've got two votes for pizza," Serena's voice said, fingers touching his arm. He heard the grin in her voice. "But we figured we should ask for your vote anyways."
"I thought we were having a picnic?" Darien lifted a brow. "I'm hardly an expert, but pizza is hardly the food that comes to mind when I contemplate a picnic."
"Pizza belongs to any and every occasion," Serena declared, throwing her arms out. "Right, Buji?"
The threesome had to retrace their steps back to the arcade to pick up a pizza from the parlor a few doors down.
"At this rate, we'll arrive at the park by dusk," said Darien. 'Why couldn't we have just gone to the sandwich shop across the street from the park?"
"And my mom thinks I complain a lot." Buji rolled his eyes.
"If you're gonna do something, Darien, you gotta do it right." Serena mopped her forehead after this wise speech. "Although even with this breeze it's getting pretty hot…maybe we should just go bowling."
Buji's eyes turned into dish plates. "But - but we got Sailor Moon kites and everything!"
"That's true," said Darien quickly. He hadn't meant to ruin the kid's day… But at the same time, if Serena was getting overheated –
"Joking!" exclaimed Serena. "I was joking! We're still going to fly kites, don't worry."
"Oops, it looks pretty crowded," she said then, peering into the pizza parlor. She swallowed and tugged at her bangs, trying to quell the squirming in her stomach. "I'll go in to pick up the pizza and you guys stay out here."
"You sure?" asked Darien swiftly, sensing her anxiety, but Buji was already tugging his arm.
Serena didn't bother to force a smile because she knew he couldn't see it. "I'll be fine."
Darien heard the bells on the door ring as she pushed it open, felt the cool gush of air hit his face as it closed again.
"Darien-baka!" Buji was tugging on his hand still. "Let's go over here for a second!"
"What for?" Darien asked, but allowed himself to be pulled. "Hang on, slow down a little, I don't trust you not to lead me through dog excrement – "
"Hey, guys!" Buji called out to someone.
"What's up, man?"
Oh, great, a whole herd of them, Darien thought. Just what I need, more obnoxious eight year olds.
"Whatcha doing, Buji?" One of them asked.
Darien felt Buji shrug, the cloth of his t-shirt brushing Darien's elbow. "Oh, me and Darien are just hanging out."
Darien felt an incredulous grin flicker across his face. Was Buji using him?
Sure enough, he heard little "ooh"s and "wow"s. "Is he your big brother, Buji?"
"Me and Darien? Nah, we're just friends." Darien felt a small fist punch him in the arm. "Right, Dare?"
Hilarity now wracked Darien's insides, and he was having an extremely difficult time containing it. He managed a strangled "Right, man" without bursting into laughter. Wait until Odango heard about this…
"So what were you guys doing?" Buji asked casually.
From the sounds he heard, the kids scrambled over one another to tell what they'd been doing.
"Check it out – "
"We found it just a inute ago – "
"There're flies all over it, isn't it awesome - ?"
"We guess it must have gotten run over or something – "
Darien felt Buji tugging him along as he moved closer to the excited kids. "It's a cat," he heard Buji breathe before he was suddenly hit by one of the flashes. Black space, studded with stars, shimmering silver, golden hair, blood.
"Buji." Darien heard his own tense voice as though from a distance. Inside, he was focusing his concentration to glean something – anything – more. "Check its head. Is there anything on it?"
Sharp – sharp – a musky scent like decaying leaves – that was all Darien could get.
"There's a…moon?" Surprise tinged Buji's voice. "Hey, doesn't Onee-chan have a cat – "
Darien cut him off. "Buji, what's happened to it? Is it bleeding?"
"Yeah, on its tummy – "
"No – I don't think so – Darien-baka?"
"You guys should leave," Darien said in the direction he heard the children's feet scuffing the sidewalk. "You could get sick from being around this cat, okay? Get away from here."
Obediently, the feet pounded away down the sidewalk, with a coupled mumbled "Bye, Buji!"s.
"Darien!" Buji's voice held a note of fear. "What's wrong? That's Serena's cat, isn't it?"
"You're sure it has a moon on its forehead?" Darien pressed.
Buji nodded so hard that Darien heard it. "Uh-huh!"
"Then, yes, it is Serena's cat."
"Are we going to take it to her?"
"No, we're not going to touch it." Darien seized Buji's hand. "Let's go back to the pizzeria – c'mon, Buji, you've got to lead me, remember?" A note of Darien's annoyance at his dependency leaked into his voice.
"Yes!" Buji began to move, gripping Darien's hand very hard.
Darien sighed. His tension was infecting the child. He squeezed Buji's hand. "Calm down, Buji. It's okay. Look, can you do something for me?"
Again, Buji nodded so vigorously Darien heard his neck cracking.
"We're not going to tell Serena about her cat right now, okay? She'll be really sad when she finds out, so we're going to wait, got it?"
"But won't she be sad we didn't tell her when she does find out?"
"If we tell her now, she'll be sad all day," Darien said. "If we don't tell her now, we can protect her happiness for a little while longer. That's what friends are for, right?"
"I don't know," said Buji slowly. "Friends are supposed to take care of you…but I don't think they should make your decisions for you."
Darien stopped abruptly. Buji was jerked backward by the sudden stop.
"Buji," Darien began, squatting to be at Buji's level. His hands reached out and found Buji's face. Buji flinched backward at first, pushing a little sting into Darien's heart, but then stayed very still. Darien's fingers found the child's eyes so that he could focus his own there steadily. "Please do this for me just this once. Please."
He felt Buji's nod this time instead of heard it. He let go of his face and stood again. Wordlessly, Buji took his hand and began walking again.
Inside, Darien felt unhappy. Buji had probably obeyed because he had intimidated him, feeling all over his face and staring at him with his freskish eyes. He'd probably traumatized the poor kid. And what he said echoed what Serena always wanted – she never wanted him to hide things from her. But he felt so bad already about her scars and how fragile she was, and Ami and Rei's disappearance, Venus dying – what would finding that Luna had died do to her? Even if the feline had nearly murdered her – not unlike Rei and Venus – Serena nevertheless felt acutely responsible for and connected to them.
He placated himself with the vow that he would tell her about it eventually. But on top of that was the mystery – what had killed Luna? If she was only bleeding in her chest, she had certainly not been merely hit by a car. It seemed more like a stabbing. So the question was, had it been by some cruel pedestrian, or by a higher power – perhaps the very owners of the voices Darien had heard during the Beryl battle?
Buji stopped, and so did he. Not a moment later, the bells jingled again and Darien's nose detected the faint scent of Serena's flowery shampoo. "Wow!" she said. "Did that take a long time or what?"
Buji didn't answer; Darien nudged him. He started.
"We were fine, onee-chan," he answered quickly. He took a deep breath. "Mmm! Can I have some pizza now?"
"Nope, nope, gotta wait till we get to the park!"
Thus the day ended, as all of Serena and Darien's summer days seemed to, in the park. In their kite flying, Serena had lost grip of her kite. The wind had snatched it away and dragged it thorugh the sky, over the trees. Serena had grabbed Buji's hand, and Buji had grabbed Darien's hand, and they all went running after the kite, Serena and Buji yelling and laughing for the kite to "STOOOOOOOOOOOOPPP!"
Pretty soon, they were under the trees and couldn't see more than snatches of the sky. Serena still heard the whipping of the wind slapping the plastic of the kite overhead, though, and hurried them onward –
Then went "OOF!" and disappeared from Buji's sight.
Buji gripped Darien's hand tighter as he rushed forward. "Onee-chan!"
"What happened?" Darien demanded, chest constricting – but then he focused and felt the dip of the earth.
"You guys!" Serena's head popped back up, leaves poking out of her buns. "There's a secret garden down here!"
Buji let go of Darien's hand and scrambled down the half-buried cement lip. Darien sat, feeling in front of him with his hands as he lowered himself down into the sunken circle of dirt-covered and weed-entangled concrete. He felt Serena's hand slide absently into his to guide him down – not that he needed it. He could intimately feel every nook and cranny, dip and weakness of this earth, the porosity of the soil and concentration of the tree roots.
"I've never been back here before," said Serena in an awed voice. Darien felt the tug on his hand as she turned, drinking in their surroundings. "It's so…"
"Quiet," finished Buji. "Blegh. I don't like it."
Darien agreed with the kid. A silence like this, in which they heard only their own voices and breathing and their feet whispering on the carpet of decaying leaves, seemed sinister to him.
"Oh, come on!" Serena tugged on Darien's hand, deliberately this time, and he felt his bottom hit the ground. "Pretend it's a fairy circle!"
This comparison was even less reassuring to Darien. "Might I remind you, Odango," he said, "that people caught in fairy circles rarely emerged from them sane, if they emerged from them at all?"
"Huh?" This was Buji, sounding alarmed. "I mean – whatever! That's dumb!"
"Amen to that." Serena poked Darien in the gut. "What kind of fairy tales did you read? Those icky Grimm ones?"
Darien snorted. "Those 'icky Grimm ones' are the actual ones," he said. "Not the Disney-fied dubbed American mush you've been spoonfed."
Her tone as she replied made him sure she was wrinkling her nose. "Mush they may be, but I prefer the version of 'Sleeping Beauty' where she wakes up to a handsome prince's kiss instead of a crying newborn baby and stretch marks."
"I think they both sound gross." Buji deposited his two cents' worth. "What are stretch marks?"
"Something Onee-chan doesn't have," answered Darien hastily. "So – how about that pizza now, Odango?"
"Definitely!" said Serena, just as hastily. They'd both forgotten there was a pre-teen present. "Um, here's napkins, guys – "
"The pizza's cold," Buji complained.
"Did you think it was getting warmer while you and Serena harassed those kites?" Darien said. He couldn't reist adding, "Sandwiches wouldn't have gotten cold."
"Motoki-onii-chan said Darien-baka had gotten quieter since he got attacked by a youma," commented Buji, "but I can see that his mouth is just as big as ever, onee-chan."
Both Serena and Darien were quiet for a moment, stunned. This was the first time anyone had directly, no beating aroudn the bush, referred to their "youma attack" to their faces since the single night of interrogations after it first happened. Even their best friends had not attempted to broach it, and here was this eight-ear old calmly referring to it!
Serena let out a sudden sound and seized Buji in a hug. "Ooh! I love you so much!"
"Why?" asked Buji in a strangled voice that still managed to retain its sarcasm. "Because I insulted Darien-baka?"
"Well, that, too," conceded Serena. "But mostly, just for being you." She beamed down at him.
"Hola, amigos!" Serena greeted, skipping up to the counter with Darien in tow.
"Buenos dias!" Asanuma returned, turning around to face them. His elbow hit his fresh construction of cards, and it collapsed, but he paid it no mind.
"How was Buji?" Motoki asked, moving from drying shake glasses to refilling the straw dispenser.
"As impertinent as ever," Darien answered dryly. He settled comfortably into a stool. Serena let go of him and climbed onto the stool beside him. "And of course Odango encourages him."
"What else am I supposed to do, with you insulting him every other minute?"
"Oh, Darien, you bully small children now?" Asanuma tsked. "For shame."
"Don't feel sorry for him!" Darien retorted, stabbing the floor broodingly with his cane. "That overgrown prokaryote gives as good as he gets!"
"Is that true, Serena-chan?" Asanuma gave her wide-eyed shock.
"I told you he's Darien's clone," Serena answered. Toki planted a milkshake in front of her, and her mouth gravitated toward the straw. Half the glass was empty before she continued. "Except he likes me more than Darien does."
Darien scowled more darkly.
"That's your cue to protest," Asanuma whispered to Darien.
"I'm not going to compete with a six year old!"
"What?" Serena poked him. "You won't compete with him? What do you call that contest over who could count higher?"
"If you guys are going to fight over Serena's affections so much, why not just have it out in a duel?" This was Lita's contribution.
"You'll forgive me if I laugh at that suggestion," said Darien. "Considering who it's coming from, Miss Serena's-MY-best-friend!"
They all snickered as Lita glowered.
A Not-So-Typical Day in the Life of Serena and Darien: Post-Beryl:
Mugginess had descended on Tokyo. Serena peeled her shirt away from her back for the third time in ten minutes and thought grumpily to herself that if she wanted to sweat like this, she would have gone to the greenhouse with her mother to pick out begonias.
Her mind traitorously pointed out to her that she'd be a lot cooler if she had worn a tank top instead of a long-sleeved shirt. A whole drawer full of spaghetti-strapped shirts sat in her room, second from the bottom.
She had put one on a few days ago. Had told herself that the shirts didn't go that low, that only part of the scars would be visible.
Yet somehow it seemed as though the shirts had shrunk and the scars she had received during the battle with Beryl had lengthened. Silvery and snaky and thick, like slug trails winding down her shoulder blades to disappear beneath the shirt's material. The front had been even worse; they slithered all the way up to her collarbone, bumpy and ugly.
She didn't want anyone to see that. How ugly it was, how ugly she was. It was shallow, she knew. Just like the scars were shallow, just like how her outer appearance didn't mean anything about her inner appearance. She had told herself the same thing when she had acne in seventh grade, but that hadn't alleviated the shame she felt, and this case was no different. She was going to wear concealing shirts and never show her back for the rest of her life.
She wondered it Lita suspected her thoughts on this. At the park earlier that morning (Lita had been teaching her jujitsu since the summer began at the park in the morning), she thought she had noticed Lita watching her thoughtfully. But the brunette hadn't said anything. For that she was grateful, as well as for Lita agreeing to teach her.
Serena rolled her shoulders. She liked the way they felt after an hour of sparring with Lita. Somehow the soreness tasted like independence. Like power. (Even if Lita knocked her on her butt at least four times a lesson.) She felt like the burning her muscles was their way of telling her, "We can kick butt now. We can be strong now!"
Because in that fight with Beryl, she hadn't done anything.
She shook her head. No time to think about that now. Besides, it wasn't like she had any new thoughts on the topic; she'd thought about it a million times already. No, now she needed to focus on the next order of the day: taking Darien grocery shopping.
She had told him yesterday that she would pick him up at his apartment, but she had the feeling he hadn't listened to her. She twitched a finger and brushed it across the rope. In the three weeks that had passed since Beryl, the rope barely ever eluded her grasp now. It was as easy to find as her Subspace Pocket.
The rope gave her the taste of coffee and a keen amusement. She growled under her breath and let go of it, then beelined for the arcade.
"I said I'd meet you at your apartment!" She stormed through the sliding doors and straight towards the dark-haired boy sitting at the counter.
"You're lucky Asanuma's still sleeping, or he'd have been all over that," replied Darien unabashedly, taking a sip from his mug.
Serena flushed and kicked him.
"Now, Serena," said Motoki, coming over. "Shouldn't you be proud of Darien for getting all the way here on his own?"
"No, I shouldn't be!" Serena glared very hard at Darien even though the blind youth was undoubtedly comfortably oblivious to the weight of her stare and continued to unconcernedly sip his coffee. "What if you'd gotten run over?"
"Give me some credit," said Darien, blinking his golden eyes. "I'm not you. I wouldn't walk right into traffic."
"Ouch." Motoki winced. "You two are in rare form today."
"For real." Serena folded her arms. Thinking about how useless she'd been in the battle against Beryl had cut the wick of her temper short. "You're being a crab, Darien."
"That's because you're insisting on treating me like a two year old – "
They all, including a grim Darien, turned toward Asanuma's tense voice.
Asanauma's face, under the tan it had gained over the past month of summer, was pale. His steps were quick and feverish, as he ducked through the crowd of summer enjoyers to the counter.
"What is it?" asked Motoki, already ready with a soda for his friend.
Asanuma didn't even notice the glass Motoki offered to him. "Rei's grandpa is dead."
Silence blanketed them all like a cloud stretching across the moon. They all stared at each other, save Darien, whose hand was suddenly on Serena's arm.
She slid off her stool, her arm slipping from his grasp. "Just now?"
"I don't think so." Asanuma, clenched and unclenched his fingers, agitated and uncertain. "I just saw on my way here – there was an ambulance and a gurney bringing him out. I heard one of them say he'd been dead for a week at least."
"And they still haven't found Rei…my God." Motoki passed a cloth across the countertop out of habit, his eyes cloudy. He looked up. "Do they suspect foul play?"
"Her grandpa was sick for a really long time," said Serena. Her eyes were on her shoes and her fists balled up.
Asanuma looked sick. "He must have stopped trying after… after she left."
"I wonder if she cared about him at all." Lita's voice was caustic. "She must have known what her leaving would do to him."
"Don't – " started Asanuma angrily.
"Stop it!" Motoki stepped in. He looked back and forth between them all, as though he could not understand them. "None of us has any right to judge her. None of us even knew what her home life was like except Serena."
Serena wrapped her hand around his. Conflicting emotions raged within her: fear and horror for Rei and her grandfather; anger, too, that Rei had left her grandfather to die and that Lita was so quick to judge her; and sorrow that somehow that misunderstanding that caused Rei to leave had arisen. Surprise because Darien had not spoken against Rei – in a way – and more sadness because Asanuma missed Rei so much. And more sadness yet because Rei was gone and so was Ami – and Venus –
It was only when the bells on the electronic doors jingled that Serena jerked from her thoughts to realize she and Darien had exited the arcade.
It was not until they'd rounded the corner that Darien spoke.
"You've done all you can."
Serena's lips tightened. She pressed her arms tighter against her chest and did not answer.
She opened her mouth, waiting for words to inflate on her tongue…but just as quickly as they were full, the air hissed back out of them again, and she sighed. Rei and Ami were gone, vanished. Luna had come into her room one night demanding to know where they were. That was a month ago. No one had seen hide nor hair of either girl since.
Serena was afraid. Neither girl had been in the best shape emotionally or physically, and moreover, she was afraid the engineer of that dues ex machina that Darien had referred to had some part in their disappearance. Suppose they were dead like Venus now?
Irritation, sour, coated her tongue suddenly. She swallowed, and it did not disappear – she realized it was Darien. Her eyes saw his fists, clenched, and flicked to his face, half-hidden by his grown-out hair. Why was he – ?
"Darien?" she asked cautiously.
Serena felt a twinge. She hated this, how since they'd left the hospital Darien had times when he would suddenly clam up. "No! Why do you feel so annoyed?"
"Because I'm blind, okay?" he snapped. "Blind people get annoyed sometimes – and I'm blind, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember!" Serena snapped back, the anger that drenched the rope from him seeping into her also. "I'm the one who won't let you forget you're blind, remember?"
The anger cooled slightly into steely humor. "Yeah, that was kind of the whole point of my sarcasm, Odango."
Serena's muscles relaxed slightly. She knew everything was okay when he called her Odango. Appellations of "Odango" and "Nerdboy" served as the olive branches of their battles.
But she wasn't letting him off the hook. "Why were you so angry?"
"How about I answer your question with a request?" Darien rubbed his forehead. Beneath the long bangs, dark shadows smudged his eyes. "Please stop being quiet."Serena's jaw dropped. "…"
"Wow, great example of what I just asked you not to do!" exclaimed Darien sardonically.
Serena peeled her jaw off the sidewalk. "Well, can you blame me?" she demanded. "I'm used to people telling me to stop talking so much, not to stop being quiet." Or at least, I used to be, she realized abruptly.
"Yeah, well, those people weren't blind." Darien placed bitter stress on the word again. "When you go all quiet like that, I can't tell what you're thinking."
Serena raised an eyebrow, though she knew he couldn't see it. "Isn't that what the rope's for?"
A scowl darkened Darien's face. "I don't need a psychic mental connection to be able to read your moods, Odango."
Serena mirrored his scowl. "I'm not that transparent."
"To me you are," Darien retorted.
"Then what am I thinking right now?" Serena challenged, wheeling around to step into his path and stop him on the sidewalk. He collided with her, so she took a step back, rubbing her nose and looking up at him expectantly.
"Okay," said Darien, an extra frown line added to his forehead at having collided with her. "Right now you're thinking your nose hurts and my chest is too hard."
Serena stopped rubbing her nose and glared.
"And now you're mad because I was right," continued Darien. "But you're about to say, 'If you can't tell what I'm thinking when I'm quiet, how did you tell what I was thinking just now? I didn't say anything!' And my answer is, because every other of the million times you've run into me, you always complain my chest is too hard. So technically - "
"That's cheating," Serena cut him off, but to her horror, he finished with her, saying the exact same words. "Ack! How did you do that?"
"Using a complex mathematical formula involving your height and hair color," he said. "Now for God's sake, Serena, neither Rei's grandfather's death, nor Venus's death, nor Rei and Ami's leaving are your fault."
Again, Serena opened her mouth to reply. Again, she stopped. This time because she noticed the little girl waiting at the bus stop beside her mother and staring straight at her. Serena's eyes flinched away from the girl's, skittering like M&M's across a tabletop, and she turned her head away, pulling her bangs, which she had grown out in the past month, into her face.
Darien's loud sigh was like a slap in the face. She jumped and felt miserable.
"I'm sorry." Her voice was a whisper muffled in her hands.
Staring at the sidewalk, she heard another sigh. But then a hand settled on her shoulder and pulled her against him. She turned her head and hid her scars in his shirt, hating herself for being so weak, so vulnerable to merely other people, so dependent on him.
Self-contempt filled her, but she couldn't bring herself to pull her head away.
"Wow, good job, guys." Lita's voice was dry as a desert.
Asanuma threw her a not-too-friendly look, his face like a thundercloud. "You weren't exactly an innocent bystander."
"C'mon, guys." As always, Motoki was the placating middle party. "You know they're both really tense right now."
"And the rest of us aren't?" A pile of shredded napkin sat in front of Asanuma. "Rei is gone."
"So is Ami Mizuno, but I don't see you worrying about her." Lita shoved her waitress notebook into her pocket with unnecessary force. Her eyes blazed at him. "Get off your noble high horse."
"You know, I can't blame Serena and Dare for leaving." Motoki shook his head. "Not many people enjoy spending time with a pair of bloodthirsty jackals."
Asanuma spoke into his drink. "She started it."
"My butt I started it!" Lita snapped. She knew quite well that she had been the one to make the inflammatory comment, but Asanuma was really getting on her nerves with this crap. What, he thought Serena hadn't been thinking about Rei nonstop already, worrying her brains out about her? The second she'd gotten out of the hospital she'd gone to see her, and Ami, and neither of them had been home. Ami's mother hadn't even reported her missing, though it had been a week since Rei's grandfather had seen Rei. Serena had spent days pacing through their usual streets, traveling to a beach they'd gone once, retreating deep into herself to try to find a string like the one she shared with Darien. She'd even called Rei's father. All that trying and all it had gotten her was a pair of steadily darkening shadows beneath her eyes and draining of her face's color. Then Asanuma had to come in and breathe life into it again –
"It doesn't make a damn difference who started it!" said Toki, and this time he was the one snapping. Lita and Asanuma both jerked up, staring at him. "You're making them draw away! Do you want them to isolate themselves altogether? Huh?"
Asanuma and Lita both looked away, color burning beneath their cheeks.
Motoki inhaled. "Just – take a second and think a little more about them, okay? I know you're worried about Rei, Numa, but you don't know where she is to help her. Serena and Darien are here right under your nose. Work a little harder at keeping them around." He breathed again and unwrapped a roll of coins. "Tonight, I don't want to hear a single uncharitable peep directed at each other out of either of you."
"Yes, Mother," both teens said dully.
Asanuma, apparently unable to resist a jab even in the somber atmosphere, said, "That's pretty messed up that you're dating your mother, Lita."
Darien concentrated very hard on the hard surface. It was cool, smooth – but to feel anymore than that would be cheating. He concentrated harder, clenching his eyes tighter as though that would squeeze more information out. But no – still all he could get was an overwhelming phantom scent of melting plastic.
He gave up. "Serena, what is this?"
He felt the breath of air as Serena turned around to look. He could picture the puzzled but indulging look she was probably giving him.
"It's an empty plastic jar," her voice said.
Darien's eyebrows flew up. "An empty plastic jar," he repeated. Well, that explained a lot…
"Yup. For…well, I dunno. Keeping caterpillars in or something. Hmm…"
He could almost hear her eyebrows furrowing. "Don't short-circuit too many brain cells thinking about it, Odango," he said dryly. "It's just a jar."
"Hmmph. I could have said the same thing to you." He heard her sniff. "You were pretty focused on it a second ago. Your face was turning all red like you were about to explode. What's with you stopping and touching everything in every row? It makes these shopping trips really long."
Darien put on a hurt face, one that was only partially faked. He did feel bad about Serena always bringing him on these shopping trips. She had better things to do, he knew. "I'm just trying to identify things by only touching them," he lied, and this was only a partial lie. "After all, you won't always be here to lead me around the grocery store."
"With the grades I got this year, I'll probably be the person stocking the shelves here for the rest of my life," Serena returned wryly. "So don't worry about me not being here." She squeezed his arm. "Now, time for the rice row…"
Serena's hand wasn't as soft as it used to be. Darien didn't need to use the bizarre new intuition budding within him to notice that. Serena had been taking informal jujitsu lessons with Lita since school ended, and now calluses rasped against his palms on the ever-more-rare occasions when his hand mets hers.
He knew this wasn't the only thing that was different about her. They were all different now, after Beryl's defeat. Lita was more cheerful than usual; it seemed as though she was trying to compensate for the quietness that had settled over Serena since Venus died. Motoki hovered more than ever, well-aware that something had happened to them but unable to cure them with the milkshakes that had once been their ultimate panacea. Asanuma had sharpened, like an arrowtip rubbed to a point against a whetstone. He still made jokes, but there was a watchful pause in the conversation now before he spoke. Darien could not see what he was doing during these pauses, but he felt as though Asanuma was watching, weighing. This was one of the most annoying things to him when it came to being blind, that he could not see Asanuma. He felt as though his friend were a dangerous knife, double-edged, and now he did not have the ability to see which way he was pointed. Rei's disappearance had affected him as strongly as it had Serena.
And here he came to THE most annoying thing about his blindness: not being able to see Serena. Motoki had accounted to him the changes that had occurred in her – scars, weight loss, longer hair, dull eyes – and he couldn't STAND that he could not see them himself. It was like giving up his role of her protector to someone else because he was no longer capable of it.
And yet, though Serena hid herself so well and he felt so FRUSTRATED by his inability to see the flickers in her expression, he could still practically see her in his mind's eye. When he would say something, he could picture her wrinkling her nose, or the way she would bite her lip, or the way her eyes would widen.
But he was pretty sure they were real, these images of her expressions, because they came to him in the same way these new flashes of intuition – like his inexplicable vision of Venus's past, and the smell of the plastic jar, and countless other instances of sensing since he obtained the Golden Crystal – came to him.
"Darien, brown rice is gross."
At Serena's voice, he jerked himself back to the here and now. "Huh? No, it isn't."
"No, it isn't."
Here, again, was an image in his head of her wrinkling her nose and scowling. And –
"Serena, don't put white rice in that cart," Darien warned.
A frustrated "ARGH!" and a stomping and rustle of plastic. Then something landing in the cart.
Serena grumbled. "I don't get how you always CATCH me."
"Because you always try it," he said. "Try not doing it for a couple weeks. Lull me into a false sense of security. THEN do it."
"You're never secure," Serena said. The cart wheels began to click (they always spent ten minutes at the beginning to find the annoying cart with the clicking wheels so that Darien could hear it), and he followed her, passing a hand through the air in front of him to brush against her hair tail and ensure he was going the right direction. "If there was a superhero named Mr. Paranoid, you'd be him."
"And if there was a superhero who fell flat on her face every time she moved, it would be you."
"Not anymore!" said Serena proudly. "Lita's been teaching me all those kick-butt moves!"
Darien settled for expressing his displeasure with a single "hmph."
Serena elbowed him in the gut. "Would you stop that? I need to learn how to fight now that I can't transform anymore!"
Darien glowered into the darkness of his vision. Serena wasn't getting within twenty feet of a youma again, if he had things his way – and God so help him, he was going to get his way.
"Oh, we need to get going!" Serena exclaimed suddenly. "It's almost six!"
She slapped his hands on the cart's handle under hers and hurried them down the aisles so quickly that Darien didn't get a chance to touch and try to sense any more foods. So much for getting things his way. But Serena got her way: they moved so quickly that by six-thirty, they were back at his apartment, where everyone had gathered to watch a movie.
"Late," said Lita as soon as he unlocked the door.
"Tardy is my middle name," said Serena cheerfully, squishing past Darien with bags hugged tight in her arms.
"You might be a gentleman and help her with the bags," Lita directed at Darien. "Oh, and by the way, you're out of Mountain Dew. Hope you got more."
Darien – who, in his defense, was holding the bag containing the ice cream and milk – pushed the door shut behind him with a foot. "I'm really not liking this other people in my apartment thing," he muttered.
"As antisocial as ever, Dare-Bear." A hand landed on his shoulder.
Darien tipped his head. "Asanuma," he acknowledged.
"Yup! Didja miss me? Like the deserts miss the rain?" He broke into song for this part. Of course. "Who am I kidding? Of course you did!"
"I love how you let me get a word in otherwise," Darien told him, setting a foot in front of him, then another, still carefully, though over the past month he had gotten a pretty good feel for the distance between furniture in his apartment.
"Yeah, it's like being married, isn't it?" Asanuma laughed.
"Serena, did you make this?" Lita asked as Darien felt Serena taking the bag of ice cream out of his hands.
"What?" asked Serena. She nudged Darien gently out of the way with a hip as she moved towards the fridge. He pressed his back against the counter, feeling a little flushed.
"Hey! I keep forgetting to ask! How was the beach?" Motoki asked Asanuma, whose family had gone to the beach for a weekend a fortnight ago.
"Oh! Well, it's a funny thing, because for my birthday, I got a Speedo – "
"Oh, God." Darien kneaded his eyeballs. "I'm so glad I can't see."
"The only thing is that you should have used regular instead of wavy," Lita was saying to Serena now, "but other than that, it looks like a great casserole! I'm so proud of my little protégée! Learning the art of war and cooking!"
"So then the lifeguard said I'd have to leave the beach – "
" – that store at the mall, you know? Mom said they're going out of business, so they must be going to have a going out of business sale – "
" – was a guy like that at the arcade once. He was messed up, he - "
Darien rubbed the bridge of his nose, rather overwhelmed. It was amazing what a difference there was when he could hear everything around him but not see it. It was as though his vision had been a buffer; when he focused on one conversation, he could listen only to it, but now without his vision, the protection was stripped away, and both chattered into his brain, demanding attention at equal volumes.
" – feel okay?"
At the hand on his head, he looked up. Well, not looked, but – you get the picture. "Fine," he said automatically.
Not really. He wasn't really looking forward to this night of noise and liveliness. He felt so detached from them all now, as though he belonged in a different world that they didn't belong to. When he was alone with Serena, it was fine, but with everyone all at once, he had to fight for equal interaction, and he was the weak link in the evolutionary chain; he had lost one limb and couldn't run as fast as the rest of them. So instead he faded into the background. At one time, this would not have bothered him – three years ago, say, or even a few months ago, before he was blind and could just fade into the background but still watch. Now, however, he couldn't sit back and watch. All he could do was sit back. And that meant he wasn't part of the family.
"Hey, Toki and I will take care of putting away the rest," said Lita's voice suddenly. "You guys go sit down and pick out what we're going to watch."
Darien felt simultaneous surges of gratitude and anger. Gratitude towards Lita because she had noticed his out-of-placeness and created an escape from it, but anger because she had been able to detect his struggle. He was so weak, so weak… His cane rapped against the couch, and he sat down, nerves alive with self-disgust.
No one commented when Serena sat on the floor and leaned against Darien's legs, but everyone noticed, even Motoki and Lita from the kitchen.
"Are we sure we want to watch a movie?" asked Asanuma, draping himself over the armchair. "We could play cards instead."
All heads swiveled toward Darien. Predictably, a small scowl tinted his face. "For the fifteenth time, I'm fine with watching a movie!"
"Yeah, but it's not fun," said Serena from her spot. She rolled her head back to look up at Darien, picking up his hand and touching it lightly on her face so he could know where her face was directed. It still astonished and slightly bothered Lita to see how comfortably she did that. "We like doing things as a group, and you can't participate in this as much."
"Phrased with the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson," said Asanuma.
"Ditto," said Motoki.
"Eye roll," sighed Lita.
"Ditto," said Darien, but his scowl had lightened considerably.
Asanuma jumped up. "So let's go out!" He punched the remote, and the TV snapped off. "Where to?"
"NOT the arcade," said Motoki immediately, closely followed by vigorous nodding from Lita.
"Aw, already sick of working the counter, Lita?" Asanuma grinned.
Lita clutched her head theatrically. "All the cheerful kids…I can't handle it."
"How are you friends with Serena if you can't handle cheerful kids?" Darien raised an eyebrow, but no one except Serena noticed because his bangs were too long. She reached up and took a hunk of them in her fingers.
"When are you going to get your hair cut?" she asked. "It's getting dangerously close to emo length."
"E-mo!" Asanuma crowed.
"I'm NOT emo," Darien grumbled, opening the door and, amazingly, kicking Asanuma's shin on his first try. "Get out."
"Even when he can't see you he hits you," Motoki said in awe. "I mean – sorry, Dare – "
"Oh, shove it, Toki," said Darien tiredly. "Making blind jokes about me is the same as making grumpy cracks about me, and you've never hesitated to make those. I'm not going to commit suicide just because you call me blind."
Asanuma squawked suddenly – signifying he had made an attempt at something but been kicked by Darien again – "Although I may commit murder," continued Darien. "Numa, I swear to God…"
"Is there any more ketchup?"
"Last packet." Lita tossed the packet to Serena. "Cause SOMEONE had to waste them all on a condiment war –"
"Sweetheart, it's tradition," Motoki said, as though this excused it. "Tell her, Usa."
"I think it sort of is," Serena told Lita. "They did it at our last school field trip, too. At least this time it was in packets instead of squirtable bottles."
"Those had a longer range of fire," complained Asanuma, sucking on his red-stained shirt collar. "We need to start carrying those around in our pockets for cases such as these. Not our back pockets, though, that would get kind of awkward when we sit down."
Darien nudged Serena. "Is all the mustard gone?"
She glanced at his front. "Turn around." He complied. "Yup. You still smell like it, though. But you're always sour, so it's not like it's a big change." She grinned.
"Ha ha." He pressed his condensation-beaded soda against the back of her neck, and she flailed, shrieking at the temperature. "Payback."
"No, THIS is payback." He felt his shirt collar being pulled away from his neck. Immediately, he shoved backward. Another shriek, and then something solid and warm landed on him as his back hit the grass.
"Oh, my." He heard Asanuma's voice. "What are they up to now?"
He pushed Serena off of him and then levered himself back up. With chagrin he felt a hot flush under his skin. "As-a-nu-ma," he bit off each syllable threateningly. "Don't even start."
"You were the one who started it." Asanuma's grin was audible. "I'm just continuing it."
Darien heard a giggle – Serena's. He turned his head toward her. "Hey, you realize he's making fun of you, too, right?"
More giggles were her only response.
"Have some loyalty," he grumbled.
"Hey, guys," said Motoki, neatly rescuing Darien. "Look if you can see the comet. It's supposed to be visible pretty soon."
"Comet?" Asanuma flopped down on his back in the grass and stared up into the dark night sky. "What comet?"
"Yeah, what comet?" added Serena, stretching out in the grass perpendicular to Asanuma. She frowned, squirming a little. Something was mushy and wet under her back… "Asanuma!" she squeaked, fishing the ketchup packet – now empty, having divulged its contents on her shirt – out from under her back. "You did that on purpose!"
"What?" howled Asanuma, twisting in Serena's Death Grip on his throat. "It was Darien! I swear! I swear!"
Serena turned slowly. "Darieeeeen," she said slowly.
Darien flashed a grin. His gold eyes glowed slightly, like embers, in the darkness. "Payback for the pink squid on my school blazer," he said.
Serena pouted. "I could have used that last packet for the rest of my fries…"
"What?" demanded Asanuma. "I get choked half to death for NOT doing it, and Darien gets off with just a Serena-chan pout?"
"I don't see what you're complaining about, Numa," commented Motoki. He and Lita were already lying peacefully on their backs watching the sky. "A lot of guys would kill to have Usa-chan grab their necks like that."
"Not if Darien killed them first," retorted Asanuma.
"Darien wouldn't kill anyone," said Serena sensibly.
"Oh, wouldn't he?" chorused Lita and Asanuma simultaneously.
Darien grinned again, baring his teeth. "Yes, wouldn't I?"
"Not if you ever wanted me to talk to you again," said Serena sweetly.
"Like you could ever keep your mouth shut for longer than five minutes," said Darien, grinning.
"Oooh," said Asanuma. "Fighting words."
They were all laughing now. There is a point you reach sometimes, when your heart feels very full. Unlike your stomach, that fullness is never an unpleasant feeling; it does not make you feel bloated or superfluous. It is instead a sort of sparkling juice that fills you so full that it overflows and drenches the whole world with a sense of rightness. Of belonging. Sitting under the darkened sky in the soft grass with laughter mingling with the sleepy voices of birds and whispers of tree leaves all around them, Serena felt that wonderful coziness. The feeling of a puzzle piece that has finally found it place, embraced snugly by its family.
Motoki offered to walk the girls home, but he was turned down. He accepted it with good nature, because Lita, because of her arcade job, didn't spend as much time with Serena as usual, so this was a chance for them to catch up.
His house was on the way to Asanuma's, so they walked together. Asanuma walked with his hands in his pockets, scuffing at the ground with his shoes as they walked.
Motoki thought he knew why. "Numa, Rei'll turn up."
Asanuma kicked a stray stone visciously, sending it sailing out of sight. "Yeah, in a ditch beaten so badly they'll have to use her dental records to identify her."
"Whoah, whoah, whoah." Motoki grabbed Asanuma's shoulder, forcing the shorter boy to look at him. "Rei's a tough bird, Numa. She wouldn't let someone do something like that to her."
"There's only so much a hundred and ten pounds can do, Motoki," Asanuma retorted. "Besides, if she had left on her own, she would have come back when she heard about her gramps."
"Maybe she hasn't heard yet," soothed Motoki. "You said he was only found today. If she'd far away, she may not have found out."
Asanuma continued walking. They strode silently for about minute, then Asanuma stopped abruptly and spun. "You know what I think?"
"No, tell me."
"I think she's a Senshi."
Motoki had to blink. "Pardon?"
Asanuma eyed him in irritation. "I think Rei is a Senshi," he said. "Think about it. The youma attack at prom where Serena and Darien get hurt. The Senshi bring them back through a portal; then there's no more youma attacks or Senshi sightings. The Sailor Senshi disappeared at the same time as Rei did. Coincidence?"
"Um…" said Motoki. He saw some logic in the argument, but not enough to make him think Rei was a Sailor Senshi. Besides, hadn't Asanuma suspected Serena was a Senshi a while back, too? "Do you think Ami Mizuno's one, too?"
"Not sure," said Asanuma, and Motoki wasn't surprised. Not to be mean to his friend, but Asanuma didn't usually spare much thought for people he didn't actively care for. "If she is…well – " He glanced at Motoki.
Motoki regarded him a little uncertainly. "Well what?"
"Before Lita came along, who was always together?"
"Darien and Serena."
"No, before that."
"I can't remember life before Darien-and-Serena," said Motoki, grinning. At Asanuma's growl, he sobered. "Okay, fine. Rei, Ami, and Serena were attached at the...hip," he finished, eyes widening. "You think Serena's a Senshi, too? But she's still here, and the Senshi aren't."
"I know," said Asanuma. "But something's definitely up with her. No one's hair grows that fast in a week."
Motoki squirmed a little. This was something all of them had noticed but noen mentioned – Serena's hair had grown lierally half a meter since the day of prom to the few days later when they visisted her in the hospital. Darien's golden eyes they had been able to put down to the youma, and Serena's strangely silver scars, also, but a youma that grew hair out was just too improbable.
"I've had the feeling for a long time that they've been hiding something from us," said Asanuma.
Motoki did not speak for a moment, still absorbing the impact of the information. Then – "Hang on," he said. "Remember the time Darien's eyes went all blue? Like, no sclera, no pupils – "
"He's not a Sailor Senshi," said Asanuma, shrugging. "But he's definitely something."
Motoki smiled at this first comment, but below churned other emotions. He gazed at Asanuma. "What are you planning?"
There were two more stones in that path before them. Motoki saw Asanuma's leg moving back to kick them again; he bent quickly and scooped them up before he could.
Asanuma frowned at him a little, put out by Motoki's prevention of his anger outlet. "I'm not planning anything, Mama Toki."
Motoki raised his eyebrows.
Asanuma threw up his arms. "Well, wouldn't you like to know what the hell's going on? They've been keeping a whole identity secret from us! Obviously they don't consider us very trustworthy friends."
Motoki's hand had found that he had picked up two stones, not one. And glancing down at them, he saw they were surprisingly smooth and jewel-like in their appearance.
"Gimme your hand," he said.
Asanuma blinked at him. "Huh?"
Motoki beckoned at him. "Just give it to me."
Asanuma, eying him suspiciously, extended his hand. Motoki placed one of the stones in it.
"Look at that," said Motoki, holding open his own hand so Asanuma could see his, too.
Asanuma looked up, and sarcasm had tugged one of his light brows up. "A rock, Toki?"
"Two rocks," Motoki corrected. "One for you and one for me. See how nice they are? Not ugly little gravelly rocks, are they?"
"Noooo," drawled out Asanuma doubtfully, clearly unsure where this was headed.
"But you were about to kick them away," said Motoki, fingering the rock. It really did feel nice. It must be soft, for the heat of his hand had already begun to make it feel warm in his palm. "Because it was too dark for you to see what it was really like, so you assumed it was something else."
Asanuma let out a tired trickle of laughter. "I get it, Toki. Now let's let the lame metaphor go and just go home. I'm pooped."
"You smell like poop," said Motoki.
"You look like it."
"You feel like it."
"Your momma feels like it."
Motoki aimed a punch at Asanuma's face, and he ducked, shouting with laughter. Motoki took off after him amid taunts, but he slipped the stone into his pocket.
Back in his apartment, after everyone had left, Darien felt an unexpected emptiness. The apartment was so quiet, so dark, and just as empty as he was. He couldn't stand it.
He found the TV and pressed the power button, then made his way into his bedroom. From his bed he gathered up into his arms a pillow and a blanket and then, on a sudden second thought, another pillow. These he dumped back on the couch when he returned to the living room, then began the inevitably long search for the remote. Behind him, the TV, unsympathetic to his plight, continued to blare some rock music video channel that Asanuma had been watching before they left.
His hand, feeling across the left corner coffee table for the remote, hit something cold and hard – a picture frame. A grimace flickered across his face.
It was ironic. He had more pictures now, when he was blind, than he'd ever had in his life. He hadn't even noticed their presence until he was groping for the remote – just like now – one day so that Serena couldn't change the channel to her favorite (and very annoying, high-pitched) anime. His hand had knocked against something that had clattered over very loudly on the glass-topped side table.
He had picked it up and felt it. It had taken him an embarrassingly long moment to realize what it was: a picture frame.
"Oops," Serena had said, coming in. "I forgot to tell you I put some pictures around."
"What of?" he had asked, his fingertips sliding across the smooth and stubbornly taciturn glass covering the picture. A flash had actually kicked in then – stitches constricting his ribs.
"That one's the picture Asanuma took the time Motoki forgot the pants under his apron."
Darien had hastily withdrawn his fingers. (Who knew what he might have been fingering?) It had been a memory of laughter putting him in stitches."What else?"
"Well, there's some of all of us," Serena had said. "Even Lita – I pasted her to your dartboard. No, just kidding! That was mean, I'm horrible. You know, though, it looks kind of weird, a dartboard sitting in the middle of your wall with roses sticking out of it."
"Well, I don't usually have people at my apartment to see it," he had responded, a little stiffly. Then, as now, the feeling of Serena spending so much time babying him along had bothered him.
"I know," Serena had said. "That's why I put pictures up. That way, when your sight comes back, if it comes back while you're here and not with us, we'll still be the first things you see, smiling back at you!"
"And that's not conceited at all," he had said, but there had been a smile inside him. And now, as he sat in his dark empty apartment, it lit a warmth inside him too, and pushed the bubble of emptiness surrounding him away for a while.
A knock sounded on the door just when Darien had reached that point when you still realize you're falling asleep but that realization is in the very deepest, farthest back corner of your brain.
His limbs jerked, and he bolted up. "Damn it, Toki," he muttered even as he stood up and shuffled around the couch to the door. His friend must have forgotten his keys again, as he always did…
He opened the door, yawning. The voice that answered his mumbled "Yeah?" however, was not Toki's.
"Darien?" It was husky but melodic. And familiar. It put a frown on Darien's face. Again, that bitter frustration of not being able to see slammed into him…
"Yes?" he said, warily and awake this time. "Who is it?"
"Darien. You – "
Darien did not hear the rest. He had fallen to his knees, muscles bulging under his t-shirt as he strained against – something – and then he was sprawled on the floor, out cold.