* * * * * * * *
"Try to remember what you were thinking and feeling the first time you attacked the youma," Nephrite said.
They were in a walled yard outside of the house that Nephrite had made. The yard consisted of a long, wide swath of grass, with several small stands of trees scattered about. There was light in the sky, but it was indefinite, as though a thin layer of clouds covered the sun. A wall about four meters high surrounded the yard and Naru couldn't see or hear anything beyond it.
"I was really scared they were going to kill you, and I was mad that I almost got the thorns out and they wouldn't leave us alone," Naru said.
"All right. Stay there." Nephrite walked about a dozen meters away. Suddenly he spun around and shouted, "Starlight destruction!"
Naru stared at the flashes of light that were flying towards her, then her survival instinct kicked in. She dove out of the way just as the lights hit the ground near where she had been standing and exploded, sending great clods of dirt flying all over. "What was that for?" Naru shouted. Before she could get to her feet another attack came flying at her. She thrust out her hand, and a ball of fire shot out from it. The fire collided with the starlight attack in a blinding explosion.
When the light cleared, Naru stomped over to Nephrite where he stood, arms crossed over his chest, watching her. "What did you do that for?" she shouted into his face. "You could have killed me!" Her nearly-healed hand burned and stung again from her attack.
"If you could call on your powers, even subconsciously, to protect me, I knew you could use them to protect yourself."
"That wasn't fair!"
"Do you think your enemies are going to give you fair warning before they attack?"
Naru hesitated. He did have a point. "Well, no."
"We're not doing this for fun. I mean business, and I'm not going to go easy on you. I don't want to see you get hurt, or be used by anyone else against your will. If that means I have to act like your enemy, that's what I'll do. Do you understand?"
"Yes." What a strange situation this was. Any girl her age would be incredibly happy to be hidden away somewhere with the guy she loved, someplace where no one could find them. But here she was, living this dream, and she and Nephrite were going to be fighting each other like enemies.
"Never let your guard down," he said. "I don't want to hurt you, but it's up to you to make sure that doesn't happen."
"I can do it," she said.
As the days went by, she learned that Nephrite meant what he had said. She encountered booby-trapped doorknobs, a shower head that dispensed sparks instead of water, exploding dresser drawers, and all kinds of other hazards. At first her responses were crude; a fireball directed at the offending object soon took care of the problem, and the damage always seemed to repair itself after a few hours. But gradually she learned to tap the power that lay behind the fireballs, a thread of heat and power deep inside her. Its most obvious physical manifestation was the fireballs, but she soon learned to direct it into other forms, such as a thin, intense line of heat that could trip the latch on a door that was mysteriously and stubbornly locked. Nephrite told her that with practice, she would eventually be able to use the raw power itself without having to shape it into a physical form first. Over time, her hands finally toughened to the heat and fire of the magic. They looked soft and unscarred, but it was like she had grown an extra tough, invisible layer of skin over them.
They spent several hours a day sparring in the yard, to the detriment of many of the trees. As with the house, though, any damage inflicted seemed to heal itself quickly. A tree that had been left a broken, charred stump was re-growing branches and leaves after only a few days.
They also worked on hand-to-hand combat, which surprised Naru. She had thought that if you had magic, that would take care of everything and you didn't need any other skills. When she asked Nephrite about this, he said, "First of all, magic won't work in every situation. What if your opponent has some way of countering your magic? What if there are too many bystanders around who could be injured by magical attacks? Or what if you've drained your power? Or your opponent is standing so close to you that a magical attack would also injure you? Besides, it's good to have some weapons in your arsenal that your opponent won't expect."
"Do you think I'm strong enough to fight hand-to-hand?" she asked.
Nephrite walked away from her so he stood about four meters away. "Run at me as hard as you can. Try to knock me over. Don't hold back."
"Well, all right," Naru said doubtfully. She didn't want to hurt him, but that was almost certain to happen if she rammed her head right into his mid-section. But he hadn't steered her wrong yet. She lowered her head and took off running as fast as she could. Right as she reached Nephrite he stepped aside and she hurtled past him. She pulled herself up just before running headlong into a tree, and turned around to look at him, her cheeks burning in embarrassment.
"I used your speed against you," he said. "You can learn to do the same thing. Now, come at me again. I promise I won't move this time."
Naru launched herself at him again. This time he didn't step aside, and she crashed, full speed, into him. He staggered just a little, but didn't fall. She nearly lost her balance, but he caught her and held her until she was steady again.
"It's very unlikely that someone your size can take down someone of my size using only their own speed and strength. It's a simple law of physics, nothing magical about it. But you can learn to use those same laws to your advantage, to turn someone else's size and physical strength and speed against them."
With this in mind, Naru spent long hours every day practicing different kicks and punches and other defensive and offensive moves. Nephrite didn't hold back; he forced her to use speed and cleverness in order to avoid being taken down. She ached from head to foot when she tumbled into bed at the end of each day, but she could feel herself getting stronger. She still hadn't managed to take Nephrite down, though.
Then one day, she somehow managed to bend and grab his arm at just the right time and in just the right way to roll him over her back. He landed flat on his back on the ground with a grunt. Before he could move, Naru straddled his chest and pushed his shoulders against the ground. She grinned at him. "I win!"
He didn't say anything. The surprised expression on his face changed. He reached up and brushed aside the hair that was hanging across her face, then trailed his fingertips down her cheek. Naru caught her breath, waiting for... something.
Then he grinned back at her, and the mood broke. "Yes, you win. This time. Are you going to let me up?"
She got up, and he pushed himself to his feet. "Now," he said with a smile, "let's see if you can do that on purpose."
* * * * * * * *
Osaka Kimiko stared down at the paperwork on her desk. It had been nearly two weeks since that strange and frightening night when Naru disappeared, a monster attacked her in her apartment, and her world had turned into something she didn't recognize.
There was a knock, then the door to the jewelry store office was pushed open. A tall, shapely woman, fashionably dressed in a dark plum-colored pantsuit, with an equally fashionable short, spiky haircut, stepped into the office. Suzume, Kimiko's assistant, followed the woman in. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Osaka, I tried to tell her to wait but --"
The woman cut her off. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Osaka. Iwasaki Yasu, of the Daily Investigator." She perched on a corner of Kimiko's desk, and took a business card from her leather bag and dropped it onto the desk. Then she took a notepad and a small recording device from the bag. She set the recorder on the desk and turned it on, then flipped open her notepad. "Now, Mrs. Osaka -"
"Excuse me, but what is this all about? You didn't even ask for permission to come in, and now you're going to record what I say to you?"
"Mrs. Osaka, the Daily Investigator has received a report from a concerned official at Juuban Junior High School that your daughter, normally a very conscientious and reliable student, has been absent for some time with no really convincing explanation from you or anyone else. Would you care to comment on that?"
Kimiko drew herself up straight. "Exactly who is it that called you? And if they're so concerned, why are they contacting a newspaper, and not a very respectable newspaper at that, instead of me, her mother?"
"The concerned individual did not wish to be identified. He or she is concerned that there could be, ah, unpleasant or even dangerous repercussions stemming from his or her interest in this matter."
"Dangerous? What exactly is going on here?"
"Why don't you just tell me where your daughter is, Mrs. Osaka," Miss Iwasaki said, "and I'll be on my way. Surely you can tell me? You know where she is, don't you? I'm sure you haven't got anything to hide."
"Of course not. My daughter has gone to visit an elderly aunt who is having health problems, to help take care of her. As I told the principal of her school. Is there anything wrong with that?"
"Nothing wrong at all. Would you mind telling me the name of this 'aunt,' and where she lives?"
Kimiko had had enough. She stood up. "Actually, I do mind. It's none of your business." She pressed the button on her phone that would connect her to Suzume at the sales counter. "Suzume," she said when her assistant picked up the line, "Miss Iwasaki will be leaving now. Please see her out. Now, Miss Iwasaki," she said, putting down the handset, "I have a business to run. My assistant will see you from the premises. Good day."
The reporter returned her notebook and recorder to her bag, and slipped on a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses. They were probably cheap designer knockoffs, bought from a folding table in one of the seedier parts of town, Kimiko thought sourly. Miss Iwasaki gave her a smug grin. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Osaka. It's been... interesting."
"Get out," Kimiko said as Suzume came though the door.
Miss Iwasaki walked out without further prodding, followed by Suzume. "If she doesn't leave, call the police and have her arrested for trespassing," Kimiko said after them.
"Yes, ma'am," Suzume replied, and closed the door of the office.
Kimiko sat down at her desk again. She realized that her hands were shaking badly. As if her life wasn't difficult enough, now she had some self-styled 'investigative reporter' from the sleaziest rag in town sticking her nose into her business. And if that reporter came anywhere close to finding out the truth... She picked up the phone and dialed the junior high school to speak to the principal. "I've just found out that an official from your school has called the Daily Investigator newspaper to report that my daughter has mysteriously disappeared. Do you know anything about that?"
"Well, ah, Mrs. Osaka," the principal hemmed and hawed. "There has been some concern about Miss Osaka's lengthy absence, especially at this time, when she should be thinking about national tests and high school entrance exams --"
Kimiko cut him off. "I want you to find out who is behind this unforgivable intrusion into my family's privacy, and see that they are fired. Do you understand me?"
"Er, yes, of course, Mrs. Osaka. But --"
Kimiko hung up on him.
* * * * * * * *
return to Index / go to Chapter 4
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury