A Sailormoon Fanfiction
by Dejana Talis
"'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free..."
At the crest of the hill, the rider paused to look back. The countryside spread out below him, green and lush, dotted with bushes and speckled with wildflowers. There was a farm not far off, where a few cows grazed in the pasture and the family waded through the rice fields. Beyond the rolling grasses, the town's handful of peaked roofs rose against the horizon.
Adrien watched the scene for a moment, ignoring the weight of the slim rod in his coat pocket. When the horse beneath him stamped impatiently he turned its head toward the east and continued down the road, setting the small community at his back.
He had days of traveling ahead of him. Plenty of time to decide what he would say to his bosses at the palace, although all the time in the world would never have been enough. He was the Seeker, perhaps the best the court had ever had. He had never come back from a mission alone.
There was a first time for everything.
The ease of the last mission seemed a lifetime away. It had all been so simple; his goals were so clear. It was hard for Adrien to believe he was the same man who had set out from the palace that morning, confident as ever, determined to return triumphant by that evening. For that mission there was no need to leave the city. His target was only minutes away. He didn't even stop by his suite before heading out to the landing pad.
Rows of ships gleamed in the morning sun. The first platform was reserved for the color-coded hovercraft belonging to the ruling class, but Adrien's ship waited in a place of near-equal honor on the level just below it. It was a small cruiser, just big enough for the pilot and two passengers, but it had seen more of the world than any other craft of the age.
Adrien pressed his thumb against the keyplate on the nose of the triangular ship and the domed hatch popped open. Tossing the standard documents into the back seat, he hopped into the pilot's chair and touched the internal keyplate.
"Hello, Adrien," piped the Automated Machine Interface.
A faint vibration swept through the cabin as the engine hummed into life.
"Destination?" asked the computer, in a reasonable imitation of hopefulness.
"Come now, AMI," said Adrien, a slight smile twitching on his lips. "You know better than that."
"Manual it is, sir," the ship replied with an unmistakeably wistful sigh.
"Oh, don't take it personally," said Adrien, seizing the control sticks. "You can drive on the way back. I'll be busy explaining things to the newest member of the family."
He pulled back on the sticks. The cruiser rose into the air and sailed off over Crystal Tokyo.
The city spread out from the foot of the palace like a shining blanket over the land. The age of the buildings showed in the differences of their design, century after century of changing trends radiating out in circles from the center. Adrien noted the irregular spires of new construction on the horizon. When had he last left the palace?
The thought faded quickly as the taste of adventure took over. He didn't know how long it had been since he last walked the streets of the city, but he knew it had been exactly 161 years since his last mission. He had nearly jumped for joy when Sailor Venus summoned him for this assignment.
Adrien found himself leaning forward over the cruiser's controls, studying the distant cluster of buildings that made up the Mizuno district. It was almost a pity his target was a local; he had been waiting a hundred years for a search that would only take him a few hours. Adrien comforted himself with the knowledge that his next wait wouldn't be nearly as long.
The rush of excitement tingling through his body was no less powerful despite the short trip. Nerves and senses that had lain dormant for a century blazed to life as the cruiser gained speed. He felt more alive than he had in years. This was what he had been born to do. To find them. To save them. To show them who they really were.
Adrien guided his cruiser over the rooftops of the Mizuno district and landed it in the courtyard of Our Lady Ami Junior High. He had some time before classes broke for lunch; just enough to take care of the less interesting requirements of the business. After warning AMI to behave herself, Adrien climbed down from the cockpit and straightened his long white coat. He paused a moment to perfect his image in the polished hull of his hovercraft as its hatch hissed shut above him. When every platinum strand of hair was in place, he turned and strolled toward the front doors of the school.
In a prominent position in the courtyard stood a statue of the school's namesake. Adrien paused to look up at the stone face of Mizuno Ami. He had seen plenty of images of the Queen's first guardian, but they most often depicted her in her soldier form as Sailor Mercury. This statue was of Ami, an ordinary-looking woman in a lab coat clutching a data crystal in her carved hands. Although she was only the first Sailor Mercury of many, the genius of Mizuno Ami remained unparallelled. Advances had been made, but most of the technology in the kingdom was still based on frameworks Ami had designed centuries before, and the hovercraft brains still bore her name.
Those were the days when being a Seeker had been a real challenge. Adrien's ancestors had searched with only destiny to guide them, seeking out their sleeping targets in the midst of a growing war. In the modern era of peace, with most of the team intact, it was a relatively simple task to round up the newest reincarnations of the warriors of old and bring them home. It would have been even simpler, Adrien thought, if they weren't so consistently reborn into such ordinary families.
So much the better. Adrien relished the challenge, even if this wasn't much of one. He ducked around the statue of the long-dead soldier and walked into the school named in her honor.
Our Lady Ami was like any other school anywhere, aside from its penchant for blue. It had the usual wide hallways lined with motion-activated doors, several lifts to the upper levels, and announcement monitors that displayed messages and news reports. The latest bulletin was a reminder that the Crossboard Circuitry club was meeting after school. Adrien noted a high percentage of similarly intellectual events in the scrolling text; Our Lady Ami seemed to take its namesake further than blue trim and paintings of Arctic waters.
Signs led Adrien to the school office, at the top of a handful of steps at the end of a spotless corridor. The doors hissed open as he approached, and he crossed the threshold into a pale imitation of the administrative offices at the palace. The room was nearly empty save for a long curved desk of semitransparent crystal, at which a young woman was seated behind a clear computer display. They were almost always young, although it was hard to tell anyone's real age at a glance. Older citizens were busy experimenting with more complex jobs.
The receptionist looked up at the sound of the doors.
"Can I help... you..." Her voice trailed off as her eyes widened, her gaze rising from what would have been a child's height to the face of the man towering over her. Adrien gave her a gentle smile as she gaped at him in disbelief.
"I need to see the principal."
"Yes, of course," the receptionist managed. "Right away, sir."
"You told me she was busy!" said a voice behind Adrien. He turned to see a young boy, seventh or eighth grade, slumped in a chair by the door. The boy's scowl turned to wide-eyed wonder as he looked up at the visitor's face.
"Oh, no way!"
"Quiet, Takai!" said the receptionist. "You end up in here at least once a week, you can wait this time."
Adrien smirked at the boy before turning away again. It was a lucky day to get in trouble. Once Takai escaped the office, the boy's news would make him the most popular kid in school for at least a few hours.
"Kichi-san will see you now." The receptionist lifted her hand from the Priority Guest button on the touchpad. Her lips moved wordlessly for a moment as she stared up at the man looming over her.
Adrien waited for what he knew was coming.
"I, um, I don't suppose..."
"They're always children, miss."
"Yes. Yes, of course." The receptionist gave him a weak smile.
The snort of a giggle escaped the boy sitting by the door.
"Saeko-san, a Sailor Soldier?!"
"Quiet, Takai!" snapped the woman, her cheeks beginning to redden. "Please, go on in," she muttered to Adrien, waving toward a door on her left.
"Thank you." Adrien turned and strolled past the desk, coat rippling away from his tall boots. The door to the inner office slid aside, and the woman seated at the terminal inside rose to her feet as he approached.
"My Lord Seeker." She reached out a hand. Her fingers trembled as Adrien gripped them, and her eyes briefly flicked up to his forehead. "I am Kichi Hikaru. Please, be seated."
"Thank you." Adrien dropped into the offered chair, where he reclined casually while Hikaru slowly sat down behind her desk. She rearranged a stack of data wafers on its pristine surface, her gaze continually drawn to a spot just above her visitor's eyes.
"To think, a Sailor Soldier at Our Lady Ami." Her fingers paused in their work. "That is why you are here?"
Adrien nodded. He tossed the data stick Venus had given him onto the desk. "That should cover the essential paperwork." He waited as Hikaru plugged the stick into a nearby port and scanned its contents on her transparent screen. Adrien loathed these bureaucratic delays. It wasn't as if the letters from the Royals were even necessary; the crescent moon mark on his forehead was proof enough of his identity as the Seeker.
"You don't know who you've come for, my lord?" asked the principal after a moment.
"Never do, exactly. That's why they send me."
"Yes, of course." Her gaze darted over to her guest and then back to her screen. "What do you need from us?"
"Nothing. Simply allow me to observe the students during their lunch period. Every girl of eligible age should be here. The chances of a mistake are small."
"Take all the time you need," said Hikaru, her eyes fixed on the royal emblem shining on her screen.
"I will." Adrien stood up. "Thank you again, Kichi-san."
"It is my honor," she said, looking up, but Adrien's back was already turned, his steps carrying him off to his duty.
"Who is it?" cried the boy Takai as Adrien strolled back through the outer office. "Tell me! Please?"
Adrien barely heard him. His mind was already refocusing, his senses sharpening, his nerves tensed for the task at hand. He swept through the hallways with singular purpose, at last free to work.
He could have searched the entire school immediately, room by room, had he wanted to. He could have had Principal Kichi parade the entire female population of Our Lady Ami through her office until he laid eyes on the right one. The documents on the data stick gave him clearance to proceed any way he chose, but Adrien preferred to be subtle. There was no need to disrupt the lives of ordinary students when their lunch break would soon bring them all into his view. Putting himself into the limelight often did more harm than good.
It was a beautiful day outside, the kind where any student would be a fool to eat at their desk. Adrien found a low wall to lean against at the far side of the courtyard and waited. Before long, the bell rang, and students began to trickle out of the building. Adrien smiled at the familiar pattern. First, the looks of awe and wonder as they came upon his ship. Then, the searching eyes, and the whispers among friends when they spotted him. He didn't like to announce himself plainly, but it wouldn't do to spring himself on his target without warning, either. He stood out quite enough beneath the trees, white hair and coat against translucent crystal.
He always became a target before he found his. Adrien pointedly ignored the wistful stares of longing as the courtyard began to fill with uniformed students, but there was always some brash girl willing to approach him. This time it was a tiny slip of a thing with short black hair, prodded forward by a group of giggling classmates.
"You're the Seeker," she said, noting the golden crescent mark on his forehead.
"Yes." Adrien's eyes stared over her, flitting from one student to the next as they came out the door. The short girl drew herself up.
"I volunteer. I want to be a Sailor Soldier."
"You can't." Adrien's reply came so swiftly that the girl hadn't even had time to take another breath. She took a half step back, then clenched her fists.
"Why not? You came here to take someone to the palace; why not me? How do I prove myself?"
"You don't," called a voice from a group of boys lounging on the grass nearby. The girl glared at them.
"Shut up, Ichi! I have as much of a chance as anyone!"
"Sailor Soldiers are born, not chosen," said the boy. "You think you have a drop of noble blood in you?"
"She's got more than you," said one of the girl's friends. "Boys can't be Soldiers; you're jealous, Ichi!"
"Better jealous than stupid. Some of us paid attention in History."
Adrien ignored the growing argument. Eager as the girl was, she was as dull and plain to his heightened senses as anyone else in the yard. He was seeking a shining star, a bolt of lightning in the darkness, a missing crown jewel. A light that, finally, began to twinkle at the far side of the couryard.
"Choose me! Please!" The black-haired girl fell to her knees as Adrien swept past her without a glance, his heart quickening in his chest. Her cry was echoed by others, dozens of students reaching out to him as he passed them by. The tingle in his soul possessed him, guiding him onward toward the glow that only he could see. Hopes flared and were dashed around him as the shine focused itself on a small group of girls standing together on the flagstones.
Adrien raised one hand over his chest. The golden crescent on his forehead flashed. A smooth rod materialized in his grip, aquamarine with the strength of the ocean.
The girls turned toward him as he approached, their eyes wide with wonder and anticipation. Two of them clung to each other in Adrien's shadow, trembling. It was to one of the others that he turned, and saw upon her the aura of a familiar spirit.
"Sailor Neptune," he said, holding out the transformation wand to a brunette with fair skin and dark eyes. "I have come to bring you home."
The yard erupted in a wave.
"Liesel-san! It's Liesel-san!"
"Oh, I'm so jealous!"
The girl called Liesel reached out slowly and took the shining wand in her hand. The symbol of Neptune blazed into life on her forehead, sending her hair flying. Adrien smiled. He was never wrong.
"Come, now," he said to the girl blinking at the rod in her hand. "Someone will be sent later to clean out your desk."
Liesel stepped forward. One of her friends reached out toward her sleeve, hesitated, then drew back. The group stood speechless as Adrien led Liesel toward his ship, some staring in disbelief, some hanging their heads. Adrien chuckled to himself. There was always the jealousy. The rest of the yard was far more vocal.
"No wonder she's so good at track."
"Top of her class, too, isn't she?"
"She wanted to go into sports medicine, I think."
"We should've known!"
"Which one did he say she was?"
"Neptune, wasn't it?"
The subject herself said nothing. Liesel was silent the entire long walk through the courtyard to Adrien's cruiser, staring down at the stick in her hand as if she couldn't believe it was there. She didn't look up until Adrien opened the door of the ship, retrieved the gold folder from the back seat, and held it out to her.
"I am Adrien." The formal rote felt as stale and forced as it had been the first time he recited it. "As a descendant of the Mauan Seekers of ancient times, I hearby commission you as a Sailor Soldier on behalf of the Queen. Your destiny begins today. You are Sailor Neptune."
Liesel's hands shook as she accepted the sheaf of introductory documents, but she still said nothing.
"Hop aboard," said Adrien. "They're eager to meet you back at the palace." A sadly simple hunt after a century of waiting, but Adrien still prided himself on his efficiency. It would be a fine mark on his record to be back with the new soldier before noon.
Liesel turned toward the soft blue walls and excited students of Our Lady Ami. Her gaze swept the courtyard, the statue of the school's namesake, the distant running track. Finally, she turned away from them and climbed into the backseat of the cruiser.
"At last," Adrien muttered. He swung himself up into the cockpit.
"Hello, Adrien. Welcome, Sailor Neptune," AMI said brightly.
On the rearview screen Adrien saw Liesel glance up at the voice, briefly startled. Her damp eyes sparkled and were lost again.
"Home, AMI," said Adrien. The cruiser broke free of the ground with a faint hum. He doubted he was imagining the hint of pleasure in it. In the back seat, Liesel was hunched over the folder and transformation stick.
"You brought great honor to your school today," Adrien said. The girl didn't respond. Often the new Sailor Soldiers were peppering him with questions by this point.
"I must say, you're a refreshing change," he tried. "Gaijin, like me, eh?"
More silence. Liesel flipped through the folder's greetings and briefing absently before closing it again to study her own face in its reflective surface. The sign of Neptune was still glowing on her forehead, and would until her first transformation. She traced its raised outline with one fingertip.
Adrien's eyes narrowed. "You can speak, can't you?" Not one word out of the girl yet; if she couldn't speak, how could she-
"Yes, sir," Liesel said quietly. Adrien smirked.
"You're one of the few in this world who don't have to address me so. Technically, I answer to you."
"Then-" Liesel's head shot up, a sudden blaze of energy and hope in her eyes. "Then - will you take me to my family?"
"Palace first. Orders from a higher power than you, I'm afraid." Adrien lay back in his chair. The spires of the crystal palace towered over them, looming larger by the second. "Besides, we're nearly there. Don't worry. An envoy will be sent to your family to explain things."
Sailor Jupiter was waiting for them when the cruiser touched down on the landing pad. The youngest soldier always served as a mentor to the new one. She nodded to Adrien as he hopped down from the cockpit and moved aside for Liesel to follow.
"AMI told you we were coming, I assume?"
"As always," said Jupiter. "This may be a new record for you, Adrien."
"Give me a real challenge next time, won't you? I could use a vacation."
"I'll focus on Antarctica, just for you," Jupiter teased. Her attention turned to the silent girl clutching a familar folder and wand.
"Liesel, this is Sailor Jupiter," said Adrien, putting an arm around the girl to urge her forward. Liesel looked up then, into a face framed by blonde hair and a golden tiara. Jupiter wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulders and turned to lead her into the palace.
"It's not so bad," Adrien heard her say. "I promise."
Not so bad? What could possibly be bad about becoming a Sailor Soldier?
"I detect nothing of interest in the immediate vicinity, sir."
"Good." Adrien guided the ship down between the peaked roofs. The cruiser landed lightly on the flagstones, the hum of its engine slowly fading into a murmur.
"How shall I note this mission in the logs?" the bright voice prompted.
"I'm going for a walk, AMI." Adrien released his safety harness and flipped the security switches on the console. There was a faint buzz of incomprehension.
"Can I not assist you? I am equipped to fill your every need."
"Not this one," said Adrien. He popped the hatch and hopped to the ground. "Wait quietly for me and I won't tell anyone." The hatch shut with a snap that seemed just a breath harsher than usual.
Adrien grinned as he turned to face the darkened city. By day, this courtyard would be bustling with citizens visiting the nearby shops. By night it was the perfect landing pad for a palace-dweller looking for a break from the ruling class. He was never in the mood for the company of courtiers after finding a Sailor Soldier. They always wanted to talk business, and he wanted to relax among the people of his fair city. The common districts felt more casual, the air itself lighter, free from the burden of maintaining appearances. Adrien breathed deeply as he walked, letting his feet carry him where they wished.
The day's events must have been somewhere on his mind, as a glance at a signpost revealed he had wandered back into the Mizuno district. When he squinted into the darkness down a side street, he thought he could see the schoolyard where he had found his Neptune. This part of the city had much to celebrate tonight. It was unlikely he'd find peace and solitude there, but as long as he was in the area, Adrien couldn't resist the chance to hear what its honored citizens had to say. He joined the trickle of locals heading into a nearby bar, which turned out to be one of those dark, noisy affairs that was more a nightclub than a tavern. At least there was a chance he might keep his profile low.
Illusion, the place was called, with the outline of a wave above the door. Adrien slipped inside, ducking into the shadows along the wall to cloak his white hair and coat. Heavy bass thumped at the far side of the room, but a shimmering soundwall saved the bar area from being deafened by the dance floor. Adrien squinted at the writhing shapes under the changing lights. These were the queen's subjects, carefree in the safety Liesel would have a hand in providing for them.
Adrien sidled up to the bar and perched on an empty stool. He leaned forward, letting his hair swing down over the crescent moon mark on his forehead, and signaled the bartender.
"Pint of Rising Moon."
According to record, alcohol had ceased to exist for many years following the founding of the city. There were precious few humans left after the old world ended, and everyone was needed hardy and sober. Under the cloud of despair that darkened the skies over the newborn Crystal Tokyo, it was also quite likely that anyone who started drinking would never stop.
The sparkling amber liquid the bartender set in front of Adrien was the first alcohol to be made in the city, decades after its birth when the confidence and safety of its people were assured. Newer research had yielded a version free of the miserable aftereffects their ancestors were said to have suffered. The people drank in the evenings with reckless abandon, secure in the knowledge that all worry and concern was far from them. The first brew had long ago fallen out of popularity, but Adrien always had a bottle after he found a new soldier, to feel connected to the old days. He wiped the dust off the label absently as he took in the chatter around him. It wasn't long before his ears caught the conversation he had been seeking.
"Right here, in our own district!" said a voice somewhere behind him, awe and pride made unusually loud by the glow of alcohol. "Can you believe it?"
"My Ikuko came running home bursting with excitement," said another voice. "Sat right next to the girl in class, she said. Never suspected a thing."
"Who would have?" said a third companion, his voice darker and rougher than the others and more slurred. "Soldiers were all Nihon-jin, in the old days."
Adrien's grip tightened on his bottle of Rising Moon.
"What about it?" a new voice demanded.
Adrien spun around on his stool. A tall brunette woman was glaring down at the three Japanese men clustered around the table behind him.
"We're all one race now," said the woman. "If it weren't for the foreigners lucky enough to be in Japan at the End, humanity would be a lot more shorthanded than it already is."
Adrien slid off his seat to stand at the woman's shoulder, adding his pale hair and blue eyes to her case. From the other end of the bar, a redhead with a bottle of Titan's Brew in her hand sidled purposefully in their direction.
"Hey, don't look at me," said the man to the right of the sour-faced drinker that had to be the one who had made the offensive comment. "Plenty of gaijin Sailor Soldiers on record, aren't there?"
His like-minded friend nodded hurriedly. "The last Saturn, and the two Jupiters before now."
"Meant nothin' by it," slurred the surly one, his suddenly nervous eyes darting back and forth between his drink and the glaring faces hovering over him. "New Neptune's from Mizuno; that's enough for me."
"What's going on, there?" called the bartender in a warning tone. The man didn't seem to be about to take things any further, and the redhead at the corner of Adrien's vision returned to her seat, but the brunette beside him didn't seem about to move. He touched her on the elbow.
"Come on, I'll buy you a drink."
The woman growled, but turned away from the target of her ire. A coil of tension that had sprung up in Adrien's gut released. He had no interest in becoming involved in anything that might attract the attention of the Crystal Tokyo police force.
"I'm Adrien," he said as they sat down on neighboring bar stools.
The woman looked at him for a long moment, as if searching for some secret behind his eyes.
"Just a friendly drink," said Adrien, spreading his palms. Seemed this one was suspicious of everyone and everything.
"Eva," she said in a clipped voice. "Altaverre."
Adrien signaled the barkeep and ordered the requested drink, noting with interest that it was an older brew growing increasingly difficult to find. It was generally preferred by the elder generations, although Eva looked barely old enough to be allowed through the door.
Her manners were certainly along the lines of someone who'd run out of patience with the world. Adrien took another swig of Rising Moon. It had a sour flavor, but the spirit of freedom was still in it.
"Look," he said, leaning one elbow on the bar, "don't let it get you down. You heard those other guys. Times change slowly, but they do change."
Eva snorted, glancing briefly in his direction before turning back to her glass of Altaverre. "What would you know of it, living in the palace like you do?"
So, she had recognized him. Adrien had assumed by her brusque treatment of him that the crescent mark on his foreheard had gone unnoticed under his hair. It had been a long time since anyone had dared speak rudely to him. It was irritating, but intriguing.
"I see more than most," he said. "I've traveled the world looking for Sailor Soldiers."
"What makes you choose one girl over another?" asked Eva, her voice suddenly distant. She turned her glass slowly in her hands, as if entranced by the patterns of light it cast on the surface of the bar. "Do you ever make a mistake?"
"Never," said Adrien, barely keeping the pride out of his voice. He felt he was beginning to understand his companion. One of the many bitter girls who'd been passed over by the Seeker, no doubt. There were so many of them. "It's not really a choice. They're born as they are, and they call to me."
"Do they, now. Is that what you tell yourself?"
Adrien frowned. He was sympathetic to the ordinary women of the world, but this was getting downright insulting.
"I don't tell myself anything. They shine, and I find them. That's all there is to it."
"Take a lot a pride in that, do you?"
"Why shouldn't I?" Adrien felt the anger growing in him, and with it, the itch of his features starting to shift. His ears prickled as they elongated and sharpened, his nose shortened and twitched, and the hair all over his body bristled. It wouldn't be long before someone noticed, but for the moment Adrien was too indignant to care.
"No one else can do what I do. I was born to find them, and they were born to be found. We're a family. I bring them home."
"Home? Family?" Eva swung around on her stool to face him, and her eyes were blazing. "You took Liesel away from the only home she's ever needed! I am her family!"
Now Adrien noticed the familiarity in the shade of Eva's hair and the depth of her eyes. "Her mother?"
Adrien cursed his double error as the wise eyes in Eva's deceptively youthful face bored into him.
"Liesel was happy as she was. She had goals and dreams, and you stole all of that away from her."
An incredulous laugh broke through Adrien's surprise and escaped his throat. "Who would choose any of that over their destiny as a Sailor Soldier?"
"Anyone would!" People were starting to stare, but Eva pressed on. "Anything's better than life in a glass cage! What is there for Liesel in the palace? Isolation; training for a war that will never come; her entire identity lost for no reason!"
"The Sailor Soldiers are the most precious resource in the world. Our only line of defense against-"
"There hasn't been an enemy on Earth in thousands of years," Eva pointed out. "In your little bubble you may not hear the old stories, but we do! The soldiers appear when they are needed. There's no reason to tear them away from their lives when there's no threat. In their past lives they fought so they could live peacefully, and now you steal it from them!"
"I would remind you," said Adrien, drawing himself up to his full height, "you are speaking ill of the nobility to one of its representatives."
Eva let out a hoarse laugh.
"Your victims may be too honor-bound to refuse what you force on them, but I'm not afraid to speak the truth. You may follow tradition without sparing a thought for its purpose, but I won't!"
She snatched up her glass from the bar and flung what remained of the Altaverre into Adrien's lap. His head snapped back, but he could do nothing more than gape openly as Eva slammed down the empty glass and stormed away. His lips moved, but he said nothing, staring after the tuft of dark hair as it weaved between the shocked patrons and disappeared through the door.
Adrien turned to see the bartender standing with his hand poised over the switch that would summon the police. With a gesture, Adrien could make sure Eva never saw her granddaughter - or anyone else - ever again.
"Just a towel, please," he found himself saying. "Thanks."
The faintest glow of sunrise was lurking on the horizon by the time Adrien returned to his cruiser. AMI was nearly frantic, minutes away from making an unauthorized call to the police, but Adrien brushed off the computer's concerns and ordered their return to the palace. He had deeper things on his mind.
The question had repeated itself endlessly in his head as he wandered the deserted streets of the Mizuno district, returning again and again to the running track behind Our Lady Ami Junior High. Was the gift he bestowed on the reborn soldiers an unwanted one?
It seemed absurd. Unthinkable. He awakened ignorant girls to their true birthright. He brought them out of obscurity and gave them privileged lives of honor. How many young women had thrown themselves at Adrien and begged him to make them Sailor Soldiers?
How many of the ones he had chosen seemed pleased?
Adrien searched his memories once more as the ship's autopilot carried him back toward the towering crystal spires, which were already shimmering in the pre-dawn light. A few of the new soldiers had been excited by the news, jumping into the air and hugging their friends, but they had all sank into a thoughtful silence as the palace loomed larger in the viewplate of the Seeker's cruiser. Most had been like Liesel. Quiet, withdrawn, solemn. Depressed.
"AMI. How long do you store your internal monitor data?"
"Forever, sir," the computer replied promptly. "Or until ordered to clear memory. I currently possess 54.36 zetabytes of available-"
"Fine, fine. Can you display a still image of each of the Sailor Soldiers I've brought home in my years as Seeker, as we were traveling to the palace? Five minutes before landing, please."
The viewplate flickered and a series of small photographs appeared across the visage of the approaching palace. Adrien slowly sank into his chair as his gaze flickered from one image to another. All sad, frightened, helpless faces. None of them pleased by their fate or excited to see their new home. Adrien had been too absorbed in his own triumph to notice.
Will you take me to my family?
It's not so bad, I promise.
"Shall I transfer this data to your office, sir?" asked AMI as the craft touched down on the landing pad.
Adrien jumped down from the cockpit and hurried up to the palace doors, leaving his ship to close its own hatch. He had been awake for nearly a full day, but he couldn't rest yet. Not until he knew for sure. He considered asking one of the Sailor Soldiers directly, but there was no point. He had served them his entire life, and they had never spoken an unhappy word to him. Most likely, they felt he could not understand. The role of Seeker was hereditary; he had been known since birth. Adrien had never had a life outside the palace. He had never had anything to lose.
The sky was brightening and the natural glow of the crystal walls was beginning to dim, but the sun had yet to breach the horizon. The corridors of the palace were deserted save for the occasional servant, who stared in puzzlement as the Seeker crossed their path. Adrien ignored the seductive song of the four-poster bed in his suite and headed straight for the Archives, down a little-used side corridor in the western spiral.
Adrien threw open the double doors of the Archives with some difficulty. They had begun to settle on their hinges, and a small cloud of dust rose in the pre-dawn glow filtering through the skylights. Adrien stepped across the threshold, his footsteps echoing. In here, no one would disturb him.
In some long-forgotten age, the Archives had been an active place. In Adrien's time, few bothered to leave their rooms for recorded information. The crystalline cavern that greeted him was lined with empty shelves, labeled with signs faded into illegibility. The only sign of life was the console ready and waiting at the center of the room, keeper of all the data that had once been stored on printed paper. Adrien approached it with a reverence that frustrated him. The console was just like any other in Crystal Tokyo, but entering the Archives always felt like walking into the past.
When his fingers brushed the screen, the console hummed faintly as old circuits of reserve power sprang into life. Adrien frowned at the unfamiliar display. The software here clearly hadn't been updated in several years.
"Seeker records," he said, then groaned in irritation as he remembered. The Archives had been a place for dozens of people to read quietly. The search consoles did not support voice recognition. Flexing his fingers, Adrien leaned over the machine to begin his quest.
Meiko's training is coming along well. She takes lunch with the girls now and promises to become a fine Sailor Mars. In the meantime I have started my search for the final missing soldier, Uranus...
Adrien straightened up and rubbed his eyes. He didn't know how long he'd been poking through old records, but he felt no more certain of the truth than he had after Eva's outburst. Almost a dozen Seekers, each as clueless as the last. This one had kept more meticulous journals than most, but in the end any hints of unhappiness among the new soldiers had been shrugged aside. Adrien stretched his back and was reaching toward the Clear button when something at the bottom of the file caught his eye.
Unsettling revelation today. Old volume, left out of last year's digitization project. When I asked, I got no answers. Perhaps something the girls themselves don't want to face. In fact... Auto-Archiving Off.
Adrien stared at the broken lines. After persuing decades of her life's work, Adrien felt he knew Marome personally. She had lived to be an old woman who took pride in leaving accurate accounts for posterity. She had been nearly obsessive about her journals, sometimes recording what she had for breakfast. It was unlike her to record fragmented sentences or to turn off automatic publication. Adrien tapped the console, but the old Seeker had left nothing further.
Adrien bent over the screen, as if closer scrutiny of the lines would yield their secrets. The digitization project of Marome's time had been responsible for the death of the Archives. All the old printed books and records had been fed into Crystal Tokyo's vast computer system for more efficient access and preservation. All but one volume, if Marome's log was to be believed. Why, out of all the knowledge and whimsy of humanity, had one single book been left out? And where was it now?
Adrien cleared the display screen and turned away from the console. A graveyard lay before him, a shadowed wasteland of dusty corridors and empty shelves. Any stray texts had been carried off long ago. If it was here, it wouldn't be in plain sight.
Wisps of fine particles swirled around the Seeker as he entered passages that had not seen life in centuries. There wasn't much dust in forgotten empty places, but his footsteps were enough to disturb the stale air. Row after row of lonely shelving passed him by, towering walls that had once held text that now fit on a chip the size of Adrien's fingernail. He shivered in the desolate tomb. Life was so much more efficient in his time. Even the search for Sailor Soldiers had become a simpler task now that the others were able to narrow down the location of their lost sister. Adrien's ancestors had had to wander blindly until their instincts picked up a scent.
She wanted to go into sports medicine, I think.
No wonder she's so good at track.
Such pleasure in such simple, traditional things, even in the modern age...
The door almost escaped Adrien's notice. A shelf along one wall had collapsed, broken timbers barring the way to an old metal door beneath the stairs. Had it not been for the access panel shining bravely in the shadows, Adrien would've missed it completely.
It took several minutes' work to clear enough of the debris to reach the door. By the end Adrien was aching and sweaty, his long white coat filthy with the dust of the past. His body cried for sleep, but he felt exhilarated. It had been years since he'd faced a challenging search. There was no chance of pausing in his quest now.
The access panel in the doorframe was dusty, but functional. Adrien held his breath as he pressed his hand to the plate. He doubted anyone was still monitoring the Archives, but if they were, the entire palace would soon know he was here.
To his relief, the panel hummed briefly and the door clicked open. Whatever lay beyond was not off-limits to Seekers. Adrien pushed through into a dim passage lit sparsely by flickering crystals. Several of the gems had gone out completely, ignored by maintenance personnel. It took his eyes a moment to adjust, but as the door closed gently behind him, Adrien felt his heart pounding in excitement. There were still places he had never been.
He stood still, his breathing the only sound, and gradually realized the space he had entered was much larger than he originally thought. He was once again surrounded by shelves, but this time they were full. Adrien reached out tentatively. His fingertips brushed bindings and pages that had not seen the light of day in generations. Some titles he was able to decipher, and some were in unknown languages. Moby Dick. The Holy Bible. Umino's Chronicle of the Fall. All the books deemed too precious to be destroyed after digitization.
Nothing new. Nothing alien, nothing out of place or particularly special. Adrien wandered into the gloom, somehow certain he would know his target when he saw it. Countless ages of human knowledge passed him by, all of it available to the public through the computer network.
The books grew older the farther he walked. Pristine, dust-repellent crystal-threaded bindings gave way to books that were showing their age. Adrien soon found himself passing mostly-empty shelves and stepping around sad piles of dust that had once been printed paper. He stopped and sighed. The force of his breath turned a nearby tome into a shower of crumbling pages. If there was anything back here, it had been destroyed by time.
A sputtering buzz caught the edge of Adrien's hearing. He felt his ears lengthen, seeking out any trace of sound. The chamber had gone quiet again, but now that he was listening he could detect a faint hum in the air. Peering into the gloom, he spotted the hint of a glow beyond a distant shelf. Excitement rose in him again and he hurried forward.
The shelves were all empty at the back of the room and the dust on the floor was thick. There were faint depressions in it, one set of old footprints half-filled by additional centuries. Adrien turned the last corner, where the final bookcase met the wall. His heart caught in his throat.
A dome of faint blue light was shining bravely in the darkness, alone and forgotten among the lost literature. It was twice Adrien's height and four times as wide. At its center was a marble pedestal. On the pedestal was a book.
Surrounding the blue dome, a low beam of white light cut through the darkness. Adrien had never come across a setup like this, but he knew a security barrier when he saw one. A more familiar control panel sat on a stand to his right.
Adrien approached with caution. The entire configuration brightened and darkened erratically, sometimes flashing off completely with an electric pop and an answering whine. The wiring was badly in need of maintenance, and dust clung to Adrien's fingertips as he touched the console. The panel hummed briefly as it scanned his palm, then buzzed angrily. Access denied.
The only security clearance higher than his own was that of a Sailor Soldier.
Adrien held his breath. He had never exceeded his authority before, but he hadn't come this far only to turn back. He moved away from the console and stood awkwardly beside the security barrier, eyeing the book beneath the blue dome hungrily. If this had been designed by Mizuno Ami herself, as he suspected it might have been, there was no way to defeat it. Unless-
Adrien's hair twitched with static as a twang of failing electrical current left the air tasting of metal. The dome and barrier winked out. Adrien lunged forward before he could think twice, crossing into the safe zone just as the white beam sputtered back into existence.
The air beneath the blue dome was different from the air outside. It was stale and sterile, yet somehow thick, as if more liquid than gas. When Adrien stepped forward it pressed back against him, and the few particles of dust he stirred up hung lazily in the air. Time itself moved slower here.
The book turned out to be a surprisingly tiny thing. The other volumes that had been selected for preservation were from the best print runs, majestic hardcovers with gilded pages. This was a tired old paperback, bent and tattered from use. Its cardboard cover had been printed at one time, but the letters and designs had long since faded into obscurity. The book had survived only through the power of the time-delay preservation dome.
Adrien glanced up as the soft glow popped off and back on again. How long had the dome been malfunctioning? Regular air had been mixing with the preserved air for who knew how many years. He reached out and gingerly lifted the cover of the book. It broke off in his hand.
Adrien froze, fingers hovering in midair. This was a fragile national treasure. It should be preserved and analyzed by scientists, not destroyed by his inexpert hands.
What would happen, though, if he put the book in the hands of historians? It had been abandoned here for generations, and according to Marome, for good reason. It was more likely that the volume would disappear forever.
He gritted his teeth and bent down to read. The first page was covered in rows of neat, clean handwriting. The language was archaic, but after a minute's focus Adrien was able to make sense of most of the words.
It's my birthday today. Mom gave me this diary. I think she's forgotten that I don't write... again... but she can't remember everything. She works so hard. I'll give it a try, for her.
There's a mock test coming up this Thursday. I've been putting in five hours a day, but I'm still not confident about my advanced calculus. In fact, I should be studying right now instead of writing...
Adrien frowned. This was some student's personal diary. Why was it being preserved with such care and security? He turned the first page and watched it fall to pieces between his fingers. The next page was more of the same. Humdrum teenage babble about late nights and meetings and classes and friends. Why was it here? To preserve a piece of a bygone era? Perhaps this wasn't even the book Marome had mentioned, but something else entirely. Either way, if the information Adrien sought was buried in the middle, he would most likely never reach it through the pages crumbling at his touch.
Impatiently he turned the volume over and gently cracked it open a few sheets from the end. The last several pages were blank, and held together better than the ones laden with ink. The writer had given up on the diary after all. He turned to the last few written pages out of idle curiosity, tipping the book onto its spine and separating the sheets carefully to avoid bending them. The paper was wrinkled and creased, as if the diary had gone through a lot in the intervening days.
Tomorrow is the last day of our lives.
There isn't any other choice. Our families won't let us out of their sight. The military is preventing anyone from leaving the shelter. If we're going to do anything, we have to reveal ourselves to everyone.
I didn't expect it to happen so suddenly. We all knew the year, but when May came and went with no sign of a new enemy, we couldn't help but think we might have escaped our fate. They've always come with pompous announcements and sent demons to test the waters before unleashing their full power. This... It's like being hit by a brick, with surgical precision.
There wasn't any time. Before we had a chance to think, the military mobilized and herded everyone underground. People keep asking where the Sailor Soldiers are, and wondering if they still exist at all. They've caged their saviors along with them.
None of us want this, but it's inevitable. We've always known, at the back of our minds, that this was meant to happen. Usagi-chan puts on a happy face, but I know her heart's breaking. All she ever wanted was a normal life, and after tomorrow that will be impossible.
Crystal Tokyo. It looms over us somewhere in the dust of the battle on the surface. I wonder how it will happen. Is the city we saw born from the power of the Silver Crystal? Usagi-chan can't fight much in her condition. Mamoru-san is beside himself with worry. How much of the world will we be able to save?
I just caught myself going over my notes again. Ridiculous. There won't be any more exams, or any more classes. Ever again. Tokyo U has probably been razed to the ground by now. I'll never... so many things. So much I'll never do. What was the point? Why did I spend my life studying? I knew, I knew it would be pointless in the end. If it hadn't been for Usagi-chan, I never would've looked up from my books. All gone, now, or soon will be. All the things I could've seen and done.
I can't say these things to everyone. There's no time for regret. We'll do what we have to do. When I'm finished here, I will close this book and join the others and smile and look forward to the new world on the horizon. If we survive this fight, our sacrifices will bring peace to the world for more than a thousand years. Only these pages will know the truth. I will whisper it here and hide this book in case none of us survive to remember it.
We did our duty, but we didn't want to. I am Sailor Mercury. But I didn't want to be.
The last page was discolored with the remnants of long-dried tears. Adrien backed away from the pedestal, his hands shaking. He stared at the book as if it had suddenly sprouted thorns. He knew enough of the founding history to recognize the attack that gave rise to the city, and with the final lines there could be no doubt. These words had been written by Mizuno Ami herself.
I didn't want to be.
I didn't want to be.
I didn't want to be.
Adrien groaned and sat up. Unsure of what to do, he'd gone to bed after leaving the Archives, but every time he dozed off he saw the stone face of the statue at Our Lady Ami and heard her words echo in his head. He threw off the covers and rolled to his feet, head aching with knowledge he wished he didn't possess.
Midday sunshine was leaking into the bedroom through the cracks around the door. Adrien padded across the floor and into his office, blinking in the bright light. He'd managed to sleep a few hours, but doubted he'd get any more rest.
The city was fully awake, sunlight ginting on the occasional skimmer as the people of Crystal Tokyo went about their daily business. Adrien put his palm against the window, gazing down at the activity beyond the palace. Within these walls he had power, status, a sense of being above the triviality of mundane life. He had never imagined anyone might prefer the world outside.
The crystal was cold against his hand.
A soft chime sounded in the still air.
"Hai," said Adrien absently. He heard the click of the lock releasing and the whisper of the door to his suite opening, but his gaze stayed fixed out the window, as if he could glimpse the individual lives being lived far below.
"It's your lucky day," said a bright voice. "Two missions in one week! The others thought you might want a break, since you didn't show at the morning meeting, but I knew you'd want to get started imme... Are you all right?"
Adrien turned around. Sailor Mars was looking at him in concern, a folder forgotten in her hand.
"I slept in."
"I see that," said Mars, eyeing his fleece pants and bare chest.
It was as unlikely for Adrien to be seen without his white coat as it was for the Sailor Soldiers to be seen out of uniform. Adrien found he instinctively took far more notice of the red skirt than the woman wearing it. Dark, curly hair. Brilliant green eyes. When had he last paid attention?
The easy question covered the impossible ones he longed to ask. He knew the answers he'd get, and the real answer he'd never hear.
We did our duty, but we didn't want to.
"Neptune? She's settling in all right," said Mars, moving further into the room. "She's starting training with Jupiter this afternoon. Transformation went well. Uniform fits like a glove."
Adrien chuckled reflexively as Mars grinned, but he barely heard her words. What had Mars been like, when he found her? Try as he might, he could not remember a thing about the girl she had been. The Sailor Soldiers were his life, but when it came to the important things, he knew almost nothing about them. Their sisterhood was a cloister of buried secrets.
"What's this?" Adrien nodded at the folder in the soldier's hand.
Sailor Mars held out the folder, on firmer ground now, although her eyes still flickered with concern.
"Already?" Adrien strode forward and reached out for the paperwork.
"Lightning strikes twice. We located her this morning. Sailor Mercury."
Adrien's fingers slipped on the folder and he nearly dropped it when Mars let go.
"Are you sure you're all right?" The red-suited soldier peered at him, frowning.
Adrien flipped the folder open and scanned the pages without seeing them, the stone face of Mizuno Ami filling his mind's eye.
I didn't want to be.
"You'll like this one," said Mars. "She's in one of the outlying settlements. Should be a real hunt this time."
"Good, good." Adrien tried to focus. His head ached. Why now, why so soon? He hadn't had time to think it over, to decide what to do. For decades he had sat idle, aching for another mission, and now he had been given two when what he was most desperate for was time.
"Your cruiser's been serviced, but it can only take you as far as the outskirts. You'll have to join a caravan from there."
Adrien looked up at Sailor Mars, whose worry had been rather effectively hidden by business. She clung to the comforts of habit and routine, but Adrien knew she'd be off to tell the others he'd been acting strangely as soon as she walked out the door.
All the answers were right there in front of him, yet he'd had to learn them from the crumbling diary of a girl long dead.
"What would you have done," he asked suddenly, "if you hadn't become a Sailor Soldier?"
"What do you mean? I've always been a soldier. I just didn't know it until you found me."
Something in Adrien's heart broke. He wasn't the only one who didn't remember the girl who had become Sailor Mars. Had the Mizuno Ami whose goals and dreams filled the ancient diary with life disappeared too, over time?
"What if I hadn't found you?" he pressed. "What would you be doing now?"
The faint flicker of buried concern lurking behind Mars' eyes flared up into fresh alarm.
"Have you lost your gift? We can narrow the field, but we can't pinpoint their souls like you can!"
"No, no," Adrien said hurriedly, his Seeker's pride rising to the surface. "I was just wondering what our lives would be like if we weren't... here." He waved his arms vaguely to indicate the fortress that isolated them from the people they were meant to protect.
"We are here because we were always destined to be here. We all do our duty. There's no point in thinking about anything else."
Mars reached out and pushed the folder Adrien was holding against his chest.
"I was wandering, lost, before you found me," she said. "Find Mercury. Bring her home."
How had it all worked, before there were Seekers? It was hard to imagine now; Seekers had been identifying Sailor Soldiers since the beginning of the modern age. Most people never learned it had ever been any different, even in their ancient history classes. Adrien knew more, having been raised within the palace walls.
The first Seekers had been Mauans, allies of the Earth from a forgotten age who disguised themselves as cats. Adrien had a trace of their blood in his own veins. When evil came to the world, they had sought out the Sailor Soldiers in a sea of ordinary humans.
When evil came. Not before.
The horse beneath Adrien snorted and tossed its head, interrupting his thoughts. He straightened up in the saddle and gripped the reins awkwardly, trying to appear more in control than he felt. He missed the comfort of his cruiser's padded seats and the faint hum of its engines. Even the mothering wheedle of AMI was a wistful memory as he blinked in the hot sun and swatted flies away from his ears. The new Sailor Mercury had certainly hidden herself well off the beaten track. Out here, there was no choice but to go on horseback.
"Nearly there, lord."
Adrien glanced over at the leader of the caravan, whose name he had forgotten shortly after her magnanimous introduction back in Tezuka-Kyo. She had kept her horse quite close to his throughout the overnight journey, making Adrien wonder what there was to be afraid of in the wilds outside Crystal Tokyo.
She pointed across the rolling countryside ahead of them. To the right of the road, a cluster of roofs was just barely visible over an approaching hill. The track they traveled was lined with rice paddies, and the warm air was heavy with the smell of animals. Adrien found himself doubting his recent musings. Who in their right mind would choose this kind of life? This was definitely the place, however. There was no mistaking the distant pull that urged him forward.
Doors opened and children came running to meet the caravan as the train of wagons rounded the hill. A few steps brought them into the town square. The settlement was even smaller than Adrien had anticipated. He spotted a general store, an inn and tavern, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith among the cluster of houses. The skeleton of what was probably a weekly open market was sprawled along one side of the square, canvas tarps flapping in the breeze. There was nothing else.
"Back, now, until we've stopped," the caravan's leader said to the excited children. She urged her horse forward until the wagons lined the square opposite the empty market. The moment his horse stopped, Adrien heaved himself out of the saddle. His aching back and sore behind would punish him for the long ride in the morning.
The children had clustered around again and were peering under the wraps covering the wagons. Adrien paid them little attention. They were all too young to be the one he was searching for. He hefted his satchel onto his shoulder and stumbled toward the tavern, eager for something cool to drink. Curious stares followed his dusty white coat as he slid the door open and slipped through.
Inside the tavern it was gloomy and hot. Adrien blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. A large fan turned lazily on the far wall, bringing in cooler air from outside, but that was all the climate control the place had to offer.
In the corner, a mug slammed down on a table.
"Just no escapin' 'em, is there?" a rough voice growled.
Adrien peered into the darkness to see an old man glaring at him over his beer. That alone was enough to give him pause. It had been a long time since he'd seen an elderly man who actually looked his age.
"Like I been sayin', ain't nowhere safe," said a scratchy female voice.
Adrien became aware of other eyes on him from hunched shapes bent low over tables, none of them friendly.
"Why don't you get on back to your plastic world and leave us be?" someone said.
"That's enough out of you lot."
Adrien turned to see the barkeep scowling at the others, all fire and disapproval with her hands planted firmly on her hips. She waved Adrien over, and he crossed the uneven floor to approach the rough-hewn bar.
"Don't mind them," said the barkeep pleasantly, setting out a clean glass. "They're just bitter that the world's not bigger than it is. This town was founded by people who wanted to escape the modern age."
She was a large woman with a mass of red hair. Although her skin glowed with apparent youth, her eyes were beginning to develop the telltale age lines that came with distance from Crystal Tokyo.
"You're not one of them, I take it."
The woman chuckled and shook her head.
"Moved out from Tezuka-Kyo a few years back. Call me crazy, but there's something to be said for food grown by your neighbor's own hands."
She disappeared behind the bar. Adrien heard the creak of a trap door and the rattle of bottles.
"Can't offer much that you'd be used to, but I think I've got one Altaverre left from the last caravan. Ah, here we are."
The barkeep straightened up and uncorked the bottle. Adrien stiffened as its sharp scent brought back memories of old eyes in a young face and a drink dumped on him in anger, but he nodded for the barkeep to pour it into his glass. He sipped the clear liquid but barely registered its taste.
She had goals and dreams, and you stole all of that away from her.
He remembered how he had laughed at Eva. He could barely recall how it felt to be so certain in his role.
"A Sailor Soldier in Endreach, huh? Who would've thought."
Adrien's head jerked up. The barkeep gestured at the golden crescent on his forehead.
"Perhaps," said Adrien, bending back to his drink. The eyes of the locals bored into him from behind.
"Must be," said the barkeep. "There's nothing past Endreach. I grew up in the crystal city, I know how it works. Anna!"
There was a rattle in a back room. After a moment a teenage girl appeared in the doorway, arms and apron wet with dishwater. The barkeep beckoned her closer and gripped the girl by the shoulders, turning her to face Adrien.
Adrien watched as the girl's confused eyes widened when her gaze met his face. It was a familiar scene. The girl, frightened and uneasy even as her back slowly straightened in distant hope and acceptance. The parent, calmly facing her duty, fingers tightening on her daughter's shoulders with the dread of loss.
"No," said Adrien. The girl's aura was dull to him, empty. Ordinary. "I'm sorry," he said, the apology tainted with a shadow of relief.
Anna's face crumpled in a strange mix of sorrow and joy. She ducked out of her mother's grip and practically fled back to the dishroom.
"Ah, well," said the barkeep dismissively. "It was worth a try. She'll find another way out of this place, if she wants to go." She busied herself arranging the bottles on their shelves, but Adrien caught the smile spreading on her face as she turned away.
Raising the glass to his lips, Adrien let his gaze wander. The Endreach tavern couldn't have been a farther cry from the trendy nightclub that had served the last Altaverre he'd seen. It was dark, but by nature rather than design, all natural wood worn smooth by years of use. There wasn't a sole credit display screen or system control panel anywhere, and Adrien was certain he spotted an actual push broom leaning against the wall in a shadowy corner.
The disapproving gazes were still burning against his back. He fought the urge to turn and face them.
"If you don't mind my asking," said Adrien as the barkeep glanced in his direction, "what made you choose a place like this over Crystal Tokyo?"
"You won't have our Katherine," snapped an elderly voice behind Adrien. "She's happy here; let her alone and go back yourself."
"Mind your own, Benito," said the barkeep. "It's not like he's about to drag me back there. I can look out for myself."
"He's out to drag someone back," said another voice. Adrien felt the unfamiliar sting of a flush rising in his cheeks. Not long ago he would have reacted indignantly to such words, even to the point of treating the tavern to a speech on the merits of the society he served. Now he felt only shame.
The barkeep - Katherine - noticed, and appeared to take pity on him.
"I'm not sure what made me come," she said. "I was a good citizen growing up. We lived in the Aino district."
It was a neighborhood Adrien knew well, one of the closest to the palace.
"As I got older, I found myself moving farther and farther away," Katherine went on. "The technology kept losing its shine. It's hard to explain," she said in response to Adrien's puzzled expression, "but the world would get boring. Empty. A change of environment would do it for a while. The extra effort of walking instead of relying on the mag-train, of buying handmade clothes instead of ordering the mass synthetics. But it would never last. Things never felt-" she gestured vaguely as she sought the proper word "-right - natural - until I joined the caravan from Tezuka-Kyo and ended up here. Here's where I finally felt like I had a place, like I was more than a number in a census. Here's where I finally felt settled, where I met Chikashi, and had Anna."
"You married a local?" Adrien was desperate to keep the conversation going, to keep his mind off the hateful glares fixed on him.
"I did." Katherine looked away as her eyes grew sad. "He died, a few years back. But that, too, is natural. Yes, the technology of Crystal Tokyo could have saved him. But why? We didn't want that."
"Why not?" Adrien burst out, now confronted by something he absolutely could not understand. "Even to save his life?"
"Life without struggle isn't living, it's just existing," said the barkeep, turning back to Adrien with fire in her eyes. "Haven't you ever felt that, in your perfect timeless world? Haven't you ever wanted to escape the safety of magic and technology to live or die by your own hands?"
Adrien stared at her for a long moment, dumbfounded. In all his life there had never been a time when he'd even imagined leaving the comforts of Crystal Tokyo behind to carve out a life in the wilderness, nor had anyone else he'd ever known. Why, why when all the pleasures of the modern age were readily available would anyone choose to turn their back on them?
Yet here was an entire town full of people who had done just that. Here was a tavern he suddenly realized was rough because the townspeople had built it themselves without the help of heavy machinery. Here the shelves were stocked with bottles bearing unfamiliar labels, because the brews they contained had been invented on family farms.
Adrien had never in his life created anything out of whole cloth, unless you counted soldiers to fill the palace's empty rooms.
"No," he replied, "but I think I can understand why others might."
Katherine's face softened and she topped off his glass.
"I'm sorry to get you down like this, but you did ask."
Adrien nodded as he raised the glass to his lips.
"I've been learning that I still have a lot to learn."
"You never know what might come in handy," said the barkeep. "Here on a mission, ne? You're a long way from home, Seeker. And tonight there'll be the festival welcoming the caravan. I assume you'll be wanting a room?"
Normally, Adrien would've been wanting to locate his target and escape this place as fast as possible. It was dusty, and hot, and filled with people who shunned everything he stood for. There'd be cold baths, and untreated food, and bedbugs and who knew what else. Somehow, though, Adrien found himself wanting to see a bit more of these people and how they lived.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I will."
The Altaverre was crisp and refreshing on his tongue.
No matter what he said, read, or experienced, Adrien knew no amount of other reward would ever persuade him to give up the blessings of climate control. The shadows were growing longer but the sun still beat down on him, and he felt that his spine would never forgive him for climbing back on a horse after little more than a lunch break. Out here, though, walking was not an option if he wanted to visit all the farms surrounding Endreach in less than a month.
Farm life looked idyllic enough from afar, but up close it was all too easy to see what it really was: a back-breaking slog through the knee-deep mud of a rice paddy. Adrien passed several of these as he navigated the deeply rutted trails that passed for roads in the outer country. In each one there were farmers driving livestock through the murky water surrounding the young plants, and Adrien thought then that if he found his target in one of these he'd pull her out immediately, compunctions be damned. The thought of a Sailor Soldier half up to her waist in filth under the hot sun made him shudder.
Thus far, all the homesteads he'd passed had been as empty to his senses as Endreach itself. The few children he'd seen, working in the fields or bringing food and water to their parents, had been as ordinary as the hundreds of others the Seeker had turned away over the years. For what felt like the millionth time, Adrien closed his eyes and straightened up in the saddle, concentrating on the faint tingle that spread from his heart as the horse plodded along beneath him. Still it was unfocused, a cloud of awareness rather than a driving force, as if diluted by the distance between him and Crystal Tokyo. Somewhere nearby was a kindred spirit, but all Adrien could do was wander and hope for a spark.
The next bend in the road brought him up a small rise beyond a stand of trees. Grass rolled down the hillside to the edge of an extensive vegetable garden. There was no rice field here, only rows and rows of leafy greens stretching to the base of a modest house surrounded by thick haskap bushes.
The difference alone was enough to make Adrien pause. There were few vegetable farms among the hills, and he welcomed the sight of rolling green in place of standing water. Adrien reined in his horse and sat for a moment, gazing over the even rows. As tranquil as the scene appeared, he could not imagine the ongoing effort it took to maintain it. He wondered distantly which plant was which.
The voice sailed over the countryside from somewhere beyond the farm. Adrien looked up and spotted a figure running full-tilt down a path that snaked out from the woods at the far end of the homestead. It was a young woman, making a beeline for the farmhouse with her long hair flying out behind her. She couldn't have been more than fourteen, and to Adrien's eyes she shone with a light far beyond the sunshine. The Seeker breathed a sigh of relief, a smile spreading across his face. His mission was over. He'd found her.
"Okaa-san! The caravan's here!" The girl sprinted up the few steps of the house and through its open door. "I'm wearing my new dress, okay?"
"Not before you finish your chores, you're not!"
The responding voice was so close that Adrien jerked back in his saddle, causing the horse to shift its feet. An older woman rose out of the waist-high crops just steps away from the field's edge, straightening up and brushing the dirt from her knees. She placed her hands on her hips and stretched.
"I know you can hear me!"
"Oh, come on!" The girl reappeared in the doorway. The setting sun revealed she had already managed to change into a flowing blue dress. "Keiko and Masumi are waiting for me!"
"I'm sure that's what they're telling their parents, too," her mother replied. "We've got some vegetables ready to sell tonight. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll be done."
"But I already changed!"
"Well, change back. Don't ruin your new dress. Where's your sister?"
"With Aaron. She's fine."
The girl vanished again. Adrien squinted at the house. It bore solar plates, but was otherwise a simple structure built in the traditional style of ancient Japan. Tiled roof. Sliding panels instead of doors. Thin material in place of crystal windows. He shivered, thinking of what it must be like in the winter. It was a miracle that the lost Sailor Soldier had survived so long in a place like this.
"You know I don't like you leaving her behind just because she's slower than you."
"It's been months since the last caravan! There was still snow on the ground! I don't want to miss anything! I had to come home and change!"
"Into a better sister?" a voice called out from around the side of the house. Adrien spotted a young man leaning on a pole amongst the greenery.
"Daisuke, you're the worst!"
The girl reemerged, and headed down the front steps with a basket under her arm. She had exchanged the blue dress for tan overalls and work boots, but to Adrien there was no mistaking the shine of the nobility. To the Seeker, her aura glittered with untapped power, lending a spring to her step and a shimmer to her dark hair.
She headed unwittingly in his direction, following a path through the garden toward where her mother was working. Adrien's fingers flexed, an instinct at the back of his mind nudging the familiar process into motion. A warmth grew in his palm until something solid brushed against his skin, and he closed his hand on a slender blue stick topped with the symbol of Mercury. His free hand seized the saddle in front of him, he leaned forward in preparation to dismount...and he hesitated.
"I got top marks in math again," Sailor Mercury called to her mother. She had stopped beside some tall plants, and was picking something round and red from beneath the leaves to put in her basket. "Doc Inge says if I keep it up, he'll take me on this summer."
"You're too young! That kind of work, at your age?"
"Just the minor stuff! Breaks and scrapes. I'd be back at school in the fall."
As the Seeker, Adrien had interrupted classes, sports, meals, and even an onstage performance once before had he learned the meaning of decorum. In almost every case, his mission was more important than whatever activity the new soldier was involved in at the end of her ordinary life. He had never paused before, never taken a moment to observe the young woman whose life he was about to irrevocably change. The rod was in his hand, the papers were in his pocket, his goal was in sight...and yet he didn't get down from his horse.
The mother left her gardening tools behind and walked over to her daughter. Adrien couldn't hear what they were saying, but he watched as the older woman brushed a strand of hair away from her child's face and laid her other hand on the girl's shoulder. Sailor Mercury smiled, more brightly than any girl Adrien had ever seen. Even the most privileged women in the world, revered and pampered in their crystal towers, never looked as happy as this scruffy teenager standing in the dirt of the back country.
She had goals and dreams, and you stole all of that away from her.
I am Sailor Mercury. But I didn't want to be.
Adrien looked at the transformation stick in his hand.
He looked at the girl, smiling and laughing.
He looked at the stick.
He looked at the girl.
Sailor Mercury pushed her basket into her mother's arms and ran back toward the house, her loose hair once again flying out behind her. Her mother watched her go, raising one arm to shade her eyes from the fading sunlight. Adrien's lips parted. His lungs filled with air, ready to call out to them.
He exhaled and shoved the stick into the pocket of his dusty coat. There was no rush. Might as well let the girl enjoy one more festival in her hometown before awakening her to her destiny.
By the time Adrien returned to the village, the festival was in full swing. He'd taken the long way back, alone with his thoughts while instinct coursed through his brain. It was duller now that he'd brought forth the Mercury wand, but it still burned resolutely at the back of his mind.
The tiny town square was filled with tents, various booths and stalls having sprung up seemingly from nowhere. All the citizens of the surrounding farmland had descended upon Endreach, and the sleepy town was almost as crowded and lively as some of Crystal Tokyo's streets. Adrien slid into the crowd almost eagerly, hungry for a taste of civilization. As he perused the various booths, looking at their wares politely, he wondered if he might find some souvenirs to bring home for the soldiers. He was fairly certain none of them had ever been out this far.
There was something off about the people around him. The shopkeepers looked at the platinum-haired Seeker with suspicion in their eyes, a far cry from the respect and awe Adrien was used to seeing. He recalled the attitude of the patrons of the tavern, and soon found himself ducking his head to avoid each piercing gaze. No matter how crowded the aisles were when Adrien entered them, he quickly became the center of a widening space. Some parents even pulled their curious girls away when they spotted him. When he glimpsed the caravan's leader seated at a nearby booth, he made a beeline for his only link to the outside world and practically slunk into a seat beside her. She glanced over at the flash of white that had appeared at her shoulder.
"How goes, Seeker? Have you found your girl?"
Adrien didn't answer. His lips parted, but he didn't know what to say. After a moment, the caravan leader shrugged and turned back to the conversation on her right. Adrien bent over the counter, pressing his forehead into his palm. His fingertips traced the faintly raised edges of the crescent on his forehead, a mark that for the first time in his life he wished he could erase.
A tall mug of something foamy was plunked down in front of him. Adrien looked up into a shock of red hair framing a familiar pair of aged eyes.
"Drink up," said Katherine. "My own brew. It's good for what ails you." Without a prying word, she turned away and returned her attention to the other patrons of her booth.
Adrien eyed the mug hesitantly, then raised it to his lips. The liquid was thick, yet oddly refreshing, with a faint hint of apples and grapes mixed into the amber brew. He imagined he could almost taste the time and effort that had gone into its creation. Nothing in Crystal Tokyo was made by human hands anymore.
The comforting effect was shattered as his gaze wandered across the crowd that was visible through the back of the booth, where it landed on the reborn Sailor Mercury. She was wearing the same blue dress he had seen her in earlier, but her long hair was now done up in braids. She stood among a group of girls that were around her age. As Adrien watched, one of them snatched a book out of his target's hands and shoved it into her handbag. The faint edge of harsh tones reached Adrien's ears as the new Mercury was chastised by her friend for bringing books to the festival. The girl blushed, but smiled.
Adrien fished in his pocket for the coins Sailor Mars had given him, retrieved from an ancient chest that held Crystal Tokyo's small reserve of hard currency. Without taking his eyes off the girl, he pulled a circle of worn metal from his cache and laid it on the counter. There was no sense in putting it off any longer. Duty called.
He slid off his stool and followed as the group of girls turned away from him and wandered down an aisle of shops. The transformation rod hung heavy in the Seeker's pocket, but although he wrapped his fingers around its smooth surface as he walked, he could not bring himself to interrupt the cluster of friends in front of him.
This was the reborn Sailor Mercury. Adrien's newest mistress, destined to rule over him as soon as he awakened her to her true nature. The other Sailor Soldiers were waiting for her, eager to welcome her into the fold. The life so many girls dreamed of was Adrien's to give, a precious opportunity more prestigious than any other on what remained of Earth. She could not imagine the treasures and knowledge that lay ahead of her.
She was also Mizuno Ami. The reincarnation of a girl who'd wanted nothing more than to be ordinary, to be with her friends and explore her own hopes and dreams. To have the very life she was having now.
The sun had set, and the younger children were dashing here and there lighting the paper lanterns strung over the town square. The dull roar of voices was comforting to Adrien, but also new; there was a warmth of community in it unlike any he'd sensed in the crystal city. Perhaps he just hadn't been looking for it.
He drifted after his target as if in a dream, watching as she tried on jewelry and perused yellowing scrolls. Always, there was a smile on her face as she laughed with her friends. Adrien had never seen any of the new soldiers smile so much. He'd always interrupted them before they had a chance. After they entered the palace, they rarely smiled.
As they neared the end of a row, the group of friends sped up, whispers spreading among them. Adrien snapped out of his stupor and hurried to keep them in sight as they turned a corner. When he rounded the end of the last tent, he was shocked to find the girls waiting for him, several with their hands on their hips.
"We know you're following us," said the one in front, a tall young woman with sharp eyes. "You're him, aren't you? The one who steals girls away."
"I come bearing a great gift," Adrien said crossly, a touch of his old pride rearing its head. He couldn't help but notice that some of the girls wouldn't meet his gaze. He couldn't help but notice the fear in their eyes.
"What gift takes us from our homes? What kind of gift is that?"
"It's destiny," argued Adrien, his grip tightening on the wand in his pocket. "It was always meant to be this way. The world is waiting."
"Waiting to imprison us," said a tiny wisp of a girl in a yellow dress.
"Is it one of us?" asked a brunette in green, her face a familiar mixture of trepidation and excitement. "Is it?"
Adrien's mouth was dry. He didn't dare look at his target. He wanted more time to think. To wander. Anything.
The source of the new voice stepped out in front of the others, her braids swinging in the evening breeze. Adrien's breath caught in his throat. Did she know?
"If you have to take one of us, take me," said the new Sailor Mercury. As her friends began to argue, she stretched out her arms to separate them from Adrien. "No, Keiko, you're almost done with your studies. Masumi, you have a boyfriend. Karin, what would your father do without you? I have siblings, and Endreach already has two doctors. I can go." She turned back to Adrien. "Take me."
They stared at each other for a long moment. The transformation stick burned against the Seeker's palm. It would be so easy to continue doing what he had always done. So easy.
The girl's face was like stone. She stared Adrien down with the strength of a dozen Sailor Soldiers, as if daring him to do his duty. As he watched, stubborn tears welled up in her eyes. She stood unblinking as they spilled over and rolled down her cheeks. Adrien was forced to break away first to avoid doing the same.
The Sailor Soldiers were constantly reborn for a reason. Not to defend against evil - they would always be there to be called upon, if evil returned - but to have the lives they had always wanted. That was the gift of fate, and their reward for a job well done. Another chance to be ordinary.
Adrien's job was not to give them their future, but to steal it from them.
"It's none of you," he found himself saying, even as the words tore his throat. "I thought it might be, but it's not."
Gasps of relief surrounded his target as her friends closed in around her, hugging each other and wiping away her tears. Adrien stumbled away, his stomach twisting. The crescent on his forehead burned with the lie, but somehow his soul felt lighter, and as he walked away toward the room waiting for him above the tavern, he was glad.
At the crest of the hill, Adrien paused to look back. The countryside spread out before him, green and lush, dotted with bushes and speckled with wildflowers. There was a farm not far off, where a few cows grazed in the pasture and the farmer's family waded through the rice fields. Beyond the rolling grasses, the peaked roofs of Endreach rose against the horizon.
Adrien watched the scene for a moment, ignoring the weight of the slim rod in his pocket. When the horse he had bought from the caravan leader stamped impatiently he turned its head toward the east and continued down the road, setting the small community at his back. Adrien's muscles and joints were screaming at him for traveling again so soon, but he needed to leave before his inherited instincts got the better of him.
For the first time, he would return to Crystal Tokyo alone. He would say he had lost his gift. The Sailor Soldiers would be horrified. There would be experiments. Perhaps even trials, and prison. But without his willing involvement, the reborn soldiers would continue to sleep.
Eventually the known soldiers would pass away, and so would he. There would be a new Seeker, but without the combined power of the Sailor Soldiers to narrow the field the search for their lost souls would be nearly impossible. Change would have to come to Crystal Tokyo.
But until evil came, the soldiers would live out their simple, ordinary lives.
They would be free.
I am hoping this fanfic won't be my last, but being that it's taken me an ungodly number of years to finish this and I haven't posted anything else in over half a decade, I figure I'd better give my farewell in case this does turn out to be my swan song.
If I ever become a published author, I will consider these to have been my formative years. I've always wanted to write, but it is only thanks to Sailormoon fandom that I was able to develop my skills into something I could be proud of and believe in. There is no substitute for the great sandbox in which we play, nor for the other fans who inhabit it. Thank you for enabling my diversions.
Specific thanks to:
-Naoko Takeuchi, who created a universe that drew me in and held me like no other ever has.
-His lordship Chaos, who wrote a story so powerful that I became determined to do the same.
-The Fic Bitch, who encouraged me to improve not only my stories but my overall skills as a writer.
-The Perpetual Lurker, my first and ever-faithful beta reader, without whom I would not have become what I was.
-Yumeko, who provided the prompt that spawned this story, even if it turned out to be ineligible for the contest that inspired it.
-Everyone else who helped and supported me during my years writing Sailormoon fanfiction. In no particular order: Superkate, Masked Maiden, sailorknight, Katsudoo, Ruminant, Lunnaya, Nephthys Moon, Bella*Luna, Sapphiregirl, Starsea, T.M. Chiba, Nightbreak, Vayleen, Aphrael, Dave Ziegler, Kihin Ranno, Sokudo Ningyou, blue, and Alexiel. If I have forgotten to include you on this list, please forgive me; it's been a long time.
-The die-hard members of the .moon community, who let me hold on to the silver age of the fandom a little bit longer.
-Every single one of you, everyone who read and commented and cheered and cried and emailed and reviewed and spent a bit of your time reading my work. I have never felt so encouraged in any aspect of my life as I have writing fanfiction for all of you. I am still honored by every FFN alert I find in my inbox, and they haven't stopped coming even after years of silence on my end. I will always treasure my time in the Sailormoon fandom and will always, on some level, miss it. Thank you for sharing these years with me.
July 10, 2015
"The Gift" fanfiction copyright 2015 by Dejana Talis
Pretty Soldier Sailormoon and its associated characters and canon belong to Naoko Takeuchi and Toei. The text of this creative work was created by dejanatalis and is her exclusive property. Not to be used without permission. Sailor Moon Says: Don't steal! ^.^