"..." dialogue
/.../ thoughts
//flashbacks//
*...* emphasis
|...| Smartass Inner Voices (tm)

@)~~}~~~~

Soul's Winter
Part One:  What Do You Mean, You Knew All Along?!

Naru stared at her best friend, beginning to seriously become worried 
about her.  "Hey, Usagi, are you feeling all right?" she inquired.

Curious cornflower eyes looked at her innocently.  "Of course I feel all 
right--why shouldn't I?" Usagi answered.

"It's just that--well, normally by this time you'd be finished with your 
lunch and be begging for mine, but..." Naru stared pointedly at Usagi's 
lunchbox, which was still mostly full of food.  "You've been eating it, 
um..."

"Like a normal person?" Usagi asked, grinning slightly.  Naru blushed, but 
nodded.  "Don't worry, Naru, I'm feeling fine.  I'm just a little... 
distracted, that's all.  Worried about some friends."

"Oh, okay." Naru nodded, still looking a little suspicious.  Mere 
distraction couldn't account for *all* the changes she had noticed in 
Usagi lately.  She hadn't been late to class in two weeks, and she had 
done her homework consistently as well.  She hadn't klutzed out lately, 
either.  All things considered, it was beginning to freak Naru out a 
little bit.  

"Hey, Naru!  Hey, Naru!"

Both girls winced slightly as Umino rushed over to them.  "What is it, 
Umino?" Naru inquired of her boyfriend, since he seemed to be very excited 
about something.

"You'll never guess what I've found out!" he enthused, adjusting his 
glasses self--importantly.  The two girls, humoring him, looked at him 
curiously.  "Millionaire Sanjouin Masato has returned to Tokyo, only he's 
calling himself Nephrite, and--"

Usagi groaned inwardly.  She did *not* need this.  

Naru's eyes went very wide.  "That's not possible, Umino!" she exclaimed.

"Um... Umino... Why don't you, uh... go check your email?  Naru and I need 
to have a little heart-to-heart," Usagi said quickly.  

"Oh, girl things, huh.  Okay." Umino obediently wandered away.

Naru turned to her best friend.  "He's dead, Usagi.  Nephrite died--in my 
arms--how can he be--"

/I'm going to strangle Neph, I swear I am,/ Usagi thought, searching for a 
way out of this extremely sticky situation.  "Um..." The bell saved her, 
ringing to signal the end of lunch.  "Why don't you come over after school 
today?  We can try to figure this out then, okay?"

"Right..." Naru mumbled.  

~*~

/Why, damn it?  Why in the hell did he do that to me?/ Zoisite demanded, 
staring blearily into his coffee.  

It didn't have any answers, so he sighed and took a deep swallow.  
Nephrite certainly wouldn't approve of the fact that he hadn't dragged 
himself out of bed until... Zoisite checked the clock.  Two p.m.  No, 
Neph, *wouldn't* be pleased, but... Screw it.  What did he know about 
grief, anyway?  He was perfectly happy with Makoto, even though they tried 
to be discreet about it... Zoisite appreciated their attempt to spare his 
raw emotions, at least...

Distantly, a pounding on the door penetrated Zoisite's reverie.  "What 
the...?" he muttered.  "It had damn well better not be another one of 
those salesmen..." The thought of the last salesman's fate who had dared 
disturb Zoisite brought a faint smirk to the little sakura's lips.  Try to 
sell him aluminum siding, indeed!

Coffee mug in hand, Zoisite wandered through the empty, echoing halls of 
Nephrite's mansion at his own leisurely pace.  If it were important 
enough, whoever it was at the door would wait for him to get there...

Apparently, it *was* important, because the pounding had not lessened in 
the time it took Zoisite to amble to the front door.  "All right, all 
right, I'm here, I'm here..." he muttered.  He opened the door.  "Yeah, 
what is it?"

A girl, roughly Princess Serenity's--Usagi's--age, stared at him with 
wide, shocked eyes.  "*You*!" she exclaimed.

Zoisite blinked.  "I'm sorry, have we met?" Come to think of it, there was 
something familiar about her...

"You--you--you-" She was inarticulate, whether from rage or fear, he 
couldn't tell.  "You--Nephrite--"

"Oh, shit," Zoisite cursed, recognizing her at last.  "You're--um, 
Nanako... Nana... Nanami... Damn, what *was* your name, anyway?" He 
shrugged.  "If you're here for Neph, he's not in right now.  If you'd like 
to leave your name and number, he'll get back to you as soon as possible," 
he recited.  

The girl stared at him and began crying.  

Zoisite cursed again.  "Damn it, don't cry!  The neighbors already think 
bad things about us-Oh, shit.  Nanako, Nana, Nanami, Nanashi, whoever the 
hell you are, you'd better come in..." When she didn't seem inclined to 
move, he sighed heavily.  "If I don't be nice to you, I know Neph'll kill 
me... C'mon already, work with me here..." He herded the crying girl 
inside.  

~*~

As the minutes of class passed, Naru grew more and more agitated.  Was 
Nephrite really alive?  What was going on?  She had to know.

That's how she found herself asking for permission to use the restroom and 
then escaping from the school in order to visit Nephrite's mansion...

She was just about to give up on anybody ever answering the door when it 
swung open to reveal--a slight man, with messy strawberry blond hair 
pulled back in a messier ponytail, dressed in too-large jeans and a sloppy 
T-shirt, holding a mug of coffee.  "Yeah, what is it?" he asked, peering 
at her with bleary emerald eyes.

It was *him*, the man who had *murdered* Nephrite and harassed her on more 
than one occasion.  "You--you--you--" she sputtered, unable to fully 
comprehend what she was seeing.  "You--Nephrite--"

He stared back at her, recognition and dismay flickering in his eyes as he 
rambled on about a Nanako and a Nanashi and Neph not being home...

The stress of it all caused Naru to go into her best defense mechanism.  
She began crying.

Somehow she was brought inside, still crying, and led into what was 
obviously a bachelor's kitchen: dirty dishes, empty fast food cartons, and 
assorted objects covered most available surfaces.  The person who had 
killed Nephrite forced her to sit at the kitchen table.  "Here," he said, 
pushing a box of tissues in her direction as he took the other seat.

Naru took the hint and brought herself under control, making use of the 
tissues to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.  "Now, for real, what was your 
name again?"

"Naru..."

"I *knew* it began with an N!" he exclaimed, snapping his fingers.  "I'm 
Zoisite."

"I know," Naru told him in a small voice.

"Oh, um... right.  Uh, care for some coffee?" Zoisite seemed friendly... 
too friendly, as the danger of her situation struck home to Naru.

"No."

"Suit yourself." Zoisite shrugged and took a slug of his own brew.  
"Shouldn't you be in school or something?  As I recall, you're the same 
age as the princess."

"I'm--I'm cutting class," Naru admitted.

"Ah, isn't juvenile delinquency wonderful?" Zoisite asked dramatically.  
"So, I suppose you're here to see Neph?" She nodded slightly.  "He's not 
home.  I think he's out trying to resurrect his business or something."

"Oh." Naru couldn't control herself anymore.  "What the hell is going on 
around here?!"

Zoisite gave her a strange look.  "You mean you don't know?"

"All I know is that Nephrite was dead and now he's not!" Naru half-wailed 
in anguish.

The guardian winced.  "Shit.  Sucks to be the innocent bystander."

"You want to tell me about it?" Naru spat.  "Do you know how irritating it 
is that my best friend won't confide anything really important to me?"

"Huh?" This outburst had lost Zoisite.

"Okay, how obvious is it that Usagi is Sailor Moon?" Naru asked, voice 
dripping with sarcasm.  "But d'you think she'd come out and *tell* me, 
even after all the crap I've gone through?!"

"I'm glad I didn't give you any caffeine," Zoisite remarked.  "Don't be 
too hard on the princess.  She's got a lot to balance.  It wouldn't 
surprise me if she just wanted to have one normal friendship."

"I guess...  Hey, wait a minute.  When did *you* start being so friendly 
with Sailor Moon?"

He shrugged.  "It's kind of a long story--"

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Fine, have it your way." Zoisite fetched another cup of coffee for 
himself.  "It all goes back to the Silver Millennium..."

~*~

Nephrite sighed in satisfaction as he parked the Ferrari in the garage and 
climbed out.  It had required an exorbitant amount of smooth talking, but 
he was once again a respected member of the business community (even if a 
number of his colleagues thought him slightly cracked for insisting on 
being addressed as a mineral).  /A job well done,/ he congratulated 
himself.   

He walked into the kitchen cheerfully, his jacket slung carelessly over 
his shoulder... "Hey, Zoi, what'd you order for dinner?" he asked, before 
he caught sight of the visitor.  "Uh... Hi, Naru."

"Hello, Nephrite." Her voice was very low and quiet.

"That would be my cue to run away as fast as I possibly can," Zoisite 
announced, standing.  "Good luck, Neffy.  I do believe you'll need it." He 
vanished in his trademark swirl of cherry blossoms, the first time he had 
done any such thing in a fortnight.  A distant corner of Nephrite's mind 
noted that the little sakura must have been feeling somewhat better. 

"So... you've been talking to Zoisite, I take it." Nephrite dropped 
himself into one of the rickety chairs.

"You're not dead," Naru said slowly.

"No, I'm not.  I was, but I'm... I got a second chance." /How does Zoi 
phrase it, exactly?... I'm in deep shit.../

"Yes.  About two weeks ago, you got a second chance." Naru took a deep 
breath.  "Did it ever occur to you to let me in on this?"

"Yeah, it did.  I just wanted to put it off for a little longer..." 
Nephrite gulped.

"How much longer?" Naru asked, her voice still icy calm.

"Um... until... after I was dead again?" he suggested, grimacing slightly.

Naru glared at him.  "I liked it better when you lied to me," she stated.  


"I'm sorry, Naru." Nephrite took a deep breath.  "I've abused you in too 
many ways to count, and I've no one to blame but myself."

"I don't know.  Zoisite had some eloquent things to say about this Beryl 
person," Naru commented.

"He would.  How much did he tell you, Naru?" Nephrite inquired, wondering 
exactly how to explain the situation to her.

"He tried to explain about the fall of the Silver Millennium and the Moon 
Kingdom and Usagi--"

"You know, then?" He relaxed, glad not to have to skirt *that* issue.

"It's not obvious or anything, is it?  Anyway, he was trying to explain 
the Negaverse and the four of you, but he really got sidetracked when he 
started talking about this guy named Kunzite..."

"In his state, that's not surprising," Nephrite muttered.  Naru blushed.  
"Did he manage to tear his attention away from Kunzite enough to tell you 
anything about how we got back?"

"There was a ... Doom Phantom?" Naru looked uncertain.

Nephrite nodded.  "There was a huge battle, and Zoi and I were allowed to 
come back to help Prince Endymion," Nephrite elucidated.  "Zoi's about 
three cards short of a full deck right now because Kunzite sacrificed 
himself to save him."

"And the other one--Jadeite?" Naru asked.

Nephrite's face creased with profound grief.  "He died protecting Sailor 
Mercury."

"I'm sorry." Naru sounded sincere.

"You shouldn't feel too bad for me, Naru," Nephrite told her, regretting 
what he had to tell her.  "Of the group of us, I came out the luckiest 
member."

"Why?" Naru asked, suspicious.

"I--Naru." Nephrite shook his head.  "We all came back with our memories 
of the Silver Millennium, Naru... and most of the Scouts have their 
memories, too."

"Spit it out, Nephrite." Naru didn't possess the patience to let him dance 
around the issue like he so obviously wished to do.

"In the Silver Millennium, I--and Sailor Jupiter--were to have been 
married," Nephrite clarified.

Naru stared at him, stricken.  "And?"

He sighed.  "And... we both still feel... the same... and, if things go 
right, I plan... on asking her to marry me again."

Naru bowed her head.  "And where does that put me, Nephrite?  Was I ever 
really anything to you beyond an amusing diversion and a way to strike at 
Sailor Moon?  Are you still laughing at me?"

"Naru--Please, just listen to me this once, and I swear I'll never ask you 
for anything again," Nephrite pleaded.

"I ought to be going home," Naru stated firmly.  But she didn't move to 
stand.

"Naru, when I found you, I was lost in the deepest pit of hell, and I had 
forgotten that there was light in the universe.   You showed me the truth 
of how wrong I was, and you helped me free myself from the cycle of hatred 
and revenge.  I owe you more than I can ever repay you... and all I've 
ever done is hurt you.  I am truly sorry, Naru, and all I can hope is that 
someday, someone finds you who appreciates your worth and treats you as 
you deserve.  That person just can't be me."

Naru looked up at him, tears streaking down her face.  "I'm leaving now.  
Please don't ever invade my life again."

"Goodbye, Naru." He watched her get out of her seat.

"Goodbye, Nephrite." Naru fled the room.

~*~

Having abandoned Nephrite to the furies of his old girlfriend, Zoisite 
gravely pondered his options.  He could continue his explorations of the 
local bar life, but alcohol was rapidly losing its effectiveness in the 
battle against his pain.

|You can't run forever,| his snotty inner voice remided him.  |Sooner or 
later, you're going to have to face up to it.|

/No.  I don't have to if I don't want to,/ Zoisite replied stubbornly.

|Kunzite is dead.  You're going to have to accept it and move on with your 
life.|

/I don't want to./ Zoisite frowned like a petulant child.

|Idiot.  What happens if Prince Endymion is threatened and you're too busy 
wallowing in your own self-pity to protect him as you should?|

That gave the guardian a reason to pause on his absent-minded journey to 
the closest bar.  /Nothing's going to happen to Endymion./

|You're an idiot if you honestly believe that.|

Zoisite scowled.  /Let him take care of himself.  Cape Boy is more than 
capable.../

|So your sacred oath to defend him with your very life means *nothing* to 
you?|

/Dying should negate the contract,/ Zoisite grumbled.  

|Don't be obstinate.  You're still bonded to him as a guardian, and you 
know it.  You have a duty to Endymion.  What would Kunzite have to say 
about such negligence?|

/He'd have my hide tacked to the nearest wall,/ the guardian admitted 
ruefully.  /Hey, that's cheating, to bring him into this./

|One of these days, you'll have to face him again, y'know.|

/Oh, God.../ He shuddered involuntarily, envisioning the scene with 
painful clarity.  No, Kunzite would *not* be happy with him, should 
Endymion come to any harm while under Zoisite's care.  /Damn it, do you 
know how much I hate arguing with you?/

|It's because you always lose,| his inner voice replied smugly.

~*~

Motoki glanced up as the door to the shop opened and closed, admitting a 
small, slender figure dressed in worn, oversized clothes.  At first he was 
tempted to classify the blond as a woman, but a closer inspection changed 
his mind.

The slight figure plopped himself down at the counter next to Mamoru.  
Much to Motoki's surprise, Mamoru greeted the stranger warmly.  "Hi, 
Zoisite... How're you doing?"

"Only you would ask a question like that," Zoisite replied calmly. "I've 
been better."

Mamoru snorted quietly, seemingly not offended by the mild insult. 
"You've got that look on your face.  What happened, lose another argument 
with yourself?"

Zoisite grunted.  "Shut up."

Mamoru laughed.  "Only person I've ever known who can carry on fluent 
arguments with himself and lose every time."

"Hmph.  I want a coffee, please." Zoisite took his liege's teasing in good 
humor.

Motoki fetched the coffee and then surrendered to his curiosity. "So, 
Mamoru, are you going to introduce me or not?"

"Oh, right.  Motoki, this is Zoisite; Zoisite, this is Motoki."

"You two known each other long?" Motoki asked.

Zoisite snickered.  "Yeah, you might say that."

Mamoru grinned at Motoki.  "We knew each other years ago... Zoisite just 
moved into town a couple of weeks ago." 

"Really?  Are you a student?" Motoki inquired politely.

"I am a professional houseguest and part-time moocher," Zoisite replied 
gravely.  "Until Neph gets sick of me, I'm nothing more than a bum."

Motoki digested this.  "Well, at least you're honest about it."

"I try to be." Zoisite shrugged.

"So, what brings you out?" Mamoru asked his guardian casually.

"Neph is dealing with an irate ex-girlfriend." Zoisite couldn't quite 
control the smirk in his voice... not that he was really trying.

"What, he and Makoto--" Mamoru began, shocked.

Zoisite shook his head.  "No.  Naru."

Mamoru nodded wisely and then made a face.  "Oh, God."

"What?" Motoki demanded, completely confused.  "What's going on?  Makoto 
has a boyfriend?  Did I miss something?"

"Probably." Zoisite grinned at the befuddled human.

Mamoru briefly outlined the situation for Motoki, omitting certain... 
unusual details.  Motoki appeared suitably stunned to learn that Makoto, 
the sweet kid, had finally struck it lucky in love.  "So, let me get this 
straight.  The guy, Nephrite, had a thing with Naru, but dumped her and 
started going out with Makoto."

"There's a little more to it than that, but that's the basic idea," Mamoru 
agreed cautiously.

Motoki frowned, a little concerned for his younger friend.  "But what if 
he does the same thing to Makoto?  I don't want to see her get hurt."

"That would be the last thing Neph would want to see happen," Zoisite told 
him, firmly.  "He's head over heels for Makoto, and has been for a *very* 
long time.  You don't need to worry about Makoto."

Motoki didn't look convinced.

~*~





Darkness stirred, roiling uneasily.

Something was calling to it.

~*~

"Um, hi, Mrs. Osaka, this is Usagi--"

"Oh, Usagi, thank God!  Do *you* know what's wrong with Naru?" Mrs. 
Osaka's voice sounded frantic over the telephone line.  "The school called 
me to tell me that she just walked out of class this afternoon, and then 
she came home a little while ago, all upset, and she won't talk to me!"

/Oh, no.../ Usagi thought miserably.  "I'll be right over, Mrs. Osaka, and 
I'll get to the bottom of this." Naru's mother thanked her effusively, and 
then hung up the telephone.  "I'm going over to Naru's," Usagi yelled as 
she hurried out the door.

"Be home before ten, dear!" Mrs. Tsukino yelled after her.

Usagi pounded down the pavement, trying desperately to figure out how to 
comfort Naru... /Damn Nephrite, anyway.  Why did he have to insist as 
taking up his old life right where he left off, anyway?  Maybe he could 
have saved Naru a little grief.../ The familiar jaunt to Naru's house 
passed all too quickly for Usagi's taste.

Mrs. Osaka welcomed her inside.  "She's upstairs, in her room.  She was 
like this once before, you remember, when that Sanjouin Masato fellow 
disappeared.  Could it have anything to do with him?"

Usagi sighed.  "More than either of us want to know about it.  
I'll go see if I can get her to talk to me, okay?" At the woman's
tight, worried nod, she headed into her friend's bedroom.

Naru sat in the window, staring up at the sky.  "Hi, Naru," Usagi said 
softly.  "Can I come in?"

"If you want." Naru didn't even turn her head to look at Usagi, who 
silently bit her lower lip and closed the door tightly behind her.

"You went to go see him, didn't you?" Usagi sat down on Naru's bed, 
nervously crossing her arms.

"Yes." Naru was silent for a long time.  "Why does all the really crappy 
stuff have to happen to me, Usagi?"

"I don't know, Naru," her friend answered honestly.  "You're just always 
in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess... Or maybe it comes from 
being around me."

"I guess having Sailor Moon as a friend does have its drawbacks," Naru 
agreed.

Usagi inhaled sharply, and then reminded herself that, after all, Naru did 
deserve to know.  "Did Neph tell you?"

"No, actually, I figured it out on my own, a long time ago.  I kept 
waiting for you to tell me, but..." Naru shrugged.  "I'm just the innocent 
bystander, like Zoisite said.  I give the bad guys something to play with 
until the Sailor Scouts decide to show up to save the day."

"I'm sorry, Naru," Usagi said quietly.

"Yeah, everybody's sorry lately, aren't they?" Naru asked bitterly.  
"You're sorry, Zoisite's sorry, Nephrite's sorry... I'm sure Makoto's 
sorry, too, but does that change anything for me?"

Usagi flinched.  "He broke it all at once, huh?"

"Yeah, he broke it all at once." Naru's voice was hard and unforgiving.  
"The Negaverse lord breaks the innocent human girl's heart and then goes 
off to live happily ever after with his eternal love.  The End."

"Naru-" Usagi tried, but couldn't think of anything to say that would 
offer comfort.

"Don't try, Usagi.  Nothing can help me right now." Naru continued to 
stare out the window, refusing to look at Usagi.  "I'll be fine.  I just 
need time to adjust, that's all."

"Are you sure you'll be okay?" Usagi asked.

"I'll be fine.  I just need some space... Do me a favor and tell my mom 
that I've just been unlucky in love."

Usagi recognized the tone of dismissal in Naru's voice.  "Okay... I guess 
I'll see you at school tomorrow morning," Usagi said hesitantly.

"Yes.  I must be in a load of trouble with Haruna." The distance in Naru's 
tone indicated that she didn't particularly care.

"She'll get over it," Usagi replied, doing her best to sound optimistic. 

"Goodbye, Usagi."

"Bye, Naru." Usagi reluctantly left, turning to glance back at Naru for a 
long time before closing the door behind herself.  

Not once during the interview had Naru troubled herself to look in her 
friend's direction.

~*~

/That went...better than I had hoped it would,/ Nephrite thought wearily 
after Naru walked out.  He poured himself a drink.  /Better thank Zoisite 
later for making it easier.... Damn.  Damn damn damn.  Beryl, I hope 
you're roasting for turning us into monsters who saw innocent girls as 
convenient tools.../ 

/I am a world class jerk,/ he brooded, taking his drink into his 
observatory and collapsing into the sole piece of furniture in the room.  
Thinking of the heartbreak on the teenager's face, he sighed heavily.  
/God, surely I could have handled that better,/ he thought miserably.  
/Naru, I'm sorry.../

~*~

Rei watched in silence as the delicate figure stood before the temple 
shrine, lost deep in her own thoughts.  At last, she clapped twice and 
rang the chimes.  As she walked away, Rei approached her.  "Hi, Ami."

"Rei."

"You want to come in for some tea?" the priestess asked.  "Since you're 
here anyway?"

"Okay." For Rei's benefit, Ami mustered a small smile.  

The two girls went inside, passing Yuichirou and Grandpa Hino.  Rei 
chatted about meaningless topics (school, the weather, and other such 
neutral subjects) as they settled in her room.  "So... how're you doing?" 
Rei asked finally, after the tea had been brewed and poured.

Ami stared down at her cup.  "I'm not the best I've ever been," she 
admitted.

"Ami, I know I was hard on Jadeite... but, for what it's worth, I'm 
sorry," Rei offered tentatively.  "I wish I had the good memories of him 
instead of only the fights."

Unbidden, tears sprang to Ami's eyes.  "I miss him so much," she 
whispered.  "I dream about him every night."

Rei nodded encouragingly, hoping that speaking would help Ami through her 
grief.

The blue-haired Scout took a deep breath.  "He's always waiting for me, 
and I'm going to him... and then he starts retreating, and no matter how 
fast I run after him, he disappears... I don't sleep very well these 
days."

"Poor Ami," Rei said sympathetically.

"He promised me," Ami choked out.  "He *promised* me that he'd always be 
there."

"Ami--" Rei stopped, not knowing what to say.  She scooted around to put 
her arms around her sobbing friend.  Surprisingly, the other girl pulled 
herself together rapidly.  "Are you--" Rei hesitated.  "--all right?"

Ami swallowed.  "I have to be... I have a duty to my princess," she said.  
/It's all I really have left.../

~*~

"... And then she told me to go away," Usagi finished the tale.  "Oh, 
Minako, I feel so awful about all this.  What should we do?"

On the other end of the telephone line, Minako was shaking her head.  
"She's known the entire time who we are?"

"Yeah... and what she didn't know, one of the guys filled her in on.  You 
don't think that--" The princess couldn't finish her sentence.  

"Probably not.   I hope," Minako estimated.  "Of course, she's never been 
dumped before, either.  Since you say she's so upset, there's really no 
telling how she'll react... Poor Naru."

"Yeah." Usagi twirled a pigtail, trying to think.  "Why did it all have to 
get so complicated?"

"I don't know, Princess," Minako replied.

"How are *you*, Minako?" Usagi asked, switching topics abruptly. 


"I'm fine, Usagi," Minako replied automatically.

Her friend snorted, a most un-princess-like thing to do.  "That's what 
you'd say if both of your legs were broken and were being chewed on by 
wild dogs.  How are you really?"

"I'm surviving, Usagi," Minako told her gently.  "I've always known that I 
might face a situation like this someday.  I've been trained to protect 
you, and I'm not going to let my personal life interfere with that." She 
faltered a bit, and then pressed on.  "Kunzite would do the same for 
Endymion."

"I'm sorry, Minako," Usagi said softly.  "I never would have wanted it to 
be this way."

"I know, Princess.  I know."

~*~

"So, do you want to talk about it?" Makoto grinned, amused by Nephrite's 
startled reaction to her casual question.  Crossing her arms, she leaned 
against the doorframe and waited for him to regain his composure.

"You startled me," he scolded, standing and crossing the empty room in a 
few quick strides.  

"But it was a nice surprise, right?" she asked, leaning into his arms 
gladly.  /It's amazing just how well we fit together,/ she thought 
happily.

"Very nice... much nicer than I deserve." Nephrite's arms tightened around 
her.  "You heard?"

"I ran into Zoisite and Mamoru.  How did she, uh, take it?" Makoto asked 
as Nephrite, keeping his arms around her, guided them to a more furnished 
portion of the bare building.  

"I feel like a bona fide creep." They reached a small sitting room and 
arranged themselves on a couch therein.

"Did you--tell her about us?" Makoto pressed. 

"Yeah.  She deserved to know." Nephrite leaned his cheek against Makoto's 
soft, flower-scented hair.  "I told her that you and I were engaged in the 
Silver Millennium..."

"And?" Makoto prompted, knowing that there had to be more.

Nephrite considered it briefly, and then decided.  "Makoto... this wasn't 
exactly how I'd meant to bring this up..." Nephrite cleared his throat 
carefully.  "You are my soul's other half, and I love you more than I have 
words to say... I would consider myself the luckiest man in the universe 
if you would marry me."

Makoto, leaning against his shoulder, went stiff with shock.  "Oh, Neph," 
she whispered, sitting up to look straight into his warm brown eyes.  
"I've been waiting for my entire life to hear you say those words to me 
again."

"It doesn't matter to you that I'm and ex-Negacreep?" he asked anxiously.

"Why should it?  I love you." Makoto smiled broadly and claimed her 
fiancé's lips for her own.

~*~

Naru endured the scolding from Haruna stoically, barely allowing the 
chastisement to percolate through the haze brought on by a sleepless night 
and an aching soul.  How could he have done such a thing to her?  Didn't 
he know how much she loved him?  How long she had mourned for him?  Had he 
even cared at all?

/No, I *know* he cared for me,/ Naru told herself firmly.  /Why else would 
he have tried so hard to be nice about--about--/ The girl shook her head 
over her English lesson, lost in her own private torment and unaware of 
the strange looks she was receiving.  /And why shouldn't he want M--her?  
She's taller than I am, prettier than me, she's a homemaker, and they've 
known each other forever... How could I ever measure up?  It's probably 
better this way./

If only she could persuade herself that this was true.

~*~

At lunchtime, she only shook her head at Usagi as the blonde approached 
cautiously.  "Not today, Usagi, please," Naru mumbled.  "I just need some 
time."

"All right, Naru," Usagi said, bright smile drooping noticeably.  
"Whenever you want to--"

"I know," Naru cut her off.  "I understand.  Thank you."

Defeated, Usagi moved away, wretchedly wondering if things would ever be 
okay with her friend again.

Umino presented himself next.  "Hey, Naru, are you all right?" he asked in 
the rushed manner she had always found amusing (if not terribly 
endearing).

"Umino, please, I want to be alone," Naru told him tersely.

"But, Naru, you look so upset!" Umino protested.  This gloominess in his 
goddess could not be borne, and he was quite willing to dedicate himself 
to cheering her mood.  "What can I do to make you feel better?"

"Go away, Umino," Naru ordered, too soul-sick to maintain the charade of 
politeness.  "Leave me alone."

Umino recoiled at the arctic tone.  "Ah, okay... I'll talk to you later, 
then..."

Naru ignored his retreat, concentrating on forcing her tasteless lunch 
down her throat.

~*~

"Ami!  Hey, Ami!"

The blue-haired Scout paused in her solitary trek home at the sound of her 
name.  "Hello, Greg," she said, mustering a smile for his sake.

He hurriedly caught up with her.  "Do you mind if I walk with you?"

She *did*, but it would have been rude to say as much.  "Of course not, 
Greg." He fell in at her side and they resumed walking.  

For his part, Greg was glad to see that Jadeite wasn't with Ami.  "Um, I 
wanted to apologize, Ami," he began after a few moments.

"Oh?" Ami tried to think of what he could possibly want to apologize for, 
and drew a blank.

"The other day at the temple, I as rattled and said some things that I 
shouldn't have," Greg clarified for her.  "The Negaverse still rattles me 
pretty badly, you know, and I really don't trust Jadeite one little bit, 
but I can't stand having you be mad at me like this--Ami, what's wrong?  
What did I say?"

At the mention of Jadeite's name, Ami had stopped short, forced to 
remember again the agony of believing that Jadeite was dead, compounded 
with the reality of it all.  She tried to shake her head at Greg and 
attempted to speak, to explain.  She could utter one word.  "Jadeite..."

Greg's expression darkened.  "I *knew* it.  What has that Negaverse 
bastard done to you?" he demanded.  "Whatever it is, I'll make him sorry 
he ever--"

"Greg, please be quiet," Ami managed to gasp.  "I'm fine, really."

He snorted.  "You are not.  Ami, please, talk to me.  What is it?"

/He won't leave me alone until I tell him,/ Ami decided.  "Jadeite--"

"I knew it was something that creep did," Greg muttered, with conviction.

Ami gave him a strained, suffering glance, and he shut up. "He's dead," 
she finished.

Greg blinked, confused at first.  "Eh?"

"Jadeite died a little over two weeks ago."

Elation showed in Greg's eyes briefly.  "*That's* what's been bothering 
you?" he asked.  "One Negacreep died and--"

"Greg, I can't tell you how much it hurts me to hear you say such cruel 
things about Jadeite," Ami interrupted him, in a pained voice.

He sniffed.  "A guy would think you loved him, the way you're carrying 
on."

Ami gave him a level look.  "I do."

He just stared at her for a moment.  "You're joking, right?"

"I'd never joke about that."

Greg went white.  "It's not possible.  He was from the Negaverse-"

"Not originally.  Before Beryl captured and twisted him, Jadeite was one 
of Prince Endymion's guardians," Ami said proudly.  

Greg floundered.  "But--what about us?"

She had to look away.  "There isn't any us, Greg, you know that.  Maybe it 
could have been different, if--"

"If Jadeite hadn't shown up and swept you off your feet," Greg said 
savagely.

"I'm sorry, Greg," Ami told him, sounding very old and very sad.

"Yeah, me too." He turned on his heel and walked away rapidly, before Ami 
could see him cry.

~*~

Nephrite pulled into the garage and hoped that this evening would be a 
normal one-not like the nightmare yesterday's homecoming had been.  /Of 
course, the end of the night more than made up for the beginning,/ he 
thought smugly, still elated.  He had actually proposed and she had said 
yes!  Still grinning happily, with thoughts of Makoto and which takeout to 
order for dinner the only things on his mind, Nephrite entered the 
kitchen.

At least, it *should* have been his kitchen... the layout of the room was 
that of a kitchen, and even echoed the one he had left that morning after 
his coffee.  That was as far as the resemblance went.  Gone were the piles 
of empty cartons, the dirty, mismatched dishes, and the ugly (but 
serviceable) table and its rickety chairs, as well as most of the old 
fixtures and appliances.  In their places gleamed new countertops and 
softly-gleaming cabinets.  A new refrigerator hummed softly, matching the 
other appliances.  A new table, suspiciously resembling solid cherry, was 
set for dinner.

"What the hell happened to my kitchen?" Nephrite asked in disbelief.  /Not 
that it's not a change for the better./

He dropped his jacket on a chair and walked through the 
miraculously-changed kitchen into the next room.  It had *used* to be 
empty.  Nephrite stared, disbelieving, at the grand piano and shelves of 
books and the large leather wing chairs.  /This is a dream.  I've fallen 
asleep at my desk and this is a dream./

At about that point Zoisite wandered in, dressed for the first time since 
Kunzite's death in clothes that fit and were clean.  "Ah, I thought I 
heard you come in," he said, smiling slightly.

"Zoisite, what the hell did you do to my house?" Nephrite demanded, still 
stunned.

The other guardian sniffed disdainfully.  "It positively screamed 
'Negaverse', Neph... Hardly appropriate for Endymion's guardians, right?"

"Right..." Nephrite agreed automatically, still half-persuaded that none 
of this was real, but also wondering if his friend had finally snapped.

"So I woke up this morning, decided that I was sick of living in dank, 
dark, gloomy places, and did something about it." Zoisite gave way and 
grinned.  "Did I do a good job or what?"

"It's very... nice," Nephrite conceded faintly.  "*How*?"

Zoisite grinned even more broadly, and pulled out several small cards.  
"The stupid people gave me plastic."

Nephrite choked and decided that this was a strategic time to sit down.   
The chairs were very comfortable, he noted absently.  "You *charged* all 
of this?"

"God, no.  What I couldn't pay cash for, I charged... Besides, I can 
conjure more than ice crystals, you know." Zoisite shrugged modestly.

"Where did you get--no, never mind, I don't want to know." Nephrite shook 
his head.  "You did all this?  In one day?  By yourself?"

Zoisite had the grace to look faintly embarrassed.  "Well, no. I did have 
help...."

~*~

// 'Morning, Rei.'

The girl jumped, startled by Zoisite's sudden appearance at her side as 
she walked to school.  'Um, hi,' she responded, uncomfortably.

'I'm calling in our bet,' Zoisite announced without preamble.

'Our what?--Oh, yeah, that,' Rei said unenthusiastically. /Oh, God.../ 
'What makes you think you won?' Zoisite gave her a pointed look, reminding 
her of the circumstances surrounding the Doom Phantom's demise.  'Okay, 
fine, you probably *did* win.  What do you want?  I've got to get to 
school.'

He shook his head.  'Not today, you don't.  You're coming shopping with 
me.'

'No, absolutely not.  I am not going to cut school so that I can repay 
some stupid bet,' Rei retorted.  She paused.  'Why the hell do you want me 
to go shopping with you, anyway?'

'Because I have absolutely no idea what stuff I need to be buying,' he 
replied patiently.  'I need your help, so I'm coming for it.  Besides, you 
owe me one favor--anything.  You promised, remember?'

Rei groaned.  That had been the terms of the bet.  'Unfortunately, I do.  
Couldn't this wait until the weekend, Zoisite?'

'No.  I want this done, and done right.... Would one day really hurt that 
much?' The little sakura's tone turned wheedling.  'C'mon, you know you 
don't *really* want to go to school when you could be spend massive 
quantities of money instead...'

'If I regret doing this, you're dead meat,' Rei promised him.

He smiled triumphantly.  'You won't regret it, I promise...'

.../Where is he getting all this money?/ Rei wondered incredulously as 
Zoisite practically bounced through the clothing store, pulling things off 
racks and tossing them at scurrying clerks.  /And all this energy?/

In a matter of minutes, he had disappeared into a changing room and 
emerged looking like a new man in a button-down green shirt and grey 
slacks.  'How do I look?'

Rei was impressed and scrambled to conceal it.  'Not bad, Gay-boy.'

Zoisite made a face at her.  'Thanks, Pyro-slut.' He paid what seemed to 
Rei like an enormous sum for a pile of clothes, directing the rest to be 
delivered, and it was on to the next store....

...'Let me get this straight.  You're sick of Neph's house, so you're 
fixing it up for him?' Rei asked.  Zoisite nodded.  'And I come into this 
how?'

'You're my outside, mostly unbiased opinion.  Let's do kitchen wares 
first, that sounds like fun...'

...By lunchtime, Zoisite said they had accumulated sufficient amounts of 
furniture.  Rei, who felt she had seen every piece of furniture in Tokyo, 
could only sigh in relief as Zoisite suggested a break.  It didn't 
surprise her one bit that he gravitated to the most expensive restaurant 
in town for his meal... nor that he ordered the priciest items on the menu 
for them both.

Rei had to laugh at the expression of bliss on his face as he devoured his 
entrée.  'What?' he asked innocently, sipping at his wine.  

'I just never figured you for this type of guy,' Rei replied. 

'So I enjoy the finer things in life.  That's not a crime,' Zoisite 
defensively replied.

"Geez, calm down, Gay-boy.  That's not what I meant,' Rei soothed him.

He narrowed green eyes at her.  "You and I have got to talk about those 
epithets of yours, Pyro-slut.'

'Whatever,' Rei said airily.  'So, what are we shopping for next?'

He smiled.  'Why, the accessories, of course...'

...Umino would have goggled at the amounts of electronics Zoisite bough on 
a whim when he and Rei passed a computer store.  As it was, Rei stared 
enviously at the stacks of CDs Zoisite picked up at random.  Rock, 
classical, folk, operas, regional, international, musicals, pop, if it had 
an interesting cover that caught his eye, it went into the cart.  At 
Zoisite's behest, she pointed out all her favorites.  Those went in, too.  
The trip through the bookstore was similar.  Whatever attracted Zoisite's 
attention went into the cart he had found somewhere (Rei dared not ask 
about its origins).

By mid-afternoon, Rei was exhausted and Zoisite seemed almost satisfied 
with his day's work.  As they exited the knick-knack shop, however, he 
caught sight of something else.

/Oh, God.../ Rei groaned as he pulled her into a music store.  'Zoisite, 
haven't we done enough yet?'

'Nope.' He seated himself at a grand piano and touched few keys with what 
Rei was tempted to classify as reverence.

A salesman was moving in their direction as Zoisite played a few 
experimental notes.  "How may I help--"

Zoisite brought both his hands down in a resound chord, completely 
drowning out the salesman.  His long, slender fingers danced up and down 
the keys, coaxing complex harmonies out of the black and white keys.  Rei 
stared, dumbfounded, at Zoisite, who played with complete abandon, his 
eyes closed and his head nodding time to the melody.  Quite a crowd had 
gathered by the time he finished playing.  They broke into spontaneous 
applause.

Zoisite's eyes popped open and he blushed at the admiration. Hadn't he 
realized he had an audience? Rei wondered.  Surely someone as flamboyant 
as Zoisite would have know... This was the first time she'd seen him as 
flustered.  

Trying to ignore the admiring glances, Zoisite turned to the salesman.  
'Yes, you can help me... I'll take it....'

...'You didn't mention that I'd be helping set up the place this morning,' 
Rei grumbled later that afternoon.

'It's not killing you,' Zoisite said reasonably.  'I needed to get this 
done before Neph gets home.'

Rei put the last book on a shelf.  'That does it, I think.'

'Thanks, Rei.  I appreciate it,' Zoisite told her, smiling warmly.

'You're welcome... It was kind of fun, actually.  Be sure to tell me how 
Neph reacts to it, okay?' Rei picked up her belongings.  'Are we even 
now?'

Zoisite nodded.  'Yeah, probably.  See you around, Pyro-slut.'

'Yeah, whatever, Gay-boy.' Grinning, Rei waved goodbye and headed home.  

Zoisite watched her go, and then shook his head.  'Hmph.  Gay-boy.'//

~*~

/Have I done the proper thing?/ the watcher wondered to herself.  She 
considered the question for a time, then shook her head.  Her soft 
laughter fell into the stillness and was lost quickly.  /Of course not.  I 
have not done the *proper* thing since this began.../

/But I have done the *right* thing,/ she continued firmly, watching with 
pride as the cosmic threads she had discreetly tweaked allowed the two 
souls to settle into their new lives.  /It is not proper, but it is 
right./

Sailor Pluto smiled.

@)~~}~~~~
 

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