The being called Joker suddenly awoke. Or, he thought he awoke. In truth, he could see nothing but endless, unbroken black...hear nothing but oppressive silence...couldn't even feel anything. It was more accurate to say he...became aware. He knew he was, but knew not that state of being. After what could have been seconds or eons equally, the being called Joker felt an inexorable tug at the very core of his existence, pulling him...up? Down? He wasn't sure...but he could feel now. And he felt as though he was a lead weight being dragged through a deep pool of thick oil. Another tug came, and his existence sharpened, like a camera picture coming more into focus. Another tug and he heard...no, he felt a voice speak to him in the depths of his existence. It was a beautiful and feminine voice, one that was clear and bright like a diamond...but with one tiny little imperfection that disrupted his perception of it, namely a strange, almost metallic static quality to it. Barely noticeable, but just enough to be...unsettling.
Can you hear my voice, Joker?
Hah, fool...I can't hear anything. Oh, he could think. That was a new development.
Your response heartens me greatly. Another tug came at Joker's core. It was difficult to find any traces of you to reconstruct.
Joker would have sneered if he could. Of course, those damn girls with their damn light...and my cowardly master...former master, I suppose, simply let them win...
But you had greater vision, sir Joker. You wanted to stain the universe. Another tug. I would like to give you another chance.
Oh? And who do you claim to be that could give me that chance?
I claim a lot of names. Metastacia, Medusa, Kefka Palazzo, Baldren Gassenarl, Lysandre, Count Olaf...in one life, Joker, I even wore the countenance of your existence. But you may call me...Ritsu.
The name sent a great shudder of delight through Joker's existence. Ah, so the Abyss has deigned to show a face at last...it is my honor, madame. I am most interested in your...proposal, as it were.
Excellent. Joker could practically feel the grin in the voice as he felt one last tug...
And his head broke the surface of a pool of pitch-black tar. His mouth opened and gasped great, heaving gulps of air into his lungs as he clawed himself to shore and dragged himself out of the pool, naked as a newborn save for the tar clinging to his body and the silver mask that covered his eyes. As he rested on his hands and knees and gasped for breath, the same voice from earlier spoke to him.
"Welcome back, Joker."
His head snapped up at the sound of the voice and was, for once, rendered speechless by what he saw. The dark rock "shore" he had crawled onto was part of what appeared to be a huge, cavernous chamber...but after a few meters, the rock seamlessly melted into a vast theater, one with a large, circular stage in the center and hundreds if not thousands of seats all arrayed around it, all empty and poised to watch a show that had yet to begin. The walkway in front of Joker was lain with a richly woven deep red carpet bordered with gold that almost sang to him, telling him to walk...walk to the stage, where a strange woman sat at a table alone, having tea alone despite two places being set. Joker couldn't see her, but every nerve in his body tingled with excitement. He could feel the power emanating from her, from this theater, from every single seat in the place. Joker slowly rose to his feet, a grin splitting his face as he stepped onto the carpet. "I must say...the Abyss really knows how to put on a show, madame." Joker traced his fingers over the plush leather-backed seats as he strolled past, taking notes of the plaque embedded into the back of each. "Interesting...so you are in the practice of reserving seats for your guests? Sakura Kinomoto...Soul Eater Evans...Mana Aida...Nanoha Takamachi...quite a crowd, hmm? But they all seem to have skipped the show."
As Joker grew closer to the stage, the strange woman's image came into sharper focus...and what a woman she was. She appeared little more than eighteen, and dressed like a simple secretary, even with a black leather suitcase at her side. No bells and whistles, just a women's suit, skirt, and pantyhose, with shiny black high heels and a silver chain dipping into the pocket of her waistcoat, visible under the open jacket of her suit. Wavy hair like a midnight blue waterfall spilled down her back, shot through with strands like spun gold that created an odd shifting, glittery effect as the stage lights played off of it. Her nails were immaculately manicured and painted jet black, though once again shot through with minuscule flecks of glittering gold, and each earlobe bore a dangling teardrop-shaped earring with an impossibly deep blue sapphire that reminded Joker of the depths of the ocean. Regardless of all this, though, her eyes are what intrigued Joker most, framed as they were by semi-rimless red glasses. They were...mesmerizing, that same deep blue as her sapphire earrings, but with irises always shifting, flecked and fractured with what seemed like pure, liquid gold constantly flowing behind them. Physically, she was nothing sort of stunning, likely standing close to 1.7 meters tall with the aid of her heels, with long, shapely legs, an hourglass figure made all the more obvious with how the skirt hugged her hips, and the air of a supermodel on break between photo shoots. She cocked her head slightly and smiled at Joker as he approached and commented on the missing "guests". Her teeth were perfect, a dazzlingly brilliant white...too perfect. Too brilliant. "You have quite a mind for theater, monsieur Joker...and as you are but the first part of my plan, I figured you would enjoy operating out of a magnificent theater such as this."
"I am flattered, madame, I truly--" Joker stopped dead in his tracks as he reached the first row of seats. Just to the right of the walkway, one of the seats was occupied. A teenage girl sat in the plush leather seat, one with a relatively plain appearance: brown eyes and brown hair tied into pigtails that spilled over her shoulders and rested on her chest by a pair of red scrunchies, with a light yellow long-sleeved shirt and a light blue jacket on top and a short blue skirt with brown ankle boots and short-length socks on bottom. Strangely, the girl seemed to be aware and turned her eyes to Joker as he stopped by her seat, flashing him a small smile before looking back to the stage, completely unfazed by his nakedness. Joker, for his part, was absolutely baffled. "...Ah, madame? It seems one of your guests is in attendance after all."
The strange woman nonchalantly shrugged and sipped her tea. "Miss Sakagami is always here, save for brief occasions every once in a blue moon where she disappears for a little while. She is an exception to the rules of your universe."
Joker cocked an eyebrow. "So this girl is a Precure?"
"Supposedly. Her strength of schedule as one is rather weak, though, and she didn't even get a proper attack until her third appearance...well, third overall. Second was a cameo."
"C'est très triste." Joker shrugged. "May I join you for tea, madame...Ritsu, was it?"
"Ritsu, yes. And please...be my guest, Monsieur Joker." Ritsu gestured to the place setting opposite hers.
"Merci, madame Ritsu." Joker climbed the stairs and joined Ritsu at the table, taking the teacup and gently sniffing at it. "Mm, Ceylon. You have a refined palate, madame."
"Merci, I try~" Ritsu and Joker took simultaneous sips of the tea. "Now, Monsieur Joker, I'll keep this brief...I'm quite busy preparing for the show of the eternity, and it won't do if everything doesn't go off perfectly. So, I would like your help as a fellow master of the theatrical arts."
Joker's grin from before returned, even wider than before. "Ahhh, delightful. My muse has been so stifled as of late...I'd delight in a chance to use it, madame. What sort of production are you looking to put on~?"
Ritsu's face broke into that same horribly wide grin Joker wore, and for a moment he felt he could catch a glimpse into the very heart of darkness. "A tragedy, Monsieur Joker. I wish to write a tragedy."
* * *
"K-Kirara-chan, please stop...y-you already finished your crepe..." Towa Akagi was caught in the fruitless endeavor of trying to keep her girlfriend--fiance, she corrected herself--from stealing bites of her strawberries and cream crepe. "I-I won't share any more than I already have!"
"Awh, Towachi...being so cruel even to your own fiance..." Kirara Amanogawa, potentially soon to be Kirara Akagi, puffed out her cheeks briefly in a pout before her eyes suddenly lit up with a devious idea. "Well, if I can't have any of Towachi's crepe...maybe I can take a bite of my other favorite snack~"
Towa blushed as red as her luxurious apricot curls. "N-No, not in public--"
Ignoring her fiance's protests, Kirara pushed Towa's hair aside to reveal one of her cute elfin ears. "Itadakimasu~"
"K-Kirara, I--ahn...!" Towa tried and failed to stifle a moan as Kirara's tongue touched the lower edge of her outer ear, teasingly sliding up from the lobe to the point. "I-I mean it, I-I'll--ahm--I-I'll get angry...!"
Kirara grinned and leaned in a little closer to whisper directly into Towa's ear, causing her to blush a deep scarlet to the tips of her ears. "I think I'd like to see you get pissed off, Towachi~" With that, she gently bit Towa's ear with an exaggerated nom, causing the alien girl to let out yet another moan.
"K-Kirara, w-watch your...ahn, mm...l-language...!"
"How about I don't~? Maybe I'll just suck your ears like co--" Mercifully, a rolled-up magazine swung down and struck Kirara on the head before she finished that sentence, causing her to release Towa's ear and pull back to rub her head. "Ow, what the fuck? Who di--" Kirara yelped as Towa flicked her right ear in chastisement for her bad language. "Ow! Jeez, what is this, National Abuse Kirara Day?"
The owner of the rolled-up magazine whacked Kirara again, though much gentler this time. "Every day is National Abuse Kirara Day when she's being a profanity-spewing lecher." Minami Kaidou stood above the two and unrolled her magazine. "Sorry, I don't make the rules."
"Ehhhh? C'mon, I'm not a letch...right, Towachi?"
Towa cleared her throat. "Your behavior in the shower this morning would suggest otherwise."
Haruka Haruno popped her head out from behind Minami's tall frame, keeping a loose grip on the crook of her girlfriend's elbow. "Well, Kirara-chan, you can be pretty dirty-minded sometimes...occasionally...often. Very often."
"Mechokku...you girls are really harshing my mellow..." Kirara comically slumped off to one side of the bench. "...So, where's YuiYui and Yayo-rin?"
"Oh, Yui-chan had to stop by the doctor's office this morning. She said the two of them will meet up with us later." Haruka tilted her head while trying to remember any further details.
"Ah, about her hands? Man, I'm worried about YuiYui...maybe we should have a talk with her about it. Being a Precure isn't worth turning quadriplegic over..."
A bit of a somber silence fell over the group, which was broken after a few seconds by Minami. "Later. For now, let's just enjoy our day."
The others agreed, and the four friends began their day out.
* * *
Yui Nanase was not happy.
She'd been a Precure for three years now, and while she cherished every second of it the side effects were starting to really take their toll. As she slowly wheeled herself out of the doctor's office, the words of her doctor (who was actually from Hope Kingdom, summoned by the request of Towa and Kanata to be Yui's personal physician) echoed in her head. If you transform again, you could lose use of your hands forever. She couldn't handle that, she knew she couldn't. But could she handle giving up that which she cherished so much to get them back? So lost in thought was she that she accidentally bumped into someone as she wheeled out of the office. "Oh, sorry, I--" She stopped immediately as she looked up. She hadn't seen him in the flesh before, but there was no mistaking... "P-Prince Kanata?" Her voice dropped to a hushed whisper as she glanced around. Yayoi wasn't around, of course...Yui had told her to wait in the cafe down the street. "What are you doing here...?"
Kanata chuckled. "Well, aside from contemplating paying my future sister-in-law a surprise visit...I actually came to see you." He glanced around. "Pardon me, but could we duck into this alley?"
"Ah...erm, sure." Yui was admittedly a little wary of Kanata's sudden appearance, moreso since she'd never met him before, much less been alone with him. "You'll need to push me, my arms are tired."
"Of course." Kanata took the handles and wheeled Yui into a nearby alley, getting just out of view of the main road before getting face-to-face with her again. "I'll be blunt...it's spreading to your arms, isn't it?"
Yui was quiet for a long moment as she rubbed her right arm with her left hand. The fingers of her right hand barely twitched as she mentally willed it to clench a fist, as if to defy him and prove that she was fine...but she wasn't, she knew it. "...Yes. Juno-san told me that if I transform again I could lose the use of my hands forever."
"Mm, I see...well, I suppose now it's time to share a secret with you." Kanata crouched down a bit to get on eye level with Yui. "...I didn't just send Juno to serve as your physician. She was also collecting usage data from the EPS to continue development."
Yui's eyes shot wide as they could go at this. "B-But...wasn't it banned due to--"
"It was. But we decided a short time after you lost use of your legs to resume development, if only to make the device stable or reduce the effects. However, all our work has yielded only a highly experimental 'update' to the System that we can't foresee the consequences of."
Kanata nodded. "Hopefully, it will eliminate the damage to your nerves...but we weren't able to test any potential side effects, other than assuring it won't draw from your life energy."
"So..." Yui swallowed hard. "...I could walk again? I could draw again? I wouldn't be confined to a wheelchair...I could...I could feel whole again?"
Kanata nodded solemnly. "At the risk of anything else that might happen, yes." Kanata offered a hand to her, palm-up. "It's up to you, Yui. Will you take the unknown path, or will you try and wait a little longer to make sure it's safe and risk losing your hands for good?"
Yui was silent for a long time, turning over every option in her mind a dozen times over. What do I want...?
Somewhere out of sight, a harlequin laughed silently.
* * *
Yayoi drummed her fingers on the table, fidgeting with a couple packets to entertain herself. Yui's really late...I wonder if she's okay. She hasn't called yet...maybe she got bad news from the doctor and needs time to recover. With a sigh, she flagged down a waiter for a refill on her coffee. I'll give her a few more minutes before I call, just in case... Yayoi lifted the cup to her lips and drank...and then halfway through, she saw something that nearly caused her to spit it all out against the opposite side of the booth. She blinked to clear her eyes, pinched herself, even slapped herself...but the image didn't change. She couldn't believe it...there was no way what she was seeing was real. It was too good to be true.
For the first time since Yayoi had met her three years ago...Yui was walking.