A/N: Sorry for the delay; I've literally just emerged from the murky bog of university essays (I love them to bits, however, it does impact on the time I have available to write) and then migrating 200 odd miles to 'home'. Cannot guarantee that this is my best work, but I don't want to sit on it for too much longer lest it stagnate. I don't like algae all that much.
And with the advent of 11-10-10's episode (#134) I will probably spend quite a bit of time rethinking the Parts!verse, seeing if I can make it work alongside the information revealed. Because I do like sticking to canon where possible. So… Rising Signs is probably exiling itself from the Parts!verse in favour of mostly-canon!verse. And expect to see the Moments referencing themselves in here. Expect that a lot...
Chapter 3: Shadows of the Forgotten
It's a long way down. No end in sight. I wonder: will this hurt? But of course it won't. If you think about it, it seems a little obvious. After all, I'm…
There's so much I could tell you. So much I could share. So many memories that sound like something ripped from a novel, dangerous, surreal. I could, you know. I could tell you all about it, if I wanted. Perhaps you don't believe me. Perhaps you think I'm mad. Hah! This isn't madness. I can tell you that for sure. I just know what it's like to fall—forever.
Entering the garage, it seemed as though she could barely move for D-Wheels – five of them, three of which covered with tarpaulins and parked as close to the stairway as possible. The remaining two sat in the middle of the garage, attached by wires and cabling to a wide array of digital devices which drained the D-Wheels of very last scrap of information they held. Progress bars flashed up on the screens, blinking furiously, vanished again. It surprised Aki that the room stood devoid of life, and for a moment she stared around, half-expecting a shaggy blue head to make his way downstairs, or the quiet young man whose D-Wheels were his life-blood to step out from where he'd been meddling with some feature or another on one of the covered machines.
She received no reply. Aki descended the ramp into the main room, gazing at the battered Wheel of Fortune. Its scars served as a reminder of the empty space in their hearts. Strangely, the extent of the damage seemed less severe now she looked at it under the light of day. Without the smudge-marks of smoke or dark stains – Bruno never could stand working with a dirty D-Wheel – it looked almost normal, if maltreated. Not much worse than when Jack crashed in their duel against Team Unicorn.
"Aki, what are you doing here?"
She turned around. Crow's voice. He was standing at the top of the stairs, barefoot, his hair dripping water. A towel hung from his hand. He'd just come from the shower, she guessed; thankfully he'd had the presence of mind to throw a shirt on first. "It's only… what, half seven? Not even that. We weren't expecting you 'til later."
"Where's Yuusei? And Bruno?"
"They're out," Crow said, wrapping the towel around his head in a wonky approximation of a turban. Aki almost missed the pained skitter of his gaze as he tried to avoid looking at the Wheel of Fortune. "Listen, I'll be back in a moment. We can talk then. Do you want to come upstairs? It's a bit of a mess, but anything's better than waiting around down here."
"…sure." She smiled up at him in reassurance; when he vanished back into the living quarters, she laid a hand on the side of Jack's D-Wheel to remind herself of its reality. Jack would recover; he had to. Yet… through his absence, it seemed she was coming to understand Jack more than ever…
Aki took the stairs two at a time. Her eyes were met by what appeared to be chaos. Papers strewn everywhere – and they'd only tidied them yesterday evening – a pile of dishes by the sink – well, at least they'd not forgotten to eat – the couch shifted out of position – a chair lying on its side – Bruno's tools scattered across the coffee table – Jack's coat lying in a corner like an afterthought. She started there, picking a path through the minefield of paper. His coat was surprisingly heavy in her hands when she lifted it. Folding it over her arm, she let her fingers drift over the collar – it was just a garment, lacking in majesty without its owner. Leaving it out here seemed disrespectful. How had they missed it yesterday evening?
She cast a look around the room. Fortunately the chaos appeared mostly cosmetic. It wouldn't take long for them to tidy up. First, though… dealing with Jack's coat. She wasn't certain which his room was, but of the two shut doors (Yuusei's stood ajar; the tools gave him away) she could hear movement behind one, Crow hurrying to make himself presentable.
Her hand descended on the doorknob of the third room. Turned it, stepped over the threshold, wondered at how neat the room appeared in comparison to other parts of the apartment. The only signs of previous habitation were the covers of his bed, rumpled and thrown aside from his hasty departure. Hard to believe it had already been thirty-two hours since he'd vanished from the garage. Hard to believe that the world was still turning, time tumbling onwards for the world outside, while for the team it stood still. Aki straightened the covers, laid the coat across them like an offering at a shrine, returning a part of Jack to the lifeless room. He had done nothing to customise it - simply a bed, the patterned wallpaper (she didn't think much of Zola's taste), a closet that was standard in all the bedrooms, a cabinet… and on top of the cabinet, a pair of glasses.
What was it like, Aki wondered, to have the person you love beyond your grasp, not even knowing whether they were dead or not. At least… with Divine, the first time, she'd been certain of his death. Had witnessed his fall from a shattered pedestal – the leader, vanquished. She still thought of him more fondly than she ought, despite knowing all the terrible acts he'd committed in pursuit of Arcadia. And then that brought the sickening guilt of the Yuusei situation rushing back – Yuusei, she knew he would never betray her trust like Divine had – but if she loved him so much, then why did Divine still haunt her?
It was all too frustrating. Aki brushed the thoughts aside. She swept out of the room with her head held high, fingers straying to her gloves, tugging impatiently at the decorative bracelets as she slid them down over her elbows. She placed them on the coffee table, next to a folded scrap of paper, and decided that her first priority should be the sink. It held the smallest workload, and the crockery could drain while they tackled the rest of the room.
She filled the sink with hot water, putting the mugs in first, and started to rummage through cupboards until she found a scouring pad. When she dipped her hands into the water, the temperature was almost enough to make her pull them out again immediately. Too hot! she added a dash of cold to make it more manageable. Better. With circular motions, she washed away the stains of tea inside the three mugs and placed them to dry.
Crow re-entered the room while she was weighing up the pros and cons of washing the plates next, or the frying pan. "So Yuusei's… Huh, Aki, what are you doing?"
"Tidying," she said, not even glancing at him. She decided on the frying pan, started to scrub at the dried … whatever inside. "You were saying about Yuusei?"
"You don't have to do this." She could barely hear his footsteps; he was still barefoot. "You're a guest here, Aki. You don't have to tidy up – it's not fair on you."
"And who else would be doing it?"
"Exactly." Removing the pan from the water, she ran a finger over the inside to make sure it was clean. To her, the logic of her actions made perfect sense. "It's not fair on you either."
He said her name like it was an exasperated sigh, but she knew, if she turned to look at him, she'd see that his eyes had softened with amusement. She liked that about Crow. He was always so easy to understand. Not complex like Jack. Not inscrutable like…
"Yuusei has gone over to Martha's," Crow said, the scrape of his trousers – heavy canvas, too long for him – informing her of his movement. Paper rustled as he gathered the sheets together. He'd not even needed prompting. "We told her about the accident, of course, but she wants to talk in person. She's like our mum, after all, and it's one of her kids in there…"
Aki made a small hum of agreement, set the pan aside. "Do you think they will visit him? Carly and the twins will be going over there now, to the hospital, before the twins go off to school. She wanted to see him."
For the next couple of minutes, they focussed on their selected tasks. Aki stacked the final plate in the drainer and turned to look for a towel. "What's happening downstairs?" she asked, "It looks very complicated."
Crow let out a small laugh while admitting, "I don't understand either. Yuusei and Bruno don't operate on the same level as the rest of us, remember? Put them in front of a machine, it's like they start talking a different language."
"I'm sure they say the same about you and your accounts," she joked. Her smile was the first genuine one she'd worn in what felt like far too long. "Still, I'm surprised one of them isn't supervising. Has Bruno—?"
"Said he needed to get something," Crow said before she could even finish her question. "He'll be no more than ten minutes, I reckon."
The smile dropped from her lips. Last night had planted suspicions in her head, and she didn't want to discuss them in front of anyone but another Signer. "Crow, there's something we have to talk about. About Iliaster, and Carly."
When he next spoke, the laughter faded from his voice. "I'm listening."
"She was a Dark Signer before. She's the Hummingbird from a year ago." Aki located a tea-towel and wiped down two of the mugs, before putting the kettle on to boil. Teabags were kept in the right-hand cupboard, she remembered; getting them out took only a few seconds. "…Until recently – not long before she disappeared, in fact – she remembered nothing of what happened back then."
"But Kiryu remembered," Crow pointed out, "and so did Bommer, bits of it."
"Misty too. She wouldn't be in contact with me otherwise. And nobody knows anything about Demak, but it's a fair guess to say he, wherever he is, remembers too… There's something strange about Carly Nagisa and I can't figure out what."
"…she really is a Dark Signer, then?" He sounded confused. Aki could sympathise. Just thinking about the implications gave her a headache. "But yesterday our marks didn't react when – when we saw her. She can't be one."
"That's what puzzles me." The kettle hissed. Aki poured water into both mugs. For a moment she pondered making a third, for when Bruno returned. She stuck with two. "Last night…"
"Your birthmarks. We felt it. But I thought you weren't in any danger—"
"We weren't." Closing her eyes, Aki wondered how best to phrase the awful truth. "It was that Emperor—the child—Lucciano."
The name left ripples in its wake. She half expected a verbal reaction, explosive; so it came as a surprise when she heard only the sound of the couch being shifted back into position.
"It was her, wasn't it?" He paused, staring out the window thoughtfully. "Not Jack at all. The target was always her."
Aki nodded. "I think so. I can't see any other explanation." The tea had finished steeping by now – she turned back to it, digging a spoon out from one of the kitchen drawers; the bustle of everyday activity distracted her from the problems they had to face. "Sugar, no milk?"
"No – no sugar, thank you."
He always had sugar. Why the change? She put the caddy back in its original place and carried the tea across, offering one mug to him. Crow accepted with a grateful, though tense smile; she retreated to the couch, where she took a sip from her mug. The heat nearly scalded her tongue. It tasted bitter. She'd never been that fond of tea.
"So what was an Emperor doing there?"
"He tried to kill her. Carly. He…" Aki placed her mug on the coffee table, closed her eyes. The shadows of violet flames still flickered behind her eyelids. "Do you remember when he dueled the twins? This was completely different. Just cold anger. Even more dangerous than he seemed before, if that's possible. But he failed. I think the jibakushin… seemed like it was protecting her."
The scrape of a chair voiced protest as Crow pulled one closer to him. He sat, tipped it back against the wall, arms folded, feet dangling into space. He looked oddly vulnerable. Aki had never seen him so open, even after he injured his shoulder almost five, six weeks ago. "Wouldn't that be counterproductive, though? It's in the jibakushin's interests if she dies. Then he gets a body and she's unable to fight back…"
"Oh, we don't need to worry about Carly not fighting back." Aki almost smiled at the memory of the jibakushin's enraged shriek; would have, had it not come with the accompanying image of a gash in the unwilling host's arm. "She threatened it last night, and it backed down."
"He's weakened then," the young man said, swept up in the same tide of speculation. "Isn't he? Asra Piskey or whatever—"
"Yeah. That." His tone said, Do I really care? "He can't be at full strength, Carly wouldn't stand a chance otherwise. When Bommer got taken over, the jibakushin was the only one in charge. No human consciousness left at all." Crow drank, not caring about the heat of his tea, and rocked forwards. The front chair-legs reunited with the floor. He set his mug down. "And Iliaster? What of them?"
Aki had hoped he would leave that question until later. "I'm not certain yet, but they definitely tie into this. I think Lucciano is some sort of clue, though. Why would he try to kill Carly?"
"Maybe she knew too much."
"But they could just change her memo—" Aki's voice trailed off for two reasons. First was the sound of footsteps downstairs, Bruno's voice filtering up to them (4 minutes early, she should have made a third cup). Second… the thoughtful frown Crow wore, and the deliberate tapping of a finger against his right arm. She uttered a small, oh.
"It's just a theory," Crow said quietly, gaze flickering towards the staircase. "But if you're right – if Aslla pisca" ("piscu," she corrected him on autopilot) "really is protecting her, then she might be immune to their history tricks. Like us. Hey, Bruno," he continued in a louder voice, standing and disappearing down the stairs, "have you found anything useful yet…?"
Aki sipped some more of her tea before returning to the sink, intent on finishing her task. A melodic chime cut her off. Her mobile. She pulled it out, setting the rose-shaped charm swinging. A message from Yuusei danced across the screen, but before she could open the text she became aware of feet pounding upstairs. Bruno's shadow fell across her. Crow hovered at his elbow, wearing an expression that redefined 'fury'. "They changed history. Look." He brandished a newspaper in her direction – a free one Bruno had probably taken from outside a subway station – and the headline leapt out at her:
FORMER KING IN FIGHT FOR LIFE!
She plucked the newspaper from his hands, which were trembling with rage. Below the headline sat an image of the duel lanes. A behemoth form, Aslla piscu, hovered with wings outstretched, captured on camera with its beak stabbing down. Something was missing from the picture, something important, but she had no idea what it could be…
Yuusei's message. Her fingers jabbed open on reflex. Kanji spilled over the screen of her mobile. 7:39 – Aki. Don't let Carly watch the news.
In the top right corner of the screen, the clock read 7:41.
"Crow—check the news channel, quick…"
He nodded and darted towards the television, cursing when his leg banged against the coffee table en route. Flicking through the channels, he stopped when Bruno called out. The figure of a blonde reporter – Angela, proclaimed a bar at the bottom of the screen – stood outside Security Headquarters. She was already halfway through her report, and Crow shushed them (needlessly- both Aki and Bruno were silent). With a jolt Aki realised what was missing from the picture – the Machine Emperor – but she had little chance to wonder why. Listening to this became the more pressing issue.
"…meanwhile a spokesman for the Public Security Maintenance Bureau declined to address rumours that a potential suspect was released yesterday without charge." The camera cut to a grizzled-looking man in uniform, who gave the usual spiel about pursuing all available lines of enquiry; cut, question from one of the reporters thronging around the steps, evasion of the subject; before Angela appeared again. "Sections of the highway remained cordoned off while investigations continue, however, it remains unclear what effect this will have on the WRGP, if a—"
Her face was smothered mid-word by the blank of a dormant screen. Crow threw the remote back onto the couch. His eyes clouded over with anger. "This whole investigation is a farce," he spat. "Iliaster won't ever be caught, not when they can reshape history to their whims."
"At least we know the truth—"
"What good does that do?" Bruno asked, glancing between them. "Crow is right. Without evidence we have no case, no leads – nothing that Security can use," he added, cutting off the retort one of them was certain to make. "The only thing we can do is…"
"…face Iliaster in the finals," Aki finished, fingering the rose charm with dread. Could they do it? Could they win—without Jack?
"One step at a time." Bruno sighed. He was beyond tired, even beyond the realm of exhausted. He gathered up the tools littering the coffee table and surrounding floor, turned to retreat to his sanctuary of mechanics. "I'll tune up the Bloody Kiss for you later, Aki, once these two are out the way…"
"Thank you." She didn't feel thankful, of course, but it was her role as the fourth wheeler to step up and fill the vacancy. All she could think was, It should be Jack here, not me. "Good luck…"
Silence for five, six seconds as the creak of footsteps receded; then—
"Damn it all," Crow muttered as soon as Bruno moved out of earshot. His haze of anger was already on the wane, leaving him leaning under the weight of resignation. "We're out of our league, aren't we?" Aki remained silent. The question was asked for the sake of saying something, anything; he didn't expect an answer. She walked over to the coffee table and started to slip her gloves back on. As she did so, her fingers brushed against the folded scrap of paper she noticed and dismissed earlier. She picked it up, unfurled it.
Dropped it back onto the table with a gasp.
"…somebody out there thinks this is amusing," she whispered. A single red hair snarled in her glove, long and gossamer-thin. It had caught in the fabric when she opened the note. Instinctively she sought out the window, crossing to it and peering at the rooftops for a flash of white-and-blue. "He's toying with us."
"This is Jack's handwriting," Crow said. "Wait, no… but it looks like his."
"We're being given a chance."
"Can't be what you're thinking, look here – this place, Jack's old haunt, it burned down two years ago."
"It's a clue. Do you see it? Iliaster must be behind this."
"…Unless it's from Jack."
"How?" She turned on him. Jack, Jack, Jack. The preoccupation of their thoughts, manifest in everything her fellow Signer said. "Tell me, Crow. How could he send us a message when he's in a coma? And why would this be tangled in it? It has to be that Lucciano's work!" A stray thought wormed into her suspicions. "He came in here. Without anyone realising. Left the note…"
"Aki, just stop." She started to protest. His hands cut a path through air: Please, listen. There was barely a metre's distance between them. She could smell the damp of his hair, the hint of shampoo. "I should have told you sooner, but you were so caught up with the Security side of things… No. I saw him. Jack. Yesterday."
"Well we all did," said Aki, confused, "visiting hours…"
"Not like that. It was before then. I thought it was a dream, but dreams don't leave you injured." He lifted a hand to her, showing the raw-pink badge of healing skin. "No matter how fast I ran, I couldn't catch up to him."
She shook her head in disbelief, and after a glance at his face, asking permission, she traced the outline of the injury. It looked like it was only a graze, but even that was cause for alarm. She trusted him to tell her the truth. If he said it came from a… not even a dream, then it surely had. But still… This made no sense. She repeated that thought aloud, unable to tear her eyes from the mark of evidence across the heel of his hand. Crow's gaze turned distant. "When's the last time things did make sense?" he asked wearily. They both knew the answer. Things hadn't been normal since Ghost's first appearance seven months ago.
"Crow, Aki-neesan!" a voice called, Rua's distinctive footsteps clattering up the stairs– he always climbed them as if by luck, half running, half falling. They looked over as the green head appeared, his hair bobbing furiously, school-tie hanging undone around his neck. "Are you—eh? Am I interrupting something?"
…what? She had no idea what he was talking about—Oh. Aki snatched her hand back, blushing despite herself. She wasn't even sure why she was blushing—she'd only been touching his hand out of concern, after all—but the nature of Rua's question had turned a simple gesture of friendship into something almost obscene. "No," she said. "I thought you were at the hospital…?"
Rua stared at them for a moment in curiosity. Then the question registered, and a hand lifted to the back of his head in embarrassment. He grinned, a half-hearted effort. The effort it took was plain to see. "Oh, yeah. We came here instead. Ruka said I should run ahead – she didn't say why, but I think it's a Signer thing."
Another voice slipped into the degenerating atmosphere, a woman's voice, composed. "Carly is with her, I take it." Eyes latched onto the blue head appearing over the rim of the partition; the question of why leapt to the front of Aki's mind. Rua retreated to a position at the other end of the coffee table, allowing Mikage space to enter the haven of the apartment. It made for a curious division of the room, with two Signers (plus one honorary) staring at the interloper; except Mikage was as deeply embedded in this as any of them.
Rua nodded in reply, "Mhm! They won't be long at all."
The boy appeared to want to say more, but Crow beat him to the punch, changing the subject entirely. "What the hell was up with that report earlier, Mikage-san?"
Mikage hesitated for a moment, choosing her words carefully. "It appears there is a discrepancy between what people remember," she said, shuffling the papers on her ever-present clipboard, "and for some reason my colleagues in Security don't recall certain details. Like the Synchro Killers."
"Yeah, we already know they've fucked up history yet again." Crow moved away from her, towards the window in an attempt to escape the burden of disapproval his language gained. It was a wonder that the glass remained intact under the intensity of his stare. He rolled his shoulders, picked restlessly at the leather bands around his biceps. "What I'm getting at is, Why do people suddenly think Carly's responsible?"
"They don't know who is," Aki felt the need to point out. "It seems logical, too. Since Aslla piscu is the only thing in that photo—"
Mikage continued to address Crow, voice mild yet cutting. "Please stop this. Some of us do recall what happened. Kazama Souichi, for one, and I remember too, though I don't know why—"
"I touched your hand," Aki whispered. Her head reeled with the impossibility of it all. "I thought I only imagined the ripple. So it was real?"
"Kazama – He's the guy Jack accidentally landed in hospital, right?"
Rua's voice, an undercurrent shifting through the tangle of words, "Aki-neesan, are you okay?"
Too confusing. All the words jumbled up in her head. Too many people were trying to talk at once, too many threads overlapping. A crinkle in her hand; she was clutching the note again, clutching it close like a lifeline. Aki was still convinced of Iliaster's involvement but nothing could prove it to her fellow Signer, not even the evidence of that single red hair. "We're never going to get the full picture," she said to no-one in particular. "Look at us. We can't even put together what we do know." Because there was no head to check the impetuous snatch of the claws, or curb the tail's instinct to lash out. No wings to drag the rest of them into line. Aki's distracted gaze flickered to the window. A dark-clad form moved at the corner of her vision. There, at the shadow's side, walked a smaller, paler figure. Two of the missing pieces. She dropped the note. Perhaps she announced their arrival, maybe she didn't; all she knew was that she had to get downstairs before anyone interrupted.
"Ruka, Carly," she greeted them – they entered the garage just as she'd almost reached the bottom of the stairs. A click sounded as the main door swung shut. Her eyes were drawn to the solemn expression the youngest Signer wore. Descending the last three steps, she continued, "What's wrong? I thought you were…"
"…He isn't there."
Once again Aki found herself fearing the worst outcome – but Jack couldn't be dead. She hated this limbo of uncertainty and her growing tendency of assuming the worst. "Ruka, I don't understand. He has to be—"
"Jack is there, but Jack isn't. He's empty and cold. It's just the Crimson Dragon keeping him alive – there's no Jack left in him." Ruka sounded too calm about the matter, wise beyond her twelve years, like she had had far more time to come to terms with the possibility. The cold trickle of discomfort down the back of Aki's neck… this couldn't be real.
"…we have to do something."
Bruno's voice behind them – of course, he was down here too, his presence had slipped her mind again –
Carly smiled softly, a response out of touch with the gravity of the situation; she shifted a long object clutched in her arms. A tube of some kind, with one end wrapped in a blanket. Aki couldn't guess at what it might be, and the vague distance in the Dark Signer's smile betrayed no clues. "How far away is the Arcadia Movement?"
There had to be a rule, somewhere: Never trust the person who says, "I have a plan." Half the time they were lying through their teeth, making things up as they went along, or just plain hadn't a clue… and Crow reckoned the current situation fell firmly into that third category. Black Bird's engine murmured as rider and D-Wheel came to a gentle stop at the foot of a skyscraper. Bruno pulled up alongside. His vehicle whirred in protest – why the mechanic persisted in using a model of such limited capacity, Crow hadn't a clue. He glanced around. The streets were busy today despite the later hour, long past ten o'clock, people hurrying to and fro on pointless, scattered errands. Beyond them, the structure once known as the Arcadia Movement jutted into the sky like an arrogant, uplifted finger. Of the assembled company, Crow and Bruno were the only ones who had never encountered Divine. From the little information that others had divulged… Crow was glad he hadn't. Meeting a monster like that – a man who had killed children simply because they didn't match up to his expectations – well, it'd be enough to say that he sounded like scum. Worse than scum. And this building, the man's legacy, made something in him lurch uneasily. Why here, of all places? He removed his helmet, tucking it under his arm as he swivelled to check the progress of the car slowly approaching them through the early morning traffic. Carly Nagisa made no sense even when she was alive. Dead, she somehow managed to become even more of a mess of contradictions.
People were whispering. Some gave him and Bruno a wide berth, casting suspicious glances at the yellow marks twisting his face. Crow was used to such suspicion. Not everybody would let go of the old prejudices so easily, and unlike Yuusei he was hardly a famous face; celebrity gained you forgiveness for anything, it seemed. He was constantly overshadowed by the fame of his brothers and teammates and he liked it that way. He would much rather duel on a casual level and devote the majority of his time to his delivery service—but the WRGP had come calling, and he hadn't been able to resist its allure…
Cough of an vehicle as it paused, and stopped. Mikage parked nearby, and the three women – she, Aki, and the Dark Signer who had kick-started this particular mess – joined them at the edge of the sidewalk. Carly clutched the object even tighter. Her gaze drifted up the side of the skyscraper, face turning pallid. Why had she asked to come here? Crow was lost. None of this made any sense to him. Aki, too, seemed uncomfortable, doubtless from their proximity to her former home: she'd never gone back.
Hesitating for a moment, Carly shook her head and turned her face from the building. She shuddered. Her stare dropped to the pavement. "I think it's this way," she said, hugging her poster-tube (he was certain of what the cylinder was, at least). Her heels tapped briskly across the pavement. Bruno moved to catch up to her; he was almost forced to run, she walked away from the scene so quickly. For a moment Crow was tempted to hang back. Something about the Dark Signer set him on edge. He couldn't quite put his finger on it; it was like there was always some kind of haze around her. It made his mark crawl with discomfort. Thinking back to the conversation not two hours earlier, he tried to reconcile Aki's speculation with the constant nervous tension passing between him and their dark counterpart. The only conclusion he could draw wasn't one he wanted to consider… what if this 'Carly Nagisa' was nothing more than a mask the jibakushin had fashioned to shield itself from view, a parody of a long-dead woman? Should they even trust her? What if – Crow jumped at the sound of somebody calling his name; Aki, paused at the edge of the sidewalk, was staring at him with thinly veiled irritation, and he realised that while he'd been rooted in thought the others had moved on. He stood up, patted the side of his D-Wheel, and hurried towards his fellow Signer and friend. Some people muttered as he passed – more of the prejudiced City-dwellers – but he ignored them. Just had to focus on getting past the throng of people in his way.
Aki was a flicker against the crowd, static and unmoving. "This way," she said when he was close enough, pointing towards a single-story building – some storage unit, he reckoned, by the way it hugged the ground in comparison to surrounding high-rise structures. "We have to hurry up. Letting her wander around like this—"
"But Mikage and Bruno are still with her?"
"Yes, but," the flicker of her eyes, back towards the motley assortment of vehicles, held no answers, "we never know what's going on with Carly, with anything. I'd rather not take any risks."
Which was completely understandable, and it was nice to know Aki was finally getting the same uneasy vibes as him at long last, and … for some reason totally obscure to him, the other three had been standing near that building, only now the dark-clad figure was starting to move again. He broke into a run, Aki at his shoulder, and before the Dark Signer had managed more than ten paces they caught up. "Oi, Carly, where do you think you're going?"
"Inside." She blinked in confusion and made a vague gesture to illustrate her intent. The structure she had led them to appeared to be unsound, unsafe. Around it was a barrier of tickertape, KEEP OUT. Mikage, hanging back by the kerb, appeared ill at ease. Technically entering the warehouse would probably be breaking some law or another. Crow could understand the Chief's concern, heck, he even found himself agreeing with her unspoken discomfort. But if Carly said this was it, then they had no choice but to believe her. (Trust her? Crow scoffed at the thought. Trust her? Never.) He peered closer. From the look of it, the warehouse had been long deserted, possibly for more than a year. Ivy was trying to creep along a drainpipe. Smashed windows, broken boards, through which starving branches reached in search of sunlight. A hefty enough blow and the roof would crumple like paper. Seriously, who had allowed this place to stay standing? It was worse off than some of his old boltholes in Satellite, and that said something considerable when taking into account what he'd come from. This? this was strange. Uncanny, almost. A blotch of decay against the orderly backdrop that comprised this part of the City.
Crow shook his head to clear it of those thoughts. He had no idea what was wrong with him today. He didn't usually get this thoughtful, but then he rarely had need to. Leave that to Yuusei; he'd rather concentrate on his business. Still, at least half of what had just passed through his head was relevant. "This is it? Somebody should have demolished it years ago."
Carly nodded. "It's like the building is dying," she said. (Crow hoped that the note of… not quite eagerness, more relief passing through her voice was just a product of his mind; he had enough to worry about without considering dark alternatives.) "Come on. We have to go inside. That's where it is."
He had to restrain himself from asking the obvious question, 'Where what is?' and settled for walking half a pace behind and slightly to the right – so he could be certain she wasn't planning anything.
"The pathway you described to us, Crow, it reminds me of the Underworld. I remember it, a little. I've been there. I think that's where we went after losing the duel."
She shuffled uneasily as they crossed the threshold, to the utter disregard of the pedestrians still scurrying on their business. "Well—I don't really remember! Funny how these things work out… eh-heh…" Her nervous attempt at laughter trailed off into the grim, oppressive silence of a warehouse that sat silent, like a tomb. Crow stared at her, incredulous. It was official. Carly Nagisa didn't have a clue what she was doing. They were following the lead of a madwoman. A madwoman with memory loss. A madwoman who might not even be really there, might be nothing more than a shell worn by evil. Then again that rather depended on Asra pisca… whatever its name was being patient and canny enough to fool them. Right? He didn't think so. Somehow he got the impression that if the jibakushin really wanted to pull the wool over their eyes, set them to chasing whispers, tangle them in lies then it could. And would, without a moment's hesitation.
"I died here," came the eventual whisper. Within moments Carly had shifted back to the dark troubled mindset that set Crow's nerves on edge. "I lost the duel and fell… I must have hit the roof, just there, and gone straight through… it didn't hurt for long. Just for a moment. I couldn't quite believe it, you know? I was twenty years old. Right here. This is where I hit the ground. I remember hearing my cards, just as it all faded. They were fluttering after me. It's a strange sound, the whispers they make. They had come loose from my duel disk as I fell. Or maybe when I hit the roof. It's a little hazy. Just a cloud of spinning cards. That's the last thing I remember seeing before I ended up on that roof. The roof of the Arcadia Movement, I mean, not this one. No idea how I got there. I just did." Her sentences turning increasingly fragmented and stilted, the Dark Signer knelt at the edge of a crater in the concrete at least a foot deep. She ran her fingers across the cracked edge as though greeting an old friend. Her eyes were shadowed, her face hidden. The motion of her hand stilled. Nothing moved. Crow hardly dared to breathe. The air inside the warehouse was cold against his face. Around them, the world slowed. Sounds of the streets receded. Everything was muted under a blanket of anticipation. Waiting.
"…That's impossible," argued Bruno, ever the voice of reason. "Crashing through the roof I'd understand, with all that rust. But this is solid concrete! A human body wouldn't do that much damage, even falling from that sort of height. If we take the distance as… what, one-hundred-fifty metres? That sounds close enough. Gravitational acceleration of nine point eight metres per second per second—that's per second squared—" He paused, frowning. His eyes scrunched up in thought. "Five point five seconds from stationary to impact. Estimating mass at fifty-two kilograms, so that would give a force of five hundred and nine point six Newtons when hitting the ground, assuming that air resistance is zero…"
Beyond the mechanic's thoughtful pacing, a hypnotic to-and-fro, Aki looked bewildered and thoroughly out of her depth. Crow himself could barely follow the rapid stream of – he could only describe it as technobabble. It bore no resemblance to the maths he knew and used in his accounts. Far too complex for him to understand.
"Newton's third law applies here. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So with a force of approximately five hundred and ten Newtons striking the ground, that means that it exerts an identical force in response. The human body simply cannot cause that sort of impact!" He gestured towards the crater in an attempt to emphasise the point.
He might say that, but the truth was still undeniably there. Bruno's attempts to rationalise a clearly irrational situation fell flat. Crow's gaze skittered back to the crater and the dark figure knelt beside it. Her posture was stiff, unnaturally so. Oh. Shit. "Impossible, you say?" Carly asked. Her words sent a prickle of dis-ease down Crow's neck. They were too hushed, too calm. "So you would deny the truth?"
"It makes no sense," Bruno said insistently, oblivious to the slash of Crow's hand, a gesture that screamed, Stop talking! "Falling onto a hard surface like concrete would mean the force of impact is applied for much less time than a fall onto a softer surface—"
Carly interrupted him. "Your scepticism is annoying. Accept what happened." Slowly, she turned to face them. Her eyes were closed, but the triangular marking under her left eye appeared to be glowing slightly. Then they opened to reveal black. Crow hissed curses under his breath and cast around for some sort of weapon, anything they could use to fend off the Dark Signer whose mad gaze promised malice. For the moment her focus was solely on Bruno but the risk of being caught off guard set alarms clattering in his ears. He didn't dare risk the safety of the others. How did Yuusei do it, cope with the responsibility of their lives? Crow could never be a leader. He worried too much. Damn it! There was nothing nearby, nothing that leapt out at him. "Unless you care to test your hypothesis? It could be arranged."
Bruno seemed oblivious to the danger he was in, more curious as to how the laws of physics had been so carelessly broken. The whisper of a laugh shivered high and eerie around the cold stagnant warehouse; Crow sprang forwards, trying to intercept her motion as a gloved arm snatched at the air; he ordered Bruno and Mikage back, thinking only of protecting as many people as possible. Aki reacted too, starting towards their dark counterpart with a shocked, "Carly!" He could not understand why, even now, she seemed so determined that the Dark Signer needed their help. They had to stop her. That was more important than anything. They couldn't risk the jibakushin being unleashed, especially not with Iliaster's constant threat.
Some deeply cynical part of him argued that the situation wasn't as bad as it could be. Two Signers against one weakened Dark Signer. They probably stood half a chance of subduing her without any harm—.
Fingernails lashed, clawed, dug deep into the centre of the faint glowing mark that adorned Carly's right arm, accompanied by a sound halfway between a gasp and a sob. Her face contorted into an agonised grimace. The action was so sudden, so unexpected, that it forced Crow to hesitate, scarcely able to believe what he saw. What was going on? Aki's words from not even three hours before drifted back to him. Carly Nagisa had forced her jibakushin to back down once before; perhaps she could do it again. Gradually, as though someone had put everything into slow motion, she started to crumple from the waist. Her nails still gouged through the glove into skin. Aki continued to approach her, radiating concern and worry. The Signer reached out tentative hands and wrapped an arm around Carly's shoulders, lending her support. Their marks fully flared to life at the contact. Fire blazed down Crow's forearm. He hissed at the sudden burn. It hurt. So it seemed their marks only reacted when Carly was in direct contact with a Signer. Yet the closer they kept her, the more it seemed that dratted Hummingbird kept in line.
(Aki was whispering, it's okay, you're not alone, let us help you, it's okay.)
Except things clearly weren't okay, and Crow had no way of telling if they ever would be again—
With a sound like a sob, Carly tore herself away from Aki's protective hold, almost fell, stumbled, barely found her balance. Her legs were shaking, unsteady. "He's retreated for now. I have to be quick…"
"For now?" Crow repeated, still trying to figure out just what was going on, and Carly nodded. He thought it was a nod, at any rate, but it could quite as easily been an involuntary shudder.
"He won't give up. Not until I'm his. I have to leave before he – before he –" Hand darting out to the tube she had dropped in those terrifying moments when the Hummingbird took control, Carly fumbled with the blanket wrapped around the end, tugged its contents free. A sword. Aki's mouth formed an 'o' of surprise.
He recognised the infinity symbol decorating just below the hilt. He'd bet anything the other 5D's members had too. "Why do you have that?" Bruno demanded – his voice rose a fraction in shock – at the same time that Mikage, pushing aside any misgivings she might have had about this whole situation, started to speak: "You are in no condition to go anywhere – stop being so foolish…"
"It's the only way!" Carly insisted. She turned so she could see them all, gaze roving over each in turn. "It's my fault Jack is hurt. I have to be the one who brings him back. Please, allow me!"
Taking that whisper of her name as some form of assent, she whirled around and approached the crater. She held the sword in both hands; it looked too heavy for just one hand to take its weight. Silently, with a practised ease drawing on all his years as a thief, Crow started to approach her with the intent of following her through whatever portal she created. No way was he letting her go off on her own, not when his brother's life was at stake. The sword tip lifted. It rested on an invisible stop in the air. She just needed to drag it down, open a path, like the one he'd witnessed atop the Monument.
What are you waiting for? Hurry up.
A convulsive swallow and she started to bring it down—
"I wouldn't do that if I were you!"
The voice of a young boy tumbled into the dingy warehouse, high and mocking. Carly yelped and dropped the sword. Immediately Crow tried to seek out the speaker. There, on the roof. Red hair, green eye. A frown, and not the grin he expected of the youngest Emperor – no, the monster wearing a child's face. "Unless—so you're looking for eternal damnation? Be our guest."
Behind him he could hear Aki whispering under her breath—so maybe Lucciano had played some role, big deal, Crow still believed he wasn't the mastermind running this freakshow of events—while off to one side, Mikage inhaled sharply. "That's—"
"—Yeah, we know." Crow looked around at their group, weighing up the odds in case it came to a confrontation. Had to keep the Emperor talking. This one was dangerous; he'd almost killed the twins, and had stopped Mizoguchi with ruthless efficiency. All of them were dangerous, in their ways, but that old one only acted in retaliation and the middle one would have tried to kill them all by now in impatience. In a way, they were lucky it was only Lucciano. Lifting his head towards the figure perched at the edge of the hole in the roof, he spoke up. "What does Iliaster want this time?"
"From you? Nothing. You guys aren't nearly interesting enough." There was the grin, flitting across his mouth for no more than a second; Crow's jaw clenched at the flippant reply. "I thought it strange that you'd immediately run to your enemies, Nagisa, but then you aren't really one for sense are you?"
The god's voice hissed through the warehouse, and Crow felt a clammy chill ripple the length of his spine. The Hummingbird was nothing if not talkative, compared to its brethren at least, but the simmering rage in that single word… Surely Hell had frozen over. Signer and Dark Signer, sharing a common enemy. Nothing made the remotest bit of sense, but he would never consider that evil creature to be anything even like an ally.
Lucciano leaned forwards, shifting into a crouch, and his gaze lit with malice. "Never."
A clattering sound. Carly once again held the sword. "I'm sorry," she said to Crow, "it's the only way. Don't follow me."
Then it descended in an arc, and light flared from the gash ripped through the fabric of space. Their Marks, all three, lit up with crimson and purple. The light reached out to them, probing, questioning, and he lifted a hand to ward off its harsh glare. Squinted to make out the elusive shadows behind. The sketch of a mazelike catacomb stretching into nothing, white against white and a flutter of movement—oh god, Jack! Jack again. He started forwards despite the way his mark seared deep into his flesh, like the Crimson Dragon itself was attempting to restrain him. That was Jack! His brother. He couldn't stand by and do nothing. The dark blur that was Carly Nagisa approached the breach and faded into it, black to grey to a smudge indistinguishable from the white.
He cried out involuntarily as the energy flickered against his arm. Ice against fire, and it burned.
Then, just as sudden, it was over. His vision cleared, and behind he heard the others muttering their shocked confusion. "She's gone," somebody breathed into the unnatural chill. Crow looked around. Everyone seemed to be okay. Everyone, except… Slowly, his head rose until his gaze was level with the gaping, empty hole in the roof. He wasn't surprised. In fact, part of him expected this outcome.
'Cause Carly wasn't the only disappearance.
A/NAnyone out there who is a scientist? If you see something wrong with Bruno's physics moment earlier, either the calculation or his (garbled) explanation, please don't hesitate to let me know. We've tried our best to get it right but there's still a possibility we managed to make a mistake somewhere. Many thanks to Heleentje and Xero_Slayer (of Janime) for their help with this section – conferring with people is definitely a good way to get the ideas sorted. I honestly don't know where I'd be without you guys~!
Hope you've enjoyed the chapter. I'll try not to take so long with the next one, though hopefully nothing will require a full rewrite of all component parts…