It was all the marker's fault, Ami would decide in hindsight. Of course, there had been other opportunities to avoid the disaster—if she had not panicked, perhaps, or if her friends had been more careful with the pizza, or if Jadeite had not been quite so drunk, or if Rei had kept an eye on him, or if Makoto had gone to the cleaner's that morning instead of Nephrite. If only, if only. But it was too late now. She was ruined.
"Hey Neph," Jadeite said in the too-friendly tone that meant he wanted something. "Can I borrow your car?"
Nephrite snorted. "Not if you're planning on racing Tenoh-san again. You still owe me for the repair, by the way."
"No, nothing like that. I'm just running downtown to rent a tux for this fancy dinner party Rei's dragging me to."
So he and Rei were back together again. Their "breakups" were almost a joke by this point. Nephrite sighed and dug the keys out of his pocket. "Don't make a habit of this."
Jadeite grinned and shrugged on his favorite jacket, the one he only wore when he was in a particularly good mood. "Thanks, man. Hey, sorry I can't make it to your guys' get-together tonight." He didn't sound sorry at all. It wasn't that he was thrilled about the dinner party, but at least that carried the perks of an open bar and Rei in a short cocktail dress.
Nephrite rolled his eyes, wishing he had an alibi himself. "Don't worry. You aren't missing much."
Kunzite was ready to leave fifteen minutes early. This was pointless of course, because he was going to pick up Minako, and she would be fifteen minutes late. But he was a man of principle, so he slipped on a light jacket and headed for the door.
"I'm taking off," he called to his roommates.
"See you later!" Zoisite answered.
"Mmhm," said Ami, her mind clearly elsewhere.
A loud crunch under his foot made him pause. Looking down, he saw that he had stepped on a marker. He barely glanced at it as he picked it up and set it on the coffee table.
And thus, the seed of mayhem was sown.
Nephrite yawned and leaned back against his ancient, rickety brown armchair, basking in the last rays of a glowing autumn sunset that shone through the living room window. The light sounds of Makoto humming and baking brownies filtered in from the kitchen. He closed his eyes and listened to her, feeling content.
The door swung open, and Jadeite breezed in with a tuxedo in one hand and a Denny's take-out box in the other. Juggling the items, he wriggled out of his jacket and laid it over the back of the couch. Outside on the street, a black convertible honked impatiently—Rei was panicking about being late.
"All right, already," Jadeite grumbled as he disappeared into the bathroom. He was out in record time, reeking of cologne, hair swept back in a style that was just pretentious enough to impress Rei's wealthy friends, without becoming too old-fashioned.
"Goodbye, Makoto-san! Enjoy your party," he called into the kitchen. Makoto cheerfully wished him the same, to which he muttered something sarcastic under his breath. The car horn blared once more, spurring him into a jog. "Smell ya later, Neph," he said over his shoulder on his way out the door.
"Hmph," was Nephrite's reply.
Only after Jadeite was gone did he allow himself to smile. Jadeite might be a freeloader and a pain in the neck at times, but he had a heart of gold, and Nephrite would be quick to set anyone straight who claimed otherwise. In their younger days, the two of them had constantly harassed one another, boasts and insults their usual mode of communication. For the most part that was still true now that they'd graduated from college and grudgingly accepted that someday they were going to have to at least pretend to grow up. But beneath their jibes lay a silent understanding of the bond they shared, a bond of duty and friendship that transcended time, a bond that would stand when the world fell around them.
Unlike the senshi, who had recovered their memories in a sudden, jarring rush the moment their princess awakened, Endymion's reincarnated guardians had grown into their past lives over time. Kunzite speculated that this was because their prince was more secure in his power than Serenity had been. The Golden Crystal, warm and steady as the sun, had melted the fog of amnesia at a comfortable pace. The gradual process had given them a chance to appreciate the friendship they had once had, even as they rebuilt it in this age. After three lifetimes, Nephrite finally began to grasp the value of that solidarity. Even when they had fallen into the pit of darkness that blotted out all sympathy toward the women they had once cared for and the planet to which they had sworn eternal allegiance, even when their loyalty to their own master had been tainted, the Shitennou had stood together. And though Nephrite would never admit it even in the silence of his deepest thoughts, he loved Jadeite, Kunzite, and Zoisite like brothers.
He brushed away the dark memories of the past. Though their history was something he valued greatly, it could also be depressing, and right now he was determined not to let anything disturb these few minutes of relative calm.
Instead, he focused on the present. His life, at the moment, was great. He had his own house and car, which in his opinion was all a person could ask for. He'd finally told his tightwad boss at the car repair shop to shove it, because tomorrow he was interviewing for his dream job, which he was positive he'd get—several other workers had assured him that he was the most qualified candidate. He'd already married his dream girl, two years ago next month.
Everything was perfect, except for one thing. He couldn't stand her friends.
The dumpling-headed eating machine had a certain lovable innocence that made it easier to overlook her numerous faults. And if Mamoru loved her (the two were away on their honeymoon at the moment) she couldn't be all that bad. Rei could be tolerable once one got past her misandry and passive-aggressive tendencies, but she was still picky and temperamental. Then there was Minako, the group's alternately ditzy and glamorous ringleader, who daily invented new and improved ways to irritate him. And then there was Ami. When he'd first met her, the worst he could say about her was that she was too shy. But then he'd overheard her telling Makoto that she thought he could benefit from an anger management seminar, even adding that he showed some warning signs of becoming abusive in the future.
"You heard that out of context. And anyway, you shouldn't have been eavesdropping on our conversation!" Makoto had told him when he'd confronted her about it later. The fact that she sided with Ami, that she always seemed to side with her friends over him, bothered him more than anything else. Even tonight, they had postponed the romantic dinner he'd planned for the two of them so they could get together with her friends and plan a surprise party for Ami. The young doctor was about to depart to deliver a two-month lecture series in various universities and hospitals across Europe, and the girls wanted to send her off in style.
As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Shrill above the melodic chime was Minako's obnoxiously cheerful greeting, "Hello Mako-chan, Nephrite-kun! We brought pizza!" By "we" she meant herself and Kunzite, and probably her feline companion Artemis as well. Nephrite wondered how the white cat could stand his partner. He seemed to be her total opposite in personality: fastidious, hard-working, mostly sensible, and just similar enough to Kunzite that the two were constantly at odds. Nephrite, on the other hand, would have found Artemis fairly easy to get along with… except that it was hard to get past the fact that he was a small, furry animal. Conversing with him as an equal felt somehow humiliating, no matter how intelligent he was.
Makoto opened the door and beckoned them in. A flash of white fur streaked across the top of the sofa and landed on the back of his armchair.
"Good evening, Shimeba-san," Artemis greeted him as he kneaded the cushion and made himself comfortable. Nephrite nodded stiffly in reply.
"Where's the remote?" Minako wanted to know. "The Olympics are on."
"Under the sofa, I think," Makoto told her. She emerged from the kitchen balancing three cans of beer, two teacups, and a saucer of milk.
Artemis licked his lips as she approached, purring his appreciation. Nephrite snagged two cans and held one out to Kunzite. He deftly popped the other open with one finger and swallowed half of it in one gulp. He had a feeling he'd be needing a few more before the night was over, especially when Zoisite showed up. The willowy, whimsical industrial designer had moments where he could grate on Nephrite's nerves just as well as Minako could. And it seemed the more time he spent around Ami, the more frequent those moments became.
Ami and Zoisite had met through Kunzite, who had been Zoisite's room mate since college. He had introduced them when Ami had mentioned that her team at the hospital was looking for a designer to help them develop a new kind of hearing aid. The two had spent about six months insisting that their relationship was strictly business (and fooling only themselves) before admitting their mutual attraction. Now, a year later, Minako, Makoto, and Jadeite were making bets on when they would get engaged. Rei had placed a bet too—she'd staked her money on "when Hell freezes over," and for once Nephrite hoped she was right.
"I still can't find it," Minako complained from under the sofa, where she was digging for the remote control. "I don't want to miss the women's volleyball finals."
Nephrite took the pizza from Kunzite and turned to help Makoto with the drinks. That proved to be his fatal mistake. He reached for the milk saucer, knowing Artemis would probably dig his claws into the chair in excitement if he had to wait much longer, but his fingers grazed the hot teapot, and he jerked back instinctively. The pizza slid halfway out of the box before he caught it awkwardly with his arm, spilling the rest of his beer in the process. Makoto skirted the couch to help him.
At exactly the wrong moment, Minako emerged triumphantly with the remote. "Found it- wah!" She broke off in a startled cry as Nephrite nearly stepped on her. He sidestepped to avoid her and slipped in the spilled beer. Makoto dropped her teacups. Artemis clawed the chair as he sprang to push Minako out of the way, and ended up getting squashed by Nephrite as the six-foot-three man fell on his face with a crash. The pizza sailed into the air in a graceful parabola, hovered there for a surreal moment, and then dropped to the floor, splattering all over the couch, the floor… and Jadeite's jacket.
Artemis groaned as he wriggled out from under Nephrite, and groaned again at the state of the room. For a few seconds, they all stared in mute horror at the mess. Then suddenly, Minako doubled over in a fit of giggles.
"What's so funny?" Nephrite snapped, spitting out cat hair.
"That was like a camaraderie of errors!" she blurted out.
Everyone else groaned.
"That's 'comedy of errors,' Mina," Artemis corrected, in the weary tone of one used to her idiomatic blunders. He bent to help Makoto and Kunzite scoop up the fallen pizza (or more precisely, to lick up some of the molten cheese. No sense in wasting it, after all.)
"Get it off the jacket," Nephrite insisted urgently. Without waiting for them to acknowledge, he shoved his way between them to put actions to words. He swore profusely as he saw the full extent of the damage.
Minako squinted at the garment, not quite understanding what all the fuss was about. "It's ugly anyway. Good riddance!"
"You don't understand," Nephrite growled as he gingerly lifted the sport coat, which was covered in tomato sauce. "This isn't just any jacket. It's the Green Jacket."
Kunzite, Makoto, and Artemis did a double take. "What?" they exclaimed in unison.
Minako regarded him with a blank stare. When she and her friends talked about "the green jacket," they usually meant that pukeish olive abomination Mamoru-san had worn when he was at Moto Azabu. Jadeite's wasn't quite the same, though in her opinion it was almost as bad.
"You, know, the Masters Tournament?" Makoto prompted, searching Minako's wide azure eyes for some spark of understanding. Minako slowly shook her head no.
"The U.S. Masters is one of the four major professional golf tournaments. It's held every April in Augusta, Georgia in the United States," Kunzite explained, spouting off one of the many random bits of trivia garnered from hours spent in the library. Minako thought he was strange for reading encyclopedias like novels. On cold winter nights he loved to pluck a volume off the shelf, settle into an armchair in front of a roaring fire, and read it cover to cover. It was therapeutic, and occasionally useful. "Since 1949, a special green jacket has been given to the winner to wear for one year." He frowned thoughtfully, inspecting the jacket. "I think this one's a fake, though. The buttons are wrong."
"Jadeite changed them."
"Why in the world would he do that?" Makoto asked.
"So it wouldn't be recognized." Nephrite was beginning to regret telling them all this, knowing Jadeite would probably object, but it was too late.
Kunzite still looked doubtful. "The winner is supposed to return it to the club at the end of the year. Why would Jadeite have one here? And how in the world did he get it in the first place?"
"Because Jadeite's father, Watanabe Hiroshi, was the winner of the 2010 Masters."
"No way," Makoto breathed. "He never told us that."
Nephrite shrugged. "I'm not surprised. He doesn't talk about his past much."
"His past…" she repeated, suddenly understanding. "His father died?"
"Yeah. About a month after the tournament, he had a sudden heart attack. Jadeite was about nine at the time. They were supposed to give the jacket back, but his mother hid it, thinking she could sell it to pay for Jadeite's education. Jadeite didn't want her to. He said it would tarnish his father's memory to make a profit off of it like that. One of the many things they fought about." Nephrite shook his head, recalling many a screaming match he'd overheard between his quick-tempered friend and his equally stubborn and irritable mother. They were like Jadeite and Rei at their worst, except it was less comical and neither one secretly enjoyed it.
Artemis quirked an eyebrow. "Selling it for a profit would be bad... but stealing it from the club is perfectly fine?"
"Don't ask me to explain Jadeite's logic," Nephrite sighed. "But anyway, when he moved out for college, he took the jacket with him, and he's been hiding it from his mother ever since."
"Quite a story," said Kunzite with an appreciative nod.
Minako attempted to steer the conversation in a less depressing direction. "I never knew Jadeite was into golf."
"Oh, is he ever into golf. His family used to run a country club in Hiroshima, so he's been into it since he was a kid. Have you seen his room? Clubs and trophies everywhere, and a giant poster of Jumbo Ozaki."
"How anyone gets that excited over such a boring sport is beyond me," she sniggered.
In normal circumstances, Nephrite would have heartily agreed, but at that moment her nonchalance only made him angrier.
"That jacket is Jadeite's last memento of his father. He's going to kill me when he finds out what happened to it." He glared at her. "I'm so glad you find this entertaining."
Her injured expression pricked at his conscience, but the rational part of his brain that told him it wasn't her fault, that her flippant attitude was just her way of coping with stress, was quickly stifled by his mounting frustration. She didn't have to laugh at his misfortune.
He felt like punching something. A younger Nephrite would have. But he settled for stomping over to the sink to grab a wad of paper towels, and took out the remainder of his frustration on the stain that was seeping into the green cloth.
"Knowing Jadeite, he'll drink way too much at the party and stagger in half-conscious at two in the morning. If I were you, I'd take it to the cleaner's early tomorrow while he's still hung over," Makoto advised. "In the meantime, I know a good home remedy for removing tomato sauce."
Nephrite ran a hand through his hair and sighed, feeling suddenly guilty. It wasn't even his jacket, and in hindsight, the accident was mostly his fault. If she could keep a level head about it, so could he. That was what he admired most about her. Her anger was legendary, but so was her patience. He finished mopping up what he could of the mess and settled next to her on the dry end of the sofa, slipping an arm around her shoulders by force of habit. She and Kunzite were now debating whether club soda or WD-40 was better for tomato stains.
"Jadeite will never know," Minako reassured him. "You can do what I do and blame the cat if it leaves a stain."
"…Hey!" Artemis huffed, suddenly wondering how many other mishaps had been blamed on him.
Minako rose from her seat, determined not to let the jacket fiasco derail the true purpose of their gathering. "Anyway! The planning Ami-chan's goodbye party party will now come to order," she declared in a voice that commanded everyone's attention. Kunzite immediately stood up beside her. It was part reflex—even after six years, in his mind he could not fully separate Minako from her role as Venus, leader of the guardian senshi. Nor did he want to. Their opposition as leaders was a key dynamic in their relationship, by turns drawing them together and pitting them against one another. They stood for more than themselves. They were Yin and Yang. Dreams and Rationality. Extravagance and Restraint. Moon and Earth. Woman and Man. It was more of a friendly rivalry now that the lines were now drawn along gender rather than allegiance, but a rivalry nonetheless. So when she stood, he would stand as well to represent his men (even if one of those men was being fashionably late and the other had weaseled out of the meeting.)
Whatever his inner motivations, his presence at the head of the table was important. He represented the voice of reason, the voice that would prevent them from spending ten thousand yen on party poppers and inflatable palm trees like they had the time they'd put Minako in charge of New Year's. But for the most part, he was content to let her do the talking. This was her arena. She was in no-nonsense leader mode now, and she was not about to let Ami's last night be anything less than spectacular.