Usagi allowed her eyes to slip shut as she listened to the gentle lapping of the waves against the boat, resting her head on her arm and letting the fingers of her free hand trail into the water. She flicked them playfully when the fish nibbled at them softly, causing the creatures to dart back into the depths of the lake with bright flashes of red and gold and white. The setting sun cast a glimmering trail of light across the tranquil surface of the lake, turning the water into liquid gold. Sighing contentedly, she peeked from between long lashes to let her gaze rest upon the handsome face of her companion, Chiba Mamoru, her worst enemy and the greatest love of her life.
Perhaps that was a contradiction in terms, but it certainly did fit their relationship, she mused as she gazed at his sun-lit profile, watched his strong, gentle hand turn the page of his physics book. She wrinkled her nose slightly. Always the bookworm he was, like Ami-chan. Even here, on their very first date, he insisted on studying for the exam he had coming up in two days, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. Which was perfectly okay with her. It was how he was, and she loved everything about him, even his annoying study habits. Although…she had to admit that they were now becoming slightly more annoying than endearing. Sighing again, she shifted slightly and lifted her hand out of the water, playfully flicking the droplets on her fingers at him. One of them hit him on the eye, making him blink and glance up in surprise. She grinned and stuck out her tongue at him, and he smiled back, shaking his head slightly.
"Only one more chapter," he murmured, regarding her fondly. "After that, I’m all yours, Usako."
She melted; she loved it when he called her that. It sure beat Odango Atama at any rate. Grinning at him, she turned her attention back to the water below her, unaware of how his deep cerulean gaze rested on her a moment longer, his expression soft and unguarded as he regarded her. With another small smile that bespoke of absolute contentment, he turned back to his studies.
Usagi eventually dozed off to the gentle rocking of the boat, the water providing its own soothing lullaby. In her mind, she saw the vague image of a young couple, laughing and happy as they strolled down a street, a small child skipping between them. She watched as the little girl bounced ahead, giggling and turning pirouettes like a ballerina, and she smiled at the sight. The young couple moved closer together as the man wrapped an arm around his wife’s shoulders; it was obvious that they were deeply in love. Usagi felt a deep pang of longing in her heart. Would that be her one day, she wondered as she watched the woman being wrapped in the strong embrace of her beloved. Would she someday be part of a family like that? Would her family be Mamo-chan?
She liked to think so; they were soulmates, after all, and not even death could tear them apart, although it had certainly tried. But she had so many doubts. Doubts that she managed to keep at bay when she was awake, but now, in her dreams, they began to crowd around her, looming over her and threatening to drown her in sorrow, more terrifying than any youma had ever been. She’s just a kid! they whispered. She’s loudmouthed and a klutz and a crybaby, and Chiba Mamoru is too good for the likes of her! The only reason he loves her is because she’s the reincarnated form of his princess! It’s the princess he truly loves!
"That’s not true!" Usagi wailed, cowering beneath the shadows the heavy thoughts cast around her. "He loves me, not her!"
Does he? the voices mocked. When did he fall in love with you? When did he ever profess his love for you before he discovered who you had been? When did he ever say, I love you…Tsukino Usagi?
She had no answer.
She woke with a start, eyes snapping open to gaze blindly down into the water. She noticed that the arm she’d been resting her head upon was wet, and her cheeks felt cool and damp. "Tears," she whispered, hastily scrubbing at her eyes before Mamoru noticed. She really was a crybaby, wasn’t she? Luckily, she hadn’t been asleep that long, and he was still absorbed in his studies.
She gazed at him intently, studying his face as though to drag the answers her heart now sought from his very features. What did he see in her, anyway? They were as opposite as night and day. He loved to study, while she detested anything that even remotely had to do with school. He was quiet and serious and smart, and she…well…she wasn’t.
Mamoru seemed to sense her gaze upon him, for suddenly he glanced up and met her eyes. He looked startled at the sight of her tearstained face, and as he sat up the book fell from his lap into the bottom of the boat, immediately forgotten. "Usako, what’s the matter?" he asked in concern, moving to sit beside her. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gently held her, smoothing her hair. "Shhh…shhh…it’s okay. Don’t cry," he pleaded softly. "Are you having a horrible time? I’m sorry…I didn’t realize…"
"Baka, it’s nothing like that," Usagi sniffled, smiling a little despite herself. "I was just…thinking, that’s all."
He gazed into her eyes, his expression worried. "They must be sad thoughts, to bring tears to your eyes," he replied softly. "Tell me what’s wrong. What can I do to help?"
She hesitated, suddenly torn between wanting to throw herself into his arms and pour out her heart, or running as far from him as possible to protect it. Even if she doubted his love for her, she did not doubt her own love for him. She had loved him long before she had ever discovered he was her hero, Tuxedo Kamen-sama, or her long-lost Prince Endymion. She had loved him from the day she hit him with that test paper, and she knew that it would kill her if she found out he had never loved her back.
"Usa?" Mamoru whispered, clearly wanting her to talk to him.
She shivered slightly and closed her eyes. But…perhaps not knowing is even worse, she thought sadly. And how could she refuse him, anyway, when he looked at her like that? "Our relationship has been strange from the very beginning, hasn’t it, Mamo-chan?" she asked him softly, leaning her head against his shoulder and letting her fingers twine with his own.
"How do you mean?" he asked, his voice betraying his uncertainty.
"Well, we used to hate each other, for one thing." She let the ghost of a smile cross her face. "You always called me names, and I always got mad at you for it, and I would’ve bet anything that we’d end up killing each other before we would actually fall in love with each other! It’s hard to believe that two completely different people could be destined for each other."
"Well, they say that opposites attract," Mamoru replied lightly, giving her shoulders a squeeze. "And I admit that I’m pretty attracted to you," he added teasingly, attempting to lighten her mood.
She smiled despite herself, but then it slipped away again. "But what part of me are you attracted to, Mamo-chan?" she asked seriously.
"Nani? I don’t understand what you…" He broke off abruptly, because, all of a sudden, he did understand.
"What part of me," she repeated softly, "are you attracted to? Is it Princess Serenity? You always claimed that you love her, and I know she loves Prince Endymion dearly." She paused and swallowed around the growing lump in her throat; he remained silent. "But I’m not Serenity anymore, Mamo-chan, and you’re not Prince Endymion. I’m Tsukino Usagi, and I’m not in love with Prince Endymion. I’m in love with you, and I always have been, since I first met you, long before the princess or her prince showed up."
He regarded her steadily, his expression still. Even his eyes were shaded. "So what is the problem?" he whispered.
She swallowed again. "Up until that time, you always seemed to hold me in the same regard as you might hold a…a cockroach. Everything I did disgusted you, or made you angry with me, or irritated you, and I admit I didn’t try very hard to change your mind about me. I just made myself believe that we hated each other, and that was that. But then…Oh, everything happened all at once! It’s still so confusing!" She laughed a little through the tears that once again slipped from her eyes, although it was a rather bitter laugh. "First, I found out about your past, and all of a sudden I was seeing you in a whole new light, and for the first time I was starting to admit that you aren’t the baka I always told myself you were."
He opened his mouth to speak, but she didn’t give him the chance. "Then I discovered you were Tuxedo Kamen-sama, and even though I was surprised, part of me was so glad it was you. And then came the battle with Zoisite, and the princess was revealed and all her memories were restored, and I discovered that you were really my soulmate all along. And I thought for sure that things would change then! But I’d barely gotten you back again before Beryl took you, and for awhile, it was worse than ever."
"But you healed me in the end. You restored me to myself," he told her softly.
"Yes," she replied, nodding softly. "And then we forgot each other. And when Luna gave me back my memories, it was so hard to watch you go on without yours. Prince Endymion didn’t remember his princess anymore…and Chiba Mamoru hated Tsukino Usagi, just like he did before."
"I never hated you, Usako," Mamoru whispered. "Nobody in their right mind can hate you."
"I know," she replied, raising beseeching eyes to meet his own. "But Mamoru…before everything happened…did you ever truly love me?"
The boat rocked slightly as Mamoru shifted his weight from his seat to kneel before her, cupping her face gently in his big hands and gazing into her eyes with such warmth and passion that she felt nearly overwhelmed. Slowly, he lowered his head and began to softly, tenderly kiss each small tear from her face, trailing lips soft as velvet over her flushed cheeks, her closed eyelids. His arms slipped around her, gently cradling her to his chest as he buried his face against her neck, holding her as though she was the most fragile of treasures. And for a moment, she thought she might indeed break with the love she felt for this man. But then he was once more lifting his head, and before she could say a word he had captured her lips with his own in a deep, soul-binding kiss that immediately melted her insides and set an inferno to raging in her blood. It was a good thing she was sitting down, because if she had been standing she surely would have fallen. How long they continued to kiss, she didn’t know. It felt as though Time itself had stopped its steady pace onward, if only for the sake of these two lovers who had gone through so much to find each other. The love she felt for him was almost terrifying in its intensity.
But he had yet to answer her question, a tiny voice nagged at the back of her mind.
As though hearing that thought, Mamoru finally lifted his head to again meet her eyes, and she found herself becoming lost in his deep, mesmerizing gaze. She waited with baited breath, trying to keep her heart from leaping out of her chest…and then his lips were moving to form a single word.
And, for the first time truly aware of the overwhelming love a lonely college student could hold for one small, odango-headed young woman, Usagi finally held no doubt in her mind that this was the absolute truth.