Battling against the forces of darkness in human form makes FN miss the simpler days of City Park space monsters. Even the biggest of them is a preferable foe to the lowest human enemy, because monsters harbor the will of chaos. Humans have evil, and with this evil they are deliberate and creative.
It's the creativity that keeps her up at night the September when Night Garden first starts attacking Valoran City. Black Rose and Pink Daisy, the illusionist and the seductress, appear together at the Medarda Gallery downtown. They are enough on their own — five people are wounded and an entire room of cosmic artifacts destroyed before the Star Guardians even set foot in the place — but the arrival of Gold Lotus is what began causing problems.
Gold Lotus is the eccentric, the kind of henchman whose deficits as a team player are excused by his excellence as a mercenary. Where Rose and Daisy use magic for simple burns and lashes, his power has been honed to warp and sculpt human flesh, usually while his victims are still alive.
Star Guardians struggle against these kinds of opponents — the gentlest among them start to reach out, hoping to appeal to the last remaining scraps of their humanity. But Gold Lotus does not care about the battle between Starlight and Darkness; there is no external system of values to which he can be tied. In his own words, his superiors' concerns are merely a means to bring his creative works to the public sphere, and regardless of their goals, he will happily exchange his services for the access to magic and technology the platform provides. Those interested in sowing chaos have a lot of use for a prolific serial killer.
He finds the protectors of Starlight to be nothing more than high schoolers in garish costumes, brandishing a fighting style that's equally unsubtle. They say that Star Guardians burn bright and go out just as brilliantly, but he is prepared and they are not, and Lotus is unimpressed when his bladed traps extinguish four of New Horizon's number.
Lux misses school for a week. Relationships strain. The remaining teams accomodate Soraka as best they can, but the roster rotations are awkward at best — they have been trained to a color-coded structure and routine which has no protocol for when someone is left behind.
Because they disappear in a burst of unbloodied starlight upon death, Lotus loses interest in the Star Guardians as actors for his projects. The next time he strikes ten of them appear, two of each in five colors, and he spends most of his time avoiding them because he is not interested in a show. The Star Guardians have learned from their mistakes, but only a little. Though he learns their faces and names, the warriors are forgettable, save one.
It's the last violet girl who catches his eye, because where the others rush past she has a tendency to linger. Lotus is after more artifacts at the Museum of Progress, where he actually finds her reading the sign on an exhibit, apparently curious even in the scant overhead lighting provided after closing hours. He studies her from the shadows, considering killing her because the rest have left her behind, but pauses because he can just sense the slightest sadness hovering about her.
Oh, that type of girl. Ambitious, reserved, quiet, the kind that bides time and keeps secret dreams close to her chest and makes friends more easily with adults than those her own age. She is smarter than her peers, but suspended in motion — she does not know enough to save herself. In the right hands she could be consumed and her mind completely shattered.
He does not want to kill her. If he's lucky, he can drive her to suicide.
This is the thought that comes up most frequently at the mention of Star Guardians. He nods along, half-listening, as Night Garden discusses their next objectives. Though Gold Lotus knows he can't let just one of them become his priority, letting himself toy with the idea of owning and then destroying her soon becomes letting himself get off to it. He's ashamed by this and decides it will only be a fantasy, just a little fantasy he has about her. This works until he catches her eyes one night, eyes anyone else would call amber but to him are so golden he's rendered helpless and almost gets himself killed.
They have always fallen in love this way.
FN drops her bookbag on the ground, totally exhausted. She hangs up her faded purple jacket on the only empty hook by the front door and kicks off her sneakers to place underneath. The five hooks with outerwear and shoes in green, blue, pink, red, and purple look — if anything — dumb, but Sona insists on these sorts of cutesy touches just about everywhere, right down to the color-coded cups and placemats.
Her feet carry her into the kitchen, which even at 7pm is bustling with activity. Rakan looks up from washing dishes as she rifles through the fridge.
"Hey, champ! There should be a plate for you in there," he says with a lopsided grin. "I know you wouldn't want to miss out on breakfast for dinner." FN reaches for an orange juice box and finds the plastic-wrapped plate beside it, loaded with scrambled eggs, sausage, and white rice.
Xayah's at the kitchen table, eating a forkful of French toast with her left hand and doing homework with her right. She seems grateful for any distraction from calculus. "I ate all the French toast," she says. "How was rehearsal?"
FN sets her plate down on the kitchen island and opens the cutlery drawer. "I cannot wait for this show to be over," she says with exasperation.
"That bad, huh? You know you're the one who tried out for it." Xayah shrugs. "I don't get theater people."
"We're misunderstood artists," Rakan replies.
FN snatches up a fork and is almost into the hall with her things when Xayah stops her. "Hold up. You got an... invite or something today. Here." She holds out an envelope with "FN" written on it and nothing else. "I don't know what it's for."
"Huh. Maybe it's an early cast party invite?" FN suggests.
"Oh, good, more theater stuff."
She climbs the stairs to her room at the end of the hall, shouldering the door open and sets the food down on her vanity. FN tears open the envelope and pulls out a plain notecard.
Corner of 51st & Ivory Ward
A lotus in side-view is neatly drawn underneath it. The pen lines are thin and elegant. This terrifies her.
"There she is, the girl of the hour."
In the cold light of the streetlamp the man is a jagged knife. He wears a charcoal-gray suit with a plum-colored tie and a small golden pin on his lapel bearing the familiar lotus symbol. Without his mask he looks much older than she would have expected, tired but sophisticated with sharp cheekbones and heavy eyes which narrow as she scrutinizes him.
"You kept this a secret from your little friends, I hope."
This is to avoid complications, she understands, and not because he has any fear of her fellow Star Guardians. "I haven't told anyone," she admits, hoping this won't kill her.
He smiles in response and closes the distance, extending an expectant hand flat out to her and motioning with his fingertips. "Cellphone, if you please." She hesitates. "It will be returned to you at the end of the night, I promise."
Slowly she reaches into her golden clutch and pulls out the phone, depositing it into his open palm. He turns it back so the screen is facing her. "Passcode," he prompts. She presses the four numbers, silently questioning him with her look of confusion. Lotus hums his approval, takes it back and fiddles with it, her gaze on him all the while. It occurs to her he's turning off location services before powering it down completely. "You must undertsand I can only afford the greatest discretion," he says as he does this. Satisfied, he slips the phone into his pants pocket. No camera. No contacts. No location. This corner would be the last electronic trace of her. He smiles reassuringly.
"Wonderful. And now since you've been so cooperative, my dear, I have something for you." Out of the other pocket appears a small black jewelry box adorned with a satin bow. FN accepts it and opens it curiously; an amethyst pendant on a gold chain twinkles up at her. Her mouth hangs open.
"Oh," she mumbles, "I wasn't..."
Lotus shrugs, almost embarrassed by how much this has impressed her. "Throw it out if you don't like it," he says modestly. She can't tell if he's joking or not, and decides to close the box and tuck it in her purse.
"No, I mean. Thank you."
A slight nod. "You are quite welcome."
He offers his arm to her and she takes it. They pass a number of stores and restaurants and she remembers how she had neglected her leftovers in the rush to dress and shower for this mysterious outing. She tells him how she has to eat something first, her mind wandering through the doors of an all-night diner with coffee and grilled cheese.
But there are no diners in Ivory Ward. Instead he takes her to a restaurant called 421 which is on the ninth floor of a highrise and lists next to the entrees intimidating figures like "49" with no monetary unit and the ever-unknown "MP." Lotus says he's treating her. The more she comes to rely on him the more satisfying she will be to break, he's decided. She attempts the routine of polite refusal, but the truth is her clutch has only thirty dollars in it, and she reluctantly accepts. He orders for himself a glass of cabernet and nothing else.
FN considers their list of steaks, the prescient thing to do when eating in a place like this on someone else's dime, but the idea of having meat, especially rare meat, anywhere near this man, knowing what he's done, causes her stomach to tighten. She settles on eggplant and then laces her fingers together nervously as the waiter leaves. She has water and fidgets in her chair.
"So..." she starts, "are you going to explain or what?"
Lotus returns her gaze evenly, taking his time before answering. "Always with these... questions," he says. "Never content to simply breathe in the atmosphere." He smiles at her again, this time with teeth.
"You can't just be taking me out on a date."
"Mm," he says mid-sip. "That is precisely what I'm doing." He notices her posture get more tense, her expression more cautious. Delightful.
She doesn't look away. "What's the catch?" she asks.
"There isn't one. I'd like us to see each other, if that is something that interests you."
"And you think I might say yes."
"It is not usually my custom to be so forward," — he gestures to her outfit — "but your response to my invitation suggests you would not be entirely opposed." She opens her mouth, meaning to argue, but there isn't much to say. She made herself look nice and went out to meet him secretly, alone and at night. She handed over her phone without any fuss, effectively voiding any chance she had to be rescued if things turned sour.
What is there to say? She's a precocious 18-year-old girl, surrounded by others the same age who are more outgoing, or kinder, or better endowed, or just luckier — and the singular interest of a brooding but well-kempt older man makes her heart race like nothing else. It's more than likely he has ulterior motives, but the chance that she's young and he just wants her is too thrilling to pass up.
He takes another sip of cabernet. "I will mention I have access to a great deal of the Night Garden's secrets, many of which I can be... persuaded... to part with." Lotus locks eyes with her. "Information that would potentially save your friends' lives, if that is your priority."
The man has a serious poker face. It's impossible to guage if he's lying or hiding some important detail. "And if I say no?" she asks, trying to sound like they were on level ground.
"Then we go back to killing each other and pretend none of this ever happened." He reveals his teeth. She can tell that Lotus delights in the prospect, which means neither option could be picked just to spite him.
It's nearly midnight when he leads her into his apartment. The place has the same muted elegance as his ensemble; remembering the color-coded hooks and ping-pong paddles back at home makes her feel childish by comparison and out of place. He tells her she can set down her things, then cups her face in his hands and kisses her hard on the lips. The sounds of his breathing excite her; she wraps her arms around his neck in response and melts into him.
He carries her into his bed where she feels a man's penis inside her for the first time. When they finish she is curled in his arms and his warmth. She decides they are in love while he dreams of dismembering her.