Note: This was written for Higuchimon, who requested me to rewrite the ending as a soulmate AU with Ryu/Io/Akoya and En/Atsushi/Kinshiro.
"Hey, watch the hair!"
Ryu ducked as a sword swished over his head, taking the last centimeter or so off the tips of his hair with it. He shot a blast of fire at Chevalier Pearlite's feet, forcing him to jump backwards and giving Ryu and Io a bit of breathing room.
"Maybe," said Io, breathing hard, "you should worry a little less about your hair and a little more about your head?"
"Hey, I have my fans to think of!" said Ryu.
Pearlite sniffed. "I would hardly call that mop of yours hair."
"Bastard," Ryu muttered. He threw a few more fireballs, supplemented by Io's own attacks. Pearlite casually summoned up a forcefield of pale light and deflected them harmlessly. Then he lunged again, nearly spearing Io with his sword. Io somersaulted out of the way, and Ryu swung his stick like a club, with enough viciousness that he nearly knocked the sword out of Pearlite's hand. The two of them sprang back and began circling again, waiting for openings.
Then, with a speed and ferocity that were surprising in someone so seemingly delicate, Pearlite attacked again, bringing his sword down like a thunderbolt. Ryu and Io brought their Love Sticks up to intercept it, crossing so that the blade was caught between them. The three of them stood like that for several seconds, straining against each other.
And that was when Ryu felt an odd pang coming from his wrist. His first thought was, Oh, hell, they've sent a monster on top of everything else. Then he realized that the shock he was feeling wasn't from his Loveracelet. It was coming from his other wrist, where his soulmate cuff was. He slanted a sideways glance at it, and realized with a sinking feeling that it had lit up with a bright pink glow that was impossible to ignore.
No, not now... he thought desperately. This was all the fault of those stupid cuffs. Wombat had been thrilled to discover a planet where the inhabitants would know their soulmates - their "true loves", as Wombat had so rapturously put it - when two people encountered each other and the lights began to glow. Two, or sometimes more than two. Ryu looked from his wrist to Io's which was shining a warm gold, and then, more reluctantly, to Pearlite's, which was shining in a softer pink than his own. For a moment, the three of them just stood there with the battle raging around them.
"Well," said Io, "this is awkward."
For a moment, Pearlite looked utterly flabbergasted. Then he pulled himself together. He began to smile.
"Isn't this just a delightful surprise?" he said, with dangerous sweetness. "You know, I always did like you, Naruko." His gaze slanted over to Ryu. "And I always knew you were fascinated by me. You never could take your eyes off me. Now I know why."
Ryu just stared at him. He wasn't sure what he was most astonished by: the fact that his cuff had picked now as the right moment to go off, or the fact of who it had picked to link him with. He'd never liked that stupid cuff anyway, didn't like what it represented. Other people got through their lives without a soulmate cuff to tell them when they'd met the right person. They got to choose for themselves, so why was it that Ryu had to be one of the people stuck with his destiny already decided for him? If he'd been forced to be honest, he might have admitted that his endless girl-chasing was motivated in part by the knowledge that one day his time would run out and he'd be linked to one person for the rest of his life, so he might as well enjoy the company of as many other people as he could before that happened. Still, If Fate had simply decreed that he and Io were to be soulmates, well, he could have accepted that and been happy with it. More than happy, really. Sure, it would be a loss for the women of the world, but he liked Io, and would have felt comfortable sharing his life with him. But Gero? That arrogant jerk? No way. Even if he was absurdly attractive. No way.
There was a clang and a blast of blue light, and everyone scattered to avoid having Cerulean crash into them. He was locked in combat with Chevalier Argent, who was wielding a sword in one hand and a length of chain in his other. It whipped and curled of its own volition, snapping at Cerulean's face or trying to snare his ankles. The irritating thing was that he was smiling, that same pleasant smile he always wore when he was just being Arima Ibushi, school vice-president and all-around nice guy. It was as if he thought his opponent's unwillingness to be killed was just another of his charming little quirks, like falling asleep every chance he got. Cerulean ducked and dodged, brandishing his own weapon with surprising rapidity. For a moment, Ryu forgot his own confusion in the novelty of watching En exerting himself.
"Less talking, more fighting!" En shouted as he leaped past.
"Kinda in the middle of something here!" Ryu shouted back.
"So are the rest of us!" said En, ducking as a chain whizzed over his head. "If I can do it, you can do it!"
Gero smiled. "If you don't want to fight, I will accept your surrender on behalf of the Caerula Adamas." His expression was utterly angelic, beatific. "I'm sure once I explain the, ah, unusual circumstances, our leader will let me keep you."
Ryu snarled. "Like hell you will!"
He fired off a rapid series of blasts, which Gero deflected easily.
"Really? Is that all you can do?" he asked, calmly twirling his hair through his fingers. "I don't think you're even trying. I think you want to lose to me."
Ryu scowled down at his weapon. He was willing to allow that these guys were probably tougher than any monster they'd ever fought, but his attacks should have done more than this.
"Stupid thing," he muttered, slapping the stick against his palm as if he thought it was jammed. He turned desperate eyes towards Io. "Help me out here!"
"I... I don't think so," said Io. He was biting his lip, looking troubled.
Ryu was aghast. "What do you mean, you don't think so? He's the enemy! He's been sending these monsters at us all this time! I nearly got tickled to death by a giant screw! That is not okay!"
"I know, and I'm not saying it is," said Io, "but still..."
Gero gazed at Io with an expression of surprise and pleasure. "Are you taking my side, then?"
There was an explosion from somewhere on the roof of the school building, and Ryu and Io winced in unison.
"No, I'm not doing that either," said Io. "All of this is wrong. I just don't think killing you is going to make it right."
"He's trying to kill us," Ryu pointed out reasonably.
"I am not," Gero huffed. "Killing people is messy and ugly. I would prefer to avoid it."
"Yeah, well, too bad!" Ryu declared. He fired off another volley of blasts, but they failed to make any impression at all. Gero shook his head slowly, as if faintly amused by the futility of his actions. Ryu scowled. "Why won't it work?" he complained.
"I don't think we can use the power of love to kill our soulmate," said Io. "It would be counterproductive."
"I agree," said Gero. "You both should just save time and surrender now."
"I'll never surrender to you!" Ryu shouted back.
"If you don't surrender, then I'll have to subdue you," said Gero, almost regretfully. "We will win, you see. The Caerula Adamas will conquer the world, and we are going to fix it. Once we're in charge, we'll put everything in order. And then no one will ever mock me again!"
That last had come out with such vehemence that even Ryu was taken aback a little. Io stared at him, looking for all the world as though he thought Gero was an equation he needed to solve to make the books balance.
"He's a monster," he said aloud, as if that explained everything.
Gero's cheeks flushed. "What did you call me?"
Ryu just stared at him. Gero's angelic expression had cracked, showing something new lurking under the surface. He didn't look dark or evil just then. He looked like he was about to cry.
"Hey, you're right!" Ryu explained. "Damn, you're smart, Sulphur."
Io smiled slightly, looking rather pleased with himself. Gero looked totally lost, now, and deeply unhappy.
"Are you making fun of me?" he demanded.
But they weren't making fun of him. Ryu had understood as soon as Io had said it. It all made sense, when he thought about it. Their enemy's magical otherworld technology turned people into monsters. Ordinary human beings did not conjure up force fields or pull swords from thin air; ergo, this was a monster. Ryu had let himself be fooled because the monster still looked like a human. Knowing what he was really dealing with made Ryu feel better. He hadn't signed up for this superhero deal, but he'd been doing it long enough now to have become something of a connoisseur of monsters, and every one of them he'd ever seen had one thing in common. They had all started out as people, ordinary-looking people, people that Ryu would have assumed were generally normal and happy, but they had all been hiding some doubt or pain that had festered deep inside them until it had broken out as monster-ness.
That was what this whole "love" thing was really about, when you got down to it. It wasn't about romance or warm fuzzy feelings. It was about what they did with the monsters.
You didn't kill monsters. You healed them.
Ryu shifted his grip on his staff and considered the problem in front of him. If he were Yumoto, then at this point he probably could have fixed everything with his patented mix of compassion and confusion. At the moment, though, Yumoto seemed a little bit busy helping to keep the student council president from blowing up Atsushi, the school, and anything else within blast range. That was probably more important. At least Gero seemed to be willing to talk sensibly. If only he had some idea what to say...
It turned out he didn't have to. There was a sound behind him, and he turned to see a familiar red-haired man racing at top speed across the lawn, holding an axe in one hand - not too unexpected, for Gora - and a goldfish in the other. Ryu did a double-take. A goldfish? The battle stilled as everyone stopped to stare. Apparently there were still things in the world weird enough to make them forget what they were doing for a little while.
"Everyone, stop!" Gora shouted. "You've been misled!"
Chevalier Aurite's scornful glare was piercing enough that even Ryu, at ground level, couldn't miss it. "And what do you know about it?"
As it turned out, Gora knew quite a lot about it. Ryu listened in amazement as the goldfish - with a lot of encouragement from Gora - spilled the whole bizarre story. It was a lot to take in. Yumoto's brother, a superhero? Reality TV? For the first time in a while, he found himself wondering who had really hung that Earth Defense Club sign on their door. Just how long had this sort of thing been going on without him noticing?
He was distracted from his train of thought by the sound of something metallic clanging against the pavement. He turned to see that the sword had slipped from Gero's fingers. He didn't seem to notice. He crumpled to his knees and let his head drop to one side. He was smiling an odd, strained smile, but there was no life or expression in his eyes. He looked like a beautiful broken doll with a painted-on smile, lying abandoned on the ground.
"It was all a joke," he said.
Io took a cautious step forward. "Gero..?"
"It was a joke," Gero repeated. His voice sounded utterly calm. "I was going to fix it, you know. I was going to make things better. Only it turns out it was a joke. The whole universe has been watching me and laughing. They. Were laughing. At me."
He raised his eyes, and the look in them doused any remaining anger Ryu might have felt towards him like a bucket of ice water. He'd often found Gero annoying. He was vain and talked down to people and acted in general like he thought he was entitled to the whole world. Ryu had often wanted to take him down a peg or two. Not long ago, he'd wanted to hurt him. He'd never wanted to see him broken like this.
"It's very funny," said Gero in that same distant tone. "You're my enemies. You should be laughing. Why aren't you laughing?"
"Because I don't think it's funny," said Io firmly.
"Me either," said Ryu. "They had no right to mess with us like that - not with you or me or any of my friends. It's sick, is what it is, and we're not going to let him get away with it."
A trace of real emotion crossed Gero's face: a look of confusion. "What?"
Io knelt to pick up Gero's sword and offer it back to him. Gently, he took Gero's hand and closed it around the hilt.
"It sounds like we have a common enemy," he said.
"You bet we do," said Ryu. "These guys played all of us for saps, and like hell am I going to let them get away with it. So what do you say - you in?"
He offered Gero a hand. Gero stared at it for a moment, as if expecting it to disappear, before reaching out and taking it. He pulled himself back to his feet.
"I'm in," he said.
It had been, without a doubt, the worst moment of Akoya's life.
He'd been sure, up until that point, that everything was going well. It looked like they were finally going to put the Battle Lovers out of commission once and for all. They were finally going to clear the way to conquering the world and putting it all the way it was supposed to be. It should have been their moment of glory. To top it all off, his soulmate cuff had activated, telling him that the universe had allotted him with not one but two attractive people for his own personal enjoyment. The fact that they were his enemies was a trifle inconvenient, to be sure, but he'd been sure it would be all right once they'd been persuaded to see things his way, which of course they would. Soon everyone would see things his way.
And then it had all fallen apart. The one thing he had always hated more than anything else was to be mocked, and to learn that the entire universe had been watching his every move, seeing his every failure, laughing up their sleeves because he had truly believed what Zundar had been telling him... it was his worst nightmare come to life. In that moment, he'd been utterly devastated.
That had been then. Now he was furious.
He released his hold on Zao's hand, sheathed his sword, and gave his hair a little toss to settle it back into place. He looked at Zao and Naruko, who were still watching him with expressions that suggested they were ready to charge into battle alongside him the second he finished putting himself together. He had the funny feeling that they hadn't just decided to do it because some bit of magical jewelry had told them they were destined for him. They were, he realized, just as angry about all this as he was and itching to do something about it. And they hadn't gloated over him, not even a little, even though they had plenty of justification to do so. He was beginning to think perhaps he'd underestimated them. They were going to have to do some serious talking very soon.
But not just now.
"Excuse me for just a moment," he said, very politely. "I'll be right back."
Zao looked justifiably confused. "Where are you...?"
But Akoya was already walking across the front lawn, towards where he could see his teammate striking up what looked to be a very interesting conversation with that irritating boy from the Press Club. There was no way Akoya was going to miss out on that. He strode across the yard, vaguely aware that Naruko and Zao were following him. Well, that was fine.
"Just one quick question," Arima was saying to the photographer.
"Not now. I'm busy."
"Just answer yes or no," Arima persisted.
Akoya continued striding closer, every step coming down as if the source of all his problems was beneath his feet and he could trample it out of existence. Stomp. And there in his mind were all the people who had ever made fun of his name, everyone who had made frog noises at him or pretended to vomit when he walked past. Stomp. And all the people who had ever sneered at him for not being a "real man", for choosing beauty over conventional masculinity. Stomp. The people who had turned him against those who should have been his companions, people he could see now would have accepted and supported him if only he'd given them the chance. Stomp. Most of all, the people who had make a mockery of the student council. Kusatsu and Arima had been his first real friends, the first people he'd ever met who had made him feel like he belonged, and he was not going to stand by and let anyone ruin that for him.
Arima was saying, "Did you know about all this from the beginning?"
"Yes," the reporter replied.
Smash. Akoya's fist whizzed past Arima and straight into the bespectacled boy's smug face. It was a good hit. In his transformed state, Akoya enjoyed physical abilities greater than most ordinary men could ever hope to possess, but even in his everyday form, he was no slouch. You didn't get a flawless figure like his from lounging on the sofa all day. The boy was thrown off his feet and propelled through the air to land some meters away.
"Damn," said Zao appreciatively, "nice shot!"
Akoya beamed. That had felt good.
"Are you all right?" asked Naruko, moving closer to him. "Did you hurt your hand?"
Akoya became aware that he had been rubbing his fist without realizing it.
"I may have bruised my knuckles a little," he admitted. It didn't hurt much, really, but he wasn't one to turn down attention. He especially wasn't going to turn down attention from a man like Naruko, who was elegant and refined, and whose warm brown eyes hid glints of lavender in their depths that he could have spent hours searching for.
"Let me see," said Naruko.
Akoya started to point out that there was nothing to see, because his gloves were covering anything that might be seen, but Naruko was already taking his hand in his. Looking impressed by his own daring, he raised it to press his lips gently to Akoya's bruises.
"Better?" he asked.
Flustered, Akoya could only nod.
"Wow, that was smooth," said Zao, sounding impressed. "I didn't know you had it in you."
Not to be outdone, he put an arm around Akoya and pressed a kiss to his cheek. His lips were warm, and his skin smelled faintly of fruit-scented soap. For a moment, Akoya could not remember why he'd ever thought he disliked the man.
"I'm sorry," said Arima, looking politely puzzled. "Did I miss something?"
"Don't worry about it," said Akoya, waving his free hand regally. His other one was still being held by Naruko. "Everything is under control."
"Ah," said Arima. "That's nice."
The journalist pulled himself into a half-sitting position and rubbed fretfully at his face. His nose was bleeding, possibly from when he'd hit the ground, and more blood trickled down his cheek. Akoya's transformation ring had left a perfect diamond-shaped impression in his skin.
"What's everyone making such a fuss over him for?" he demanded. "I'm the one who got punched in the face! That's assault! I should..."
Whatever he should have done, he never got around to telling anyone about it. There was a metallic sound as a sword drove past him into the earth, passing so closely that it frayed the shoulder of his jacket. He squeaked.
"You should stop talking," said Arima, his normally friendly face turned cold. "You've offended President Kusatsu, and that is the one thing I won't stand for. I think you should take your photographer and go far, far away, before someone hits you with something sharper than Akoya's fist."
The boy gave another squeak and crab-walked backwards until he was out of range of Arima's sword. As soon as he was out of the danger zone, he scrambled to his feet, seized the arm of his still-stunned photographer, and went racing off as fast as their combined feet could carry them.
"Well, that was easy," said Arima amiably, retrieving his sword.
"Yeah, nice job," Zao agreed, "but don't expect a kiss."
"No!" the goldfish - Hireashi? Was that his name? - protested. "This will not do! This was not in the script!"
"Yeah, well, joke's on you!" said Zao. "I'm really into spontaneity."
"This is all wrong," Hireashi complained. "The love affairs aren't supposed to just resolve like this - it cuts the tension! How are we supposed to keep filming like this? And who gave you people permission to start cooperating with each other? You're ruining our conflict!"
"I don't remember ever signing a contract," said Io. "The way I see it, you people owe me for services rendered. You can't treat me like I work for you if you aren't paying me."
Zao laughed. "Well, that's telling 'em."
"I've had enough!" the fish bellowed. "Zundar, deal with this!"
"Right away!" said a familiar voice.
Akoya's head whipped around just fast enough to see a familiar green hedgehog racing across the ground, legs a blur. He flung himself at the tall red-haired man, firing needles over and over again. Akoya's jaw dropped. Somehow, he should not have been surprised by one more betrayal after all that had already happened, but somehow the realization that Zundar's needles worked perfectly well without his help was one thing too many. He stared, wide-eyed and uncomprehending, as the man collapsed with multiple glowing green spines protruding from his chest, and then... began to change.
"Oh," said Zao. "Well, shit."
And Akoya, who considered profanity unnecessary and vulgar, decided that in this one case it was entirely acceptable.
Io had never given much thought to the matter of soulmates. Oh, he'd known he had one somewhere - he had the cuff, after all, and they were never wrong. They were simply a mystery. No one really knew where they came from, what they were made of, how they worked, or why some people had them and others did not. It had just always seemed like something of a waste of time to speculate on something he had no control over and didn't have enough data to make any accurate predictions about. There was no way of knowing before the lights went on who your soulmate was going to be. Sometimes, especially if your meeting was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, the cuff would go off the moment the two of you were close enough together to notice each other. On the other hand, if you were destined for someone you saw every day - someone who lived in your neighborhood, went to your school, or worked for the same company - they seemed to have a sense of decorum, and would wait politely for you to get to know each other a bit before making the dramatic reveal.
Knowing that had given Io some hope that maybe someday it might fall out that he and Ryu would have one of those magic moments, and he wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. Ryu was his dearest friend, and had been from the moment he had plopped down next to Io at lunch one day and told him that he spent too much time alone and needed to spend more time socializing and having fun. Io was not particularly good at socializing. People were complex. Numbers were easier. Economics followed rules; money always did pretty much the same thing over and over. It gave him security. For anything else he needed, he relied on Ryu, he had been secretly dreading the day when destiny would step in and tell him it was time for the two of them to start relying on other people instead.
On the other hand, if someone had told him ahead of time that Gero Akoya was going to be involved somewhere, he might not have objected as strenuously as all that. He'd always admired Gero, in a distant sort of way. After all, the man was intelligent, well-mannered, astonishingly good-looking, and richer than Midas. All the Battle Lover nonsense aside, Io did not consider himself a particularly romantic person, but even he might have allowed that there were some temptations a man couldn't be expected to resist. If he couldn't have Ryu, he thought he might have been able to console himself with Gero. He wasn't sure if having both of them at once was a dream come true or too much of a good thing, but either way, he was certainly not going to be bored.
He hoped he was going to have a chance to enjoy it before he was hacked apart by an axe-wielding bath attendant who was apparently also an ex-superhero. He didn't need to be Ryu to know that this was not an ideal climate for pursuing a relationship.
"Damn, he's fast!" Ryu complained, leaping frantically out of the way of one of Gora's attacks.
The axe swept past again. En made an effort to parry it and was thrown off his feet for his troubles. He sat up shaking his head.
"Strong, too," he complained. "Epinard, watch out!"
Atsushi, already dazed from an earlier attack, looked up groggily. Gora seemed to sense his weakness. He raised the axe high and began bringing it down towards him. Io and Ryu reacted instantly, bringing up their wands to bat the attack away while En dove in to snatch Atsushi out of the way. Gora bellowed in apparent rage and swung his axe like a club, hitting Ryu and Io with the flat of the blade. For a moment, Io found himself sailing through the air and momentarily too stunned to work out whether or not he'd just been chopped in two. Then he was hitting the ground, bones jarring, teeth rattling, watching the world spin crazily around him as he rolled to a halt. A groan next to him informed him that Ryu was at least not dead yet. Io tried to sit up, felt a wave of dizziness wash over him. Probably he'd hit his head on the ground when he fell. That was a bad thing, but it could be worse. He'd been slammed around by monsters enough by this point to know that as long as he was transformed, he could bounce back from hits that would kill a normal person. If he could just lie there for a minute, he'd be all right. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a series of red flashes that probably meant that Yumoto was trying to get his big brother subdued, and the direction the lights were moving suggested that the fight was moving away from him and Ryu. Good. Maybe it would stay away long enough for his head to stop spinning.
"You okay?" Ryu asked. Io tipped his head just enough to see him lying sprawled on the ground a short distance away. He was cradling his arm against his chest as if it pained him, but at least he wasn't bleeding. That was probably a good thing.
"Banged my head," Io admitted. "It'll be okay, I think. Just... just need to catch my breath."
"I'm sure," said Io. The dizziness was already receding, though his head still throbbed. "What about you?"
"My arm hurts, but I don't think it's broken. I'll be okay in a sec."
"Good," said Io. They were quiet for a moment, regathering their strength. At length, he ventured, "So... soulmates."
"Looks like," Ryu agreed.
"Are you... okay with that?"
"Well, it'll be a loss for the women of the world," said Ryu, "but yeah, I'm okay with it. I mean, you're my best friend. Nobody is ever going to matter to me more than you, so I'm really kind of glad it was you."
Io felt his cheeks warming. "And what about Gero?" he persisted.
"He's not as bad as I thought he was. I figure I'll get used to him." Ryu laughed. "Anyway, if the universe wants to tell me there's no one person in the world who's enough for me, who am I to argue?"
Io had to laugh, not so much at the innuendo as because it was such a typical thing for Ryu to say.
"I don't know," he said. He carefully tried sitting up and discovered that he could. "He seems like the sort who likes his pleasures. How do you know it isn't that he needs both of us to keep him happy?"
Ryu seemed to give that serious consideration. "Well, either way, it works out well for me, doesn't it?" He rolled over and sat up to face Io. "What's with all the questions? You're not jealous or anything, are you? I mean, we've always shared with each other. I don't see any reason why we can't share a boyfriend, too."
"I know, but, well..."
Ryu raised an eyebrow. "Come on, spill."
"Well, you did kiss him," Io mumbled. "And you haven't tried to kiss me yet."
"Well, we are kind of in the middle of a fight," said Ryu reasonably, "and you did kiss him first."
"That didn't count! It wasn't a real kiss," Io protested.
A look of mischief crossed Ryu's face. "So, you want a real kiss, then?"
Io felt his stomach flutter, but he managed to say, "Yes, please."
"Good thing you're already sitting down, then," said Ryu.
Then he moved, just a little, only enough that he could tuck a hand behind Io's head and pull him into a kiss. It was everything he'd always imagined a kiss from Ryu would be: enthusiastic, unrestrained, utterly sensuous. It made him forget, for a little while, that he hurt, that there was a battle going on, that there had ever been any doubt in his mind that this was what he wanted.
It was a good thing he was already sitting down.
A roar like thunder rocked the school, and Io and Ryu jerked apart to see the school bell tower crashing down, taking a good portion of the roof with it.
"Whoa, did you see that?" said Ryu. "That was Atsushi up there!"
"And the school president," Io agreed. He began to get up. He still felt a little weak in the knees, but he didn't think that was a result of being injured. "Looks like time for fun is over."
Ryu grinned. "So you admit it was fun?"
"We'll talk about it later!" said Io, and went bounding off in the direction of the fight. Behind him, he could hear Ryu laughing.
They stopped laughing when they reached the battlefield. The fight was clearly not going well. Long furrows ripped the earth where Gora had attacked, and the ground was littered with shards of what had been portions of the school, but which were now only so much rubble. Yumoto, looking battered but still determined, had his Love Stick braced against the blade of Gora's axe, his whole body shaking as he tried to hold off the attack. En stood off to one side, apparently not sure what he could do without putting Yumoto into the crossfire. Atsushi, obviously injured, staggered over from the wreckage of the bell tower with blood staining the back of his uniform. En gave him a concerned look before turning accusingly towards Ryu and Io.
"Where were you guys?" he complained.
"Guarding me while I shook off a concussion," said Io quickly. He didn't put it past Ryu to confess to exactly what they'd been doing, and now really didn't seem to be the time. "Anyway, we're here now."
"Then let's get my brother back!" Yumoto managed to shove the axe out of the way and perform a series of rapid flips that brought him back to his teammates. "Come on, let's do it!"
He held his wand aloft, and the others chimed in one after another, adding their own powers to his, until he could finally release them in his characteristic burst of hearts and feathers...
...and Gora chopped straight through it as though it were no more threatening than a snowball.
"How'd he do that?" En protested. "That was our best attack! We can't do any better than that!"
"Then maybe you should ask for help," said a cool voice.
There was a blur, and suddenly Chevalier Aurite was there, flanked by his two comrades.
"Kin-chan!" Atsushi exclaimed delightedly.
"Don't get the wrong idea," he said. "You saved me just now, so I'm paying back the favor. That's all there is to it."
"I understand," said Atsushi. You couldn't have told that from his face. He still looked absurdly pleased, despite Kusatsu's cold demeanor.
"Well, that's great," said Ryu, "but if you're just paying back favors, what are these guys doing with you?"
Akoya flashed him a quick smile. "Oh, did you think I was going to stand back and let you do everything yourselves?"
Arima readied his sword. "If Kusastsu is fighting, then so am I."
Yumoto brightened. "All right, let's try again! We can do this together!"
He lunged forward, with the three Chevaliers forming a wedge in front of him, Kusatsu in front and the others to either side. Gora bellowed and lashed out with his axe, but Arima called up a chain and snared it, jerking it to the side. Gora pulled back, hauling Arima off his feet and hurling him away. Akoya conjured a swarm of pink bubbles that swirled around Gora's face, blocking his vision and confusing his aim. Gora flailed wildly, roaring his anger and frustration, bringing his axe down on the ground again and again. Akoya was forced to leap aside to avoid being dropped down a crevasse, but Yumoto and Kinshiro kept coming. As yet another blow from the heavy axe came down, Kusatsu raised his sword and managed to block it. The force of the blow drove him to his knees, but Kusatsu gritted his teeth and held on.
"Whatever you're going to do, do it now!" he ordered.
Yumoto nodded. "I'm gonna get my brother back!"
"Never!" Gora growled.
"You have to come back!" Yumoto insisted. "You have to go back to normal, because you need to take care of the bath house!"
A flicker of recognition seemed to cross Gora's features. "...Bath?"
"That's right!" said Yumoto. "Look around! All these people... we used to be enemies and fight with each other, but now we're all working together. We've got all these new friends, and I want to show them our bath house so we can all enjoy a bath together, but I can't do that if you're not there."
Gora shook his head, as if troubled by an annoying sound. "No!"
"You have to," Yumoto insisted. "It will make us all better friends. That's what our bath house is for - to give everyone a place to relax and talk and spend time with each other. That's really important, and that's why I'll do whatever it takes to make you come back!"
And that was when he started to glow. The bright light made Gora reel back, and Kinshiro took the opportunity to dive and roll out of the way. Yumoto began rising gently into the air, and the light around him began to coalesce into shimmering white feathers.
"Wings?" En exclaimed.
"No fair," said Ryu. "I want wings, too. Nobody told me wings were an option."
"That's the More Better Love Making!" Wombat declared rapturously. "He's more better in every way!"
Kusatsu scowled at him. "That isn't even proper English."
"That's just Wombat," said Atsushi apologetically. "You get used to it."
En shrugged. "Everything else is weird today. I say we just roll with it."
"What are you talking about?" Wombat snapped, fur bristling.
The debate didn't seem to be bothering Yumoto. He only half-seemed to know what was going on. He simply beamed at his brother as he once again gathered his teammates' powers to him and released them into the air, forming a pink cloud that rained down its warmth and healing on the monster Gora had become. Io breathed a sigh of relief as Gora slumped peacefully into the expected blissful heap. He might not have chosen this hero lifestyle for himself, but he was willing to admit that there was something satisfying about how happy the former monsters always looked once they'd been put right again.
Gero was still reclining on the ground - he could make even a fall look graceful - a meter or so from the deep crack Gora's axe had left in the earth. Ryu and Io went to kneel beside him.
"Are you all right, Gero?" Io asked.
"I seem to be," Gero replied. He raised his chin slightly. "And I prefer Akoya, if you please. If we are to get along in the long run, we should probably be on a first-name basis."
"Then it should work both ways. Call me Io," he replied.
"And I'm Ryu," Ryu added.
Gero - Akoya - inclined his head graciously. "Acknowledged."
Io and Ryu held out their hands to help him get up, while those bystanders who weren't watching Yumoto comfort his brother looked on curiously.
"Hey," said En, "did I miss something?"
"Oh, yeah, you weren't there," said Ryu. He held up his cuff, which was still shining softly. "Io and I found a boyfriend, and he's cute so we decided to keep him."
"Ah," said En, "got it."
Kusatsu was still kneeling on the ground, breathing hard. Apparently, the exertion of keeping Gora from crushing him had taken a lot out of him. Atsushi walked over to his side and held out a hand to help him up. Kusatsu studied it with eyes narrowed, mouth set in a hard line.
"You don't have to help me," he said. "You saved me, I saved you. Now we're even."
Atsushi shook his head. "I'm not trying to get even for anything, Kin-chan."
"I told you not to call me that!" Kinshiro surged to his feet with fire in his eye. "We are not friends anymore!"
Atsushi reeled back, eyes wide. "Kin-chan..."
Ryu was watching the drama unfold with a look of intense interest. He cast a quick glance at Akoya. "So, wait, did you know about this? That your boss and Atsushi are... what, ex-boyfriends?"
"I may have been aware of some tension," Akoya murmured.
Meanwhile Kusatsu was advancing on Atsushi, pale face flushed, while Atsushi backed away and nearly collided with En. En placed his hands on Atsushi's shoulders and held him gently but firmly in place.
"I waited for you!" Kinshiro snarled. "I waited for you to say something to me. You should have said something. You should have told me I was being jealous for no reason so I could apologize and it would be over, but you wouldn't do it. You just spent all your time with him..."
"I'm sorry," said Kinshiro.
"I don't want you to be sorry!" Kinshiro snapped. "I just... Why did you choose him over me? You were willing to fight for him, but you let me go without a fight..."
"You've got it wrong," said Atsushi. "It's not that I care about En more than you. It's that losing you hurt so much that I never wanted it to happen again. I'm sorry. I made a mistake. I should have tried harder. Forgive me?"
Kinshiro's face flushed. He looked down at his hands. "Atchan..."
There was a breathless pause as the two of them groped for words. It ended when En moved so that he could get one hand on Kinshiro's shoulder as well and push them both closer together.
"I understand," he said solemnly. "Atsushi is very important, isn't he? Of course you love him."
Kusatsu turned redder still, and Atsushi yelped a startled, "En-chan!"
And that was when the lights went off. Everyone froze as the glow surrounded them - vivid green, ocean blue, warm gold. Ryu grinned.
"Thought so," he said. "Definitely ex-boyfriends. Not ex anymore, I guess."
Io frowned a little. "Does anyone else think this is getting a trifle excessive?"
"Not at all," said Akoya. "Everything is becoming neatly arranged. I am in favor of tidiness and proper organization."
The voice made everyone turn and stare. They had all been so caught up in the drama that they had forgotten about Hireashi and Zundar. It was probably excusable, under the circumstances. Io still couldn't imagine how they had managed to get so distracted that they didn't notice the arrival of a flying mechanical puffer fish.
"All right," he said, "somebody tell me that isn't excessive."
Akoya made a face. "That is hideous."
"No arguments," Ryu agreed.
"This has got to stop!" Hireashi's voice boomed over them. "It's completely implausible. One set of three was bad enough, but two is preposterous. You are seriously straining this show's credibility!"
"I'm getting really tired of these guys," said Ryu.
En nodded. "Let's finish this so we can all go home."
"Right!" said Wombat. "Everyone, use your More Better Love Making!"
It was probably a mark of just how weird Io's life had become that he didn't even stop to think about it. He said the words, and he transformed.
He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. Probably not much - he'd seen enough anime to know that it was always the team leader who got all the best upgrades while the rest of the team might get some new accessories at best. But this... this felt good. Transforming - setting aside the ridiculous speeches, absurd poses, and preposterous outfits - always felt good. It was nice to know that you had the reflexes of a cat, the agility of a gymnast, and the ability to leap over buildings without stopping to think about it. This was all that and more. His aches were gone, and he felt brimful of energy, warm all over and almost buoyant, as if he could rise up and fly away...
Then his vision cleared, and he realized that was probably not so strange.
"Wow, would you look at this!" Ryu was saying. He was hovering a few inches off the ground, spinning gently in place as he tried to get a better look at his glossy new wings. "Quick, somebody get a picture!"
"Oh, my, this is wonderful!" Akoya enthused, striking a pose. "And a much better color for me, I might add. Black and red never really worked for me..."
Io couldn't help it. He began to laugh. Ryu and Akoya looked at him with identical expressions of confusion.
"You two," he managed. "You really are two of a kind, aren't you? You're perfect for each other."
"I'm just perfect," the two of them said in unison. They looked at each other blankly for a moment. Then Ryu began to chuckle, and Akoya smiled, and then all three of them were laughing together. Yumoto beamed at them, plainly delighted that everyone was having so much fun.
"Come on, everybody!" he said. "We're gonna show these guys what love is all about!"
He whirled off into the sky, and one after the other his companions followed him. It should, Io thought, have been utterly absurd - a lot of school boys with wings, carrying wands and swords, preparing to face down a goldfish and a hedgehog piloting a mecha, and yet somehow...
Not that long ago, he'd been one of four boys who idled their time away in an unused storeroom. He hadn't been all that close to Yufuin or Kinugawa, and he hadn't known Yumoto at all. Ryu had been his only close friend, and there hadn't seemed to be any way for them to ever be more than that. As for the student council, they had been as far away from him and his friends as the stars in the sky. If he'd never become a Battle Lover, they probably wouldn't have seen any reason to pay attention to him at all, and becoming one had meant that up until a few minutes ago, they had seen him as an enemy. Only now...
Only now it was just as Akoya had said: everything was sorting itself out, falling into a new and better configuration. And maybe Hireashi was right, too - maybe it was absurd and unlikely, but so what? Io had learned that sometimes banking on the unlikely ventures earned you the biggest rewards. Right now, he was willing to bet that they were going to win this fight, that they were going to put everything the way it should be, and that he and his friends and loved ones were going to be happier than they'd ever been.
"Hey, you coming or what?" Ryu called down to him.
"Be right there!" Io called back.
He kicked off of the ground and lofted easily into the sky. Ryu doubled back just enough to grab Io's hand and pull him along, and when they caught up to Akoya, he reached out to take his other hand. He smiled. He wasn't even worried about aliens anymore.
In that moment, he knew they'd already won.