BIG DISCLAIMER:

I am reposting my Sailor Moon fanfic Fire at because the old site where I first posted it, A Sailor Moon Romance, has died. I wrote this over eight years ago, and while it will always hold a special place in my heart (the first novel I ever attempted), I sincerely hope that my writing has improved since then. On the other hand, at the time a lot of people wrote to me how much they liked it, and it seemed a shame that those people wouldn't be able to find it online anymore once ASMR died. HOWEVER, please think of this fic along the lines of a historical document. Especially if you found this because you like my Veronica Mars fiction...well, this is a little less sophisticated. On the other hand, it's fun, so what the hell :)

ALSO...you might be interested to know that I have published an actual novel, in actual stores: Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson (that's me, of course). If you like this, PLEASE consider buying it or at least telling your librarian to get a copy. A lot of novels get published each year, and it's so easy for them to get lost in the deluge. I'm afraid that's what's happening to my book, so if you like any of my stuff I hope you'll think about it. If you want to know more (and read the first three chapters), you can go to my website. It's my full name, "Alaya Dawn Johnson" without any spaces, dot com.

[The final chapter. The thrilling resolution. How it all works out in the end, however improbably. I hope you've enjoyed this. And in my re-reading of this story, I find it amusing how my understanding of college life was apparently based on a few YA novels and movies. Hey, try to forgive. I was seventeen. Also, can I implore you again to check out my novel? There's links on my profile page. Seriously. Go to Amazon. Think about it. Okay, you can read the story now ;)

Chapter Nine: Never Too Late

I long for him most
During these long moonless nights.
I lie awake, hot,
The growing fires of passion
Bursting, blazing in my heart

Ono No Komachi

March. Finally the temperature had warmed consistently above freezing, and comparatively, the fifty degree night felt positively balmy. It was well past midnight on Friday night--well, Saturday morning, I suppose--and Raye had just fallen asleep. We had been talking long into the night of love and dreams and longing, the types of things girls speak of when they know there is something more than what they have, and are young enough to think they will achieve it. Raye had met somebody who easily held her attention more that Darien ever had. I saw it, but wondered if Raye did, and did not mention it to her. Even without Mina's "sixth sense" for these sorts of things, I knew that they were in love with each other. It was only a matter of time before they admitted it. His name was Thomas, and the very mention of it would send her into fits of sighing that seemed more appropriate to Mina than Raye. But then, we had all been full of surprises the past few months. I lay awake after Raye slept, thinking about my friends, staring at the disturbingly black night--a night without moonlight to guide my thoughts as it so often had during my time at Harvard. I shuddered and pulled the covers closer around my neck. Perhaps fifty degrees was not so balmy as I had thought. By now Amy and Jonathan had an established relationship. When it came to people she knew, Mina was an infallible guide. Lita had not, as yet, paired up with anyone, although she sometimes waxed eloquent about a certain friend of hers named Ken, who we never saw, but could describe to you in detail anyway. Her "old boyfriend" had become something of a running joke between us, but judging from Lita's love struck expression, she could not be making him up. Mina was an odd combination of matchmaker and seductress. She was determined for everyone else to find true love, but when it came to her, she was content to date every good-looking boy on campus. She often exhausted herself running between dates, trying to keep the other unaware of the first. It was funny, but sometimes I wondered if Mina was--for all her fascination with it--afraid of love. It made a bizarre sort of sense that the self-dubbed 'Love Goddess' would be unable to deal with love within herself. I worried about her, but I also knew that someone would fall in love with Mina with such insistence that she would not be able to ignore it anymore, or deny it.

While I did think about my friends, I thought mostly of Darien. It was inevitable that Darien should occupy my thoughts at all times and in all places, I thought, sighing. Even halfway across the world I could not seem to escape his influence over me. Even now, every time I went to the ice cream parlor I half expected to see him way I had that very first day: a self-satisfied mocking smile, oldies music blaring, hair casually tousled in a way that made him that much more gorgeous. I turned over in my bed, barely suppressing a groan. Not as though, I reminded myself, it would wake Raye. It stunned me how much I longed for him. It took me unawares on nights like this, how I would physically ache for want of him next to me. He had been near me for such a short time, I knew, and yet I felt that those few weeks had been more perfect than forever. And he loved me, at least I had that to sustain me. This waiting was somehow different than it had been before he left. Then, it had been like a slow, tortuous death, each new day dragging more of my happiness away from me. Now I felt secure--somewhat, at least. Darien had told me not to let him hurt me again, and I was trying. But that did not make my longing any less poignant, it did not stop me from staying up late on Saturday morning, full of sighs and half-uttered words. I thought of the first time he had kissed me, how my breathing had stopped and the entire world had seemed to shut down around me. I thought of the way he had carried me in from the snow, denying his feelings but unable to hide them. I thought of all this and felt my breath catch in my throat. I could deny him during the day, or at least try to. I could go to classes and play around with my friends and not act as though I longed for him every second. But at night, I could not hide it. I would open my window and stare at the sky, wishing that he return.

I wrote him letters, but could not bring myself to send them. I kept them together--reams of them--in my bottom desk drawer, hidden away from the world. I guess I was afraid of giving even the smallest part of myself away again. I was still afraid that he would hurt me, and even though I knew that he said he loved me, things might have changed in Japan. After all, he was in the country of his birth, probably talking to prettier, more intelligent girls…I roughly wiped the tears from my eyes. This was getting me nowhere. The five of us were planning on going to the museum tomorrow, and I had to get some sleep. Besides, I had definitely had enough of this emotional orgy for one night. With a small self-deprecating smile I closed my eyes, and dreamed of lands across the sea.

------------------------

"I don't know." Lita said dubiously, tilting her head to the side. "It just looks like a bunch of squiggles to me."

"Lita!" Raye exclaimed, exasperated. "Don't you see the subtle rhythm of the colors? Do you see how the greens and browns mix to give the perfect impression of fall leaves?"

"You sound like a tour guide, Raye." I said, squinting. "It looks like one of those magic eye things."

"I give up!" Raye shouted, throwing her hands in the air. "You uncultured bohemians just can't appreciate Jackson Pollock."

Mina giggled. "Well, we uncultured bohemians need some nourishment before we can brave more nude women with breasts on their heads." Raye just glared at her.

"You guys!" Amy said ominously. "Will you stop shouting? I think that Mina has a good idea, we ought to go eat. Maybe it will calm us down." The last was muttered under her breath.

"Oh, all right. But afterwards we have to go to the sculpture garden!" Raye said. We all groaned.

"Come on, Raye, do we have to?" I wined. "It's really cold out there!"

"Cold? It's fifty degrees."

"Will you two shut up and come on?" Lita said from the doorway. Realizing that I was, in fact, quite in need of a brownie or two, I caught up with them and we walked together to the cafeteria.

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"One week to go until spring break." Lita said, lounging in her chair.

Mina and I let of simultaneous dejected sighs. I had not been looking forward much to spring break.

"Geez, what's wrong you two?" Raye asked.

"I really don't want to go home. Why in the name of God did my dad have to win the primaries? Why does my life just have to suck like this? He is going to be unbearable. I just can't take him for two weeks, you guys. It's inhuman!" My voice had risen precariously into a wail and my friends winced--whether in sympathy for my predicament or their eardrums, I couldn't tell.

"And I," Mina began dramatically, hogging the spotlight as usual, "Cannot stay here for spring break. I think that George knows about Toby and they're both getting suspicious and I'm going crazy trying to keep them both happy, but I just don't want to give up either one! O!" The 'O' sounded like one of those Victorian exclamations made so popular by Dickens, "It's so hard being beautiful!" Something suspiciously looking like sweatdrops appeared over our heads.

"Yeah right, Mina." Lita muttered to herself. "But still," She said in a thoughtful voice. "There's nothing particularly exciting for me to do at home. I wouldn't mind doing something new over spring break."

"That's true, you know." Raye agreed. "It's not like my grandfather needs me much at the temple, not since he got all that help. I mean, as much as I like going home, it would be fun to try something else."

I peered a little outside of my cloud of misery. "You mean, you guys would be willing to do something over spring break, with us?"

"Somewhere very far away?" Mina asked eagerly, losing some of her dramatic air.

"Hey, why not?" Lita shrugged. "It'd be fun."

"Yeah!" I shouted, getting into the spirit of things. I wouldn't have to face my dad after all! "Well, Amy," I said, and we all turned to look at her expectantly. "What about it?" Amy had sunk so low in her seat that her head barely came above the rim of the table.

"Um…" She began, "I don't know?"

"Come on, Amy," Mina coaxed, using her most charming smile, "What possible reason do you have not to go? Didn't you already tell us your mom was away at some conference in Europe?"

"Well, yeah…"

"And didn't you say you were getting sick of the same routine?" This time it was Raye.

"Well, I suppose so…"

"And wouldn't it just be awesome to go somewhere with us this break?" Lita asked.

"Sure it would, but…"
"So what's the problem?" I finished triumphantly.

"I want to stay with Jonathan!" She wailed.

"Geez, Amy," Raye muttered, "You almost sounded like Serena for a second there." I would have insulted her back, except there were obviously more important matters to attend to.

"Amy," Mina said in a dangerously low voice. "Are you telling me that your boyfriend," she spat the word out, "is more important than your very best friends?"

"No…" Amy said sheepishly.

"Would you really abandon us for him?" I asked, cornering her.

"Oh, all right, all right!" Amy agreed, looking dejected and relieved at the same time. "You guys are tough customers." She said with a smile.

"Got to be." Raye said, looking satisfied. "So, now that we've agreed we're going somewhere, where do you guys want to go?"

"The beach--anyplace warm."

"I've always wanted to see the grand canyon..."

"What about Niagra Falls?"

"Las Vegas!"

"New York!"

"New Jersey!"

"New Jersey?"

"Sorry, got carried away with the moment."

"Wait, I know what we should do!" I shouted, getting a sudden epiphany.

"What?" They asked, looking at me.

"We should have a…" I paused, dragging out the moment.

"Well?"

"A road trip!" I finished triumphantly.

They fell silent, looking at me with dumbfounded expressions. "You know, Serena." Raye said finally. "That's a great idea."

I leaned back in the chair. "Of course." I said, a grin practically splitting my face.

"Huh." Amy said, still a little skeptical. "If you don't kill each other first."

"Oh, ye of little faith." I said offhandedly. Yes, perhaps this time, spring break would be fun after all.

------------------------

"Listen, Raye, I'm sure we've missed the exit! Didn't you see that sign back there?"

"Serena, I know what I'm doing. Besides, I wouldn't trust you to lead me to a bathroom, let alone Niagara Falls."

"Why doesn't anyone seem to think I can find a bathroom?" I muttered angrily to myself, looking at the map again. It was true though, these things were way too confusing. Amy had drawn the route of our trip in red magic marker just before we left, but the mess of lines and labels just did not seem to correspond to the long stretches of highways and confusing system of exits. I wasn't about to tell Raye that, however. She would just make fun of me. Instead, I turned around to the back seat--we were using Mina's van with express threats of what would happen if it received so much as a scratch. I saw that Amy and Lita were asleep, a little line of drool hanging out of their mouths.

"Well, didn't you see the sign, Mina?" I asked, since Mina was the only one in any state to have noticed it, or so I thought.

"Huh?" She said blankly, looking at me. "Wasn't that guy at the rest stop just dreamy?" She sighed. I groaned and turned back around in the seat.

" 'Just dreamy?' Mina, have you been inhaling gas fumes?"

"Ha ha, very funny." Mina said, sticking her tongue out at me. She returned to her pastime of looking into the windows of the passing cars, and realizing I had no help in that department, I left her to it.

"Um…Raye, I may be wrong, but can't we at least ask for directions?" I asked it in my most contrite voice, hoping that subservience might have a chance of changing her opinion.

"Me, ask for directions? Come on, Serena, I, for one, have a sense of direction. I know where we're going." Was that uncertainty I heard at the end of her voice? I didn't care--she had finally made me lose my temper.

"Raye!" I shouted. "I'm getting tired of this! So, maybe I have a bad sense of direction, but you passed the exit and you have to either be blind or a block-headed fool not to notice it!"

"You guys…" Amy groaned, rubbing her head and wiping the drool from her cheek. "What's going on?"

"I'll tell you what's going on!" My voice kept rising in pitch. "Raye passed the exit, we're driving to God-knows-where and she refuses to ask for directions!"

"I don't need to ask for directions!" Raye shrieked. "I know perfectly well where I am going, and I don't need a directionally challenged Serena telling me where to go!"

"Oh God," Lita mumbled, burying her head in her hands, "Here we go again."

"Why, you, pig-headed, stupid…" I spluttered, unable to finish my sentence.

"Raye! Stop the car!" Mina yelled, cutting through our argument like it wasn't there. Raye swerved dangerously, startled, and then switched on her blinker to get off at the next rest stop.

"Don't do that Mina!" She said, trying to get her breathing under control. "What is it?" Just as soon as she said it, however, there was no longer any need to ask. In front of us was a huge billboard, decked out in trashy blue pastels and gaudy 3-D art. It read:

Visit the Legendary Niagara Falls!

"Told you so." Raye said complacently.

And in parentheses at the bottom: (Turn around! You just missed it!)

"Read the sign before you speak, buddy!" I shouted in triumph.

"Oh, all right." She muttered, sufficiently humbled.

"Told you I could find the bathroom."

"What?" Lita asked, confused, but Mina was already laughing.

"Yeah," She said in between gasps, "What else is one of the greatest North American natural wonders but a supersized toilet?"

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I called my father that night. I was supposed to be meeting him at the airport, and I had to tell him why I was standing him up. I timed it perfectly--before he grew worried enough to call in the authorities and after he was given sufficient time to be embarrassed in front of the camera crews. I dialed his cell phone number with assurance, practically relishing the prospect of pulling one over on him.

"Hello?" It was his voice, irritated. I almost smiled.

"Hi, Dad." I said in my most perky tone.

"Serena?" He shouted, I winced and held the phone away from my ear. Evidently, I had been right about the reporters, because he quickly got himself under control. "Where are you?" I could practically hear the curse words between his teeth. This was turning out better than I had thought.

"Well, dad, I've been meaning to tell you: I'm, right now, in a hotel outside of Niagara. My friends and I decided to go on a road trip--a last minute sort of thing, you know." My voice was dripping with sarcasm. "So sorry to have disappointed you and the reporters, but I suppose that you'll have to save your "family moment" photo until, say, thanksgiving."

"Serena," he spluttered, "You can't possibly do this…"

"Oh yes I can, dad." I said, and for a moment felt a mild inkling of compassion for him. "Try to understand, okay? I needed to get away."

"I definitely do not understand, young lady! Now, I want you to get to the nearest airport and come back here--" So much for compassion.

"No, dad." I said firmly. "Not this time. This time, I'm choosing my own destiny." I hung up the phone.

"So," I said to the others, who were looking at me warily. "What do you say that we celebrate?" I pulled out a bottle of Martinelli's that we had brought with us for the trip. Mina grabbed some paper cups and I poured everyone a glass.

"To good-looking men!" Mina said, raising her cup. We all rolled our eyes and giggled a little at this.

Lita was next. "To friendship," she said after a while. "Let us never forget this."

Amy was surer of herself. "To success." She said quietly.

Raye glanced at me quickly and then looked away, as though burned. "To trust, that we never betray each other." She ignored me so studiously that I knew she expected some sort of reaction. I put my hand on her arm, gently and smiled a little. I supposed that things would never be totally all right between us, but I had forgiven her, in my own way, a long time ago.

"To love," I said, raising my glass higher and thinking of Darien, "That it never dies." As we sat there, on the floor of a hotel room, toasting each other with sparkling apple cider in paper cups, I realized something that took my breath away. In this small group of friends, I had found people who truly understood me. In different ways, we had given each other the most intimate parts of ourselves. We were a team, no doubt about it. We had formed, in a relatively short amount of time, ties that could survive the most incredible strain. I loved them all, of course. Yet, something was missing. I knew it, if not consciously, in the back of my mind, the part unoccupied with the present.

Yes, even among the best friends I had ever had, I longed for Darien.

------------------------

I walked slowly through the campus, towards Peabody Hall, feeling a glow of happiness, even as my thoughts turned down a darker path. It was April 15th, my birthday, and my friends had surprised me with a party. I smiled, remembering my shock as I entered the lounge of Lita's dorm hall only to find practically half the freshman class at Harvard there to greet me. I was happy, but it didn't stop me from glancing around the room furtively, hoping against reason that Darien was there. It hurt more than I had any right to feel, that he hadn't done anything for my birthday. After all, he had wanted me to write him letters, and I still had a drawer full of them in my room that I couldn't bear to send. What made me think that he would give me a gift if I couldn't manage even the most simple of gestures? My mood turned blacker and even the pleasant spring air did not cheer me up. It was hard living like this, with a permanent hole somewhere in my stomach that I had to hide from my friends and everyone else who loved me. I had dragged them through the mud of my problems enough already, they did not need to be burdened with this. Even so, sometimes Darien's absence hurt me so much I could barely breathe. Sometimes, only the knowledge that he would come back stopped me from plummeting into inconsolable despair. And still I could not send him the letters. It was as if I was somehow afraid of giving him even a little part of myself again, lest he betray it. And I still, ironically, wanted to be with him constantly. I didn't see, rationally, how I was ever supposed to be happy when I was prey of such contradictory desires. I shook my head forcefully, as if to clear my mind of such thoughts, and pulled the bag of gifts closer to my chest. My friends knew me too well, I thought ruefully. It seemed they had made a list of all the things I had said I wanted in passing and gave them to me in one go. I was particularly impressed with a huge book of National Geographic pictures that I had wanted for what seemed like forever, but had never been able to quite afford. I smiled again, momentarily forgetting Darien. It wasn't as if he was my only reason for living, after all, even though sometimes--all too often--it felt that way. Of all improbable nights, Raye had chosen this one to finally hook up with Thomas, and were probably well on their way to his dorm room right about now. I sighed again, gustily, as I reached Peabody and stepped inside. Thinking about Raye and her guy made thoughts of Darien that much more poignant. I had come so close to making love, and I hadn't, but now Raye…I stopped the thought when I realized I was getting angry. After all, I should be happy for my friend, not so jealous I'm seeing green. Yeah right, Serena, I thought with a grimace, you're not jealous at all. I needed, I decided, to go to sleep right now. It had been a wonderful birthday, as they go, but I was only too well aware of what had been missing. I trudged up the stairs in a desultory fashion and, almost robot-like, reached my door. In fact, I was paying so little attention that I tripped over a box lying in my path. I rubbed my shins angrily as I leaned over to inspect the offending package. It was rectangular and about two inches below my knees. It was strange that it was lying here, since packages were almost never delivered to the dorm rooms. Suddenly, my eyes fell over the label and postage stamps, and I could feel my heart hammering painfully in my chest. My breathing grew short and for a second I thought that I was going to faint. The stamps were Japanese. I had memorized the return address, staring at Darien's letter so many times. It seemed too good to be true, and yet here it was, blocking the entrance to my room. He had remembered my birthday! I let out a shriek of joy, damning all who might be asleep, and danced a little in the hallway. I had never expected this, not once. I thought that he had given up on me. Unable to contain my curiosity and excitement, I opened the door and sprawled into the room, dragging the package in after me. After several interminable moments I found the scissors and began to gleefully tear into the tape. Finally I uncovered miles and miles of bubble wrap which I removed with growing impatience and anticipation. What had he sent me? A dozen images entered my head and I discarded them as too sentimental, too cliched, or too expensive. I knew that Darien would have thought about this for a very long time, striving to find the perfect gift for me. Finally, after the bubble wrap and newspaper was gone, I stared in amazement at what remained.

When I was little, my mom would take me to the dollhouse and miniature museum. It was her hidden passion, and she studied them with insatiable fascination. Around Christmas was my favorite time of year to visit, because they had dozens of little villages, exquisitely detailed with people no bigger than your thumb and houses no larger than a hand. It seemed like something out of a fairy tale or novel. As I had stared at them, I imagined that they could come to life and I could enter their world and go on a magnificent adventure. It had been years since I visited he place, but I still remembered. Now, there was no way that Darien could have known that about me. I had never told him, largely because I barely thought of it myself. And yet, Darien always managed to surprise me like that, by knowing almost subconsciously my innermost desires. He had given me a miniature, like those I had admired so long ago, but subtly different. It was a tiny replica of a stage, no more than a foot tall and two feet wide. I recognized the scene immediately. The final monologue of Kate, is of course, one of the most controversial aspects of Shakespearean literature. Before I met Darien I had believed it was a sexist speech that admitted the legitimacy of male domination. He had chosen an odd moment to capture, I realized. They were in the banquet hall, with the other guests staring at Kate with expressions of stunned disbelief. In behind her, three women were poking their heads out from behind some curtain, looking equally stunned. In the middle of the stage stood Kate, leaning over a seated Petruchio. He looked surprised, but with that detail that is so powerful in miniatures, he also looked struck dumb with love for the woman before him. Her finger was on his nose in a gesture that looked at once intimate and scolding. While her expression was self-important, she was obviously leaning in for a kiss. Then I saw the most exquisite detail of all: even as she leaned forward to kiss him, even after she had declared the will of a woman inconsequential, she winked at him. I noticed a piece of paper taped to the roof of the miniature, and opened it with shaking hands. It read: Better once than never, for never too late.

It was unsigned, but I knew who it was from, and what it meant. I was crying again, large tears of happiness and longing and hilarity all bound into one contradictory package.

"Thank you!" I said aloud, whether to Darien or some higher Fate, I don't know. Yet even as I lay there, ensconced in my own happiness, the bottom drawer of my desk remained closed, and even as I put the gift on my mantle, I did not think to open it.

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I lay on the grass beneath my favorite tree--a weeping willow who obviously was as happy as I that the weather was finally warming up. The seventy-degree day felt absolutely heavenly, and I wriggled my bare toes in the grass just for the feel of it. I felt positively free from the world and all of its problems. Nothing could harm me, as I lay there with my eyes closed, feeling the light warm across them. I let out a contented sigh, just barely remembering not to open my legs so wide as to let everyone see up my sundress. Around me I heard the noises of people walking from class to class, some leisurely strolling, talking to friends along the way, and others sprinting headlong into this building and that, obviously late for some appointment. I smiled and tried to imagine what they were late for, what was so important to them. I loved doing this, lying where no one took notice of me and making up stories. I could never get to know all of these people, but on days like this, my imagination made up for the lack. In every person's life there was a story, and mine was no exception. I momentarily forgot the people around me and contemplated my story, which on a day like today seemed distant and less painful than it had been a mere week ago, on my birthday. I had spent countless hours staring at the miniature, recognizing so many details each time I looked at it. The others had been shocked, of course, but nearly as impressed as I had been. I had no classes today, by some beautiful trick of fate, and could not think of anything more enjoyable than lying outside, soaking up vitamin D. Well, that was not precisely true, but seeing as how the ideal pastime was halfway across the ocean, this was as good as it got. Gradually, I became aware of a group of people standing not to far from the weeping willow, discussing something in hushed voices. At first I only listened with mild interest, but when I heard Darien's name I started violently. I carefully opened my eyes and peered behind the tree trunk. They hadn't seen me, apparently. The group consisted of two girls and a guy, all of whom I recognized by sight, if not name. The guy was a classmate of Darien's, and a close friend. The girls were just two members of the ever-popular Darien Chiba fan club.

"So, he's really coming back?" Girl number one asked, batting her eyelashes at the guy, who was, while not as handsome as Darien, certainly pretty cute.

"Yeah, he has to deal with the funeral and all that stuff. He was the only living relative." The guy answered, knowledgeably, visibly preening. I felt something break in the middle of my stomach, then. It felt like horror, but with an added dimension of grief and disbelief. I was all too afraid I knew what had happened, but too horrified by the prospect to really believe it.

"Will he be going back to Japan?" That was girl number two.

"Probably not. By the time he finishes here, his exchange would have ended anyway."

"Wow," Girl number one said, originally. "I hope he's holding up okay. Do you think there is anything we can do for him?"

"I don't think so. You know how much of a loner Darien is. He'll probably appreciate it more if we leave him alone."

"I guess you're right. It's just that I remember how it was when my grandfather died…" Her voice was lost in the rush of blood to my ears, and then to distance as the group wandered off to another spot. I felt the tears threatening at the edges of my eyes, but pushed them back ruthlessly. Oh God, Darien, I thought helplessly, not knowing what to do. Was it true? Had his grandfather actually died? I stood up hastily, feeling ready to vomit but desperate to find out the truth first. Perhaps the girl hadn't meant that literally, I thought desperately, grabbing my sandals. Perhaps some long lost aunt of his died, someone he didn't know very well. The thought was not very reassuring. I was pretty sure that Darien's grandfather was his only living relative. I sprinted almost instinctively to Mina's dorm, but she wasn't there. I racked my brains frantically, trying to figure out where my friends could be. Raye and Amy had a class now, but Lita wasn't in her dorm either. Barely thinking about it I raced down the street, around the corner, my subconscious taking the most logical path: to the ice cream parlor. Even if Mina and Lita weren't there, someone ought to know what had happened. I burst through the door, bells jingling, and everyone inside turned to stare at me curiously. I was too scared to even be embarrassed. Luckily, my hunch had been right, and Mina and Lita were sitting together at a table in the corner. They looked up at me, shocked, and I made my way clumsily over to them, tripping over people and chairs in the process. I sat down and let out a deep breath.

"What happened?" I begged. From their expressions, they already knew.

"Well…" Mina began, but she was interrupted by a girl standing by the counter.

"Hey, Serena!" She called to me. "Have you talked to Darien lately?" I shook my head lamely, and turned back to stare at Lita, even more panicked.

"You've got to tell me. I can't stand this anymore." I said in a low whisper.

Lita took a deep breath. "Darien's grandfather died two days ago. Darien's coming back to deal with the funeral arrangements and the will. That's all I know." Trust Lita to get to the point, I thought even as her words confirmed my worst fears. My hands covered my mouth in horror, and the blood rushing past my ears sounded less and less like water and more like fire.

"Oh, Darien." I whispered, aching for him. I knew how he must feel, and I was riddled with guilt at my part in it. If only I had not been such a coward, and sent the letters. Maybe then he might have had someone to share his pain with. Now, though, he must feel utterly alone. I could imagine him taking the plane ride back to the states, wanting to cry but not allowing it. I could imagine the raw pain behind his mask, pain no one but I could see. He did not know I still loved him. Some of the tears I had held back splashed on the table, but I made no move to wipe my eyes.

"Serena?" It was Mina, and I realized that she had been calling my name for a while.

"Yes?"

"Don't worry. It's okay. He'll be okay, you'll see." I could only hope that she was right. There was nothing else I could do but sit here, and wait.

------------------------

The next week passed in a flurry of activity, and somehow still managed to drag on inexorably. It was exam study week, and in between ruthless drilling sessions with Amy and bouts of self-imposed study with myself, I worried about Darien. It was nothing new, thinking of Darien, but now I needed to know exactly what he was doing, and how he was feeling. I wanted to go find him and tell him that everything was okay, but I couldn't get in touch with him. Although I knew that it smacked of 'too little, too late' I lost all of my fear of reaching out to Darien. I knew, even without seeing him, how badly he was hurting. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling inconsolably hot, and knew that the bond between us had been thrumming with his grief. Yet, no matter what I tried, my efforts were met with failure. When I tried to call the farm, I discovered that the line had been cut off. I wrote letters and sent them first class, but they were all sent back, address unavailable. Finally, I made one last desperate bid to find him, calling every hotel and motel in a thirty-mile radius of the farm, asking for Darien Chiba. I did not find him. I knew that he was not trying to avoid me, he just didn't know that I was looking. The fact compounded my guilt because I knew that if I had simply written him, as he had asked me, I would not be impotent right now, useless in the face of his grief. So I worried, and studied and tried to sleep and fended off inquisitive questions about Darien. Even though we had had practically the most notorious breakup in the whole college, let alone the freshman class, everyone seemed to think that I would know something about Darien. I only wished it were true. The constant reminders of my ignorance did nothing to help my mood. By the time exam week rolled around, I was ready to climb to the roof of the highest building in Cambridge and scream my frustration. It was only with considerable restraint on my part that I didn't. I took my exams stoically, ruthlessly blocking out thoughts of Darien. I thought I did rather well, all things considered, but I did not care. All I wanted was for the school year to be over so that I could go home, take a car, and drive out to rural Maryland myself to find him. Then exam-week ended, and the school entered a flurry of preparations for graduation and the imminent departure of its students. I packed my bags with an obscene haste, noted by Raye but not commented upon. She knew what drove me, nowadays, and since her relationship with Thomas had blossomed, she understood it a lot more. I had even agreed to meet my dad at the airport, no tricks, just to get home sooner. I counted the days before graduation, because the day after I would go home. My father, unfortunately, had a debate and that was the earliest he could come. Even as I chafed with impatience, though, I knew I would miss this place. As improbable as Harvard had been, it seemed like the perfect place for me. I would miss it over the summer, especially with my political father hot on the campaign trial. I was certainly a woman of contradictions. I couldn't wait to go, but dreaded the thought of leaving. The night before graduation, the five of us sat in my dorm room, having one final big sleepover. We were all fairly maudlin and teary-eyed during the entire night, no one looking forward to spending an entire three months away from each other.

"You'll write, won't you?" Mina asked, shivering slightly in the wet bra we had dared her to wear for an hour.

"And call?" Lita added, uncharacteristically snuffling.

"Email is better, you know." Amy said pragmatically

"Are you kidding?" Raye asked. "Of course we will!"

"Yeah," I agreed, "You know, we might do something together--"

"Oh no! No more road trips!" Amy wailed and we all started laughing.

"Oh all right," I said, smiling ruefully, "Maybe no more road trips. Well, if my dad gets elected, the upside will be that we all can go wreak havoc at Camp David."

"That's a great idea!" Lita said, rubbing her hands together. "I've always wanted to try out my martial arts skills on those secret service guys."

We continued like that long into the night, reminiscing about the year, speculating about what was to come. By the end of the night we had tentative plans to spend a week in the mountains of West Virginia. I could privately already imagine the enjoyable disaster that seemed to follow us five wherever we went. When I slept, my head pillowed on Lita's stomach and Mina's head on my thighs, I dreamed of fire, in all its exquisite glory.

------------------------

I walked around the strangely deserted campus, feeling lost and alone. Everyone, even Mina, had left already, and I was left with the other stragglers, picking up the last of their belongings to scurry back home. For the hundredth time that night I thought of Darien, and where his home was, now that he lost his grandfather. I realized suddenly that I was wearing the same sundress that I had worn the day we first met. I smiled at the memory, knowing the intimately why I had kept it these two years. It seemed strange, though, that I would choose this day to wear it. I wondered if it was some sort of sign, that today I would see him. I dismissed the thought abruptly. I knew perfectly well where Darien was, and it certainly wasn't here. I sighed and walked to an open space in the middle of a quadrangle, to admire the sunset. It streaked the wispy clouds purple and red, and hung low in the sky, a burning orb of light. Snaky tendrils of crimson fire seemed to reach for me, and fill me with an inexplicable anticipation. For as long as I could remember, I had had premonitions of major events in my life. Every time before, however, they had come in the form of a rushing wave, rippling through my stomach and leaving me slightly nauseous. For the first time, I felt a different sensation, somehow more powerful and telling. As I stared at that sunset, alone on the grass, sundress and pigtails blowing behind me in the wind, I was overcome with an incredible fiery power. For a moment time stopped and I felt as if I had entered the sun, known its power and its secret. For a split-second, I became one with fire.

And then the sun gave up the battle, sunk below the horizon, and gave up to the moon. I slumped to the ground, unable to believe what had just happened. I had always had an overactive imagination, but this? I shook my head, but the sensation that something incredible had just happened--was going to happen--to me would not leave. As the last of the light left the sky, I stood up, my eyes gradually getting used to the dark. For a moment, I considered going back to the dorm and finishing packing my stuff, but decided against it. I still felt like wandering around. Going back to the dorm seemed so final, like an admonition that despite all of my premonitions, nothing would happen to me today. So, instead, I stood up and began walking, not paying the least attention to where I was heading. I figured that random wandering was the best method of letting this mysterious event occur. Knowing my subconscious, it would probably lead me to the right place whether I wanted to go there or not. So I walked, part of me worried, part of my disbelieving, and part of me incredibly happy. I was filled with the power of that sunset, and nothing could harm me. After perhaps an hour I stopped and looked around. I was not the least surprised to discover myself in front of Darien's old dorm hall. How many times had I walked there, desperate for even the smallest reminder of his presence? I sighed in annoyance. I thought that something was going to happen to me--I had dared believe the premonition, and of course I had been disappointed. Why was I standing here, staring at the door like he would walk through it at any moment, smiling broadly at me? And why, even as I stood there berating myself, could I not shake the sense that I was exactly where I was supposed to be? I stomped my foot with impatience, trying to ignore the hurt ball of disappointment that had curled itself in a corner of my emotions. God, all I wanted was to be with him. Why could it never work out properly? Why did something always have to come between us? And why, when he needed me most, could I not reach him? It was enough to make me want to lie down where I was standing and cry in frustration. I almost did, but something, glinting in the corner of my eye stopped me. My heart began to pound furiously, and shaking with several emotions I was hard put to name, I took a few tentative steps around the corner. This can't be happening, the rational side of my mind reasoned. He simply can't be here just because you stared at a sunset and thought you were fire. Things like that don't happen in real life. But that was the rational side of my mind, and I was practiced in the art of ignoring it. Instead, I wrapped my arms tightly around my now-shivering body and peered anxiously in the general direction of Darien's window.

On the windowsill stood a candle, wavering valiantly against the encroaching darkness, but losing the fight. Calling, perhaps, to the one person who could save him.

------------------------

I don't know how long I stood outside, staring at his window. I was drawn to the fire, and stunned almost to catatonia by the realization of my vision. After a time, however, I realized that I could not stand there forever. I had finally been given a chance at controlling my destiny, and this time I would not let it go. I walked slowly back around to the front of the building and entered. The halls were eerily deserted, the people who had remained having long retired to their beds. Without truly being aware of how I had gotten there, I stood in front of his door. At that moment the sense of unreality crashed around me and I suddenly felt like the normal Serena, about to do something that made her scared enough to faint. I froze in front of the door, not knowing what to do or how to go about it, only that after all this time, I had to do something. I could not muster the will to walk away from the door, or to knock. I could only stand there in an agony of indecision, contradictory impulses screaming at me to obey them. I wanted to be with Darien, I had known that for a very long time. I was just so afraid that he would hurt me again. I had built this wall of dubious protection around myself and I knew that if I broke it down, it would have to be for someone I trusted utterly. Even though I loved him, I still wondered if I could trust him. And yet, beyond me, in that room, lay a man I knew was being eaten from the inside with grief. All my life, even at my most inconsolable, I had never been truly alone. I had always had friends who loved me, and cared what happened to me. Darien, on the other hand, had always been alone. His grandfather was the first person who had eased that ache within him, and now he was gone. I had rejected him with my failure to send the letters. It came down to what was worth more. Did I care about my little bubble of protection so much that I was unwilling to do the one thing I possibly could to help the only person I had ever loved so deeply? Was I so selfish? No, I decided abruptly. This time I would open myself up, and give myself to him completely. Even if he destroyed me forever, I could not let him deal with this alone. Wiping the tears off my face, I opened the door and walked inside. The door closed behind me with finality.

------------------------

I think I gasped when I saw him lying there, but I can't be sure. He was curled in a fetal-like position on his bed, his back toward the door. All the worrying and aching I had done before this moment had not prepared me for this sight. I had never seen Darien so vulnerable, so eaten away by grief. All I wanted to do was rush to him and hold him. It felt like someone had stabbed me in the stomach, knowing and seeing his pain. I did not move, though. One odd moment after I shut the door, he uncoiled and sat up, staring at me with the most incredible disbelief. His shirt was open, his black hair tousled, and his eyes red and puffy from crying. His face looked haggard and drained.

"Serena?" He asked finally, his voice rough and low. I did not know what to make of the comment. I needed some acceptance of my presence, some acknowledgement that he did indeed want me here, but all I received was stunned disbelief.

I stepped closer, shaking with the effort not to run to him. I had not realized how much I missed him until that moment. Even in this drained state, he looked like an Adonis. I did not know what to say to him, beyond everything I had ever felt and would feel for this man I loved.

"Darien…" I said helplessly, and gulped audibly.

"What are you doing here?" He asked, turning abruptly away from me and staring at the candle, fire dancing in his eyes.

"I…" I could not seem to say anything. His presence filled my vision, my thoughts, leaving no room for anything else. I could put my emotions in words. I didn't know how to let him know what I wanted--no, needed--to give.

He didn't give me a chance though. "Do you want to torment me, Serena? You've made your decision. Just let me try to live my life without you." His words ripped across the surface of my emotions, laying me raw before him. I began to cry, in large gulping sobs, and every effort to stop them only made me cry even harder.

"Darien," I tried again, taking a deep breath, shoving my meaning past the tears. "I didn't reject you." I could barely manage a whisper, but he heard me. His blue eyes bored into me, angrily.

"Not one letter. Not even a postcard. Nothing. Did it all get lost in the mail?" The last comment was delivered in a tone that was at once biting and hurt. Guilt drowned me, and I struggled hopelessly to remain at the surface. My words were gone. He had judged and hung me all in one breath, and I could not deny the sentence. His face softened as he watched me standing there, weeping inconsolably, unable to speak.

"I'm sorry." He said finally, shifting on the bed as though he wanted to go to me but could not. "I have no right to judge you."

"Of course you do." I said bitterly, having finally found my voice. "I wrote the letters, but was too much of a coward to send them."

He seemed about to say something, but stopped suddenly, and stared at me in that way of his that consistently turns my knees to jelly. "You wrote me letters?" He asked with an almost frightening intensity.

I nodded. "An entire drawer full of them. I even put stamps on some." My sobs had subsided into silent tears. He closed his eyes, the candlelight making eerie shadows on his face.

"God, Serena," he breathed, "Do you know how badly I've needed you?"

That was it. It was as if he were a witch and had finally released the spell that bound my feet to the floor. In a split second I was across the room and beside him, hugging him so tightly I thought I should never let go. We held on to each other like that for a while, embracing the other eagerly as my fire met his and flamed all the more brightly in answer. Finally, after all this time, and all this pain, I was next to him again. Gently, his hand traced my face as his eyes took my appearance in voraciously. He looked as if he would memorize me this way, so he could always remember this moment. I for one knew that it was permanently branded in my memory. Finally, his fingers traced my lips, shaking with desire or fear, I don't know.

Then he kissed me. Every kiss I shared with Darien had been a wildly different and memorable experience. This one, however, made every last one of them look like awkward eighth grade kisses over spin-the-bottle. The fire I had felt in that sunset crackled between us like a live emanation, swirling in and out of my body and his, fusing out souls into one solid entity. I forgot who I was, where I was, everything I had ever learned. In that one moment, all that mattered was Darien and that I loved him. I clung to that knowledge even as the sea of my emotions spun around me. Even as I desperately reached for more and more of him, I held to that thought as the only thing that would keep me sane. Perhaps it was. After a blissful eternity we parted, and if Darien's expression was anything to go on, his experience had been much the same as mine. He gripped my hands gently, if fervently, and opened his mouth although it took him several tries to get anything out of it.

"Stay with me." He said finally, looking as if his sanity depended upon it. Again reality crashed upon me and I remembered why I had come here in the first place: his grandfather. I gently eased myself behind him and wrapped both of my arms around his large form. They just barely encircled him.

"Of course." I whispered into his ear, and then realized that he was crying. He cried like he didn't quite know how to go about doing it, but like his heart was broken.

"What's wrong?" I whispered, frightened although I already knew his answer. I desperately wanted to help him, but what could I do? For a long time I didn't think he would respond. He just lay against me as I rocked gently, silently willing my arms to block the pain of the world from him.

"At his funeral," he began, so unexpectedly that I froze for a second. He spoke as if he were driven to say those things, but did not consciously want to. It was all I could do to listen. "I realized it. In Japan it had seemed so unreal. I grieved for him rationally, but I just couldn't believe that he was actually dead. He had seemed invincible to me. When I got back here, I saw the body, and I knew, but I was too busy to focus on it. I thought about you, a lot, to distract me. I remembered the way you would crawl under the table at the parlor, looking for your wallet to pay for your milkshakes, and I got through the week. At the funeral, though, it finally hit me." He stopped then, seeming to drift off into a place I couldn't follow and that scared me.

"What hit you?" I prompted, dragging him back to the present.

"That I was all alone." He said finally. "Grandfather was the only one I had left. You had given up on me, but at least, I thought, I still had him. But when I watched them put the dirt on his coffin…" He broke off, crying again in that odd, disjointed way that made me want cry myself. I felt totally helpless in the face of his grief.

I slid back around beside him, and turned his head so he looked directly in my eyes. The hopelessness and pain I saw there made me shiver. "Darien." I said, but he didn't hear me. "Darien." I said again, insistently and I knew he listened. "That's not true." I said, trying to hold the world steady through the film of my tears. "It won't ever need to be true again. You aren't alone, do you hear me? No matter what happens, from now on, you'll always have me." At my words a light shone in his eyes that I had not seen there, and gave me inexpressible relief.

"Why?" He choked.

"Because I love you." I whispered, staring into his opaque blue eyes. "Because you are the only person I can love like this, and I will never leave you again."

"Never too late." Darien quoted hoarsely.

"No," I agreed. "Never."

------------------------

We lay against each other for a while, enjoying Darien's breathing, the feel of his skin against mine. His large hands enveloped mine and the warmth traveled up my body in lazy spurts of fire. At some unknown moment, however, the candle blew out. There was no physical reason for it to do so; the window was closed, and neither Darien nor I was close enough to blow it out. Almost of its own accord the candle spluttered and died, surprising the both of us and plunging the room into darkness. Darien began to move to check what had happened, but a suddenly insistent urge made me stop him. He looked at me silently, questioning. Smiling slightly, I unbuttoned the rest of his shirt and let it flutter to the floor. I paused for a moment to admire his chest in the moonlight. In a passing moment of fancy, I wondered if the fire from the candle had filled me with this uncontrollable desire. Darien caught on quickly, pushing me down on the bed to undo the buttons on my sundress. Halfway down he paused, and stared at me with the ghost of a smile on his face.

"This dress…" he began.

"Yes." I answered, even before he asked the question.

"Even then?" He asked, his eyes searching my face.

"No," I said, smiling. "Even earlier." I drew him down to me, and kissed him ruthlessly. Finally, I could do what I had longed to do practically since puberty. I merged my soul with him, drove myself to the ground with him, and then began again. I explored the innermost reaches of love that night, and was rather surprised I lived to relate the experience.

That night, if one looked very closely, they might have seen an odd flickering of light in one particular dorm room. They would not, however, have noticed any candle.

------------------------

That morning I awoke happier and more satisfied than I could remember being. I lay sprawled across Darien's chest, my blond hair strewn around me. My hand still held his possessively. I stretched gently, careful not to wake him. I was excited to see him sleeping, an activity well cultivated by heroines of romance novels after the event. Even as I turned my head, however, I realized that all was not going precisely according to plan. Namely, he was awake. He smiled at me with a delicately arched eyebrow, as if he knew precisely what I was thinking.

"Well, welcome to the world of the living, Serena." He teased, his voice so much more relaxed and calm than it had been the night before that he sounded like two different people.

"What time is it?" I asked, at once yawning and inching my way up his chest, until I was almost nose to nose with him.

"Only eleven." He said, running his fingers idly through my hair. At least, perhaps he thought the gesture idle. Watching him do it was making me shake with remembered pleasure of the night before. One benefit of falling in love with a reformed player, I mused, was his unquestioned skill in bed. Even as I thought that, however, another more insistent idea entered my head. I perked up immediately, and began sniffing the air like a rabbit.

"What are you doing, Serena?" He asked, laughing slightly.

I didn't answer him, so intent was I on my quarry. Finally, I realized what I had been smelling.

"You have peaches!" I accused, immediately tumbling out of bed to look for them. Darien stared at me for a while before speaking.

"Are you aware that you're naked?" He asked, ostentatiously looking me up and down. I flushed, but held my ground.

"Where are the peaches?" I demanded. Not even taking his eyes off me, he lazily reached around the side of the bed, and pulled out a box.

"I brought them for you, you know." He said quietly, and I stared at him, touched beyond speech. When he came up here, he thought that I wanted nothing to do with him. Yet he had still thought to bring the reminder of our first meeting with him, in the hope that I may want it. The moment passed and Darien, apparently deciding that he had had enough of just looking at me, summarily picked me up, tossed me on the bed and climbed in after me. He picked out the fattest, juiciest looking peach--apparently by touch--and smiled at me. I shut my eyes a little, trying to understand how it was possible to love someone this much, and then gave up trying. I would just have to accept it, and see what happened.

Over the next two hours, I realized that I would never look at a peach as just a fruit again.

------------------------

Good-byes are, of course, always painful. But I never knew how painful until that evening. After the bliss I had experienced with Darien that day, leaving him was proving practically impossible. It felt as if I were ripping some vital organ out of my body, and putting it on the train. On the ride there he had scribbled the number and address of where I could reach him--a friend's house. I clutched it in my hand as my vital link, unwilling to let it out of my sight for a second. I had realized why Darien had come back to Harvard--he hadn't taken all of his stuff from his dorm when he left for Japan, and needed to come back for it. I didn't care so much for the reason, though, just the improbable and incredible fact that he was here, next to me, and that I loved him. We stood on the platform even as the final boarding call sounded, and I knew he wanted to leave me about as much as I did. He held my hands, and I marveled at how I could be surprised every time the fire shot through my body.

"I just have to deal with some things." He said his eyes searching my face again. "It should only take about a month."

I nodded, my mouth dry. "I'll be waiting. Come quickly."

He smiled, lifted me clean off my feet, and kissed me thoroughly. "Don't worry." He said as he set me down. We both realized at the same moment that he was about to miss his train, so with one last glance at me, he picked up his bags and leaped on, leaving me to stare after him. I waited there long after the train left, wondering how to survive a month without him.

------------------------

As expected, dad picked me up with as much fanfare as possible, but I was too distracted to care very much. He was definitely relieved, though, that I had decided to come this time. I wondered how much embarrassment I had caused him the time before, and did not feel a smidgen of regret about it. Mom was obviously happy to see me, and she chattered away about various parties and functions I would attend this summer. I let her go on for a while, but then I realized that what she described would be impossible. I had changed too much to even try to fit in that circle.

"I don't think so, mom." I said gently.

"But the Williams' weren't too happy--" she cut herself off when she heard what I said. "What?" she asked, obviously not understanding.

"I mean, I don't think I can do all those things. It's just not in me anymore."

"Serena…" My father said warningly, but I ignored him.

"You guys really have to understand something: I'm not cut out for this lifestyle and I never will be. You have to accept that about me. I won't be here the entire summer, anyway." No, I finished inside my head, I will only be here for a month more.

"Serena," dad said firmly, "It's your duty as my daughter to attend these functions, and I intend to make sure that you do. Also, your mother and I have been discussing some suitable dates for you--"

I cut him off. "Dad, do you really not understand? I'm not doing this anymore. And I am definitely not going on any more set-up dates. I already have a boyfriend. If I bring anyone, it will be him."

"The peach farmer!" dad spluttered in disbelief.

I smiled happily. "Yes, the peach farmer."

------------------------

Life in the Johnston household wasn't exactly peaceful over the next month. I dodged my parents, refused to go on any set-up dates whatsoever, and camped out at Molly's house more than once. After a while, they figured out that I was serious. I wrote to Darien every day, and this time I sent the letters. I called him all the time, just to hear his voice and to reassure him that this time, things would work out between us. Darien kept me sane that month, because left to their own devices, mom and dad would have forced me to their will. He gave me the strength to resist them. I read his letters over a hundred times, feeling like the glow of happiness surrounding me would never leave. Through various means of communication, Raye, Amy, Lita and Mina had all discovered what had happened between us and were ecstatic. Mina, especially, felt that her matchmaking talents had been vindicated. Of course, she was always claiming the credit for successful relationships. Then in June, I received some terrible news. Well, not to sound melodramatic, but it made me rather upset. The Uptown Scoop, ice cream shop extroardinaire, and my favorite summer hangout, was closing. A larger realtor group, wanting to turn the entire block into chain stores had evicted them. [AN: This is actually true, but the real Uptown Scoop closed in February. I went to their goodbye party with Molly--after having sneaked out of the house. It was the same night as some big function my parents wanted me to attend. Molly and I commiserated with the owner, ate free ice cream, danced to oldies music and signed the guest book. I came close to tears more than once, especially when I realized that I would never again have a strawberry-chocolate milkshake from this place. It seemed like the end of an era.

I don't know how I knew he was there. One moment I was giggling with Molly and the next my back straightened, tingling with anticipation. I could sense him in the doorway, his eyes boring into my back.

"Don't turn around," Molly said breathlessly, "But there is the hottest man I have ever seen standing in that doorway and he's staring straight at you!"

I closed my eyes briefly and said a prayer of thanks. "Do you remember what I told you about Darien?" I asked, looking at her meaningfully.

"You mean…" she trailed off, realization dawning. "Oh my God! That's Darien!" She exclaimed, and her voice was so loud I knew he must have heard her. I felt him walk up behind me, but I still didn't turn around. My hands gripped each other so tightly that my knuckles turned white, and I held my breath in anticipation. He put his hand on my shoulder, gently, and turned my face to his. The second I stared into his eyes I melted, was engulfed by fire. We said nothing, our lips drawn irresistibly forward. I kissed him for an eternal moment of joy, making up for the month without him. He broke it off, staring at me with a goofy smile.

"How did you know?" I asked breathlessly, still caught in his embrace.

"Oh, you only mentioned it about twenty times in your letters." He teased, still holding me there. One arm possessively around my shoulders, he turned to the girl behind the counter, staring at the both of us with surprise.

"One chocolate-strawberry milkshake, please?" He asked, and smiled at me.

I was practically screaming inside with joy. "With vanilla syrup." I amended wryly to Darien, and he winked at me. Suddenly I grew aware of Molly behind us, turning bright red with jealousy.

"Oh, Darien," I said, winking at her, "This is my friend Molly." She looked about ready to faint when he shook her hand, and I wondered objectively if that was how I had reacted the first time I saw him.

The girl behind the counter handed me the milkshake and a straw. I sipped it happily, knowing that this was the last one I would ever have from this place. With Darien here, though, the thought seemed less sad than it had five minutes ago.

"As good as mine?" He asked, after he sat down on a bench and I sat on his lap. I settled myself comfortably in his arms.

"Better." I said, still sipping.

"I'm mortally offended!" He joked, reaching for the cup. I let him have a sip, and he put on an expression of mock bliss.

"Well, I'm biased." He said finally, after he opened his eyes.

"Why?" I asked, suddenly forgetting the milkshake.

"Because it tastes like you." Trust Darien to find the most romantic thing to say at all times, I thought, while I happily kissed him again. He was right, of course. As great as a milkshake tasted, Darien tasted much better. Some time later, as I was finishing my milkshake, I noticed that Darien was lost in thought. I waved my hand in front of his eyes, but he barely registered it.

"Darien?" I questioned, softly.

"What?" He said, startled. "Oh, sorry Serena." He was silent for a moment longer, as I stared at him in concern. I knew these past few weeks had been hard on him. "Have I told you that I love you?" He asked finally, surprising me so much I practically dropped my milkshake.

"Not out loud," I said finally, "I don't think so."

"Well," He said firmly, "I do love you, Usako."

I smiled up at him, nearly overcome with joy. "Of course you do, silly! I've known that for a long time."

He looked stunned. "You have?"

"Yep." I teased, leaning into him. "Female intuition and a little bit of fire."

"Fire?" He repeated, confused.

I grunted an affirmative, reluctantly extracting myself from his arms and his lap. He stood up after me. "It tells me things." I said sententiously, hoping that I didn't sound too crazy. "Like right now, you and I are going to do something monumental."

"We are?" He asked, understanding suddenly dawning in his eyes. I nodded, and grabbed his hand. As I led him out the door, I winked at an open-mouthed Molly. I led him into the humid air of a DC summer night, and twirled a few times, enjoying the feel of the wind through my hair. He watched me, a smile on his lips, utterly lacking mockery, only love.

"First." I said, finally. "I'm going to teach you a little bit about fire." Part of me was surprised that I had lost all of my inhibitions, but I knew that with Darien I would never need them again. I trusted him now, completely. Wrapping my arms seductively around his shoulders I kissed him more thoroughly than we were able back in the ice cream parlor. If pedestrians stopped to stare, I didn't notice. Instead, I drank fire. It seared us, filling us both so quickly that I had to stop before things went too far. My lips burned when we pulled apart.

"I…think I understand." He whispered in my hair.

"I thought you would."

------------------------

"Serena!" My dad thundered, shaking his fist at me, and then retreating to the breakfast table. Mom looked at me with a strange mixture of joy and fear. I held onto Darien's hand harder, for support, and he squeezed back reassuringly.

"I absolutely refuse to allow you to leave for the rest of the summer, do you hear me? You are forbidden!" If he didn't calm down soon, part of me reflected, he would have a heart attack.

"You can't forbid me from doing this, dad. Besides, it's not the whole summer, it's just a month."

"If you were with someone respectable, I might consider it. But I absolutely refuse to allow you to gallivant across the country with this…this…bohemian!" I sighed, and looked up at Darien, apologizing with my eyes. Darien, however, did not look very offended. If anything, he looked slightly amused.

"At least wait until tonight, dear." Mom said, trying to keep the peace. I felt sorry for her. I had never realized before how difficult her position was in this family. While she did not always agree with dad, she had to go along with him. His notions of a woman's 'proper place' did not allow for much dissention.

"Yes, she's right!" Dad said triumphantly. "There is an important function tonight, and I expressly told reporters that you would be there."

Well, now was the moment of truth. I took a deep breath, and I felt Darien's strength flow into me. It was now, or never.

"That's okay, Dad." I said, with a nonchalance I didn't feel. My heart was pounding so hard I wondered if I would have a heart attack. "No need to worry about the reporters."

"What do you mean?" He asked warily, his politician self sensing a trap.

"Oh," I said nonchalantly, suddenly noticing the newspaper still in its plastic by the door. In a swift movement I picked it up, took off the plastic, and tossed it to my father. To his credit, he caught it easily.

"What's going on here?" He asked, his eyes narrowing. Perhaps he knew me better than I had thought. Well, there was no turning back now. And to tell the truth I didn't want to. I had made my decision, and I would never regret it. I felt Darien beside me, lending me his strength, and I felt his love for me. I also felt the fire between us, what we had shared countless times before, but what he had learned just last night. I thought of all this and suddenly I wasn't scared anymore. Darien would never leave me, and I would never be scared again.

"I've already notified all the major newspapers and television stations." All those lessons in mockery from Darien had really paid off.

"Notified them of what?" He asked, and I realized that he really didn't know. He didn't even suspect. After all this time, after all I had tried to tell him, and he never supposed that I was capable of this final slap in the face. Oh well, I thought, unable to hide my grin, all the more fun for me.

"Oh, you don't know?" I said, feigning surprise, as I turned to walk out the door with Darien. I timed the last line perfectly, right before the door closed and anybody could stop me, or object:

"We're married."

THE END

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