Minako stood still in the middle of the crowd, staring at the advertisement that flashed across the screens. Namie Amuro's hair framed her youthful face before quickly disappearing; it was replaced by a group of girls, linking hands and laughing with each other. All of them had long flowing hair that suddenly whipped around from an off-screen fan.
On her shoulder, Artemis peered closely at her face. "Mina?"
"I need a haircut," Minako said abruptly, turning on her heel. She peeked over her shoulder just in time to see her own face smiling towards the viewer; her blonde hair had been covered by a flowing brown wig. Her manager had suggested that she do the hair shoot, even if her own locks were too sun dyed for Japan to envy. The solution had been to give her a wig.
"With a face like that, she can sell anything," the casting producer said.
Minako turned away from the advertisement and quickly maneuvered through the crowd. Artemis's claws dug into her shirt as he tried to hold on. "Mina, you just got a haircut—"
"It's getting long again," Minako huffed. As if to prove her point, she quickly gathered her hair up and tied it back. "See? Perfect ponytail."
"Whatever you say," Artemis replied. He knew better than to push the subject. There were just some things that he and Minako didn't talk about—didn't need to talk about. And while on the surface it was about hair, Artemis knew that it was deeper than that. Minako didn't care about hair—she cared about Usagi, her Senshi, and anything that could put them in danger. Hair was just another possible liability. Artemis remembered when Minako tried convincing Rei to cut her hair as well; surprisingly, the raven-haired girl was protective of her long locks.
It had been a month since the Senshi and Troopers had met at Sendai. Minako waited quietly at the crosswalk, thinking about the whole training session altogether. "It was good," she told Artemis the night she'd returned. "We learned a lot."
"Did you?" Artemis's brow furrowed as he curled up in her blankets. He watched as she frowned and paused in brushing her hair.
"Well," she said slowly, "I think these Roof Boys can call up our powers. We tested it. Ryo could make fire appear, and Shin apparently summoned a tidal wave. Seiji glowed for a little bit, but I don't think he was really interested in channeling the power of love. He could definitely make Mako's hair frizz up, though."
"What in the world," Artemis said at once. "Your powers are directly tied to your sailor crystals. How could they do that?"
"That's what I'm wondering," Minako said softly, and their conversation ended there. Now, however, with Artemis peacefully on her shoulder and the world once again moving, she felt her stomach turn. There was something unsettling about the idea that strangers could potentially control their powers. Ami, of course, was excited at any possibility to experiment on the unknown, but Minako couldn't share her sentiments.
Her power was her own—her birthright. Minako sighed, waltzing into the nearest salon. She was greeted at once with a flurry of words. One young man in particular made his way over to her with a large smile. "Aino!" he said, taking her hand. He paused to rub Artemis's head. "And Artemis-chan! No appointment again?"
"Of course not, Ryuta," Minako said cheerily, taking her usual seat by the window. Ryuta had taken Artemis , setting him down on the counter. "Can I just get another trim?"
"Of course," Ryuta said, whipping out his apron and tying it skillfully. "You'll just have to wait your turn, though."
"Pfft," Minako said, and she turned in her seat to apologize to Ryuta's other customer before freezing. "Ra—rajura?"
The white-haired man inclined his head. "Aino-san," he said. Ryuta blinked a few times.
"What a small world," he said conversationally before adjusting Rajura's seat. "How do you know Aino, if you don't mind me asking, Kuroda-san?"
"We have mutual friends."
"Ah," Ryuta said, nodding understandingly. "She's very popular, she knows many people."
"She is quite charming," Rajura said as Minako's mouth continued to flap open.
"Don't tell me you've fallen for her, Kuroda-san!" Ryuta laughed. "Alright, Kuroda-san, I'm going to start."
Kuroda? Minako's features easily slipped into a smile, although her mind was racing. What in the world was Rajura doing at her favorite salon, getting a haircut from her favorite hairdresser? And furthermore, why did he have two eyes? She had been under the impression that he had somehow lost an eye in battle, but sitting in front of her now—she paused, leaning forward.
His eyes were different colors. It was hardly noticeable, but they were two different kinds of blues—his right eye was the blue of a frosty winter sky, and his left eye was as if the sun was peeking behind the cloud of the same sky. She was almost disappointed when Rajura closed his eyes; she sank back in her seat, trying not to seem troubled.
Maybe this was all a coincidence, she thought, but she knew better. There was nothing like coincidence in her life.
"Alright, Minako-san, your turn!"
"Never mind," Minako said, standing up from her chair. Artemis immediately took his spot on her shoulder. "Sorry, I'll come tomorrow, Ryuta. I'm just so excited to see Ra—Kuroda that I have to take him out!"
As if to emphasize her point, she clung onto Rajura's arm and smiled sweetly. To his credit, he only shrugged. Ryuta sighed. "Off you go, then. I know I can't convince you otherwise."
It only took five minutes for Minako to drag Rajura out of the salon and towards the metro. She had been quiet all the while musing over the reasons as to why he was there; Rajura, on the other hand, was going along with it. Artemis dove into Minako's bag once they arrived at the station.
"Here," Minako said, shoving Artemis around in her bag as she fished around. "I'll let you use my Suica—"
She cut herself and stared when Rajura pulled out his own transit card. "I was about to offer you mine," he said cordially. Minako's face scrunched up into incomprehension.
"Are you—what is going on? Seriously?"
"I believe you just dragged me out of a salon, and now we're at the station," Rajura replied.
"Kuroda Jirougorou, please," Rajura said. His face remained still, even as Minako flailed a bit.
"Of course he has a fake name," she muttered to herself, grabbing his hand and yanking him through the crowd. She passed her card over the reader; he barely had time to do the same before she abruptly pulled him to the left. "Of course he has a fake name. He's got his own Suica, why can't he have a fake name too?"
"It is my real name," Rajura said, leaning forward so she could hear. Minako turned her head up to the sky and asked the heavens why. He allowed himself to be forced onto the subway, trying not to raise his eyebrows when Minako continued to clutch at his hand. The cat on her shoulder stared at him curiously; judging by the moon that it didn't bother to hide, Rajura could tell it wasn't a normal cat.
It was fifteen minutes later that Minako shoved him down onto the wooden floor of the Hikawa Jinja. She crossed her arms, leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. Artemis struggled to stay on her shoulder. "Alright, spill. What are you doing here?"
Rajura wanted to sigh. Instead he met her gaze evenly. "I am on vacation," he said. Minako let out a hiss.
"Don't lie to me, buddy."
"What is a 'buddy'?" Rajura answered, and he almost rolled his eyes when Minako stared at him blankly. "I'm from the Youjakai."
"So you're telling me that you know how to use a Suica, and yet you don't know what 'buddy' means?" Minako raised her eyebrows. "Right, okay, and I'm a bison."
"Well," Artemis said, and then he slapped his paws over his mouth once he realized he wasn't supposed to talk. Rajura hardly looked surprised.
"Oh way to blow it, Arty," Minako scowled. She straightened up from her lean and placed her hands on her hips. All traces of frustration disappeared from her face; instead she looked contemplative and slightly unsure. "Really, Rajura, what are you doing there?"
Rajura thought for a moment that his life would considerably be ten times easier if he told her the truth. He took one look at her serious blue eyes, though, and decided against that. According to Kayura, their situation didn't have anything to do with the Troopers or the Sailor Senshi—yet, anyway. They had to blackmail the priest of Elysion into keeping his mouth shut (Naaza was very persuasive when he wanted to be); Setsuna and the others, on the other hand, were doing their best in Spain to make sure that nothing got out of hand.
But what was their situation, exactly? That Anubis, Setsuna and Hotaru trespassed where they should not have, angered whom they should not have angered, unlocked what they should have kept hidden? Rajura was against keeping the others from learning; it was Neptune, surprisingly, who disagreed with him. "Nothing's happened yet," she said quietly, hands over her growing stomach. "Let them have this small moment of peace until it's necessary."
Minako's voice cut him out of his thoughts. He met her gaze and shrugged. "Youjakai becomes dull after awhile."
The blonde frowned, but before she could respond, the screen door slid open and Rei stormed through. Her angry disposition cleared for a moment when she spotted the two. "Oh, Minako, Rajura, what are you two doing here?"
"Vacation," Rajura said. Rei nodded, seeming to take the answer. Minako started.
"What, you're just gonna accept that?"
"Why not?" Rei responded, sliding the door closed. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze fixed on a scene in the distance. "Besides, I have other things to worry about."
"Eh?" Minako turned to spot a young man wearing the hakama of the shrine. He was sweeping the stone steps diligently and failed to see an old woman approaching him. Minako blinked when he swept dirt onto the old woman's shoes.
"That idiot," Rei grumbled, but she made no move to help him. They watched as the young man apologized, bowing. The old woman was instantly charmed, pulling him up from his bow.
"Rei," Minako said slowly, staring at the new worker, who was now helping the old woman write a wish on a wooden plaque. She tilted her head, wondering if she was seeing things; her first instinct was that Rei always lucked out when it came to gorgeous men at her shrine, but then she realized he looked familiar. It was impossible, though... except there was no denying it—the same handsome face, the same sea-colored eyes. Sure, the hair was shorter, but there was no denying it. "Is that Shutendouji?"
Rei balked. "What? Him? Are you blind, Minako?"
Minako blinked again. She glanced at her friend's face before turning back to the worker. "Er, well, are you?"
"Seriously, that's Shuten," Minako said, a bit bewildered. "You can't tell?"
"They look nothing alike," Rei huffed, crossing her arms. She peeked over her shoulder at the new worker. "Nothing at all. Besides, Shuten wouldn't be nearly as useless as—"
"Hey, Shuten!" Minako called out, waving her arm out. Rei's mouth actually fell open when the new worker looked up, spotted Minako and smiled at her. He bowed his head in a quick greeting before turning back to the old woman. Minako grinned. "See, told you."
"What?" Rei managed to say before she sat down next to Rajura.
"Wow, Rei, you must be losing it," Minako commented slyly. It wasn't every day that one obtained ammunition against Hino Rei. Shuten, done with assisting the old woman, was approaching them. "Seriously, you couldn't see the similarities at all?"
"Shut up," Rei said weakly, looking as if her whole life had been a lie. Rajura picked at his shirt.
"Rajura," Shuten said once he was close enough. "You look well."
"So do you," Rajura said. "For someone who's supposed to be dead, anyway."
Shuten grinned; Minako wanted to cry tears of joy. She'd always thought Shuten was a looker, but something about him now—that haircut, maybe—made him seem so much more modern. She clasped her hands together as Artemis openly rolled his eyes in an un-cat-like manner. "Actually," Shuten said, "I was granted another chance at life. They were impressed about the way we handled Death Phantom."
"Koma," Rei said, sounding as if she were ill. Shuten blinked.
At his easy-going reply, Rei threw her arms up into the air. She wordlessly gestured. Minako shrugged when Rajura and Shuten both glanced at her. "Beats me, I've never seen her so riled up."
"You said your name was Koma Toshitada," Rei finally said, standing up. She had a finger on his chest accusatorily. "It was on your application!"
"My name is Koma Toshitada," Shuten replied calmly. He started to smile again, glancing down at her finger. "I don't understand what the problem is, miko-san."
"Don't mock me!" Rei grumbled as she met his gaze evenly. "What were you doing this whole time?"
"What do you mean?"
"She didn't know you were you," Minako supplied. Shuten blinked again.
"Ah," was all he said. Rei seemed, for a moment, like she was going to hit him. Then, in a remarkable display of control, she took a deep breath, let it out, turned on her heel and stalked off. They watched as she grabbed Shuten's discarded broom and began to sweep almost robotically.
"I'm beginning to wonder," Shuten commented after a moment, "is that her method of stress therapy?"
"Probably," Minako said as Rei continued to sweep the same spot again and agan. "Really, Shuten, you get a new chance at life and you come to sweep floors for a living?"
Shuten smiled fondly, as if remembering a private joke. He shrugged before turning back to Rajura. "So, Jirougorou-kun. How has your stay been so far?"
"Just fine, Toshitada-kun," Rajura replied, leaning back on his hands. "I just got a haircut. Nothing nearly as dramatic as yours."
Shuten laughed. "I needed to blend into the human world."
"Are you not human, then?"
Shuten merely smiled, opting to change the subject. "I think I'll go apologize to miko-san."
He started off, a teasing smile on his face as he made his way towards Rei. Minako raised her eyebrows.
"Chummy," Rajura repeated faintly. "And that would mean?"
"Oh, you know." Minako shrugged, flopping down beside him. Artemis fell easily into her lap. "Best of friends."
"I would think he was attracted to her, not her best friend," Rajura said so plainly that Minako almost fell over.
"Seriously?!" Her gaze brightened as she turned to him. "You really really think so?"
"You do not?"
The two of them turned to watch the scene. Shuten had managed to pry the broom out of Rei's hands. She crossed her arms, ready for an explanation; he opened his mouth to say something, but paused when he spotted a leaf in her hair. Shuten reached forward and plucked the leaf out. His fingers brushed against Rei's forehead.
The two of them were still—then Rei reached forward and smacked him over the head, scowling.
"What kind of relationship is that?" Rajura asked after a moment.
"You said it yourself! Obviously they're way too attracted to each other to even notice!" Minako gushed, hand at her mouth in glee. She started cackling a bit. "This is way too perfect!"
Rajura gave her an odd look. Then he shared an exasperated glance with the cat. Artemis, finding solace in a stranger's empathy, leapt from Minako's arms into Rajura's. "She is always like this?" Rajura asked.
"Ugh, yes," Artemis said, licking his paw. Minako flicked him on the forehead.
"Shut up, Arty, you love me."
"Meow," Artemis said dryly.
"Hm, seems like we weren't invited to the party."
The three of them turned to the new voice to see Ami and Touma just making their way over the last set of stairs. Ami waved and Touma held up two fingers.
"Yo," he said. Minako, however, tuned in on the fact that Ami was wearing a specifically cute dress with specifically cute shoes matching her specifically cute bag. She almost gasped out loud; instead, she widened her eyes at her friend. Ami, seeing her gaze, blushed and glanced away. That was all Minako needed to confirm it.
Ami was on a date. With Touma. And she had done it all on her own. While the blonde felt proud of her friend, she also felt—something else, especially when she turned her eyes onto Touma. It wasn't necessarily dislike, but more—was she distrustful? Minako frowned. Hadn't she been rooting for these two from the beginning? What on earth was wrong with her?
And she knew right away. She averted her gaze, taking instead to grab Artemis and plop him down in her lap. He scowled at the treatment, moving to settle down more comfortably.
"What brings you here, Rajura?" Touma asked.
"I'm on vacation," Rajura said for what he thought was the millionth time that day.
"Oh," Ami said with a small smile. "I hope you've enjoyed your stay here so far."
"Ah, really?" Touma scratched his cheek. "Where are you staying?"
"Neptune is allowing me to use her home while she is away," Rajura replied.
"Okay, seriously!" Minako cried out, flinging her arms up and down. "Why is everyone okay with this?!"
"Why shouldn't we be?" Touma responded, raising an eyebrow at her. Ami, seeing that Minako was ready to throw Artemis at him, grabbed his arm.
"We're here to get ema for exams," she explained. "Let's be quick, then get back to studying?"
"Fine, fine," Touma grumbled, but he was smiling all the while. Ami shot Minako a thoroughly embarrassed and apologetic look over her shoulder as she tugged Touma away. Rajura didn't need to look at Minako to know she was irritated. The feeling radiated from her, even though she was trying to hide it.
"Well," he said, "it seems that Tenkuu no Touma and Mercury are dating."
Minako scrunched up her nose. "Aw come on, you know 'dating' but you don't know 'chummy'?"
"You have ema in this land?" Rajura watched as Touma and Ami both wrote their wishes on a wooden plaque. Touma peeked over Ami's shoulder, trying to read what she wrote. When she realized what he was doing, she playfully pushed him away.
"Of course we do." Minako looked up at him. Again, she couldn't help but focus on his different colored eyes. One of them had to be fake, but which one? Rajura returned her gaze evenly. As if he knew what she was thinking, he suddenly smirked and pointed at his left eye.
"I can fool humans, but you apparently are too keen."
"Pfft," Minako said, reaching over to slap him on the shoulder. "You can't get anything past me, buddy. Wait, where are you going?"
Rajura stood up. He scratched Artemis behind the ears before he looked into her eyes. "I have to feed Rekka's tiger. He is also staying at Neptune's home."
"Oh." Minako didn't really want to admit that she would rather hang out with Rajura instead of watch Ami and Touma act like a couple. "Well, bye then."
Rajura turned. Then he paused—there was a leaf sticking out of Minako's hair. And, just as Shuten had done with Rei, he reached down to brush it away. Minako's breath caught as his hand swept across her brow and tucked her hair behind her ears. She could feel the blood rushing through her veins as he stayed there for a moment, with his fingers hovering near the nape of her neck.
Then he straightened up and said, "Goodbye."
Minako watched with an open mouth as Rajura strolled away. He joined Touma and Ami at the top of the stairs, and together the three of them fell out of sight. She pressed a hand to her cheek, well aware that she was blushing. What the heck had that been all about?
"Mina," Artemis said, having been awkwardly caught in between them.
"Huh?" Minako blinked rapidly, glancing down at the cat. He was giving her a dry look. "What?"
"Next time you want to flirt, can you please not—YOWCH!"
Minako squeezed his tail, huffing. "I was not flirting! He's only got one eye!"
Artemis responded by clawing her hand. He leapt away before she could retaliate, bounding after Ami's footsteps. He had no idea what Rajura's intentions were, but he was definitely going to find out. No one flirted with his Minako and got away without at least a hiss.
Shin, Seiji and Makoto sat side by side in front of pottery wheels, trying to make cups. In the front of the shop, Shin's mother was talking to a customer about custom orders. It had been his mother's idea for Shin to get Makoto on the pottery wheel, and his sister Sayoko had suggested that they start off by doing cups.
It had taken Makoto a few tries, but she eventually warmed up to the art of pottery. It was a nice break from strolling at the beach or exploring the architecture of the city. Her vacation to Hagi with Seiji and Shin was rather spontaneous, but she found herself enjoying the quiet life. And sure, her cups weren't as effortless as Shin's, but at least she wasn't a complete failure.
"Shin," Sayoko called out from the front. She poked her head into the back room. "I'm closing the shop for a bit. Mother wants to take a walk."
"Have fun," Shin said as he continued to throw a bowl.
The three of them worked without pressure. Makoto found it easy to exist around the two; they were easy-going and had relaxing auras. Even Seiji, with his proper mannerisms, was like a breath of fresh air. It had been Shin's idea to invite them out to Hagi during a break in their curriculum, and Makoto was glad that she had accepted.
"So," Shin said conversationally, breaking the calm silence. "What exactly happened with you and Hino on that last night of training? When you were getting drinks?"
Makoto blinked. This was news to her. "Something happened?"
Shin nodded, finishing his bowl. He took his foot off the pedal, grabbing a wire to cut. "Touma said something happened."
"We ran into a few of my older classmates." Seiji, for all his grace, looked like he was struggling a bit with centering the clay. It amused Makoto to see him out of his element. "They weren't pleased to see me."
"What do you mean?" Makoto asked. She worked clay around her hand, pressing her knuckles against the sides just as Shin had instructed her. The clay started to rise into a wall.
"I am not very popular," Seiji said. He didn't seem bothered by it, though, as he continued to focus on his piece. "My hair is unnatural, and I wasn't particularly healthy when I was younger. My classmates tended to pick on me."
"Yeah, but that was when you were younger." Makoto raised her eyebrows, pulling her attention from her clay to look at him. "They didn't get over it?"
"Ah, Kino, be careful—"
At Shin's warning, Makoto yelped. She turned back to her clay cup, which had collapsed into a crushed ball in her distraction. She cursed, trying to quickly mold it back before all hope was lost. Shin slowed his own pottery wheel before reaching over to reshape her work. She watched his hands tried to salvage the broken pieces back into a cup.
"I tried my best," Shin said apologetically. Makoto tenderly took the clay into her hands with a sigh.
"Thanks," she mumbled. Even with Shin's skill, the cup was ruined. She took her foot off the wheel pump, slumping over a bit. Time to start over. She looked for her cutting tool. "What were you saying, Seiji?"
Seiji let out a slow breath as he pressed his thumb to clay. It was Shin who spoke for him. "They tried to hassle you, didn't they?"
"More or less." Seiji frowned, knowing that his frustration at the situation was seeping into his clay. It was always a meditative practice, pottery with Shin. It wasn't Shin's intention, but it calmed Seiji. There was a balance to every action in shaping the clay; too much force and it would crumble, but too less force and it wouldn't take shape. "They... tried to goad me into fighting them."
"Goad you?" Makoto's eyebrows scrunched together. Her tongue poked out as she tried to cut around her cup. "Like a bunch of middle school gangsters?"
Seiji sighed. "Shin, you remember what some of them said about Nasuti three years ago, at the festival?"
Shin grimaced, knowing where the conversation was heading. "Of course, we had to stop Shuu and Ryo from getting into a fight."
Makoto fell quiet for a moment as she cut under the base of her cup. "Were they talking about her mixed heritage, or—"
"Well, no," Shin said. An annoyed expression flit over his face at the memory. "More like the fact that she's an older attractive woman, and she was hanging around younger guys like us—lewd comments, stuff they only said because they were drunk."
"What?" Makoto balked. A bunch of idiots being bawdy to someone as sweet as Nasuti? This all happened before she even knew Nasuti, but Makoto felt herself getting angry on the older woman's behalf. "You're kidding, right?"
"Nasuti, of course, was a saint about it all." Shin took Makoto's cup, smoothing it out a bit. He set it on the rack intended for further embellishment, even with its cracks. "She wasn't offended at all."
"These guys said stuff like that to Rei?" Makoto wiped her fingers on her apron irritably. "I hope she punched them in the face."
"She did exactly that," Seiji murmured. "One of them made a comment about how I 'finally managed to snag some ass' and she didn't even give him a chance to apologize. She just—turned around and slapped him so hard his nose started bleeding. The other guys started to grab her, so I stopped them."
"Ah, Seiji," Shin said, shaking his head. "Why didn't you tell us?"
Seiji let his wheel slow down. Makoto and Shin were both genuinely upset. He hadn't intended for that. "I didn't mean to keep it a secret. I lost my temper."
Makoto looked confused, but Shin understood immediately. "You beat them pretty bad?"
"A little bit," Seiji admitted. Makoto continued to blink. "Kino, I—"
"Mako-chan," she corrected him.
"Mako-chan," he repeated. "I've learned from the start that the best thing to do with this group is to ignore them. They've been bothering me since elementary school. All they want is a reaction from me. I never cared to waste my time on reacting negatively. When I saw them and Hino, though... They were intending to hurt her to get to me. And I couldn't allow that."
"I get it," Makoto said. She knew all too well what he was talking about. Over the years, she had learned to also brush off rumors and gossip, choosing not to waste her energy on darker emotions. There was no use getting angry over it; where there were naysayers on one side, on the other side she had people like Usagi who lifted her up. She had found a place and people that had kept her calm—but that only applied to her own self. If anyone dared to threaten the Senshi in the slightest, she wouldn't hesitate to throw the first punch. She would do anything to defend her friends. "I understand completely."
"Thank you," Seiji said. "Although—"
"No, I get it," Makoto repeated. She reached for another chunk of clay to start wedging. "Don't make excuses for yourself. You didn't do anything wrong. It's alright for you to ignore them, and it's alright for you to get mad when they involve other people. You've got a great heart, Seiji. You shouldn't apologize for it."
"Well said, Mako-chan," Shin quipped. Makoto blushed.
"Jeez, when you say 'Mako-chan', it sounds so different," she said, cringing. "No wonder Setsuna couldn't resist your advances."
Shin and Seiji both chuckled. "You're rather charming yourself, Mako-chan," Shin said. "I know a certain food fiend who can't stop talking about you."
"Oh stop it," Makoto said with a click of her tongue. She shook her head, taking a moment to properly focus on wedging "And tell that food fiend that if he keeps running his mouth—"
"You'll stop kissing him?"
"He told you that?!" Makoto actually punched Shin on the arm. Seiji laughed openly as Shin, grinning, elbowed her back and tried to pretend that it didn't really hurt as much as it did. Makoto buried her face in her clay-stained hands, groaning. "Oh my gosh."
"Oh come on now, Mako-chan." Shin tried to pry her fingers away from her face; instead, she dropped her head onto her knees. "I thought it was a cute story! Not everyone can say they had an accidental kiss on top of Tokyo Tower—"
"Accidental?" Seiji, not usually one to be curious, glanced at Makoto. Her ears were bright red. "It wasn't intentional?"
"No," Makoto moaned, burying her fingers in her hair. "I was trying to point out my old apartment and he was trying to show me his favorite restaurant and our faces—"
She cut herself off, too embarrassed to continue. Shin made a noise like he was trying to hold back more laughter. Seiji politely cleared his throat. Oh, she was going to destroy Shuu the next time she saw him. Sure, that accidental kiss had led into more heated lip-locking, and maybe that had opened the door to last night's make-out rumble, but did he really have to tell everyone? And Shin, out of all people?!
"Come on, Mako-chan, let's get your hands and your hair cleaned up." Shin held his hands out. She ignored them.
"I don't want to look at you guys."
"It's not like Minako hasn't already told everyone."
"I'm going to kill her too."
"You two kissed in public?"
Makoto sprang up and smacked Seiji on the arm. He rubbed the spot, looking alarmed. He hadn't been trying to be smart. Shin held in a laugh at the sight of her red face. He offered his hands again, and this time she took them. He led her out of the door.
Seiji, in his solitude, found his smile fading and his thoughts drifting away again, back to that last night of training. Rei had apologized to him for treating him so undeservingly, bowing so low that her hair fell past her shoulders and he could see the nape of her neck. He had accepted her apology, of course, saying that it was nothing—but honestly, a part of him wondered if maybe he would have preferred it if she continued to dislike him. Then he wouldn't have to worry about the feeling he got when her gaze was on him.
"You smushed your cup."
Seiji looked at Makoto, who had reentered with clean hands. Then he glanced down. His thumb had gone right through the wall. He frowned, unsure of what to do. Taking pity on him, Shin approached and took the cup in his hands.
"You're sure your mother's okay with our stuff?" Makoto asked, determined to forget all about their previous conversation. Her cheeks were still red, though. She glanced at the drying rack. Shin's creations were immaculate, but hers and Seiji's stood out. "I mean, they're kind of... droopy."
"That kind of style is actually popular now," Shin said with a shrug. "If we can't sell them, we can probably use them at the house. It's better technique than Ryuusuke's, anyway."
He backed away from Seiji's deformed creation, studying it for a moment. Then he nodded.
"Yep, definitely better than Ryuusuke's."
"I heard that!" came Ryuusuke's voice from the front. Apparently they were back from their walk. Makoto and Seiji chuckled as Shin quickly cut out Seiji's cup. Then, placing that last piece on a rack, Shin nodded his head towards the door.
"Anyone hungry? Ryuusuke might be terrible at pottery, but he's a great cook."
"I'll cook for everyone except you!" Ryuusuke hollered. Makoto laughed again when she heard Sayoko berating him for yelling in the store. She followed Shin back out the door again, pausing only when she realized Seiji was still sitting.
The blonde brushed his hair out of his eyes, and for a split second Makoto was hit with the full intensity of his gaze. Seeing her startled expression, he let his hair fall back over his eye.
"Sorry. I didn't realize—"
"Woah," Makoto said. "Your stare is lethal."
Seiji made to apologize again. Makoto, realizing that he thought she was offended, patted him on the back.
"I didn't mean that in a bad way! It's kind of cool. Imagine what your stare could do to youma."
Seiji took a moment to adjust to the idea that Makoto wasn't put-off. Not for the first time, he found himself thinking that he had found even more companions to share pieces of his life with. He offered her a genuine smile. "Thank you."
"Eh?" Makoto scratched her cheek. Dang, Seiji really had a killer smile. "What for?"
"What are you two doing back there?" Shin called out, interrupting them.
"Coming," Seiji responded, and he held the door open for Makoto. The two of them rejoined Shin, just in time to see Ryuusuke grab him in a headlock.
"He might deserve that," Makoto said, and Seiji laughed alongside her.
It had only been four days since his arrival, but Ryo had surprisingly picked up a few phrases in Spanish. He knew enough to respond to the neighbors when they called him cute, and he could order a soda at the café if he wanted. Setsuna had been his tour guide, and for that he was grateful. Instead of city tourism, she had decided to take him hiking.
The first day, they had taken an unnamed trail. There they met a couple who were travelling to the stone monument at the end of the path. Ryo had gathered (using his dictionary and Setsuna as resources) that the monument was supposed to grant wishes, and that they were going to pray for a good marriage in the future. The four of them travelled together, taking time to get to know each other on their way to the top.
At the end of their destination, the couple made their wish and they parted ways. Setsuna stared at the stone monument, which towered over them and reached into the sky. She placed her hand against its surface, an odd look crossing her face. Then she turned away, declining to make a wish. Ryo took a second longer to wish for peace in his and his friends' hearts.
On the second day, Setsuna had taken him out of the city and to a small town. The town was bristling with wildlife; Ryo almost felt at home. They had made their way up the mountainside path to a cliff, where they sat and watched the world below them hum with a natural energy.
"Please don't take this the wrong way," Ryo said as Setsuna sipped from her water bottle. "I'm having a blast, but I didn't think you were the hiking type."
She gave him a sideways smile. "I like to get away to relax. Haruka can get exhausting sometimes."
He laughed. "Something about surrounding yourself in nature clears your mind up, doesn't it? We just need a large tiger here to complete the picture."
Setsuna, at that point, was getting back to her feet. When the two made their way back down, he felt that somehow Setsuna seemed more approachable to him.
Ryo was particularly fascinated by The Alleys of Stone, which they visited on day three. He took several photographs, wondering if his father had ever been in the same place he was. If not, then he surely would like the photos. Setsuna had complimented him, saying he had a keen eye, and if he was willing she would like a photograph to hang in her office.
Day four, he was adamant in spending time with Hotaru. She was, after all, the one who invited him halfway across the world. The two of them were sitting in the living room with pieces of a Gundam set scattered around them. They had just gotten back from shopping in the street market; while Ryo could have done without the crowd, he was pleasantly surprised to see Hotaru thriving in her new home city. There was a subtle change in her, one that seemed more open to him.
"How long are you staying again?" Haruka asked, eyebrows furrowed. She was sitting on the sofa by them, flipping through the television stations.
"Until the end of the week," Michiru reminded her gently. She was slicing vegetables at the kitchen counter.
"End of the week?" Haruka's eyebrows lowered even more. She watched as Ryo continued to build a Gundam with Hotaru. "Don't you have a girlfriend to get back to?"
"Mm, yeah," Hotaru said, taking a piece out of Ryo's hands. "How is Masako-senpai going to feel when she finds out you're visiting another girl in a different country?"
Ryo snatched the piece right back with a slight smile. "You sound jealous."
"Eh," Hotaru responded, sticking out her tongue. Haruka looked like she wanted to grab that tongue and stick it back in Hotaru's mouth.
"Princess, don't you want to talk to Kayura?" Haruka purposely avoided Michiru's slight gaze. So what if she was trying to distract her daughter from trouble? Hotaru, however, shrugged.
"We spoke in the morning. She's busy. Still trying to clean up Naaza's mess, you know."
"Naaza's mess?" Ryo blinked. Hotaru giggled.
"I think it's just an excuse for her for to spend time with him, if you know what I mean.
"No way!" Ryo exclaimed, gaping. "Kayura and Naaza?"
"Aren't you bored?" Haruka tried again. "Why don't you go hiking again, Sanada? I mean, you can build Gundams back in Japan."
"Haruka's right. Why don't you two take a break and go for a walk?" Michiru glanced at the clock, ignoring Haruka's indignant stare. "Dinner won't be ready for another hour or so, and it'll be nice to show him your spot at that cliff."
"Michiru," Haruka hissed, "we are not supporting him—"
"Will you pick me up some coffee?" Setsuna interjected, poking her head out of her door. Haruka pursed her lips and fell back against the sofa in defeat. "The regular kind I always get?"
"Of course," Hotaru said. She stood up, grabbing Ryo's hand and dragging him up. He barely had time to put on his shoes, trying to keep up with her. Hotaru continued to pull him down the street until they were a block away. She stopped only when Ryo tugged his arm back.
"Woah, what's the hurry?" He almost laughed at the expression on her face.
"They've been smothering me," she replied with a pout. "I'm surprised they even let me out of the house without supervision."
"Are you saying I'm irresponsible?"
Hotaru stuck out her tongue again. Ryo had to smile.
"You seem a lot happier here."
She paused, glancing over her shoulder at him. "Do I?"
She turned back around, falling quiet. Ryo caught up to her, walking by her side. The two of them continued their outing in a thoughtful silence.
"Hey, maybe you can help me train tomorrow," Ryo suddenly suggested. Ever since their training sessions in Sendai, he hadn't tried to produce any fire. Was it even possible, being so far away from Hino? "I promise I'll go easy on you."
"You don't have to," Hotaru said quietly. Thinking she took offense, he cleared his throat awkwardly.
"I was just joking. If anything, you'd have to go easy on me." When she remained quiet, he continued to babble. "I mean, I've seen you fight. You're strong. You—"
"I don't have any powers anymore."
Ryo's mouth closed in shock. They came to a stop. Hotaru's expression was calm as she leaned back against the railing and turned her head to stare out at the sea. "What?"
"I lost them. I'm a little embarrassed about it, actually."
"How—how did you..." Ryo trailed off. He couldn't understand what she meant. Lost her powers? Was that possible? But from what he gathered from Ami, the power of a Sailor Senshi was innately in them. It was unlike the armor. Shouldn't they be impossible to lose? "Hotaru?"
Hotaru sighed, stretching her arms in the air. She finally turned a small smile at him. The wind blew her hair about, but her eyes were clear as she looked up at him. "I was reckless."
"I made a gamble." Her arms rested against the railing again. "Setsuna, Anubis and I... We thought we were stronger than we actually are. We went to Hell to try to solve a problem that is too big for us to handle. I lost my powers fighting, and I had to draw on Anubis's in order to survive. And Setsuna..."
A stern look crossed her face. Ryo was speechless.
"Setsuna tried to turn back time, to restore my powers, but it didn't work. She only turned back time for herself and Anubis. The man we were up against had studied us carefully. He's capable of more than we thought."
"Who is he?" Ryo shook his head. "Why didn't—I could have helped you."
Hotaru sighed lightly. "He has many names, but he has taken over the title of Enma. That should have clued us in as to how strong he is, but we were earnest. He was an enemy of Setsuna's in the past—an enemy of darkness, but a being not made of light, if that makes sense. You wouldn't have been able to hurt him."
Ryo fell quiet, trying to digest everything. Living with Seiji had helped him calm his quick acting; he took a moment to think instead of saying the first thing on his mind. This wasn't about him or this new enemy or the potential threat of the future; this, now, was about Hotaru, and her loss of powers, and her coping with it.
"Is there any way...?"
Hotaru picked up on his unsaid question. The wind blew harder as she closed her eyes in thought. "Kayura thinks she might have an answer." She opened her eyes. "She's the only reason I'm sane right now. She's been trying to find solutions. There's a book she's looking for, one that Kaos wrote. It might be helpful."
"How long will that take to find?"
Ryo reached out, brushing her hair from her cheeks. He leaned closer. "I'll just protect you then. Until you get them back."
"I don't want to be protected," she protested. He smiled slightly.
"Deal with it," he said, and he pressed a quick kiss to her forehead. When he stepped back, he paused to take in her image. Her cheeks were pink, but she didn't look too upset. His heart beat strongly, and he didn't look away, even as she averted her eyes.
"Honestly," Hotaru said finally said, her gaze on the ground and her voice soft, "I'm not really happier. But there's not much I can do. So I'm trying to adjust to being a normal human. And I'm afraid."
"You're allowed to be. I'll be strong for you."
"You don't have to be."
"I want to."
Hotaru looked up at him thoughtfully, and Ryo let out a slow breath. There was trust in her gaze, and curiosity— then she stepped forward into his arms, holding onto him for a long, quiet moment. This time, when he drew back, he leaned down and kissed her. When she didn't pull away, he deepened the kiss, his heart racing when she responded just as earnestly and curled her fingers into his hair.
Ryo made a silent vow then to protect Hotaru with everything he had, even if she didn't want to be protected, and even when she did get her powers back. He thought back to the monument on his first day in Spain, to the wish he had made—and he wished, again, for peace in his heart, in his friends' hearts, and in Hotaru's heart.
an omg you guys i really didn't mean to disappear from this! i know we all want some closure to this (and the practically non-existent pairings cryyyy but see it's happening! slowly but surely things are happening ohohohoho look at the fluff)! thank you as always for reading! thank you thank you always for reading and reviewing and supporting! i appreciate it genuinely :)
p.s. yes this is minakoxrajura. yes it took me this long to commit to it ;A;