"Ashita no Rondeau"
(Rondeau for Tomorrow)

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2. Shikkoku to Hayate (Pitch Black and Hurricane)

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It was strange to feel solid ground beneath him again. Gravity felt strange.

Kageyama Reiji understood right away in the pit of his stomach, the way he understood that this was no longer 1970 Tokyo and humanity still had no real cure to the Invader problem, that there was no time for questions and explanations. Even the brief moments he took to find his feet were ones they could ill-afford to spare.

The first thing he did was throw up, narrowly missing his captor/liberator(?)'s boots.

The woman, Ogawa… LICH, stood with her back to him and her nose to the wind, barely acknowledging him, every muscle taut and alert, like a Doberman scenting for blood. She held her wrist loosely in her right hand, pointed downwards in front of her as if it were a weapon, which wasn't at all inappropriate, seeing as it was her primary Gate-Opening hand.

Her partner, little more than wisps of blood-red hair beneath a heavy hooded cloak, leaned in to sniff the back of his head.

"Remember, no Gates. If we get separated, hea… Ruka, what are you doing?"

The creature under the hood lifted its head with child-like solemnity, "Air your blankets once a week, check for mould before you eat," it sang. The voice was feminine and strong, though its litany seemed helplessly fractured.

Lich clucked grimly. "Mould'll be the least of your problems if They catch us." You can hear the capital T scraping against her throat on its way up, and as if on cue, the enemy came into view against the grey, dead, landscape.

No need to ask who 'They' were—

—tasteless red and green suits clinging unnaturally to perfect mannequin frames, dark, square, glasses thought passé even in his own time, and that familiar purplish grey pallor and sheen…

Rank upon rank marching in on them, chanting in perfect unison:

—INVADERS!…

"Gate Energy Detected;

"Acquiring Target;

"DESTROY!"

He just hadn't expected so many.

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1 9 7 0

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"Ne~ Rurippe~ I get that housecalls are part of a class rep's job," the boy from the nearby high-school grumbled and whined all the way across the market, "but why do I have to come too?"

To most people, Ukiya Shun can only really be described as 'average, sloppy, with an adhesive bandage stuck permanently across the bridge of his nose'. Ikusawa Ruriko can usually find a few more words. At this moment, 'irritating', 'insensitive' and 'irresponsible' comes to mind.

It's your job as team captain too! she thought viciously at him and retorted with a huffy "I said I'd treat you to ramen, didn't I?"

Shun has never been particularly receptive when it came to the subject of his captainly duties. He is a powerful Gatekeeper and an inspiration in the field, even Ruriko cannot deny that, But there's more to leadership than leading the charge and being the best fighter! You also have to be on top of every possible situation and manage all the team's well-being… she paused and looked guiltily up at the darkened window above the Tekkotsuken ramen house shop sign.

Megumi…

Ruriko took a deep breath, and reached towards the curtained threshold.

Shun strolled inside nonchalantly, brushing past her with a bright, casual, greeting for the proprietor, who returned it with the usual enthusiasm for returning customers.

"Yo, Kurogane-san,"

"Oh, Ukiya-kun! The class-rep too! What can I get you today?"

""Ooh… House Special pork broth with double the meat!" he grinned cheekily, "It's Rurippe's treat today!"

He narrowly dodged her smack to the back of his head. "I told you not to call me that in public!" she hissed.

Kurogane Yuuzei chuckled. Ah, youth!

It worried him a little from time to time that his own daughter was so different from these youngsters. She always was a dark horse, keeping everything to herself. Sometimes he secretly wondered if it was their fault for being neglectful parents. If they hadn't worked so hard at the shop and spent more time with her as a child, maybe she would have turned out to be a sunny, well-adjusted young lady like her classmate Ikusawa instead. If he had been smart and educated enough to take a white-collar sort of job instead…

"How's Megumi today?"

That girl, Ikusawa, was here every week, asking after his daughter, their former classmate. Was she well? How are her studies going? Did she need any help?

Supposedly there was some kind of antagonism between the girls that he did not quite understand. Ikusawa had offered out of sheer kindness to tutor Megumi to help her keep pace with the high school syllabus, but Megumi had thrown her out. It was Ikusawa's own fault, Shun said to him afterwards with a bored shrug. She shouldn't have been so patronising. Everyone knows Megumi's smarter than her, Megu just needs to believe in herself more.

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He scrambled more than he ran; tripping, crawling, clawing, running—

He has never felt so afraid. Sheer, visceral, terror tore at his throat and lungs, ripping each breath from him before he was done with it. His heart pumped and his limbs moved, scrambling, stumbling, of their own accord. He lost count of the number of times he fell.

Then suddenly, he was on his back and one of Them was standing over him, stretched and bent like a piece of plasticine, all red and grey and black and hissing TEETH! Sharp, monstrous fangs from the goriest horror flicks!

They let you think that in times like these, your mind panics and obsess over the idea of imminent death. They let you think this is why some people, most, freeze when they should fight or flee. They are wrong.

In times like this, your mind shuts down completely and turns control over to your subconscious and body. 'Decision' is no longer an option, only action. Those who don't respond after that, those who can't? That's because they have no instincts built into them.

Kageyama threw his hand up, blocking out the Invader's gruesome, comical, face. And it exploded.

"NO!" Someone screamed in rage from what seemed an incredible distance away.

He twisted around, dug deep into a place two or three centimetres above his heart, behind the thickest point of his sternum, and called for that old, familiar power.

His Gate opened, black as jet, deep as night, swirling languidly like ripples through a pond. "Shadow Blade," he croaked, as if calling to it were the key to summoning his attack. In a way, maybe it was. A thin slice of darkness emerged from the invisible pool and flew off with deadly accuracy at the nearest Invader.

It paused, uncertain of what it should feel or do for a moment as the shadow vanished without a trace through its torso. Slowly, a crack formed and the Invader watched, confused, as it slid sideways along a dark forty-five degree line on its waist and off its legs, finally shattering.

"Idiot!"

He wasn't sure where they came from. One moment he was alone, the next, Lich was behind him, dragging him to his feet by the scruff of his collar, screaming inexplicably, angrily, at him and the mad girl under the hooded cloak, Ruka, was waving her arms around like windmills and twirling in a wide circle around them, humming a childish tune.

A wide line of Invaders disappeared wherever she slashed across the horizon, as if falling into an invisible ravine: each wave of her hands scattered a dozen or more small orange-lit Gates along the ground under the enemy's ranks that devoured its victims soundlessly, gracefully, leaving only a single fragile crystal on the ground as prove of its existence until that too is crushed by its rapidly advancing colleagues.

How had they gotten so many?

"You arrogant fuck! I told you, Gate energy attracts them! Worse, now they've got your trail!"

"I… I can transport us," he stuttered under the pressure, his mind still struggling to reboot and catch up.

"Can't, They're everywhere," she snarled. "Anywhere you leave a Gate signature, They will gather in seconds. Ten minutes, if you're lucky. Unless you can teleport outside of an open Gate, that's not gonna do us any good."

"Hide-and-seek, star on star," the orange Gate's Keeper suddenly crooned, planted a tender kiss on her companion's cheek and vanished with a giggle.

"What the?"

Suddenly, the Invaders stopped and looked confused. Kageyama craned his neck.

"RUKA!" Lich cried, whirling around in a panic.

Like a dragonfly dancing on the water, she reappeared hovering over the frontlines of the Invader army, just out of arm's reach, waiting for them to notice and gather, then hops into her Gate again, emerging thirty feet further along, waiting, teleporting, waiting…

"She's leading them away," Kageyama muttered dumbly.

Lich quivered. It took all of her strength and determination not to go running after her. It would be stupid, and a complete waste of Ruka's plan. Well, she knows they're supposed to meet back at Nikotama if they get separated. Ruka is quite capable of handling herself in a fight, she reminded herself, but it didn't help her feel any better.

"I don't care if you could save the world," Lich hissed, shoving Kageyama forward in the opposite direction with more force than strictly necessary. "If anything happens to her, I will kill you."

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It wasn't that Shun meant to keep it from Ruriko, he just didn't know how to tell her that wouldn't seem like he was mocking her efforts to reach out to Megumi.

Every Thursday night, and sometimes on Saturdays, Ukiya Shun worked at the Tekkotsuken as an afterhours dishwasher. Most of those nights, even though Yuuzei's intention was so that she could have them off, Megumi joined him.

They haven't become best friends or anything, it wasn't like that. It was, after all, Megumi's family business and Shun's family needed the money —not that his mother said anything, but he was old enough to understand about money and the lack of it— Every little bit counts, so naturally he said yes when the job was offered.

The first few times, they hadn't said anything at all.

On his first shift, Megumi silently split the dirty dishes into two piles and left when her half was done. The next time, she stayed to watch him finish with a little furrow in her brow that might as well be painted on. The time after that, she started grabbing bowls out of his hands and doing them herself when she thought he wasn't doing them right.

Eventually, he learnt. Eventually, she spoke. He's not sure, but he thinks the first thing she said was "You missed a spot." Then something about "The sooner you're done, the less you cost us," even though he was paid by day, not hours.

Slowly, he came to enjoy those nights with her, with only the sound of swishing water and bowls dunking for company. Sometimes, when everything was put away to dry, she would give him pointers on his homework while she balanced the shop books.

He couldn't tell Ruriko about it because he knew she would somehow, however well-meaningly, ruin it.

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Next Time:
3. Nagareru Kawa no Shuuben