The luxury penthouse, situated within the rock of the mountains, overlooked the town and the sea. Ceiling-high windows stretched from one end of the space to the other, a space containing manifold easels that truly made the apartment into that of a studio.
To the man that entered, they were marks from a graveyard, blank canvas headstones rising from the ground in mockery of those lost in all but mind.
The fish watched him as he descended the steps, bulbous eyes eager in a room decades unchanged. They themselves were white, as if they'd once forgotten what colour they once were, only the white aluminium delivery mechanism to the side providing the food they needed to survive.
The man paused. He stared through cloudy glass to the bed behind, to the person he knew lay languidly atop the thin mat and the hard wooden surface beneath.
"You haven't changed."
"What do you mean?" The voice was lazy, filled with all the undercurrents of a young man in his prime. "You can't even see me."
"Your house is evidence enough."
"I find that hard to believe."
"You can't let go of the past, can you, Tokio?"
The young man sat up and got to his feet. He moved so the fish tank no longer divided them, hands in pockets and clothes in disarray. A flick of his head set a stray strand of violet hair back into position, then glittering eyes fell over the other man.
"You're here for her," he stated. "Unfortunately for you, Ryosuke, she isn't here."
"Search all you want. None of you will set hands on the North Maiden so long as I protect her. No matter if you go from one end of the island to the other, brushing fine-toothed combs through every grain of sand—I won't make the same mistake with Sora."
Ryosuke's eye widened. He glanced around the room, as if searching, and a hand reached up for his eyepatch as if he could see something. But he saw nothing, devoid of power proffered years ago.
"I can't let go of the past?" said the other. "You're the one stuck in it." Then a smile grew on his face, the smug smile of a child proud at outwitting all those around them. "What you do with the Maidens is not my concern; however, how about I offer a substitute?"
Spring, a season of new beginnings. A season where life began anew, when the chill of winter had passed and much of nature fell into bloom. Many of the tropical plants found on the island were in Southern Cross High School's grounds; tall palms reaching for the sky, and the leaves of smaller ferns glimmering under the setting sun.
But no tree could compare to the single cherry tree in the courtyard of the dorms. It was wide, bark thick and sturdy. Its branches ballooned outwards with the dense growth that could have only come from decades of existence. Hundreds of petite, pink cherry blossoms flourished, splattered profusely across each limb, the iconic start to every school year.
When Takuto Tsunashi's gaze was followed, it did not have the cherry blossoms in mind.
"Done moving your stuff?"
Takuto turned, and that strangely unmistakable combination of red hair, red eyes and red shirt clicked into Sugata's mind without fail. Wako's soft blonde hair and honey brown eyes would never create the same impression, even if she wore clothes the same colours as well.
The idea was dispelled when Takuto blinked. "Are you in this dorm too?"
"I live on the island, so I don't stay in the dorms."
Sugata looked back at the frame hung on the wall. A scripted R, an iconic signature always to be found in the lower-right corner and the young brunette, back turned and facing the sun; the painting was all so similar to the many he had in his own home.
"Were you looking at that picture?" he asked.
"That picture..." Takuto murmured, almost imperceptible. "It's one my dad painted."
"Yeah. I think he's here on this island. Oh," he added, "where's Wako? Wasn't she with you?"
Sugata shook his head. "Right now, Wako should be purifying herself."
"Wako is one of this island's Maidens."
When those strange red eyes flickered down at the box of belongings cradled within his arms in recognition at those words, Sugata hid a frown. Takuto looked up not moments later, blinking in that guileless way, but it was too late.
"Oh, a Maiden?"
"There are four special girls on this island," said Sugata, watching the other carefully.
He would have offered more, were it not for the reaction from before. Takuto knew something he ought not to know. Any interest Wako had in him paled in comparison to the potential threat at her health, and any thoughts of inviting him to dinner evaporated in an instant.
Fortunately they were interrupted by a broadcast over the PA system, calling the outsider away to the New Students Reception, and sparing Sugata the need to speak further.
When Takuto left, he narrowed his eyes.
"Why did you come to school on this island?"
"To do something amazing."
An enthusiastic thumbs-up, a lopsided grin. "A fabulous school life!"
"Takuto Tsunashi, you risked your life to swim here," he murmured, heard only by cherry blossoms and the empty hallway. "What's your real objective?"
She was in chains.
Drones milled around sensitive million dollar equipment around the bay, ensuring the presence of a continuous feed of information to the control room. Several others, either the strongest or the unluckiest, were tasked with holding down her arms and legs – a task that only grew in difficulty as the chains were nowhere near tight enough and some learnt the hard way just how much a heel to the shin could hurt.
A man walked around her head and wrapped his fingers behind the rim of her mask. Her struggling intensified. The mask came off in one rough movement, allowing the full spectrum of light to hit her eyes and, for the briefest instant, she saw the underground floors for the first time with more than mere slits to guide her way.
And then the drones were eyeing her again like vultures, through tiny gaps in crow-like masks, as they sought to see the face behind the false name. The face of the carrion left behind. She writhed against her bonds, gauzy uniform granting no defence against every frozen shock of unfeeling steel whenever slammed back onto the ground. Each time, her eyes would glisten with unshed tears.
She, the woman that was once the proud Ivrogne, leader of Third Section Bouganvilleae, was reduced to nothing but a little girl, far too deep within the tower of nightmares to wake intact.
There were shouts in the background, and the chains were tightened. The drones departed and left her alone. It was more demeaning than reprieving; it was as if her spread-eagled position symbolized a powerlessness that meant she could be assaulted at any time, devoured by any and all.
She heard footsteps ascending the stairs to the plinth, a harsh clatter of boots against aluminium. The footsteps belonged to a member of Vanishing Age she never encountered before, and her hope that he was low enough to be wearing the basic robes was dashed by the gilded Star Driver insignia pinned to the side; he was just new.
But, she realized, upon taking in the mask with tapered points on either side to accommodate the tau design on the anterior, that it was more than just an issue of the Driver being new. This wet behind the ears Driver was chosen above all others Vanishing Age could provide.
He came to a stop ten metres away from her and she shrank, steeling for the worst. The inevitable torment that would follow, degrading her to a level no man would understand.
It was not the Driver speaking, but a voice – Professor Silver's voice – from the control room, distorted through digitization.
"Apprivoise now, Ivrogne," Silver said again. "There are no choices in this matter."
She closed her eyes. "No, no, I—"
"I don't want to hurt you."
That was the Driver. And how sincere his tones were, filled with warmth and spice and promises of—
"I know," added the Driver, "you of all people should understand."
Sugata, she thought, I'm sorry, I couldn't—
Keito Nichi opened her eyes. Then, from the bottom of her lungs, she cried as best she could: "Apprivoise!"
She saw the activation without needing to look down, the glow of her mark radiated beyond her chest. The light grew slowly at first, as if sensing her apprehension, and the chains loosened as the light swelled and lifted her into the air. A few moments found her immersed in a pink sphere, her libido, floating weightlessly in a bubble of ethereal energies in which she was naught but an embryo waiting for...
Waiting for what?
Her answer came when the Driver lifted an arm. "Star Sword – Emeraude!"
A pillar flashed into existence above him. Thirty metres of blazing white light, radiating the same shade of green suggested by its name. Part of it bulged, flattening out, to form a jagged guard.
A reversed biblical cross, about to erase her existence from the world.
Keito only had time to widen her eyes when his arm dropped and the blade swung forth. It never touched her, shielded by the sphere, but she quickly lost feeling in her arms and legs as the weakening barrier began draining her life force from the inside out.
She barely remembered seeing her heth dissolving into the air to disappear forever. She barely remembered falling to the ground, caught by a man with thin limbs and warm thanks. She barely remembered seeing the golden masks form on motionless Cybody marionettes, marking the movement to Phase ascension. There was no time to remember.
She blacked out.
"Today is a monumental day, a monu~mental day of days!"
"Manticore," Speed Kid muttered as he rolled his eyes, as if it explained everything.
Of course; her drawl was unmistakable, flowery inflections apparent even at the edges of the chamber where the lazier associates tended to sit and chat amongst themselves. They must have been a strange sight, two Filament Star Drivers lurking at the mouth of the emergency exit, though the lack of light meant their uniforms weren't seen and any glances were those done in passing rather than recognition.
"Love her or hate her," said Raging Bull. "That's her type."
"Well, I know I don't."
Speed Kid folded his arms and leant against the wall. "Can't stand the feisty ones."
"You can't get feistier than Scarlet Kiss, Speed Kid."
"You can't even compare them," Speed Kid shot back. "Scarlet Kiss is different."
"True, true. We're her knights, no?"
"Damn right we are."
Their conversation fell on hold when Manticore slammed a foot against the table. The sliding of steel accompanied an unfurling fan. It was raised into the air, sending tiny shafts of light reflected off its blades every which way. Her other hand perched daintily against her hip. Neither Driver could see her expression, though there was no doubt that a delightful smirk tugged against plush lips.
"The Second Phase allows more control over Cybodies than ever seen before," called Manticore. "And it is all because of me that this is all possible!"
"Tch," came the voice of petite Scarlet Kiss, sitting too far to be seen. "I don't see you summoning a Star Sword."
"Maybe not, but it remains that I am Vanishing Age's leader. As the leader, it is my job to ensure matters occur that should occur. I'm also the Driver of the strongest Cybody in the Glittering Crux, and the only means we have of searching for the remaining Maidens. Me and Ayingott are what make the project dazzle. Isn't that so?"
"You can't dazzle with scrap metal, woman."
"How goes the status of Cybody restoration?" said President.
Professor Green arched back as she answered. "There are still kinks in the orichalcon formula that are yet to be erased."
"Kinks?" said Manticore.
"Indeed. Science Guild is currently trying to complete an algorithm to link quantification between subatomic stability and orichalcic energy output, especially in the higher wavelengths."
"How much longer will it be?" asked President.
"We believe we may have a lead. If no problems arise, estimated time of completion is within a month. Allowing time for further modifications, repair of broken Cybodies can begin in six weeks."
A wave of murmuring swept across the chamber as associates pondered the implications with those around them. Speed King and Raging Bull did not join in. It was when Manticore swept her fan shut that the murmuring began to cease, and by the time it closed with a faint chink all murmuring stopped immediately.
"So, in six weeks," said Manticore, raising the sealed fan into the air, "I will show the Crux why I should be the leader!"
President frowned and inclined her head, allowing rich green hair to fall over a voluptuous chest. "A lot can change in six weeks."
"Exactly. You'll be working under me," Manticore replied. "And now we're in the Second Phase, everything will be possible." A flick of her wrist, and her hand settled before her mask in the sign every member knew well. "Kiraboshi!"
The crowd echoed her cry; "Kiraboshi!"
"Man," Speed Kid muttered. "You're slow."
They were in the science area of the mountain, an isolated area the emergency exit led to, near where the once-Bouganvilleae leader lost her seal. There was little risk of interception as it would take a while before the drones resumed work. On her approach, Scarlet Kiss shrugged.
"Sorry about that," she replied, though the inflection in her words – were they said by another person – would have made their meaning anything but sorry. "We're ready to go?"
Raging Bull nodded. "Now that the Cybercasket is connected we shouldn't need a Star Sword. Speed Kid, you got the location of the Agemaki shrine?"
"Who do you take me for?" asked Speed Kid. "Yeah, we got it. Let's go."
"Where are you going?"
The three of them stiffened in unison, and turned around. The person standing behind them could never be mistaken as just another Vanishing Age despite wearing the standard associate's robes, if the Star Driver insignia and custom mask were anything to go by.
All three recognized him immediately.
"Y—You!" exclaimed Scarlet Kiss.
He turned to face her, the action making his blazing red hair seem all the more conspicuous. "What about me?"
"Nothing," Scarlet Kiss mumbled, glancing away.
"Aquila, was it?" asked Speed Kid.
"Yeah," said Aquila. "You mentioned something about a shrine. Is that where you're going?"
"Vanishing Age should just stick to your own affairs," said Raging Bull. "And Filament will stick with ours."
"It's not your affair if it affects all of the Crux," Aquila replied. "You're going after Wako Agemaki, aren't you?"
Speed Kid jerked his head away. "Tch. Let's go."
It happened too fast to see. One instant, Aquila had stepped forward and reached toward Scarlet Kiss as if he could stop them. The next, a bright spear of glowing green light entered her shoulder. Where it exited cleanly through the other side, it continued to pierce through a series of solid steel and concrete pylons.
Almost in slow motion, the upper half of those pylons slid down the slopes in which they were sheared.
Then Aquila stumbled back. The Star Sword extending from his hand disappeared as quickly as it materialized. Several alarms sounded through the compound, reporting further destruction of scientific equipment, bringing Science Guild drones hurrying as quickly as their purple robes could take them.
They were easily noticed, the Filament uniforms splashes of emerald against a plain of silvers and greys. But Scarlet Kiss did not react when Professor Green demanded answers, vacant stare focused beyond the ground as if she couldn't believe what she was feeling.
As she fell, left arm clutching the wound in a grip deathly tight, Scarlet Kiss screamed.
"Hey, Wako, have you heard?"
Wako blinked and shook her head, even whilst her mouth was stuffed full of melon bread.
"Ah," Ruri Makina sighed, dramatically lifting a hand to her cheek, "it's terrible!"
When Takuto stopped in the middle of removing the cellophane on his bento box – a bento box currently sharing a table with Ruri's homemade one – neither of the three noticed Sugata's watchful gaze. Ruri's mouth twitched a little on either side and her eyes widened as Takuto leant closer, but she quickly placed both hands on her cheeks and began to shake her head.
"What's terrible?" asked Takuto.
"Benio Shinada, second year," she replied. "And right before school starts, too!"
"Benio?" said Wako, just as she was about to take another bite. "What happened?"
Ruri froze, sending an odd look in her direction. "You mean you haven't heard?"
"Well, I suppose you 'wouldn't' have noticed if everyone was only talking about it all morning."
"Geez, Ruri. Tell."
"But teasing you is so fun!"
"Okay, okay," she replied, lifting both hands in surrender. "Basically they're saying that she went out to town last night and got on the bad end of a mugger and his knife."
"Is she alright?" asked Takuto, a little too quickly.
"Word is she got injured, but it's not as bad as it could have been. That's why she's out of school right now." Ruri paused, then edged closer to Wako and raised an eyebrow. "A love rival already, eh?"
"She's the RA," offered Sugata.
Ruri pouted a little, devoid of her fun, then backed off to return to her lunch. Wako shot a relieved look toward Sugata's way.
Then she sighed. "It reminds me that for all the good people on the island, a bad person is with them."
"Huh?" said Takuto.
"Oh, you don't know?" said Wako. "This is a good island. Bad things don't happen often, but I suppose muggers would appear."
Ruri nodded solemnly. "That must be why Keito's gone too."
"Keito Nichi," came the reply, accentuated with a pointed finger. "I don't know her well, but I remember seeing her yesterday. Wako and Sugata are really close to her."
Takuto blinked as he snapped his chopsticks. Before he could say a word, the door audibly slid open and all heads spun to take a look in unison. There, narrow eyes scanned the room, and froze as they met burgundy.
Then George Honda strode to Takuto's side.
"Hey," said George. "Could I talk to you for a sec, new kid?"
The presence of a yellow tie amongst all the pinks, combined with a tanned, heavyset figure and twin boxing gloves hung over one shoulder, made enough of an impact inside that all conversations came to a halt in order to hear Takuto's response. Takuto glanced down at the uneaten bento box briefly, then placed his chopsticks on top. The chair, taken from his seat at the other end of the room, slid back as he rose to his feet.
"Sure," he replied. "Where to?"
George jabbed his thumb in no particular direction, then stuffed both hands in pockets as Takuto promised the others a quick return. By the time the two left the noise level had long returned to normal.
The journey was taken in silence, though their path wavered little, as they moved from staircase to staircase and corridor to corridor. Takuto grew lost almost immediately, and thoughts of how he would return to the classroom quickly became synonymous with his lunch sitting inside.
They stood in one of the courtyards when they came to a stop. A side building rose beside them, the southernmost extremity of the school, casting the area into shadow. The chance of being spotted or their conversation being heard by the few students on the grounds was slim.
"Every Wednesday afternoon," said George, "this is where the Boxing Club meets."
George tilted his head toward the building. "In there."
"Hm," said Takuto, staring at the pink painted walls. "Your point being?"
"Yesterday evening, during the New Students Reception, I asked if you wanted to join."
Takuto looked back at the other, eyebrows raised and expression politely inquisitive with a small smile. "You didn't have to drag me all the way out here if you wanted to ask again."
Their eyes met, and the next few moments were spent sizing the other up and assessing both their capabilities.
Finally, George straightened. He extended his right arm, and a deft flick of the elbow had it double over. As it did so, his hand fell into the long-practised sign; palm facing front, thumb and first two fingers outstretched, and the last two fingers tucked inside.
"Kiraboshi!" he called.
Takuto blinked. Then, with the slightest frown, he mirrored the action to an unerring degree.
A plot bunny that struck, and never went away. Yes, Sugata's Samekh-arc (his reason for existence pretty much) just got invalidated. Badly. There's no point copying from canon, is there?
...In all honesty this is just posted so I can try get back into writing. My self-esteem is at an all-time low, and I'm lost for direction, both things usually cured by constructive criticism... so any of it is loved and valued forever. Looking for a beta as well, though no rush.