S-CRY-ed Fan Fiction ❯ Evolution of the Lost Ground ❯ Contemplating ( Chapter 12 )
[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Disclaimer: I don't own S-cry-ed or any of its characters. Except for all these random OC meat puppets that keep popping up to support the story: Genso, Hiro, Zondo, the mysterious Commander, Dr. Juro, the Faceless, Nezumi and the rest of the gang, dead Ariel and poor dead (second) Hideki.
A/N: Sorry for the delay in the addition of these latest chapters, and thank you for your patience. Thank you also for the very kind reviews that have been submitted for this story, particularly the most recent from Tangarine_Mikan, which reminded me that I had not submitted the newest chapters on this site (hate to say it, but I get way more reviews at FF-dot-com so I post much faster over there). So I hope she (and the rest of you!) are still reading. Thanks again and enjoy.
Luv, Mira ^_^
No summary for `Chapter 11- Waning' because that would have been one more delay- sorry (Who was reading those anyway?). But don't worry; the chapter has some built-in `catch-up' spots for those a bit rusty on the events of previous chapters.
ps- I had the best of intentions when I started this thing in present tense (`it's more action-oriented, see?') all those months ago; now I kick myself everyday… So please forgive me for continuing in said tense for consistency's sake.
Chapter 12- Contemplating
On the East road the altered QRV speeds through a waning downpour and the setting twilight, drawing ever further from the recently devastated city. As the veiled landscape whizzes by at a dizzying pace the front passenger looks away, instead resting her bruised and muddled head against the cool glass and focusing weary eyes up towards the stationary stars above.
Mimori is exhausted down to the marrow of her bones and painfully conscious of how dirty she is. Skin, hair, clothes (what's left of them) all seemingly marinated in rain, dirt and blood- some hers but most not. And as the drug-induced haze is finally clearing from her mind she finds the flood of thoughts churning around in her brain utterly daunting, particularly after the information that Cougar had shared with her and Ryuho as soon as he had pulled off from the curb:
“You know Ms. Minori, I don't want to worry you, butquitealothashappenedsinceyouleftthismorning-”
In standard Cougar hyper-verbage he'd proceeded to fill her and Ryuho in on everything that they'd missed since departing earlier that day- how Kazuma and Tachibana had successfully retrieved the girls from the farm only to discover that Kanami had fallen into a persisting coma. Mimori had interrupted him just long enough to ask for more details on the girl's condition, but Cougar had been so wrapped up in his story (or more likely avoiding info he didn't have) that he'd barreled forward over her request:
“But that's not all! TherealinfocamefromElian!(Imeanthatkidissosmartandadep twithhisAlterthathescaresmesometimes!)Butanywaywewerea tUrizaneshousewhenthequakehitandafterwardsheinterceptedanunbelievablemessage!-”
and if it was at all possible Cougar's mouth sped up even faster so that his words were lumping together like warm cookie dough. Still, Mimori managed to get the gist of it- some secret agency on the Mainland was in contact with some ship off the coast that had been responsible for the storm and the earthquake. To further their agenda they planned to blame the legendary Alter users for the disaster.
Ryuho had immediately strewn some rather elaborate and impressively assembled expletives around the cab upon hearing this. But the real shock came with the realization that the message mostly concerned AIMED and the identity of its leaders captured on some secret footage. Ryuho had fallen uncomfortably silent at that point, and Mimori had been unable to turn around to judge his reaction for herself; she had a sinking feeling that he was grappling with who would eventually be on the receiving end of his irate `I told you so' speech. She desperately hoped that it didn't morph into an `I'm going to rip your head off' knock-down, drag-out fist fight; despite his fatigue, something in his silence hinted at unfettered violence. Cougar had wisely (or cluelessly, she wasn't sure) continued his ramble:
“SoyouseeMsMinorieventhoughRyuhohadalreadygonesearch ingforyouIwassenttorecoveryoubothbecausewedon'tknowhowmuchthi s`Zorbo'guyknowsaboutyouandTachibana-So here I am!!”
It had been too much to take in, but she still managed to politely (if not absently) thank Cougar for his rapid yet surprisingly thorough update on the day's bizarre events. At a loss for anything else to add, she had surrendered to both her fatigue and the silence that gradually descended on the darkened cab- one that neither of the other vehicle's occupants attempted to dissipate. Perhaps they noted the weary set of her body in the chair, or perhaps they sensed the hint of quiet dejection veiling itself behind her uncharacteristically vacant words. Perhaps they were each wrapped up in their own quiet reflections on the day's events. In any case, the dark emptiness enshrouding the whole vehicle palpably deepened. And rather than shutting down as it ought, Mimori's mind instead took off like a rocket, forcing her to do the one thing that she absolutely, positively knew that she did not want to do at the moment… think.
Right now Mimori doesn't want to think about Kanami, injured and comatose. She has no idea what to do for the poor girl. She can't help her, or Cammy, or anyone who might have been hurt in the disaster- not in her current state. Mimori doesn't want to think about how, at the time when her friends will need her most, her injuries have rendered her practically useless. And she certainly doesn't want to think of how useless she'd been earlier today even before the injuries- in the panic of the fire, unable to find or help Hideki. Hideki… had she really done everything she could for him? Was his death her fault?
Mimori doesn't want to think of Asuka, of having to tell him what happened to headquarters, how it had flamed and rumbled around her before finally collapsing into a heap of sizzling rubble. Or tell him about how his car had hit her before wrecking. And she doesn't want to admit to him, to any of the others, how easily she had been duped and drugged by the conniving and manipulative Hiro. Had been kidnapped and taken to his vicious gang and their frightening leader. Doesn't want to recall their eyes, and that unmistakable look that had driven her to a desperate escape. The images of their faces- Hiro's, Genso's- conjure memories she would purge from her mind if she could.
But she can't.
Physical reminders from the day's traumatic events still stubbornly cling to her body- not just the ash and grit in her hair, and not just the mud and sludge ground into her clothes, but more. She is cold and clammy from the persisting dampness, having been in and out of the seemingly ceaseless rains all day. She is covered in countless cuts and bruises from the massive bookcase and shattered window in the restaurant and her exhaustive escape from the theater. Worst of all, Hiro's blood is still crusted on her shredded sweater, the edges of her bra and some of her exposed skin. Mimori feels dirty.
Fingering the now-frayed edges of the sweater along the smooth slice down her front, she mentally fights between urges to clutch it tight out of some bizarre sense of modesty and alternately tear it off her body in disgust. She'd wanted to pull it off and throw it away as soon as she'd sobered up a bit. And she would have- she didn't even care about the post-storm chill still lingering in the air. It's ridiculous, really, because after what she'd been through, no one would fault her. However, after her rescue there was an inexplicable modicum of decency that she needed to maintain, after what had happened and particularly in front of Ryuho. No matter how much she loathed the offending garment, somehow parading around the dilapidated city (and her handsome rescuer) in her brassiere was just out of the question. Still, when she can finally remove the tattered sweater she prays to never set eyes on it again; there are just too many painful memories attached to it…
In an ironic paradox, the more Mimori tries to forget the more she can't help but remember…
Hiro's deceptively charming smile and how easily it had morphed into that cruel, icy smirk… The sickening smell and taste of him… His crushing weight on top of her… His greedy hands pawing her and his suffocating assault on her mouth as he tried to force himself on her. Can't forget the taste of his blood or the sting of his slap across her cheek. Can't help but remember the mask of insanity twisting his bloody face, marking the exact moment she had recognized her inescapable fate. Can still hear his taunts echoing in her head… `Yeah, that's right, honey, fight me… All this thrashing, you're makin' me so hard… I'm gonna fuck you inside out…' He'd gotten so close… Too close…
Mimori can't help but remember how even after she had been saved, after Ryuho had miraculously appeared before her eyes as if summoned by magic, Genso's voice… that deep thunderous voice still managed to freeze her blood. And the things he had said- the threats to Ryuho, and the fate he had promised for her… `First, you get to watch me repeatedly fuck your woman there. You'll stand there helpless as she screams your name, hoping you'll save her as I do what I please with her body. Then you'll watch every guy behind me do her, too…'
As those taunts echo in her head, Mimori knows with a sickening certainty that his voice will haunt her forever.
Nausea rises with the memories and she closes her eyes to block the sting of tears that threaten to spring forth. Ashamed of her weakness, she leans more heavily on the window and turns her forehead into it, praying that her pain won't reflect in the smooth glass. She needs to escape these thoughts, these paralyzing memories, before they consume her. She needs to be strong, though she's not entirely sure why.
For only an instant, she selfishly and desperately wishes for the safety of Ryuho's strong embrace- a new feeling that she had just discovered today and would hence forth consider a necessity. If she could have managed to crawl into the back seat into Ryuho's lap without excruciating pain or raising Cougar's bushy brown eyebrows in suspicion, she knows she would have. His touch, his nearness, might be the one thing able to calm her mounting fears and racing heart. But she knows she can't, for so many reasons beyond the practical ones. And so she mentally grasps for the most soothing thing she can think of…
Mimori allows her mind to drift back to Ryuho's kiss- the soft one, the sweet one. The one he had said was for her. Not that she had minded the stronger, more desperate one that by his own admission he had `stolen' earlier on the cliffs. But the second one- it had been so much more than she had ever expected from him, so much more than she had ever imagined feeling. It was so full of gentleness… compassion… and (dare she even think it?) love… Just the memory of the delicate caress of his lips against hers, of his fingers tenderly sweeping across her skin, of his arms carefully cradling her against him… it's all just too overwhelming.
And that is when she finally realizes that despite his unflinching neglect, countless cold stares, and endless commands to disappear… against all odds, Ryuho has kissed her twice today. Now, hours later and sitting only inches in front of him in darkened silence, she must admit to herself that she still has no idea what either of them really meant.
He watches her- the way the moonlight pushes through the deepening darkness to make her skin glow with a blue softness…
Ryuho watches Mimori turn her head into the window, hoping she is finally resting but fearing that she is instead reliving the nightmare he had barely managed to save her from only hours before. During the entire ride back he has been mentally replaying the fragments of her suspiciously vague account of her experiences, from the time he left her on the cliffs up to the time he found her being attacked in the alley. The details are incomplete, particularly those regarding the collapse of the restaurant and the time she was held by those despicable thugs.
He'd wanted to drill Mimori for information during their trek out of the city but had wisely (and at the behest of a certain blue-haired “guest” of his psyche) managed to keep his curiosity in check. It had probably been for the best- once he had assured himself that Mimori was unhurt… untouched… by those men, any further details would have probably just driven him insane with anger at a time when she needed him to be absolutely focused. He had let it go, but now…
Ryuho can feel the anger boiling up inside again. He can't bear to see her like this- she wears a brave face but he can tell how deeply shaken she is. He knows how truly vulnerable she feels because he feels it, too- she has become his weakness.
If he is going to be honest with himself, Ryuho must admit (without any prompting or explanation from Sheris) that Mimori has probably always been his weakness; he'd just never recognized it before. Somehow the distance that he'd managed to force between them had been enough to blunt his awareness of his true feelings for her; at the very least he had convinced himself that he could live his life completely independent of her existence.
But now, sitting in a dark truck, heart silently aching in tune with her sadness, he knows that will never be true. Today things have forever changed between them. He will never be able to treat her as coldly as he had before, even if only to protect her. His mask, once it had fallen away, had irreparably shattered- if he ever tries to stonewall her again, he guesses that Mimori would be able to see right through him. This new kind of vulnerability should be scaring him out of his wits. Yet somehow, as frightening as that prospect appears, something deep inside him feels more comfortable than ever with this change. And it's not Sheris.
Checking around for her, he notes that she's occupied in her own little world for once, concentrating on something independent of his thoughts. Now that he's gotten used to that familiar voice, he finds her absence sort of odd. But it does reaffirm to him that his feelings are his own and not some strange manipulations on her part. What he feels for Mimori is real- has always been real- but now he is finally able to understand it, doesn't feel the need to deny it or outrun it.
Still, as he takes in the silhouette of the girl sitting before him, Ryuho wonders how these realizations are supposed to help her. He's known her for nearly half his life, yet he's never seen her like this, doesn't even know how to begin to fix what might be broken within her. Things had been complicated enough between them before today. In the wake of their most memorable fight, a record-breaking typhoon, a gang of violent criminals, and a secret military faction bent on killing her and decimating the entire island, Ryuho suddenly finds himself in uncharted territory.
Where the hell does he go from here?
In the warehouse behind Tachibana's house, three Alter users wait amidst a thick and uncomfortable silence. Urizane nervously paces the width of the aisle, arms folded over his stomach as his eyebrows knit together pensively. Kanami quietly sits on the edge of a palate, knees drawn up and eyes focused on the visible tips of her red boots. And Elian leans against a tower of stacked boxes a bit too wearily for his young age, head lowered in thought as he puzzles over their disturbing discovery. Only a couple of feet away are the large holes in the concrete floor and the singed crates lining the aisle- evidence of Tachibana's Alter and some sort of altercation. It's been over half an hour since they realized that both Tachibana and Cammy were missing (who knows how long they'd been gone before that), and everyone is frustrated with their lack of answers.
Kanami's head suddenly bobs up as Kazuma appears from the far end of the warehouse, “Did you find anything, Kazu-kun?”
The teen stalks stiffly up the aisle to join his comrades, noting that everyone has immediately stopped and looked up to him for news. He runs a nervous hand through his mussed brown hair. “Yeah, I found somethin'. Somebody broke into the back door on the other end. And outside, there's tracks.”
“What kinda tracks?” Urizane asks warily.
Kazuma looks at him as he continues, “One set of large boot prints with a set of smaller, dragging prints right next to them; I'm guessing the small ones are Cammy's- they're too tiny to be Tach's. From the size of the large prints I'd say we're lookin' at a guy at least 230 lbs, and probably tall, judging from the length of the stride. The prints are slightly deeper on the right side- like he was carrying something while dragging Cammy on his left. The tracks go up the cliffs until they get to some tire impressions. Set deep and wide apart, like a truck or a van. They head off in the direction of the old North road. If I had to bet money I'd say it was that guy from the message.”
“Zondo?” Elian questions.
Kazuma nods grimly, “Yeah. From all the evidence I'm afraid we gotta assume that they've been taken by force. No doubt in my mind.”
“This is so horrible! What do we do?” Kanami wails as she turns pleading eyes up to her protector.
The rough teen frowns at her, “We're gonna get them back, Kanami! What else?”
“But the blood! Kazu-kun, what if they're hurt? And how are we going to find them? We don't know where they went!”
Elian cuts in, “The tracks head to the old North road but there's not much out there, if I remember correctly…”
“It eventually leads to the city's South Gate,” Urizane offers. “But why would he go that way?”
Elian continues, rubbing his small fingers against his temple, “If it is a mercenary then he's contracted. From the message I'd guess that contract includes Ms. Mimori as well as Tachibana. I bet that since she's not here then he'll be looking for her next. The question is: does he know where to find her?”
“Hell, do WE even know where to find her?!” Urizane spouts as he closes in on the group.
Kazuma snaps back, “Of course we do! She's in the city. Cougar's probably already found her by now.”
Ruffled, Urizane settles large fists on his hips, “But are we sure she's still in the city? What if she's somewhere else by now?”
Kazuma flinches in surprise, but quickly recovers his haughty attitude, “Then Cougar will just keep searchin' til he finds her- probably lap the whole damn island. And if he doesn't bring her back, then Ryuho will.” At this Kazuma allows himself a knowing smirk, “That guy may be a prissy jackass, but he's definitely stuck on our little doc; he almost shit a brick when he found out she was out there! He'll turn the whole Lost Ground upside down lookin' for her- so we just wait and see who comes back first, girl in hand.”
Elian seems to relax a bit, “So odds are that one of them will find her before this mercenary does, right? Even if he has Tachibana and Cammy?”
This time Urizane frowns, “Damn, I hope so. This is turnin' all kinds of ugly…” Kazuma and Elian grimly nod in unison.
Suddenly, Kanami's eyes widen and she stands up. “Mimori! Mimori's here!” and she launches past the bewildered men around her. Heading through the side door of the warehouse, she turns around just long enough to shout, “Come on!” to the dallying guys.
Kazuma wordlessly jogs after her while Urizane turns a puzzled look towards Elian, “Hey, how come you didn't sense them comin'?” Elian merely drops his hand from his temple and pushes off from his perch, pointedly ignoring the man and walking heavily towards the door. Urizane merely shrugs and follows them all.
A soft brush against her skin has Mimori violently starting in her seat and involuntarily shoving into the passenger door of the QRV. However, when she looks down all she sees are Cougar's fingers hesitantly withdrawing from her wrist. She'd been asleep… he'd woken her… they must be nearing the house…
Mimori looks over to the speedster who is nervously eying her and pulls herself up, offering a shy, apologetic smile. She registers his serene look but something about him… she'd noticed it earlier, a hint of something she's never really seen in him before. A trace of somberness, perhaps? Or something else?
Whatever it is, she can almost sense a certain sort of gravity surrounding the normally ebullient charmer. But just as she thinks she might put her finger on it he suddenly flashes her one of his trademark smiles. Cougar…
As she rises in her chair the seatbelt digs painfully into her neck and Mimori is immediately reminded of the ache gnawing at her entire body. She tries to settle back into her seat as comfortably as possible, unconsciously wincing in the process. However, before she can look out the window to the road ahead, a strange growling noise emanating from the back seat reaches her attention. Shrugging off some of her fatigue, she watches as Cougar raises a single knowing eyebrow at her before pointedly shifting his gaze back towards the road ahead. He audibly clears his throat and projects his voice towards the source of the noise, “Something the matter, Ryuho?”
The growling suddenly stops allowing a stark silence to once again envelope the cab. When Mimori cranes her neck to see around the headrest she is met by a pair of intense garnet eyes staring daggers at the back of Cougar's flame-colored head. Mimori's eyebrows vault high in confusion. What was that? Cougar only… It's not like I'm going to fall to pieces… What's gotten into him?
However, Mimori's gaze on him seems to snap Ryuho out of whatever had momentarily possessed him and he turns suddenly softer eyes on her in return. Muttering a `Fine, Cougar' that still sounds thick with tension, he diverts his gaze from hers guiltily and sinks into his seat.
Mimori twists her body around a little painfully so that she can face backwards and sends a hand out to him, but her tired body can't even keep her arm airborne and the pitiful appendage drops down roughly onto Ryuho's knee. His eyes suddenly snap back up, and then trace her arm down to the hand resting on his pants. Something tight in his body visibly uncoils and he gingerly scoops up her hand in both of his calloused ones.
Carefully balancing the center of her palm along the length of his index finger, Ryuho lightly supports Mimori's fingertips in his other hand; he takes only a moment to inspect the thin skin of her knuckles before gently turning over her hand and inspecting her palm, as if searching for any damage that his knee might have inflicted upon it. Mimori simply sits there frozen, mesmerized by his unusually delicate touch.
The truck shakes gently beneath them as Ryuho holds and cradles her hand for several agonizing seconds. Then, seeming to come around to his senses, he looks up the length of her arm again and finally notices the sharp angle at which Mimori's body is twisted in her chair. Instantly he is leaning forward, moving between the two front seats, reverently carrying the small appendage back to its owner. Countering his motion, Mimori is soon settling back into her seat as Ryuho delicately places her once outstretched hand safely into her lap. Leaning against the back of her chair, he gently cups her shoulder and quietly whispers into her ear, “Sit back, Mimori, and stop taxing yourself.”
Turning her head into his voice, she suddenly finds herself nose to nose with the soft-spoken teen, his breath ghosting over her parted lips. When her surprise delays her in obeying his command, she feels his other hand settle on her other shoulder, gently tugging her back into her chair. Before she knows it, she is again facing forward and staring through the front windshield at the familiar roofline of Asuka's approaching house.
Relief surges through her body at the familiar sight, both relaxing and energizing her. An unconscious sigh escapes her lips as she leans her head back against the headrest and closes her eyes in thanks.
It's over. She's back, she's safe, and it's over.
Only moments away from the end of one of the most bizarre and exhausting days of her life, Mimori almost starts to cry. Her friends will be waiting to greet her with zealous care and concern, not to mention a hot bath and clean clothes. And Ryuho… he'll stick around for a while. Because things are different now…
She feels the familiar crunch of the gravel drive beneath the tires and her anticipation mounts- she knows there will be lots of questions. Questions with answers that she either doesn't have or doesn't want to share… not just yet. But she can handle that, can handle anything now that she's about to return to reality, to friendship, to the familiar. Right now, she just wants to be home.
When the QRV approaches the house, Kazuma and the others are just reaching the driveway's pebbled edge. He immediately notices that, while it's traveling fast, the vehicle isn't speeding as he'd expected. Well, maybe Cougar isn't driving… But he doesn't dwell on that for long as he becomes instantly distracted by Kanami's dash towards the truck.
“Kanami, slow down! Wait `til they get out!” but his protective cries go unheeded as she rushes to the front passenger side before the vehicle is completely stopped.
Of course Kanami is beaten there by Cougar, who has hopped out of the driver's side and circled the front so fast that (to Kazuma's relief) he appears as a familiar blur. At the same time Ryuho exits the rear passenger side so that there is an odd convergence of the three of them at what Kazuma guesses must be Mimori's car door. He watches with mild amusement as dubious glances are exchanged among the three before Cougar finally clears his throat, grabs the handle and pulls the door open, standing stiffly behind it like a highly-paid chauffer. Ryuho blinks at the older man in surprise, affording Kanami the opportunity to blitz between them into the knees of the woman behind the door who has just managed to slowly swivel her legs out.
“Mimori! You're back! We were so worried ab-” Kanami's huge smile instantly fades into shock as she looks up into Mimori's bruised face and tired eyes, “Oh, Goodness! A-are you alright?”
The small girl's gaze travels down to Mimori's disheveled clothing, but the older girl is already cupping hands around the child's round cheeks to get a better look at those too-large green eyes. “Oh, I'll be fine. But you! Kanami, are you okay? Cougar told me you were hurt; what happened?”
By this time the others have made there way to the vehicle and Kazuma finally gets a good look at Mimori once he's close enough to see past the throng of people surrounding her. One look at her and his jaw drops- he can't help but blurt out, “Holy Shit, Mimori! What the hell happened to you?! You look like… uh… I mean…”
Identical death glares from both Cougar and Ryuho halt the brash youth in his verbal tracks; meanwhile Urizane quietly chuckle behind him. Still, Mimori guiltily drops her head down as she searches for a suitable explanation that doesn't come off too neurotic, “I… well… it's a long story, Kazuma… and…” Unfortunately anything that she can think to say sounds crazy and utterly unbelievable in her head and her floundering worsens, “…I… well… I was in the city… and then the storm…”
Kazuma's nose instantly wrinkles in confusion but Kanami just nods somberly before tightly clasping one of Mimori's hands between her two much smaller ones, prompting the older girl to silence. In a very serious tone she offers, “It's okay Mimori. You can talk about it later, after you've rested a bit. I mean, you must be exhausted after a day like that.” And before Mimori can blink her surprise the younger girl turns those wise, large eyes upon Ryuho and sagely whispers, “You were just in time, huh?” He can only respond with a bewildered, barely perceptible nod of his own.
Picking up on the new direction of the conversation, Cougar adds, “Yes, explanations at another time. All that really matters is that she's back here safe and sound thanks to Ryuho and yours truly!” He drops Mimori a quick wink before triumphantly turning back to the others, “See Tachibana? I told you I'd bring them both and your precious QRV back in one piece!”
An odd silence falls on the crowd, leaving Cougar and Mimori searching for a purple head. When none appears, Mimori inquires, “Where is Asuka? And Cammy? Why aren't they here?” As all eyes suddenly divert away from her, a worried look crosses her face. Something is wrong, something has happened… Scanning them again, she singles out the person she thinks will give her the straightest answer, “Kazuma, what's going on?”
The rough teen grimaces- somehow he'd known he'd be the one to have to break the news. An appraising glance at the girl confronting him confirms his initial impressions- though he hadn't gotten the chance to say it, Mimori looked like a building had fallen on her. Or maybe she'd been hit by a truck. No way could she handle this kind of info. Hoping the girl's self-appointed protectors might step in to spare her the anguish, Kazuma instead notes that Cougar and Ryuho are both eyeing him with expectant looks, completely oblivious to the potential gravity of the news. Dammit, I'm no good at this sort of thing!
Hesitating for only a moment, he instead directs his attention to the driver, “Okay, uh… Cougar, did you tell them about the message that Elian showed us?”
Cougar nods, “Of course.”
“And how much did you tell them about it? Everything?”
He scoffs, “Yeah, everything!”
Kazuma prods, “even about the guy?” He's not taking any chances about shocking poor Mimori into a heart attack.
However, Mimori cuts in, “Do you mean the commander or the mercenary he ordered? Kazuma, enough with the evasive maneuvering- just spill it!”
Startled by her firm tone, he finally gives her a more direct answer, “There was an incident. While the rest of us were in the house. And… Tachibana and Cammy are… missing. We're not completely sure what happened, but there's evidence of a fight in the warehouse. There are holes in the concrete- we think Tach must have used his Alter. The door lock was busted and I found tracks around back…”
Mimori sits there, just staring and blinking, as Cougar barks out a `What?!' and Ryuho mutters an `Oh, shit…' behind the hand splayed across his forehead. Mimori finally finds her voice again, though it's a bit shaky, “W-what kind of tracks? What do you mean? A-are you trying to say they're kidnapped or something?”
Kazuma fixes his mouth to explain, but before any words can be uttered, the sound of an engine approaches from the road. In a few seconds, a beat-up red car barrels up the drive and skids to a stop a few yards from the truck. When the car door opens, everyone moves into defensive positions- Kazuma grabs Kanami with his good arm and pulls her safely behind him as Ryuho moves to stand protectively in from of Mimori's open car door. Cougar stalks forward a couple of paces, sunglasses already flipped menacingly into place as Urizane palms two large watermelons at the ready. Elian just stands there, watching.
But the form that emerges from the car and rushes toward them is not a mercenary or a gang member but rather a frail teenage girl, limping and hysterical. “Help! Please! Oh God, we have to help him!!”
The mood immediately changes and people rush forward; Cougar is there to catch Cammy when she falls into his arms, Elian right behind him. Urizane's watermelons evaporate and Kanami rushes from behind Kazuma to join them. Mimori, who can't move, cranes her neck to see around a still-shielding Ryuho.
“It's alright Cammy, we've got you,” Cougar soothes as he holds her tight in a reassuring hug.
However, Cammy is still pleading around her sobs, “Please, help! He's gonna kill him!! Please help me find him!!”
Urizane comes closer. “Cammy, what happened? Where's Tachibana?”
She turns her head up and blurts out through her tears, “He took him! That man from the message!! Zondo! He kidnapped us from the warehouse and now he's after Mimori!” Suddenly, Cammy realizes the significance of the man whose arms she is cradled in and her eyes widen at the shades looking down at her, “Cougar!?! Cougar, you're here! Does that mean that you found her? Did you bring her back? Mimori!” and instantly she is pulling out of his grasp and frantically looking all around. She rushes to the QRV on shaky legs. “Mimori?”
Ryuho sees her coming and stands firm in place until Mimori's voice shouts behind him, “Cammy!” and he steps out of the approaching girl's way just in time. Cammy slows just enough to avoid colliding with the truck's door and hurls herself into the awaiting arms of her friend.
“Mimori! Oh, thank God!!”
The impact is concussive for both of the battered women, but neither seems to care as they hug each other as if someone will try to rip them apart. Arms wrapped around Mimori's waist, Cammy sobs into her tattered sweater, oblivious to the dirt and blood. Mimori encircles her arms around the girl's shoulders, stroking her hair and whispering calming words as she rests her cheek against Cammy's head.
Everyone cautiously approaches the truck, curious for answers yet respectful of the emotional reunion. Ryuho is the one exception, having remained plastered against the inside of the door but carefully watching both women, ready to step in if he's needed.
After a few moments, Cammy visibly calms and Mimori quietly asks, “Cammy, what happened to you and Asuka? Whose car is that?”
Cammy pulls away a little and after a deep breath pushes a surprising amount of strength into her voice, though her speech is rapid and rambling, “It's Suzume's husband's. When I ran away I jumped out of the van near her house; she didn't ask any questions, just let me take it. I had to come back and get help; that man- he must be the one from the message. Mimori, there was a message that Elian-”
Mimori shushes her, hoping to soothe her with her even tone, “I heard about the message. Cammy, where is Asuka? Where was this man taking you?”
Cammy still races through her words, “Oh, Mimori, thank God he didn't get you! He's after the two of you- he said that his boss had some business with you two and he only wanted to talk, but I didn't believe him- not after he'd held a knife on me like that. I thought he was gonna slit my throat! And then he started shocking Asuka with that thing! Oh God, what have I done? I left him with that- that monster!!”
Fresh tears crowd at the corners of her eyes, but Mimori raises her voice to retrieve her attention, “Cammy! Cammy, it's okay- you did the right thing! You came and got help. But we need to know where they went.”
Cammy nods emphatically, “They went to headquarters, looking for you. I'm sorry! I had to tell him about the restaurant or he would have killed Asuka right there! But I tricked him into taking the old North Road- to buy some time so they could save you! And it worked! And if we hurry, we can get there and still save him- they're probably there… right… now…”
The girl trails off when she realizes that Mimori's skin looks- green. Finally noticing her friend's torn clothing and haggard appearance, Cammy pulls back for a better look. Past her weak smile, Mimori looks as if she is using every ounce of her strength just to sit up in the chair. But then Cammy notices that Mimori's clothes are green, too. So is the truck, and so is Ryuho when she looks up at him. He is not looking back at her, but rather at the source of the verdant light, which is emanating from behind them.
When Cammy turns around, she sees that everyone is now staring at Elian instead of her. The boy is standing only a few meters away, completely encased in his glowing Alter bubble. His fingers are again moving deftly across his transparent keyboard and his brow is furrowed in deep concentration. She has seen him do this once before, earlier that day, and her suspicions are confirmed when Urizane announces to the entire group-
“He's gettin' somethin'- it's another message!”
Tachibana's entire world keeps returning to these blunt and simple concepts like anchors to reality. He doesn't believe his brain because the things it tells him don't make sense. A more tangible state of consciousness steadily tugs at him but he refuses to relent, dreading what he might discover.
Prone. Lying on his back, hands trapped beneath him. Head cocked up at an odd angle.
Submerged. Icy water is running around his body. Churning beneath his shoulders, diverting around his back, lapping against his sides and legs as it rushes past. So cold. So cold that it feels like it's freezing his blood, chilling him to the bone. He can feel it rippling against his cheek as it completely covers one ear, in his other the sound of the current drowns out anything else.
Paralyzed. He is frozen like a statue, cannot voluntarily move any of his numbed and aching limbs, cannot pull his face completely out of the water. He cannot even hold his eyelids fully open, can only keep his eyes focused for a few brief seconds before they, too, surrendered to exhaustion, leaving him staring through blurry windows up to a dark and formless sky. He can't close his lids properly either, can only stare through slits at nothingness as his body shivers without his consent. It's awful- rather than providing any warmth against the pervading cold, the shivering only heightens his awareness of the painful, numb tingling that's absolutely everywhere. It is a new level of misery that he cannot make himself believe is real.
How long has he been like this? The hard asphalt beneath his back and legs feels like it's been there for decades but he knows that's not right. The faint memory of a beefy fist bunched around his collar just before throwing him down in the middle of the street… An unceremonious splash followed by a barrage of kicks to the gut that had hurt more than anticipated because he'd been powerless to guard himself. And as he had coaxed himself not to vomit that pain had come- that burning, convulsive pain that had left him whimpering and incoherent…
Those needles in his neck- had hummed, vibrated in his flesh just before sending an arc of fire through his entire body. And after the waves of anguish had receded, ice had run in their wake, freezing him stiff in stark disbelief.
That device… it not only imprisons him in his own limp corpse, but is capable of the most excruciating torture he could have ever imagined. In any other situation perhaps he would marvel at the ingenuity of it- the induction of a waking coma, leaving the victim with only the most basic involuntary functions, like breathing, blinking, shivering… But for now he can only wallow in the misery of his aching, useless muscles as the water's chill seeps into his bones, numbing him and bleeding away all coherence.
…Cold… so… cold…
He latches on to the physical pain- embraces it- because somehow he knows that if he pushes it aside he will be confronted by… some emotional agony that he is loathe to place will seize him, consume him from the inside out like the flames that had licked at his soul not long before. Because something had happened… something unspeakable… to someone he loved…
“Wake up, kid! You got work to do.”
A gravely voice, somehow sickeningly familiar, slices through Tachibana's thoughts and snatches him back to reality. Blurry legs walk into his half-lidded field of vision before the toes of a boot slide under his wet cheek and prop his head out of the water. His involuntary shivering makes his face vibrate against the muddy leather. Now he can see the man standing over him- tan clothes, bulky frame, cruel, piercing eyes set in a round bald head.
A flash of acid in his gut tells him that he knows this man… he is an enemy. Mind sparking alive, he tries to speak,
“Ww-ww-ww-ww-” A single syllable pushed through quivering lips is all he can manage- his own voice sounds pathetic in his ears. The large man laughs heartily at the feeble efforts.
“Ha!! Look at `cha- all quiverin' and blue. How can someone look so miserable when they've just been layin' on their ass in the street? I'm the one who's been diggin' through rubble for damn near an hour! So what've you got to say now, huh? Run all outta sarcasm? Or have you finally figured out that you're livin' on borrowed time?”
Tachibana wills himself to stop shivering but it's no use. He's brimming with hate even though he doesn't fully understand the man's taunts. Bits of his memory come back to him, flashing haphazardly in his mind- blond hair hanging over a knife blade… his eternity eight racing violently toward an attacker… the metal ceiling of a vehicle… the smoking remains of a collapsed building… The bitter cold is pushed aside in his conscious in an effort to make sense of it all.
The large man begins muttering to himself and Tachibana struggles to follow along, “This is taking too damn long. Can't put in the call `til I've confirmed the kill. She's gotta be under all that mess, though; no way some prissy little heiress escaped this flamin' death trap!”
Mimori… He's talking about Mimori!
The fighter then turns his attention to the sprawled teen, “But hell, let's look on the bright side- at least I'm on the right track, right kid? This guy was one of yours, wasn't he?”
At that Tachibana watches the form above him lean down and dangle something wiry into his vision. Fighting to make out the object, he manages to eventually bring a pair of familiar wire-rimmed spectacles into view. One lens is shattered and the other missing, but Tachibana can still recall the face framed by those glasses- Hideki. He is unable to stifle the groan of recognition that gargles in the back of his throat.
The large man laughs in response, “Oh, guess he was. Found this guy in the back under a couple of steel beams. Back of his head was a mess- he won't be tryin' on hats any time soon…”
The acid at the back of his throat threatens to push forward, bringing his stomach contents with it. The restaurant had collapsed and a good man, a friend, had died. And Mimori was supposed to be inside, too…
Tachibana forgets to breathe, but the mercenary continues his taunts, “Means the snobby little princess can't be too far off. One more body and we can call it a day, huh, Asuka? Lord knows you and that crazy bitch of a girlfriend of yours almost cost me this whole damn job…”
Tachibana's hate for this man is so palpable that it pounds in his temples. Talking about them like that, Cammy… and Mimori… it's unforgivable, bringing murder to his mind. He wants to summon his Alter and rip this bastard limb from limb. He wants to howl and curse and call him the despicable coward that he is. But all he can do is lay there and shiver and absorb the merc's cruel words.
“…wish I'd had more time with her. But I sure don't miss all that damn whimperin' and whinin'. Females- such a pain. Which is why this broad `ll do me a helluva favor by turnin' up dead…”
Revenge. No matter what, I will kill this man.
A mental vow made for him and those he loves. But for now he will settle for something to silence the taunts. And then he remembers…
Tachibana's jaw feels as stiff as a metal trap, but he wills every ounce of strength he has into forming his mouth. The fluidity he had before is gone, but if he can manage just one word, one word to shut that miserable yapping and put that smug bastard in his place-
One word. One word and the fighter towering over him freezes in shock, his illusion of total control shattered. Then his surprise slowly drains away to be replaced by anger as he sputters, “Where?... Where did you-?... How the FUCK-?”
The foot supporting Tachibana's head is suddenly yanked away, only to be driven solidly between his eyes. The merc's giant leather boot connects with the young man's face. Pain explodes between his eyes and hot liquid spurts from his nose. The momentum is so fierce that it flips his body as his head arcs up and then splashes down hard on the pavement. He feels a sticky warmth cover his mouth and chin and then tastes the blood as it slides across his tongue. It's the most satisfying pain Tachibana has ever felt- he even manages a faint smile as the large fighter curses him, punctuating his words with merciless, well-aimed kicks,
“What the FUCK was THAT? I don't know where you got that name, but I'll be damned if-”
The blows just keep coming until a loud chirp sounds from the fighter's pocket. He halts his assault only after several more insistent chirps urge him to retrieve his communicator. Though blinded by the instant swelling around his eyes, Tachibana nevertheless hears the merc wander a couple of paces off and he keens his ears to catch any stray bits of conversation.
Checking the display, Zondo mutters a low curse before curtly answering the call, “What is it?”
“The Commander wants to know if your mission is complete.”
Zondo nervously palms the kerchief covering his bald head, “Umm, almost. Just one more thing and I'll be-”
“In that case the Commander is standing by. I'll put him through.”
As the line clicks for the transfer, the merc mutters a sarcastic, `Gee, thanks.' After a moment another click is heard and a deep, deceptively calm voice comes on the line.
“Zondo, are you there?”
“Yes, General. You wanted to speak with me, sir?”
“I want you to tell me what's taking so long with your mission. What's your progress?”
“I tried to tell the lieutenant that I'm almost done. The target location is confirmed destroyed. One of the two subjects is in my custody as well and will remain so until I can confirm the other's termination.”
“Explain. Which one do you have? The heiress?”
“No, the Alter user. He's subdued with the APD. You'll be pleased to know your weapon's deployment was a success: their headquarters, along with much of the city, burned and collapsed. I have it on good authority that the girl was supposedly inside the building, but I'm searching the rubble for her body to confirm the kill. Shall I continue, sir?”
“One moment while I think…” The line goes silent for several seconds and Zondo taps his toe in the wet street anxiously. The Commander returns with a lighter tone in his voice, “How does the city look from there?”
“Sir? You mean the devastation? Lots of burnt out buildings- at least a third- and all the streets are flooded deep. Power's out; not just here, but all over the Lost Ground. Is that what you meant, Sir?”
“It is. There are still many buildings standing, though? Some perhaps even habitable?”
Zondo frowns skeptically, “I guess. If you were desperate-”
“-Which these fools are. Change of plans- forget the girl and leave the city. Even if she's still alive, which I highly doubt, she's of little threat to us now. We're coming inland and I want you to rendezvous with us- the coordinates will follow. 2 hours, Zondo, and go underground in the meantime. Once you're aboard you will help the technicians rezone a new target area- I want to launch the weapon one more time.”
“Yes, General. What about the boy? Do I dispose of him?”
“Hmm… An Alter user. Let me look at his file again.” Zondo can hear the sound of papers shuffling for a moment before the Commander continues, “Our intelligence lists him as a former member of HOLY. They also list him as a transmogrifier- a lumino-kinetic type, class III - is that correct, Zondo?”
“Yes sir, from what little I've seen of it. Hmph, I wasn't that impressed though.”
“Well, I'm intrigued nevertheless. Bring him if you can; his abilities may be of use to us. He goes to the lab, understood?”
The fighter immediately straightens as if he will salute, “Perfectly! General Makafushi, I'm at your disposal.”
“Good. We'll dock at the rendezvous and await your arrival. If you're late, we'll launch without you. Lieutenant, end transmission.”
The communicator chirps again, signaling the end of the call, and the mercenary punches a couple of keys to open the coordinates attached to the message. After memorizing the digits, he cuts off the device and stows it again.
Turning to face his sprawled captive, he eyes Tachibana with a contemptuous look. “Well kid, looks like you got a stay of execution.”
He reaches down and grabs his hostage by the left side of his collar, the only part not soaked in blood from his busted nose. Hauling Tachibana's torso off the pavement, the mercenary drags the still-bound captive down the street towards the van; the boy's useless, lagging legs make little wakes in the wet street as he is hauled off, while Zondo grumbles nervously,
“Lucky thing I didn't finish you. `Course, you're sure as hell not gonna be thankin' me once you get to the `lab'- not the kind of place a guy like you want's to end up. But I'm thinkin' that might be just the fix for that `charming wit' of yours…”
When he reaches the van, he opens the back and with a hearty sneer throws the teen inside like a sac of potatoes. The slam of the doors seems to knell the end of the adrenaline rush Tachibana has been running on; he finally releases his insistent stranglehold on consciousness, giving himself permission to pass out. The last thing he hears is the rev of the gas as the nondescript van disappears once again into the darkening night.
Not far from the city's great wall, Dr. Hajime Juro is finally arriving home. It's been a long day- his first day off from the clinic all week and what happens? An unpredicted and torrential typhoon in the middle of brunch, of course!
Some time after a boy from the nearby dairy farm had raced up his drive hollering about a barn collapse and the good doctor had jumped into action, medical bag in hand. The scene turned out to appear worse than it actually was- there ended up being no critical patients, just a bunch of bumps, bruises, sprains and a couple of fractures that he needed to set. Most everyone had made an instant improvement, the one exception being a young Alter user who had defied diagnosis by lapsing into a near-coma of unknown origin. Her case had been troublesome but he knew that the girl would be delivered to the care of Miss Kiryu, a local teacher who just happened to have a remarkable mind for medicine. He plans on following up with the little girl's progress tomorrow, along with that of some of the other workers.
But after an entire day of triaging, examining, medicating, dressing and splinting people he's weary and more than ready to return home to Reika, his loving and exceedingly temperate wife. He is so weary that he doesn't notice fresh tire treads leading around to the back of his house. He only notes the soft glow of candlelight cast through the windows on the first floor of his farmhouse. He expects that- power is likely out for miles, perhaps across the whole island. The doctor doesn't notice anything out of the ordinary until he opens his front door to several men lying across his living room floor.
“What in the world?-”
Dr. Juro is at a loss until he recognizes one of the young men- a violent punk he's had to patch up countless times before. At that moment, Reika enters the room with a pitcher in one hand and an armful of towels in the other. She appears nervous and jittery and almost drops the pitcher at seeing her husband, “Hajime…”
Her eyes are pleading in confusion but she seems afraid to speak. Behind her he recognizes more of the many thugs apparently sprawled all around his house. He tries to smile in order to reassure her but he cannot. If these men are here then he is indeed in trouble. Because it means that the one who brought them here is-
Dr. Juro addresses the hulking man who appears just behind his sweet wife, towering over her and their furniture, making the expansive house around him look miniature in comparison. Allowing himself a hard swallow, the doctor tries to retain a calm voice in the midst of his mounting trepidation,
“How did you find me, Genso? And what are you and your men doing in my house?”
The cocky smile that slides across the giant man's lips sends a shiver down the doctor's spine.
A/N: Whew, a long one! See what I mean? A bit different. Let me know what you think- I hope it was worth some of the wait. And look! There's another chapter waiting right now for you! What are you waiting for? Go check it out!
Luv you guys, Mira ^_^