The tall teen-ager walked swiftly along the sidewalk, his long stride eating up the concrete. Still dressed in his dark-blue school uniform, an expensive-looking dark-green duffle bag slung over his right shoulder and a frustrated look on his handsome face, the auburn-haired boy stormed onward, oblivious to the world around him.
I don't see how they manage, he thought, his frown deepening. What a pathetic existence this is turning out to be. I feel half-deaf, half-blind and half-alive. Just then, a sharp twinge shot through his shoulder from the weight of the bag. Annoyed, he stopped walking and switched his load to the other side. And the constant complaints from this stupid, weak form are starting to drive me insane.
Behind him, a couple of blocks back or so, a tall girl dressed in a sailor-like school uniform of white and tan halted as well, grateful for the momentary pause. Healthy and fit, used to fast-paced walks, even she was having a bit of trouble keeping up with the other teen. However, determination glittered in her forest-green eyes. She'd told the others she'd keep an eye on him, and she was a person of her word. Her temporary stop having quieted her long legs' complaints, she ran forward before he could get started again.
His bag once more slung comfortably, this time on his left, the tall teen was about to begin his fast-paced walk once more when a feminine voice shouted from behind. "Hey, Nathan! Wait up!"
Startled, the auburn-haired boy turned around to see the athletic girl--who'd shared her lunch with him the day before--sprinting toward him. "Uh . . . Hello, Lita."
"Where are you going in such a hurry?"
The boy called Nathan fixed the pretty brunette with a thoughtful stare. Although his first instinct was to tell her to buzz off and mind her own business, that impulse was quickly replaced by something . . . else. There was something about her, something he'd caught a flash of the day before as well. Irritated by his inability to sense things better, drowning as he was in the silence within him, he sighed. "The tennis club. I'm out of practice and I need to work on my serve."
Lita frowned, the tone of his voice reminding her once again what a jerk Nathan could be. Still, he was so dreamy, she was willing to make a few allowances for personality flaws. "Mind if I tag along?" Before he could reply, she grinned. "Thanks! Come on."
As the long-legged girl started walking on ahead, the auburn-haired teen sighed once more. "No, I don't mind at all . . ." he muttered, following her.
While the pair continued to stride down the sidewalk, the boy kept staring at the ponytailed brunette with his jade-green eyes. What is it about her? he asked himself. I felt it yesterday as well, but I know I haven't seen her before. A wicked smile then crossed his face. Serena, however, is another story. So that's the infamous Sailor Moon.
He silently laughed. She's a bit more pathetic than I imagined. Combine that with the psychic distortion field that disguises the Senshi and it's no wonder I didn't figure it out sooner. Granted, I'd caught enough of her "normal" aura before that transformation to find her again--I wasn't bluffing when I told her that--but I never really thought just how . . . human . . . the Senshi were these days.
Glancing back up at the tall girl walking just in front of himself, frowning just a bit, his mind turned to the events of the day before. There was also something about those other girls . . . Amy and Callie, I believe. A different something, but there nonetheless. And the way Amy looked at me . . .
A sudden, intuitive flash--an image of a blue-haired, sailor-suited warrior standing tall and brave on the roof of a sleek red car, a miniskirted girl with the audacity to challenge him of all people--crossed the auburn-haired boy's mind. The look on the warrior's face had been the same look Amy had given him yesterday. By the Cosmos! Nephrite, you can be such an idiot at times, he admonished himself. Serena may not have been able to figure out who you really are by what you did, but you can be sure Amy did. Sailor Mercury may be pathetic, but she's certainly no fool.
Nephrite's frown grew darker as he continued to stare at Lita's back. She and Callie . . . Other Senshi? Possible . . . But which ones . . .? He abruptly broke off his thoughts as the ponytailed brunette suddenly stopped and turned back to look at him, forcing him to halt as well.
"You into any other sports besides tennis?" Lita asked, a curious expression on her pretty face.
Startled, Nephrite blurted, "A few."
"Into ice skating at all?"
Ice skating. The two words made a memory flash to the front of the former Negaverse warrior's mind.
In the past, on the Moon: The scene is one of the gray moonscape at night, the brilliant stars as well as the Earthshine above glittering down on the crater below. In the background, the Palace of the Moon Kingdom lifts its domed towers to the star-spangled sky.
One rather large crater, with a flat surface and well-formed rim, is filled with a smooth sheet of ice, reflecting back the blue glow of the Earth and the sparkling stars. The Gemlord Nephrite--dressed in the white coat and pants of Prince Darien's Court--sits on the edge of the crater, then looks down from the stars with a sigh. Below him, already on the ice, stands the tall, graceful, athletic figure of Princess Jupiter clad in a shimmering miniskirted skating outfit of deepest green. "Come on, slowpoke," she laughingly chides.
Nephrite smiles a bit as he laces up his remaining skate. "Sorry. I was sort of lost in thought."
Princess Jupiter giggles at his reply. "I noticed." Still smiling, she turns and looks at the people on the rink.
Among the couples gliding across the ice can be seen Princess Serena and Prince Darien in one of the few times the young Royal from Earth was actually invited to a social event. They make a stunning couple as they go sailing by, graceful streaks of black and white. Also to be seen are Princess Mars and the Gemlord Jadeite, both of whom appear to be having fun despite their apparently mediocre talent on the ice.
But on the end of the rink close to where Nephrite sits and Princess Jupiter stands, the crowd of skaters have stopped to watch in wonder as a lone figure dressed in white soars in the center of a patch of clear ice made especially for the skater. Among those watching is Princess Mercury, a pretty figure in her blue ensemble. Her sapphire eyes stare in wonder at the performance she beholds.
The lone skater continues to execute a stunning series of moves, leaps and spins flawlessly. Blond ponytail flying, his slender body a white blur and a poem of strength and grace, the Gemlord Zoisite nails a high, spinning leap that Princess Jupiter admires. "Wow!" she breaths. "He's really good."
His boot now laced, Nephrite looks up in time to see his younger compatriot execute another impressive series of maneuvers. "Yes, he is." A frown crosses the auburn-haired Gemlord's handsome face. "However, he's not as good as either Her Royal Highness Serenity, His Royal Highness Darien or you, dear Princess."
The tall, ponytailed brunette smiles sweetly at the sharp tone of her companion. "A bit jealous, Nephrite dear?"
Off in the near distance, Zoisite flawlessly performs one last graceful leap, then glides to a stop right in front of a shyly smiling Princess Mercury. As the audience of other skaters applauds the blond Gemlord's routine, the beautiful, androgynous-appearing warrior bows gallantly to the blue-clad Princess. He then offers her his hand, and skates off with her in his arms when she accepts.
"Hardly," Nephrite growls in reply. "What a show off . . ."
Laughing slightly, Princess Jupiter reaches up and takes one of the auburn-haired man's hands in hers. With a tug, she pulls him from his perch on the crater's wall and onto the ice. When he lands on his blades with a somewhat startled shout, she giggles and then gives Nephrite a light kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry, Nephrite. You're quite the good skater as well. Not everyone can keep up with me." Smiling brilliantly, Princess Jupiter then pulls the green-eyed warrior out to the center of the rink.
As for Nephrite, he appears to be in a mild state of shock from Princess Jupiter's friendly kiss.
"Nathan! Earth to Nathan!" Frowning, Lita waved a hand in front of the other teen's unfocused, jade-green eyes. What's with this guy?
Blinking, Nephrite shook his head, still a bit dazed. Princess Jupiter? he thought, confused. Looking up at the sound of the insistent voice, he was suddenly jolted back into the here-and-now, finding a somewhat irritated Lita staring at him. "Huh?" was all he could come up with to say.
Crossing her arms, the breeze ruffling her waist-length ponytail, the athletic girl repeated her question. "Do you ice skate?"
He shook his head slowly in reply. "I did, but that was long ago."
"Well then, why not join me sometime and brush up on that as well? Like tomorrow afternoon?"
Getting slightly irritated himself, Nephrite replied, his voice curt, "I'm busy, Lita."
Undeterred, a spark of determination lit the tall girl's forest-green eyes. "How about the next day?"
How about buzzing off? he wanted to scream, but for some reason, the words just wouldn't come out. Instead, he heard himself saying, "I'm busy then, too."
For a moment, disappointment was etched on Lita's pretty face, but it rapidly disappeared. "Sunday?" she asked, hopeful. I just know it'd be dreamy skating with him, no matter who he is.
Nephrite frowned in annoyance. "I really--" he started to say, only to be interrupted by the athletic girl.
"Good! Then it's settled. I'll go to your place and get you Sunday. You live in that mansion on the wooded hill just outside downtown, right?" When Nephrite can only nod in mild shock at the way Lita just sort of took over, the tan-and-white-uniformed girl turned back around and strode up the street once more, a satisfied grin on her face.
What have I just gotten myself into? the now-human Gemlord wondered with a sigh as he also continued his walk to the tennis club.
They reached their destination minutes later, each teen-ager continuing to stroll onwards in silence, but for differing reasons. For the ponytailed brunette, it was a smug sense of accomplishment. There. Now I can skate with a hunk, keep an eye on Nathan and truthfully tell Artemis that I've kept my promise.
For the auburn-haired boy, it was confusion and irritation. His mind returning to that flash of memory, he mentally growled, Where the hell did that come from? I remember playing games with Princess Jupiter, keeping her occupied so that Prince Darien could meet with Princess Serena, but this? He shook his head, refusing to dwell on it anymore now that he was approaching the fenced-off grounds of the tennis club.
When the two of them came up to the wide-open iron-barred gate, Lita turned and faced her companion once more. "Well, seeing how you have to be a member to get in, I guess I'll see you out back on the court."
"You're going to hang around and watch?" the tall, athletic teen asked, mild surprise in his jade-green eyes.
The ponytailed girl shrugged. "Sure, why not?" She smiled just a bit. "I was just curious as to how out of practice you are."
Nephrite frowned slightly in return, but didn't say a word as he readjusted the weight of his duffel bag and strode into the club. Better watch my step. If she is another Senshi, and Sailor Mercury . . . Amy . . . figured out who I am, then I'd better assume she's watching me.
Lita stared after him, a dreamy look in her forest-green eyes. He's so cute . . . With a slight shake of her head, the long-legged teen walked on the sidewalk around the club's grounds. Scanning the small crowd of people gathered along the chain-link fence that separated the three courts from the rest of the world, the tall brunette suddenly lost her good mood as her gaze froze on a certain red-headed girl. No. Not Molly . . .
The girl in question was standing at the fence along the edge of the middle court, her fingers curled around a few metal links as she stared into the area beyond. Sunlight glimmered in her bright-red hair, a startling contrast to the slate-blue bow that pulled back the locks around her sweet-looking face.
Lita frowned, a bit annoyed. She didn't know why, but something about Serena's friend had always put her slightly on edge. However, she did her best to tolerate the shorter girl for Serena's sake. After all, those two had been friends long before Lita had met the ponytailed blond.
With a sigh, the athletic brunette found a position along the nearer court, a safe distance from the other teen. Looking past the chain-link fence into the courts beyond, Lita noticed that the courts were full. The pairs on the near and far ones appeared to be somewhat talented, but it was the one girl on the center court that caught her attention.
Tall and pretty, her dark-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail high on her head in a style similar to Lita's own, the teen-aged girl made a graceful figure standing there in her light-blue shirt and short, white skirt. Around her brow was a dark-blue sweatband and concentration gleamed in her dark-blue eyes. With a practiced flip of her wrist, the dark-haired player tossed her bright-yellow ball in the air and whapped it hard at her opponent.
Nodding in admiration, the green-eyed girl watched the following volley as the boy and the dark-haired player vied against one another for the point. Finally, the girl hit a vicious spike that forced the boy to leap forward to try to hit the ball back. He missed, and the ball bounced off the court to land in the bushes beyond.
"All right, Katie!" Molly shouted, jumping up and down in joy as her close friend won that point.
Lita couldn't help but shudder at the red-head's voice. Just then, her gaze focused on a new figure stepping out onto the courts . . . and her annoyance faded away.
It was Nathan, his tall, athletic form accentuated by the white shirt and dark-blue shorts he now wore, the duffel bag held in both hands in front of him. She noticed that he scanned the area of both the courts and the crowd beyond as he walked along the edge of the near court like he owned the place. Unable to take her eyes off him, she just stared as he set his bag down next to the bench near the fence, pulled out a racquet from it and then sat down, his back to her.
With a quick glance at Molly, Lita was relieved to see that the red-headed girl had continued to watch her dark-haired friend as she and her opponent rallied for another point. Remembering how interested Nathan was in the freckle-faced teen the day before, Lita stifled an annoyed sigh. Not sure I could stand listening to her gush on about just how cute he is, she told herself.
Meanwhile, Nephrite scanned the area once more as he sat on the wooden bench, absently bouncing his racquet against the palm of his left hand. For a moment, his jade-green eyes lingered over Molly's familiar form. With a slight smile on his handsome face, he thought, Strange how I hardly noticed her when I was last here. Just another face in the crowd watching people play. Who'd've known . . .
Sighing, he turned his attention back to the real reason why he'd come to the club. Katie Sandler, he silently mused. The first victim chosen by the stars in my ill-fated attempt to gather energy for the Negaforce.
Just then, the girl being scrutinized called out, "Match point!" Another toss of the fuzzy, yellow ball, another agile leap and forceful slam, and the next rally was on.
So young, so alive, so . . . full of energy, he thought as he stared at the dark-brown-haired girl. In those few hours he'd had left of his former self, Nephrite had used his powers to locate and observe the current situations of his former victims, driven by a still-unidentified compulsion to do so. Katie, he'd learned, had just recently turned professional after having won a couple of somewhat important amateur tournaments. While he continued to watch her agile bounces and vibrant dashes across the court during the energetic battle for the match, his own words--spoken before Queen Beryl herself--came back to haunt him. The human race is ruled by the movement of the stars throughout the heavens, and each person lives according to a unique and special rhythm that is theirs alone. Everyone has a moment in their lives when their energy level rises to its very highest point.
As he well knew, Katie had already reached that peak--that one moment in her life that she'd have the creative energy to do anything she thought possible. And though there would be other times in her rhythm where she'd come somewhat close to that one moment, never again would she hit quite that intensity of energy in her life.
His mind froze on the words never again, and a painful something ripped through him as the enormity of what he'd done sank in. Dazed by the unfamiliar feeling, Nephrite kept staring at Katie as she continued to fight for the point. Her rhythm, determined by the stars. Her energy. And he'd stolen it from her. You had no right to it, a quiet voice whispered in his mind.
I was merely following my orders, he responded, aggravated.
It was her moment--her energy--to do with as she willed.
I needed that energy to carry out the mission entrusted to me by my Queen.
Because of you, she's missed her one chance to truly shine, to tap into her full potential.
He started to protest the hushed voice yet again when suddenly everything clicked with a clarity he'd never known before. Shame, remorse, regret--they washed over him with painful intensity, searing themselves into his soul. Falling from abruptly numbed fingers, his racquet clattered to the ground as he closed his eyes, put his hands to his dark-auburn head and doubled over.
The unexpected sound caught Lita's attention. A bit alarmed at seeing the teen-aged boy in such obvious distress, the ponytailed brunette called out, "Nathan? You okay?"
The teen addressed didn't reply. Instead, Lita got a totally different response. In a matter of moments, Molly was there next to her, grabbing onto the chain-link fence and gazing at the hunched-over boy sitting on the bench beyond. "What's wrong, Nathan?" the red-head asked, a worried tone in her voice. "Are you gonna be all right?"
Am I going to be all right? he asked himself, sitting up, Molly's words sinking in as the emotional turmoil within him subsided. He turned and looked out at the two girls standing there, concern on their pretty faces, and heard himself say, "Yeah, I think so. Just a sudden headache. It'll go away soon."
Although the tall, brown-haired girl appeared skeptical, the freckle-faced red-head smiled sweetly in acceptance of his words. "Gee, I hope so," Molly replied. "That didn't look too good."
Nephrite sighed as he turned back to gaze out across the tennis courts. "I'll live." Focusing his jade-green eyes on Katie again, he thought, his feelings absolutely sincere, I wish there was something I could do to somehow make it up to my victims for what I've done. If only I could atone for my sins . . .
In response to his heart-felt wish, he felt something spark to life within him, a momentary flash of the unearthly music of the Universe itself accompanying the ember's awakening. Within heart, mind and soul glowed a symbol colored at long last its proper silvery-green, no longer the blood-red indicative of a Negaforce contamination. And it was once more his to use again despite his now-human state.
He sat there a moment longer, staring at Katie in surprise as the young professional player finally slammed home the final point, winning the match. A poor substitute to what I'd stolen, but it's a way to make amends. He stood then as Katie and her opponent approached their respective sides of the net, picked up his racquet from where it had fallen, and stepped out onto the court after the pair of players shook hands. "Ms. Sandler, Katie, may I please have the honor of a match with you?"
The short-skirted girl with dark-brown hair blinked at the auburn-headed teen in mild surprise. "Excuse me? Do I know you?"
"Let me introduce myself," the athletic boy quietly said, giving the tennis player a slight, polite bow. "I'm Nathan Sanford, nephew to Maxfield Stanton."
"I remember your uncle," Katie responded. "He gave me a few tips on my serve and did quite well at a tournament we both attended."
Nephrite smiled, knowing that that would be all that she would recall. "Before he left to go take care of some other business, he told me about you and how impressed he was with your game. So I decided to come here and satisfy my own curiosity."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the chain-link fence at the end of the center court, Lita and Molly stood nearly side-by-side, each one watching the pair of teen-aged athletes standing there. The ponytailed brunette remained silent, tightening her grip on the fence and narrowing her forest-green eyes slightly in mild annoyance at Nathan's apparent friendliness toward the dark-haired girl. Wish I knew what they were saying, she thought. Though she could hear their quiet voices, Lita found herself unable to make out a single word.
Next to her, the short redhead also grabbed the fence, her whole attitude one of almost bubbly excitement. "Gee! I just don't know who to root for," Molly exclaimed.
On the court, Katie sweetly smiled. "You mean to tell me that you came here just to see me?"
Nephrite returned the smile, absently twirling his racquet. "And to play a match against you. I wanted to see if you played as well as my uncle had said."
The dark-brunette girl widened her smile into a grin. "Well then, come on! Let's see if you're as good as I remember Mr. Stanton being." With that, Katie retreated from the net, taking up a serving position.
Nephrite walked over to his end and got into a ready stance. Jade-green eyes focused on the ball, he watched as the other teen tossed it up then smashed it at him. putting her weight into it like he'd told her long ago. With an agile jump, he returned the serve, putting Katie on the run.
The rally for their first point was well-fought, with both athletes struggling to outdo the other. Katie found herself hard-pressed to come up with something that the auburn-haired boy couldn't counter, while Nephrite himself was mildly surprised at just how much the blue-shirted girl had improved. Outside the court, the audience became enraptured at the battle.
As the rally continued, the former Negaverse warrior suddenly became aware that he was getting a bit winded. Yet despite the abrupt complaints of his new form, he also realized that--with his pulse pounding, his breathing rapid and his body suddenly exhausted--he was feeling more alive than he'd ever had in centuries. Distracted by the thrilling sensation that filled his thoughts, he momentarily froze, utterly astonished. The ball hit the court unanswered, then bounded off into the brush up against the fence.
"All right! Way to go! Yay, Katie!" Molly shouted, the sweet-faced redhead jumping a bit in excitement. Turning to the tall girl standing next to her, she grinned. "That was a really good rally, but I'm thrilled Katie got the point. Even though I think Nathan's cool, and neat, and a real hunk, I just have to wish my 'sister' well."
In reply, Lita just stared at the shorter girl for a moment. Her irritation hitting a boiling point, she thought, That's it. I can't stand any more. Her voice colored with a slight growl, the brunette abruptly said, "Excuse me, but I got to book it. I just remembered that there was something I was supposed to do." With that, Lita turned on a heel and strode off.
Blinking her large, slate-blue eyes in surprise, Molly replied in a quiet voice, having lost some of her enthusiasm, "Uh, okay. Guess I'll see you around then."
Lita just stormed off, not even responding to the redhead's farewell.
The tall, athletic girl's departure was noticed by one other person. Having come back to his senses and gone after the ball, Nephrite was standing up from his search, fuzzy yellow object in hand, when his eye was caught by the movement of Lita's retreat. Staring after the pretty brunette's disappearing form, he felt a strange twinge of emotion flash through his mind. Caught between the high of feeling so alive and the low of pushing his body too far in his fight for the rally, the odd aggravation of Lita's departure and mild relief at Molly continuing to stay and watch just added to the chaotic jumble within Nephrite. With a sigh, the auburn-haired boy tossed the ball back to Katie for the next serve.
Lita stormed along the well-maintained pathways through Fairview Park, irritation still filling her mind. Although accompanied by guilt--after all, it wasn't Molly's fault she was so annoying in the first place--the athletic brunette couldn't shake the angry emotion. Bad enough Nathan shows more interest in her than me, but knowing that she might be just as interested back . . . Breaking off the thought, she clenched a hand into a fist and involuntarily growled. For some reason, the whole thing just made her more upset, even though she really didn't have a clue why. I've been disappointed and jealous before, but this time it's really bad.
"Oh! Hi there, Lita. I really didn't expect to see you here," came a cheerful, female voice, her words as carefully enunciated as always. "I thought you were going to keep an eye on Nathan."
The familiar voice broke through the ponytailed brunette's dark thoughts, and she stopped to stand next to the park bench where her friend sat, a smile now on her pretty face. "I was, but he's off playing tennis. Boring."
Amy gave Lita a look of surprise, a stray breeze ruffling both her short, dark-bluish hair and the taller girl's waist-length ponytail. Sitting on a bench overlooking the rose garden that Fairview Park was so well-known for, the studious teen had come to visit her long-time friend, Mr. Baxter, the park's gardener. Once the victim of the Negaverse General Nephrite's schemes, the sweet older man remembered nothing of the incident. In fact, after the park had been mysteriously saved and he'd been enthusiastically retained as the caretaker, Mr. Baxter had gone on with life as if nothing had ever happened.
Lita continued talking, ignoring the look of inquiry in the other girl's sapphire-blue eyes. "Besides, Molly was there cheering on her friend."
Amy blinked, then frowned thoughtfully. The fact that the redhead was there explained much of the the tall brunette's current mood, but the mention of Katie Sandler sent a frizzon of alarm through the intellectual teen's mind. "And you say Nathan went there? Where Katie was?"
"Yeah." Lita fixed her companion with a startled stare. "Something wrong, Amy?"
The blue-haired genius slowly shook her head, sunlight glittering in her close-cropped locks. "I'm not sure yet."
Frowning slightly, the athletic girl gazed down at her friend. "Any word on Callie yet?"
"No. Serena and Mina haven't checked in." Carefully scrutinizing the area and noticing that the only other person even remotely nearby--Mr. Baxter--was too busy pulling weeds from around the beautiful rose bushes to pay attention to his surroundings, Amy pulled out a small electronic device that resembled either a calculator or an electronic day-planner. Tapping a button, the soft-spoken teen-ager talked at the item. "Serena, Mina, come in, please."
For a moment, there was only static over both the miniature speaker and the round, quarter-sized viewing screen up in the right-hand corner of the communicator. During that time, Lita moved over to stand behind the park bench so that she could look over Amy's shoulder.
Then came a bubbly voice, accompanied by Serena's smiling face on the small screen. "Yo, Amy! What's up?"
"Nothing at the moment. Have you been by Callie's place yet?"
"Yup, sure have! No answer, though. Guess she wasn't home."
From the background came Mina's sunny voice, "No answer at Darien's either." The two girls in Fairview Park could hear the sunshine-blond's amused giggle as Serena's image turned and momentarily glared off-screen.
A faint frown graced Amy's pretty face. "That's not like Callie. Sure, being absent from school, but with no reason? And then no answer at home as well?"
The twin-ponytailed blond turned back to face the viewer and shrugged slightly. "Anyway, Mina and I are hitting the mall. We'll keep an eye out for Callie while we're there."
"Sounds fine with me. See you." With that, the blue-haired genius turned off the communicator and put it away. She then turned and looked up at the ponytailed brunette standing behind her. "For some reason, I can't shake the feeling that there's something strange going on."
Nephrite watched the annoying yellow ball sail just over his racquet as he dove to return the smash. Swearing under his breath, he braced himself as well as he could for the impact. Both the ball and his outstretched form hit the court at the same time. The landing knocked the wind out of the auburn-haired teen and sent his racquet skittering across the court. The fuzzy yellow orb zinged off into the bushes yet again.
In response, just about everyone watching the thrilling match gasped, including both Molly and Katie herself. As the sweet redhead thought, That had to hurt. Hope he's all right... the dark-brown-haired girl dashed up to the net.
"Are you okay, Mr. Sanford?"
Slowly, Nephrite stood. Ribs aching, muscles cramping slightly from the overexertion forced upon them by an owner unused to his body's limits, he found the mere sensation of trying to catch his breath alarming. Hearing Katie's voice, he glanced over at her, answering in between gasps. "Yes . . . Think so . . . Please . . . Call me Nathan." For the first time, he got a sharp sense of just how vulnerable he was. Compared to his former Lithosian body, this one was proving to be so very fragile.
The professional player breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good . . . Nathan. I was afraid you'd hurt yourself. It was a valiant try, and a valiant match. I haven't had to fight so hard to win one here in a while."
"Yeah . . . Well . . . I'm a bit rusty. Guess it shows." Taking a deep breath, his gasping now under control, he walked over and picked up his racquet. Pain still needling into his awareness, the athletic teen then shuffled up to the net, aggravation at his predicament once more giving his handsome face a slightly cold tone.
Katie gave her opponent a good looking-over with her dark-blue eyes. Catching his bitter, defeated expression, she cheerfully smiled. "If that's you being rusty, then watch out when you're back on your game. You sure gave me a bit of a challenge, so don't take it so hard." Still smiling, the short-skirted teen held out her hand over the net. "A very good match, Nathan. You should be proud."
He stifled an impulse to growl, Yeah, right, and forced himself to smile back. Recalling his whole reason for coming in the first place, he pushed aside all of the negative feelings and concentrated instead on that spark of power newly awakened within him. As the silvery-green symbol appeared in his mind's eye, ready and quietly waiting, he gave Katie a true smile as he held his own hand out. "Thanks. That means quite a bit coming from you, Ms. Sandler."
The unsuspecting girl warmly shook the handsome teen's hand. "You're welcome."
When the ponytailed player let go of his hand, Nephrite reached out and placed a fingertip on the royal blue sweatband around Katie's slender wrist. Time seemingly stood still as energy flared to life, transferring from the human Gemlord to his former victim. I endow this item with the power of the stars. May their movements guide her path and may they augment her energy with theirs in the times hers is low. Beneath his finger, the silvery-green symbol of his mark of power glowed on the wristband, tapping her into the workings of the energy flows of Nature itself.
The timeless moment ended, and Nephrite looked at Katie, slight nervousness in his jade-green eyes as his hand dropped back down to his side. When the athlete just grinned and turned to walk away, seemingly unaware of the exchange, the auburn-haired teen silently sighed in relief. The deed was done, and she was none the wiser. Now for Mr. Baxter, the next one on my list . . .
"Great Mirror of the Vortex, to whom all ways are open and no place unknown, hear my command." In response to the dark lord's words, the ebony-glassed Symbol of Space embedded within the wall of the circular Hall began to glow with a deep, blackish-green light. Obsidian stood before the Mirror, deep golden-brown eyes cold as he concentrated on the energies under his control.
Behind him, slightly to the left, was a tall, silent figure, his pale-lavender eyes fixed on the Mirror's shimmering surface as the reflection of the Hall rippled away. Neither Gemlord spared even a second's glance at the human-sized, deep-green glass crystal propped against the wall just to the left of the Vortex Mirror itself, the mystic glow of the Symbol reflecting off the deep-emerald surface of Sailor Andromeda's prison.
Closing his eyes, Obsidian made a graceful gesture with both hands as he continued to fine-tune the flow of the Mirror's power. "Gaze beyond the realms of shadow and illusion. Turn aside false reflections, cut through magic and power. Show me the true image I seek."
The Mirror shone brighter, the energy currents stirring through the room high atop the Tower, ruffling through Obsidian's dark-brown hair and Kunzite's silver locks, causing the floor-length cloaks of both Gemlords to billow slightly. Feeling the energy swirling around the Hall while the Symbol before him took on a glimmering, watery appearance as it powered up, the silent Warrior of Elemental Fire kept his eyes on the Mirror.
"Show me the Soldier of the planet Mars!" His rich baritone ringing with the sound of command, the Lord of Lithos released the energies he'd gathered to seek out his stated target. A blackish-green aura flaring around his athletic form, Obsidian's awareness rode the river of power, searching for the one person on Earth who radiated the energy of the red planet.
Hair and cloak rippling in the mystic wind, Kunzite continued to stare at the watery surface of the Mirror. For a long moment, nothing further happened. Then, at last, an image began to form.
The grounds of a Shinto temple took shape within the eerily-reflective black glass. Peaceful and orderly, the scene was dominated by graceful buildings, a fair-sized pond surrounded by ginko trees, an orchard of cherry trees in late spring, and a torii upon which perched a pair of large, glossy ravens. The Mirror then focused on a beautiful girl with long, unbound, ebony-colored hair dressed in a comfortable, loose-fitting outfit of white and red. At the moment, she was leaning over slightly and talking to a short, bald-headed, old, squinty-eyed human in similar clothes of white and blue. Kunzite's eyes narrowed wolfishly as he could see the symbol of Mars glimmering with a red light on the raven-haired priestess's forehead, the energy of the Mirror having slashed through her Senshi camoflage power to reveal the Scout within.
With a start, the silver-haired warrior realized that he recognized the place shown. Pale-lavender eyes narrowing more, the short priest, the ravens, the temple grounds themselves and the cherry trees all combined to bring a poignant image to his mind. For a moment, he could see her again, a beautiful, sensuous and gracefully slender woman whose golden cloud of soft, wavy hair shimmered in the light of the Negaverse, barely controlled by her ponytail, and whose large, violet-blue eyes shone with gentle passion solely for him, holding only cold, harsh contempt for the rest of the world.
From the past: Dim light from numerous eerily-luminescent patches on the cavern's stone walls and ceiling illuminated the otherworldly chamber of the Negaverse. "Crows! Icky, nasty creatures! Oooh! I hatethem! And that old geezer! How could he resist my power like that?" Agitatedly pacing back and forth, Zoisite is a picture of pretty frustration. Though the female general's perfectly-tailored uniform makes her graceful form even more ambiguous to an observer, it also accentuates her sensuously slender build. It's a sight that the shadowy figure sitting on a naturally-formed bench-like ledge in the cavern wall apparently admires from the look in his pale-lavender eyes as he watches her.
Zoisite suddenly stops and spins on a foot to give her silver-haired companion a very worried look. "Oh, Kunzite, what am I going to do? 'Grandpa' turned out to be stronger than I thought, I was attacked by some horrid crows, and I was forced to retreat without Pox's Crystal because the whole thing was becoming too huge of a ruckus." Her beautiful face taking on an agitated pout, her strident voice continues, "I can't face Queen Beryl emptyhanded. She's already upbraided me for not having all five."
A soft chuckle sounds in the cave. "Your success at gaining Techniclon's Blue Crystal has made up for losing the other two." Holding out a white-gloved hand, he beckons to the androgynous-appearing female. "Come here, Zoe."
She brightens immediately and strides up to the handsome, silver-haired general sitting in the shadows. Putting her dainty hand in his, she sits down next to him, leaning up against his comforting, solid form with a contented sigh.
Kunzite gently smiles, apparently rather amused by his lover's antics. "Hush, love. Once again, you're letting emotion cloud your judgment. If you'll just relax and gather your thoughts, I'm sure something will spring to mind."
"Hmmm." Zoisite purrs softly as she snuggles up against her companion, slipping a white-gloved hand into the unbuttoned flap of his violet-pink-lined jacket in order to absently caress the skin beneath. A dreamy look in her long-lashed eyes, she murmurs, "With all the fuss, they may not expect another attempt right away. I should go back now, see if I can catch him off-guard once again."
"See? That really wasn't all that difficult, now was it?" the silver-haired warrior asks, his low voice still holding a tone of amusement.
"No," the ponytailed general sighs, a sunny smile on her pretty face. "Oh, Kunzite, you're so wonderful."
Another soft chuckle ripples through the cavern. "I know. You've told me a million times." Still appearing rather entertained, he leans forward and gently kisses the slender woman on the forehead. "Now steel your resolve and try again. I have faith in you, my love, and I know you'll do us both proud."
With a wicked giggle, the golden-blond warrior takes to her dainty feet and tugs her sharp-looking uniform back into place. Her stride purposeful, her lithe body taking on a predatory air, the sweet and loving light in her large, violet-blue eyes freezing into harsh, glittering ice, Zoisite paces back to the middle of the eerie cavern's floor.
Kunzite's pale-lavender eyes remain fixed on his sensuous lover as she materializes the Dark Crystal in her gloved hand. Once again magic and power swirl within the cave as the thin ebony-colored stone homes in on the current Crystal Carrier, the mystic wind blowing back Zoisite's golden ponytail and stirring even his own silver hair and white cape. The image of a short, old, bald-headed, squinty-eyed Shinto priest appears in the cone-shaped magical field once more.
A cold, evil smile graces the slender Gemlord's slightly-masculine face, giving her feminine features the look of a carnivore on the prowl. Focused on the task at hand yet again, her strident voice holds a note of contempt. "The old guy won't be able to fight me off forever. No one's that strong." Her deep, violet-blue eyes gaze in icy amusement at the diminutive priest in the Dark Crystal's field. "Go ahead and resist, old man, but it won't do you any good." A peal of feminine laughter rings through the cave. "Like it or not, you're one of us."
Zoisite raises the back of her curled-up hand near her mouth as she laughs once again. Then, with a wave of that hand, she calls the slender prism back to her and snatches it out of the air. The Dark Crystal dematerializes as she mentally locks onto her intended target. A determined, evil light shining in her long-lashed eyes, she spins on a dainty boot to look one last time at the tall, white-caped figure sitting in the shadows. "I'm gonna bring that Crystal home, love, just for you."
A similarly wicked smile crosses the silver-haired warrior's handsome face as he watches a swirl of pink cherry petals appear around the other general's graceful form. The spinning cloud intensifies for a moment, then fades away, the petals melting into thin air as the Gemlord's teleport field makes the jump from the Negaverse to Earth. "Yes, I'm quite sure you will, my love."
For a moment, the Warrior of Elemental Fire gazed at the cherry trees in the background of the scene within the Vortex Mirror. From now until the end of time, he would always associate cherry petals with his dead lover. They were a tribute to me, he quietly said to himself. Ever since that one time I saw her standing in the Spring under the cherry trees and complemented her, she made her teleport field swirl with pink petals. Everywhere she went, they were a testament to the love she bore me; she always wanted to be beautiful in my eyes. Shaking his head, he broke his reverie.
Meanwhile, Obsidian's athletic form remained still, his awareness having traveled with the power of the Symbol under his control. The raven-haired priestess upon whose brow the glowing red glyph of the planet Mars shone filling his psychic senses, the Guardian of Space mentally commanded, Great Mirror of the Vortex, hold the image of she whom we sought within your heart. Let nothing she does, nowhere she goes, keep you from losing her true form. Feeling the magic of the Mirror lock in on the Senshi's psychic signature, knowing that he would be able to instantly find her any time he wanted, the dark lord slowly came back to his physical self.
Opening his deep golden-brown eyes, the dark-cloaked Gemlord turned and faced his silver-haired warrior. "There. Our next target's chosen." A chilling smile crossed his handsome face, an expression that made Kunzite blink in mild surprise. "Follow me. We have plans to make." With that, Obsidian disappeared from the Hall of the Mirror in a shimmer of blackish-green energy.
The lavender-cloaked Commander frowned slightly, something about his lord's demeanor not quite right. In all my years of being his friend, I've never seen that look in his eyes before. Strange . . . Shrugging, Kunzite dismissed his misgivings. Reaching out with his mind, he sensed where Obsidian had gone. In a flash of violet-pink energy, the tall Elemental teleported out of the Hall as well.
Nephrite hiked up the duffel bag once more, his long-legged stride carrying him through the mostly silent woods. Still in his tennis shirt and shorts, which were more comfortable for the weather than his school uniform, he sighed as he walked, still sore physically and emotionally. Reaching the edge of the lightly-forested land, he stopped and leaned up against the solid mass of a tree, taking in his surroundings with jade-green eyes.
The breeze blew gently around him, ruffling his shoulder-length dark-auburn hair, rippling the surface of the small lake located in the center of the park and making the leaves of the surrounding greenery dance with its passing. He broadly smiled then, enjoying the sight. Fairview Park, slated for destruction in the name of 'progress'. Yet the very thought of its demise bothered me, Negaverse warrior that I was, almost as much as the gardener Baxter. As he watched a couple blissfully row out on the lake, a pair of white swans gliding in the boat's wake, a warm sense of satisfaction filled his soul. It was easy convincing them to sell the property to me, especially with the combination of the money offered and the stories of the park being haunted by rabid squirrels attacking the crew. Now that I'm here again, I'm glad I decided to save the park after all. Scanning across the mirror-like water, he noticed the beginnings of the fabled rose garden. Continuing to smile broadly, he pushed off the tree and walked over in that direction.
Lita closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of the warm breeze on her face. Sitting on the bench next to Amy, the athletic girl let her tensions drain away. As for the other teen, her sapphire-blue eyes were glued to the textbook she'd brought with her. Waiting for her friend Mr. Baxter to get done with the weeding so that she could continue her conversation, she was taking the opportunity to get further ahead in her school's required reading.
With a sigh, the park's gardener pulled up one last weed around a well-foliaged Tropicana rosebush. Straightening up, knees cushioned by the springy earth beneath them, the old man tossed the weed into a white, nearly full five-gallon bucket, then wiped his brow with a gloved hand, accidentally dislodging his floppy yellow hat.
What luck. He's right there. Nephrite grinned as he peeked around a tree-trunk and spied Mr. Baxter kneeling near a rose. Although a strong twinge of regret for what he'd done mellowed his happy emotions, the auburn-haired teen still smiled. Determined to make it up to all of the people he'd wronged and given a way to do just that by the powers-that-be affecting his now-human life, he couldn't help but feel pleased with the world despite his aching body and smarting pride. Concentrating, he called forth the mark of his power, then stepped out from behind the sturdy oak.
Another timeless moment passed as energy leaped from his hand to the gardener's battered headgear. Repeating the same invocation he'd used for Katie Sandler, Nephrite felt his symbol lock onto the material of the hat, linking his former victim to the ebb and flow of the power of the stars themselves. Then the moment was over, the deed done. Nephrite dropped his hand, smiling down at the old gardener. "Good afternoon, Mr. Baxter."
Startled, the man addressed looked up, his yellow hat falling to the ground. Finding himself blinking up at a young man who seemed vaguely familiar, Mr. Baxter got a puzzled look on his slightly weather-worn face. "Uh, hello. Do I know you?" Realizing that he'd lost his hat, the gardener turned away, found it, and then put it back on.
The handsome teen-ager shook his head, an amused-looking smile dominating his visage. "Not me, but you've talked to my uncle." The kid held out a hand. "I'm Nathan Sanford. I'm sorta keeping an eye on Uncle Max's affairs while he's busy elsewhere, and I'd thought I'd drop by and see how the park was doing."
"Uncle Max? You mean Maxfield Stanton?" Catching the newcomer's nod, Mr. Baxter smiled and warmly shook the teen's hand. "Well, then, pleased to meet you. I thought you seemed familiar. You look like a younger version of Mr. Stanton."
"I do?" For some reason, that appeared to bother the bag-toting boy. But before the gardener could reply, the kid shook his head and smiled again. "I see Fairview Park's doing well."
Mr. Baxter smiled as well, beaming brightly as he glanced around first at the roses and then to the green spaces beyond. "Yes, it is. I can't thank your uncle enough for buying the land from the developers and setting up the maintainence fund."
Nephrite grinned, thrilled at the old man's obvious joy. "He was happy to do it, Mr. Baxter. The thought of all this getting torn up by bulldozers for just another stupid building of cold glass and steel rankled him as much as you. There are few enough spots in this city where the green of Nature remains. 'Progress' didn't need to swallow up another."
The sound of voices on the wind caught Lita's attention, and she opened her eyes. Focusing on Nathan--of all people--standing there holding a conversation with the still-kneeling Mr. Baxter, the tall brunette blinked in surprise, then gently elbowed her companion. "Hsst! Amy!"
Startled, the blue-haired genius looked up from her book, staring wide-eyed at the other girl. "Lita, what's gotten--"
"Look!" the ponytailed teen whispered. With a subtle gesture, she pointed out the old gardener and the auburn-haired boy talking on the other side of the roses.
"That's Nathan," Amy said out loud to herself. Her eyes narrowed slightly in thought. "First Molly, then Katie, and now Mr. Baxter? A suspicious pattern indeed."
The athletic girl frowned. "Don't tell me you're convinced he's really that Negaverse warrior back from the dead. He sure doesn't seem like one."
Amy carefully set down her textbook, a finger still holding her place. Fixing the teen-aged boy with her intelligent, sapphire-blue eyes, she replied, "I'm certainly convinced that there's more to this than pure coincidence."
Lita just frowned, not liking that thought at all.
Crossing his arms, Nephrite scanned the scenery with an appreciative gaze as the park's caretaker stood up and brushed off the knees of his pants. Focusing on the rose garden, a few plants already showing the first gorgeous blooms of the season, another memory from long ago crossed the now-human Gemlord's thoughts.
From the past once again: Roses of many colors, both mundane and exotic, fill the formal rose garden within the inner bailey walls of the Jovian castle, their sweet perfume scenting the air. Resplendent in his emerald-green-trimmed white uniform, Nephrite bends over to better appreciate the smell of a particularly beautiful dark rose. "You're right. For a black one, this bush has a very noticeable scent."
Amused laughter sounds from the elegant young woman walking through the garden. Her shiny brunette hair done up in a topknot ponytail, dressed practically for garden work in pants and a shirt, Princess Jupiter smiles brightly at her companion. "I'm glad you appreciate it, Nephrite. Thank you for escorting me home to Io Castle."
He straightens up, running a hand through his mid-back-length hair in order to get it back out of his face. "It was the least I could do, dear Princess. After all, teleporting from place to place is no big deal to me."
She laughs again. "I know. That's why I asked. Besides, I wanted you to see my home--and I have something to show you."
A look of surprise crosses his handsome face. "You do?"
The tall brunette princess grins as she approaches. Taking him by the hand, she starts dragging him off through her gorgeous rose garden. "Come on! It's over here."
The white-clad Commander quietly follows, a puzzled expression still quite evident on his face. It was a look that grew deeper when he sees that they walk up to an isolated flower bed next to where the steps up to the castle keep itself ascend.
Princess Jupiter stops, then spins around, still giving her companion a mysterious smile. "Now close your eyes." Seeing the slightly-annoyed look that lights up his jade-green eyes, she softly laughs. "Humor me, dear Nephrite." Nodding her head as his eyes close, she wraps an arm around his waist and guides him to the flower bed. Positioning him just so in front of a particular rosebush, she leans over and whispers in his ear, "Okay. Take a look."
He opens his eyes, then blinks in surprise as he finds himself looking down at a magnificent flower. The huge double-rose was nearly as big as his palm, its silky petals a translucent white that appears to almost glow with its own internal light. The most striking thing about the bloom was the edging of each delicate petal. Bright emerald green lined the flower, fading off into the shimmering white. Having never seen anything quite like it before, Nephrite can only gaze at it speechlessly.
Amusement dances in Princess Jupiter's forest-green eyes. "For a number of years, my gardeners have been trying to develop a white rose in honor of Her Serene Majesty. At first, they were going to get rid of this sport--after all, they knew they hadn't achieved their goal when the buds remained greenish in color--but I wanted to see how it bloomed. I couldn't help but think of you when I realized what this rose would look like."
"It's absolutely stunning, Your Highness, but why think of me?"
With a laugh, the ponytailed princess playfully tugs at Nephrite's green-lined white jacket. "It reminded me of your uniform, plus I know how much you love roses. So even though we're calling it the 'Jupiter Rose', I'm dedicating it to you." As the Gemlord blinks in astonishment, the athletic young woman hugs him, kissing his cheek. "I'm so glad Lord Obsidian let Prince Darien borrow you, dear Nephrite. When the rose is established enough, I'll send a cutting to Lithos as a thank-you to the Guardian of Space. I hear that he's quite the gardener as well."
The Commander of the North remains speechless for a moment, then warmly smiles. "I'm sure my Lord will appreciate your token of thanks. I'm . . . touched, dear Princess."
She stares deep into his beautiful, jade-green eyes, lips slightly parted, for a long moment. "No, dear, sweet Nephrite," she finally whispers. "'Tis I who am touched." She then kisses him, softly, longingly . . .
With a violent shake of his head, the teen-aged human Nephrite now was shoved the memory from his mind. No, it couldn't have happened like that. I was only playing games with her, he growled at himself. Yet the feelings stirred by the memory were just as real as everything else he'd been feeling lately--emotions similar, but stronger, than the ones evoked by knowing he'd saved the park, stronger even than the feelings brought about whenever he looked at Molly.
"Mr. Sanford? Is everything all right?" The gardener's slightly worried voice cut through his confused thoughts.
"Huh?" Concentrating on Mr. Baxter, the auburn-haired boy faintly smiles. "Oh, yeah, everything's fine."
Lita glanced over at Amy. "That's it. I've had it." Before the blue-haired girl could respond, the ponytailed teen leaped to her feet and began striding through the roses to the pair of males at the garden's edge.
"Lita, wait," Amy called after her friend, hastily setting her textbook down on the bench and getting to her feet as well.
The other girl just ignored the sapphire-eyed genius. Topknot ponytail bouncing with her movements, her long stride swiftly carrying her along a narrow path through the roses, Lita continued her approach.
As the park's caretaker slowly turned to face the source of the footsteps along the gravel, the athletic boy noticed the two girls walking toward him. Nephrite frowned slightly. Coincidence? Or are they here because they suspect me? When the tall teen came close, he forced himself to smile. "Hello again, Lita. Fancy meeting you here."
"Hrmph. I could say the same." She easily met his gaze, determined to get to the bottom of this once and for all. "I came to find my friend Amy. What's your excuse?"
The intellectual girl just named stopped behind her companion, sapphire eyes slightly wide in apprehension.
Nephrite gave the short-haired female a cursory glance, then stared back at the brunette confronting him. "You left the tennis club in a hurry."
"Sorry, but I got bored." Lita's expression wasn't apologetic in the least. "I could tell from the start that you needed to work on much more than just your serve. However, you still haven't answered my question."
The auburn-haired teen felt himself turn red in embarrassment as he was reminded of his slightly humiliating loss. Annoyed, he growled, "If you really want to know, I came to see Mr. Baxter."
Amy couldn't help but glance at her long-time friend. Slightly relieved to find the sweet old man apparently well at the moment, she turned her focus back to the shady boy.
"Now why in the world would you want to do that?" Lita asked, a suspicious tone to her voice.
"Excuse me, ladies, but he came to see how the park's doing." At the gardener's quiet proclamation, the pair of females looked at Mr. Baxter in surprise. "After all, his uncle was the one kind enough to save it. It's only natural he'd come to see what's up."
The blue-haired girl stared at Nathan, an astonished light in her eyes. "Are you saying that it was Maxfield Stanton that bought Fairview Park to preserve it?" Somehow, that concept just didn't seem possible.
"That's precisely what he's saying, Amy," Nephrite replied, unable to stifle his slight smile at the girl genius's puzzlement.
Lita continued looking at the old gardener, light glimmering off her pink, rose-shaped earrings. "Are you sure that's all, Mr. Baxter?"
A rose-colored flash of sunlight caught Nephrite's eye. Focusing on it, he realized that he was staring at an earring that looked like a perfect pink bloom from a fairy-sized rosebush. For some reason, an overwhelming sensation of familiarity hit him as he stared at the earring Lita wore, and with it came another memory.
Another flash from the past: The white-clad Northern Commander stands on the balcony of the Moon palace, a nervous expression on his handsome face. Beyond the entryway back into the palace, the sounds of merriment and music can be heard. Nephrite turns from gazing down at Queen Serenity's rose garden two stories below and looks through the door into the ballroom, scanning for the tall, graceful form of Princess Jupiter. "Where can she be?" he mutters to himself, glancing at a small box in his hand. "She told me she'd be right out." Sighing, he opens the box once again to see its precious contents.
They sparkle in the gentle starlight, the pair of pink sapphire earrings that Lieutenant Sapphire of the Tower Guard on Lithos had so painstakingly shaped into delicate rose blooms. "I owe you one, Lady Sapphire," he reminds himself, knowing from his own experiences how much time and magical effort it took for a Gemlord to shape a piece of his or her namesake stone with such fine precision. "They're gorgeous. I know she'll like them."
"Like what, dear Nephrite?" comes an amused feminine voice.
With a start, the auburn-haired warrior glances at the source of the sound, hiding the hand holding the small box within the folds of his white cape. "Cosmos, you startled me, my Princess."
The brunette laughs, the emeralds within her intricate hairstyle glimmering softly. Dressed in a forest-green formal gown, Princess Jupiter is a stunning sight. "My apologies for being so late, sweet Nephrite, but I was waylaid by Princess Venus. She wanted me to hear yet again just how wonderful Lord Kunzite is."
"I see," He responds, smiling just a bit. "I bet my commander enjoyed every minute of her recitation of all his positive points." The Gemlord's tone is teasingly sarcastic; it's a well-known fact that Kunzite often finds himself blushing in mild embarrassment whenever he's around to hear the sunny-haired princess's glowing words.
"To tell you the truth, Lord Kunzite was nowhere nearby, but Lord Zoisite was." The elegantly-dressed brunette frowns slightly. "Strange. Your Western Commander gave Princess Venus a very nasty look and stormed off, leaving poor Princess Mercury standing there confused and embarrassed. Wonder what got into him?"
Though he has his suspicions, Nephrite keeps his peace, only shrugging in reply. "Never mind about that, dear Princess." He smiles again, this time a bit shyly. "I . . . have something for you. That's why I asked you to come out here."
Princess Jupiter doesn't say a word. Instead, she just gives her companion a questioning look.
Closing his eyes, almost dreading her reaction, he brings out the hand hidden behind his athletic form and holds out the still-open box. "Here. I had a Gemlord back home make these for you."
The young brunette woman slowly takes the box from the auburn-haired man, gazing at the glittering contents in happy astonishment. Finally, she finds her voice. "Oh, Nephrite! They're gorgeous." Smiling broadly, she puts the box back in the Northern Commander's hand. "Hang onto those while I take these ones out."
Ignoring her companion's slightly startled look, she reaches up and removes the dangling emerald earrings she already wears. One by one, Princess Jupiter drops her discarded jewelry into Nephrite's hand next to the small container perched on his palm, then takes out a pink rose, sliding the golden post through the piercing in her earlobe and then fastening the back. Following that, she turns her head from side to side, modeling the delicate pink-sapphire flowers for him.
"They look wonderful on you, dear Princess." The white-clad man's smile is now as bright as the one on her pretty face. "I remembered that you like roses just as much as I--pink roses most of all--and I knew these would do your beauty justice."
Princess Jupiter merely continues to smile, unphased by her companion's complement. "Thank you, sweet Nephrite. I'll cherish this gift for all eternity."
Blushing slightly, he reaches out with his free hand and takes one of hers in it. Lightly caressing her slender fingers with his thumb, he opens his mouth to say something . . .
The memory abruptly ended, leaving the former Negaverse warrior staring at Lita's rose-shaped earring in confusion. I swear those are the same ones. Could it possibly be?
"I'm positive, Lita," Mr. Baxter affirmed, giving the tall teen-ager a puzzled look. "Was there supposed to be something else?"
The ponytailed brunette shot her female companion a quick glance. At the subtle, negative shake of Amy's short-haired head, Lita gave the old gardener a slight smile. "No. Please, excuse me for barging in like that." She then turned her gaze on the auburn-haired boy, only to discover him looking at her, his jade-green eyes unreadable. Somewhat irritated, she snapped, "And what are you staring at, Nathan?"
Before Nephrite could snap back his own abrasive reply, the pretty ponytailed girl's words dumping him solidly back to reality once again, a small beeping filled the air. Though it sounded like the alarm on an electronic watch, the reactions from the two girls seemed to make the sound appear to be something more.
"Lita, we really need to be going," the intellectual teen spoke up, concern lighting up her sapphire-blue eyes. Smiling apologetically at the park's caretaker, Amy continued, "I'm sorry, Mr. Baxter, but I just remembered that the two of us have a very important appointment we must attend."
The athletic girl nodded in reply, echoing her companion's concern as her aggravation faded away.
"That's quite all right, Amy dear," the old gardener smiled. "I understand. Rush off now. I wouldn't want you to be late on my account."
As the girl genius turned and retreated down the gravel path at a somewhat unusually fast pace, the other teen-ager fixed Nephrite with her forest-green gaze. "I'll be seeing you again, Nathan," she said, her voice carrying a tone of warning. The ponytailed brunette then spun on a heel and rushed off after her friend.
Nephrite watched the long-legged beauty depart, wondering if her frosty promise was a good thing or a bad thing.
As always, the grounds of Hikawa Jinja--the Cherry Hill Temple--were peaceful, the sunny, late spring weather highlighting the beauty of the area. High up on the torii near the main building of the temple complex, the pair of raven guardians kept a watchful eye. At the moment, all was silent; no visitors walked through the well-maintained grounds, and the staff themselves were busy with their various chores. As Phobos scanned the area near the spirit gate with her sharp, black eyes, Deimos shook herself, fluffing out her sleek, glossy feathers in order to get more comfortable.
A dark shadow suddenly appeared floating in the air, blackish-green cloak swirling around his athletic form. His clear baritone ripped through the breeze. "Crystal Freeze!"
The pair of startled ravens looked at the source of the sound in time to see the glowing globe of blackish-green energy right before it swallowed them up. Solidifying around the birds and the section of the torii upon which they were perched, the glass sphere imprisoning the temple guardians made an unusual sight. With a cold smile on his handsome face, Obsidian's tall form faded away.
Raye knelt before the sacred fire in the heart of the temple, her awareness in a light trance brought about by the everyday ritual of adding more fuel to the perpetual flame. Thousands of years of grace and harmony flowed through her movements as she instinctually followed the ritual taught her long ago. Then came a sensation of something that shattered her slightly altered state.
Huh? she thought, her posture stiffening, violet eyes wide in surprise. I sense danger nearby. Not evil . . . just hostile. Quickly rising to her feet, the light of the fire reflecting off her loose-fitting temple uniform, she turned around just as a psychic chill filled the air. Before her disbelieving eyes stood a horribly familiar figure, his tall, lean form seemingly filling up the entryway into the chamber of the sacred flame. "You!" she gasped, her nearly frozen mind wondering where in the world did he get that strange, lavender outfit. "You're supposed to be dead!"
The silver-haired Gemlord smirked, having expected his appearance to create such a moment of confusion. Taking advantage of the situation, Kunzite threw out his hands to either side and called a trigger-phrase, "Fire Energy Electrify!" In response, a sphere of violet-pink energy flared to life around the young priestess, trapping her within.
Finding herself surrounded, Raye snapped out of her state of shock. "Let me out of here, creep, or I'll make you regret ever coming back to mess with me," she growled.
"Go ahead and try, Sailor Mars," Kunzite chuckled, seemingly amused.
The raven-haired teen's violet eyes grew wide in renewed astonishment. How did he know? Recovering rapidly, Raye narrowed her eyes. I'll worry about that later . . . "Very well, if you insist." Reaching into her white top, she pulled out a red pen with an elaborate gold cap and held it high. "Mars---"
That was the moment for which the silver-haired warrior was waiting. Barking out another trigger, "Fire Energy Shrink!" he coldly watched as the force field collapsed in around the pretty priestess.
With an involuntary groan forced out of her by the sudden pressure, Raye found herself stuck in place, the violet-pink energy constricting her so tightly, she couldn't move at all. Worse yet than the painful crushing sensation was the realization that every time she breathed out, the tightness grew worse. Eyes squeezed shut, teeth clenched in pain, the raven-haired girl's frightened mind could only comprehend one thing. Not much longer, and I won't be able to breathe at all . . .
The tall Gemlord continued to dispassionately watch his captive, concentrating on keeping the pressure on, yet simultaneously casting out with his psychic senses to make sure the two of them remained alone. The struggle, if it was even that, didn't last long at all; in a matter of moments, the girl's agonized expression relaxed into the blank one characteristic of unconsciousness. His orders to merely incapacitate foremost in his thoughts--even though he personally wasn't inclined to kill the Senshi anyway despite their past enmity--Kunzite dismissed the force field with a cutting gesture of his hand. Without a sound, the priestess's graceful form slumped to the floor, the red and gold pen rolling from her unmoving hand.
Just then, a mental aura stepped into the Elemental's expanded awareness. Instantly on the alert, the lavender-cloaked warrior stepped away from the entry, power tingling in a hand at the ready.
The newcomer that walked into the chamber of the sacred fire was a tall, lanky youth dressed in a white and blue temple uniform. Sporting longish, shaggy brown hair and holding a mop and pail, he seemed quite at home as he strode in, unaware of the silent figure lurking just to the side. "Raye? Hey, Raye? I got--" Spying the unconscious priestess lying on the floor through his long bangs, the young man dropped the cleaning supplies. "Oh man! Raye, you all right?"
As the mop and pail clattered to the wooden floor, the empty metal container tipping onto its side and rolling just a bit, the silver-haired Gemlord thrust his hand at the new arrival. With a cry of "Zai!", a concentrated burst of rose-colored energy hit the shaggy-haired human, sending the young man flying into one of the sturdy wooden beams that made up the chamber's wall. The temple worker hit hard; with a groan, he collapsed to the floor, out cold.
Kunzite sensed the abrupt appearance of a new aura just before he heard the familiar baritone voice. "A bit of interference?"
Bowing slightly in acknowledgment of Lord Obsidian's arrival, the Warrior of Elemental Fire shook his head. "Not quite, my Lord. Just an innocent who wandered in at the wrong time."
"Good," the dark lord acknowledged. Striding over to where the pen Raye had brandished lay on the floor, Obsidian knelt down long enough to retrieve it, his long cloak pooling around his athletic form. Standing once more, he held the slender object up to inspect it, the orange glow of the fire reflecting off the planet-like emblem at its top. "So herein lies the key to the power of the planet Mars," he murmured to himself, coldly smiling. Sparing a glance at the still-unconscious priestess, whose body was beginning to stop gasping for breath, he fixed his warrior with a stern gaze. "Keep her under until I return. And remain alert for any other possible interference."
"As you wish, my Lord," Kunzite responded. Maintaining his psychic scan of the surrounding area, the silver-haired Gemlord bowed his head. Pale-lavender eyes closing in concentration, he mentally reached out to the unconscious girl and tapped into her body's energy. Quickly assessing the pattern and flow of her natural power, the tall Elemental began siphoning off energy at a rate that he knew would only keep his victim out cold and nothing more.
Nodding in approval, the Guardian of Space dematerialized in a gleam of blackish-green light.
Finding and maintaining the balance of the flow of power into himself, Kunzite opened his eyes and stared down at the raven-haired teen, a sense of unease at what he'd done and was continuing to do momentarily stabbing his conscience. So young, so vulnerable. And an ambush is not honorable combat.
Once more, that contemptuous laughter that had become the bane of his mental peace sounded deep within himself, bringing with it an overwhelming need to feed on the dark power at its control. How touching, dear Kunzite. Your concern is most . . . pathetic.
Leave me be! the warrior thought with a snarl, shoving aside the compulsion to send his victim's energy to the presence in exchange for the dark, seductive strength of the Negaforce he craved.
The shadowy voice laughed again. What matters honor when you can have power? With power, you can create whatever honor you desire. Once more, I offer you anything you wish; open yourself to me, and everything you dream of will become yours. You remember how it felt, the thrill of the energy of your Element magnified to its utmost limits through my might . . .
A shudder ran through Kunzite's tall form, one that was equal parts of dread and desire. Breaking out into a cold sweat, he closed his eyes and steeled his resolve. Begone! he silently raged, using nearly every ounce of his iron will to suppress both the mocking voice and the gnawing hunger that tore at his soul.
The dark sound came one last time, an amused peal of feminine laughter that slowly faded away. You're still mine, Kunzite. You will always belong to me, it whispered. Then it was gone.
Near the temple's sacred fire, Raye softly moaned, moving slightly. The sound cut through the lavender-cloaked Gemlord's awareness, bringing him back to reality. Realizing that he'd let his concentration slip, he brutally quelled the craving that still clawed at him--easily done now that the presence of the Negaforce had left--and re-established his control over the teen-aged priestess. Casting outward with his psychic awareness once again, keeping a vigilant watch for any more possible witnesses, he suddenly sensed that the other young human was beginning to come to as well. With a flicker of thought, Kunzite read and tapped the shaggy-haired man's energy pattern also, adding him to the low-level siphon.
For a couple of minutes, nothing stirred in the chamber; only the occasional pop of the sacred flame broke the stillness of the moment. Then came the flare of a powerful aura. The Elemental looked up in time to see Obsidian reappear in front of him, a frustrated look on the dark lord's handsome face.
Before Kunzite had a chance to ask what was wrong, a new voice cut through the air, a feminine voice that held the ring of challenge in its precisely-enunciated words. "Hold it right there!"
Startled, the pair of Gemlords stared at the entryway to the room, only to find a pair of sailor-suited Senshi standing there. One was a pretty girl with short, bluish hair, her fuku composed of a white bodice accented by sapphire-blue bows and a sapphire-blue miniskirt; the other was a tall, ponytailed brunette outfitted in white and green, a determined look in her forest-green eyes. Recognizing them instantly as Sailors Mercury and Jupiter, the dark-brown-haired Guardian of Space snapped his fingers and barked out a command. "Get the priestess, now!"
Recovering, the silver-haired warrior quickly responded. Thrusting out a hand, Raye's unmoving form suddenly rose into the air, held aloft by his telekinetic power.
"Leave her alone, megadweeb!" shouted the forceful, slightly deeper voice of Jupiter. "You--- huh?" Suddenly realizing just who the tall, silver-haired man in the odd, slightly medieval-looking violet-pink outfit was, the green-skirted brunette broke off in complete astonishment.
The bluish-haired Senshi recognized the former Negaverse general at nearly the same moment. "Kunzite!" Mercury hissed in shock.
However, neither Scout had much of a chance to recover from the unexpected encounter. As the lavender-cloaked warrior quickly drew Raye's floating body to him with an abrupt gesture, Obsidian took up an attack stance, legs braced and feet wide apart, then thrust a hand in the Senshi's direction. A powerful beam of concentrated blackish-green energy raced towards the sailor-suited females as Kunzite called out, "I have her, my Lord!"
Seeing the burst from the dark-haired stranger speeding their way, both Mercury and Jupiter leapt to the side, each girl taking a different direction to dodge the blast. The energy hit the temple floor with a small explosion, the force of it strong enough to both blow a shallow crater in the wooden planks and knock the Scouts to their knees.
Shaking off the effects of the attack, the ponytailed Senshi shot her fellow soldier a startled look. "That was close!"
Mercury nodded in reply, light glittering off her golden tiara. "Deliberately so. He didn't aim for us."
"Who cares?" Jupiter snapped, getting back to her green-booted feet. "They're after Raye! Time to knock some heads together." She was through the door before the blue-skirted Senshi could get back up to give her friend a hand.
Dark golden-brown eyes narrowing slightly, Obsidian watched as the taller miniskirted girl came thundering back. Glancing over at Kunzite and noticing that his warrior had the still-unconscious priestess slung unceremoniously across a shoulder, the dark lord telepathed a crystal-clear picture to his fellow Gemlord. "Follow me!" he commanded, then disappeared in a dark shimmer.
Hastily readjusting the raven-haired girl's dead weight to a more comfortable position, Kunzite noticed the eerie electric-blue flicker of lightning beginning to glimmer in the sacred chamber as Jupiter began her attack sequence, the antenna on her tiara extended. But before she could actually shout the triggering words, the silver-haired Elemental teleported, guided by Obsidian's lead.
"No! Raye!" the brunette Scout shouted as Mercury dashed into the flame's chamber. Powering down, the lightning fading away, Jupiter could only stare blankly at where Kunzite and her unmoving friend had been.
Just then, a low groan caught the girls' attention. Searching around and discovering Chad's crumpled form against the wall, moving slightly, the Senshi momentarily pushed aside their worries to see if the shaggy-haired rock star was all right.
Oh my aching head and ribs, Raye silently moaned. Though still woozy, she suddenly became aware of the fact that she felt like she was floating in the air. Carefully opening her violet eyes and fighting off the sudden dizziness, she found herself looking down at a marble floor from a position right around six feet up, a pastel lavender cloak foremost in her view.
The color brought back a memory, a flash of a former foe back from the dead and on the attack again. With a start, the raven-haired teen tried to come back to full awareness, only to discover herself unable to do so. Instead, something was mentally inhibiting her, keeping her in a twilight state reminiscent of a dream.
Raising her head slightly and peering through her long, silken tresses, she saw that she and her captor were located in what appeared to be the heart of a palace of some sort. They were in a somewhat wide corridor of black-veined reddish marble, the dull polish, dim light and dust-powdered tapestries hanging on the stone-lined walls all testifying to a long age of emptiness and neglect. Though she couldn't remember ever being here before, the whole place had a very familiar feeling to it; for some reason, the quiet atmosphere seemed to make the Shinto priestess feel like she'd finally come home.
"As I found on my first trip, it appears it will take more than just the transformation pen to open the chamber."
Raye blinked in muzzy surprise. A second person? And it's a voice I don't recognize.
"And you believe that it would take the princess herself, ne?" quietly rumbled a deep voice the teen-ager knew was Kunzite's.
"I'm fairly certain that it will," replied the first person. "If you'd kindly set her down, we shall see what happens."
In response, Raye felt herself being gently shifted then swung down off the silver-haired man's shoulder. Though still locked in that dream-like state, unable to shake the sensation of befuddlement that clouded her mind no matter how much she fought it, she found herself able to stand. Focusing on a pair of knee-high black boots into which were tucked a pair of ebony pants, the young priestess slowly raised her gaze.
Dressed in a tunic and nearly floor-length cloak as dark as his pants and boots, both of which were accented with metallic gold and golden brooches bearing glossy-black cabochon stones, the other man was tall, though still half a head shorter than Kunzite. His hair was slightly wavy and a brown so dark it was nearly black, a thick mane that fell midway down his back, and a golden circlet with a black gem glimmered from beneath his longish bangs. But the most captivating feature of the handsome stranger was his eyes; a golden-brown so dark they appeared pupil-less, their limitless depths seemed to fill Raye's dazed mind. The stranger gestured to the girl's right. "Dear Princess Mars, if you would be so kind?"
Slowly the raven-haired teen turned and looked at where the dark-clad man pointed, still feeling as if she were in a dream. There, in the marble-chased wall, was a set of ornate double doors that looked as if they were made of bronze. Cast in high-relief, the pair of doors were decorated with scenes of war, victory and parades, the symbol of the planet Mars filling the center of the metallic area. As she blinked in confusion at the oddly-familiar scene, she felt something get placed in her hand. Dropping her violet gaze, she saw that she once more held her transformation pen.
For a second, a thrill of defiant satisfaction cut through her confusion, and Raye once more held the pen high. But then the dream-like fog reasserted itself, detaching her will from her actions. Helplessly, she felt herself change into someone other than Sailor Mars, a someone unable to resist the gentle but insistent suggestion to open the doors.
Kunzite stood in the silent hall, watching as a fiery-red shimmer surrounded the young priestess. She became taller, more elegant, more mature, her temple uniform transforming into a gown of shimmering red, ruby jewelry glimmering at ears and throat. For the first time in a millennium, Princess Mars stood before the silver-haired warrior, as sophisticated and as beautiful as he remembered.
Violet eyes looking far-off and dreamy, the young woman reached out and touched the center of the circle that made up part of the Mars symbol on the doors with the golden cap of the pen. "By the power and in the name of Mars, I ask that you open to me, your mistress. Allow me passage to the Sacred Flame beyond."
In response, the symbol of Mars on the entryway flared bright red, the same glyph glowing within the transformation pen in sympathy. Then the bronze panels slowly swung inwards on their own, revealing the room within. Still appearing entranced, the raven-haired princess gracefully strode through the entry. Without a word, the pair of Gemlords followed.
The room was plain, an unadorned chamber of well-polished black-veined red marble, yet both Obsidian and Kunzite could sense the overwhelming flow of energy filling the atmosphere. In the center of the room was located a free-standing dais of three steps upon which rested a large brass brazier within a wrought-iron tripod. Red and orange tongues of flame leaped into the air from the metal bowl, its strong, flickering light reflecting off the polish of the marble chamber. Princess Mars walked up to the edge of the dais, then stopped, the still-glowing transformation pen in hand.
The dark lord glanced around, then focused on his companion. "If you please, Kunzite."
The silver-haired warrior nodded in acknowledgment, then strode up the three-stepped platform to stand before the burning brazier. Closing his eyes, he opened himself up to the energy that flowed around him and filled the room. Fiery hot and intense, the prickly power was comforting; born of the Element of Fire, it was, by its nature, sympathetic to the Commander of the South. Reveling in the energetic sensation, Kunzite reached into the heart of the flames. When he pulled out his unharmed hand, he held a glittering, deep red jewel.
The lavender-cloaked Elemental was about to step away when he heard Obsidian's baritone voice give him an order to move the brazier from the dais. "My Lord?" he inquired, blinking in surprise.
"You heard me, Kunzite. Move it."
"If I do that--"
"Of course!" the dark-haired Gemlord snapped. "That's precisely why I want it done. Now carry out my order, Commander."
Eyes narrowing slightly in distaste, Kunzite raised a hand. Under his telekinetic control, the brass and iron focus of the power of the planet Mars floated into the air. With a gesture, the tripod gently glided over and down, coming to rest on the floor right next to the three-stepped platform.
Deep inside her confused, dreamy state, Princess Mars silently screamed in frustration and despair as she watched the Sacred Flame be moved from its point of focus. Around her, she felt the delicate balance of energy go askew, watched in befuddled horror as the Flame died out and the chamber lost its unearthly polish. In her hand, the red-barreled pen went dark, the Mars symbol disappearing. Then, with a sickening lurch, the dissonance washed over her; the energy gone, Princess Mars slumped to the floor, unconscious, shimmering deep red and reverting back to Raye as she fell.
Kunzite frowned darkly as he returned to his lord's side, a sad feeling of emptiness filling him in the wake of the extinguishment of the Sacred Flame. As the Warrior of Elemental Fire, his action bothered him quite a bit, yet he said not a word. Instead, he merely gave Obsidian a cool look as he handed the jewel to the Guardian of Space.
Easily meeting the other's pale-lavender gaze with one just as cold, Obsidian took the glittering stone, then held it up to look at it. "The Ruby of Flames," he quietly stated, smiling. His eyes then flicked to the young priestess lying on the marble floor. Handing the jewel back to his warrior, the dark lord commanded, "Take the Ruby home. I'll return the Senshi to her temple."
With a bow and a salute, the deep-red gem in his fist as he placed it over his heart, Kunzite mentally called the trigger to open the Vortex Mirror, then disappeared in a gleam of rose-colored light.
Obsidian first picked up the transformation pen, then knelt down next to the unmoving girl and clipped it to the neckline of her white top. Gently picking her up and cradling her in his arms, he closed his eyes and concentrated, expanding his mental awareness across the miles of space between the Shinto temple on Earth and where he stood in the middle of Phobos Deimos Castle floating over the surface of Mars. In his mind's eye, he could see the presence of all the other Inner Scouts gathered in the main building as four distinctive auras--pink, yellow, green and blue--near the consecrated feel of the heart of the temple. Centering on the residual sensation of his own power, which was a slight distance away from the Senshis' auras, Obsidian made the teleportational jump.
In a swirl of blackish-green energy, the dark lord rematerialized next to the torii on the grounds of Hikawa Jinja. Taking a moment to scan the area, confirming the fact that no one else was around, Obsidian then knelt down and carefully laid the priestess on the grass at the foot of the spirit gate. Staring upwards at the crossbar of the torii where the black glass prison remained, the Guardian of Space made a sharp gesture with his hand. The vitreous globe exploded, the dark shards dissipating as so much ebony mist into nothingness. With a raucous caw, Phobos and Deimos took wing, none the worse for wear.
Continuing to screech and scold, the pair of avian guardians wheeled in the air, intent on driving off the hostile intruder. Watching the ravens dive in his direction with a less-than-amused expression on his face, the Lord of Lithos gathered his focus and called his trigger, "Obsidian Mirror Return." He teleported away in a dark shimmer, leaving the ravens to circle and complain in frustrated confusion.
The commotion caught the attention of the group of sailor-suited Scouts gathered within the large common room of the main building. Breaking off their discussion of the startling events of not long ago, the young warriors dashed outside, Sailor Moon in the lead. Discovering the raven-haired priestess lying on the ground, the Senshi gathered around her, Sailor Mercury kneeling down to assess her friend's condition. "Raye?"
"Is she all right?" asked Moon, light glittering off her golden tiara and the red and gold brooches on the round buns in her long blond hair.
"Hope so," replied the white- and orange-suited Sailor Venus, her sunshine-blond hair swirling around her in the slight breeze.
"Look alive, Scouts. Those jerks might still be around," Sailor Jupiter warned, forest-green eyes carefully scanning the area.
The familiar voices of her friends cut through Raye's foggy awareness, bringing her back to full consciousness. Slowly opening her violet eyes and seeing a worried-looking Mercury next to her, three other sailor-suited soldiers standing in the background, she smiled up at the group. "Am I glad to see you."
"Are you okay?" inquired the blue-haired Senshi as she helped the priestess to her feet.
"I think so," Raye answered.
"What happened? I mean, I heard about what Kunzite and that other Negasleeze did to you, but what happened after that?" Moon's lovely blue eyes were full of curious concern.
The brunette Scout scowled. "I'm gonna make Pretty Boy there regret that he ever came back from the dead."
A thoughtful frown crossed Venus's beautiful face. "If Kunzite's back, and it sure looks like he is, then it just might mean that that guy you were all worried about is Nephrite."
Jupiter's scowl deepened. "He wasn't anywhere near the temple. Mercury and I were there with him when we got the alarm. And that creep that shot at us wasn't Nathan."
Mercury mentally sighed at the green-uniformed girl's insistence. Nodding her short-haired head, she confirmed, "The second aggressor wasn't Nephrite. In fact, he was a complete stranger, someone I've never seen before. However, it was quite obvious that Kunzite was taking orders from him."
The Scout with the knee-length blond ponytails continued to gaze in worry at Raye as the teen-aged priestess unclipped the transformation pen from her temple uniform and stared at it.
"Wonder why Andromeda didn't show up?" the tall brunette growled. "You'd think a direct attack on one of us would've brought her running."
The sunny-blond soldier remained thoughtful. "Maybe they got her first? After all, Callie has been missing today."
Ignoring the conversation around her, Raye looked at her pen a moment longer, recalling the dream-like encounter in the mysterious palace. I need to know for sure. Here goes nothing . . . Holding the pen high, the raven-haired teen's stern voice filled the air. "Mars Power!"
The other Inner Senshi all stared at Raye, wide-eyed in shock.
"No!" Anger and determination glittering in her violet eyes, she tried again, concentrating with all of her fiery will. "MARS POWER!"
Still nothing, not even a spark.
"Oh Raye! What did they do to you?" Moon gasped, her voice a hushed, compassionate whisper as she looked like she might start crying right there.
The priestess slowly lowered her hand, gazing sadly at the gathering of sailor-suited warriors. "Let's go inside and I'll tell you the whole story."