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Missing, presumed dead

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On a rock on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a narrow canyon, sat a dark woman, basking in the light of the mid-day sun. Her yellow slitted eyes peered down at a group of children down below, playing with a pack of the Creatures of Grimm. They were only little Creeps, two-legged beasts with large fangs, not the largest of Grimm, but they hunted in packs, and a pack of several dozen of them was a serious threat to any hunter-killer team. Especially a wet-behind-the-ears group of kids in their second year at Beacon. The woman, named Rosalinde Brent, put her hands behind her head and stretched.

"How are they doing," said a man in a green suit and overcoat. His name was Igor Green and at some point he had decided that he would wear his name in every aspect of his life. Whether that went for his underwear as well, he chose to keep a mystery to any of his team.

"Nobody died yet," said Rosalinde.

A large, well-muscled woman named Crystal Lear walked up to the edge and looked down. She took a fearsome looking minicannon from her back and attached the loading belt to her backpack. She cradled her weapon in her arm.

"Not doing too badly," she said. "The girl with the gatling gun is conserving ammo. The big guy is keeping the creeps away from the girls, and the brown dude is picking up anything that escapes the big guy. Ain't sure what Bunny Girl is doing. Maybe she's a situational."

"They walked into a killing alley," said Igor. "Is only matter of time before more Grimm come from the other side and then they are dead."

The last member of Team ICHR, a thin man wearing grey robes over a white shirt and loose trousers, picked up his staff and walked up. His name was Harry Tinker, or "Hades" to his friends and enemies.

"Are we going to help them, or is this just an instruction on What Not To Do?"

"Only if it looks that they will die," said Igor. "People think we are dead again. I like death. It is restful."

"Oh at least jump in before the big guy gets it," said Crystal. "I could tell him all about keepin' his teammates safe 'n happy."

Rosalinde's thin forked tongue slithered out briefly. "I quite fancy the Rabbit girl."

Crystal gave her a look. "Breaking a years-long streak of my ex boyfriends?"

Rosalinde grinned, baring needle sharp teeth. There were times she really enjoyed her snake heritage.

"Not for sssex."

Hades smiled. "In that case, I'll have the agile brown lad, and Igor can enjoy the company of his fellow team leader."

"None of us will enjoy company of any of them unless absolutely necessary. I do not want anyone to know we are alive."

"What d'ye mean by absolutely necessary, darling?" Crystal licked her lips ogling the big lad slashing his way through the pack of Creeps. "Do months-long dry spells count?"

"Your nethers are not important," said Igor. "When we reach Haven, you can collect every social disease known to science. Not before."

"You're no fun."

"This is true," said Igor, satisfied.

"Oh dear," said Hades, pointing.

Nobody knew exactly what country Igor came from, but whatever it was, they had very expressive swear words. Another pack of Grimm, attracted by the general feelings of hate and discontent, came thundering down the other end of the canyon. The brown lad was the first to notice. He ran to the other side of his teammates and stood fast, holding out blood stained arm blades. The team leader with the gatling gun shouted an order at the rabbit girl, who nodded and stood back to back with her. She raised an arm, and there were bright lights, outlining the shape of the same gatling gun her leader was using. She started firing at the Grimm.

"A hard-light mage!" said Hades. "You don't get to eat her, Roz. They are rare."

"I like my meat rare," said Rosalinde.

Igor stepped forward. "Crystal! West. Hades. East. Roz. Pick up West. I will pick up East. Go!"

Rosalinde concentrated a moment. Her slender body dissolved into a black cloud of smoke and she shot down the side of the canyon. Igor drew his shotgun, then stood still. Crystals formed on his arms, torso, head. He took a run up and leapt. On the way down, the crystals covering him grew till they covered him completely. He hit the ground with a crash that threw Creatures of Grimm about in all directions. His crystal shield smashed into a thousand pieces. Without any delay, he unloaded his shotgun on two Creeps that had escaped the big guy's sword and turned them into black mist. He looked round. The big sword guy was staring at him. Igor scowled.

"It is a sword. Use it."

"Um. Right." He went on with what he was doing.

A white-hot bolt of plasma came down and started flitting about the group of creatures. Any Grimm it touched instantly lit up in flames. A third cannon opened up from above, almost with a human scream, as bullets rained down on the Northern pack, cutting streaks of destruction through the tightly-packed mass of black beasts. A few of the Creeps escaped, but whenever one did, a black streak of smoke enveloped it, and as often as not the creature ended up with its head cut off.

The fight lasted maybe five more minutes, and then nothing moved. The floor of the cavern was covered in smoking corpses. The girl with the gatling gun, clearly the leader, looked round quickly to see if her team was okay, then blew out some air. Her gatling gun, through the magic of non-Euclidean geometry, folded itself back into a handbag which she put on a strap on her shoulder. She walked up to Igor, hand out.

"Hi. I'm Coco Adel. Thanks for your help."

"You are welcome," said Igor. "Now please to get out of this Dust-sucking canyon before more of these little suka show up."

"Sounds like a good plan," said Coco. She pointed at her team. "This is Fox Alistair, The big guy over there is Yatsuhashi Daichi, and this here is Velvet Scarlatina. Team CFVY..." Coco gave a little smile. "I'd say 'at your service', but you don't seem to need much in the way of assistance."

"Pleased to meet you," said Igor.

"Uh... who are you if I may ask?"

"I can tell you who we are not. We are not bunch of zlotniks who walk into canyon with no way of walking out."

"Oh, be nice Boss." Rosalinde materialised behind Velvet. At the same time, Crystal and Hades, hand in hand, came slowly floating down.

"Hey kids," said Crystal. "Anyone get hurt?"

"Don't think so," said Coco. "Anyone?"

Team CFVY checked themselves, and declared nothing broken.

"Good," said Crystal, grinning at Yatsuhashi. "Are you sure? Want Nurse Crystal to take a look?"

Igor scowled. "And here I am trying to avoid naming names. Thank you Miss Lear."

"Crystal Lear..." Coco frowned, trying to remember something. She snapped her fingers. "You're Igor Green, and that is Hades, and that... Hang on. She don't look like her name is Razid."

"I'm new. Call me Rosalinde."

"Team ICHR!" said Coco. "Professor Port said you guys were all dead!"

"Professor Peter Port is stupid zlotnik," said Igor. "We like it that people think we are dead. It keeps them from coming after us. We are better at making enemies than friends."

"Well, you've made friends today, Mr. Green."

"Good." said Igor. "Now which side of canyon do you want? North or South?"

"We're heading for Mistral," said Coco.

Igor rolled his eyes. "We too are heading there."

Velvet beamed at him. "Then we can travel together!"

"My joy cannot be measured," said Igor.

Rosalinde moved up close behind Velvet, one hand on her stomach sliding up, stopping just an inch below her modest but nice breasts. Her tongue slithered out for a moment.

"I'm so happy you are with us, you sweet thing."

Velvet stiffened, eyes open wide, turning slowly to Rosalinde's face next to her.

"Don't worry, cutie. I've just had a very good meal. I won't need to feed again till, oh, the day after tomorrow. I won't let anyone touch you until then."

Hades sighed. "Roz. Please don't."

"Yeah," said Crystal. "People may think that 'neath that creepy exterior lies a sweet and gentle soul, and we all know that ain't so."

Rosalinde chuckled and let go of Velvet, who immediately drew near to Yatsuhashi.

"Are we finished playing now?" Igor sounded slightly more annoyed than usual. "Now, we get out of this canyon. We need to be on South side for Mistral. Crystal, if you please?"

"Sure thing, Boss." Crystal turned to Velvet. "Can't leave you with the cabbage or the snake. You're first. One more?" She looked up at Yatsuhashi. "Not you. Saving you till the last. You. Love the shades. Lose the glove and hold my hand? Good. Whatever you do, don't let go till I tell you. On the count of three, jump."

Crystal counted, and Velvet and Coco felt their stomachs rise up. They jumped up and forward, and floated majestically. Crystal held both their hands in an iron grip until they cleared the edge of the canyon, sailed over it. Then slowly gravity came back and they landed on their feet softly. Coco looked at her hands, then back up at Crystal.

"Wanna lose weight sweetie? Come to Crystal. Well, gotta go get your friends."

In pairs, Crystal ferried up the rest of the hunters. Rosalinde scoffed, turned into a cloud of smoke and shot up the side of the canyon. Only Yatsuhashi remained. Crystal sailed down.

"Right my boy. You're a big lad, so for you I'm going to need a bit more skin contact than for the others."

"I understand," said Yatsuhashi, with a serious look on his face.

Which was nice. Crystal had just made that up. She unsnapped her carbon-fibre-reinforced leather jacket and pulled up her tanktop. She looked at Yatsuhashi over her shoulder.

"Take me from behind," she said.

"Uh... I beg your pardon?"

"Hah! Easy Tiger! Just put your arms round me, and put your hands on my stomach."

"Like this?"

"Oh you ain't no greenhorn at this, I can tell." Crystal looked ahead, grinning like a maniac. "Now hold on tight, and on the count of three, jump."

Together, they floated up, maybe a bit slower than the others had. Crystal closed her eyes on the way up, and overshot a bit. They came to a stop about four meters above the other's heads. Only then did Crystal allow gravity to notice her again and they drifted down and landed.

"Thank you Miss Lear," said Yatsuhashi.

"Oh no big boy. Thank you. I need a cigarette."


 

They were on the march together, in pairs. Coco and Igor led the way, as good leaders should. Behind them walked Velvet and Yatsuhashi, followed by Fox and Hades. Crystal and Rosalinde brought up the rear. They had let the desert behind and were now on a path in a leafy forest. It was warm, and the air was heavy with pollen.

Velvet looked up at Yatsuhashi. Yatsu was never one for idle chatter, but he was unusually quiet even for him. Velvet reached out, touched his hand. He looked down to her and smiled.

"What are you thinking about Yatsu?"

Yatsu went back to staring ahead. Velvet bumped her shoulder into him.

"Come on. Tell me."

Yatsu's voice was a whisper. He knew that Velvet would hear him.

"It's Miss Lear."

"Yeah?"

"I think she may be trying..."

"To seduce you?" Velvet chuckled. "Do you think?"

"I don't believe she really needed me to touch her the way she said."

"Gosh. Women. Deceitful hussies the lot of them."

"I would never call..."

"Hey." Velvet touched his shoulder, making him look at her. "Do you find her attractive?"

"Well..."

"I do," said Velvet. "She's one raw pack of power. Obviously takes good care of her body. Blonde. Blue eyes." Velvet grinned. "And a pair of nice big soft pillowy breasts. If you like that sort of thing. Which I do. Do you?"

"I suppose she is not unattractive. But I'm not in love with her."

"Well that's good. She's not in love with you. She's looking for a good time."

"I'm not ready," said Yatsu.

Velvet turned soft brown eyes to her big friend.

"Marron," she said.

"Yes."

Velvet sighed. Marron. Yatsu's first real girlfriend. A casualty of the Battle of Beacon. It had taken Velvet all of her powers of persuasion to convince Yatsu that her death wasn't his fault. He had been nowhere near the place where it happened. It had been total chaos. There was no way he could have known. Yatsu had almost believed her. Almost.

"She's gone, Yatsu. You're still here."

"I still love her, Velvet."

"I know. You always will."

"And making love to Miss Lear would feel like betrayal."

"Crystal."

"What?"

"Crystal. You're thinking of taking her to bed. Call her Crystal."

"I'm not..." Yatsu stared at Velvet. "I am," he said, finally. He closed his eyes a moment, looked away in shame.

"It's okay, Yatsu. Really it is. If she's attracted to you, and you to her, why not? I mean, maybe we Rabbit Faunus have a different view on things from Humans, but I honestly can't find any reason why you shouldn't if you both want to."

Yatsu took a deep breath. "It feels wrong."

"Can't live in the past, Yatsu. There's a whole world ahead of you. And it's not there for Marron anymore, and that's not fair, but that's not a good enough reason to hold yourself back." Velvet stared into the distance. "And you don't even know how much of a world there's left for you. If Team ICHR hadn't shown up, we'd all have died today. There's a chance for something good here, Yatsu. Something nice. Crystal is a lonely girl, always on the move. You'd be giving her a wonderful gift."

"I..." Yatsu said nothing for a few dozen steps. "I have to think about this."

"Look at her," said Velvet.

"What?"

"Look at Crystal. She's right behind you."

Velvet watched Yatsu's face as he looked over his shoulder. There was a sudden smile on his face that Velvet welcomed like the morning sun. She would have bet a whole carrot patch that Crystal had just smiled or waved at him. Velvet put her hand in her pocket, then reached for Yatsu's hand. He took it and they walked hand in hand for a few moments. Then, Yatsu noticed that she had something in her hand. When he looked, he saw a small square shiny package. He looked back at Velvet, put it in his pocket.

"Just in case you need it," she said, and winked at him.


 

"You're being a slut," said Rosalinde. "Lusting after the sword guy, are you Sugar?"

"Yes I am, and yes I am. Your point being?"

"You're old enough to be his momma."

"Not legally. At least not in decent places. Gods know what you degenerates get up to in Menagerie."

"Not cradle snatching, that's what."

"Sod you. Old enough to fight means old enough to fuck."

"Twenty lien says he's a virgin."

"You're on. How are you going to check?"

"Walk up to him and ask him. Hey babe, the cougar wants to fuck you. You ever fuck anyone before?"

"You do that," said Crystal, "And imma dig a snake hole."

"I'm telling you, buttface. You're wasting your time. He's probably got a boyfriend. Or he's sweet on that tasty little rabbit walking next to him. Oh look, they're holding hands. So cute it makes you wanna puke." Rosalinde looked at Crystal, who was still grinning at the big sword guy. "Oh that's it. Now I am gonna puke."

"You got a whole forest for it," said Crystal.

 

The whole parade of CFVY and ICHR stopped dead. In the middle of the road stood a man, arms crossed, looking at them.

"Igor Green," said the man. "You've got a lot of gall showing your face here."

"There are men in the trees," said Fox Alistair. "Three on our seven, two on our three and two on our nine."

"Thank you," said Igor. "Please to keep quiet." He turned to the man in front of him. "Vladko. It is us you want. These children are only chance companions. Let them go and we will come quietly."

"Relatively quietly, at least," said Hades. He snapped his fingers and one of his white hot plasma balls appeared.

"No deal," said Vladko. "We will take you all, and interrogation will show who we want to keep."

"Just hang on one damn minute," said Coco, flashing her sunshades at him. "You're not going to interrogate any of my team. We are students from Beacon, on our way to Haven. We..."

Vladko raised his arm and a dull boom sounded. Coco, who wasn't born yesterday, leapt out of the way. The shock wave cracked the trunks of the trees behind her.

"So that's the way it's gonna be?"

Coco hit he button on her handbag, and it unfolded to her machine gun. Igor leapt forward, crystals growing round his fists. He hit Vladko in he chest, sending him flying back. Rosalinde went up in smoke and shot away into the trees. Fox ran to Igor's side, while Hades, Coco and Crystal stood back to back, with Yatsuhashi and Velvet between them, eyes boring into the trees.

Crystal planted her feet firmly on the ground. Dirt and gravel compacted and cracked under her boots as she made herself heavier, flipping her weapon to its highest firing rate. She swung her fire-belching cannon round, spraying the area round them with a stream of lead. All round her, trees fell down, bushes were shredded.

"Spread out!" shouted Crystal. She ran into the trees, aiming her cannon.

"Velv? You're with me. Yatsu, look down the road. Where's Fox?" Coco looked round, and saw Fox flanking the man who'd wanted to interrogate them while he and Igor were exchanging punches. "Brilliant. Come on, Velvet."

Coco, gun out, slowly walked into the trees, looking over her sunglasses. Behind her, she felt more than saw Velvet, who was holding a hard-light copy of a spear and a shield that had belonged to one of their friends. Velvet had taken a lot of pictures of Pyrrha Nikos and her weapons. The last one, she would keep just in case she'd ever meet Pyrrha's parents.

As they walked forward, there was a soft noise like the wind. Coco swung her gun round, but Rosalinde pushed it to the side.

"Nobody left here," she said. "It isssn't pretty. Turn round."

Behind them in the distance, there was a short burst of Crystal's machine gun, then after a second or two another.

"Noobs follow me," said Rosalinde, and ran off in the direction of the road.

Coco looked at Velvet, who shrugged, and set off after Rosalinde.

 

They came out of the trees. Crystal had found Yatsuhashi and was heading towards Igor, who was still locked in a fist fight with Vladko. Fox kept skirting round, trying to attack Vladko from behind, but Vladko was too fast for him. Fox caught Vladko's kick in the midsection and fell flat on his back. Finally, Igor got lucky. He caught hold of Vladko's arm. pulled it over his shoulder with two hands, pulled, and broke it. They couldn't hear the crack of bones, but they could hear him scream. Igor threw Vladko to the ground, stepped on his broken arm, drew his shotgun. There was a large muzzle flash, followed by a bang. Vladko's arms and legs twitched once, then he lay still. Igor bent down over Fox, and took his arm as the rest came running up.

"It is done. Come with me."

"All clear East," said Rosalinde.

"West and South clear," said Crystal.

"North clear," said Igor. "Now, we follow the road North for a half mile, then turn right. There is a town after thirty miles, but we will camp somewhere off the road before trying that."

Coco looked round at her team. "Everybody okay?"

"Tummy ache," said Fox. "And I can't see!"

"I am good," said Yatsuhashi.

"I'm fine," said Velvet.

Coco looked at Hades.

"We're all fine," he said, with a little smile. "A few bullet holes never hurt anyone."

"Right then."

"Team ICHR thanks you for your concern," said Igor. "Now, we leave."

He turned round and set off at a quick march, and they all fell in line. Yatsuhashi glanced at Vladko's dead body and quickly put himself between it and Velvet. A slightly green expression on Velvet's face told him she'd already seen. He put a big hand on her shoulder, and she smiled bravely at him.

"Aww cute," said Rosalinde. "Guess you're out of luck, Sugar."

"Shut up," said Crystal.


 

As the sun set, they found a sheltered spot. They made a small campfire for the look of it, and shared their trail rations. Coco's one luxury on camping trips was her small Dust-powered coffee maker and a large bag of the good stuff. Nobody complained. Igor walked away from the fire. Coco got up and found him sitting up right and proper on a fallen tree.

"This the team leader's tree? Mind if I join you?"

"Please do," said Igor.

Coco sat down next to him, sipping her coffee.

"Thank you again. That's twice you pulled our asses out of the fire."

"You are welcome."

"Did you know that man? Vladko?"

"It is not advisable to mention the names of the dead." Igor sighed. "He was not a good man. But then, neither are we."

"I'm really glad you showed up when you did, Mr. Green. You saved our lives. That's a good thing in my book. We got things to do that we can't do when we're dead."

Igor's eyes, green of course, turned to Coco.

"You intend to fight the good fight."

"Damn straight we do. We're not about to let our civilisation be destroyed by that witch."

"How many people have you killed?"

"No people. Just Grimm. We messed up some Atlesian synths, too."

"You are going to kill people," said Igor. "It is inevitable. Are you prepared to do that? Is your team?"

"I suppose," said Coco. "If it's them or us. Comes with being a Huntress."

Too quick. Igor recognised a well-taught lesson when he heard it.

"It is not always 'them or us'. It will be you who is doing the attacking. You will decide that they must die, and then you will kill them. Can you do that?"

Coco opened her mouth to say something, but Igor raised a finger.

"Think first. Then answer."

Coco looked at her feet for a few moments. "If it's for the greater good. If it's going to save us in the future. I guess so. You do, don't you?"

"Yes. We are Team ICHR. Our souls are beyond salvage, black with blood of guilty and innocent alike." He looked at Coco. "You will become like us if you go down this path. That is certain."

"You were acting in self defence," said Coco. "You did not want to fall into that man's hands. You did not want us to fall into his hands. That's good from where I'm standing."

"There is a phrase," said Igor. "When you hear it, you will know that you have crossed the line."

"What's that?"

"Someone, maybe a girl your age, will say Please. I will not tell anyone. She will say it. It will be a lie. She will know that she is not fooling you. Do you shoot her? Or do you not, and perhaps risk many other lives?"

"I suppose I could tie her to a tree and get out of there."

"Tie a frightened girl to a tree in a forest filled with Grimm? To be torn to pieces because you lack the stomach to put a bullet in her head?"

"There's always a solution, Mr. Green."

"Perhaps. If you have the time to think. But there will come a time when the good things to do have run out."

"What would you do?"

Igor shrugged. "Tell her to close her eyes, then shoot her. We all have crossed that line a long time ago."

"Are you telling me to give it up? Leave the fighting to others?"

"No. The civilians, the innocents. They need us. They need us to do the ignominious work, so that their souls may remain unblemished. Do continue on your path if you must. But know the price. Know why."

Coco shook her head. "You are shouldering the burden of being evil for others. How do you keep going like that?"

Igor took a deep breath of forest air. "After Battle of Beacon, we roamed the streets of Vale. Pest control. That dragon spawned many Creatures of Grimm, and we killed them all, so that the Safe Zone could be truly safe. We could do that because we are Team ICHR. Other teams did the same. Not all of them survived. Today, we saw a team of wet-behind-ears children take on a pack of Creeps that would have eaten them, and they now draw breath. Sometimes, we are allowed a good deed. Little fireflies in the darkness. Sometimes..." Igor drained his cup. "Sometimes, we are allowed to be the heroes."

 

Velvet sat on the ground near the fire, mug of hot cocoa in her hand. She'd never got the hang of coffee. Fox was cleaning and sharpening his arm blades. Hades was meditating, sitting so close to the fire that any normal person would have been medium rare by now. Little flames took the forms of small people under his gaze, and danced in a circle. Velvet turned an ear to the whispers of Yatsuhashi and Crystal at the other end of the fire, and felt cautiously optimistic about his and her chances. Velvet liked happy faces.

"Hey Sugar. Did you finish your nice MRE? Got to get some meat on your bones."

Velvet took a short breath. Rosalinde had slunk next to her and sat down. Okay. Her happy smile, Velvet could do without. Every time she drew near, Velvet's muscles tensed up, ready to run. She couldn't help herself. Rabbits are flight animals, and while there were of course hero tales of massive rabbits bringing down fierce dogs, the best thing there could be between a Rabbit Faunus and a Snake Faunus was a good few miles of open country.

Of course, Faunus had inherited enough from the ancestors they shared with Humans to be able to co-exist happily and civilly with all Humanoids. Witness a long history of murder, death, and war. There was a large hand on her shoulder, and Velvet sighed. Yatsu. He could just step on Rosalinde, and he could move very, very quietly if he really wanted to. She smiled up at him.

"H-hi."

"Can I talk to you for a moment?" Yatsu glanced at Rosalinde. "Alone?"

"Of-of course." Velvet jumped to her feet.

They stepped out of the light of the fire. Velvet, safe in Yatsu's comforting presence, closed her eyes a moment and sighed.

"What's up, Yatsu?" Her eyes gleamed at her big friend. "Girl trouble?"

"No. It is going quite well, actually. She used to be in the army in East Anima, and she knew my uncle Haruyasu Yoshizaki." Yatsu leaned against a tree. "I rather thought you might be having some girl problems."

Velvet darted a glance at Rosalinde, who completely coincidentally was looking in their direction with her cold, unblinking yellow eyes. Velvet shivered.

"She's a snake Faunus. Snakes are very much a part of U Hrair. She gives me the creeps. Can't help it, it's in my blood. And she's enjoying it."

"If she gives you any trouble," said Yatsu.

"I'm sure she won't. She's just..." Velvet shivered. "Ooh!"

"You can sleep with me tonight, if it helps."

Velvet laughed. "Crystal will be disappointed."

"I am trying to play hard to get," said Yatsuhashi. He sounded completely serious, and only Velvet could have caught the glint in his eye. "And besides, it is too dangerous to stray out of earshot."

 

Rosalinde chuckled as she saw Velvet bolt with her big friend. She could feel the vibrations of two pairs of footsteps in the ground, and taste Coco's perfume in the air. Coco looked round, disturbed.

"Where's Velvet and Yatsu?"

"Having a little heart to heart over there," said Rosalinde, pointing. "Maybe she wants to get in before Crystal does."

She looked back at the nice warm fire. That was nasty, but she couldn't help herself. Humans pissed on the Mammal faunus. Mammals pissed on the reptiles. She sneered. Repitiles pissed on the invertebrates. It was the way of things. Unless of course the reptile in question had a Smoke Form Semblance and had been trained to use sharp things all her life. Then, the Reptile pissed on the Mammal. Or anyone else. A bit uncivilised, but then again, she was a member of Team ICHR. Scrub civilisation.

"Naah." Coco sat down, rinsed out her mug, put it in her pack. She looked over her sunglasses at Crystal. "We have a Rule against that sort of thing."

Rosalinde threw her head back and laughed. "You need a Rule for that? Just look at us. Crystal will fuck anything with a pulse except me. Our fire mage isn't interested in girls, only in big strong boys with ropes and whips. And him?" she pointed at Igor. "We all still think he is a synth, but he won't let me see."

There was the vibration of footsteps, one heavy, one light, and Velvet sat down next to her. To show the world she was not afraid. Rosalinde looked into her eyes, and could almost feel the delicious shivers running up Velvet's spine.

"Please don't stray too far," she said. "I have plans for you."

"Plans?" Velvet's voice started shaking again, and Rosalinde could almost feel Velvet cursing herself for being such a wimp.

Fox ran his fingers down his blades one more time, then put them away. He turned to Yatsuhashi.

"You know, Yatsu, back in Vacuo, there's a lot of venomous animals. Spiders. Scorpions. Rattlesnakes. People always say that you have to grab a rattlesnake behind the head, but that's really really stupid, because that's where the sharp bits are. What you do is, you grab the rattly end like this." Fox illustrated by dangling his cleaning rag from one point. "And then, you whip it like this." The piece of cloth made a nasty crack. "Instantly breaks their necks."

"You are being a bit in-sensitive," said Rosalinde, accentuating the esses.

Fox turned his milky white eyes to her. "You have been threatening to eat my teammate. And if you do that one more time..." He cracked his cleaning rag again.

Rosalinde stared at him. She was good at staring. If and when she wanted to, she could have this little upstart on the ground, writhing in agony, pleading and praying for a quick death. One little bite was all it took. And she could watch him die while munching on Rabbit Girl's ears. She knew this for a fact. Rosalinde had the impression that he knew that for a fact as well. Still, he meant what he'd said. Rosalinde's lips slowly curled up. The only person who had ever managed to get into her blackened, well-guarded heart, would have done exactly the same thing. Rosalinde's yellow reptilian eyes could not cry, and seldom blinked.

"You remind me of someone I used to know, Fox Alistair."

She turned to Velvet, put a cool hand on her warm thigh.

"I was only joking, sweetie," she said, quietly, gently. "I'll never let anything bad happen to you. I promise."

Velvet looked down at Rosalinde's hand, then back up at her. Her smile looked a bit forced, but gained in warmth as she looked into Rosalinde's eyes.

"Thank you," she said.


 

They got up early, had breakfast. Hades snuffed out the fire with a single gesture, and they were on the move again. They met nobody. People these days didn't travel unless they absolutely needed to. The sun was out, and it was getting warm, but the trees offered a welcome shade.

Igor and Coco were in front again, followed by Crystal and Yatsuhashi. Rosalinde was walking next to her, where Velvet could see her. She was still as creepy as anything, but she was trying not to be, and Velvet had a naturally forgiving nature. Velvet had never heard Yatsu talk as much. He was growing closer to Crystal, which was both good and bad. Crystal seemed nice enough, and it would be good for Yatsu to show affection to someone. Faunus inherited so much of their animal origin in their character. The life of a rabbit was usually short and uncertain, and to have friends die was a sad fact of life. You needed to live in the moment, be able to enjoy every green blade of grass, every ray of light and love Frith sent you, because it might well be your last. Humans, and especially Yatsu, took such a long time to bounce back from a tragedy. To see him enjoying the company of a very willing female warmed Velvet's heart. But it wouldn't last. Maybe tomorrow or the day after, Crystal would disappear, happier for the memory, but looking for the next. Velvet could see that plain as the Sun, but did Yatsu? He would need her before long, and Velvet was ready.


 

As the sun set, they reached the town of Higanbana. It was larger than other towns, and better defended than most. At a terse 'after you', Coco took the lead into town while Team ICHR stayed in the shadows, wary of anyone who might recognise them. They weren't looking for a fight, but plenty of people were looking for them. Coco pushed open the tavern door. She walked up to the counter where a pretty waitress gave her a warm smile.

"Good evening. Two rooms for four, please."

"Sure thing. Hang on." She pulled out the register for Coco and turned to the row of keys.

 

"Hey."

Yatsuhashi looked round into the cornflower blue eyes of Crystal Lear.

"There's another inn across the street. It serves only the better class of Huntsmen and Huntresses. Keeps out the riff-raff and scum. What say we ditch these losers and get a better room there?"

"It may be expensive," said Yatsuhashi. "We may have to share a room."

Crystal looked round, thinking about this.

"Y'know? Maybe this time, this time only, I'll let you share my room."

"How can I ever thank you?"

Crystal's hand found its way to Yatsuhashi's butt.

"Hang on to that thought, big guy." She turned round to the rest of the group. "So long, suckers! We're gonna find a better place than this fleabag."

Rosalinde scowled, turned to Coco. "Hey beauty queen?"

"Hm?" Coco looked up from the register.

"Your swordsman is stealing my teammate away for depraved and filthy pleasures of the flesh. Aren't you gonna say something?"

Coco signed her name, handed the pen back to the receptionist, then stood up straight, facing Yatsuhashi.

"Huntsman Daichi!"

"Yes Skipper?"

"Be aware that your conduct will reflect upon the good name and reputation of Team CFVY. You will not squander it with sub-par performance. Do I make myself. clear?"

"Perfectly clear, Skipper!"

Coco looked at him over her dark glasses.

"Very well. Dismissed!"

"Aye-aye Skipper!"


 

Crystal was still laughing when she walked up to the door of the other inn. With her hand on the door, she turned to Yatsuhashi.

"I like your team leader."

"So do I," said Yatsuhashi.

They walked in and got a room all the way in the back end of the inn, so as to avoid noise complaints. They walked inside. Crystal dropped her backpack next to the bed and looked round. This was not the most modern of inns, lit with an oil lamp and some candles. The bed looked nice and solid, though. Crystal walked up close to Yatsuhashi. They looked at each other, enjoying the moment.

"You're under orders to give me the night of my life," she said. She shrugged off her jacket and dropped it on the floor.

"I am," said Yatsuhashi.

He remembered one of Velvet's lessons. When in doubt, kiss. When not in doubt, kiss anyway. He put his arms round Crystal's waist, and kissed her. Crystal made a happy noise. She kicked off her boots. Dropped her pants on the floor and stepped out of them. Pushed the straps to her tank top off her shoulders and pushed it down, revealing her chest in all its glory. Wiggled out of her underpants. And never broke the kiss. They grinned at each other from two inches away.

"You gonna get naked some time tonight, big guy?"

She took a step back, and watched Yatsuhashi get out of his clothes, pausing only to take Velvet's gift from his pocket. Crystal took his hand and pulled him to the bed. She sat down, with Yatsuhashi standing in front of her. Her tongue showed briefly between her teeth as she looked up to him.

"Let's see how big I can make this thing," she said, stroking him.

Crystal had done this many, many times before. Complete confidence shone through in her every touch, every hungry look, every smile. Yatsuhashi looked down on her, at her massive muscles, large heavy breasts gently swinging as she moved. He marvelled at how strong she must be, and still how gentle and subtle she was now. Yatsuhashi was harder than ever, quicker than ever. She held out her hand, and he gave her the condom. She ripped open the package, then grinned up at him.

"Now pay attention, Gorgeous. This is a good trick. Don't miss it."

Yatsuhashi looked on as Crystal popped the rubber into her mouth, then bent over him. He could feel her take him into her mouth, pressing down over him. When she could go no further, she slowly ran her tongue round and round him and pulled back, leaving Yatsuhashi's cock neatly wrapped in rubber. He laughed as she looked up at him with a filthy grin on her face. She wrapped her hand round him, unrolled the rubber further. Amazingly, even in his short career as a lover, this wasn't the first time someone had done this to him. The last one...

 

Yatsu closed his eyes, grabbed Crystal's wrist. Pulled her hand away. She looked up at him, wondering.

"I'm... sorry, Crystal. I... I can't."

"What's up, sweetie? Something wrong?"

"I'm so sorry."

Yatsuhashi closed his eyes, taking deep slow breaths. Crystal patted the bed next to her, and Yatsuhashi sat down, eyes still closed. She touched his shoulder, and he didn't move at all.

"Who is it, big guy?" Crystal's voice was soft and low.

"My last... girlfriend. She died in the Battle. I'm... sorry. You were expecting me to... please you, and I was going to but... I can't."

"Hey."

Yatsuhashi looked at Crystal. His face looked like it was made of stone, cold, unmoving.

"There's only two good reasons for sex, Honey. Any others I don't trust. First one is babies." Crystal looked far ahead of her. "And that ship's sailed, caught fire under way, and went under with all hands. The other reason..."

"Love?" said Yatsuhashi.

"Hah. You won't take it up the ass darling? Don't you love me?"

"That's not really love," said Yatsuhashi.

"I know. Still. Love makes you do stupid things. Makes you lose yourself if you ain't careful. Roz wasn't always such a bitch. There's a lot of anger in that thin body. But that ain't what I'm talking about."

Yatsuhashi said nothing.

"The only other good reason..." Crystal put her hand on Yatsuhashi's thigh, gently stroked him. "You damn well feel like it. You want to fuck, fuck. You don't wanna fuck, don't. Simple as that. Nothing else to it. And you don't want to right now."

Yatsuhashi looked down. His erection had disappeared, and he pulled off the condom and threw it into the can. He turned his eyes to Crystal.

"I'm..."

"Shush. Hey. We got the room for the whole night. We can still sleep together, can't we? Sleep sleep."

Yatsuhashi gave a tiny little laugh, not really amused.

"Yes. We can do that."

 

Yatsuhashi held Crystal in his arms as she wriggled herself up to him. She was a large woman, and it fit surprisingly well, her bottom in his lap, his knees in the back of hers, her feet gently playing with the top of his. She gave a little pull at his arm wrapping it a bit tighter round her, and sighed. Well, at least she didn't sound unhappy to be here. Yatsuhashi tried to settle down, listen to her breathing. Then he realised where his hand had ended up, and moved it down a bit. Crystal made a noise, grabbed his hand and put it back where it came from. She patted it a few times. Don't move it. Oh. Right then. Yatsuhashi moved his fingers. He frowned. Something was off. Based on his vast experience with girls' breasts, something was different. And it wasn't the size. He tried to give Crystal a little squeeze without her noticing. Strange... He tried again, and then he felt Crystal's body shaking with laughter.

"To answer your question," said Crystal, "Yes."

"Uh..."

"What can I say? I was twenty and vain." She raised her arm above the covers and pumped up her bicep. "Any girl with muscles as dry as this, and tits like mine, they're fake. I got less fat on my body than that model friend of yours. Hope you don't mind." She didn't sound very worried.

"It only means you're a work of Art rather than a work of Nature," said Yatsuhashi.

"Aww. I'll remember that. And the girls upstairs got me laid more times than I can count. No regrets."

"You really like sex, don't you?"

"Love it," said Crystal. "Love every moment of it, everything about it." She turned round in Yatsuhashi's arms, stroked his crew-cut hair. "Everything. Watching you move your body, making plans what I'm gonna do to it. Talking to you. The little jump in my stomach when you're interested too. Watching you blush when I give you a hard-on. It's too big to hide, big guy."

"I'm..." Crystal put a finger on Yatsu's lips.

"Getting you somewhere to myself. Roz bitching about it, when I know that it ain't gonna make any difference. Asking that girl downstairs for a room out of the way, and her knowing exactly why. Ye gods, those kisses. Getting my clothes off. Getting your clothes off."

There was something soothing and hypnotic about the way Crystal was stroking his hair, and he found that his hand was on her waist and he was copying her movement. He looked into her bright blue eyes. Was she playing some kind of mind trick on him? Probably not. Crystal Lear did not have to resort to stupid tricks. All she had to do was offer herself, and only a complete idiot would refuse it.

"Feeling you on top of me," said Crystal, in a breathy whisper. "Feeling you inside of me. Love it, love it. What can I say? I'm a slut and proud."

"You shouldn't say that," said Yatsuhashi.

Crystal shrugged. "Why not? If Roz thinks she can get my goat by pointin' out to me that I have lots of sex with lots of different people, she's got another thing coming." She sighed. "When all I'm doing, all I'm thinking about, is making you feel good, and enjoying the things you're doing to me... It just makes me forget everything else. Almost feels like being innocent again." Crystal's smile faded. "And gods know I ain't innocent. I've done lots worse than taking nice boys like you to bed soon as I meet 'em."

She looked into his eyes. He just looked back. He wasn't going to say she was a good person inside, or any of that crap. Good. His hand was slowly moving in her hair.

"If it wasn't for you, those Grimm would have been the end of us," he said. "The world is an infinitely complex place, filled with good, evil, and every shade in between. And so are people. I try to live a good life, earn good karma. But sometimes, I am too weak. And I disappoint myself, and others. And you."

Crystal moved her other hand down to Yatsuhashi's bottom, gave it a little squeeze while she kept stroking his hair.

"If you wanna change your mind, I'm still here, you know? I'm good with not fucking. You wanna fuck after all, I'm great with that. Just don't change your mind right in the middle, that gets Crystal cranky."

"I threw away the condom. I wish I hadn't."

Crystal pulled him closer, kissed him. He kissed her back as she moved her hand between his legs, getting him hard again. She felt the familiar quickening of her breath, smiled to herself as she heard him groan.

"I'm a card carrying slut," she said. "Think I go anywhere without a pack of C's?" She reached behind her and opened a pocket in her backpack. She held the package in Yatsuhashi's face. "These are mil-spec condoms. Anything you want to do, you can do with these suckers." She ran her hands up and down Yatsuhashi's cock, enjoying the soft-skinned warm size of it. "You can carry water in 'em. You can put your scroll in 'em when you think you're going to end up in the drink. You can put 'em on the end of your rifle to keep the water out of the barrel..." Her hands moved while she kept looking into his eyes. "And you can use it to wrap up that glorious monster you have between your legs." She rolled onto her back. "Fuck me."

"Are you, um, ready?"

Crystal gave a filthy laugh. "I'm in bed with a gorgeous naked man with the biggest cock I ever remember having. I'm dripping. Fuck me now!"

Yatsuhashi moved between Crystal's knees, found the hot wet place between her legs, and without another thought, pushed into her. She closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and moaned.

"Oh yes." Her eyes shone into his. "Come on. Harder."

Yatsuhashi moved faster, watching Crystal's face, eyes closed, teeth bare. She was tight. Other girls were tight because they were small. Crystal was tight because she'd trained even those muscles. He felt she could crush him if she wanted.

"Come on, come on! Harder!"

Yatsuhashi picked up the pace, but suddenly he found Crystal was holding his face, looking deep into his eyes, breathing hard.

"You're being careful! Stop it! You got these big muscles, use 'em! I don' mind a coupla bruises."

"You want me to hurt you?"

"No genius! I'm tellin' ye ye're not gonna hurt me. I'm gonna have to show you aren't I?"

She hooked her leg round his, held onto him and in one jerk rolled round on top of him. She took his wrists in an iron grip and pinned them over his head. Yatsuhashi marvelled at how strong she was. He doubted he could break free, but you're only caught if you're not where you want to be. Crystal bent over him, kissed him.

"Hang on, big guy."

She rose up till he nearly slipped out of her, then with a cry and a screaming of protesting bed springs, she slammed herself down on him. With her heavy breasts swinging right in front of him, she started riding him like she wanted to push the bed through the floor and into the next room down. And then keep... Yatsuhashi adjusted his vocabulary. Keep fucking. She let go of his wrists, grabbed his shoulders instead so he could grab her tits while she fucked him. He pinched her nipples between his fingers, and Crystal cried out and rode him even harder, gripping his cock with her strong pussy muscles.

Yatsuhashi had never felt like this before, so wild, so free. There was nothing he could do that would be wrong. She would want everything and anything he could throw at her. He grabbed her wrists and pulled them so Crystal fell down on top of him. He slipped out of her when they rolled over, but he was soon inside her again, throwing all restraint, all caution to the wind, ramming himself into her with all his strength. He looked up into her eyes and saw them burning a fierce blue, filled with pure lust, wanting this all and more, more, more. He heard her scream that she was coming, and he didn't care. All he wanted was to keep fucking this perfect woman, giving her every fibre of his strength, every drop of sweat, every grunt, every scream. Every...

He pushed himself up as he came, hips slamming into her, completely out of control. He felt he was going to fill up that condom like a balloon, felt he was never going to stop filling her. Then, his whole body turned to noodles, and he collapsed on top of her, fighting for breath. Hearing her soft voice in his ear.

"Oh gods, big guy. That was just the thing to make Crystal a very happy girl."

He took a few deep breaths, then looked into her eyes. She grabbed his head, pulled him to her and kissed him like there was no tomorrow. Finally, he pulled out of her, rolled off. He pulled the condom off, tied a knot in it, and dropped it on the floor instead of in the bin.

Like an animal.


 

Yatsuhashi woke up, and looked round. The bed was a complete mess, but -he wiggled a bit- was still in one piece. Crystal wasn't there, but he could hear splashing water and humming coming out of the bathroom. He walked in and found Crystal lying in the bath, spunging down her arms. As soon as she saw him, she licked her lips and started soaping her breasts.

"Could you do my front, big guy?"

"Your breasts look tense," said Yatsuhashi. "Let me massage them."

He bent over her and kissed her, took the spunge and got Crystal's breasts nice and clean. They had a lovely bath together, pulled on their clothes, and looked with satisfaction at the state of the room. Not a single piece of furniture in its original place, all used for the same thing. Being inventive was yet another thing to love about Crystal. They opened the door. Crystal grabbed Yatsuhashi's shoulder, and standing on the doorstep, turned him towards her.

"This may have been my last time in this world," she said, and kissed him one more time. "I'm very glad it was you."

Yatsuhashi held her for one more moment.

"Do you say that to all the boys?"

"Yes. And I mean it from the bottom of the cesspit that is my heart."

 

They walked into the room of the inn across the street, and found their team members. Velvet took one look at Yatsuhashi and burst out in uncontrollable giggles. Coco's dark glasses glinted at Crystal.

"Has Huntsman Daichi discharged of his duties in a satisfactory manner?"

"His stamina and dedication are a credit to your team. Write him up for a commendation. And also I'm out of rubbers."

Rosalinde's eyes turned towards her, and she mouthed slut. Crystal blew her a kiss. They sat down and had breakfast.

"What's tricks?"

Igor turned to Crystal. "In two hours, we have meeting. A man will provide us with air travel to Haven Academy, where we will apply to Professor Lionheart for our legal pardon in exchange for our services." he looked at Coco. "I regret that we will not be able to take you on board. It is not good thing to be in the company of Team ICHR when the answer turns out to be 'No'."

"I understand," said Coco. "Best of luck to you, and thanks again for all your help."

"Now, we part ways. Keep away from canyons filled with Grimm. And remember what I told you. The path of a Hunter leads through darkness, with no guarantee of light at the end."

"Remember fireflies, Mr. Green," said Coco. "The good deeds will shine, small but seen by those who can."

Crystal grabbed Yatsuhashi by the front of his tunic, kissed him one more time, smiled at him and walked out of the door. "Where are we meeting this guy?" she said.

 

Velvet's ear tywitched. She turned to her teammates. "End of Amaryllis Lane," she said, quietly. "Just in case."

Fox turned his head round, listening. "Dude at my seven. Just got up and left in a hurry."

"I smell a rat," said Coco. "Let's go and see if they're all right."


 

As it turned out, there was only one building at the end of Amaryllis lane. A somewhat decrepit old farmhouse. Team CFVY were hiding in various places around it, keeping in contact with their scrolls. Coco looked at the time.

"Five more minutes."

"No sight of them yet," said Fox.

Coco shook her head laughing. "Thanks Fox."

"There they are," said Velvet. "Coming up the road."

"Thanks Velv. Whoever they are going to meet, isn't there yet."

"Keep in mind that they will be on their guard," said Yatsuhashi, in a whisper. "Do not let them see you."

"Roger that," said Coco. "Radio silence, too. They may be monitoring."

They watched Team ICHR do a full circuit round the house, looking for trouble. Then, they opened the door and all went inside. Nothing happened for at least ten minutes. Nobody came. Nobody left. Nothing stirred. Coco stared at the farm. Even taking off her sunglasses, she couldn't see anything at all. She fought the temptation to check in with her team. Radio silence meant no idle chatter. She looked at her scroll again. They were already forty minutes past the appointed time.

"Fox here. Still nothing. How much longer?"

Coco sneered. There's always one. She reached for her scroll.

"Shut up Fo-"

 

In the blink of an eye, the farmhouse turned into a pillar of flame, and an explosion too loud for their ears even to register thundered through their chests. When they could hear again, and the smoke cleared, there was a crater where the farmhouse had been. Not a single brick, not a single piece of wood, and not a scrap of cloth remained in the pit. Team CFVY all ran forward, but the devastation was too great. Of Team ICHR, not a single trace remained. They stood round the bomb site, completely lost for words. Yatsuhashi bowed his head, and Velvet ran to him. They embraced, Velvet whispering into Yatsuhashi's ear. Yatsuhashi stood up straight, threw his head back and screamed without words. He fell to his knees. Velvet held him in her arms, and rocked him. They searched around, but from the start they knew it was useless. There was nothing left of Team ICHR.

With Yatsuhashi in their middle, they turned towards town.


 

Crystal Lear stood by a large tree, looking at the column of smoke in the distance. Her arms were crossed, and a sad look was in her blue eyes.

"I feel sorry for the big guy," she said. "I'm the second one of his girlfriends who ends up dead."

"You'll forget him in a few weeks," said Rosalinde. "You always do."

Crystal sighed. "Maybe when we get this deal with Lionheart, I'll look him up. Tell him I'm okay."

"No you won't," said Rosalinde. "You've got the memory of a goldfish for boyfriends."

"Do you want a go at him, maybe?"

Rosalinde looked at the heavens above. "Except for that one. By the Brother of Darkness, it's five years ago and you're still on my case about it. Let it go, Sugar. Life's too short."

"We count on them to tell the world that we are dead," said Igor. "It is better this way."

Hades emptied his third bottle of energy drink, and ate another cereal bar. These big explosions really took it out of him. He got up on shaky legs.

"Time to move?"

"Yes," said Igor. "Team ICHR, move out."