Minato Asahi, only daughter of the Minato family, nurse-in-training, and part-time Ultraman has been having a less than happy day.
Which is fine! It happens! If every day was just as nice as the one before then all the ultra happy days would lose a lot of their meaning, right? In her opinion, a little less happy once in a while happens, and you just can't let it bring you down.
...It's not even that anything bad happened.
The sun is shining, Katsu-nii sent over some chocolate from Milan and Isa-nii miraculously woke up in time for a voice chat and they're both coming home soon for an entire week for Asahi's second entire birthday in the whole world. It's a secret birthday, too, so it should be even more exciting than a normal one. It's not just the date that (somehow) appeared on all her paperwork. It's the day that Ultraman first appeared in Ayaka City, and it's the day that Asahi woke up as Asahi.
Asahi thinks that she shouldn't be sad on her birthday, really. She wasn't, last year! Maybe it was just the excitement of everything— like, oh, she's got a mom now, like whaaat? And then everyone was busy over Aizentech and reconstruction after all those kaiju battles and everything and then Tregear appeared right after, too, so there just wasn't the time to really get super duper excited. But now it's Asahi's second birthday, and everything’s ramping up for this to be a super special occasion and it's kinda sinking in that she'll be having many, many more birthdays in the coming years which is, like. Wow. Shouldn't she be getting excited in preparation? It seems like everyone’s expecting her to.
Asahi's lived for two whole years.
So that means Tsuru-chan died almost exactly one and a half years—
No, nope! Not continuing that thought!
If she's upset then her brothers will notice and— well, she loves them but they'll probably make it a bigger thing than it needs to be and really Asahi just wants some time to herself and she'll sort it out, you know? So here she is after school, at a brand new taiyaki store that just opened in Ayaka City's downtown shopping district, with a whole array of fun new flavors of taiyaki to try!
Let's see, this one's cookies and cream, and this one's green like matcha but waaay sweeter, and last but not least, coffee—
Someone slides into the chair next to hers and she loses track of her thoughts.
It's not that she's startled that someone's sitting there— she's sitting at the bar in the shop, after all, right in front of the glass window that let's people see into the kitchen and watch all the yummy taiyaki get made. And it's pretty busy right now too. But the man sitting there— who's dressed Very Fancy, Asahi notes, her dad would approve— feels like…
He feels like something. Mmmm… not like an alien, because it's actually really hard to tell aliens and people apart, but more like…
It's on the tip of her tongue when the stranger leans over and steals the coffee-flavored taiyaki out of her hand.
"Hey!" Asahi immediately tries to snatch it back. "Stealing's not nice, you know!"
He completely ignores her and takes a bite. "This is what you call coffee flavored? That's absurd. I've never eaten anything so cloyingly sweet." He makes a disgusted face and takes another bite.
Asahi finally succeeds in grabbing it back. Wait. She can't eat this, it's got weird stranger germs on it now. This is just the bad luck cherry on her bad luck cake of today. She frowns at the weird, rude thief sitting next to her.
He leans an elbow on the countertop. "Stars. You Ultras—" he says while rolling his eyes "— really are all the same. Completely obsessed with food."
Asahi's not obsessed with food!! She's just a growing girl and this is a treat for herself— wait. Wait, how'd he know that she was an Ultraman?
He smiles as if her thoughts are plain on her face. "This place isn't the setting for that kind of discussion, hmm? Come with me, if you're curious. Or don't. I don't care either way."
Of course Asahi's interested! Ah, no, wait. Katsu-nii warned her about this kind of thing, didn't he? Even though he's a worrywart, Asahi knows that it's just because he cares. She really should listen to him sometimes.
Except Asahi really wants to know who this guy is! How did he know that Asahi was an Ultra? Is that why he feels so familiar? Is he an Ultraman too? Does he know Booska? (Did he know Tsu—) Mr. Stranger is right, she's curious! Asahi wants to know what and how and why and who and everything!!!
…She's good enough to protect herself, right? And anyways, she doesn't really think that this stranger is gonna do anything bad. (Then again, she didn't think Aizen was a bad guy either, but whatever! Asahi trusts her instincts!)
Asahi pokes the stranger in the shoulder. "I'm not a dummy, you know. If we're going somewhere else then I pick where we go!"
He snorts. "Why not? It doesn't matter to me either way, as long as idiot passerby can't easily overhear us. Lead the way, then, mademoiselle. " He drawls out the last word in mocking insincerity.
Asahi hops off the stool and heads out of the store. "My name isn't mademoiselle, it's Asahi!" Eh, wait. That reminds her. "Anyways, what's your name, mister?"
He clicks his tongue as he follows her. "A bit late for that, isn't it? But since you've so kindly asked— Juggler. My name is Jugglus Juggler."
"So," Juggler crosses one leg over the other and leans back against the park bench. "Tell me about yourself."
The little slip of a girl sitting next to him blinks, as if she doesn't know what's going on. "Huh? I thought you were going to tell me stuff?"
Juggler snorts. The blind, reckless confidence and trust that practically wafts off of the girl stirs up memories that he would rather stay forgotten. As if she's entitled to everything that Juggler has. Belial's little clone had been much the same. And before him—
He'd said it mockingly earlier, but perhaps there's truth to what he'd casually tossed out. Ultras are, one and all, cut from the same cloth. A force for good they may be— Juggler won't argue with that point. But why doesn't anyone see—
No, he can't. That's not a train of thought that will lead anywhere productive.
Tch. He'd thought that he'd made his peace with the past, but it seems that old habits are still hard to break. Outside his own thoughts, though, he only raises an eyebrow. "You'd expect me to give you the information I have for free ?"
She tilts her head. Obviously the notion had never wafted across her empty little head. "Ohhh… oh! Okay, that makes sense. So I tell you something, and you tell me— we're like, playing an icebreaker game, right?"
"You know," she continues. "When you're going somewhere with a whole bunch of strangers and you wanna get to know them, you play a game and ask each other questions about what you want to know about each other and then you make friendship bracelets and eat cake. Or something. I've never actually done it myself but Isa-nii told me they did it to him in America and I've wanted to try it for myself ever since! This is so exciting!"
" Hah? "
She plows right through his confusion. "I'll go first! Okay, Mister Juggler… how old are you?"
What's going through her mind? That's—
(Not worth getting angry over.)
Haaaah. Fine, really? It's a simple enough matter— while the girl's given it an absurd moniker, she's not wrong, per se. He'd always meant for this meeting to be an exchange of information. Juggler's not in the business of beating answers to his questions out of children. With that being said, though. Icebreaker truly is a stupid name for it. There's no ice. It's summer.
"I've lost count," he answers her, truthfully. "My turn. Where did you obtain your power?"
"Right here in Ayaka City. 'Kay, what's your favorite food?"
"I don't have one." In Ayaka City? Then she didn't visit the light on O-50? "Do you know of the existence of O-50's Ring of Light?"
"I know about O-50! But I didn't know that it had rings of light. That sounds pretty, though! I'd love to visit it someday. Have you… ever had a pet?"
Does Gai count? Juggler can't count the number of times he's run after Gai, cleaning up his messes. He imagines it feels the same as owning some untrained pet. "Never. If you've never visited O-50, then how did you transform?"
She hesitates a fraction of a second. Juggler sits up a bit straighter. Finally, he's getting somewhere.
"I… a friend left it for me. It's a precious memento of mine."
That friend is probably dead now. Pity, Juggler thinks. They'd probably know more than this girl.
The girl in question speaks up again. "…Do you have a best friend?"
"…No." Juggler says. "Never have."
She looks at him, almost as if she suspects him of lying, but that won't change his answer. "Have you been on O-50 before?"
Juggler looks away. "Yes."
Of course he's been there before. Not that he ever wants to return to that damned place. The scar on his chest twinges, as if in reminder of everything that changed after that day. He can't go back to who he used to be, even if (if!) he wanted to. When the silence drags on for too long, he glances back at the girl, only to realize that, lost in thought, he'd forgotten to ask her a question in return. "Tell me about the friend that left you the power of light."
She frowns for the first time, as if reluctant to say anything. "Tsu— Grigio was… She was sad, a lot. And really angry, and she wanted to destroy the planet to save the universe but I don't think she was a bad person at all. I think she was lonely, and scared, and I wish I'd gotten to know her sooner." The girl glances over at Juggler. "Did you know her?"
Juggler blinks. "No. Why?"
"Grigio told me that she and her brothers got their powers on O-50, so I thought…"
"There's plenty of people who've obtained the power of light on O-50." Juggler rolls his eyes. "I can't possibly know all of them personally. Even if it's true that a group of— three, wasn't it?— gaining the power all at once is highly unusual."
"…Just two." She says in a voice so small that Juggler doesn't hear her at first. "Grigio wasn't an Ultraman."
"That's impossible." Juggler says flatly. His heart beats an irregular staccato. "You're Ultrawoman Grigio. You inherited your friend's power. It shouldn't have changed form that significantly between the two of you."
"But I'm telling the truth! Tsuru-chan only ever turned into a kaiju. After she— after she died, I needed the power to help my brothers and Regina wasn't enough and I just— and then she was there all whoaaaa and whooosh and she knew I was studying to be a nurse and everything and she smiled at me and it was warm and then I had hands." She tilts her head in confusion. "I don't know how it works, I was kinda hoping you did."
"That's impossible," Juggler repeats. If this Grigio was a kaiju, then that means that the light rejected her. But that's not— "The light doesn't change its mind like that."
The girl blinks up at him innocently. "Really? Well, I guess an Ultraman who's actually been to O-50 would know better than me, haha!"
She thinks Juggler is an—
The scar on his chest itches.
Oh. Oh, that explains a few things. Thoughtless, stupid, cruel little ultra—
Juggler leans over, right up into her face, and smiles jaggedly. He lets a fraction of his power slip out. Just enough to shadow his face, make his eyes glow, reveal the cracked jagged edges of the form truest to himself. "Tell me, little girl, do I look like an Ultraman to you?"
Asahi doesn't flinch. The shapeshifting doesn't bother her at all. She's used to it, more or less! Aliens visit Quattro M all the time, and Katsu-nii says it's really bad form to make surprised faces at any potential customers, even when you turn around and suddenly they're three feet taller and covered in fur. And after you get past the initial shock, Asahi's found that they're really not so bad as long as they're not trying to make good variety TV, really!
That's beside the point, anyways.
Even if she's used to aliens by now, being threatened by one like this should still be scary. But somehow…
She's got a feeling Not-An-Ultraman Juggler won't hurt her. Or, like, he doesn't want to?
That's where the niggling feeling of familiarity is coming from. He's not as nice as Tsuru-chan was, but Tsuru-chan was mostly very lonely and sad and needed a friend, Asahi thinks. So it's a good thing that Juggler doesn't seem so alone, right?
But he's so angry to be mistaken as Ultraman. And it makes Asahi think, you know? She never got the full story from Tsuru-chan, and she won't ever. But she can't help but think that Tsuru-chan would have given anything for the power to have been able to fight and die next to her brothers as an equal. Not just as a kaiju or whatever, but as an Ultraman.
Asahi can't really talk to Tsuru-chan anymore, but Juggler is right here, right now and Asahi trusts her instincts.
She leans over and looks him right in the eyes. Her voice is light, but not like she's mocking him. She's just a curious young girl. That's all! "Nope! But that's pretty cool too! Did you get that power from O-50?"
He freezes for a second, and if he had eyelids, then Asahi would bet a dozen cookies he'd be blinking in confusion. Asahi takes the opportunity to poke him where his nose sort of is. Feels kinda like a crab. Cool!
"Don't do that." Juggler jerks his head away.
Asahi beams at him, and he scowls in response. "Girl… you're a strange one, aren't you?"
"My name's Asahi, not 'girl'. Anyways, you didn't answer my question! Are you from O-50?"
Juggler is silent. Asahi knows that there's really only a small chance that he's actually going to answer her question— Tsuru-chan took ages and ages to open up to Asahi. But she'd still like to try either way.
"No." He finally admits, voice sour. "A… friend and I visited the Ring of Light to see if we could obtain power there. It was supposed to be me, really. We both knew it."
He sighs and mutters under his breath, in a voice Asahi's not sure she was supposed to hear, "I still don't think I would have been that much worse of an Ultraman Orb than him."
Wait, Orb? ORB?
"Is Ultraman Orb like," Asahi waves her arms around. "y'know, the big sword with the wheel on it and his color timer is a donut and he's got that stuff on his forehead?"
Juggler's frown deepens. "You've met him? But he shouldn't be anywhere near this area."
Asahi frowns. "Just to check, but he hasn't lost his transformation thingy or gotten possessed by sentient space gas in the past ten years, has he?"
Juggler raises an eyebrow. "That's… incredibly specific."
"I'm just checking! Orb Something-Something Dark was a big pain in the butt here a while back, you know?"
"Orb what? "
Juggler only really half-listens to the girl as she's explaining the entire matter with Cereza. Oh, he's going to mock Gai endlessly for this, later. After he takes care of the stupid little fanboy of an alien who thought to copy Gai's power. Maybe he'll trap Cereza in a pressure cooker with something rancid and leave him to orbit Saturn. Or bottle him up and sell him as air freshener, yes, that's also tempting…
He doesn't take his eyes off the girl.
Juggler's forced to admit that, perhaps, he'd been a little judgmental at first. A little confrontational, even, but who could blame him? Gai's the only actual Ultraman from O-50 he's ever met, but all the others— Cosmos and Dyna and what have you not— have been insufferably full of themselves. Why shouldn't she have been different?
Simple youthful naivety, maybe. One that reminds Juggler of a happier time. But perhaps Juggler's allowed himself to grow soft in the past few years, because he can't quite bring himself to be mad about it.
Ugh, scratch that. He's definitely grown soft in his old age. He's going to need to go set something on fire after this just to regain his balance.
Nevertheless, while it's… kind of the girl to pretend to see past Juggler's flaws, what he spoke was truth. The Ring wouldn't change its mind about the power that it's bequeathed, unless there's something else at play. Juggler's instincts tell him that there's no way that she's just a normal Ultra, or a host. "What are you?" he wants to ask.
He reaches out with every sense he has, and he gets his answer. "You're not really human, are you?" Juggler interrupts her story.
"Eh? Well- I mean, that's…" The girl stumbles over her words. "I'm close enough."
"This isn't really a question with room for maybes." Juggler presses. "You're close, yes. But where did you really come from?"
She scowls at him. "I'm Minato Asahi! I'm the youngest child of the Minato family, and they don't care about where I came from!"
"But you do." Juggler points out.
"No I don't!" She raises her voice for the first time. It's obvious to the both of them that it's a lie. "I'm—" she bites her lip, cutting herself off.
Ashamed after her outburst, or just unwilling to bare her heart to a stranger— especially one as obviously untrustworthy as Juggler?
"For what it's worth," Juggler says, "I can't really find fault in you for that without being a hypocrite. My lack of humanity, I think, has been well established."
A weighty pause. If she doesn't say anything, Juggler reasons with himself, then it's no skin off his back. He's got the answer that he wanted already. The sudden reappearance of the siblings who gained power on O-50 was a simple case of power inheritance, similar to what had taken place in Tiga's universe. And the matter of Ultrawoman Grigio… it's certainly something to do with Asahi— the girl— herself. If Juggler ever wanted to— well, never mind that. The point is that Juggler's got the answers that he's looking for, and he's even got additional information to taunt Gai with next time they meet. He doesn't need to stay and hear her out.
The girl finally sighs, in a big rush of air that flips her bangs up for a second. "It's… not that big of a deal. Really! I mean, everyone in my family knows and they don't care at all and I've been here for almost two entire years, too! It's not like I'm having a— an identity crisis or anything!"
"It's just… Rosso and Blu— the original ones, not Katsu-nii and Isa-nii— had a real sister, Grigio. But she wasn't an Ultraman and after they died protecting her they left her here alone for ages and ages and after that she just died trying to fight Leugocite and it was only like an entire year later that the power she left behind became a real Ultra power and I don't— I just think Tsuru-chan deserved this, too, so why couldn't she have been happy, too?"
Asahi has to take a second to breathe, after her outburst. Wow, it feels good to actually say it out loud! Juggler's kind of a cranky uncle, but Asahi's glad she trusted herself— he's not really mean at all, really. Maybe she can make friends with—
" …How self-centered of you. "
"Self-centered??" She stares at Juggler in shock. He face is oddly neutral, which honestly Asahi finds way more intimidating than if he were frowning.
"Don't project your own insecurities onto others, girl. The dead can't tell you what they're thinking, so don't presume to decide for them. Who are you to say she wasn't happy? You mentioned it, didn't you? When you needed power, she appeared in front of you, and you became Ultrawoman Grigio. Does that sound like she died disappointed? In despair? Are you going to downplay the evidence in front of your eyes for the sake of this pathetic wallowing?"
His voice gets sharper and faster as he goes on, and Asahi leans back unconsciously. "But it's still not fair." She says. Her throat is closing up a bit, and it sounds like she's about to cry but she's fine, really. "I want Tsuru-chan to be with me more than I want to be an Ultraman."
And there it is, there's the entire truth. She'd give it all up to see Tsuru-chan again, except she knows that Tsuru-chan would have given anything to have what she does now. Asahi doesn't deserve all of this, it feels like it belongs to someone else, and she's just swooping in at the end to benefit but she never asked for it.
Juggler stares at her for a while before shaking his head. He continues to talk, just as blunt but not quite as pointed.
"It's life, girl. You don't ever get exactly what you want," he gestures to himself with a sigh and sour smile, "but the universe goes on regardless. You're Ultrawoman Grigio. Make the best of it, and protect what your friend couldn't. If the universe owed her, then the debt is yours to pay too."
Asahi opens her mouth but no sound comes out.
Neither his voice, nor his words should have reminded her of Tsuru-chan. But there's something about it all that still does. Maybe it's just his weary acceptance of a world he obviously doesn't like, or the fact that he's kinda sorta probably trying to cheer her up in the most cynical way she's heard, right after yelling at her for being an idiot, but…
She starts tearing up. Juggler reels back like a cat who's had his tail stepped on, which is such a silly mental image that Asahi starts laughing, too, but she doesn't stop crying either so now she's crying and laughing at the same time and then she really can't stop. And every time she looks over at her companion through the haze of tears, he's making the most disgusted face ever which sets her off yet again. He doesn’t try to make her stop, nor does he offer her any words of comfort.
But… he doesn't leave her there, either.
Eventually, Asahi takes out a massive hanky from a pocket and blows her nose. "Thanks, Juggler."
"Never do that again," he replies to her in a voice of barely restrained horror. Asahi giggles, and he noticeably leans away.
"Seriously, though, mister." Asahi says. "Thank you for listening to me. But… sorry, but I don't think what you said is totally right."
Juggler eyes her warily. "How so?"
Asahi thinks of Tsuru-chan. Her hand on Asahi's cheek, her smile as she faded into light. The answering warmth in Asahi’s heart as she’d desperately reached for the power to protect her family, the way that it had bloomed into strength as if someone was out there to hold her outstretched hand. How’d she forget?
“There’s no debt to repay,” Asahi says, with newfound certainty. “But I’ll love the universe that she wanted to save, and the brothers that she wanted to protect. I’ll make a happy world, where she could have smiled, even if it takes me years and years.”
“... The only constant in the world is love.” Juggler muses. “Hah. I can’t hate that sort of thing, I suppose.”
It’s probably the closest to actual approval she’s gotten from him. But it’s a good sign either way, right? They sit there, together, comfortable in silence.
The sun is just starting to set. There’s the normal voices of the city in the background— children talking excitedly over each other and running everywhere they shouldn’t, salarymen on phones and students going home from cram school and people going out for dinner. It’s busy and alive and Asahi suddenly realizes just how much she loves it all, and how much she wants to share what she feels with everyone she knows.
… Which gives Asahi an excellent idea. A wonderful idea. An ultra happy idea.
"Hey," she says to Juggler, poking him in the side until he slaps her fingers away. "Hey, wanna stay a couple more days and come to my birthday party?"