Note: Before you begin, I ask readers to note that all characters who appear in this story are canon Sailor Moon characters, even if their names may be different. If you will be patient with me, I will try to drop enough hints for them to be recognizable. This story was originally written for the Ficathon in 2007.
It is the winter of 3199. It has been so long, and yet, still when the snow falls, it reminds me of ash.
This world feels so old. So many empires have risen and fallen upon its soil. Yet the crystal, all that crystal, still looks so beautiful and new and fresh beneath the snowflakes. I want to believe that there is a reason the crystal did not crumble when our world fell. I want to believe that we have hope. But the light of the single most important crystal no longer sustains us, and I feel so very old.
I look up at the snow, the way that it glistens on the crystal in the city lights. I watch it in hope that someday, when I see it, I will see only its beauty.
"You're brilliant! You know that, right? Flipping brilliant!"
"Of course I'm brilliant. The only person who doubted that was-stop!" She giggled in a way that he had not heard her giggle in all the months he had known her. Perhaps she had never giggled in this way before, because there had never been reason to. He was grabbing her arm and pulling her up beside him, up onto the wall of the cracked stone fountain that had not flowed with water in his lifetime.
"I was wrong! I was so wrong, Miss Amaya Itou, that I wish to never be right again!" He scooped her up into a grand squeezing hug that lifted her off her feet and twirled her around. Amaya squealed with giggles and fear at their precarious position, but his beaten sneakers were nimble and steady on the crumbling stone, and he set her down, both a little dizzy and flustered, without injury. Amaya, nevertheless, could not help but swipe him on the shoulder.
"You are a beast, Joji Hamada! What's gotten into you?" She was breathless and flushed beneath the layers of her wool coat and ragged-looking scarf, puffs of steam rising from her pale lips. She was hidden in an equally ragged knit hat, but snatches of electric blue hair poked out from under it in all directions.
"Only the love of food, my crumpet. Our plates will be filled for a month because of you and your wonderful, wonderful ideas." He was beaming at her, in the way that only Joji knew how. He could have lit up the whole street with his radiant smile and golden hair and eyes that turned from rainstorms to morning dew on command, all because his long-empty pockets bulged with the untraceable cash currency that was so rarely used in this age of digital exchange. "The speed-the grace of it! I thought I was watching a dancer on the stage! You're certain that you don't dance?"
"Quite certain. I could not out-dance an ox in ballet slippers."
"But you would look significantly better, I am sure."
"Stop!" She was turning red. "You don't mean to tell me that you only keep me around for my looks, do you?"
"Of course not! I keep you around because you whip up an awesome bomb. They're like little explosive works of art."
"And I keep you around just to block incoming bullets."
"That's me, best human shield you'll ever hold hostage."
"Just do not forget what we really procured that money for."
"Naturally, how could I forget our happy plans? We shall devote one half of the table to making bombs, and the other to our dinner plates. Which shall be covered in food all the time. Day and night. I command it so." He feigned a stern tone, but both of them were grinning at the curious parody of domestic life that they shared. Some families talked or read the paper or watched television over breakfast. Amaya and Joji did illegal things with car batteries and duct tape.
It had been warm outside when a mutual friend had first introduced them, in the dim corners of a dusty bar that often attracted their sort of people. She had been wearing something swishy and backless to impress this particular friend, who graciously pretended not to know about Amaya's hobbies while they flirted over gin and tonics. Of course, then he had showed up, and the two looked, for all their other differences, like brothers, and the talk turned, heated and drunkenly, to business. It had been a different kind of Joji that she met that night. One whose jokes came out forced and bitter, and whose smile resembled a snarl. She thought: this is a person who is desperate. She knew desperation like his. It seeped into them both from the very air of the city.
It was a simple arrangement, really. She needed shelter. He needed a purpose. She moved into a bedroom with purple covers on the bed and photos of a teenage sister on the walls. She occupied one drawer and half the closet. Her books were stacked up on the floor, because the bookshelf was neatly filled and untouched. There was a necklace dangling from the corner of the mirror that never moved. Once-and only once-he had called her Emi. That same name that was scrawled childishly on the door. That was when she knew that she would always be sleeping in the little sister's twin-sized bed by herself.
They found that they got along very well together, when their days were filled with maps and records and chemical compounds. They knew how to make each other forget the occasional hunger, as well as the occasional hopelessness. He knew enough to keep quiet when she was thinking, and she knew enough to let him talk when he was jittery.
The only times that they did not get along so swimmingly was when she could not abide his insufferable idealism and he could not endure her exhausting practicality.
"Fairy tales!" She once cried in exasperation, throwing down her scribbled notes on the table and making a beeline for the cheap whiskey in the kitchen. "I'm trying to discuss political revolution, and he gives me fairy tales!"
"They are not fairy tales!" He shouted back, offended. "Listen: the Queen and King-"
"They were reborn once!"
"As they claimed! They were also descended from gods. They also had divine powers. Mystical propaganda! Japan is an expert at it!" She deliberately turned her back on him to search for a clean glass. She was a tiny little thing in close-fitting, grease covered jeans, and the holes in the back showed a glimpse of blue panties as she stretched for one on the top shelf. She shook her blue bangs irritably out of her face as she poured her drink, her eyes sharp slivers of ice. He leaned imposingly on the counter, frustrated, but not too frustrated to remember that he neither could, nor wanted to, bully her. His grey-blue eyes always turned to rainstorms when he was agitated.
"Anybody who witnessed the rise of Crystal Tokyo could not deny the forces at work were real."
"And anybody who witnessed the fall of it could not deny that it all amounted to nothing! Where was your divine royalty when the Emperor set up camp in their legendary palace that the Earth itself birthed from the soil? Where was the innocent princess who supposedly escaped to the stars when they started executing freedom fighters in the streets? If the Royal Family plan to bother to grace us with their presence again, they've waited too long. We're already dead in our coffins."
"The Moon Queen will return," he mumbled piously. There was no logical way to reason it out: it just had to be. "I have to believe that, or why the hell do we get out of bed and blow up droids every day?"
Amaya swallowed her drink with effort, and the burning it left in her throat left her voice husky and thick. "Moon Queen? Why not call her Cinderella, or Amaterasu? They're all the same, aren't they? I get up every morning to blow up droids because no one else is going to. This is it, Joji." She cast a sweeping hand around at the dirty dishes stacked in the sink, at the greasy metal wires piled on a yellowed newspaper. "No Moon Queen or Earth King is going to save us from this mess. We have to dig ourselves out, or die trying. That's all I have, and that's all I need."
But this winter night found them chasing each other up concrete stairs, across an overpass where she tagged him in the middle and he pinned her against the chain link fence. He left her giggling and gasping for breath, leaning against the cold metal that bulged precariously over the grinding stream of traffic below. The run had done nothing to appease his restlessness, and he climbed up on the fence and screamed obscenities at the cars and the sky and the shimmering glow of the palace on the skyline, as though he were a wolf and every light on the horizon his moon. Nothing heard him above the roar of the cars rumbling beneath them. Nothing but the girl at his side who only sighed and wished for the real moon to rise.
When his fingers grew too numb to hold himself up, he jumped down beside her, and together they watched the distant glow of the palace, sitting awkwardly in the center of a vast blanket that had been woven out of artificial stars. "Look at all those lights!" He growled out in childlike wonder.
"A drain on the city's resources, if you ask me," Amaya sniffed, slightly bitter at how dim their own apartment was for reading purposes.
"Wouldn't you love to see it all burn? The whole city, just this line of fire, from one end to the other! Torch it all. Just start over from nothing. Wouldn't that be great?"
She frowned. "Not really. You forget: crystal doesn't burn. We both know that only the most prestigious live in crystal buildings. Everyone else would be harmed, and the emperor's chosen would be laughing from their precious balconies."
Joji grinned wickedly. "Oh, but you forget: it may not burn, but what happens to that particular sort of crystal when you apply enough heat to it?" He touched a pendant that dangled below her scarf, and her hand instinctively went to it. It was a rough, uncut crystalline stone. Its normally milky white shade had turned into a rainbow burst of vivid colors that glistened pearlescently beneath the surface. And then she smiled too.
"It turns colors at just the right temperature. And just above that, it bursts."
"It bursts grandly. Can you imagine the explosions? The fireworks? It'd rain rainbows. Rainbows and ashes."
"We could dance in the rainbows."
"Make snowballs with the ashes."
"It would be beautiful when the palace went up."
He looked at her as though she had just proposed to him. "Yes. Yes it would."
They watched the palace in silence for a few minutes. It looked like a decadent chandelier hung in the parlour of a run-down old bar. It was gaudy, and brash, and useless. At length she said, "we're going to need a very big bomb."
He cast a glance down at her. In his light sports jacket and mop of curly blond hair, he could have been any twenty-something on a night out from college. "Hardware store?"
The walk back to their shared apartment was something more of a waltz, arm-in-arm, through the dark streets. The old bar where they had first met was chasing out its patrons following last call, and Amaya followed behind Joji as he cleared a path. Something collided heavily into her shoulder and she stumbled back, dazed. A woman was staring at her, looking equally startled. "I'm sorry, I..." Her dark eyes squinted hard at Amaya, who felt a brief flutter of panic.
"Can I help you?" She asked, much more calmly than she felt.
"No, I-I'm sorry. Thought you were someone else." All that Amaya could make out in the sulphuric glow of the street light was dark hair.
"Ama! Hurry it up!" Amaya turned to glare at Joji for the nickname, but a hand caught her arm.
The woman was holding out a slip of paper. "For you."
"I'm sorry, I-"
"For good luck. Here." The woman pressed the paper firmly into her palm. Dazed, but released, she hurried to catch up with her companion. He threw a possessive arm around her shoulders.
"Someone you know?"
"Don't think so," she mumbled, and squinted at the paper as they passed under a light. All she could make out was the kanji for fire.