It was Seiji who was late, not Shuu, and for that the latter was grateful. He suspected awhile ago that there was a bet going around about how many times in a row he would be tardy. It wasn't that he was absent-minded and therefore forgot about a meeting or gathering; it was more like things occupied him until the very last minute.
He'd recently taken up cooking, for example, and that took up most of his attention span. It had been Shin's genius idea.
The four of them—Shuu, Shin, Touma and Ryo—waited outside in the lobby of the theater. They were all dressed in nearly identical suits, save that Touma's was dark blue and Ryo had a bow tie. Shuu stuck his hands in his pockets, fidgeting a little. He wasn't going to lie to himself; he was more comfortable in sweatpants and a hoodie, and he had let everyone in the house know that as he was getting dressed. He'd sighed and moaned and complained until even Nasuti had told him to put a sock in it—and Nasuti wore long socks.
"Geez," Shuu grumbled, "it was his idea in the first place."
Shin smiled at this, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Then I should thank him. All of you."
Because they'd all decided to get tickets to some fancy recital for his birthday, which explained why Shuu would rather be force-fed a whole live pig than stand around two more seconds for Seiji freakin' Date. Ryo shrugged off the compliment and Touma returned his smile. Shuu just sighed for what seemed to be the billionth time. "Yeah, whatever. If he's not here in five minutes, then I'm going to—"
"What, go in without him?"
"Whatever." Shuu rolled his eyes around before his gaze landed on a cluster of girls huddled together, apparently waiting for other members of their party. "Hey. Check it out."
Despite himself, Touma glanced over to where Shuu had nodded his head. A low whistle escaped his lips. "For once, Shuu, you just might be right."
"Hah, well, what can I—wait, what do you mean, for once?"
"Are you kidding?" Ryo started to laugh a little. "Do you remember that girl that wasn't a girl?"
"That was one time!" Shuu huffed, crossing his arms. "And you were checking her out too!"
"No, I was checking to see if that fur shirt of hers had a head."
"Whatever Ryo, like you have better luck."
Ryo just shrugged again, accepting the battle as a draw, though his eyes trailed on the girls. There were four of them and they were young, around his age, all wearing little black dresses. The brunette was cute; she was tall and leggy, and her heels only emphasized that. The blonde one, though, her dress showed enough back, leg, side and front to make a man crazy. He caught Touma also eyeing her and smirked. Blondie definitely knew what she was doing.
"Am I really in the right place, and are you four really ogling them?" Seiji, disdain laced through his voice, swept his eyes over the girls. He was dressed in white (Ryo never understood why he wanted to stand out all the time, it was tedious attention that could easily be avoided) and had a little flower tucked into his pocket. One of the girls glanced back at him before dismissing him just as quickly. "They're alright."
"You're late; you don't have the right to insult our choice in women!" Shuu made his way towards the balcony entrance, getting a head start. The sooner he stepped into that place, the faster it would be over.
Seiji looked over the program a fifth time. There was really only one act that he himself was interested in, and, in other circumstances, he wouldn't have paid so much for the tickets. One glance at Shin's enraptured face, however, chased the thought away. The five of them had been to Hell and back for each other, and splurging on birthday presents was the least Seiji could do. Besides, it wasn't like he was going to miss the money.
He leaned over the balcony edge, glancing around. The current performer wasn't well-known, but her music was alright. Decent, but barely so. A CD full of this stuff won't make much money, he mused to himself. That was the problem with anything nowadays—Shin and Touma and even Shuu might be enjoying the performance, but Seiji found it hard to be pleased. It was mediocre music played by mediocre people. There was nothing special.
He'd seen better, heard better. Which was why he was waiting for the last act to come up—a pair of musicians, on the piano and violin. A coworker at the café had recommended them to him, saying they tugged at heartstrings. And, although he wasn't hoping for tears to fall out of his eyes, he was expecting the duet to be good.
His eyes fell on the gaggle of girls that the other four had been drooling over earlier—they actually weren't that bad. He could do without the two blondes, though. One was excessively dressed (he didn't see her before, but she was decked in some kind of frilly white dress that was way too extravagant for the event) while the other was far too confident. She walked and talked and stood as if she knew that she turned heads—much like the way he carried himself, and he knew that dating someone like that would be a pain in the ass. The one that had looked at him earlier, though—she was interesting.
And then one of the blondes, the frilly one, jumped as her phone went off. The song was dripping with sugar, with lyrics along the lines of cherry blossom kiss for your love or something like that. She fumbled and dropped the phone; it landed on its side and the volume amplified. Patrons all around her glared and muttered under their breaths, shooting her looks. The other blonde started to laugh quietly, her shoulders shaking and her hand at her mouth. The tall one shook her head, sighing, and the petite one with blue hair tried to bury her face in her hands.
Seiji smiled as the black-haired one—the one that sensed his gaze earlier—started scolding the blonde under her breath, pinching her in the side. "Ow!" the blonde hissed, loudly enough for her words to travel up to the balcony. "Rei-chan, that one hurt!"
"Just shut off your phone," 'Rei-chan' grumbled in irritation. The blond reached for her phone before tumbling off her feet and onto her face. Sighing sharply, 'Rei-chan' grabbed her under the arm and yanked her up roughly.
"Rei-chan, be delicate! I'm made of sugar!"
"That doesn't even make sense."
It was at that point an usher came and escorted the two ladies out; the blonde looked crestfallen as she had finally managed to silence her phone.
Beside him, Ryo and Touma were laughing. The three of them shared amused looks. Shuu had fallen asleep in his chair and therefore didn't notice the disturbance, and Shin had tuned all of it out. Sadly enough, that so far had been the highlight of Seiji's evening. That, he decided, was what probably brought him to excuse himself to the bathroom and instead run into the two young women in the lobby. The blonde was crying her eyes out, wailing about ruining the show and free tickets gone to waste and how hungry she was and why wasn't the fruit parlor open? 'Rei-chan' was half-heartedly patting her back, but he could see the exasperation in her eye as she texted someone with her other hand.
"Pardon me," Seiji said, not understanding why he was speaking, because speaking to girls always ended up badly for him, "but would you like to join my friends and me in the balcony? I saw what happened and I just—"
'Rei-chan' smiled, but her eyes were guarded. "Thank you, but we're—"
"Really?" The blonde's tears stopped as she leaned forward in his face. "You mean it?"
"I—yeah," Seiji said, not used to being so caught off guard. "I mean. Yes. If you'd like."
'Rei-chan' was frowning, but the blonde's happiness bubbled over as she cheered up immediately. Seiji found himself leading them back to their balcony (he simply smiled at the usher and they were in, hassle-free—one of the perks of being handsome, he supposed). He ignored Ryo's raised eyebrows and Touma's slight cough. The blonde bounced up to the edge of the balcony, her hands on the edge.
"Wow," she gushed, "the view's so much better here, that fat bald guy's not in front of me. Look, I see the others! Rei-channn, come heeere, it's—"
'Rei-chan' dug in her purse, pulled out a lollipop, and stuck it in the blonde's mouth. Miraculously, for the rest of the performance, she was quiet. As soon as the artist got off stage, however, her mouth opened and she was chattering away again.
"Thankyousomuch, sir, I don't know how else I can tell ya, but I appreciate it bunches. Gosh, I don't know what I would've done if I missed this next act, they said it was gonna be special or something. Oh hey cool, is that a bowtie?"
Seiji blinked. Definitely could do without the blonde one.
"No way, you're Sanada Ryo?" The blonde's blue eyes were large as she studied Ryo. Then she said, "But where have I heard your name before? I swear it was on the news or something." She knocked her knuckles against her head, thinking. 'Rei-chan,' who had been quiet thus far, eyed her friend tiredly.
"Does she ever stop?"
She looked at Touma. "No."
Touma nodded, as if understanding. "Yeah, that's just like Shuu over here." He jabbed a thumb at the sleeping, lightly snoring Shuu. "The best way to get him to shut up is knock him out."
"Mm, Usagi needs food." A pause. "Sometimes that doesn't even work."
Touma stretched out his hand. Inwardly, he patted himself on the back for not being a socially inept imbecile, as he was keen to be around anyone who wasn't a trooper or Nasuti or Jun. "Hashiba Touma."
"Hino Rei," she said after a moment of hesitation, and Seiji found himself thinking that her name was also interesting. He continued to watch her, albeit more discreetly than the supposedly sleeping Shuu was. Her dress was modest, though the slit on the side showed more leg than modesty allowed. It was her eyes, though, that Seiji found so captivating—her eyes simply swept over him, as if he were a tree in a forest, or a star in the sky.
Seiji wasn't bigheaded (in fact, he was quite the opposite), but it wasn't often that he found someone who couldn't care less about his existence.
"Date Seiji," he suddenly cut into their conversation, ignoring Touma's slight amusement. Rei eyed his hand with something like caution—like if she were to grab it, she'd be poisoned. As if he were venomous. Like Naaza.
Almost reluctantly she accepted his hand, but she drew it away quickly. "Thank you for allowing us to continue watching the show."
She was being exceedingly formal to him, a much different face from the one that had been at ease with Touma. While this sort of behavior from a girl was usually welcome with him, Seiji didn't understand why it made him nervous. Tension floated from her and Seiji felt an awkwardness he hadn't experienced in a long time—he didn't know what to say, what to do. She avoided his gaze and stared instead at the stage. A girl was rolling a piano across stage, smiling abashedly at the polite applause.
"Oh oh oh!" Rei's blonde friend suddenly shrieked. "You're the tiger boy! From years ago! We saw you on TV!"
This, Seiji noticed, caught Rei's attention. She was eyeing Ryo with more scrutiny, but the blonde clasped her hands in front of her chest.
"I thought that was so brave, what you did. I mean, how many people can say they saved a boy from getting into an accident? Say, do you still talk to that boy? Oh and did you really steal that tiger from the zoo? Oh gosh how rude of me, I'm Tsukino Usagi!"
"Um," Ryo said. Thankfully he was saved from answering by the next performance—the duet that Seiji had been looking forward to. He pulled out his binoculars, studying the stage. The woman was elegant in every movement—plucking her violin strings, tossing her hair over her shoulder, looking out into the audience. She was like a queen from the ocean, he concluded. The second half of the duet was more rough around the edges—tall where the queen was short, golden where the queen was glitter—a king instead of a queen.
The queen let one note soar and Seiji let go of the breath he didn't realize he was holding. It was just the queen playing, the notes swaying through the auditorium. They were filled with longing, with hope—and also with finality. With conclusion. They were sharp, precise, and yet Seiji felt soothed. He felt like he was slipping away with every stab of notes. The youja, Arago, darkness threatening to engulf his light—all that vanished as the queen waved her wand.
Then the king started to glide his fingers along the piano, and Seiji opened his eyes. He was captivated—the queen's intro had been soft, but the king's was fierce. He felt something stir in him—it was a need to fight, a need to prove. Combined, the violin and the piano made him—feel free.
The song ended too soon. Instead of applause, there was silence. Seiji glanced around; Shuu had risen from his chair and approached the balcony ledge, transfixed on the duo. Shin was captivated, caught up in the music and lingering in its side effects. Touma and Ryo were both quiet. They were avoiding looking at the stage, but Seiji knew the two had felt what he had—the sense of freedom and strength.
And then the audience erupted into noise.
"Amazing," Usagi whispered, her eyes wide. She was wearing a gentle smile different from her goofy grin, and Seiji saw an unexpected grace in her movements as she shook her head. "They're amazing."
Rei agreed with her companion and, for the first time that night, she had soft eyes.
The duet was starting their next piece; to everyone's surprise, the queen invited a guest on stage. She stepped out of the spotlight and approached the lone microphone on the side of the stage, but all eyes were still on her as she glowed with her own light. She smiled—the room sighed.
"Aino Minako," the queen said, and something inside Seiji melted at her silky voice. "If you would please grace us with your presence in this next song."
And, to Seiji's surprise, the other blonde—the confident one who reminded him so much of himself—slipped from her friends and made her way up stage. She moved lightly, yet there was no doubt in her swift steps. She exchanged quick, polite greetings the king and queen before taking her place by the microphone. As a third spotlight flashed on, she grinned and said, "Good evening."
And then the queen starting tugging at her violin strings and the audience's heartstrings. The king swiftly joined in, his own notes reminiscent of the night sky and the cloudless sun. Seiji was thrown back to his first fight with a youja soldier—he could see clearly how Ryo had taken him down, but barely. There was hope in each of their eyes back then, but there was also worry—doubt—fear. And longing, desperate longing for light and peace.
The confident blonde took in a breath, closed her eyes, and sang. All of that faded away as Seiji drew in air sharply. This wasn't what he expected—she wasn't good. She was better than that. There were no words to describe what he felt—his feet no longer touched the ground, and he was sure the others beside him felt the same way. Her voice was beautiful, bringing him closer to his heart. She was beautiful, with her poise and assuredness and graceful voice.
It was as if a family of royalty were on stage, Seiji realized. The queen, the king, and finally the princess. He tore his eyes away from the magnificent spectacle on stage, unwilling to let himself go. He could see Ryo was contemplating it. Shin was already lost—had been lost since the first note the queen had played. Shuu was in the same boat, his eyes fixed on the trio. Touma wasn't watching them; he was looking instead at the audience, his eyes roaming over the auditorium.
Seiji looked at Usagi and saw, once again, an unexpected, unnatural elegance in his posture. She seemed to glow with a light that made him want to reach out and grab her. She was ethereal, with her long hair and fairy-like dress and crystal blue eyes that were so happy.
At her side, Rei was untouchable. Her own light was fierce, passionate, too hot for Seiji—and yet he felt compelled to get closer. He was drawn to the fire, the mystery. There were layers he couldn't decipher, puzzles he couldn't solve. She was withdrawn, yet standing next to Usagi, she was approachable to those with the right amount of passion.
Seiji just wasn't sure if he was ready to get burned yet.
The balcony was quiet as the performance ended. Shin let out a sigh, enthralled. He looked over to his fellow warriors, taken back at the two newcomers. He recognized the dark-haired one as one from the group Shuu had noticed, but the blonde girl was a complete stranger. She was lingering at the edge of the balcony, reluctant to take her eyes off the duo. As plain as she was, even though she was dressed in a fancy dress with a fancy hairdo, Shin felt something from her—there was some kind of strength. Something made him want to put his faith in the future in her.
Shaking aside the absurd thought, he smiled at Ryo. "What did you think?"
"It was pretty cool," his friend admitted. "More than I expected."
"That last act had everyone," Touma said quietly, his eyes still sweeping over the audience. "It was as if they put a spell over the audience."
"They put a spell over me for sure," Shin grinned. "If only we could meet them."
"Yeah, and if we got you those tickets, we wouldn't be living in houses," Ryo said good-naturedly. He leaned back against the balcony ledge, eyeing the blonde.
"Who are they?" Shin asked, seeing where his gaze was at. Ryo shrugged.
"Tsukino Usagi. Hino Rei. Seiji brought them here."
"Ah." Because that explained a lot of things. Seiji wasn't really a ladies man—it was more of like a lady killer. He didn't flaunt himself around at all (except for his sharp dressing, he did the exact opposite of flaunting), but he somehow always found himself at the center of every woman's heart. The four of them constantly made fun of Seiji and the attention he got—sometimes the blonde acted like he liked it (Shuu's great influence), but they all knew he resented it, due to some nutty kind of phobia he had with girls.
"I recognize Hino," Touma mused softly. At this, the other two focused their attention completely on him. "She was on TA's archery team in junior high. No one could beat her."
"Not even you?" Ryo teased, and Touma quelled him with a wry look.
"No," he said, "not even me. I heard she was supposed to compete in a national competition. She was favored for first place, but for some reason…"
"For some reason?" Shin goaded as Touma trailed off.
"For some reason, she just quit."
"Well," Ryo said, "that's… interesting."
Except it really wasn't. Maybe to Touma it was like a valuable piece of information, but Ryo and Shin couldn't really decipher its meaning. Shin himself had given up a lot of things from childhood to now—volleyball, for example. He had been on his own junior high school's volleyball team. Only Shuu knew of this; Shin didn't feel it was necessary to bring it up to the others.
Shin watched as Shuu struck up conversation with the blonde—Usagi. She was laughing hysterically at something he said, and Shuu was looking quite proud of himself. Shin, however, still couldn't shake off the feeling that there was something about her. It was an attraction, but not of the physical kind. She was pretty, yeah, but there was more to it than that. She seemed to radiate hope and faith and good things to come.
"Something about her, right?"
Always count on Touma to be insightful.
"Yeah," Ryo said, and he frowned. "I can't put a finger on it."
"Her presence," Touma said, "reminds me of Kaos."
Before anyone could say anything, the ground shook and the auditorium ceiling crashed on them. Shuu gathered Usagi in his arms and covered her as concrete pelted them. Usagi shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. "No, Shuu! Are you alright?"
Shuu simply grinned, though it was somewhat of a painful grin. "Don't worry about me. Are you alright?"
Usagi's eyes watered. "You idiot, you could've been killed! What would I have done? Can't you see the headlines? 'Mysterious Boy Killed While Trying to Save Beautiful Girl from Crashing Ceiling.' My mom would kill me if I made the news like that!"
Despite the situation, Shuu started laughing. He straightened up, brushing debris from his suit while sharing a look with Shin. It was only precautionary measures that he had worn his sub armor under all this funk; Ryo, surprisingly enough, had suggested it. At first they thought he was paranoid, but then they remembered last weeks' incident—some kind of otherworldly being had appeared and terrorized a local high school. It wasn't a youja soldier, and the Troopers didn't know what to make of it. As soon as they arrived on scene, though, the being had been taken care of by some local crime fighters.
Sailor Senshi, Jun had told them enthusiastically over the phone. Apparently these Senshi had taken a break, so their reappearance had everyone talking. Personally Shin thought it was too strange of a coincidence—monsters and crime fighters coming back at the same time? It was, if not suspicious, a bit sketchy.
"Hino," Touma said, helping her up. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah," she grunted, swiping her hair from her eyes. She accepted his arm as support, stepping over fallen boards. All around them, people were scurrying for the entrance. The balcony ledge had been smashed out, but a row of fallen pillars had created some kind of makeshift walkway. Rei put one heel on the first pillar, getting a grip, before hoisting herself up. Seiji watched, intrigued.
"Hang on!" Ryo grabbed onto her arm. "Are you crazy? What are you doing?"
Rei frowned, but realized he was right. Still, she didn't step down. "Aren't you curious at all? Am I really supposed to believe that this was an accident? Something crashed into this theater."
Ryo stared, and she took her chance to yank her arm out of his grasp. Steadying herself, Rei stepped forward at an alarmingly fast pace. Ryo blinked, snapped out of it, and followed right after her.
"Ryo!" Shin called, "Wait!"
The bearer of Rekka ignored this and continued to chase after her. Shin sighed, turning to Touma.
"What do we do now?"
"We get Tsukino-san out of here," Seiji said pointedly. The three of them glanced at Shuu, who was trying to take care of one of Usagi's cuts. He had taken off his jacket and draped it over her bare shoulders. The blonde looked up at her name; her eyes were weary as she glanced at the path of fallen pillars, but she nodded.
"Yeah, that's… that's best."
Shuu escorted her out, even going as far as to pick her up over wooden beams and large rocks. Shin sighed just as they were out of earshot. "Poor guy."
"Hmm?" Touma, who has been observing the damage, glanced back to Shin. "What was that?"
"She's married. Or engaged," Seiji flippantly remarked, picking up on Shin's train of thought. He leapt on top of the nearest pillar. "There was a ring on her finger."
"Is that important?" Touma followed his lead, jumping onto the makeshift path. He looked down it, watching both Rei and Ryo scurry to the top. Shin, for a moment, wondered how she did it—the heels she wore were sky high. Ryo had caught up to her easily, but instead of arguing, the two made their way to the hole in the ceiling. They disappeared through the opening.
"Well," Touma said casually, "let's go."
Together the three of them leapt through the maze of fallen architecture and through the open hole. What they saw at the top almost made Shin trip over himself.
A large youja soldier stood before them—it was gigantic, twice the size of a regular youja soldier. Behind it was a hole in the sky. It was unnatural, as if someone had taken their hands and ripped at air. Shin could see another world in it—it was dark, but there were voices chattering. Eyes watching.
He shivered, turning his attention back to the youja soldier. Standing in front of the youja soldier, in a stance he recognized from his old judo class, was the tall brunette they had seen earlier. Upon second glance of his surroundings, he realized that the whole group of girls was there—Rei, the brunette, the blonde that had been singing, and their blue-haired companion.
Ryo was still standing protectively in front of Rei, though Shin judged from her posture that she didn't need it. The blue-haired girl was watching the rip in the air behind the youja soldier, almost ignoring the youja soldier completely. The blonde was looking at the Troopers curiously; she eyed Seiji first before looking at Touma and Ryo. Her gaze finally fell on Shin, and, as he returned her look, she winked. Then her eyes were set back on the youja.
The brunette spoke up. "Who are you? What do you want?"
The youja soldier paused. Its eyes flashed red, and then it said, "Kino Makoto."
There was a quiet pause as the girls all dropped their defensive stances. They shared bewildered glances, the brunette shrugging that she didn't know what was going on either. There seemed to be a private conversation amongst the four—then the tall brunette turned back to the youja soldier.
"Er," she said, her hand scratching the back of her neck as she was abashed for some reason," are you—well, are you sure? I mean!" she quickly interjected as the soldier's eyes gleamed once more, "You're not looking for a blonde girl?"
The solider turned its lifeless gaze at the blonde present. Her face aghast, she flailed her hands in front of her. "No no no no no not me! We're talking about—you know, a blonde girl. With um." She curved her hands into balls and placed them on the top of her head. "What do you call these… Um."
"Odango," Rei contributed helpfully.
"Yeah!" Blondie held up a finger. "You're sure you're not looking for odango?"
The youja soldier grunted out again, "Kino Makoto."
At this the brunette sighed, dropping back into her judo stance. "Well, if you're so sure." And then, with the Troopers watching with wide eyes, she jumped into the air at the soldier. She pivoted at the last second, bring her foot (and it's dangerously high heel) around to knock off the soldier's helmet. It didn't come off; instead, the soldier grabbed her foot and swung her away.
"Makoto!" the blue-haired girl cried out as she flew into Touma. Grunting, Touma steadied his balance, catching her under the arms. She looked surprised, but shook her head.
"I'm fine, Ami!" Makoto grinned at Touma before saying energetically, "This could get really bad in more ways than I can count, so it'd be cool if you and your friends—well, you know. Left."
Then she turned and charged back at the youja soldier. Her fist aimed at its helmet; the soldier caught it with one hand and threw her off balance. Makoto brought her knee up, catching it under the arm. It stumbled back, letting go of its hold on her. She did a spin on her legs, getting it under the chin. The youja soldier rattled, and Makoto grinned again, regaining her footing.
She jumped in the air, charging at it once more, and her elbow made contact with its chest. It fell back with a hollow sound, turning into a crumpled pile of metal—Shin narrowed his eyes. Black smoke didn't rise from it. It wasn't dead yet. Just as he was about to shout a warning, Rei ducked under Ryo's arm. She sprinted at it, muttering something under her breath.
A thin strip of paper flew from her fingers and sealed itself on the youja soldier's helmet. At once black smoke hissed up, and the metal melted into nothing. Makoto offered Rei a grateful smile, who nodded in return. Then the four girls exchanged looks again.
"Pardon me," Seiji said sharply, but Ryo beat him to it. He had approached Rei again, grabbing her arm.
"Who are you guys?"
an standard disclaimers apply.