Being a substitute teacher was not bad, really. Certainly, there was the initial disorientation of wandering into a school without knowing where your classroom or even a clean washroom was located, let alone which of the kids were going to give you trouble that day. But the kids did not tend to give you a whole lot of trouble if you showed them that you were serious. And for Mr. Ward, high school substitute teacher, serious came very easily.
It was a social studies class, his preferred subject. Though he did not mind taking the others--they all had their functions, even the fluffier ones like English or art. But there was always much that Kain Ward could say about the rise and fall of civilizations, having witnessed a few in his time. Even if the teacher failed to leave him a lesson plan for the day, as was often the case, there was always a lesson to be taught about humanity’s folly.
His final class was trailing out the door, and Mr. Ward was already mentally composing the lengthy report that he would be writing for their teacher. At least one name was going to be mentioned in conjunction with inappropriate cellphone usage. The mid-afternoon sun was streaming in through the windows, casting crisp lines of shadow from each of the desks. Chalk dust drifted through the sunbeams as he wiped the board of the day’s topics.
The teenager stood in the doorway, all flashy clothes and heavyhanded makeup. He was usually good with names, but he could not place this one. “I have a question about the homework.”
Like many of the female students, her outfit revealed far too many patches of skin, and he made a point of keeping his eyes trained on her forehead. “Yes?”
“I don’t know how to do it. Will you show me?”
The day must have been long, because he found himself unable to recall what, precisely, he had assigned to his class. “How to do what, exactly?”
The girl smiled sweetly. She had the most vivid red hair, big and bright and well-suited to her prominent curves. Her eyes were heavily shaded. “You know.” She nodded her head to the side, in the direction of the teacher’s desk, her dark lashes fluttering. “That.”
The desk was an ordinary wooden piece of furniture, covered in the usual cluttered stacks. Nothing about it seemed amiss. Nothing except the pair of feet laying in its shadow.
Kain rushed across the room, banging desks aside in his haste. A boy lay on the floor, sprawled unnaturally on the tile, and he did not stir when Kain knelt beside him. He was ice cold to the touch. “Hurry, go get someone. Find another teacher, or--” he tried to place the name of someone in authority, the name of anybody at all in this school, but nothing sprang to mind, “find the principal. Anybody. Go.”
“But I need you to teach me.”
He could not, in his adrenaline-filled state, conceive of such insolence. “Listen. This boy is in trouble. He needs help.”
“But you need to teach me,” the girl insisted. “How do you do it? How do you get them so cleanly?” The boy wasn’t breathing, and nothing the girl’s voice chimed made any sense. “I’ve tried to do it the same way, but it makes such a mess.” Kain fumbled in his pockets for a cellphone. He normally knew exactly where everything was, but now it eluded him, and the girl’s melodic voice continued unbroken. “You were always the best at it. You could get them in droves. Whole armies, if you wished. So please.” He glanced up at her, and her steadfastly sweet smile despite the crisis at hand, but it was not the same as before. There were fangs in that smile. “Teach me how?”
He dared to look away, back at the boy who, he already knew, was well beyond saving. His eyes, dark slivers beneath half-drawn lids, were blue.
Kain snapped awake, every nerve in his body feeling like it sizzled and cracked beneath his skin. It was a moment, as his breaths came in startled gasps, before he remembered that he was not yet a substitute teacher, not yet even a graduate of his program, that it was summertime, and furthermore, that he was outside of the country in which he would someday teach. He ticked off these facts in his mind carefully, studying the light fixture above him in the darkness. He was Kain. Teacher education student. 23 years old. Lying on a Japanese bed that was too short for his legs with a roommate on the other side of the wall who snored too loud. Commander of the Shitennou. Guard to his Prince. Not a servant of the Dark Kingdom. Not a destroyer. Though most definitely in need of a piss.
The narrow hallway outside his room was so much warmer that it felt like he was stepping into a sauna. The stiflingly humid Tokyo summer was in full swing, but he had banished it from his bedroom sometime in the night. It was a reflexive twitch when he was agitated in his sleep. Some people ground their teeth at night. Kain just turned his room into a deep freeze.
He passed Neil’s room on the way, his door practically rattling off the hinges with each grinding, engine-like snore that rumbled behind it. Kain pitied the occupants of the apartments close to theirs, wondering whether it was possible to sound-proof the brunette’s room without losing the damage deposit.
He didn’t have to check his watch to know that he was wide awake before 4:00 a.m. for the second day in a row. He could have blamed that on jet lag. His internal clock was still struggling to align itself with his days, after all, and made for an easy scapegoat. But the more obvious cause was his old friend insomnia deciding to follow him halfway across the world.
He peed in the dark, but Kain’s heightened sense of night vision prevented him from ignoring the fact that Neil had already trashed their shared bathroom, after only three days of inhabiting it. Like a dog that had to mark every single tree, that man seemed incapable of going anywhere without leaving evidence of his presence, often in the form of wet towels and dirty laundry piled on the floor. How could one man produce so many dirty clothes in such a short span of time?
He left the lights off in the kitchen, as well, when he poured himself a glass of milk. Lights were one of those things that he used only as a courtesy to other people. He eyed the cold glass that he set on the counter and thought that the worst part about insomnia was that there was not enough for a person to fill their time with at 4:00 in the morning. And the worst part about getting it on the wrong side of the world was that all the comfortable fallbacks became unavailable. His bonsai was weathering the summer without him, relying on a kind neighbor to check up on it once in a while (with strict instructions not to overwater it). His drums were locked in his room at home, and anyway it was bad enough avoiding using them during the early hours for his roommates’ sakes without concerning himself with an apartment building full of people. His classes were over for the semester, leaving him nothing to write or study or read ahead on. Jaden, his most restless of companions, was staying in another apartment with Sasha--it was simply not feasible trying to find a four-bedroom apartment for the summer. And Mamoru... was at home. Where he should have been. And so here Kain was, alone at almost 4:00 a.m. in a strange city, with only one option available to help him shake off the dream that had so abruptly awoken him.
As he laced up his sneakers, he thought of how running had become something that he and Mamoru did together. He thought of the first time they had run together, how Kain had watched his every movement so carefully, uncertain yet whether this was the prince he was searching for. How it had become their reconnection point, the time in which they could always be confident of seeing each other, twice a week, in the early dawn hours before they had to part and begin their separate days.
But Mamoru was now asleep in a penthouse two buildings down, almost certainly curled around a blond princess and having absolutely no intention of leaving his domestic comfort to suffer in the chill of a pre-dawn morning. He would not be wandering out of bed until the morning had almost expired, sheepishly pretending that this was an entirely natural thing to be doing, and had nothing to do with the girl who was wearing one of his shirts as a jacket.
And that was how it should have been. Mamoru spent all year pining after Usagi, not at all unlike a young prince in a previous life who spent his nights sighing up at the Moon. It was right that he should have this time with her now. Even if it meant a summer in Tokyo. A summer of insomnia and small apartments and... senshi.
Kain squared his shoulders as he stood at the door. Sneakers on, iPod in hand. He was going to be doing an awful lot of running this summer.
Artemis made an indignant little kitty grunt as something flumped down on the bed beside him, disturbing his rest. He burrowed his nose further beneath his curled paws, seeking blissful warmth. Alas, a light flicked on, determinedly glowing through his white fur, and nothing he did could hide his eyes completely from its glare.
He cautiously opened one set of eyelids first, then another. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that his comfortable haven on the corner of the bed was now surrounded by piles of dresses and shirts, many of them still dangling haphazardly from their hangers. Mina stood in the middle of the floor--or rather she danced in the middle of the floor, doing that little “tight clothes” wiggle with a dress still over her head and her PJ bottoms on. Eventually she succeeded in pulling the snug dress past her shoulders and tugged it down as far as it would go (which was not very far, in Artemis’s humble opinion, though he was a cat and a male and therefore not a very good judge of these matters). She stood in front of the mirror, gave a little experimental pose, though her flannel bottoms with the ducks all over them made the dress look a bit lumpy in places.
“Mina. What are you doing?”
“Finding a dress. What do you think? Too formal?”
“Too formal for what?”
“What else? Makoto’s party, you fluff-head!”
Artemis swiveled his head around to read the little Hello Kitty alarm clock beside the bed. “Minako. It’s seven o’clock.”
“No, the party’s at five.”
“Minako. It is seven o’clock in the morning.”
The blond shimmied back out of the dress and, clothed only in a bra and flannel bottoms, went digging in her closet again. “So what? What do you think of blue?”
“I don’t know, Mina. I’m colorblind, and I’m a cat. But you have about ten hours in which to decide.”
“Not good enough.” She threw the dress--it was probably blue--down on the bed. “These things have to be planned in advance, Artemis. I can’t just throw something on at the last minute!”
“Why not? It’s just a party, Mina. At Makoto’s. She throws them about every two weeks these days.”
The girl rolled her eyes dramatically and shoved the dress over her head. “Men.”
“Yes, yes. We’re all chauvinistic blockheads with no sense of the importance of style. I don’t know why you even try to get through to us, honestly.”
It was a joke, and not an uncommon one between them. Sharing close living quarters with an adolescent girl through her formative years had not been without some extremely awkward moments. Mostly for Artemis. He knew far more than he ever needed or wanted to know about the human female reproductive cycle.
Instead of laughing or carrying the joke further, Mina impatiently tugged the dress back off, balled it up, and threw it on the floor. “I don’t know, either.” For one terrible moment, the bubbly girl who almost always had an arsenal of smiles at the ready seemed to shut down in front of him. Shoulders hunched, arms drawn close, she closed in on herself. But she seemed to remember herself quickly, and turned, a little too deliberately, her back to Artemis to rifle through her closet again. “A dress isn’t the way to go,” she announced in an overly light voice. “Girls wear dresses. I need to look capable.”
Clearly this was a matter that extended well beyond his ward’s vanity and occasional eccentricities, and demanded Artemis’s full attention. He sat up straight, carefully avoiding the heaps of clothes clustered around him. “Somebody indicated to me that the meeting at the airport could have gone better.”
Minako made a skeptical snort from within the depths of her closet. “Who said that? Usagi and Mamoru had the most perfect romantic comedy reunion imaginable. She ran through the crowd screaming his name, tripped over a piece of luggage and went flying onto the tile. Then he scooped her up and she kissed him like she didn’t even notice she was hurt and everyone in the entire terminal was watching and I half expected them to break into applause.” She emerged from the folds of clothing with a shimmery top. “So of course that broke the ice, because none of the guys were used to Usagi so they thought she was hilarious. Neil seems really sweet,” she added wistfully, running her fingers over the silky fabric. “He made everyone feel comfortable right away, even Ami. And Sasha loved my shoes!” She giggled. “The green ones. He loved them so much! And I loved HIS shoes!”
She tugged the shirt on, and held her hair up experimentally in the mirror. “It’s too bad Rei didn’t come, I think it would have done her good to see that. Just how normal and nice they all are. And how adorable Jaden is.”
Artemis was used to being the patient one, but he began to feel that Mina would talk herself in circles all day if she could. “So how about the other one?”
She let her hair drop, one immense tumble of unbrushed morning fluff falling across her back. “I don’t know.”
This was hardly the expected answer. Minako was a reader of people. She could judge from a distance whether a strange couple walking hand-in-hand were in love or merely putting on a show. She chose her classes at the local university based on five-minute meetings with her professors. If he wanted, he could have asked her to describe the character of all Mamoru’s other companions at length, after only this brief meeting. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t know. He doesn’t--didn’t--talk. Not once. He wouldn’t even say hello, or... anything. He didn’t even react to Usagi. It’s like he’s... a... wall. Just this big blank walking wall. It’s like somebody decided that Mamoru needs a wall wherever he goes, just to... block the wind or shade him from the sun or something and that’s what he got.”
“I think your metaphor is unravelling a bit, there.”
“My metaphor is fine! It’s everything else that sucks!”
“You know, some people simply don’t do well with hellos.”
“Or goodbyes or--or anything else. Anyway, you’re distracting me from the real issue, Artemis! What am I going to do with my hair?”
“If you’re trying to get somebody’s attention...”
“Putting it up will make me look more elegant, and show off my neck. But guys have a thing for hair...”
“I don’t think you really have to try at all.”
“I could do a sort of half-updo thing.”
“In fact, I would be very surprised if you did not already have it.” Artemis paused to yawn--he was very much in need of his morning nap--and was rather surprised that Mina did not fill the silence with more babbling. “He’d, well, have to be blind.”
“Walls are blind,” Minako muttered.
He stretched. The sun would be making its way around the living room windows by now, and those sunbeams were not going to be sleeping in themselves. “And deaf, I’m sure. They must sleep so peacefully.”
By the time Neil dragged himself out of bed, Kain had gone for a long run, come home, sorted his and Neil’s dirty laundry, scrubbed down every surface in the bathroom, showered, dressed, made a protein-heavy breakfast, eaten a protein-heavy breakfast, washed the dishes, scrubbed the stovetop, and disinfected the sink. He was almost finished reviewing the news on his laptop with a third cup of coffee when Neil skulked into the kitchen wearing only a pair of briefs. He mumbled an incoherent greeting as he headed straight for the coffee.
Kain felt like an infected beast had just invaded his immaculate kitchen. “Where are your clothes?”
“Does that impede the wearing of a pair of shorts?”
“My balls’r sweating.”
Kain immediately lost the desire to consume any more of his coffee. Or anything. Ever. “Then do us all a favor and refrain from sitting down before taking a shower.”
Neil promptly sat in a kitchen chair. Kain made a mental note to bleach it thoroughly. “Fucking jetlag.”
The brunette looked around suspiciously. “Have you... been bleaching?”
“I realize that the smell of a sanitary room is foreign to you, and I apologize for the discomfort.”
“Kain. It’s nine o’clock in the morning. Who cleans before nine o’clock?”
“Evidently, someone who doesn’t leave his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor.”
“No, seriously. How long have you been awake?”
Neil stared at him in a manner that approached lucidity compared to his normal morning state. “Jetlag, right?”
Kain sipped his coffee, before remembering that he was supposed to be too disgusted to. “Yeah. Jetlag.”
Now that he was no longer the only conscious being in the apartment, the morning began to approach normalcy. Neil drifted into the living room to watch bizarre Japanese game shows while he drank a bunch of sugar and cream with a dash of coffee for flavor and ate dry cereal by the handful. Kain followed with his laptop, and made a mental note never to sit in the particular area of the couch that Neil was occupying again. “So what’s the plan for today, commander? You coming with Jaden and me to gawk at the sights like tourists all afternoon?”
“If we must.”
“It’s that, or going with Sasha to Shibuya, and while normally I would be happy to stare at hot fashionable Japanese ladies all day, I think I’ll pass on the geeking out over designer brands. Think we could convince Mamoru to see the light of day?” Kain cast him a skeptical look. The half-naked brunette rolled his eyes, and shoved a fistful of cereal in his mouth. “Right. Lucky bastard.”
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Women find you so...” Kain paused as Neil dropped cereal down his belly and began to pick it out of the waistband of his underwear “attractive.”
Neil popped the rescued cereal in his mouth and crunched it up while speaking. “Your attempts at sarcasm, while valiant, are overwhelmed by the fact that I have gotten laid more times in a week than you have in a lifetime. Speaking of which, who do you think is the hottest girl we’ve met so far?”
“Must you quantify it?”
“It’s just offering an opinion, man. Usagi’s cute, and she’s got that whole ‘taken by my liege’ aura of forbidden going on. The Mercury-one’s got the cute librarian thing nailed, and you know how nasty librarians are in the sack.”
“I’m sure if all your ideas about women are informed by porn--”
“You say that like I haven’t banged a librarian before. A Harvard librarian.”
“Did she still have her own teeth?”
“You’re hi-fucking-larious. You should deliver some of your comedy routine to the girls. Oh wait, that would require you to speak words to them.” Kain did not dignify that with a response, so Neil continued, scratching at his furry belly as he did so. “Minako clearly wins on sheer sex appeal. She’s got all sorts of curves and knows how to carry them. It would take a spectacular leap of hotness for the other senshi to outdo her.”
“I seem to recall both Mars and Neptune being widely renowned for their beauty.” Kain paused. “I’m not having this conversation.”
The brunette grinned. “Yes you are. It’s Venus, right? You think she’s hot.”
“You may believe what you like on the matter.”
“Then--and I know this may be a difficult concept for you--it might help, I mean girls generally prefer it, if you look them in the eye and say things. It helps them to know that you like them as more than an inconsequential fixture that happens to occupy the same general space as you.”
“I talk to them.”
“Yeah. I’m sure at the airport the other day, your telepathic signals were received loud and clear.”
Kain groaned. “Neil, do you remember what we’re doing here?”
“Pretty sure I do, bro. We’re here because Mamoru’s waited months to do the nasty with his girl and he insisted on flying halfway across the world for it. And we can’t trust him not to get killed along the way, so we’re here with him. So what we’re doing here, commander, is the same damn thing we’re always doing, which is guarding our prince.” Neil stretched out on the couch, all hairy legs and muscles and briefs that did not do nearly as good of a job of containing him as they should have. “Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that we can’t have fun while we’re doing it. And it doesn’t mean that saying hello is gonna kill you.”
“Be that as it may, tonight, at this party we’re supposed to attend--”
“I expect that you have orders for me.”
Kain considered how to approach this matter delicately. Calling something an ‘order’ outside of a life-or-death situation was the best possible way to get Neil to do the opposite of what you wanted. “No, it’s simply a... request. Being that this will be our first time meeting all of the princess’s inner court, it would be helpful if you would do what you are generally very good at.”
“You’re gonna have to be more specific, because the list of things I am very good at is beyond measure. Although the world unanimously agrees that eating and raw animal sex appeal are very high on that list.”
“I would like you to endear yourself to the senshi.”
The brunette’s eyes narrowed. “There must be some catch that I am missing, here. It sounded like you just told me to make a bunch of hot girls like me.”
“Look, this is Mamoru’s home. It’s where his princess lives. He’s going to be spending a lot of time here, and by definition that means that we will be spending a lot of time here. And for better or worse, this is also the home of all the senshi. This is their stronghold. If we can’t win their trust immediately, it’s going to make things that much more difficult for all of us.”
Neil chewed slowly, eyeing Kain with a hint of mistrust. “So by putting myself in the good graces of pretty ladies... I’m doing my duty as a Shitennou?”
“Essentially, yes.” Kain looked over his barely civilized companion. “If, of course, you’re up to the task.”
“Oh, I can endear myself to them. I can endear myself all night long. You know, since it’s my duty and all.” Neil took that opportunity to scratch his balls, a complicated gesture that involved splaying his legs on the couch in Kain’s general direction.
Kain repressed the urge to shudder. Some sights could never be unseen.
“In that case, I’m starting with Venus.” Neil was grinning, but Kain could tell that he was serious by the sharp look in his eyes. “You know, since she makes the most tactical sense.”
The commander gave him a long look. “Do what you need to do.”