Relax. Yet eighteen-year-old Nene Romanova's grip on the folded invites refused to do her bidding.
Amidst the typical silence of K's Garage, she could also hear her heart pounding furiously. It was a lot like the time when she downed five cups of coffee in an hour on a dare with Daley Wong, only this time she felt the caffeine dose came with an extra kick of drunk butterflies fluttering with anticipation in her digestive tract.
Her eyes flicked at the invites again. Get a grip, Nene! It's not like it's a formal date anyway. You'll just be inviting him to come with you to the Police Ball. It's an official function. As part of the team, it is my obligation—no, it's my moral mandate—to attend these functions so I may better protect the city!
Her smile widened. Yes, that's it! It's my duty, and it's not a date!
But somehow, her body's physical reactions did not find the notion comforting enough. Her senses were still on overdrive, and the stupid butterflies were still making those incessant air acrobatics that made her wish she didn't have greasy tacos for lunch.
Anime: Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040
A/N: When I sat down to write this fanfic, my aim was to use it as an outlet for my frustration at the anime's open ending. So while brainstorming for a title, I thought, "Ah screw it, let's call a spade a spade. Hence, the highly unimaginative title.
Also, the last time I wrote a fanfic was 3 years ago. Let's see if I still know how to do one.
Usual fan fiction disclaimers apply.
Nene slipped into the half-closed garage door—with ease, she thought good-naturedly, given her height that NASA heartlessly rejected. Her eyes slowly swept the empty room. Where are they? Did Sylia call for them?
It had been weeks since they defeated the monstrous Galatea in the empty abyss of space. She could still remember her friend Linna Yamazaki shouting desperately at her, asking her how they would survive the gravitational pull and the scorching atmosphere on their way back to Earth.
Linna would later come to remark how shocked she was that the biggest scaredy-cat among the group would possess enough calmness and presence of mind to think about transforming their suit to endure the punishment of re-entry.
"It wasn't just your insanely advanced IQ that saved us there, Nene. It was your determination to come home… to someone." Linna's words reverberated in her mind.
And as always, Linna's perspective on the affairs of the heart was right. At that time, her mind considered many, many possibilities, including dying, but her heart refused to accept all but one thought.
To see Mackie Stingray alive and well again.
But what really shook her was what Linna said afterwards. She recalled vehemently denying it, but as days passed, she found herself more frequently accompanied by that thought.
"I-It's ridiculous," she muttered. "There's no way—"
She blinked, and then turned to her right. Mackie himself was carrying a toolbox, with ever-stoic Nigel Kirkland behind him. She watched in amusement as he self-consciously wiped the smudge of grease on his cheek with the ball of his free palm.
"Hi Mackie!" she greeted cheerfully. "Hello, Nigel! Wow, you sure have less eye bags than I recall. I knew you were using those anti-aging care packs I gifted you last Christmas!"
The older mechanic grunted.
"We just finished putting some modifications on Linna's scooter," narrated the younger mechanic enthusiastically. "She has always wanted the colors to match her hardsuit's color and texture, plus we added a self-charging, hands-free mobile device on it so she can talk to her family and friends while stuck in traffic."
"That's awesome!" she chirped, clapping her hands together. "I would have wanted to commission you guys to do the same for me, but I never like riding on my own."
"What are those?" the young man asked curiously, gesturing to her crumpled tickets.
"Which one-Gyaah!" Frantically, she hid the wrinkly slips in her jacket. "N-Nothing, nothing! I-It's just a grocery list!"
"That's awfully short for a grocery list," Mackie observed, puzzled.
"T-That's because… I-I'm on a, um, special diet. "
"A special diet?"
Her mind raced to string words together. "F-For my…erm, special needs."
"You have special needs?" he echoed, growing more confused.
"JUST LEAVE MY GROCERY LIST ALONE!"
He sweatdropped. "S-Sure." Carefully, he placed the toolbox on the table and turned to her expectantly. "So would you like hot cocoa or coffee?"
"Coco, please." She furtively glanced at Nigel, wondering how she would go about with her game plan with him around. Asking Mackie out is one thing; having Nigel hear her do it is another entirely and terrifyingly different matter.
She shouldn't have worried. After returning his tools to its respective cubby holes, he unceremoniously told Mackie to take a break. He must have noted she was tensed, she decided as she watched the mechanic leave, so in his own bastardly courteous way, he left her and his assistant alone.
She and the young Stingray were now seated in the couch, enjoying his hot chocolate.
"I'm glad you came over," he began. "I was about to ask you something—"
You always ask me to teach you things I'm sure you quite know how to figure out, she would have normally retorted, but she was too busy rehearsing so she could finally get the invitation out of the way.
Mackie, listen. There's a Police Ball coming up, and it'll be great if you can be my date. W-Well, it's an official function, so it's not really a "date" date. We'll just be there for an hour anyway; I just want to see what the buffet table looks like. I realize that made me sound like some pathetic provincial lass who has never been to parties before, and maybe I am, but let's not talk about that. Again, it's not a date, it's just like us working on Sylia's data analysis assignments, only that we're dressed more nicely this time around, and it's us that get analyzed by the rest of the guests…
The brown-haired male seemed to have noted that she was distracted. "Something seems to be troubling you." He drew closer to her. "Are you okay?"
"OF COURSE I'M OKAY!" she snapped, making the young man recoil in fright. After a second, she collected herself embarrassedly. "I-I mean…" She glanced at him hesitantly, and then exhaled deeply. "Mackie?"
"D-Do you… like to dance?"
"Huh?" The lad looked puzzled.
"I-I mean, not as something you do daily. J-Just recreational dancing," she babbled, refusing to meet his inquisitive gaze. "O-Or disco… square dances…"Police Balls. Nene, why can't you just say the invitation outright, for Pete's sake!
"I… I once taught my sister to dance," he said slowly. "But I like machines better."
Her heart sank. "I-I see…. Yes, of course." She forced a smile, and then sprang up from the couch. "W-Well, I've got to go. Thank you for the, um, chocolate."
His forehead creased. "H-Hey—"
She forced a cheerful smile. "I'll see you around, Mackie!" And before he could say anything else, she made a mad dash out of the room, eager to take a fresh whiff of air outside.
Does Leon have to go through this with Priss every time they go out? she moaned woefully as she made her way to the street as fast as she could.
Apparently, she was not fast enough to outrun a bicycle.
"Nene!" Mackie pedaled behind her, uncaring if he was on the wrong side of the road. "Nene, wait!"
Pretend you're not hearing anything. Keep going, keep going. She pushed herself to walk faster.
Sensing she wouldn't listen to him, Mackie suddenly overtook her, then rammed his bike in the middle of her path. She yelped, jumped back, then turned to him with feigned astonishment. "Mackie! W-What a surprise!"
He gave her a wry look for a second, and then sighed. "Sorry." He placed his hands together and bowed apologetically. "Really sorry."
Does he even know what he is apologizing for? But she forced an unaffected grin on her face. "W-What are you talking about? It is not you at all! I… I just remembered I have to be someplace else—"
"Like the Police Ball?" He held up two heavily creased tickets, with Mega City Tokyo Police Department's logo visible even from their distance.
Her heart nearly did a somersault. "Ahahaha!" She quickly snatched the tickets from his hand and stashed them back to her pockets. "I-I must have dropped them on my way out earlier, my bad."
"Are you attending?" he asked tentatively.
"W-Well, yes. I-It's a duty… no, a moral obligation to the taxpayers of Mega City Tokyo," she replied with as much sincerity as she could muster. It wasn't much, but vintage Mackie Stingray believed her, as expected.
He shyly slipped his hands into his jacket. "It sounds fun. "
"Not really. It's mostly old people who like to laugh at stale jokes and talk about how they're too old to be in the force, and then gossip about promotions, ranks and other trivialities…" She shuffled quietly. "But I need to be there, because everyone will be there. With the Knight Sabers disbanded, I have to get used to living like a normal person again—a normal person who must grow up."
"So if you join them in more social activities, it might make them see you in a more, uh, mature light?" he asked.
"Exactly," she agreed emphatically. "Socialization is an essential part of growth, right?"
"Sure." Yet he sounded anything but that.
"You wouldn't understand, kid," she said in a half-lofty, half-defensive tone. "It's a grown-up thing. So just go back to fixing your toys while Ms. Nene works on polishing her social skills, okay?"
"You're not that older than me," he protested.
"I sure am!" She stuck her tongue out at him.
"If we go over the technicalities of my being, I am much older than you are." He meant it as a light-hearted remark, but she saw his eyes sadden. The eyes of a boy who will never age...
He must have noticed her pensive gaze, so he grinned. "I'm very grateful for this gift of existence, Nene. It may not be normal, and I may never grow out of it, but it sure beats being a non-entity."
"If there's one thing I learned from you guys, it's that life is more than a long incident of awareness; it's an assimilation of memories." He patted his heart. "And I assure you, I have lots of good ones right here. Right now, it's more than enough for me."
She couldn't help but silently admire him for that. For all she could only imagine was the misery of seeing everyone he loved age and die, while he stays a youthful seventeen-year-old teenager forever. But it must have been what Mackie meant—to savor each moment than to dread how long each will last.
"Are you… are you bringing anyone with you?" he suddenly wanted to know, startling her. "I-I mean, is it allowed?"
"To the Police Ball."
"Oh." She tipped her chin with her finger. "Well… sure, we're allowed to bring a date—er, an escort. A-A friend," she stammered.
"But will you be bringing one?" he asked nervously.
"Maybe, I haven't really asked anyone out yet—"
"I volunteer then!" he cried.
She froze. "P-Pardon me?"
"I… I volunteer." He clearly looked uncomfortable, judging by the warm color on his pale cheeks. However, he also looked pretty resolute.
For a moment, she was speechless. But she quickly recovered. "Very well!" She crossed her arms in front of her chest smugly. "But don't blame me if the party bores you to tears. You have to take it like a man!"
"I promise!" he declared sincerely.
"Okay, pick me up in my apartment at eight in the evening, sharp." See, Nene? There's nothing to it. You're a pro at this! You could even consider asking people out as a career!
Mackie nodded. "Got it. "
"Oh, wait! There's one more thing!" Her eyes roved on his figure critically. He self-consciously checked himself, too—loose white shirt, baggy pants, and a blue jacket.
"Let's do a little shopping," she decided.
As Nene scanned through racks of formal dress shirts, Mackie hovered beside her, gazing at her efficient inspection of the clothes.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" he asked as she returned the nth hanger back to the rack.
"I'm looking for a conservative cut." She gave his youthful face a quick look. Yep, she definitely needed a good suit to make Mackie look years older. She harbored no desire to be called a "cradle snatcher" by her team.
"It's too bad Sylia caters to women's intimate wear mostly," he remarked. "Then you wouldn't have to spend."
She waved her hand dismissively. "Even if she sells the cheapest shirts in the whole city, I still wouldn't buy from her." Sylia Stingray was anything but easy-going when it comes to her brother. Her maternal instinct for Mackie heightened after the incident with Galatea, and she, Nene Romanova, knew better than to mess with the mother hen. "Hmm, this color is nice." She showed him a dark blue shirt. "What do you think?"
Before he could reply, someone spoke up from behind. "Too gloomy."
Nene scowled when she recognized the voice. Her head turned, and her suspicion was confirmed. It was those guys from the narcotics department of the squad. She used to cordially greet them, but their cat calls got on her nerves that she simply avoided non-business communication with them.
"It's nice," Mackie touched the shirt fabric. "Let's get this one, Nene."
One of the men turned to the male teenager, smirking. "Oh? You didn't tell us you have a baby brother, Romanova."
"That's none of your business, isn't it, Lancer?" she asked, eyebrow cocked.
"It might be," the man replied cheekily. "If he is your boyfriend, then I would not be able to invite you to attend the Police Ball with me."
She felt her face turn hot. "Even if he wasn't—and he isn't—I would still-"
Both Lancer and Nene turned to Mackie, who was still quietly clutching the shirt.
"Say what now, Kid?" asked Lancer.
"You can't," repeated the brown-haired male more firmly, finally looking at Lancer squarely. "Nene's going with me."
Her cheeks burned. Mackie…
The older man looked amused. "I see." He then saluted. "Well, Romanova, Kid, we'll see you tonight then."
"Yeah." The young Stingray waved smilingly.
"You got 'em real good, Mackie, yes, you did!" Nene excitedly skipped ahead of Mackie as they made their way out of the mall. "Those guys are mean bullies, and I can't believe you made them back down!" she gushed. "I may be better than you when it comes to computers, but you were so cool back there!"
He chuckled, embarrassed. "Cats mark their territory with their body fluids. Lions make daily rounds around their respective prides. Still, other animals leave their marks on trees to warn trespassers. S-So…" He looked away self-consciously.
"Eh?" Why were they talking about animals all of a sudden?
"And you… y-you agreed to go with me," he continued, voice barely audible. "I was worried you might back out because… because…" His fists clenched. "Because he's normal and he's a grown-up… which are what you want."
For a moment, she didn't know what to say. Her instinct took over. "Idiot!" She hit the back of his head with her shopping bag.
He rubbed the spot sheepishly. "Sorry."
"For a mechanic, you sure make the worst assumptions." She rolled her eyes. "Unlike lions, cats, beavers, mosquitoes or whatever pet you might have had previously, I am not a territory you need to mark—"
"My pet was a lab rat named Kitty—"
"—and I would have gotten rid of Lancer by myself if you didn't interfere, being the awesome genius that I am."
"I kind of know that too." He rubbed his cheek shyly. "I don't know exactly why, but back there, I just felt compelled to say it."
She didn't know how to respond to that, so she opted to ignore what he said. "But you got one thing right: Lancer is normal—a normal douchebag." She burst out laughing, and Mackie joined in afterwards.
They were now in the parking lot, where Mackie's bike was securely locked in one of the bicycle racks. She smilingly turned to him. "We will have to take a cab tonight. Bike rides can be cool, but I can't afford to ruin my one and only dress."
He nodded, a bit embarrassed. "So… I'll pick you up at eight?'
"It's a date," she said, and then realized what it might also mean. "I-I mean, not an official one but—"
To her utter surprise, a long gray limo pulled up in front of her apartment forty minutes before eight.
Wow, Mackie! He pulled out all the stops for this one! As she looked out at the window in amazement, her neighbors gawked at the luxurious vehicle in disbelief—more so when a pair of ivory legs popped out of the car door.
"Oh no!" squeaked Nene as Sylia Stingray gracefully slid out of the car. After collecting herself, Sylia directed her steely gaze up at her apartment window. It was too late for Nene to duck; all she could do was to wave sheepishly at the Knight Sabers' team head.
Sylia then lazily drew out her cellphone. A minute later, her laptop sounded. "Won't you let me in, Nene?" The female Stingray's brisk tone was unmistakable.
"O-Of course!" She scrambled out of her room, knowing fully well she was in boiling hot water.
Sylia's eyes flitted across the messy room: empty wrappers and food packaging carelessly strewn on the floor, opened computer cases with electrical wires sticking out of them like rogue arteries, and clothes lying in random piles. Obviously, the only daughter of the Stingray family was not used to close encounters with this degree of filth without her trusty hardsuit on. However, she politely let the matter go. Her eyes caught a clean spot beside one of her fired-up laptops, and that was where she made herself comfortable.
"Can I get you anything?" she began, hoping against hope that she had something other than noodle cups in her kitchen cupboard right now.
"That's a good question in the most literal of sense." said Sylia dryly, gesturing to the messy jungle of her humble abode. "Moreover, this isn't exactly what I'd call a social visit, Nene,"
"Can't blame me for wishing otherwise," she replied, plopping down across her.
The silver-haired heiress locked her gaze at her. "So I heard that my brother will be escorting you to your Officers' Ball."
"He volunteered." She couldn't help but feel a little defensive, for reasons she couldn't truly comprehend.
The woman smiled. "Oh, I have no doubt he did. He'll follow you to the ends of the earth, if it meant being with you."
Her heart hammered. "Sylia!"
"The truth that hurts the most is the truth you've known all along but refused to accept." Sylia patted her hand gently. "My brother cares for you so much."
Linna's words replayed in her mind. She desperately pushed the thought away. "A-And I care for him, too! He's like… Mackie's like... a b-brother I never had!"
The woman smiled. "And never will, Nene. At this point in time, it's stupid to think that he will ever become a brother figure to you, knowing fully well how he feels for you… and how you feel for him."
"That's insane!" she exclaimed, slamming her hands on her lap. "It can't be… it simply cannot be."
"Why?" asked the older woman quietly.
"W-Why?" she echoed, her voice now slightly cracked. To her dismay, her vision was slowly being blurred by tears. "Because… because the only way I know how to care is how I feel for him right now. I don't know what the heck 'falling in love' means. "
Sylia's jaw dropped.
"If I accept what you and Linna and that stupid voice within me is saying, then that means Mackie and I will be leaving that one comfortable zone where everything is defined," she continued, sniffling. "I refuse to deal with things I don't completely understand.
"What if I screw up? What if I lose Mackie in the process because I screwed up so badly? And you know how I screw up, Sylia—it's like the justification for Murphy's Law itself." She angrily wiped her tears away. "So screw love! And… and… screw you too, Sylia! And your favorite flower, too, if you have one."
"Goodness!" Sylia Stingray's laughter rang crisply in her tiny room. "And here I thought you didn't want him because of his past."
"Screw his past!" she snapped, still crying. "He makes wonderful coco. He knows exactly what to say to make me feel better. He's awesome with computers. He can make animal behavior seem so endearing and sweet. And he's the nicest, most kind-hearted person in the world, provided he keeps out of our dressing rooms. Those things matter to me more than anything else in the world!"
"Glad to hear that." Sylia patted her hair affectionately. "Because for that alone, you earn my approval to be with my brother, engaged in whatever you both end up calling your relationship."
"Really?" Her sobs have subsided. "It's not like I'm asking for it though, but I appreciate it."
"You're welcome, I guess." Sylia laughed. "Mackie, come in and give her that glass of water, please."
"W-What?" Her head snapped up in surprise. Indeed, Mackie, dressed more formally than usual, was holding a glass of water. He was standing by the doorway, his face drawn in a tender smile.
"The shirt looks great on you," she said absent-mindedly. "I have an eye for fashion after all!"
"Did you hear everything?" she asked, almost afraid to hear his answer. She barely noticed Sylia getting up to leave them alone.
"Just the things that matter," he responded with a grin. He knelt before her and handed her the filled glass.
"You did hear everything," she replied wanly after taking a long sip. "And the water's not cold enough."
"Oops, sorry. I sort-of lost track of things when I saw you cry," he mumbled embarrassedly. "Do you want another glass?"
"I'll probably finish this first." She took a bigger gulp this time.
Mackie seized this as an opportunity to talk. "Thank you, Nene."
He heard gurgles of water, which in Nene-speak must mean that he should further elaborate—which was exactly what he did. "What you told Sylia about me… I will never forget how it felt hearing those words."
"W-What were you doing here anyway?" she wanted to know, eager to change the topic.
"Sylia was worried when she heard that we'll be going out on a date—"
"It's not a "date" date, it's an official function we'll be attending together," she interrupted.
"—so she opted to talk to you. Fortunately, Henderson informed me about it, and I came after her." He sat down beside her and loosened his tie. "I think she beat me to your apartment by eleven minutes."
At that moment, she didn't care about mathematical accuracy. "If that's the case, you heard my explanation." Her eyes refused to leave the floor. "In case you're thinking of hitting on me—don't. What we have is too wonderful to lose because of a relationship upgrade."
"With a mechanic like me and a computer genius like you, I have no doubt that we can handle any upgrade!"
He cupped her chin gently, his thumb easing her bangs away. "I don't understand how romance works, too. We'll learn about it eventually, I guess. But what I want right now is to be where you are, Nene.
"I don't really care what the circumstances are called… how they are defined…" He drew closer, and she could only gaze at him, rendered immobile by his nearness, by his intent gaze.
"And if in the end, it doesn't fit the human's description of a romantic relationship, then so be it." Mackie's voice grew husky. "My feelings for you will remain. I love you, Nene, in every sense that I understand the word."
You love him. You're in love with Mackie Stingray.
It was not the first time that Linna's words visited her, yet they came to her right now like an epiphany she just realized for the very first time.
"I… " She licked her lips nervously. "I think there's a pretty good chance that I'm in love with you, too, Mackie."
His eyes danced in laughter. "I'm more than happy to take that for now, Miss Nene." He glanced at her laptop's digital clock. "We should still have plenty of time to make it to the party."
"You mentioned teaching your sister how to dance." She put away the glass and dusted her knees. "Care to run me by a quick tutorial before I make a fool out of myself in the party?"
He nodded and helped her up. "It will be my pleasure." And his hand did not let go of her anymore. It carefully clasped hers, while his other arm slowly encircled her waist. All the while, he looked at her tentatively, as if asking for permission, which she was only too happy to grant.
Mackie took the lead and stepped to the right. And then, they began to sway.
There was no music, but their movement resonated with rhythm. There was no conversation, but she found understanding in the silence. In his embrace, uncertainties and doubt melted like ice to flame.
A fleeting image came to her mind: a 17-year-old kid dancing with a wrinkled old woman whose honey hair surrendered to the ashen twilight of old age. Yet all she saw was beauty—the decades of music the couple enjoyed dancing to.
She rested her head on his shoulders, smiling serenely.