A/N: As I said last chapter, this story totally mutated from my original expectations. I thought it would basically be a fun-and-games romance. But I kept picking and picking at the characters like an annoying four year-old, and I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when they finally snapped and shoved their innards at me, their innards were bloodier than I had expected.
I won't apologize for that change, I guess – because after all, everything's subject to change, ha ha – but I apologize for any clumsiness in the execution of the story and also express my empathetic disappointment in the story's veer toward angstiness. Believe me, I wanted it to a nice simple and yummy romance too!
I'm pretty sure Jade-Eye also wanted it to be a yummy romance. Which makes her benevolence in posting the story and helping me with it all the more awesome and selfless. Thank you, Jade!
Disclaimer: I don't own Sailor Moon. Is that subject to change?
Leather and Lockets
"I can't believe that as soon as we get done with school forever, you head back INTO school, Serena." Rei readjusted Serena's laptop bag on her shoulder as they stopped in front of the train that would take Serena to Hokkaido. "Jeeze, Meatball Head, do you have one laptop in here or two?"
"Actually, Rei, you're the only one who's done with school forever," Ami pointed out, setting down her share of Serena's bags, a wheeled suitcase. "I'm heading to medical school, in case you forgot."
"She would have to be a HORRIBLE friend to forget a thing like that." Serena put down the duffel bag she was carrying. She readjusted her weight on her cane as she exchanged a grin with Rei. "I mean, you only reminded us – "
" – every time we tried to keep you from studying," finished Rei.
"And how many times was that, Rei?" asked Serena in a solemn voice.
"I believe it was every day, Serena," answered Rei with equal sobriety.
Ami cracked a smile, shaking her head at the two of them. "It was not."
"Was too!" declared Serena. "You left us alone so much that now Rei and I are finishing each other's sentences, see?"
Rei bopped Serena on the head. Serena grabbed Ami's arm for support and rapped Rei in the knees with her cane.
"And see?" said Rei, scowling at Serena. "We're starting to act like The Two Stooges."
"But we should be the Three Stooges," said Serena.
They all went quiet for a moment.
Serena was the one to break the silence. "Anyway, Ami. There's zero chance that any of those Americans at Harvard being smarter than you, so take a break from studying when you get there, okay?" She leaned in and gave her friend a tight hug.
"Speaking of zero chance," said Rei playfully, "Who ever would have thought that Serena would become a teacher? And a science teacher, no less!"
Serena smiled. "Magnesium and oxygen are like you and me, right? Total opposites. Positive charge and negative charge. But they come together and stick." The memory had faded over the past five years from a tear-salted sad to a smile-tempered bittersweet.
Ami laughed. "Rei, you're just jealous because Serena did something so unpredictable while you and I are just following in our parents' footsteps."
"Following in their footsteps?" scoffed Rei. "I'll be fifty times better than my dad. Just wait, by the time you guys come back to Tokyo I'll be city commissioner."
Serena grinned. "Oh yeah?"
"Hey, if I can become friends with a meatball head like you, anything can happen," Rei retorted.
Ami rolled her eyes. "Five years and you still haven't been able to come up with a more creative nickname, Rei?"
"There is nothing more creative than 'Meatball Head,' Miss Bluenette – "
"Oh!" Serena's sniffled moan broke up the bickering. Rei and Ami whipped around to look at her, arms outstretched as though to catch her from one of the tumbles she frequently took. She tried to smile at them, her eyes blurry with tears. "I'm really gonna miss you guys!"
"Of course you are, you meatball head," said Rei, tossing her head, but her voice was trembling, too.
"It's going to be so lonely," hiccupped Serena.
"So don't go," said Rei in a choked voice. "If you stay we can persuade Ami to go to KO University instead of all the way to Yankee Land – "
"You guys!" protested Ami, but suddenly she was crying with Serena.
Then Rei was crying too, and Serena and Ami's tears spilled faster, and then they were all hugging fiercely, and Serena's cane got knocked out of her grip and clattered to the station floor, but it didn't matter because just as they had been for the past five years, Rei and Ami were there, keeping her from falling.
Marie-san, Ami's mom, had warned Serena that Hokkaido, as Japan's northernmost island, would be much colder than she was used to. Serena had dressed accordingly in a sweater top and pants much warmer than she would usually have worn in September. But when she stepped out of the taxi that had driven her from the train station to the academy that would be her new home and workplace, she discovered that the chill air cut through the sweater's fabric like scissors through tissue paper.
Normally she would have pulled a heavier sweater on. But she felt so lonely in this new, isolated place where she knew no one and no one knew her. The child who had run up to meet her taxi and lead her to her set of rooms had been adorable with silky black hair like Rei's cut in a pageboy like Ami's, and homesickness had washed over her. Anxiety had engulfed her, though, when she noticed the glances that the child kept stealing at the cane she used to limp down the hallways. What had she been thinking, to come here all alone? she asked herself.
So instead of another sweater, she pulled from its special spot in her suitcase the leather jacket that had accompanied her to college, to Hong Kong when she and Rei had participated in the foreign exchange program, to Paris when Marie-san took all three of them during the spring vacation. It was softer, and a little smaller than it had once been, and the wolf-patch was beginning to peel away from the leather at the edges, but when she put it on she remembered why she had come here, all alone.
When she had seen in the newspaper a job listing for a science teacher willing to live and work with students at a boarding academy established for orphans in Hokkaido, her thoughts had flown immediately to Buji. As a junior in college, struggling to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, it had been memories of him that had finally reassured her that she wanted to be a teacher, the kind that students could come to for help, the kind that would be willing to help when they did. Here, helping with weekend game days and video game clubs and homework sessions and bedtime stories, she would be able to fulfill that dream.
Shoulders straightening beneath the jacket, she closed her suitcase again and made for the desk, where her employer, a Mr. Endo Xiao, had told her in his last e-mail that a sheaf of papers would be waiting for her when she arrived.
There was indeed a sheaf of papers waiting for her, along with a cellophane bag tied clumsily with a ribbon. Serena studied it curiously, peering through the blue cellophane, and saw that it contained a plethora of mini Cloud Nine Bars and chocolate truffles. A smile broke across her face; if the children here were so nice as to put together a welcome bag for her, certainly she wouldn't have any problems.
She popped one of the dark chocolate truffles into her mouth as she began to skim the papers left for her. On top was a letter from Director Xiao, informing her that the papers below were just information about various rules of the school – the times for lights-out for the various age groups, which ages and genders of children were on each floor, the times for her classes with class rosters, club information, etc., – which she could read at her leisure. It went on to say that her arrival coincided with the end-of-summer party that was held each year in the backyard with grilling and games and that he, Director Xiao, was hoping to introduce her to the students there.
Serena glanced at her watch. The letter said that the party went from three until eight, and it was half past four now. Rei had promised to call her at five, as soon as she got off her first day of work, and it certainly wouldn't do to have her phone ring right in the middle of her first conversation with her new employer. She decided to explore the main building until Rei called her, then go out to the party.
As she explored, had she not already read in the informational brochure sent to her by Mr. Xiao that the academy had previously been a hospital, she might not have realized it. The halls were floored in plain tan tile, but the hallway walls were plastered with posters of everything from Pokemon to L'Arc en Ciel, and socks and hair bands and toys lay every few feet along the floor. Serena picked them up as she explored the first two of the six residential floors, returning them to the common room at the center of each floor – where, she imagined, the nurse's station had probably been when the building was still a hospital.
The floor where her set of two rooms – a living room and a bedroom – were located appeared from the wealth of anime, Maaya Sakamoto, and young male idol posters plastering its walls to belong to the pre-adolescent girls, and Serena wandered it for longer than she had her own rooms, studying the posters on the doors and trying to imagine what the girls to whom they belonged were like.
The entire second floor consisted of a library and study rooms, all of which were deserted. Serena marveled at the sheer number of books present, wondering how Director Xiao had managed to get a hold of so many when she had read in the brochure that the academy had only been open for three years. But her attention was quickly distracted by the humungous window that stretched across the whole back wall of the library.
She limped through the maze of mismatched armchairs and study tables to the window seat that lined the window, leaning against it as she looked out. Stretching out before her was the sprawling backyard, complete with basketball courts, a soccer field, a playground, and lots and lots of kids.
Serena smiled at the sight of them all, running around, jumping rope or dancing or helping set up tables or dumping sticks into a pit that was quite obviously meant to become a bonfire.
She watched the boys helping with the campfire, for one of them had bouncy curls that reminded her very much of Buji, but his hair was blonde like Asanuma's.
Letting her gaze slide to the basketball courts, she saw that the group playing there consisted of older girls, not boys as she had expected. One of them was taller than all the rest and moved with a haunting grace…
Serena's brain nudged her. Suspicion and hope pricking her insides, she grabbed her cane and limped rapidly back to the elevator.
Just as the elevator panel beeped and lit, indicated that the elevator had reached the ground floor, Serena's cell phone buzzed against her waist. She fumbled for it in surprise, reaching into the pocket of her leather jacket and grabbing at her cane and trying to hurry out of the elevator all at the same time.
But her hands were trembling with excitement; the phone tumbled from her fingers and skidded across the tile of the floor outside the elevator doors.
She sighed, following its progress with her eyes, saw it come to a stop in front of a pair of tennis shoes.
Watched a hand reach down and pick it up. "Still dropping things, huh, Odango?"
Serena's body froze.
Only her eyes moved, creeping slowly up the hand's lightly tanned arm…to the neck with a lighter patch of skin where a tattoo would have been…to the earlobe with the closed hole where the earring would have been…
To the lightly scarred face.
A sound escaped her. Her cane shook beneath her hand.
He took a step forward, ready to catch her.
Serena shook her head, lurching forward. She didn't drop her cane, but he caught her up anyway.
And as she buried her face in his neck, his pulse fast against her cheek; as he gripped her tight, one of his beautiful cheekbones digging hard into her forehead, whispering fast, warm words that she felt instead of heard, a revelation spilled through her, as sweet as the filling from a chocolate truffle.
She was home.