Book 1 Chapter 8
* * * * * * * *
Nephrite lay on a blanket beneath a tree near the lake he and Naru liked to go to, thinking. It wasn't easy to think, with Naru lying close to him in her blue ruffled bikini, her head resting on his bare chest, but the afternoon was peaceful and there weren't any other distractions. It was a weekday afternoon, and they were just about the only people at the lake. Nephrite estimated that he had been in Tokyo a total of six months over the last two and a half years, since he had begun his hunt for Metallia. Over that time, Sanjouin Masato became famous, or notorious, for his free-lance diplomatic efforts, while also garnering great respect worldwide for the humanitarian aid he brought to some of the most hopelessly war-ravaged places on Earth.
Naru stirred, and raised her head so she could look at him. "Did I tell you, Nephrite, that Umino has another crush on me?"
He laughed a little. "Again?"
Naru laughed too. "Yes. I guess the word 'impossible' isn't in his vocabulary. I tell him, No, I haven't broken up with Masato-san yet, and he says, Well, let me be the first to know when you do, and I go, Okay, I promise." She laughed again. "He'll give up on me again pretty soon and go back to liking Usagi. Though he knows that's just as hopeless."
Nephrite chuckled, running his fingertips along the silky curves of Naru's waist, hip, and thigh. Despite his thousand years in the Dark Kingdom, he was often stunned by the breadth, depth, and variety of some of the evil he saw in his travels. He looked at the little amount of time he was able to spend with Naru as his refuge. She seemed to sense when he needed to talk about his search, and when he needed distracting, like today. When that was the case, she would talk to him about school, her friends, her life, the life they would have together one day. It helped Nephrite remember why he was wearing himself down hunting for Metallia in the worst places in the world.
He had come so close, so many times. Not all the evil in the world was Metallia's responsibility, but a great deal of it was. He had learned to recognize the signs of her involvement, and once or twice had even anticipated her next movement. These times he was able to head off the developing conflict, but Metallia managed to evade him.
She taunted him, saying again and again that she was not to be found on Earth, that was not where she was. But she had to be somewhere. Nephrite was convinced that even if her hiding place was not on Earth, someday he would find the key to the place where she really was.
Gradually, Metallia's taunting grew weaker, and the fear she induced in Nephrite grew less heart-chilling. Nephrite knew that his fight against her, his hunt for her, was weakening her. But at the same time, he was getting tired, and there was no end in sight.
"Naru-chan," he said, in his best mock-serious voice, "if you like Umino, I don't want to stand in your way."
She raised herself on her forearms, which were resting on his chest, and smiled down at him. "Well... I do like him. but I think I like you better." She kissed him. It was meant to be a light, quick kiss, but he held her head down while he deepened the kiss. Finally he let her go and said, "Good."
* * * * * * * *
Early that autumn, Nephrite made sure he was in Tokyo for Naru's eighteenth birthday. Usagi had planned a big party for Naru at her parents' beautiful home, and it was to be a very special occasion. Nephrite picked Naru up a couple of hours before the party, to take her to dinner at Sakura House.
The same groveling maitre d' as always seated them at the same table as always, then handed them the menus. As always, Nephrite ordered for both of them after only a brief glance at the menu. He looked over the wine list and pointed to something. The waiter's eyes widened ever so slightly, then he smiled and bowed his head and immediately set off. "You'll like this," Nephrite said.
Naru smiled a little. "If you say so."
Nephrite looked at her. She was lovely; the promise of beauty he had seen in her when she was fifteen was being fulfilled. Tonight, her hair, softer and thicker than ever, and slightly longer, was caught up behind her head with a big ivory satin ribbon, leaving her delicate face framed with wavy red tendrils. She wore a short dress of ivory lace over an emerald-green silk slip. She hadn't grown any taller since he first met her, but her figure filled out the dress admirably.
Naru blushed when she noticed him staring at her. It fascinated him, how after all these years she could still be so shy and demure around him. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"No," he said. "You're gorgeous, that's all."
She smiled and blushed even more.
He took her hands in his. "I've got your birthday present for you," he said. Then he slid the promise ring that she still wore off of her left hand and back to her right, and took a small box covered with OSA*P's emerald velvet from his jacket pocket. "I told you, when you were old enough..."
Naru said, "Ohh," and opened the box. Her face lit up with delight at the ring inside. The diamond was one and a half carats, not the largest solitaire Mrs. Osaka had in stock, but this was the one she considered the most perfect. And Nephrite wanted only the best for his Naru. "Oh, Nephrite, it's beautiful," Naru said.
He took the ring from the box. "Might as well do this right. Osaka Naru, will you do me the honor of marrying me?"
She laughed, and tears sparkled in her eyes. "Of course I will, Nephrite."
"Good." He gave her a quick smile as he slid the ring onto her finger. Then he leaned across the table and kissed her, not caring if everyone else in the restaurant was staring at them.
Dinner arrived, and champagne, which, Naru was surprised to discover, she liked. Then they went on to Usagi's house. Most of the party guests were already there. The Senshi and Naru's other friends crowded around her and Nephrite, admiring her new ring. "I thought you guys were already engaged," Minako said.
"Unofficially," Naru said. She glanced up at Nephrite, her face glowing. "It's official now."
It was a wonderful party. Naru clung to every moment of it, knowing that soon enough Nephrite would have to go away again. She watched Usagi dance with Mamoru, and Rei with Yuuichirou, that crazy rock musician who had come to live at the Hikawa Shrine right after Nephrite went away for the first time. Rumor had it that Rei and Yuuichirou were living together, but Naru didn't see how that could be, given Rei's grandfather's obvious feelings on the subject of his granddaughter and men. Ami was with Ryo, who had moved back to Tokyo permanently the minute he was old enough to live on his own. Makoto was with an old friend of hers, Shinozaki. Naru had always understood them to be just friends, but watching Makoto, she suspected that if they really were "just friends," they wouldn't stay that way for long. Then there were the two older Senshi, Haruka and Michiru. It had taken Naru a while to get used to the young women's relationship, but it didn't embarrass her any more.
Naru watched them all with a slight tinge of envy. What would it be like to be able to see your boyfriend every day? she wondered, and to not have to worry about him going into dangerous places for months and months at a time?
Naru danced with Nephrite, and he held her closer than he ever had before when they went dancing. She wondered if he would ask her to go to bed with him tonight. The occasion certainly suggested it - her eighteenth birthday and their official engagement. After a little thought, Naru decided she hoped he would.
After they had danced to several songs in a row, Nephrite whispered, "Let's go outside a moment." Naru nodded, and he took her hand and led her out to the patio, to a corner where they could be alone. There was a planter box there, high enough that they could sit on the ledge. Nephrite shifted to sit sideways, facing Naru, and pulled her head against his shoulder. He stroked her hair for a moment, then said, "I want so much to make love to you, Naru."
Naru's heart was pounding hard. "So do I," she said. "To you, I mean."
Naru felt as though a hole opened up in the ground beneath her. It wasn't going to happen tonight, after all. "But?"
"I don't want to until this is all over with, and I don't have to worry about Metallia any more, and we can be together all the time. I want our first time to be the start of something permanent. Do you understand what I mean?"
Naru bowed her head, not wanting to show him her disappointment and frustration. She had to be strong for him. And what he said made sense; it would be for the better that way. "I understand. I'll wait as long as it takes, Nephrite." As they held each other, Naru sensed something about the long, slow sigh he let out, the set of his shoulders. "You aren't any closer than you were when this all started, are you?"
"I'm -" he started to say, then his shoulders slumped even more. "No. I'm starting to wonder if she's actually telling me the truth when she says I can't find her anywhere on Earth."
"But if she isn't, how will you find her? How will you get to where she is?"
"I don't know. Somehow, though, I have to. But, Naru..." He hesitated. "I'm so tired. And I don't want to be away from you any more."
Naru put her hands on his face and made him look directly at her. "Then don't. Stop for a while. Stay with me for a while, and rest."
After a long moment, he said, "I can't. I'm not any closer to finding her, but at least she's weaker than she was. As long as I'm hunting her, fighting against her, she won't be able to force me to serve her." He gathered Naru as close against him as he could, and whispered into her hair, "I've got no choice."
* * * * * * * *
Nephrite left again a week later, for Europe and Russia. This trip was actually more for the purpose of taking care of some long-neglected business matters, but there were also some troubles brewing in that part of the world that he wanted to check out. After five months he found himself back in the same area of southeastern Europe where he had met Poljanica. The Samaritan Project now had workers there, aiding refugees from bombed-out villages in the three-year-old not-quite rebellion. Nephrite had contacted the Project to ask for a ride from the airport and a briefing.
As he stepped into the airport terminal, he looked around, trying to pick out the person sent by the Project, and spotted a familiar face. It was Andy, the skinny driver from when he had first returned to Africa. Andy waved at him, then came to meet him with a smile on his leathery face. "Great to see you again, Masato. Been a long trip this time?"
"Five months so far. This is my only bag," Nephrite said as Andy started towards the baggage claim area.
"Still traveling light. Good. So, how's your lovely fiancée?"
"She's well, thank you. She's applying to University now."
"It must be hard on her, you being gone so much."
"She tries not to let on, but it is hard. But I haven't finished what I have to do, and we can't have any kind of future together until it's finished."
"Bummer." Andy led Nephrite out to the parking lot, to the standard-issue relief agency truck. "Come on. Headquarters isn't too far. Sorry about the transportation; our donors won't let us get a Porsche."
"That's okay," Nephrite said, settling himself on the rock-hard seat. "I'm a Ferrari man, myself."
Andy climbed in and started the truck. "Seriously, though, Masato. There are people here who aren't happy about your interference with Poljanica's rebellion."
Poljanica, in his confession, had said that it was Sanjouin Masato who convinced him to confess and renounce his attempts at starting a civil war. Nephrite wished once again that he had done a memory wipe on the man. He had done memory wipes on the people he had talked to since then, but it was too late - his reputation overrode any precautionary measures he might take. And he had been seen too many times by too many people who did remember him.
"Anyway," Andy went on, "just be aware of that, and be careful. I think you ought to consider getting out of -"
"What was that?" Nephrite asked.
The world ended in pain and noise and light.
* * * * * * * *
"Morning, Mama!" Naru called out as she came into the dining room.
"Morning, dear," Mrs. Osaka replied from the kitchen. "I'll be right there."
The newspaper was still folded up on the table; Mrs. Osaka had just brought it in and hadn't looked at it. Naru unfolded it and scanned the front page as usual.
At first the headline didn't make any sense. Naru read it again. Sanjouin Masato... surely not her Sanjouin Masato, but there was a file photo of him, from a few years back. Gravely injured. Truck bomb. Driver killed.
"No," she whispered. That didn't make the headline go away. "No, oh no," she started to whimper. She suddenly felt so cold, and started shaking. "No..."
Mrs. Osaka came into the room carrying a tray with coffee, juice, and bowls of cereal. Naru looked at her mother and tried to say something, but no words would come. Mrs. Osaka quickly set the tray down on the table and hurried to Naru. "What's wrong, dear?"
"Masato," Naru said, her voice barely audible. Then she finally started crying. "Oh, Mama. Masato," she sobbed. "He's hurt, he's -"
"Oh, Naru." Mrs. Osaka put an arm around her daughter and gathered her close to her shoulder, then took the newspaper from her. "Oh, Naru," she said again, reading the headline, the article. "Oh, my poor baby. How terrible."
"I've got to go to him, Mama," Naru wept.
"Naru, I don't see how it would be possible -"
"Please. Mama, I need to be with him, he needs me, what if -"
The buzzer for the door downstairs sounded. Naru went cold inside. "He's dead -- It's someone coming to tell me -"
"Hush, baby," Mrs. Osaka said as the buzzer sounded again. With Naru still clinging to her side, she went to the intercom and pushed the button. "Yes?"
"Mrs. Osaka? It is Yuriko. Sanjouin-san's secretary. May I come up?"
"Certainly." Mrs. Osaka pushed the button to unlock the downstairs door. A moment later a there was a knock at the apartment's front door. Mrs. Osaka opened the door to reveal a tall, black-haired young woman wearing a stylish olive-green suit. "Come in, please."
The youma stepped inside. "Mrs. Osaka. Miss Osaka," she said, bowing slightly in greeting. "I had hoped to arrive before you saw the newspaper, but it appears I am too late."
Naru wiped her eyes and tried to say something polite, but only started crying again. Mrs. Osaka led her and Yuriko to the sofa and sat down. Naru huddled against her mother's shoulder, sobbing.
"Miss Osaka, Sanjouin-san has been evacuated to a hospital in Vienna," Yuriko said. "He is receiving the best possible care. According to the reports I received, his injuries are life-threatening, but should he survive he will make a full recovery. He will not be maimed or handicapped in any way."
Should he survive... He could die. Naru wanted to scream, but she fought to keep her composure. "I understand." She could barely squeeze the words out through the tightness in her throat.
Yuriko took a thick envelope from her slim black attaché case and held it out towards Naru. "Compliments of Sanjouin International. A round-trip ticket to Vienna, and the necessary emergency visas." Naru reached out a shaky hand and took the envelope. She let it rest, unopened, in her lap. "I do apologize, Mrs. Osaka," Yuriko continued. "On such short notice, it was only possible to obtain one ticket and set of papers."
"That's all right. Naru is eighteen, old enough to travel alone. But she has never flown before, and doesn't know German."
"Sanjouin International's Austrian agent will meet her at the airport and look after her. It has all been arranged."
"Well, Naru?" her mother asked. "Do you really want to go?"
"Yes!" Naru clutched the envelope to her chest. "I need to see him, Mama."
"All right, dear. I'll help you get ready, and I'll call the school to tell them you'll be away - when does the flight leave, Yuriko?"
"At 11:15 this morning."
"Goodness." Mrs. Osaka looked at her watch. "Thank you so much, Yuriko. We're very grateful to you. This means so much to Naru."
"Thank you," Naru echoed softly.
"Sanjouin-san has been very good to us... his employees, and we know how dear Miss Osaka is to him. We wished to help both of them."
"Thank you," Naru said again. She looked at the youma, who along with the others who worked for Nephrite's business had survived the destruction of the Dark Kingdom. They owed him their lives. On impulse, she threw her arms around the tall woman, who stiffened at the touch, then relaxed and patted Naru gently on the back a few times. "I'll always be grateful to you," Naru whispered.
"You've made Lord Nephrite very happy, and for that I am grateful to you," the youma replied.
* * * * * * * *
After the rush of the morning, the flight to Vienna seemed to take forever. Between taking calls from her friends, and fending off calls from reporters, and hurrying to pack, Naru hadn't even had time to think about flying for the first time. She barely even had a chance to think about Nephrite. But now, two hours into the long flight, staring down at the clouds from a window seat in first class, she wanted to scream at how slowly time was passing. She had to hurry, she had to get to Vienna, Nephrite could die before she got there.
His old white gloves and the wooden beads he had given her the first time he came back from Africa were in her purse. Naru wasn't sure why she had stuffed them in there at the last minute. Maybe as a good-luck token, a guarantee that she would be able to give them back to him as he had given them to her so long ago. But now she was afraid to touch them or even look at them, almost as though they were a jinx. As though these physical reminders of him contained too much of his essence and wouldn't leave enough for him to survive on.
At the airport, her mother had bought a thick, sensational paperback novel and pressed it into Naru's hands. "You'll be glad of it on that long trip. Trust me." Now, Naru opened the book to the first page and tried to start reading, but the words danced and blurred meaninglessly in front of her eyes. All she could think about was Nephrite. How badly was he hurt? Yuriko had said he would either die or make a full recovery - which of those was more likely? She twisted her engagement ring around and around on her finger, thinking of the star Vega, in Lyra. Why weren't you watching over him? she silently demanded of the star. How could you let him get hurt?
For a long time, there was no answer. Finally, softly, Vega's voice chimed into her mind. Remember, child, I see from a much broader perspective than you do.
Naru realized she was crying again. She wiped her tears away and looked out the window again. Her seatmate, a businessman in late middle age, remained absorbed in reading his business magazine, tactfully ignoring her.
A meal and drinks were served. The lights in the cabin were dimmed. A flight attendant showed Naru how to turn on the small light over her seat, and Naru gave the book her mother had bought for her another try. With concentration, she was able to lose herself in the story for a while. Then she asked the flight attendant for a blanket and curled up beneath it. Her irrational fears finally ebbing, she took the gloves and beads from her purse and held them as she stared out the window, and eventually went to sleep.
* * * * * * * *
Naru slept several hours, until the plane finally landed in Vienna. She stood, stretched, took her one bag from the overhead bin, and walked down the rampway.
A tall, beautiful woman, her ash-blonde hair bound up in a stylish chignon, approached Naru. "Miss Osaka?"
Naru looked up at her. "Yes?"
"I am Elsa. Sanjouin-san's representative in Austria and Germany. I hope your flight was not too unpleasant." She began leading Naru towards the exit from the terminal.
"It was long, and I've been so worried about Ne -- Masato."
"You can call him Nephrite with me, Miss Osaka. I am also a youma. Shall we go directly to the hospital, or would you prefer to freshen up at the hotel first?"
"To the hospital, please."
Elsa had a taxi already waiting; she rattled off instructions to the driver in German, then they set off. At the hospital, Elsa spoke to several people; the only words Naru understood were her name and "Sanjouin Masato." "Sanjouin-san has been placed under guard, since he was the victim of an assassination attempt," the youma explained as she and Naru were led through the hallways of the Intensive Care Unit and into Nephrite's room.
At first all Naru could see was a bed surrounded by wires, tubes, and machinery with flashing lights that emitted regular beeping sounds. Then she finally made out Nephrite, lying in the midst of it all. His face was obscured by a breathing mask and a tangle of tubes, his head was bandaged, both of his arms were in casts. His long auburn hair was a matted tangle around his face and bare shoulders.
A doctor greeted Elsa and nodded politely towards Naru. Elsa spoke in German again; once again, the only words Naru understood were her and "Masato's" names. Translating what the doctor said, Elsa filled Naru in. "He has twenty-eight broken bones, including four vertebrae. Fortunately, his spinal cord was not damaged. There was some swelling of the brain, which the doctors were able to relieve with surgery." The youma smiled slightly. "They tried to shave the hair in an inconspicuous place. He also suffered numerous injuries to the internal organs, but the doctors believe they were able to locate and successfully repair all of them. One lung had collapsed, but it is beginning to recover nicely. And, of course, there are numerous cuts and contusions. He is in serious but stable condition, and the doctors no longer consider his life to be in imminent danger."
He wasn't going to die.... Her relief made Naru feel dizzy. She buried her face in her hands until she regained some composure. "May I go over by him?" she asked.
Elsa translated, and the doctor nodded. Naru slowly walked to Nephrite's bedside. She could see so little of him; the shape under the blankets bore little resemblance to a human body, between the tubes and monitor wires that snaked all along his body and the splints and casts for his broken bones. She laid a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, Nephrite," she whispered. "Look at you. You could have died." She stroked his hair, keeping her hand away from the bandage on his head, then touched what little of his face she could reach around the mask and tubes.
She looked at Elsa and the doctor. "Can he hear me?"
"He is being kept unconscious at this time," Elsa translated. "He will most likely be allowed to wake up in another day or so, depending upon his continued stability."
Naru nodded, still stroking Nephrite's face. His earrings were gone; he looked oddly naked without them. "Where are his earrings?"
"We always remove all jewelry, as a sanitation precaution," the doctor explained through Elsa's translation. "It is kept in a safe place with the patient's other belongings."
"I see," Naru said. She touched his hair again, ran her hand along the cast on his left arm. "Oh, Nephrite." Suddenly she started crying, and had to clutch at the edge of the bed for support. Someone pushed a chair into place behind her, and she collapsed onto it, sobbing, her head resting against the bedrail.
* * * * * * * *
Naru spent nearly every waking hour for the next two days at Nephrite's bedside, keeping watch over the unconscious man. Finally, on the third day, Nephrite was allowed to start waking up. Naru watched carefully, eagerly, as he moved a little, groaned, and opened his eyes slightly. She leaned over him so he could see her. "Nephrite, it's me. Naru. Everything's going to be okay. I'm here, Nephrite."
He couldn't talk, because the breathing tube was still in his mouth, helping to compensate for his damaged lung. He looked confused, and Naru realized he probably had no idea where he was or what had happened. "You were hurt in a bomb explosion. It blew up the truck you were riding in. The driver was killed." At that he closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "You're in a hospital in Vienna now. You were hurt pretty badly, but the doctors say you're going to be okay."
* * * * * * * *
He hurt all over. Everything was blurry, except for Naru's face hovering above him. It was hard work to follow what she was saying, it made his head hurt even more. Bomb, truck, driver killed... Andy. Nephrite closed his eyes. First Gary and Ana, making the run he should have made, now Andy, picking him up from the airport at his request. He brought death, everything he touched turned to death. Hospital, Vienna... He wished he could talk, so he could tell Naru to run away from him, get as far away from him as she could, before he killed her too.
Metallia spoke. I saved your life. You should be grateful.
Get the hell out of my head. Leave me alone.
He gave himself over to the darkness again.
* * * * * * * *
Nephrite had fallen asleep again. Naru stroked his unshaven cheek, feeling like her heart would break with tenderness. It hurt so much to see him hurt and helpless, but at the same time it seemed like a great privilege to be able to be strong for him when he needed her. She settled back in her chair, holding his fingers where they emerged from the heavy cast, content for now that he was alive and she could be with him.
* * * * * * * *
By Naru's seventh and last day in Vienna, the doctors had finally removed Nephrite's breathing mask and tube, and he was able to give Naru a weak smile when she came in the room. She kissed his chapped, sore lips gently, then sat down, holding his fingers. "How are you feeling today, Nephrite?" she asked.
How was he feeling? Sick, sore, guilty... he felt like hell. "A little better." His voice was nearly gone, because of the breathing tube. Only the gravel was left.
"Liar." She smiled a little; he thought she looked older than when he had left her in Tokyo five months ago. Something had been burned away from her, leaving the inner core of strength and love more fully visible.
He laughed a little, silently. "You're right. 'Terrible' would be an improvement."
"Nephrite, I've been thinking about something." Naru leaned towards him, to meet his eyes. "You aren't getting anywhere. All you're getting is worn out and blown up."
"And my friends killed."
"I know. Oh, Nephrite, I'm so sorry about that."
"Andy didn't deserve to die that way. The bomb was for me. I should have died."
"No, Nephrite. Never say that," Naru said firmly. "If you die, that's it, you belong to Metallia. You can't keep fighting her if you're dead."
Nephrite was silent. She was right.
"What I wanted to talk about is, why did you join Metallia in the first place?"
"I don't remember.... Power, wealth, knowledge... I haven't thought it was important, except I can't believe I sold myself so cheaply."
"I can't believe you did, either. And maybe it is important. Maybe, if you can remember why you joined her, you'll learn more about her, what she is, where she is."
"Sometimes I get just a little glimpse, something seems vaguely familiar, but... How can I remember?"
"I have an idea. Go back to the place where you were before. The Dark Kingdom. Maybe you'll find something or remember something that will take you back to the beginning."
"Maybe... Maybe not."
"Maybe not," Naru admitted. "But, Nephrite, you can't keep on like this. You're wearing yourself out. Besides," she smiled, "the stars told me it would be a good idea."
"I kept asking Vega over and over, what should we do? And she wouldn't tell me. So I thought about it, and had this idea, and asked her if it was a good idea, and she told me it was. So, there."
A wife who could talk to the stars... Nephrite liked the sound of that. "Well, if you and Vega say I should, then I guess I've got no choice."
"Good." Naru smiled again. "I knew you'd see sense." She leaned over and kissed him again, very lightly. He couldn't move his arms to keep her down close to him, so he raised his head a bit off the pillow, pressing his mouth more firmly against hers, and touched his tongue to her lips, trying to ask her to kiss him like she really meant it.
She seemed to get the message. After a moment, when she finally pulled away, he felt quite breathless, but he also felt like he had taken another step back towards the land of the living.
* * * * * * * *
Lyra's Children Index / go to Interlude
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury