LONG A/N: This is one of those stories that I'd never thought I'd write. Aside from the blanket scenario, this is probably the most overdone story premise in all the fandoms: the "(Insert Heroine's Name Here) is a sheltered schoolgirl, but then she meets (Insert Bishounen's Name Here), the bad boy leader of the (Insert Gang Name, Usually 'Wolves' or Something Equally Lame, Here) gang. What happens when they fall in love?" story premise.

I avoid reading these stories, much less writing them. So it was rather INCONVENIENT when I heard the song "Leader of the Pack," and it rammed an image of a bad-boy Darien in leather with gelled hair and a tattoo leaning against a motorcycle into my brain. It was also INCONVENIENT that the story champed its clichéd teeth into my brain smack dab in the middle of IB exams. By the time I had thirty pages of it written (still during exams, mind you), there didn't seem to be any reason (other than INCONVENIENCE) not to finish it, so here it is. It's set in AU; there's no Senshi, just the characters set in present-day.

A big dollop of gratitude, as always, to Jade-eye, without whom STC and all my other stories would never have come to be!

Disclaimer: I don't own Sailor Moon, Spiderman, Girl Guides, or Pokemon. How INCONVENIENT.


Leather and Lockets



"Do you have your cell phone?"

Serena slipped her hand into her pocket and felt the familiar slim shape of her cell phone. "Yes, Daddy," she called back into the dining room.

"Then have a good practice. Tell Seiko I'm counting on him to beat Moto's quarterback's goals this Friday night!"

"I will." Serena closed the door behind her, locking it, and began jogging the four blocks to school and cheerleading practice. There was an ugly purple bruise on her thigh from falling from the top of the pyramid yesterday, and she wanted to change into her uniform before any of the other girls got there so that they wouldn't see it. If Coach Kitashiro knew how many injuries Serena was sustaining as the apex of the pyramid, she might switch her with Kim, and then Serena's mother would be crushed. She'd been top of the pyramid in her high school cheerleading days, and she had been so happy when Serena had won the same position.

Barely had Serena arrived in the locker room, panting slightly, than her cell phone buzzed against her hip. She pulled it out and flipped it open. "Hi, Daddy."

"Are you there yet?" he asked.

She pictured him standing at the window in the dining room, looking out over the bustling street. "Yes, Daddy, I got here fine."

"Good. Do a good job out there today."

"Thank you. I will."

"Bye, dumpling." He hung up.

Serena returned the phone to her pocket and retrieved her uniform from the laundry room. Lifting her bruised leg to climb into the pleated red skirt hurt, but she could handle it, she told herself, stretching the injured limb gingerly.

After putting on her uniform, she took off all her jewelry. She removed her earrings and then unclasped her necklace. Her parents had bought the expensive 24-karat gold locket for her seventeenth birthday several months ago, and she knew that they would be devastated if she lost it, so she tucked it very carefully into her bag. There was a speck of dirt on the locket, she noticed, and reminded herself to rub it off later.

Her decessorizing complete, Serena laced up her regulation blue and red tennis shoes and pinned her long blonde hair streamers into loops. Then she walked out onto the field to sit in the bleachers and wait for practice to begin.

As the cheerleading team trickled out to practice, so did the American football team. Seiko and his friends Hanzo and Kazuya were the first out, and they came to sit with Serena in the bleachers.

"Hey, you." Seiko hung an arm over her shoulders. The heavy shoulder pads of his uniform pushed into her neck like a misadjusted headrest. She shifted away as inconspicuously as she could. "How's my favorite girl?"

Serena used to blush at his flirtations. Now, only a faint pink touched her cheeks. Looking for a change in subject, she said quickly, "My dad says he's counting on you to beat Moto's quarterback Friday night." She injected pep into her voice. "Should be easy for you, right?"

Seiko leaned back, removing his arm from her shoulders to stretch leisurely. Then the arm was back down again, the shoulder pad heavier against her neck than it had been before. "What do you think, boys? Can I do it?"

Then, without waiting for an answer from Hanzo or Kazuya, he glanced at Serena. "Maybe if I have some motivation," he said. "How 'bout if I do it you come with me to Tanaka's party afterward?"

Serena put on a rueful smile. "I really don't think my dad would let me – "

"Baby, if I beat Moto's monster, he wouldn't say no if I asked to take your MOM to the party!" Seiko flashed his white teeth at her, laughing. "I'll just promise to take good care of you."

He was entirely right, Serena knew. Anything else, even a trip to the mall with her friend Mina (before she had moved away), her father heed and hawed at. But if it was Seiko's idea, then full steam ahead, by all means!

"So?" said Seiko. "Deal?"

She forced a smile. "Sure. Why not?"


After the conversation with Seiko and two and a half hours of falling off the pyramid onto her bum leg, Serena felt like a piece of gum that had been chewed up, spat out on the sidewalk, and stepped on by a million feet. This analogy did little to cheer her up – however, it did put her in mind of candy. The thought of a chocolate bar, oozing nougat and caramel into her mouth, filled her with longing. There was a candy shop not two blocks away from school. If she waited until after she went there to call her dad to tell him she was coming home, he would never know the difference.

She saw her reflection in the storefront as she crossed the street to the shop. She looked as tired as she felt, wearing her ancient velour tracksuit with the unraveling hems and bleach spatters, her hair a curly frizz around her pale, big-eyed face. And she was limping – just slightly, but enough to tell. She sighed.

A bell jingled on the door as she pushed it open. The sweet scent of the hundreds of candies rushed past her like a crowd of laughing children. The woman behind the counter looked up and smiled. Serena smiled back. Then she entered the maze of shelved that towered above her head, certain that she would end up getting more than just one candy bar – and not caring a whit. Even if it did mean that she'd gain ten pounds and be unable to fit in the set of winter outfits that she had bought for her visit to Mina's house in America next month.

Four aisles later, she held two of the dark chocolate, nougat and caramel Cloud Nine bars that she had come in for, along with a handful of dark chocolate truffles and three flavors of licorice. She was trying to keep the truffles from spilling out of her arms when she turned the corner and saw him.

He stood in front of the sour gummies, his hands in the back pockets of his faded black jeans, rocking back on his heels. He wore a polished black leather jacket that didn't shine nearly as much as his night-black hair did. He was beautiful – and with his leather jacket, silver earring, and the tattoo that she could just glimpse on the side of his neck, he looked exactly like the very type of man that her father was always afraid would snatch her right off the street.

At the second of this realization, her truffles tumbled out of her slack arms. They rained to the floor in a flurry of crinkling in their plastic wrappers. She froze, torn between hotfooting out of the store and picking up the truffles to continue her shopping expedition as though the sight of the beautiful delinquent hadn't ruffled her a bit. If she ran, he might chase her – he was turning to look at her even now – but she might be faster, she was the quickest runner on the cheerleading squad – and if she stayed here, he would certainly –

He smiled.

All the terrified thoughts of turning up in a ditch two days from now dropped out of her head. His smile wasn't dangerous at all, it was kind and sympathetic, even a little teasing, and he was coming closer! he was kneeling! He was –

Picking up the truffles that she had dropped.

"Oh!' she heard herself squeak. She dropped quickly to her knees. Except that she was wearing her slippery velour tracksuit, with no traction, and her knees slid right across the slippery linoleum floor, and she went with them, her face bonking right into the man's chin.

An involuntary moan of dismay escaped her. She scrambled backward quickly.

"Careful," she heard him say, laughing, "you wouldn't want to smush any of the truffles."

Serena blushed horribly, not looking at him. "I – I'm sorry," she stammered. "I didn't mean – I should have had a basket for all this – "

"More like a cart," he said teasingly. "That's all of them. Are you ready to check out, or did you want to see how much more you could fit in your dainty little arms?"

He'd called her dainty!

He'd also asked her if she was ready to check out – which sounded very much like an employee. Serena regarded him with new eyes, reaching vainly after her sweets as he sauntered up to the front of the store and deposited them on the countertop.

"Um – thank you very much – " Serena said, trying to look inconspicuously for his nametag so that she could find out his name. Dimly, she heard the beeps of the cashier ringing up her purchases and handed over the money.

"No problem," he said. She could feel his grin in his voice, it seemed. But where was his name tag…

"Excuse me, sir, could I help you with anything?"

Serena's eyes flicked to the clerk. The woman was speaking to him. Which meant – her face flamed like an ignited match – he DIDN'T work here! And she'd let him pick up her things and carry them like a servant – !

With another barely audible squeak of mortification, she darted out the door.

And of course, not three steps outside, she tripped. With a half-squeak, she just managed to catch herself on her hands, her bottom jutting into the air without dignity. Please let him not have seen that…

"Are you okay, lady?"

Serena looked up. A bouncy-haired boy crouched in front of her, his arms around his knees.

"Um," she said. She scrambled to her feet, rubbing her hands down the soft velour of her pants, trying to stop the stinging of her cement-burned palms.

"Um," she said again. "I'm…okay."

The kid blinked at her. Then his eyes flicked to her side, where she held her bag of candy. His eyes flicked just as quickly away, and he stood up.

Serena watched him, standing up herself. She hadn't missed the way his eyes went to her candy. Now she could see that the boy's shirt had a thready hem, his jeans had holes at the knees despite the autumn chill, and the soles of his tennis flapped on the sidewalk.

"Um," she said, digging into the bag. "Do you like Cloud Nine bars?"

The eyes that the boy shot her were first startled, and then narrowed with suspicion. Serena sensed her attempt at sharing falling on its face as rapidly as she had been a moment ago.

Quickly, for the man in the leather jacket would be coming out at any moment, she said, "I kind of bought this one on accident. I don't like them. Do you?"

The boy's eyes flicked up to her again. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Okay." He took the bars from her hands. His hands were calloused and small. "Thanks."

At that moment, Serena's cell phone vibrated against her hip. She jumped, and then said a hurried, "Bye!" to the little boy before running down the street toward home.

She jammed the phone to her ear. "Hello?"

"Isn't practice over yet?" asked her father's voice.

Serena wet her lips for a lie. "Yeah, just a few minutes ago," she said. "I'm walking home now."


Serena fell from the top of the pyramid during the halftime routine at Friday night's game against Muto. In front of fifteen hundred people – including her mom and dad.

She barely lasted a second at the top – her bruised leg began to tremble uncontrollably, and she toppled down. All she sustained was a few more bruises, but she landed on Rei Hino's leg and broke it.

Serena felt horrible as she sat with her teammate in the infirmary. Rei was crying and shooting her dirty looks. But she felt even worse when her parents came in after the game finished.

"That was quite a fall you took," said her mother mildly, eyeing Rei. A group of their teammates had surrounded her. "What happened? You've never had trouble staying up before."

"I hurt my leg," said Serena. "I didn't realize how badly it hurt."

"Mind over matter, sweetheart." Her father sat on the infirmary bed next to her and clapped her on the shoulder. "You know that."

"Yes, Daddy." Serena heard Rei's group of people mutter something that sounded like her name.

"Well here's some news that'll cheer you up." Serena's father stood up. "Seiko kicked the butt of Muto's quarterback!"

"Did he?" Serena smiled a cheerleader's smile. "Great!"

"And he asked me if he could escort you to a team celebration party tonight," continued her father. "He's a nice boy! So put tonight's mess behind you, and go support Seiko and the team!" He ruffled her hair. "Just make sure that Seiko gets you home by one, huh?"

"Um," began Serena. Maybe she could tell them her leg hurt too badly. Her mom would want her to rest her leg so she could get back to the top of the pyramid, wouldn't she?

But then Seiko entered the infirmary, his hair still dripping from the shower. The girls around Rei went quiet momentarily, a few sighs audible in the sudden silence. Then Serena's parents went to talk to him. Serena's mother waggled her eyebrows at her over Seiko's shoulder. Serena forced a smile back, cringing internally at the angry murmur that rippled through the Rei group a few feet away.

"Your dad's great." Seiko came over. "Told you he'd be cool with it! Now let's go!"


Tanaka-sempai's house was located across town, in the fringes of the seedy, gang-frequented district known as Roppongi. But his parents were on vacation and alcohol was flowing freely, so the less-than-opulent surroundings were disregarded.

"Awesome!" Seiko shouted to her over the din of the thumping music. He grabbed two plastic cups of beer from a table, gulping one down and thrusting the other at her.

"No, thank you," said Serena.

"WHAT?" Seiko shouted over the music.

"NO THANK YOU!" Serena shouted, shaking her head and pointing at the cup.

Seiko shrugged and downed the cup himself, reaching for another. He sipped from it as he placed his hand around her waist and steered her into the living room to where Hanzo stood with Arina, a dark-haired girl on the cheerleading squad.

Arina eyed Serena as the boys began to talk to each other. "Why'd you come to the party if you're so badly injured you can't stay at the top of the pyramid?"

There was no good answer to this question. Serena just shrugged uncomfortably, putting on an appropriately apologetic expression, and looked around the room from beneath her lowered lashes. The room was growing steadily more crowded with sweaty, dancing teenagers and even some people who were definitely out of high school.

One of these such guys, the collar of his polo shirt turned up, caught her eye and made a beckoning motion at her with his finger.

Anxiety swamped her stomach; she hurriedly flicked her eyes back to Arina. Two more of their teammates had joined her, girls who had been at Rei's bedside.

"Good job benching our best tumbler for the rest of the season," Suzuka said. "You just lost us our chance at regionals."

Serena bit her cheek. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it." She had apologized to Rei and to Coach. But she really owed the whole team an apology, for it hadn't been just Rei and Coach that her fall had hurt. "I really am. It won't happen again."

Arina rolled her eyes. "Sure it won't."

Serena didn't say anything. Eventually the girls stopped paying attention to her and began talking among themselves. Serena took advantage of their inattention to drift away. It required entering the sweaty crush of the dance floor, but anything was better than suffocating in the animosity emanating from her own teammates.

A hand grabbed her arm. "Going somewhere, gorgeous?" The older guy from before leaned down toward her. Sour alcohol breath swept into her face, and his hand was sliding further up her arm. Serena shoved it away.

"Let go," she said, embarrassed by how much her voice shook.

"Don't be mean." He pushed himself closer, and there were people pressing in on Serena on all sides, grinding, laughing, totally ignorant and uncaring of her plight. She felt herself suffocating.

"Hey!" A girl squeezed her way into the crush. Her cheeks were flushed, her lipstick smeared. She grabbed the man's shoulder and looked at his grip on Serena's arm, then at Serena. "Back off, bitch!"

Serena ran. She tumbled, breathless, through the crush of people, out into the cooler air of the street, pounding down the pavement, running, running, trying to escape the feeling of being slowly smothered out of her own body.

When she stopped running, she didn't know where she was anymore.

She turned slowly in a circle, taking in her surroundings and trying to glean a clue from them. It was sometime past ten o'clock, the sky too cloudy for her to find any stars to follow. The street was dark except for the few working streetlamps, their glass broken, and the neon signs flickering in the fronts of a cigarette store, a club thumping the street with music, a gas station with plastic bags flapping over the gas pumps. Shadows moved across the street, down the sidewalk, dim orange cigarette ends bouncing along with them in midair like fireflies.

If she had felt panicked before, that was nothing to now. Before, the people around her had been crushing her body. Now her very lungs felt as though they were being crushed, every molecule of oxygen squeezed from every cell of her body by panic. She backed slowly away from the street until her back hit a wall. She felt for her cell phone at her hip.

Then, for a moment, her shaking hands hesitated.

Would her father believe her explanation of how she had ended up alone in Roppongi? Did she even want to tell him about the man, about the party? He would want to know where Seiko had been; where her friends had been, and he would find out that party had been no fun-and-games team celebration but instead a full-blown kegger. And he would never let her speak to any of them again, and she would be totally, irreversibly alone…

She began to return the phone to its holder. But her shaking fingers lost their grip, and the phone went spinning across the sidewalk. It clattered open on the cement a few feet from her, its lit screen as bright as a flare gun in the darkness. Serena watched, frozen in horror, as a shadow leaned down to pick it up.

"You drop things a lot, don't you?" The shadow snapped her phone shut, extinguishing the brief play of light that had lit its face. Serena blinked rapidly, trying to make out that face that she could have SWORN she'd seen in the brief light.

"Um!" she stammered.

"And as articulate as ever." The shadow laughed.

With the warmth-pooling sound, Serena knew for sure what she had seen – the face of the leather-jacket man from the candy store.

Her anxiety lessened, then burst back in full force as she remembered that he actually hadn't been an employee at the shop and that he had a tattoo and that he was on this street at this time of night –

"Um," she said faintly. "How do you do?"

His shadowy form took a step closer, holding her phone out to her. "You alright?" he asked.

Then he stopped, his hand with the phone in it falling back to his side. "Wait." He grasped her by the shoulder and pulled her to one side, into the meager circle of light shed by a streetlamp. Serena stared up at him, her eyelids fluttering involuntarily against the sudden increase of light.

His face was more masculine that she remembered. She had beautified the image in her memory, lingering on his long dark lashes and blue eyes and high, sharp cheekbones. But now those eyes were narrowed and shadowy, his brows thick and dark, his cheekbones forgotten in the clench of his jaw.

"Did someone do something to you?" he demanded.

Serena gaped. How did he know? The man had only grabbed her arm… Then she became aware of several damp spots on her clothing pressing against her skin and of the sour smell of alcohol. She looked down at her skirt and blouse and saw the wet spots across them. Now she remembered fighting through the crowd at the party, people's beers sloshing out onto her as she squeezed through them.

"Um, no," she said. "I mean, it's not what it looks like – "

"Hey, Shields!" came a shout from across the street suddenly.

Serena looked up, stiffening, as the man in front of her called back, "Not now!" Then he looked at Serena. "Look, come with me."

'Stupid!' Serena's brain screamed at her as she trotted along after the leather-jacketed man, led by his arm around her shoulder. 'What are you DOING? Kick him! Scream!'

Serena dug her heels abruptly into the sidewalk. She barely dented the leather man's momentum; he kept walking and half-carried her along.

"I'm not gonna to do anything to you," he – Shields – said impatiently.

See? Serena told her brain.

'Yes, because people from Roppongi are so truthful!' her brain retorted.

Serena recognized the wisdom in this statement; for all that this Shields man seemed so nice. She was about to make another bid for freedom when he veered them suddenly into the doorway of a dark storefront. He stood between her and the street, his legs slightly apart, his back to her, one hand beneath his jacket.

"Whassa got there, man?" slurred a voice from outside the doorway. Serena peeked under Shields's leather-clad arm to see a mohawked man in a wifebeater leering at her. It was the same look as the man at the party had worn on his face, and Serena felt the familiar nauseated wringing of her stomach again.

"Back off," Shields said.

"Eh, I don't think so…"

It happened so quickly that Serena barely saw it. Just a twitch of the man's shoulder blade in front of her nose, and the drunken mohawked man was sprawled out on the pavement, blood streaming from his boot-printed nose.

"Now do you believe I'm not gonna do anything to you?" said Shields to her. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder again and set off down the street again at so quick a pace that she stumbled.

Quite soon, they reached another empty storefront with papered windows. He pulled her inside. Serena's brain was screaming at her.

The front room was empty and dark; she tripped and nearly fell, hissing as her bruised leg hit something hard.

"Sorry," he said into the darkness. He sounded sincere. Then there was a squeak of a door opening in the darkness, and they were in a room lit by buttery lamps and a fire crackling in a fireplace.

"Hey, Dare – what the hell?"

There were several couches around the room, facing the fireplace, stuffing poking out of them. Two people sat on them, one a guy who had jumped off the couch when he spotted Shields.

Now he jumped back, crouching on the armrest of the couch like Spiderman, his eyes wide beneath the bandana tied ninja style around his curly blond hair. "Who's this?"

Shields's arm wasn't around her shoulder anymore. He'd moved away, walking toward the couches. Serena held her arms straight and stiff against her sides. Her brain was silent.

"Yeah, Darien, who is this?" The other occupant of the room, a girl seated in an armchair, leaned forward. Her long arms dangled over her even longer legs, and she was glaring at Shields.

"Not what you think," said the man – Darien – suddenly curt. "Can you go get her into some other clothes, Lita? There's alcohol all over her."

The girl, Lita, shot Serena another look. Serena found herself returning it instead of flinching away. The girl had green eyes that glowed like jewels in the firelight, and Serena couldn't tear her eyes away.

Then the girl stood, and Serena realized that she was even taller than her father. She was as long and muscular and buxom as a Barbie doll.

"Um!" Serena heard herself blurt out suddenly. "I'm Serena! Serena Tsukino! Please call me Serena!" She bowed quickly.

'Serenaaaaaaa!' Her brain wailed. 'Why would you DO that – '

Darien and Lita were looking at her with raised brows. Then Darien burst out into that laugh again.

"Well, Serena, I'm Darien. Darien Shields. And this is – "

" – all very nice," Lita finished, throwing him a strange look. "But that alcohol smell's really starting to make me sick. C'mere, kiddo."

Serena followed Lita down a hallway into a bathroom.

"Take a shower and get rid of that smell," Lita told her. "No one'll walk in on you but me. And I don't swing that way. I'll be back with some clothes." She shut the door behind her.

Serena turned to face the shower. It took her several tries to turn it on, the controls were so old, and there didn't seem to be any hot water, just cold. She didn't want to use all the shampoo washing her hair, so she tried to keep it from getting wet and just scrubbed her skin instead.

Lita returned just as she was wrapping an old and holy but clean-smelling towel around herself.

"I doubt any of this'll fit you real well," she said. "But short of having you try on something of Buji's, there wasn't much of an option. Try these."

It was a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. They were three sizes too big for Serena and hid most of the curves that her mother had tried so hard to bring out with the clothes that she bought for Serena. Yet Serena felt strangely safe in the baggy clothes that made her feel like a middle-schooler. She finished rolling up the pants three times and cinched the belt that Lita had brought.

"Thank you," she said, bowing again. "I'm very sorry to make so much trouble."

"Hmph," said the brown-haired girl. The clothes were clearly hers, since she was wearing an identical pair of holy jeans and a t-shirt. Like the blond boy, she wore a blue bandana, hers knotted around her ponytail. "What happened to you, huh?"

Serena looked up, not understanding at first. Then she saw her still-damp party outfit, sitting in a heap on the cracked tile of the floor.

"Um," she said, "It's kind of a long story."

Lita folded her arms, leaning against the sink. "I've got time."

"I was kind of at this party," Serena began to explain.

"Kind of at it?" Lita repeated, her lips quirking.

"Well, I didn't want to be there," elaborated Serena. "So my body was there, but my head wasn't. So only half of me was there. Hence, kind of at it." She realized suddenly what she was saying and stopped. Babble like this was why she didn't have any friends on the cheerleading squad. "Sorry. Never mind."

"No, go on."

"Well, I was there…"

"Kind of," supplied Lita.

Serena smiled self-consciously. "Yeah. But there were these girls who don't like me very much, so I was trying to get away, but this guy on the dance floor wouldn'tletgoofmeuntilhisgirlfriendcameandshewasmadand – " Serena sucked in a breath. "I ran. And ended up lost. He, um – "

"Darien," Lita supplied again. Her lips weren't quirked anymore.

"Yeah, he found me. We met before, you see, at the candy store – "

"Ah." Lita's expression was suddenly knowing. She nodded. "You were the one who gave Buji the candy, huh?"

"Um," said Serena. "Is Buji a really cute brown-haired boy with gorgeous curls?"

"More like the spawn of Satan, but yeah, basically."

"Oh," said Serena. "Then yes, I gave him the candy."

"I see," said Lita. "And here you are now. Well, c'mon back out, and we'll figure out what to do with you."

Serena followed her out, suddenly feeling self-conscious all over again. The clothes were really comfy, but she wanted to look pretty in front of him – Darien. Even if there was no way –

"What the heck, Lita, did you give her a sex-change operation too? She looks like a ten year-old boy!"

At the sound of the blond boy's voice, Serena's cheeks turned pink.

Lita punched him, and then planted her foot on his chest. "Ignore this moron, Serena," she said. "He's so insecure in his own gender that he jumps at the chance to question anyone else's."

"How unusually perceptive of you, Lita." This voice belonged to Darien Shields, and Serena spun to see him unfolding his long frame from the armchair closest to the fireplace.

He smiled at her gently. "She's right. Don't listen to Asanuma." He glanced then at Lita, whom Serena watched make a tiny, barely perceptible shake of her head.

He transferred his dark eyes back to Serena. In the dim lighting, his eyelashes looked longer than ever.

"Buji will kill me for not keeping you to meet him, but I've got a thing I've got to get back for." He pulled a ring of keys from his jeans pocket with long, graceful fingers. "And I imagine you're eager to get home after the night you've had?"

"Um." Serena wasn't quite certain how to respond. Lita had seemed very nice, if not extremely talkative, and even Asanuma, mouth-y as he was, reminded her of the teasing way that Mina's stepbrother had treated Mina. And then of course there was this man, this kind Darien…

"I've got a thing I've got to get back for."

She snapped back. Of course. They were busy doing whatever they were doing, and she'd stumbled into their schedule.

"Yes, of course," she said. She bent and bowed again, hands pressed tightly together. "Thank you very much for everything! If you could give me directions to the subway station – "

"Nonsense." Darien flipped his keys up into his hand with a final-sounding clink. "I'll take you home. C'mon."

"Um." Serena glanced back over at her shoulder at Lita, feeling like a kindergartener leaving her mother to follow the teacher on the first day of school. What should she do?

Lita cocked her eyebrow at her. "Go on," she said. "He only bites candy bars."

Serena nodded timidly and made to follow.

"Oh, and Serena?"

Serena looked back again.

The grin that Lita flashed her showed her teeth, glowing white in the dim light. "Stay away from those parties from now on, huh?"

Serena nodded once, twice, then scurried into the darkness after Darien.

The lights switching on suddenly surprised her eyes again, and she shielded them with a sleeve-swaddled hand.

"You really are a creature of the night, aren't you?" said Darien's voice with that laugh again.

Serena lowered her hand, smiling timidly in return, and took in the room. It was clearly a garage, scattered with wrenches and screwdrivers and various chunks of metal disgorging wires. In the center of the oil-stained concrete floor stood two motorcycles. Shields-san swung a leg over the smaller of the two, a sleek black model that gleamed almost as brightly as his midnight hair – the hair that he then covered with a helmet.

He slid the dark visor up. "Come on," he said, his voice slightly muffled.

"Um," Serena blurted out. "My dad says motorcycles are death magnets!"

"Your dad is right," said Darien, his eyes flickering suddenly. Then he leaned over and pulled up another helmet. "However, it's all I've got. And I'm a very experienced rider, if that means anything. So…"

He watched her from beneath his visor expectantly.

Serena took a step forward. She took the helmet. It was unexpectedly heavy. She put it on, feeling bulky and stupid, then stood awkwardly, not sure what to do next. If this had been a movie, she would have climbed on –

"I get that an accident magnet like yourself needs protection even just to stand around, but the helmet's a lot more effective when you're on the motorcycle."

His almost…affectionate? ('No, that's insane,' Serena's brain told her firmly) grin took any sting out of his words, but Serena flushed nevertheless.

She gripped fistfuls of the denim of Lita's jeans and cleared her throat. "Um. Where should I…?" She forced her hands to unclench from the denim and lifted them. Please don't let him see how much they're shaking.

He leaned forward, grabbed her hand, and guided her to swing her leg over the motorcycle seat to sit behind him.

"And then," he said, not letting go of her hands. Instead he brought them forward to knot around his waist, his fingers carefully…deliberately? ('Be quiet, you silly girl,' said Serena's brain) locking her fingers together one by one. Serena blushed horribly, her helmet's visor fogging from the mere heat of her cheeks.

"And now we're ready to go," said Shields-san. He kicked up the kickstand, started the ignition, and revved the engine.

Serena stiffened and held on tighter without realizing it, then blushed harder. She tried to sit ramrod straight so that only her interlocked fingers actually touched him instead of her whole body gluing itself to him in a totally obvious way, but sitting up straight became impossible the second that the motorcycle roared out into the street – almost as though he wanted her to have to hug him tightly to hold on ('Shut UP, Serena Tsukino!' her brain shrilled).

Nevertheless, the mad race through the streets sent Serena's blood pumping double-fast, like a thousand gazelles fleeing from her heart, from the synergistic combination of what seemed like a near-death speed and from having her body wrapped around such a beautiful guy – who was from this side of town, no less! She crossed her toes tightly in her heeled shoes, hoping that he couldn't feel her pounding heart.

Eventually, the streets around them grew more deserted and clearer, lined with closed shops and quiet residential streets; they had left the bad district behind. At this point, Shields-san finally slowed the motorcycle down.

"You still alive back there?" he asked. She heard his voice begin deep in his chest before it came out, a buzzing that tickled her cheek where it pressed against his warm jacket.

She realized suddenly that her teeth were chattering. She tried to lock her jaw, but she couldn't manage to stop them from clattering together.

"Y-y-y-yes!" she managed. "Th-th-th-thank you!"

At this, Shields-san slowed his motorcycle even further. The next thing Serena knew, they were pulling over onto the side of the road. Shields-san planted one foot on the asphalt and released the kickstand with the other. Then he turned around, twisting nearly one hundred and eighty degrees, to look at her.

She was still hanging onto him tightly from the wild ride, and she nearly slid off the bike as he turned before she realized what was happening. Hastily, she disentangled herself, but not quickly enough: the ground rushed quickly up to meet her –

"Oof!" She huffed as he caught her by the scruff of Lita's shirt, just in time. Dimly, she heard him apologizing for catching her like that, but the words sailed straight out her head when his warm hands closed around her waist and uprighted her on the motorcycle seat. She felt like a doll, and for the first time in her life, that didn't feel like a bad thing. She sat, her hands curled loosely around his wrists as his hands rested just above her hips, and stared up at him through the crack where her motorcycle visor had fallen down. His visor was still on, and she wished quite fervently that he could see his lively, laughing eyes one more time before he dropped her off at her house and she never saw him again. But instead, all she saw was her own shivering reflection in his black visor.

She heard him sigh. "Of course. Lita didn't give you a jacket." His warm hands left her waist; he reached up and began pulling his leather jacket off.

"N-n-no!" exclaimed Serena. "It's ok-k-k-kay – "

Then the heavy jacket settled upon her shoulders, and it was so warm that it cut off her sentence. Her body gave an involuntary shudder as she huddled into the warmth, so much like that of his hands…

"Well, arms in, go on," said Shields-san's muffled helmet voice. He pulled her arms through the sleeves, which had to be nearly half a foot too long for her.

Serena finally recollected herself. "No, Shields-san, I really can't take your jacket – "

"You're not taking it," he said, bumping her helmet with his. "You're borrowing it."

And he finally pushed his visor up, revealing his face. Then, apparently uncomfortable twisting all the way around, he swung his legs over the motorcycle and swiveled so that he was sitting facing Serena now, his knees touching hers in the diamond created by their legs. In fact, they were quite close… Serena swallowed. Thank goodness her visor was still hiding her face.

"Answer a question for me?" he asked, looking down at her with those eyes.

Serena swallowed again. She waited until she was pretty sure that her blushing had receded before she tugged off her own helmet, which had become rather stifling with all her hair crammed up in it. Her ponytails fell in a heavy mass down her shoulders as she pulled the helmet off; she placed it in her lap, between them.

"Shoot," she said, then widened her eyes as she realized the possible ramifications of the word. He was from Roppongi, after all…

But he seemed not to have noticed; indeed, he looked rather distracted by something.

He said, "Huh?" then, "Oh!" and blinked, the faint smile disappearing from his lips. "If you don't mind me asking, how did you end up…where and how you were?" Then he modified his question. "What I mean is, I just want to know – did anyone hurt you?"

Serena was shaking her head violently before he even finished talking, red touching her cheeks at the implication. "No, no! Really! I'm fine, Shields-san, it was just a stupid party. You shouldn't worry about me, please."

Shields-san's eyes were very dark as he leaned closer to her. Serena felt abruptly as though she was the string of a bow, sitting very tense and straight as he curved above and around her. She gulped and tried to think of something else. He was so close that the only two things she could stare at were his eyes or his lips, and the latter was out of the question – !

She tried to stare objectively into his eyes instead. She saw golden flecks in them. At first she thought that they were the reflection of her hair, but no, there really were little golden flecks in his dark irises.

Serena caught her breath as she realized this – then her eyes widened when she realized that it was not her own breath that she had sucked in but rather Shields-san's!

He made a little sound, half a laugh and half catching his own breath, and pulled away from her.

"I'm so sorry!" Serena cried, mortified. "I didn't mean to suffocate you!"

Shields-san burst out into laughter again. The whole motorcycle shook. Serena's legs shot out to brace herself against the ground, but she was too short to reach; her hands grabbed a fistful of his shirt instead to keep from toppling off.

His laughter stopped, and he leaned down again.

"Um, sorry," said Serena, uncurling her fingers. She wondered how many times in a day a person could apologize before it became meaningless.

Almost as though he had read her mind, Shields-san said, his eyes roving her face, "Stop apologizing for everything."

Then he leaned back again. "Really you're fine? Girls as pretty as you who end up drenched in alcohol usually aren't fine."

Serena's brow furrowed. Was he implying – "I didn't drink anything!" she exclaimed indignantly.

"Oh, I know you didn't." His eyes were twinkling for some reason. "You did have some of those truffles, though."

Belatedly, Serena realized that when she had inhaled his breath earlier, it had tasted of fresh mint – so he had inhaled hers, too?! Her face burned a blistering red.

He noticed. "Hey, hey." His fingers rested gently against her arm. "I just meant to find out if anyone did anything to you."

She shook her head rapidly, staring at the holes in the knees of his jeans instead of at his face. He had skinny knees.

"No. I ran away before anything happened – I always do," she added quietly, bitterly. She sighed, then shook her head and looked up at him.

He was staring at her. "So someone did try something?"

Serena's forehead creased. Why was he so concerned? For he was concerned: the intensity of his expression nearly scorched her.

"I – it was just some guy at a party," she said, recalling it and thinking shamefacedly that all that the guy had really said that he wanted to do was dance… she had overreacted. Like always. "He probably wasn't going to do anything. I just panicked because he was old, a college guy, and everything, and I ended up knocking drinks onto myself. That's all." She laughed a little, scratching her damp, curling hair and tried to change the subject. "And what about you, are you in college?"

Abruptly his eyes darkened. Serena noticed immediately and said, "I mean, I'm sorry – "

"Didn't I tell you to stop saying that?" He looked at her, threading his long fingers through his blue-tinted hair. "I'm nineteen. College age. I just haven't been able to – get around to it yet."

"Oh." Serena nodded. "You looked pretty busy back there…" She trailed off. Finishing with 'sitting on couches and lurking in dark streets and all that' didn't seem quite the respectful way to talk to your knight in shining armor. Unless – "Do you always run around rescuing stupid girls at night?"

The dark expression in his eyes vanished. He laughed again. She was really beginning to enjoy her ability to draw the sound from him.

"No, you're my first."

"You mean you didn't rescue Lita?"

He snorted. "Have you seen Lita? She can rescue herself."

"Yeah." Serena sighed, remembering with starry eyes Lita's willowy, powerful figure. "She's so cool."

"Hang on." His warm, calloused hand pressed suddenly to her forehead. "Do you have a fever? Because I think you just called Lita cool – "

"She is cool!" protested Serena, batting at his hand. "You guys all have these skewed perceptions of each other! Lita called Buji the spawn of Satan!"

"That's because he IS," said Shields-san. "And you've known us for all of an hour, so I don't think you're quite qualified to criticize our perceptions of each other."

"Yeah…" Serena felt herself deflate. He was right. They weren't her group. Her group was Seiko and the cheerleading squad.

And it was getting late, she realized. "Didn't you say you had something you had to do tonight?"
"Uh – " He stared at her, his fingers drumming his helmet. "Yeah."

He hooked a grin at her before he put the helmet back on his head. "But don't think that this saves you from my attempt to convince you that there's no way that Lita's cool. The only one at our place possibly deserving of that title is me."

"I'm so sure," said Serena impishly from underneath her own helmet. And she knotted her arms around his waist quite casually this time, feeling not a whit of awkwardness as they traded banter and directions for the rest of the ride.

Shields-san grew quieter, however, as they drew nearer to her home, the houses growing larger as they sped down the streets, the fences higher.

They stopped in front of hers. Shields-san stopped the motorcycle.

"You live here," he said, his voice unreadable.

Serena looked up from pulling off the helmet, her hair tumbling out again. She looked at her house, visible above the wall and front gate, trying to see it through a stranger's eyes. "Yes?"

"I see," he said as she placed the helmet back on the bike. "Well, it was nice meeting you."

Serena blinked at his suddenly cool tone. But before she could say anything more, he revved the motorcycle's engine and tore down the street into the night.

Serena stared after him. 'Hmm,' said her brain. 'Guess he doesn't like you so much after all, now does he?'

"I guess not," whispered Serena.

Her breath made puffs in the cold air, but she felt quite warm, disappointment and confusion hot in her gut. She had thought – but she must have done something, must have acted too forward, or maybe he just hadn't even liked her in the first place; after all, everyone said that Seiko liked her, but he didn't act like Shields-san at all…

"Serena? Is that you?"

Serena spun around. Her father's figure was outlined in the doorway by the lamplight from the living room. Panic seized her; had he seen Shields-san?

"Seiko barely made it in time." Her dad walked down the front walk toward her. "It's twelve fifty-eight."

Only twelve fifty-eight? thought Serena.

"Um!" she said. "We had a food fight, so Marisa lent me some clothes to wear home."

"Huh." Her father opened the gate for her and ushered her in. "I didn't realize Marisa was so much bigger than you."

"Well, some of them are hand-me-down's from her older sister." Serena belatedly remembered that she was still wearing Shields-san's leather jacket. "And this is Seiko's jacket. He gave it to me because it was cold."

"Isn't he a gentleman. Well, come in, it's late." he added, holding the door open for her

Serena nodded, scurrying inside. She flung a "Good night!" over her shoulder at her parents and raced up the stairs. She hurriedly shut her bedroom door behind her. Then she slid down it to sit on the floor and stared at her dark room.

Her heart was racing. She had just told a major, major lie to her father. Tentatively, she felt her nose. It felt the same size as ever, but she could not help but feel as though her falsehood was tattooed all across her face.


That night, before she went to bed and after she changed into pajamas, Serena took off Lita's clothes and Shields-san's jacket to carefully fold them and place them under her bed. The next morning, she went to Saturday morning cheerleading practice, where the coach sent her and her bruised leg to sit on the bench with Rei

She barely noticed the dirty looks that Rei shot at her; her mind was underneath her bed, on the neat stack of clothes.

She couldn't not take them back. From the state of their living place, Lita and Shields-san didn't have a lot of money to be giving away clothes. And Shields-san's leather jacket had probably not only monetary value but sentimental value: insigniaed patches decorated its back and breast pocket. Probably he had earned those patches. She couldn't not return the jacket, especially.

But he had seemed so cold and distant when he drove away! Like he had never wanted to see her again. Serena clenched her fingers around the metal bleacher. She certainly didn't want to force herself in where she wasn't wanted.

'And,' her mind pointed out. 'Going there would mean lying to your parents again. And walking through that district again. Would you even be alive to find their hideout again? Probably not before getting mugged or jumped or worse.'

Serena cringed.

"What is WRONG with you?" Rei broke into her thoughts. Serena looked up to see the other girl giving her a glare and moving further down the bench. "Could you at least TRY to act sane?"

"Sorry," Serena mumbled. Inside, she remembered how Lita and Shields-san had seemed amused by her – not disgusted. She thought of their beautiful smiles, their pretty eyes. She remembered something – two things. First, the blue bandanas that all three of them – Shields-san, Lita, and Asanuma-san – had worn. And second, that Rei's father was a police officer.

"Rei," she blurted out. "Are there any gangs in Roppongi?"

Rei snorted. "Are there any GANGS in ROPPONGI? Have you been living under a rock? Of course there are gangs in Roppongi!"

"But any – you know – whose members wear blue bandanas? Or have very young members – maybe a very young leader?" Serena bit her lip, hoping that she wasn't giving away too much.

Rei eyed her. "My dad has talked about a few like that," she conceded grudgingly. "There's one that has something to do with wolves or something. I haven't heard anything about who leads them, but I think they have blue bandanas. Clearly, they're stuck in the eighties." Rei flipped her hair. "Kind of like you. Please tell me those things you're wearing aren't legwarmers."

Serena fell back into thought without even flushing at Rei's words. If they really were in a gang, that made them even more dangerous, didn't it? Except of course that they really had been so very nice to her, gang or not…

The clothes and the question of their owners haunted Serena all day long. The stack of clothing seemed to have a presence, lurking like a bogey monster under the dust ruffle of her bed. She couldn't concentrate on her homework, she couldn't read her manga; she even felt weird getting into bed that night, like the princess and the pea, acutely aware of their presence burning beneath her bed.

At last she sat up and snuck to the laundry room to put Lita's clothes in the wash. She left Shields-san's jacket sitting alone. It seemed even more intense on its own, its patched presence smoldering beneath her bed as she tried to fall asleep.

When she finally woke up on Sunday morning, eyes gritty, she decided that she could take it no longer. She put all the borrowed clothing in a bag and told her parents that she was going to Marisa's to return the clothes and maybe to bake cookies.

"Got your cell phone?" her dad asked.

"Yes, sir," said Serena. "I'll text you." She didn't want to risk her father hearing any possible noises in the background and realizing that she was not at Marisa's baking cookies.

"You kids and your contraptions." Her dad shook his head and went back to the Sunday crossword.

Serena locked the door behind her with an uneasy sense of finality. It might be the last time she saw her house, her family – her nerve faltered. She remembered the mohawked man who had approached her in Roppongi before Darien arrived. Was she really going to risk her life to return a few shabby articles of clothing to strangers who had probably already forgotten her? If Shields-san really wanted his jacket so badly, he could come get it –

Then Serena pictured her dad's reaction to finding a gangster on his doorstep asking for his daughter and discovering that his daughter had lied to him.

Yes, she decided. She would rather risk her life this way.

She went first to Tanaka's house, then tried to retrace her steps from Friday night, searching for landmarks. But it had been dark, and she had hardly been paying attention…

The futility of her insane attempt sank into her only when she was deep into the district. Nervously, she wished that she had stuck a pillow under her shirt, worn more layers, or something to make herself look uglier, because the looks she was receiving from the men in the half-deserted Sunday streets were making her insides twist. And she was pretty sure that that shuffling pair of footsteps had been following her for too long to be coincidence…

She turned a corner around an abandoned gas station, about to break into a run. Then she saw a reddish-brown ponytail gleaming in the sun.

Serena's heart dropped nearly to her toes in relief. "LITA!" she shouted. "Lita!"

The ponytail turned, and Lita's green eyes fell on Serena's. Then they widened.

Several other people had turned to look, too, Serena noticed with a flush; she may have shouted a little too loudly. But she also heard the pair of footsteps pounding quickly away behind her.

"Blondie?" Lita stood in front of her. "What the hell – what are you doing here?"

"I brought," began Serena, but Lita grabbed her by the elbow, saying, "Never mind, let's get inside. Geesh, you couldn't have tried to ugly yourself up a little?"

"Well," said Serena as they turned down an alley filled with overflowing Dumpsters and a few tattered men sleeping among the trash bags. "I thought that, too, but not until I was already here, and then it was too late, and it's not like I'm really that pretty to begin with – "

One of the hoboes lying among the garbage stirred, sitting up. In a slurred voice, he said, "Hey, babies – "

"Shut up," said Lita coldly, pulling up the waistband of her jacket. Serena saw both a gleam of knife blade and a blue bandana winding through her belt loops. The man blanched and lay back down silently in the trash. Serena, also pale, wondered if it was the knife or the bandana that had prompted his reaction.

Lita led her down another alley.

"Um, Lita?" asked Serena after a moment, unnerved by the silence of the claustrophobic alley. "Why do you live here? If you don't mind me asking."

"Why does anyone live here?" Lita stared straight ahead as she walked. "Because we don't have anywhere else."

She stopped abruptly, and Serena saw that there was a door, half-hidden behind a Dumpster. She knocked, once, once, twice in sequence, three times in sequence, five times in quick succession –

"A Fibonacci sequence," said Serena, tilting her head in fascination.

Lita tossed her a look. "What?"

Serena blushed. "Nothing."

The door opened before Lita could say anything else – and it looked like she had been about to. Lita turned toward it.

"Kino," she said. "With a visitor."

"Not Buji?" said a voice from within. But the door opened the rest of the way; Lita pulled Serena in with her.

This time, the room into which the door led wasn't dark. Instead, it had a folding table with a deck of cards on it; apparently, the spiky-haired man with the blue bandana had been in the middle of a game of Solitaire. On the other end of the room, stacked in the corner, were dozens of white-wrapped packages.

"Isn't this an odd place for you to be babysitting, Kino-san?" said the man, eyeing Serena doubtfully. "Not to mention a big baby."

"Shut up," said Lita, although not in a mean way. "We'll be inside. Tell me when Dare gets here."

"Uh, I wouldn't, " began the man, but Lita had already opened the next door and pulled Serena in with her –

Serena squeaked and blushed, quickly averting her eyes. Shields-san stood shirtless in the middle of the room, his foot propped up on one of the chairs that encircled a table. Bandages wrapped around his ribs, and he was swabbing at his face with a reddened pad of gauze.

A moment passed, with no one saying anything. Tentatively, Serena lifted her eyes again. Shields-san was looking over at them, revealing a long red gash down the side of his face, almost intersecting his eye. His face was unreadable as a mask.

"Um," she began eloquently.

"Tsukino-san," he cut her off, lowering his foot from the chair and standing upright. She saw a edge of purple bruising peeking out from the top of the bandages around his abdomen. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"How did you get so hurt?" Serena's words tumbled out without thought. She had never seen such injuries in her life, even among the football players. Was that cut from a knife?

'Are you surprised?' asked her brain sardonically, pushing the memory of Lita's belt knife to the front of her mind.

Serena shook her head. "Are you okay?" she demanded.

Shields-san seemed nonplussed by this. His eyes flicked to Lita, who appeared to have suddenly found something very interesting in her fingernail cuticles.

"I'm fine," he said, dropping the gauze pad onto the table next to a half-empty bottle of antiseptic. "But I asked my question first."

Serena tried to hide the sting she felt from his cold tone; she stood up straighter, pulling the bag of clothes out of her backpack.

"I brought your stuff back," she said, addressing Lita instead of Shields-san. "I washed them. Except I didn't wash your jacket, Shields-san, because I didn't want to mess up your patches or the leather…"

She trailed off. Both Lita and Shields-san were staring at her now, their faces unreadable.

Uh-oh. Perhaps they hadn't wanted her to wash them…? Had she breached some unbreakable Roppongi protocol?

At last, Lita spoke. "You came here…to do that."

"Um." Serena shifted from foot to foot. "Yes?"

Now Lita turned to Shields-san. "And you gave her your jacket?"

"Yes," said Shields-san, his inscrutable gaze on Serena.

Serena felt a flush crawling up her neck like a furry caterpillar. She cleared her throat and stepped forward, placing the bag of clothes on the table.

"So," she said, "I'll just be going now – "

"God, you're real, aren't you?"

Startled, Serena looked up at Shields-san. He was suddenly much closer. Her nerves afire, she didn't notice Lita stepping out of the room.

She stammered, "I – I don't understand the question. I…I exist. See?" She pinched her arm and showed him.

A chuckle trickled out of his lips. He shook his head, still staring at her. "You really came back into Roppongi just to give back our clothes?"

"Well," said Serena. "I thought your jacket was kind of like a Girl Guide vest with all those patches, and I thought you wouldn't like to lose it if you'd worked so hard to earn it – " She stopped; he was laughing again. Then she realized that she had just compared him to a Girl Guide, and she began to giggle, too.

"I think it's safe to say I've never been compared to a Girl Guide before," said Shields-san. He eyed her, his laughter fading. "Do you know who I am, Serena?"

"We-ell…" Serena rubbed her ankle with her other foot. She spoke slowly. "It seems like you're some kind of gang leader…but you don't seem very mean. And you don't have a beard," she added as an afterthought.

Again, he stared at her. "I don't have a beard," he repeated.

"Well," she said. "It's just, when I picture yakuza or mobsters, they always have facial hair. To make them all ugly to match their badness, you know. But you're really pretty – "

She stopped in horror again.

This time he wasn't laughing. He looked a little horrified himself. "Pretty?" he echoed.

She tried to salvage it. "Just because of your eyelashes. And your cheekbones. And, you know, your hair – " She stopped.

"So basically, everything." Shields-san sighed, pushing a hand through his hair, then winced as he accidentally touched his cut. "Great."

"You're still very manly," Serena offered earnestly. "With your jacket and your tattoo and your hands and now your scar and all."

"My hands?"

Serena avoided his twinkling eyes, her face a tomato of mortification.

'Stupid,' said her brain, shaking its head in disgust.

"Hmmm," said Shields-san. "You're very pretty, too, Serena."

Serena's eyes bulged. "Whaaaaat?"

He grinned at her. "What with your hair and your big blue eyes and your little hands and all."

Serena pressed her hands to her burning cheeks. She felt acutely how wide her 'big blue eyes' were. "Uh – uh – thank you, Shields-san. Uh, umm…"

He was frowning a little now. "Shields-san? Call me Darien."

"Ah – okay, Darien-san."

"No, no, no." He shook his head. "Repeat after me. Da-ri-en."

"Da-ri-en," she repeated obediently. Then she grinned. "San."

He rolled his eyes. "You're much more troublesome than you seem, you know that?"

"You're talking to ME about troublesome?" said Serena in disbelief, watching the small bead of blood welling from the bottom of his long cut.

"Touché." He grimaced, dabbing the cut with another gauze pad. His blue eyes unfocused for a minute, as though in thought; then they resharpened and bored into hers. "In fact, this is exactly why you shouldn't be coming here."

"But – " Panic tightened her chest. He had only just begun to tease with her again! "But I want to – to be friends! With you! And Lita!"

A silence followed her outburst. Shields-san – Darien watched her with his dark eyes, pressing the gauze to his jaw.

At last, he said, "Friends, huh?"

Serena bit her lip and nodded vigorously. "Yes!" Then, on a sudden stroke of inspiration, she blurted out, "And if you say I can't, I'm just going to come visit anyway!"

The smile that split his face was abrupt and dazzling.

"Will you now?" he said. "I believe you. Okay, Dumpling Head, we'll be friends."

Serena blinked, overwhelmed by the ease with which he had agreed. Then – "Dumpling Head?" she repeated. A scowl creased her face; she planted her hands on her hips. "Hey!"

The door suddenly flew open.

"Darien, why did NUMA pick me up – " The voice stopped short.

Serena turned and found herself face to face with the boy from outside the candy store.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Buji-san!"

"Lady!" said Buji, brown eyes round. He looked past her at Darien, then back at her again. "Do you have more candy bars?"

"Buji!" Darien cuffed him on the side of the head. "Were you raised in a barn?"

"No, I was raised in a dumpster," Buji retorted, sticking his tongue out at Darien. "Meanie-face. Why are you talking to him, onee-chan? He's way too ugly for you."

"Fine words from a boy who looks exactly like me," said Darien. "Serena, ignore my younger brother; his ego is the size of China."

Oh, they were brothers. Serena clapped her hands together, examining them each carefully. Yes, the resemblance was there, from the luxurious eyelashes and the dark hair to the stubborn jaw and matching eyebrows. A sudden aching yearning filled her, as she watched them bicker: if only she had a younger sibling.

" – sent Asanuma to pick me up!" Buji was complaining. "You know he always embarrasses me in front of the other kids! 'Did you know Buji used to have Pink Power Ranger pajamas?' he says. 'Buji's favorite Pokémon was Jigglypuff!' he says. And – "

"Well, it was, wasn't it?" The blonde boy from Friday night stuck his head into the room. "How's your face, Dare – " His eyes landed on Serena. "Oh! You came back to bask in my presence, I see!"

Serena giggled.

"No, don't laugh at him, onee-chan!" Buji exclaimed. "It's like feeding seagulls! Now he'll never leave!"

"Good God, you idiots are lucky there's no noise ordinance here." Lita entered the room. "Pipe down, Buji-brat."

"You pipe down, Lita-long-legs," Buji retorted. "They're all mean, onee-chan. Take me to live with you!"

And he stared up at Serena with such adorable huge brown eyes that Serena felt herself melting into a puddle of goo. Surely her parents wouldn't notice a little seven year-old living in the house –

"Hey, hey, hey, no hypnotizing the new girl!" Asanuma nudged Buji. "Not before I get my turn, at least."

"Okay," said Darien loudly, placing a hand on Serena's shoulder and steering her out of the way of the "thbb!"ing tongue-sticking-out fight that had broken about between Buji and Asanuma. "Time for Serena to escape this madhouse."

"Ah – wait!" Serena tried to spin around under his hands. "When can I see you all again?"

"We'll come see you, hmm?" said Darien. "Apparently you haven't noticed, but this isn't exactly the safest place for unescorted young girls." He saw her eyes flick over his shoulder to Lita. "We've already talked about Lita being the exception."

"Oka-ay," said Serena grudgingly. She chewed her lip, thinking. "What about Friday night? There's gonna be a bonfire after the football game. At Crow Park."

"Sounds good," said Darien.

Just then, someone else stepped into the door, someone Serena had not seen before. It was a tall, gangly man with light hair and freckles. He looked directly at Darien and held up a brown package.

"I've gotta go." Darien tapped one of her hair buns and stepped away, his face already going blank again, as it had before. "Lita'll take you home."

"Oh, will I?" said Lita. She stood near the newcomer now; she had been speaking intently to him. Now she came over to Serena. "Well, let's go, Sere-girl."


A/N: I've almost completely writing finished this three-part story. It's pretty long, and it takes up time that would otherwise go to STC, but like I said, it's inconvenient and won't let me go. I'm always looking for advice on how my writing is outside of STC, so PLEASE review this chapter, darlings.