Chapter Four: A Beacon in the Storm
Zoe was screaming. Sakura turned around, the enemy in front of her forgotten. She ripped off the infrared goggles to see Zoe on her knees, screeching in horror and shaking her head. After a quick wave to let Verdon and Bleu know she was leaving the front lines, she jogged over to Zoe.
"What's wrong?" Sakura asked, her disdain for the girl forgotten in the panic. She clutched Zoe's shoulder and gave her a shake but the girl wouldn't stop screaming. Sakura knelt in front of her, grabbed her on either side, and rattled her back and forth. "Zoe! Talk to me!"
"It-They just-She-!" Zoe stumbled through a hundred different sentences and never completed a thought. Sakura cupped the other girl's cheeks and pulled her face up to hers. Zoe's eyes were wide with fear, black streams of tears and mascara staining her face.
"What is going on?" Sakura said, calmly but firmly. Zoe gave up on speaking and pointed up to the roof the aerial group had been stationed. Sakura managed to see Teri grab hold of Calvin before she propelled herself backwards with a torrent of wind. The third person standing on the building, she saw with horror, wasn't Trish.
Her father…pleading for her to run…The hand drove down through his back… The man crept up to her side…His blood-spattered figure…Blood… The teeth smiling down at her…Deep red fluid…smiling down at her…
"The Clown-Man…" Sakura whispered, the memory of her father's death painfully fresh again.
"He killed Trish," Zoe whimpered, bringing Sakura back to the present. "He just fell out of the sky and –Oh my God, I'm going to be sick."
"Tell them to turn back," Sakura said. Zoe looked up, not understanding. Sakura's fear got the best of her. She grabbed Zoe one again, far more roughly than she had before. "Tell Team B to turn back now. We weren't prepared for this. We need to fall back."
"There is no 'but'!" Sakura bellowed. "Tell them to turn the hell around! Do you understand? Right now!" Zoe sputtered out something Sakura couldn't hear over the pounding in her ears. The girl tapped her communicator with her trembling, polished nails. "Why aren't you saying anything?!"
"Because…" Zoe sunk even closer to the street like she was cowering. Sakura released the girl and backed towards Verdon and Bleu. She knew what Zoe was going to tell her. She knew when she heard someone shouting her name. Tall shoots of fire erupted from the other side of Koruka's soldiers as another group fought through the mob to reach the Tsukuta School gates. "They're already here."
Teri pulled Calvin into her arms and threw herself as far backward as a quick burst of energy could get her. She easily would've cleared a couple of buildings if she hadn't been holding another person. She'd forgotten to account for Calvin's weight in her panic. By the time she realized she'd come up short of her target it was too late to avoid smacking into the street.
Teri squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the pain of her crash landing. The boy she'd taken with her in her attempt to flee had his own ideas about landing, as she soon discovered. A searing heat erupted in front of her and propelled them back into the air. Calvin wasn't any better at compensating for the weight of a second person than she was. He overdid it by a huge margin. The pair of them flew a good ten feet above the building Teri had been trying to reach earlier and came down hard.
"Calvin…?" Teri called weakly as she took a few painful breaths. She pushed herself up on shaking hands. Blood from a cut on her forehead trickled into her eye with a sting. Of course it had to be the same one Koruka had hit months ago. It had only just stopped throbbing in sunlight and now it stung all over again.
"Calvin!" Teri shouted, ashamed that her own injuries had stolen her attention. She found her way on to her feet and picked out her companion's location by his tattered pull-over. He was breathing but he wasn't conscious. The boy was hurt pretty bad. She didn't need Sadako's medical degree to know the twisted angle his leg was in meant he'd broken it.
The Clown-Man landed on the roof near the both of them, a foul odor leaking out from his clothes. Teri tried to remember how he'd made it across the gaps from the building she'd left him when a wave of nausea surged through her stomach. He could fly, right? She almost remembered that happening in their brief encounter at Butterfly Market.
The way her head was swimming made it hard to concentrate. Thoughts came to her randomly and drifted away before she could latch on to one. Clowns shouldn't be able to fly. She probably had a concussion. You shouldn't sleep on a concussion. What is making that smell? Teri took in as much air as she could without making herself vomit and tried to find a sense of coherency. The Clown-Man was here. She had to protect Calvin.
"Get away from me!" Teri screamed, reaching for the small leather case attached to her belt. She flipped the magnetic lid and recklessly grabbed at her shuriken. One of them sliced a clean line into her palm in the process. "I said get away!"
Teri threw a fistful of shuriken at the Clown-Man without bothering to aim. He didn't even try to dodge them, which was unsettling. Two of them wedged through his dress shirt and into his torso deeply enough that they didn't fall as he walked over to her. Teri focused her energy on her metallic conduit and compelled a vicious wind storm to spiral out from where one of the shuriken had stuck.
If she'd been in even slightly better of a condition, she knew her attack would've torn him apart. The head injury made concentrating her energy nearly impossible, though. The only thing she managed to do was knock him off his feet before the shuriken got caught up in her winds and slid free from his body.
"Knocked your hat off," Teri taunted between pants. She was beaten and bloody and clearly no match for the masked beast standing up in front of her. "You don't feel pain, do you?"
The Clown-Man didn't give her an answer. He brushed at his chest until the second of her weapons fell harmlessly to the roof. He scooped his hat off the ground, his joints cracking with every inch of movement. When he'd returned it to its place above the mask, he started towards Teri again.
"Leave them alone!" Teri heard Sakura shout. The dark carrier's head was the first thing she could see. Sakura came up onto the roof using the fire escape. She was greasy, winded, and pissed off beyond all repair. Teri flinched when her best friend snapped open her fan and brandished it was the Clown-Man. A dark, curved wave broke free from her fan and catapulted into the clown.
The darkness cleaved through the mid-section of their predator as if it was a blade. Sakura snapped her fan shut as the torso and legs of the man landed in two equal chunks on either side of the roof. Teri tried not to look at the exposed innards spilling from either end of Sakura's incision. Worst of all, the smell had come back stronger than ever before. There was no denying it had been the Clown-Man now.
"Are you alright?" Sakura asked, breathless and flushed from the rush of adrenaline. Teri nodded.
"I'll be fine," she said. "Calvin's a different story." Teri pointed out Calvin's leg and a few of the deeper gashes in his skin. "We should probably get him back to Hotel Lamont."
"What about Trish?" Sakura tried. Teri felt a dull ache throbbing in her heart at the name. They hadn't known each other long, but damn it all if she hadn't grown to care about the crazy dressmaker. The thought of the dress Trish had promised to give her after the battle made Teri want to cry. She held it in somehow or another. Teri had no idea what to say to Sakura. Whether or not it was the best way to find out, her silence was answer enough to Sakura.
"I'm so sorry," Teri whispered. "I was supposed to protect her and I…"
"Don't," Sakura said boldly, holding a hand up to Teri. "Just…Not right now, okay? There's still a fleet of soldiers down there and we need to find a way to get Calvin back to Dr. Sadako." Teri nodded and left the words unspoken. This had turned south so quickly, all because they'd been too stupid to remember the Clown-Man…
"Sakura?" Teri squeaked when she looked over to the torso of their assailant. A thin piece of muscle tissue was wriggling out of the wound Sakura had inflicted. It swayed back and forth in the air like a snake in a basket, charmed by a melody. Teri yelped as it snapped out from the torso like a whip over to the Clown-Man's lower half. A second followed in its path, and a third.
Strands of sinew and tissue popped out of the two halves until they were practically one again. The Clown-Man twitched aggressively as if it was being electrocuted. Teri stared in horror as the freshly assembled creature rolled onto its back and sat up to gaze at the girl who had sliced him in two. It was when he stood that the tired strand of his mask finally gave.
Teri bit down on her fist to stifle the scream. Whatever was staring at her was not human. It might have been, once upon a time, but there was nothing left of that now. A face literally stitched together somewhere between life and death had been hidden behind that mask. His only eye rolled around the socket at aggressive speeds, stopping on Teri or Sakura for a moment before snapping over to another direction.
"I…" Sakura gaped at the monstrosity standing in the middle of the roof. Teri was too repulsed to look and too shocked not to. If this was the Clown-Man, the very same creature who had murdered Sakura's father, then Koruka had been walking around with a living corpse by his side for over two years. Teri knew the nightmare that had to be running through Sakura's mind. Her brother had reanimated a human being and was using their decaying body as his personal servant.
The Clown-Man squatted down and jumped up into the air, carried by whatever unholy energy Koruka had instilled within his body. Teri watched him fly across the remaining soldiers on the street as if he was hooked to a wire. He was going to the beacons of fire Teri could only assume were the result of Jill torching suits of armor.
"Sakura?" Teri reached out to her friend hesitantly. What could she do? What could any of them do? He'd been cleaved in half and was back on his feet seconds after.
"Take me to him," Sakura said, snapping out of her trance.
"But what about-!"
"Teri!" Sakura shouted, her urgency silencing Teri's concerns. "Hiroko and Jill are over there! I need to get to them before the leading man of the nightmare circus troupe can do anything else."
"Okay," Teri said after a concerned glance at Calvin. Nothing would be able to get him up on the rooftop, right?
"Verdon! Bleu!" Sakura called down to the street. The twins had clearly been torn between battling Koruka's soldiers and investigating the trouble on the roof. Their synergy and style had lapsed into a sloppy, half-hearted effort as a result. "Ignore the clown! Focus on the soldiers and make sure they don't reach Zoe or Calvin!" They nodded without a second thought.
"Zoe, get up here!" Sakura commanded. The pampered blonde who had been trembling on the street sprinted over to the fire escape Sakura had climbed earlier. When she reached the top, Sakura ushered her over to Calvin's side. "Stay here. I need you to tell Harrison to find a way around the soldiers. Have him take Calvin back to Hotel Lamont for Dr. Sadako to help him."
"I'm going with him," Zoe said.
"You can't," Sakura countered immediately. "If you bail, the rest of us are dead in the water. We need that communication line if we ever plan on getting out of here."
"You can't do that to me!" Zoe wailed. "I want to go with Harrison!" Teri would've slapped the girl if Sakura hadn't stepped between them. The dark carrier took Zoe's hands and held them lightly.
"Zoe," Sakura said soothingly, "I need you. We need you. Trust in Verdon and Bleu. They won't let anything happen to you and I'm going to stop the monster that killed Trish. If we can't get in touch with Harrison we won't be able to tell him when it's safe to come back. I'm asking you to do this because you're the only one who can. Will you please help us?"
Zoe shed a few more tears and looked as if staying behind was the last thing she wanted. Her lip was trembling as she wiped at her eyes and nodded. "Thank you," Sakura whispered, giving her a quick hug. She spun around to Teri. "Let's go."
To say she was impressed was putting it mildly. She'd believed in her friend from the beginning, but believing something and seeing it were two entirely different things. Sakura had just demonstrated such an outstanding mastery of handling a crisis that it was impossible to think she was the same girl who'd froze the last time.
"Hold on tight," Teri instructed, wrapping her arms around Sakura's waist. "This is going to be a rough trip."
Jill and Hiro had cleaved their way through so many soldiers that Matthew was starting to get frustrated. Why did they shove him up in the air when all the action was on the ground? All of his training was going to waste.
The building around their destination weren't nearly as tall as the skyscrapers they'd started their journey on. Shisomi had told them he'd have to be a lot closer to the action in order to provide support. Matthew had thought this would mean he'd have something to do. Now that they were only two or three stories above the ground, the soldiers might be able to get to them. That was why they assigned him to guard Shisomi, right?
The pair fighting their way up the street made sure he didn't have the chance to find out. They were practically at the school and he hadn't had a single opportunity to showcase what he could do. He'd been considering abandoning his post in favor of the frontlines when he saw something flying towards them.
"What is that?" he asked, squinting to try and figure it out.
"What?" Valerie, who was growing as restless as he had been, anxiously scanned the area Matthew was pointing to. "A bird, maybe? No, it's too big for that. Shisomi, can you check it out with the scope?"
"Check what out?" the old man asked, removing his goggles. Matthew was still trying to figure out how he'd managed to use them with the sniper. It couldn't be easy. Shisomi got to his feet and hoisted the rifle up to his eye in the direction Valerie told him to. "It looks like a person."
"They're coming right at us," Matthew noted. "Is it someone from Team A?"
"No, it's…" Shisomi lowered the sniper in disbelief. He muttered a violent expression, making Matthew all the more curious to know what he'd seen. He didn't have to wait long. The figure in the sky was upon them in a flash, his speed unheard of. Matthew saw a blur of action as the stranger backhanded Shisomi with inhuman strength and sent him hurdling backwards.
"What is that?!" Valerie shrieked, backing away from the newcomer. Matthew wanted to know the same thing. The being that had knocked out Shisomi wasn't human. Not a live human, at least. He had only a brief chance to study its decaying features before it sprang forward.
Matthew reflexively slammed his foot down on the roof, pushing his energy down into the concrete. A fist-sized chunk bounced into the air. Matthew compelled it forward with as much strength as he could manage in his haste. It tore a hole through the being's gut, one that should've killed him immediately. The creature paused long enough to stare at the injury as it closed up on its own.
"Christ!" Matthew shouted, fear motivating him to act before the monster could regenerate completely. He punched the roof by his feet, scraping his knuckles in the process. Energy erupted out of his fist and into the structure they were standing on. He tried to collect it around a large enough piece to crush the creature but quickly found that was impossible.
Matthew had put too much of his energy into the building for it to take and remain sturdy. The rooftop started to crumble away faster than he could put it back together. Valerie screamed as the cracks spread towards her. The entire building was shaking from his effort to hold it together and the ledges were breaking apart on all sides. Valerie was stumbling around, teetering dangerously close to the edge.
There was nothing he could do to catch her as she went over the side. If he left his station, the whole building was going down and taking them with it. Even if he could manage to shield himself in time, Shisomi was unconscious from the creature's assault. He would be crushed to death. It pained him to do nothing as Valerie started to fall, but she was a wind carrier. Catching herself on a strong current shouldn't be a problem. She'd made that very clear earlier.
Valerie would be fine without him. Shisomi was the one who needed help. The short wind carrier would land on her feet, just like a cat. That was what he thought, anyway. He was sure he'd have been right if Valerie had a chance to act. The monster didn't let that happen, however. It decided to catch the girl in midair…
…by plunging the claw-tipped glove it was wearing through her chest.
Teri set Sakura down near Hiroko, who had stopped his assault on the armored soldiers to watch the Clown-Man lower Valerie's body to the street. Sakura couldn't believe how fast the damned clown could move. He was a blur leaping from the building and impaling the poor girl. There wasn't a single thing anyone could've done to stop him.
After laying Valerie on her back, the Clown-Man twisted his hand and dragged it out of her chest. He took something out with him, something Sakura had seen once before when he pulled it out of her father. While she'd witnessed the event from behind last time, she was granted a front row seat to the repeat performance.
The Clown-Man held the misty light in front of his chest and unbuttoned his shirt. His exposed ribcage contorted apart to expose a glowing core. The silver matter he'd extracted from Valerie swirled rapidly in response. It poured into the dark hole where his heart should've been. The clown's ribs cracked back into place once it had been absorbed entirely, the white light of its core disappearing.
"Sakura!" Jill called from behind. Sakura didn't let her childhood friend say another word.
"Don't," Sakura said flatly. "You and Kiboto need to keep those soldiers at bay." She snapped open her fan, the symbol of her element shining brightly. She glared over at the clown, her entire body tingling as the darkness swelled within her. "I'm going to kill you over and over again until you stay dead."
"Let's start with this," Hiroko growled. He sprinted a short distance ahead of Sakura, the marble that was his conduit pinched between his fingers. A slab of concrete broke off of the street and rushed over to the clown. It slammed down on top of him, smashing him flat.
"Come back from that, asshole," Teri barked. As if answering the challenge, red fluid started seeping out from under the slab Hiroko had thrown. The clown's crushed remains poured out in puddles and gathered in a pool. Hiroko cursed as the flattened pieces began to shape themselves into what they had been before.
"Not this time," Teri said, pulling her shuriken out of their home on her belt. She threw one on the far side of the puddle and another in front. They lit up with her mark and began to fly around the mess in a circular pattern. Teri grunted as she commanded the winds into a twister. The half-formed Clown-Man was torn apart all over again and scattered across the block.
It was a good plan in theory. If the remains were too far apart, they couldn't put themselves together. Sakura probably would've tried the same thing. Teri hadn't even retrieved her shuriken when they discovered even her plan wasn't enough. Chunks started humming through the air from all around. The Clown-Man was putting himself together faster than before. He was standing next to the concrete Hiroko had crushed him with as if nothing had ever happened.
The only thing her friends had managed to do was strip him of his costume and even that wasn't permanent. He flipped the chunk of road he'd once been under with ease and grabbed his blood-stained shirt and gloves.
"There's no way…" Teri said, dropping the shuriken she had just picked up. The Clown-Man pulled on his shirt and donned the gloves while Teri and Hiroko stared in stunned silence. His single eye spun around in the socket until fixing on Hiroko. He lunged at the teen with breathtaking speed, brandishing the razor sharp tips of his gloves.
"Hiroko!" Sakura roared, raising her fan and starting towards the clown. A hand grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back. She stumbled and fell back into the warm arms of the person who'd kept her from acting.
"He's beautiful, isn't he?" Koruka whispered in her ear. Sakura didn't even flinch at his unexpected appearance. He hadn't stopped time like he did during their last meeting, but he'd definitely done something to it. The world was continuing on around her at a fraction of the speed it should. The Clown-Man was closing in on Hiroko at a shockingly fast pace despite the extreme slow-motion he was travelling in.
"He's probably my finest work," Koruka said. "You can break him apart until the sun sets and he'll always get up again. I fed him enough essence to withstand everything you could possibly throw at him. The fact that he just fed again on that tiny brat is a bonus!"
"You made something that lives off of what makes us carriers," Sakura said flatly.
"What makes them carriers," Koruka clarified. He was close, so very close, and she couldn't do a thing about it. Her body seemed to be affected by the time delay, just like everyone else. It was a luxury that he'd left her with the ability to think and speak. "We're different. We're better."
"Let me go," Sakura commanded. She could feel his body shake with laughter.
"Why? So you can try and kill him again before he kills Hiro?" Koruka asked with humor in his voice. "You won't make it. Even if you do you're only delaying the inevitable. This is your punishment for taking other people here with you. I didn't want to execute them in front of you. I thought it'd be cruel. You left me with no choice, though."
"I'll get the core," Sakura said. "I saw it when he killed Valerie. That's you're energy inside him, right? What you used to animate the body? I'll destroy that."
"How?" Koruka asked. "It's in every part of his body. It's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. That's why he's my greatest creation. As long as a sliver of him still exists, so does my light. It only gathers when he feeds. Who are you going to let die so you can have your chance?"
Sakura didn't answer him. She couldn't kill the Clown-Man if she didn't choose someone to sacrifice and if she didn't he would kill everyone anyway. There was nothing she could do to get out of this battle without suffering another loss. Her only chance had been when he absorbed the light from Valerie and she missed it entirely.
"Better hurry up," Koruka said. "If you keep fighting him he won't feed. So put your weapon down and watch Hiro die or keep swinging until everyone's dead. Choice is yours, big sis."
"Stop," Sakura whispered as Koruka broke into another fit of laughter. He vanished from behind her, the sound of his glee lingering in the air as time returned to normal. The Clown-Man was almost on Hiroko, claws aimed at his heart. "Stop!"
Sakura's cry rumbled across the city like a clap of thunder. The Clown-Man came to a halt inches from Hiroko, gloves trembling as he fought to move. Hiroko didn't know how she was doing it but Sakura was holding the monster in place. He turned to find her standing absolutely still, head trained to the sky. The streets darkened as a wall of black clouds blocked out the sun.
Dark swirls of energy pulsed out of Sakura in waves. It gathered behind her in the shape of glorious, shimmering wings. She hovered above the earth as they spread out from her shoulder blades and lifted her into the air. Sakura rose higher and higher until she was practically touching the clouds above, the mark on her fan shining like a beacon in a storm.
A figure appeared before her in the sky. The ethereal image of a woman reached out to Sakura, her familiar features fading into a glittering mist that wrapped around the dark carrier. It covered her like a dress, one that Hiroko recognized immediately. Black tendrils of energy burst into the mass of clouds. The way they wrapped around Sakura made it seem like they were holding her up.
The wings stretched out behind her, sparkling through the darkness and bringing the "dress" into light. From her position in the center of the energy streaming into the clouds, Sakura looked like the angelic centerpiece dangling from a chandelier. Hiroko watched her raise her arms high above her head, his jaw hanging open in wonder and amazement.
That was when it started raining. Droplets of black fell from the clouds with the power of a storm. They plummeted down to the earth, covering everything. One by one, the suits of armor Koruka had been controlling fell apart. White energy drifted out of the collapsed suits and disintegrated in the rain.
The blackness emanating from Sakura and the ghostly dress faded away at the same time. She descended from her position while the sky cleared. Hiroko ran over to her side as Sakura touched the ground. Her wings broke into thousands of drifting fragments and her eyes fluttered shut.
She fell, unconscious, into Hiroko's arms.
Hiroko knew he was starting to annoy Sadako by standing so close behind her. He didn't care enough to give her space, though. Not when the person she was examining was Sakura. He'd carried her back to the train, refusing to let anyone help. Once they got back to Hotel Lamont station, Harrison had run inside to fetch Dr. Sadako. He'd taken forever, in Hiroko's opinion, and it only made him more upset that Calvin was examined first.
"She's going to be fine," Sadako said, standing. "She exhausted all of her energy in that storm she caused earlier. Let her get some rest and she'll wake up on her own when she'd recovered." The doctor was wearing her old lab coat, most likely taking it with her out of habit. She took a notepad from one of the deep pockets and started flipping through it.
"Shouldn't she be in a bed?" Hiroko asked. "The train isn't exactly comfortable."
"You know that's too risky," Sadako said impatiently. "If someone were to see her we'd be screwed. At the very least we'd lose the guns, infrared goggles, communicators, and access to the train."
"What do we need them for?" Hiroko challenged. "Sakura just took out his entire army!"
"And you really think he left the Tsukuta School campus completely unguarded?" Sadako was livid. "Need I remind you that the Clown-Man got away? Matthew witnessed him fleeing the scene."
"How do we know he got away?" Hiroko argued. "Maybe he got caught in the storm? Hell, maybe he never even left!"
"Are you calling Matthew a liar?" Verdon asked from his seat.
"He lied when he was spying for Koruka, didn't he?" Hiroko put as much aggression into the sentence as he could. Verdon practically growled as he got up and started for Hiroko.
"Stop it!" Sadako yelled. "I'm not going to stand here and watch you two idiots tear each other apart! After everything that happened you want to bring the battle here? We lost Trish and Valerie out there. Try showing a little respect."
Verdon glared at Hiroko threateningly. He snorted after a while and let his sister pull him back into his seat. Hiroko knew he'd crossed a line, even if he was too proud to admit it in the heat of things. He looked around the train, meeting the eyes of everyone who had made it back alive. Teri gave him a small shake of the head. That alone was enough to make him feel guilty. Seeing Matthew slumped over in despair killed the rest of his hostility.
"I'm sorry, Matt," Hiroko said softly. He'd spent two months working one on one with the kid. They'd bonded enough for him to let Hiroko call him Matt. Calling his loyalty into question had been too much. "You're not a liar. I'm just an ass."
Sadako sighed and patted Hiroko on the back. "We can try to get her inside later tonight when everyone is asleep. Try to take it easy until then." She stepped back to address everyone. "That goes for all of you. I have to stay with Calvin, but anyone who has a room here should take Zoe's example and go back to it."
Harrison and Shisomi didn't budge. Both men were determined to stay with the group and neither of them, Hiroko noticed, were taking their frustration out on someone who didn't deserve it. He walked down the line of chairs lining the walls and took one next to Teri. Kiboto had claimed the seat opposite her, the one closest to Sakura, and was sleeping soundly. Hiroko couldn't find it in his heart to wake him up after he'd fought by their side all day.
"I should apologize," Verdon said from his place on the opposite side.
"Don't," Hiroko said. "I shouldn't have said what I did."
"Not for that," Verdon muttered. "You're still asshole far as I'm concerned."
"How charming," Bleu said sarcastically. She rolled her eyes at her brother before settling up against the back of her chair.
"I mean for when I said Sakura wasn't cut out to be a leader," Verdon said, ignoring his sister entirely. "The way she handled that clown dude's appearance…She deserves a lot more respect than I was giving her."
"Thanks," said Hiroko for lack of a better response.
"She took down hundreds of those things in one move." Verdon stretched out his legs. "That was something else. Did you know she had it in her?"
"I don't think she knew," Hiroko told him. "Seeing her up in the air like that was just…I've never seen anything like it."
"With that kind of power at her disposal, it's no wonder that Koruka wishes to have her by his side," Bleu added. "Sakura hardly needed us at all."
"That's not true," Hiroko said. "I can guarantee Sakura has no idea how she did that. Even if she did and could do it again, she's strongest when she's fighting for the people she cares about. Just being there is helping her more than you think."
"So I'm never going to see that again, huh?" Verdon asked, disappointed. "That sucks. It was a hell of a show."
"It was one of the most beautiful acts I've ever seen a carrier perform," Bleu said. "I have only seen wings like those on angels. The paintings of the Blue Forest would seem so bland in comparison."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Matthew's outburst echoed through the train car. "Wings? I didn't see any wings. I didn't see a damn thing after the clouds appeared and you're all talking about some fantastic show!"
"Matthew, what do you mean?" Bleu adjusted the accessories holding her elaborate hair in place. "I know it must have taken you a while to stabilize the foundation of that building, but you have to have seen Sakura in action. You saw the Clown-Man flee, after all."
"I saw his ass hightail it out of there when the clouds showed up," Matthew said. "After that I…" He ruffled his hair in frustration. "I don't even know how to describe it. It was almost like…"
"Like you were somewhere else?" Jill suggested. "Like you weren't in Horek and there wasn't even a battle going on?"
"Yeah!" Matthew exclaimed, pointing to her. "You had one too, didn't you?"
"I didn't want to say anything about it," Jill said. "I thought I was the only one who didn't know what the others were talking about before you said that."
"What's up with you two?" Verdon asked, flipping his head from side to side to stare at both of them. "Had one what?"
"A vision," Teri said suddenly. Hiroko turned to her in surprise. "The three of us had a vision that we were in another time and place entirely. One that never actually happened, right?" She checked with Jill and Matthew for confirmation on that.
"I was at home," Matthew started, wringing his hands. "My old home, I mean. With my father. We were sitting on the couch together and watching the game."
"Why you three, though?" Hiroko asked. Matthew had been so uncomfortable in his confession of what he saw that Hiroko wanted to spare Teri and Jill from the same fate. "Why were you the only ones that happened to?"
"Sakura's attack broke Koruka's control over the soldiers, right?" Jill made sure everyone was on the same page with her before continuing. "If she removed his energy from the armor, maybe the same thing happened to us? Correct me if I'm wrong, but he marked both of you at one point, didn't he?"
"So the three of you hallucinated because you used to be his playthings?" Verdon asked, his choice of words proving his lack of tact.
"I saw lights leaving the suits of armor as they collapsed," Bleu said. "Sakura's actions removed all traces of the light carrier's energy. Perhaps the three of you still held traces of that energy within your minds and the visions were a by-product of erasing that?"
The thoughtful silence that followed Bleu's theory was a short one. Hiroko saw Zoe through the windows behind the twins as she sprinted across the station platform and onto the train. The girl wasn't nearly as well put together as she'd been in the morning. Her cheeks, although wiped clean of mascara, were still raw from the scrubbing and her hair was tangled and damp. She spun around searching for something, her eyes wild.
"Harrison!" she cried, running by everyone else to throw herself at the electric carrier. He just barely caught her. "Harrison, I didn't want to do it! I really, really didn't want to. You shouldn't have left. I told you not to leave but you did anyway. That's why I had to do it!"
"Had to do what?" Harrison managed to ease the hysterical girl off of his lap. He glanced upward awkwardly. "You need to calm down, Zoe. I can't understand you."
"I asked you not to leave me alone!" Zoe wailed. "You were supposed to stay with me and calm me down and make me feel better and not ignore me this time! I told you, I told you. You didn't give me any other option. I couldn't let you get hurt. It's your own fault. This is your own fault. You made me do it!"
"Zoe, what are you talking about?" Harrison asked, frustrated. "What did you do?"
"It wouldn't kill you to show the girl some compassion. The poor thing is only looking out for your best interests, after all. In all my days I have never seen such a hopelessly unrequited love. Don't you think it's cruel to shut her down so completely every time?"
Hiroko turned to the stranger speaking to Harrison like he was a child. She had snuck onboard undetected thanks to the scene Zoe had caused. A tall woman with a head full of long, bushy hair, the newcomer was anything but conservative in her fashion sense. She was layered in so many clashing colors and patterns it was a miracle no one had noticed her coming.
"Oh Zoe…Tell me you didn't…" said Harrison with more disappointment than a mother who caught her son stealing.
"Who are you?" Hiroko took it upon himself to get some answers. Whoever this woman was, her presence was enough to make Sadako and Shisomi pale and Harrison lose whatever faith he'd had in Zoe.
"My name is Linda Waterman," she said, throwing one end of her silk floral scarf over her shoulder. "I am here as a representative of the Panel." Hiroko felt cold all over as he processed what that meant. They had been caught. Zoe had ratted them out.
"I knew you'd pull something like this," Teri muttered, shaking her head at Zoe. She wasn't alone in her disapproval. Nearly everyone on the train was muttering or scowling at Zoe. Even Bleu, Verdon's docile and well-mannered twin, was casting dark glances in her direction.
"Don't be cross with the girl," Linda said. She had a faint accent that clipped her words. "Zoe did what anyone in her situation would've done. She made the only sensible decision she could, really. You should've seen the poor thing, bawling her eyes out as she told us about the fool's errand you've been leading under our noses. It was tragic."
"It wasn't a fool's errand!" Sadako protested. "If you only knew what Sakura did you would know there's hope!"
"I'm well aware what the dark carrier has done," Linda said. "She successfully destroyed Koruka's army. It is for that service alone that we have decided to allow her a night of rest. She and her merry band of rabble rousers are to leave in the morning and never return to this place."
"You don't understand," Sadako began before Linda cut her off.
"I understand perfectly, Sadako!" shouted the woman. "You took a large portion of the weaponry, left us practically defenseless to play out some wild fantasy you've been plotting behind our backs and for what?! You seriously injured one and got two others killed for nothing!"
"It wasn't for nothing!" Sadako argued. "We're so close to taking Koruka down, you can't stop us now!"
"You consider that performance a success?" Linda towered over Sadako. Hiroko had to give the doctor credit for not backing down. "Let's tally up your results, shall we? You failed to even get on the Tsukuta School campus. The creature that felled both Trish and Valerie is still alive and well. You left a pile of armor sitting on Koruka's doorstep for him to rebuild as he pleases. There is no word for your scheming that captures the entirety of what you hoped to accomplish other than 'foolishness'!"
"If you won't support us we'll just leave," Sadako declared. "Banish us along with the dark carrier. We have better odds out there with her than we do marking off the days we waste rotting away in this prison."
"Let you leave?" Linda laughed at the suggestion. "Why? So you can take our only means of transport, fail once again, and lead Koruka straight to us? No, Dr. Sadako Noya. Leaving is the last thing the three of you shall be doing. It's funny that you would call our refuge a prison, because that is exactly what it has just become for you."
"Linda…" Sadako started to speak and gave up. The fire had left her.
"You will be escorted to your rooms and guarded until the moment you leave," Linda said. "It's for your own safety more than ours. The masses have discovered the dark carrier is here and they are not happy. Zoe, be a doll and take the keys to the elevator from Harrison."
Zoe, who had been weeping on the ground in front of Harrison, lifted herself up at Linda's orders. She cautiously reached out to Harrison. He pulled out a key from his jacket, held it above Zoe's hand for a brief second, and intentionally dropped it on the floor. She scooped it up and started walking over to Linda. The girl whipped around and threw herself at Harrison again.
"Please try to understand!" she cried. "I couldn't let you go out there again. I'm doing this for you, Harrison! This is what's best for you, you'll see! If anything ever happened to you I'd-!"
"Get off of me," he said flatly.
"But Harrison…" Zoe stared up at him pleadingly.
"I said get off!" Harrison stood up from his seat and Zoe tumbled off of his lap. "If you cared about me as much as you claim you would've known how important this was to me. I don't care what selfish, pathetic excuse you make. You did this for yourself. Just like everything you've ever done in your life." He walked around her and towards the platform, pausing only to look over his shoulder and say "You disgust me."
Zoe passed the key over to Linda, tears streaming silently down her cheeks. She looked so pathetic, so absolutely miserable as she left that Hiroko almost pitied her. "Almost" wasn't enough to overlook the situation she'd put them in.