Author notes? Eh. Pretty sure the "don't sue us" disclaimers aren't legally binding anyway. So let's just get to the ol' meat and potatoes, shall we? The ol' brass tacks!
Pre-crossover chapters of Lathis' "Teen Titans and the Lost Boy" and the sequel "Dark Titans" can be found on his FFN author site. Cap'n Chryssalid's "The Road to Cydonia" can be found, likewise, on his FFN site or his TRTC Ufopedia archive. FFN screens out links, as we all know, but here are the specific FFN extensions for our authorial subsites.
Nigh on two months have passed since Ryouga freed Terra from her stone prison, restoring the Titans to their full number after long last. The reunion has been anything but quiet, though, with deception and disaster tearing the team apart just as quickly as it came back together. With Robin and the original Titans drawn to Tamaran for Starfire's 'wedding', it fell to Ryouga, Terra - as well as some unexpected help from unexpected friends - to avert disaster in the underwater city of Atlantis. Everyone is back together again, now, and taking a well deserved breather from their adventures. But as unseen forces manipulate from the shadows, and disaster looms from both without and within, their tenuous peace is doomed to be shattered… and sooner than they expect.
It has been five months since the inclusion of the Nerima Crew into UNETCO as the war between X-Com and the alien visitors enters its seventh year. Despite the destruction of Earth's last alien refuge and the annihilation of the conspiratorial Sirius Group, the organization has been hit hard by Cydonian reprisals, and stretched thin by increasing commitments in the Far East to counter abductions of martial artists and the psionically gifted. Even as the buildup culminates for the last great push against Mars itself, distractions and complications continue to arise within the ever present specter of alien terror.
Reflections Lost on a Dark Road
Lathis - "Enjoy if you will, Tolerate if you won't."
With an irritated tap of his finger, the police report minimized to the corner of the screen, revealing another similar report beneath it. It only took Robin a second's glance to agree with its conclusion: Someone other than the Titans was playing vigilante in Jump City, and they weren't pulling their punches.
Unfortunately, Robin had a pretty good idea just who was responsible, but wasn't certain how to deal with the matter. Pinching the bridge of his nose, the masked teen leaned back in his chair and spun around. As he rotated, the main room of the tower came into sight, and the comforting sight of his friends at rest eased his mind a bit.
It was a pleasantly cool night outside and Cyborg had opened one of the large windows to let the refreshing breeze blow in. The metallic Titan himself was leaning against the frame, gazing appreciatively at the view of the bay as it glittered in the moonlight. It was an uncharacteristically serene moment for the usually hyper active mechanical genius, and it was good to see him taking a moment to slow down.
Around the rest of the room, the other Titans were scattered about. On the far end of the couch, Beast Boy and Terra were fighting over the remote control. Despite his ability produce as many limbs as needed to keep said remote out of her hands, the green teen was losing the battle for dominance quite badly, not seeming to mind the headlock that the slim blonde girl had him trapped in.
Behind the couch, Raven and Kasumi had set up a small card table and were actually playing a game of chess. It hadn't been too long since they had returned from their… trip… that the Tendo woman had shown an interest in learning chess, and Raven had been strangely eager to school her in the game. Currently, Raven had the tip of her finger resting on the tip of a bishop, absently tipping the dark piece back and forth as she debated whether to complete her move or not.
Robin was no expert, but it looked like Raven would have Kasumi mated in seven moves.
And, finally, perched contentedly at the center of the long, semi circular couch, Starfire and Ryouga were conspiring to read a rather thick comic book. The black and white publication hung between the pair of foreign teens and Ryouga seemed to be eagerly pointing things out and explaining something to the Tamaranian.
"-There - there - did you see that? Even with every bone in his body broken, Guts takes on a Dragon, one on one!"
Starfire rolled her eyes, "Only due to the assistance of the mystical armor which he wears. This feat is no more impressive than Claire's defeat of the Silver King."
"Are you joking? Claire has a demon thing stuck in her, so it isn't even like it's her own power she's using to fight. Face it, Claymore is like Berserk-lite, and 'Awakened Beings' are just watered down versions of 'Acolytes'," Ryouga countered smugly.
"At least Claire's transformation provides a believable reason for her ability to battle supernatural beings on an even basis. Guts is illogically powerful for a baseline human, given genetic statistics from that time period. And further, I do not understand the concept as to how his weapon can even harm these Acolytes, when it is stated, repeatedly, that non magical weapons have no effect."
Ryouga glared and pulled the comic towards himself. "It's because he killed so many demons with it that it became magical!"
The Tamaranian pinned him with a dead-pan stare. "And you do not see the paradox in your logic? Besides, I find the entire Berserk world to be horrendously misogynistic. Women are treated so terribly by the author that I can barely stand to look at it."
"Misogynistic?" Ryouga fired back, "Misogynistic? Yeah, well . . . well Claymore is anti-misogynistic! I mean, come on, Men are genetically predisposed to becoming evil in that world. Every guy in that book is either an evil monster, or part of an evil organization that uses women as tools. You couldn't make a more 'Girl Power' comic if you tried."
Robin could only stare at the duo blankly for a long moment, having absolutely no idea what they were talking about. They were both staunchly entrenched in their opinion, though, and it seemed that combat was more likely than compromise at this point. Shaking his sadly at just how much like siblings Ryouga and Starfire had become, Robin loudly cleared his throat. "Ryouga!"
Instantly, the Martial Artist and the Tamaranian ceased their argument to turn their attention his way.
"Um… Do you need something, Robin? I'm sort of in the middle of explaining to Star that she's way off on this stuff."
The alien in question crossed her arms over her chest and gave a loud 'humph'. "If you did not wish to have me point out the fallibility off your opinion, then you should not have introduced me to these 'manga', as you call them."
Ryouga looked about ready to dive right back into the argument, so Robin barked his name again quickly to retain his attention.
"Ryouga! I need to talk to you about Jinx..."
All around the room, the mention of the ex H.I.V.E. sorceress brought things to a grinding halt. Raven immediately lost focus on her game and looked up, a tight frown creasing her lips. Ryouga, on the other hand, looked up with a 'deer in the headlights' look before quickly quashing it.
"I... I - um, I mean, uh…. What do you need to talk about Jinx... about?"
The masked Titan stared at Ryouga strangely for a moment before shrugging. "Look, I know I shouldn't complain, considering she appears to be going straight -"
He bravely ignored the amused chortle from Beast Boy and continued.
"- But isn't there any way for you to get Jinx to, I don't know, ease up a bit when she's dealing with the common criminals?"
"Oh, is that all?" The martial artist let out a strangely relieved breath, only to throw his hands up helplessly a second later. "Well, I hate to say it, but you're the guys that said there was absolutely no way that she would be allowed to live here with the rest of us, so I really don't think any of us have any right to tell Jinx how to behave."
Terra nodded indignantly. "Yeah, I still can't believe you gave her the boot! I mean, Jinx might be a pain, but at least she's trying to do the right thing here."
A rather unlady-like snort emanated from the cloaked Titan behind the couch. Raven offered a withering stare as she replied, "How could you possibly expect us to trust her so easily? Perhaps if she didn't send half of her victims to the hospital, it would be easier to overlook her past indiscretions, but as is, someone needs to inform her that her current behavior is unacceptable, and soon."
Ryouga snorted loudly. "Don't look at me. There's no way I'm going to order that girl to 'behave herself' - Not after the last time I brought it up, anyway. Besides, it isn't like I see her any more often than anyone else here, anyway."
Kasumi nodded quite helpfully at that. "Oh my, yes. It certainly isn't like Ryouga would sneak out at night just to meet Jinx. …Oh, by the way, rook to queen six."
Everyone present stared at the serene Tendo, but the woman's perfectly straight face and her obvious intent on her game of chess made it impossible to take her word at anything besides face value.
A few seconds later, Cyborg shook his head a few times before cutting in. "Man, cut the girl some slack, Rae. Jinx totally helped us out when Dr. Light popped up a few nights ago."
Robin frowned at that thought. It hadn't been the first time that Jinx had shown up to intervene in one of their battles lately; she seemed to have an uncanny knack for locating them, really. Still, if Ryouga wasn't willing to talk to her on their behalf, then there wasn't anyone else the ex villainess would likely listen to. And frankly having her as a tenuous ally was still preferable to having her as a vindictive enemy.
"Fine, fine, we'll leave it alone for now and see if things improve on their own." With a sigh, the caped hero spun back to face the computer. "It isn't like her help is a complete hindrance, anyway. Our pleasant lull from Ryouga, Ranma and Starfire destroying Brother Blood's headquarters seems to be over."
He gestured to the numerous police reports littering the small screen. "Control Freak, Adonis, and Dr. Light all coming out to wreak havoc within weeks of each other is bad enough. But it looks like this influx of costumed villains is emboldening the regular criminals, too. More small timers think they can slip under our radar with all of these big bads on the scene."
Terra let out a long sigh at that. "Well at least people aren't confusing you guys as still being one of the big bads. For every person that says 'Hey, thanks for stopping that building for falling on me.', there are two more that throw their wallets at me and run away screaming."
The emerald changeling at her side dropped a companionable hand on her shoulder. "Well, on the bright side . . . at least we got free ice cream out of the deal that time."
Beast Boy quickly shifted into a mouse and dove behind Terra's back to hide from the heated glares fired his way.
Robin gave a frustrated growl as he stared at the monitor again, randomly clicking on a few more of the police and news reports. "Havoc in Metropolis, the Hive Five plaguing Steel City, attacks on Atlantis, and look at this-" he pointed fiercely to one of the news heading in particular. "-just look at this. Johnny Rancid - Johnny Rancid was let out of prison early for good behavior . . . Honestly, what is this world coming to?"
At his intense question, the Starfire suddenly began to tap her chin, giving a pointed look to the manga in her hand, then to the bandanna clad boy beside her before she responded.
"Obviously, there are too many men -"
Ryouga glared back, indignant expression on his face. "Too many people. Thank you very much."
Behind them, Raven nodded in a sagely manner, casually adding, "Making too many problems."
"And there's not much love to go around," Cyborg lamented in a melancholy tone, shaking his head.
Ever so slowly, Robin turned to stare at his friends. As he did that, Beast Boy shrugged in helpless amusement.
"Dude, can't you see this is a land of confusion?"
It took the masked Titan several long seconds to process things, painfully flat expression on his face, and he lifted a finger menacingly. "You guys did not just-"
Only to be cut off when the tower alarm suddenly blared to life. Robin held his glare on his innocently whistling companions for another second, then spun around and brought up the emergency channel on the computer. Immediately, the small monitor went black and the large view screen hanging behind it flared to life, a large map of the city depicted clearly.
At the center of the map, a single building was blinking a bright red, standing out keenly from the dull green which represented the rest of the city. Robin let out a pained sigh as the building was easily recognizable.
"...S.T.A.R. labs is having an emergency..." he muttered quietly.
Raven rolled her eyes. "Oh my, it must be Tuesday."
Kasumi took a moment to stare at the hooded Titan, only to burst into a fit of giggles.
Reading the rest of the information provided by the alert, Robin nodded to himself. "It appears to be some form of breach in the High Energy-Physics Annex . . ."
Pausing for a moment, Robin turned to glance at Terra out of the corner of his eye. The concepts of 'underground laboratory', 'high energy physics' and 'incredibly powerful geokinetic' did not mesh well in his mind, not at all. He couldn't be certain what the emergency was at this time, but, if any digging was involved, he was sure that Raven could handle it with less risk involved.
It wasn't like they didn't have an abundance of Titans, anyway.
"Beast Boy, Terra, I want you two to stay here-"
Robin gave them a serious look. "We don't have any information on the nature of the emergency. It could be something as simple as someone dropping the wrong beaker when it comes to the high-security labs in there; so I want the two of you to hang back as back up, in case any other problems pop up around the city. Do you two think you're up to watching the entire city while we're out?"
Terra and Beast Boy seemed to waver back and forth for a moment, not appearing to be able to tell if he was tricking them or not. Finally, though, the duo let out an amusingly coordinated set of annoyed grunts and plopped back down on the couch.
"Fine," muttered the emerald shape shifter.
"But you better call us in right away if it's something big, alright?" Terra added vehemently.
The masked Titan gave a firm nod, and then gestured to everyone else. "Alright, everyone else, move out."
In a flurry of motion, the remaining Titans floated, leapt, levitated, or ran for the nearest exits. A moment later, Robin joined them, making his way down to the garage at top speed . . .
…Which, when all was said and done, left the lone trio of Beast Boy, Terra and Kasumi all staring at each other expectantly in the eerie silence hanging over the room. The moment was quickly broken, when Terra pounded a tiny fist to the couch in frustration.
"They totally ditched me because me because they're going to fight in an underground lab, didn't they?"
Kasumi and Beast Boy shared a quick look . . . then nodded in unison.
"It certainly seems that way."
"Oh, yeah, they totally did."
With that double confirmation, Terra pouted with all her might.
"Oh, just gimme the remote already."
Ryouga gave a low whistle at the sight before them.
Even by his standards, the massive cerulean force dome which currently sequestered the entirety of the S.T.A.R. labs facility was pretty impressive. The building itself was clearly visible behind the translucent shield, and looked just as he remembered it... good memories and all that. Even the large ring of police cars surrounding the building at a safe distance was familiar, but thankfully Robin had already spoken with the officer in charge and she'd agreed to leave them to their own devices for now.
Absently, the martial artist gave the force field a rap with his knuckle. The dull, reverberating sound it made was quite unusual, but it felt as solid as any steel.
"Wow, they didn't have this here when Billy Numerous and I broke in here."
Behind him, Robin grimaced. "Yeah, thank you kindly for that memory. Still, this does present a problem. Cyborg?"
The bulky teen in question looked up from the scanner on his forearm and offered him a clueless look. "I haven't even seen anything like this before. This shield makes Gizmo's force fields look like tissue paper. Some kind of highly charged plasma field shaped into a static matrix... possibly using a magnetic bottle? ...Electromagnetic field? ...It's hard to say, really, it's putting out a lot of interference, possibly intentionally."
To the side, Starfire ran her hand over the force field as well, giggling lightly. "The charged particles tickle!"
Dark tendrils of dark energy rose up around Raven as the cloaked Titan studied the dome. With a roll of her wrist, the constructs began to flow over the wall of force. It only lasted for a moment, though, before the black streams of telekinesis evaporated and a frown creased the girl's face. "It does seem ... comprehensive in its protection. I don't think I'll be able to teleport us through."
Though it probably wasn't appropriate, Ryouga found himself chuckling. "Well, looks like that's the end of this mission. Too bad Beast Boy isn't here, I'm sure he'd do something wacky like suggest I try to Bakusai Tenketsu the thing."
The fanged fighter found himself shrinking under the scrutinizing looks of his companions.
"...Well, can you?" Cyborg finally asked.
"What are you, kidding? I'm still fine tuning it to work on metal. I think using it on exotic energy constructs is a little down the road," Ryouga replied, a little put out.
"Well, have you numbskulls even considered contacting the people inside, yet?"
"Hey, that's not bad ide-" Ryouga stopped mid-response. That hadn't been any of the Titan's voices. The martial artist spun around, broad smile growing on his face as he did, though he did his best to try to hide it.
The sight of Jinx walking up to join them, swagger in her hips and smirk on her lips, sent a whole host of conflicting emotions running through him - in no small part because Raven was standing only a few yards to his side. The sorceress looked just as she had the last time he'd seen her; her hair turned upwards in her usual, exotic style, and her new uniform - a near copy of her old outfit, though now the hemline ran straight across her chest, leaving her shoulders bare. The Lost Boy shuffled nervously as her eyes settled on him for a rather long moment before she turned her attention back to the rest of the Titans.
Unlike Ryouga, though, no one else seemed to be at all conflicted in their feelings for the pink haired ex villainess.
"What are you doing here, Jinx?" Raven asked sharply.
Jinx rolled her eyes, subtly adjusting her path to take her closer to Ryouga. "Well, I might not have a fancy Bat Computer to tell me what to do, but even I can see a giant four story force field in the middle of the night, Rae."
Everyone took a step out from between the two girls as Raven began to glower darkly at the impudent witch.
Just before the sparks could literally begin to fly, Robin bravely took a step forward and held up his hands in a meager warding gesture. "Alright, that's enough of that." The masked hero turned to Jinx. "If you're here to assist us, Jinx, that's fine, but I'd appreciate it if you could be civil, understand?"
Jinx tilted her head to the side, making a show out of considering his request, before shrugging. The sorceress then took a few more steps until she was standing less than an arm's length from Ryouga.
"Fine. Whatever, Bird-boy. Just remember that it isn't you that I'm here to help." She made sure to send a telling look in the Lost Boy's direction with her last statement.
Robin glared at her for a moment, before nodding. "As long as we understand each other. Just don't get in our way." With that, he turned to Cyborg. "Cyborg, can you-"
"Ah, yeah, I already started trying to make contact as soon as Jinx mentioned it," replied the Titanium Titan a bit sheepishly. "If they have any internet access in there at all, that means they likely have a landline going in there underground. As long as the shield hasn't severed all connections to the outside world, I might be able to route to a nearby server, get a message in there . . . aaannnddd-"
A crackle of static sounded from the cyborg's arm and the tiny screen flashed to life. For a moment, the screen was empty, simply showing the interior of a lab of some type. A few moments later, though, an unfamiliar face filled the tiny picture. It was an older man, with wild grey hair, though at this point, there was far more sticking out from the sides of his scalp than covering the top of it. Most of the scientist's face was covered by an overly large pair of square framed glasses, perched precariously on a hooked nose.
"H-hello? Who is this? How are you contacting us?" the small man asked nervously.
Robin quickly moved forward and took a hold of Cyborg's arm. "I'm Robin, of the Teen Titans. We're here responding to the emergency. Can you drop the force field so we can enter?"
The mousy scientist quickly shook his head. "Oh my, no. The entire facility is on lock-down, you see? We've had a... containment breach, and there's no way to lower the defense screen until it's been dealt with."
Peering over the shorter teen's shoulder, Starfire glanced inquisitively at the small screen. "If you are unable to lower your defensive field, then I am not certain how we can gain entry to render our assistance."
The spectacle wearing researcher seemed to consider that quandary for a moment. "Hmm... I may not be able to lower the screen, but perhaps there is something else I can do. Wait where you are, I will come up to meet you."
And with that, Cyborg's small arm computer went black.
"Huh. That was weird," commented the cybernetic teen, "Now I'm really confused about what's going on in there. This is one serious lock down, but buddy there wasn't exactly freakin' out on us."
Ryouga found himself nodding in agreement, but didn't have any theories, so he kept quiet. No one else seemed to have any ideas, either, which unfortunately left them all to stand around in uncomfortable silence.
The Lost Boy alternated glancing between the violet haired Titan to his one side and the pink haired vigilante to his other. He really felt he should be saying something to someone, but at the same time, he didn't want to cause any problems. He'd seen Ranma screw up in this exact kind of situation way too often.
What was a Hibiki to do?
The time seemed to crawl by like a wounded animal as everyone shifted about impatiently, but finally the distant front door of the building slid open and the small scientist, complete with white lab coat, came scurrying out to meet them. The small man, barely even breaking five foot five, was carrying a small box under one arm and - and what looked to be a sizeable energy cannon strapped to his back. Within a minute, he was standing on the opposite side of the force field and waved at them politely.
"Hello there, Titans! Can you hear me?" he shouted at the top of a surprisingly large set of lungs.
Ryouga winced before calling back. "We can hear you fine, um... mister. There's no need to yell."
"Oh – ahem. Yes, so I see. Well then, let us get to work," replied the scientist brusquely. He then pulled the metallic box from beneath his arm and gently placed it on the ground before the force field.
The Titans looked at each other blankly for a moment, before Robin took a step forward. "What exactly is it you're doing, Dr… ahh, Dr.?"
The researcher looked up, startled for a moment. "Ah, yes, sorry about that. I'm Dr. Xenophon Quincy. I'm the Assistant Director of this facility. As to what I'm doing, this is a specialized frequency scanner. It's designed to bypass the scattering field this force screen emits so that I can determine its specific frequency at the moment. It randomly alters its frequency ever thirty seconds, you see, in an attempt to avoid just such breaching attempts."
Cyborg slapped a fist into his palm with an excited clank. "Alright! If we can't shut down the whole thing, then this is the next best thing. With the frequency I should be able to tune my sonic cannon so I can punch a small hole through the shield."
Dr. Quincy's eyes widened in surprise. "You have access to sonic based weaponry? Quite fascinating, I was just going to use my Naser-" He gestured to the massive cannon on his back. "- But it would likely be easier for you to do so, as this is a prototype and it's really not designed with such alterations in mind."
Something about that statement brought Ryouga up short. "Umm, Naser? Don't you mean 'laser'?"
He quickly received a swift jab to the side and turned to see Jinx wink at him before whispering. "Heh, the geek probably has a speech impediment."
The small Doctor shook his head, "Oh, no. You see, a Naser is-"
"It is an acronym for the earth terms 'Neutrino Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation'"
Silence hung in the air for a moment, before everyone present turned to stare at Starfire. Even Doctor Quincy gazed at her with slack jaw. "B-b-but I just invented it. How could you possibly know that?"
The Tamaranian shrugged her shoulders. "I had a similar device when I was a child, though, of course, we used a different term for it. ...It was one of my fondest toys."
The crestfallen expression on the scientist's face was priceless, and the Tamaranian's expression fell to match in an instant. "I - I am sorry. I did not mean to bring attention to the fact that Earthly sciences are archaic by galactic standards."
"Star!" Cyborg barked incredulously, "Seriously. Archaic? That - that just hurts!"
"Oh no, my friend, I did not-"
"Enough." Raven's command was given with a tone of finality that was impossible to ignore. "Dr. Quincy, please do what it is that needs to be done to allow us entry so that we can assist you with . . . whatever your emergency is."
"Y-yes, quite right, young lady." Immediately, the bespectacled researcher leaned forward and began to type away at the small interface on the box's surface. A small red light blinked on the side of the box for several seconds before suddenly flicking over to a green light. "Ah, there we go."
Cyborg listened intently as Dr. Quincy read off the frequency and quickly entered it into his arm. "Alright, everyone get ready. We're going to have less than ten seconds to get through before the shield cycles. It's gonna take me a few seconds to change the frequency on my cannon."
Ryouga nodded and moved to stand before the shield, Jinx hanging close to his side, and making certain to leave a big enough gap for Cyborg's imminent blast between himself and Robin, Raven and Starfire.
As promised, within a matter of seconds, the large Titan was ready, his cybernetic hand shifted noisily into its Sonic Cannon configuration with a series of whirrs and clicks. He then held his arm out, aiming the ominously glowing weapon at the shield between them.
Robin nodded quickly. "Do it."
A blast of concentrated sound in the form of a tremendous beam of bluish energy crashed into the force field with battering ram force. The force field seemed to shift beneath the barrage of sonic waves, its color growing lighter and less cohesive. Cyborg circled the sonic assault around for a second, spreading out the area affected for a few long seconds, then cut off his attack abruptly. Without even waiting a second, the cybernetic teen then charged forward into the wavering, almost ghostly section of the wall he'd just blasted.
Ryouga winced at the thought of Cyborg slamming face first into an invincible barrier . . . but let out a sigh of relief when his friend passed through the wall without even slowing. An instant later, Ryouga grabbed Jinx's hand and pulled her through as well, even as Robin, Star and Raven dove through the aperture themselves.
Not a moment too soon, either, as a few seconds after they passed through, the compromised section of the wall shimmered and returned to its former state.
Once he was certain that everyone was through, Robin nodded and turned to the Doctor. "Okay, Dr. Quincy, now that we're in, can you inform us exactly what the emergency is?"
The Doctor nodded agreeably, quickly picking up the box on the ground. He then began to walk back towards the facility, gesturing for them to follow. "Yes, yes, of course. I'll explain on the way."
As the group followed him, Dr. Quincy un-holstered his naser cannon. "The problem is still contained in the lower reaches of the facility, but I'm not sure how long that will last. It's good that you arrived when you did."
Swiping his security card through a scanner by the door, he then led them into the building. "You'll have to excuse all of the security. We had a serious break in not too long ago. Some sensitive psionics research was stolen and there was massive damage to the main entrance, so we were forced to institute more serious security measures."
Ryouga shuffled anxiously even as Jinx beamed a shameless smile. Cyborg and Starfire had the good graces to look a abashed as well, which explained a few things, since Ryouga was pretty sure that he hadn't been involved in any destruction on the entrance level.
"Ah, yes. We... heard about that situation," Robin replied quietly.
"Regardless, that has nothing to do with the current situation. You see, we've had a, well, something of a break out in the High Energy-Physics Annex, if you will."
That brought everyone up short. Ryouga stared at the doctor uncertainly. "Um, what do you mean by 'break out'? I wasn't aware that you had, what - prisoners - here?"
Looking suspicious Raven leaned in as well. "That is a good question. Who, or what do you have down there that would warrant such a lock down?"
A look of excitement bloomed on the researcher's face and he quickly led them to the security desk which sat several yards away from the main entrance. As soon as he reached the station, he began to flip through the various security channels.
"It will be easier to just show you, rather than try to explain. Just let me see if I can locate it, and-"
The unearthly, oscillating, reverberating screech pierced Ryouga to the very soul and he slapped his hands to cover his ears. At the same instant, the monitor flashed to life, showing the picture of a - just a bizarre creature.
"What the heck is that thing!" Cyborg cried in shock, echoing all of their sentiments exactly.
"We call it a Twenty-Six Dimensional Hypergriffin."
...And …and the name actually seemed to fit, in the loosest manner possible. Ryouga vaguely remembered seeing a picture of the fanciful creature in question amongst the rather extensive collection of Jinx's unicorn sketches. Except this creature was nightmarish even by Ryouga's very experienced definition. While the leonine body was present, he counted no less than nine eagle heads, though that number was by no means a constant, the numerous phantasmal heads seeming to meld together, divide apart, or just outright phase through each other as it flew around the lab in which it was contained.
Though, Ryouga had no idea how the thing was actually flying, considering it had twice as many wings as it had heads, and each set of wings were flapping independently of one another.
"A… a Twenty-Six Dimensional Hypergriffin?" Robin asked with understandable disbelief.
Dr. Quincy nodded understandably. "Indeed. You see, we were doing research into the concept of meta-reality-shifting through under-space using implicate field inversions-"
Starfire nodded knowingly. "Ah, yes, I learned of that theory from my..." Twin glares from the doctor and Cyborg all but impaled the young Tamaranian. "'ahem' I mean, please continue, Dr. Quincy."
The doctor continued to stare at her for a moment longer, before clearing his throat and nodding. "Anyway, this jaunty critter hitched a ride on one of our experimental probes, which had the unfortunate side effect of trapping it in three dimensional space with us. As you can imagine it is less than pleased with the situation, and quite deadly as well."
Jinx, who had been staring at the Hypergriffin intently for some time, finally looked up. "Well, what's the big deal, Doc? You got your super naser, or whatever it is. Why not just blast it to bits on your own? What do you need us for?"
Quincy turned to look at the sorceress, adjusting his glasses a bit. "Oh my, no, I'm afraid that wouldn't work. A simple naser couldn't kill something as powerful as a Twenty-Six Dimensional Hypergriffin. You see, the beam only fires in Threespace."
The researcher ignored the look of incomprehension that bloomed on, well, pretty much everyone present, and continued on. "What I need help with, is getting the Twenty-Six Dimensional Hypergriffin back into containment. It is only a matter of time before it breaches the lower levels entirely, and I can't be certain how our defensive screen would interact with a twenty-six dimensional entity, even as limited as it is."
The Titans shared an uncertain look for a moment, before Robin finally took charge, rallying everyone by force of will alone. "Alright Titans. You heard the Doctor, let's move out."
As one, the team hurried to the main elevator which led to the depths of the facility. Soon enough, the doors opened and everyone began to shuffle into the car. Waiting patiently for everyone else to get in first, Ryouga was about to step in - when he suddenly felt an arm pull him back.
Without him in the way to trip the sensors, the doors began to slide closed and Jinx, still holding Ryouga's arm, smiled and waved to everyone else. "Dear, dear, it looks packed in there. We'll take the next car."
"Jinx, what are you d-"
Raven's inquiry was cut off by the shutting of the doors and, in a second, the floor number above the elevator began to shoot down at a surprising rate. Ryouga didn't even have a chance to comment, though, as he was immediately spun around and pushed against the cool metal of the doors.
A moment later, Jinx was less than an inch away from him, staring up at him expectantly.
"So what's with you? Not even so much as a 'hey, how's it going you sexy-sexy sorceress?' You aren't mad about that numbskull crack, are you? Cuz you know I hardly consider you one of those at all."
Taking a brief glance around, Ryouga let out a small sigh and dropped his hands on the girl's shoulders.
"What are you doing, Jinx? We're on a mission here; you're going to get us in trouble."
"Feh!" Jinx replied indignantly. "What are they gonna do? Kick me out of their stupid tower? Arrest me for wanting to take the stairs in case of an emergency? It's a giant bird, Hibiki, I'm sure your buddies down there can survive for, like, five minutes without us."
"...Yeah, I suppose you're right about that," Ryouga conceded amiably, "And, no, I'm not mad at you. It's just that you're on thin ice with everyone else as it is, I didn't want to start a needless fight."
The ex villain scoffed loudly at that. "On thin ice with Raven, you mean. And, you know, none of this would be an issue if you'd just grow a set and form your own team away from the Titans."
Ryouga let out a weary groan. "Not this again, Jinx. I'm as fit to be a leader as you are to be a fully contributing member of society."
She replied with a wide, slightly unhinged Cheshire grin that spoke volumes. "Oh, come on, Hibiki. You're the only one that people actually trust enough to follow - as horrendously ironic as that sounds-"
"Oh, har dee har har."
"I know that Kasumi is on board, for obvious reasons. And I'm pretty sure that Terra would jump at the chance, too. After all we went through, it just makes sense!"
The fanged fighter locked stares with the sultry sorceress for a long moment before finally breaking down and looking away. "Look, I'll think about it, alright? I'm not making any guarantees, though. Now, is that all you wanted to talk about?"
He immediately regretted his words, as a familiar glimpse of longing flashed through her pink, cat-like eyes. A moment later, she spun around and pressed her back up against his chest and reached up to wrap an arm around his neck.
"Not all. I mean, I haven't seen you in three nights. Haven't you... missed me at all?"
Heat began to rise in Ryouga's face dangerously fast as a whole array of pleasant sensations assaulted him. Immediately, his hand shot up to pinch his nose and he began to desperately attempt to control his breathing. Jinx wasn't making it easier, either, running her fingers through his hair.
"Y-y-you know I have. I just – it's been hard to 'get lost' on patrols."
"I find that hard to believe," Jinx interrupted with a smirk.
Ryouga's glare was lost on the back of the girl's head. "You do recall that I can crush you like an empty soda can, right? And I've been patrolling with Beast Boy the past few nights; he's super paranoid when it comes to keeping me in sight."
Tilting her head back, Jinx graced him with an adorable pout. "Can't you just, I dunno, give the green brat a friendly maiming, or something?" She quickly followed it up by mumbling something that sounded a bit like "Still haven't forgiven that punk for the 'monkey on your back' schtick."
He couldn't help but chuckle at the idea. "I doubt Terra would ever forgive me for that one." Finally loosening up a bit, Ryouga began to slip his arms around the girl's slim waist-
Which was pretty much the exact moment that he noticed the pool of darkness form on the floor before them. In a flash, the pair leapt apart and Jinx spun on him, eyes flashing dangerously.
"Who do you think you're talking to, Lost Boy? I do things my way, so like it, or lump it!"
A droll expression rested on Raven's face as she rose up from the dark portal. "I see trying to talk sense to her is working as well as expected."
Ryouga stared at Jinx uncertainly for a moment, before nodding. "About as well as the first time I brought it up."
Jinx just stuck out her tongue.
The violet haired Titan rolled her eyes. "Well, if you two think you can get along long enough to help us, there is a Twenty-Six Dimensional Hypergriffin in the basement that we could use your help dealing with." She then held out her hands. "Come closer, I'll teleport us down."
The pink haired 'hero' stared at the offered hand for a moment, before snorting loudly. Jinx then spun and waved her hand at the elevator. A flash of pink energy arced from her fingers and an instant later, the doors slid open of their own volition, revealing the empty shaft.
"Um, yeah, thanks, but no thanks. I'll just take the elevator."
And with a little hop, the young woman vanished down the hole without a second's hesitation.
For a moment, Ryouga and Raven just stared at the empty shaft before the latter shook her head sadly. "I want to thank you for trying, at least. I imagine it can't be easy for you to confront her like that."
Doing his best to quash his guilt as his stare lingered on the elevator shaft, he nodded slowly. "You don't know the half of it. It's hard to hear some of the things she has to say, sometimes."
Raven nodded sympathetically as she rested a hand on his shoulder. "It's alright; that you try is all we can ask."
Ryouga considered her words for a moment, before offering her a weak smile. "...Yeah, all I can do is try."
'To avoid hurting any of my friends. Damnit, this has to be Ranma's fault somehow.'
"Alright then, let's go. Robin is already planning on how to attack the - the
hypergriffin." The distaste in her voice at the last word was obvious, and it brought a smirk to Ryouga's lips.
A moment later, they were sinking into the ground, and everything dissolved into a black, blacker than any pitch, as they traversed through... whatever dimension it was that she traversed through for her teleportation. Though the actual time of the travel was near instantaneous, the eerie darkness seemed to cling to him, trying to latch onto him and trap him in the void-
And then they were back in the material world. There was a moment of chilling disorientation, which the martial artist shook off quickly before he took in his surroundings. They were in an unfamiliar room; a small room filled with computers banks. A large window took up one of the walls, revealing what looked to be a much larger chamber beyond it. All in all, it looked to be a fairly mundane lab -
A massive blur slammed into the window, slashing claws and tearing beaks smashing away at the casement with wild abandon. Deep cracks spread across the entire surface and several flecks of the ridiculously thick, translucent material peppered everyone present, prompting them to cover their faces. A second later, the hyper griffin vanished from sight as quickly as it appeared.
"Holy crap, dawg! Did you see that?" barked Cyborg.
Robin nodded cautiously. "Yes. The lab isn't going to hold that thing for long, it's definitely more powerful than it looks."
"And the creature does not exactly look like . . . What is the term? A 'push over'?" Starfire added, sounding slightly worried.
Raven nodded in agreement. "I'm somewhat worried about whether or not we'll be able to harm it or not. What Dr. Quincy said about only being able to affect it in Threespace left me . . . dubious about this venture."
"Well, we'll never know until we try. Not that it matters; we're here to capture it, not destroy it. As long as we can at least corral it where we need it to go, then we're in business." The masked Titan took a moment to look around. "Speaking of getting things where we need them to go, where on earth is Jinx?"
"She'll be along anytime now," Ryouga supplied quickly. "She, um, she decided to take the elevator."
Robin looked at him oddly for a moment, then to the elevator behind him, which clearly showed the car resting on the same floor they were on, then shrugged. "Whatever. We'll begin without her. We can't afford to wait for her, not with that thing tearing up the building."
Their small leader then took a moment to study everyone present. "Alright, Starfire, Ryouga, you go in first and try to knock it out of the air. Cyborg, you'll need to repair and set up the Dimensional Quarantine, just like Dr. Quincy explained."
"Remember," supplied the Doctor in question, "You'll need to get it within three meters of the Projector to be effective when you activate it."
Cyborg nodded confidently. "You know it, Dr. Q. Your schematics are just what the doctor ordered; I got it under control."
"Raven, you and I will cover Cyborg and the projector while Starfire and Ryouga try to corner the . . . Entity."
The dark Titan nodded smartly. "I understand."
"What, no role for me, oh illustrious leader?"
Again, everyone looked over to see Jinx approaching them. The elevator doors stood open behind her and the young woman ran a hand through her stylized hair absently as she regarded them.
Robin shook his head in annoyance before muttering. "Jinx . . . You help Ryouga and Star deal with bringing it down."
"Yeah, fine, I can do that," replied the sorceress in a catty tone.
"Alright then," Robin stated confidently.
"Let's go in!"
"Fall back! Starfire, fall back!"
Robin's frantic cry came too late as a wicked set of claws slammed into the Tamaranian's back, knocking her bodily out of the air. Only a black tendril of telekinesis, shooting up from the floor to catch the flame haired girl, saved her from slamming into the floor with bone crushing force.
A second later, flashes of pink energy peppered the side of the Hypergriffen, sending it careening off to the side before it could regain its balance and swoop back up towards the ceiling. Trailing only a few yards behind the great beast, bouncing madly off the walls in an attempt to catch up, Ryouga zipped though the air, pale blue umbrella trailing in his wake.
Pulling an electric disc from his utility belt, Robin hurled the projectile into the monster's path, hoping to let the fanged martial artist catch up. The small disc whizzed through the air, detonating right in front of the griffin's, well, one of the griffin's many beaks, but the creature didn't even flinch at the burst of electrical energy, soaring right through the explosion without effect.
"Cyborg, are you ready yet?"
The cybernetic teen looked up from the device he was working on, sparks flying every which way from the arc torch popping out of his finger. "I'm gonna need another minute. I'm almost done repairing the casing, then I can start it up."
Letting out a minor curse, Robin nodded and reached back into his belt, looking for something else to use. To his side, Raven continued stand guard before Cyborg, a low wall of black power surrounding the entire quarantine platform, shooting upwards at any given moment to knock away any stray pieces of shrapnel that came their way.
In the air above them, Starfire was already back up, hurling a flurry of star bolts at the swooping griffin. The beast wasn't even paying any attention to the flying girl, having zeroed in on the ground borne Jinx. Even as green bursts of plasma slammed into its side to no visible effect, the griffin tucked its countless wings to its sides and dropped into a dive, snapping beaks and razor claws leading the way.
Instantly, Jinx gave a small shriek and turned tail before sprinting full speed in the other direction. As fast as she was, the young detective could already see she wouldn't be fast enough to escape. Urgently, Robin prepared an entire fan of explosive birdarangs to throw -
He needn't have bothered, though, as a familiar green and yellow blur cut through the air, slamming into the griffin's side with a thunderous crunch. A second later, Ryouga followed up his shoulder tackle with a swing of his transuranic umbrella, slamming the beast out of the air completely.
Seven distinct screeches of pain pierced the air as the griffin bounced off the floor, but less than a handful of seconds later, the monster was already back on its feet. Ryouga, Starfire and Jinx all rushed in simultaneously, but none were fast enough as a flurry of flapping wings launched the multi-dimensional raptor back into the air again.
"Cyborg!" Robin cried out.
"Just another second!"
Abruptly, the masked Titan was forced to leap to the side, Ryouga's body rag-dolling through the space he'd occupied a second earlier. The martial artist bounced a few times before slamming bodily into the onyx wall of energy surrounding the projector.
In a moment, Robin was by his team mate's side, helping him to his feet.
"I hope you guys are almost done over here," Ryouga barked hoarsely, "This thing is more frustrating to put down than Kunou. It's starting to get embarrassing!"
Robin nodded, smirking. "Cyborg should be done soon. We're going to need you guys to get it to the platform, though." Quickly reaching behind his back, Robin pulled out one of his grapnel launchers and handed it to the bandanna clad warrior. "Use this to tie it up if you can."
Ryouga took the item and nodded fiercely, tucking it in his belt. A moment later, Robin was alone as his companion sped back out into the fight.
"Okay, Robin, I got it ready to go. I just need to set the remote and clear the area. Gimme another minute!" Cyborg yelled out from his position.
"Alright!" Robin immediately rushed forward to stand in front of Raven. A quick scan above them showed, the Hypergriffin hovering near the ceiling. Starfire floated to the right of it, trying to corral it with her eye lasers. Ryouga hovered behind it, umbrella-copter in his right hand and a spinning bandanna in his left. On the ground directly beneath it, Jinx stared up impotently as her hands burned with pink flame.
Hoping to distract it long enough to let the trio drop the beast, Robin whipped off a handful of birdarangs. The spinning blades cut through the air with uncanny accuracy, and each one slamming into a separate beak.
To his mild surprise, the griffin actually noticed this attack... Unfortunately, to his great surprise, the attack seemed to infuriate the monster no end. Overlapping, oscillating screeches filled the air as the griffin suddenly dropped into another dive, straight toward the bird themed hero.
"That's not good. Star, Ryouga, stop that thing!"
In a valiant effort, the Tamaranian and the martial artist surged forward, both actually managing to clamp a hand down on a wing and the tail respectively. Even with both Starfire pulling back and Ryouga's umbrella-copter running at full throttle in the opposite direction, the griffin barely slowed in its dive. On the ground, Jinx sprinted forward before ducking down into a crouch and launching herself up at the diving creature.
She didn't even make it halfway before she was sent flying wildly through the air by a buffet of its wings. Robin's eyes widened as he watched her body rag doll through the air; there was no way the girl would regain her balance before she crashed to the ground. Moving as fast as he ever had, he dove right beneath the swiping claws of the griffin and charged forward, managing to slide across the ground just in time to break her fall before she broke her neck. Panting at the sudden, exertion, Robin took a second to make sure that Jinx wasn't hurt-
The Hypergriffin slammed into the ebony wall of Raven's power at full speed; the sudden whiplash was enough to send Starfire, still clamped to one of its wings, slamming face first into the wall as well. Rather than bounce off the black construct of energy as the Tamaranian did, though, the wall directly beneath the griffin began to warp and buckle in a disturbing manner.
Abruptly, Raven collapsed to her knees and clutched her temples, a pained scream tearing itself from her throat. All around her, her power began to fluctuate wildly; black tendrils of the stuff writhing and flailing as if alive. The griffin howled in pain as it clawed wildly at the dark energy which began to constrict it. A random thrashing of its tail sent Ryouga flying forward over the vanishing wall of black telekinesis . . .
"Nonononono-" Cyborg's panicked shout was cut off abruptly by the sound of Hibiki slamming into titanium. A grim feeling rose up in Robin's chest at the familiar sound. It was quickly justified when an unearthly whine began to emanate from the center of the room. It was quickly followed by a coruscating sphere of rainbow lights flaring to life less than a yard away from Raven's collapsed form.
"Ryouga!" Jinx struggled out of Robin's grasp. Reaching forward, Robin quickly grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.
"Wait, we don't know what's going to happen!"
"I don't care!"
Both of them stopped dead, though, as both Raven's and the Hypergriffin's screams rose exponentially in unison. Raven's power was now wrapped around both in a nightmarish Gordian knot; however a long chord was now collapsing into the rainbow sphere, being drawn into the orb as if it were a iridescent black hole. Even as Cyborg frantically scanned the anomaly, Ryouga struggled past the uncontrolled energy, savagely slashing at the black constructs with his umbrella in a desperate bit to reach Raven's side.
Barely visible on the far side of the chaos, Robin could just see Starfire pushing herself up to her feet, one hand clutched to her skull and an obvious grimace on her face. The grimace disappeared in an instant, though, all concern for herself evaporating when the Tamaranian saw what was transpiring about her friends.
Amazingly, Ryouga managed to make it to dark Titan's side, tearing away at the cocoon of power and clutching Raven to his chest. Rather than make things better, the howls of Raven, the griffin and the swelling sphere of chaotic energy all reached a horrific, soul piercing crescendo. In that very instant, Robin's entire perception of reality seemed to invert on itself. Up became down, black became white and it felt agonizingly like he was a second away from inside being out.
A crack of thunder blasted the Titan straight off his feet a second later. By the time he regained enough of his senses to sit up, the griffin, the sphere, and half of his friends were gone...
In their place, a massive swirling vortex of abyssal energy rotated ominously in the air. The black void seemed content to merely exist for a fraction of a second. Then an ominous howl filled the room as it began to suck in everything around it, like the very maw of hell itself. Cyborg and Starfire were the only ones remaining near the epicenter, and both were sprawled across the floor, utterly unconscious.
"Star! Starfire, wake up!" Robin cried out.
The draw of the vortex doubled within a second, then doubled again. Within a matter of moments, even Cyborg's bulky frame began to skid noisily across the floor. Robin took a hasty step forward, preparing to charge in and grab the Tamaranian, but as soon as he did, his feet nearly left the floor all together. Even with both feet firmly planted on the ground, his steel capped boots began to squeal in protest as he began to slide inexorably towards the hellish maw.
Thinking quickly, he aimed a grapnel launcher at the wall behind him and fired. The small titanium projectile dug into the wall not an instant too late as the tether snapped tight a second later. The masked hero then noticed a blur of motion to his side and reacted without even thinking. He managed to grasp Jinx's sleeve just before she flew past him.
In a matter of moments, the pair of them were floating parallel to the floor, the only thing saving them from the impossible pull of the spinning portal - a narrow chord of spider silk. With one hand clutching onto his grapnel launcher for dear life, and the other holding the ex villainess' sleeve, Robin could do nothing but watch as Cyborg and Starfire continued to slide away from him.
Miraculously, the Tamaranian's jade green eyes fluttered open just as her body began to lift from the ground.
"R-Robin?" the girl asked uncertainly. It didn't take her long to realize something was wrong, as she began to fly backwards against her own volition. Instantly, her backwards momentum stopped, and Starfire began to move forward incrementally. The strain from fighting the pull of the portal was obvious within seconds, though.
"Starfire! Grab Jinx's hand!" Robin shouted, his voice cracking.
Slowly, Starfire reached out her hand. "I - I -"
And then the familiar sound of scraping metal made itself known in the cacophony of the black hole. Instantly, Starfire turned to see Cyborg sliding past her, completely helpless. Even with his massive weight, his limbs were already beginning to lift into the air.
Robin's eyes widened to saucers as he watched the Tamaranian. Starfire stared back at him longingly, then looked to their unconscious companion quickly sliding beyond her reach.
It was all too obvious what would happen next, and even as Robin wanted to cry out, he felt his heart swell with pride. Starfire graced him with one last gaze, filled with more emotions than he even knew existed... Then she spun away from him and flew directly into the heart of the maelstrom without even a second's hesitation. Just as she had been reaching out to him a second earlier, she reached out again, stretching out her arm to catch the now flying Cyborg.
A second later, they were both gone.
The masked hero didn't have time to register the moisture building in the corners of his eyes, though, as the sound of tearing cloth reached his ears over the deafening howl of the portal. He quickly looked down at Jinx, noting the panicked look in her eyes as she stared back at him helplessly.
An odd moment passed between the young detective and the sorceress as they matched gazes in that one, impossibly long instant. In that moment, he could have sworn he saw a tiny glimpse at the true Jinx, the look of raw terror as she watched his grip slipping, the expression of indignant fury as she stared at the cloth of her dress tear away, thread by thread.
And, most notably, in what she yelled out when his tenuous grasp eventually failed and she went soaring backwards into the black vortex before vanishing from sight-
Robin stared in anguish as he gazed into the abyss which had just taken his friends. For a moment, just a moment, the thought of simply letting go flitted across his mind. The lapse in judgment passed an instant later, though, and he quickly latched onto the grapnel launcher with both hands. No matter what may come, he had been trained to never give up, no matter what, and his stubborn determination wouldn't let him fail now.
As such, all that he could do was watch powerlessly as the vortex began to slowly collapse in on itself. Within a matter of minutes, it was gone and Robin was left kneeling in center of an empty room, shrouded in a deafening silence.
In that moment, only one thought filled the Titan's mind.
Operation: Silver Ice
Higurashi Shrine: (date) 14:00 hours
Commander Yasuda had called it "growing field experience."
For Nabiki Tendo, it was just the sort of chaos she had hoped to avoid after finally coming back to the city of her birth. For months now, she had been cooped up in an underground base, deep in the mountains; a chance for some field work, back in Tokyo, had seemed like a great deal. She'd spend a few days snooping around, maybe supervise one or two semi-serious ops, capture whatever rogue psionic or martial artist was running amuck, and then grab a couple precious hours of leisure time.
It was the next best thing to an unsupervised leave.
Naturally, things didn't turn out that way at all.
The Higurashi Shrine was the sort of archetypical shinto establishment her father had always told her to take a historic and cultural interest in, and which she had quickly grown bored with. She had seen her share of spirits and demons and other really, really odd things - doubly so over the last half year since joining UNETCO - but none of that had made her feel particularly religious. Seeing this particular shrine for the first time, her initial impression was that the land it was on had to be worth a small fortune.
Then she saw the first of the twisting serpentine monsters rise up from beyond cusp of the hill the shrine stood upon. Twisted maws snapped and hissed, and inhuman eyes dilated as the mass of... things... churned like an insane ocean. Nabiki sighed.
This was why - exactly why! - property values in Tokyo were so damn erratic.
Twenty One hours earlier
Higurashi Shrine: February, 17th; 17:00 hours
The sun shone down on a beautiful and cloudless Tokyo afternoon.
Nabiki sucked in a deep breath, enjoying the air. Yes, that was car exhaust she was forcing into her lungs - and it was a welcome relief. It was the smell and taste of the big city! Across the street, a dango cart was selling its wares, a pair of tourists were inexplicably lost trying to find the subway, and all was right with the world. This was her city; oh how she had missed it!
True, Nerima Ward was some distance from here, but she loved Tokyo all the same. It was vibrant and exciting and full of opportunity! A stark environmental contrast to where she had been spending her days and nights for the last half dozen months. Seiran Mountain was an enclosed facility, with recycled air, recycled waste, recycled everything. Contact outside was limited. The only fresh air to be had was outside, and even for those given special dispensation to leave the mountain daily, it was more a tease than anything. The secret base was, to be frank, stifling.
It was just too bad she was technically here on business.
"Target is heading north with companions. ETA fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen Minutes," Mousse repeated, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "We're in position."
"We've been in position for an hour," Nabiki felt the need to add, but didn't bother to activate her hidden microphone. There was no need for the complaint to reach more ears than were already present. In the back of the black unmarked van, Ryouga huffed in agreement.
So far, the mission had been rather dull.
Sitting in the front passenger seat, Nabiki stretched her arms with a sigh before straightening out her black jacket and fixing her shirt collar. The three of them were stuck in civilian guises as agents of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, "Special Internal Affairs Department." It meant the usual Men in Black look, as everyone called it (or Woman in Black in her case). Even as popularized as it had become in the public perception and media, the look continued to be ubiquitous and intimidating enough that UNETCO didn't bother trying to be original.
At the moment, she was "Makino Katsumi."
The nearly blind hidden weapons master sitting next to her (and currently cleaning his nails with a very sharp looking throwing knife) was one "Jason Chen" - Chinese-Japanese-American or something like that. Mousse always did get stuck with the stupider background stories.
The doofus in the back of the van enjoying a little power nap was "Amano Seiji."
It was their second stake out in the last half week.
Seiran had shipped them out to check up on some unusual activity around the country. Juliet was also on assignment, having just shipped out to run some Ops in Korea and the greater Pacific. UNETCO was still intent on keeping other "special" martial artist types out of alien hands, and when something odd cropped up that local intermediaries couldn't handle, Commander Yasuda didn't hesitate to use either of the two martial arts squads based at Seiran Mountain. Since they could operate effectively without extensive alien-derived hardware, skirting the UNETCO charter's Section Seven restrictions, it was considered an ideal assignment for them.
It was fairly light work compared to what India and Juliet Squads has been involved in lately. The terror sites from a while back were still fresh on everyone's mind, as was the fighting before that around the world. The aliens had hit suddenly and hit hard, and now they were in a small lull between storms. Under normal conditions, with no missions to undertake, the squads would be training like the lunatics they all were, but on light mission duty like this, they had to be content with trying to relax a bit.
But not too much.
No one expected they'd have to bring in another Hibiki Tatsuya or Happosai or other powerhouse, but there was always the possibility, and even a class A psychic could be a real handful, much less a double-A. For herself, Nabiki wasn't terribly worried. Their earlier stake out had been just another "Dojo Destroyer" with a few minor tricks. They'd tailed the guy for a while, confirming that he didn't have any really outstanding abilities (by Nerimite standards), and then Mousse had jumped in and made short work of him to be sure. After the so called "martial arts duel" - if you could even call it that - they'd decided to just let the guy go.
He didn't have a trace of alien influence on him, and the threat of his abduction was minimal. Basically it was just a false alarm. The second incident hadn't panned out either, after just a little investigation. The source of the problem was ultimately Nerima itself. With most of the martial artists there either working for UNETCO, or shipped off to a Sanctuary Community, there was some spill over from aspiring martial artists and the like who wanted to challenge one of the former Nerima Crew.
So basically one martial artist strays into Juuban, kicks down a tree or something, and everyone panics. It was kind of sad, actually. In Nerima, it was unusual when a martial artist didn't go around kicking over trees or knocking down concrete telephone poles. Everyone there had kind of gotten used to it. It had gotten to the point where people would put up signs like "please to not hug" on a pillar or "please do not punch" on a concrete wall, all in a desperate attempt to keep martial artists from causing property destruction. In fact, two of the worst offenders were sitting within arm's reach of her, no doubt waiting for an opportunity to rearrange the landscape.
She remembered feeling particularly bad for the giant Buddha statue someone had put a "please do not destroy" note on... which Ryu had promptly destroyed twice in his duel with Ranma. If anything, the signs and notes just made things into better targets for the universe's cruel sense of irony. Regardless, here they were, investigating a handful of haunts that were probably nothing serious at all.
Next to her, Mousse sucked on his lip as he cleaned out his thumbnail with the knife. In the back, Ryouga yawned contentedly. He had a half finished book in his right hand, his middle finger taking the place of a proper bookmark or dog-ear.
"Hey," she called over her shoulder. "I want some of that dango across the street."
The lost boy blinked and glanced in her direction. The back of the van was roomy enough for several men, and Ryouga had it all to himself. Well, aside from certain tools and tricks of the trade they hadn't yet needed to use. He looked at her with an expression that seemed to ask, without asking, 'Now? Really?'
"We'll hop over, get some, and come back. It'll be a quick snack before we head into the scary haunted shrine, oooo," she said, wiggling her fingers. Ryouga leisurely scratched behind his ear, thinking it over.
"Mousse, you want anything?" he asked, finally deciding to just do what she wanted. Nabiki smiled at that; he'd probably guessed that she also wanted to talk to him about something.
The Chinese martial artist shrugged.
"If they have it, one of those little green tea cans," he replied, and then added, "Or a Red Bull. I'm not a big dango fan."
Ryouga nodded, and opened the doors to the back of the van. Nabiki quickly opened her side door and met him outside. He waited for her and followed in step as they crossed the street. Shirokuro (the uncanny Hibiki family guide dog) wasn't here, so the threat of him getting lost was always on everyone's mind.
Nabiki knew it was one of the reasons she was here; hell, it was one of the reasons why she had been assigned to work with India Squad in the first place. At the time, she had been the only one to figure out a way to get the then-special-lieutenant back on track in the face of a disorienting enemy attack. Ryouga had gone on to salvage the mission from the jaws of disaster, though just barely, and the event had spearheaded Nabiki's own promotion as well.
As they crossed the street, Ryouga slipped his hands comfortably into his pants pockets. He kept his eyes on her - to make sure he didn't get lost, of course - but also seemed to take a little time and attention to enjoy the weather. It was still a bit chilly, but not nearly so cold as it was outside Seiran, up in the mountains. The two of them had enjoyed a few quiet times out there, since Ryouga took Shirokuro out for a brief walk every day. She hadn't said as much yet, but she hoped they'd have some time either between missions or after then but before heading back to base to spend some time in the city.
It wasn't a vacation, of course, but they had some free time and some leeway...
Not that she had expected, months ago, that she would ever be thinking as much about the directionally damaged idiot. He hadn't even dropped by the Dojo that often, not since before the whole Saffron thing, so he was less a fixture in Nerima and more a casual visitor. Nabiki knew that was Akari's doing. Ryouga had all but moved in with her by the time... by the time 'incidents' occurred that brought UNETCO and XCOM into their lives.
She could still remember, in terrible detail, that night when the family had been abducted. Ranma and Ryouga had ended up saving the day, killing the aliens but leaving them stranded in a UFO in orbit around the planet. At the time, she'd been thankful to him for coming to save them. She'd seen enough TV to guess at what the aliens would do to her, to them, if not for the rescue. The things she had seen on the ship later only reinforced that those nightmare scenarios were just the tip of the iceberg.
Then he'd almost died correcting the course of the ship, so it wouldn't hit the Ocean. In retrospect, it was possible he was just doing it as one last act of suicidal self-sacrifice, but he did survive, and at the time she had been impressed by the fool's determination and drive. It was really only when they joined with UNETCO, and she realized he could also be a means to her own advancement in the organization, that their alliance-of-convenience became friendship. It helped that he'd managed to mellow out a bit over the months... and that he had as many skeletons in his closet as she did.
At this point, either of them had to have enough blackmail material on the other to ruin them three or four times over. It actually felt sort of good, in a weird way, because Nabiki also knew he'd never actually use what he knew and what she'd confided in him against her. And because Ryouga had that, she didn't have any temptation to use what she'd learned either. Well... there was always a little bit of temptation, but it could be satisfied easily enough.
"Two goma style, please!" Nabiki happily picked out a few skewers of the tasty treat from the cart's menu. "And two bocchan!"
They all looked so good!
The cook was a friendly looking middle aged man with an over-large apron, and he smiled at the pair in a knowing way. Already, the smell of red bean paste and soy was starting to make her hungry. Seiran had its own cooking staff, of course, but they didn't make Japanese food very often, despite the base being in Japan. It was usually American style, or European dishes.
"I guess I'll be paying," Ryouga grumbled. The cook didn't look surprised by the statement, either.
"Of course you will, Seiji-chan," Nabiki cooed, purposefully using his cover name. As expected, he blushed a near beet red in embarrassment and confusion before crossing his arms with a huff. The chef chuckled at the young man's discomfort.
"Will that be all?" he asked, already getting a wax paper wrap and syrofoam platter ready for the food while it finished heating up.
"I guess I'll have... three of the kinako style," the lost one relented. "And three cans of green tea."
"You got it!" the chef happily complied, adding more to the grill.
"Hey, Seiji-chan," Nabiki said, smiling at how the endearment attached to the fake name annoyed the lost boy. "Do you remember the name of that guy who fought Ukyou before? The guy who had some takoyaki themed martial art?"
"I'd heard about that, but a name...?" Ryouga cupped his chin as he thought. "Nah, I can't remember. There was that Crepe Guy Ukyou fought before, but Takoyaki...?"
"That was Crepe Joe, I think? He was good!" Nabiki shook her head. "Too bad he left town after that duel. Between Ukyou and Shampoo, I swear they've scared off most of the good cooks in the area."
"The good cooks who also happen to be martial artists anyway."
"Which is almost all of them, back home."
"There aren't any good restaurants left?" Ryouga asked, surprised. "They were all martial artists?"
"Maybe half of them. The best were still the wandering chefs, and none of them lasted more than a week and a half."
"You know," Ryouga replied, reminiscing a bit. "I ran into a guy about a year ago who could kill a man with a piece of shrimp."
"A tasty piece of shrimp, I assume?"
"It was incredibly delicious, yes. But also deadly." He smiled a bit, an often rare thing, always the most comfortable when it came to martial arts related topics. "I guess it was... dangerously delicious."
It had taken a long time before the two of them could converse so easily, Nabiki remembered. From little more than talk about revenge, about fighting the enemy, about what had to be done... gradually to what the day was like, to what they wanted to accomplish and how... and now, to a sort of casual comfort she knew he didn't have with anyone else. Even his teammates, who he had grown to be thick as thieves with. It was sort of amazing to think about how he had come out of his self imposed shell after her death.
"There you go, enjoy!" The vendor handed the two their platters and wrapped dango. Ryouga, rather less unhappy than before about having to pay for food and drinks, tucked his wallet back into his back pants pocket and accepted one of the Styrofoam trays with his free hand. Nabiki took hers and two of the drinks, letting Ryouga eventually retrieve his own.
They were about to walk off, when the street vendor coughed and spoke up.
"That man you mentioned," he said, a hint of admiration in his voice. "I believe it was Myojin Hayato you were referring to. Both he and the heiress to the Kuonji style are quite well known."
Nabiki and Ryouga exchanged surprised looks.
"If you two know Kuonji-san," he elaborated. "Please extend the community's best wishes for the revival of her restaurant."
"I do believe we know a celebrity," Nabiki half-joked, but answered the man seriously. "If we see her again, we'll pass that on."
He nodded once, and the two supposedly undercover agents headed back to the van. Nabiki immediately set into her first skewer of dango, cheerfully munching away. The food tasted doubly good to her since - as usual - she hadn't paid for it. For one Tendo sister at least, free food had a special spice all its own!
"So what did you want to talk about?" Ryouga asked as they waited to cross the street. "I'm guessing it isn't just martial arts and food?"
"The world is ending," Nabiki stated, seriously. "You're getting perceptive."
She grinned at his attempt at being deadpan; Mousse pulled it off better. "You want to do something after we check out this oh-so-haunted demon shrine and find some kid with a blanket over his head?"
He shrugged, genuinely relaxed at the suggestion.
"You have somewhere in mind?" he asked, and held out one hand to relieve her of Mousse's drink so it would be easier to hold her plate.
"Well, first we could go eat somewhere without a certain four-eyed third wheel."
"What?" he asked, thrown a bit by the vernacular. "You mean M..." he leaned in a bit closer to whisper. "You mean Mousse? What's wrong with Mousse?"
Nabiki had to resist the urge to hang her head.
"Ryo-baby, we've been off base for nearly a business week now, and haven't done anything without him being nearby. Don't you want to spend some time with just me?" She narrowed his eyes at him. "And before you answer that, the correct response is: yes. Yes you do."
Ryouga leaned back a bit, and the two realized they'd missed the walk-signal to cross the street. It was red again.
"I, uh...well..." he started struggling with words. He almost always did when this sort of thing came up. It wasn't so much that he had no experience with girls; it was mostly that he didn't really have the kind of mentality or upbringing that gave him an idea of what to do under certain situations. He didn't know what to say or do, and so he waffled. "How about we, ah, just walk around a bit? I'm sure there's something to do nearby?"
But he tried, at least.
"Oh, I'm sure I can find something for you - or your wallet - to do," she replied with a wink.
"Why am I not surprised?"
Soon enough, the green-walk light turned, and they made their way back to Mousse and the van. They had the members of the shrine under observation by UNETCO proxies and actual members of the PSIA. Ryouga and Mousse were here for emergency muscle in case worst came to worst. Chances were they wouldn't even have to leave the van except to give the shrine a once-or-twice-over.
Regardless, they were set to move in once this Kagome girl got back from school.
She was a notorious truant, who apparently kept missing entire school days due to strange diseases that didn't exist. It wasn't just like Ranma claiming he had to sleep in on Monday due to "foot in mouth disease." This otherwise apparently normal girl's family went through the trouble of stating that she suffered from enough illnesses to cripple a small village. Smallpox? A 'disturbance in the humors?' The bite of the tsetse fly?
It read like a bad joke.
So she was a truant and a delinquent. Nabiki wasn't really one to judge; not by a long shot. It would have been unremarkable aside from the creativity of the excuses if not for the odd property destruction caused here and there. Some of the things reported were suspicious, and some of the pictures taken of property damage done weren't forgeries or photoshops.
The mostly likely explanation, at least her opinion, was that the girl was running around with some similarly delinquent martial artist boyfriend. If that was the case, they'd just have to use her to ID the guy. Ryouga and Mousse would then be able to check it out first hand. That was, if it was even something worth looking into, which Nabiki rather doubted. Yes, Tokyo did tend to attract the nut jobs (it was part of the city's charm) but most of the time they were still generally harmless.
Not everyone was a Pantyhose Taro or Herb level threat.
"Hey," Mousse greeted the returning pair. Ryouga tossed the other martial artist his drink. "You two took your time."
"We're good," the lost one replied. "We'll go in, have tea, talk a bit, make a few quick scans, and take a look around. One hour tops."
"Maybe," the near sighted fighter speculated. "Maybe not. We'll see."
A few minutes later, across the street, Kagome Higurashi waved goodbye to a small group of other girls from her school and returned home with a spring in her step. For once, she'd managed to have a productive day at school and catch up with her friends to boot! For her, this bright Tokyo day had been a good one.
She didn't even notice the black van parked near the entrance of the family shrine.
There was something... off about the place.
Ryouga could feel it, like a tingle that rose the faint hairs on the back of his neck. Over his roughly nineteen short years on Earth, he had had the fortune to visit a great many shrines and temples across the length of Japan, from popular ones in cities to isolated ones in the mountains to forgotten and abandoned husks slowly being reclaimed by nature. The Higurashi shrine looked like the former - like one of those lovely big city shrines that the tourists loved to visit and photograph - but in his gut, it felt like one of the old relics, burned down more than a hundred years ago and forgotten.
He felt it the moment he passed through the front gate and down the sandō.
Next to him, Nabiki seemed outwardly oblivious as she meticulously took notes. The black pen held alternatingly between her fingers or between her teeth did more than record on paper, it was also a hidden camera, and one of several surveillance devices they had on their person. Most were also designed to be "carelessly" left behind for later clandestine information gathering.
It wasn't usually that necessary; MiBs and actual agents were always first on the scene in these sorts of situations, and the Higurashi family had been under scrutiny for a while. Their phones had been tapped, their mail read via some sort of electronic remote-reader technology, and several recording devices were already in position. So far, they hadn't turned up anything too concrete.
What they knew for sure was this:
The family consisted of an elderly grandfather, who actually tended the shrine, a single mother - a homemaker - who never seemed to leave, and a pair of siblings. One was a boy named Sota, the younger of the two, and the other was the recently arrived Kagome. Both seemed normal enough. There were some black marks on Kagome's recent academic record, but it wasn't anything significant in and of itself.
Not like Ryouga himself hadn't missed school more than he attended it.
However, the spate of unusual activity in the area was definitely centered around either this shrine or, very likely, this family. Records indicated inexplicable fires, strange sightings, damage to property, and even a few fatalities. All these were centered around the area of the shrine, and more than a few witnesses had identified Kagome and a mysterious man (or boy) as being involved. Thus far, there was no solid footage of this second individual.
They hadn't called ahead; the grandfather was the first to greet them, initially taking them for visitors. It took a moment for the clothes, the bearing, and the look to correct his initial conclusion. The old man's eyes widened briefly in surprise, followed by a brief slash of confusion, and then they narrowed as something important crossed his mind. Ryouga didn't miss it.
'He thinks he knows why we're here,' he guessed, and glanced at Nabiki for confirmation. She nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Higurashi Masaharo?" he asked, quickly displaying his badge. The man seemed to stiffen on the spot.
"Y-yes?" the elderly man cupped his hands together as he spoke - a nervous placating gesture. "How may I help you?"
"My name is Amano Seiji," Ryouga introduced himself, and inclined his head to his partner in the illusion. "This is Makino Katsumi. We're here to investigate some unusual activity in the area. May we come in? We have some questions for you and your family."
"Unusual activity?" the Higurashi grandfather stammered. "I-I can't imagine what that could be, but of course we'd be happy to cooperate... please, come in, come in!"
Shinto Priest. No living brothers or sisters. Wife deceased. Son-in-law, deceased. Daughter, granddaughter, grandson, still living. Second cousins living in Kimitsu and Koga. Little contact between branches of the family.
Nabiki aligned the computer case that hung by her side and tagged the man as they walked. Neither of them had proper Mind Probes on their person - they had not yet been miniaturized enough to be concealed as anything - but XCOM had managed to create a low grade version that could be used under Section Seven (which nominally prohibited the use of alien tech against terrestrial targets). It was sufficient to obtain minimal information, and it tagged a target for later long range scans by larger Probes as necessary.
It was one of the reasons why Mousse was back in the van with the bigger toys.
She tapped her earpiece and held up two fingers, her middle and index fingers pushed together. Ryouga sighed. That meant that the target wasn't psionically "clean." The probe had detected some sort of tampering, though it couldn't pick up details. It was a red light, though.
He noticed, for the first time up close, the large tree that was part of the shrine. It was near the kagura-den, in a place of importance and prominence. According to records, the tree was supposed to contain the spirit of a demon. Ryouga was a man who had seen supernatural entities come out of boxes and mirrors and - though he had thankfully only heard this one - a woman's undergarments. He wouldn't have been too surprised to find something funky floating around or within that old tree.
The old man glanced back, seemingly taking note of the PSIA agent's curiosity.
"Our sacred tree," he explained with a chuckle. "You know of it?"
"I've read a report," Ryouga answered.
"And do you believe the stories about it? And about the shikon no tama?"
"I believe what I can see and touch and fight," the lost one replied. He didn't elaborate on all that that list included.
"Mmm," the old shrine keeper mused. "And you, Makino-san? What do you think?"
Nabiki shrugged. "I've seen some strange things, but that doesn't mean I always believe what I hear."
The Higurashi grandfather nodded to himself as they headed for the family's home at the rear of the shrine complex. Some of the tension eased out of him, no doubt as he assumed the two agents would give up once they found nothing terribly unusual. Instead, his polite inquiry and posture had the opposite effect. Ryouga and Nabiki had come looking for the unusual, and the old man had all but confirmed that they could find it if they looked.
"May I ask what concerns, exactly, were brought to your attention?" he asked after a moment.
"I'd rather ask once we're indoors," Nabiki explained, and her tone turned disarming. "This is all pretty routine, and we'd like to talk to everyone both together and individually."
"I see," the old man replied, once again with a bit of worry.
Heading inside, Ryouga took note of the shed in the back. Intel had identified it as a storage shed with an old dried up well inside. It would have been noteworthy save for the unusual amount of traffic it saw. Kagome had been recorded to go in there for very long lengths of time. What would a young girl be doing in there?
The lost boy rolled his eyes.
Besides the obvious, that was.
It was time to dig a little deeper.
Kagome was nervous, that much was obvious from the moment Nabiki met her.
It made things both easier and harder. A nervous mark was much more likely to slip up, but conversely, she was also more likely to shut up once she realized how in-deep she was. Nabiki knew from experience that verbal manipulation was a fine line of carrot and stick. From the get go, she would need to put forward three simple impressions: that "Makino Katsumi" knew more than she was letting on, that she was looking out for her mark, and that she was in charge of what was going to happen after the facts came to light.
It helped that Kagome was, basically, a very nice young girl. In looks, she reminded the Tendo sister of Akari (a fact Ryouga had said nothing about, but which she knew he had to have noticed himself), and her temperament was similarly mild. Not quite the inhuman Kasumi level of mildness, but she was clearly the sort it took some effort to rile up. Nabiki knew the type, and that she was the kind of proper Japanese girl who bent to authority much more easily than certain nameless tsundere peers. Dealing with her wouldn't be too hard.
"Just relax, Miss Higurashi. I'm not here to get you in trouble," she began, after the two girls took the conversation to Kagome's room. Nabiki took a discrete few seconds to look around before taking a chair and getting down to brass tacks.
"I just want to ask you some questions," Nabiki assured the younger girl.
Kagome sat shyly on the edge of her bed, protectively holding her book bag between them.
"Um, I'll - I'll be happy to help any way I can..."
"I know. Kagome - can I call you Kagome?"
"Yes, that's fine."
"Let's start at five months ago," Nabiki said, propping up her clipboard to start jotting down notes. "Prior to this time, you had a perfect attendance record. Since then, you've contracted a number of conditions, missing a total of two and a half months of school, typically in one or two week increments. I'd like to review what I have here just to make sure it's all accurate..."
In fact, these notes were only on the margins of the paper, the rest having been committed to memory. Every missed day of class, naturally, was recorded by the school, as were copies of the excuses used to explain them. Nabiki began there.
It was pretty obvious Kagome didn't have "Reye's syndrome" or "chronic arthritis" or half of the other nonsensical (in some cases made-up) diseases she'd been excused for. Nabiki made sure Kagome knew that she knew this, making the younger girl go over what she'd had, and when, and what treatments she had received if any. Doctor referrals came next, written up by a "family doctor" who wasn't actually medically licensed. She finished by outlining that there were no records of supposed trips to the Netherlands or Taiwan or Okinawa for one or two week furloughs with "specialists."
As the junior high student reached the point of realization regarding self-incrimination, Nabiki saw a few obvious tells. They were usual ones in girls her age: fidgeting, biting the lower lip, refusing to make even fleeting eye contact. Taking a few more notes, Nabiki steered the conversation - or allowed the conversation to veer - off to less stressful topics. Once the mark relaxed a bit, she'd go back in and use the established trust as leverage.
"You know, I used to sneak out of class too, when I was your age. Which wasn't that long ago, actually," Nabiki quickly added. She had maybe half a decade on the younger girl; not that much in the long run. "Daddy never came up with written excuses for me, though. Most of these are old folks diseases and stuff off the internet. You know that, right?"
"Yeah. Grandpa... he..." Kagome seemed to struggle to find how to continue that line of thought. "He and Sota write most of them."
Nabiki nodded, understanding Kagome's mixture of appreciation and apprehension: she didn't want to drag them into the trouble she felt she was in.
"You're still doing alright in school, though. I know if I missed a month of school, I'd have to work my butt off to keep up!"
"I keep my books with me when..." Kagome caught herself, and shuffled her feet. "I try to keep up while I'm in bed. Or away."
"That's a good fall back option. I'd say you're a very bright girl... but how much better would you be doing if you didn't have to cram every week or two?" Nabiki asked, trying to amp up the 'older sister' vibe. "Let me guess what's at the root of this. A boyfriend? Someone who lives far away?"
"N-No!" Kagome blurted, cheeks burning at the accusation. "He's not...! I mean. He. Um. There isn't..."
"So, a 'he' ... what else isn't 'he'?"
"He isn't the reason," the younger girl insisted. Her eyes darted over to the dresser, and Nabiki pretended not to notice. Instead, she made a mental note to check there a little later. "Besides," Kagome continued. "I don't see what any of this has to do with, um... the property damage Amano-san mentioned."
"I'd simply like to ascertain whether your trips, coming or going, coincide with the appearance of a certain man who we've identified."
This was a mixture of truth and lies. There was a young man involved in Kagome's strange disappearances, and another loosely implicated in the events in question. There was only circumstance to imply both men were the same, but Nabiki didn't mention that.
"You... you've identified...?"
"Oh yes," Nabiki cut her off. "You'd be surprised what we know." She smiled inwardly as Kagome's long silence following that. "Now, let's start with the incident last October..."
There was definitely something strange going on at the Higurashi Shrine. Ryouga wasn't really the best judge of character when it came to people, and he didn't have a gift for talking or tricking people, like his current partner. What he had instead were senses honed by years of martial arts, and expanded by extensive training at Seiran Mountain.
He was sure old man Higurashi was hiding stuff, but couldn't quite guess what, and the mother of the house was as unreadable as Kasumi. All 'oh dears' and 'oh mys' and honest platitudes about hoping no one was hurt, combined with shock that anyone she knew could in any way be involved. Kasumi pulled the same routine, even when she knew damn well who had destroyed all the giant bells at a nearby shrine or who had torn up that parking lot or knocked down the telephone poles down the street. It was suspicious, and not something he was willing to overlook or excuse as simple politeness.
On the other hand, she made a mean cup of tea.
Unfortunately, Ryouga Hibiki wouldn't be getting anything concrete out of the older man and woman, not with words. Luckily, charm and chatting wasn't what he was relying on; that was where a certain Tendo sister came in. No. His half of the team covered other, more esoteric, bases.
After dropping clandestine bugs on a few locations around the shrine, he took a guided tour with Masaharo and Souta. The latter in particular seemed to be keeping a watchful eye on the shrine's government sponsored guest. One ear open to the old man's lectures, Ryouga expanded his senses to search for psionic anomalies.
Finding a telekinetic trace was within his training, though he hadn't gotten to the point where he could track it to source. Trained psimaths and psychometrics were few and far between, and none among the two squads could operate on that level. Instead, they had to feel for disturbances and make educated guesses as to the cause. It sounded complicated, but in practice, it was as raw as sakkijutsu - putting faith in intuition and subconscious experience with the unusual and unexpected.
The more he focused on it, the more he got the sense that something was odd.
None of that sensation came from the usual suspects: the shrines themselves, the tree, the house, they were all pretty clean. Yet, the nagging sense remained close by and indistinct. Like footsteps in the snow, the impression was there, but muted. The place was definitely... holding secrets. There was something here that his mind, on an animal level, knew to either avoid or confront.
"What about that building over there?" He pointed at the storage shed out back.
"Oh, that old thing? There's nothing in there," Masaharo immediately dismissed the very notion. "Just some old trinkets and maintenance equipment."
"Is that so?" Ryouga asked, and nodded. "I guess that's everything then."
"Feel free to look around for yourself," the old shrine keeper added, with enough treble that even Ryouga could guess the man hoped his family's unwanted guests would up and leave. "The Higurashi Shrine doesn't have anything to hide. We're a pillar of this community."
"I never meant to imply otherwise," the lost one replied, nonchalant. Not like he'd go wandering around by himself, what with his... condition. "I'll contact my superiors with what I've seen. Now, why don't we head back?"
"Of course. This way."
As the two men headed back to the main building, Ryouga again noticed the boy, Souta, watching him closely. It was a shame he didn't have a psi-amp for this operation or it'd just be a matter of conducting a read on everyone involved. As it was, they'd have to apply for warrants to use remote mind probes on the household later. Someone around here wasn't just psychic, they were an 'actively manifesting' psionic. That would be all he needed to report to get the ball rolling. Ideally, the results would come back as a class-B or less, and all they'd have to do is drop a scanner to watch out for alien abduction attempts.
"Souta, right?" Ryouga asked, still walking and keeping pace with the grandfather.
It took a second for the kid to realize he was being addressed.
"Sir?" he asked. Polite. Seemed like a good kid. Just... overly interested at the moment.
"I haven't heard much from you yet," Ryouga said, inclining his head to the boy. "You see anything unusual over the last few months?"
The answer was immediate. Practiced. "No sir. Nothing."
"You sure about that? Think hard. Nothing at all?"
"No sir. I haven't seen anything unusual."
"You haven't seen your sister coming and going anywhere, with anyone?"
Souta fell back a step, but shook his head. "No, sir. Kagome-neechan's been sick a lot, but no one comes to see her except her friends."
"Really?" Ryouga shrugged, and kept his eyes on the boy's grandfather.
By now, he knew Nabiki would have talked Kagome into admitting the 'bedridden' excuse was just that: a thinly veiled attempt to explain the days she literally disappeared off the face of the Earth. He also knew, from pre-existing reports that Kagome's friends had no idea where she went or that they visited anymore when she was gone. Souta was parroting a line that lead to a dead end. His thoughts were also surprisingly well guarded. It was that way for the entire family.
"What was Kagome's boyfriend's name again?" he asked, knowing the question should have immediately brought up a name on the surface thoughts of both Higurashi males. He had been fishing for information like this since he got here.
"Kagome doesn't have a boyfriend as far as we know," Masaharo said over his shoulder. "Certainly not the delinquent you're looking for."
"That's right!" Souta chimed in.
Nothing. No names. Not even an attempt at trying not to think of a name. It was just... nothing. Silence. It was almost as if he was being blocked out.
'Maybe I should try something else. Something non-standard.' Ryouga thought, deciding to wing it a bit.
"Hold up a second," he said, stopping. The grandfather and grandson also paused, watching him warily. There was an aspect of this that he hadn't considered.
"I'm not saying whoever did these things is a delinquent. Or that they're in trouble. We're here to help, not to assign blame or punish people," Ryouga explained, and turned first to Souta. "I know you've probably seen some unusual things. Maybe you're scared to admit it. Maybe you don't want to admit it. Believe me, I can understand. There are strange things in the world, and they're why I'm here."
The Higurashis exchanged a look, both curious and wary.
"What do you mean?" Masaharo asked first.
"Let me show you a trick." Ryouga bent over and picked up a small good sized rock. Not bothering to cover it with his other hand or his fingers or conceal it in any way, he instead searched out for breaking points, created ones where need be, and then activated them. The rock turned instantly to dust.
"I can do Street Fighter like stuff, too, but you get the idea. Now," he pressed, hopeful that he got through at least to the impressionable young boy of the pair. "Have either of you seen anything unusual that I should know about? As I said, my partner and I don't want to punish anyone. We just want to talk."
Notably, Souta seemed to be thinking about it.
The grandfather just shook his head.
As he and Nabiki left, the lost one tucked his hands into his pockets. It looked like his partner had managed to get some interesting information. She'd also finished bugging the relevant spots upstairs. Mousse was already recording the Higurashi's conversation in the living room. Merely coming and going had unlocked some interesting talk in the family. By the time they reached the van, Nabiki already had a plan.
"Would you hurry up already, bitch?"
"And I told you I can't go back right now!" Kagome peeked through the slits of her window blinds. "Look!" she pointed at a car as it drove down the road. "That's the third time I've seen that car! They're watching the house!"
"Who cares that they do, whoever they are?" Inuyasha didn't even bother to look; his nose twitched as he smelt the woman Kagome had mentioned. "Unless you've forgotten, we have about a hundred more jewel shards to hunt down. So pack up whatever you need and let's get going already!"
"You're not listening!" Kagome glared at the half demon. "If I leave tonight and those guys show up, how will my family explain it? Souta and Grandpa both saw one of them use some kind of magic. I'm pretty sure sneaking out is the last thing I should be doing!"
"Five days." Inuyasha said, crossing his arms in clear vexation. "Five days you've been here. You were going to leave today."
"I couldn't exactly manage that with PSIA..." Kagome bit back the first impolite word that came to mind, that being 'goons.' "People... everywhere!" She fell back onto her bed with a groan. "I can just tell I'm going to get a big, red 'subversive' put on my permanent record."
Inuyasha gave an 'eeeh' sound that demonstrated his lack of concern or interest.
"Are you coming back or not?" he finally asked; not that he had any idea what to say about Kagome's ridiculous present-world problems. He hadn't understood them before and these newest ones were even more confusing.
"I... I don't know," Kagome admitted, and seeing he was about to groan, added. "Let me think about it. Just let me think about it."
"What car do you think she's talking about?" Mousse asked, lazily chewing a French fry.
Ryouga was in the passenger side at the front, eyes closed. "It isn't one of ours."
"She's just imagining things," Nabiki replied, sitting back to back with the Chinese martial artist. She had a pair of headphones half on, allowing her to listen in with one ear. "Look at the thermals. I told you. Just like 24-EE-616."
"I still don't believe you memorized case files like that," Mousse grumbled.
"Its easy, Mister Criticism. Just turn it into a little melody. Two Four E, E-six-one-six," Nabiki sing-songed. "So we've got another 'phantom boyfriend.' Looks like these two won't be getting caught at the altar like the last pair."
The hidden weapons master scoffed. "That must've been one surprised priest."
"In her defense, 24EE616 created a very convincing mass hallucination."
'Very convincing' was an understatement. That particular case involved a young woman creating a second, male, personality and projecting it as a solid psionic-telekinetic illusion. Supposedly the woman's friends met the man and even had double dates with the couple. Cracks in the illusion only started to manifest when the couple tried to get married. The man didn't exist in anything other than her mind and the minds she projected him into.
Amazingly, paperwork and bureaucracy had prevailed where human intuition failed.
"At least it isn't another magic mirror, or compact, or whatever it was that gave us Real Girl Ranma."
"She didn't try to make out with you, Mousse," Ryouga grumbled. "You don't get to complain. Nabiki? Confirmation on the rest of the household?"
"Work, work, work," she grumbled, but quickly cycled through the bugs in the house with one free hand. "We've got positive responses from everyone in the household. Even the cat."
"So what now, Hibiki?" she asked, leaning back in her chair. "Go in guns and hands blazing?"
Ryouga leaned forward a bit, tapping his thumbnail to his chin.
"No. I'm sure it'll go wrong somehow, but let's try and do this quietly."
"I can't believe I'm doing this."
"Quit griping and go already," Inuyasha huffed, holding back a grin.
Descending into the Bone Eater's Well, Kagome silently hoped her family's new excuse held water if the PSIA came snooping around again. They could have it appear as if she was running off, but if they found out the truth - or confirmed it, since that female agent had managed to get her hands on a lot of information - then Kagome was sure they'd block up the well with concrete or something.
She was no fool. No government would want people messing around in the past, even if it was a strange fantasy version of the past that didn't really fit with what she had been taught in school. The undeniable fact was that she had a responsibility here, to her friends, and to clean up the mess she had caused by breaking the shikon jewel. She couldn't let it all just... get taken out of her hands. It was fleetingly tempting to try and pass the whole thing on to someone else, but Kagome knew it wasn't what she wanted. She had to see things here through to the end. It was the right thing to do.
There had to be a way to keep going back but not get in trouble.
An idea had started to form in her mind of how: if she was supposed to be here, in the past, and if she was doing what had to be done... and if it was a job no one else could do...! Well, then, she couldn't be faulted for doing it, could she? That vein of thought had literally opened up possibilities as well.
If she found a way to present a good argument on her behalf, then she could get special dispensation to miss school as necessary or take tests at a pace that fit her medieval excursions. She could even possibly get help in what she brought back. A new bike would be a nice start. She'd already been careful about bringing back things like plastic and Styrofoam, and always cleaned up after herself. But what if she brought back some modern influenza or something? There were a lot of variables she had no control over, and 'don't mess around in the past' was something even a nine year old understood. What did they call it? The 'butterfly effect'?
She knew she also couldn't just keep ducking out all the time anymore. Either she came to some kind of arrangement or she completely threw the authorities off her trail, and that latter option seemed increasingly unlikely. That was why she was really going back now. To help clear her mind and think.
"Kagome!" Shippo was, as always, the first to greet her after the climb out of the well. His excited exclamation could probably have been heard halfway to the village. Catching the little fox demon in her hands, he immediately noticed that she was here without her bag.
"You didn't bring anything from the future?" he asked, dejected. There had been promises of pocky, after all.
"Next time, I was in a bit of a last minute hurry thanks to someone."
"Hmf," Inuyasha snorted dismissively. He was already headed back to the village.
"Ne, Shippo, are Miroku and Sango close by?"
"I was just about to tell you!" Shippo declared, and jumped back down to the grassy field near her parked bike. "Kirara left to go get them, so we can head out right away."
"Good," Inuyasha remarked. "We've wasted enough time already."
"Wait, I was hoping we'd have some time to talk things through. I may have to go back..."
"Kagome, really?" the half-demon growled. "We didn't come here just to go back again. I can practically smell Naraku's stink out there. We're getting closer."
"But..." bit by bit, she relented. Taking her bike by the handlebars, she got ready to hop on. "Fine, we..."
"Hey. Wait a second."
The three spun around at that. Kagome's breath sucked in as she recognized the voice: it was that PSIA agent Souta and Grandpa had warned her about! A second later, the man jumped up out of the well, just like Inuyasha himself often did. Black shoes alighted on the lip of the well as the man adjusted his tie, loosening it while looking around.
He whistled appreciatively.
"Wow. Look at this place. Reminds me of less creepy Aokigahara..." He scratched his head, momentarily lost. "Or was that Hakusan? No, pretty sure it was Aokigahara. Anyway." He hopped down from the well, eyes moving from Kagome to the young demon to the halfbreed. "So this is where you go, Miss Higurashi?"
"Amano-san. What - what are you...?" Kagome shook her head in open disbelief. "How did you come here?"
"I followed you," he explained as he walked towards the girl. "We were watching and listening, just like you thought. I wanted to see where you went, so I had my team wait until after you jumped down the well. The rest of them are back there." He pointed over his shoulder at the well. "I came in to bring you back."
"But... no one else?" Kagome shook her head again, this time to clear the confusion. "How did you come through the well? Only Inuyasha or myself can... it just doesn't make sense!"
"Yeah. I can sympathize. These things are usually pretty confusing." He glanced up at the flaming demon cat and its two passengers without apparent surprise. He held out his hand. "Why don't you come back, and we'll talk all this through?"
She hesitated, looking to Shippo, who was in turn staring up at her, and then to Inuyasha and her approaching friends. Kneading the hem of her skirt, she dithered, trying to buy time. This was all too soon. She'd hoped to have more time to think about how to deal with this!
"Kagome," he said her name this time. "Come on. Let's go back home. You aren't in trouble. I promise."
Ryouga smiled, and saw again the effect the uniform had on the girl. He didn't personally enjoy playing the authority card, but it was a fact of life that Japan was a rather conformist society. Confidence and a uniform made it much easier to get what you wanted than foreign or unprofessional attire. It was why he put up with wearing the suit and shoes on these Ops. Kagome silently acceded, nodding her head and starting back towards him.
Everything was working out nicely and quietly.
Or, it was, except for the five feet of quasi-steel that interposed itself between them.
"Kagome isn't going anywhere," Inuyasha snarled, and used the flat of the blade to nudge Ryouga back and away. "I don't care who you are, but she's got jewel shards to find. She'll go home when she wants to."
"Well... I guess that second statement is true." Ryouga took a step back and sighed. He looked over at the girl who ultimately decided which way this would go. "Miss Higurashi, this probably isn't what you want to hear, but none of this is what you think it is."
At this, Inuyasha's lips curled into another snarl. "Watch it...!" he warned.
"What are you saying?" Kagome demanded, already seeing where this was potentially leading.
She was a smart girl, despite what some of her recent test scores indicated. She'd thought it herself before, but... but time and experience had...
"Don't tell me: 'Kagome, this isn't real.' Because it is!" She insisted, and motioned towards where Sango and Miroku were dismounting from Kirara and walking over, concern written on their faces. "The things I've seen, they're... they're too much to not be real!"
"I shouldn't say 'they aren't real.'" Ryouga tried to be diplomatic. He was trained for this. He didn't enjoy it. It wasn't his preference, but he had the training and the job. "They're very real to you. Very important to you. But you can't shut yourself away in your world at the expense of the one your family and friends live in. So: why don't you come back with me? We'll talk this over like -"
He jumped back, neatly avoiding the sword swing.
"Not like that," he added, avoiding another slash. "I was going to say: 'like adults.' Could you stop him, please?"
"Inuyasha!" Kagome snapped out of her daze. "SIT!"
"But-!" Dutifully, the seal kicked in, and the hanyou slammed to the ground.
Ryouga nodded, glad she had re-asserted control over her demesne. Things would start going rapidly downhill if she proved to have less influence over it than the initial profiling had indicated. He also, as a rule, didn't enjoy having oversized weapons flying around in his face, be they swords or spatulas.
"What did you mean?" Kagome asked, taking clear comfort from having her newly arrived companions close by. "What you said before: what did you mean?"
"This place," Ryouga began, and took a quick look at the faceplanted Inuyasha - why did that suddenly look like such a familiar sight? - then back to Kagome. "And these people are creations. Your creations. What happens to you when you come here, to what we call a 'psionic demesne,' is for all intents and purposes real to you. But it has no effect on anyone else. I see you brought a bike. What do you think would happen if you left it here for someone to find?"
"It... it would interfere with the timeline?"
"No," he shook his head sympathetically. "Because it isn't here. Right now, your body, that bike, and who knows how much spoiled food, is at the bottom of the well."
She smiled at that, an incredulous, skittish smile.
"No. That... that can't be." She paused, and shook her head fiercely. "No, no. That isn't right. I'd know if... I'd notice something like that!"
"Kagome-chan," Sango said, comforting her friend and supporting her shoulders as she shook.
"What you're suggesting isn't possible," Miroku spoke up, planting his Shakujou staff in the soft ground. "You expect us to believe this world isn't real? That our lives aren't real?"
"The only one I technically need to convince is her," Ryouga said, and inclined his head to Kagome and Sango, obviously referring to the former.
"How can you argue I don't exist?" Miroku asked. "By that logic, what proof do you have that you exist?"
"Oh, great. Solipsism." Ryouga sighed again; he only knew that word because this kind of argument was inevitable when it came to this kind of work. Psionics were a pain sometimes. "My partner could ramble on for hours, but I'm not really big on subtitles or debate. Kagome, deep down, you know there's something wrong with this place. You know it isn't real. Can we stop beating around the bush?"
"That's just avoiding the question!" the monk insisted, and pointing accusingly at the stranger. "Why don't you show us some proof of what you claim?"
"You want proof?" Ryouga asked. "Go through the well without Kagome being on the other side."
Miroku tried to argue that, too, but paused, considering it.
"That..." He held his hand, wrapped in prayer beads. Finally he looked back up, his mind made. "That doesn't prove anything... there could be any number of reasons why..."
"Why no one can go to the other side without her?" Ryouga shrugged. He was running low in prepared material, and making stuff up on the fly was more Ranma's thing than his. "Look, if you don't need Kagome to exist, then you won't mind if I take her back home for a couple hours?"
"Even if... even if some of what you say is true," Kagome sounded so close to being convinced, he wished she would just take that last step. Things were a hairsbreadth from working themselves out peacefully.
"Even if," Kagome repeated. "Why is it anyone's business but my own what I do?" She nodded, convincing herself by giving voice to her impromptu arguments. "Just... just go back home by yourself! I'll go home when I want to! It's my life and my decision!"
"Now, let's not - and here comes the giant sword again." Ryouga groaned and pivoted out of the way of Inuyasha's renewed assault. If only he'd been able to bring Nabiki here. She was always good at talking and convincing people. Especially girls.
He was terrible with girls.
"If you won't go back, I'll send you back!" the hanyou roared, carving another impressive cleft in the ground.
"Funny. I was kind of thinking the same." Ryouga stepped in while dodging the next strike. As if he'd let a giant meat cleaver like this thing waved around connect with him on any plane of existence. Hands finding the base of the sword, he used one hand to grab the blunt curve and the other to crush the knuckles against the hilt. Giant weapons were always trouble in these sorts of situations. It was really best to separate it from its user and keep it that way.
Inuyasha snarled, but reflexively lost his grip. He should have lost his fingers, but with Mint-like Musk ears like he had, there was obviously something unusual about the psionic figment. Flipping the giant blade around - it was still lighter than his old training umbrella had been - the uniformed Hibiki blocked a flurry of red crescents.
Great. Magic claws, too.
"No mere human can use Tetsaiga!" The dog-boy roared, slashing with uncomfortably long nails, hands flashing in indistinct arcs as he edged closer to a berserker fury. "I knew I smelled something wrong with him!"
"You know, you're only smelling what..."
"Shut up and fight!"
"I am fighting." Ryouga snapped back, growing a bit angry. He hadn't come here looking for a fight. "Why's this sword so big, anyway?"
"Kagome," Sango whispered, as Miroku weighed whether to step in or not. The most cerebral of the group, he was carefully considering everything he'd heard. Inuyasha and Ryouga continued back and forth until the latter whipped the Tetsaiga around, and clearly not knowing the power of the fang turned sword, jammed it into the ground and out of the way. Hands free, he opened Inuyasha's guard and slammed a fist into the vulnerable bottom of the ribcage. Ducking under the hanyou's right arm, he brought up and around the heel of his shoe in an arcing axe kick, hitting his opponent precisely on the medulla.
Inuyasha was halfway to the ground when the same foot hit the ground with an explosion, came back up, and intercepted him, finding his throat. The vicious blow whipped half the hanyou's body back around, twisting at the back before hitting the ground, mercifully, voice unable to get from lungs to lips.
In retrospect, it was probably the least diplomatic approach Ryouga could have taken.
Sensing their comrade wasn't just in a fight, but in actual danger, one of the two newcomers broke out of their stupor and acted like he should have guessed they would. It was the girl, the one who reminded him of Ukyou, and not simply because of the oversized weapon. It came in, spinning like a man sized boomerang, which was fine. A large weapon was easier to read and avoid than a small one. Sidestepping and striking with a rapid backhand, he avoided the giant weapon and knocked it off course, preventing it from coming back around to its owner.
Its wielder didn't hesitate to move in, even without her weapon. Blocking a kick and stepping back, he pivoted to intercept a rising knee and an elbow. Pushing it back, Ryouga cocked his head as a blade snapped out of a hidden sheath.
'Maybe make that more Konatsu than Ukyou...' he revised.
Stomping down on her foot, just hard enough to do the job, he used their contact to put pressure on her joints, spinning her around so her back was to his front and lowering one arm to lock her right arm behind her back. She gave a soft grunt of pain and surprise before his knee found her hamstring, and her shoulder slammed into the ground. He was aware the pressure being put on her elbow and knee had to hurt, and let go a second later.
"Now, look -" he began, only to get cut off by the white haired boy again. Who should've been convulsing on the ground, unable to breathe.
Blocking another claw swipe, the lost one slammed his elbow into the hanyou's face, crushing his nose at the bridge. As Inuyasha staggered back, a roundhouse hit the same spot, spinning him around. Rather than fall, however, the tenacious figment stayed on his feet, and staggered over to his planted sword. This was going to get potentially rather messy if it dragged on.
Looking upwards, Ryouga also noticed the sky darkening.
"Miss Higurashi. Kagome," he said, keeping his eyes on Inuyasha. "Isn't it about time you put a stop to this?"
"Why?" she asked, sounding a bit vindictive.
'Great,' he realized. 'A part of her wanted this. Of course, it would have, since this entire place is a reflection of part of her subconscious... ugh'
"Because as amusing as it may be, and I can't believe I'm the one saying this, but fighting won't solve anything." He kept his eyes on the hanyou, and on the rising Ukyou-like girl, but lowered his hands to appear less threatening. "If you don't willingly come with me... I'll physically remove you from the well. You don't want me to do that."
"Kagome!" Inuyasha managed to say, throat still partly compacted.
"You don't have to..." Sango also started to argue.
The schoolgirl crushed her eyes shut, trying to avoid the inevitable; weighing the man's bluff. If it was a bluff. What Souta and her grandfather had said before, what the PSIA people had said before, it all warred with her desire to be here. To be where she was needed. To be where she secretly looked forward to being, even with the heartaches and the danger. It was all... it was all...
It was all what she wanted.
"I have to go back," she said, barely a whisper. Louder, she repeated it, "I have to go back. I know."
"Kagome!" Shippo cried, finally interposing himself by running in front of her. "Don't go! Please don't! What if you never come back?"
"I will come back. I swear I will." she kneeled and quickly hugged the kitsune. "And I'll bring back candy next time, too."
He looked up at her, afraid to let go. "You promise?"
"Cross my heart." She put him back down, and instead faced a growling Inuyasha.
"I can't believe you're giving up," he said, still clutching his throat.
"I'm not giving up," Kagome argued, walking over to where Ryouga was standing. She briefly looked the hanyou in the eyes, and then focused on the PSIA agent.
Inuyasha's grip tightened on the Tetsaiga.
"Inuyasha," she admonished, sensing his tension. "I'll be right back. But I belong on the other side of the well, too. I can't just ignore what's going on there."
"I agree," Miroku said, cutting Inuyasha off. The half demon glared at the monk, and at the blunt end of the Shakujou that was currently covering his hand and warding the Tetsaiga down. "Let Kagome-sama deal with this."
It seemed to take a serious force of will, but Inuyasha snarled and sheathed the sword, turning his back on the spectacle. Shoulders shaking, he craned his neck with an audible pop.
"Don't keep us waiting, bitch."
'Classy guy,' Ryouga thought to himself, but shrugged internally. Not that it mattered how this girl's ideal boyfriend talked to her. Even Akari would've given him the taste of her hand if he said something like that, and she was the most gentle girl he knew.
Well, tied with Kasumi.
"Let's go," he said, holding out his hand to Kagome. "I'm getting tired of this pose."
"What pose?" she asked, taking his hand, expecting they'd be heading back to the well.
A second later, she gasped as her face breached a liquid-like barrier. A strange smell, a stink really, assailed her nostrils almost to the point of gagging. Eyes blinked, trying to adjust to a bright white light, but a vice-like grip on her hand pulled her ever upward. She saw a face, a tunnel, and looking down at her feet, she saw a strange... aperture... a ragged, warped surface, and hazy shapes beyond.
"Up and at 'em, Miss Higurashi," the voice of Agent Amano - she sort of doubted that was his real name, after having seen all he'd done - came in clearly, and she fell forward against what she assumed to be his body. Her feet splashed for a moment against the aperture and the... the thing below... and then it was solid again. The grip on her hand released.
"What's - what's going on?" She saw the young government agent, and eeped as he suddenly jumped them both clear out of the well. Her view became a rush, but then she was on the ground again, and the next thing she knew her mother had her in her arms.
"Oh, Kagome... don't worry! We'll get you a good lawyer!"
"Great, lawyers. I prefer the crazy demon boy," Ryouga groaned. He tapped a microphone in his ear to make sure it was firmly in place after all that. "Amano here. Silver Ice, repeat, Silver Ice. I've got it contained..."
"That was easy." A taller man in another black suit and tie remarked, leaning in the doorway.
"Easy for you, maybe," the lost one replied, and rolled the sleeve of his right arm up briefly to check the status of his psi-amp. Green. All good. No boundary contamination.
"What now?" Kagome asked, together with the rest of her family. Her mother was still hugging her protectively, but Souta and the old man looked threatened and worried, respectively. They probably assumed the government would be breaking them up or sending Kagome to a mental institution.
The sad truth was that, really, they were kind of right to think that. XCOM - and the organizations funding nations - didn't like to let rogue psychics run free.
"Now, we're done here..." Ryouga began to say, but scratched the back of his neck under the collar of his shirt. "Well, I'd like to say that. But we're not so lucky. I noticed something while I was in Kagome's world."
The agent's eyes fell on one of the Higurashi family in particular.
"That fighting intent. It wasn't all hers. Kagome isn't the one manifesting her illusions in the real world. Isn't that right?" He asked. "Mrs. Higurashi?"
"What?" Masaharo was the first to respond. "You can't be...?"
Souta just shook his head and turned to his sister and mother.
"At first, I wasn't sure why this Inuyasha character was the only one who could come through the well. We had recordings of every single one of you interacting with him. At first I thought that maybe Kagome didn't want anyone else from 'her world' to come into this one...? I had to go there myself to be sure that wasn't it."
"Then I thought: maybe this Inuyasha guy can manifest himself here because there's another psychic, a stronger psychic, in the house who wants him to. Someone who had probably been either tapping into... or helping to create... the fantasy from the very beginning. During the fight in Kagome's shadow world, I confirmed it. The intent mixed in with Kagome's wasn't Souta's, or Masaharo's, both of which I had experienced before. Since it had to be someone in the household, that leaves you."
"Higurashi Nodoka..." Ryouga continued. "Even in this room full of tension, I still can't read you at all. Could you please explain why?"
"Mama, what is he...?" Kagome began to ask, but her mother's arms tightened around her daughter. The girl stiffened and then went lax.
"I suppose blocking you outright was a novice mistake," Nodoka said, voice full of motherly calm.
"Well, it was obvious, so..." Ryouga replied, leaving the point hanging. "I know someone just like you. She puts on the same act. But even if you conceal your emotions, you still have them. It's just human nature."
"I don't understand," Souta spoke up, edging towards panicked. "What's going on? What's he talking about?"
"Nothing dear. Why don't you and your grandfather go to sleep?" She asked with a serene smile. Both males seemed about to object before their eyes closed and they slowly fell to the floor, like puppets whose strings have been cut. Kagome's eyes widened, and she tensed to rush over, but her mother held her firm and she went limp again.
"They're fine, dear. Don't worry," Mrs Higurashi said, partly to her daughter, partly to the two still-conscious federal agents. "You two should just leave. We're a peaceful family. We've never hurt anyone."
"That's true," Mousse said, still leaning against the door.
"It is," Ryouga also admitted. "As far as renegade psionics go, you've been very careful. You only let your powers, and your imaginations, run wild in that other world. On this side, you've kept pretty much under the radar. I can't just walk away from this, though."
"And why not?" Nodoka asked, her tone growing a bit more sharp. "We were perfectly fine-"
"You weren't 'perfectly fine.'" He cut her off, brows falling into a frown. "The moment you started warping the world we live in, you crossed the line. And look at your daughter. Do you think her spending half her life in a coma is a healthy way of dealing with things?"
"You probably came here to help deal with your abilities," Mousse guessed, adjusting his glasses with a middle finger. "If strange things happened, then it was just spirits, or something like that, and no one would bat an eye. But things got worse as Kagome there got older, and you realized she was the same as you."
"It isn't like I planned this. It just... happened." Nodoka shook her head, refusing to give up. "I know what you two want to do with us. You'll lock us both up. We're no threat to you, but you don't care, do you? Well."
Her serene expression never changed, but suddenly the room became blanketed in psionic power.
"I won't let that happen."
Mousse pushed off the wall, a glowing light pulsing through the sleeve of his suit.
"And so things turn messy." Ryouga took a step forward. "As usual."
Operation: Silver Ice
Higurashi Shrine: February, 17th; 14:00 hours
Commander Yasuda had called it "growing field experience."
For Nabiki Tendo, it was just the sort of chaos she had hoped to avoid after finally coming back to the city of her birth. For months now, she had been cooped up in an underground base, deep in the mountains; a chance for some field work, back in Tokyo, had seemed like a great deal. She'd spend a few days snooping around, maybe supervise one or two semi-serious ops, capture whatever rogue psionic or martial artist was running amuck, and then grab a couple precious hours of leisure time.
It was the next best thing to an unsupervised leave.
Naturally, things didn't turn out that way at all.
The Higurashi Shrine was the sort of archetypical shinto establishment her father had always told her to take a historic and cultural interest in, and which she had quickly grown bored with. She had seen her share of spirits and demons and other really, really odd things - doubly so over the last half year since joining UNETCO - but none of that had made her feel particularly religious. Seeing this particular shrine for the first time, her initial impression was that the land it was on had to be worth a small fortune.
Then she saw the first of the twisting serpentine monsters rise up from beyond cusp of the hill the shrine stood upon. Twisted maws snapped and hissed, and inhuman eyes dilated as the mass of... things... churned like an insane ocean. Nabiki sighed.
This was why - exactly why! - property values in Tokyo were so damn erratic.
Among the ten police they'd brought as back up, an almost visible wave of trepidation rippled among the men and women. One of the men inched closer to the black suited woman, torn between the urge to run in and save the neighborhood and the urge to get back in the car and pretend the last few minutes were the result of some really bad cream in the coffee.
"Um, ma'am, should we... do anything?"
"Nah. Don't worry about it." The surprisingly young agent just smirked, the green light engulfing the top of the shrine shining in her polarized glasses. Nabiki shook her head in the negative. "We've got this."
The giant eye splattered, along with the rest of the creature's face, thick meat slurry exploding from the former cranium. Fists found limbs and gaping toothy maws, leaving broken and misshapen masses of flesh behind. High speed steel shredded without mercy or warning, darkening the sky with a rain of red and black blood.
It was a nice workout.
Mousse ran one of the dozen blades hidden on his person across the length of the creature's body. There were no clean cuts, despite the skill of the combatant. Flesh peeled away as the pressure inside found a release, venting the inside of the demon simulacrum with a blast of gas and blood. A flick of the wrist bright the edge back around, opening up the neck just enough to make the cut quick and efficient, minimizing the risk of metal getting stuck in bone.
Another step forward, another corpse fell to the wayside.
"Alive, Mister 'Chen'. I want them alive. Don't forget that."
"I know," The Amazon's arm blurred, and a hissing serpentine creature lost the top half of its head. "I'm nearsighted, not an idiot."
Fingers plunged into snapping faces, breaking teeth and gouging eyes. Turning to fists, they crushed the offensive mockeries, leaving broken remains and twitching tongues to wag on the floor. Elbows and fingers were hammers and blades in all but name, crushing and destroying as fast as targets presented themselves. Black dress shoes advanced over twisted, screaming remains, crushing them underfoot.
"You know, this would be easier if you'd let me use some high explosives."
"No need." Ryouga slammed the face of a giant ogre like creature into his knee, crushing its skull like a melon. "We're getting a reputation for property destruction."
"Really?" Mousse removed a spiked mace from the crotch of one creature, whipping it around to behead another charging would-be demon. "I wonder why?"
"You laugh, but I'm the one the Commander yells at."
"She yells at you?"
"Not yells, so much. But she uses that voice. The scary one."
"Don't act like I know what you mean. She's never been mad at me." Mousse jumped over the legless demon, already carving into the one behind it. "I'm a good boy."
"That's because you suck up to women." Ryouga's foot, blazing green, nearly punched a hole in another creature, the force of the blow forcing its body to crunch up like a dead spider.
"I do not!"
"You so do. You're even nice to Khu Lon these days."
"I've always been nice to the old monkey mummy."
As the duo approached their targets, the swarm of psionic constructs began to mass together by simple press of bodies. They were swirling up and away from the pair and the well off to the right, having destroyed the shack and everything nearby. Many had little time to even form together before running into the backs of their predecessors. A few were crushed outright or trampled underfoot.
"They're getting marginally tougher," Mousse noted, leaving a sickle-like blade buried in the wrecked remains of one of the creatures. "Remind me again why we're playing around?"
"This isn't just our fight," Ryouga replied, providing little to nothing in the way of explanation.
"You're getting soft lately, you know."
"No! You're getting soft."
"That's a shitty comeback!"
"Hey. No it isn't."
"Actually it is. Oh ho, I see we're getting human-ish ones now." Mousse buried two long knives into the juncture of shoulder and neck of an half formed creature with an annoyingly Ranma-like pigtail. It seemed on the verge of doing or saying something when its lungs and internals became a kabob. It was quite a bit harder to kill, too, thrashing and reaching for a staff it had lost. Mousse wondered briefly what it did.
Stamping down the creature's calves and sending it to its knees, Mousse scissored the two blades free with predictably nasty results. Unlike before, these was little or no spray of blood, despite the dismemberment. Instead, the body discorporated into a sort of ethereal ash.
"She's losing control," Mousse guessed, casually imbedding three knives into the throat and eyes of a surprised humanoid demon. "We should use our amps again."
"Wait for it," Ryouga ordered, dislocating the arm of another humanoid with sickle claws. He jammed those same blades into the creature's lower back, severing the spinal cord. For good measure, he also used his free hand to grab it by the hair and twist, snapping the neck hard enough for bone to tear out from under skin and muscle.
It too, turned to ash.
"It isn't that she's losing control." The lost one speculated, as the two martial artists maintained a constant distance from the mother and daughter psionics. Nodoka was shaking, not with fury, but concentration, her arms still wrapped protectively around her daughter. Kagome, up until that moment, had been still in her mother's arms.
Now, she was starting to stir.
"Then we should definitely use our amps again," the male Amazon argued. "Unless you want to get overwhelmed by demons and miss your date."
"This is neither the time nor the place, Mo- Mister Chen. Just wait. Hold up." Ryouga held out his hand, bloody as it was, and even took a step back. "I think this is it."
"And if it isn't?" Mousse asked, but did as asked, pausing in his whirling dervish of carnage. "I don't want to get killed so you can indulge another hardcase psychic."
As the tide of fodder ebbed, Nodoka clearly spent time trying to draw out something big. A pair of forms started to coagulate, but with obvious difficulty. One, tall and stately, with more long while hair - Ryouga have that a half lidded look; what was this? An Amazon thing? - turned back to look at its creators. The other did likewise, though it had dark hair and a strange animal coat thing going on. Both took in the sight of the two women, wavered, and broke into ash.
"I can't... why won't...?" Nodoka asked, exhausted. "Why won't they do what I say?"
"Mama," Kagome finally spoke up, looking over her shoulder at her mother. "You have to stop."
"No," she insisted, looking down at her, and then back at the two federal agents. "I'll... I can... bring Kouga and... Kikyo, or... your friends, and..."
"They won't," Kagome said, simply. "Because they don't want to."
"They'll do what we want them to do."
"They won't," the younger woman sounded completely sure of the fact. "Because to me, they're real people, with free will. It won't work."
"More miasma then! If I can just..."
Kagome just shook her head. "Mama. No. Enough."
Four more shapes began to form: ones familiar to Ryouga. They were hazy, incomplete constructions, like the two before. He recognized the staff, the boomerang, and the giant curved sword. At that, he allowed himself a weary smile. Mousse tensed to intervene with his psi-amp, disrupting the constructs directly at the potential risk of harming the psionic creating them. Again , Ryouga held up his hand and motioned to let things play out.
"But - but they'll take you away." Nodoka protested, looking down at her daughter with tears in her eyes. "I - I promised your father they wouldn't break up our family. He was... he was... like us..."
The three shapes turned to follow Kagome, as she turned and hugged her mother back.
"Huh." Mousse huffed, still ready to use his amp. "I told you you're getting soft."
Ryouga spared his comrade a knowing look. "If you don't like how I do things you could ask to transfer to Juliet squad."
The hidden weapons master's glasses glinted, not dignifying such an absolutely insane suggestion with an answer. Ranma's squad? Honestly? As if that was even an option.
The three forms seemed to give passing looks to the two bloody martial artists as they walked by. Only as they retreated did a fourth form become clear, one no taller than either man's knees.
It lingered longer, afraid to go.
"Katsumi. Call it in and get some shadows up here. Chen. Suppressors on both of them," Ryouga ordered, tossing Mousse one of the metal strips. "I'll clean up this mess."
Turning around, the lost one's psi-amp flared, burning away the piles of twitching psychic remains with a purifying psionic inferno. Within minutes, black helicopters descended and yellow police tape enveloped the city shrine. Biohazard stickers and armed police warded off the curious as a column of psychic ash rose above the summit, smearing and staining the midday sky.
The only good thing, Nabiki assumed, about dealing with pure psionic constructs was that it was a lot easier to clean up after. Blood, guts and flesh, transformed and disguised matter, all quickly reverted back to baseline with or without the right psionic prodding. This was a routine they had some experience with.
Tossing India Squad's officer a towel, Nabiki took off her mirrored sunglasses and tucked them into the collar of her shirt. Cleanup crews had already disembarked and were quickly moving to secure the Higurashi Shrine. Men and women in white hazmat suits hosed down the site, both to contain any contaminants and to further obscure what had actually occurred minutes before.
"You look like a wet rat," Nabiki observed, walking past the lost lieutenant. "And you smell like one, too."
"Like you'd know what a wet rat smells like. ...Are we on schedule?" he asked, wrapping the towel around his right hand. Together with his psi-amp, he started to wipe off the simulcra. The latter reverted deep crimson blood to a colorless amorphous psychic slime, ninety five percent pure water, while the former soaked it up. With his arms cleaned first, he took off his black suit jacket and tossed it away to land on a nearby fence post.
"We're good," she replied, stepping mindfully around the mess he and Mousse had left in their wake. "I'll take care of things from here."
He nodded, letting her have her way now that the fighting was over with.
Draping the towel over one shoulder, he instead wandered over to where Mousse was watchfully minding the two captives. These were India's first Class-A captures in months. The mother in particular was either the more powerful of the two or the more experienced. Ryouga wouldn't be surprised if they managed to track her own experiences down to an abduction event a couple decades ago. The sheer mass of constructs she had manifested and their interactivity were rather impressive.
Tapping into her daughter like that must've boosted the output, too. If they were like that pair of twins in US containment then they'd be classified both separately, as A, and together as rare double-A. The eggheads working on gestalt psionics would probably want to get their hands on them, too, despite that near-disaster at Luna. Not that a lowly Lieutenant should be criticizing the research priorities of high command, but being called in to clean up after things went wrong was... de-motivating.
Speaking of de-motivating -
"Agent 'Chen'?" Ryouga asked, approaching the hidden weapons master. "Is that really necessary?"
"She was getting all weepy," the Chinese fighter explained, referring to the elder Higurashi female, currently fast asleep on a blue tarp thanks to a contact sedative. "Plus, she did try to drown us in eldrich horrors. I'd say she got off easy."
Kagome, still awake, sat with her legs tucked under her, restraints on her wrists. She was quiet and still, but Ryouga could see the suppressor band firmly in place across her forehead and only partly concealed by her long, dark hair. A single green strip on the alien alloy indicated it was functional and inhibiting non-essential mental pathways. Unlike the ubiquitous alien 'examination table' it didn't actively paralyze the victim; she should still be able to physically move and act.
Nodding, he was about to turn elsewhere to help oversee clean up, when a voice spoke.
Facing Kagome, he sighed. It was true. He had lied. He had said what was needed to try and resolve the situation without people getting hurt. He couldn't, wouldn't, blame her for the anger she had to feel towards him.
"You lied to me," Kagome repeated, accusing, hurt, and angry. "You said we wouldn't be punished. You said you only wanted to talk. Are you going to tear apart our family now? Or experiment on us?"
The sound of a can opening came from the nonchalant Mousse, who had pulled out a small mocha-coffee can from somewhere on his person. He proceeded to drink down the caffeine without an apparent care in the world. The captive young woman took a moment to glare at the Chinese martial artist's callousness.
Resting on one knee, Ryouga waited for her to turn her anger back at him where it belonged. He was in command. He made the calls. The ugly side of authority was responsibility. When things went right or wrong, it ultimately fell on his shoulders, and his alone.
"I did lie," he admitted, looking down briefly, but then back up to accept her gaze. "And... it may be some time before your family is whole again. Both you and your mother need to be taught to deal with what you can do. That's where they'll take you. I'm not trained for that. The only thing I can do is fight."
"What are they going to do to us?" she asked again, straining a bit against the bands on her wrists. "I still don't know why we're being treated like this... why us?"
"It isn't your fault," he tried to explain. "The ones who did this to your mother, to you through her... they're our enemies. People like you are caught between us and them. I can promise you that you won't be hurt. Or experimented on. Things like this..." he gestured to the now foam-smothered chaos Mrs Higurashi had summoned up. "It... scares people."
Kagome blinked, and a bit of her anger faded, replaced by resignation. In truth, she understood all too well. It scared her, too. Though recent revelations had put things in a strange new context, she understood the fear people watching this sort of thing would have. She had felt the same, known the same, back in the feudal era of her other world, teeming as it was with demons and otherworldly dangers. Even if it wasn't "real" no one wanted people projecting those kinds of things into other people's minds... or into other people's lives.
"I see," she said.
"You aren't the only one," Ryouga said then, and she looked back up at him. "Agent Chen and I are like you...just weaker. And there are lots of others, too. We aren't locking you up. We're just making a world where, one day, people like your mother don't have to try and hide what they can do and where they don't have to worry about losing control."
It was a few pregnant seconds before Kagome spoke again.
"And Grandpa? And Souta? What about them?"
Ryouga let out a deep breath and stood back up.
"Altered memories," he said. "Probably, we'll make it so they think you're at prep school. And that your mother has an overseas job. We've become rather adept at making people disappear."
"That's... not really the most encouraging thing to say to someone in my position," Kagome remarked, holding up her cuffed hands. "But I believe you."
He offered her a small, weak smile, but a genuinely sympathetic one.
It wasn't a sympathy extended to the source of humanity's psionic troubles. To those beings, his smile, and his hands, presaged only death or capture. No alien asked for mercy or compassion, nor would any receive it. That category included those who willingly aided and abetted the enemy. All those would be hunted, from the surface of the Earth to depths of Mars, and exterminated.
Kagome slowly stood up, turning to face one of the landed black helicopters and a group of approaching HAZMAT suited men and women. The resignation she had felt before was now replaced by a small, wary, cautious optimism. The leader of the group saluted, and presented a clipboard for the jacket-less government agent to sign.
"Ne, what was your real name?" Kagome asked, realizing she was being handed over. "Amano Seiji-san?"
Ryouga signed his name to the transfer form and sealed it with the date and time.
"Hibiki," he replied. "Ryouga."
Kagome managed a smile at that as the men took her away.
"We'll hold you to your word," she said as she walked away. "Hibiki-san."
As the group left, and the second one came for the still sleeping Nodoka Higurashi, Mousse strolled over, his chilled coffee can empty. Balancing it between his fingers, the Chinese weapons master chuckled.
"That sounded almost like a threat, lieutenant," he remarked, grinning. "Think you've just made a new friend or a new enemy?"
Ryouga just shrugged, staring silently up at the ash tainted sky. As a Hibiki, born, bred, and lost, he understood all too well that literally anything could wait right around the next corner. The one and only constant was that there would be an enemy to fight and obstacles to overcome. As for tomorrow... there was nothing to do but wait and see what reared its head.
And then crush it.
Screaming winds pummeled the Tamaranian as she soared through the primordial darkness. Tears stung her eyes, threatening to blur her vision, and that she could not afford. The unconscious form of her cybernetic friend, the only thing she could see in the violently chaotic nothing, remained just out of her reach. But no matter how fast she pushed herself, how she reached out, Cyborg's metallic skin hung tantalizingly beyond her curling fingertips ...
And then he was gone - there was no flash of light, no spectral effect, simply there one second, and then gone the next.
Starfire did not have a chance to contemplate this dark turn, as a fraction of a second later, blinding light stabbed into her eyes. The Tamaranian cried out in shock at the sudden and abject shift from pitch darkness to noonday sun, her flight instantly dissolving into a wild tailspin.
Several precious seconds passed, the girl blinking her eyes furiously, before her sight began to return to her. Bright blue sky alternated with indistinct land in a kaleidoscope of color as she spun madly through the air. Gone was the aching chill of the void, replaced with a warm gust which washed over her skin. It would have been almost pleasant -
Another pained blink brought the world back into sharp focus ... revealing the fact that she was arrowing sharply down over a human city. Buildings zipped below her in a blur; the alien girl tried vainly to regain control, but she had been fired out of the portal far more energetically than could be expected -
The tall clock tower sprang up before her like an earthly weed. Starfire could do nothing but raise her hands in front of her face, jade energy flaring to life around them, before she collided, head first with the structure. Brick and mortar was pulverized to dust by the intense plasma sheath which surrounded her, and she exploded through the other side of the tower a second later in a shower of debris.
Slowed somewhat by her impact, the Tamaranian was finally able to regain enough control of her flight so that, rather than drill straight into the ground at ridiculous speeds, she only crashed into the pavement with enough force to tear up a furrow of demolished infrastructure roughly ten meters long ...
Several long moments passed before Starfire could finally sit up, her body protesting violently at every small movement she forced it to make. It was times like this that she was especially grateful for her inherent durability. Though she was wracked with pain, she could tell most of her injuries were of the superficial variety, and expected her natural solar regeneration would heal them in short order.
It was about that point, that Starfire heard the first scream of terror. Immediately, she prepared to assuage the fears of whoever she had frightened with her unruly entry - Only to realize quite quickly that it was not her that was causing the screaming.
An ominous groan of failing structural integrity filled the air as the top half of the clock tower, now sporting a massive hole through its heart, began to list inexorably to the side. The red bricks and heavy granite slabs in the side of the tower began to shatter messily as the unbalanced structure appeared to be attempting to take a bow. The numerous people on the street began to run in a blind panic, but the equally numerous vehicles, now trapped in a traffic jam by her very own destruction of the street, had nowhere to go as the large tower continued to topple over.
All of the pain in her body seemed to vanish in a blink as a look of grim determination set itself firmly on her features. Not even bothering to stand, Starfire simply rolled forward and pushed off with all of the strength in her alien legs, launching herself through the air at ballistic speeds.
Streamers of green light trailing her in her rushed flight, the flame haired alien flew directly beneath the severed section of the tower, over fifteen meters long and nearly half that wide, not counting the lengthy lightning rod which topped the leaning tower. Several well placed optical plasma blasts scattered large pieces of stone that broke away from the base of the tower and had been hurtling towards the people on the street below...
Then the shadow of the tower encompassed her and the Tamaranian raised her arms quickly and pressed her palms to the now horizontal wall just below the large clock face. Instantly, she began to drop through the air, the momentum of the monumental time piece and the sheer mass involved improbable to resist.
Improbable was not the same as impossible, though. Gritting her teeth, Starfire pushed back with everything she had, and after a quick glance down at the people below, she then doubled her efforts. Sweat drencher her brow and veins began to bulge worrying along the tightly corded muscles of her arms as she battle gravity by virtue of pure, boundless confidence. More troublingly, the wall and supports she was pushing into threatened to break. It wouldn't be long before she just blasted through the structure, the rest continuing its fall.
Against all logic of those watching, the descent of the sheared off tower began to slow and tilt to the side. People actually began to slow in their panicked runs and stare up in awe at the display - unfortunately, many of those people would still be in range if the tower were to crash to the street.
"Please do not cease your evacuation!"
Oddly, not a single person heeded her advice. Starfire prepared to yell her command again ... when she noticed the strangely high concentration of Asian people on the streets below and the near complete presence of Chinese writing on all of the signage and advertisements which lined the street as far as the eye could see.
Had she been transported to the alleged 'Chinatown' subsection of the city?
Her distraction cost her, as the weight of the falling tower began to push her down again, Starfire gave a very unladylike grunt as she renewed her struggle to slow the collapse. All around her hands, and throughout the entire building section, cracks began to form as the numerous strains on the tower began to eat away at its structural integrity. All too soon, the task of deflecting the falling tower would be the least of her worries is shearing forces turned one falling body into a half dozen.
"Escape to a safe distance!" This time she shouted her warning in the dialect of Chinese which matched the written language present, and though when people actually listened this time, she suspected it had nothing to do with her words, and everything to do with the various bricks and jagged metal fragments which began to break away from the structure and drop to the ground in a destructive rain.
With one last surge of strength, torrents of righteous fury supplementing her flagging confidence, the Tamaranian hero briefly managed to stop the massive structure's fall completely. The strain was unbelievable, impossible for her to even describe, but she forced herself to maintain until the very last of the human's had escaped their vehicles and fled to safety... Viridian eyes searched frantically for an open area to let the structure collapse onto.
And then, just as the tower above her, her resolve disintegrated into a heap of rubble. Starfire crashed to the ground mere fractions of a second before being buried under the tons of stone and mortar that had once been a majestic clock tower. The scene surrounding the sprawling mountain of debris grew oddly still in the moments that followed. Nothing moved aside from settling of the massive cloud of dust kicked up from the impact. Tentatively at first, spectators of the near disaster began to move in closer to the disaster site, curiosity over the bizarre happenstance overcoming their fear.
Only to run screaming again seconds later as twin pillars of jade energy tore up through the pile of bricks and steel, blasting the rubble aside in a second. Moments later, the strange, orange skinned girl floated up from the wreckage. Starfire groaned weakly in pain, noting the quantity of bruises and scratches that were already making themselves known to her. The physical pain was less hurtful than the what she felt when she saw the people on the street fleeing in fear from the very sight of her.
It had been some time since she had been subjected to the fear of those she attempted to save, and now she realized it had not been nearly long enough between occurrences. She had thought that the citizens of her city had long become accustomed to her unusual nature? Letting out a forlorn sigh, the alien girl began to float away from the site of her... admittedly rough entrance.
Perhaps, once she had some time to clear her head, she could sort out exactly what had happened to her.
The first pictures were on the internet within four minutes of the incident.
Accompanying them were copious streams of dialogue, both spoken and written, regarding the incident. These passed from phone to phone, phone to website, website to website, website to email. The flow of electronic traffic increased very nearly exponentially. Or it would have.
Two minutes and twenty four seconds after Information Exposure, the UNETCO Echelon system flagged multiple corroborating accounts of unusual activity originating from a region in southern China. The PRC was a staunch supporter of the UNETCO accords and fully compliant with the sections relating to "information management." Whether this was out of practicality or an ongoing national priority regarding control over the internet and other information outlets within the borders of the one-party state was debatable.
Echelon's automated monitoring systems quickly identified the disturbance, and within thirty four seconds, upgraded their status from orange to red. Notification was forwarded to Chinese authorities about the upcoming Information Whiteout. Data analysts at the UNETCO "Ocean City" Facility approved the measure, and choreographed counter-information attacks were waged to control the flow of data. Photographs were automatically doctored and edited, and then redistributed in place of the originals. Sophisticated programs provided corrupted text messages and altered first hand accounts. InfWar Bots automatically searched for and intervened in relevant threads across social networks.
The truth was quickly lost amid the static and white noise.
UNETCO had, over the years, become quite adept as countering and controlling the flow of rumor and heresay. The Chinese government acted in a more typical fashion to contain the disruption, which only furthered the cover-up by adding credibility to the fact that it was a viral hoax. It would never be possible to completely cover up the incident, but it would be easy to discredit it and contain it. Ten minutes after the incident was first flagged, it was given a official name for record keeping.
Despite the quick response, most of it automated, other problems remained. These would have to be handled by UNETCO Echelon's human resources and intelligence personnel. The first matter was to investigate the incident itself "on the ground." First responders, local police and firefighters were already heading towards the scene - they would be contacted and used to gather on the spot intelligence. They would also help in containing the spread of potentially troublesome information regarding China-56-890.
The second matter was an ongoing concern.
China-56-890 was moving. Echelon detected, less than a minute after containing the first phase of the incident, corroborating cell phone recordings of an unidentified object flying over a populated area. Image recognition and enhancement confirmed that the object was, in fact, humanoid. Colors were low quality, but definitely identified as a shade of orange. It was also flying unassisted through the air. More red flags accentuated the case file, bumping it up to Alpha level priority. A satellite was quickly pinged for reorientation and acquisition of the incidental area.
HumInt added only this to the heading:
Possible Ethereal Sighting Downtown Area
Immediate Response Recommended
Tokyo native, only child of Tetsuya and Mitsuko Hibiki. Practices the Informal 'Hibiki Family Survivalist Style' of martial arts. Psionic Class-B. Former wandering martial artist and member of the 'Nerima Wrecking Crew' Lieutenant Hibiki was involved in the two year spree of incidents (see: Nerima Records) much of which involved his rivalry with Lieutenant Saotome. Records sealed and reports classified per standard.
Several months after the First Incident at Jusendo (see R. Saotome), Hibiki was involved in at least two Abduction Events (L-B45-671), (second event unrecorded). L-B45-671 resulted in two confirmed civilian fatalities: A. Unryu (Japanese, female, age 17 - assumed harvested); S. Unryu (not abducted; died: heart attack). Hibiki tracked to Nerima ward and additional abduction events recorded (see: Nerima Abduction Event). Saotome and Hibiki able to assault Abduction craft before escaping orbit, killing aliens onboard. Civilian casualties estimated to be twelve (12), eight (8) on craft and four (4) on ground. Ku Lon and T. Ono captured via separate vessel.
After reorienting the captured UFO to crash in South America, vessel and survivors were recovered by UNETCO operatives. Decision made to create experimental field operations teams ('martial arts squads') to circumvent Section Seven restrictions in charter and combat Sirius Group. Program accepted under the direction of N. Yasuda Cmndr, Far East Branch. Due to deaths of A. Unryu, Hibiki demonstrated significant commitment. Psionic imprinting undertaken (see: psi-gym usage) to expected effect.
Hibiki was picked to organize and lead Squad: India (Hibiki, Kumon, Tzu, Kuno) out of Seiran, under supervision of Cptn Ben-Solomon. Assigned rank Special Lieutenant. Demonstrated acceptable to excellent performance in last two months of 2006. Promotion to Lieutenant. Participated in AB17 Alpine Echo Seven (December, 2006). Fiftieth Kill recorded (January, 2007). Temp assignment to Luna (2007). (see: Service Record, attached) (see: Psionic Profile, attached). N. Tendo added as replacement Operator (2006).
PsyOps has observed a decrease in aggression over the last three month period, possibly related to relationship with Operator Tendo, however the lieutenant continues to have an excellent engagement ratio. India is a solid light assault team. S7 Ops against conspirator cells, rogue psychics, and Trenchards have proven to be another specialty. Hibiki is driven, determined, and due to his background, he can be counted on to show initiative within the confines of his orders. Given that we can expect Trenchards to be present on Mars, India squad is a logical candidate for inclusion in CLEANSLATE.
BROTHER EYE PROTOCOLS
TOP CLEARANCE REQUIRED
REAL NAME: Koriand'r
HAIR COLOR: Red
EYE COLOR: Green
KNOWN ABILITIES: Shares physiological traits in common with rest of her species. Superhuman strength, durability, endurance, flight. High resistance to most forms of harmful radiation. Ability to survive prolonged exposure to extra-atmospheric conditions. Subject 5231 also possess abilities unique to herself, and to Subject 7245: Codename: Blackfire. Ability to generate energy of varying intensity, commonly referred to as 'Starbolts'. Has demonstrated the ability to direct energy blasts from both hands and eyes. Resistance to energy is also far above other members of species – likely in correlation to former ability.
EXPLOITABLE WEAKNESSES: Physical Weaknesses: Research still in progress. Psychological Weaknesses: Subject has demonstrated intense connections with current team mates, notably Subject 203: Codename: Robin. Highest probability of incapacitating subject is a psychological attack capitalizing on this bond.
KNOWN HISTORY: Very little is known of the Subject before her arrival on Earth. Arrival occurred in Jump City and was closely followed by a small scale invasion by a Gordanian Battlecruiser. Citywide destruction was narrowly averted when the Subject was found by Subject: 203: Codename: Robin, Subject: 790: Codename: BeastBoy, Subject: 3845: Codename: Cyborg and Subject: 6138: Codename: Raven. Shortly afterwards, aforementioned Subjects formed the team designated: Teen Titans.
As part of the Teen Titans, Subject has demonstrated above average combat abilities, both in close quarters and at range. Notable incidents include encounters with villains: Subject 2101: Codename: Deathstroke The Terminator, Subject: 8839: Codename: Terra, and Subject: 1978: Codename: Brother Blood. Subject has yet to show any signs of instability, or lapses in morality.
CURRENT THREAT LEVEL: E
The girl has grown close to Dick over the years. Perhaps too close?
I fear that she might make it difficult for him to keep his head in battle. Men like us aren't meant get entangled in that way. I had hoped that the rumors of her impending marriage on the planet Tamaran had been true... but according to Dick, it had simply been a ruse by her sister. Perhaps the addition of their newest team member will divert her attention? Dick has been expressing some small frustration over the past several weeks – perhaps it's related? Will continue to observe situation.