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you left me in the desert

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A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image. Joan Didion

 

 

The Arcade is usually empty on Sundays. Usagi meets Naru early and they spread their history project over their table.

"Try not to spill your milkshake this time, Usa-chan," Naru tells her, and Usagi sticks out her tongue in kind. They both giggle when Motoki passes too, shaking his head.

They're mostly quiet though. Usagi's notes are pretty diligent; it's math and science she struggles with, if only because neither can hold her attention long enough. But she likes history and she likes working with Naru, knowing that her friend knows her well enough for a project like this one.

It's not long before her attention sort of drifts within the project. Names become faces and moments; her mind wanders within the scope of each event too and she finds herself frowning, her unease growing as she starts to read into battle plans.

"Usa-chan," Naru hisses.

She blinks. The other girl's hand settles on her arm and she looks up.

"Hmm?"

"Those guys," Naru breathes, wide-eyed. Her lips curl into a grin. "Those gorgeous guys are staring at us!"

She blinks again and turns her head, ignoring Naru's protests. The pen in her hand spins between her fingers. She takes in the small group at the counter with Motoki, three guys all talking pleasantly with him. It's a strange, brief feeling but she finds herself straightening in her seat.

They're all gorgeous; the tallest is leaning against the counter, bright eyes and smiling. His hair is braided back, the cuffs of his sleeves rolled to his elbows. The other is laughing with Motoki - he grins at her too, slipping into a jacket and rubbing his hand against the back of his neck. But it's the one that is sitting that startles her.

He doesn't smile. When he tilts his head to the side, catching her gaze, she feels herself swallow. He wears a handsome suit, his hand smoothing against his tie. One of friends says something to him and his mouth quirks, the laughter spilling into her space with Naru.

"I wonder who they are!"

Usagi shifts, looking back at her friend. "What?" she asks. Naru clicks her tongue in disapproval. "Oh," she says, blushing. "I don't know. You should ask Motoki-san."

Naru rolls her eyes, but she lets it go too and they get back to their project.

Usagi thinks nothing of it.

 

 

School holds an odd array of people in her life. Lunch usually has her sitting in the square with a few other girls and some boys. It's the only other time they see some of the older kids too, as well as some of the private school kids who sneak out for their lunches.

Naru and Yumi decide to follow that tradition this time, electing Usagi to keep watch and linger until the end of the period. It works simply because it's her turn and she needs to focus on something that isn't setting her math book on fire.

"Hey, is this your cat?"

Usagi blinks. Makoto, one of the older girls, stands behind her.  Next to her is Ami, who she knows because of math tutoring - she does it for a few kids in her class and more group oriented work.

"I'm sorry?" the cat in Makoto's arms blinks back at her and Usagi feels uneasy. "That's a cat, Kino-san."

Makoto laughs. "Makoto," she corrects gently, and then Ami laughs too. "I'm guessing she's not yours."

"No," she says. "My brother's allergic and it would be a little weird if the cat followed me to school."

Both of the older girls laugh. Ami hugs her books to her chest and then nods to the grass next to her.

"Mind if we have lunch with you?" she asks.

Usagi flushes. "No, no," she says. She gestures wildly with her arms. "It's just me today," she tells them. "Please sit."

They smile at her. Makoto sits close to her and the cat jumps from her arms, sprawling out in the grass in front her. The cat blinks and meets her gaze. Usagi shakes her head. She tries not to pick at her lunch.

"So," Makoto says to her. "Why are you alone today? I usually see you with a bunch of people." Her eyes narrow and she looks at her worriedly. "Everything okay?"

Usagi blushes. "Oh, yeah. I - uh - Yumi-chan dragged Naru off to … some place. Naru usually gets roped into her schemes as it is and it's my turn to keep watch." She laughs, looking down at her hands. "Yumi and I aren't exactly the closest and the others, I don't know - I got to lunch late as it is. Sometimes it's nice to sit by yourself too."

"Definitely," Ami agrees.

They talk then. It's small, but it's comfortable. They go back and forth with pleasantries, the three of them fumbling into an easy sort of banter. Usagi likes that Ami is somewhere between shy and sharp and that Makoto keeps dropping bits of her sweets into her lunch, telling her to try them without thinking. She goes in between awe and delight with them. She doesn't need a large group around her, she thinks.

But Yumi and Naru sneak in through the fence, close to where she sits with the two of the girls. She spots them and Naru waves wildly, dragging their shopping backs to where they sit. They explode into stories, interrupting Makoto and Ami as they try to coax her back into their conversation. Almost instinctively she is drawn to the two older girls, but Naru and Yumi are louder and persistent, so much so that even the cat looks irritated.

She doesn't know who says what first, but she feels guilty when Makoto and Ami both stand. The two girls get glares from Yumi, but Makoto barely blinks.

"Lunch tomorrow?" she asks.

Usagi doesn't think and smiles warmly. "I'd like that."

 

Shingo tries to bribe her into staying at the Arcade longer after school. She puts up a light fight, rolling her eyes at her brother when he swipes the last of her money. Her milkshake is half-finished in front of her and she's staring at her math book like it's the most offensive thing in the world. Motoki laughs as he passes her.

"It's not that bad," he says.

"Says you," she mutters.

He leans over the counter and ruffles her hair. She wrinkles her nose. They'll stay another hour, she thinks, but then she really has to get home. Math, for what it's worth, still gets her into trouble with her mother from time to time anyway.

She spins on her stool. She catches her brother and his friends, bent over one of the games. She tilts her head to the side, studying them.

"You could go play."

She jumps, wide-eyed. When she turns on her stool, the guy from the other day is sitting next to her. He waves at Motoki and slides out of his jacket, draping it over the counter.

"Excuse me?" she asks.

"The game," he says. His mouth twitches. "You want to play," he says.

She laughs, shaking her head. "No," she says. "I'm worried that it's going to get me in trouble. Shingo's fine, but I still have homework to do and my mother's … well, she's a little scary when it comes to me and my math homework."

"Mmm," he says.

She's struck again, at how handsome he is. When she looks at him, when she really looks at him, she catches that low, lazy turn of his mouth. It's a smile but not quite a smile. It still seems to unnerve her and she lets her fingers brush against the counter, rubbing lightly over a loose napkin. She doesn't touch her milkshake.

"Mamoru."

She blinks. "Huh?"

He laughs. "My name," he offers. "Mamoru. And you're Usagi."

She eyes him warily. "Okay." It's easy to hide her blush, keeping her head down and her gaze framing the milkshake. "Do you make it a habit of knowing people's names? That, you know, you don't know or anything like that."

"Only yours," he teases.

Usagi laughs. She actually laughs, cupping her mouth with a mix of surprise and amusement. Mamoru's eyes seem to brighten. They're blue, she realizes. They're very blue. It forces her to focus on him and he seems to catch that too, leaning forward onto his knees.

The strange thing is that he doesn't say anything. He seems to wait for her instead.

She ducks then, smiling to herself. Her hair falls into her eyes and her hands immediately pull into her lap. Her finger curl around each other.

"You're strange," she blurts.

He chuckles.

"Do you make it a habit of being strange?" she asks, and forces herself to look up again. "Or is it just me?"

"It's just you," he teases.

There's a warmth that coils in her belly. It's sharp, maybe even too small to be anything else. She's caught off guard by the feeling though. It rises and falls inside of her and feels too close to something like familiarity. She bites her lip and he seems to soften as he watches her.

"Usagi-chan!"

There is a burst of voices behind her and then an arm around her shoulder. Makoto stands tall, her eyes sharp as she smiles at her and then turns her gaze to Mamoru.

"How's it going, Usagi-chan?"

Usagi blinks. "Fine, Kino-san."

"Makoto," she scolds gently, and another girl appears at her side. Where Makoto is practically statuesque, her friend is almost unreal. Usagi can barely take in how beautiful she is; the girl smiles at her first, but when she sees Mamoru, her eyes darken and her mouth slides into a deep frown.

Usagi looks between the two girls and then back at Mamoru, who in turn seems completely unfazed by them. Behind him though, she sees Ami and another girl move to join them.

"Mamoru-san," she murmurs. She fidgets with the sleeves of her blouse, nodding to the girls. "This is Makoto and Ami -"

"He knows us," the girl next to Makoto interrupts.

The tension seems unavoidable. Usagi turns her gaze to her brother and his friends. He is paying no attention to her, so there's no chance for a quick and easy escape. She doesn't know why she feels so frantic all of the sudden. It pulls and twists at her, so much so that it's Mamoru that leans in and touches her knee.

He's frowning. "Another milkshake?"

"No -" she and Makoto's friend say it at the same time. The dark-haired girl next to Ami rolls her eyes. But Usagi makes the decision to stand.

She reaches nervously for her bag. There's too many people, she thinks. Now too, she can feel them all watching her.

"I should go," she says firmly. She offers a forced smile. "It's good to see everyone," she murmurs, nodding at Makoto and Ami and their friends. She's sure she's being somewhat rude, but her gaze is pulled back to Mamoru. "And -" she laughs nervously. "Yeah," she finishes.

She doesn't know where the burst of energy comes from, but she is moving to Shingo without even thinking. She must be an open book too because her brother takes one look at her expression and says goodbye to his friends, excusing himself and using the token my mom as an excuse.

They pass the group on their way out. Usagi tries not to look.

 

 

The attacks start slow. They graduate from the back pages of the paper to small blurbs in the front news. Usagi sneaks uneasy peeks while her mother tells her and Shingo to be careful when they go out alone.

She is supposed to meet Naru at the shops and arrives thinking that she's late again until Naru leaves a message on her phone that she's held up at the jewelry store. Usagi sighs and shakes her head.

Leaning against the wall, she clasps her hands in front of her dress. She rocks lightly against her heels. There is the rumble of an engine. A group of passing girls are giggling; when Usagi opens her eyes, she ends up watching Mamoru slide off his bike.

His helmet is in his hand. Another bike pulls up next to him and she remembers his friend - it's the taller one, but this time his hair is pulled loose and he's wearing a scarf wrapped around his neck. They both see her.

"Usagi," Mamoru greets. He reaches her first. She eyes his bike before offering a shy smile. His friend moves to stand next to him. "This is Kris," he says.

"Hello."

Kris smiles. "Hello back." His accent is misplaced.

She studies him and then Mamoru. "Are you stalking me?" she asks. They both laugh, but Usagi is wary.

"Are you waiting for someone?" Mamoru asks instead.

She hesitates. "Yes." She curls her fingers in her hair, twisting them in the strands. "She's late," she explains. "I might have to go home though - my mother is worried about the attacks."

Mamoru frowns, but Kris answers. "As she should," he says. "Nasty business." Mamoru's gaze seems to darken, but Kris continues, gently touching her arm. "We were getting coffee - you should join us while you wait."

She blushes. "I couldn't," she protests. "I -"

"Come on," Mamoru says. Kris laughs, shaking his head. It's still Mamoru that offers his arm. "I'll buy a hot chocolate for you," he says.

There is something that makes her hesitate again. It's far from unease or concern. She feels like she's been here before. He looks at her and she feels like she should be reacting differently. Her lips purse, but she takes his arm. Her fingers curl against his jacket.

"All right," she murmurs then.

 

 

They sit in a booth. Kris picks the side across from them, moving to grab the drinks from them counter. Normally, she would be swept up in this. It's jus that there's no Naru or Yumi or any of her other friends to distract her.

"You look worried."

Startled, Usagi catches Mamoru's hand on her arm. She blushes, shrugging. "Just thinking," she says.

"About me?"

She snorts. "Does that actually work?" she asks. Mamoru smirks. His eyes are dark and he licks his lips. Kris comes back with their drinks first. "No," she still answers and it's a strange, little lie. "I'm not thinking about you."

She does not miss the look that Kris shoots Mamoru, or how he shrugs in kind; something passes between them and she frowns, her hands wrapping around her drink.

"So Usagi-san," Kris starts carefully. She straightens. "Tell us about school," he says, smiling. "Do you enjoy it?"

She groans and Mamoru chuckles. "Sometimes," she says. "I could do without math or science. But the rest of it is fine. I like history," she says. "And I like our reading period."

"There's nothing wrong with math and science - they can be just as interesting, if not more than the others." Mamoru
takes a sip of his coffee finally.

Her eyes narrow. "You really just sold it to me," she says dryly.

"Ah, but you really shouldn't be quick to judge."

For whatever reason, she can tell he's baiting her. Kris is watching them in amusement. Her cheeks flush.

"Or you could just agree to disagree. It's not for everyone."

Mamoru's mouth quirks. "Of course," he says smoothly.

She changes the conversation though, gearing it towards him and Kris and the two bikes outside. She is usually quick to understand what and how people feel about her, but Mamoru is not an easy read. He alternates between watching her carefully and being particular with his interest, lazy smiles that don't quite reach his eyes and then this look, this strange look that makes her heart start to crawl into her throat.

"Do you want a ride?" he asks finally.

She shakes her head, checking her watch. "No thank you," she murmurs. It's been almost an hour, she thinks. Naru isn't usually this late. Her fingers dip into her bag and she presses them against her phone. "Sorry," she sighs. "I - okay."

He touches her arm. "Are you all right?"

"Fine," she murmurs.

She's barely touched her hot chocolate. Her mouth brushes the rim of her cup. Her nerves hit.

It could be nothing.

 

Her mother is going to kill her. She stands by Mamoru's bike, holding the extra helmet and then sighing.

"Don't say anything," she warns, and she reaches up, pulling her hair loose from her twin buns. The strands unravel and spill, draping over her shoulder as she hands him back the helmet for the moment.

His eyes narrow though and he is blatantly watching her, moving to lean against the bike. She ignores him - Kris has left - and her fingers weave her hair into a braid. When she finishes, he reaches forward and wraps a hand around the end, tugging lightly. Her cheeks flush and then he puts the helmet over her head.

"There," he murmurs.

Her throat burns.

 

Nauru is all apologies at school. Usagi waves it off until lunch, where she is left again when Naru and Yumi slip away again for another adventure.

"Usagi-chan?"

She barely has time to sit when Makoto loops her arm through hers. Ami isn't with her. Instead it's one of the other girls, the very same girl who stared down Mamoru at the Arcade.

"Alone again?"

Usagi blushes. "Yes," she says.

"Her friends leave her as the lookout," Makoto says to the other girl. She smiles kindly and jerks her hand to her too. "Minako, Usagi. Usagi, Minako. Sorry about the other day -"

"Chiba-san isn't my favorite person," Minako says dryly. She flashes a wide smile too, splitting her fingers into a v sign. Usagi's go wide with recognition.

"Oh!" she breathes. "Oh."

"Yeah," Makoto says. "She's -"

Minako smacks her arm. "Sailor V," she grins. "That's me.

It still doesn't explain anything, but Usagi joins the other girls for lunch, letting them drag her to a corner. She forgets about the Arcade for the moment, about Mamoru and his motorcycle, about how suddenly there are these people in her life and she isn't sure what to make of any of them. It's not permanent, she thinks. She's just over thinking it.

But she adores Minako, and falls pretty hard when they start laughing over mutual grievances with the mall escalator. Makoto is watching them in amusement, listening and then interjecting to give both of them treats.

After though, she stands with the girls. The period is close to an end and she needs to linger to catch Naru and Yumi. She flushes as she explains, but both girls won't hear it.

"Tomorrow," Makoto says firmly. "I'm making lunch for all of us," she says too.

Usagi stares at her. "You don't have to," she protests.

But Makoto laughs and shrugs and gives her this soft look. Usagi is taken aback, but has no time to process it. Minako links her arm through hers as they watch the taller girl leave them for the school.

"You should take care with Chiba-san," she says quietly.

"Mamoru," Usagi says. Minako raises an eyebrow. "That's what you called him the other day."

Minako gives her an odd little smile. It doesn't quite reach her eyes; Usagi cannot tell if she is sad or angry or somewhere in between. Her fingers catch at her bangs though and she gently pushes away, tapping lightly at her forehead.

"I know you," she says. "You have a big heart. He doesn't. Don't let it try and change you."

It isn't until she's back in her classroom, Naru and Yumi
chatting at her side, that the words hit her.

She doesn't understand what they mean.

 

 

The cat is sitting outside the stoop of her door when she comes home with Shingo, books flushed at her hip. Shingo immediately rushes by, leaving her with the cat and its creepy blank stare. She tries everything: she offers to pick it up, her fingers tucking under its belly, but it pulls away and even asking it to go - which is silly, of course. But it does not seem to want to budge.

So she lets it be.

 

The nightmares come then. They unravel in her head as uncomfortably as anything else; first she wakes up crying, the next night her hand is digging into her stomach, her nails scraping at the fabric of her pajamas.

She starts to taste things as well - names, not faces, blood and dirty and the heavy, heavy presence of ash. She pushes her fingers to her throat and is suddenly struck by the weight of Minako's words.

I know you.

When she sits at the breakfast table, she pulls her legs up onto her chair. Her knees are tucked against her chest and her mother puts the fruit in front of her.

"Don't forget to pick up things for Luna today."

She blinks. "Luna?"

Her mother smiles, stepping back and revealing the cat from the other day. "Luna," she says. "Shingo and you brought her home yesterday. Your father says that it'll be a good thing for the two of you and teach you responsibility."

"Responsibility," Usagi echoes, staring at the cat. It blinks back at her. It tilts her head to the side, watching her too. "I -" she frowns looking up at her mother. "I don't remember bringing a cat home," she says slowly.

Her mother waves her hand.

She leaves her for the kitchen too. Usagi picks at the fruit, her fingers pressing into the melon. She pushes it with her fork. The cat seems to move towards her, lingering at the foot of her chair. She eyes it warily.

It's a cat, she tells herself. It's just a cat and maybe, maybe it's the thing with her dreams and her imagination, always awkward and moving faster without her.

The feeling is back again.

 

 

There is an attack at the mall. Naru and Yumi get up in the whole thing, recounting their whole story with wide, wide eyes and hands as everyone hangs on their words. Usagi sits the furtherest away, listening quietly.

She thinks back to the dreams again. It's the third, fifth time this week that she's woken up in a cold sweat, clutching herself. It's as if she remembers something, something large - and it's the sensation, the feel of something slicing through her skin that unsettles her the most. When Naru laughs, she shivers and her hands open and close and her fingers tremble. Everything feels so desperate all of the sudden.

Then she sees the girls.

They stand, watching. Makoto, still the tallest, and then there's Ami, leaning against one of the trees with her hands clasped in front of her.

Minako's frown is the deepest.

 

 

Mamoru buys her a milkshake after school. His friends sit at a separate table; there is no signs of the other girls, although something in her feels like she should watch out.

She's quiet though. Part of her thinks she shouldn't be here.

"Do you like me?" she asks.

His brow furrows. "Of course," he says. "I -"

"But you don't know me," she interrupts. "You don't know me. They don't know me and I'm not really sure that friends that I have make sense anyway." She looks up at him, her fingers curling around her straw. "I just met all of you and I -"

He reaches for her hand. His fingers curl around it, brushing against the back and then over her palm as it turns into his touch. It happens almost instinctively.

"And then," she says. "There's the cat."

"The cat?"

She nods. "The cat." She waits for him to laugh too, but he doesn't. When she looks up, his friends are watching them. The only one she knows is Kris. "My brother's allergic," she says. "And suddenly, Mama is all about keeping her. In fact, it's like she's always been there. Maybe I'm the crazy one, but I first saw her with Makoto-chan - how come you and the girls don't get along? Minako told me to stay away from you. I think I'm rambling."

He laughs. Then he softens. "You're worried," he says.

"I don't feel like myself," she confesses.

"What can I do?"

Usagi laughs too. "You barely know me, Mamoru-san. I don't really know what to do with you as it is - I feel like - you just gave me a motorcycle ride."

He flashes a grin, a strangely boyish grin. Her cheeks burn and she's completely caught off-guard, sliding her hand from under his and dropping it to her lap to curl in her skirt. She's smiling too and she can't exactly wrap her head around as to why.

"Is that all it takes?" he teases.

Her flush deepens. His fingers press against her cheek and she looks up.

"I know enough," he says softly.

They stare at each other. She feels like he's picking her apart, but she's entirely sure what he's looking for. She doesn't understand. She doesn't understand how easy it is for her to open up to him, even though she's an open book as it is. She knows she wears her heart on her sleeve, that most of the time, most of her feelings are so blatantly obvious because they're unavoidable and they're there.

Her lips curl and he's already dropped his hand but slowly, shyly, she finds herself reaching for it. Her fingers touch the back of his hand. When it turns towards her fingers, she doesn't know if she's done the right thing or not.

There's no time.

The glass next to their booth breaks.

 

There is a hand around her throat. When her eyes open, she is staring at man. He smiles at her, his nails scraping against her skin.

"Hello little girl." He tilts his head to the side. "You pretty girl."

This is a dream, she thinks. This is a new dream. But his fingers press harder into her throat, pulling at her skin. She is starting to panic, panic faster and faster as the sensation digs at her throat. Her eyes grow wider and wider, her hair falling loosely to her sides as he lifts her up and over him, her legs dangling as he smiles again.

Her hands start to claw at his. He squeezes once. He squeezes twice. Then he giggles.

"Let her go!"

The cry comes from somewhere behind her. There's a growl too and more glass shatters. She sees the monster next, her vision blurring as it comes barreling into the picture. Something flashes and something flashes fast. The grasp around her throat drops and she falls to her knees, crying out when they hit hard.

"Hey, hey, hey," gentle hands brush at her face. "You're okay." When Usagi looks up, her eyes widen. The only thing she can think is this: just like Sailor V as gloves frame her face, fingers brushing back at her bangs. "You're okay," the woman says again.

It's just that light cracks over them, fast and hard with a furious snap. She cries out, her hand slamming against her mouth and the woman turns in a whirl, standing in front of her. Usagi is dizzy and her hands move to her throat again.

She can taste the blood in her mouth.

It happens too fast for her to follow. There's screaming and yelling and then someone's hands are on her shoulders, dragging her back. It's Kris, then, tucking her in between the wall and another one of Mamoru's friends - Jack, Jade, Justin? She has can't remember. Her fingers still dig into his shirt, her head dropping to rest against his back as she feels the tears and the panic overwhelm her. Her knees are ready to buckle.

But every crack sounds like bone snapping. She keeps her head pressed against Kris' back, then it's another one of his friends - Zach, she remembers. He replaces Kris and tells her to breathe, but all she can focus on is the sound of metal hitting against each other, then sliding and scratching and sounding too much like knives. There is laughter too and the bile rises up her throat. Be brave, she tells herself. Just be brave.

She doesn't know exactly when it's over. When Zach pulls back, she finally spots Mamoru, pocketing something and then turning to acknowledge Kris and the rest of his friends. There are cries inside the Arcade and she jerks her gaze to the side, suddenly remembering the woman that was with her and the odd familiarity of Sailor V. No, she thinks. That's in her head. Shingo was bent on playing the new game. That's why they were here today.

Mamoru does come to her though. He wraps an arm around her shoulders. The grip is tight and her head drops against his chest. His mouth is in her hair.

"You're fine," he says. But it's a question too. His fingers tighten briefly. "We got separated, Usagi-chan. I'm so sorry -"

Her hand drops between them and presses against her stomach.

The feeling is too sharp. "I'm fine," she says.

 

 

The cat is sitting on her bed when she arrives home. Her mother's already lost it, between the glass in her blouse and Shingo's recounting of everything that happened. He didn't see her, but it doesn't matter, Usagi thinks touching her throat. It doesn't matter at all.

She settles in her bed. Her legs curl underneath her and the cat moves to jump into her lap. It startles her and her eyes are wide, her fingers burying themselves into its fur. When it purrs, her lips twitch and she wraps her arm underneath the cat, pulling her up and into her arms. She nuzzles its head, her eyes blurring again and the tears that start are both hot and heavy. She doesn't know why she's crying, but the cat nuzzles her; first her cheek, next her jaw, and Usagi drags them back to curl up over the pillows.

"Don't go, okay?" she says to the cat. Her lips twitch and she rubs her eyes. "I just need someone to stay with me, kitty-cat. Just for a little while."

She may or may not fall asleep then. The cat will nuzzle her though, touch her fingers with its nose and then settle in her arms again. She will feel it shift. She will swear, half-hazy with sleep, that it sighs too, if only because it can't get close enough to her.

But when Usagi wakes up in the morning, the cat is gone.