The enemy’s vile smokescreen lifted having burned all eyes in the vicinity, and flared every nostril. In that moment, The Envy was no longer an appropriate moniker for the General. True, venomous anger burst out from each pore in his body like steam, sending shockwaves through his nearby troop as a precursor to his starved blade.
The steel was forced through the soldier’s pathetic, useless husks and they vanished from sight before their top halves hit the ground. “Don’t just stand there, you morons,” he growled in the direction of the now-empty space. “Chase them down, for fuck’s sake.”
The Sloth, still happily munching away at that never-ending supply of bread, spoke in contrast. “Calm down, they’re not gonna go far. They’ve gotta kill you before they leave, you know that.”
The Envy returned his sword to its sheath on his back, still dripping. “We’ll see.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” said The Sloth. “I can’t believe Adachi came to their rescue, wasn’t he on our side?”
“I’m a little busy seething here.”
“Well, Adachi knows us through-and-through so he’s not going to return without a plan.”
“I know you’re trying to wriggle out of work, Sloth. Go back to Numazu, set things up for The World’s arrival.”
She groaned, folding her arms and pushing out her cheeks. “It’s so far away.”
“She’ll be back soon, and she’ll have Kanri in tow. Find that mad bastard Ichirou and help him prep.”
The Sloth’s influence over Team Karasu had left their remnants feeling powerless. Witnessing Hiro’s erasure left them fearful, and hearing the whirr of bullets reminded them of the fragility of their lives without their healing factor, even as their saviours directed them into the heart of Tonami, taking shelter inside a net cafe to regroup.
Three people — three Kanzen Hakujou — came to their rescue; Cleo Nishina, Aoi Okuda, and Nori Adachi as introduced by the former in the form of a song. To Saboten, there was almost a family dynamic about their grouping. Cleo was just about 17 years old like Saboten and Ayame, while Nori and Aoi were much older, early-thirties perhaps. There was something familiar about them — Cleo especially, but it might have just been her boundless energy even in the middle of this crisis. While Ayame and Leyim were shaken, she was fawning over Sun Toramaru who was just now waking up on a beanbag. “He’s so cute! How old is he? Is he yours?”
On the other hand, Saboten didn’t feel phased by Hiro’s disappearance at all. Sure, it was a mighty blow to their team in terms of strength but otherwise, did he care at all? If anything, Saboten felt reignited. He was ready to destroy The Envy as soon as he had the chance.
“Cleo, stop pestering.” Aoi passed stern words across the room from her perch beside Leyim. Her hands on the Captain’s shoulders, comforting her. Saboten concluded The Envy must have played the same tricks on everybody as he led them from their chambers, what a nightmare. Who appeared in Leyim’s hallucination, he wondered. For Saboten, it was his Grandfather.
“Sorry, sorry.” Cleo seemed skittish but full of pluck, and full of questions. “I’m just excited to be back in the action, plus I won the bet!”
“Oh, of course. Just a moment, dear,” Aoi tapped on Leyim’s shoulders twice and departed towards one of the four bookshelves in the cafe. As she went, she reached for the satchel hanging from her waist. A few moments later, she returned with a small bag of cookies, a trio of oranges, and a cigarette. “Here, you should all eat something to keep up your energy,” she said, tossing them to Saboten, Ayame, and Leyim respectively. “You especially, Leyim. They don’t need to eat but you certainly do, okay?”
She chucked the cookies towards her comrade in an arc that would’ve missed Cleo completely if she hadn’t used her ability to push them down into her hands. It appeared the girl’s abilities focused on the manipulation of force, particularly downward force like gravity. She tore open the bag, handing half to the child beside her, which the two devoured in seconds.
With her mouth full, she muttered, “I bet Aoi that The Sloth’s abilities were range-based, and I was right.”
Aoi turned back to Saboten, who had begun to split his orange in half only managing to spray himself in the eyes once. A new record. In his direction, she tossed the cigarette. “Saboten, I do not approve of your habit. I think it is filthy and disgusting…”
“But I was told that you would appreciate this, and it’s not like it can affect your health. Just smoke it outside, okay? Away from the kids.”
“And Sun, you should start to feel better soon.”
“T- thank you for the cookies,” said the boy, bashful in front of Cleo. “S- S- Str-.”
“Str? What’s wrong, Sun?” asked Ayame, “does something hurt?”
“Oh!” Cleo bounced into the air from her seat, as though she weighed nothing at all. “I think he recognises me! Are you a fan, Sun?”
The boy nodded, and looked away.
“Before she was ‘selected’, Cleo was part of an idol group.”
“Strawberry Cleo, at your service!”
“Oh, that’s why I recognise you!” The words just burst out of Saboten, ignoring the possible embarrassing connotations. She was the only idol he knew, he’d swear it. It’s just that her face would be printed on every magazine in the store; dyed blonde hair tied up in twin buns atop her head, pale lipsticks, always resting her head on her hands in photographs.
Even now, in the midst of all of this, she still looked ‘traditionally idol’ beneath the fur-rimmed hood of her winter coat. “Would you like an autograph, or a selfie?” she beamed. The very mention of her former career filled her with another bout of confidence and, at the very least, it got Sun smiling again. “What about you guys? What did you do before all of this? Aoi used to be a tattoo artist.”
As Saboten cast his gaze towards Aoi, her bespeckled face offered him a sympathetic smile as though struggling through conversation with Cleo was enough to deserve her kindness. It was clear that body art was Aoi’s passion; almost every inch of her visible body had been graced with art in a multitude of colours and styles from her hands to her arms, around her neck, she even had ink on her cheeks and Saboten was certain her jumpsuit obscured hundreds more.
The satchel on her hip, slumped over the crossed arms of a tied denim jacket, it was split into three identical rectangular pockets which clinked as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Tattooing supplies? It seemed impractical to hold onto something like that in these circumstances but any sliver of humanity was a nice sight, he supposed.
Cleo piped up again, her hands pressed against her mouth to help throw her voice across the room, “Ayame?”
Her ears pricked, turning head out of the fuzz of worry that she had been stuck in since Hiro’s disappearance. “How do you know my name? And why are you helping us?”
“We’re bounty hunters, da-da-da-daaaaaaa!” she exclaimed, “we know everything about everyone involved with Scarecrow.”
Aoi closed the distance between them before things could get hairy, “I’m so sorry, please excuse her.”
“We were employed by Scarecrow for twenty years before you all broke out of Mishima. Our original objective was to collect or,” she shifted her eyes from left-to-right like she was about to divulge top-secret information, and then she whispered to them, “eliminate runaway Kanzen Hakujou. When the breakout occurred, we decided to change our objective for the sake of our kind.”
“Before we go any further, I just want to say that I’m sorry for the losses you’ve endured since beginning your journey. It took serious courage to rebel against Scarecrow.” Aoi clamped her hands together to pray, “Hideki Toramaru, Shinji Yamaguchi, Alfsol Olander, Kira Königin, Hironobu Nakamura.”
“You sure do know a lot about us, don’t you?” said Leyim, instinct driving her to reach for the cane she no longer possessed. “I would understand knowing Hideki, Shinji, and Hiro but Alfsol? Kira? How could you possibly know they were with us?”
“Is it not clear?” she looked back to Cleo, “we’ve been keeping tabs on your journey because we need your help to defeat The World, okay?”
“You’re assuming Hiro is dead? It is not possible to bring him back?”
“I’m sorry, not Hiro,” said Aoi. “And not without the correct Shinigami Lord’s influence.”
Saboten hadn’t joined in on the prayer as Ayame had, he was too busy replaying a moment in the prior conversation over-and-over in his head. “Twenty years?”
Cleo cocked her head, “hm? Did you not know?”
“Twenty years have passed since the experiments begun?” repeated Ayame.
“Yes. While you might have been seventeen at the time of your experiments, you should be in your late thirties. Biologically speaking, of course, none of this matters.”
“Kanzen Hakujou don’t age…”
“So, we’re missing twenty years of memories.”
“Believe me, nothing good happened in that time.”
“We don’t eat, we don’t age…”
“There are positives too!” said Cleo, “I mean, you get sick powers, a friend in your head, and 20:20 vision.”
“Wait,” Ayame put a hold on the conversation, “if we have perfect sight, why bother wearing glasses, Aoi?”
“Cleo picked them out for me.”
“I’m sorry, are we just going to glaze over the fact that we’re in our thirties now, Ayame?”
“I— I mean, what can we do about it?” she said, “it’s a slap in the face but there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t turn back time and, even if we did, we’d be stuck in confinement in Mishima. We might as well forget about it and focus on what we can do…”
He rolled his eyes as she came to a stop and turned back to Aoi.
“…what can we do?”
“I’ll let Nori explain it to you, okay? He’ll be here in just a moment.”
And he was, in fact. Aoi had been keeping an ear out, listening for his elephant footprints. She allowed a hush to fall upon the group as their new leader dropped through the skylight between them like a guillotine.
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