LAST TIME; Chapter 8: The Depths of These Hearts = Lita and Nephrite barely escape the palace guards as they continue to pursue the chef. All thanks to the aid of Nephrite's confidant, Sheila, who is not who she appears. In fact Sheila is a man. Now what do you think will become of our incompatible duo as they make a run for it?
Chapter 12: His Home, his Companion
"Please, no more of the unexpected," Lita grumbled.
The mute Nephrite draped a scratchy, wool blanket over her bare shoulders. He gestured for her to get up from the log and start walking.
"I'm naked, cold, sick, and stuck with a man who can't even say his own name!"
He ignored her as he passed her to move up ahead.
"I don't have any shoes and my feet are all scratched up!" She wailed, her voice sounding foreign to herself.
Nephrite's steady pace was his silent way of telling her to keep moving unless she wished to freeze to death standing around complaining.
"It's going to get dark soon. We should find some shelter," she suggested.
He kept going. He paused to help her up a knoll.
Gasping for breath from the exercise of hiking, Lita yelled at him, "Do you hear me? We need to rest! There's no point in going on if we don't know which direction we're going."
Nephrite paused and finally looked at her. 'I know where we're going. It's just another mile.'
At this piece of information she instantly became sober as she trudged behind him.
He turned to her again with a tender smile. 'Please, I rather enjoy your whining earlier. It kept me rigorous.'
Lita kicked up a pebble that squarely hit him in the back of his head. As he reached up to rub the spot she shouted at him. "I was not whining! I don't whine."
'Then, whatever you were doing, it kept me at ease. When you're quiet I get worried that you aren't feeling quite right…'
"I'm not ever going to feel comfortable until I get some clothes on."
He smiled and pointed ahead of them. 'There's not much I can return for the price of my freedom, but I have clothes for you."
Lita grimaced because she had stepped in something soft and sticky. "Don't mention it anymore. You owe me nothing." Shaking the brownish, green goop from her toes, she was shocked when Nephrite suddenly swept her off her feet and carried her over another knoll.
Her fists were about to box his ears red when he set her down on the other side.
"What did I say about the unexpected?" She growled menacingly at him.
'We were at a deadlock. The only way across without tarnishing your honor is carrying you over.'
Her hard eyes softened a fraction. "No one has ever considered me in any manner before you came along."
He pointed to the ground to stop her from tripping over a root as they moved. Then he gestured without making eye contact. 'People, even tough fighters like yourself, need to be cared for.'
She repeated his gesture 'cared for' as he watched her from the side of his vision. He smiled again. 'Do you need some more TLC?' The twinkle in his eye told her he was jesting when she looked up to catch him staring.
"My friend, you're a twit."
He took the name-calling with good humor. 'Twit is what a twit does.'
"You don't even know what a twit is."
Nephrite hopped over two stepping-stones floating in the creek. 'Perhaps letting you think that is for the better.' He reached out a hand to help her as she crossed the water.
She ignored his proffered hand and landed right beside him. "I'm not a softy to be reckoned with," she muttered, purposefully bumping shoulders with him.
He threw a stick at her retreating form, causing her to turn her ruthless eyes on him. 'You're neither weak nor useless.' For some unexplainable reason, he knew he had to tell her this. He was beginning to understand her and just as easily he could pinpoint her needs whether they were materialistic or spiritual. His sister used to compliment him about his rare, but powerful hindsight.
He must have slowed or made a noise because Lita was beside him again. "What's the matter?"
'I just had a terrible memory.'
Lita came to a halt. "About what?"
'It's not something I will share.' The deadness in his eyes showed that he meant to finish his sentence with 'with someone like you,' but he was too polite to say something like that. Yet, when he wholly focused his eyes on her face again, his features softened and she realized that this man would never ever say anything hateful or disrespectful to her no matter how terribly the people whom she worked for terrorized him. No matter whom she was or no matter the people she served, he saw her as an ally to trust and welcome.
"Why are you like that?" She asked as he pressed her forward with a hand to the small of her back. She twisted to look at him and he answered her with a befuddled look. "You know; why don't you hate me like most men?"
'You never gave me a reason to hate you.'
"I'm a bureaucratic bitch of merit from the palace. There. Isn't that a reason?"
He grinned. 'You're a cook merely doing her job to survive,' he retorted, grimacing at her choice of words. 'I wasn't born with the luck Celeste bestowed on you.'
"I wouldn't call being born a girl a birthright from my parents or from Celeste." She stopped believing in the goddess Celeste a long time ago as she grew up to realize that her kingdom was far from recoverable and the Moon Kingdom would soon meet the same fate. Anytime she said Celeste's name, it was not out of reverence. From the acrid bitterness of a wary soul stemmed some goddess' name that lost all meaning. In Lita's perspective, people used Celeste's name in vain only. "At the very least, I had a family and I still have a family…" She often found her thoughts drifting to her surrogate sisters, Serenity and the other three senshi. They were all she had left in this universe.
'I had a family, too. You can't tell, but I used to live in a household dominated by females.'
"Another reason for not hating a bureaucratic bi-"
The pad of his thumb on her lips silenced her sarcastic remark. She froze feeling the gentle yet callous finger on her most sensitive skin.
Nephrite raised his hands and signed to her. 'Don't call yourself that. It doesn't sound nice.'
Lita chewed on the inside of her cheek for a minute. "You tell all the stuck-up women in your life that."
'Sheila doesn't quite count.'
"I mean the females in your household." Suddenly Lita's curiosity piqued. How did he ever survive the takeover? How did he ever remain without the inspectors noticing him? She heard tales of how some young boys were able to hold up their female guises into adulthood. Once they became real men, it was nearly impossible to shrink into women's clothing, unless you were slim and stocky or curvaceous and bosom endowed. They faced punishment if they tried. Those who faced judgment were worse off than the ones who just accepted their dismal fates.
'I don't talk about them.' A pain, so tangible Lita could taste it, washed over his visage. At that instant Lita wished she never let her curiosity beat her conscience.
'We're here.' He gestured to the cottage stowed away between the trees. The grass and weeds that grew around the house needed cutting, meaning someone had abandoned this cottage a long time ago. Lita glanced around her surroundings to assess the living space.
She thought she could imagine this place as a summer house for a small family. The family could probably be a threesome, a mother, a father, and their child. They would come here on the warm days of the spring and summer seasons, to stretch their legs and enjoy the view of nature blessed by Celeste. The mother would garden. The father would be sitting in front of the house, reading. The child would be playing with the dog in the cleanly cut grass.
'No one will find us here,' Nephrite affirmed, swinging the front door open and moving in. Lita followed and the dust from Nephrite's quick movements settled on her. He moved down the house and pushed open the back door to let more air into the house. Then, his shadowed form disappeared behind a curtain wall in the corner. He popped back out to wave a hand at her. Through the dense stream of light from the two windows in the house, she could see the intense look in his eyes. He didn't look at ease, but his body acted without trouble. 'Come.'
Lita kept her hands to her chest to readjust her makeshift clothing, which consisted of a towel and a blanket. She practically crept up to the curtains all too aware of the very walls that enclosed her.
Suddenly Nephrite's hand grappled her arm and he pulled her in. 'Stop daydreaming. You'll catch another cold.'
There was a chest and a cot made out of hay in the room. Lita realized that only a curtain divided the house. As her eyes shifted from every nook and cranny Nephrite got her attention again by waving a hand in her face. 'I told you to change quickly and rest.'
"I'm not an infant," she huffed.
'I hope not. I don't have quite the time to handle one. I need to set up snares for our dinner tonight before it gets too dark to do so. Now, change.' He finished with a flourish and pointed to the cot in the corner of the room. He was gone, pulling the curtain behind him before Lita could protest.
"Nephrite!" She called after him.
He was right there when she tumbled out from behind the curtain.
Was she afraid of the dark? He wondered.
"What if something happens while you're gone?" She argued, sheepishly.
'Nothing will happen to you. This used to be my home. There should be flint and some wood in the back to start a fire. Maybe you can keep your mind off of things by helping us start a fire.'
"No, I mean what if something happens to you?"
'We are secluded. Things go, but things don't usually come.'
"Do you think that is comforting at all?!" She squawked.
'I'm sorry, Lady Lita. I wasn't aware you were afraid of the dark…'
"It's not the dark! I've never been absolutely alone before in my life since… since…"
She was hysterical; they both knew. Lita felt ashamed of herself and Nephrite felt truly sorry.
'I beg your pardon,' he signed gently.
"It's been a long time. Even at the palace I still have Serenity and Mina. Before I met them all, I… I was alone. Before my duties came to pass, no one approached me because of who I was. I have never felt alone ever since Serenity was named heir. I don't like having that feeling again, but… but it totally does not mean anything! I am not scared of anything!"
'Such a brave face.' Nephrite lifted his shoulders and brought them down again.
"I'm simply unfamiliar with this place. I'm not scared!" She cried fiercely. "Don't think of me as that."
Nephrite bowed his head slowly. 'No. Of course not. Everyone likes the company of other social creatures.'
"It doesn't mean I'm scared. To boot, remember I wasn't afraid when we planned on parting ways back in Jon Wire? If I was afraid to journey on my own, I would have not told you take off without me." She was desperate to the point of speaking hurriedly.
'No, you are not afraid. We shall try to stick together for the endurance of our company."
She turned swiftly and trotted behind the curtain again. "No! You should go! I'm all right, now. I believe you will keep yourself out of trouble."
Lita changed into a brown cotton dress that was surprisingly too long for her. The hem dragged the floor and the sleeves came over her knuckles. There were matching slippers for the dress in which she slipped on even though it was uncomfortable to wear clean shoes with dirty feet. She stepped out after some time and was surprised to see Nephrite standing silently.
She spoke gruffly with clenched fists. "I thought I told you…"
'I had equipment to gather. I also thought it might be easier if I found the tinderbox for you. It was a time-consuming task, but there is still light out for me to set the snares.'
She glared at him suspiciously. "'Suppose it would take you long."
He smiled gently. 'Well, off I go.'
It was then, that she noticed the bow and the quiver of arrows strung on his back. "Hey, are you hunting on foot as well?"
'Yes, but I'm not as good at aiming moving targets as I am concealing traps for beasts that will become our supper.'
Lita stepped forward with a confident stride. "I'm an excellent marksman."
'Perhaps you will join me, then.'
Lita returned his smile. 'Of course. This isn't so new a prospect of living for me. I still hunt and cook some foods occasionally at the palace.'
Lita took the bow and the arrows he offered as he pulled a bag of tricks over his shoulder. He didn't know he was holding his breath until she walked outside first and he was able to release that breath. Somehow, the girl could rattle him a lot.
They hunted and ensnared a few beasts together. When they brought the game home, Lita dealt with all the cooking.
Nephrite hissed in pain when her hand came down on his fingers for trying to steal a taste of her alluring steak sauce.
"You're in my territory, buster," and she shoved him back to his seat.
As she cooked she verbally walked him through how to make meat dishes without allowing him any footing into where she deemed her kitchen. She even told him the secrets to spicy beef jerky if they planned on a long journey and needed some kind of protein supplement in their travel bags. He wanted to make a small comment every time something she said caught his interest, but he couldn't make small talk for a man who was mute. Her back was always facing him.
"All done!" She was still jabbering as she served the food. He preferred her carefree speech to that defensive tone he met with earlier that day. The sound of her voice was like a melody to a very merry tune.
As the two of them delved into their meals, Lita suddenly cleared her throat. He had taken notice that she had stopped talking for a whole minute, but thought nothing of it because he expected she was hungry and needed a break from talking for a bite. Yet, the second sound coming from her would pull him away from the delicious food.
'Don't be a blockhead. I feel like I'm yapping at a statue,' she spoke with her hands now.
Dropping his utensil, he quickly signed an apology.
'How come you don't say anything?'
He gulped down another bite. 'There is no need to cut into your talk. It would be rude on my part.'
She waved a hand at him in dismissal. 'I mean, why can't you talk?'
He blinked. 'I was born this way. I don't know.' He looked down at his food again.
Lita thumped her fist on the table to get his attention. 'Talking would be one way to get our thoughts across the table. Signing would be another way.'
'Yes, and I chose my mode of communication way before I learned to ride a horse.'
'But you said you were born this way.'
'That's also true.'
Lita bit her lip to keep from making sputtering noises. 'You are very unclear. You speak in riddles.'
Nephrite took another mouthful and chewed. 'It's simple. I speak with a lisp and people hardly understood me. I needed to switch tact. End of story.'
'That's not the end,' she argued, seeing that there was much more to the story since he couldn't even tell it in a storytelling fashion.
It hurt to talk about it. She knew because when he looked her in the eye, she saw the same flashes of emotions as she did the first day she met him at the palace gates. Maybe this topic also breeched the untouchable topic of his family. She was once again stepping out of line.
She berated herself inside, but gestured to him. 'Someone bullied you for talking funny, so you chose to sign. They wouldn't understand you that way if you cursed them. I say that's genius.'
'Bully.' He repeated her sign.
This man must have been treated much worse than her and countless other hers in previous lifetimes. 'Yes, bully. I was an outcast, too, at one point in my life, when they strung me up and hung me in a tree. Those damn schoolmates of mine…'
His eyes widened. 'They can't do that! You're… You're…'
'I used to be much more than head chef of the Moon palace… Rank-wise I was… It doesn't matter anymore. My schoolmates did their worst by not hanging me in a tree, butt-naked. I much prefer that personal contact even for the briefest time to the ostracism that I was faced with nearly every single day until I turned fourteen. Absolute fear and veneration from people you cared about could take a toll on a young gal's life.'
Nephrite turned his head to look out the dark window. In this brief quiet, Lita realized she had not uttered a word aloud for at least five minutes. Now, she was more aware of her fluttering heart willing to soar with her self pride. She really could express herself without talking off the ear of her caring listener.
"Hey Nephrite," she said aloud to get him to turn to her. 'Hearing you attempt to speak again would be one heck of a trip. I do wonder.' She gave him a warm smile of encouragement.
His cheek bones sagged under the weight of his frown, he told her in stiff flashes of his hands, 'I told you I can't talk. I'm a mute.'
She could barely stand the sounds coming from the night. She found herself drifting every so often until she heard the snap of a branch or the sound of a wood creature moaning. The stupid world outside was so noisy she could barely lose herself in the slumber that her mind ached for. She was restless because everything was unfamiliar and eerie. Then, just as she was on the cusp of dreamland, there was a crackling noise right outside their window.
Lita groaned and turned on her side. She left the curtain open, so she saw Nephrite curled on the floor like a big dark shadow. He was breathing deeply, but then that sound came again. It sounded like a click this time. For sure, Lita saw a shadow passing the star dusted window, briefly blotting out the world. Lita inhaled a noisy breath as she rolled to the floor and crawled to Nephrite.
As she dragged her knees across his bed made of hay, she bent to whisper in his ear. Nephrite's eyes snapped open in alert the moment he felt Lita lay a hand on his shoulder. "Nephrite, there's someone outside."
Nephrite twisted onto his back and blinked up at Lita, bending over him. He didn't believe her because he was as lax as he was if he were on a picnic and was just taking a short nap after his large lunch.
"Nephrite really," she breathed urgently, shaking him. The girl hadn't slept a wink for the past four hours since they both decided it was time for bed. Even in the darkness, he could see the fatigue in her glittering green eyes and the shadows under those eyes.
He sat up and reached for her shoulder. Though, his sight was clouded by sleepiness, he saw the blur pass by the window again. His grip on her turned to iron and he pushed her into him, so he could muffle any other sound coming from her. She gasped in surprise, but remained as still as possible. Nephrite pushed his fist into her hand and she almost trembled with fear for him. The fear was only for him because they weren't going to do anything to her. He would face an unfair judgment if he were to be precisely caught tonight.
Her fingers traced the symbol his hand made. As her soft flesh cascaded around his deeply ridged skin these thoughts flew through her mind; if only she had not used him as a tool for her escape, this was her fault and never his. She could never forgive herself if anything cruel happened to him. What if he dies tonight without a chance or choice?
She shook with the force of her guilt. She felt a second shadow pass the other window. They weren't being discreet anymore. They were as noisy as bears willing to rouse their caged convicts.
Nephrite pressed his hand hard into hers and she choked on her intermingling fear and guilt. 'Ambush.'
Another cliffer. After many months of deliberation I did nothing with this chapter that sat in my fanfiction folder for a whole year. I thought I was going to make it better, but I found out the hard way that I couldn't make it any better without taking away from the chapter's story. Here I take my chances and hope that this chapter was not disappointing putting aside the fact that I keep ending each chapter with these cliff hangers. I hope you can appreciate my writing regardless of the fact that it is a year old and aging. Sorry for the long wait.
Happiness all around and treasures abound,