S-CRY-ed Fan Fiction ❯ Evolution of the Lost Ground ❯ Searching ( Chapter 7 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

A/N: It's funny- just when I think I've hit the point where everything is organized in my head and I try to rein in this little fic, another layer wiggles into the mix. ::fights the urge to spank the story and put it in a corner with no supper:: No worries, I am determined to finish this thing even if it kills me in the process ::takes butcher knife and dynamite from story and sends it to its room to play with its toys::
Disclaimer: I don't own sCRYed. I'm just borrowing the characters to submerge in my own weird little plot; the owners can have them back when I'm finished. Except Hiro, Genso, the mysterious Commander, Zondo, the Faceless and poor dead (second) Hideki; those are mine so please don't use without either permission or a credit.
Chapter 7- searching
Though ever aware of the soft sounds of deep sleep coming from the sofa in the next room, Straight Cougar still casts periodic glances over to the blanketed bundle curled on the cushions. Brimming with impatience, he silently yet vigorously paces the length of Urizane's kitchen over and over, mind scattered to several locations across the Lost Ground. The market, the dairy farm, Tachibana's house, the mountains, the ocean to the east: images of all of these places alternately flash in Cougar's mind as he tries to work through timelines and scenarios.
Urizane had just left for the dairy farm, presumably traveling to where Kanami and Cammy were. Tachibana and Kazuma are either at the house, the dairy farm or in transit. Miss Minori could be either still at the market, back at Tachibana's house, or traveling with them. Ryuho is no doubt off in the wastelands, perhaps attempting to once again disappear into the sheltering yet foreboding mountains. And some unknown enemy, perhaps an Alter user, is wreaking havoc on the Lost Ground from the safety of the open ocean.
And he is stuck here. Homebound. Babysitting. Waiting. The last thing ever expected of the action-obsessed Master of Radical Good Speed. Inconceivable!
True, Elian is far from anyone's idea of a typical charge, needing more casual observation than strict supervision. Still, everyone- everyone- is moving, acting, accomplishing something except for him! Honestly, one could laugh at the irony of the situation.
Once more his chaotic thoughts drift to musings of the midnight-haired woman who haunts his more feral thoughts. If only I had insisted on accompanying Miss Minori to the market, hadn't let myself be so easily dissuaded by that mesmerizing gaze of hers Though he had never been able to deny her in the wake of that innocent look before, there must be a first time for everything. He had known she was upset and hurting, yet she had so easily persuaded him to leave her to her own thoughts. Still, she shouldn't have been alone- typhoon or no typhoon.
With new resolve, he vows that when he next meets up with Miss Minori she will be hard pressed to dodge him again so easily. No matter what he has to do, he will not allow her to wallow in her sorrow over Ryuho. She is too good a person for that and I'll make it my purpose to remind her of that fact. Once I find her, that is.
Cougar's attention snaps back to the present as he realizes his pacing has become more fervent. His body is fidgety and he feels that deep, compelling urge to accelerate. Radical Good Speed beckons like a siren's song. How long had it been since he last formed his Alter? He can feel pent up energy churning in his muscles and he longs to whip a couple of laps around the Lost Ground just to calm frazzled nerves. But I can't abandon this top priority babysitting mission
Elian interrupts Cougar's thoughts when he emits a low whimper in the throes of his pained sleep. A surge of renewed concern grasps Cougar and he darts to the doorway to peek once again at the sleeping form. He immediately regrets ever entertaining the notion of dashing away. Hell, it's not the kid's fault. He didn't ask to have his consciousness violently attacked. Even so, the young boy has nevertheless become a figurative anchor, mooring Cougar to the confining space of his friends' farm house.
Cougar resolutely sinks into a chair, noting his whole body's protestations over its now stationary position. All of his nerve endings tingle and burn in anticipation. He attempts to calm himself with the knowledge that once Elian awakens they will cover some serious ground. For now, he will do his best to wait.
It takes Kazuma and Tachibana 9 minutes to cover the 20 minute trip to the dairy farm. They could have set an even faster pace had they not had to contend with the tail ends of the storm. Thankfully, the typhoon appears to finally be winding down to a mild thunderstorm, so that pounding winds and rain are steadily calming into rough breezes and heavy drizzle. Still, despite the waning weather and their rapid pace, the teens are still soaked to the skin.
They top the last hill and are rewarded with the sight of the main house nestled in the center of expansive, fenced-in fields. The top of the barn can be seen behind the house and a grain silo stands tall beyond that.
Within moments they make their way to the house, but all seems dark and quiet within. Kazuma wrinkles his brow at Tachibana, “I don't think anyone's in here.”
Tachibana places the edge of his palms against a window to see inside. “I don't see anyone or anything. We should check the back.” Kazuma nods and they head around the porch to the rear of the house.
That is when they see that a large tree has fallen and crashed through the roof of the house, pouring water and debris into the gaping hole. Kazuma lets out a long appreciative whistle as Tachibana frowns. “With damage like that they wouldn't stay here. Let's check the barn.” Kazuma again nods in agreement and they about-face to size up the hulking structure. It appears intact from their vantage except it seems to be leaning just slightly to one side.
As they approach the building they note that the giant swinging doors are shut tight, strengthening their suspicions that everyone must be inside. A cursory tug on the handles fails to move the doors. A wicked grin darkens Kazuma's face and he offers, “I'll take care of this.”
However, Tachibana puts a hand on Kazuma's right arm before he can summon his Alter. “You want to bust it down, right genius? Let's not risk hurting the people inside. This calls for a bit of finesse.” Kazuma frowns at Tachibana's admonishment as the younger man closes his eyes to summon his own Alter. Eight glowing treasure balls materialize and circle their master once before morphing and sliding through the seams and under the jam of the doors. The creaking and scraping of wood against metal is heard on the other side, followed by a loud thud, and then the doors slowly swing open, four glittering spheres pressed firmly against each door.
Kazuma rolls his eyes but offers Tachibana an approving smile. Readying themselves for anything, both march purposefully into the dark interior of the barn.
Cammy hears the weathered wood of the barn doors creaking and turns her head to see glowing green spheres heft the large board that serves as a makeshift locking system. Her heart leaps to her throat and she stands in anticipation, knowing what must be waiting outside. The treasure balls divide and push the door open, allowing daylight to pour in. It is far from bright outdoors; the weather still storms overhead. However, compared to the darkness of the cluttered barn, the stormy sky still looks bright and Cammy must squint to see.
When a lithe figure crowned in purple hair finally crosses the threshold Cammy shoots up and runs for him, all bodily pain forgotten. She carelessly jumps up into his not-quite-ready embrace, wrapping all of her limbs about him. Until this very moment she had been unaware of how very deeply she missed him. New tears sting at her eyes and she allows herself an audible sob when she feels thin, strong arms close tightly around her and redistribute her weight upon him. She generously bathes his shoulder and neck in tears and kisses before finally choking out words, “Oh Asuka! Thank goodness… I was so scared…” She feels a narrow palm and long fingers rub reassuring circles on her back before he gently tips her backward to look at her face. She finally meets his honey colored gaze but he's a bit blurry through the wet curtain of her teary eyes.
“Cammy, are you okay?” The gentle timbre of his voice causes fresh tears to spill down her cheeks. Instead of answering she wraps her arms around him once again, squeezing herself to him with what little energy she has left. After several reciprocating squeezes from her boyfriend, she can feel him attempting to disentangle her from him. She grudgingly complies and allows him to place her feet gently back onto the floor.
When she again opens her eyes she glimpses Kazuma staring confoundedly at her secure grip on the teen; he must have been temporarily distracted by her `damsel in distress' reenactment just now. Cammy's cheeks color in a mix of embarrassment and shame at her selfish display and she endeavors to answer Asuka's question. “I'm… I'm fine. Just a bit banged up. But Kanami…” Her eyes well up once again.
Kazuma's voice cuts through her sobs, “What's wrong with her, Cammy? Where's Kanami?”
“She's… she won't…” Cammy can't get her voice to work and gives up her ineffective attempts at explaining. She grabs each boy's hand and pulls them towards the far wall, careful to avoid bumping into cows or stepping on the chickens underfoot. They reach the spot against the wall where Cammy has lain out Kanami and draped her own pink hoodie over her. The little girl is battered, but is breathing. She appears to be in a deep slumber. Kazuma drops to the girl's side as Cammy quietly mutters, “I couldn't… I couldn't protect her. I'm… sorry. So sorry…”
Kazuma ignores her, instead concentrating entirely on the prone form of Kanami. Her skin and clothes are filthy but she still looks like a little angel sleeping peacefully, despite the chaos of the surrounding barn and the rising bumps and bruises on her body. He lightly touches her forehead, pushing her bangs back and feeling the soft skin there, wanting to connect with her somehow and let her know of his presence. He quietly whispers her name several times, then looks back up to Cammy, who currently has Tachibana protectively wrapped around her bare shoulders like the sweater she gave away to Kanami. Kazuma looks searchingly into her eyes and asks, “What's wrong with her?”
Cammy, who has finally stopped crying, looks away, refusing to meet his gaze, “I don't know. She's breathing alright and she's not bleeding anywhere, but she just won't wake up.” Cammy casts a brief glance around the rest of the room at the other recovering farmhands but is still unable to look at him as she replies, “I tried to help them but I didn't know what to do…”
Asuka pulls some straw from her hair and kisses the top of her head, calmly shushing her. “It's okay Cammy. You did alright. But you don't look as `fine' as you said you were.” At this last remark he tilts back a bit to sweep his gaze over what he can see of the back of her.
She turns around in his arms. “I'm fine, I promise. But we need to get them all some help. Where's Mimori? She needs to look at them.”
At this statement Asuka and Kazuma exchange knowing glances. Ryuho had left the house when they did, but there was no telling if or when he would find the woman. Not wanting to upset Cammy, Asuka merely offers, “Mimori wasn't able to come with us. But don't worry, we'll do what we can without her.”
Cammy nods and then closes her eyes to rest her head under Asuka's chin, allowing herself to once again be wrapped and supported in his comforting embrace.
At the moment, Mimori is a rather pathetic sight. All of her clothes are sooty and soggy, her face and hands are grimy, and her whole body trembles from pain and fatigue. Rain water mixes with the dirt in her hair and drips into her eyes and down her neck, chilling her. Her aching legs protest every movement, but it is the side of her butt that is complaining the loudest. Yes, that would be the area where she was `hip-checked' by Tachibana's runaway car just a short time ago.
As it stands now, she is barely limping down the flooded street on unsteady feet. Actually, she's not so much limping as being heartily hefted by the mysterious young man who had the misfortune of stumbling across her after her ordeal. If not for his kindness, Mimori would likely still be lying unconscious on the silt-covered sidewalk.
Poor guy. He was unlucky enough to find her after she had nearly been crushed, burned, buried and run-over. Propped up on that phone pole- I must have looked like a corpse. After going to the trouble to check on the dead-looking girl he had been rewarded with a slap in the face. Nevertheless, despite such a rude welcome he had still managed to not only forgive Mimori, but extend to her every possible courtesy she could have wished for. He had given her his water bottle and had offered her shelter, use of his telephone, and even a ride home once the storm cleared. At this very moment he is practically carrying her down an otherwise ominous-looking city street in the pouring rain. All of this, and he doesn't know a thing about her. He's almost too good to be true.
It is at this point in her trauma-dulled musings that Mimori realizes she doesn't know anything about the man who is intimately wrapped around her in order to tote her uncooperative form down the road. Who is this guy anyway? Where did he come from? Does he make a habit of rescuing wayward girls who wander into the city, or is this a first for him? How old is he, anyway? Is he even old enough to have his own place?
Hazarding a sideways glance at him, Mimori tries to size him up without blatantly ogling him. The cursory glance takes in a smooth face with fine, nearly feminine features. The hair on his head and chin is blondish and spiky, and the brief glimpse she gets of his eyes reveals a green just a few shades lighter than Ryuho's hair. While not exactly handsome, he's far from ugly. She guesses he must only be a few years older than her.
Unfortunately, he catches her looking; perhaps Mimori is too exhausted and hurting to be as sly as intended. He flashes an all-too charming smile her way, “somethin' weighing on your mind, sweetheart?”
Mimori blushes through the film of dirt on her face. “I… uh. It's just… I don't know anything about you, even though you're… you know, saving my life.”
“Hm. Guess we did jump into this without proper introductions. My name's Hiro. What's yours?”
“It's Mimo-… I mean, it's Mimi. Call me Mimi.” Why am I lying? God, I'm so paranoid.
“Well, Mimi, that name's almost as pretty as you are. Can I ask what you were doin' in that building before it fell on you?”
“I… uh… I was working.” Though she's consumed with pain, Mimori still has the presence of mind to heed Tachibana's warnings about revealing her involvement with AIMED.
“Really, working. I'm surprised I haven't run into you around here before.”
“Oh, I don't… didn't go out of the office much. My friends always warn me about the dangers of the city nowadays…” A sudden surge of guilt causes Mimori to avert her eyes; as they are in the process of walking to Hiro's place, she has just inadvertently insulted the safety of his neighborhood. Way to go, `Mimi'… “I, uh… I didn't mean it like that.”
Hiro merely shrugs off the comment, “It's okay. I can see how strangers would get nervous around here; the city just isn't what it used to be. But honestly, I kinda like it down here.”
“That's good.” She doesn't know what else to say. She too had enjoyed the city in its bustling days before the Fall of HOLY, but in its currently dilapidated and somewhat crime-ridden state, she just can't seem to feel safe. Mimori attempts to avoid any more conversation, aware that in her present state she's liable to further alienate her only source of aid. It's strange, really. I'm normally so elaqu-… elo-… well spoken. Oh hell, what's the matter with me?
Indeed, Mimori finally notices that she feels very unlike herself at the moment. All of her senses feel fuzzy, as if a thin film is settling around her brain and somehow separating her from the rest of the world. Reality seems to have shifted around her; even the rain-soaked streets look different somehow. Though she is still deeply aware of her aching soreness, it doesn't seem to bother her anymore, as though something is insulating her from her pain.
As if on cue, she stumbles dumbly over her own feet and Hiro struggles to keep them both up. His voice wades through the growing fog of her awareness, “Are you okay, missy?”
“I feel… woozy… I…”
“After a scare like that, you're probably going into shock. That's all.”
At the moment Mimori can't exactly recall all of the features of shock but she's pretty sure that this is not typical. My mind and body are acting so weird! Still, shock or no shock, Mimori can tell she's crashing hard. She puts serious effort into lifting her head to get a look at her surroundings, and finds that she can't recognize any of the buildings around her. They must have turned a corner at some point. Mimori realizes with dismay that she is totally lost. She briefly wishes she'd had some bread crumbs to drop.
She must be wearing her emotions on her face because Hiro gives her a reassuring squeeze, “It won't be long now. We're almost there.”
“Don't worry… I… can make it.” However, as if to mock her, the arm slung around Hiro's neck goes numb and she spills out of his grip towards her knees. Hiro moves quickly and catches her under her arms before she can splash face first into the wet street.
“Whoa! Yeah right. Looks more like you're nearly down for the count.” He pulls her to her feet briefly before sliding an arm under her knees and lifting her up to cradle her in his arms. As he settles her against his chest she manages a weak apology but he shushes her. “It's alright. It's not your fault. Just go ahead and rest.”
Once in Hiro's arms, they move much quicker down the road. Though groggy, Mimori is determined to get a glimpse of her final destination, which they reach much sooner than she expects. Hiro slows down in front of a large, seemingly abandoned theater and immediately detours around to the side. As he heads towards an inconspicuous door, Mimori becomes uneasy. “You… live in a… theater?”
Mimori looks up into Hiro's face for reassurance, only to be met with a wicked kind of smile that freezes her bones. Hands full with Mimori, he kicks violently on the door with his foot, shouting, “Hey guys, open up, damn it! You're not gonna believe what I picked up!”
Mimori `s discomfort immediately deepens as she struggles to understand the very evident change that seems to have overtaken her rescuer. His words replay in her mind- `Guys… damn it… picked up…' Something is very wrong.
Moments later, the door creeks open on rusted hinges and a thin, nasal voice issues from the darkness on the other side, “You're late Hir- Ooooohh… what'cha got there?”
The door opens fully to reveal a rat-faced man not much younger than Hiro, with matted mousy hair and dirty, tattered clothes. He leans out the door to get a better look at her face and Mimori flinches unconsciously. The man's claw-like fingers twitch reflexively as if in anticipation and he slowly drags wide, hungry eyes over the girl draped in Hiro's arms.
“You're crazy to bring her back here, man. Bitch that tasty, you know Genso's gonna demand first dibs- maybe even keep her for himself.”
Hiro gives a slimy smirk, “So I'm supposed to hide out in an alley with her in the middle of this fuckin' storm? My ass! Genso can have first crack at her- I don't care. She's banged up pretty bad anyways. I'll get a piece later, when she's sportin'; more fun that way. Now open the damned door and step aside; she's fuckin' heavy.”
As both men laugh raucously Mimori realizes with a sudden shocking clarity that she is in the deepest of shit.
Though exhausted, Ryuho makes his way through the rainy city streets, his destination the former restaurant, current confirmed headquarters of AIMED. The rain has been lightening up, but still curtains enough to thoroughly drench him. Cool drops sneak beneath his collar and run down his chest and back, making him wish he had worn a hood.
As he walks, he can't help but note the startling transformation of the former glorious city into the dilapidated ruins around him. This had been his home; actually, he had lived on the opposite side of town in one of the larger estates that peppered his neighborhood. Still, he had grown up within the safety of the great wall that separated civilization from the chaotic, anarchistic environment of the Wastelands. While he hadn't been as familiar with this area as he had been with his more polished stomping grounds, it had still held a sense of modern civility that was not to be found beyond the wall.
How ironic that the people outside of the wall were referred to as `Inners'; he had always found that strange. Straight Cougar, Tachibana, Sheris and so many of his other colleagues had originated from the Wastelands, but had found a home, even a purpose, at HOLY. Kazuma was an `Inner'; what would he have been like if HOLY had inducted him into their ranks? Would there have been so much friction between us? Would his conviction towards the Native Alter Users have been transferred to the enforcement of the law? Would he be like me?
Ryuho inwardly smirks at his last thought. Trying to make Kazuma change his convictions for any reason was like trying to halt the earth's rotation, or like trying to convince Kanami to give up on her `Kazu-kun'.
He frowns. No, it was like trying to convince Mimori to go back home; it just wouldn't ever happen-
Ryuho suddenly stops short. He's here, he has reached his destination. The cross streets are correct and the surrounding buildings bear a certain familiarity, though they wear more significant signs of age than they perhaps should. However something is definitely wrong. The restaurant… it isn't here… only a pile of smoldering rubble… What on earth happened here?!
Ryuho stands dumbstruck at the foot of a gigantic mound of wood, brick and mortar; smoke and steam rise from several holes telling of a clash with fire, air and water. Only one wall still stands erect and it looks as though it could crumble at any moment. What? How? Where?
“Mimori!... MIMORI!!” He shouts in no particular direction. He tries to think of alternate scenarios of where else she might be and remembers back to the scene that played out before the quake hit…
“Mimori…” barely a whisper, it escapes Tachibana's lips before he can stifle the name.
“Whadja say?” asks Kazuma, not sure of what was just muttered.
Ryuho, however, catches the slip and immediately circles back around on the purple-headed youth. “What about Mimori? What are you hiding, Tachibana?”
A nauseous hue colors the teen's pained features and he volleys his eyes between Kazuma and Ryuho before finally finding his voice. “She... Mimori didn't go… to the market… to run errands. She… she took my car… to the city…”
That's right! She had taken Tachibana's car. Checking to his immediate left and right he notes the absence of the little green vehicle and gains some hope- perhaps she never reached the restaurant or perhaps she was able to get away in the car before things got bad.
A familiar metallic glint catches the corner of his eye and his hopes are immediately dashed. Tachibana's car is at the end of the long block, nearly fully overturned and partially crushing another vehicle. Its undercarriage is directed skyward like an exposed belly, two tires propped helplessly in the air.
Oh, God no.
Ryuho sprints down the block to the car, booted feet splashing water waist-high around him. When he reaches the car, he notes how unstable its current position is. He must bend to his knees to see through the driver's side window, but no one is there, nor is there anyone in the passenger's seat or in the back. He gives a fleeting thought to the trunk before dismissing it. Mimori is not in the car.
Ryuho looks back over to the rubble that had so recently been the restaurant and his stomach sinks to his toes and rises to his chest all at once. What if she was in there? What if she's…?
He sprints back to the heap and begins to scan every piece of debris, every space and hollow, simultaneously hoping and yet dreading catching a glimpse of her. A hand, a foot, a hip, a piece of clothing… he searches for any trace. Ryuho tries calling to her in the wreckage, “Mimori! Mimori can you hear me?” He steps into the debris cautiously and sets to moving and sifting through large chunks of rubble, careful not to shift the precarious balance of the cavities and craters left following the building's collapse.
In moments his careful pace escalates to a frantic one; he becomes desperate in his need to know her fate. He unearths and hauls increasingly larger chunks of refuse, all the while continuing to shout her name over and over. Soon his head and heart are pounding mercilessly as every horrible outcome he can imagine ricochets around his already frantic mind. As he dirties himself with his exertions he becomes vaguely aware of a certain former partner fighting his swirling thoughts for his attention, attempting to assert her emerging presence.
Once certain that she has some portion of his attention, the familiar voice in the back of his mind tries to reassure him, `She's alive. She's alive and you are wasting your time because she is not here.'
“How can you know that?” he demands aloud, afraid to hope that the echoing voice now recognized as Sheris speaks the truth.
In turn she mercilessly berates him. `You are such a guy! You assume women are so fragile and weak; you underestimate our will to survive.'
Ryuho realizes that she might be right- he used to underestimate her all the time, on and off the battle field. Still, he dares not yet lower his shield of pessimism, “What does that have to do with her survival?”
In response Ryuho senses what can only be described as a sympathetic yet exasperated sigh. `Because, you stupid man, though I would never have admitted it before, she and I are alike in many ways, not the least of which includes our fortitude and convictions. I would have survived this. Easily, if you must know. Therefore she must have survived. There is no other option. What's more, she likely used whatever resources were available to her to find aid and shelter. So stop wasting our time in this pile of junk and start looking in places where she might actually be!'
Whether swayed by the logic and certainty of her tone or by an eventual surrender to desperate hope, Ryuho finds he is willing to believe. “Alright, smart girl. Where would you go from here?”
`If I were Mimori I'd try to find other people, or at least a way to contact other people. With her car and the roads trashed, she'll need shelter. So start walking!'
Ryuho is actually starting to be amused by this rapidly solidifying theory. “Any particular direction?”
Surprisingly, she doesn't even hesitate to answer, `Upstream, genius. Where the buildings will be dry and people will be less devastated by the storm. Folks are more likely to be able to offer help when they aren't in desperate need of it themselves.'
His doubtfulness utterly defeated by her confidence and masterful use of reasoning, Ryuho complies, striding purposefully against the rushing current of runoff. With some luck and a bit of `woman's intuition', he just might track down his elusive target.
In the open field of the dairy farm, a tiny vine pushes through the soaked earth. As though it were a feature of an accelerated stop-action video, the vine rapidly grows, elongating and twisting skyward. As it thickens and spreads, its base widens, pushing aside clumps of wet dirt and unfurling large, flat leaves. Amidst the leaves the vine sprouts a tiny green fruit which rapidly swells, striped skin thinning like an over-inflating balloon.
When the melon has reached nearly eight feet in height a large, rotund man emerges through the rind walls, as though they were an illusion. A long, thin plait at the crown of his head catches in the wind of the storm and his whole body glows with the power of his Alter. Once his sandaled feet are firmly on the ground the giant fruit and vine disappear from behind him, and the light issuing from his form fades away.
Urizane smiles at his successful teleportation- it had been a while since he'd done it and he hadn't been to this farm in several months. Remembering his mission, he scans the surrounding land; as he squints for better site distance, the thin, dark line running across his nose from cheek to cheek wrinkles deeply. “Where the heck is everybody?”
From his location he can see the back of the house and the large barn. Glancing first at the house, Urizane can see that part of the roof has collapsed under a large tree that has fallen. He concludes that no one would have wanted to wait out the storm in there and shifts his attention towards the barn. Seeing that the large doors are propped open, he figures that to be an excellent place to begin searching for the girl. “Well, here we go,” and with that he lumbers towards the giant structure.
In moments he has crossed the threshold of the barn and is greeted by what could only be described as a `friggin' mess'. The loft above the back of the barn has partially collapsed, spilling straw and wooden planks in a large pile on the barn floor. Farm animals, mostly cows and some stray horses, stand around or are walking through the scattered wood and debris; they make so much noise that the walls of the barn echo with their bellowing protests. Urizane can see farmhands spread around the walls and floor in various stages of injury, but he doesn't see the girl for whom he searches. Perhaps he should call her name, “Kanami?!! Are you in here, little girl? Kanami!!”
“Over here, Urizane!”
Who in the…? That doesn't sound like her… “Who's that?” he shouts back, searching for the source of the voice. His eyes finally settle on Tachibana, who is waving at him above the cow currently standing between them and blocking his view of the boy. “Ah, so ya made it!”
As he makes his way to the teen he sees that the arm not waving at him is draped protectively around his little girlfriend, who practically swims in her boyfriend's oversized tan coat. At their side, Kazuma kneels next to a tiny form draped in pink, whispering unintelligible comforts to it and stroking a soft brown head. Sidling right up behind Kazuma, Urizane asks in a respectful whisper, “Is she okay?”
Tachibana answers for the teen, who is so engrossed with Kanami's condition that he seems not to have even heard the newest arrival to their party. “She's stable, but we don't really know what's wrong with her. How'd you know to come here? Did you get her signal, too?”
“Elian did, though I'm not sure it was meant for him. It hit him really hard. I left him behind with Cougar and came here looking for her. What's with y'all?”
“Cammy was here with Kanami. They both fell when the loft collapsed in the earthquake,” at this Tachibana unconsciously pulls the girl closer to him. “Kazuma, Ryuho and I were at my house when we were hit with some kind of projection from Kanami- she must have summoned her Alter when the loft started falling. We got here as fast as we could.”
Urizane looks around the barn again, “Where's Ryuho? Cougar said he had taken off again.”
“He came back in the storm. He, uh, he agreed to fetch Mimori while Kazuma and I came here.” To Tachibana's relief, Urizane doesn't press further about Mimori's location, instead choosing to focus his attention on the other farmhands.
“So what about the rest of these folks? Are any others hurt real bad?”
At this Cammy finally pipes up, “A lot of them ended up looking worse off than they were. Right before Asuka and Kazuma showed up I sent one of the boys to fetch Dr. Juro. He lives just up the road; they should be back soon. In the meantime I did what I could.”
Tachibana adds, “We were about to check on the condition of the house; if the damage isn't too extensive then we can probably move everyone over there. Once the doctor takes a look at Kanami I'd like to get her and Cammy back home.” He was actually anxious to be there when Ryuho returned with Mimori.
Urizane nods his approval at the plan. “I'll help ya check out the house. When ya head back I'll come with ya, if it's alright. I told Cougar to bring Elian there when the kid's back on his feet.”
“Sure thing,” Tachibana agrees. He reluctantly releases Cammy from his grasp before addressing her, “Can you stay here and keep an eye on everyone until the doctor arrives?” At her silent nod, he looks back to Urizane and both men head out of the barn.
Elian opens heavy eyelids and looks around, recognizing his own living room at once. He sits up gingerly from the sofa, the blanket covering his shoulders falling to his lap. Somewhat groggy, he grasps for memories of what had happened before he had gone to sleep.
He remembers the escalating typhoon and Straight Cougar showing up on their doorstep dripping wet and full of suspicions. He remembers the scan he had done on the storm and the strange findings and ominous premonition that had resulted. They had planned to go to Tachibana's house to tell Kazuma and Ryuho until the earthquake had suddenly hit. And before he'd had time to recover from that he had gotten that desperate message from Kanami…
“Urizane?! Cougar?!” Elian shouts to the rest of the house, ignoring the remains of his migraine. Cougar materializes in the doorway as if he had been waiting for a summons. “Cougar, what's going on? What happened with Kanami?”
Initially ignoring the question, Cougar smiles at the groggy and confused look on Elian's face. “So you're awake, are you? Feeling any better? You looked like hell when we put you down for that nap.”
Elian scowls at Cougar's statement; it makes him sound like a preschooler. “I told you guys I was fine. Where's Urizane?”
“He went to the dairy farm looking for Kanami-” he replies matter-of-factly.
“-And he left you to `watch' me, is that it? God, you guys treat me like a child!” Elian struggles to maintain composure and not pout like a toddler.
Cougar notes the bruised ego and softens his approach, “Hey, like I said, you didn't look fine. In fact, you scared the crap out of us. Urizane explained what happened when that girl contacted you. There's no shame in giving yourself time to recover.”
“Well, I really am fine now- better than fine. So let's go after him.”
Cougar chuckles at the kid's defensiveness and his desire to prove himself. “Sorry, Elian. We have a plan to stick to. Urizane teleported to the dairy farm, so we can't follow him. But don't worry- you and I are going to Tachibana's house to warn Kazuya and Ryuho about what you discovered about the typhoon and the earthquake. Hopefully we'll all meet up there, everyone will be alright, and we can figure out what to do about this weird manipulation by God-knows-whoever in the middle of the ocean.”
“So we go there and, what, sit around and wait? That's ineffective.”
Cougar is careful to mask his wholehearted agreement with the kid, and changes his tactic. “Hey, there are a lot of complicated things going on and if we want everything to turn out rosy we have to make sure that everyone is on the same page.” Then Cougar looks over the youth one more time, “are you sure you're really alright?”
Elian rolls his eyes in exasperation, “For the millionth time, I'm fine! 100 percent. Better, even. I feel at the top of my game.” Suddenly Elian's mouth turns over into a frown and his eyebrows scrunch together, “…in fact…”
Cougar shoots a questioning look over to Elian, which is ignored as he deepens his concentration. Before Cougar can manage to ask the boy what's going on, Elian leaps from the couch and puts himself in the center of the room. “…I'll prove it.”
From the boy's familiar stance and location Cougar can tell that Elian is about to invoke his Alter power to send or receive something. Sure enough, the boy surrounds himself in his familiar golden bubble as before. Cougar is about to protest the need for a demonstration when the look on Elian's face within the orb changes from pensive to shocked. His young friend looks him dead in the eyes, “It's a signal projecting to the middle of the ocean, to the source of the disturbance.”
Cougar can barely believe their good fortune. “Can you interpret it?”
With a sly grin spreading across his face, Elian replies, “I can do you one better…”
Several miles off the coast, on the bridge of a carefully camouflaged tactical vessel, an ensign receives the telltale beeps of an incoming encoded message from their headquarters. He briefly acknowledges the hail and then hustles to locate his superior. “Commander, we have an incoming transmission from Base. I'm told there is video feed, Sir.”
“Open the channel and put it on the screen in my office.”
“Aye, Sir.”
The Commander strides noiselessly towards a far door with a window in the center. He unlocks the door (it always remains locked when he is away from his desk, though no one on the ship would dare enter without his knowledge or permission) and discreetly disappears inside. As soon as he takes a seat behind the massive oak desk, the video screen buzzes and a light flashes on the communications terminal. He pushes the button to open the line, “What is it, Base?”
The disembodied voice of a `Faceless' liaison fills the office. “Greetings, Commander. One of our sources has turned up some intelligence regarding the target. Some video footage was secretly recorded during a meeting between several AIMED members and the French and British Ambassadors to Japan. The audio is of poor quality, but I assumed you wanted to see it even before we attempted to refine and translate, Sir.”
“You assumed correctly. Play what you have for me.”
After a moment, the wall screen flickers and illuminates with picture. An auditorium style stage comes into view, flanked by several flags. A small thin podium is centered on the stage and behind it stands a very young Japanese woman in a clean-cut pantsuit. To her right stand three older men and an older woman, all Caucasian and all smiling at the girl. To the left of the girl is a young man about her own age holding a tablet and appearing to flip through notes, periodically looking up at her. The back of several heads and the tops of several shoulders can be seen at the bottom of the screen.
The camera view then zooms in to focus on the speaker. She looks to be just under 20, but with a very mature set to her features. Long, black hair is pulled back into a high bun and thin-framed glasses sit on the middle of her nose. Slim, delicate fingers dance in the air as she gestures to emphasize various indiscernible points. Though the audio quality is indeed poor- there is lots of extraneous white noise and all speech produces a dull echo- the girl's flawless French accent can be heard before she pauses to seamlessly transition into perfect English for the other part of her audience.
The view pans back to the right to focus on the four older persons, two of whom wear colorful sashes and attentive, amenable smiles. Periodically the other two in dull black suits lean and whisper into their ears. There is much head nodding and exchanging of glances.
The view then pans over the speaker to her left to focus on the young man at her side. He has bright eyes, cropped purple hair and a thin smile, but his jaw is set rather stiffly as he watches the girl speak, belying his calm exterior. He jots down something and folds the paper on his tablet with one hand, passing it to a figure off-camera. Even with his tablet, his eyes remain ever alert, scanning the crowd and the stage, however he seems to overlook the camera; it must be well hidden.
The camera then pulls back to a wider angle as the speech concludes. The sound of applause is heard and many people in front of the camera stand up, obscuring the stage. From the volume, it sounds as if the crowd numbers no more than thirty or so.
“That's enough. Rewind the playback. When was this taken?” The Commander taps his chin lightly in thought.
“Sometime last month, Sir. You'll no doubt recognize the French and English Ambassadors- the two black suits are their interpreters. The female speaker and the young man are members of AIMED. Other organization members seem to be present, but unfortunately they are never in view of the camera. We are in the process of searching for the identities of the two visible-”
The Commander interrupts him, “Don't bother identifying the girl- I recognize her. That, my good man, is the Kiryu heiress, the so-called `Princess of the Mainland'. I believe a search of HOLY's records will reveal that she was `misplaced' during a mysterious power failure- or at least that is what the report will say. It was presumed that she escaped home to her parents on the Mainland. However, it appears as though she's fooled everyone, instead remaining in the Lost Ground to stir up trouble.”
The Commander gently places a balled fist onto the table, lest he be tempted to slam it onto his desktop. This fact will undoubtedly complicate things. His entire plans revolve around stealth and having a politically and publicly adored figure in the mix, even one no longer in the forefront of the media's eye, threatens unwanted exposure. His eyelid twitches involuntarily, but he continues. “If Mimori Kiryu is working for AIMED, it is likely that she'll become a genuine obstacle.”
He steeples his fingers together and presses them against his lips in quiet contemplation. The man on the line wisely waits on his superior officer in absolute silence. After several long moments the Commander again speaks, “Find out as much as you can about the Kiryu girl as well as on the other AIM member on that recording. Then turn all of that information over to Zondo. He'll know what to do. Miss Kiryu must not resurface and the rest of AIMED should be dismantled by any means necessary. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly, Sir. You can expect a full report on our progress within 24 hours.”
“Make it 12.”
“Aye Sir, as you wish. But Sir, there is one more issue I must bring to your attention.”
“Go on.”
“Our sources within several Mainland news agencies have discovered that rumors are circulating about the typhoon and earthquake on the Lost Ground. The rumors suggest that the current natural disasters affecting the Lost Ground were created or somehow affected by Alter power. What should we do about this, Sir?”
“Don't worry- when have you known me to overlook any detail or contingency?” At that, the Commander allows himself a small smile. “We will respond by confirming these rumors.”
The uncertain voice of his subordinate hesitates over the com link, “Sir?”
The Commander continues as if reciting a press release, “The Legendary Alter users Ryuho and Kazuma are responsible for both the typhoon and the earthquake that have recently ravaged the Lost Ground. Mainland military forces are aggrieved and angered by this information and are planning retaliation against these vicious criminals as we speak. These lawless men must be taught that they cannot prey upon the vulnerabilities of the Lost Ground. Do you understand?”
“Yes Sir.”
“Good. Release this information to the appropriate media agencies and coordinate a counterstrike with the Mainland military. Keep me informed of your progress.”
“Aye Sir.”
“Is there anything else?”
“No Sir. I'll begin execution of your orders immediately.”
“Excellent. End transmission.” After an audible click the office is filled with a deafening silence that settles around the Commander like a woolen blanket. He allows himself another gratified smile. It seems his plans are falling seamlessly into place. The newest potential wrinkle, the Kiryu heiress' association with AIMED, will be dealt with by Zondo, who will ensure that she and AIMED won't ruin his plans with an unscheduled appearance. The Mainland will focus blame for the devastation on the Legendary Alter users, leaving him to continue the plans of The Faceless unhindered. With the right moves, he will be able to manipulate the Mainland into becoming his greatest asset, the driving force that will steer the Lost Ground right into his waiting grasp.
Cougar watches as Elian's fingers fly nimbly over the translucent keys of his Alter's interface, torn between watching him work and listening to the now decoded message currently filtering thought the large speakers of the living room's TV. When the voice of a mysterious `Commander' orders the playback of some visual media, Elian's rapid pace accelerates, and soon the television screen crackles to life with the images of the accompanying video stream.
Cougar gasps in recognition of the subjects of the transmission, but waits patiently for the entire message to run its course before daring to say a word. So many of his questions have been answered by this message, but unfortunately millions of new ones seem to now swirl in their place. He wants to confer with Elian to confirm what he's just seen and heard; could he have somehow imagined the whole strange situation?
When Elian finally finishes his activities inside his Alter's sphere, Cougar poses a crucial request, “Were you able to somehow save that message, Elian? The others are going to need to see and hear it.”
Temporarily forgetting the gravity of what they just heard, Elian scoffs at the older man, “Of course I saved it! My Alter functions better than the most sophisticated computer; the second I began receiving the transmission I began storing the data for safe keeping. I can retrieve both the audio and video whenever I choose.”
The master of Radical Good Speed emits a visible sigh of relief. “Good job. Because I'm going to want to view it again just to assure myself that I really heard what I thought I did-”
“-And saw; that was Ms. Mimori and Tachibana with those ambassadors, right? And Ms. Mimori can speaking French and English?”
Cougar nods, “Apparently so. It seems the two of them have been keeping quite a sizeable secret from the rest of us. Both of them seem intimately involved in AIMED.”
“What is AIMED, anyway? I've only heard about it recently and most of that was just through rumors and gossip.”
Cougar takes a seat on the arm of the sofa before attempting to offer an answer. “If I've heard right, it's the `Association for the Independence of the Muraji Economic District'. The Muraji District, which includes the former Kanagawa Prefecture, was the name of this entire area before the Great Uprising; after that this new island became known as the Lost Ground. From what I understand AIMED was organized in support of and in preparation for the gain of independence for the Lost Ground from the Mainland. I think it's only been operating for a few months now, but already they've created quite a buzz, both here and across the water. From what we saw on that video, it looks like their reach is even extending to foreign countries. I had no idea of the scope; I'm actually rather impressed.”
Elian nods in agreement as he effectively fits together the newest pieces of the puzzle that is their situation. “So if AIMED is for the independence of the Lost Ground, then whomever is trying to disband them must want the opposite.”
“Right. There must be something here in the Lost Ground that they want that independence would prevent them from getting. But what could that be?”
“I don't know. Somehow we'll have to find out- and fast. It's only a matter of time before the Mainland will react to those lies about Kazuma and Ryuho. Then we'll have to worry about more attacks from the military. And neither Kazuma nor Ryuho are fully recovered from when they fought each other.”
Cougar frowns at the idea of more strikes from the Mainland, particularly now that their primary defenders are in less-than-optimal shape, “Yeah, that little tussle between the two of them isn't the smartest thing they've ever done. Then again, when it comes to each other, common sense rarely seems to enter the equation.”
Elian smiles at both the humor and truth in Cougar's statement, however his mirth is short-lived. “What about this `Zondo' business? Have you ever heard of him?”
“No, I haven't. Whoever he is, he sounds like real trouble. From the message it sounds as if this `Zondo' is a threat to AIMED and its members, including Tachibana and Ms. Minori.”
“It's Mimori,” said absentmindedly. It's gotten so that everyone corrects Cougar's mispronunciations without even thinking about it. “And we have to warn them; they need to know that they are in danger.”
Cougar in turn corrects Elian, “We have to warn everyone. This information and what we do with it will no doubt have a profound effect on the future of the entire Lost Ground.”
As his prophetic words sink in to his audience of one, Cougar readies to leave, all the while contemplating their next move.
To be continued…