Roughly during the time Ami arrived at her favourite bar.
Hitting the brakes with more force than necessary, the auburn-haired man glared at his watch, highly annoyed by the coincidence that he always seemed to run into more blaring red lights than there should have been whenever he found himself in a hurry.
Or rather, whenever he was in need for speeding as an outlet for his emotions.
Nephrite was not an emotional man, a trait he shared with the rest of his investigation squad from the beginning, or maybe it was years working the cutthroat magic as required of their occupation that had imposed upon them all a kind of customary silence, which slowly turned into an advantage. Years of experience had taught him, as it had brutally hammered into the mind of newcomers and forcibly displaced those that could not adapt to the lifestyle, that a display of emotions was one's huge weakness, exposed to be exploited. Of course, that was not the only lesson he had bitterly learned, for a lack of personal relationships and a shaky foundation for anything long-term were secondary, yet almost obligatory by-products.
It's just... good things don't happen to me often, so when they do, I get scared.
With a start, the man shook himself out of the memory surge, that one line someone he held dear had said long ago suddenly came back to him within less than a minute of waiting for the red light to turn green. He accelerated, trying to tear into the darkness illuminated under street lights, attempting to disappear into the empty night, or was it the flashback he was trying to leave behind...? For a moment, Nephrite could no longer tell which was which.
Still driving, he cursed the blonde suspect known to them under the alias of Mina V for picking such a night to withdraw from her covert operation, which in turn prompted him to actively leave the base in order to provide assistance for Kunzite, for he was the silver-haired man's second in command, both reporting back only to their chief. Next he grumbled as he recalled the diligent squad genius, who had discovered inconsistencies in a certain non-suspect blonde's schedule, specifically her appearance in places she shouldn't have known of, and speculated a bewildering, though not entirely impossible link between the chief's former fiancée with the mysterious V they were after; and as usual, Nephrite was switched to surveillance instead. Though of course he would have had no way of knowing it would lead to a highway stripping by a bunch of bikers with too much free time on their hands and ending with him attempting to complete his good deed of the day for an unknown copper-haired girl, only to be enraged. If he had known he was only introducing himself to more troubling thoughts, he would have avoided the task at all cost.
The petite brunette's words were still ringing in his mind like a persistent wasp sting, and Nephrite simply couldn't brush the little criticism aside as easily as he would have liked to, for it was a merciless jab, albeit unknowingly, at one of the few unhealed wounds in his mind. With his understanding in psychology, he understood at least that she was misplacing on him the suppressed feelings of a recent traumatic experience; however, he could not prevent the similarities from triggering in the depths of his thought a memory he had been working to shake.
It wasn't helping that the more he looked at the girl, the more he found himself comparing her to one woman he could never forget, and to whom he probably owed the debt of a lifetime.
Of course, the copper-haired passenger was not her; he knew at least that much. Her hair was a few shades too light, her eyes was a few shades off as well, lacking the depth, sincerity, and a mischievous twinkle he never knew he had been missing until his memories flooded back. Even the way his midnight passenger carried herself was different... hell, he knew for a fact she wouldn't react all that lightly to some random guy in a pair of boxers offering her a "ride", as semantically ominous as the word itself was.
Despite the differences, he still found himself assaulted by longing, by memories so far back in his past they almost seemed to have surged back from another lifetime...
Nephrite gritted his teeth. He didn't want to return to the base in such an agitated state, for he knew he would be lashing out at random parties – not that the blond Zoicite was ever innocent enough to not provoke him in some ways, but those jokes had always been of a friendly nature, like it was bound to happen between long-time comrades. He couldn't drive aimlessly any longer, however, or risked catching the attention of some late-night patrol; and with a sigh, the auburn-haired man opted for the second-best alternative.
Half an hour later, undisclosed location.
Makoto shot up with a start, the denim jacket wrapped around her slid effortlessly off her half-asleep body, revealing her own wristwatch's beeping as the source of her sudden alarm.
Two a.m. sharp.
Her eyes darted around quickly, scanning the environment for any suspicious activity. No, the rooftop was as empty as it had been when she first came, as it always had been every time she arrived seeking refuge.
The brunette eyed her wristwatch with irritation and a dash of suspicion. True, it was the daily alarm she had set for her nightly ritual, a habit she had acquired and maintained ever since her father was alive. A well-known physicist with a much-lesser known interest in astronomy, after a bitter divorce with her mother, a woman more concerned with social advancement and prestige than she was with a five-year-old bundle of energy, he had taken to observing the stars with his little girl every night, in lieu of bedtime stories that never managed to put her to bed.
She remembered vaguely the gentle caress of her hair, the excitement, and most of all the relaxed feeling as her father tucked her into bed after she fell asleep in his lap next to the telescope.
She remembered like yesterday the moment it was announced live on television, interrupting a nature show she was fond of watching, that the plane carrying him home from an overseas conference had crashed into the ocean, killing everyone on board, and violently shook her out of the sheltered life she had been leading up until that point, then unceremoniously tossed her into the streets.
Her relatives had not waited to show their motives, but she was not prepared to witness it all – the ugly dissection of her father's fortune, the hushed whispering of her classmates about how she was bad luck every time she walked by, and the last straw that had sent her running from her childhood home, a threat from her paternal aunt after she refused to go to bed at 10, that such an unruly little girl was to attend an orphanage in order to "straighten her out".
Makoto was young then, and her youth alerted a primal instinct to her plight.
The brunette looked up at her opponents, coughing, but no longer strong enough to wipe away the blood streaming from her head that was slowly blinding her to the dimly lit surrounding. She closed her eyes to the kicks in the stomach, the blows to her side, intending to tough it out until they became bored and left, but her blood soon run cold in her veins as she overheard their lewd discussions of yet another way, the ultimate strategy to breaking a woman once and for all, a dirty tactic only resorted to by the lowest scum of the streets, the ones with the most fragile ego and a burning desire to assert their territory no matter what.
After all, she was simply a young woman who had recklessly and in many ways, foolishly moved into their trading areas, seeking to make ends meet on lesser-priced drug runs that eventually got on the nerves of the dominant gang leader.
After all, she was simply a young woman who, in a moment of carelessness, had been lured out to a dark alley and beaten nearly into submission, save for the defiant glare she levelled at them every time they kicked her battered form.
After all, she was simply a young woman who, at that time, was completely defenseless in front of a bunch of power-hungry street thugs.
Makoto willed her eyes to open, willing herself to stand up and fight like she had initially did and succeeded in doing, if a cowardly member of the ambushers had not sneaked up on her armed with a large rock.
She realized, to her horror, that she could not stand up. Her legs no longer obeyed her, and in fact she wouldn't be surprised to find out she had broken a few ribs. Street thugs were the worst. Shunned by society, often abused or neglected by their families, they banded together, thirsting for the illusion of power that a pack mentality often brought about, seeking to terrorize, intimidate, rule, inadvertently replicating and expanding the very hierarchy of injustices that had pushed them into their blind alley in the first place.
She realized, in blind panic and self-pity, that the gang leader was now advancing on her menacingly, fully intending to flesh out his lewd threat.
"Leave her alone".
A strange voice rang out, one she had never heard before in the area, one laden with concerns and reassurance, one that shot through her body like a bolt of lightning, forcing her to open her eyes again, trying to register in the dim light the lone figure of her saviour.
"What was that, fag?"
"I said leave her alone."
No, she wanted to scream out to him – her acute sense of hearing, despite the damages, had registered the speaker as a man – leave when you can, stranger; you're alone!; she had wanted to warn him, with her dying strength, that he was about to interrupt a wild pack of hungry wolves ready to feast upon their felled prey, and that such disruptions, especially in the urban jungle, never, ever ended well.
But try as she might, she could not get a vowel out.
Her whole body ached with each breath as she worriedly listened on, her eyes slowly widening as she heard the sound of bodies hitting the ground one by one, as if by an invisible force.
But that couldn't be... he was alone.
Makoto threw her head back, gazed at the stars dancing above her, and shook her ponytail lightly to release herself from the spell of a memory long past.
Try as she might, she could not deny that those follow-up months were one of the best times of her life. Next to her saviour, she could relax again, allow her mellow side to surface again... and just when she started to heal from her mental wounds, he disappeared.
No warning, no notes left behind, no goodbye... he just disappeared from her life, as suddenly as he had appeared, like a breeze in the driest month of a tropical land, rare and satisfying but fleeting, never meant to last.
Sometimes she wondered if it was all a months-long daydream.
She closed her eyes, letting the wind caress her face as she lost herself once again in reminiscence.
For in dreams, we enter a world that is entirely our own.
With her eyes closed, her body leaned back onto the door leading downstairs right behind her, the brunette did not notice an auburn head appearing on the roof of the building opposite to hers, and with the chest-high fence on her side, neither did the newcomer notice he was not as alone, even up high, as he had hoped.
A little later, back at the apartment building.
Makoto carefully changed the overall paint of her vehicle back into blue - she had not bothered after the fight with Mina, or during her stargazing expedition - before pulling into the brightly lit, CCTV-monitored parking lot of the apartment complex. Cautiously casting a surveying glance over her surrounding, she slowly exited the now-blue Berlinette, her mind automatically going over the events of that night, hoping to find a better explanation of why the mission had failed.
The red sports car must have been following them for quite a time, blending in with traffic, and it was only when they turned onto more isolated areas that its presence became known to her and Mina.
Mina... A twinge of guilt tugged the strings of Makoto's heart. Deep down, she knew she had no right to open up old wounds, their long-standing friendship or comradeship be damned. Everyone had something they'd prefer to leave behind - the brunette would have been no more thrilled if another teammate had dug up her past.
At the same time, though, she knew the blonde had been carrying that burden for so long, and supposedly so well-concealed, but one that peeked out every time the team encountered obstacles, especially those that, she imagined, must have bore strong resemblance to her time spent by Ace's side. She had seen the blonde shiver when she thought no one was looking, had noticed her gripping her own wrist with a free hand when she thought no one paid attention, that one time when they collaborated with the bureau for an investigation into a string of brutal murders of a bizarrely ritualistic nature. They had been able to save the last victim alive, but the girl, who could not be any older than fifteen, was in a catatonic state, no doubt a direct consequence of what she had seen, being held captive in the sicko's basement, with the only source of light being a small window all the way up the wall, which the prisoner could only see, but never touch.
Forever out of reach.
"They're better off in the dark. That way, my presence would be the only source of light within reach that they had ever known", the deranged biochemistry student had leered at his last victim with those words right before being taken away. The brunette had seen Mina's hands curled into fists, an explicit show of aggression for someone with a constantly cheerful and gentle demeanor. Nor had she missed the curious gleam in her teammate's eyes as the latter looked over the recovered victim – not sorrow, not empathy, but something mixed in between, something that drew others in with the depth of unspoken feelings just beneath the surface, something that tugged at one's heartstrings, demanding recognition but not pity, understanding but not generalizing, all mixed with an extra dash of eternal regret.
It was understandable, if not expected – Mina had never forgiven herself for allowing herself to be lured into Ace's clutches.
The blonde was an expert at acting, for the psychopath had trained her well, but Makoto's time on the streets taught her better.
Mina had been putting on a brave face on her constant run from the ghosts of her past, had been overcompensating and plunging herself into danger such as this undercover mission, trying with all her might to right what once went wrong, hoping for a release from those haunting years alongside someone she thought she could trust.
Mina had been smiling for the world, but kept her pain to herself, a common practice in a world such as theirs, where a show of sorrow is an invitation to attacks.
But among her teammates, she was home.
And it was about time to seal her past away for good.
_Guys, I'm back – the brunette called out as she withdrew her keys and opened the door to a pair of amethyst eyes that belonged to the lone teammate lounging on the couch.
_Finally – Rei looked up from her laptop, her voice sarcastic, but her eyes were full of concern.
_Mina's locked herself in her room, - the raven-haired woman continued as nonchalantly as possible.
Makoto narrowed her eyes.
_Mina-chan, open up... please?
_Is Mako back yet?
The blonde covered her ears with her hands, ignoring the growing worry in Usagi's voice, refusing to even crack the door a bit.
_Mina, please – the bluenette chimed in, knocking gently on the door.
_Send Mako in here when she gets back, - Mina shook her head to the closed door and threw the blanket over herself.
The curt announcement was followed by repeated smacking sound.
Speak of the devil, - Mina thought to herself and called out from under the blanket:
_Stop hitting the door, you'll hurt your hand.
_Then stop hiding.
_I need some time.
The smacking became more insistent.
_Mina, - the brunette raised her voice – don't make me break down the door.
_I'll count to three.
Still no response.
Silence stubbornly reigned.
Usagi tugged on the brunette's sleeve from behind, fully believing she would follow through with her threat.
The door swung open. Mina stood before her teammates, hands on her hip, her golden hair in disarray, traces of tears faintly stained her face.
The brunette gave her a stern look.
_You mean failure review.
_Please don't be difficult, Mina-chan, - Usagi looked at her pleadingly. Whatever happened... we need to know, as does Luna-san.
Mina averted her eyes.
_Madam won't be too happy to hear... ow!
Patience running dangerously low, Makoto had taken advantage of the distracted moment to box the blonde's ear, and dragged her past the room's threshold with the same grip.
_ Kino Makoto... ow... let me... ow... go!
_As you wish, - the brunette suddenly released her reddening ear, causing Mina to stumble, but the former caught her almost immediately and held her in a tight embrace, whispering loud enough for their other teammates to hear:
_Then... stop running away.
Usagi turned to the resident genius in confusion.
Both saw Mina took a deep breath as Makoto released her, and the brunette looked at her encouragingly, nodding in a sisterly manner.
When they turned the corner into the living room, Rei had finished setting up the necessary equipments, and waving for them to settle in, she picked up the headset with her other hand.
As usual, the other line picked up after three rings.
_Password? – a familiar voice rang out.
An image of a thirty-something woman in a black turtleneck filled the screen, purple highlights in her wavy black hair illuminated in the faint glow of the monitor, and she nodded to the whole team in greeting.
_Luna-san, - everyone collectively greeted in return.
_I caught the news, - she held up a hand as soon as Usagi was about to speak. I'm assuming the whereabouts of Venus' former roommate remain unknown?
_Yes, madam – Mina glanced away after her own answer, hands covering her knees, wanting to withdraw into herself as if she was part turtle.
Luna-san nodded, listening on as Usagi summarized the events of the night.
_... and that's all we've known so far, madam, - the blonde leader finished and reached out, gently squeezing Mina's hand while they all waited for further instructions.
The few seconds of silence, during which only typing sounds could be heard from the other end, felt to Mina like an eternity of judgement. Luna-san was infamous for being unforgiving of mistakes, especially ones committed in junction with shrouded feelings. She braced herself for whatever criticisms that were coming her way, suddenly finding her lap a more interesting subject than making eye contact with anyone present.
Finally, the woman on the other end spoke her name.
_Yes, madam – the blonde looked up, determined to face the consequences of her own actions, past and present alike.
_You did well.
Mina stared at the image, startled.
No, I didn't.
The guilt flared up with her own unspoken retort, burning beneath the surface, eating away at her as if it was poison of a slowly injected kind, poison of a time she thought she had left behind, gradually consuming her to a point where she almost missed what was said next.
_It is about time, Venus – Luna-san twirled a stray strand of her hair, not breaking eye contact, and the blonde held her breath, waiting for the judgement she was sure would come to pass.
_Ace is a formidable opponent. But not an invincible one.
She gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head, and the hidden encouragement was clear.
For the first time after returning to the complex, a small smile slowly formed on Mina's face.
Once again, she was reminded of why she had joined and remained with the team.
Once again, unconditional acceptance and timely forgiveness.
_Sera, - Luna-san turned to Usagi – proceed as planned. The shipment should arrive in one and a half day's time. Remember, none of the contraband can be allowed to make it out of the port.
_Ah, just now – the woman looked to her side, where, the team assumed, her netbook was located – intel informed us that Ace will be personally receiving the shipment.
Mina's eyes widened.
_Highly unusual if compared to his MO, - the bluenette piped up.
The brunette furrowed her eye brows.
_He has higher interest in Tokyo than some low-level contraband.
_And we have higher interest in him than just a smuggling charge, - Luna-san followed up with finality in her tone, and after a wave of dismissal from her, Rei disconnected the call. The message, though unspoken, was clear: nab Ace and whoever was pulling his strings.
As deadly as he was, the psychopath was just a front, a rather violent puppet for someone else – some force far more sinister, with far grander schemes than just stirring up Japan's capital city.
Same time, undisclosed location.
_Hey, Nephrite is back – Zoicite looked away from the display screen for the entrance security camera, and a black-haired man nodded from the farthest corner, putting down the set of cards in front of the silver-haired taxi driver.
He turned back to the screen, noting that Nephrite was now approaching the elevator door in a strangely crouching manner, only to whip around again, this time hands over his eyes, shaking his head in disapproval.
_Our racer is stripped down to his boxers, - the genius shrieked indignantly – My eyes!
Kunzite raised an eyebrow.
_Surveillance gone horribly wrong, eh, - the blond genius drawled.
_I still find the allegation that Miss Tsukino could be involved with Mina V in some way outrageous, - the silver-haired man remarked, calmly sipping his coffee.
_Usako is sometimes too much of a softie for her own good, - the black-haired man shook his head, glancing over the ring finger on his left hand, where a faint circle was still obvious enough to be noticed.
_Ooh, here's our impromptu boxer model, - Zoicite turned back to covering his eyes as they all heard the familiar sound of a key being turned in the lock.
The front door opened a crack, and the auburn-haired man slunk through in embarrassment.
_Oh quit it, pretty boy – he growled as soon as he spotted the blond man on the chair opposite the door - As if you've never seen me this way before.
The black-haired man spat out his coffee, making Kunzite jump.
_That sounded so wrong, - he blurted between cough, and Nephrite hissed "Chief!" through gritted teeth, his face turning a healthy crimson colour.
_Yeah, that swim meet traumatized me enough, thanks – Zoicite mumbled, turning back to the display screen while tossing a key over his shoulder.
_I messed with your lock – the blond man said as if it was a daily occurrence – but I'm taking pity on you today.
Nephrite caught the key mid-air and disappeared in the direction of his quarter, grumbling all the way.
_Quite an eventful night – the black-haired man remarked, finally recovering from his coughing fit – And you said, - he turned to Kunzite – you spent the last couple of hours with Mina V?
Zoicite whipped around again so fast his chair spinned on its wheels and smacked against the desk.
_Say what now?
_One more thing – Makoto tugged on Usagi's sleeve as the blonde stood up, preparing to put away the briefing documents - I'd like to move out.
Mina's head snapped up, guilt flashed through her eyes, and she exclaimed in unison with the team leader.
_Wait, what? Why?
Makoto had allowed her eyes a moment of rest, but the string of question, she correctly assumed, would belong to Usagi, as it usually was when the blonde dropped her leadership demeanor.
_You heard me. We aren't in a horror movie, so it should be safe enough to split up.
_Is it because...
_Not you, - the brunette shook her head, shooting the suddenly timid Mina a meaningful look - it's the red sports car. If it was following one of us, it would be safer to not put all the peas in one pod.
_But we've always... – the blonde protested, not quite believing.
_We can't be too careful in dealing with Kaitou Ace, and whoever this newbie is. Frankly, I'm intrigued.
The brunette stood up, withdrawing her phone, glancing over her shoulder.
_I'll call Haruka to see if we can get a physical description. Mina, plug in the ring. We need that picture, however blurry, saved in our database.
_And I have to prepare to welcome a visiting scientist tomorrow afternoon, - Ami sighed.
_Let... me... go! – Copper-chan struggled against the binds that held her to the metal chair, yelling into the darkness.
She had been there for how long, she had no idea. The only source of light was all the way up the wall, forever out of reach even if she was freed from her bounds.
The air felt damp, and judging by the angle of light on the floor, the petite brunette guessed she was being held captive in a basement somewhere.
Her eyes had not adjusted to the darkness.
It seemed a long time since she last ate, though it could merely be a few hours. Lost in an unknown space, it was not uncommon for hostages to lose track of time.
And worst of all, nobody knew she was captured off the street.
Not even the kind stranger she had forgotten to thank, who had trusted her enough to let her see a glimpse of his life story, and kind enough to drive her back from the city outskirts.
There was no witness.
And nobody was coming for her.
Copper-chan grit her teeth to hold in the sob that threatened to escape her throat.
Nobody was coming for her.
A/N: Sorry for the looong break, everyone. To quote one of my favourite fanfiction writers, Jecir, "life happened". Though I admit I've also been a bit lazy, too =]
Here we go, finally all main characters are here! Phew. I know, I know, if you were in this story, that must have been an unbelievably long night. I sometimes lose track of certain details - only small ones, I promise! - so if you see anything out of place or doesn't make sense/doesn't fit in with the storyline, please let me know in the comments!
My thanks to EbonyMitsu, my loyal beta-reader and reviewer (You summoned Nephrite and Makoto, so here they are, Eb! =]), Pinka, Whitewolf513, luckyduck8801, MennaHennah, Djbriel, KaiPhoenix, RaigingSpring, Oky Verlo, wingsofseyfert12, Essie123, Sirona, Raiging Spring, , luckyduck8801, Vchanny, Fortune Maiden, Shadowfey913, mistressinwaiting, princessKatAngela, WhiteInfinity21 and an anonymous reviewer for their patience and time in following my stories. To everyone else, thanks for reading as well.
Until my next chapter,
PS: I do apologize if the language offended someone. I'm in no way against homosexuality, I promise.