Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.
Drunkard's Walk S:
Heart of Steel
by Robert M. Schroeck
0. Time Lost and Forgotten
Stand and fight,
Live by your heart.
Always one more try.
I'm not afraid to die.
Stand and fight,
Say what you feel —
Born with a heart of steel.
— Manowar, "Heart of Steel"
Wear me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for
love is strong as death, passion cruel as the grave; it blazes up
like blazing fire, fiercer than any flame.
— Song of Solomon 8:6 (NEB)
And if the music stops,
There's only the sound of the rain.
All the hope and glory,
All the sacrifice in vain.
If love remains
Though everything is lost
We will pay the price
But we will not count the cost.
— Rush, "Bravado"
My name is Douglas Quincy Sangnoir. And I do not know how old I am.
There are only two women in my life whom I have ever loved wholeheartedly and unconditionally: my wife Maggie, and my adopted daughter Makoto.
And there are only two women in my life in whose service I would willingly sacrifice my life: Wetter Hexe, and Tsukino Usagi.
This is the story of why I no longer know my exact age. It is the story of how I became a mentor and teacher to the first metahuman heroes to appear on their version of Earth. It is the story of how Makoto and Usagi took their places in my heart. And finally, it is also the story of how in the end I did in fact lay down my life, in revenge for one and in the service of the other.
For twenty years I couldn't remember any of this. For two decades, all I could recall — if I even thought about that timeline at all — was arriving on that Earth, and finding a song to open a gate to the next world on my journey home less than 24 hours later. Even now, with my memory allegedly restored, vast swaths of my recollections are fuzzy, or riddled with holes. If it weren't for my usual journal entries — which I found in my helmet's computer, stashed in a hidden directory and locked with my password — I would have had even less idea of what happened on that version of Earth than I do now.
I didn't seal those journal entries away myself — as best as I can reconstruct the events at the very end, I had no reason to do so or even to anticipate needing to do so. All I can imagine is that when Usagi ordered the Ginzuishou to "put it all back", whatever passes for the controlling intelligence of that magic crystal golf ball decided to do it for me.
Why it didn't just wipe the log entries outright I'll never know. Maybe it was afraid of what I'd do if I ever found out.
Maybe it was afraid of what Usagi would do.
There at the end, I might have been, too.
1. A Sailor's Life For Me
You woke up this morning,
Got yourself a gun.
Mama always said you'd be
The Chosen One.
She said, "You're one in a million;
You've got to burn to shine.
But you were born under a bad sign
With a blue moon in your eyes."
— Alabama 3, "Woke Up This Morning (Theme to The Sopranos)"
Does the crescent moon rise
By the light of your eyes?
Can you see the star that I'm wishing on?
And is it shining as bright
From where you see it tonight
And does the love that you feel make you strong?
— Blues Traveler, "12 Swords"
"There's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight."
— Lon Chaney, Sr.
Monday, February 3, 1992, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Shiba Park, one block southeast of the Tokyo Tower, is an interesting mix of terrains for its size. Some of it is in the style of a traditional city park, with manicured lawns and the occasional small tree or bush. Some of it is a Buddhist temple and its well-kept grounds. Much of it, though, is steep hillside webbed with pathways and studded with larger, older trees and underbrush, giving it a solid and unbroken forest canopy when viewed from the upper floors of the high-rise luxury hotel immediately adjacent to it.
Even in midwinter, the trees and other growth are thick enough to obscure the center of the park's wooded section both from above and from the park's outermost sections and drives; the height of the hillside plus a massive retaining wall of ancient, dark stone helps do the same for the view from the road that defines Shiba Park's southern edge. The hilly paths and slopes of the park have no lights, making their depths all but impossible to see after dark. And after dark in midwinter there was no one in the park to even try.
Thus when, one February night an hour after sunset, a pinpoint of light appeared in midair over one of the more level sections near the center of the park, and expanded to a disk of black ringed by a rainbow, no one witnessed it, although traffic and pedestrians streamed by only a few dozen meters away. And no one noticed the long, futuristic motorcycle that shot out from it, either, or the unconscious man strapped to its saddle as it flew not quite half a meter off the ground.
As the black-and-rainbow disk vanished behind it, the motorcycle deftly avoided both the edge of a small cliff and a largish outcropping of rock before coming to a halt, humming softly in the dark.
I woke up in the cold and dark, amidst trees and rocks. Nearby traffic noise and a low-flying jet overhead reassured me that I hadn't gated into the middle of a wilderness — or worse, an empty Earth. After a few moments spent waking completely up and shaking off my disorientation, I popped my helmet's headlamps and looked around. To my surprise, I actually recognized where I was: Shiba Park in Minato, Tokyo, just a couple of blocks from Beta team's "embassy". While I had never actually been formally assigned to Beta, I had worked out of their headquarters in Tokyo more than once. Those times where I had been there for more than a day or so, I'd visited Shiba Park to relax whenever I needed it but didn't have time to do anything fancier or further away.
I thought about that for a moment, then engaged the stealth suite and went vertical.
At about five hundred meters I stopped and hovered, slowly turning in place to take in the entire vista. It was more or less the same Tokyo skyline I was used to. There were a couple buildings I didn't recognize, and a couple I expected to see that weren't there. So, probably not Homeline. Just to make sure, I drifted over to where Beta's HQ should be and found an office tower instead of the Regency-style compound I was used to seeing in that location. Nope. Not Homeline at all.
Damn. But a man can hope, can't he?
And after 75-odd years of searching, would it be too much to ask for?
Anyway, if you've been reading enough of these accounts of mine, you should know the drill by this point. I sold some of my trade goods at a 24-hour pawn shop for enough cash to cover room and board for a day or two. I found a cheap place to crash in the flophouse district in Sanya, about 16 kilometers north of Akasaka, got a meal at an okonomiyaki-ya around the corner from it, and then called it a night.
The next morning I grabbed some breakfast, then while everyone else in Tokyo went to work or school, I headed back to Shiba Park under full stealth. I sat myself and my motorcycle in the center of the little clearing where I woke up, and after zeroing out the "tried" field in the table of candidates in my helmet's database I picked the next song in the rotation and attempted to open a gate to move on.
No luck, not that I expected to hit the right song on the first try after all these years. But I did learn from the feedback I got that this was one of those universes where I needed to exit from the same point where I arrived. Which meant I needed to find a place to live nearby until I found the right song.
(Well, okay, I didn't, not with my bike and its stealth suite. But why travel any more than I had to?)
On my way back to my flop I picked up a couple of newspapers at a newsstand, and found a bookstore where I could get a World Almanac. If I was going to be here longer than a day, I needed once again to learn how to blend in with the locals.
Back at Chez Roach, I set the books and papers aside and went through my supplies. I didn't need to dig out any more trade goods — in a pleasant surprise, one of my stockpiles of Japanese currency from a previous world turned out to be functionally identical to the local cash. Better yet, it came from a Japan which had a more inflated economy than this timeline did, so not only did I have a lot of it, it would go much further here. But even with that advantage I still needed a job and a better place to live, so I dug out an American passport and a few other bits of paperwork I had left over from yet another timeline, with which to begin the process of faking up a local identity.
I used what points of similarity there were between this world and Homeline (not to mention all the other Japans in my experience, which were on the whole a much better match to this world) to find someone who could create a good fake ID. This of course meant dealing with the local Yakuza in the process. I was never really comfortable with that, but it was either deal with the Minato-kai or get by without paperwork that would pass — and I needed the paperwork. It took a week and almost a quarter of my cash on hand, but I got it.
In the meantime I began to familiarize myself with the local history and current events, starting with the earthquake that had struck Tokyo about 36 hours before my arrival. No deaths and only minor damage, but they still had need of clean-up crews — for the first couple of days volunteering gave me something more to do with myself than sit in my room and read history until my fake ID was done. It also kept me in contact with the Minato-kai, who (true to the public image they liked to maintain) were helping with the disaster relief. And once every 24 hours I went back to Shiba Park and tried to open a gate.
When the week was up and I had my newly-forged ID and documentation, I was finally able to move out of the flophouse where I had been staying. It only took a couple of days to find an unfurnished 12-jo 1K in Motoazabu whose landlord would rent to a gaijin and which had off-street parking for my motorcycle. The off-street parking was actually harder to find than willingness to rent to me (not that it was very hard at all); in this timeline, like many others (but not at home), the Azabu area was one of the neighborhoods popular with foreigners who lived and worked in Tokyo. As such it was far more multicultural than other parts of the city, but it was also a fair bit more expensive than, say, Nerima, Hiroo or Meguro.
At a little over 75,000 yen a month, my rent was a bit high but not outrageous. I was paying a higher base rate from just being in Azabu, as well as a bit of a premium for being close to the shopping district. My place was in a newer apartment building of the type called a "mansion" (and it was nowhere as luxurious as that might make you think), which also added a bit to the price. It helped my budget, though, that this version of Japan had been in a recession for about two years at that point, and housing prices had been coming down.
Six weeks later, I had a fully furnished apartment, a larger library, a license on my motorcycle, a first-generation cell phone, no luck in finding a gate out, and a job with a video game development company that called itself "Hudson Soft" despite their completely Japanese origin and management. And my life had settled down into a pleasant routine in which I rotated through work, sleep, gate attempts, and appreciating life in this version of Azabu by both day and night.
Naturally, it couldn't last.
Friday, March 20, 1992, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Aino Minako stood in front of her bedroom window and gazed out blankly over the house across the street and lights of the neighborhood beyond. Nestled in her arms was a white cat with an unusual mark on its head — a golden crescent, points up, right over its eyes. It looked up at her with an uncommon intelligence in its worried gaze as she absently stroked its fur.
"What do I do now, Artemis?" she murmured. "The Dark Agency is gone — with Danburite defeated, they've completely vanished. The only trace left of them is the normal people they had working for them, and they're all out of jobs."
"The Enemy hasn't been permanently banished, Minako," the cat replied. It spoke in perfectly normal Japanese, its voice improbably that of an adult human male. "Sooner or later they'll be back."
"I know, Artemis, I know," she replied, glancing down. "But until then?"
Artemis quirked his mouth into a very human smile. "When I first awoke your powers, I told you that you were to fight evil wherever you found it. The Enemy certainly isn't the only evil in the world, you know."
Minako's melancholy evaporated as she visibly perked up. "You're right! Even without the Dark Agency around the world still needs Sailor V!" She flung up her hand to point dramatically out the window, and Artemis found himself unceremoniously dropped to the floor. "Beware, evildoers! The beautiful guardian Sailor V will punish you! For with great power comes great reprehensibility!"
"Responsibility, Mina-chan," Artemis muttered.
Monday, March 23, 1992, Tokyo Head Office of the Asahi Shimbun, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Jitsuha Yoshi ground out the stub of his cigarette in the ashtray next to his keyboard, then retrieved and lit another. As he took a long, slow drag on it he leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling, pondering the future. Two years of following Sailor V's activities across the city — and occasionally around the world — had resulted in a wildly popular series of articles that had been profitable for both the newspaper and himself.
Yoshi knew he couldn't have stumbled across more than a fraction of what she'd been up to, but what he had found and reported on had been enough to resurrect his career from the dead end into which it had been spiraling before 1990. The Lifestyles section was a slow death for a former war correspondent with twenty years' experience, and not even the Americans' Gulf War had rescued him. But Sailor V had.
There had been something about a 12-year-old superheroine which had fascinated the Japanese people, and they'd taken to her like they had taken to Tetsuwan Atom or Tetsujin Nijuhachi-go. More than once he'd wished he could come up with a way to get a cut of the profits from all the toys, manga and video games that had exploited her image and her popularity, but most of the time he was content with just having gone from Lifestyles crap back to the front page.
That reminded him — he never had found out who was behind that Sailor V arcade game. All he'd been able to determine was that it hadn't been one of the big names. He made a mental note to start digging into that again.
Yoshi took another long drag of his cigarette and after holding it for a moment blew the smoke back out in a long, thin jet that reached the ceiling above his cubicle and spread out across the acoustic tile. He'd seen enough to know that Sailor V wasn't out there just stopping muggers and perverts — she'd also been fighting someone, some kind of organization. That much he'd been able to deduce over the past two years, and more than once he'd come tantalizingly close to finding out who they were and what they were up to.
But something had changed just a couple of weeks ago. Yoshi wasn't sure what, but everything he could get from his street contacts suggested it had been big. For several weeks Sailor V's general crimefighting — and thus her usual newsworthy activities — had all but ceased. But she'd still been briefly seen, here and there, engaged in battles with an unknown opposition far closer to her level than the usual street trash. There wasn't enough to really report on, but what there was suggested to him that she may well have been fighting something akin to a war, somewhere in the shadows.
And then... nothing. She'd been seen, but the threat level of her opposition was back down to the occasional mugger.
Could she have finally taken down her enemies, whoever they were? The rumors and leads he'd collected pointed that way, but he needed more to be sure. And if he was right... well, he might not have been able to unmask them while they had been active, but nothing should stand in the way of that now.
He couldn't help but wonder, though — if she really had finally defeated her secret enemy, what was going to be next for Sailor V?
Wednesday, March 25, 1992, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Tsukino Usagi lay on her stomach on her bed, her chin propped up on her hands and her white-sock-clad feet kicking idly in the air. Spread out before her were half a dozen manga she had been looking forward to reading now that the school year was over, but she paid them no attention. Hanami was here and according to the sakura-zensen the best day for a picnic was only a week away!
She rolled onto her back and hugged herself as she imagined all the great food her mom would make for their picnic. She managed not to squeal in delighted anticipation. Hanami, and then ninth grade, and then her birthday... and maybe she'd finally grow taller than 150 centimeters, and get a boyfriend... and then she'd share stories about kissing him with Naru and they'd sigh and...
This time she really did squeal. This was going to be the best year ever!
63rd Day of the Fifth Greater Cycle of Darkness in the 10,014th Year of Exile, The Palace of Beryl, the Dark Kingdom
The chamber that served as the throne room of the once-human being known as Queen Beryl, like many throne rooms over many centuries, was large and intended to intimidate. Unlike most of its earthly counterparts, though, it was in no way ostentatious, for its owner saw no need for displays of wealth or taste. Not when power was the only coin which she and her people valued.
In fact, the chamber was stark in its simplicity — little more than a dome-like cave in the blue rock of the Dark Kingdom, deep below the stark and angular palace that sat upon the plateau in which it was located. She had excavated and finished it by the application of her will and power ten millennia earlier, intending it not as an audience chamber or a court, but as what humans centuries later would come to call a parade ground: a place to hold all her subjects when she desired to inspect or address them — the tens of thousands of youma which had been banished with her to this twilit half-world she had named the Dark Kingdom.
There was only one entrance to the massive room, diametrically opposite the raised dais on which rested the throne which Beryl had sculpted for herself as a dark reflection of Serenity's long-gone throne on the Moon. The lines of its broad armrests looked almost like natural flows of stone, but the immense, hideous caricature surmounting it, with its bulging eyes and needle-like teeth, was anything but. Any who sought to approach it had to cross the chamber's great expanse of floor along a path demarked by tall slender pillars supporting pale glowing orbs that lit the huge room, dwarfed by its size and always in the sight of the throne's occupant.
On that dark throne sat Queen Beryl, who had fought to free Earth and its prince, Endymion, from the clutches of the Moon Kingdom, and had been rewarded for her success with exile. In one hand she held the slender shaft of her scepter, in which was mounted her obsidian scrying stone. Often the scepter floated before her as she gazed into the stone's depths, watching over her subjects and ensuring their loyalty, but at this moment other matters concerned her.
Forming a ring along the edges of the great dome this day were her most elite combat forces, twelve companies of hunter-killer youma, in loose ranks five deep. They were as well-disciplined as youma could be, which was far less than equally elite human troops would have been, Beryl had to admit to herself. But what they may have lacked in decorum they more than made up for in their savagery in combat. Millennia of pitting them against one another had not only maintained their prowess, but had honed it to a razor's edge — a necessity given the realities of the day. Ten thousand years earlier, Beryl had had millions of the demonic creatures under her command, enough to overwhelm the forces of both Earth and the rest of the Solar System combined. Despite how skilled and powerful humanity's defenders had been, they had been defeated by sheer weight of numbers.
Even ten millennia ago, quantity had had a quality all its own.
But though her attack on the Moon Kingdom and the whores who had ruled it had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, the cost to her forces had been immense. And when that bitch Serenity's final strike had blasted her into this interstitial hellhole of a pocket dimension, only a bare fraction of Beryl's surviving forces had been carried along with her.
Beryl took some dark pleasure in knowing that she had done so much damage to the solar system that there had been no forces left that could stand against the youma which had not been caught up in the banishment. It was almost the only pleasure she could take at the memory, for her beloved Endymion had died defending the harlot of a princess who had bewitched him, and the Earth that should have been hers to rule had fallen like the rest of the Solar System to the rampaging, unrestrained youma of her abandoned armies.
But worst of all, despite ending the line of Serenity and utterly destroying the Moon Kingdom and all its puppet states, she had still been unable to fulfill her side of the bargain which had gained her the forces with which she had accomplished all this. At the very moment of complete victory, not only had Beryl and her armies been banished into this prison world, but also Metaria, the dark entity who had been her patron. Metaria had had its own reasons to see the Moon Kingdom fallen, but as long as Beryl had Earth and Endymion she didn't care what they were. It had been an alliance of mutual benefit.
But with their exile whatever benefit Metaria had sought to gain from Beryl's campaign had been denied to it — and it was most displeased. Or at least it had been, before a lack of energy had forced it into torpor. And Beryl's ambition to rule the Earth with Endymion at her side had been similarly thwarted. So, for ten thousand years she had sat upon her throne, pitting her best youma against each other to maintain their strength and their edge, waiting for the chance to escape the prison she had made into her Kingdom and return to the world that was hers by right of conquest, there to finally complete the bargain she had made with Metaria so long ago.
And that chance was now here.
This day four figures stood at attention before her, in the dress uniform of a military force long dead: severely-cut jackets and trousers that under Earth's sun would have shown their true colors — royal blue trimmed in red — but under the shimmering magelights of her throne room became a violet so pale it was almost grey, trimmed with a brown-red precisely the color of dried human blood. These four men, the Shitennou, had been her first successes, long ago when she had begun moving covertly against the Moon Queen — they had been the friends, advisors and chief generals of her beloved Endymion, the Prince of Earth, and with means both magical and mundane she had corrupted them and turned them to her cause. Even now, ten millennia later, their loyalty to her had never wavered.
"What news, my generals?" Beryl demanded.
One — the tallest of the four, with proud, aristocratic features and gently curling brown hair that hung past his shoulders — bowed to her. "With your permission, Majesty?"
Beryl inclined her head toward him. "Speak, Nephrite."
Nephrite stood up straight and brushed his hair back across his shoulders. "I have good news, Majesty. Although Danburite's defeat has resulted in the collapse of his 'Dark Agency', we no longer need to rely on such subterfuge. The stars have finally aligned to favor us, and with the energy he gathered the passage to the human world has been stabilized enough that it will allow us to travel to Earth." He gestured to himself and the other three Shitennou.
"Go on," Beryl said.
"Now that it has," Nephrite continued, "we may finally go to the human world in person and take immediate control of our operations. We can also bring more powerful youma through the passage, and begin to act more directly. It then becomes a self-reinforcing cycle — as we harvest more life energy, we can widen the passage, permitting us to bring more youma through, with which to gather more energy." He offered a small smile that was just shy of smug. "Until the passage has finally been made large enough and stable enough to allow all our forces to return to Earth."
Beryl nodded slowly. "Excellent news, Nephrite. However, we must not forget that we need energy to awaken and empower Metaria as well. We must dedicate to Metaria's revival every bit we harvest which is not essential to maintaining and expanding the path to the human world. To this end, our forces there are to be instructed to seek out the talisman of our ancient enemy — the Ginzuishou. It had power enough to build an empire, and power enough to seal us away when we had finally triumphed over its wielder. It will have more than enough to restore our great ruler." And once we wake that monster up and get it back to Earth, I can finally get myself free of that damned agreement, Beryl added silently.
"Indeed..." Nephrite looked off into the distance as he considered this. "And it must be free for us to take, as our agents within the human world report none who rule with its power. I would not have thought of that possibility, but yes, the gem would seek out the worthy among the survivors on Earth instead of lying dormant on the surface of the Moon." He bowed again. "And who is worthier of its power than you, Majesty?"
"Who indeed?" she replied dryly. "Jadeite."
Another of the Shitennou stepped forward — this one with short blond hair and an arrogant sneer that vanished when he turned his eyes to his queen. "Yes, Your Majesty?"
She studied him with half-lidded eyes for a moment. "Danburite was your lieutenant. Now that the way to Earth will permit your passage, you will go immediately and take direct command of the Asia-Pacific campaign." Beryl almost smirked at the thought of using the current era's name for the region. She flicked her glance, snakelike, over the other Shitennou. "And you three as well — you have your responsibilities; I want you on Earth guiding them personally from now on. It is no longer sufficient to leave these vital operations in the hands of your pitifully weak underlings. Sailor V has disrupted our efforts too many times now — she cannot be permitted to do so any further."
"Yes, your Majesty," the four chorused.
Beryl waved a hand. "Go then. You are dismissed."
The Shitennou bowed, then left the chamber.
As the youma ringing the room shifted restively in their ranks, Beryl set her scepter floating before her and stared into the reflections glinting off the inactive scrying sphere. The Earth on the other side of the passage was not the one she had known ten thousand years earlier. From the return of the first youma scouts dispatched through it upon its discovery, that had been obvious.
Oh, the map was the same — Mu, Atalante, Hyperborea and the rest of the continents were still more-or-less where they had been, give or take a land-bridge or isthmus. The ice caps were much smaller, but that wasn't of any concern to Beryl — she had always liked the warmer climes anyway.
Yes, the map was the same — but the civilizations squatting upon it weren't. The four great nations which had jointly formed the Earth Kingdom at the height of the Silver Millennium — the nations she had sought to rule with Endymion at her side — were gone, replaced by a patchwork of several hundred squabbling little states, constantly at each other's throats. It was perhaps too much to hope for that they would have been waiting in anticipation of her return to take her rightful place as their ruler, but the youma left behind had clearly done their jobs far too well and destroyed all vestiges of civilization in the solar system, instead of just most of them.
Oh well. Still, the intelligence from Earth had required her to alter her plans — for the worse and better at the same time. Conquering one tiny nation after another would be tedious, but it would be easier to subvert and seize control of them one at a time. And their almost universal mutual antipathy would prevent them from coming to one another's aid as she drove her forces across the face of the globe.
Better yet, with the end of the great nations came the loss of all knowledge of magic, leaving her Dark Kingdom the only practitioners of that art left in the solar system. And history had long shown that when one side had magic and the other didn't, the one that didn't always went down in defeat. Always.
And once that was done, and Metaria had been satisfied and shown the door, the Earth would be hers. Forever.
Beryl began to chuckle to herself at the thought of the Earth at her feet, then threw back her head and laughed loud and long.
Monday, March 30, 1992, Midtown Tower, Akasaka, Tokyo.
I made a profound discovery today. This world had metahumans.
Well, a metahuman.
I was just getting into the office, about quarter of nine, and my cubemate — a fellow by the name of Soichiro — was polishing off a cup of tea while reading his morning paper. "Good morning!" I said with a smile as I set my briefcase on my desk and opened it up.
"Good morning, Sangnoir-kun," Soichiro replied absently. He held up the paper and then asked, "Have you seen the news this morning? Sailor V's reappeared — she stopped a robbery right here in Akasaka last night."
I stopped unpacking my briefcase and looked at him. "Sailor who?"
He looked up from his tea and paper. "Oh, that's right, you haven't been in Japan for long — you wouldn't've heard of her, would you? Sailor V is Tokyo's own super-powered crimefighter."
"You don't say," I replied with an innocently bemused expression on my face. Inside, though, I was going nuts — nothing I'd read in the past few weeks — encyclopedias, the World Almanac, nothing — had mentioned anything that even hinted at the presence of metahumans on this earth. "Super-powers? Really?"
Soichiro nodded vigorously. "Oh yes! She has some kind of energy beam power, and she's faster and stronger than a grown man, and oh! Right! There's pictures of her hopping from roof to roof across the city."
Well. That certainly sounded like a metahuman — or maybe someone with a good exoskeleton system. "Wow. Can I see your paper when you're finished?"
"Sure. Here," he said, folding it up and handing it to me. "I'm done with it."
"Thanks," I murmured as I took it from him and then settled in at my desk. I unfolded it — it was the morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun — and began to look for the article on this "Sailor V". I found it quickly enough — front page, below the fold — and read it quickly. Like Soichiro had said, she'd foiled a robbery at a convenience store — a 7-Eleven if you can believe it, over near Shibakoen — and then hung around long enough to sign autographs and get some ice cream. Almost as an aside, the article mentioned that she'd dropped out of sight for several weeks, with her last known appearance being not long before I'd arrived. Which explained why I hadn't heard of her before now.
After going through the article twice, I spent some time studying the black-and-white photo — credited as a "stock" pic — which accompanied it. It was a daytime action shot of a girl with hair lighter than the Japanese norm, apparently in her early teens, wearing an outfit resembling an abbreviated sailor-suit school uniform mostly in blue and white; her face was far blurrier than it should have been, even given her obvious movement when it was taken.
After work I ran over to the Akasaka Library, which was several blocks and fifteen or so minutes' walk north-ish of Hudson Soft's offices. I grabbed a bite on the way, and then spent the next couple of hours doing a dive through their back copies of the Asahi Shimbun and a few other local periodicals. All the Tokyo papers acknowledged her activities, although some seemed to disapprove of her, and at least one treated her like silly season fodder. However, between them all there were more than enough photos — as well as the occasional film or video footage — to verify that she did in fact exist, and that she probably wasn't a hoax.
If she wasn't a hoax — and I have come across a few over the years and worlds — then she had to be one of the youngest metagifted vigilantes I'd ever seen. The latest pics of her made her look to be about 14, maybe 15 at the most, but the very first news stories about her were from two years earlier — and the photos accompanying them showed a correspondingly younger Sailor V, with more than a few comments on her youth. Gods alone knew how long she'd actually been operating before the news media had noticed her. Especially given the schoolgirl-fetish-look outfit she wore, which made it pretty clear to me she wasn't using any kind of power armor this world's bleeding edge tech could even imagine.
The idea of a consistently successful and competent 12-year-old metahuman vig completely boggled my mind.
And she wasn't just busting muggers and stick-up artists — she'd been spotted fighting ... things ... that were on the same level as her, powerwise. And she'd survived at least two years at it.
Oh, yeah, and she was doing all this more or less in the same part of Tokyo that I'd chosen to live in. What a co-inky-dink.
It's "coincidences" like that which make me wonder if Marller and her sisters are watching — and manipulating — my travels.
Anyway, while it was entirely possible that she was unique, a one-off sport, I was willing to bet that there were or would be others. She might not even be the first in this world — gods knew Homeline had had the odd metahuman popping up here and there for centuries (if not millennia) before the Metahuman Explosion of 1929. I couldn't help but wonder if I were in place to see the start of a similar explosion in this world.
Part of me actually wanted to head out and try to find her. I don't know why — maybe for the first chance I'd had in a while to "talk shop" with another metahuman? Who knows? I quashed the impulse when no really compelling reason made itself known to me. Let the girl have her privacy. Besides, what would I do? Hover over the city on my bike watching for her to appear on a rooftop? Rig a spotlight to cast a "V" onto a cloud and wait for her to investigate? Let's be serious.
As I left the library and walked back to where I'd left my bike parked at the Midtown Tower, I looked up to the night sky above me, and tried to pick out a few stars. But not even the narrow crescent of the almost-new moon was visible between the office towers and the light pollution of downtown Tokyo. I sighed and was about to give up entirely when I spotted a meteor, bright and close-seeming, lancing down from the zenith to vanish behind the artificial horizon of the skyscrapers.
For a moment I was tempted to make a wish on the falling star. But I had only one wish, and I was pretty sure it wasn't going to be granted any time soon.
Still half-dazed from the effects of suspended animation, Luna of the Mau reflexively pawed the blinking panel. With a gentle hiss, the capsule in which she'd slept while orbiting the earth for some ten thousand years opened like a flower around her. Acting more from instinct than intelligence she stumbled out of the capsule and staggered across the smoking patch of brush and grass which surrounded it, stopping only when she had hidden herself under a dense evergreen bush. Only then did she turn around to fix her red eyes on the battered and seared magical construct which had carried her so far into the future.
As if waiting for the moment she looked at it, the capsule — less a physical object than a coherent structure of magic — finally released the last of its fading energy. It vanished, and a tiny shockwave of mystic power swept across the ground around it, erasing the damage its arrival from space had wrought. Luna barely flinched when the magic rolled over and through her. With it came a voice in her mind, a voice she knew well and, from her point of view, had last heard only a few minutes before:
Find my daughter in her new life. Find my Guardians in theirs. Make sure they're ready. The seal I placed on the Great Enemy will not last forever. I have arranged for you, my trusted adviser, to arrive near where they will be reborn, at least a decade before I expect the seal to break. This will give you the time to locate and train them. Goodbye, dear Luna, I have the greatest faith in you.
That's right, Luna fuzzily recalled. That's why I'm here. To find the Princess. The black cat turned and began to make her way carefully through the underbrush, carried forward by the importance of her mission. "Find the Princess," she repeated aloud, then froze in place as a horrible realization came upon her.
"Find the Princess. But..." She looked up plaintively at the moonless sky. "I can't remember what she looks like!" she yowled.
Several hours later, Luna had found herself both shelter and food, and had had time to consider her situation. While it wasn't quite the worst-case scenario — that would have been a toss-up between not having survived at all and arriving after the seal on the Enemy's prison had begun giving way — it certainly wasn't anywhere close to ideal. At least the capsule had properly implanted the local language — "Japanese", it was called — in her mind, judging by the bits of conversations she'd overheard while skulking through the utterly alien city in which she'd landed.
Sadly, that may have been the only positive in matters as they now stood. To her stunned horror, Luna had discovered that the Princess's face wasn't the only thing she couldn't remember. There were gaps in her memory — terrifyingly large ones where entire swaths of her life had seemingly been erased. Other parts had been rendered foggy and indistinct, devoid of anything more than the odd detail, which wasn't much better.
There was no doubt it was the result of enduring coldsleep for thousands of years longer than anyone else she'd ever heard of. Luna could remember the Queen, thank the gods, and the charge she'd been given. She could remember the Great Enemy in broad strokes — their composition, their abilities, their weaknesses — but their leadership, which she should have known, was a blank.
Worryingly, the Royal Guardians were almost as much of a blank to her. Luna was fairly certain she'd recognize them upon encountering them, but trying to recall anything specific now seemed doomed to failure; at best she could pull up a hazy image of a uniform or a hair style. Complicating matters, she couldn't even remember exactly how many there were — surely there had been one for each inhabited world, but in her damaged recollections the numbers never seemed to tally up right. Five? Eight? Eleven? When she checked she found only a handful of empowerment items in her storage space, along with several other artifacts of varying power, but she was certain there had been more Royal Guardians than that. Had the number of Guardians sworn to the Queen changed during Luna's lifetime and she just couldn't remember? Could she not have empowerment items for all the Guardians who had been sent forward?
That thought panicked her for a moment. Without a custom catalyst to carry a Royal Guardian through her initial levels of empowerment, she would be little more than a normal human. Otherwise it would take a mage on the order of the Queen's power to wake them to their potential. And if her perambulations over the past few hours were any indication, one thing this strange future world seemed to lack was mages of any power at all.
Compulsively, she rechecked her storage space. The selection was the same, and just random enough to make her wonder if she'd lost any of its contents during her long sleep. Wands for Mercury, Mars and Jupiter — if, as seemed possible from the set, the Royal Guardians represented only the inner planets, why didn't she have wands for Venus or Earth? They were planets, too. And the Moon-themed brooch — that had to be for the Moon's Guardian, right?
Something about that last conclusion bothered her, but she dismissed her misgivings as the product of her damaged memory. Of course the Moon had had a Guardian of its own. It was — had been — the greatest political and magical power in the Solar System. How could it not have had its own Royal Guardian?
There in the dry drainpipe in which she had taken shelter for the night, Luna nodded decisively to herself. Yes. And the Moon's Guardian was of course the leader of the entire team, as would be dictated by the Moon's prominence in the Solar System and indicated by the unique empowerment brooch in her cache. It would be she whom Luna would seek out first. And with her help they would find the other Royal Guardians, and then... the princess.
"Sailor Moon," Luna whispered, the sound of the title in the modern human language strange and unfamiliar on her lips, "I will find you."
Tuesday, March 31, 1992
Luna woke from a fitful, nightmare-wracked sleep, stretched, and ventured out of the drainpipe. Her stomach reminded her that she hadn't had anything to eat since scavenging some familiar-smelling fish from a garbage bin early the previous evening. I'll need to get something to eat, but first things first — locate the Moon's Guardian. Once I know in which direction to search, I can find a breakfast on my way.
Luna had held many roles in Serenity's court over the years — political adviser, etiquette instructor, even an admiral of the fleets for a while — but one thing she wasn't was a mage. Even so, she had a good layman's working knowledge of magic, enough to perform a simple scan.
Luna cautiously padded out into the culvert onto which the drainpipe opened, keeping an eye out for both unwanted observers and possible predators. Once she had an unobstructed view of the sky above she stopped and closed her eyes before opening her mage senses.
With a screech she slammed them shut a moment later, and dashed back into the drainpipe, where she sat shivering for several minutes before she could form a coherent thought again.
The Enemy — they're here already!
The traces were faint and indistinct, but they were everywhere, in every direction — youma were in this city now, and had been for weeks, maybe even months. Long enough that the cumulative effect of their presence on the local magic field was strong enough to blur their exact positions. How had Her Majesty made such a critical error?
Logic asserted itself a moment later as Luna began to recover from the shock. From the perspective of ten thousand years ago, Queen Serenity's assessment of the lifespan of the seal on the Enemy was eerily accurate — and her targeting of Luna's arrival had been almost as accurate; she'd arrived at practically the moment it had failed. However, from the view of Luna's mission, it had been horribly wrong. Instead of a decade, she now had at most a few months to take an undisciplined band of completely untrained young women and turn them into a squad of magical warriors.
Oh, dear gods. Luna was suddenly seized by a terrifying thought. What if my arrival isn't the only thing that's been mistimed? What if the Royal Guardians are too young to train? What if they're infants still? What if they're in their dotages?
At least they were here and alive. That much she'd been able to determine in the moments before she'd realized what the dark taint on the area's energies meant. Somewhere to the south of her were at least four auras of profound power, maybe more. It was hard for her to be certain at that range, but she was sure there were at least three good candidates for reincarnated Royal Guardians. Two of the auras were especially powerful — enough to partly obscure the weaker signatures in their vicinity. One tasted clearly of Moon power — it had to be Sailor Moon. The other, though... it was different from the rest. A mage of some sort, to be sure — and the first evidence she'd seen that this future world had any magic users at all — but not a Guardian.
Luna dismissed the mage. The aura lacked any kind of dark taint, so they were unaffiliated with the youma. The part of her mind honed by her years as an admiral suggested it might be a potential ally, but she viciously suppressed the impulse. She didn't have the time to vet and groom an unknown into a trusted ally, not in a city and world that was utterly alien to her. The only forces she could be sure of were those who originated in the Silver Millennium. And speaking of which...
She took a long, deep breath, steeled herself, and crept out of the drainpipe. Somewhere to the south was Sailor Moon. And Luna would find her.
Minako dropped to the ground at the end of the alleyway and released her transformation. Then she spread her arms, spun about and laughed for the sheer joy of it.
"Did you enjoy chasing off a jewel thief that much, Mina-chan?" Artemis asked after making his way down to ground level after her.
She turned a broad, almost manic grin on the white cat. "C'mon, Artemis, weren't you the one telling me to defeat ordinary human evil? After fighting the Dark Agency for all these months, getting to beat up ordinary crooks is like a vacation. Or a game, even!"
Artemis frowned minutely. "Don't forget that the Enemy is still out there. Just because the Dark Agency is destroyed, don't think they're defeated."
Minako rolled her eyes. "Of course I know they're still out there. You don't stop reminding me! But I'll worry about them when they come back out of whatever dark little hole they're hiding in." She spun around and laughed again. "Hiding because the utterly amazing Sailor V kicked their butts harder than anyone has ever kicked butts before!"
"Mina-chan!" the cat scolded.
"Oh, lighten up, Artemis!" Minako strode confidently out toward the street. As she stepped out of the alley, she very carefully didn't think about Phantom Ace, with whom she'd fallen in love, and the heartbreak of discovering he was really Danburite, the leader of the Dark Agency. Or about the curse he had claimed was upon her. Thinking that way led to crying at midnight, and depression, and all kinds of other nasty, icky things that a good hero didn't do.
Instead Minako focused on how much more fun things had become since then. Smacking down a mugger here or stopping a hold-up there, it was a welcome respite. Even something like tonight, where she'd fought an unusually capable thief to a standstill while thwarting his attempt to rob a jewelry store, was more exhilarating than exhausting.
"So what was up with that guy, anyway, Artemis?" she asked as she looked up and down the street. "What kind of thief goes around in a tuxedo and top hat, wearing a mask? Well, actually, a mask makes sense for a crook, for the same reason I wear one. But criminals shouldn't be as smart as heroes. And they shouldn't wear formalwear to their crimes. That's just silly."
"Yes, Mina-chan." The cat gave a long-suffering sigh. Minako glanced down at him and grinned before stopping in front of a convenience store.
She deserved a reward, and there was no better reward than ice cream.
Wednesday, April 1, 1992, 8:21 AM
Luna yowled in outrage as the band of small boys held her down. She felt more than saw the bandages they placed over Serenity's Mark, the golden crescent moon upon her forehead; in the last moments before her command of human language was stripped from her, she caught enough of their babble to realize that they had mistaken it for a wound.
There was a shout, and she was released. Dazed and disoriented, Luna shook her head and tried to gather her thoughts. She heard a female voice, and then a Presence surrounded her. Power and magic and purity, all so intense that Luna did not need to force her mage senses open to detect it. Overwhelmed to the point that even her physical senses were clouded with its strength, Luna froze long enough for the Presence to scoop her up, at which she panicked and struggled in its grip.
There was a painful pull upon the fur of her head, and then Serenity's Mark was revealed once more. The power of human language came rushing back into her mind, and with it also came the realization that she knew this impossibly powerful aura.
Luna went still and stared into huge blue eyes, surrounded by blonde hair.
It was her.
Luna twisted, dropped, and then leaped to the top of a nearby car to study the girl for a few moments. She looks to be in her early teens... Not ideal — it would've been better if she'd been a bit younger — but it's far better than the alternative. She spun about and ran off, leaving the surprised girl blinking in her wake. I'm going to need a better understanding of her daily life and obligations, Luna thought as she dashed along the streets. I'll have to work around family, and school, and Serenity knows what else. I'll need a couple more days to observe her, and to get a better feel for this city and this culture, before I approach her.
As she slowed Luna began to pay attention to her surroundings. I'll also need somewhere closer to shelter for the night.
Wednesday, April 1, 1992, 10:50 AM
I was hip-deep in laying out the graphics for the third-stage midlevel boss of "Soldier Blade" when I felt it — a pulse of distant magic. And not happy flowers-and-puppies magic, but something so dark I could all but feel the taint of it dripping like sludge off it and onto me. I stopped my coding and concentrated on the sensation, which had already peaked and was starting to fade. It felt like a transit effect of some sort, either a teleport or a gate, and it was still strong enough that I could get a general bearing on it — not quite south, not quite south-southwest, but somewhere in between.
I grimaced as the pulse finished fading away to nothing. That was pretty much the direction in which my apartment building lay. Knowing my luck (not to mention the complete lack of coincidences in my life, thanks to certain Fate-shaped entities who claim to like me), whatever had caused that pulse would end up being practically on my front step. And it wasn't going to be good, not with that sensation of utter filth that had laced it. As for what had caused it, my best guess was that whatever Sailor V's non-human opposition had been, they were back after taking a break for a few weeks.
Assuming that they hadn't just gated in Godzilla or its demonic cousin, I was going to have to walk around the neighborhood tonight looking for nasties.
The wave of dark magic almost knocked Luna out of her perch in a tree by the school building where Sailor Moon was currently napping in class. The Enemy! They're moving! she thought as she shot up from where she had laid sprawled in the fork of a branch, then scrambled to keep from falling. By the time she'd recovered, the wave had passed, and she had no idea what direction it had come from. But it had been close... somewhere within five kilometers or so, no more, she was sure of it. All the more reason to approach and awaken Sailor Moon.
Luna shot a disapproving look at the girl who was gently snoring even as her teacher loomed threateningly over her. Hopefully she would be more interested in magic and combat than academics.
Thursday, April 2, 1992, 6:05 PM
"I'm home!" he called out as he closed the door behind him and listened to it latch shut in the quiet of the house. As he removed his shoes and put on his slippers, he heard her soft footsteps down the hall.
"Papa!" his daughter cried and held out her arms to him. He hopped lightly up the stairs into the hall proper and wrapped her slight, sickly frame in his embrace. "And how is my little firefly?" he murmured into her hair as he kissed the top of her head.
"Better now that you're home," she mumbled into his chest.
"Don't forget, Daddy's still working on making you well," Souichi Tomoe earnestly promised. He pushed his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose, sending a glint of reflected light around the hall. In just a few more weeks, he would be able to summon Mistress Nine to merge with Hotaru. He resisted the urge to burst into maniacal laughter, settling for sharing a toothy grin with Kaolinite, who had closely followed behind the child.
Just a few more weeks.
Friday, April 3, 1992, 7:50 PM
After so many years in so many different versions of Japan, I am equally comfortable with both Western and Japanese furnishings. As a result, the decor of my apartment was a somewhat random mix of both, encouraged both by the way the building catered to Westerners and by the eclectic, multicultural mix of stores in the Azabujuban shopping district just a few blocks away.
This meant I had both a kotatsu and a comfortable armchair (two, in fact), and even a beanbag chair which I kept slung into a corner until it was needed. I'd actually had a few co-workers over already, so it wasn't like I was just buying furniture to look at — I had entertained (once), which as far as I was concerned justified the purchase.
Anyway, TGIF and I was settling into my armchair with a book after cleaning up from a satisfying meal made up of leftovers from dinners earlier in the week. I'd been in this world now for two months, and had given in to the temptation to start getting comfortable. I might find a gate song tomorrow or ten months from now, but there's no reason I shouldn't relax until then.
Of course, it would be better if the world had no meta-level threats, but you can't have everything. Whatever had caused that pulse of tainted magic two days earlier hadn't shown its head since then, but I figured it was only a matter of time. I had spent Wednesday evening walking around the shopping district — my best guess for its "ground zero" — but the pulse had left enough of a residue behind that the "background count" made it impossible to pinpoint its origin. It was fading away slowly, but for the moment it would obscure anything but the most powerful workings — at least as long as I was right in the thick of it.
So I'd grabbed some takeout, made a detour around a jewelry store holding a sale that made Filene's Running of the Brides look sedate, and headed home for the night. Sooner or later, whoever it was would do something that I could trace, and I'd be there to see if I needed to stomp on their heads.
Naturally, something happened the moment I settled down with a good book. Two somethings, in fact: equal and opposite bursts of light and dark magic in Azabu, some distance apart. The light was practically an explosion, the wavefront emitted by a powerful transformation/empowerment effect that suddenly blossomed and slammed into me even with my mage senses closed; it vanished so quickly that I couldn't get my mage sight up fast enough to read more than the most general bearing on it. But at almost the same moment that dark magic had welled up — a slower, longer effect but no less powerful than the light. I set the light magic aside for the moment to focus on the dark.
There. The shopping district, practically on top of the train station.
"Got you, you bastard," I murmured as I dove for the cabinet where I kept my armor and my uniform.
Seven minutes later I was on my bike and launching vertically out of the parking lot behind my building, not caring if anyone spotted me.
It took less than a minute more to find myself homing in on that jewelry store I'd avoided on Wednesday. Even without my mage sight up, at this range I could feel the dark magic like sewage flowing over my skin. It stank of something akin to a blend of domination, necromancy, and vampirism. I gritted my teeth, set the bike's autopilot to take it up a couple hundred feet, and leapt into an open window on the store's second floor. (And whoever left that window open? They should get fired. They might as well have put up a sign reading "please rob us!")
Tuxedo Mask had awakened, as always, to find himself bounding across the rooftops of the city, drawn by the absolute certainty that he was needed — but just as he spied the building to which he had been drawn, a grey missile-like shape dropped out of the sky to hover in front of an open window on the second floor. It looked like a futuristic motorcycle, for all that motorcycles didn't fly.
He paused, confused and alarmed, on the roof across from what he could now see was a jewelry shop like so many others he had searched, as the craft's rider threw himself through the window. A moment later, the overwhelming, semiconscious necessity that had driven him halfway across the district suddenly evaporated.
Tuxedo Mask wasn't needed any more.
Confused and curious, he melted back into the shadows on the roof to wait and watch.
I took in the scene below me with a glance. Floating demonic creature, almost as high up as I was and vaguely female in form and appearance. A veritable army of human women, clearly mind-controlled. And all of them were focused on a tiny blonde girl in red, white, and blue, down on her knees against a plinth and sobbing.
My first thought on seeing her was, "Sailor V?" But even though she was blonde and about the same age, the hair was the wrong style and the costume, though similar, was simpler and more elegant, looking less like a repurposed school uniform and more like a... I don't know, something that shared an evolutionary ancestor with serafuku? Regardless, something about it seemed oddly familiar.
The hell with pondering fashion. If I didn't do something and fast, they would tear that kid to pieces. The demon triumphantly declared "Time to finish you off!" and thrust out a hand toward the girl, who was all but calling for her mommy. I expected a blast or other gesture-aimed effect, but instead its arm simply stretched.
I drew God's Toothpick, expanded it, and dropped down to the floor between the mob and her, batting the taloned hand away on the way down, well before it could reach the kid. That got me the full attention of the demon-thing even before I hit the ground. "Who are you?" it demanded as I landed in a crouch.
I stood up straight with the Toothpick held horizontally in front of me. "'No one of consequence'," I quoted at it. Behind me, the girl was still sobbing — I don't think she'd even noticed that I was there, as she was escalating into a full-blown wail.
I was just about to start laying into the lot of them when that wail suddenly gained a whole lot of harmonics and overtones, and the enthralled women started dropping — knocked out but still breathing. I risked a look behind me, and saw that the red jewels the girl had on her ponytails were resonating and glowing.
"Nice trick, kid," I murmured, then turned back to the surprised-looking demon as the wail ended. "Looks like it's just the two of us, ugly."
"No," came a high, slightly quavery voice from behind me. "The three of us."
"Sailor Moon!" an unexpected third voice shouted. It sounded like another teenager, one who was... at ankle height?
I glanced back over my shoulder. The girl was back on her feet. She was a tiny thing, not more than a meter and a half tall, a part of my mind noted irrelevantly. There was a determined look on her face that was completely at odds with the tear tracks there. "You sure, kid?"
"Yeah," she said with a curt nod. "And I'm Sailor Moon, not 'kid'."
I flashed her a grin, and said, "Fair enough. I go by 'Looney Toons'. Let's see what you've got, Sailor Moon."
"Take your tiara off, say 'Moon Tiara Action!', and throw it at her," that mystery voice said again from near the floor. I chanced a look in that direction, and spotted a black cat with red eyes and a gold crescent on its head. It gave me a very intelligent — and dubious — look.
I looked back up to see the kid — sorry, Sailor Moon — do exactly as instructed. When the tiara turned into a disk of glowing energy in her hand, I figured she — or rather, the cat — was onto something. Just to be safe, though, when she released her laser frisbee, I flung the Toothpick at the demon as well.
The stupid creature didn't even try to dodge, instead just crying out in fear. The tiara and the Toothpick both struck at the same time, the tiara splatting into it while the Toothpick blew through its chest and returned to my hand. The demon froze in midair and turned a greyish color before crumbling into dust starting from its feet and moving up. The gritty powder formed a neat little pile — like the sand in the bottom of an hourglass — on the floor below where it had been floating. And then a moment later it vanished, as if it had never been there.
It was an odd effect, and I suspected the energy frisbee was the cause as the Toothpick had never done anything of the sort before. Not a bad attack, but too much wasted motion.
"Good job, Sailor Moon," I said — completely sincerely — as the Toothpick flew back to my hand. I collapsed it, and as I slid it back into its holster I added, "You could probably shave a couple seconds off that tiara attack, though. And, I'm sorry, but if you're going to end up crying in the face of the enemy, you're going to get yourself killed!"
She huffed and parked her little fists on her hips. "Well, I'm sorry! It's my first time doing this, and that youma was scary!"
"Really?" I asked. "Your first time?"
She scowled adorably at me. "Yeah! So I think I should get a break!"
I considered this for a moment, then nodded. "You're right. For your first night on the job, you did really well. Look, if that's the case, let's get out of here and find a place to talk. If you're serious about this gig, the least I can do is give you some advice."
"I don't know..." she said doubtfully. The cat didn't look too enthused, either.
"I know of a few all-night places around this neighborhood," I tried once more. "Let's go, we'll get a burger or ice cream or something, and talk. My treat."
She immediately perked up. "Ice cream?"
I laughed. "Yeah, c'mon. I'll get you whatever you want as long as you talk to me."
After we made sure that the unconscious women in the jewelry store — including the owner and her daughter, who were locked in the basement — were all alive and breathing, I briefly debated making a 119 call. I chose not to, because despite the demonic presence in the shop no one had been seriously harmed, and mage sight showed no lingering contamination. Also, I did not yet have anonymized communications here, and didn't want to answer perfectly reasonable questions about why I had been in a jewelry store well after its closing time.
Calling emergency services hadn't seemed to occur to Sailor Moon (or the cat). As long as no one seemed to have been permanently harmed, she was happy to move on, a sentiment I agreed with — this time. I called my bike down from where it was hovering, and it was waiting obediently at the curb by the time we walked out the front door.
Tuxedo Mask stood in the shadows and watched as the vehicle on which the man in grey had arrived dropped out of the sky to float, bobbing gently and faintly whirring, in the street near the jewelry store's entrance. A blonde girl in a tight white and blue minidress and the man in grey calmly exited the shop side-by-side, speaking softly to each other. Before the door could close behind them, a black cat scampered out to join them on the sidewalk.
He drifted to the edge of the roof as the man and the girl mounted the motorcycle — for that's what it clearly was now that it was on the ground. She'd obviously never ridden one before, and needed help getting onto the seat. He blinked in surprise as the black cat leapt up and settled in behind her, and a moment later they were disappearing around a corner.
Tuxedo Mask stared after them for a long while. There had been something about the girl... something that teased the edges of his memory. With a sigh, he turned and launched himself back into the night.
I took Sailor Moon and her cat to a little 24-hour place a couple blocks away called "Handoki's LunchCounter". I'd eaten there before and had liked both the quality and variety of their food. As I helped her off the bike, I said, "It's up to you if you want to go civvie or not in here. I'd say not to, but it's your choice."
"Does it really matter? Waaaah!" she cried as she nearly tripped on the curb. I held out an arm for her to steady herself on. She grabbed it and smiled a thank you at me as she hauled herself vertical again. "It's not like I'm wearing a mask," she added, letting go.
"No," I allowed, "but you do have that same blurry-face thing going that Sailor V seems to have."
I nodded. "It's fairly subtle, not as pronounced as in the photos of her, but it's there. I can tell that you're blonde and that you have blue eyes, and that you're probably pretty cute." She blushed. "And I can make out your expressions, like smiling or frowning. But beyond that, well, based on your face alone I likely couldn't pick you out of a crowd." I deliberately didn't mention that the combination of her height and hairstyle probably would be a dead giveaway, though.
"Wow. I didn't know that." She glanced down at the cat, who just returned the look.
"You didn't? Just how long have you been doing this?" I had to ask.
"What time is it?" she countered.
I glanced at the clock in the corner of my HUD. "Almost 8:30."
"About half an hour, then," she said with another glance at the cat.
I blinked. "Well. Damn. And how long have you had your metatalents?"
She peered up at me, puzzled. "Me-ta-ta-re-n-tsu?" she sounded out the unfamiliar word in Japanese phonemes. "What does that mean?"
"Powers," I explained.
"Oh!" She nodded once, briskly. "About half an hour," she repeated with a little giggle.
"And your first reaction..." I started, then shook my head. "No, let's not get into this on the street. Ice cream first, talk later."
"Ice cream!" she chirped and marched into the restaurant. The cat gave me an assessing look, then followed her in before the door swung shut. I chuckled and joined them.
Ten minutes later we were sitting on opposite sides of a booth while Sailor Moon started in on a bowl of ice cream nearly as large as her head, made up of half a dozen flavors and twice as many toppings and sauces. (When she'd ordered it I'd almost winced; my innocent offer to buy was going to cost me a bit more than I had expected.) In front of me was a creditable burger and fries, and my helmet was on the bench seat beside me. We were alone in the small restaurant aside from the cook/server, who had barely reacted to the sight of the two of us (plus cat) except to take and quickly deliver our orders.
I picked up my burger in both hands and held it before me, seemingly to study it, but actually taking the moment to slip into mage sight to examine both her and the cat, who was curled up at her side. The cat had the aura of an intelligent being, which came as absolutely no surprise. What was a surprise was that it wasn't a creature of enchantment — if my mage sight was to be trusted, other than having a "gift of tongues"-type charm on it and some kind of native shapeshifting talent that reminded me a lot of Kat's, it was a perfectly normal, absolutely mundane talking cat.
Okay. I've seen stranger things.
Sailor Moon, on the other hand, was far from mundane. Clearly a young magic-user, she was gifted with enough raw power to put your average archmage to shame. My mage sight couldn't reveal details of personality or morals, but the power that welled up out of her soul was so pure and so clearly "light" that she reminded me of Belldandy or Skuld.
It was also exactly the same as that wavefront of light magic which had washed over me earlier in the evening. As a result, I was pretty sure that even without her "half hour" estimate, I could now pinpoint almost to the minute when Sailor Moon had received her metatalents.
Continuing on with the scan, I noted that she had an object of enchantment on her — the brooch on her collar — and her outfit was in fact a magical construct, made up of energy locked into a metastable configuration.
And while pondering the construction of her ensemble I realized why it had teased at my memory when I first saw it. Seventy years wasn't long enough for me to forget the night I'd briefly gifted Lisa Vanette with telekinesis, and the outfit into which she'd changed her clothing with it — an outfit that save for the colors and mask was a close match to Sailor Moon's.
And Lisa had called herself "Sailor Loon".
That could not be a coincidence. But as much as I wanted to pursue that mystery, though, I tabled it. I seriously doubted that a teen-aged girl in 1992 would have clue one about something that happened in 2037 in a different universe entirely. But I sorely wished I could corner Lisa once more...
Or maybe Marller and her sisters.
But I couldn't, so I turned my attention back to the matter at hand. "So," I said as casually as I could between bites of my burger. "First things first. My bona fides." I stretched my right arm out along the bench seat and shook my ID out of its pocket inside my sleeve and into my hand. I held it up over the tabletop and opened it, revealing the projected images of both me and my credentials, and held it out to her.
She put down her spoon and took it very cautiously, but with a look of wonder on her face. "Wow," she breathed as she poked a forefinger though the rotating image of yours truly. Next to her, the cat had sat up and was staring at my ID with bugging eyes. Yeah, surprise, Kitty. Not what you were expecting, huh?
Sailor Moon finally handed it back to me, a sheepish grin on her face as she picked up her spoon again. "Um, it's very cool but I'm not that great at reading English."
The cat rolled its eyes.
I waved it off. "That's all right. Basically, what it says is that I'm Colonel Douglas Sangnoir of the United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha, codenamed 'Looney Toons'."
"Metahuman Peacekeeping..." she repeated, brow furrowed, then shoveled a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth.
"There's a word a lot of worlds have that mine doesn't — 'superhero'." Her eyes widened when she heard that. "The Warriors, we're a team of superheroes charged with acting as both the police and the army for the United Nations in the version of Earth where I come from."
Sailor Moon blinked, another spoonful of ice cream halfway to her mouth. "The version of Earth...?"
I nodded and favored her with a sad smile. "I'm a dimensional traveler, from another universe. I was ejected from my world by an enemy in battle, and I've been wandering from timeline to timeline looking for my home for a very long time now." I took a bite of my burger while she processed that, then added, "One of the things I did at home was train young metahumans — super-types like you — in how to make the best use of their abilities in a fight. And I've been a teacher many times over in the worlds I've visited. So if you want, I could coach you until you're comfortable enough with your abilities to go out on your own. Since, you know, you've only had them less than an hour."
She looked up at me, eyes wide. "And if things got scary again?"
"I'd be there as backup. Not to rescue you, but to show you how to rescue yourself." I swirled a french fry through some ketchup and popped it into my mouth.
"I like that idea," she murmured, the spoon hanging from one corner of her mouth. "Ow!" she suddenly shrieked, and the spoon clattered on the tabletop. "Luna!"
"You have an objection, Miss Luna?" I asked, looking at the cat, who was glaring at me. "And don't pretend you don't understand Japanese — if you wanted to hide that from me, you shouldn't've been shouting instructions to Sailor Moon during the fight." I popped another fry into my mouth. "And if you don't want to blow your innocent kitty act in front of the mundanes, well, you're a shapeshifter. Go human and join the conversation that way."
Sailor Moon, who had retrieved her spoon and been about to sulkily shovel another mound of ice cream into her mouth, turned her head so fast I was surprised her ponytails didn't crack like whips. "You're a what?"
Luna, meanwhile, looked like a cartoon character who'd been whapped upside the head with a cast-iron frying pan. "I'm a what? I..." she said in that teenaged-girl voice of hers. Then her eyes got wide, as though she were suddenly remembering some long-forgotten piece of information. "I am! Dear Serenity, how did I..." And just like a stop trick from Bewitched, the cat was gone and a girl in a yellow dress with waves of long black hair took its place — a girl with a shocked and stunned expression on her face.
"Wow, Luna, you're really pretty!" Sailor Moon gushed, completely forgetting about her ice cream.
I stuck my hand up. "Waiter? A tuna salad sandwich and a glass of milk for our friend here, please?"
"You," humanoid-Luna said while delicately nibbling her tuna sandwich, "must be the mage I detected when searching for Sailor Moon." Her voice, to my surprise, was not much different from that of her cat form. Maybe a little more resonant, but that's it. And a couple odd phonemes — most notably a very faint "ts" for "s", and a firmly-placed liquid consonant that partook evenly of "r" and "l" — that most listeners wouldn't even notice, but to my ear they indicated that she wasn't a native speaker of Japanese. Physically she looked only a couple of years older than Sailor Moon, certainly not out of her teens.
"No doubt," I replied. "And I would wager that Miss Moon here gaining her metatalents was the transformation/empowerment event I detected an hour or so ago from all the way over in Motoazabu."
"Wait, wait, what do you mean 'mage'?" Sailor Moon demanded in between shoveling ice cream into her mouth.
I shrugged. "I'm kind of a wizard, Sailor Moon. Not the traditional kind, but a magic-user nonetheless. Like you, in fact." I grinned at her. "That means I can do more than just throw sticks through flying demons and drive a cool motorcycle. I'm a combat mage with eighty years' experience both in the field and in administration. I'm also one of the top 25 experts in the world back at home when it comes to magic and magical theory." I picked up my burger, took a big bite, then laid it back down on the plate and chewed while Luna and Sailor Moon glanced at each other without saying anything.
"Okay," I said after swallowing. "Enough about me, then. Let's talk about you."
"Ooookay," Sailor Moon mumbled dubiously around her spoon. Luna looked at me suspiciously over her sandwich.
I held up another french fry and gestured with it like it was a pointer. "Sailor V. Sailor Moon. What's the connection between you two? Some kind of franchise deal?"
Sailor Moon opened her mouth to answer, then closed it. Then she turned to her ... pet? partner? companion? "You know, Luna, that's a really good question," she said. "You just showed up tonight and told me I was Sailor Moon, and then I transformed and I heard Naru calling for help, and then everything else happened, and this is the first chance I've had to think about it all. Do you know Sailor V? Am I supposed to be her partner or something?"
I was pretty sure the black cat was Luna's native form, but it was a very human expression of panic and uncertainty that swept across her face for a fraction of a second. Then she schooled her features into something more confident — even arrogant. "That is not something I should be revealing to a random stranger in a cheap restaurant," she declared haughtily. "When we return to your home, Sailor Moon, I shall explain everything."
Translation for those who don't speak Cat: "That will give me enough time to get my story straight." Sailor Moon glanced at me and gave an apologetic little shrug.
"You two just met for the first time tonight?" I asked her. "You hadn't known each other before this?"
"No," Luna said, looking down at her plate while Sailor Moon grunted "Uh-huh" around another spoonful of ice cream, nuts and sauce. She swallowed and added, "She just jumped in through my window and said, 'You're Sailor Moon'."
"And you just said 'okay' and got meta... powers?"
She bit her lip. "Well, yeah, kinda."
I pointed at her with another french fry. "That was careless of you. Are you normally in the habit of accepting magical powers from random stray animals, with no questions asked?" Ignoring the little noises of outrage from both of them I went on. "It's too late now to do anything about it, but when you two have your talk later, find out what it's going to cost you. Power never comes without a price, magic especially." I ate the fry.
Sailor Moon's eyes grew very wide. "A price?"
I nodded. "Some prices are good — hard work and study, or a duty that you would gladly take on anyway." I slipped back into mage sight and gave Luna another good hard look. I was far better than I had once been at spotting Celestial influences in a creature's soul, but I still wasn't perfect. While Luna had a mortal soul which didn't seem to have any Infernal markers in it, I couldn't be absolutely certain that she was clean. "And some aren't so good. Some are outright traps for the unwary." Luna growled wordlessly at the implied accusation.
"Now, as far as I can tell, you already had the power," I went on without looking away. "Potentially, if not actively. With the right teacher and a lot of work, you could have been one he- heck of a sorceress, with no limits beyond the extent of your studies and how much energy you can draw on." I shrugged. "I don't know, maybe you can still follow that path. What you need to be concerned about is if the... template that Luna's used to activate your gifts restricts them to its limits, and not yours."
Sailor Moon looked sidelong at her companion. "Luna...?"
Luna drew herself up. "You are the reincarnation of the Warrior of the Moon. I've done nothing more than give you access to the power you had in your previous life, ten thousand years ago."
"Ten thousand years...?" Sailor Moon boggled at that, her ice cream momentarily forgotten.
I'll admit that I was more than a little boggled myself. "That would be before the dawn of recorded history," I pointed out.
Luna turned and looked down her nose at me. "Recorded history, yes. When by the hand of the Great Enemy the Moon Kingdom fell and the Silver Millennium ended, mankind was plunged into barbarism and lost all knowledge of its past."
"But you know of it," I said.
"I was there!" she snarled at me, her control finally cracking. "I was at Queen Serenity's side when she sealed away the Great Enemy. I was there when she caught up the souls of her daughter and the Sailor Warriors and sent them into the future to be reborn. And I was there when she put me and a..." She stumbled over the next word, for a moment looking blank and confused. "When she put me into hibernation and sent me into the future after them, charging me to find them and train them against the return of the Great Enemy. I. Was. There!" she repeated angrily.
There was a long moment when the only sounds were made by the cook/server at his grill. Sailor Moon was staring at Luna with wide eyes.
"How long ago was it for you, Luna?" I asked gently.
The fire went out of her and she deflated, shoulders slumping and head bowing. "Five days. I... I lost everything I knew less than five days ago."
Sailor Moon made a wordless sound of sympathy and lunged at her, wrapping her up in an enthusiastic, sympathetic hug, gently rocking the distraught cat-girl and crooning wordlessly to her.
I watched as one girl consoled the other, feeling a sudden surge of empathy. More than seventy years ago, I had been torn from the world I knew and thrust without warning into another one, alien and unfamiliar to me. "'I have been a stranger in a strange land'," I murmured to myself.
I dug a pen out of my pocket and scrawled my phone number on a paper napkin, then pushed it across the table. "Here," I said softly when Sailor Moon, catching the movement in her peripheral vision, looked up at me. "Call me if you'd like some coaching, or just to talk to someone who can relate."
She nodded wordlessly, still holding Luna.
"Also..." I added before she could turn back to the girl in her arms, "this talk of a 'Great Enemy' worries me. Whether you want my help or not, I'd appreciate it if you let me know whatever you learn about them." She nodded again.
"And don't worry about the check, I'll take care of it like I promised." That got me the briefest flicker of a smile before she turned her attention back to Luna.
I stopped at the counter to pay the bill, adding a generous tip and a little extra to cover anything else the girls might want. Pausing at the door, I glanced their way one last time. Luna was quietly sobbing in Sailor Moon's arms. I knew all too well how she was feeling, and wanted to help. But I was the unwelcome outsider who'd elbowed his way into their business, and I'd do more harm than good if I insisted on being present right now.
As I settled in on my bike and cinched the chinstrap of my helmet, I thought about this superpowered teen on her first night as a vig, and hoped that she decided to ask for help. Despite being almost twice her age, Sailor Moon reminded me of Kat and Dwimanor's daughter Nina, who had settled on "Mercurial Maiden" as her code name of the month just before I was kicked out of Homeline. I found myself already feeling the same kind of avuncular protectiveness for Sailor Moon that I did for Nina, and my instincts were screaming at me that it was horribly wrong to let her out on the streets without at least some training. And frankly, I didn't trust a certain teenaged cat-girl to provide it.
As I drove back to Motoazabu, I decided that if I could in any way find out when she was active, I would watch over Sailor Moon as she took her first fumbling steps on the path of a metagifted vigilante.
Saturday, April 4, 1992, 8:25 AM
Usagi hated Saturday morning classes.
She hated classes on all other mornings, too, but Saturday classes held a special, dark place in her heart all their own.
Saturday classes after her first night as Sailor Moon followed by three hours of comforting a cat-girl in the middle of an emotional breakdown, resulting in insufficient sleep and a little brother yelling in her ear to wake her up... there was a very special Hell reserved for those classes, she was sure.
And for a certain cat, who was sleeping off her late night on Usagi's pillow. Where Usagi ought to be!
As she lay there with her forehead flat against her desk's cool, smooth surface with her arms wrapped around her head and her eyes closed, and the blissful call of exhaustion beckoning her back to sleep, the only thing keeping her awake was her friend Naru, who was describing her night to Sakura.
"I had such a wonderful dream last night." Usagi reflected that, as much as she loved her friend, Naru's namesake Osaka accent could grate on her ears sometimes. Especially this morning. "A beautiful girl called 'Sailor Moon' and a brave, handsome man in grey saved me from a horrible monster!"
Yeah. Dream. Right, Usagi thought without heat. I wish.
"What?" Sakura cried. "I had the same dream!"
"Me, too!" That was Hitomi's voice. Didn't she sit on the other side of the room?
"Oh, that's so weird!" Naru declared.
Oh. Yeah. They were both in the store, too, weren't they? Usagi thought absently, still savoring the fleeting coolness of the desktop. Good thing Luna didn't tell me people couldn't know about Sailor Moon, because that would be all messed up already.
"Usagi? Hey, Usagi?" Naru called.
Must. Not. Hit. Best. Friend, Usagi reminded herself as Naru's voice cut right through her pleasant muzziness. "Too tired," she mumbled. "Gotta sleep..."
Across the classroom, Mizuno Ami bent her head down and hid her face with the textbook she held before herself, trying not to let anyone see that she had been watching the girls clustering around Tsukino-san's desk. For a moment, she wondered wistfully what it would be like to have friends like that before forcing her attention back to the book. Schoolwork first. She would have time enough to have friends after graduating from university.
I wasn't surprised that there was nothing about the jewelry store mess in the morning papers the next day — not enough lead time, after all. But the afternoon and evening papers had nothing, either, none of them. I know: I checked every paper at the newsstand on the near end of the Azabujuban market street before being ejected by an annoyed shopkeeper.
The afternoon was cool and overcast but not yet rainy, so I decided to walk down to the other end of the street and personally look in on the store. Along the way I was constantly reminded of the continuing impact that the current recession was having on the neighborhood — there were a surprising number of empty storefronts with "for rent" or "for sale" signs in their windows for such a popular and otherwise prosperous area. About the only places with significant custom were a video arcade and the various food shops.
There were other signs of hard times, as well. In an alley next to a bakery, an old man in threadbare Chinese robes sat at a card table with a set of Kau cim sticks telling fortunes for the pocket change of his schoolgirl clientèle. In another alley, a woman was selling books and handicrafts from a blanket spread on the pavement. I had already been aware of homeless persons — a rarity in almost any 20th century Japan — in the train station, and as I walked I occasionally spied one searching a dumpster far back between buildings.
Finally, I reached the end of the street, just before the station. I hung a left, and headed past the jewelry store itself.
No cops. No yellow tape.
No more sale signs, either. Or crowds.
And only the barest traces of magic — and what was left was decaying and vanishing even as I studied it with my magesight.
I walked back to my place, thinking about it. Someone had to have wondered why his wife, daughter, sister, or mother hadn't come home until the wee hours of the morning... Come to think of it, someone should have wondered before either Sailor Moon or I had gotten to the shop.
It was very strange.
On my way home I stopped in an electronics shop and picked up an answering machine. Given that she was very clearly middle- or high school-aged, Sailor Moon was as likely to call during my work hours as not — if she called at all.
If she did call, I didn't want to miss it just because I wasn't home.
Thursday, April 9, 1992, 12:13 PM
Usagi ate her lunch slowly and contemplatively as she pondered the events of the past few days. (Unnoticed by her at the next desk, Naru Osaka was staring wide-eyed at the sight. Usagi not inhaling her lunch — indeed, having a lunch left to eat at all given how often she had mid-morning hunger pangs — was so unexpected as to almost be an omen of some coming disaster.)
She poked absently at a cartoonish octopus made from a piece of sausage and frowned. Gentle, dorky Umino seemed to have no memory at all of being a bully, a thug, and a gang leader over the last few days. Whatever the fortune-telling monster had done to him hadn't been permanent, but if it had, Usagi would have had no idea what to do about it. The thought almost broke her heart.
And then, there was the man in the tuxedo and mask. He had appeared from nowhere, swooping in and helping her when it looked like she was about to be defeated. It might have seemed so very romantic if she hadn't met Sangnoir-san on her first night as Sailor Moon; instead the fancy dress and speech and the roses (!) all seemed a little silly to her. Sangnoir-san was a soldier, and a soldier was what was needed to fight monsters. A man who showed up for a fight in a top hat seemed like he was more interested in looking cool than in beating the monster.
He was kind of cute, she admitted to herself. But cute wasn't enough to win the fight. And he really didn't do all that much — one rose and "you can do it, Sailor Moon!" (And how did he know what she was called, anyway? The only ones who should know were Luna and Sangnoir-san.) Then he ran off after she destroyed the monster.
Luna didn't trust him. And with the way he'd acted, Usagi wasn't sure she did, either. Sangnoir-san at least had made sure she was okay, wanted to give her some advice, and bought her ice cream.
Then again, Luna didn't trust Sangnoir-san either.
She stopped toying with her food and considered that. Luna didn't seem to trust anyone. Usagi wondered if she'd been abandoned as a kitten, or maybe mistreated, and that was why Luna didn't seem to like anyone but her. And maybe her family... unless that was part of Luna's act of looking like a normal cat around them. It was hard to tell.
But you couldn't go around not trusting anyone, Usagi reflected. That was just wrong. Sure, there were bad people, but if you never reached out to anyone, you missed all the good people, too. So unless he did something bad, Usagi decided she'd trust the man in the mask and the tuxedo. Even if he did look a little silly, he seemed to have his heart in the right place.
And if he deserved her trust, then Sangnoir-san, who'd done a lot more for her that first night, certainly did.
Usagi pushed a slice of fish cake around her bento with her chopsticks. If she was going to trust Sangnoir-san, then there was no reason not to accept his offer to help her. Twice now it had taken someone else to keep her from becoming a monster's dinner. If her job as Sailor Moon was as important as Luna kept saying, she needed to get better at it, and fast!
She nodded to herself. That's what she'd do, then — on the way home from school she'd stop at a pay phone and call Sangnoir-san. She knew she could be stupid sometimes, but she wasn't so stupid as to refuse the kind of help he was offering, now that she was sure she needed it.
Decision made, she smiled happily and popped the sausage-octopus into her mouth. As she moaned in delight at the flavor, a crash came from her left. Eyes wide, she turned toward the sound.
"Naru?" she asked, tilting her head. "Why are you on the floor?"
Thursday, April 9, 1992, 6:10 PM
When I got home that evening, there was a blinking light on my answering machine — the first since I'd installed it. I dropped my things on the chair, then crossed the room to the small table on which the phone and the machine both lived. I pressed "play".
"... Um. Hi. Sangnoir-san, this is... Well, we talked the other night?" It was, surprise surprise, a teenaged girl's voice. And given that the grand total of teenaged girls that I'd spoken to in the entire time I'd been in this world so far was one, I was reasonably certain that it was Sailor Moon. "You said you'd help if I needed it?" There was a pause, and I could almost hear her biting her lip. "I think I need it." There was another pause. "I'll be at the restaurant again tonight after eight, okay?" One more pause. "So, um. Bye?" And then there was a beep.
It wasn't until the message ended that I realized she had sounded different. Apparently, whatever blurred her face had also changed her voice as well, making it a touch deeper and more resonant. Not that it was all that deep — we're talking early-teen Japanese girl here, after all — but still, the voice on the recording was noticeably not the one she'd spoken with a few nights earlier. If I hadn't had the context to identify her, I might have dismissed her as a different girl entirely.
Which was obviously the purpose of the effect.
I glanced at the clock. Quarter after six. No rush. I could make Handoki's in fifteen minutes — less, if I didn't stay on the roads.
Or the ground.
I stepped into the LunchCounter a couple minutes after eight. I had no problem identifying her — the height and the hair were the same.
She was also the only patron in the whole place.
As I walked over to the corner table where she'd parked herself, I took in what I presumed to be her true appearance: still short, huge blue eyes, and yeah, cute. She was in a genuine sailor-style school uniform this time, and even though it wasn't anywhere as form-fitting as the costume she'd been in a few nights earlier, it was easy to see that she wasn't quite as developed as she'd appeared to be "in uniform" as Sailor Moon. Padding in the costume, or part of the disguise effect? I couldn't be sure.
She was alone, having somehow managed to ditch Luna. (I approved; I suspected the cat/girl would have insisted on coming along, if not nixing the entire plan outright.) A dish of plain vanilla ice cream — a normal-sized one and looking almost forlorn and lonely compared to the melon-sized frozen concoction I'd paid for last time — sat untouched and melting in front of her. She just sat there, spoon clenched in one hand, staring at it with unseeing eyes as I walked up.
"Hi," I said gently.
She started, dropping the spoon to clatter on the tabletop. "Oh! Hi!" she squeaked.
I gestured at the bench seat on the opposite side of the table from her. "May I sit?"
She blinked. "Sure?" she answered in a tone that made it a half-question.
"Thanks." I dropped my helmet into the corner of the seat next to the wall then slid in to sit exactly opposite her. She went back to watching her ice cream melt, and as she did I studied her. A minute later the server came over and I ordered a roast beef Dagwood (Handoki's menu was pretty damned eclectic) and a hot tea.
As soon as he had gotten behind the counter to make my sandwich, I very softly asked, "Did you lose someone?"
"What?" Her gaze snapped up to me. "No! No..." She trailed off as her eyes drifted back down to the tabletop. "A ... friend of mine... got changed. He's such a goofy guy, kinda loud and kinda geeky... and they turned him into some kind of kid Yakuza." She looked back up at me. "It was horrible, he was leading a gang and breaking windows and scaring the teachers. And all I could think was, if I can't beat this monster, he might stay that way. And it would be like Umino — the real Umino — had died, and there was just this mean jerk who looked like him left in his place. Forever." She choked back a sob. "And it would be all my fault."
I didn't worry whether it would be appropriate or not — I reached out and covered her hand with mine. "No, it wouldn't. It would have been theirs, whoever they are. There's no shame or blame in failing in the fight against evil — only in running from the fight. Which you didn't. And you won, too — it's pretty obvious that you did."
She gave me a shaky smile, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Yeah. I kicked its butt." The smile vanished, and the tears threatened to spill anyway. "But not fast enough, and I was still so scared. Again." She rubbed at her eyes with her free hand. "I don't want to be scared."
The server came back with my sandwich and my tea, and as he set them down on the table in front of me, Sailor Moon scrubbed at her eyes again, this time with both hands. She took a deep breath, then ate a bite of her ice cream. "You said you would teach me."
I took the first bite of my sandwich. "I did," I confirmed after chewing and swallowing.
"What can you teach me?" she demanded.
I put the sandwich back down on the plate, snagging a potato chip as I did. "I can teach you a lot." Crunch. "What do you want to learn?"
The tears were gone, replaced by resolve in her blue eyes. "How not to be scared. How to fight."
"That's a good place to start," I said. "Are you willing to work at it?"
"It's going to be hard, isn't it?" she asked.
I nodded. "I won't lie. It will. Are you up to it?"
She bit her lip, and then that resolve came back. "I won't lie either. I'm a lazy, clumsy crybaby. And kinda dumb. Ask anyone who knows me. And I really can't believe I was a soldier in another life, no matter what Luna says. But I don't want anyone to get hurt or die. So if it'll keep people from getting hurt, I'll work hard." She suddenly shot me an impish little grin. "I'll probably complain a lot, though. Just so you know."
I laughed. "Believe me, I've worked with worse. If you don't give up, I can teach you everything you want. And more."
She got a thoughtful look in her eyes. "I want to learn how to fight," she repeated. "No — not just how to fight. How to win. If I have to fight, I want to start knowing I can beat the monster, not wondering if I can." She tapped the side of her dish with her spoon. "I want to learn how to use the magic you said I have. Can I do more than just throw my tiara? Do I need to turn into Sailor Moon to use it?"
Do I need Luna to tell me how to do everything? she didn't say, but I knew she had to be thinking it.
"Good questions," I said before taking another bite. I chewed and swallowed and added, "I can't answer them for you yet. But I know how to find out. As for winning... I can't teach you how to win all the time, every time. But I can teach you how to maximize your strength and your chances. I can teach you how to learn enough about your enemy to put them down, even while you're busy fighting them. And I can teach you how to survive a loss to come back and win later."
"Yeah," she breathed, staring at me with wide eyes. "That's it. That's what I want. When do we start?"
I chuckled and crunched another potato chip. "When do you want to start?"
I picked up my sandwich, still chuckling. "I'm guessing you've got school during the day, so how about Saturday?"
"Okay." She scooped up a spoonful of her half-melted ice cream and shoved it into her mouth. "Saturday afternoon after school."
"Right." I took a bite. "That gives us time to work up a cover story."
She tilted her head. "Cover story?" she mumbled around the spoon that was still in her mouth.
"Well," I said after swallowing, "I don't suppose you want to tell your family you're now a superhero and you're off getting combat training, do you?"
She made a little moue of annoyance. "No, darn it. Mama would never let me out of the house."
Hm. She claimed to be "kinda dumb". "Well, how about this? I'm your new tutor. What class are you getting your worst grades in?"
"Mouuuuu! All of them!" she moaned, and shoved another spoonful of ice cream in.
"Well, then, that's it. I'm helping you get your grades up, and because you don't have a lot of pocket money, you're ... oh, I don't know, doing chores or running errands for me or something." I shrugged. "We'll figure something out. Something that makes sense and doesn't make me look like a perv hitting on a pretty schoolgirl."
She blushed and slid down in her seat a bit. "Don't make fun of me like that," she mumbled. I rolled my eyes. Gods save me from insecure teens. "But the tutor idea is good. I really do need help in just about everything."
I laughed. "Then it's a good thing I can do that, too. We'll get you in shape, mind and body both. And if we get your grades up, that'll just reinforce the cover story, right?"
She pouted a little around the spoon, which was back in her mouth. "I s'pose."
"Then we have a deal?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said, pulling out the spoon and sitting up straighter. "So, what do I call you now? Sangnoir-sensei?"
I shrugged and had more sandwich. "I'm fine with you calling me 'Doug'. As for the honorific... 'Sensei', 'sempai', 'onii-san', even 'jiji' are all okay by me — your choice."
"'Jiji'?" she giggled.
I smiled secretively. "I'm a lot older than I look, my dear Miss Moon."
"You can't be that old!"
"Oh, believe me, I am. I did say that I had 80 years of combat experience." I leaned in toward her. "No lie, teishi: I'm not far from my 110th birthday."
Her eyes widened again. "You're kidding!"
"Nope." I leaned back again. "I did a favor for some goddesses many many years ago, and they extended my life for it. I'm not immortal, I'm just not growing older for a while."
"Wow," she breathed.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool," I said and took another bite from my Dagwood. "Now, one last thing. I have to find a place for us to train in, and when I do, I need to contact you to let you know where it is and what time to meet me there." I dug in my pocket and pulled out a pen, and held it out to her along with a paper napkin.
"Hm?" she hummed inquisitively, then chirped, "Oh!" She took them from me and scrawled a line of characters on the napkin before pushing them both back to me across the table. "There. That's our phone number. And my real name."
I looked at the napkin. "Tsukino Usagi", it read in some of the sloppiest kanji I'd ever seen.
I nearly rolled my eyes at the pun. Rabbit of the Moon? Really? I had a sneaking suspicion that certain Fate-shaped entities of my acquaintance were having fun again.
I controlled myself, though, and held out my hand. "Well, Usagi-chan, it is a pleasure to meet you."
She giggled as she took my hand and shook it. "Thank you, Doug-sensei. Please treat me kindly."
The next morning, over breakfast, I realized that spiriting Usagi off to a gym or park on Saturday afternoon probably wasn't the best way to start her training. Over the decades of my exile, I've become quite adept at maintaining a secret identity, and the first thing you need for one is plausibility.
Plausibility, and whole lot of chutzpah.
I was going to need the afternoon off to set this up.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
This work of fiction is copyright © 2017, Robert M. Schroeck, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
The Sailor Moon universe and the settings and the characters thereof are the property and/or licenses of Takeuchi Naoko, TOEI Animation, DiC, Kodansha, Bandai, Cloverway and others, and are used without permission.
Oh! My Goddess, and the settings and the characters thereof, are copyright by and trademarks of Kosuke Fujishima, KISS and Kodansha Ltd., and are used without permission.
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.
"Wetter Hexe," "Hexe" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Helen Imre.
"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.
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Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Christopher Angel, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Shaye Horwitz, Helen Imre, Eric James, Rob Kelk, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, Peggy Schroeck and Amanda Stair-Duran.
C&C gratefully accepted.