My goodness, I'm posting this at 3:30 in the morning! Time for bed. Please forgive any horrifically embarrassing typos.
A few days late for the holidays, but I hope enjoyable all the same. Happy New Year's!
This story is dedicated to TouchtheSoul and Mesmerizing. Merry Christmas!
The Jackpot Question
Maybe it's much too early in the game
Ah, but I thought I'd ask you just the same
What are you doing New Year's,
New Year's Eve?
The jackpot question first popped into my head on a blustery Halloween night, when the sky was threatening sheets of rain rather than sheets of snow and the holiday hoopla was just on the horizon.
The arcade was decked out, as it is for every holiday, every year. I have no idea where Motoki gets his drive for that sort of thing, but I honestly believe he makes brand new decorations each time. No box of salvaged goods and thrift store finds for that crafty mogul. Maybe he watches a bit too much Martha Stewart in his spare time.
On that particular Halloween he had linked together hundreds upon hundreds of black and orange construction paper strips, making one absurdly long chain that ran around the entire perimeter of the arcade in grand swaths, even overlapping in some places because I guess the crafting bug had just gotten him and he didn't know where to stop. And then on top of each arcade machine was a tissue-paper and Styrofoam ball ghost, with terrifying black, beady eyes pasted on, watching the gamers as they tried to beat the highest scores. But perhaps the most terrifying thing of all was the homemade cookies Motoki had made in the shape of mini bats sprinkled with black shimmery icing.
No, the bats themselves weren't that scary, it was just… homemade cookies? From Motoki?
It could not bode well for anyone.
"You sure have outdone yourself this year," I mused, sitting at the counter with a cup of unspiked witch's brew (a.k.a. sorbet and 7-Up chilled over dry ice, and, trust me, a touch of vodka wouldn't have been a bad thing at that point).
"Thanks!" Motoki preened in his Halloween apron, the only holiday decoration that remained the same over time. It was all black with letters in a red, blood-dripping font that read "What's for Dessert?" followed by a gory image of vampire fangs.
Which was really pretty darn funny.
Setting the last bowl of candy on the buffet table, Motoki wandered over to me and plopped down on the next stool to survey the place. "Not bad, huh? I saw the ghosts in a Martha Stewart Living magazine."
"It looks great. And I think you're single-handedly keeping the craft store in business."
"I know!" he laughed, immune to the sarcastic wit I was otherwise so reviled for. "And I already have this great idea for Christmas. I saw an article…"
"In the Martha Stewart magazine?"
"Yes! And she'd taken these old antique doilies and sprayed them with fabric stiffener and then spray-painted them silver and dusted them with glitter so they looked like snowflakes, right, and then hung them up…"
As intrigued as I was by this new project, Motoki's words faded into the background as the door of the arcade opened and a gaggle of girls came bumbling and giggling into the arcade, before seeing Motoki and I, stopping, and then screaming at the top of their collective voices, "Trick or Treat!"
Forgetting all about the snowflake doilies, Motoki jumped off his stool and ran to greet them. I did not jump, nor run, because those were things that Motoki could get away with while I, on the other hand, would just look like an idiot. But I did stare.
Staring I could usually get away with.
It took me a moment to figure out what on earth they were all supposed to be. Ami was the easiest to figure out; she was an Ace of Hearts.
Yes, as in the card.
And Usagi was clearly a bunny (her cleverness never ceases to astound), but this time she was a bunny with a plaid vest and a giant pocket watch dangling from her pocket.
Which was when I realized that they were the cast of Alice in Wonderland, and I felt a little bad for bashing Odango's cleverness.
Minako was Alice in a pale blue dress and frilly white apron, her bright red bow traded in for a simple black satin headband. Makoto was playing the Mad Hatter and she had to duck occasionally to keep the huge Dr. Seuss-style hat she wore away from the ceiling fans. And Rei was strutting around in a floor-length black and red ballgown speckled with glitzy hearts, looking like she was going to condemn some poor soul to headlessness at any moment.
"You all look great!" Andrew said, admiring each costume in turn.
I agreed inwardly, but then spun my stool away before anyone noticed my appreciation. The arcade was filling up quickly for the party, witches and maids and mini-Harry Potters all smacking each other with their broomsticks and enjoying the bat cookies on the table without any qualms.
I wondered if maybe I should put up a warning sign before someone came down with food poisoning.
"And what are you supposed to be? A bump on a log?"
I had to press my lips tightly together to keep them from curling up in a delighted grin. I raised my paper cup to my lips, sipping at the brew, and coolly shifted my gaze in her direction. She was seated on the stool next to me, face propped up on two small fists, and pretending to look irate and scathing as she assessed my "costume"—although, really, she just looked adorable in those fuzzy white bunny ears and a tiny green bowtie around her neck.
Which made me a tad nervous, because if anyone saw her out of the context of Wonderland, she could easily be mistaken for a playboy bunny.
Which meant I was going to have to watch her extra carefully that night.
"I'm a college student," I drawled.
"Ooh, creative," she said. "How long did it take you to come up with that idea?"
"How long did it take you to throw on a vest and bunny ears?"
"Hey, we've been working on these costumes since August. Although, actually, mine didn't take long. But Rei's was kind of a pain. I had to cut out all those hearts!"
"You mean they let you play with scissors and lived to tell the tale?"
Usagi rolled her eyes. "Mamoru, I think I spot a huge problem with your costume."
"College students are supposed to have an IQ over 80."
Ooh, touché. "Well as long as we're being critical, I'm pretty sure Lewis Carroll's rabbit didn't have odangos tucked behind its ears."
Her brow drew down in a defiance that was quickly mixed with confusion. "Who's Lewis Carroll?"
"Usagi-chan, you have to try these cookies!" Mina said, suddenly appearing with a bat wing sticking out of her mouth and black sprinkles coating her fingers. She handed Usagi a cookie, who took it with a gleeful grin and more drool forming on her lips than the resident Dracula.
And if she died of food poisoning, I was going to strangle Motoki with his apron strings.
"This is so cool, isn't it?" Mina squealed, the ring of black around her lips making her look more like the gothic video game Alice than the Disney version. "Look how many people showed up? I had no idea this was going to be such a shindig!"
Glancing around I noticed that she was right. The arcade had somehow become packed during Usagi's and my interlude. Now ghosts and ghouls were bumping and grinding to the Monster Mash and a number of teenage hoodlums were trying to grab plushies out of the crane game by sticking their hands up through the drop shoot.
And just for clarification, "college student" is a perfectly acceptable costume. "Teenage hoodlum" is not.
"Motoki should definitely host this every year," agreed Usagi, licking frosting from her fingers. "It could become the hippest Halloween party in Tokyo."
"And he says he's already planning his holiday parties," continued Mina. "He says he wants to have a pre-Christmas bash and a New Year's Eve party!"
Squealing, Usagi clasped her hands over her chest. "That would be perfect! We never have anywhere to go on New Year's!"
"I know, the world can be so unfair to minors. I told him we'd help plan and decorate."
"Definitely! I can make party hats!"
I wanted to laugh at the idea, sure that Usagi had about as much talent with a glue stick as Motoki did, but then Minako was grabbing Usagi's wrist and pulling her onto the dance floor where they were greeted with a Card, a Hatter, and a Queen, and I was left sipping my non-alcoholic brew and I no longer felt like laughing.
And that moment—watching Usagi giggle and dance (not gracefully, but she got bonus points for effort)—was the moment the question first popped into my head.
Actually, it was more like getting smacked on the head with a magic broomstick, because the intensity of the question suddenly had me choking. I turned away and caught my breath, feeling the blood rushing to my cheeks, and tried to forget the idea had ever come to me.
But it wouldn't go away.
It just kept bounding around, unstoppable and inescapable.
I cast another uncertain look at the dance floor—her hips shimmying to the beat, her lithe arms glowing in the light from Motoki's disco ball, her big, fuzzy ears flopping around.
I managed to keep the question safely inside the confines of my mouth, knowing that I would never have the guts to actually ask it. And yet it would continue to plague me for two very long months.
Usako, what are you doing New Year's Eve?
After that spooky night, however, things got a little more complicated.
Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight
When it's exactly twelve o'clock that night
Welcoming in the New Year,
New Year's Eve
His name was Akio.
I would like to say that he was arrogant. Cocksure. A smartass. A jerk. Or even just ugly. But he wasn't any of these things. I'm man enough to admit that he was actually pretty intelligent, good-looking, and sociable. An all-around good guy. A friendly chap. Funny. Fashionable dresser.
And I hated him. With every fiber of my being, I hated him.
Because she liked him.
With every fiber of her being? I don't know. But she certainly liked him enough to make me want to twist his neck until his good-looking head popped off.
This is the story of how I first came to know and loathe him.
It was late-November. The thermometer had dropped ten degrees. The construction paper chains had all been torn down. The cookies had all been eaten up—and no one had died. Department stores were just beginning to receive their Christmas stock, though they were not yet playing Christmas carols nonstop on the radio.
And I was going to Makoto's apartment. Yes, Makoto, the Mad Hatter. No, I'd never been there before. But evidently there's this American holiday that is celebrated in late November called Thanksgiving. In America it's supposedly meant to celebrate the Europeans who had first arrived on their continent and made friends with the natives, but really it's all about eating. And Makoto wanted to practice cooking some more international cuisine, and so she was hosting a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and everyone was invited. Even me. Because evidently Thanksgiving is also about getting together with loved ones and I miraculously managed to fit that bill.
I arrived fifteen minutes early, but when I went to knock on the apartment door a piercing scream tore through my eardrums.
And I recognized that scream.
Without hesitation, I barged in through the door, brandishing the bottle of wine I'd brought to share. I found myself in a wide-open living space that smelled of smoke.
I heard the scream again and rushed toward it. Then I was in a small kitchen, where a cloud of black smoke was climbing toward the ceiling fan and Usagi was standing petrified in place with both hands over her mouth. I followed her gaze to the stove, where the open door revealed a blazing fire.
"Don't worry, I've got it under control!" said an unfamiliar male voice, just as an unfamiliar male burst onto the scene from the kitchen's other open doorway.
I gaped, stunned, as the man wrapped one arm securely around Usagi's waist and pulled her back from the stove. With his other hand he took a box of baking soda from the counter and tossed white powder into the stove, extinguishing the flames in one fell swoop.
It was not the most dramatic or heroic way to put out a fire, but it was efficient, and his arm was still wrapped around the damsel when all was said and done.
"Are you all right, Usagi-chan?" he asked, turning to the flushed, wide-eyed girl. He actually looked concerned.
She nodded. "Thanks, Akio-kun. I don't know what happened. I was just… it just… combusted."
"I'm here, I'm here!" Makoto came spinning into the scene, wearing a black-and-white checkered apron. "What happened?"
"The yams!" Usagi cried, pointing toward the white-powdered mess. "They exploded!"
Makoto stared into the stove. "Usagi, what did you do?"
"I didn't do anything!"
"I think it was the marshmallows," said the stranger, Akio. "They caught fire somehow."
"I told you marshmallows were a bad idea," said Usagi. "Honestly, who's ever heard of marshmallows with potatoes, anyway?"
Makoto glared at her. "You're the one who suggested I should double the amount of the marshmallows in the first place." With a sigh, she brushed Usagi and Akio away with a flick of her wrist and slipped a pair of oven mitts onto her hands, retrieving the disastrous yams from the oven.
During all this, my gaze had remained perpetually glued to Akio's arm—still around Usagi. My fist was slowly squeezing the life out of the poor wine bottle. Scorching blood pounded at my temples.
Then they were both facing me. I forced my gaze up to meet his. He had black hair and brown eyes and was younger than me though I couldn't tell if he was older than Usagi or not.
"Hi," he said, a great big friendly happy lovey-dovey smile plastered across his face. "I don't think we've met."
"This is Mamoru-baka," said Usagi. "He's a friend of Motoki's."
I did not look at her while she said this. I was too busy trying to keep my hand from cracking that convenient wine bottle of this jerk's head.
"Who are you?" I said. Okay, it was probably more of a growl.
"Don't be offended," Usagi stage-whispered. "He's this rude to everybody."
I narrowed my gaze, but Akio only chuckled, rather good-naturedly. My insides twitched in annoyance.
"I'm Akio," he said, setting down the baking soda and holding out a hand to me. I set down the wine bottle and took it, and maybe squeezed a little tighter than was necessary, and let my gaze fall down to the hand that still—still!—lingered on Usagi's hip, and then squeezed just that much tighter, for good measure.
I thought I was being pretty subtle, but maybe the guy was a quick study, because when we released hands he also took his arm off of her.
"I go to Makoto-chan's old high school," he said.
A swarm of questions burbled up in my thoughts—How long have you known Usagi? How well do you know her? What are your intentions toward her? How much can you bench press?—but none of them made their way to the surface before Motoki rounded the corner from the living area.
"Hey, Mamoru's here!" he said. "Does that mean we can eat soon?"
"Not yet," said Makoto, scooping charred marshmallows into the kitchen sink in an attempt to rescue the scorched sweet potatoes. "I still need to carve the turkey. But why don't you all go sit down and relax?"
It was a polite way of saying "get the hell out of my kitchen so I can work," and so we all politely obliged and made our way into the attached dining room, where two small tables and a desk had been pushed together to form one long dining table where Rei, Ami, and Minako sat chatting and snacking on mixed nuts.
"Hi, Mamoru-san," said Rei.
"Ignore him," said Usagi, seating herself beside Ami. "He's cranky today. Imagine that."
I cast a cool glare at her. My shock at seeing another man being so physically familiar with Usagi was slowly wearing off, and being replaced with a heaping scoop of annoyance. Mostly at Akio, but at her, too. She shouldn't be letting strange men touch her like that! The image of his arm around her was burned into my retinas and my stomach felt like I'd just swallowed a lump of charred marshmallow each time I thought of it, which was not helping my disposition.
Akio took a seat next to Usagi. I sat opposite them, in between two empty chairs. Motoki took a seat between Minako and me.
"So why were you screaming, Usagi?" asked Minako, adding a pistachio shell to a growing nut-shell pile.
"The yams caught on fire and almost burned the place down," said Usagi.
"And so you panicked?" said Rei. "It's always so comforting to have you around in an emergency situation, Odango."
Usagi stuck her tongue out at Rei, then said, "What would you do if there was suddenly smoke and flames in your oven?"
"Throw baking soda on it."
Usagi blinked. "Am I the only person who doesn't know that trick?"
Akio chuckled. "I'm just glad I got there before the whole dish burned up. It smelled really good when Makoto pulled it out of the oven."
"You were very heroic." Usagi smiled at him, and then fluttered her eyelashes a little. "You kind of reminded me of Tuxedo Kamen-sama."
My eyelid began to twitch.
"Here we go," sang Makoto, emerging from the kitchen with a whole golden-brown turkey on a platter.
The crowd immediately praised her for the delicious aroma accosting their senses. She set the bird down in the center of the table.
"Before I carve it," said Makoto, "everyone has to say one thing that they're grateful for. I'll go first." She took a deep breath and continued, "I'm very grateful to have a wonderful group of friends to share this meal with, and I'm grateful that Usagi didn't burn down my apartment. Ami?"
Ami went next, and then Rei, and then Usagi who thought for a long moment, chewing on the inside of her cheek and staring up at the ceiling. "I'm grateful for Tuxedo Kamen-sama, because he always saves Sailor Moon's life, and I would be really devastated if something happened to Sailor Moon."
Rei scoffed and muttered, "Oh, please."
"What? I am grateful for him!"
There was a giddy flicker in my chest, but it was short-lived as Akio began to speak. "Well I'm grateful that Makoto invited me today and I've had the opportunity to meet so many new, wonderful people."
This, in itself, wouldn't have been too bad, except his eyes were firmly planted on Usagi when he said "new, wonderful people." I squirmed in my chair, my fingernails digging into my palms.
The gratitude continued and when it was finally my turn, it was a struggle for me to think of anything appropriate to say. "I'm grateful for…" Coffee. Chocolate. Usagi's school uniform having such a short skirt. "Um…" That test paper that once hit me in the head. That shoe that once hit me in the head. The way she sometimes smiles at me in those rare, special moments when we aren't arguing about something stupid. The fact that she's still single. "Well…"
"I told you he was in a bad mood," Usagi said.
I looked at her. Her chin was resting in her palm as she watched me, clearly ready to be done with all the gratitude speak and get to the food part of this evening.
"Sailor Moon," I said.
Her eyes widened.
"I'm grateful for Sailor Moon," I said with a shrug.
"Sailor Moon?" Rei said with obvious irritation. "What about Sailor Mars?"
I chuckled. "All right, I'm grateful for all the senshi then. Tokyo is lucky to have them."
Usagi's expression was peculiar and unreadable. Part suspicious. Part nervousness. Part… flustered?
"Well, okay then," said Makoto, clapping her hands together and dispelling the silence that had fallen over Usagi and me, and the argument that had fallen over Rei and Minako—I hadn't been paying them any attention but it sounded like they were arguing over which was more powerful, Sailor Mars's Fire Ignite attack or Sailor Venus's Crescent Beam. Personally, I thought that Sailor Jupiter's Supreme Thunder could take them both but I didn't think it was my place to throw that possibility into the mix.
"Here we go," said Makoto as she picked up her carving knife and started sawing at the turkey.
I wish that I could give a thorough review of the traditional American fare, but I could hardly taste it. My thoughts throughout the meal were far too attuned to Usagi and Akio. Their body language. Their traded glances. Their conversations. Their mild-mannered flirting.
Yes. As much as I would like to deny the fact… they were definitely flirting. And right in front of me, in front of everyone! Akio would say something cheesy and Usagi would blush. Akio would say something witty and Usagi would giggle. Akio would compliment Usagi's shirt or hair or smile or laugh and Usagi would blush some more.
It was nauseating.
By the end of the meal, my jaw ached with teeth-gnashing and my palm ached from nail-digging and I was one corny compliment away from throwing myself across the table and tackling Akio to the ground. I bet he wouldn't look quite so smug with a few well-placed bruises on that pretty face of his.
I was pulled back into reality by someone hissing my name. Slightly startled, I turned to see Motoki leaning toward me. He was not sly by any means, but everyone else was too caught up in a gossipy discussion about some of their high school teachers to pay us any attention.
"You're staring," Motoki whispered to me.
"You're staring at them. You haven't stopped staring at them since we sat down."
I turned to face him completely and glared. I thought about feigning denial, but the past hour of fantasies filled with me hitting Akio in the nose had started to wear me out and denial seemed like it would take too much effort.
"Unless you plan on going over there and challenging him to a duel, you'd better relax," Motoki continued.
I opened my mouth, then shut it again. Pondered. Then asked, "Do you think that would work?"
A slow smile spread across Motoki's face. "They're just talking, you know. It's not like he's asked her out or anything."
I frowned, but knew he was right. Here I was, acting like a jealous boyfriend, and all because of a little innocent flirting? This Akio was just some passing phase. By this time tomorrow, she would have forgotten all about him, and everything would be back to normal.
I was sure of it. I was buoyed with hope. I was grateful for this wise realization.
I was also wrong.
Maybe I'm crazy to suppose
I'd ever be the one you chose
Out of a thousand invitations
We celebrated Thanksgiving on a Thursday. By Saturday morning, Usagi and Akio were officially dating.
I knew this because I was sitting in the arcade, sipping a cup of coffee at a corner booth and reading the newspaper, when Usagi came skipping in, bounced up to Motoki, and squealed, "Guess what! Akio is taking me out to dinner tonight!"
I dropped my coffee cup the whole half an inch it had to fall to the table, sending coffee splashing up onto the newspaper.
Motoki's eyes widened and his first response to Usagi's statement was to look at me—maybe in compassion and concern, maybe in fear that I was about to fly off the handle—but he quickly tried to correct his mistake by returning his attention to the excited girl.
Too late. She followed his look and our eyes clashed. I don't know if I looked angry or upset or distraught or merely blank and empty. I felt a little of them all.
Usagi looked only confused though as she took in my spilled coffee and whatever expression I was giving her. I tore my gaze away and tried to sop up the coffee with the newspaper. My vision had gone white and sparking. Every nerve in my body sizzled. My stomach roiled. And I could not keep the vision of Usagi and Akio out on a romantic date—candlelight and soothing music and gourmet food and a scrumptious chocolate dessert and a bouquet of roses and a goodnight… a goodnight…
My hand, still wrapped around the coffee mug, began to shake, and more coffee spilled out over the rim.
After a moment, I began to make out Usagi's voice again. She was saying something about Minako and shopping and a new outfit for the evening. She was asking for a hot cocoa to go. I heard my name—she was asking if I was okay.
I don't know what Motoki's response was, but not long after that, Usagi was gone. I instantly knew when she had left because sensory perception began to filter back into my brain. When the bright fuzziness before my gaze dissipated, Motoki was sitting opposite me, clearly concerned for my mental stability, and the coffee was all mopped up with a stack of napkins that hadn't been there before.
"You all right?"
I blinked at him. How could I possibly answer that question honestly without sounding like a sappy, melodramatic fool?
So I didn't answer, and instead turned to look out the window. "I should have proposed a duel."
"Maybe you still can."
I slid my gaze back to Motoki. "You're right. He can't be a very quick draw."
"I don't mean a gun duel, Mamoru. I mean a…" He swirled his hand through the air in search of the right word. "A romance duel. A courtship duel. A duel for her affections."
"You know, Motoki, I'm glad that no matter how sappy and melodramatic I feel, I always know you're going to be sappier."
"I'm serious. I've watched you pine for her from afar for almost a year now and not do anything about it."
"I do not pine."
"Yes, you do. And it hasn't gotten you anywhere because despite the fact that you're crazy for her, you've stuck to your idiotic ways and she is still under the impression that you hate her. So maybe, just maybe, this will be the push that you need to do something about your feelings."
I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing. Motoki wanted me to actually do something about my feelings for her? As in… confess? Ask her on a date? Romance her?
"You can't be serious."
"Why not? What have you got to lose?"
"Dignity and self-respect."
He rolled his eyes. "All right. And what have you got to gain?"
"Nothing. It's hopeless." I turned toward the window again. "She's made her decision."
"How can she have made her decision when she didn't know all the options?"
"She would have chosen him anyway." I shrugged. "I would have chosen him. Face it, you would have chosen him too. He's better for her. He's… nice."
Motoki folded his arms on the table and leaned forward. "But who would love her better?"
This, I honestly had to stop and think about.
I had dreamt so often about what life would be like if I ever stood a chance with her. About all the things I would do to try and make her happy. About all the places I would take her and all the things I would buy her and all the compliments I would heap upon her.
But then I remembered how she had blushed and smiled at Akio's effortless attentions, and my heart shriveled.
The knowledge, or belief, that Usagi had found a guy that could possibly be good for her—who would be gentlemanly and respectful and compassionate—did not in any way allay the sick feeling that would come over me every time I thought of them touching, laughing, kissing. Kissing was the worst. My cruel imagination frequently showed me faux glimpses of their intimacy and my blood would curdle each time. I despised the very thought that any man could kiss her other than me, even though I knew it was something that would eventually come to pass and could not be stopped or avoided no matter how much I tried to conjure up ways to do just that.
And yet, despite the disgust at this idea, I also found myself stricken with a peculiar curiosity. I wanted to know what they talked about when they were out on their dates. I wanted to know what she wore. I wanted to know where he took her. I wanted to know when they finally did pass that first-kiss milestone. Clearly, this was a result of my masochistic side, but there was nothing I could do about that.
Which is why I started following them.
Which is why Tuxedo Kamen started following them.
You know you would have done the same thing.
For twenty-four days I found my masked alter-ego sneaking into movie theaters, hiding in treetops, spying from behind dumpsters, sneaking along fire escapes, and doing any number of highly secretive and dangerous things in order to watch their relationship progress.
They did not go out every day. Some weeks they only met on weekends. Other times they made plans every evening for seven straight days. They mostly went out to eat, which was frustrating because I couldn't very well sneak my caped self into a restaurant and eavesdrop on them, so I had to resign myself to watching from outside and trying to discern how the conversation was going.
By week two they were holding hands. By week two and half she was resting her head on his shoulder in the movie theater.
I could sense week three bringing on the inevitable kiss. I saw Akio attempt it a handful of times, but each time the kiss was dodged, although it was difficult to tell if Usagi was intentionally avoiding them or if she didn't realize what Akio was trying to do. A kiss might be aimed at her cheek when her attention was suddenly captured by a loud noise and she quickly turned her head away. Or maybe he was going for her lips and she mistook the advance for a hug instead.
But it was only a matter of time, and my nerves were fried from watching their courtship dance. I was losing sleep. I was living off of coffee and peanut butter cups. And all the while, Motoki persisted in his belief that I should use this opportunity to fight for her, to start showing her how I feel, to put myself in the game, as he called it.
Then, on December 23, I began to wonder if maybe Motoki was right.
Akio and Usagi were taking a stroll in the park, which had become one of their favorite pastimes. The sun had set and the moon was high, though it was still relatively early in the evening. The temperature was below freezing and a thin blanket of snow dusted the paths and Usagi was bundled up with a white wool coat and a baby pink scarf and mittens.
I was staying safely hidden behind a low hedge that bordered the park's main pathway.
They'd been talking about the arcade's Christmas Eve party. Usagi and the girls had done a lot of planning for it over the past couple of weeks, designing food menus and crafting decorations (though I'm sure nobody crafted more doily snowflakes than Motoki had).
And then, rather out of the blue, Usagi turned to Akio and asked, "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"
My heart jolted. I had almost forgotten about my fantasy of someday asking her that very question, almost two whole months ago. The dream that I may someday ask her to be my date to the arcade's annual shindig. True, it had always seemed far-fetched, and who knows if I ever would have worked up the courage to go through with it, but it had been a possibility. It had crossed my mind.
And now the opportunity had been stolen from me.
"Won't there be a party at the arcade?" asked Akio.
"Yes, it's one of Motoki's favorite parties to throw."
"Well then, we should go to that, don't you think?" He grinned, and then leaned down toward her with a teasing glint in his eye. "Unless you were asking who I would be spending it with, in which case I hope to be spending it with you."
Usagi smiled back, but then quickly dropped her gaze and they continued down the path.
An obnoxious roar sudden destroyed the park's serenity.
Even without looking, I recognized that roar. That was a Negaverse roar.
Within moments I had clambered up a nearby oak tree and was able to spot the youma—which looked like a cross between Frosty the Snowman and the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. The park was not terrifically crowded on that late winter evening, but there was a group of teenage hoodlums who'd been sledding down one of the park's hills and now stood gaping, terrified, at the youma.
My attention almost instantly reverted down to Usagi and Akio, who were closer to the youma, and it seemed that I was not the only one to realize this. A mere blink later, half a dozen snowballs were soaring in their direction. (They were not really snowballs, of course, but more like super-slime energy suckers disguised as snowballs, but for the sake of simplicity…)
Usagi's scream was cut short by Akio shoving her into the hedge. The barrage of snowballs barely missed his back. "Come on!" he said, grabbing Usagi's wrist and dragging her around the bushes in an attempt to hide from the projectiles.
When its first victims had disappeared from view, the youma turned its attention toward the teenagers, who had only just begun to regain sense and were trying to scurry down the hill as fast as they could. They were soon out of view and the snow-creature, much slower than the nimble adolescents, was lumbering after them at a pace which did not make me feel immediately compelled to go protect their well-being.
"You wait here," I heard Akio say. Turning my attention down to them, I saw that "here" was behind a marble statue in an empty water fountain.
"Wait, where are you going?" said Usagi.
"I'm going to go distract it. When you see it chasing me, run the other way."
"What? Are you crazy?"
It was a really stupid plan, but Akio didn't wait to listen to Usagi's arguments before he took off running after the abominable snow youma. Usagi gaped after him for a long moment and I thought for sure she would take off running toward safety and I would be free to go see what could be done about the youma, but that isn't what happened. Instead, the stupid girl took off running after Akio.
I cursed beneath my breath and followed her.
It only took moments for me to catch up with Akio and when I did, I couldn't help but be impressed with him. His plan, which had seemed stupid at first, and still seemed less than genius, was at least courageous. He had not wanted only to take the youma's attention away from Usagi, but also from the teenagers who, for all I knew, could have been older than him.
At first it worked. The youma spotted Akio and started to follow him. Then he disappeared over a hill crest and the youma was just about to waddle after him when it caught sight of Usagi running toward it and paused and turned its attentions to her instead.
Stupid, stupid, stupid girl.
"Leave him alone!" she said. She came to a gasping halt before the snowman and looked like she was ready to go on yelling when a blizzard of snowballs came zooming toward her.
I let out a cry and launched into action, tossing my body from the tree and intercepting the snowballs before they could hit their target. Usagi screamed as I knocked her to the ground and covered us both with my cape. I could feel the chilly attack on my back, but my fabric shield remained intact.
Some of you may be wondering how frightening a bunch of snowballs can possibly be if they can be stopped with a flimsy piece of fabric, but let me tell you, this is no ordinary cape. Whoever designed this costume of mine knew what they were getting into because the stuff is like titanium.
Anyway, so we didn't die. Gold star for the cape.
When the barrage had stopped, I scooped Usagi up into my arms and darted back toward the hedge.
The snowman did not follow. With us out of sight again, the youma decided to once again focus its attentions on the escaping teenagers, but their head start and the youma's tortoise-like pace seemed to be in my favor.
I set Usagi down on a snowy grassy knoll, gripped her shoulders—probably harder than was necessary—and said, "Are you okay?"
She was staring at me, mouth agape, eyes turned to silver dollars in the moonlight. Even in the semi-darkness I could see a tint of pinkness on her cheeks.
It was not unlike rescuing Sailor Moon. For a moment I had even started to think that it was Sailor Moon—she felt the same in my arms. But now, looking down at her, feeling her thick wool coat in my grip, I was mesmerized. This was not my superhero, this was Usako. And I was touching her. And my heart was galloping. And she was looking at me with such vivid admiration and delight. And her odangos were slightly mussed from the near-escape. And her pale skin was glowing against the diamond snow. And she was so beautiful.
"Thank you," she murmured.
Maybe these words were not the come-hither encouragement I mistook them for, but mistake them I did.
Releasing her shoulders, I wrapped both arms around her body and kissed her.
She was surprised, but it was short-lived and soon she was returning the kiss with fervor, her arms grasping my neck, her lithe body pressing against mine. She moaned softly. Her lips were hot and sweet and trembling and heaven.
Hot, sweet, trembling heaven.
More screams destroyed the moment.
I pulled completely away from her, afraid to leave any inch of me touching any inch of her, not sure I would have the strength to keep from kissing her again.
"I'm sorry," I said, breathless. "I have to—"
She nodded, quickly, and I was sure she understood.
I wracked my brain for something appropriate to say. An explanation, a promise, but there was nothing that would have made sense to her.
And so, instead, I turned and ran toward the youma as fast as I could, wondering if she would still be there when the attack was over. Wondering if I would have the nerve to go back.
I all but flew to the other side of the snow-covered hill and found the snowman at its base, surrounded by the icicled bodies of the teenagers. A quick scan told me they were all alive, but the ice that encapsulated them was slowly draining their youthful energy and turning it into… whatever it is the Negaverse turns energy into. There was no sign of Akio.
I pulled a red rose from my jacket.
Now, make no mistake—normally I would have waited for Sailor Moon and the rest of the senshi to arrive before making my presence known to the villain. Because that's just how things are done around here. But Usako was possibly waiting for me at that very moment, and the memory of her lips lingering on mine made me anxious to get this battle over with as quickly as possible.
And so I let the rose fly. Its steely stem hit one of the energy-sucking igloos and the ice instantly shattered, releasing the adolescent from its hold. The boy collapsed to the ground with a moan.
Another handful of flying flowers and all the victims were free. Frost-bitten and on the verge of pneumonia, but free.
The youma turned to me. "Who are you?"
"I am Tuxedo Kamen, and I do not have time to deal with you right now."
It wasn't my most poetic speech ever, but at least it was honest and to the point.
"Prepare to be… plowed!" I yelled and threw another rose.
The rose hit the monster in its rotund belly. It screamed in pain and outrage and soon a storm of snowballs were hurtling toward me. I whipped my protective cape around to shield my body from their impact. When there was a lull in the attack, I took the opportunity to dash toward the youma, hoping that a closer target would be a dead target.
Two roses hit two coal buttons on the youma's chest. It howled and a flurry of angry snowflakes twirled around its head.
"Moon Tiara Magic!"
A golden crescent slashed through the snowman, chopping it squarely in half. The youma screeched in pain, threw its broomstick arms into the air, and vanished in a curlicue of smoke.
Gaping, I turned to see Sailor Moon standing a little ways up the hill, her cheeks flushed as if she'd run there from a long distance. Or as if she was supremely flustered about something.
We stared at each other for a moment, before I found the sense to nod firmly at her. "Good job, Sailor Moon," I said. "I think that was the fastest victory you've ever had."
She said nothing for a long moment. Her vibrant blue eyes were gazing at me with more intensity than I had ever seen in them, and she looked as if she desperately wanted to say something to me but couldn't quite form the words.
Finally, she said in a dry voice, "You aren't the only who has better things to be doing."
Her words instantly reminded me of my Usako, stranded on the snowy meadow, warm and waiting for my embrace. (Okay, maybe the thought that she was waiting for my embrace was pure fantasy, but it sure did make me anxious to end this conversation with Sailor Moon. Even if I did have a teeny weensy crush on the heroine.)
"Uh… Merry Christmas?" I said to her, then bounded past her up the hill.
"Tuxedo Kamen, wait!"
I did not wait. I figured she had to be used to these sudden disappearances by now anyway.
But when I reached the finely-dusted grassy knoll where I had abandoned Usagi, I found it empty. I stared at the spot where I had held her and kissed her, the indentation of our bodies still in the snow, and beside them, footsteps. I blinked at them, easily picking out her small footsteps in comparison to my larger ones. It looked like maybe she had taken off running… toward the battle scene.
Furrowing my brow, I traced the trail with my gaze and slowly turned around. Here came Sailor Moon, huffing and puffing her way up the hill. I furrowed my brow at her. She didn't usually follow me.
She paused a few meters away.
I could see her gulping down her nervousness and I had to fight the irritation that was welling inside of me. I admired and appreciated Sailor Moon, to be sure, but at that moment I wanted to be searching for my Odango-chan, not fending off a superhero's infatuation with me.
"I just… I just wanted to ask you something," she said. Her brow was pulled down slightly, as if she was having trouble thinking of what she wanted to say, what she should say. And her cheeks were growing redder with each passing moment.
"All right," I said, resisting the urge to tap my foot. She would ask what my true identity was, or if I was with the Sailor Senshi or against them, or what I knew about the Negaverse, or something predictable like that.
But no. Instead, after another hesitation, she asked, "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"
I jolted. "Excuse me?"
"I was just wondering…. You wouldn't happen to be going to… to the Crown Arcade's party. Would you?"
My mouth fell open. How did she know about the Crown Arcade? Had my identity somehow been compromised?
And then a peculiar, shocking thought crossed my mind.
She had sounded so familiar in that moment. What are you doing New Year's Eve? I could have sworn I had heard those words from Sailor Moon's very lips before, and yet… how could I have?
My gaze slowly dropped down, past the short skirt and the shiny red boots, landing on the glistening snow beneath her. I had to take a few steps closer to see better—the footprints from Sailor Moon's boots.
My stare shifted to the trail left by Usagi.
My heart stopped. The world spun.
I met Sailor Moon's gaze again.
She was not asking me this question because she had suddenly figured out who I was. She was asking me this question because I had kissed her.
Sailor Moon was Usagi. Usagi was Sailor Moon. It was as if her disguise vanished before me, the vague impression that kept people from discovering her identity grew crystal clear as I studied her. I knew her. I knew every contour of that face, every curve of that body. I had touched that skin. I had memorized that voice. I had kissed those lips.
I shook my head. The world was still churning beneath my feet as realizations and coincidences flashed through my head.
She must know that I know. Or think that I know—because why would Tuxedo Kamen have kissed Usagi Tsukino, other than perhaps because he knew that Usagi Tsukino was really Sailor Moon?
Spinning, spinning, spinning.
"Yes," I choked. "The Crown."
Relief and joy flashed across her face.
"And I hope…" The words snagged as my heart leapt up and snatched them back from my tongue. I hope to be spending it with you.
The words Akio had used in answer to the same question earlier that night.
She did not, could not, know who I was.
But I wasn't about to suggest that I could be him.
"You hope?" she pressed.
I shook my head. "Good night, Sailor Moon."
My hands itched to reach out to her. My lips ached to taste her again. I denied them both and ran faster than Santa's sleigh all the way home.
But in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance:
What are you doing New Year's,
New Year's Eve?
The Crown Arcade had been miraculously transformed yet again. Doily-snowflakes abounded, dangling from every rafter, every curtain rod, every doorframe. I'd like to think that Motoki had had to special order the mass of doilies—maybe he'd gotten them on eBay—but I hadn't discounted the possibility that maybe he'd just happened to have a random doily collection stored away somewhere.
I'm sure the man's craft bin was packed full of unexpected supplies like that.
The unspiked witch's brew from Halloween had been replaced with unspiked eggnog (and again, something felt severely lacking), and the bat cookies had been replaced with small brown nuggets that smelled like gingerbread and tasted like gingerbread but were actually "snowman poop." I swear. I couldn't make this stuff up.
There was no mistletoe, however. I hate to say it, but I was slightly disappointed in this fact. The year before I'd harbored secret fantasies of catching Usagi under a bough and stealing a kiss, and I'd barely known her back then. This year the desire to do just that had increased about a zillion-fold, especially after I'd briefly sampled her lips the evening before. But no, after an undesirable kiss to some arcade guest had nearly resulted in a sexual assault lawsuit last spring, the mistletoe tradition had been confiscated.
Tragic are these times we live in.
I had arrived early with the ruse that I would help Motoki with the last-minute details, though I'd really just wanted to get a head start on the eggnog with the hope that I might get a placebo-effect buzz from it and wait for the moment when Usagi would arrive. The past twenty-four hours, since I had left Sailor Moon standing alone in the park, had been torture. I hadn't slept. My mind continued to whir and stumble and go over every interaction I'd ever had with the senshi and how stupid I'd been never to recognize their similarities before. Of course, it wasn't hard to figure out the identities of the other senshi once Sailor Moon's was revealed.
The party had been steadily picking up speed for a full hour before Usagi finally arrived, wearing a festive red-velvet dress and Akio on her elbow. Her friends had already been there for forty minutes, enjoying the festivities, dancing to the upbeat Christmas music, and snacking on handfuls of the… you know.
Usagi and Akio walked through the door holding hands, but Usagi, rather than looking merry and jolly, looked like something was bothering her. Even when her friends greeted her, Usagi's smiles and greetings seemed forced. I watched her like a cat watches a laser beam. Her gaze was never far from Akio's face, inspecting, watching, and it was clear there was a disconnect with some belief in her head and the reality standing before her.
She was wondering if Akio was Tuxedo Kamen. I could tell. Who else but her own boyfriend would have kissed her so passionately, right? (At least, I hoped passionate was the word she would have used to describe it.) And Akio and I had similar hair styles.
But I'm taller. And smarter. So there.
"You're staring at them again."
I heard Motoki shuffle onto the stool next to me.
I frowned, eyes glued to the couple just as Akio gestured to the dance floor and pulled a self-conscious Usagi out into the crowd, then slowly slid my gaze to Motoki. "Am not."
He quirked an eyebrow.
Uncontrollable, my eyes flickered to the couple, saw that they were still grooving on the dance floor, and then flickered right back to Motoki.
"Uh-huh," he said.
"You know, I've been thinking about this."
"And I was just wondering, what happens if they never break up?"
"I mean, clearly they're still so young—the chances that they'll grow up and get married are relatively slim, and I think we're both relying on those odds. But it could happen. They may never break up. She could end up spending the rest of her life with him."
I glared. "Merry Christmas to you, too."
"Mamoru, I'm saying this for your own good. I know, and you know, that what you feel for her is a little bit bigger than just a crush. Don't you think you owe it to yourself, and to her, to figure out if maybe… you two could be…"
"What? Soul mates?"
He shrugged. "Well. Yeah."
I downed the rest of my eggnog, resolving to always bring a rum-filled flask with me wherever I went from that point on. Again, my traitorous eyes made their way out to the dance floor and alighted on her wobbling blonde odangos. She was in his arms. They were as close to each other as they could possibly be and still be moving in-time with the fast-paced music. But she did not look excited to be there. She still had that uncertain look on her face, that constant almost-frown. It was disconcerting. I didn't like her that way. I liked her smiling. Giggling. Combusting with irrepressible joy.
Beside me, Motoki sighed. "All right, I see your point."
"I didn't say anything."
"I know, but I see what you see. Could she look any less thrilled to be here with him? Obviously, their relationship is already on the fritz."
"You think so?" My voice was pathetically hopeful as I turned back to my best friend.
Without answering my question, he raised a scolding finger at me. "But that doesn't mean you're off the hook. How long will it be before she has another boyfriend? And then another one after that? And before you know it, she will find a guy that she wants to spend the rest of her life with, and then she'll be married, and you'll be screwed. She's not going to stay single forever, just waiting for you to make a move. She doesn't even realize she should be waiting for you to make a move."
"Come on, Motoki. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but do you honestly think I stand a chance with her? With her? The happiest, sweetest, most…" I trailed off as my gaze connected with Usagi again, just as her hands reached up to Akio's neck and she kissed him.
Full. On. Kiss.
I crushed the plastic eggnog cup in my fist.
"I do," said Motoki.
The kiss, though intense, was also short. And when she pulled away, Usagi did not look at all flustered or dazed or overflowing with love. Akio did, a little bit, but even he had the aura of a conqueror more than a lover.
They smiled at each other, awkwardly, and then went on dancing.
The music changed to a slower love song. Usagi jolted and glanced nervously at the buffet table, as if looking for an escape, but Akio pulled her into his arms before she could bolt and they began the tedious slow-spinning beneath the doilies.
I put the crumpled cup on the counter and went to her, pushing my way firmly through the crowd.
Akio saw me first and straightened. Sensing his surprise, Usagi turned to me as well.
"May I cut in?"
Usagi's jaw dropped. Akio just stared some more.
They looked at each other. Usagi's expression was all shock—Akio seemed to be searching her for a clue as to the proper response, but was getting nothing.
"I… guess so," he said.
I took her more than was given her, and smiled a tight-lipped smile at Akio. "Thanks," I said.
He nodded, confused, and wandered off the floor.
Usagi and I went on dancing. One hand on her hip, the other gripping her fingers. It was not until the euphoria of my master success over Akio had worn off that this position, this closeness, began to have an effect on me.
Her small, fragile body. Her warmth. The feel of velvet beneath my fingers.
"Mamoru-san," she breathed, all sultry and seduction.
I quivered to my core and lowered my head to feel her silky soft bangs on my cheek. "Yes?"
"Why are we dancing?"
I straightened and sucked in a clarifying breath. "Well… um… I thought you looked upset."
I looked at her, but she was not looking at me. The arcade was dark with mood-lighting, but I could have sworn she was blushing.
"Yes. You looked upset about something. And I just thought that if it was Akio who was making you upset, then maybe you could use an excuse to be away from him for awhile."
"Huh. I'm not sure I believe you, but if that's true, then… that's kind of sweet."
A giddy tingle burned in my chest. That's me. All sugary sweetness.
"So… are you upset about something?"
There was a long pause.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Her body was still so stiff in my embrace—I couldn't blame her for that—and yet I longed for the passionate compliance of the evening before. When she'd been in the arms of Tuxedo Kamen.
I cleared my throat. "All right. Um… Did you hear about the youma fight at the park last night?"
Finally, she looked at me. "Yes. Actually, I was there."
I feigned surprise. "Really? You weren't hurt, were you?"
"No. But I…" There was a hesitation and she moved closer to me, subtly and perhaps unconsciously. "I saw Tuxedo Kamen-sama, though."
The affection with which she said that name melted me.
"Oh? And was he as charming in real life as you'd expected?"
A hint of a smile. "He was even more charming than I'd expected. He was…" The smile, and her gaze, fell away. "But anyway, I saw Sailor Moon, too. She was pretty awesome."
I chuckled. Yes. Pretty awesome. I tried to search for some heroic compliment I could bestow on her, but everything that crossed my mind seemed blatantly obvious and I still wasn't sure I could give my identity away to her. I still had no idea how she would react and I couldn't stand to think that she could end up despising my alter-ego as much as she despised me.
Clearing my throat, I moved my hand to her lower-back, drawing her an inch closer to me. She did not pull away, though she grew tense again.
"Usagi-chan, I was wondering…" I inhaled a deep breath and she looked up at me, our gazes intertwining. She was so close. So angelic. So irresistible. "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"
Surprise flashed in her sapphire eyes, then confusion, and then, with the mild furrowing of her brow—suspicion. "Well," she drawled as she analyzed my face. It was as if I could read her thoughts in that moment. Why would he be asking this? Why does this feel so familiar? And her eyes darted to my lips, but only briefly, before fixing on a spot over my shoulder. "I'll be here, I guess. What about you?"
"I'll be here, too," I said. "What about Akio?"
"We'll come together."
"Right. Of course."
Her breath had quickened. Her eyes were filled with turmoil. I almost wanted her to look at me, because I knew my expression would give everything away at that moment. It's me, it's me, it's me.
"Will you be bringing a date?" she said, not looking at me.
She nodded absently. I don't think she'd expected any other answer.
"Actually," I said, "there is a girl that I wanted to ask, but… she's coming with someone else."
Her fingers momentarily gripped mine, but she did not look at me.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"It's my own fault," I said. "I'd thought of asking her on Halloween, but I didn't. I guess I was scared of what her answer would be, plus it seemed too early, you know? But then she started dating someone else. So… you know. Shame on me."
She said nothing, but I could feel her trembling slightly. I couldn't tell how obvious I was being, and I didn't know how obvious I wanted to be. I didn't want to embarrass her, and yet… a part of me was desperate for her to know the truth. To at least file an application for her affections, after all this time. To let her know her options.
And yet, rejection loomed like a dozen sparkling doilies over my head.
"I've been thinking about it," I said after a moment, "and if I knew who she was, I would ask Sailor Moon to be my New Year's date."
"Sailor Moon?" Her eyes widened and she finally looked at me again.
There was that suspicion again, coupled with flattery (I hoped that was flattery) and intrigue. Maybe even regret, though I could have been dreaming that up.
"You know, Mamoru, I'm beginning to think you might have a bit of a crush on Sailor Moon."
I chuckled. "I guess I kind of do."
Another blush bloomed on her cheeks.
"That's not strange though, is it? She's beautiful, she's brave…"
I searched her for a response, and her wide-eyed astonishment was precisely what I'd hoped to find. There were sparks in her eyes. Speeches in the way her hand gripped my shoulder.
She licked her lips.
"Well," she said, "I bet she would say yes… to being your date, I mean."
"Really? What makes you say that?"
"I just…" She shook her head, barely, as if dazed. "I need to get back to Akio."
His name broke the spell and she was out of my arms in a breath. Startled, I reached out and grabbed her elbow. "Usagi."
She froze, looking at the floor.
Did she know? Had she figured me out? What was she thinking, feeling, wanting?
"If you ever met Tuxedo Kamen, I bet he'd want to be your New Year's date, too."
Startled, stunned, her gaze darted to mine again. Her lips were slightly parted, searching for a response, or a question, or a declaration, or an insult.
"Merry Christmas, Mamoru-san."
Tearing her elbow away, she darted from the dance floor. It was the clearest good-bye she could have given.
Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight
When it's exactly twelve o'clock that night
Welcoming in the New Year,
New Year's Eve
It's selfish to say, but I actually hoped for a youma to attack on Christmas day, just so I would have a reason to see her again. But no such attack came and I could not summon the courage, or the stupidity, to go to her house either in a coat or a cape.
And so I did not see her again for forty-eight hours, when she finally showed up at the arcade late on the 26th. With Akio. They went to play videogames with hardly a glance in my direction. She didn't even pause to order a milkshake, which was a big clue that something was still bothering her. I hoped it was her relationship with Akio and not disappointment that her favorite superhero could possibly be her worst enemy in disguise.
They played videogames for an hour and then left. She looked over her shoulder at me as she exited through the glass doors, but, seeing me watching her, instantly turned away.
I followed them. I couldn't help it.
Akio walked her home and I lingered in the bushes off the sidewalk, trying my best to make out snippets of their conversation.
They were holding hands, and as they turned the street corner toward Usagi's house, Akio raised their intertwined hands and kissed Usagi's knuckle. She watched the gesture from the corner of her eye and then paused abruptly on the sidewalk.
"Akio," she said, "are you Tuxedo Kamen?"
Akio stared at her in surprise for a moment, then laughed.
Usagi lowered her gaze and he stopped laughing.
"Are you serious?"
Akio chuckled again. "No, Usagi-chan. But I'm flattered that you would think it's a possibility."
A humorless smile flittered over Usagi's lips. "It's just… I saw him at the park when we were attacked, remember? And I'd just been thinking that… I hadn't seen you since you'd run off so it seemed like… maybe…"
Akio shook his head, still grinning. "Sorry to disappoint, Usagi-chan. But I'm not Tuxedo Kamen."
"It's okay. I didn't really think… I mean, what are the chances, right?"
He walked her the rest of the way to her front door. She did not kiss him goodbye.
And I did not see either of them again for five very long days.
As the year drew to an end, Motoki once again went on a neurotic crafting extravaganza. The arcade was filled, in time, with about 400 balloons weighted around the floor and bright crate-paper fireworks all across the ceiling—really, where does he find the time? And the eggnog had been replaced with nonalcoholic champagne (a.k.a. sparkling cider). Seriously. Damn him.
And again, Rei, Minako, Makoto, and Ami all arrived early to help set up the buffet table, but two hours later there was still no sign of Usagi. I sat at the counter nursing my cider, until my knee began to bounce up and down and I couldn't keep my fingers from twitching, and glancing over my shoulder at the arcade's front doors was turning into a nervous habit. I hadn't gone five days without seeing her since I'd first met her. It was like every moment without her brilliant smile and chiming voice was a moment in solitary confinement.
And horrors were filling my head, like what if she didn't come to the party? What if this year ended and I didn't get to see her. What if she'd determined that I was, in fact, Tuxedo Kamen and she was so disappointed and disgusted by the idea that she'd resolved to never come near me again?
My fears were unwarranted. At exactly 7:14, she breezed into the arcade, sparkling like a diamond and carrying a giant bag filled with homemade party hats. Seeing her, I released a breath that I may have been holding all night. Relief swelled inside of me, even though I knew that nothing had been resolved. Still, my sanity was partially restored by her mere presence.
Of course, close behind her came Akio. He looked to be in a fine mood, and I could feel a twitch developing in my eyelid again. How many hours had they spent together since the last time I'd seen them? Was he making her happy? Were they more serious now, or bordering on friends-only? So many questions were gnawing at me that I lost track of Usagi bumbling through the room until I felt a hat being set on my head and an elastic band snapped against my neck.
I yelped and turned around to see Usagi leaning against the counter, beaming at me. My heart jumped into my throat. How beautiful she was in the sparkling, festive air. How I had missed her.
"Happy New Year's, Mamoru-baka. I made this hat especially for you."
I reached up for the hat and took it off to get a good look at it. The cone-shaped hat was black with a red rose painted on it against a starry sky.
"Not sure why, but roses remind me of you these days," she said. And her tone of voice made it clear that she knew exactly why that might be.
She was half-smiling at me, but her blue eyes were serious and intense.
"Thanks," I said, but I did not put the hat back on my head.
Without another word, Usagi scooted off the stool and brushed past me. I watched her as she rounded the counter and snuck into the back room, casting one glance at me before disappearing.
This come-hither look could not be mistaken.
Inhaling an unsteady breath, I pushed myself from my own stool and followed her.
In the storage room, the music from the party died down to a vague, pounding roar beyond the wall. Usagi stood with her back to a pile of boxes. Her posture declared comfort, but I could see the tenseness in her expression and the way her fingers nervously toyed with the straps of her yellow party dress.
I lingered by the doorway and waited. Beneath her studious gaze I could feel myself being scrutinized, squeezed into her notion of Tuxedo Kamen and who he was supposed to be—before he was me.
She opened her mouth to speak a handful of times before shutting it again. I waited. I was patient. I was happy to be in her presence again, although I couldn't imagine what the approaching conversation could bring.
Finally, she asked, "Are you a friend or foe?"
Somewhat predictable, but oddly safe compared to the questions I thought she really wanted to ask.
"Friend," I said.
"Why do you help us?"
I thought about this a moment. "Why do you fight for love and justice?"
"Because it's the right thing to do. It's our duty."
"All right, then. My duty is to help you do the right thing."
There was another lengthy pause. She was adorable in her internal struggle, her uncertainty and confusion.
"How long have you known that I was Sailor Moon?" she finally asked.
"Only since that night at the park. After the battle."
She shook her head. "No, you must have known before that."
"I didn't. When you followed me … I could tell by your footprints. You had left footprints going to the battle, and then coming back. And they matched."
"But… but you kissed me. Before the battle." Her voice wavered.
A tumultuous hesitation. "I know."
"So you knew that I was Sailor Moon. You must have."
"No. I didn't." My voice had fallen to a whisper.
Her eyes flashed at me. I could see her flexing and unflexing her fists at her sides. Then she roughly shook her head. "I don't believe you. Why would you—?"
The words snagged.
She silenced me with a wave of her hand. She was no longer looking at me, instead glaring at the door behind me. "I thought I was ready for this conversation," she said. "But now…" Inhaling a shaky breath, she moved to the door. "I'm sorry."
I blocked her path, loosely grasping her wrists. "Usagi, please."
Our eyes met. There were tears in hers. Her breathing was shallow. Her gaze fell to my lips and lingered there.
"Mamoru." Her lashes fell, her eyes closed. "How could I not have known?"
Heart aching, I mindlessly rubbed my thumbs along her forearms, and dipped my head toward hers. We stayed there for countless breaths, our noses barely caressing, her arms limp in my hold, our bangs tangled together. She didn't flinch, even shifted to her tiptoes until a feathery kiss teased my lips. A feathery, whimsical, almost imperceptible kiss.
And then she jerked away from me in a panic, ripping her arms from my grip. When I looked at her, she was shaking and had both of her hands pressed hard against her mouth, and she was not looking at me.
The door to the arcade opened and Motoki came in. He froze half-way through the door and looked at Usagi and then at me and then at Usagi and then at me and then said, "Oops."
Usagi almost knocked the poor guy to the ground in her rush to leave the storage room. I remained petrified.
"I'm sorry," said Motoki. "I didn't know."
"We were just talking."
"Did you… tell her?"
"No. Well… I don't… I guess tried to kiss her."
Motoki glanced out the still-open door and apologized again.
"I'm leaving," I said to him. "I think. I can't stay…"
"Are you all right?"
I nodded, but it was a lie. "Happy New Year."
Motoki did not try to stop me as I walked past him into the vibrating, glowing arcade. My eyes were drawn to her immediately, even in all the commotion and all the darkness. She was with Akio and Makoto. Akio's arm was draped over her shoulder, innocent and ignorant. Her eyes were perpetually glued to the floor, her expression miserable.
I do not know if she saw me leave.
The walk home was slow and tedious and cold and painful, as the realization slowly sunk in. She had rejected me. She had really, truly, officially rejected me. She had chosen Akio. Even knowing that I was Tuxedo Kamen, she had chosen Akio.
She didn't want me.
I could feel a glacier slowly encapsulating my heart every time I breathed in the freezing night air.
My apartment was no better.
It was empty and lonely and void of anything that could have possibly distracted me from the torment in my head. But it was not silent, because my next door neighbor had decided to throw a party and the music and voices streaming in through the wall were the most obnoxious I'd ever heard. The annoyance was, of course, quadrupled by my resentment.
Why should they be so happy, after all? What difference did a new year make, anyway?
I slipped into my pajamas and crawled under the covers of my bed, pulling the blankets all the way over my head in an attempt to shut out the world, and wished that I could sleep through the whole upcoming year. I knew that I wouldn't fall asleep any time soon, but the thought, at least, was remotely comforting.
And there I lay, listening to the masked conversations and laughter through the wall and cursing my own sorry existence when I heard my bedroom window open.
I sat up, letting the blankets fall. A burst of cold wind struck me at the same time as the vision of Sailor Moon struck me, climbing through my window. (Note, I live on the eighteenth floor. There's a fire escape and all, but still, this would have been no easy feat. That was the first thought that occurred to me. The second was: how does she know where I live? The third was, of course, what is she doing here?)
She spotted me in the moonlight that fell across the bed and froze, but her surprise was short-lived. I saw nervousness overcome her as she turned back and shut the window, then knotted her hands up and faced me again.
"What are you doing here?"
"We didn't… I wanted to finish our conversation."
I sighed, half groaned, and tossed the blankets away from me, swinging my feet around to the cold open air. "Do we have to?" I said, rubbing at my forehead.
She came to my side and sat down, then reached her gloved hand for mine. I looked at her from the corner of my eye. Her eyes were filled with galaxies and moonlight. Her skin was shining silver beneath the moon. She really was an angel.
But my heart shattered into ice shards at the memory of her.
"You need to leave."
She ignored me and instead tilted my face toward her with two fingers on my jaw. There was that intense, stunned, disbelieving gaze again. And then she kissed me.
I gasped. At first, I did not want to react—the pain was still too fresh, the confusion too encompassing. But my body reacted instinctively. My arms surrounded her, my lips responded to her touch. I pulled her close and nearly dissolved into bewildering contentment when she buried her fingers in my hair and moaned softly against me.
With some effort, I managed to break off the kiss, half-shoving her away in the attempt.
I launched myself from the bed and set to pacing the room, pulling my hands through my hair in an effort to dispel her lingering touch.
"What are you trying to do to me?" I growled.
"I'm sorry," she said, motionless. I dared not look at her. "I'm sorry I pushed you away earlier, but I had to."
"What are you talking about?"
When she didn't immediately answer, I was forced to meet her gaze.
"I'd already kissed you once while I was dating Akio," she said. "I couldn't do that to him again."
I frowned. It took a moment for her words to sink in. "So, what? You're not dating him anymore?"
"No. We broke up."
"So I could be with you." With these words, she stood from the bed and neared me, wringing her gloved hands again.
I took a step away from her, but was too enchanted by her hopeful, burning gaze to fight her when she took my hands into hers. "Please," I said, "could you transform?"
A shimmering lights passed over her body and a moment later Usagi was standing before me in her yellow dress, still holding my hands. Even knowing her true identity, seeing her change before my eyes was something of a shock.
My sweet, klutzy Usako. My brave, strong heroine.
Usagi inched toward me and came to her tiptoes again, but I turned my head away.
"No, Usagi. You have to leave."
She sunk down to her heels. "Why? What's… what's wrong?"
I sighed and pulled my hands away from her. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but… this isn't what I want. This isn't what you want."
"But… I thought… But you kissed me first. Before you even knew that I was Sailor Moon, so… so clearly you must… you must…"
"Be in love with you?"
She said nothing, but in the silence I found the courage to meet her injured gaze again. She had wrapped her arms around her waist and was staring up at me wide-eyed and afraid.
"I am in love with you," I whispered.
Sparks filled her eyes.
"But that doesn't…" I rubbed at the back of my neck. "The thing is, I'm not Tuxedo Kamen. I mean, I am Tuxedo Kamen, but… I'm also the jerk who makes fun of your hair and your grades. And you don't want him… you don't want me, you want the hero. And I can't give you the hero all the time."
Heaving a sigh, I walked away from her, pacing toward the window.
"I'm sorry, Odango."
"Mamoru… I love you, too."
A chill coursed through my spine—equal parts ecstasy and distress.
"No," I said, almost choked with grief, "you love Tuxedo Kamen. And I—"
"Don't tell me who I love." Her words, though irate, were warm and sweet.
I jumped suddenly at the feel of her hand on my back, between my shoulder blades, and then her forehead pressed against me.
"Listen," she said. "Do you remember the Christmas party last year, when Motoki had hung mistletoe all around the arcade?" She tied her arms around my waist. Weak from the embrace, I grasped for the windowsill. "That whole night, I made sure that I was never more than a couple feet away from a branch of mistletoe, just in case you ever came over and talked to me. Then I thought that I would be able to move under it and you would have to kiss me. But you never did."
Disbelief wormed its way into my emotions. Gulping, I slowly turned around to face her. Her arms tightened around me, but I dared not return the embrace.
"And then, at the New Year's Eve party, do you remember how Motoki made that big speech right before midnight about grabbing the person closest to you and kissing them, to start the year off right? I picked a fight with you just so I would be the closest person to you at midnight—but you still didn't kiss me."
In the apartment next door, a roaring countdown began. 10, 9, 8…
"And then there was Valentine's Day, and I made you a valentine and carried it around with me for a week, so that if you gave me something I would be able to give it to you. I wanted so desperately to tell you how I felt, but I never got the chance. I still have it at home if you want proof… and proof that it says 'To Mamoru,' not Tuxedo Kamen."
My throat had gone dry. Her dewy eyes glistened in the moonlight, and she was almost smiling up at me. I wrapped my arms around her, no longer able to keep them away. In response, she drew closer to me, so that her chin was almost resting on my chest.
5, 4, 3…
"And then there was my birthday in June and the girls threw that big party, and when I blew out the candles I wished that—"
Her words died as I captured her lips against mine, but she didn't seem to mind. Cheers and horns resounded through the walls and the city streets below lit up with fireworks. The whole world was celebrating this single perfect moment.
The moment passed and the kiss turned into two smiles pressed against each other.
"So you see," she whispered. "I do love you. And I loved you long before I knew you were Tuxedo Kamen. I just… I didn't think you would ever feel the same way."
She pulled back in surprise. "Usako?"
Incapable of embarrassment, I cupped her face in my hands. "Usako, what are you doing next New Year's Eve?"
But in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance:
What are you doing New Year's,
New Year's Eve?