"Come on, Nephrite. Snap out of it. Say something to me. Anything!" Draco stared down at the far too pale face of the boy, heart and soul willing him to show some sign of life. Shifting slightly, her sleek, black-clad body in a crouch, the golden cape draped from her shoulders a bunched up wad of cloth underneath the curve of her buttock, the Dragon Senshi remained huddled in the shadows, the youth's blood-drenched upper body resting against her thighs and knees.
Black despair welled up within her, threatening to snuff out everything that remained within her warm and caring, as the auburn-haired boy continued to lie draped there, unresponsive. No, you can't leave me again. You just can't.
She'd run for as long as she had dared, determined to get the boy to some sort of help. But when he'd seemed to slip into an insensate stupor, she'd come to a halt, habit forcing her to find a sheltered spot away from the prying eyes of strangers. She couldn't tell then if it was too late; she wondered now if it was, though she could feel a thready pulse there under the fingertip of her verdant glove.
Even as she stared down at the youthful face, a face that held only faint hints of the powerful man he had been before, she could see that something was beginning to happen. Her breath catching in her throat and her antique-gold eyes widening, she lifted her hand from the boy's neck as his body became surrounded by a faint shimmer of something that looked to her like greenish-silver starlight. The hell--?
The shimmer brightened, obscuring the features of the youth draped across her. Through her bodysuit, she could feel a faint, tingling warmth from whatever energy it was that held the boy's body in its grasp. Then, abruptly, that body began to change shape, getting wider, longer, bigger. Softly gasping, the sudden extra weight startling even though her dense muscles found it no strain at all to support it, all Draco could do was continue to watch in absolute astonishment as the boy she'd held quite literally grew up in the span of a few heartbeats.
Even after that, the silver-green starlight continued to play around the auburn-haired man's form, concentrating over the wound that she knew went completely through his shoulder. She could feel the corresponding spot on his back, where his shoulder pressed up against the dark fabric of her bodysuit, get even warmer, threatening to become perhaps even uncomfortably so before the glimmering aura just suddenly cut out, leaving the two of them once more in the inky darkness of the shadows.
"Nephrite," she breathed, her voice a whisper of awe and joy. Once more she looked upon that face that she had come to know so well; once more she held that familiar form against her.
He was there again, just as she remembered him--the long red-brown hair, the broad shoulders and athletic build, the trim hips and muscular legs, the drop-dead gorgeous visage. However, the clothes that covered his form were different, not the Negaverse gray uniform that she'd always seen him in. No, this uniform, though similar, was jet black--as black as night, as black as space--trimmed in a gorgeous emerald green, a square of the same color emblazoned on the shoulder of a sleeve of the jacket. On his shoulders were the brooches she'd come to expect, only these were different as well, being oval and smooth, bearing jade-green stones. And from them hung an emerald-green-lined and silver-trimmed cape that was as black as his uniform. Around his head glimmered a silver circlet adorned with another cabochon of jade-green stone while around his waist was tied a belt of a lighter verdant hue edged in silver, silver fringing decorating the ends.
Draco immediately decided that she liked this uniform better on him than that yellow-trimmed gray one that Beryl had insisted he wear. This one made him look far more dashing, in her humble opinion.
"Nephrite?" she called again, worried that he'd still not stirred.
Slowly, the jade-green eyes opened, clear, beautiful, no longer marred by pain. With a look of wonder within them, he realized that he was looking up into a nighttime sky, the familiar light of his friends, the stars, shining down on him. For a moment, everything was peaceful, joyful. He continued to exist.
Then the voice came, pulling him from his inward musings, tugging his awareness back to the outside world. Shifting his gaze toward the source, he blinked in astonishment, seeing a familiar face underneath the dragon-fanged circlet of a Senshi. "Siolan?" he whispered, and with that word came a rush of images: Zoisite and Lita fighting in the cemetery, the pain of the ice sword as it had impaled him, the transformations of two Senshi. Sitting up abruptly, Nephrite reached down and nearly ripped open his uniform jacket, a hand slipping in to press against his skewered shoulder.
Nothing. No hole, no sticky blood, not even a lingering tenderness. But how . . . ?
Draco remained silent, watching, rocking back on her haunches after the uniformed man slid off her to sit on the ground and thrust his hand under his ebony coat. Unsure what to think but also immensely relieved to see him somehow healthy and whole, she inwardly scowled at the sudden nervousness that filled her.
Even as he wondered, he could feel the stirrings of something within him, an intimate awareness of how his body--his Gemlord body, he instantly realized; no more did he feel himself dying around himself cell by cell--filled his awareness. It was a power he'd forgotten he had, one that he'd not even thought about for centuries. The power to Heal. Somehow, Serenity's gentle touch had reawakened that ability within his soul.
"Healing . . . I Healed myself . . ." he murmured to himself, absently refastening the ebony, emerald-trimmed jacket. "How pathetic of me that I had forgotten I had that power." Slowly rising to his feet, the long cape rustling in the night air, Nephrite remained thinking over his time in the Negaverse and came to a simple conclusion. "No, not forgotten. Made to forget . . ."
"Nephrite? Are you all right?" Draco asked again, his apparent inattention to her burning question making her voice take on a frustrated, insistent tone that overrode the surging happiness welling up from the place that she had thought dead within herself.
"Hmm?" The Gemlord turned his gaze to the black-, green- and gold-clad woman still crouching there next to him. "Yes, yes, I'm quite all right now. More than all right." Then his jade-green eyes narrowed, anger settling on his handsome features. "You never told me you were a Senshi."
The redheaded woman's own ire sparked in response to his. Once again, she was looking at the brusque, nearly-always angry man he had been as a general of the Negaverse, and a part of her felt disappointed at that. "You never asked," she shot back.
"I could have used that help. No matter," Nephrite responded, his voice taking on a tone that announced that the discussion was closed. "It's in the past now. I have something to accomplish in the here and now."
"I need to help Princess Jupiter and her friends."
"For hell's sake," Draco growled, swiftly rising to her feet. "Helping them almost got you killed."
"I don't expect you to understand," the auburn-haired man replied. "I do expect you to help. Come on."
"Just a damned minute here," she said, a low growl stressing her aggravation and masking the stab of hurt at his brusqueness. After all the time they'd been forced to spend apart, she'd hoped for something more tender in the way of a reunion. "I'm not your flunky. Any subordinate association I had with you was over with the moment that bitch Beryl decided I'd be better off dead than giving you any backing. I work to please myself and nobody else these days."
He glared at her, those jade-green eyes looking at her with some sort of accusation deep within them. "So that's the way of it? Nothing matters but what you get out of it?"
She drew herself up, throwing her shoulders back with the iron pride she'd worn in the Negaverse, meeting his gaze with the razor challenge of her own. "It's made things a hell of a lot more tolerable ever since I was driven out of the Negaverse and away from you by Beryl's little hellhounds." She toyed with a lock of the flaming hair that tumbled down over her shoulder. "Since you've decided to go back to acting like the same jackass you were when I first met you, I've got no problem behaving in a similar fashion, no matter how much I've missed you." She gave him a brittle, wicked smile. "So what will you give me to help you this time, lover?"
He didn't have time for this. Didn't have time to sort out the morass of emotion he found within himself at seeing her there, hearing her words. Didn't have time, more than likely, to really listen. All he heard was that she wanted something for her efforts, that everything was a business deal to her. Everything.
He needed to find Jupiter. The best place to do that would be at the chapel. There, he could gather his focus and ask the stars to help him locate the brunette princess.
"You disgust me," Nephrite finally said, turning away from the gold-caped Senshi and her brittle smile. Walking off into the night, a black shadow within the embrace of the surrounding darkness, his tall form then faded away in the center of a swirl of silvery-green starlight.
The only reason why he was spared a shot in the back was because Draco couldn't move at all. She stood as if she'd been turned to stone, something inside twisting and shattering like a sheet of ice peeling away from a glacier, coming apart in so many pieces that it felt as if it could never, ever be healed again.
You disgust me.
She had never expected to hear those words. Not after all this time, after all the pain. He was the only one who could touch that vulnerable place in her, beyond the armor, beyond the scarring of her soul, the place that was still alive.
You disgust me.
He was the only one who could touch that place, and with three words--three careless, emotionless words--he had betrayed her, driven shards of agony into the living heart of her.
You disgust me.
She had suffered without him, suffered as if half her being had been ripped away. Every day, every moment without him had added another tiny wound, another minuscule scar to the knotted surface of her spirit. Seeing him die at the hands of Zoisite's youma had almost killed her. Finding him again, even in the form of a Terran boy-child, had revived her.
You disgust me.
And now he had split her soul and made her bleed again.
She sank to her knees, burying her face in her hands, giving voice to a long, inhuman scream of pain and grief and loss that echoed across the concrete canyons of Tokyo. People woke in sudden cold sweats, hearing that sound and wondering if the sleeping dragon beneath the city streets had awakened to grieve for something they, the mortals, could not even begin to fathom . . .
The chapel was warm, comforting, the sound of the dance of the stars sweet music. Nephrite stood there in the center of the room, staring up at the night-darkened rose window up above. Had there been moonlight shining through it, he would have been bathed in the jewel-toned splashes of light that would have resulted. But try as he might, his thoughts wouldn't turn to the task he knew was at hand. No, they kept dwelling upon the fiery-haired Senshi, the mercenary who had been one of the last things to have kept any sort of spark of his old self alive there in the heart of the Negaverse.
They'd been lovers, bound together by a mutual something that ran hot and bright even in the heart of the chaotic darkness. Cool and aloof to one another where everyone could see, they had made up for it in their moments of shared privacy, the entire relationship one built on who was taking from whom. Even so, there was something underneath all that, something that stayed deeply hidden for fear of being strangled in the uncaring reality of the Negaverse.
Words came back to haunt him, words spoken to an innocent, naive Terran girl. I don't know what love is . . .
That's not entirely correct, Nephrite silently mused, figuring out the truth behind his observation. I forgot what love was, but I remember it now . . . How it feels, what it is, what it can do . . .
Because of the love he'd once had for Princess Jupiter, a love that he'd betrayed, he needed to make things right for her. He needed to help her and her friends against whatever it was Lord Obsidian wanted from them, no matter his past loyalties to the Guardian of Space.
Because of the love he felt for Siolan, hearing her saying that he had to give her something in return for her help had hurt and he'd lashed out in typical fashion.
Because of the love . . .
He still loved her. Jade-green eyes widened at the realization, leaving him breathless. He'd loved her, even in those frantic moments when they'd fought for dominance over one another. He'd loved her, even when the reality of his existence should have killed off anything even remotely resembling love. And he'd made himself forget what love was after he'd heard she'd been killed.
And with that realization came another. He'd left her, walking away from her all by choice. Her words played back in his head, over and over, making him flush in embarrassment. Dread filled him as he discovered that he really hadn't listened to her at all, but rather had focused on the one thing he was sure she only cared about. She had missed him, said she was reverting to character because he had started being a jackass again, yet all he had been able to focus on was her asking what he'd pay her this time around for her services.
She missed me? Could it be . . . ?
The curse that echoed through the peaceful atmosphere of the chapel was enough to blister even the most jaded of ears. Silver-green starlight swirled around him as he reached out to where he'd last left her.
She wasn't there. The black-clad Gemlord bit back both a snarl of pure frustration and a growing sense of dread. Looking around, his heart almost lurched into his throat when he saw the blood, the broken masonry. Something had happened to her . . .
Almost desperately, his gaze scanned along the street. The shattered brick and the sanguine smears and drops appeared to form a trail of some sort, pointing the way to where the Senshi had gone. Whatever had happened, she'd not covered it up. Black boots making firm sounds against the concrete under his stride, he followed the screamingly obvious clues, his sense of panic growing with each step.
Her hands were bloody, which seemed appropriate, though it was her own dark blood that stained the green gloves--blood shed from flesh that was bruised and aching from being battered against brick walls. She had fled that place the moment she could move again, unable to stand her ground against the pain that came from inside.
Of course, the professional part of her was aggravated by the fact that she must have left a trail anyone with eyes in their head could have followed. The bloodstains and chipped bricks would have been a dead giveaway, as would the half-ruined fire escape that had made itself inconvenient to her and subsequently been ripped up by the Dragon Claws.
Draco lay in a huddled curl on an apartment rooftop, her bloody hands pressed to her chest. The dull throbbing in her fingers was almost indistinguishable from the sharp, stabbing pain in her chest. It felt rather like a broken heart, but she would never have admitted to such a romantical notion right now.
You disgust me.
The bloodtrail stopped with a twisted, mangled, violently abused fire escape. Beyond that, there was no further sign that she'd passed that way in any of the directions he'd hastily checked. Frowning, Nephrite returned to the sheared and warped metal, forced himself to relax and open his senses. Too much time being locked up in a Terran body with only that one ability allowed him; he'd practically forgotten about the other powers in his arsenal. Scanning outward with his mind, he searched for her, somehow knowing that she would be close.
Pain . . . Dull and throbbing, sharp jagged twinges . . . His own heart ached at feeling her reduced to that. How stupid and careless he'd been. Utterly stupid. Utterly careless.
Using that agonizing despair as a beacon, a sullen red beam of light guiding his way, Nephrite once again called upon his power to teleportation to whisk himself to a new location. Finding himself on a rooftop up above the city streets, the cool night air ruffling his long hair and dark cape, the brilliant stars high above and glimmering down on the scene, he sighed in complete misery the moment he laid eyes upon her.
That overweening pride was gone. She seemed a huddled, broken mass, no longer the vibrant, aggravatingly arrogant and self-confident woman he'd come to love. And he'd managed to do it, just by saying something in haste and anger. Swallowing his own pride, the Gemlord slowly walked over to where the Senshi lay curled up in obvious distress.
Recalling her taunting words, the ones that had disgusted him so, he softly murmured, "How about my heart, Siolan?"
She knew he was there. In the Negaverse, there were times when she could have awakened from a sound sleep in an unfamiliar room and pointed unerringly to his location. What bothered her was that she didn't know exactly why he'd come back to find her now. The fresh wound in that vulnerable place within her throbbed painfully as she waited for another cruel blow, something that would kill forever the last scraps of a caring spirit that remained to her.
His gentle words caught her off-guard, just as his harsh ones had before. She lifted her head slightly, opening her eyes to gaze at him.
Ye gods, he was magnificent in the starlight, somehow more real, more alive than she had ever seen him, and a soft sweet ache blossomed beneath the painful gash in her soul. She forced her voice to emptiness, wary and uncertain of his motivations. "Don't mock me, Nephrite. We're not the same people we used to be. Why should you offer to pay me in that coin?"
Starlight continued to shine down on them, on him, as he swept his jade-green gaze over her. Maybe it was a trick of what light there was, between the stars he'd called on to show him things and the bright, artificial lights erected by mortal hands to stave off the shroud of the night, but there seemed to be an echoing pain there on his face even though she was sure his jaw tightened in that way it always did when he got annoyed with something.
He crouched down then, lowering himself to get more to her level, that emerald-lined cape pooling into sable darkness beneath him against the roof of the apartment building. "Why do you feel my offering you my heart is a mockery of you? The currency isn't good enough for you, then? What would you want from me, Siolan?"
Before she could reply, he was speaking again, now looking obviously annoyed. But his words made it clear that it was himself that he was angry at, not her. "Though I'm sure there's nothing in this world or any other that I could offer you to make up for what I've just done. I'm sorry."
He hoped the apology would be enough. The words came hard; it had been a very long time since he allowed himself to even acknowledge responsibility for anything negative happening to another. The last time he had done so, it had been to a grief-stricken, young Terran girl, and he had wanted her to know, before what he thought would be the end of it all, that he truly was sorry.
He felt the same way now, wanting to take back his stupid, hasty words and make it somehow better for her. So many mistakes . . . He shook his head slightly, long mane of auburn hair sliding against his caped shoulders. "I'm sorry, Siolan. I hope you can find it in you to believe me."
Draco watched his face for a long moment, her golden eyes expressionless, unreadable. Then she pushed herself up on her elbow, reaching out to touch his face; her glove left a smear of her own hot, dark blood on his skin. "I never, ever heard you say 'I'm sorry' before. Not once." A slight, rare smile flickered across her lips. "That was almost worth the price of admission all by itself. And you, by the way, look spectacular in that outfit."
Sitting up on her heels, she pushed the heavy mane of red hair back behind her shoulders, wincing as she moved her fingers. "Well, Nephrite. If you want to help the little lightning-tosser, we'd better get moving. I left her facing down Kunzite when I took you out of there. And by the way . . .?"
She grabbed his collar and pulled him very, very close. "Can you explain what in nine screaming hells happened to you? You were a Terran boy, and now you're not, and either I get some answers or we're going to have a fight that makes the arguments we used to have look like schoolyard tiffs."
The Gemlord's immediate reaction was to stiffen up, the lines of his body taking on a haughty, offended tone. How dare she think she could just yank him around as she pleased, especially after he'd apologized, especially after he'd told her he'd give her his heart, especially after he'd been hit and interrogated by Lita and then skewered by Zoisite? The light in his eyes turned hostile, brittle, but Nephrite fought back the anger. When he spoke, his low, richly-toned voice was pitched at a conversational level. "Yes, Siolan, I can promise you some answers, but this isn't exactly the time or the place. The Inner Senshi need help, and they need it now. Please . . . Just trust me for once? And while you're at it, could you please let me go?"
It was almost endearing, seeing the dark-clad man acting so noble. Almost.
"I need to return to the chapel at home and find out what's happened to Jupiter. If Kunzite's taken her, I need to try to rescue her. If he somehow managed to not get her, then I need to meet with the Senshi and find out just what's been going on," Nephrite added, his gaze continuing to meet the antique-gold one of the woman holding him by the collar of his ebony jacket.
Draco watched his expression change; the corner of her mouth curved in a dusky smirk. He always did have a bit of pomposity in his character. She'd found it entertaining to puncture his ego now and then, just to keep him from getting too full of himself.
"I always did trust you, even in the Negaverse." She pulled him a notch closer by his collar, her lashes shading her brilliant eyes suddenly. It wasn't one of the hard, aggressive kisses that he was used to getting from her; this was a light, delicate butterfly-kiss, a teasing, tempting stroke of her lips across his. Then she let go of his collar. "Just for old times' sake, I'll actually let you take the lead. Let's go."
Of all the things he expected her to do--after all, he was well aware of her obstinacy, her need to control and dominate; he was still amazed that he felt anything tender toward someone with her personality--that was one not even on the list. At the tug on his clothing, her face getting closer, he'd closed his eyes in response to the gradual inability to keep her smirking visage in focus. That petal-soft brush of her lips sent an almost electrifying tingle down his spine; were it not for that, he would have sworn he'd only imagined such a gesture. In many ways, just that little action, so seemingly out of character to the Siolan he remembered from centuries past, drove home her observation that they had both changed. Perhaps it was the truth for them both.
He was still just a bit dazed when he felt the pressure on his jacket holding him in place disappear, though her words sent a spark of his old, easily-ignited ire flaming through him. How generous of you, he mentally responded, though the continued tingle on his lips from the contact with hers kept him from actually uttering the words.
Shaking off the aftereffect, Nephrite softly growled, irritated at himself for being so easily affected by something as minuscule as a feather-light kiss. "Well, then. If you're going to tag along, can you do so under your own power?" His words had something of a sneer to them; his pride was still wounded that she'd kept the fact that she was Sailor Something-or-Other secret from him all those centuries. "Or will I have to club you over the head and drag you off by your hair?"
Draco laughed--his slightly dazed expression was worth the growly tone--and grandly slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. "Don't make offers that excite me unless you want to forget about finding Sailor Jupiter, handsome. Let's go."
It seemed almost the most natural of things for her hand to be there, so casually placed, though neither one of them really paid attention to the drying dark liquid staining her green gloves and most likely being smeared against the black fabric of his uniform jacket. The sultry little purr that slipped into her voice made Nephrite even more aware of her presence there, and part of him wondered if she was still as good as she had been all those centuries ago.
However, the other part of his mind was already reaching out across the distances, making that mental connection between here and there. Letting the comforting power of his inborn energy swirl around body and soul, he opened himself up to the transfer.
Light flared around them both--around her--a scintillating radiance that was somehow soothing and exciting both. This is what starlight would feel like, were it a tactile rather than a visual sensation. The swirl of iridescence surrounded her, sucking her in . . .
Then there was nothing. No sound, no sight, nothing but the throb of her heartbeat like a great drum whose sound filled the entire universe. One, two, then three beats passed before she was suddenly back in reality again.
The first thing she noticed as sensation again became part of her awareness was that she still had a hand on Nephrite's arm. The second thing she noticed was that she was in a place that had the hushed and peaceful atmosphere of someplace holy. Darkness surrounded them, alleviated only by the light of four candles, each one gleaming from within a colored container, the dancing hued light flickering across a bare floor. To the north, high above the flame surrounded by emerald green glass, a rose window of an intricate star-like design overlooked the area contained within the church-like, sparsely-furnished room.
The place was hauntingly familiar. He'd had a room just like this in his private quarters within the Negaverse.
"Now to find out what happened to Sailor Jupiter," the auburn-haired Gemlord said, his voice one of the few sounds that would never disrupt the quiet power of this place.
It was an unnervingly familiar place, but Draco felt something . . . different about this chamber. The one he'd maintained in that cavernous, sun-less realm had never felt so pure, so unstained. It had felt a lot less gloomy than the rest of the dark domain, but comparing it to here was like matching a candleflame to a bonfire.
Her hands throbbed as she stepped away from him, and she winced, flexing her battered fingers. She'd really done a number on them; she knew she ought to go soak them in ice, but it didn't seem like an appropriate moment to ask Nephrite to point the way to his freezer.
A couple of steps forward, the booted feet silent in the hushed atmosphere. Nephrite closed his eyes and bowed his head, starting to slow his breathing. Take one deep breath in and feel the ambient energy begin to fill you, let that breath out slowly, feeling any tension, any disturbance of your harmony drain out with the breath. Take another breath in, deeply, feel the energy . . .
Something . . . wasn't right. It was a something that poked and prodded at him, keeping him from easily centering himself. A corner of his mouth turned down; the sensation was a hauntingly familiar one, but one he couldn't place right away. Somehow, somewhere, he'd sensed this before, but for the life of him . . .
Abruptly the auburn-haired man turned, found himself gazing at the redheaded Senshi. The words were out before he even had time to think on them: "Something's wrong with you . . ."
Before she could protest, before she could deny his statement, he was there at her side, strong hands grabbing her by the wrists, lifting them up so that he could gaze down on her verdant-gloved hands.
Darkness stained them, and he remembered the trail he'd followed--broken masonry, twisted metal and drips and smears of blood. Blood. She'd hurt herself. That's what he was sensing, the pain her injuries were giving her. Yes, that made sense . . . It was a part of this power that had been reawakened after so long, a part that searched for pain from injury, disease or poison in order to combat it head on, to make whole and healthy again that which no longer was.
"Are you hurt anywhere else?" Nephrite asked, still holding her wrists in the grip of his hands. "Or is it only here?"
Draco blinked, surprised. It wasn't as if he'd seen the blood on her gloves; there was something else going on here. It actually took her a moment to recover from her startlement and answer. "That's it. Kunzite threw me around a bit, but those are just bruises, nothing dangerous."
"This shouldn't take overly long," he replied, eyes closing. Within him, this newly awakened power surged and churned, the need to make her whole again creating a somewhat insistent demand. It frightened him, just a little, to sense this part of himself becoming demanding after being strangled into oblivion for so long. Even so, the mastery of it came back to him easily enough.
His hands began to become limed with that silvery-green radiance that seemed to be the true manifestation of his powers; Draco could see the faint glow there in the darkened chapel. Then came the warmth, flowing out of him and into her, the pain in her torn and abused fingers giving way to a rather pleasant-feeling tingling. She could sense something happening within, that warmth and tingling turning to an almost itching sensation, even as the heat from him continued to flow through her, searching, seeking . . .
In his mind, he could see how the tissues should be, willed them to mend themselves back into the pattern they should have as dictated by her genetic code. Though hidden by the fabric of the green gloves, Nephrite knew that the lacerations and abrasions were fading away as new tissue replaced that which was lost or damaged. Other things wrong came to his attention; as she said, most were just deep contusions, and they too were efficiently handled by the power that surged through him in its quest to heal.
It was swiftly done, the Healing not needing to be an extensive one. Slipping from the trance-like state, Nephrite let go of Draco's wrists and took a step back, opening and blinking his eyes as he went about the business of reorienting himself.
He'd forgotten just how good Healing could make one feel . . .
"What shouldn't take . . ." Draco cut herself off, feeling that odd, warm tingling. She stared at him mutely, then looked down at her gloved hands, knowing that the torn flesh was sealing, the bruises fading. The sensation was startling; it had been literally hundreds of years since the last time she had received magical treatment. Never would she have imagined that her Negaverse lover could possess that power . . .
Her voice was only a whisper as he stepped away. "Who are you really, Nephrite?"
Jade-green eyes stared back at her; his jaw set again in that hardness that gave away his sudden irritation. "Not now, Siolan. Any other time, I'd happily indulge you, but right now . . ."
A shake of his head, that magnificent mane of his swirling slightly around his face and shoulders, and then he walked away, back to the center of the hushed chapel. He faced north, toward that emerald-covered flame, toward the rose window, toward what looked like some sort of altar--Draco could see it as a small rectangle of what looked like dark stone, about waist high, a velvety-looking cloth of one of the most gorgeous shades of dark green she'd ever seen draped over it--there against the wall opposite the doorway into the sacred space.
He was a dark shadow there in the flickering candlelight, and she could hear him take a couple of deep, slow breaths.
"The movement of the stars knows everything."
His simple sentence was voiced with a conviction that brooked no challenge to his apparent belief. But it wasn't until he took a deep breath and continued speaking that she even realized that he was performing some sort of ritual. And as he spoke, Draco watched in fascination as the chapel darkened even more, the space in the center of the room becoming filled with the moving, living and breathing image of what seemed to be the star system in which this planet--Terra--resided, the stately orbits of the nine planets against the background of the stars of the Zodiac projected there for them to see like some sort of great cosmic dance. And the sound . . . She couldn't quite place it, but the impression she would always have later was that she had heard every sound imaginable voiced together in perfect harmony into a song that filled the entire universe with a crystalline pure melody that defied all description save a very pale expression as "aum".
"I call upon the planet Jupiter, stately ruler who oversees expansion, opportunity for new growth and one's talents . . ."
Within that vision of the dance of the stars, the orbit of the largest Solar planet began to pulse with a verdant light, the astrological symbol for the planet glowing greenly in the heart of the illusory sun.
"Show to me your warrior, mighty Jupiter," Nephrite continued, mind holding the image of the girl he knew was the Senshi of that planet, his will reinforcing his desire to locate the ponytailed brunette. "Give to me her current location."
The miniature sun in the center of the vision, still shining with the Jovian glyph, began to pulse, a heart-like rhythm that seemed to keep time with that awesome, ageless music. Then a beam of emerald light shot forth from the center of the vision like an arrow, striking the deep green stone in the center of the silver circlet Nephrite wore around his head. Draco heard him gasp, then give voice to a barely-heard moan and in neither case did she get the impression that the sensation was unpleasant for him. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"Ah yes . . . Lita Kino, otherwise known as Sailor Jupiter, the Energetic Warrior," the black-clad man finally said, his deep voice holding a note of triumph. Within the heart of the planetary vision, the redheaded Senshi could see an image of the tall girl form. It appeared as if she were talking to a number of other girls--two blonds, one with black hair, one with short blue hair--her actions animated and agitated both, even though the vision didn't appear to come with any sound.
A flash of movement caught her eye; in the darkness, Nephrite's white-gloved hands moved to either side of his body in what seemed to be a gesture of dismissal, for the entire illusion of the dance of the planets and the song of the stars faded away after that, the illumination level in the chapel rising to what it was before the auburn-haired man had intoned the phrase that had started the ritual.
With a faint purr of satisfaction, Nephrite turned to smile a bit at his visitor, the location of the girl who was Sailor Jupiter set and held in his mind. "I need to pay Lita and her friends a visit. You can either stay here and amuse yourself, or come along for the ride. You might get some of your questions answered if you tag along, but otherwise, I just don't have time to give you any explanations at all."
The corner of Draco's mouth curled slightly at the less-than-acceptable impression of those words. Intellectually, she was still awed and intrigued by what she'd just seen, but her temper was quick to rise at the note of dismissal that seemed to lie within his tone.
"I'll go with you, Nephrite." She paused before landing the below-the-belt shot. "After all, we saw what happened the last time you tried to help Jupiter." She flicked a hand pointedly toward her own shoulder, in about the same place he'd been stabbed. "You obviously need someone to watch your back, and there isn't a single living soul on the planet who's likely to be as good at that as I am." It wasn't really a boastful tone; it was the matter-of-fact self-confidence that she'd always had.
Just like that, the smile he'd directed her way vanished, replaced by a look of smoldering anger. Without a word, he quickly crossed what little distance there was between them. His hand darted out, grasping the wrist of the hand that had indicated where he'd taken the ice sword through his shoulder, his grip not exactly a gentle one.
"As you wish," he snarled, then mentally crossed that distance between here and there once again. For three heartbeats, nothing existed to Draco's senses, but the moment she was solidly returned to reality, the mysterious man had turned loose of his hold on her. Turning his back on her, long cape flaring out with a gleam of emerald and silver, he started walking through the grounds of the Shinto temple. Let her come as she chose; this would be as far as he'd take her at the moment.
If he kept behaving like this, he was going to have to put his little mission aside. Arguments did have a certain effect on her, after all, and the manifestation of that was definitely hormonal in nature.
She timed it well; the flare of his cape got it out of the way long enough for her to swat his backside. "Temper, temper, handsome." Glancing around, she frowned slightly; this place did seem oddly familiar somehow . . .
Yes--now she remembered. She'd sensed the movement of the Negaverse in this world again, and come looking for its source. Jadeite had been here, if she recalled correctly; she had avoided the amber-eyed blond general like the plague, but kept tabs nevertheless.
Cherry and ginkgo trees were artistically arranged around the immaculate landscaping that was intended to promote the harmony of the place. Like many areas of worship, the Cherry Hill Temple was well cared for; it was a natural beauty that spoke to Nephrite even as he walked among it, mind focused on something else. Of course, the pat on the rear was both an annoying and exciting little distraction. Stray thoughts flickered through his mind, of the tumultuous reconciliations that had always seemed to be the sequel to one of his heated arguments with the redheaded mercenary that had been assigned to his command.
As much as that sent a spark of anticipatory desire through him, he knew he needed to concentrate on this. Storming up along the immaculately swept walkway, Nephrite reached the double doors that lead into the temple and gave them a push. They opened soundlessly, giving him entry into the sacred confines of the building.
There was a slight, wicked smile on her lips as she sauntered after him. He seemed to know where he was going; she'd let him lead in this little dance. Afterward, maybe, there'd be time for another sort of dance . . .
Once again, he mentally cursed the distraction the Senshi following him represented. With the awakening of his true self, the Cosmos was a myriad of conflicting and confusing sensations. The sanctity and quiescent power of the place, the emotions of those within, the ever-present song of the stars--all of it filled him now, colored his every perception, showed him just how lifeless he'd become as a soldier of the sunless Negaverse.
For once, he truly understood how one could be dead yet go on living.
Voices came to him: youthful, vibrant, feminine. Scanning over the area with his jade-green gaze, Nephrite found he couldn't immediately see the source of the sounds. Discovering another set of double sliding doors before him, he grabbed the wooden frame of one of them and slid it aside as well.
"You mean to tell me that Nathan took the blow for you?" a girl with long, sunny blond hair, the part of which would have been framing her sweetly pretty face tied back with a bow of red ribbon. She was intently focused upon an agitated-appearing, but essentially unharmed, Lita, as were the other three teenagers in the temple sanctum. Amy and Serena were the only two he immediately recognized; the third female was a sophisticated-appearing beauty with long black hair and was wearing the white and red outfit of a temple priestess.
"Yes, I did," he responded, answering the blond stranger's question while striding confidently forward into the sanctuary. The crackle of the sacred flame was suddenly very evident in the silence that descended upon his entrance.
Behind him, Draco swept into the room as well, making for an imposing sight as she took up a watchful spot behind the auburn-haired man. She couldn't help but mentally smirk at the expressions on the teenagers' faces.
The quintet of girls rose as one, shifting positions to loosely arrange themselves in a semi-circle, facing the black-clad man and his imposing, redheaded companion. That they were utterly astonished at the appearance of the former general and the strangely-dressed woman was agonizingly obvious by the expressions on their youthful visages and the tone of their feminine voices.
"What's he doing here?"
Who's that with him?"
The Gemlord kept his own expression neutral as the girls all spoke at once. However, one particular question caught his attention, fixed his focus there.
Lita stepped forward, surprise and concern evident in her forest-green eyes. "Are you all right?"
Nephrite stooped to giving the athletic teenager a reassuring smile. "Yes, Lita, I'm all right now."
A corner of Sailor Draco's mouth twitched downward as she caught the look of relief that crossed the ponytailed brunette's pretty face.
"I'm glad--" Lita began to speak, only to have the strange Scout's gruff voice interrupt, cutting her off from saying anything more.
"So how did you manage to get away from Kunzite?" Antique-gold eyes narrowed slightly, keeping their gaze on the girl.
"He turned tail and ran once we showed up to help," the blond with the loose, sunshine-hued hair responded.
It took all of Draco's self-control to not roll her eyes at the child's claim. The Dragon Senshi knew Kunzite far better than she'd ever really wanted, and she certainly knew him better than these children could ever know the silver-haired general. However, she added, turning her gaze to the back of the auburn-haired man standing before her, even I may not know any of them all that well after all. "I seriously doubt that."
"It's true enough," insisted the other blond, the one with the twin ponytails topped by round buns. "As soon as we showed up, he stepped back and then just teleported away."
"Something must be up," Nephrite commented, frowning in thought. "That doesn't sound like Kunzite's style at all."
"So what do you think is going on?" challenged the black-haired girl, the one that was apparently a priestess here at the Cherry Hill Temple.
"Don't you think we'd better ask him what he's doing here first?" argued the blond again, the one with the red bow in her hair. "For all we know, he could be involved in all this--"
"Then why would he try to stop Zoisite and Kunzite not once but twice?" Lita shot back.
"Children," Draco said in a tone of profound boredom, raising her voice enough to be heard over the others, "have you ever heard the phrase 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth'? We're here to help you. The mere fact that we could find you and we haven't raised a hand against you at this point ought to be a good indicator that we're on your side." She studied the rings on her left hand, idly running the tip of her tongue over her teeth. "Of course, if you don't want our help, we'll be on our way. If you decide to settle down and work with us . . ."
"Then what?" the priestess asked, violet eyes continuing to hold a light of challenge deep within them.
The rings and the fine chains joining them to the bracelets shimmered and flared; the wicked arcs of the Dragon Claws flashed in the light of the sacred fire.
"Then the other side has a lot more to worry about than a couple of teenaged girls." Draco's smile had the same razor-edged crescent quality as the curve of her blades.
A number of the teenagers visibly bristled at the stranger's words, looking downright offended. However, before any of them could say something, the girl with the short, blue-hued hair sat back down and opened up a slim, compact notebook computer, speaking as she did so. "Assuming, for argument's sake, that we accept your offer of help, what assistance, exactly, could you give us?"
"He knows something about what's going on, Amy," Lita responded, turning to face the other teen. "He knows who it is that's ordering Kunzite around."
"Is that true?" the girl Nephrite knew as Serena queried, her blue eyes staring at the black-uniformed man.
"Yes it is," the Gemlord started to reply. "At least, I believe I know to whom it is that Kunzite seems to be answering. Tell you what, girls. How about a deal? I'll tell you what I know in exchange for you telling me what you know is going on. Maybe between us, we can figure it out."
Though the five of them continued to look him and Draco over suspiciously--some of them more so than others--the resulting consensus after a short discussion was agreement to his proposal. Over the course of the next few moments, the sacred fire of the temple continuing to cast flickering illumination on the scene and its snapping and popping seemingly underscoring the fervent conversation, the Gemlord and the Senshi told their tales to one another. Still standing behind Nephrite, the fiery-haired Draco kept silent, listening, her arms crossed over her chest and her body in a relaxed stance.
She didn't like the story she was hearing. Apparently the trouble seemed to stem from the ruler of Nephrite's people, a certain Lord Obsidian--Draco nodded slightly, realizing that this confirmed what she'd overheard as she had eavesdropped in on the tense conversation between Lita and Nathan. For whatever reason, Obsidian was attacking the girls because he needed something--certain gemstones that were locked away within the castles that had belonged to the princesses the children had been back during the reign of Queen Serenity. What made the news bad was that Obsidian was sabotaging the young Senshi, having his flunkies Kunzite and Zoisite mess with the magical foci of their planetary powers. What made the news even worse was that Obsidian was also the Guardian of Space.
That alone sent a shiver of dread down the golden-caped warrioress's spine. The empire from which she'd originally come--an ancient culture now dead and gone, scattered to history like ashes in the wind--had known about the Vortex Mirror and the one who watched over it. Though her people's legends had hinted at Lord Obsidian having godlike powers, there were only a couple of things that the Dragon Senshi knew for sure about the shadowy Guardian. The first was that he was supposedly the physical incarnation of Space itself, that no place that existed was closed off to his ability to access it. The second thing was that he was a champion of Order, his actions always being directed toward the preservation of the universe against the forces that would tear it apart.
That he seemed to be thrashing the young planetary warriors of his home system disturbed the hell out of her. "It doesn't make any sense," she insisted, her antique-gold gaze shifting from the quintet of teenagers to stare again at Nephrite.
"Regardless of how it looks, there has to be a reason," the black-caped Gemlord responded. Running the fingers of a hand through his thick, wavy hair, he racked his brains in an attempt to discover what the Guardian of Space could be attempting through these actions. "Are there any special properties to these jewels?"
The tick-tick-tick of fingers dancing over a computer keyboard filled the pause. "According to my database," Amy answered, "those stones are supposed to hold strong focusing abilities for their corresponding classical Element."
"That's why they were locked away," Raye added, violet eyes staring off into the shifting flames of the fire as a stray memory came to her, one from a very long time ago. "Legend had it that they were what remained of the primal forces that had created all matter, those forces becoming frozen into stones as their energies cooled."
Mina nodded, blue eyes widening slightly as something of a remembrance hovered at the very fringes of her recall. "That's right. Anyone who controlled all four at the same time would supposedly have enormous power over physical matter, so the jewels were separated, kept safe from anyone wishing to misuse them."
"So those affiliations explain why three of the four stones were located in those particular castles. What about the yellow one?" Lita inquired, leaning back against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest. During the course of their exchange of information, a part of the ponytailed brunette recalled seeing an emerald in a hollow in the Sacred Oak that grew within a special chamber that she knew awaited them all there in the heart of Io Castle, floating high above the turbulent surface of the planet Jupiter. That had been long ago, when she had been someone else . . . "The ruby in the Sacred Flame of Mars, the sapphire in the Blessed Fountain of Mercury, the emerald in the Sacred Oak of Jupiter . . ."
"That would lead one to expect that the final gem would be found in the castle of the princess affiliated with the Element of Air," Draco stated. But before she could add to that, having thought of something further, the intellectual girl with the short hair spoke up.
"Unless that pattern's too obvious and wouldn't keep the gems safe from anyone determined to collect them and use them." Amy frowned slightly, tapping out a few more keys on her compact, portable computer.
The fiery redhead growled softly under her breath. "I was just about to say that myself."
"Well, unless we have something more to go on, we're going to have to take a wild guess whether we're dealing with a bluff or a double-bluff," the auburn-haired man stated, sweeping his jade-green gaze over the six females there.
Draco shrugged, settling her hands on her hips. "In the absence of further evidence, we might as well assume that the pattern's going to hold true as-is. Unless, Nephrite, you ever heard Obsidian talk about these gems before?"
A shake of his head in the negative emphasized his answer. "Never. I didn't even realize that these stones existed in the first place."
The black-bodysuited Senshi's mouth twisted wryly. "Well, then, even if we're wrong, it'll still accomplish the expected result if he happens to be wrong as well. We'll still catch him red-handed, and hopefully with his pants down. Figuratively speaking, of course." Her gaze settled on Mina. "What this particular pattern suggests, correctly or not, is that the fourth stone's in the royal residence of Venus. Before we do anything in that direction, though . . ."
She looked at Raye, then Amy. "I suspect we ought to work on fixing what's already broken."
"I have an even better idea," Nephrite stated. "Since it's actually the stones Obsidian wants, not necessarily the girls themselves, how about you and I get the other two stones first, then restore the powers of Mars and Mercury? If nothing else, it'll take the heat off the Senshi." Stepping forward, he stared at first Mina, then Lita, jade-green eyes lingering on the tall brunette for a moment. "What do you say? Will you help Sailor Draco and I get the stones?"
"What exactly are you suggesting, Nephrite?" the ponytailed teen asked, her forest-green gaze meeting that of the dark-clad man's.
"I'm suggesting that you and Mina both trust Sailor Draco and I enough to take you to your respective castles and let us into those protected chambers."
"If we gets those gems first," the redheaded Senshi added, sure she knew exactly what the gorgeous Gemlord had in mind, "that'll turn Obsidian's focus away from you." Of course, she didn't like the idea of that focus falling on Nephrite, not one bit. But she could certainly handle the attention the Guardian might toss their way.
"Precisely," the low-voiced man confirmed. "So what say you?" His gaze swept over the four there, almost pleading them to accept. He knew they were actually very capable as Senshi, but this was Obsidian they were discussing, and the Elementals may even now be beginning to rediscover their true natures.
One by one, the teenaged girls turned their gazes to one another, uncertainty and wariness on their faces. "What do you think?" Mina asked.
"I say we go for it," Lita emphatically replied. "He's helped me out already twice, risking almost everything. I trust him."
Nephrite smiled at that, feeling a deep sense of relief that the athletic brunette truly trusted him. He felt vindicated now, and eager to show them all that he truly had changed.
The smile on Draco's face cooled just a bit as she caught the very pleased expression on the auburn-haired man's visage.
"Well . . ." Serena began, looking from one girl to the other. "I'll admit, he's actually done nothing but helpful things since his return--"
"Are you sure you can restore what was taken from us?" Raye demanded, cutting the twin-ponytailed girl's words short.
"It's more than likely just a matter of restoring the balance of the sacred objects that were messed with," Draco replied, casually inspecting the way one of her skeletal gauntlets reflected the dancing firelight. "Either way, you can count on us for two things: we won't mess with the tree and the whatever-the-hell is there in your castle, Mina, and we'll certainly do our best to fix the fire and the fountain."
Amy closed the cover of her laptop, then stood up, keeping it in the grasp of a slender hand. "We're no worse off than before. After all, at least we have some idea who it is we're facing. And if Sailor Draco and Nephrite here can restore our Scout powers, then we're certainly better off than just standing around and waiting for Obsidian to try again."
"All right then," the sunshine-blond teenager finally said, turning her azure gaze to the former Negaverse general and the newly-discovered Scout, "I'll agree to let you into the sacred chamber of Magellan Castle."
"You know I'll let you into Io Castle," Lita swiftly replied, stepping toward the black-clad man.
"Not so fast," the redheaded Senshi softly growled, striding forward and planting herself between Nephrite and Lita. "We better our chances by splitting up. This Obsidian just had his prize taken away from him. I'm betting on him making another attempt at you, Lita. Therefore, you and Raye can come with me. I'll handle anything that pops up."
"Draco . . ." Nephrite started to protest, reaching up and resting a hand on one of the golden pauldrons that armored her shoulders.
"It's not worth a discussion, Nephrite," the black-bodysuited woman insisted. "You don't want your Lord Obsidian to know your whereabouts, correct?"
"No buts," Draco said. "Even if Zoisite tells him about you, you're better off not putting yourself into the line of fire. Take Mina and Amy with you. If he tries to get Lita again, I'll deal with it." She wickedly grinned, winking an antique-gold eye at her beloved. "You know I can deal with just about anything, handsome."
He didn't like it; the scowl on his face betrayed his dissatisfaction. Even so, he knew she was more than likely right. They stood a better chance trying to get both stones at once as well as restoring both foci simultaneously.
"What about me?" Serena piped up, looking a bit put out.
"Yeah, what about you?" Raye responded, walking over to the blond with the twin buns. Before anyone could protest in anger at her rather sharp words, the raven-haired priestess continued, "We need someone here to hold the fort, Serena, and to be back-up in case they do try to do something. If you're here, then they won't know that we can get you to help out." Turning to face the strange Scout and the former general, the fiery girl's violet eyes narrowed slightly. "Isn't that right, Nephrite, Sailor Draco?"
"Is what right?" the redheaded Senshi asked, voice having an edge of annoyance to it.
"You and Nephrite will come fetch her if something happens and she's needed," Raye clarified.
"Yes, of course," Draco replied, her tone switching to boredom as she continued to admire the cool, metallic gleam of the Dragon Claws. Anything to get this show on the road. These girls sure knew how to fritter away time.
"See?" the Shinto priestess said. "You're our ace-in-the-hole, Serena."
"All right. You can count on me," the blond teen replied, nodding in agreement, her pretty face set in an expression of serious determination.
Silent and watchful, a tall, dark form stood in the shadows near the partially open door. Beyond, the flickering of firelight illuminated the scene that had been expected, of the teenaged girls gathered together. From this vantage point, however, only the figures of the young Terrans could be seen. The voices, however, confirmed the presence of two others.
"Then it's settled," the dark-uniformed Gemlord stated, gesturing with a white-gloved hand toward the group. "I'll take Draco and the first group--"
"No need for that, handsome," the gold-caped Senshi quickly responded. "I can take them under my own power."
Nephrite frowned, turning his jade-green gaze to the redheaded woman. "Something else you neglected to tell me?"
"You never asked. Besides, you've always just grabbed and teleported in the past." Draco gave him a wicked little grin, one that was intended to show him both that she wasn't about to be sorry for anything he assumed in the past and to drop him the hint that this wasn't worth getting upset over--especially with what she had in mind as consolation.
Growling softly under his breath, the Gemlord suppressed the urge to say something scathing. Instead, he held a hand out to Mina and Amy. "Come on. Take my hands and let's get going."
"Raye, Lita, if you would?" Draco said, golden eyes focused on the two for which she'd be responsible.
Stepping back away from the rest of them, Serena watched, blue eyes wide, as first Nephrite, Mina and Amy disappeared within a shimmer of what looked to be silvery-green starlight, and then her other two friends and the strange Scout faded away in what looked like something that could only be described as spatial origami.
"Good luck, everyone," she murmured to herself, folding her arms over her chest. Hopefully, they'd all be back soon, with nothing untoward happening.
She never realized that something untoward was about to happen to her until it was far too late.
Serena took a step, turning her back on the area from where the others had apparently teleported. Movement caught her eye; looking up, suddenly startled, she had no time at all to react to the dark figure that was abruptly there like some vengeful spirit. A hand closed around her throat, not hard enough to cut off her air but certainly firm enough to give her the impression that whomever it was that had her was strong enough to easily overpower her. Blue eyes wide in terror, she looked up into the eerily placid face of a man.
He was ungodly handsome, just as he seemed to be ungodly strong. Eyes as black as night, as cold and hard as diamonds, stared back at her from a face as gorgeous as an angel's, a visage framed by a mane of hair as dark as his eyes. Under the silken strands of his bangs, Serena could see a silver circlet adorned with a single cabochon gem of ebony hue. For a moment, she thought she was seeing the Lord Obsidian everyone had been talking about, but for some reason, her mind remained fixed on the metal of the stranger's circlet. Obsidian supposedly had a golden one. This one was silver, the shining white metal accenting the darkness of the man's hair and clothing.
Shivering slightly, her mouth suddenly dry, she continued to stare up at the elegant man that towered over her, her hands instinctively reaching up to try to pry his unyielding hand from around her throat. However, that was availing her to no effect at all; his cool-skinned hand remained as immovable as stone.
"The redheaded woman," the dark stranger demanded, his high baritone smooth, the tone more than enough to give his words the edge of command despite their being softly spoken, "who is she?"
The blond girl swallowed hard, her slender fingers remaining curled around the man's wrist just beyond where his silvery-gray sleeve cuff encircled him, the fabric brushing against her hands. That same silver-gray relieved the utter blackness of the man's clothing around his neck, down the length of the front of his tunic-like shirt in a wide band and along his broad shoulders in equally wide stripes. The rest of his outfit, from the best she could see in the flickering illumination of the firelight, was a shadow of sable: mid-calf-high boots into which were tucked slightly bloused trousers, pants that were loose enough for movement but not loose enough to be a hindrance and a belt around his waist that sported a silver buckle. "S--s--sailor D--d--draco," Serena finally stuttered out.
The stranger merely nodded, as if that was the answer he expected. "Where did they go?"
Large blue eyes continued to stare up at him in fright. The ponytailed girl hesitated, a hand leaving his wrist and drifting downward. Determined to remind the young Terran who was exactly in charge, the black-haired man gave her the slightest of shakes, tightening his grip just enough to let her realize that he could probably snap her neck with little effort.
He'd probably do it too, before she had any chance at reaching her brooch, let alone call upon her lunar powers. Those glittering, hard-as-diamond eyes continued to bore into her, seemingly reaching to the very core of her. Shuddering in fright, the teenager blurted out, "The castles."
"What castles? You'll need to do better than that."
Feeling the fingers of the stranger tighten a bit more, Serena gasped. "Let go! You're hurting me!"
"Answer my questions," the ebony- and gray-clad man quietly said. "What castles? And I don't like having to repeat myself."
"Io . . . and Magellan . . ." the teen choked out.
"What are they doing there?"
Serena hesitated again, shivers going down her spine. If he was another one of Obsidian's lackies . . .
The shake the dark-haired man gave her was a stronger one. He wasn't going to tolerate her holding back. If she only had some reassurance that she could be faster than him, she'd grab her brooch and try to transform. It was an almost sure bet that the stranger could seriously harm her before she could even get the magic words out of her mouth.
A downturn of the handsome man's expressive lips. She was only making him angry. Closing her eyes, Serena whimpered, "The stones . . . They're getting the stones . . ."
"One at a time, or at the same time? And be quicker with your answers. I'm not overly fond of waiting either."
The blond swallowed hard again. There wasn't anything she could do, other than answer him. "Same time."
"Ah. Two teams then. Where did Draco go?"
The dark stranger loosened his grip just slightly, but not enough to give Serena any hope of being able to break free. He seemed momentarily lost in thought, the black eyes seemingly looking through her for a fleeting second. "Hmm . . ."
A sound of rushing air, a bright streak of red and green. The helpless teen felt a sudden rush of hope as her azure gaze caught sight of a flying rose, the stem striking hard against the stranger's hand that was holding her in its grasp. Amazingly, the verdant missile was deflected by what seemed to be the stranger's own skin. With a solid sounding thuk the rose embedded itself into the floor of the Shinto temple, red petals bright in the illumination of the firelight.
"Only cowards pick on little girls," came a voice, authoritative and masculine.
Serena's eyes lit up with happiness. Tuxedo Mask! Here was true hope at last. He'd certainly save her, like he'd done a number of times before.
"How about picking on someone your own size?" the voice continued.
The dark-haired stranger's jaw tightened. That botanical missile hadn't scratched his skin, but it had still been a rather stinging annoyance. Well, then, this was yet another development to handle. Handle it he would.
As swift as any serpent striking, the tall man went into action. A shift of his grasp just so, perfectly applied pressure to just the right spot, and the blond Terran was out like a light after the briefest of struggles. Letting her slim body slump to the wooden floor, he turned on a booted heel, then leapt for the source of the masculine voice.
At the door to the sanctuary stood a noble figure, athletic form clad in a perfectly-tailored black tuxedo, a white mask around eyes as blue as the ocean and a sable top hat perched gallantly atop a raven-haired head. A white dress shirt under an equally snowy waistcoat, along with white gloves were the only things relieving the blackness of the newcomer's outfit, save for the bright red lining of the cape that swung jauntily from his shoulders. Seeing the other man coming his way fast, Tuxedo Mask stepped aside, pulling his walking stick out from under his black cape.
Time to take out the would-be hero in the asinine formal wear, the taller stranger thought to himself, making a grab for the dark cloth of his new opponent's flaring cape.
Tuxedo Mask retreated swiftly, twirling his sable, silver-tipped walking stick before him, keeping it between himself and the other like a shield. This one moved fast, making him just a bit more wary.
Just how fast was almost instantly demonstrated. Black eyes narrowing, the circleted stranger made a grab for the twirling cane. The black stick abruptly stopped, a slender baton between the two of them.
As the taller man tried to pull it from his white-gloved grasp, Tuxedo Mask grit his teeth and twisted the cane just so. A mental command and the sable rod abruptly lengthened, catching the other man square in the gut.
Lightning reflexes went into play. The stranger grabbed the telescoping cane with both hands, setting his feet apart to widen his stance. Long, long years of training took over as he set the muscles in his abdomen to brace against the force of the walking stick even as he relaxed the rest of himself to work with the momentum, to be the reed that bows to the wind and not the ridged tree that breaks. The moment he stopped sliding across the temple's wooden floor, he tightened his grip on the now pole-like weapon and proceeded to do his best to divest his foe of it. An instant of concentration and he could see the pulsing, flowing glow of energy around the tuxedo-clad man, a shifting, faint, wispy fire of blue-green.
Tuxedo Mask set his jaw, blue eyes narrowing in determination. The other man remained standing, holding onto the telescoping cane, two developments that he hadn't quite counted on. Worried about the continued stillness in the sanctuary of the temple, he braced himself for any attempt to wrestle for the silver-tipped weapon and flicked his ocean-blue gaze to the still, blond form that remained lying there on the other side of the room. Serena . . .
Now! The stranger saw the aura dim, a temporary lull in the other man's power. Muscles moved in perfect harmony, channeling a strength beyond any ordinary human. The cane was ripped free of the short-haired man's white-gloved grasp, the size diminishing as swiftly as it had gained it once it was free of its owner's hands. In the same fluid move that had torn weapon from foe, the black-haired stranger tossed the now normal-sized walking stick aside. It clattered to the wooden floor and rolled away even further as the two males sized one another up for the next exchange.
Each of them wary, they kept their gazes locked on one another, black and blue, each equally determined. Wanting to reassure himself that his beloved Serena was all right, Tuxedo Mask began inching his way slowly toward her, circling in order to keep an eye on his opponent. The dark-clad stranger circled as well, elegant hands before him in an almost relaxed yet guarded pose. Boots scuffled lightly across the wooden surface of the flooring, soft sounds in the tense stillness.
Some unspoken signal passed between them, a mutual attempt of two warriors each looking to best the other. Black and black, silver-gray and white, the pair of men dashed forward, meeting in the center of that invisible circle. Tuxedo Mask made a grab for the other's clothing; the stranger quickly turned and stepped, presenting his side--and therefore a smaller surface area--to his foe even as he dodged the attempt. Reaching out himself and connecting with sable and scarlet cloth, the stranger twisted a fold of his foe's cape around his hand. Planting himself, he gave the cloth a sharp tug.
Pivoting with the momentum brought about by the yank on his outfit, the tuxedo-clad man lowered a shoulder and charged forward. The impact between the two was solid, forcing the stranger to step back. Still holding his fistful of cape, his body weight set again, the stranger made a grab for the same pressure point he'd used to quiet the Terran girl. A flash of movement catching his ocean-blue gaze, Tuxedo Mask jerked backwards, away from the attempt. Elegant fingers caught on white cloth; top hat and mask fell silently to the sanctuary floor to lie like forgotten toys.
A momentary sense of recognition flashed over the circlet-adorned stranger. I've seen this one before . . . However, no name came to him, and the still-determined glare the young man gave him left the stranger little time to wonder who among all those he'd met in the past this dark-haired warrior could be.
The unmasked man elegantly spun, again using the hold on his cape as a pivot point. As he swung back around to face his opponent, he followed through with a toss, a single, long-stemmed red rose materializing in his white-gloved hand.
For just an instant, a memory filled the stranger's mind, of a flash of crystal flying through the air of a battlefield, of excruciating pain before profound darkness. Not again! The stranger jerked his head to the side. Even feeling the thrill of fear making a ripple in his otherwise calm concentration, he forced himself to obey his orders. Only Draco was to be eliminated; anyone else he was to do as little damage as possible.
The flowery missile embedded itself in the wall of the sanctum, a few strands of glossy, jet-black hair caught in the thorns, even as the stranger jerked his foe harder toward him. His other hand connected, just as he had hoped it would, and he used the spike of energy his fear had given him to reinforce the grip on the pressure point.
It was over swiftly. Taking a breath to regain his calm center, the raven-haired stranger let go of his downed foe, letting the young man's body drop to the floor. Both Terrans would recover in a short amount of time, but he was planning to be long gone by then.
Io Castle, the child had said. Draco was there, attempting to take away one of the stones needed by Lord Obsidian. Something of a cold smile settled on the man's angelic face, even as his form swiftly disappeared from the crown of his dark-maned head downwards.