I've always dreaded venturing into the Nevernever. It didn't matter how prepared I was, how necessary it was, or how much time it saved; the idea of stepping into the equivalent of Wonderland on steroids always triggered the deep, primitive, reptilian section of my hindbrain.
Perhaps it was the creatures inhabiting the Nevernever, which made my side of reality's big-and-uglies look like neutered bunnies in comparison. Perhaps it was because of the various sections of the Nevernever that reflected some of the darker aspects of human nature, like the demesnes created by ghosts. Perhaps it was the power structures full of beings that seemed so similar to us humans and yet were so alien that trying to comprehend them would twist your brain into Gordian knots.
Personally, I think it was because the Nevernever treated the natural laws of our universe not so much as iron-clad rules that should always be followed but rather as guidelines from a concerned friend. Such examples included sudden shifts between vastly-different ecosystems, gravity keeping a lax eye of matter, and creatures that upset the food chain in extremely disturbing ways.
And then there was the fact that even though it was in late March, and therefore in the firm hands of Spring and all things green, I was trekking my way through a blizzard-torn landscape that would make any decent Chicagoite weave such a blanket of obscenities that it would blot out the sun over much of downtown.
With icicles growing from my nose, I wished for nothing more than to be back at my basement dwelling, curled up in front of a roaring fire with my still ever-growing mammodog Mouse acting as a big, furry blanket. However, I had a mission to complete, and come hell or high water, I would get it done.
Even if my precious package did not exactly share my sentiments.
"Papa, are we there yet?" asked a female voice that had that perfect mixture of annoyance and exasperation that only a young woman just inside her volatile teenage years could manifest.
I looked over my shoulder and grinned behind my crudely-stitched scarf. "What's wrong, kiddo? The morning air too brisk for you?"
Puffs of air erupted from her mouth as she sulked, and she crossed her arms. "I'd stick my tongue out at you, but I'm afraid it'd fall off."
I shrugged. "My victory then."
Her lips quirked up the smallest bit. "Meanie." She tucked a stray strand of brown hair back into her wool cap and brushed past me. "Just for that, no side dish for you when I make dinner." I chuckled at her act of rebellion and watched her forge ahead of me.
Makoto Kino, now Makoto Kino Dresden, had been my legally adopted daughter going on five years now. Ever since I'd 'saved' her from a bunch of marauding supernatural creatures, she'd been my pride and joy through the somewhat tumultuous days of my life. Though considering she'd been the one to fry the gremlins attacking her like an overgrown bug-zapper, perhaps it would be better to say that she'd been a major cause of some of my chaotic adventures.
Both raising a kid (and a young, foreign girl at that) and training a newbie magic user had put quite the strain on my 'lifestyle'. There were many times that I had thrown my hands up at the trouble a burgeoning mini-me had brought, and many times that I'd sunk into despair and terror at the thought and occasional reality that someone could harm me through her. But through it all, I had kept her safe, she had grown on me, and I considered her my own, even if we weren't related by blood.
The trouble of adopting her was something else all together, and it was a victory that I consider more difficult and pyrrhic than I've had with any other villain I've faced. To owe a favor to that man, even if I knew he would never overtly shove it in my face, was a blow to my pride I could never forgive. Still, I had to be grateful that it allowed me to watch over Makoto, no matter how much it tasted like ash in my mouth.
Disregarding that, I came to discover the same joy and anxiety that all fathers watching their daughters go through puberty felt.
With brown hair pulled into a stylish ponytail, green eyes, and a build similar to my own, Makoto could easily pass as my biological daughter, and growing up had only strengthened those similarities. Puberty had been very kind to Makoto; even though she was mostly Japanese, her bit of Caucasian heritage granted her a height and build that surpassed even some of her all-American classmates. This made it doubly funny when she grew tall enough to tower over my friend Murphy by the time she reached middle school. I still wouldn't let the petite cop live it down, and the dislocated shoulder I'd received when I'd pushed her too hard once was a rather memorable reminder.
Still completely worth it.
While raising Makoto, it helped that she was a huge daddy's girl. Around me, she was the picture-perfect daughter - sweet, demure, and reeking of faux-femininity (or at least most of the time she was). However, the second she was out of my line of sight and earshot she'd transform into a little hellion, causing all sorts of trouble in the name of 'justice'.
She became widely known as bane to all bullies, and I became widely known to the school's administration.
Who would've guessed that witnessing me throw myself into harm's way on a constant basis for the sake of others while never giving a moment's thought to my own safety would influence her in such a way?
My thoughts were interrupted by Makoto's voice cutting through the low wail of the snow. "Don't tell me you're having trouble walking, papa. You're not old enough yet for your body to break down." There was a short pause, and then she continued on, a teasing quality to her words. "Though you are in your early thirties, and that is pretty ancient."
Did I also mention that hanging around me for so long turned her into a bit of a smartass?
I gave a deep sigh and trundled up next to her, looping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her face into my chest. "If anything's making me age rapidly, it's having to clean up after your little evil-hunting adventures. If I start going gray early, I'm holding you accountable."
I could feel her muffled giggles. "Whatever do you mean? I'm just your sweet, little baby girl. I wouldn't do anything that would trouble my papa." Noticeably, she kept her eyes firmly away from my own and focused straight on my chest.
I held back an amused sigh. If this was what my friend Michael Carpenter had to go through with his late-teen Molly, then I had a whole new level of respect for the man, even more so than I already did. And he had another girl ready to enter the breach. Thank heavens for that man's saintly patience; I doubted I could survive another.
Makoto wiggled around and snuggled underneath my arm, pulling me closer. She rubbed her hands together and on her face, trying to regain some warmth. The cheer from our bantering subsided a bit, allowing her ire at the cold to settle back in again. "Why couldn't I be a pyromancer or something? Be a lot more useful than being a glorified sparkplug."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Then you'd be like your old man, setting evil villains ablaze."
"And the surrounding buildings?" she added slyly.
"And the surrounding buildings," I sagely said. "But it wouldn't be our fault."
"You mean like with Daniel's birthday cake?"
Images of exploded cream and sugar flowed through my head, and then an advancing and very enraged Charity followed soon afterward. I held back a manly wince at the memory of her tongue lashing, which was shortly followed by the even more manly pastime of passing the buck. "I still blame you and Mouse for that debacle.".
A small smile flitted back on Makoto's face at that, reinforcing the notion that I would forever lose any battle of wits with the fairer sex. Curse me and my chivalric tendencies.
Aside from that, trying to teach Makoto how to use her lightning magic had been slow-going. My forte was in the branches of fire, force, and wind magic. Although lightning could be construed as a subsidiary of air, it was still too vague for me to be a solid fountain of wisdom. As far as I could gather, Makoto's powers were based around the collection and redirection of pre-existing electricity; normally, she could attract and divert outside electrical sources, but if it was truly necessary she could amplify her natural bio-electricity and point it somewhere.
The time she used my beloved Blue Beetle as a power source nearly tipped the poor thing over the edge. I think that was the first time I'd ever really regretted trying to teach her how to use her magic.
Don't look at me like that! I love that Bug!
It was a bit strange being both a father and instructor when I couldn't really consider myself an expert in either field, but acting as both had actually managed to polish myself as well. Although Makoto worked in a branch different from my own, the same old tricks that had been drilled into me as a teen learning to use my powers worked just as well, and teaching them to her had made me push myself ahead in my own work and skills. Learning to spot holes or flaws in Makoto's spellslinging made it easier to notice my own, and though I hadn't improved the power of my spells because of the training, it had certainly improved my control and finesse over my subtler thaumaturgic spells. Sometimes I wondered if-
I cut myself short at the thought. No, there was no need to dwell on such memories, as enlightening and painful as they were. I needed to forge ahead and create a new path, even if it meant cutting some of the ties I used to hold so dear. I had to, if I wanted to create a safe haven for my daughter.
I glanced at Makoto as her nose crinkled up in that way it did when she was annoyed but didn't feel like vocalizing it. She always was a bit sensitive and careful like that, but I don't think I've ever heard of a kid that didn't eventually let loose their heart's misgivings if they felt they were being pushed hard enough. And I did not want a kid who bottled things up inside; I've seen far too often the results of someone who never revealed their desires and hidden emotions until they either blew up or went nuts. So, it looked like I was going to have to do some pushing, Harry-style.
I ruffled her hair a bit rougher than normal, pushing her cap up and allowing the snow and sleet to pound on her already-tender ears. Makoto scowled as she pulled the hat back down, giving me a fierce glare that she had cultivated over many years. I smirked in that all-too-frustrating way back at her. "What's got your panties in a twist, kiddo? You not enjoying the trip?"
Hey, just because I'd been raising a girl didn't mean I had miraculously started being a lot more tactful. Makoto was much too much of a tomboy for her own good, after all.
Makoto cut her eyes away from me immediately and pulled my arm back over her shoulders, hiding a portion of her face from sight. "S'nothing."
"Really...?" I crooned. She glanced back at me and shrugged before hiding her face again. I sighed. "Makoto..."
"'S'not fair," she mumbled. Looking back up at me, she took my small nod as permission and began to unload. "It's not fair! Why do I have to stay in Japan? Why can't I stay in Chicago with you and big sis and the Carpenters and everyone else I know? I haven't lived in Japan for almost five years! I don't know anyone there! I don't... I don't want to leave!"
She shuddered for a moment, and I took the opportunity to pull her closer to me. She looked down, avoiding my gaze, and shook some more. Silly girl...
Sending Makoto to Japan had become something of a last resort to me. Things were heating up in Chicago, and I did not want my daughter anywhere near the powder keg it was turning into. Especially considering what had occurred just last October.
An old archenemy of mine (Hell's bell, did I really just say that), a Black Court vampire by the name of Mavra, had procured my assistance in finding a text that played a large part in the ritualistic transformation of a person into a death god. Needless to say, in normal circumstances I would have told her to go cram my staff up her withered butt - and in fact I had - but she had press-ganged me into service by threatening one of my closest friends' career.
Murphy still didn't know she had almost lost her job, and, magic willing, she never would.
Regardless, it became clear to me that even though I was pretty safe from most forms of blackmail or threats, my associates weren't. My enemies had hurt my loved ones to hurt me before, and they would do so again, so I had only one choice left to me besides glassing whatever hole those scum crawled up from - I had to remove my loved ones from the equation.
Nowhere was this more apparent than with Makoto. The little superhero in her would not hesitate one second before jumping into the fray if she thought it was for the greater good or would help me, but I simply couldn't allow her to risk herself - for me or anyone. Perhaps it was selfish, but simply imagining her in the grasp of some of the trash I had fought made me willing to sacrifice anyone else as long as she was safe.
So, she had to go - away from me and away from danger. The problem was deciding just where to send her.
Murphy and Michael were right out. Considering the trouble I'd brought into their lives before, I couldn't keep burdening them with extra bundles to protect. Not that they wouldn't do so at the drop of a hat, but still.
My next choice was actually another reason to ship Makoto off. I had recently come in to the knowledge that I had a half-brother on my mother's side, Thomas Raith. That was awkward enough as it was, but it also turned out that he was a White Court vampire. The White Court sustained their life force by feeding off particular emotions of their victims, and the Raith family centered around lust. This basically translated to him being an incubus. So leaving a teenage daughter rife with hormones around him was begging for a disaster to happen.
Not that I didn't trust Thomas - there's no way he would try anything on Makoto. The same could not be said for Makoto - daddy's girl or not, Thomas's charm could melt any woman's unmentionables. Considering that he'd recently lost his true love, been exiled from the Raith family, and been unceremoniously dumped into my apartment, the man did not need to be bothered any further.
My last choice was, well... Ebenezar McCoy had been my savior when I was younger. Without his intervention, I would've been just another rust mark on a White Council Warden's sword. They're kinda twitchy with breaking the immutable laws of magic, and to them, I was just another potential warlock at the time. The man saved me, raised me, taught me, and molded me into what I am today.
And then all that shattered when he dropped a satellite out of geosynchronous orbit to wipe out a large palatial estate and the vampire nest infesting it, along with numerous human servants and slaves - a clear violation of the Laws. Sure, it was a necessary act of war considering the protracted battle we were in against the Red Court, a strike for the greater good of mankind.
But even so, he'd turned out to be the monster he'd always warned me about. And until I could accept that, it was a battle of attrition between my logic and my pride.
So, in essence, I was left with my other last choice - shipping Makoto back to her homeland of Japan. It was actually a much easier endeavor than I had initially thought. Since my induction into the Wardens, I had become recognized as something other than the ticking time-bomb some of the older and more inflexible members of the White Council thought me as. Instead, I was seen as a bit of a celebrity by the fresh-faced newbies being hastily shoved into the ranks thanks to the ongoing war between the Council and the Red Court vampires.
Riding a zombie t-rex to save a bunch of trick-or-treaters from a veritable zombie apocalypse on Halloween can really give you some serious street cred.
Thanks to the recently instated South-East Asia Regional Commander - a young, up-and-coming Japanese native - Makoto would have a safe place to hide and attempt to live a normal life (or as normal as a budding magical girl could be, at least) while things cooled down back in Chicago.
It especially helped that Japan was firmly in the territory of the secretive Jade Court. Even after hundreds of years, there was almost no information about that last Court, except for two things - they liked to stay out of the limelight, and they were extremely territorial. There was no documented case of the Red, White, or Black courts managing to expand into the area, and the few known cases of some actually trying usually ended with them disappearing under mysterious circumstances.
So, considering that I had managed to piss off, one way or another, every other vampire court in existence, I found it doubly reassuring to place Makoto in the one place they would never be stupid enough to try and invade for such a petty reason.
Shaking off foreboding thoughts, I tightened my grip around my daughter. "It's only for a little while. Just until things settle down back home." She grunted sullenly. I sighed internally; I never was good at comforting, and even with a daughter on my hands, I still never got into the whole gooey, emotional fretting and commiserating thing.
So I did what I do best: I poked fun at the situation until she either responded or shocked me into submission.
"I don't know why you're so disappointed. You'll be back in Japan, home of all that asinine entertainment you love! Think about it - no more having to scrounge around in bootleg stores for those weird backwards comics of yours, no more having to order things through Michael and Charity instead of doing it yourself because you blew out the local library's computer monitor, and you can finally find people who speak that crazy moon-language of yours!"
Makoto was still and silent, but only for a moment; then she snorted and my arm around her momentarily went numb as she pumped a little static-electricity into it. "You're a real jerk sometimes, you know that, papa?"
"Would a jerk be lugging around this armoire you call luggage through frozen tundra when a perfectly healthy young woman could do it herself?" I mocked, slightly lifting the large travel-bag my daughter had packed for her extended stay. "Especially when said girl has super-strength?"
Pins and needles raced through my arm as she pinched me. "A chivalric jerk, yes." Though she was still sniffling, I could definitely see the corners of her lips perking up.
"Alas, I supposed my niceties towards women defeat me at every turn."
This time, she laughed. "You're such a goofball." Her giggling tapering off, and she grasped my hand with hers. "You promise to at least visit me every so often? You know, when you're not too busy saving the world?"
I smiled and leaned over. "Wild Outsiders couldn't keep me away, Sparky," I murmured with a peck to her forehead. She murmured something nonsensical in response, and then the two of us fell into relative silence as we continued onward. The uneasiness was still there, but at least it had been diminished for the time being.
After a short while, the rocky landscape transformed into something more exotic. Looking around, I noticed that we seemed to have walked into a forest of some type, though it was one of the oddest I'd ever come across, even in the Nevernever - the trees, ferns, shrubs, even flowers were made completely out of ice. Light refracted through their almost alien geometries, casting an ethereal illumination throughout the clearing we were in.
Something alighted onto my shoulder, a crisp chill touching my flesh even through the layers of clothing. Picking it up carefully, I was shocked to see it was a leaf-shaped ice bit, its structure almost identical to that of a cherry blossom petal. Slowly, due to the warmth of my body, it melted back into pure water and disappeared.
See, this is what freaked me out about the Nevernever. As beautiful as this scene was, it violated pretty much all laws of biology and physics, turning a winter wonderland into something out of a sugar-laden Lovecraft novel.
Pulling an awed Makoto along with me, I made my way to where the ice blossoms were coming from - a large, crystalline cherry blossom tree. The branches were making a tinkling sound as the wind blew through them, adding to the eldritch feeling of the place. Placing a hand on the tree's frozen trunk, I spoke.
With that single pseudo-Latin word, I ripped an opening between the Nevernever and the real world. Almost like improperly cut fabric, a gap opened where the tree trunk originally was, and I could see through it onto the scene of an idyllic-looking park. Making sure the coast was clear, I stepped through the gap, Makoto following closely behind.
Once both of us were out, I spoke again and close the gap behind us. Almost immediately, I began to sweat, the sheer difference in temperature between Tokyo and the Nevernever making itself apparent. I quickly stripped off my winter coat, catching Makoto doing the same out of the corner of my eye. What we were wearing underneath was still a bit too warm for springtime, but it was much more bearable than before.
Taking a look around, I took note of where we had emerged. We seemed to be in a section of the nature park the warden had directed us to come out of, right next to a large cherry blossom that overlooked a hill. Luckily, there weren't any trails around us, so we wouldn't have to worry about people becoming alarmed at witnessing us appearing from nowhere.
Gathering up my coat and Makoto's luggage, I rolled my eyes when she grabbed my arm again and smiled way too adorably to be completely innocent. I rolled my eyes, tilted my head, and dragged her along with me.
Setting off, it was another hour or so before we finally navigated the maze that was Azabu-Juuban's street system and arrived at the White Council's safehouse. It looked like just what I'd expected it to be - a simple and somewhat ramshackle mansion that looked like it had been built back in the 80s. The rest of the neighborhood fit the same motif, so it was camouflaged extremely well and could easily be overlooked by any wandering eyes. The building was three stories tall and vaguely cube-shaped, with a single wing extending towards the back. The front garden was well-cared for, with an iron gate connecting the stone walls that wrapped around the property.
As I placed my hand on the gate, a small thrum of power went through my body as the small ward placed on the property activated. It was probably an early-alert system that would warn anyone inside that someone was entering the premises - the magical equivalent of clanging cans together on a length of string.
Crossing the yard, we approached the door and, not seeing any doorbell, I knocked on it. The door swung inward almost immediately, revealing a young woman.
She was probably in her early-twenties. She had black hair, pale skin, and was what the locals referred to as 'fox-faced' - narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows, and high cheekbones. Her long hair was done up in an ornate bun, with a variety of hairpins in the shape of a fan keeping the whole thing together. She was wearing that weird, wraparound dress the Japanese were so fond of, though it was too fancy for a yukata and too plain for a kimono. I didn't know what this variety was called, and I was proud enough just to know the difference between those two.
The girl looked between us with an emotionless expression, her closed eyes enhancing the effect. "You would be Sir Dresden and the young miss, yes?" Her monotone voice added to the stony visage.
I smiled and gave a polite bow. "Indeed I am. I'm guessing I'm easy to recognize?"
"Sir Arashimaru gave me a description," she said. She glanced me up and down. "He did not quite fully describe just how tall you are."
"That's us Americans, we like things big and bulky." I got a jab in the ribs from Makoto for that.
"I'm really sorry about that," she said politely and gave a small bow. "Papa's a huge dork unless you reel him in quick."
"Ouch, kiddo, that smarts."
Tamako's expression didn't change at our impromptu comedy sketch. Eeesh, tough crowd. "Indeed. Oh, but where are my manners? I have been informed of you two, but not you of me." She gave a bow back, deeper than my first one. "It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Tamako Mae, the proprietress of this establishment. Young miss, it is my honor to welcome you to my humble abode. I hope that your stay will be pleasant despite its austere surroundings."
Makoto blushed suddenly and waved her hands in front of her. "No, no, the pleasure's all mine!" She grinned crookedly. "Really, thank you so much for letting me stay here."
She shook her head. "It is no trouble at all. Please, come in. I will retrieve Sir Arashimaru for you. He has been awaiting your arrival."
Opening the door wider, she beckoned us forth. I took a step in and found the invisible force of a threshold parting around me before it snapped back into place. It was weak, but there - surprising for what was basically a place a business, but not unwelcome. Any extra protection for Makoto was good.
Makoto followed after me. She grabbed my shoulder and yanked me down a bit. Whispering so that Tamako didn't hear her, she said, "Papa, did you see that? A real Yamato nadeshiko! I never thought I'd meet one in real life."
I raised an eyebrow. "A what?"
She looked at me blankly for a moment before puffing out her cheeks. "Really, you're so uncultured." She stuck her nose up and out a hand to her chest. "Fine! Allow this lady Makoto to enlighten you with the fastidious culture of her native homeland."
As Makoto regaled me with even more cultural references to snark at later, Tamako led us to a communal kitchen before leaving with the explanation of retrieving the warden. I took the time to look around, examining the room. It wasn't anything fancy, but I was happy to note that every appliance and storage unit was pre-Industrial era; there wasn't going to be anything frying in this place anytime soon. In fact...
Makoto squealed in unabashed joy as she rushed over to the stove. "Papa, papa, look! A traditional firepit! Oooh, I can't wait to try and cook something on this!" She ran her hands over the cooking appliance carved out of stone and clay. "Hey, hey, do you think Tamako will let me cook something tonight?"
"Jumping the gun a bit, aren't we?"
She stuck her tongue out. "You won't be saying that when I cook you something so good you'll faint with delight." She reached for one of the clay pots around the stove, caught in her cooking mania. "I wonder what kind of ingredients are here. Maybe we should go shopping later."
"Any extra ingredients you need can put on the weekly shopping list."
I nearly jumped out of my skin at Tamako's sudden voice. Makoto was not so restrained, leaping off the ground and fumbling with clay jar. She managed to grab a hold of it before it struck the ground, standing upright with a mixed look of embarrassment and shame.
We both looked in the direction we heard Tamako's voice come from. She was standing not even three feet away, her stoic gaze locked on to me. I let out a wheezy laugh. "Stars and stones, you startled me."
"Um, sorry, I didn't mean to go snooping," Makoto apologized. Oh yes she did, but I wasn't going to embarrass her any further... yet.
"It is not a problem. If you have any questions about the kitchen, I would be more than willing to answer them." She switched her attention back to me. Ok, the whole blank-face shtick was starting to get creepy now. "I informed Sir Arashimaru, and he said he would be down to speak with you in a short while."
"Oh, that's good... good." I trailed off. It was people like Tamako who I had the hardest time dealing with. I was used to individuals that were larger than life and had the emotional spectrum of the rainbow. Talking with someone who had less an emotional rainbow and more an emotional block of graphite threw me off-balance.
"Ah." I refocused on her. "Forgive my rudeness again, Sir Dresden, young miss. I did not offer you any refreshments while you waited."
I waved her off. "Don't worry about it. I'm not particularly in the mood for anything."
"Um, I'm all right, too. Really."
"That will not do," she said. Her voice held a bit more force than before. A little color bled in. "As the hostess, it is improper to not at least attempt to make you feel comfortable. Please, allow me to serve you something."
Ah, so she was the kind of person who stood at salute and hated anything that was out of protocol. Heh, well, it was nice to see some form of personality. Now, if she'd only smile, her looks would blow any Average Joe out of the water. I looked at Makoto, and she shrugged awkwardly. "Well, if you insist."
She nodded. "Thank you." She muttered something under her breath.
There was a small clattering and I turned to see the icebox in the corner had opened. I raised an eyebrow when a single can of soda floated out and over to me, settling next to my hand. There was a hiss of escaped carbonation as the pop-tab flicked open. Out of the corner of my eye, another one floated to Makoto, this one landing directly in her hand.
Makoto looked at me as if for verification. I picked up the can, examining it briefly before taking a sip. The sweet taste of coke flooded my mouth. Makoto followed after seeing that I wasn't suddenly foaming at the mouth after one sip. Her delighted expression at the taste said it all.
I smirked. "Looks like I've been researched."
"It is only proper for a hostess to know ahead of time what her guests will enjoy. I asked Sir Arashimaru, and he said that you had a penchant for this beverage."
Was my appreciation for the drink really that widespread? Well, I did give it to my cat and dog as a common substitute for water, but that was beside the point. I raised the can in mock salute. "I give your sources thanks."
Tamako bowed and stood in place, watching me as Makoto and I sipped on our drinks. I pretended to ignore her while I enjoyed it.
It was a bit odd how she'd gone out of her way to show her abilities. Kinetomancy, if I wasn't mistaken. One that was very low on the power scale; I saw how the can wavered around in her magical grasp. That small amount of weight was probably the limit of what she could carry. However, what she lacked in power she made up for in control; evocation being of the 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am' branch of magic, not many could carefully levitate an item of that size without turning it into a projectile weapon by accident.
Thomas still didn't think my response to his 'toss it here' request was all that hilarious.
Makoto tried to engage Tamako in polite conversation, being the well-behaved young lady that she was, but Tamako didn't seem much for small talk, and each attempt seemed to stall before it really gained any traction. I really hoped that the hostess was just aloof with strangers, because otherwise this was going to get real old, real fast.
It wasn't long before the warden arrived. Yamato Arashimaru was a young man in his early-to-mid twenties with short, black hair, kind eyes, and an average Japanese build. Like most of the wardens, his youth was attributed to the ongoing, full-scale war we had going on with the Red Court; a lot of our veterans had been killed-in-action, so conscription rates had gone through the roof and veritable greenhorns were shoved into whatever positions they could fill.
Hell, I, the black sheep of the organization, was actually given regional command of central USA last Halloween, and one of the people who offered it hated my guts with the kind of passion usually only seen in religious fundamentalists.
Yeah, the situation was that bad.
Arashimaru, however, had a much brighter slate when he was offered the job - for both his abilities and his accomplishments. The closest I could approximate his powers to was that of a 'weather mage.' His specializations were air and water, and combinations thereof. Like Tamako, his power levels were on the low-end, especially compared to magical brutes like myself, but his control over his magic was nothing to sneeze at. He might not have been able to summon huge gales of wind or shoot high-pressure water spouts, but the man could create actual clouds, mini-tornados, and even alter weather conditions entirely if he had enough time and preparation.
Never underestimate a man who could turn your fun summer relaxation into a perfect storm of rain and lightning at a moment's notice.
While his magic was held in high regard, it was what he'd done without it that had really clinched the role of Japan's regional commander for him. He'd done what no one else had - made contact with the secretive Jade Court. Of course, he'd only met with peons, the lowest rung of their society, but the fact that he'd reached out to them and they'd responded at all was a miracle in and of itself. Thanks to him, there was finally verification of their existence beyond rumors and fifth-hand information.
It would take a while for any real cooperation between the Jades and Council to come into being, but any little bit helped, and the chance to have an ally against the Reds was too valuable for words.
Arashimaru smiled widely when he saw me and walked over, grabbing my hand and giving it an energetic shake. "Warden Dresden, it's a pleasure to meet you again."
I returned the shake as heartily as I could. "You too, Warden Arashimaru."
He grinned again. The man had a face that would blend into any crowd, but his smile lit up the room like the sun. It was the kind of open, honest smile I could appreciate. He turned to Makoto. "And this must be your daughter."
"Yup, this is my Sparky." I grabbed the still somewhat shy and shaken girl and pulled her into a firm, one-armed hug. "Say hi, kiddo."
"It's nice to meet you, Warden Arashimaru," she said politely, giving a small bow.
He returned the bow. "It is my pleasure to meet you as well, miss Makoto." He looked between the two of us. "My, my, she looks just like you Dresden. Had you not told me she was adopted, I would think she was of your own flesh-and-blood."
Flatterer. The comment emboldened Makoto as well, as her shyness faded away to be replaced with her normal cheery demeanor. She squeezed me briefly before smiling. "Thank you again for letting me stay here, sir."
"Do not mention it, young miss. Considering Dresden's reputation among the younger wardens, I would say this is more of a boon for me than the other way around." He clapped his hands together. "Now then, shall I show you around? I would like to get the tour over as soon as possible so that you may get settled."
"Sounds good to me. How about you, kiddo?"
"Sure! I can't wait to look around."
"Wonderful." He looked over at Tamako. "Tamako, you're excused if there's anything else you wanted to do."
"As you wish, Sir Arashimaru." She looked at us. "Sir Dresden, young miss." Tamako bowed one last time and ghosted out of the room, her feet making no sound as she left.
Arashimaru moved back to me. "Well then, Dresden and daughter, shall we begin the tour?"
"Lead the way."
And so he did, giving us a detailed tour of the entire building. It had separate rooms for each of the boarders, but used a communal format for the kitchen, bath, toilet, and recreational and dining quarters. From what he explained, the history of the building was quite old, ranging all the way back into the Meiji era. It was originally an inn that had been gradually converted over time, and had been in Tamako's family since it was first constructed, which finally explained why the place had a threshold, limited though it was.
"Yes, Tamako's family had been running the place for a long time now. She's been born and raised to run it ever since she was a child, and I'm guessing she plans on teaching her own children to keep running it for a long time after."
"So you've been living here a while then?"
"For the last several years," he said. "I helped Tamako out when I was younger and she repaid the debt by letting me live here, and I eventually set it up as a base for the council." He shrugged. "We've had a few council members and wardens rotate in and out over the years, but it's mostly been the two of us."
"She seems like the kind of person who wields formality like a weapon, so I'm surprised she just let you convert it into a magical fortress."
Arashimaru laughed. "Believe me, it was no easy task to convince her, but I think she understood just what it meant to have a safe place to return to. She's been running the place ever since her parents retired to Kyoto, so I think she knows exactly what it means to have a haven."
The corners of my mouth quirked up at the fond hint to his voice. "You two get along well."
I heard a small intake of breath next to me. Out of the corner of my eye, Makoto's face shined with delight. Of all the things she had to act like a maiden about, it had to be the possible romance of others. Why couldn't she be like more girls and focus on her own?
Then again, there'd be a lot more bodies on the ground if she did, so perhaps that was a good thing.
If he heard the teasing tone in my voice, Arashimaru either ignored it or was too oblivious to recognize the meaning behind it. "She's a good girl. She confuses a lot of people by not showing her emotions that well, but once you get to know her she can be quite kind. She'll be a positive influence on your daughter, I promise."
"Makoto could certainly use some of Tamako's properness rubbing off on her. The girl takes much too after me for her own good."
Another jab to my ribs. "I'm right here, you know."
A small chuckle escaped from Arashimaru's mouth. He looked at us, the always slapstick pair. "Indeed. Well, I'm sure we can hammer some old fashioned Japanese politeness into your daughter."
We both had a laugh at Makoto's expense, the girl fuming good-naturedly. I was going to get a lot more rib jabs and foot stomps after this, but I would take it in good stride. It was papa's prerogative, after all.
Arashimaru cleared his throat. "In any case, what is your evaluation of the place, Dresden? Does it come up to code?"
I gave it a brief moment's thought. The place looked safe and protected enough. There were a variety of small-time wards planted all over the place; nothing close to the defensive strength of the ones I had back home, but the amount and variety made up for that. The mansion wasn't designed to withstand a zombie horde (no, I won't get into that now), but it did have enough support to warn and protect those inside from minor danger.
If moving halfway across the world and residing in the boogieman's backyard didn't deter lurkers, I doubted having the magical equivalent of a ballista looking you right in the face would. Insane tended to not take that kind of thing into consideration.
"Looks good to me."
"Excellent." He turned to Makoto. "And you, young miss?"
"I think it's really neat here," she chirped. "A little old-fashioned, but homey. Plus, I don't have to worry about frying anything accidentally."
"Yes, we magic users tend to have an adverse effect on technology, don't we?"
"Well, not just that," I grinned slyly. "Sparky here tends to shock things on a purely physical basis as well."
"What? I'm just warning Arashimaru that if gets too close, he shouldn't be surprised if he gets a little zap."
"I haven't done that in ages!" she huffed indignantly.
"Oh? So last winter at school when you-"
"Papa!" A jolt went up my spine. I could taste ozone on my teeth. Makoto fumed with embarrassment. "Stop talking!"
Arashimaru watched the scene with a piqued eyebrow. With a start, Makoto realized she'd just shocked her dear, ol' dad in front of a magical police officer. She clammed up, her cheeks burning red in a way that made me just want to pinch them... as soon as the numbness wore off.
"Um, ah, I mean-"
Arashimaru chuckled deep in the back of his throat, a clear sign of amusement. "Well, I can see that you will not take shame from anyone. That is a good thing. Perhaps not in polite Japanese company, but in the magical world, showing you have a spine can mean the difference between being a victor or a victim." He turned to me. "And Dresden, I believe you have learned something as well?"
I coughed. "Please, if I haven't learned after five years, what makes you think I'd suddenly get it now?"
"M'sorry," Makoto mumbled.
"Do not worry about it, little one. I do believe you will add a bit of cheer and color to this place over the next year. Please, I hope you come to think of this as your home." He gave a bow to her, much deeper than the few before. "Please take care of Tamako and I."
With a couple splutters, Makoto returned his bow. "P-please take care of me, as well."
I placed a hand on her head. She looked up at me. I grinned. She grimaced, but I could see the light in her eyes.
And all was right with the world.
My papa is twenty-percent cooler than everyone else. He's tall, kinda handsome in a rakish way, smooth with the ladies (even if half of them either want to kill him or draw him to the dark side), and a great papa. Sure, he can't cook to save his life, flammable objects tend to spontaneously combust in his wake (so, most everything), and he won't wear that awesome hat I got him for his birthday, but he still has one thing going for him that no one else I know has.
He's a superhero.
No, really, I'm totally serious about this. He's got everything - the powers, the secret base, being part of a large group meant to stop bad guys from taking over the world. Ok, so maybe his costume could use a little work, and he's pretty much beaten the tar out of his secret identity (what with him advertising himself in the phone book and all), but still: he's a superhero and he saves people.
I should know - he saved me from a bunch of really creepy monsters that were trying to eat me because I actually managed to survive them crashing a plane. He says that I did most of the work, what with me frying them like I was flinging tasers all over the place, but the fact that he raced halfway across the city to save me just because he wanted to is proof enough of his heroics. And because of that, I really want to follow in his footsteps and learn how to save people using my own special powers.
How do you do? I'm Makoto Kino Dresden, hero-in-training - no missing pet too hard to find, no bully too tough to beat, no electronic device I can't charge (though I might fry it before it reaches full capacity).
Finding out you're a veritable magical girl is really cool, and having a bona-fide wizard as your dad and mentor makes it even more awesome! He might always be going on about being careful with my powers and to only use them when I absolutely have to, but I've seen papa whip out his wand and blast a baddie without even thinking about it, and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.
Of course, I'm not so dumb as to outright disobey him and his rules. I've seen what happens when you just jump into problems without having either the preparation or the intelligence to fight your way out. I see it every time papa takes off his glove to do his daily exercises with the smoked remains of what used to be his hand. You might have magic to back you up, but it's nothing more than a skill-set; there's no one thing that can fix every problem you come across.
In any case, my papa was still the best. He could use magic, he'd saved oodles of people, the city of Chicago, and probably the world on several occasions, and he still managed to set aside enough time and energy to raise an orphan like me. I know he sacrificed a lot so that he could legally adopt me, especially now that I'm older and I've seen the type of people he's dealt with, so there's no way I can't listen to what he says when I know he's just trying to do what's best for me.
Still, that doesn't mean I can turn a blind eye to injustice around me. If I see wrongs happening right in front of me, I have to do something about it! Just like the heroes in the comics and cartoons papa's always teasing me about.
I don't care what he says - defeat can totally lead to friendship if you just try hard enough! ...It just hasn't happened to me yet. You'd think people would be impressed by your ability to dropkick a jerk off the monkey bars when he's shaking kids down for their lunch money, but nooo, you get sent to the principal's office over how that's 'dangerous' and 'not appropriate for a young lady your age' and 'bones aren't meant to bend that way.'
Even with all the trouble I might have caused (and I still say it was in the name of justice!), I was still reluctant to move back to Japan. I knew of the danger papa was afraid of - hell's bells, I'd seen some of the horrors he fought and had been on the receiving end of one or two or three of them - but Chicago was still my home, even if I'd only spent a third of my life there. I'd made friends, had a new family, found new people to learn from and live with and love. Even if it was only temporary, I didn't want to leave them all behind.
Plus, my Japanese was pretty rusty from not being around the language 24/7, and I was not looking forward to trying to decipher all the new kanji I'd invariably come across; I'd barely started learning them when I left Japan!
Still, I was in Japan now, and I had to make the most of it. And at least papa would stay with me long enough to get me settled in and make sure I was 100% safe, the paranoid dope.
My first morning back in Tokyo started like any other. I hit the switch to my wind-up alarm clock just as it started ringing, rose groggily out of the futon, and gave a muffled yawn. It would take a little longer to get my internal clock used to the new time zone, but I was always good at getting up. Changing sleep schedules before we left helped, as well.
I padded across the room, curling my toes appreciatively at the feeling of tatami mats under my soles. I'd always enjoyed the tightly-woven texture, and having the chance to do so again after so long made me sink into sweet nostalgia. Opening the door, I quietly slunk outside and to the door that led to papa's room. Putting my ear to the door, I could just make out the soft noise of his snores.
Good, that gave me enough time to surprise him with breakfast.
Making my way to the kitchen, I wasn't really surprised when I found Tamako already there, putting the finishing touches on cooking breakfast. I was a bit disappointed that I hadn't beaten her, but considering the way she acted about hospitality, it wasn't shocking.
Tamako seemed like a nice person, though a bit scary because I couldn't tell what she was thinking and she had a disturbing way of catching you off guard.
"Good morning, young miss."
Like that, see? I didn't make any noise or bring any attention to myself at all, and yet she zoomed in on me like it was nothing. It didn't help that she had this unworldly beauty to her, which made it sorta hard to approach her.
I smiled nervously. "Good morning, Miss Mae."
Again, her expression didn't change in the slightest, but the atmosphere around her seem to soften ever so gently. "Did the young miss have a good night's rest? I hope your accommodations were to your approval."
Again with the 'young miss'. Judging from papa's reactions, he had no idea what the connotations of that honorific was, but I did, and it was pretty embarrassing to basically be called the daughter of an aristocrat or rich person.
"It... it was fine, Miss Mae. Listen..." I rubbed the back of my neck. "Do you think you could stop calling me that?"
"Stop calling you what, young miss?"
Okay, there was no way she wasn't just screwing with me by this point. But since I couldn't read anything by her expressions, I had the feeling it was just going to be a losing battle for me. Dang it. Well, as long as papa didn't figure out the meaning behind that term, and thus couldn't use it to tease me, I guess it was fine.
...Plus it made me feel all sparkly-sparkly. Shut up, I can act like a girl when I want.
"Never mind." I looked around. "Um... are you done with everything?"
"Yes. I wanted to make sure that you and Sir Dresden had a good meal to start your stay here with."
"Uh, wow, um, thanks." I involuntarily took a sniff and had to stop myself from drooling. It wasn't like anything I saw or smelled was gourmet (actually it was pretty basic - rice, miso soup, grilled fish), but it still smelled really good. "You must be a great cook. It looks delicious."
Tamako gave a short bow. "The young miss is too generous. This repast is but a simple thing. Still, I hope that it pleases you."
"Yeah, really, it looks great..."
I trailed off at the end. I had noticed a few of bento boxes placed to the side with a tasteful bits of cloth to wrap them up in. There were even portions of food off to the side to fill them up. Ugh, I had been hoping that even if I hadn't been able to make breakfast, I could at least make a suitable bento for papa.
Despite the fact that she didn't give off much, Tamako must've been great at reading the mood, because she immediately, and without any trace of surprise or hesitation, swept up the boxes and handed them to me.
"I hope that you do not find it too forward of me to supply you with boxes to carry your lunch. I was not certain if you had brought any from Chicago."
I tried to work my jaw for a moment. "No, thanks, this is real helpful. I thought I'd have to buy some from the market or something." I carefully examined the boxes. They were beautifully carved out of wood and lacquered with a rich shine, nothing at all like the plastic tupperware ones I was used to. These were like the ones they used for important ceremonies and the like, not for everyday use.
"They're beautiful," I said after a couple stunned seconds. "Are you sure that-"
"Enjoy them," she interrupted. "There is not much call for bento boxes here, so I am sure they are delighted to be used when they can."
I tried to judge her feelings, but she had the greatest poker face ever known. Seriously, she could win championships. "If you insist..." I said hesitantly. My eyes drifted over to the perfectly proportioned meals left on the counter.
Tamako was already ready and waiting. "Those are for Sir Arashimaru."
"...Really?" I said dubiously. "That's a lot for one person, isn't it?"
"Despite his slight stature, Sir Arashimaru has quite the appetite. In fact, buying for two more people will not change much in food expenditures."
"If you say so..." I glanced around quickly. "Where is Mr. Arashimaru anyway?"
"He is most likely working in his study. The good sir is very diligent in his work."
I might've just been scrounging for it, but it sounded like her voice got the tiniest bit softer. I leaned forward ever so slightly. "Mr. Arashimaru's a pretty great guy, huh?" I probed.
"Sir Arashimaru is an esteemed individual, and I am honored to know him."
"And I will leave you to your breakfast. I have more tasks that require my attention. May you have a good day, young miss." With another short bow, she glided out of the room. A couple seconds later her voice drifted back in. "If you would like to accompany me in making meals, please feel free to. Extra hands are never unwelcome."
Huh, smooth operator. I didn't even hear her come back. After listening to see if she was still hanging around (though I doubted I would actually notice her), I looked around at all the cooking, simmering, and broiling food. I rolled my sleeves up - time to go to work.
As I went on auto-pilot to put a couple dishes and bento boxes together for papa and me, my mind went back to when papa first adopted me. I was scared and lonely and had no one to turn to. My parents were my only relatives, being only children themselves and their own parents long since gone, and I was left in a foreign land with the sudden knowledge that I could shoot lightning bolts from my hands. I was terrified, to say the least.
And then papa came dashing in like a super sentai and fixed all my problems. Well, he tried to anyway; he wasn't exactly the smoothest operator when it came to child-rearing, but he did his best and I have close-to-zero complaints.
I still think he should make me his sidekick in crime-fighting, though.
I balanced two plates on my arms and walked back down the hallway. Knocking on papa's door, I called out gently. Not hearing his snores broken in the slightest, I shrugged and opened the door.
Papa was still asleep, sprawled out in his futon. He always had bad sleeping posture, and this morning was no exception - his arms were flung about, his legs tangled in his sheets, his mouth wide open yet not snoring.
Not very dignified, papa.
I set up the low table and placed the dishes onto it then looked back at the man.
How could a man that was so open when he was asleep be able to keep so many secrets? Like, when did he learn to speak Japanese so well? Just last month, he could only hold a basic conversation using polite language, and his accent was atrocious. Even after making it his own personal crusade to learn Japanese well enough so that I could keep a part of my heritage with me, he sounded like, well, like how a Japanese person trying to sound like an American trying to speak Japanese sounds - really silly.
So I was expecting to be all kinds of embarrassed when we met with miss Mae as he stumbled over the words, but he took me completely by surprise by not only speaking the language perfectly, but almost erasing his American accent as well! What, was there some kind of translation magic I wasn't aware of? And if there was, why hadn't he ever told me? Was he just waiting to see my slack-jawed expression?
Oh wait, this was papa, of course he was.
Pursing my lips, I looked down at the sleeping man. Men who made their daughters look like idiots needed to be punished. Deciding on that course of action, I pinched his nose. It took a couple seconds, but then he started to sputter in his sleep, jolted once, and then opened his eyes. By the time he was awake, however, I had already removed my hand and was sitting at attention, seiza style, a good foot from him.
I beamed, closing my eyes, and hoping that the smile I wore didn't betray the actual source of my mirth. "Morning, papa!"
He let out a short, punctuated snort. "Morning, kiddo." Sitting up carefully and crossing his legs, he shot a hand out and ruffled my hair a bit more forcefully than normal. "How'd you sleep?"
"Fine. Right up until I stopped being able to breathe."
Keep eye contact. Don't look away. That's how you lose. "Really?" I kept my tone as neutral and innocent as possible. "Maybe it was ghosts?" What? Ghosts were real.
"Right...ghosts..." He kept his eyes leveled on me for another impossibly long second before snorting again and removing his hand. "So, what's for breakfast?"
I smiled brightly and led him over to the low table before setting out the meal in front of us. With a short rendition of "Let's eat," which I know papa totally slaughtered on purpose considering it's been a ritual since he took me in, we dug into the meal.
It was good. Like, really good. I had to step up my game to match Tamako so I could make papa happy. Yeah, I knew I was pretty much a hopeless tomboy, but I did want to be my papa's little princess even if he knew my true self. Cooking was a fun and feminine hobby, and it made me proud to note that I was pretty much the only real feminine influence in papa's life - no offense to big sis or auntie Charity.
I giggled at the few bits of rice clinging to his scruffy chin, and he looked at me with a bewildered expression before I plucked them off. Papa rolled his eyes and rubbed his cheek with his sleeve before returning to his meal. We sat and ate in comfortable silence before papa broke it.
"So, you ready to transfer into your new school?"
"I guess." I shrugged. "It's definitely going to be awkward."
"Not as much as you think, probably. You're not transferring in the middle of the year, after all." He smirked, giving that roguish smile that I knew made female friends and foes alike want to simultaneously swoon and punch him in the face. "You can thank this country's messed up school year for that." He chuckled roughly. "What kinda education system makes the students come to a new school right before summer break? It's like they're asking the kids to play hooky."
I quirked an eyebrow. "We aren't all juvenile delinquents like you were at my age, papa."
"I wasn't a juvenile delinquent! I simply... had a legacy of misspent youth." He grumbled at my short burst of giggling, his face contorted in the most adorable way. Papa would never admit to it, but he was so cute when he was embarrassed. Like a puppy who just had its chew toy taken from it. He cleared his throat in an attempt to side-track the conversation. "What about your uniform? You gonna be ok wearing your old track suit?"
It was my turn to frown cutely and grumble. I don't know what the problem was with Japan, but why was everyone so short? If I wanted to wear the female school outfit, I'd have to get it special ordered. So yeah, screw that. Maybe I should just order a male outfit and wear that; at least I'd get some pants in the deal.
Skirts were not my first choice.
Papa must have noticed my discomfort, because he followed up his question with his usual method of diffusing tension - acting like a goober. I yelped when something splatted on my face. Finally focusing back on the present, I saw that he had flicked some grains of rice at me, a shit-eating grin plastered across his face.
"You with me again, Sparky?"
I pulled off the grains and ate them, sticking out my tongue when I was finished. "You should know better than to waste food." I said with a mock-sternness. "There are starving children in China."
His grin grew. "That's something only adults are allowed to say."
"Not if the adult is the one being fed by the child."
"Touché." There was a brief pause... and then he flicked a few more grains at me.
I sputtered at his bluntness before making a counter-attack. Soon, pieces of food were flying back and forth across the table as we used our chopsticks to launch whatever scraps and crumbs were left over from the main meal. It was going to be a nightmare to clean up, especially if the food got ground into the tatami mats, but I doubted present us were giving that any consideration, given the all-out food fight we had devolved into. Though with the way Tamako treated her place...
I held back a shudder.
Soon, the exchange of scraps slowed, the two of us panting softly - not from exhaustion, but simply from laughing too hard at the sheer lunacy and silliness we had fallen into. Both of us were splotched with random bits of food and it was going to take some extra hard scrubbing to get the natto out of papa's shirt, but the atmosphere had regained its levity - even if the cause had been so very, very stupid.
"Feeling better?" Papa asked. I nodded, and his grin tilted into something softer. "Good." He reached across the table and removed a grain of rice that had lodged itself in my bangs. "I know it's hard, kiddo, but I also know you're gonna be just fine here. No kid of Harry Dresden's going to let something as stupid as a dress code get her down."
I sighed in hopeless exasperation. Trust papa to cheer me up with a spontaneous breakfast battle.
Papa continued to pick pieces of food off of me as he talked. "It'll only be for so long, and this is as safe a place for you I can find. Besides, it'll be healthy for you to get some reunion time with your home culture." He tweaked my nose, and I sniffed back a snort. "Just don't go crazy on me; don't want to come back and find out my daughter has become a gang leader while I was gone."
I did snort at that. "I think you've been reading some of my manga behind my back." He gave me a subdued smirk as he finished cleaning the debris from our culinary battle off of me. I rolled my shoulders and began to return the favor, sweeping my hands across his shoulder and chest to get rid of food. "Besides, I doubt I'd be a good one. Too much kanji involved."
"You're certainly better than me on that subject. All three of your written languages look like a kid got into an inkpot and scribbled out random symbols."
Oh no, he wasn't gonna get away with that kind of thing so easily. No way was I gonna let him brush off his sudden mastery of the language in less time than it took a native-speaker to relearn basic grammar.
"You're just too lazy to try and remember anything beyond your silly American language."
"Hey, I live in America, so that's all I need to know."
"You do realize that American is a dialect of English, right?"
"Don't point out my mistakes in basic language skills with your silly logic!" He trailed off when he noticed the smug look on my face. "What? You look like you just pulled one off on your old man." He glanced at himself briefly. "Did you do something to me when I wasn't looking?"
Well, nothing physical at least. I had, however, managed to trick him into revealing something. During our silly conversation, I'd slipped into using Japanese in the middle of a sentence. Without missing a beat, papa had continued to talk - in Japanese himself. I now knew that there was some magical tomfoolery afoot. There was no way papa was smart enough to just shift into a different language without even noticing what he'd done, especially through mundane means.
Papa frowned. "Seriously, Makoto, that grin of yours is starting to..." He stopped for a moment, his eyes rolling to the top left. He said nothing for a few moments and then heaved a great, annoyed sigh. "I'm not talking American, am I?"
If it was possible for my shit-eating grin to get bigger, it would've consumed my face just from that realization alone.
He grumbled and brushed off his shoulder. "You're starting to get too clever for your own good. Pretty soon I'm going to have to chain you to your bed so you don't start sneaking out at night for vigilante activities."
I wasn't that stupid. Papa was way too light a sleeper for me to even try to sneak out of that old, noisy apartment. Besides... Mouse would just pick me up and drag me back to bed before pinning me to the mattress with his shaggy mass. He was getting big.
"So...?" I leaned forward, switching back to English. "Will you tell me how you jumped from being largely incompetent in Japanese to a sudden grandmaster?" If it had something to do with Bobbu, I was so gonna bribe that horny skull with all the 18+ doujinshi I could get my hands on until he spilled all the awesome secrets in his vast library of knowledge.
Papa picked up his cup of green tea, something I'd been hammering into his palate, and took a long pull. He closed his eyes and hummed thoughtfully. "Ancient wizarding secret."
My grin drooped into an annoyed frown. "I'm fourteen. Everything is an ancient wizarding secret to me."
Papa opened one eye very briefly and stared at me. The corner of his lip quirked up. "So it is."
I pouted, not being able to help myself. "I'm not gonna get anything more out of you, am I?"
"You are wise beyond your years, grasshopper." He took another long, drawn-out, and rather noisy sip. "Not too wise, though."
I folded my arms and looked away, my pout growing. Ok, so that road of attack had failed, but at least I'd gotten some information out of it. As soon I got home, I was gonna grab Bobbu and hold him hostage until I plucked every last bit of info from him.
Wow, I sounded like a really cliché afterschool villain there. This was bothering me a lot more than I'd thought.
My thoughts were broken by another long slurp from papa drinking his tea. Facing him again, I saw that my shit-eating grin had transferred onto him. I just grumbled in the face of my surrender and went back to finishing off breakfast. Papa returned to his as well.
The two of us finished breakfast, chatting about random things as were wont to do, particularly about what we had planned for the day. While I went to my first day at a new school, papa would check out the surrounding areas to make sure there wasn't anything too dangerous in the region. ...Hopefully I wouldn't read about some burning building in the news soon. I really loved my papa, but he could be a bit twitchy at times.
With the both of us dressed, me in my track suit and papa in his customary duster and carrying his whacking-stick, we made our way out of the safehouse and into the fresh spring air of the surrounding neighborhood. The safehouse was located in a lesser-traveled area of the Juuban district, so there wasn't much traffic aside from the two of us. It was nice and peaceful, and spoke of good fortune for the rest of the day. Rarely did papa and I get to just walk around without the constant worry that we were about to be assaulted by some random Nevernever creature or the like.
Ok, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration, but once you get ambushed by one animal of mystical background you tend to be wary of the next. We still get jumpy whenever parent-teacher night comes around.
We continued on in pointless conversation, him teasing me about all of Japan's strange idiosyncrasies that I knew he only learned just for that purpose, and me taking it all in stride like a good daughter would, nodding or making small noises of assent as his expressions grew more comical.
I got my revenge, though. When the two of were about to part ways, I swung my arms around papa's neck and, before he could even react, planted the biggest, sloppiest kiss I could on his cheek. An older Japanese woman caught the scene and made a few choice disparaging remarks, stomping off in a huff. The blush and pinched look on papa's face was completely worth all the teasing he'd dished out, and I just laughed before waving and running off.
He should be relieved that's all I did as payback. It was only a couple of years ago that I had stopped announcing to everyone with complete sincerity that I was going to be papa's bride. Saving a girl and then raising her as your own tends to have a large impact, especially when the girl was in the throes of 'white knight syndrome.' Kissing papa in public was a good several steps down from the total Electra complex I was rocking back then.
Fun side fact: that was also around the time "The Tale of Genji" was banned from our house and Bobbu was locked inside a stainless steel box for about a week. Let's just say that the two were related and leave it at that.
Now that putting papa in his place was in order, it was time to make a good first impression at my new school. I still was of the belief that staying in Japan was stupid, but papa only wanted what was best for me, so I couldn't argue too much. I just had to prove capable of taking care of myself, and maybe papa would put me on probation and take me home early!
I pumped my fists in front of me and nodded. Yeah! That would absolutely work! Now, all I had to do was find a way to prove myself and I would be on the fast track back home where all the real fun was.
It was at that point that Lady Luck threw me a fat fastball down the middle. As I turned a corner, I came across a scene that nearly made me rub my eyes to make sure I wasn't just seeing things. Blinking, I realized that, yes, this was actually happening.
A young Japanese girl in a sailor fuku, probably around the same age as me, had dashed around a corner and smacked right into a trio of men who I could only describe as 'delinquency personified.' Bright, flashy clothing? Check. Hairdos that were dumb back in the 80s? Check. Language skills that made papa - well, past-papa - sound like a professor? Check.
The girl had run full-tilt into the smallest one and immediately bounced backwards, falling on her butt in the girliest manner possible. The delinquent she'd run into took one step back, then crashed to the ground like a wrecking ball had hit him instead of a girl that was probably only ninety pounds soaking wet. He immediately started screaming as though all his bones had snapped at once while his shifty friends began to accost the poor teen.
I knew a shakedown when I saw one. It happened often enough in Chicago, though not as blatant and not nearly as amateurish. And the bullies there certainly didn't pick on kids who were barely half their size and looked as defenseless as a bunny – there were too many people who would be perfectly willing to kick their asses if they tried it. Like me!
Well, good fortune was staring me right in the face, and there was no way I was going to let it get away from me - for both my sake and the girl's. Justice Mode Unlocked!
Heaving myself onto the ledge next to me, I got a much better view of the situation. Also, it made what I was about to do a whole lot easier and cooler. With a quick burst of speed, I rushed along the ledge before launching myself off it, foot extended forward and my classic battlecry bursting from my lips.
There was a squawk of surprise and pain when my foot made contact with the rear of the delinquent looming over the girl. He went flying forward, smacking the ground and sliding a good couple feet. There was a pregnant pause before the other two guys whirled on me with flabbergasted looks of anger and shock.
"The hell wuz dat?!"
The shock may have also been because I had to scramble back to my feet after falling onto my butt from the drop kick. The movies made it seem way easier.
I smirked and rubbed a thumb under my nose. Ok, so papa said it was always best to try and scare away possible danger before actually engaging it in a fight, but these were normal, vanilla humans, and I'm pretty damn sure I could easily take them in a fight without having to worry about them being Grimm fairytale creatures in disguise. Besides, it felt really satisfying to give that one jerk a boot in the butt.
As much as papa would grumble if he saw it, I knew he'd agree with me even if he'd never say it out loud.
Of course, what I did next would most likely result in both a grounding and dope-slap to the back of the head if he ever found out.
"What kinda men are you, picking on a little girl like that? All she did was bump into you and you gang up on her like that?" I formed my hand into a thumbs-down and stuck out my tongue. "As long as justice lives, I'll never let jerks like you get away with crimes like that."
"And who da the hell are ya to tell us what ta do?"
I grinned. "Just a justice-loving gal with superheroing as a hobby."
Oh stars and stones - monologuing. If there was one thing papa hated more than a needless fight, it was monologuing. Papa said it was the sort of thing that only belonged in comic books, and that people who did it were much too full of themselves. But it was just so fun! Oh well, what papa didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
My awesome speech must've riled up the remaining two delinquents even more than my surprise flying kick, because the largest of them - a specimen that was the living embodiment of steroids - took the opportunity to advance on me.
Roid Rage sneered nastily. "You should leave the heroics ta big guys, little girly. Ya might get hurt otherwise." He punctuated his threat by cracking his knuckles all at once.
My smile grew larger, the excitement from the situation almost heady. "Spoken like a true small-fry."
The dark amusement from Roid's eyes dropped instantly, replaced by something simpler - base anger. "Why you...!" He raised a fist and threw a haymaker.
Too easy. Roid obviously had no training because he overextended himself, throwing his shoulder too far in with his wild swing. It was child's play to kick his forward leg out from underneath him and add a smack to the back of his head for good measure. The sudden spin in his balance caused him to crash face-first into the cement. I planted my foot on the center of his back and pushed down, easily keeping him pinned despite him probably having a hundred or so pounds on me.
Did I mention I have superhuman strength and endurance? No? Because I do, and it's awesome as hell. Papa said it might have something to do with my electromancy powers and that I might be 'super-charging' my muscles so that they had more tensile strength, or whatever it was that made me able to crack a cinder-block in half at age ten. He wasn't quite certain, though, and made it a point not to try and test the limits of my improved abilities.
I certainly had, though. Papa never quite forgave me for the time I jumped off the Carpenters' garage trying to prove I could fly, even though I ended up only breaking their fancy bird bath instead of my bones.
Once that ability had been discovered, though, papa made sure I could protect myself via more mundane means. At first I wanted to learn karate so I could be a martial-arts master that could blast lightning, but he had this mental image of me punching a plug out of an unsuspecting mugger and turned me over to big sis instead.
She insisted that I learn a softer form of fighting instead of impact arts. At first I was hesitant to learn aikido, 'cause it looked like a wimpy alternative to the karate kid's crane kick. But when I became a witness to her flipping a dude twice her size and three times her weight with the grace of a dancer and the effort of lifting chopsticks, I became instantly enamored.
But back to the present; with two of the three stooges out of commission, the last one - Mr. Whiney - took one look at me before dashing off like a whipped dog. Huh, guess he hadn't hurt his leg all that badly after all.
I took the chance to look over the girl I'd just saved and had to bite my tongue to stop myself from laughing. Oh stars and stones, that hair! Her blonde strands were split into two waist-length tails, with two clumps near her scalp. Who told her that was a good fashion choice? It didn't look good, it just made me hungry for the Carpenters' Italian night. I bit the inside of my cheek, hoping that the mirth deep inside wouldn't escape, and opened my mouth. "You ok? They didn't rough you up too bad, did they?"
The girl gulped and shook her head side-to-side frantically. "No!" she squeaked, her high-pitched voice almost grating on the ears. "You saved me. Thanks so much!"
My smile melted into something softer. "That's good." I turned around and waved a hand over my shoulder. "Try not to get into any more trouble, k?"
A small cry of, "Al-alright!" came from behind me, and I had to prevent myself from squealing in delight. Had to keep my cool look, right? Jogging back to where I'd left my bag, I grabbed it and made my way back to the route that would bring me to Juuban High.
Today had started out great. I had a good breakfast with papa, got the last word in on him, and saved an innocent citizen while looking badass in the process. The sky was clear, I had a fresh start, and things were moving a fine direction.
Things were really looking up today.