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Flame

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All was darkness, all was silence.

The great battle in Townsville. Blinding pink shockwaves of the little girl's cataclysmic resurrection. It had brought him near death.
He now lay still in the deep, quiet chamber of stone and fire and shadow. He would feed off the essence of this timeless, nameless space and grow strong once more. Soon, soon, he would be restored upon his throne in the Pit of Hate. The samurai, too, would keep.

The little girl. He had immediately recognised her as the progeny of his enemy – so sweet and pure and a perfect icon of the samurai’s legacy. The proud bearing, the rigid energy of her moral convictions, embodying all the hubris of the arrogant and violent human race. Eyes the colour of cherry blossoms, hair the colour of flame.

It should have been his pleasure to mow down this haughty little creature, as well as the sisters who shared in her Imperial ancestry. To make their paltry home, so preciously guarded, an annexe of his own great intergalactic Empire. He had presumed that delegating this task to his beautiful nameless concubine would have yielded the desired fruit. However, the accursed red imp betrayed him, revealing his true alliance in sacrificing his life to rescue the young Imagawa princess. Well, that infernal little whore’s corpse was now vapour and stardust. He had gotten what he deserved.
And yet… and yet…

She had heard his cries of agony. Was the little brat truly aware just how greatly her tranquil thoughts had comforted him? That his pangs of distress, some of them the vestiges of millenia-old wounds, have been appeased by her espousal of serenity?

This frightened him more than anything. Never before had an entity managed to affect him in this manner. Against his will, in one inexplicable moment, his very core became a faithful mirror of the girl’s own heart. Though the reason for this is a mystery, some element in this girl’s life force could potentially hold remarkable sway over him.

He dared not approach Townsville again. At least not unless he could find the reason for this uncanny link between the two disparate beings. No. For now, he would rest, and dream of further conquests in worlds far distant.

Aku will rise again.

***

Venus. The second planet from the sun. 7,520.8 miles in diametre, with a dense atmosphere composed of approximately 96.5% carbon dioxide and 3.5% nitrogen. Earth's sister planet, Venus is the second brightest object in the night sky, producing light that is strong enough to cast shadows.

She has been revered by the inhabitants of Earth since antiquity. The Great Star of the Mayans, the Metal Star of East Asia, 'Divine Lady of the Scarlet Heaven' to the Babylonians. Given her proximity to the Sun, she can disappear and shift from one end of the horizon to the other. The Romans mistakenly believed she was two seperate entities: Hesperus and Lucifer: the evening and morning star.

At 6.16am, on the morning of April 20th, 2003, she did something completey unprecedented in the history of her observation.
Professor John Utonium squeezed his eyes shut and hid his face against the eye-watering glare. The gentle meadow around him disappeared in a flood of light. A keening, high-pitched knell rang across the heavens.
Blood pounded in his ears, cold sweat prickled the back of his neck. After all his family had gone through in the past weeks, the last thing they needed right now was another monster to contend with.
He prayed his life would be spared, and that his girls could summon the strength to face this.

Several moments passed, and the light and the noise faded into a drowsy lull.
The Professor uncurled his hunched posture, daring to open his eyes. There, in the centre of the meadow, a bloom of celestial pink light remained. It held within it a sweetly curved, beautiful form - almost human, were it not for the scarlet skin and leaf-shaped ears.

Shaking, near-insensible with shock and fatigue, the Professor carefully approached.

The last of Venus' light faded, and the figure's feet touched the earth, deposited tenderly in a bed of wildflowers.
She opened her feline eyes, and took her first desperate breath of the chilly morning air.
Her gaze lit upon him, filled with a love that warmed his blood.
'John!'
He was immobile, at the mercy of powerful sobs wracking his frame. A thought fell upon him: that the Gods had seen the distress of the mortals in their care, and they had been merciful.

'Are the girls okay?...'
'Yes... they're fine... all fine...'
She fell into his arms.
He clutched his precious imp tight, his lover, the defender of his children. He made a silent, fierce promise to the Gods: If they would now let his little family be, he would never again ask them for a miracle, great or small.

As a red sun rose, The Professor took his Venus home.

Chapter Text

The City of Townsville, 2013.

Devilled eggs, sushi rolls, crab cakes. The fixings for cocktails - vodka-rich cosmopolitans and kid-friendly Shirley Temples. Fresh flower arrangements and a hi-fi stacked with mellow instrumental jazz. Check, check, and check.
Hime Utonium brushed the crumbs off her frilly cooking apron, preparing to start on the individual chocolate mousse parfaits. This was a particular favourite of the guest of honour, and she was determined to perfect the recipe, already daydreaming about the sweet dessert becoming a talking point for the party. Hopefully the girls would soon be home from Malph's with the required whipping cream and strawberries.

Just as Hime was beginning to crack the eggs and slice up the bars of cooking chocolate, she heard the telltale bang of the front door, her adoptive daughters bounding their way into the living room with their usual unruly aplomb.
'Buttercup, stop eating the strawberries! Those are for the party!'
'There's like a whole huge punnet here! Anyway, like you can talk, Chubbles.'
'Buttercup, don't call Bubbles that!'
'HIIII-CHAN!!'

A red-faced Bubbles stormed into the kitchen, sulkily casting the bag of groceries she was carrying onto the dining table.
'Hi-chan, Buttercup is calling me names,' she whimpered with the impetuousity of a girl half her age.
'Buttercup, honey, I wouldn't let Bubbles make fun of you.'
'What-ever,' Buttercup kicked the rubber sole of her trainer into the tiles with a sharp squeak.

'Look what we got!' Blossom announced, valiantly changing the subject and rifling through the grocery bag. She produced an oversized greeting card, its front graced with a bright and intricate illustration of a tall, graceful woman in a red vintage dress. It was a great spectacle of glitter and textured paper cut-outs.
'We're each going to write a personal message for Ms. Bellum in here to congratulate her.'
Hime smiled. These small impromptu actions of collaborative kindness showed what the girls were really made of. 'I'm sure she'll love it.'
'Me first!' Bubbles said, somehow managing to produce a bright blue sparkly gel pen (she always seemed to have items like this on hand: crayons, coloured pencils, markers).

The new Mayor of Townsville, one Ms. Sara Bellum, had been sworn in that very morning. The preceding Mayor had participated in the ceremony with nothing but courtesy and enthusiasm. Far from regretting his retirement, he was immensely proud of his clever successor – and was also pining for his new, wide-windowed beach house in Monterey.
A celebratory party would commence that evening at 8 o'clock, at the Utonium family home. Even though City Hall had not depended upon the Powerpuff Girls quite as frequently in the past few years, they were still considered loyal allies and valued friends to all in the Mayor's office. It was perhaps the sisters' continued presence in town, as well as the development of their formidable superhuman abilities as they had aged, that ensured the dwindling of crime and villainy to its lowest point in living memory. Townsville had become a truly tranquil place to live.

*

'Your daughters were picking on each other again this afternoon,' Hime murmured to her husband, as she fixed her make-up in the ensuite mirror.
The Professor chuckled as he fixed his silk tie. 'I love how they're my daughters when they misbehave.'
'Mm-hmm.' Hime pursed her lips to apply her lipstick. 'And when Buttercup said that your beard makes you look like a lame classic rock DJ, she was definitely my daughter. Right?'
'Yes.' Now dressed in his favourite navy blue suit, the Professor had sidled up behind his wife, sneaking his arms around the imp's waist.

Hime finished her make-up and gazed at her husband in the mirror. Despite the intricate beauty regimen she had just completed, his face was the one she found truly gorgeous. The silver streaks across his temples and the charming crows' feet around his eyes had only added to his matinee-idol good looks, and once again Hime found herself thanking the heavens that this brilliant, kind-hearted man had ordained himself her true spouse.

The misery of her servitude to Aku was but a distant memory. That morning ten years previous, upon her mystifying resurrection, the Professor had brought her back to the girls for a joyful, tearful reunion. With the gift of renewed life, she had vowed to give her heart wholly to his family, and decided to now live in true alignment with her feminine core. Soon she became the Professor's wife, and adoptive mother to the girls that she had once been forced to antagonise. At Bubbles' suggestion, the degrading moniker of 'Him' had been promptly cast off in favour of the much more graceful 'Hime', Japanese for 'princess'. In turn, it was promptly shortened to the affectionate 'Hi-chan' by the girls.

Underneath the soft shades of make-up, floral house dresses and softly curled, styled hair, she still looked much the same as she had in her previous life as a 'villain'. The biggest difference was the conspicuous absence of her claws. In their place were her true hands: delicate, ladylike, meticulously manicured. And her left ring finger sported a beautiful gold band, the material possession she prized above all others.
With her resurrection, she had also lost all of her supernatural powers. The only thing separating her from normal humans now was her unearthly appearance. (Not to mention her otherworldly talents in the kitchen. She had honed her recipe for flapjacks to the point that it was the envy of every other housewife in Pokey Oaks.)
It was no exaggeration to say it had been ten years of hard-won heaven.

the Professor kissed the side of her painted face, his beard tickled her cheek. 'You might just upstage the lady of the hour, looking like that.'
She turned to face him and they shared a longer, fuller kiss, wallowing in each other, until the roughhousing of superpowered teenaged girls from without broke the peace.
'I'll go and see who said what to whom, shall I?' the Professor mumbled with weary good nature.

The stars were slowly blinking awake in the soft evening sky, and Hime languidly gazed out at them through the window. Venus shone gently down upon her, and once again she pondered the source, the meaning and the power of what had brought her back from the dead, all those years ago.
Her thoughts slowly returned to Earth, anticipating the guests who would soon arrive.

*

Blossom smoothly weaved her way through the crowd of chattering adults, graciously offering up appetizers. Her parents had easily slipped into the roles of courteous host and hostess, and she took pride in being able to emulate them. She had taken care to curl her hair and pick out her smartest and most elegant dress. All evening she had made good use of her most polite voice and best manners. The crème de la crème had come tonight to toast the new Mayor, and Blossom wanted to be sure to prove to Townsville the true quality of her family.

As she held out her platter to the Townsville District Attorney, a pigtailed, giggling ball of blonde stampeded past her and upset the silver tray. Blossom's frantic apologies were met with a withering silence from the D.A. as he scraped egg mayonnaise and pickled rice off his suit with a napkin.
'Bubbles…'
She found her sister on the stairs, engrossed in tickling the life out of little Max Keane-Green. His younger sister Marie was clinging to Bubbles' shoulder in a similar state of glee.
'You knocked my platter over one of the guests!'
Bubbles finally looked up, and her gaze found the gruff, balding man, splattered in a rainbow of savoury fancies. A sheepish smile crawled across her face.
'Oops.'
'I would have thought babysitting would entail keeping the kids out of trouble,' Blossom scolded. She was answered with a cold, sudden stream of water hitting her right between the eyes.

Buttercup stood at the top of the stairs, twirling a water pistol in her hands.
'Awright! Fifty points!'
Bubbles, Max and Marie couldn't keep in their giggles. The temptation to smack them all was pushed back down, and Blossom simply produced a lace-trimmed handkerchief, wiping her face.
'May I remind you that this is an important evening for Ms Bellum, not to mention our parents. How do you think they'll feel if it's ruined by you guys making a scene?'
Playing this card seemed to garner the desired response. Guilt began to emerge in her sisters' expressions.
'We're sorry, Blossom,' Bubbles said, before ushering her two small green-skinned charges up the stairs. 'C'mon kids, how about we go to my room and do some colouring?'
Buttercup merely chucked her pistol onto the hallway sideboard with a huff.
'What are you wearing, anyway?' Blossom asked, examining the oversized shirt and black jeans that somehow constituted formalwear in Buttercup's mind.
'Clothes, dummy,' was the retort, before the tomboy pushed past her sister in search of some unsoiled food.

Blossom sighed, escaping to the kitchen to properly clean off the remnants of food and water still gracing her silk gown. A sick, lukewarm irritation tingled in her gut as she washed her face. She loved her sisters, dearly. Yet most days it felt as if Blossom alone truly possessed their age of sixteen. Bubbles seemed to be caught in an arrested childhood which was endearing at best and worrying at worst. And Buttercup was still preoccupied with acting as rude and confrontational as possible, thus excusing her from interacting with the world in any open, genuine way. These behaviour patterns had been become entrenched over the years, and Blossom often found herself pondering how her polemical sisters could possibly be trusted to survive the oncoming saga of adulthood. The Professor and Hi-chan simply laughed this off, indulging their quirks, adamant that they were part of what made the girls so special.

The red-haired sister had spent her adolescence carefully watching and emulating her parents. From the Professor she had learned about hard work and lifelong learning. She had striven to excel in every class at school, so hopefully when the time to choose her vocation came, she could boast a wide choice and skill set - not to mention some formidable credentials. From Hi-chan, she had learnt not only day-to-day tasks of maintaining a household, but the true value of courage and love. A pink, crescent-shaped scar was still visible across Blossom's breast. She would never forget that Hime's blood lived in her veins. Conventional biology be damned: in Blossom's mind, Hime was really and truly her mother. The girl had never said this out loud, but she felt as if this bond made her closer to the imp than her two sisters.

'Blossom! It's so good to finally bump into you, I was wondering where you were hiding!'
Kenji Utonium had strolled into the kitchen, a half-empty cup of soda clutched in his large, long-fingered hands. The eldest son of Blossom's uncle Eugene, he was a tall fellow with flaming red hair, and a stately beard to match. Though they did not see each other often, Blossom had always felt a great affinity for her cousin. In many ways he reminded her of both her father, and herself.
'Hi, Kenji. How has college been?'

'Excellent. The campus is amazing, right in the middle of town. The library is one of the most beautiful neo-classical buildings I've ever seen. And my new history professor for this semester is an amazing guy, one of the world's foremost authorities on Asian history and folklore. We're doing ancient Japan, and he has been so helpful in my research of the Imagawa dynasty.'
Blossom leant back on the counter, delighted. 'I'll bet he freaked when he found out you were a descendant.'
Kenji cackled. 'You have no idea. Actually,' here the young man's tone changed, 'I wanted to ask you about your encounter with the wandering Imagawa Prince when you were little.'
Blossom's brow crinkled. 'Do you really think that would be relevant to your studies?'
'Are you kidding? It's one of the most extraordinary – and least known – events of the Imagawa dynasty! I'm tempted to write my thesis on it!'

Here, the girl shrunk back a little. To be sure, it had been a life-changing event. But even now, ten years on, the dreadful memory of that black beast - and what it had done to her - had not entirely lost its sting.
And predictably, Kenji then asked: 'What was it like to face off with the creature known as the Akuma?'
Blossom could not find her words. Instead, she felt tears prick her eyes.
'Oh,' Kenji dropped his line of questioning, placing a friendly hand on his cousin's shoulder. 'I'm sorry, Blossom. I didn't mean to upset you.'
'S'okay,' she whimpered, grabbing a paper serviette and bravely trying to compose herself. Respectable superheroines, she told herself, should not be seen crying at the mere thought of some long ago conflict. At length she spoke.
'When the Akuma first came to Townsville, we had no idea just how powerful he was. But in the middle of our first battle, in jumped Jack.'
Kenji was incredulous. 'Jack?'
Blossom smiled. 'That was the title the Imagawa Prince preferred. He was injured… and we discovered his origins when we brought him home. I suppose it was lucky that we crossed paths. Jack said he saw his own bravery reflected in us. While he was injured, he taught my dad how to use his sword.'
'Wow…' Kenji breathed.

The warmth slowly began to fade from Blossom's expression as she recalled the events that followed this.
'The Akuma. He… knocked me out during our final battle.' Blossom deftly avoided mentioning her death at the monster's hands. 'It was thanks to Hime reviving me that the beast was defeated. I… somehow… blasted him as I returned to consciousness, and then we tracked him to Mount Rainier. Ultimately he was too weakened to put up any more of a fight. He fell dormant and we returned home. After that, Jack recovered, and my dad offered him the use of his time machine.' She paused. 'I just hope the beast isn't still hiding out in the mountain, planning to return here.'
'I'll remind you,' Kenji said gently, 'that the Imagawa Prince did eventually destroy the Akuma. He restored the Empire and headed a long and prosperous golden age. That beast of yours is gone for sure.'
They shared a silent moment of reflection. Then, 'look, I don't want to interrogate you about this unless you're comfortable with it. How about we give it a rest for tonight, huh? I hear there's still chocolate mousse on the way.'

Like clockwork, Hime flounced into the kitchen, poised and pretty in her cocktail dress. 'Oh good,' she clucked at her daughter and nephew, 'you two can help me serve the desserts.'
As Blossom was laden with a platter of the treats, she silently reinforced Kenji's last statement in her mind. The Akuma had, undoubtedly, been defeated. And in all likelihood, the actions of her family had been a key factor in bringing this about.
Why, then, was she still so uneasy?
Was there some slippery loophole of arcane magic through which the beast could be resurrected? Had there been some unfinished task that Jack – or possibly the girls – had needed to perform in order to obliterate him for good?
Or did her unease lie in the finality of the beast's fate itself?
Lesser monsters than the Akuma had withstood countless defeats at the hands of the Powerpuff Girls. Suddenly, Blossom found herself musing that it was almost ignominious that such a powerful, fearsome creature had been so conclusively taken down by the actions of a small handful of mortals - like some majestic apex predator being felled by a shot from a desperate poacher's rifle.

Trying to forget this notion, she put on her sweetest smile and began handing out chocolate mousse parfaits.

Chapter Text

The robbers stalked about the tiled floor of the bank. They let off the occasional gunshot at the ceiling. The leader sneered at his obedient, immobilised hostages through his laddered stocking mask.
Soon, three all too recognisable, sonic-boom whooshes could be heard outside, steadily becoming louder and louder. Instantly the tables were turned. The crooks span on their heels, running for their lives out into the street. The tellers and customers emerged from under the tables and counters and calmly resumed their business.

It didn't take long for the girls to chase down the scarpering robbers. Bubbles scooped up a scattered clump of them, cowering in an alleyway, and she dragged them off by the scruffs of their necks. Buttercup hunted down a shaky gunman who fired a few futile bullets at her. She blithely swatted the ammunition away like pesky house-flies, before delivering a sound wallop to her prey's stomach.

Blossom tracked down the leader. Thinking quickly, he had grabbed a passing pedestrian and threatened to cap him if the girl came any closer. Blossom could have laughed. To the delight of the onlookers in the street, one easy exhalation of her breath had encased the crook's handgun – and the unfortunate hand clutching it – within a heavy chunk of ice. As his frostbitten appendage hit the sidewalk with a heavy clunk, the captive broke free and the bystanders applauded heartily. And the day was saved.

They dropped in to see Ms Bellum and report their success. She offered the girls a quick thanks before rushing off to another meeting. As the sisters left City Hall, it began to rain. It had been the first heroic exploit they had performed in over two weeks.

Buttercup sailed easily along on her back between the low-hanging clouds. 'Man! Did you see how pathetic those guys were?'
'Yeah!' Bubbles agreed. 'How dumb do you have to be to rob a bank in our city?'
'Like, thick as a freakin' cheerleader or something.' Buttercup snorted, and offered Bubbles a sisterly fistbump before veering off towards the sight of an hideous concrete-and-glass mini-mall.

'Where do you think you're going!?' Blossom called. 'We have to return to school!'
Buttercup made a face. 'It's, like, almost two. The only period left in the day is history class.'
'And?'
'And I hope you guys enjoy your wasted hour with old Monkey-Features.' With this, Buttercup flew off.

'I hope YOU enjoy flunking out and having to repeat a grade!!' Was Blossom's parting shot.
Bubbles shared in her disapproval. 'She's just going off to play tonsil hockey with Ace again, isn't she?'
Blossom heavily nodded her head.
'It's so gross! The guy's, like, twenty-five! And he hasn't even got a real job or anything! I can't believe how immature some people can be!'
Blossom's eyes drifted to the colourful cartoon unicorn emblazoned on her sister's T-shirt, and bit her tongue.

At times, a rather dark part of her psyche had wished that Townsville was still ravaged by crime. Though her life as a juvenile super-heroine may have seemed perilous and stressful to an outsider, truly, the daily disasters, dangers and feats of bravery were what felt normal to Blossom. Comforting, even. Despite her copious study load and near-constant stream of extra-curricular activities, the lack of frequent battles over the past few years had left a kind of vacuum within her. Being a diligent student and doting daughter was one thing, but her role as a saviour and heroine had sprung from a very deep part of herself.
The ne'er-do-wells and villains of Townsville, however, seemed to be moving onto other things.

*

Blossom and Bubbles dashed through the doorway of their history classroom, to find that the lesson had already begun. They were instantly met with a cacophony of hollers from the back row.
'Nuuurrhhh!'
'Ooooh! Miss Goody-Goody and her fat sister were playin' hooky!'
'Guess they were too busy kissing the Mayor's ass!'
'Now, now, boys…' The teacher tutted gently, an indulgent smile crawling across his simian face.

Blossom shot a dirty look to the back of the room before sitting down, silently deeming Brick, Butch and Boomer to be the foulest, most under-evolved little mouth-breathers that she'd ever had to suffer.
The teacher then fixed a stern eye on the girls, peering at them hard from beneath his copious turban. 'Misses Utonium. May I remind you that I do not tolerate tardiness in my class. I require my pupils to be punctual, prompt, and judicious in showing up to lessons on time. Lateness will not be excused, and neither will delay or postponement of the swift and timely arrival to my classroom. Furthermore—'
'But we had to save the day!' Bubbles blurted.
'Looks like you saved a few hundred doughnuts there too, 'Chubbles',' came Brick's droll commentary.
The Rowdyruff Boys cackled between themselves, and Blossom ached as she watched her sister bravely fight back tears. The teacher did not reprimand them. Instead he asked: 'Young ladies. Do I make myself clear, concise and to the point?'
'Yes, Mister Jojo.' Bubbles' voice did not waver or crack.

Not too long after the defeat of the Akuma, the revelation of Professor Utonium's secret ingredient in the little girl formula somehow leaked into public consciousness. Soon Mojo Jojo himself caught wind of this information, and with malevolent glee he had concocted a plan to resurrect one of his failed creations: The Rowdyruff Boys. This time, he had vowed, the inclusion of human blood would render their genetic make-up stable and virtually indestructible.

Of course, there was one obvious problem: where would the super-intelligent chimp find a willing donor? The law-abiding populace would obviously never consent. Therefore, Mojo began to comb the underbelly of the city for a human outlaw willing to collaborate on this ghastly scheme.

The muggers, bagmen and thugs of the criminal world were all deemed by the chimp to be common and crude, far beneath the required standard. And the higher ranks of super-villainy now boasted woefully few members. The outing of the super-villain 'Him' as not only a lowly servant of a greater monster, but a do-gooder turncoat who had dedicated her life to protecting those dratted Powerpuff Girls, had been a game-changer to say the least. It had effectively demoralised those proud individuals who had declared themselves enemies of the girls. Mojo himself had felt his stomach sink the first time he'd spied the reformed imp on the street, shopping for clothes with her new daughters. If the mighty 'Him' had always been a meek and mild housewife in the making, what hope was there for evil in this city?

Then, one moonless night, Sedusa ascended to the volcanotop observatory and knocked on Mojo's door.
It seemed like such a simple and beautiful plan. Mix the little boy formula, pouring in the blood of the beautiful jewel thief. Send the resurrected boys into the darkness, and await their triumphant return. Mojo was confident that they would obediently bring the beaten girls to their masters for the final coup de grace.
Up until a certain point, things went as planned. Snips, snails, puppy dog tails, painstakingly collected. A vial of Sedusa's blood, willingly given. And a dose of Chemical X, furtively pinched. The explosion followed. And standing there, when the fallout dispersed, were three little boys.

But then, something terrible happened.
Sedusa approached the children gingerly, and looked into their eyes. In that moment, she realised that she had become a mother.
All of a sudden, casting her babies out into the cold to fight with those awful girls was out of the question. She ordered Mojo to fetch them dinner, as the poor things were surely starving. Twenty minutes later they were gnawing their way through a pizza as the new mommy looked on, beaming with pride.

The woman's world had completely changed in that single devastating blast. She could no longer live a life of crime— her little angels deserved to be brought into the world with a clean slate. Contractors converted her sleek penthouse into a family home, complete with a playroom and child-friendly fixtures. She divided her time between packing school lunches, scrubbing grass stains out of little jerseys, and investing her ill-gotten fortune into the acquisition of an empty, run-down shopfront in the city centre. Within a few months, this once crooked and devious criminal had become the proprietor of a successful jewellery boutique, and had traded in her scandalous spandex and stilettos for a chic collection of tasteful pantsuits. Her wild, eerie tresses of hair were now tied back in an efficient updo. In the afternoons, she would screech up to the kerbside by Pokey Oaks kindergarten in her black BMW. The boys would poke their tongues out at their super-heroine classmates before hopping into the backseat and screaming demands at their mother for junk food and trips to the arcade. And as they were her little angels, their every wish was granted.

As for Mojo, his reckless and expensive forays into super-villainy would just not do anymore. He needed a stable and honest job. As he had been involved in the birth of the boys, Sedusa decreed that he was also responsible for them. Not only would he have to contribute to their college funds, their peewee soccer games and their growing collection of toys and electronic gadgets, but he would be the go-to caregiver whenever Sedusa was unexpectedly called into work.
The little brats would always run amok in his precious laboratory. His agonised cries for them to sit still and behave were consistently ignored. Expensive scientific instruments were smashed, the kitchen was raided, and the sound of boyish fisticuffs would echo through the observatory. Never in his life had Mojo seen such destructive, belligerent, evil-minded little monsters.
And no father was ever prouder.
The first time Brick had called him 'Dad' (amidst a tirade including several repulsive curse-words), he had almost cried. And now, being the head of the history department at Pokey Oaks High School, he had ample opportunity to delight in his sons' presence – not to mention their continued antipathy towards the Powerpuff Girls.

'We shall continue our studies on the Ottoman Empire,' Mojo announced, and the majority of the students began to fumble with their textbooks. He picked up a stick of chalk, and in large, angular scrawl, wrote 'Suleiman I – The Magnificent' on the board.
'We have already covered the rise of the Empire and the expansions under Selim I, particularly the acquisition of the Arabian peninsula, Syria and Egypt. We will now cover his successor, Suleiman I, who had the longest reign of all the Ottoman sultans.'
Mojo's voice began to seethe with indecent pleasure. 'Inspired by the conquests of Alexander the Great, Suleiman sought to create an Empire in which the East and West were united under one ruler. Building upon his father's successes, he led expansionist campaigns into North Africa and Eastern Europe, conquering the city of Vienna in 1529, thus toppling the Austro-Hungarian Empire single-handedly.'
At once, Blossom's hand shot into the air. It was duly unheeded.

'His downfall came at the hands of the concubine Roxelana, a slave-girl who climbed the ranks of the sultan's harem and attempted to dismantle his rule by spreading false rumours throughout the court.'
The red-haired girl rose out of her seat a little, her arm straining in its socket.

'Suleiman's reign ended when he was assassinated by an unknown assailant. As Roxelana's son was named as his successor, many historians theorise that the slave-girl either organised the murder or committed it herself. She has since been depicted in Turkish poetry and folk song as the witch who was responsible for the gradual weakening of the Ottoman Empire.'
A loud crash grabbed everyone's attention as Blossom fell out of her chair. Once again, the Rowdyruff Boys led a round of braying laughter.

Mortified, Blossom primly dusted herself off and sat back down, trying to pretend that no-one was staring at her.
Mojo continued. 'I wonder if anyone can tell me how far the borders of Suleiman's territories reached at their apex?'
A few conscientious hands reached upwards, undeterred by Blossom's little spectacle.
'You there, in the corner… what was your name again, son?'

All eyes turned to the dimmest nook of the room. Slumped at a desk was a pale, lanky, drooping student. He sported messy, ungroomed hair, dyed lime-green, and swarthy dark circles beneath his eyes. Blossom vaguely recalled his introduction to the class in homeroom back in September, but he had largely escaped everybody's notice after that.
In a low, gruff, drawling voice, he stated: 'Suleiman didn't conquer Vienna. His seige was a failure. The Austrian people repeatedly thwarted his army's attempts to dig beneath or blow up the city walls. Eventually the bad weather, lack of supplies and spread of disease sent Suleiman's army into retreat. It would be the first of many failed attempts by the Ottomans to capture Vienna. And The Austro-Hungarian Empire didn't begin until the 1800s.'

Mojo was silent for a moment, twisting the corner of his mouth. 'Young man—'
'Your description of Roxelana was also incorrect. While her status as Suleiman's favourite and eventual wife did cause unrest with his harem and his other sons, she was in fact a loyal partner to him and used her power to open schools, hospitals and mosques for the people. She has been remembered in works of art for her successful marriage to Suleiman as well as her beauty. Oh, and Suleiman was not assassinated. He lived into his seventies.'

It was pretty much tangible. Mojo's right nostril flared, and he inhaled sharply.
'I do not know where you picked up such spurious, falsified, and otherwise incorrect information, but it would do you well to keep it OUT OF MY CLASSROOM!'
As one, the students recoiled in their seats. The green-haired insurgent did not seem impressed. 'Okay, whatever,' he mumbled, before returning his attention to his dog-eared textbook.

*

Mercifully, the bell finally rang.
'Let's go find Buttercup,' Bubbles suggested. 'She would have loved to see that little stand-off.'
'Sure,' Blossom replied absently, as she dug through her bag to find her umbrella.
'HEY BUBBY!' Came a familiar squeal.

Robin Snyder came barrelling down the front steps, and latched herself around her best friend's shoulders. What followed was a succession of girlish squeals and babbling which Blossom was too distracted to decode. She vaguely caught something about tickets for some movie or another, before the two girls hastily pranced off through the gates, Robin gallantly providing the both of them with a large, cartoon-character-bedecked umbrella.

In the sudden Bubbles-free silence, Blossom picked up the sounds of a distant scuffle through the soft hiss of the rain. She craned her neck. Peeking out from behind the bike shed, she caught the sight of a familiar red baseball cap.
Oh, for the love of…

'You think you're smarter than our dad, huh, buttwad?' Brick grunted.
'Outsmart this!' Butch exclaimed, before punching the unfortunate green-haired boy on the side of his face, knocking his noodle-like frame to the ground. A mud-pie, crudely fashioned by Boomer, met the front of his baggy T-shirt.
'Not so fast!'

The Rowdyruff Boys scoffed at Blossom, who was wholly unafraid.
'Hey baby, wanna watch us smash this dill-weed's face in?' Brick leered.
'If you don't leave him alone, I'm going to tear you a new one.'
He shrunk back in a display of mock distress. 'OOOOH I'm so scared. Is the little woman gonna beat me up all by herself??'
He then stood up to his full height. 'It's three against one, sweet cheeks. You don't stand a chance against my boys.'
He prowled towards her. She flinched a little but did not back down, returning the boy's spiteful gaze.
'Not so tough without your lame-ass sisters around, are you?—'

Brick was interrupted by the synchronised sound of his brothers yelping as Buttercup and Bubbles swooped down from the drizzly sky and each landed a kick right to their midsections. While they were still reeling, the sisters dragged them up by the hair on their heads and tossed them into a nearby dumpster. Blossom raised an eyebrow at Brick.
'Still wanna bring it, Superman?'
She made the tiniest of movements towards him, and instantly he retreated, right into a row of bicycles. As they crashed to the concrete below, his hindquarters made contact with a protruding bike pedal and he squealed in pain.
'YOU… you stupid bitches are nothing but a… a pack of BULLIES!'

As he stumbled over to the dumpster to extract his brothers, Blossom noticed Robin and Ace standing nearby and giving the girls a standing ovation.
'Yay!'
'Way to give it to those little twerps, ladies!'
Just as quickly, the sisters parted ways once more, Bubbles and Robin skipping off to the downtown cinema, and Ace and Buttercup sauntering over to a friend's garage for band practice. (The statement that Ace did not have a job was something of a half-truth. The Gangreen Gang had only ever played high school parties and been paid in soda and snacks, but even so, a gig was a gig.)

As Blossom's thoughts drifted to homework and helping with the evening's dinner, she spied the victim of the Rowdyruff Boys' enmity. Huddled under the eaves of the bike shed, he was clumsily and unsuccessfully trying to purge his shirt of all traces of mud.
'Are you okay?' The girl asked. After a few plodding moments, he responded with a laconic grunt.
'Um… do you need a hand with anything?'
He turned to face her. 'You're soaked.' He noted blankly.

She felt her long ponytail, which was now heavy with rainwater. 'Er, yeah, I guess I am.' She chuckled uneasily. Silently the boy rose and slipped his backpack around his shoulders, apparently unheeding of the rain. Blossom then got an idea, reaching into her own bag (which was mercifully patented and lined – her precious books were still bone dry).
'Do you want my umbrella? I mean, it's not really gonna do me any good.'
He snatched it from her outstretched hand, unsmiling. 'Thanks.'
Refusing to be put off by his lack of manners, she persisted. 'My name's Blossom.'
'Yeah I know. You're one of those super-powered girls.' He opened up the umbrella and began to trudge off through the schoolyard. 'I'll return this to you tomorrow.'
'Uh,' Blossom spluttered.
'What?'

He had whirled around. Suddenly his black, heavy eyes were boring into her. A disagreeable feeling bloomed in her gut, a hot, prickling, vaguely familiar sense of unease.
'Wh- I… didn't catch your name.'
'Gus.' And with this terse final utterance, he departed through the school gates.

Chapter Text

The next morning dawned bright and warm. Having downed her daily cup of coffee and piece of fruit, Blossom dashed off to school, heading straight to her locker to organise the day's textbooks as her sisters lingered out the front.

She was sure Buttercup would not be playing hooky again anytime soon. The previous evening, she had overheard an argument from downstairs – the Professor had delivered a stern lecture to his tomboy daughter about keeping up with schoolwork. Buttercup had slammed her bedroom door, and on the way to school she had grumbled about how unfair he was and how little he really cared about her. Blossom bristled at this but said nothing. It was painfully obvious that their father's concern about her grades was proof of just how deeply he did love her. What decent parent would do any less? However, Blossom well realised the futility of pointing this out to Buttercup. As a self-determined contrarian, she would only accept this truth if she came to realise it for herself.

Blossom, too, wished Buttercup would try harder. She hated to admit it, but both Buttercup and Bubbles were easily her intellectual equals, at least innately. She knew her sisters well— beneath their idiosyncrasies they possessed the same natural sharpness of mind as she, though they harnessed and adapted this talent in their own individual fashions. Really, the only reason Blossom had been dubbed 'the smart sister' by the girls' classmates and peers was because of her application to study hard. Buttercup and Bubbles could have easily done the same, if they chose to. Nevertheless, active free will determined that only Blossom's intellect was to be recognised.

Just as she finished loading a stack of smartly laminated workbooks into her arms, a bright red umbrella was thrust into her face.
She teetered a bit, and quickly regained her balance. Gus seemed to have a poor understanding of personal space, and she found herself avoiding his gaze.
'This is yours, I believe,' he monotoned, 'returned as promised. I propped it open and left my radiator on last night, so it's perfectly dry.'
The two remained standing there, Gus continuing to hold the object before her.
'Um, thanks. Do you think you could just put it in my locker?'
He obliged, and wordlessly trudged off, his undone shoelaces trailing on the tiled floor.

First period was math, then english, then advanced Mandarin. Mercifully there was no history lesson scheduled for the day. During a mundane lunch hour, during which Blossom sat alone, poring over her class notes on the Brontë sisters, she suddenly felt herself being tapped on the shoulder.
Jumping what felt like a mile into the air, she whirled around to perceive the pimply visage of Mitch Mitchelson. Though not quite an enemy, the way he had toyed with Buttercup's heart back in junior high left him well out of the girls' good graces. Furthermore, of late he had been attempting to ingratiate himself with the Rowdyruff Boys.
'Butch is looking for you. Wanted me to give you this.' He handed a note to Blossom and departed.
Feeling her stomach sink, she opened the piece of torn ledger paper.

'Hey ginger
U think U R so tuff. but lets see how U do w/out ur ugly sisters 2 help U. Meet me on the football feild @ 430pm and well go 1 on 1. Well see whos the tuffest then.
Also if U chiken out or blab 2 a teacher, Ill tell evry1 U R a slut n I had you
Butch'

Doing her best to push down her rising blood, she crumpled the note in her hand. Just as she suspected, Butch had little understanding of the psychology of the individual. Blossom was surely not one to stoop to such lows. Fisticuffs on the football field after school? That was the domain of the barbaric. And why should she care about some clumsy, ill-conceived rumour that he might try to spread? No-one with any sense would believe it. Besides, Blossom did not want to flatter herself, but she was easily out of Butch's league.

When the bell rang, Blossom headed off to her afternoon computer studies class, and did her best to forget the whole thing. Gladly, she met up with both her sisters and Robin outside the computer lab, and was distracted with their amicable trifling chatter.
Their task for the lesson was to design a poster for a selection of school events. Bubbles in particular took to this assignment with relish, raring to flex her creative muscles. Blossom managed to work at a steady pace, enjoying the process of organising the poster composition, toying with colour and typeface. However, about ten minutes in, a scrunched ball of paper collided with the back of her head.

The teacher's crisp scolding made most of the otherwise engrossed students recoil.
'Mister Jojo! Will you kindly return to your work!'
The Rowdyruff boys were all huddled around Butch's workstation, red-faced and snickering. The bulk of their forms hid the computer screen from the teacher's view. Blossom tensed. Waiting until the teacher turned away, the boys then revealed the sum of their work to the students still watching.
'EEEWWW!' Robin cried.

It was hardly an original or finely crafted piece. But it certainly garnered the 'artist's' desired reaction. Butch had somehow managed to import a truly revolting pornographic image into the imaging program, and in a show of truly astounding ingenuity, had transplanted a photo of Blossom's face onto the body of the photo's unfortunate subject.
Most of the girls squealed, some of the boys laughed. The moment the teacher locked eyes onto the image, she screamed the boys hoarse, demanding they head straight to the principal's office. In the depths of her horror, Blossom spied Gus in the corner of her eye – he stared at the spectacle with his usual hangdog, lethargic black eyes, visibly unmoved. Before ducking out the door, Butch chose a clandestine second to wave a flash drive at Blossom, a lurid, mean-spirited leer twisting his face.

Buttercup was livid. 'I oughtta…' she had balled her fists so tight that the skin on her hands was turning scarlet.
Calmly, quietly, Blossom instructed 'Leave it, Buttercup. They'll get what's coming to them.'
And indeed they would. On the football field, at four-thirty pm, Blossom was going to pound that little twerp into the turf.

*

Her heart was raging, pounding in her ears. She had taken on far greater opponents than this small-minded bully, but never before had she felt such a sick, visceral anger. Personal insult was a whole different game.
Apart from the odd birdsong and the distant traffic, it was perfectly silent. The football field looked completely empty. Out in the direct sunlight, it was uncomfortably warm. She dropped her bag on the bleachers, strode out onto the grass and waited.

The next thing she heard was a sonic-boom whoosh come screaming in from behind. Before she could react she was tackled to the ground. Butch sat heavily over her, pinning her down, her equal in strength. He spat in her face. As she convulsed in disgust, he took the opportunity to punch her in the face.
Using all her might, she fought against his mass and wrestled free, kneeing him in the stomach. A frenzied succession of blows followed. The adrenalin flying through Blossom's body dulled her reasoning, she flew at Butch in total fury.

'What the hell do you think you're doing!?'
Brick now dashed up to the combatants. Whether he had spied the fight from the schoolyard or somehow cottoned on to his brother's plans was unknown. He grabbed Butch by the scruff of his neck, pulling him away from Blossom.
'This bitch needs to learn her lesson,' he protested, breathing heavily.
Suddenly feeling the sting of her injuries, Blossom clutched her side. Brick shared a look with Butch for a moment, then looked at Blossom, then back to Butch.
Brick grinned so wide that Blossom could see the gums of his teeth.
'Hold her down, man,' he commanded.

Before the worn-out girl could react, Butch had pinned her once more. A new, terrible chill sunk through her. The look on Brick's face was cruel and greedy.
Blossom thrashed madly in Butch's grip. She attempted to scream, but her rasping, breathless lungs betrayed her. Brick dropped to his knees and knelt over her, his additional strength rendering Blossom completely immobilised.
'Awww, dude!' She heard Butch drawl. Every fibre of her will ached to fight back, to resist, in vain. Possessed by a new height of terror, her aching, paralysed muscles were now frozen in her enemies' grip. She felt Brick's hand lift up her skirt.

'Don't touch her.'
In less than a heartbeat, Brick flew backwards, away from Blossom, as if he had received an electric shock.
'What the hell, man?' Butch moaned.
Standing there was Gus, drooping and listless as ever. Brick was currently backing away and accelerating, eyes fixed hard on the green-haired boy as if he were holding a deadly weapon. Butch went to approach him, but Gus lay a large, clammy hand upon his hip, staring directly into his eyes. The same inexplicable reaction was drawn from him as his brother. Now Blossom noticed that Gus held a phone in his other hand.
'I recorded everything,' he called to the boys as they scarpered.

Blossom was dumb with shock. The swiftness with which Brick and Butch had set upon her was rendered almost forgettable by what had followed. How on earth had Gus not only come upon the struggle, but also remained undetected? Even more astounding was the reaction of the two boys to his presence… just twenty-four hours ago, they had been beating poor Gus black and blue. He did not look physically fit in the least, there was no way it was a matter of material power. Blossom recalled that he had touched Butch and made full eye contact with him— and almost instantly, she remembered the prickly feeling of discomfort she had felt the previous afternoon, when he'd looked directly at her.

Slowly, almost fearfully, she set her eyes on Gus. A small smile had broken out on his face, and in his free hand, he held up Butch's flash drive.
Something new bloomed in Blossom's chest, a sentiment that was soothing, refreshing and entirely grateful.
'Wow… thanks!' despite the aching in her face, she beamed.
'Your skirt is still hiked up,' he replied flatly.
Embarrassment suddenly blotted out everything. She frantically pulled it back down.

When she had recovered, she noticed that Gus had set off across the grass, shuffling away from her.
'Gus, wait!' She hurried to his side.
'What?'
'I, er… well, gosh, I'm just so grateful that you did what you did. How come you were out here?'
Gus looked confused. 'I was in the library.'
Blossom was not sure what to make of this. 'Okay… but then you came out here, right?'
'I saw the three of you out the window.'
This was most surprising. 'Wow… you must have run really fast to make it all the way out onto the football field from there. I mean, to be able to see us you would have to have been on the second floor. And you weren't even panting…'
They dawdled together across the field, towards the bleachers, and this information sunk in. Blossom did her best to wrap her head around it.
'It doesn't make sense, though!' She blurted. 'How could you have gotten out here so quickly, with the time to film everything on your phone and—'
'WELL I DID! I JUST DID, OKAY!?'

Gus had reflexively grabbed Blossom's wrist in his spasm of anger, and the reason for Brick and Butch's sudden change of heart was made all too clear. Blossom jumped back. It felt as if Gus' gaze and touch had literally burnt her. After a few tense, all too protracted seconds, she felt the beginnings of teardrops in her eyes.
Gus seemed just as stunned by himself as Blossom was. He slackened, and was back to his usual self. 'Sorry about that. I'll get your bag for you.'
He turned his back and loped up the steps. Blossom took the opportunity to collect herself. This was without doubt one of the more bizarre afternoons she had experienced. And as a superheroine, that was saying something.
He held out the retrieved bag, once again uncomfortably close to her. She thought she detected a brief flicker of guilt in his eyes for having lost his temper.
She slung her bag over her shoulder. Gus' actions this afternoon were deeply, deeply unsettling. Even so, Blossom could not deny that his intentions had been very admirable. For both of these reasons, she then concluded that it would be wise to make herself fully acquainted with him.

'Thank you again, Gus. I mean it.' She smiled openly. Gus' face fell to his shoes and he shrugged.
'Would you like to go for a burger or something?' she offered.
'Um, yeah. I mean, you could probably stand to sit down and relax for a bit after all that,' he replied.

They had only just exited the school gates when they nearly collided with Bubbles and Robin.
'Hi, Blossom! Hi…' Bubbles trailed off.
'This is Gus,' her sister informed her.
'Hey, you were the guy from yesterday!' Bubbles exclaimed. 'You two wanna come with Robin and me to see 'Mucho Muchacho II: The Revenge of the Muerto-Bots'?'
'Um… we'll pass.' Blossom answered politely.
'She was just attacked by those super-powered boys, so I'm taking her for a burger.' Gus announced.
A whole new energy seized Bubbles. 'Omigod… they ATTACKED you!? And… and…' She gasped. 'What HAPPENED?'
'I filmed it on my phone. They'll probably get expelled,' Gus supplied.

Bubbles seized Blossom's arm, jumping up and down. 'Oh, Blossom! He's your knight in shining armour!' The blonde girl clearly missed the mortified grimace on her sister's face.
'You know what, Gus? You should soooo totally come over for dinner! If Blossom has a boyfriend now we totally have to get to know you! I'll ask Hi-chan and the Professor, I'm sure they'll both be fine with it!'
'Bubbles—'
'See you two lovebirds after the movie!' With this, Bubbles and Robin bounced off along the sidewalk.
A magnificently weary sigh escaped from Blossom. 'I am so sorry about her. She gets… overexcited sometimes.'
'I can see that.' Gus remarked.

*

The conversation at the burger joint was stilted and awkward, to say the least. Gus had displayed a keen, eloquent intelligence in history class, but it was obviously utilised sparingly by the introverted boy. Blossom upheld most of the exchange: they settled the issue of exposing Butch and Brick's behaviour, with Blossom grimly predicting that the woefully indolent school principal may only issue a suspension. After that, she asked a few questions about Gus' home life and interests (she was gratified to learn that his father was an academic and his mother was a homemaker, just like her own parents). The short, disinterested answers petered out into lengthy silences as the two grazed on their cheeseburgers and fries.

Once she was freed from his presence, Blossom pondered the possible source of Gus' uncanny behaviour, combing over the facts in her head. He insisted that he had somehow made it from a second-storey window of the school library to the middle of the football field in a few short moments, as well as being able to film the boys' grisly assault, all without getting winded. It didn't seem possible. Why would he lie about such a feat? To impress her? Was he trying to convince her that he, too, had super-powers?

The way he had scared off the boys— and the ferocity with which he had suddenly lashed out at Blossom herself— suggested that perhaps he did, in fact, have super-powers. Maybe he was even a superhero, desiring to put these powers to good use. Then again, something about this assumption didn't add up. The exact feeling of being scorched by his intense, frightening stare was at once disorienting and profoundly, unbearably resonant. When she thought hard about it, Blossom could swear that it evoked some long buried sensation, something thrilling and abysmal. The situation had her baffled. What sort of power did Gus own? Was he a threat or a helpmeet? Perhaps she could talk this over with the Professor.

She returned home, everyone else was still out. She showered, put on the coffee pot and cocooned herself within a great mountain of homework.
She was roused from her studies a few hours later by her family's homecoming. Her sisters and parents had obviously met up somewhere, as the animated voices of all four of them could be heard together. Heading downstairs to greet them, she was instantly set upon.

'Honey, you should have told us you were seeing someone!'
'What's his favourite food? I'll be sure to make plenty when he comes over.'
'Have you KISSED him yet??'
'And here I thought I was the only one of my sisters who knew anything about getting a guy…'
'Can you all SHUT UP??'

They frowned at her as one, surprised and a little hurt.
'Gus is NOT my boyfriend!'

This protestation set them all off again. They would have none of it. Bubbles resolved to invite Gus over at the first opportunity, for a Friday night family feast, and the others were firmly behind this.
She loved her sisters, she really did. But this was one of the rare times that Blossom sincerely wished to be an only child.

Chapter Text

Hime's gentle hand stilled Blossom's squirming. It had been a long time since she'd had the opportunity to brush her daughter's long, fiery locks, and she was relishing it.
'I think you should wear the dark purple frock with the sweetheart neckline. It's so cute!'
Blossom clutched at the sash of her fluffy bathrobe. 'That one's too dressy. Can't I just wear my jeans or something?'
Hime sighed gently. 'Honey, this is a special occasion. You're bringing someone home for the very first time. Why not make the most of it?'

'Hi-chan… I know I sound like a broken record, but I really do mean it when I say that Gus is not my boyfriend.'
The weight of Blossom's voice gave Hime pause. She looked at the girl directly.
'Really?'
'Really. Bubbles just happened to see us standing together by the school gate and assumed too much. I've tried to tell you guys… but you got so carried away.'
The look of soft disappointment on her mother's face awakened Blossom's sympathy. 'It's not like we need to cancel tonight or anything! If we can just kinda have Gus over as a friend… would that be okay?'
Hime perked up again, smiling. 'I'll have a word with your father and sisters before he comes.'
'Thanks, Hi-chan.'

She returned to tending Blossom's hair. Try as she might, she still could not leave the topic alone.
'So you two are friends?'
The girl huffed. 'Yes. He's a nice guy. But he's kind of… weird.'
'That's no reason to criticise someone, Blossom.'
'I know, I know. But it's hard to describe.' She had not told her parents anything about the afternoon on the football field. 'He usually seems very docile, but sometimes…'
'Mm?'

'Sometimes he just changes into this… fierce, volatile creature.'
The strokes of the hairbrush stopped for a moment, and in the mirror of the vanity table, Blossom could see her mother's expression briefly tense up. Then:
'Well, I'm afraid that's what teenage boys do. You know better than to let them get to you.'
Blossom slumped in her seat. 'I guess.'

Hime had drawn her tresses into a loose, braided half-updo, and set it off with a single butterfly clip.
'There. Not too dressy.'

*

The minutes ticked by, and Blossom paced upon the living room carpet. At length, she had chosen a simple bohemian blouse and a pair of bootcut jeans as her outfit (perhaps they were her nicest pair, but nonetheless). The sounds of Hime and Bubbles putting the finishing touches on the evening meal bounced in from the kitchen. Buttercup was watching TV, and eyed Blossom as the commercial break started.
'Nervous, are we? Looks like someone is keen on making a good impression…'
'Zip it,' Blossom snapped.

Some minutes later, scuffled footsteps were heard out the front. At long, long last, the fateful ring of the doorbell came. Just as Blossom made an impassioned attempt to leap for the front door, her father breezed in from his office and intercepted.
'Why, hello there. You must be Gus. I'm Professor Utonium, Blossom's father. It's a pleasure to meet you!'
The man hand extended his hand, and it took a few seconds before Gus extracted his own large, limp hand from his pocket for a stilted handshake.
'Um, thanks.'
'Won't you come in?'
He shambled his way across the tiled landing, and nodded casually at Blossom.
'Hey. Thanks for having me.'
'Um, no problem…'
'HI, GUS!'

Bubbles had swanned in from the kitchen, holding aloft a wooden ladle. 'Hope ya like udon! Wanna try the broth?'
Gus eyed the sample suspiciously, deemed it innocent, and then plucked the spoon from Bubbles' clutches, noisily slurping up the savoury liquid.
'Cool', he murmured, handing the spoon back.
'YAY!' Bubbles squealed, satisfied that her offering had gone down well. 'I'll go finish setting the table!'

Just as the blonde girl turned her attentions to the place settings, Hime emerged from behind the stove, holding a generous crockpot full of noodle soup.
'Alright, everybody, dinner's—'
Her eyes rested upon Gus, and she started, jerking back violently. Quick superhero reflexes on Blossom's behalf ensured that dinner was saved from spilling across the floor. Everyone in the room froze. Less than a few seconds had passed.
'Honey, are you alright?' The Professor swept over to his wife, as Blossom placed the pot on the table. She and Bubbles shared an uneasy glance.
In the Professor's arms, Hime managed to compose herself, but she still had not torn her eyes from a perplexed Gus.
'Uh… I'm— I'm fine.' She finally looked at her husband and smiled.

'This is Gus. Gus, this is Hime, the girls' mom.'
Gus nodded silently at her before averting his eyes, just as deeply discomfited as she.
They managed to sit down for the meal. It was The Professor, Buttercup, and Bubbles that made the effort of holding up conversation.

'Gus, I understand that you share history class with the girls?'
'Oh, yeah!' Bubbles piped up through a half-chewed mouthful of noodles. 'One afternoon, Gus totally called Mojo out on all of his claptrap. He just calmly corrected all these mistakes that he had made about Solomon I…'
'Suleiman I,' Blossom corrected.
'Yeah! Mojo looked like he was gonna have a conniption, it was so funny!'
'You're a history buff, then, Gus?' The Professor asked, as he delicately extracted a modest clump of noodles from his bowl.
Gus looked up from his own serving like a hound from a water bowl. He gulped down the large mouthful of food he had crammed into his gob, and muttered. 'Um yeah. I like to read.'
'That's really bad manners, you know,' Buttercup blurted. 'Sticking your head in your bowl like that. You're supposed to raise it up from the table.'
'Isn't it also bad manners to complain about your house-guest to his face?' Bubbles countered.
'That's enough girls,' the Professor scolded. 'Please excuse them, Gus, they are passionate ambassadors for traditional etiquette,' he said with a smile, and a slightly ironic tone of voice.
'S'okay,' the boy replied, concentrating on holding his dense earthenware bowl up at a satisfactory level.

Blossom and Hime stayed silent. The daughter was fixated on the mother, who, after having stared warily at Gus for a long while upon meeting him, was now doing everything possible to avert her gaze. Could she sense the same frightening power that Blossom had momentarily been struck by? If so, why was it affecting her? Upon Hime's resurrection, she had retained none of her supernatural powers, or so the family had thought. Perhaps, Blossom wondered, they had only been lying dormant, unstimulated. She was aching to get her mother alone so she could ask what was wrong.

However, that was not to be. Dessert followed the messy, slurp-happy course of noodles, and after that, Hime busied herself with fetching a tea service as the others sat in the living room, sharing more awkward anecdotes about school. Bubbles had once again volunteered to help in the kitchen, so Blossom had no excuse to approach her.
Buttercup had commandeered the conversation, waxing lyrical about her boyfriend Ace and the adventures of their ragtag garage band. Visibly bemused, the Professor veered the talk back to their guest.

'And what about your own family, Gus? Have you got any siblings?'
'Nope.'
'Lucky,' Buttercup huffed, and the Professor gave her a sharp, paternal Look.
Turning back to Gus, he continued the grilling. 'Where did you live before you came here to Townsville?'
'Boston. Before that, it was London. We move around a lot for my dad's work.'
'It must be hard to make friends.'
Gus shrugged. 'S'okay, I guess.'
Blossom cringed, this exchange sounded identical to the one she'd shared with the boy at the burger joint.

Eventually the clock ticked over to ten p. m., and the Professor finally let his victim go. He offered to drive Gus home, but the boy insisted it was a short walk through a safe neighbourhood. Blossom didn't blame him for turning down the ride.
She wound up helping her father to rinse the dirty dishes and stack them in the dishwasher. She braced herself.

'Well, that was a somewhat puzzling evening, I must say,' the Profesor mused. 'I wonder what got into Hime…'
Blossom drew in a sharp breath. 'I've noticed that Gus sometimes has an…' How to put it? '…Unsettling aura about him.'
'Yes, he doesn't appear to have very good social skills. Little wonder, with the unsettled, isolated upbringing the poor boy has had,' the Professor tutted. 'To be honest, I'm a little relieved your mother informed me that you're not actually dating him.'
Blossom tried not to let him see her rolling her eyes.
'He's a nice enough kid, I suppose, but… really Blossom, you could do so much better.'
For some reason, Blossom felt the urge to rally to Gus' defence. 'Hey, c'mon. At least he's better than Ace.'
'You can say that again,' the Professor said dryly, and the two shared a laugh.

*

The Professor retired to his bedroom, unsurprised but unsettled to find Hime sitting at the foot of the bed in her nightgown, clutching her arms about herself.
'Is everything alright?'
'That boy, there's something wrong with him!' her voice was shaky. 'I don't even feel comfortable letting him hang out with the girls, let alone pursue Blossom!'

He sat beside her, fixing her with his kind, weary eyes. 'What is it about him that's so disturbing?'
Hime looked lost. 'I can't even tell you,' she said, wincing, 'it was just this… terrible, terrible feeling. When he first looked me in the eyes, it felt like I was being burned. It felt like… like…'
The sight of tears fall ing from her eyes stung the Professor's heart. He pulled his sweet wife to his breast, wrapping his arms about her nymphish form. His deep, gentle voice resonated through Hime as he held her. 'Oh, sweetheart... Whatever it is… I'm sure the girls can handle themselves. They've triumphed over much worse. Please don't worry. It's fine. We'll all be fine.'

She lay in his embrace for a long while, trying to be reassured by his words. They could not fully chase away the spectre of those horrid, coal-black eyes which had burnt her. The sensation loomed over her, tingeing the loving, soothing touch of her husband with an edge of sick terror, like storm clouds hovering on the horizon of a balmy summer sky. She continued struggling with this as she fell into the most troubled slumber she had experienced for many years.

*

As the following day was Saturday, the family rose late. After a lingering breakfast and a disjointed succession of household chores, Blossom finally managed to speak to Hime as she sat alone in the living room, sipping at a cup of coffee and thumbing through a magazine.
'Hi-chan?'
She smiled and patted the seat next to her. Blossom settled herself down.
'Can I ask you about last night?'
Hime's face fell, and she replaced the magazine on the end table. 'I was afraid you would.'

'Gus is…' Blossom began, trying to phrase her thoughts, and agitated by the unsettled look on her mother's face. 'I've felt it too.'
'Promise me you'll be careful around him,' Hime pleaded.
Blossom nodded. 'But, the thing is… he mostly seems like a harmless, totally decent guy.'
'That's what your father thinks.'
'Whatever this… thing is about him, I don't think he's fully aware of it. It's almost like a force unto itself.'
'You suspect that he's possessed by something?'
Blossom scrunched up her mouth. 'Perhaps…' she said slowly. 'I dunno. This thing is more like a part of him. Something in his psyche that comes out in flashes.'
'It's malevolent,' Hime stated firmly. 'I don't want to see it hurt you.'

Then, Blossom softened. 'I'm not sure if it necessarily will. He… Butch and Brick felt it too, when Gus defended me from them.'
This was the first Hime had heard of the fight. 'What?'
'Yeah… we kinda got into a minor dispute at school. But Gus resolved it. Like I said, he's mostly a good person. And I feel like I owe it to him to keep my eye on… him.'
Hime said nothing, but the maternal worry radiating off her was palpable.

'Hi-chan?'
'Hm?'
'I was thinking… the fact that you could sense it about him… your powers were gone when you were resurrected, right? Maybe… maybe they are kinda just lying dormant.'
She fixed her eyes on Blossom, astonished. That notion had not even crossed her mind.
'Why do you say that?'
'Well,' Blossom frowned, 'there has to be a reason why some people can sense it and some can't. I think there must be something about your or me that can pick up on the energy…'

Blossom trailed off. She met her mother's gaze. Something was slowly dawning on the both of them, their instincts fell into synch. It was a horrifying, bone-chilling portent, something neither of them wanted to give voice to.
Instead, Blossom placed her hand upon Hime's, both of them desperate for each other's comfort.

They remained that way, petrified, unwilling to let go of each other, until Bubbles and Buttercup stomped in from the backyard, slamming the sliding door open and filling the room with their animated chatter.

Chapter Text

6.04pm on Saturday, October 26th, Blossom Utonium <<blossom.utonium@gmail.com>> wrote:

Hi Kenji, sorry for the delayed reply. There have been a few hectic things popping up at school— I'm sure you are well acquainted with the feeling! I am really glad to hear about your position on the campus newspaper, you will make a fantastic cultural correspondent. However, don't let the extra workload burn you out. There should always be time for stopping to smell the roses.

I am actually writing to you with something of an ulterior motive. I have been assigned with an extra credit assignment for history class: an essay on an historical figure of my own choice. Naturally I have chosen our ancestor Jack. Given your knowledge base, I would really appreciate any information you can provide. In particular, I am interested in the details surrounding his defeat of the Akuma and his ascension to the title of Emperor. Can you tell me what you know about how he contained and defeated the monster, and details of his return to the capitol? Of particular interest to me are the fokloric sources, though obviously academic sources are useful as well.

The essay is due before we break for Thanksgiving. I know you must be busy, but if you can find the time to collect some info soon, I would really, truly appreciate it. (I can convince Hi-chan to whip up a batch of those pumpkin spice cupcakes for the holidays!)
Give my love to Uncle Eugene and Aunt Kaoru.

-Blossom

She put aside her laptop, and stared out at the fading light until she was called down to dinner. It would be useless and maddening to dwell on her cousin's impending reply, so she determined to distract herself as much as possible. Kenji would need time to collect the information she had begged of him. She helped her father clear away the dishes, she indulged Bubbles by playing a few competitive rounds of her favourite video game, and at bedtime, she reorganised her desk drawers, finally crashing onto her mattress with a sleep-inducing physics textbook. Sunday morning was much the same, a flurry of homework and housework, as well as a trip for groceries with her parents. By early afternoon, she found herself sitting on her bed once more, mulling over what to do next, anything that would prevent her from checking her inbox or allow her mind to drift to possibilities of what might be. History class was first period Monday morning. There, she would see Gus again.

The house was quiet. Buttercup and Bubbles had gone out with their respective friends, and the Professor was tinkering away in his laboratory. Often had she passed solitary moments like this, in her room, while her sisters flew off to indulge in extroverted pursuits. Normally she was content with following her thoughts in scholarly seclusion, similar to her father downstairs. Today her thoughts frightened her. At troubled times in the past, she would often meditate, but she doubted her current power to hold her mind still.

'Blossom?'
Hime knocked gently on the door, and came to sit beside Blossom on the bed.
'How are you, sweetheart?'
She exhaled. 'Okay. I, um… emailed Kenji last night. I asked him for historical information on Jack. How he ultimately won his battle, and returned home and… everything.'
Hime nodded slowly, and Blossom noticed the slight knitting of her brow. Then, she looked Blossom straight in the eyes.
'You must remember that if anything happens, were are all here for you.'

This roused something inside the girl, and a few anxious tears broke her controlled façade. Her mother pulled her into a deep hug.
'When do you see Gus again?'
'Monday morning.'
'Okay.' Hime's voice was gentle and measured. 'All you need to do is be civil to him and keep whatever distance you are comfortable with. I suppose with his detatched attitude, for the most part, he won't really care.'
'Do you think that will stop him from… um, flaring up?' Blossom asked shakily.
'It might.' Hime's hand stroked Blossom's hair tenderly.

'Hi-chan? Are you scared?' She asked this with a tiny voice.
'Parents are always scared.' Hime smiled, sounding at once resilient and vulnerable.
She held Blossom until her distress eased. The girl's breathing slowed and relaxed. Hime released the embrace and squeezed her daughter's hands.
'I'll be downstairs if you need me.'

As she left the room, Blossom's phone buzzed sharply. Her inbox had a new message.

1.46pm on Sunday October 27th, Kenji Utonium <<student10642@townsville.edu>> wrote:

Hi again Blossom,

I am delighted to help you with your assignment! (Though I will certainly not turn down an offering of pumpkin spice cupcakes.)

I have provided a few links to articles on the restoration of the Imagawa dynasty, and attached is a PDF of various folk-tales surrounding 'Jack' and his exploits as both displaced warrior and restored Imagawa prince/emperor. Some of these were later adapted for kabuki theatre, and Hayao Miyazaki even created some concept art for a possible film adaption.

As for the defeat of the Akuma, most of the sources are indeed from folk-tales. The monster was initially dismissed by western academics as a mythological invention, though obviously this has been revised in recent years. The best sources we have say that 'Jack' found access to the Akuma's lair, where he confronted it and struck it down with his sword. The creature's remains were collected by the same order of monks who had forged the Imagawa Emperor's sword. As you know, the most common versions of the legend claim that after the Akuma's first defeat, it was sealed inside a tree, from which it escaped. 'Jack' determined that a new method of imprisonment must be used. He commanded the monks to forge a sacred vessel known as the 'Akuma-No-Hakashitsu', an urn of lead that would forever seal what remained of the monster. The monks guarded this artefact in a secret location known only to the Emperor Imagawa and his heirs.

During the Meiji expansion, tales of this hallowed object became a source of curiousity for Western treasure hunters: expeditions were led into the Tamba highlands to find it. A few people found examples of ceremonial urns that resembled what could be the Akuma-No-Hakashitsu. However, it has never been confirmed whether any of these were the genuine article. The British Museum acquired an impressive collection of these objects. Unfortunately, they disappeared in 1995, apparently stolen. No trace has ever been found of them.
The sword used to vanquish the Akuma (this would have been the instrument that 'Jack' taught your father to use) was rumoured to be imbued with godlike powers. Records indicate that the sword was siezed by a foreign merchant during the expansion. Little is known about its ultimate fate.

That is the long and short of what I can supply you. However, I phoned my professor last night, and he agreed to pass his contact details along. He would be delighted to speak with another Imagawa descendant, and so suggested you come visit him soon. His name is Doctor Abraham Turning, and he lives at 4 Cedar Avenue – not far from your place. His number is xxxx-xxx-xxx. He's a busy fellow but normally free on Sundays. The passion he has for this sort of thing is palpable, it will be hard to shut him up!
I hope all of this helps. Let me know how you go, I'm sure you'll get a good grade on this assignment easily.

Bye for now,

-Kenji

Without so much as pausing for breath, Blossom thumped at the number provided, and held every muscle in her body stiff as a shrill ringtone pealed rhythmically down the line.
At last, the call was answered by a woman's voice, soft and flaccid, refined by an English accent. 'Turning residence. How may I help you.'
'Um, hello.' The girl's voice was remarkably unsteady. 'My name is Blossom Utonium. I was told I could reach Dr. Abraham Turning here? My cousin Kenji is one of his students.'
'Hold on,' the woman answered tiredly. The phone made a muffled clatter as she dropped it to go fetch the man in question. Some moments passed. Then, a slight scuffle was heard as the reciever was picked up again.

'Miss Utonium, such a pleasure to hear from you!' Doctor Turning's voice, also English accented, was nasal and wavering, unsure as to whether it sat in a high or low register. 'I am glad you contacted me so swiftly. I have just returned from campus and will soon be sitting down to some afternoon tea. Should you care to join me, I can tell you all you require for your research.'
'Oh… thank you, that would be great. I'm in Pokey Oaks, so I can arrive shortly.'
'Marvellous, my dear. When can we expect you?'
'I'm actually ready to head off now. Say, five minutes.'
'No problem. See you then!'
Stuffing a notebook and pen in her bag, she dashed out the door.

Pokey Oaks was a fairly aspirational suburb, and Cedar Avenue was no exception. Hugging the summit of a hillside, the mansions that lined it were much more classical in character than the modern, orderly homes in the Utoniums' neighborhood. Rows of tall poplars reached sharply into the pale autumn sky, along with turrets, high-peaked gables and multistory columns.

Blossom reached the gates of Number 4, startled by the sound of two wary Dobermans barking at her through the bars. She pressed the button to the intercom.
'Um, Hello? Doctor Turning? It's Blossom Utonium.'
A crackle, and a spry laugh. 'Of course, I'll be out in a minute, my dear. Please don't mind Youma and Oni.'

Doctor Abraham Turning was a small, slight, bespectacled man with appendages that looked like they belonged on someone much larger. In his nasal, English voice, he drilled a harsh command at the dogs, pointing with a much-too-large finger. Obediently, almost fearfully, they slunk away through the garden.
Eyeing Blossom, his bearing changed to one of oily cordiality. He smiled broadly. 'Please come in, Miss Utonium, so nice to meet you!'
'Thank you for inviting me.' Blossom felt the grip of his hand, firm and tense and crushing.
'Not at all, not at all. My wife is preparing a service of sandwiches. Tell me, do you care for green tea?'
'Oh, I love it.'
'Marvellous, marvellous…'

He ushered Blossom inside, and the girl repressed the urge to flinch as he clamped that hand on her shoulder, striding along a bit too close into her personal space.
The house was an excersise in prim and perfect symmetry, less cluttered than some of the more sprawling houses in the vicinity. Two rectangular wings jutted out from either side, the columns supporting them were stark and uncomplicated cylinders. Blossom noticed that many of the black, oblong windows, placed in a faultless grid along the bleached stone walls, were closed with shutters of dark lacquered wood. She did not know why, but this seemed to increase her underlying sense of unease.

He bid her sit in the dim living room, a few sconces and antique table lamps the only light source. Along the walls were shelves cluttered with scores of books, as well as an impressive array of Japanese antiques. Delicate statuettes, exquisite glazed pottery, and miniature silk paintings propped upon scrolling stands. Blossom's eyes roved over these treasures, until she was snapped out of her reverie by the strident sound of the doctor declaring:
'Now then. Kenji tells me you are writing an essay on the folklore surrounding the Akuma, is that correct?'
Blossom smiled, extracting her notebook from her bag. 'Indeed, I am. He told me you were quite the authority on Japanese folklore.'

Doctor Turning's gaze now sharpened through his spectacles. 'It has been my passion since childhood. From scouring the scant offerings of my local library in Hampshire, to Oxford, to trekking the glorious islands of Japan, not to mention universities and museums across the world. I have pieced together the histories of some of the greatest monsters, spirits and magical creatures that have fueled human imagination.' His voice had lowered, and he had tented his gigantic hands before him. 'Forgive me for prying, but I believe that you are the daughter of a Professor John Utonium, is that right?'
'Yes!' A pleasing puff of pride momentarily lifted Blossom's spirits.
The Doctor gave a small grin. 'I have heard much about you and your sisters since I moved here. You are superheroes, the guardians and champions of Townsville, and have saved it from many villains and monsters.'
'We sure have,' Blossom replied.
'And it is you who claim to have met the Akuma.'
Blossom was silent at this.
'Tell me… what was it like to behold those eyes of brimstone? To look upon the gruesome visage? To be confronted with a creature so powerful, so utterly imbued with hatred and wrath, a predator of such staggering might?'
An ugly air had bloomed about Doctor Turning. Blossom shrunk back, dropping her pen on the leather couch, wishing desperately to be elsewhere yet petrified by the man's zealotry.
He continued staring at her.
'H… He… was…'

The thudding of footsteps approached behind them. A woman in a long, drab cardigan approached with a tray of refreshments.
'Afternoon tea.' She mumbled. She had been the woman who answered the phone.
'Thank you, Clara.' There was a cool, businesslike attitude in the Doctor's tone, and for a moment, Blossom intuited that the sad, spiritless creature was an ill-regarded domestic servant. Then, she realised that this was Turning's wife.
'The tea is lukewarm! Did you even let the kettle boil??'
Blossom, already jumpy, flinched at this harsh reprimand, but Clara slowly drooped, seeming used to such treatment. Doctor Turning hissed a sigh of aggravation. 'I suppose it's not even properly drawn, either…'
He scooped up the tray and began to storm off towards the kitchen, Clara trailing impotently behind. 'I apologise, Miss Utonium. It seems I shall have to tend to this unfortunate lapse in housekeeping…'
She was left alone in the room.

The antiques caught her attention once more, and Blossom allowed their appeal to lift her off the couch. She drifted closer to admire the intricate workmanship of each artefact. The echoed clangs of ceramic on metal and Doctor Turning's severe rebuke were faint and distant. Beautiful depictions of mountains, animals, trees and flowers floated before her, vibrant even in the dim room. And, on one of the bookshelves, an aged, ornately bound copy of ‘The Tale of Genji'. Unable to help herself, Blossom gingerly plucked this masterpiece from its spot and slowly leafed through it.
As she did so, absorbed in translating the script, poring over the annotations, she dawdled absently about the dark polished floorboards. She passed a bronze figure of a dragon, bumping it with her elbow. There was a a sharp snapping noise. She jerked around to find the tail of the beast now bent askew. Her heart plummeted into the pit of her gut, and she almost dropped the book in her clutches.

However, her panic was instantly eclipsed by astonishment, as she percieved a small cabinet upon one of the bookshelves swing open. Examining the ostensibly damaged dragon closer, she could percieve that, in actual fact, she had flipped a covert switch.
Her pulse was by now flying through her system. A short battle between her terror at being caught and her burning desire for knowledge was fought and resolved. Quickly replacing the book, she craned her head to see if the Doctor was returning. Satisfied that he was still bustling about in the kitchen, chiding his poor wife, she approached the open cabinet with furtive steps. She thrilled at the prospect of discovering what talisman lay within its sleek, lacquered confines.

Drawing the door fully open, she found an item that was both curious and rather underwhelming. It was a large jar of sorts… or at least, it was once. A dull, charcoal grey. Heavy and plain. It was cracked, possibly shattered open by a blunt weapon. Most of its pieces lay before it, neatly arranged, like the fragments of a broken eggshell. It looked as if it were some simple domestic container for rice, one found in the houses of the commonest peasants.
Puzzled, Blossom picked up one of the larger pieces, and was gratified at the discovery of a feature less than common: embossed upon its front was a pattern of black gemstone, presumably jet or onyx. Picking up another piece, she held the two aloft, and they glinted at her in the murk. Finding their common fissure, the girl pieced them together like a jigsaw puzzle. And then it was revealed: the gemstone was spelling out a sequence of kanji script.

Her intellectual faculties aroused, Blossom now took to the challenge of discerning what the jar had once read. After a few long moments of careful arrangement and examination, she could make out enough of the graceful characters to begin deciphering them, reading backwards, from bottom to top.
The lowermost character she had seen many times before. It meant ‘room' or ‘chamber'.
The next character up was vaguer. She had seen it before, but could not recall it exactly. It contained the radicals for ‘sun', ‘grass', and ‘earth'… but what was its meaning?
The particle ‘no' lay above these two characters. ‘Of'. ‘Belonging to'.
Then, as she scrutinised the two upper characters, a black, horrid chill descended upon her.
‘Ma'. Demon.
‘Aku'. Evil.

Almost instantly, the meaning of the mystery kanji swooped into her memory. ‘Haka'. Tomb.
Evil Demon's Tomb Chamber.
Akuma-No-Hakashitsu.

'Hey, I didn't know that you were the student dad was seeing!'
Whirling around, Blossom found a new figure standing in the doorway, one who she had not expected to see lurking in this forbidding manor: Gus. The light in his face and the vigour in his voice suggested a pleasure and excitement he had never expressed before.
Without another second's hesitation, Blossom dashed out of the room, crashing through the front doors, rocketing into the overcast sky. A perplexed Gus followed her out into the front garden, wistfully watching her cherry-coloured light trail dissipate in the heavens.

Doctor Turning joined his son, rushing out of the front doors.
'Oh dear… what made my young guest hurry away like that?'
Gus met his father's gaze with sad eyes. 'I dunno.'
'Such a shame. I would have loved to converse with her further. It would also have been nice to formally introduce you to her.' A smile crawled up his thick, pallid lips.
'Dad?'
'Yes, Augustus?'
'I know her already. I met her at school. She's really smart, and nice… She's, like, the only person who's paid any decent attention to me…' Gus trailed off, looking a little ambivalent.
'Is that so?' The Doctor replied, urging his son to elaborate on his thoughts.
'Yeah. Um…' the boy's eyes dropped to his trainers. 'I think I really like her.'
Doctor Turning seemed a little too pleased by this. He reached up and slung a hand over his son's bony shoulder. 'My boy,' he counseled. 'Don't be put off so easily. A girl such as her is well worth pursuing. After all…' Here he led Gus back inside, the two Dobermans trotting dutifully behind them. '…She does come from a very prominent family…'

Chapter Text

She flung open the front door, charged inside and slammed it shut. He hands shaking, she barely managed to bolt the locks. Then, finally, she allowed herself to collapse on the tiles, trembling and panicked and burning with fright. Tears spilled as she curled in on herself.

During the swift flight from the Turning residence, a horrid instinct had impulsively arisen in Blossom's imagination— that something may pursue her, drag her down and pierce her with large black talons. A swell of shady memories now plagued her: memories of darkness, thick and opaque, the roars of an appalling monster echoing throughout a cavernous void, and worst of all, being torched, body and soul, by the all-consuming agony of a sentient and malevolent flame.
The floods of adrenalin in her system slowly began to recede. As her pulse decelerated, as the blood stopped pounding in her ears, she realised that her surroundings were hushed, tranquil. The only things discernible beyond the front door were birdsong, the whoops and hollers of children playing, and the odd family car gliding through the residential streets. Blossom hoped against hope that this soundscape would remain uninterrupted.

Presently, another sound caught her attention: two peals of gentle laughter from the kitchen, one a sweet velvet contralto, the other a resonant rich baritone.
Wiping away the tears that still lingered in her eyes, she looked in to behold her parents sharing a pot of tea at the table. They sat close together, and the Professor raised Hime's delicate hands to his lips, tenderly kissing each cherished finger. When they noticed their daughter hovering in the entrance, they drew apart, offering her a seat at the table and a cup of the fragrant brew.
Blossom put on a brave smile for the both of them.

It seemed that Hime had regained a good measure of equilibrium after the initial shock of meeting Gus. Her counsel to Blossom earlier in the day had been the essence of a sage and soothing matriarch, ready to present calm courage in the face of an unknowable danger. Peering out from the lace trim of her blouse were remnants of deep scars, darker and more brutal than the narrow pink streak that lay over Blossom's heart.
Drawing a steady breath, Blossom now vowed to confront the murky menace that was gradually taking shape before her. Alone, if possible. Those who she loved had suffered enough.

*

Late that night, a light knock came on Blossom's door.
'Laundry!'
She arose from her bed, taking the basket of fresh, folded clothes from her father. 'Thanks, Professor.'
He picked up the book that she had just earmarked and flung on the night-stand. '‘The Illustrated Book of Japanese Monsters'?'
'We're starting a new unit in history class tomorrow,' Blossom lied.
The Professor looked down at the book again, and then placed it on the highest shelf of Blossom's bookcase. 'I remember reading bedtime stories to you and your sisters,' he said wistfully. '"Black Beauty" and "Peter Pan". Back when you shared a bedroom.'
Blossom scoffed. 'We're a bit old for that, now.'

The Professor said nothing more, but kissed her on the forehead and left the room, leaving the bedroom door ajar. A warm stripe of light from the hallway fell upon the carpet.
Turning out the light and settling under the covers, Blossom, worn out from the ordeal of the past few days, fell asleep almost instantly.

*

The night was moonless, and a mercilessly thick fog shrouded all but a few inches in front of her. Footsore and weary, she plodded onward, too tired to fly, trying to recall the way home through the streets. In her arms she carried a golden vessel, filled with diamond-like nuggets of ice. The weight of this precious cargo grew heavier with each step. Naked branches came upon her without warning, scratching her bare, frozen skin.

She looked up to behold, through the dank grey mist, a red-orange beacon. Though obscured and distant, it stood out in brilliant disparity to the gloom surrounding her. Resolution gave her vigour, she picked up her beleaguered pace.
The acrid stench of sulphur hit her full in the face. She tried to recoil from it. Suddenly, she was aware of a stiff and unrelenting blast of hot wind, hitting her from behind. Should she stop moving now, she would be blown off her feet. The flame grew brighter, bigger, larger, hotter, until it was a wall of roaring fire.

Smoke stung her eyes and her throat, blinded and battered, she strove to keep her footing. The ice in her golden vessel would no doubt have melted to water by now, though she swore to hold onto it.
The mouth of the inferno was right upon her. Hungrily, a tongue of flame whipped out and grabbed her by a lock of her long red hair, and she was thrown off of her feet. It wound about the flesh of her ankles, searing them viciously. Though she bucked wildly against these unnatural shackles, they effortlessly pulled her towards the great, blazing heart of the inferno.

The last thing she saw before she was consumed by the flames was her precious vessel cast upon the blackened ground, its contents spilled. However, the gems of ice were cool, solid, intact, and sparkled exquisitely in the light of the fire.

*

A rapid clatter awoke Blossom.
The curtains danced about wildly in the night-time breeze. Groggily, she heaved herself from the warm chrysalis of her bed to close her window. Bleary-eyed and still barely conscious, it took her a long moment to realise that, in the dimmest corner of her dim room, a pair of burning black eyes were trained upon her.
She turned around and nearly hit the ceiling.
'Gus!...'
He did not move, but continued staring into her eyes. 'Incorrect.'

The voice was charcoal and rumbling thunder, not that of the sombre young man. A grin split the face that held a malice and energy that had been heretofore foreign to the countenance it possessed. Standing immobilised, Blossom had no chance to recoil as Gus' form sprang forth and seized her by two dishevelled locks of her long red hair.
'My, my, how you've grown. It has been a long time since I last saw you, my little Imagawa princess. Don't tell me you have forgotten?'
'I… I…'
'You remember me, do you not, my dear? Do you remember the shadow I cast over your miserable little family? Do you remember being subject to my majesty and terror? Do you remember being seized by my talons, struggling helplessly against my strength?'
He leant close into his victim, she felt his breath sear the skin of her cheek.
'Do you remember my name, child?'
Blossom could not speak.
'MY NAME!' He raged, grasping her shoulders and shaking her violently.
At length, she found her voice, diminished and fractured.
'A… Aku.'

A spasm of wild, booming, crazed laughter blasted forth from him, and he tossed Blossom down roughly. She fell upon the mattress, and he loomed over her, swiftly pinning her down.
'I am he. The Deliverer of Darkness, The Shogun of Sorrow, the once mighty and unquestioned master of a grand empire spanning across time and space. Not even your arrogant samurai ancestor could have me vanquished permanently.'
She tried to wriggle free from his grasp, but he tightened the hold of his fingers around her.
'Though my current form is somewhat diminished, do not be fooled. I mean to return to my full power. That foolish Doctor Turning has been a most helpful servant in my restoration.'
'H… he's doing your bidding!?' Blossom managed to choke out.
'He is but a vainglorious, twisted little animal, who, entranced by the tales of my conquests, took it upon himself to find the Akuma-No-Hakashitsu and facilitate my rebirth. And do you know how he did this?'
Blossom shook her head as best she could.
'Breaking apart the vessel with a diamond blade, he took my ashen remains and mixed them into the food of his pregnant wife. Then, when the woman gave birth, her son became the new host to contain my essence. Poor, unheeding fool that he is. Until now, I have lain dormant inside him, too weak and powerless to arise. But the past few months have accelerated my returning strength. And tonight, after centuries of anguished slumber, I have finally awakened.'
'Gus…' The girl cried, suddenly grieving for her friend's fate.
'He shall continue to be a useful vehicle as I regain my former power. When I am fully restored, however, his sad story shall come to an end as my mighty frame devours his own feeble self.'
'No! I won't let you!...'
'Oh… the fear and rage in your form and your eyes is beyond delightful.' He sighed. 'How I have missed the feeling of holding my prey in my thrall…'

She struggled against him again, but she was no match for him, even in his lessened state.
'You believe I wish to restore my once mighty empire, yes? Such acquisitions are now, I fear, behind me. After many ages of building and re-building my various dominions, my energies and fervour in that field have been spent. My new intent is revenge.'
Her blood ran cold, her thrashing stilled.
'How fitting that the proud progeny of the long-dead samurai should be my ultimate victims. Once I have convalesced, I shall restore the Pit Of Hate, my sanctum that lies outside of the temporal limits of this pathetic universe. There shall I return to my throne, and install you and your family as my slaves. There will you do my bidding as I hunt down and destroy all those who ever wronged or insulted me, and their kin.'
'Do you know why my recovery has been so hearty these past months? Why I have woken up tonight, returned to consciousness? It is the same reason that, ten years ago, in the heart of a great volcano, my excruciating, near-death agonies, and my fevered thirst for impulsive and immediate retribution were stilled and soothed. When I melted into the rock and the fire and the dark, seeping deep into the bowels of the earth, I pondered this as I healed. And lately, as I dozed half-awake within the psyche of your droopy little friend, the answer came to me.'

Blossom recalled the evening of Aku's defeat: her sorcerous fusion with the flow and pulse of the searing volcano magma which his injured form had sheltered in— the mystery of which had never been accounted for by her reckoning.
He abruptly ripped at her shirt, revealing the delicate, cherry blossom scar spanning her chest. The urge to pull away from him was denied her.
'This,' he continued, steely, thrusting a finger across the trail of the scar. 'My traitorous whore of a courtesan, the one you now call mother. She had healing powers which proved useful after my many conflicts with your samurai forefather. When she sacrificed her miserable life-force for you, this power became your bequest. And, somehow…'
He stared harder at her, his eyes more fiery and mesmeric than ever.

'Somehow… this power has been amplified in you. In you, the heir of the Imagawa legacy, so as to have a sway over the fibres of my being that has the potential to cool me to immobility or charge me to the very zenith of my energy. How is it, that a mutant, mortal girl, the daughter of a complacent royal fool and the pet of a vain pixie could have such a power, greater than the sum of the parts that were given to her by her unusual birth? How…!?'

Her captor's grip tightened upon her, the frustrated growl in his voice reached a peak. Then, Blossom's gaze was caught by a sliver of night sky peeking from behind the curtains. The light of a distant twinkling star landed upon her, and amongst the squalling panic and anger surging through her system, a thread of sweet, silver tranquillity inexplicably wound its way into her mind and heart. Her pupils began to dilate, her pulse slowed. The eyes of her assailant met hers once more. His breath caught in his throat, he dithered a little, then collapsed heavily upon the poor bewildered girl, unconscious.

'Blossom!'
Buttercup burst in the door, followed by the rest of her concerned family. Gus' inert form still lay atop her on the bed, her shirt still rent.

*

After her father stopped hollering, and her sisters stopped squealing, Blossom was able to rally her self-possession and summon at least a brief explanation.
Indeed, Gus was out cold, no amount of prodding on Buttercup's part could stir him. She and Bubbles hauled the inanimate boy downstairs to the sofa, and Hime dragged the Professor into the kitchen to properly calm him down (and help her prepare some cocoa). Blossom sat uneasily on her father's armchair, examining the unfortunate figure. Now, at rest, his face had regained its gentle melancholy, no longer contorted by monstrous lust and aggression. She knew the being that she currently looked upon was Gus himself.

Her family joined her, and she was able to recount the full details of what had transpired, as well as what Aku had told her about his resurrection and ghastly new intent.
'I want him out of the house,' The Professor demanded.
'Oh, yeah? And where are we gonna send him?' Buttercup challenged. 'Back to that crazy Aku-loving father of his? To the police? What are they gonna do? We're the Powerpuff Girls. We're the ones who are meant to look after all the bad guys in this city.'
'Gus can't help it,' Bubbles asserted. 'It's not his fault that Aku is hiding inside him. Isn't there a way we can help him to suppress it or something?...'
The Professor looked to the boy lying helpless on the couch, then to his wife and daughters. He drew a long breath.
'I just can't bear the thought of subjecting any of you to such a danger.' His voice was no longer stern.
'Let him stay,' Hime instructed softly.

'What?... But... After everything that monster did to you!'
'Gus is now subject to the same horror. From what Blossom has said, it appears he does not have a single friend in the world who could help him fight what is rising inside him. Except for us, the people who know what sort of threat Aku poses, and something of how he thinks and operates. Gus needs us. Let him stay.'
No further words needed to be exchanged.

*

'Is this really necessary, Professor?' Blossom watched anxiously as Buttercup and Bubbles closed the clasps on a number of brutal manacles, holding the still-unconscious Gus upright on a large panel in the girls' disused old training room. From behind the glass screen between the cell and its control room, the Professor watched the girls imprison him, while he activated an array of hair-trigger security devices.
'I am determined to take as many precautions as possible, Blossom. Who knows what state he will be in when he comes around? What if Aku has overwhelmed Gus already? I am not sure whether we can hold him with the polyduranium fibroid restraints, but it's the best defence we have.'
When the girls emerged from the room, the heavy door to the cell clamped shut, locking fast.

A vigil commenced: Gus was monitored by each family member in shifts. First the Professor, then Hime, and after the next day's classes had finished, the girls. Blossom had not slept a wink during the night, and once she returned home in the afternoon, she sped down to the basement to see him again.

Hime was seated at the command console, greeting Blossom with a small smile.
'He's still out cold. Your father ran some tests on him today, took a blood sample and other such things. He's currently in his office, cross-referencing his findings with some of his previous biochemical research and pacing a small ravine into the floor.' She rose from her seat. 'I'll fix you something to eat, okay?'

Blossom took over the monitoring, staring woefully in at the limp figure. He looked so small and destitute in the cold, stifling cell, a living and feeling child humiliated and enfeebled by chilly metallic imprisonment. His horrible father was probably unconcerned, assuming that Aku had possessed his son for some nefarious errand. Blossom wondered if his mother Clara was thinking of him, worrying for him?
She examined the security panels for the various door mechanisms. Her father was a predictable sort. For each mechanism, she typed in the password ‘puffdaddy'. Lo and behold, the alarms were disabled, the locks were disengaged, and the cumbersome door to the room opened dutifully for her.
Really, she knew the dear old codger far, far too well.

She stared up at his face, partially obscured by drooping locks of lime green hair. He was still serene and unmoved. What torment lay in store for this innocent?
She laid a hand upon his, he was worryingly cold. Clasping it gently, she hoped to at least warm his fingers.
His lashes fluttered slightly. A muted groan escaped from his throat.
'Gus?'

His eyes struggled their way open. '…Blossom…?'
'Gus, please don't be afraid. Something has happened, but we're here to protect you. We've put you on a panel in my father's laboratory to keep you safe. My family have been taking turns to watch over you. Please don't worry.'
She could see that his dazed mind was trying and failing to keep up with her speech.
'Oh, Gus…' She held his hand tighter.
Eventually, he spoke. 'It happened, didn't it?'
Blossom tensed. 'What do you mean?'

'These… mood-swings I have. They've been happening ever since I turned thirteen. And lately, they've been getting much worse. I just kinda… fly into a rage, and I have a hard time remembering what I've done afterwards.'
'We… Yes. I was witness to it. My family has figured out what is happening with you.'
'I… I remember busting outta my house late at night…'
'We're here to help you.'
'I… did I break into someone's bedroom…?'
'My dad also ran a simple medical test on you while you were asleep.'
'And… I… Oh…'
'…Gus?'

Blossom suddenly noticed the boy convulse. She backed away quickly, until she spied a few teardrops splashing upon the tiled floor.
'Oh, Blossom… I'm so sorry…'
She approached him again, driven by near-unbearable pangs of sympathy. Her hand rested once more on his.
'Gus, it's okay.'
'Did I… did I hurt you??...'
She shook her head fervently. 'No, no. You did nothing to me. Nothing happened.'
She perceived his already wilted form relax further.
'Oh… oh, thank God…!' He then repeated the contrition, 'I'm so sorry…'
She reached up and gave him the deepest hug that she could. His breath completely stilled.
'Blossom…'

She turned to behold her father in the doorway to the room, unsmiling. After a prickling silence, he spoke.
'I have made a few discoveries based on the results of the medical tests. I have some information to share.'

*

Chapter Text

July 1982. Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Japan.
The graceful sweep of lush greenery had come to an abrupt end. The soothing sounds of wildlife, wind and water began to fall away. The two boys stood on the twisted forest pathway, staring into the murk of a great legion of tall, black, leafless trees. The Summer sunlight struggled to trickle its way through the stark stillness.
'You go first, man.'
Johnny hesitated to answer, simpering at his friend.
'C'mon, Utonium, you were the one who wanted to come here in the first place!'
'I know…'
'Whatsa matter, are ya chicken?'
'No…'
'Maybe we should go back to the ryokan and get your mama to change your diaper for you!'
Johnny sighed, grabbed Dick's slender wrist, and dragged him into the shadow of the black forest.

A month previous, the pair had completed their sophomore year at Townsville University. Johnny Utonium, the darling of his professors, had once again earnt a spot on the dean's list, acing the finals of his double major in chemistry and biology. And thanks to arduous hours of study, an endless succession of caffieneated drinks, ad hoc tutelage from Johnny, and a strong desire to prove himself to his old-money parents, young Dick Hardly, esquire, had scraped along enough to earn a middling grade. The students of Townsville U would often see the two strolling through the campus together or hanging out at the student union, bewildered by the sight of such dissimilar boys being so attached to each other. What had begun as a rather tense and rocky alliance in freshman year had slowly grown into a warm, slightly twisted, and deeply affectionate friendship, one that neither of the young men had planned on.
Spring break had been spent travelling along the California coastline in Dick's father's convertible. When Johnny's parents had announced a family trip to his mother's homeland, the favour was returned by inviting Dick along for the holiday.

The empty, dry crunch of two pairs of footfalls was the loudest sound. The further they went into the black forest, the quieter and quieter the air became. The constant song of the cicadas and the birds and the rush of the wind was soon completely lost to them. Their eyes slowly adjusted to the low light.
Dick looked around warily, taking in the expanse of ebony branches. 'This is pretty creepy, actually…'

'No duh, airhead. That's the point. The Kuromatsumori is meant to be, like, the most haunted place in Japan. These black trees have been here for centuries, and in the olden days it was said that demons lived in this forest. All the experts who have studied this place still aren't totally sure why no wildlife ever comes here… the best explanation is the lack of foliage. Also, this is a popular suicide spot, and hundreds of corpses have been found swinging from the trees.'
Dick dropped his knapsack, sitting down heavily on a nearby tree root. 'And you wanted to come here, why?'

A familiar look fell upon Johnny's face, his blue eyes lighting up and an unsettling smile crawling across his lips. 'There is no other spot like this on earth. It's a natural marvel.' He turned his eyes on the blonde boy. 'Doesn't it make you wonder how such a strange forest came to be? Aren't you just bursting to find out?'
He was definintely in mad-scientist-mode again. Dick shrugged, pulling out his water bottle. 'Whatever. We're on the side of Mt. Fuji, right? Maybe it's got something to do with the volcanic bedrock or something.' He took a swig, looking back out towards the sunlight. 'To be honest, Johnny, I'm bursting to find out just how relaxing that onsen in our room is…'

The sharp, brisk cracking of twigs underfoot echoed around them. Johnny and Dick looked wildly about, trying to locate the source of the sudden noise. It was hard to see far up ahead on the path.
'Probably just another hiker, yeah?' Dick suggested.
More footsteps followed, light and swift. Above the pathway, up the slope of the mountain, Johnny spotted a dark, squat figure, shrouded in shadow, barrelling through the trees.
'Dick…'
Without warning, a sharp black rock came hurtling out of the darkness, aimed squarely at Dick's golden head. Just in time, Johnny pushed his friend out of the line of fire, the two toppled to the earth as the rock smashed against the trunk of a nearby tree. The cracking sound it made reverberated throughout the forest.

'What the hell!?'
'That almost cracked your skull!'
A shrill, deafening screech cut the two of them off.
'AKUMA! AKUMA!'
The robust form swooped down the sloping ground towards the boys, who scrambled to their feet, hearts racing.
'ACHI ITTE YO! AKUMA! ACHI ITTE YO!'
It now leapt out of the murk, gracefully alighting on a low hanging branch, no more than a yard away from them.
'Kore wa Koko-chan no ie da! Achi itte yo!'

Dick and Johnny could only stare in utter amazement. The juvenile macaque, perched securely on the branch, her little hands clutching at the hard, smooth bark, was leaning forward, staring at them with furious eyes and speaking to them in fluent Japanese.
When they did not move, she grabbed one of the thinner off-shoots of the branch, tore it off and began to swing it around like a staff. Dick stumbled backwards, terrified, but Johnny held a hand up.
'Ah… yamete kudasai. Boku-tachi ga akuma ja arimasen. Tomodachi desu. Boku no namae wa Johnny desu. Hajimemashite.'

He stood and bowed to her, as if she were a human. She narrowed her bright, calculating eyes at him, arrested by his attempt to communicate with her. He now noticed that her long, delicate face, instead of being the same red colour like the other monkeys of her kind, was an uncanny shade of green.
Dick found his voice, between shallow, frantic breaths. 'What did you say to her?'
'Urusai! Kore wa Koko-chan no ie da! Anata-tachi wa shin'nyusha da!' The little monkey shrieked.
This seemed to propel Johnny to become calmer. His eyes dropped to his feet, and in a low, almost honey-sweet tone, he cooed: 'Ojamashimasu. Koko-san no ie wa totemo kirei desu. Boku wa purezento o motte iru. Douzo.'

He reached into his knapsack, with Koko's eyes warily tracking his every move. He pulled out a crisp red apple and held it gallantly before her. She dropped the stick in her hands, and obeying her baser impulses, sniffed the apple gingerly before ripping it from Johnny's clutches and taking an indecently large bite. As she tore into the treat, her animosity began to melt away into a haze of satiated bliss.

'Amai…' she sighed through a juicy mouthful. 'Johnny-chan ga suki da!' With this, she leapt onto Johnny's shoulders, curling her free hand around his neck. Dick slowly rose from the ground, fascinated at this sudden join-up with the wild animal.
'Johnny-chan no kaori ga kirei da…'
Dick cackled as she nuzzled the now slightly disconcerted Johnny. 'Dude, I think she likes you.'
Johnny kept himself cautiously still as Koko feasted on her apple. 'How on earth did a macaque come to live in a place like this and learn to talk?...'
'Maybe she's sick. She's all green.'
Johnny addressed the monkey again. 'Koko-san?... Kyoushuku desu ga...'
She gave a curt grunt to him as she finished stripping the last few chunks of white flesh from the apple core.
'Nande dekiru hanasu no?' He asked her sweetly.
Carelessly, she chucked the apple core over her shoulder. 'Mahou no kuroi hachimitsu.'
Johnny blinked heavily.
'What did she say?' Dick asked.
'She said she can speak because of ‘magical black honey'…'

Koko seemed to pick up on their inquiry. 'Mahou no kuroi hachimitsu ga tabeta. Ouki na ki de. Miseru. Kochi da!' With this, she leapt off of Johnny's shoulders and scampered back into the trees. Following her clumsily, slipping on the stony ground, Johnny and Dick both struggled to keep up with her nimble pace.

Soon out of breath, they came to a clearing in the black forest, where the ground too was stained a deep jet, fractured by jagged cracks. Koko had already hopped up on a low branch of an enormous, monolithic tree, thicker and taller and replete with many more branches than its spindly neighbours.
'Mitte! Mitte!' The monkey becokned to them.

Johnny approached the tree, awestruck at its sheer size. As he got closer to the trunk, he realised what Koko had meant about ‘magical black honey': it was oozing a kind of sap, dark, thick and viscous.
'I wouldn't touch that stuff if I were you…' Dick warned.
Unheeding, Johnny swept a long white finger through the sludge. It felt curiously warm to the touch, clinging to his skin like glue.
'Extraordinary…' the young scientist breathed, utterly transfixed. 'This is unlike any tree sap I've ever seen!…'
He recoiled in shock as Koko closed her mouth around Johnny's finger, sucking all the substance off of it akin to some bizarre lollipop.
'What has this stuff done to you, little one?' Johnny mused, staring at the animal as she smacked her lips.
'This is too weird…' Dick muttered, shaking his head. 'I really think we should get out of here, man.'

'There is a reason why I was drawn to this place,' Johnny stated, his focus softening, his voice steady and sure. 'All the fairy-tales about demons that my mother told me as a kid… they were all about this place: the Kuromatsumori. Maybe there was a verifiable source for all of those horror stories. Whatever caused these trees to grow so twisted, whatever drives away the wildlife and drives humans to kill themselves, whatever weird, possibly hazardous compounds make up this sap… whatever has given this little animal the power of reasoning and speech… it must be studied.'

*

The Professor took another sip from the dregs of his now cold tea.
'As soon as we returned to the ryokan that evening, I contacted Professor Tartakovsky, my chemistry teacher and mentor. Together with the University of Tokyo, we embarked upon a massive research project. Given the effect of the sap on that young macaque, the area was deemed a public health hazard, and the Kuromastumori remains off-limits to the public to this very day. I collected a great deal of the sap from that tree to study its composition. Others on the project became sick from exposure to the substance, including both Dick and Professor Tartakovsky. I was the only person immune to such a reaction. That is why I am the sole custodian and researcher of that substance…'
'…Chemical X.' Blossom finished.
'For decades, the mystery of Chemical X has plagued me. Where did it come from? Why does it affect other elements so? And why am I seemingly the only person who can handle it safely?'

'What happened to Koko?' Bubbles interjected.
The Professor chuckled. 'She eventually became a devoted pet of Professor Tartakovsky's, and a mascot for the school of chemistry at Townsville U. She was a most obliging test subject, partly because we always asked her politely to participate in the study, and partly because she was rewarded with a steady apple supply. Rest assured, she became very cosy and happy at the campus.'
A delighted beam split Bubbles' face.
'Thinking things over today, I recalled the legend of the Akuma: He is the primary beast said to lurk in the Kuromatsumori, after all the Imagawa Emperor did seal him within a tree. When I examined Gus' blood sample, it all fell into place.'

The girls stared at him, heaviness in their eyes.
'That tree was the resting place, and also likely the very birthplace, of Aku. He, like you, is made from Chemical X.'
'Does that mean that Chemical X is evil?' Buttercup asked in an unusually small voice.
Her father shook his head. 'It is a highly reactive substance, absorbing everything that touches it, then transmuting its stimuli into veritable miracles of nature. In your case, it absorbed the little girl formula and my own DNA.'
'Your own DNA…' Blossom repeated. 'Do you think… your immunity to Chemical X's effects may be due to the Imagawa bloodline.'

The Professor sighed. 'I can think of no other explanation. I don't know why the Imagawas are immune to it… perhaps Chemical X retains a primitive form of memory… due to both Jack and his father's interactions with the substance, it could be that it recognises my lineage, and thus is either respectful to me, or afraid of me. It really does seem as if I was fated to discover it.'
'And what about us?' Blossom queried, indicating herself and her sisters. 'We are a mix of both X and Imagawa blood, are we not? How come both of them can fuse in us??'
'That's a good question.' The Professor frowned, stroking his beard. 'There may be some component of your make-up that acts as a ‘binding agent' of sorts…'
'Love,' Hime blurted, and the rest of the family stared at her.

The Professor's gaze softened. 'Well… I'd like to think so. Also… Blossom was able to subdue Aku very quickly in a weakened state. It sounds like the exact same thing that happened on that night in the volcano.'
'It was weird…' Blossom said, a chill passing through her at the memory of it. 'Both times, a weakened, tired Aku was trying to attack me. The more panicked I got, the worse he became. But then, I found a moment of calm somehow, and instantly… he calmed down too.' She touched the tip of the pink scar on her chest. 'I think it's a power I got from Hi-chan…'
Buttercup turned to her mother. 'Would that power have been given to you through Aku using Chemical X or something?'
Hime pondered this for a moment, but shook her head. 'Ultimately... my instincts say no. I'm not sure where that power came from.'

'Well, it really DOES seem as if we are the best ones to help Gus and look after him!' Bubbles piped up. She rose from her seat in the lab, and strode up to where the weakened boy still hung from his polyduranium fibroid shackles.
'Maybe it would be safe enough to get you down from there. Would you like something to eat, Gus?'
'No!' The Professor held up a firm hand. 'Not yet. Aku may be sleeping now, but we don't know when he'll awaken again, or how powerful he will be. I am sorry, but we need to keep him restrained.'
Gus, who had been listening to all of this, made no sound or movement. Only his slow, beleaguered breathing indicated that he was still conscious.
'I'll take over the watch this evening,' The Professor announced. 'Why don't you all get some dinner and try to relax tonight?'

Bubbles, Buttercup and Hime all gladly headed back up to the light and warmth of the house. Blossom lingered at the doorway of the lab, gazing at her forlorn friend, until another stern look from Utonium spurred her up the stairs.
The two men, scientist and subject, did not exchange so much as a glance, and were silent for the whole of the evening.

The hour reached midnight. Hime and the girls had most likely gone to bed. The lights in the lab remained on, the Professor had spent the time perusing the same research papers he had read over and over that day. Worn out with thought and worry, his thought began to go fuzzy and diffused, his eyelids grew heavy, and at length, his chin dropped to his chest. He snoozed, still silent and tranquil.

*

So… some-one had pre-empted him. This form was weak enough, but it was a most rude awakening to discover that he could not move at all. Slowly getting his bearings, he looked around to make sense of this predicament. Clean white tiles. Cold. The soft, persistent hum of electronic equipment. The harsh metal shackles holding him chafed his slender wrists horribly. However, he could feel the fire deep inside him beginning to kindle. This host body would soon be imbued with its first indications of his true might.

Something moved slightly in the corner of his eye, his gaze darted to it. Slumped over, asleep in a chair, a human. He discerned the physique- tall, long-legged, and wiry. Black hair, silvered slightly with age. The features of the calm, resting face…
The samurai.

In an instant, his entire form blazed. The anger at seeing this ruthless would-be captor of his rose up and charged his nerves with an energy he had not felt for eons. No. No. That samurai would not hold him captive again. Rage gave him strength.

*


A monstrous shattering blast awoke the Professor, debris flew and his chair toppled to the floor, spilling him out of it. The acrid smoke from electrical fires stung his throat, and through the haze he made out a figure standing tall amongst the chaos that was his lab.
It was Gus, but it was not Gus. The bearing, the expression, and the eyes all radiated malevolent majesty and undisguised malice. Also, the boy's once pale hands had become calcified, black claws.
'Time to pay for your insolence, Samurai…'
These claws grabbed the stunned and helpless Professor by his shirt front, dragging him forward, and he was instantly scorched by blazing, merciless eyes.

*

Chapter Text

At long last, Doctor Constance Murray emerged from the hospital room to address the group.
'He is in a stable condition. We have dressed his injuries and set the multiple fracture in his right arm. He has sustained a number of flesh wounds, and some of the burns are quite nasty. Luckily, there appears to be no vital internal damage— as far as I can tell, he should be able to recover fully, given time. But I would like to keep him here for at least this week.'
'Can we see him?' Hime asked.
'Just be aware that he is in a very delicate state and will not be very responsive. We've put him on a morphine drip to help with the pain.'

A laconic-looking orderly trotted up behind the group, tapping Doctor Murray on her shoulder. 'That mob of reporters in reception won't buzz off. Should we toss 'em out?'
'We'll go and talk to them,' Ms. Keane-Green offered, indicating herself and her husband. As family friends, we're happy to serve as the spokespeople.'
'Thank you,' Hime briefly clutched Keane-Green's hand with her own, before the couple left to fulfil their duty.
The doctor opened the door beside her to the family. 'You may enter.'

The four women poured into the hospital room, their hearts sinking at the sorry sight that was the family patriarch.
'Oh, John!'
'Professor!...'
Utonium acknowledged his wife and daughters with a flicker of a smile, immobilised in his bed and swathed in bandages.
'My heroes,' he rasped weakly.
'Please try not to talk, Professor. You must save your energy,' Doctor Murray said gently. As the others hovered over the man, Blossom was drawn aside.

'You say he and the boy that was with him were attacked by a monster?' The Doctor asked.
Blossom took a deep breath, attempting to steady her ravaged nerves. 'Please keep this confidential. The boy… Gus… he is a friend of mine, and the monster is living within his body. He has been possessed.'
This information seemed to act on Doctor Murray like a jolt of electricity. 'This is very serious information. The boy is currently still in the emergency ward. The paramedics told me that he remained unconscious. We may have to make use of such information for his own good.'
'You mean he was just left alone?' Blossom exclaimed.
'Your father was in a much worse off state, we had to see to him first. The boy was still alive and his vital signs were steady the last time I checked on him—'
'You don't understand. The other patients in the ward could be in danger! He could awaken any minute!'
She raced out of the room before anyone could stop her. Doctor Murray looked to the rest of the family.

'I think it's best that she goes to attend Gus,' Hime told the doctor, while cradling her husband's limp hand. 'She was the one who managed to subdue the monster.'

*

A matter of a few meagre milliseconds had saved Utonium's life.
The great thunderous crashes of Aku breaking free of his bonds had swiftly awoken Hime and the girls, the three sisters had instantly swooped down to the lab with the instinctive urge to protect their father.

They could clearly see what was going on in the heart of the smoky mess of destroyed machinery. Bubbles scooped up the injured Utonium just in time to rescue him from a devestating swipe of the monster's piercing claws. Hungry for retribution, Buttercup rushed at him, but was seized by the leg and thrown against the rubble.
The spectacle of Gus' body, mutilated by the hulking black sinew of Aku's arms, made Blossom sick to the stomach. Likewise, his mild features twisted into rapacious frenzy felt like an insult to fair nature. However, the rest of his figure remained that of the spindly teenager, and Blossom delivered a sharp kick to his flesh-and-blood midsection.

'Aku' went flying, and when he hit the floor of the lab with a mighty thud, Blossom pinned him down with her slippered foot. Those black claws swept out madly at her, and she deftly evaded each frantic motion. Then, willing her spirit to cool down and settle, she looked directly into his eyes, fearless, aware of what she had to do.
She could hear Bubbles ringing 911 and a panicked Hime administering first aid to Utonium. Her heartbeat slowed, her breathing deepened, and she did not take her eyes off the snarling monster that writhed beneath her foot.

After a few long moments, he suddenly dropped out of the waking world. The eyes fell shut, the oversized claws went slack, dropping to the pile of sharp, hazardous debris beneath him.

*

She flew through the crowded, noisy emergency ward, and scanned the rows of beds. One injured, distressed patient after another, until she finally came upon Gus' motionless, tragically misshapen form.
Thank goodness, he was still at rest. The frazzled, busy doctors bustling about the place had taken no heed of him. Blossom wondered what to do next. What if Aku had taken over Gus' body for good?
Struck by a fresh wave of anxiety, the exhausted girl slumped upon the side of the bed. Tears stung her eyes, and in imitation of her mother, she took the boy's now beastly black hand in hers.
'Oh, Gus…' she breathed, 'what's happening to you?'

The body stirred beside her. Blossom raised her head to watch the boy slowly come around. He gradually managed to focus on her. The expression was tired and pained.
'Don't get up,' Blossom insisted. 'Please. Rest.'
He closed his eyes again. 'I remember it,' he said slowly. 'I remember it all.'
'It wasn't your fault.'
'Is your Dad okay?'
'He's hurt pretty bad, but the doctor says he'll make a full recovery.' Her voice was small.

Both of them were silent. Gus' eyes slid open, and he examined the strange new appendages that were his arms. He curled in on himself, silent tears escaping from his eyes.
'M-maybe we can find a way to reverse it…' Blossom told him. 'I don't know how, but there must be a way to defeat Aku for good.'
'I can't believe I hurt him…' Gus choked.
'I'm sorry?'
'Your Dad… he's such a great guy. I feel awful.' He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. 'That night, when you invited me over for dinner… that was, like, the nicest evening I've ever had. Just to sit with a family where everyone's so relaxed and friendly and can joke around with each other… I felt so happy just to be a part of it. I just hope your family is gonna be okay.'
She smiled down at him. 'We will be,' she affirmed. 'We always are.'

He closed his eyes again. 'I can feel him in there. He's there. He's awake now.'
Blossom sighed. 'Well… perhaps—'
'I'm starting to think it's no use. He's too much. He's angry and he's hungry and it's probably just a matter of time until he… he…'
The bleak tone of Gus' voice cut right through Blossom.
'…takes over.'

'No. I won't let that happen.' Her grip upon his hand tightened. 'You said that you could remember everything about tonight. Maybe now that he's properly awake, he has become more dependent upon your conscious mind.'
The boy did not reply, but focused on Blossom's face a little more keenly.
'Gus, I want you to do your best to maintain control. Do whatever you can to stop him from stealing you away from us. Stay aware. Focus. Concentrate. He's not the only one who can put up a fight. Your mind is still yours. Promise me you'll defend it from him!'
'Alright,' he answered, still shaken but a little livelier. 'For you, I promise.'

*

Doctor Murray agreed to put Gus in a private room, away from the collective clamour of the rest of the hospital. A number of hours passed and Blossom sat with him as he drifted in and out of sleep. She remained on the lookout for any telltale signs of Aku.

When daylight began to bleed into the room, a nurse visited with a breakfast tray. Blossom insisted that Gus eat to keep his strength up.
'I haven't felt him move,' he said while nibbling at his toast. 'I get the feeling that he's kind of afraid of you.'
This made Blossom smile. 'He'd better be.'
'How's your dad?'
'I don't know,' she replied, wilting a little. 'I haven't been to check.'
'He's doing okay.' The weary but stalwart voice of Hime came from the doorway. She entered and perched herself upon one of the bedside chairs.
'I spoke at length with Doctor Murray about the situation. I haven't told her everything, but she now at leasts understands that Gus will need to be attended by you to keep Aku under control. I am trying to convince her to release him into our care, but she has insisted that she contact Gus' parents first.'
'No!' Blossom cried. 'Doctor Turning was the one who did this to Gus in the first place!'

The boy's face grew wide with shock. 'What?...'
'Oh…' Blossom was seized by regret.
'You mean… this is Dad's fault? He… he wants Aku to…'
She gingerly reached out a hand to console him, which he pushed away. He knocked the breakfast tray off his lap, it clattered to the floor. Slowly, stiffly, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, turning away from Blossom and Hime.

'Tell me…' He uttered with a heavy, deliberate spirit, 'why I shouldn't use this hideous goddamned claw to slit my own useless—'
'Because I won't let you.' Blossom reached out her hand again, seizing the thick black wrist.
She took in a shaky breath. 'You're not going to defeat him in this way. The price is too high.'
He narrowed his eyes at her. 'How could you possibly care so much about the vessel that contains your worst enemy?'
'Because you are my friend,' she stated, and seized him in a determined hug. 'If you harm yourself, you harm me.'
The tension in Gus' muscles finally eased a little, and he relented, allowing himself to be hugged.

Hime's maternal reflexes set her upon the spilled dishes, and Gus' eyes wandered to the mild actions of her cleaning up the mess. As she rose, she met his gaze, and smiled kindly at him.
'You… I mean, Mrs. Utonium… he knows you. He recognises you.'
Hime desposited the tray and dishes upon an obliging sideboard and sat back down in her chair.
'He was my master. He created me from stolen starlight.'

Blossom and Gus looked to the imp as one, the former with sad affection, the latter with surprise and a dark curiousity.
The light in Hime's eyes did not fade. 'You know… it was a very strange thing for Aku to even retain a creature as humane and tender as I in his lair, much less esteem me as a favourite of his entourage. He was a very selfish and unkind master, but what I had to offer, he sorely needed. Comfort. Companionship. Love.'
'No living, sentient being that hungers for these things can be entirely numb to the sympathies of others. Aku was born from Chemical X, and is just as reactive. His strange, lengthy life has been marked mostly by fear, hatred and power. It was Emperor Imagawa's aggression that caused his first awakening. It makes me wonder how he might be swayed by something greater than these things.'

Blossom had not moved, she was rendered quite astounded by her mother's words. Her arms still lay draped across Gus' broad black shoulders, and the boy silently relished the small pleasure of the feeling of her warm, soft skin.

*

Townsville Tribune
Tuesday, October 29th, 2013
POWERPUFF FATHER SAVAGED BY MONSTER:
Girls Powerless to Stop Rampage
Article by Muhammed Nguyen-Sørensen

After nearly a decade of a peaceful existence free from hostile monster attacks, Townsville has yet again to contend with the life-and-limb threat of an assault from a supernatural beast. The monster made its first known appearance around 12 o'clock this morning, in the basement of the Powerpuff Girls' family residence in Pokey Oaks. It set upon and violently mauled the superheroines' father, Professor John Utonium, 53. A source close to the girls suggested that the creature is some form of shape-shifting parasite, believed to have infested the body of one of the girls' classmates: 16-year-old Augustus Turning, who has been reported missing since Sunday night.

'The Professor is injured but stable, the doctors are quite sure he will recover,' said Sandra Keane-Green, 50, a teacher and family friend. 'The girls are naturally concerened about him and are determined to take down the being that did this, before it hurts anyone else.'

Chief Inspector Giorgio Takahara-McDougall of the Townsville Police Department had this to say: 'The last recorded monster attack upon Townsville was more than 10 years ago, when the girls were very young children. Since then, they have been dispatched mostly for occasional, stand-alone incidents strictly involving non-supernatural perpetrators. Many of our senior officers are concerned at how this monster was able to inflitrate their family home and do significant damage to the person of one of their family members. We have been in talks with City Hall and we aim to secure sole juristiction for dealing with this threat.'

Mayor Sara Bellum has yet to be reached for comment.

*

'We can't let Gus see this article!' Bubbles exclaimed.
'Is the hospital going to tell the police that he's here?' Blossom asked.
'I can't believe they think we're powerless to stop Aku,' Buttercup muttered.

Doctor Murray frowned. 'Gus asked me not to reveal his whereabouts to his father. I pleaded medical confidentiality to the chief of staff, but as the police have listed Gus as a missing person, we had no choice but to tell them.'
'They're not going to arrest him, are they!?' Blossom said, dreading the prospect.
'I don't know. If they come, I will try my best to explain his predicament to them.' She looked at the red-haired girl intently. 'I think you should return to his side immediately. From now, I don't think we can afford to leave him on his own for a single moment. If something sets off the force inside him, we will need you there to contain it.'
Blossom nodded vigorously, left Doctor Murray's office and charged off down the hall. Her sisters followed her close behind.
'What are you two doing?' She asked.
'Duh, if something does happen, we wanna be there to help!' Bubbles said.

A massive succession of crashes and screams boomed throughout the ward, pounding in the girls' eardrums. Quick to respond, the girls zoomed back to Gus' room, light trails glowing in their wake.
The hallway was littered with mess, and a gaping hole had been knocked through the wall of Gus' room. In one corner cowered the chief of staff and a small team of police officers. On the far wall, pierced, bloodied and disembowelled like some hapless dissected animal, was the body of one Doctor Abraham Turning. Impaled right through his chest was a long black claw. Sickeningly, wretchedly, it jerked in its final agonised death throes.

'Arrogant, evil little man. To think you had the gall to want to control ME…'

The rumbling voice suddenly shifted its timbre. '…I am your SON! Your child!… A-and… I'm just a VESSEL to you!! You were only ever USING ME! YOU NEVER LOVED ME!'

An involuntary, choked intake of breath came from behind, a dainty, feminine sound. The creature's head snapped around. Large, bony black horns had grown out from the head of lime green hair. The pallid complexion had been tinged with a bilious green, and sharp, curved fangs poked out beneath his lip. The ebony hide that had grown upon his arms now covered a good portion of the torso.
'Blossom!...'
And when he looked at her, the deep black eyes became soft and sad.

'KILL IT!'
The police opened fire, a hail of bullets bombarding the creature. However, they glanced harmlessly off his grotesque form. This propelled him into a vicious rage. He pounced, leaping from the bed and seizing the largest officer by the throat. He thrashed in the creature's grasp, being helplessly dangled in the air.
'Do not challenge the might of Aku.' The voice was once again pitiless and toxic.
He raised his free claw, running the officer through, then dropping the body to the floor.

He turned to the three horrified super-heroines. An unkind smile flashed the long fangs.
'Come and get me, girls,' he taunted them, before launching himself out the window in a rain of shattering glass. A trail of abnormally black smoke was left in his wake.

*