"So, let me get this straight." Darien retorts, holding up his silver fork, pointing it at me with a bit of noodle and sauce dangling off it. "Luna actually has to wake you up an hour after your alarm goes off or you get upset?"
"Well, she's supposed to be my guardian."
"Guardians don't keep an eye on the time for their sleepy soldiers."
"They do when they are protecting them from detention!"
I say it so matter of fact that Darien cannot contain his laughter. My cheeks turn pink and I feel flustered when he drops his fork on his little petite lasagna appetizer in the midst of his amusement.
This was the first time in the longest time that I have seen Darien just be happy around me. I wasn't hurting his feelings in some way or making him look and feel hopeless. Everything felt lighter and just overall, seemed different.
Or maybe it was just that we were talking about a common person in our lives. Or well...a common cat in our lives.
When Darien finally stops laughing at my outburst, he reaches for my hand, and I accept it graciously. When he beams at me, I smile back, because everything just seems right in the world.
"What changed?" Darien asks, looking me in the eyes. I'm sure he had wondered this for a while. What made me willing to go on this dinner, to accept his hand into mine, and enjoy his company without resentment of the past or even the guilt of betraying Raye?
Honestly, I'm not sure how I came to forgive him for the argument leading up to the car crash. Perhaps saving each others lives again and again had some kind of effect on me. Maybe Sammy and Molly were right. Maybe I did like or even love Darien in some way...even if I wasn't sure what kind of love that was quite yet. Whatever it was, all I know is before I was unwilling to figure it out while I believed I would be hurting Raye in the process.
Not that this wasn't killing Raye inside. I know that on some level, and the thought seems to stab my stomach again and again as if we had switched roles. As if I could feel the pain and misery of knowing that one of my best friends might be out with someone I was in love with. The feeling sends a numbing sensation over my face, and I feel nauseated.
I have to remind myself that she said it was okay. I have to say it aloud to get some closure on the fact. "Raye told me it was okay."
Darien nods, returning his hand to his fork and resumes eating his meal. He looks disappointed and frustrated. I sigh with exasperation. What was I supposed to say? Nothing ever seems to be enough. I always seem to mess up with him somehow!
I pick at the pasta shells on my plate which are stuffed with salad and cheese. I manage to unwrap the salad entirely, allowing the greens and small tomato chunks to fall over the plate before the silence becomes intolerable.
"What did I do wrong?" I ask.
Darien finishes his tiny lasagna dish before looking up to me with an indifferent expression. "Nothing. You did nothing wrong. I just thought that maybe you went out with me because you actually had feelings for me, not because your friend gave you permission and you wanted to make me feel better."
"Woah!" I respond, shocked by his accusation. "I did not go out with you to make you feel better! This isn't even a date! We agreed to dinner as friends!"
I may as well have punched him in the gut. I can tell from his hurt facial expression that there was nothing that I could have said that would have hurt more. That this wasn't a date.
"So, what are we doing then?" Darien asks. "If I don't even have a chance with you, then what is the point of all this?"
"Darien! I do like you, I just don't know how!" I feel exasperated. There was nothing to make me feel better, to stop him from feeling insecure. Once again, I had managed to mess everything up.
"I wish you would figure it out a little faster, Serena." Darien says, glaring at me before giving me a pleading look. "Can we just pretend none of this happened and have a nice dinner?"
At that moment, the waiter drops off our dinner entrees at the table. Darien had ordered the chicken alfredo with sun dried tomato cream. The dish looks amazing, and I can't help but drool at the fettuccine noodles piled on his plate covered in cheeses and chicken.
Then there was my spaghetti which was covered with freshly chopped basil and small tomato chunks. I pick up my fork, excited to devour my entire meal in one large bite. The kind of bite where you suck the noodles into your mouth non stop. The kind of bite where people wonder how you didn't choke.
However, this is a fancy Italian restaurant, and the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass Darien or myself. So, rather than give in to my usual ways, I take my time. I instead circle the noodles on my fork, taking rather small bites versus eating the way Darien had become accustomed to me doing.
"You're cute when you are trying to be mature." Darien says before picking up his own fork to begin eating as well. I make a face at him between bites of noodles and sauce, and he smirks back at me.
Then I feel my chest tingle when Darien uses his shoe to knock into mine playfully. I use the point of my heeled shoe to knock into his, until we are in a full out footsie war underneath the table. When I look up at Darien, I grin at him, reaching for his hand.
When his hand is mine, my mind wanders off. What was I doing? By doing all these flirtatious gestures was I leading him on, or was I actually leading myself into a relationship? If I was leading us into a relationship, was I even ready for it?
It seems funny that the girl who once would have given anything for a boyfriend was actively avoiding one with a man who had admitted to not only wanting to date her, but also to being in love with her. I had changed so much in just a couple months, and I just feel like I don't even know myself anymore. Had becoming a sailor scout really changed me so much?
Or was it Luna?
Curiosity gets the best of me and I can't help but ask, "What's Luna been up to?"
Darien groans before answering me with another question. "Besides invading my privacy and asking about when you are going to visit?"
Guilt registers for yet another reason. Raye, Darien, and now Luna? How many people was I going to let down? I miss Luna so much, but it's true, I haven't made any effort to visit her outside of scout meetings because I had been avoiding Darien for so long.
"Yes, besides that." I answer sheepishly.
Darien shakes his head and responds. "Nothing really. I catch her using my computer all the time to do 'research' on Nephlite. She's been sifting through my books on gemstones and jewels. She lectures me on how I shouldn't try to pursue you because your studies and scout business come first. Just the usual."
"At least she doesn't scratch your face and tell you what to do all the time! She drove me crazy at home!"
"Are you kidding?" Darien asks, flabbergasted at how little I seem to know my cat. "You wouldn't believe how often she tells me not to drink coffee because caffeine is bad for the body and to eat fruit for breakfast instead of bacon!"
"Does she also tell you to do your homework all the time, and threaten you with her claws if you whine?" I ask, adding some more complaints to the list.
"Nah, she doesn't have to do that." Darien pauses before tossing in his punchline. "I actually do my homework without having to be told ten times in a row."
I cross my arms and stick my tongue out at him. When he just chuckles to himself, I realize that it isn't punishment enough. I use my fork to steal a piece of his chicken and eat it myself.
"Hey!" Darien protests. "Luna already steals my food for you, so eat your own!"
After swallowing the white meat drizzled with cheese sauce, I give him a triumphant smile. That would show him you can't just insult me and get away with it so easily!
Suddenly, I feel fragile. I didn't realize how much I truly missed Luna. The feeling had come and gone so many times, but actually talking about all her 'quirks' gave me a sense of longing for the black feline.
Darien notices the change in my emotions. "What wrong, Buns?"
He hasn't used that nickname in so long… I never realized how much I missed his pet name until I was reminded of how wonderful it truly was.
"I miss her."
He squeezes my hand tightly, a gesture done in the hope of reassuring. "Why don't you ever come to visit her then?"
He takes another bite of his fettuccine before answering his own question, "Oh wait, It's because I'm so devilishly handsome you are afraid you won't be able to help yourself right?"
Darien couldn't have put it more bluntly.
I pull my hand away from his and say, "You're right. I'm afraid that I won't help myself to finding some way to suffocate that huge ego of yours."
He covers his heart with his hands, and shifts his facial expression to feign true agony. "You wound me deeply!"
"But seriously, Darien." I use my fork to swirl my leftover spaghetti strands into shapes on my plate. First the shape of a heart, and then a circle, which I added ears to in order to resemble a red and white cat with green basil spots. "I miss just having her with me in general. I used to always think she was mean and narcissistic-"
"Which she is." Darien interrupts.
"But," I continue, "She is like a mom to me in some ways where my mom can't be, you know?"
Darien averts his eyes to the large painting on the wall, his face fallen. "You know I have no idea what you mean, at least not in the sense of having a mom."
Right. No parents, and no memories of them either…
"It's not your fault." He pauses thoughtfully before adding, "I guess if I had to think of anyone as a mom, Luna could rank in pretty close with all the lecturing and stuff."
"You could say that again!" I put my fork down and stretch my arms back, excited to have dessert in the very near future.
After dinner had ended, Darien had taken it upon himself to lead me to the car, and drive up to his apartment. When we walked in, Luna hopped down from his bookshelves, starting with a lecture as usual.
"Darien, I don't know how many times I have to tell you to leave Serena be. She needs to study!" My furry friend looked up to see me, and her red eyes widen as she spreads her mouth into the form of a smile. "Serena!"
I kneel down to my knees, which is difficult to do in heels and a short dress, while spreading my arms out wide to hold her. Luna hops onto my knees and up to my shoulder, nuzzling her soft pink nose and black fur into my neck and against my cheek.
"Luna," I say, scratching her ears with my fingers, "I'm sorry I haven't been by to see you, but ever since Nephlite's threat…"
"You don't have to explain. I'm just glad you're here."
"Wait a second, weren't you just saying that I should leave her alone to study?" Darien jokes, patting Luna on her head. He kicks off his shoes, and slips on his white slippers.
"She should be studying!"
When I sigh with exasperation, and change into my slippers as well, Luna adds, "But I'm happy she is here anyways."
"Well good, because I am happy to here too!" I say, prodding Luna's cheek with my pinky.
"Me too," Darien remarks. "That's why I brought you here in the first place."
He takes my hand, leading me towards the balcony doors. He opens the sliding door, and looks to Luna, giving her a coded look, almost like the way that Darien and Andrew had given each other those special looks before in the arcade. I hadn't even realized that Luna and Darien had become close enough to do that kind of stuff.
Luna licks my cheek, and asks with a quiet voice, "Come to see me again?"
"It's a promise." I answer. I scratch her ears before she goes off on her own. I watch longingly as she retreats to the kitchen to snack on anchovies Darien had left on his dining room table for her.
Darien tickles my wrist with the tips of his fingertips when he starts to walk outside. I hold back a giggle at his light touch before following him out into the cold, dark, starry night. He closes the door behind us before turning to me.
"Serena." He says, stroking my hand, and reaching into his jacket pocket. He fumbles around for a second, before pulling out a small velvet black box. My eyes widen as he gets down on one knee in front of me, and smiles at me as if I was the only one in the world for him.
He couldn't be doing what I thought he was doing...or was he? This couldn't be happening. I'm too young to think about this stuff. I think about what I'm going to say, how I'm going to respond, since I thought I made it clear earlier that I wasn't ready for all this.
My heart races and I hear myself say, "Darien, what are you-?"
But he interrupts me and continues, opening the box in front of me. "Will you take these back?"
I feel confused before looking to see the pearl heart earrings I had worn not too long ago on my ears before he confessed his feelings to me. I stare at him blankly.
When I do not give him the reaction he wants, Darien stands up, closing the box and shoving it into my hands. He lets his forehead press against mine, our noses nearly touching as he looks into my eyes.
"Serena, I know you don't love me, but I gave these to you out of friendship, not in the hopes that you would fall in love with me. Take them if you think of me as a friend, please."
"Darien, I can't." I say, looking back up at him, watching as the hurt spread across his face.
"I see." He says, turning his face away to hide the pain he felt.
I reach my hands up and pull his face back down to mine. "Don't you want to know why?"
"Not really. There's no nice way to be told you're not worthy of friendship."
"Darien, could you please just listen?" I ask, when he starts to pull away again.
"No, Serena, I don't want to hea-" I interrupt his protest by smashing my lips against his. I wrap my arms around his neck, touching his skin under his jacket with my fingers. I breathe in chocolate and peppermint, craving to be surrounded in nothing but his scent, just like when I had kissed him in the kitchen so long ago.
He relaxes, and smiles under my kiss, before grabbing my waist, squeezing me up against his chest. I feel the warmth of his skin against the soft fabrics of my dress, and the pleasure of just having him close drives me crazy.
Darien pauses for a moment, and he parts his lips to ask, "Does this mean what I think it means?"
I smile at him.
"You know how you feel, finally?" He asks, emphasizing the last word with a plea.
I nod, stroking his cheek, and pull his chin back down to kissing reach. As I go for another kiss, I whisper, "I love you, Darien Shields."
Darien sighs with relief, and kisses me again and again before exclaiming, "I love you too! Oh god, I love you too!"
He didn't ask me what had changed my mind, and I was thankful too.
The truth is, when I thought he was proposing to me, I was scared. Because I knew that if only I had been sixteen… I would have said yes.