Chapter 41: Night of Anguish
-VERTEX FOUR: 8.36679-
A superhuman battle tore through the streets of Uminari like a tornado; it was doubtful there would be anything left of the shopping district once they were done. The noise was incredible: peals of thunder shattered glass up and down the block of the deserted shopping district with each sounding, and the earth shuddered as the combatants threw each other through walls, through ceilings, through entire floors, leaving leveled buildings and piles of rubble in their wake. Blow after blow landed with titanic shockwaves, setting off waves of car alarms that added to the growing din.
This was no fight between a Precure and a giant monster; this was a duel between two Cures at full strength, so evenly matched that neither could triumph over the other. Another hit connected, and the city quaked in fear.
Yayoi Kise, Cure Peace, skidded backwards with her arms crossed over her face, the heels of her boots squealing in protest. A quick peek at her surroundings told her that she was in the wreck of a hardware store: tarnished brass bathroom fixtures, pipe fittings, that sort of thing. There was a lot still left on the shelves, probably because little of it would be useful to any of Uminari's survivors. Best to relocate before—
"No slacking off!" said a gleeful, strident voice. "You wanna get ahead, you gotta get that cash…!" A blinding yellow-and-black blur from the corner of her vision, then an eruption of pain centered at her right temple as something cold, flat and unyielding slammed into her skull. Peace reeled and fought to keep her balance, her poor head pounding a jackhammer beat…
Kanna Kise, Bad End Peace II, tossed aside the empty cash register without a second thought, letting it fall with a metallic ring and clamor behind her. Sparks danced between her splayed fingers as she cracked her neck and rolled her shoulders. "Aww, need a time-out, moeblob?"
"S-stop," Peace wheezed at the three wobbly Kannas advancing on her position. "Stop c-calling me that…"
"Well, what should I call you?" Kanna ran a hand along a shelf, casually scattering most of its contents to the floor. "Yellowbelly? Lilyliver? Widdle Baby Pissy-Pants? Because you're damn sure not a Precure from what I see. I thought you guys were supposed to be tough." Something caught her eye, and she giggled as she examined it. "Oooh~. A 15-centimeter carbon steel nipple. Just the right size for me, too."
Now. Now, while she was distracted. Peace launched herself forward, sent a charge down her arm, curled her fingers into a fist, and sank it into Kanna's stomach. A stopping blow, if there was any mercy. Something that would knock her out long enough to… help? Perhaps if Sailor Moon could heal her… but as she was now, Kanna refused to be healed, refused to even consider that she needed to be healed. One thing at a time. Stay alive first, stop her if possible, then help her.
All the breath escaped Kanna's lungs in a rush. The force of the punch lifted her ten centimeters off the floor, her body seemed to crumple inward around Peace's fist as her muscles slackened. The remaining items in the aisle rattled on their shelves.
It should have worked. For a second or two, Peace thought it did work.
Then Kanna seized her fan-shaped ponytail, worked her fingers into her hair, and let loose. Voltage cascaded through her and Kanna both, bringing both numbness and intense pain… how was that even possible...?
"Gotta a-admit," Kanna wheezed, convulsing even as she gripped tighter. "I l-love it wh-when you get... d-dirty…"
"Y-you…!" All Peace could do was counter with her own power, matching Kanna volt for volt. They strained against each other, and stray arcs snarled and spat their fury, blackening what they could not blow apart. The atmosphere grew thin and dry as it ionized, a symphony of static pops and crackles built and built in volume.
Too much. The air between them, already under duress from warring positive and negative charges, threw them both apart in a violent expulsion of pressure, a shockwave that ripped through the hardware store and out into the street. The store moaned, shuddered, and collapsed into its foundations. The resulting cloud of dust and debris blanketed the area within a fifty-meter radius. For thirty blessed seconds, nothing moved...
The clattering of a few shifting pebbles was all it took to break the respite. Peace had no time to stand before Kanna was atop her, seizing her wrists and pinning her to the debris pile she had just climbed from. Panic gripped her heart as her other self's weight pressed against her... oppressive, filthy, wrong. "L-let go! Stop it!"
"Nuh-uh," said Kanna. A delighted quiver ran through her. "You can't just blueball me like that. This is the best. You and me, going at it like animals with nobody else to get in the way… the others are all busy with Mockury, so it's just the two of us. I bet your little friends back at the Lighthouse can't even see or hear you, can they? With all this electricity in the air, I bet both our comms are fried. We're alllllllll alone~."
Rats with frigid little feet scampered up and down Peace's spine... She thrashed desperately where she lay. "Get off!"
Kanna only smirked and pressed harder. "Oh, I'm trying. You know, Master Joker won't let me play with him and your ex-friends like I want to," she said. Her brows crinkled together. "He says it's 'improper'. It sucks, but I deal with it. You, though? Master Joker told me that when I capture you, I can do whatever I want. Anything I want." Her face flushed, her lips curled into an obscene smile. "So I'm gonna be Gauron, and you'll be my Sosuke... I'll train you into my cute little pet over a nice long, looong time. I mean, that's just about all you're good for, anyway, isn't it, Yayoi-chan?" As she spoke, the smile mutated, becoming wilder and crueler than ever.
Bullets of sweat broke out on Peace's forehead and the back of her neck. Her throat constricted, she couldn't breathe...
"And the best part is," Kanna whispered, leaning down close to her ear, "because you're me, I know exactly when and where and how you'll break, so I can keep you right on the very edge of that, forever. You're gonna scream and plead and beg to break, but I'll never let it happen. Not ever~."
"NO!" Fueled by terror and adrenaline, raw strength surged through her. Somehow, she would never know how, she wrenched her right arm free from Kanna's grip. She watched as her hand soared up and curled tight in slow-motion... The resounding crack as her knuckles smashed into Kanna's cheek and jaw sounded just as harsh and echoing as one of their thunderbolts… Kanna did not drop but fly, propelled backwards across the street and into a standing brick wall as if hauled by an invisible tether.
Peace climbed to her feet, hyperventilating, shudders wracking her body. Some part of her knew that that blow wouldn't be enough to keep Kanna down. Some part of her didn't care.
Sure enough, Kanna peeled herself out of the wreck of brick and mortar, all aglow and cheeks blazing. "Oooh," she said. "That felt great. Keep doing that, and you may upgrade from 'cute' to 'actually hot.'"
A storm built from Peace's body. Not just around her, but from inside her heart. She looked upon this twisted mirror of herself that horrified and disgusted her like nothing else, the girl with her face who had fallen so far and said so many unspeakable things… and for the first time, her fear was overpowered by grief. Grief, pity, and a clarity that she didn't have seconds before: she could not save Kanna. Not by herself, and probably not with help, either. If there was no way to reclaim Kanna's innocence, no way to pull the real her out of this perverse thing she had become… then the most merciful thing Peace could do, she thought, was stop her. Stop her, for her own good. "You," she said, her voice low and trembling. "I don't know why you're like this. I don't know what Joker did to you to make you this way…"
Kanna cackled, spitting flecks of blood. "What he did is between me and my master, but why...I know exactly why. Master Joker took me to prove to you that no matter how strong and pure and justice-y you think you are, you're only a few bad days away from being exactly like me, babycakes." She fixed Peace with her most obscene leer yet. "You could be just as mean and just as nasty and just as horny… and oh, am I ever horny! If the dam doesn't break, I might be the one bursting~."
"Shut up," said Peace. "This has gone far enough. I feel sorry for you, Kanna. You're sick… and you're broken. You're so badly broken that you can't even see it anymore. And I'm scared of you, I'm so scared I can barely think straight… but I'm not gonna let that stop me. No matter how you hurt me, no matter what filthy, awful things you say or try to do to me…" An aura of golden electricity roared around her, pebbles rattled at her feet and lifted off the ground. "I promise, to both of us, that this ends now!" At her mental command, the AMP clipped to her Smile Pact's pouch expanded into its unsealed form… a stylized, contoured chrome silver belt wrapped snugly around her waist. The red-and-black turbine in its center revved into a spin that blended its colors in a whirl of motion… "Henshin!" Peace called, throwing one arm upward and at an angle, tucking the other close to her side. "Miracle Driver!"
["Engage,"] said her AMP in a deep, soothing voice. ["Standing by. Complete."]
The light of her aura swelled, doubling in size… it reflected in Kanna's eyes, wide as dinner plates, locked on and staring at the form of her AMP with recognition and naked greed. "The Typhoon," she murmured. "You made the Typhoon. I want it…" She stood, shivering, and let out that horrible, grating cackle again, a sound of madness pulled from deep within her belly. "I want it! Give it to me! GIVE IT!" She shot at Peace like a bullet, fingers twitching as they grasped for the belt…
"Huh?" And Kanna's flight came to an abrupt, screeching halt. She hovered improbably in mid-air, held up not by her own power, but by a hand clutching her face… Peace's hand. Just one of Peace's hands. Her very skin tingled with energy. "What the fu—"
Peace dropped into a crouch, channeled voltage to the soles of her feet, and jumped, dragging Kanna along ten meters into the air, twenty, thiry, forty… Wind screamed in her ears, Kanna spat obscene curses that she couldn't hear over that wind, squirming to escape her clutches and singed by the power of her aura, but she would not let go, not yet.
They were seventy meters above the street when Kanna finally clambered out of the hold and righted herself, pale and disoriented from the rapid pressurization of the air. "No fair!" she squealed, flailing her arms with little control and even less aim. A whirlwind of tiny, sparking fists struck Peace's upper body… her blood surged so hot that she could barely feel them. "No fair!" Kanna said again. "You're cheating, you stupid sissy doodoo-headed cuntface! A whiny little pedobait coward like you doesn't deserve to wear Number 1's Typhoon! Now gimme it!"
The words came to Peace as if she had known them all her life. It was the perfect hero line to say before the coup de grâce. Number 1 himself would have been proud. "If you want it so bad," Peace said softly, "take it off me… if you can." Goosebumps. If only Yui could see her now.
Kanna snarled like a feral cat. She tore herself free, darted back a few meters, and hurled herself at Peace in a frenzied rage, violet lightning leaking from beneath her fingernails.
Only Peace was no longer there; she was directly above Kanna as she charged. Her heel came down in the center of Kanna's back with a crack like that of a slugger batting a home-run… Kanna plummeted, a dark meteorite that struck the street seventy meters below with the force of a bomb going off. Half a kilometer of Uminari felt the tremor.
Static and feedback burst from the Miracle Driver's comm. "-oi-chan," said a familiar voice, fading in and out. "Musain to Hongo, this is Yui! Yayoi-chan, can you hear me?! We lost contact with you when the fight started! It looks like you're outside of the temporal force field... what's going on?!"
Peace smiled. And now it was perfect. "Hongo to Yui-chan," she said, smiling. "Don't worry, I think I'm fine now. You're gonna want to see this."
"Yayoi-chan?" The panic in Yui's voice subsided, replaced with awe. "Don't tell me…"
"Miracle Driver," she said. "Start a holo-recording now. Engage Final Form Ride."
["Engaging,"] said the AMP. Its turbine kicked up another gear, escalating into a whining howl as it gathered and focused her elemental power. Stray lightning leaked from its frame, singeing the night air, the engine began to smoke... ["Standing by. Final Form Ride, complete.]"
In the crater below, the black shape stumbled to her feet, waving her fists at the sky and caterwauling at the top of her lungs in a shameless tantrum. It was almost funny.
And just as she had done in her dreams and fantasies countless times, Peace dove, tucking in one leg, extending the other heel-first. It was time to finish the fight in grand style… the best style. And just like she had seen in hundreds of episodes, her intended target froze in place, paralyzed by what she knew was coming… Of course, Kanna recognized what was about to happen, she had seen it herself just as many times. That knowledge was of no help; she was no more able to stop Peace's attack than a fly could stop an oncoming train.
Halfway to the ground. Fire and lightning swelled at the ball of her foot, a starship coming in for reentry. Peace was deafened by the wind in her ears, but given her rate of descent, now was the time for the first part of the attack call. She drew a breath and bellowed with all her heart, praying that Yui was watching: "PRECURE… PEACE…"
Kanna scrambled in the crater, unable to find purchase, unable to escape. Helpless. Terrified. Maybe just a bit envious.
"... RIDER… KIIIIIIIIIIIICK!" A golden comet screaming from the heavens, Peace's heel connected dead-center in the middle of Kanna's chest. Every piece of intact pavement left on the block fractured and buckled from the impact, and Peace wasn't done. The kick plowed Kanna backward, asphalt and soil parting before them like the waters of the Red Sea, gouging a knife wound in the street. In the elation of the moment, Peace lost track of just how far her first real Rider Kick was taking them, the world rushed by her in unbroken streams and ripples of color…
Eventually, inevitably, friction brought them to a grinding halt. The trench they had made in Uminari was two hundred meters long and twenty meters deep, the peaks of its walls far above Peace's head, blocking out all but a rectangular sliver of the sky. There was a long, long slope of rocks and dirt and shattered pavement behind them, spraying brownish liquid in a few places… she must have broken a water main. Or two. Or several.
Kanna lay at her feet, her black bodysuit all but shredded, her eyes rolled back so far that the whites were visible. A tiny, defeated squeak floated from her lips.
["Error,"] said the Miracle Driver. ["Heat limit exceeded. Shutdown imminent."] Its burning turbine cooled from white-hot to cherry red as it spun down. Satisfied but deeply tired, Peace stumbled up the slope, feeling more weary with every step. She had to make it out of the trench, at least. If she could see the stars, she would be okay. If she could see the stars, she would— "Yui-chan," she said, willing her last thought to her as she pitched forward, her vision going black, her transformation dissolving…
She never hit the ground. Arms wrapped around her as she fell, holding her tight. "I'm here," said Yui Nanase, proud tears streaming down her cheeks and sullying the lenses of her glasses. "I'm right here. You were incredible." Against all orders, against all logic, Yui had run to the Arthra Ops Room's emergency teleporter pad and commandeered its usage for herself. She would beg Admiral Lindy and Fantine for forgiveness later; because some things you just had to do. Grinning like a fool, she hugged Yayoi close to herself, softly rubbing her back. "I love you so much."
Rubble shifted. Kanna twitched, moaning… "Kagamin," she mumbled in a daze. "We gotta fall back, Desideria's still regenerating…" As her eyes regained focus, she caught sight of the girl with the tear-stained glasses and dark blue braids, holding the unconscious Yayoi in her arms. Confusion registered on her face, then shock, then amusement, then wicked glee. "Ohhhh, now I get it," she said. It took pushing herself up from all fours, but she was able to stand. Sort of. "You two are into each other, aren't you? You're girlfriends." A weak cackle as she raised her hand, building up her voltage. "So... which one of you wants to reach third base first?"
Yui stared her down, her face set. "Get out." Two words, and that was all.
It made no sense to Kanna; a deaf, dumb, and blind man could tell that this girl had no power at all. She was insane, teleporting herself into the middle of a warzone. She would snap like a twig.
So why, Kanna thought, did the thought of attempting to kill this pathetic little speck make her spine tingle? She came out here with no magic, no weapons, and no backup to get to Yayoi, and for some reason, maybe because of the probable massive head trauma she had just received… she scared Kanna out of her wits.
Therefore, Kanna got. She got in a hurry.
A few blocks away, Kyoko Sakura dove behind a planter, soaked with sweat and breathing hard. "Fuck," she said to no one in particular. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…"
It wasn't just Sailor Moon anymore. It was apparently every Youma left in the shopping district. A horde of the Mami-Youma's puppets were all combing the streets for her, like in one of those cheesy zombie movies she used to laugh at with Sayaka. When one was actually living a zombie movie, it was significantly less funny.
"Ohohohohohohoho!" The laugh rang out again, and Kyoko cringed. She liked this laugh even less than the Mockery's. "Come one, come all, to Ochakai's grand tea party and masquerade ball! Please don't be shy, it's the social event of the season! Ohohohohoho!"
"Musain," Kyoko whispered frantically into her comm. "You'd better damn well have somebody ready to beam down here, the shit's officially hit the fan…!"
"Musain to Apples," said Nanoha's voice. How the hell did such a little kid stay so calm? "This is Lyrical. We need more information before we can send reinforcements to you. How did Tomoe-san's Youma take control of Sailor Moon?"
"I told you," hissed Kyoko, "I barely saw what happened! That thing just touched Moon and she was wearing a plate on face! It's the same with the other Youma that got shunted into the force field with us, the crazy bitch is zombifying everybody she can find, whether they're on her side or not!"
"Fieldmouse Pudding here." The way Luna's voice shook indicated considerably less control. "Apples, when she transformed… did you see anything of the Rainbow Crystal?"
"If you mean that orange thing that fell out of her boob," said Kyoko, risking a peek over top of the planter, "I've got some bad news for you…"
From her vantage point, she could see the Mami-Youma—Ochakai, now—seated on a giant wicker chair in the center of her dense crowd of puppets… a wicker chair that walked on its own, its legs stretching out and snapping back with every step. Her teapot bodice was now decorated with a glittering diamond-cut jewel, fiery orange and perched right between her ample breasts. She held a hand before her lips as she let out another booming laugh, and Kyoko's skin crawled…
A frantic tapping of keys sounded from the comm. "Oh dear," said Luna.
"Whaddya mean 'oh dear?'" Kyoko snarled. "Cat, you'd better get backup for my ass or I'm gonna 'oh dear' yours if I ever make it back there!"
"Readings are fluctuating, there's still significant interference in the area, but my guess is that the Crystal is boosting Tomoe-san's Youma powers. And if she's already a Great Youma in the first place…"
"Oh, fantastic." Kyoko hunched up tighter to reduce her profile. "So how do we un-Great Youmafy her without Moon? And how the hell do we get her to stop laughing?"
"Standby, Apples, we're reviewing our options," said Nanoha.
"Fucking hell..." The laugh had gone quiet, but the shuffling of dozens of feet continued without pause. Kyoko chanced another peek…
"There!" Ochakai crowed, pointing with a flourish, her cherry-blossom eyes widening in triumph. To the left and right of her, a dozen enormous sunflower blooms sprouted in mid-air, blossomed, and metamorphosed into constructs that were half teapot, half rifle, topped with red satin ribbons. They whistled merrily and let off steam as they fired long, graceful jets from their spouts/barrels…
Kyoko dove for cover just a bit too late. "Shit!" One spray grazed her shoulder, and she dropped to the street in agony, clutching it tight. That smell… tea. The rifles shot boiling hot tea. Of course they did. She winced as she withdrew her hand; the skin beneath was deep red, already beginning to blister, her entire arm felt numb. "Dammit, Mami," she said through gritted teeth, "get a grip already!"
The mob of puppets lurched into a shambling run. All Kyoko could do was brandish her spear one-handed…
Two displacements of air to either side of her. Well, damn. There was somebody up there listening after all.
"This is Frontier, Musain!" said Tsubomi Hanasaki, Cure Blossom, her hand on the hip-mounted pouch that held both her Heart Perfume and her AMP. She crouched behind a park bench, a little queasy from the transport but determined not to let that stop her. "W-we're providing support!"
Minako Aino, Sailor Venus, flashed Kyoko a wink. ["Utada here,"] said a halting electronic voice… not from her lips, which moved slowly and silently over each syllable, but from the eight-pointed golden star attached to her choker. ["Taking command of mission."]
"Aino?" Kyoko blinked. "Weren't you benched?"
The AMP laughed for her. ["Can't talk , but can still fight!"] She grinned and threaded a length of glowing chain through both hands. ["Blossom, try to purify Tomoe after I crowd control! Copy?"]
"C-copy that, Venus!"
Venus stood, flipping her flawless blonde hair over shoulder with a flourish, and called out loud through the AMP: ["Oi, hag! Learn real tea ceremony!"]
"Uncouth!" Ochakai shrieked. "Rude and uncouth! Take her, my lovelies! Teach her proper manners!"
The mob charged… straight into Venus's chain as she cast it into the street on a diagonal. It grew to triple its previous length as it swept through the ranks of puppets… a quarter of the Youma were incinerated on the spot, unable to push through their enslaved comrades fast enough to avoid it. Many others flew or leaped or dove out of the way, but as they scrambled to right themselves…
"Precure Pink Forte Wave!" Her Tact in hand, Blossom fired over the bench. An energy bullet shaped like a closed sakura blossom erupted from the jewel on the Tact's tip, streaked down the street, and homed in on Ochakai…
It clashed against a wall of light, cast from the horns of the Moon Stick. That light shone on the smooth china shell imprisoning Sailor Moon's face as she protected her new master…
"Ah, good!" Ochakai chuckled with a triumphant smile. "Very good, Sailor Moon! Already you're more agreeable! And so much quieter..."
Blossom swallowed. "Uh oh."
"Don't just sit there!" Kyoko all but screamed as she poured healing magic into her scalded shoulder. "Fire another shot! Forte Wave her again!"
"R-right! Gather, floral power!" The Tact weaved and dipped through the air, beginning to glow again, its power building back up.
Moon's hand moved to her forehead…
["Blossom!"] Venus's AMP cried as she reeled in her chain. ["Heads up!"]
The glowing discus slammed into Blossom's belly, and there it hovered, sawing into her Precure uniform and charring its material black. She let out a small, soft cry, her knees buckled…
Before she could fall, red ribbons cascaded from Ochakai's rifle spouts. They seized Blossom, coiling around her like snakes, and snatched her from behind the park bench, reeling her in…
["No you don't!"] Venus gritted her teeth and ran headlong into the mob, scattering Youma left and right. The Holy Blade flashed in her hand, she took a flying leap at the rifles, the sources of the ribbons, a desperate gamble.
"Tsk tsk," Ochakai clucked. "We ask before we approach the table." Another battery of rifles sprouted before her, ten strong. They aimed, they fired.
She couldn't correct her trajectory in time. A wrenching scream of feedback came from Venus's AMP as ten jets of boiling tea splashed over her. Fragrant steam rose from her reddened limbs and body as she fell into the waiting embrace of a net of ribbons...
Kyoko's heart dropped into the pit of her stomach.
Slowly, casually, Ochakai drew in her two newest victims, hauling them up to her throne. A tap on each of their foreheads was all it took; the china masks claimed them too. "Now then," she said to Kyoko, "the proper thing to do would be to surrender, but…"
"No," whispered Kyoko, climbing to her feet. "No. No. No…"
"Ah, there you are, my rebellious little ruffian!" The throne lowered itself, and Ochakai strolled forward, the mob giving her a wide berth. "Come now, you mustn't keep your lady waiting. Join the fun!"
"No," said Kyoko again. She raised her spear with her good arm and took aim at Ochakai's chest.
Unimpressed, Ochakai laughed that awful laugh again. "Ohohohoho, now really! You can barely stand. You've seen what I can do to all of them, do you really think that one lone girl can stop me?"
Kyoko pulled back her good arm. It was an easy shot, and she was made of something like china. Odds were that she would break easily. One simple throw.
"If you must, go ahead," said Ochakai. Her flowery lips curled into a cruel smirk. "Throw that spear, and you kill me and save your friends in one fell swoop. But can you do it, I wonder?"
The spear trembled as Kyoko hefted it. "No…" The word came out as a plea, her eyes stung, her vision swam…
"Well then." Ochakai snapped her fingers…
A rush of bodies. Kyoko swung her spear left and right, but the mob's hands were everywhere, latching onto her like leeches no matter which way she moved. For every one she shook off, three more took its place. She screamed in agony as one grasped her wounded shoulder, lost her grip on her spear as her vision whited out… Hands were everywhere, holding tight, pushing her to her knees. The three closest to her, taking up both arms and wrapping two more hands around her neck, were Moon, Venus, and Blossom. With her pinned, they stepped back, allowing their mistress forward.
Ochakai chuckled. "You're been a very naughty girl, Kyoko," she said. "But I shall extend an invitation to you regardless. One must always show charity to others in need, even urchins like yourself…"
Kyoko thrashed back and forth, but the hands held her still. "Mami, you gotta wake up! Don't do this!"
One slim white finger hovered to her forehead, taunting her helplessness.
"Mami, please! It can't end this way, dammit! Wake up! It's me, Kyoko! I'm your friend! Listen to me, Mami! If you do this, it's all over! Our world, the universe, everything! You can't let Joker win!"
A fraction by a fraction of a centimeter, it came closer, blurring in Kyoko's vision.
"Oh God," Kyoko moaned, with no one to hear. "Please, don't... Somebody... help me…"
Cold porcelain touched warm flesh and spread over her face in liquid form. As it cooled and hardened, Kyoko Sakura went limp.
Restricted Access Room, Top Floor
"No! Absolutely not!" The Keeper of the Lighthouse, the entity who called herself Fantine, stood firm as she glared at the small girl before her, the girl who was far too stubborn for her own good.
The Alicia-Stranger stared right back at her with gorgeous ruby eyes, refusing to budge an inch.
To any outside observer, Fantine would appear to be having an argument with herself. She fumed, she shouted, she paced around the Lighthouse's secret control room, her long blue cloak billowing behind her like wings.
Without speaking a single word, the Alicia-Stranger made it clear she would not back down. Though she had no voice of her own, with Fantine—and only with Fantine—she could communicate in ways beyond mere words. [*defiance*] was the response that she sent Fantine as she crossed her tiny arms.
"You barely escaped last time," said Fantine. "You're still not healed from what the Time Reaper did to you! I can't allow you to go, you know that!"
[*appeal*], said the Stranger.
"I know Sailor Moon and the others are down there!" said Fantine. "What's also down there is a new Great Youma, do you even understand the implications of that?! There's only supposed to be seven of them, their human reincarnations are fixed points in their universe's timeline!" she moaned as she tore at her hair in frustration. "Mami Tomoe was never supposed to interact with or know about Vertex One at all, let alone house a fragment of the Silver Crystal in her body! This is all wrong!" She sank into an Immaterial chair before her main console, head in her hands. "Even if, for the sake of argument, Joker somehow implanted the Rainbow Crystal into her, removing it shouldn't transform her into a Great Youma if she never was one in the first place! The degree of timeline cross-contamination we're dealing with here… It doesn't make sense. He's not just breaking the laws of time, he's rewriting what can and can't be done! Where is he even getting this power from?!"
[*theory*], said the Stranger.
Fantine listened, then shuddered and screwed her eyes shut tight. "If you're right, we're even more doomed than I thought. Any place, any timeline, any universe would be open to him. To retain that degree of control for so long shouldn't be possible... but we left 'possible' behind long ago..."
The Stranger flickered through her forms, settling on that of Ayumi Sakagami, Cure Echo. She stamped her foot in outrage, her lips moved in a soundless shout: [*desperation*]
"You can't," said Fantine. "I can't risk losing you, not again!"
[*defiance*] [*defiance*] [*defiance*] [*defiance*]
"We can't bring them back or send more people to help if Mami's Youma can just take control of them too! But we can't leave them down there either… What am I supposed to do?!"
More flickering from the Stranger. A small hand grasped Fantine's and squeezed tight. [*sacrifice*], she said, her eyes set.
-VERTEX FOUR: 8.36679-
"Oh?" Ochakai paused. She felt she should locate the pair of human energy signatures she sensed from several blocks away, from the direction of that awful commotion caused by Cure Peace and her dark counterpart… but now there was a door in the middle of the street where there had been none before, standing attached to nothing. A plain and somewhat shabby-looking door, with a dented brass knob and peeling white paint.
She needed only to motion in its direction to bid her guests to surround the door. More friends could be coming through it. How lovely.
It threw itself open wide, and the thing that came out of it was a shining, watery light in the vague form of a human, barely contained by the image of a girl with long blonde hair and stunning ruby eyes. Unarmed and unprotected, she ran at her… Her shape blinked through other forms like a strobe light flashing on and off, too quickly to make them out. From her Ochakai sensed power, great power… power that prompted her to take few startled steps back.
Something was happening. One of the anomaly' forms seemed to resist her constant changing. That form's shape lingered as she blinked between selves, setting itself apart from the whole. The watery light from inside her fluctuated, swirling and churning like a whirlpool. She seemed to struggle with herself, a body fighting with her (their) own after-image… the anomaly scarcely appeared human anymore, sprouting multiple arms, multiple legs made of that fluid light. She rippled… no, reality rippled, an illusion on the surface of a still lake disrupted by a rock falling into its waters. A great rending sound, as the anomaly tore herself apart at the seams…
One shape, one solid body, split off from the rest. The shining anomaly fell one way, and the small human that ripped herself out of the anomaly kept running, throwing her arms wide. It was a girl perhaps as young as eight years old with wavy, flowing white hair, tied up in two tiny pigtails at either temple. Her eyes were strange, red with concentric yellow rings. She wore a pink polka-dotted sundress and no shoes. And as she ran to Ochakai, she cried out in a voice, her own voice, sadness and relief mingled into one: "Mami-nee!"
Ochakai froze, struck to her soul.
The human's arms wrapped around her waist and held her tight. "Mami-nee! Mami-nee!" she sobbed, burying her face in Ochakai's belly. "Nagisa's sorry, Nagisa's so sorry. Nagisa didn't mean to leave you all alone, but she's here now, Mami-nee! She's here… so please wake up…"
Something stirred from deep within Ochakai's being. A warmth. A light. A memory…
"Nagisa's here," the girl repeated. "Nagisa missed you and wanted to be with you all this time. Please… turn back into the strong Mami-nee that Nagisa loves…"
When Ochakai's lips moved, they spoke with a voice not her own: "Na… gi… sa…" Her painted cherry blossom eyes wavered, and her hands shook as she embraced the girl.
A musical shattering sound, which then repeated in triplicate. Three of the Lights dropped like stones, free of the china masks. The fourth...
Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon, wobbled on her feet, clutching her temples. "Ohhh, my head… what… what happened?"
The tiny girl with the snowy white hair answered, looking up from the Mami-Youma's skirts. Somehow, she was holding her at bay, when everyone else had failed. "Sailor Moon! Please heal Mami-nee, she needs you!"
It took Moon several precious seconds to recognize her. The Stranger, or one of the Stranger's forms… talking. Watery light from further down the street caught her eye. To her astonishment, she saw Chibi-Chibi there on her hands and knees, that distinctive glow shining from her back, alive but looking less… intact than she had last time she saw her. In total confusion, her eyes wandered back and forth from the Chibi-Stranger to the girl that had apparently escaped from her, and back again.
"Do it!" Nagisa screamed. "Hurry!"
That was all Moon needed to hear. The Moon Stick solidified in her hand, its horns shone bright… "Moon Healing Escalation…!"
Holy light blanketed the shopping district. The remaining Youma melted harmlessly away in that light… Kyoko, Venus, and Blossom's injuries closed and knit themselves, the energy escaping the Chibi-Stranger's back slowed and stopped altogether as she stabilized. Still somehow less of herself, but back to semi-normal.
As for Ochakai… she gratefully threw her arms to the skies and called out in a joyous voice: "Refresh…!"
Mami Tomoe fell forward into Nagisa Momoe's arms, laughing and crying both at once as she sobbed her dear friend's name: "Nagisa. Nagisa… oh thank heaven, you're here! I missed you so much…"
Nagisa sniffled and patted her honorary big sister's back, her eyes brimming with happy tears. "Nagisa missed you too, Mami-nee. It's all right now. We're together again, and everything's all right."
Sailor Moon, watching in awe and on the verge of tearing up herself, was startled to hear Fantine's voice drift from her comm, sounding more confused than she had ever heard: "What…" said Fantine. "What… just happened…?"
END OF CHAPTER 41
SPECIAL CHAPTER: "I AM FANTINE"