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Distortions (Symphogear) (Spoilers for Those Who Haven't Seen XV!)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by psnuker, Nov 11, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: Our World of Tomorrow
    psnuker

    psnuker Commander of 10 Million Men...

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    Distortions
    Chapter 1:
    Our World of Tomorrow

    ----​

    “Is this true? Is all of this really true?”

    His guest just gave a simple nod. For what seemed like the longest time of his life, he could do nothing but sit there and gaze into his tea and listen to the raging blizzard outside. He had been briefed on the Shem-Ha Incident of course. Between it being such an enormous global crisis and being a person slated to take the sort of position he was, it was only natural that he be briefed. He had even worked with his people to cooperate with the Americans and Japanese in their plan to try and lock out Yggdrasil from the global computer networks.

    Reflecting on it now, the briefing hadn’t honestly told him that much. In hindsight, “Ancient alien precursor goddess tried to hijack humanity’s collective consciousness to mutilate the world and was stopped by that UN Symphogear organization SONG” did raise more questions than it answered. The most obvious being “why was there an alien precursor goddess trying to mutilate the world?”

    Well, now he had an answer to that question. And it churned his gut. The evidence he had was indisputable. He found himself coming back again and again to that moment when Shem-Ha briefly connected humanity and the raw fear he felt, not just from himself but from so many others about what would happen to them, to their friends, family, and loved one. To their legacy. And to their future. The whole of human civilization, all of its achievements and accomplishments, all of it’s potential… almost wiped out because of some idiot “gods” who couldn’t let mankind be for their own selfish reasons? Worse, their foolishness meant this wasn’t even the first time mankind hovered on the edge of repeated disaster over the past two years. If not for SONGs harnessing of the Symphogears capability, the whole of their accomplishments would have been naught but dust on the wind multiple times over by now.

    Yet fundamentally, it was the same technology, and who was to say the Symphogears would always be on the side of saving mankind? Indeed if the information he had in front of him was correct, one of them had for awhile been bent on subjugating the world. That was only one step away from destroying it. Who's to say it couldn’t happen again?

    Finally, he looked up. “How should we begin?”

    -

    “-it’s free, it’s beautiful, but under no circumstances should you look at it. And our top story in international news: the UN has been forced to suspend it’s military missions following the withdrawal of all member states forces to their operations. All the countries withdrawing their forces have consistently stated this is in response to the pattern of disappearances among military units deployed on these missions over the past three months and their wish not to lose any more personnel to whatever phenomenon is causing it. While the consensus among political experts is that they do not expect the suspension of peacekeeping operations to cause any new conflicts given recent trends in improving global relations, they may contribute to the reignition of pre-existing conflicts that the operations had previously stabilized but not yet resolved. In other international news, the ongoing talks between the foreign ministry and China over disputed islands are into their third day and so far the discussions have been described as positive-”

    Commander Genjuro Kazanari clicked the news program off as he glanced over to his assistant. “So, nothing at all?”

    Shinji Ogawa simply shook his head. “Nothing. At least not in the UN or JSDF, that’s for certain. From what I could gather from my contacts in intelligence, the Americans and Europeans are equally as clueless. And everybody else, as far as they could tell. There are no signs of fighting, no reports of discontent, no signs of activity, supernatural or otherwise. There is simply nothing. Best everyone could tell, the units just went out on patrol… and promptly vanished into thin air.”

    “Doesn’t that pretty much mean it has to be supernatural?” Aoi Tomosato asked. “We’re up too several battalions, almost a regiment's worth by this point, in a single month. Military units have been known to disappear in war zones, but not with such frequency.”

    “Unofficially, I agree with you.” Genjuro replied. “Officially, however, no evidence means we can’t act and there is simply no evidence. That’s what I was told when I submitted an inquiry with the UN Security Council. It’s concerning, but we can’t do much more than keep an eye on it.”

    “I don’t think it’s supernatural.” Elfnein didn’t even look up from the notes she was reviewing. “Or if it is, nothing supernatural we have encountered before. I’ve reviewed the evidence Ogawa retrieved from the UN. There is absolutely nothing that is consistent with all the knowledge we have amassed about heretical technology. Noise, Alchemists, the Custodians, even unknown Symphogear Adaptors… they all would have left some indication of their presence behind. Here, there is just nothing.”

    “Well, I certainly hope you’re right.” Fujitaka muttered from his station, “Everything’s been going great otherwise. Even if it has been almost twice as long as usual.”

    ‘Well of course,’ Genjuro though, ‘With Shem-Ha defeated, who else is left?’ Four months have passed since the Custodian were defeated and by every metric, things were going spectacularly. And Genjuro didn’t just mean that in a personal sense either. The news had been right: things were getting better worldwide. Even the Americans were acting calmer and more thoughtfully in international affairs, to the point that one would scarcely believe that almost a year prior they had attempted an abortive nuclear strike on Japan.

    “Should we alert the girls about it?” Shinji’s voice broke Genjuro out of his reflection.

    He shook his head. “It hasn’t affected us yet and with the UN military missions ending, it might cease altogether. Until we have more information, we shouldn’t trouble them with it. As Fujitaka said, things are going great. Let them enjoy these peaceful times when they can.”

    -

    “So, you want to kill that which kills the gods? Sounds like quite the challenge. Sign me up…”

    -

    “Here Hibiki! Say aaaahn…” Miku Kohinata held out a spoon filled with ice cream.

    “Aaaahn…” Hibiki Tachibana opened her mouth, accepting her girlfriends offering.

    “Gag me.” Chris Yukine groused from her spot across the table from the pair.

    “You could switch with us.” Maria offered from just across the diner aisle.

    “Nah.” Chris jammed a thumb towards Shirabe and Kirika, the latter of whom was desperately trying to convince the former to do what Miku just did, sitting across from Maria and Tsubasa. “Then I’d have to watch those two lovebirds also do things they really should be saving for their rooms. It’d be a bunch of effort for the same exact outcome.”

    “Well I think it’s sweet.” Maria simply took another sip of… whatever it was she had ordered. Tea, Chris supposed.

    ‘Yeah, well… so is stuff that gives you cavities.’ Chris thought. In truth, she was happy that Hibiki and Miku had made their status official. The two had always been so close and the memory of the sheer pain Hibiki had been in when she thought she had lost Miku still managed to rattle her. Plus, Hibiki’s expression when she found out that all her friends thought she and Miku had always been an actual couple had been hilarious. And probably made up for Chris’s own expression when she found out that Hibiki and Miku hadn’t always been an actual couple, or at least Chris hoped so.

    “Besides, Yukine...” Tsubasa had an uncharacteristically sly smile that suddenly had Chris wary. “I do recall you talking quite fondly about a certain Komichi Ayano recently.”

    There was silence for a moment as a bright red blush worked its way up Chris’s face. “Kazanari!”

    Unfortunately for her, it was then that the implications of Tsubasa’s statement registered with Kirika and Hibiki, enormous grins breaking out across their faces.

    “Eh?! Chris-chan/senpai’s found someone?! We’re so happy for you!” And Chris immediately found herself in battle on two fronts as each lunged to hug the white haired girl from their respective spots across the table and aisle.

    “Agh! Hey! It’s not like that! Come on! Oof!” Then with an almighty shove she managed to knock both of the two back away from her; Hibiki back into her seat, and Kirika into the aisle, “I SAID KNOCK IT OFF ALREADY!”

    “Wah! Shirabe, Chris hurt me!” Kirika cried before rapidly climbing back into her seat, hoping to leverage the momentary discomfort into some attention from her own partner.

    “There, there Kiri-chan.” And possibly, intentionally, Shirabe fell for it, turning and pulling Kirika into a hug. “I’m sure Chris was just upset that you weren’t her own girlfriend.”

    “Oh, give me a break.” Chris muttered, before noticing Hibiki still watching her with a grin and glittering eyes. “Uh… what?”

    “Well, come on! Tell us! What’s she like? Have you gone on any dates yet? Have you kissed? How about making o-”

    “Hibiki!” Miku cut her partner off with a blush bright enough for both of them. “That’s too personal!”

    “Yeah!” Chris’s own blush was if anything even more luminescent, “Besides, like I said: we ain’t like that!” She paused, furrowing her brows as she thought and her blush faded. “At least… I don’t think so. We met after the spring semester started with a shared class. We were decent enough friends back at Lydian and it’s been good to see her, but the most we’ve done is get the occasional cup of tea and talked.” Wistfully, she smiled. “It’s been nice.”

    Hibiki gave a knowing giggle and Chris’s smile vanished to be replaced by a warning glare.

    “Does she know?” Maria asked next, holding up Airgetlamh.

    “No.” Chris shifted uneasily. “Not a whole lot of Lydian’s students got a good look at me back at Kadingir, so only a couple know and the ones who did are all under the usual NDA’s. There’s a bunch more students who know about Tachibana or Kazanari.”

    “Oh yeah, almost all of our identities are secret.” Shirabe mused absently, “You know, it’s surprising how effective those NDA’s have been.”

    Hibiki’s reaction, on the other hand, was much less laid back. “That’s no good Chris! You shouldn’t hide such important things from someone you care so much about. I did that and...” She glanced over at Miku, who smiled reassuringly as took her girlfriend's hand and gave it a squeeze. Hibiki returned the smile before she turned back to Chris. “... it almost didn’t end well.”

    “I know, I know! It’s just…” Unwilling to meet Hibiki’s eyes, Chris instead looked out the window, choosing to watch an advertisement board promoting some sort of new anti-aging treatment instead. “For one thing, how do I even bring that up?” She injected a false cheer into her voice. “Oh, hey Komichi, I’m one of the Symphogears. Ya know, the ones who have saved the world multiple times over? Well, except that one time I wanted to take it over. But, hey, that’s in the past. It’s all cool with you, right?” The fake-cheer dropped, “It feels like it… would just be so out of the blue to drop on her.”

    “That seems like it would be more an issue of framing than anything else.” Miku said. “I mean, you do talk with her on a regular basis, right?”

    “Well, that’s the other thing.” The ad began to loop so Chris instead switched to watching the raindrops create patterns on the windowsill. “All we’ve done is talk. And have coffee. Or tea. Whichever.” Finally she turned back to the others. “And besides, it isn’t as if any of the Symphogear-stuff has gotten in the way, like it was with you and Hibiki. Since Shem-Ha, all we’ve had is training and that’s easy to plan around.”

    “Well perhaps you should take the opportunity to do more than just talk.” Maria gave a meaningful glance over at Tsubasa, “And I think we have just such an opportunity.”

    Everybody looked at Tsubasa expectantly, but the swordswoman simply looked back at Maria with uncertainty. As it became apparent she wasn’t about to continue, Maria reached out, took Tsubasa’s hand, and squeezed. “It’s okay, we talked about this. Remember? Even Ogawa approved of this plan.”

    Tsubasa closed her eyes, and nodded. She visibly summoned up her inner-strength and opened her eyes again. “Maria and I… We’re having another joint concert.”

    “Oh.” Kirika head tilted in slight confusion. “Is that all?”

    “Kiri-chan.” Shirabe chided, “You do remember what happened last time, right?”

    “Oh yeah, there was…” Kirika trailed off, “Oh…”

    “So you're worried someone’s gonna try to trash your concert again?” Chris thought back over every past concert between Maria and Tsubasa. “It… Is a bit of an unfortunate pattern isn’t it?”

    Tsubasa cringed at those words, but Maria quickly clapped her hands together to take the lead. “So! Just to cover against these sort of… Eventualities, Tsubasa, Ogawa, and I all agreed it would be best if everyone was there.” She turned back to Tsubasa and nodded to her encouragingly.

    Tsubasa gave a slight smile back before taking hold of her purse. “So, the ideal official procedure in these circumstances.” She popped it open and lifted out a sextet of identical slips of paper, holding them up for everyone to see. “Backstage passes, all access. Let’s everyone get ahead of the crowd when it comes to checking in and unlimited access to the entirety of the venue. Just don’t get in the crews way.”

    “Really?!” Kirika shot forward, grabbing two of the passes in a flash and looking them over. “They are! Yes, you’re the best senpai!”

    Tsubasa blushed lightly at the praise as the remaining quartet of tickets were passed across the aisle to the other table before being divided evenly between each side.

    “Wait a minute.” Chris noted, holding up the two she had been given. “There’s six passes. Excluding you and Maria, there’s five of us. Why am I getting two passes?”

    “Didn’t I say it earlier?” Maria winked at Chris, “Take this as an opportunity to bring Ayano along. A concert’s romantic enough, isn’t it?”

    Chris scowled as her blush returned. “I told you guys, it isn’t like that.”

    She still pocketed both passes though.

    -

    “My god! This is practically a work of art! I get to work with stuff like this? Of course I’ll join. Let me just get my things. You won’t believe how boring this previous work has been...”

    -

    “This isn’t going to work.” Tsubasa’s tone was matter-of-fact, projecting no uncertainty.

    Maria rolled her eyes, not even looking up from the magazine. “Tsubasa, please. You’ve been saying that for the past several hours. Normally I’m the one who has to cover her pre-concert jitters with an air of confidence.”

    “But I mean it!” Tsubasa whirled around from the mirror, “They haven’t shown up yet, so who knows-”

    “It’s been minutes since the agreed upon arrival time.” Maria interrupted. “That isn’t enough time to make it from the parking lot to here.”

    Tsubasa sighed and sank down into her chair. For several more seconds, there was silence in the dressing rooms. Finally Tsubasa spoke up again, “I had the dream again last night… but...”

    This time Maria brought her attention up from the magazine, “But?”

    “It wasn’t just that concert. There was also the one in London. And the first time we met. And…” Tsubasa hesitated again for one long moment, “... and the one where… Kanade… they kinda all got mixed together. Millaarc kept switching with the Autoscorer. And the girl kept switching with Kanade… and you.”

    Tsubasa had shrunk in on herself to the point that Maria immediately abandoned the magazine, stood up, and went over to her fellow idol. Wrapping Tsubasa in a hug, she murmured into her ear. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m right here. There’s no more Noise, no more alchemists, no more Custodians, and the UN has granted SONG a lock on everything left related to the Relics. There’s no force left on Earth that could take this from us.”

    Sighing, Tsubasa leaned back into the hug, regaining her strength from Maria’s presence. Tsubasa didn’t quite know for sure if what they had between them could be defined the same as what she had with Kanade. Or what was between Miku and Hibiki or Kirika and Shirabe. Perhaps some time in the near future there would be a talk for clarification, but for now she was willing to be satisfied with hoping it was and taking strength from it.

    A knock at the door drew their attention and Maria, with only a little reluctance, detached herself. “That must be them.”

    The door swung open and the first one through was the ever-excitable Kirika. “Maria, Tsubasa! Everyone’s here!”

    They all came in, chatting and laughing. Maria smiled as Tsubasa seemed to regain her remaining strength just from the presence of her friends. As she scanned the group, her eyes alighted on a new face, hovering next to and ever so slightly behind Chris. Green eyes, brunette hair down to the back with a yellow headband. Despite being slightly taller than Chris, the girl’s presence actually seemed smaller as she seemed to be infected with the usual nervousness of someone amid a largely unfamiliar crowd.

    Tsubasa had the same idea the moment before Maria and hence managed to beat the latter to the punch. “You must be Komichi Ayano! Yukine has told us about you.”

    “Oh, y-yes!” Komichi almost fell over herself bowing. “It’s a pleasure to meet you! Kazanari, Maria-sama! Yukine has told me quite a lot about the both of you.”

    Sama?’ Maria quirked an eyebrow at the formal honorific and how it seemed to be absent for Tsubasa, but decided to let it slide for the moment. “Oh? Mostly good things, I hope.”

    “Only about some of us.” Hibiki grumbled, “From the way Komichi talked in the car, Chris doesn’t say very nice things about me.”

    “Oh, I wouldn’t know about that, Tachibana.” Komichi smiled towards Chris, “She always has this fond smile when she mentions any of you, regardless of what she’s saying.”

    “Komichi!” Chris turned towards her friend at that.

    “Oh, that’s nothing.” Hibiki’s grin became down mischievous. “You should have seen the dopey smile on her face when we told her you were the next to pick up.”

    Now Chris turned on Hibiki and if her face had been only slightly red at Komichi’s comment, it was positively on fire now. “DOPEY?! Why you-come here!”

    “Ah, no Chris…” Hibiki tried to rapidly back away from the advancing light-haired girl, but with eight people all stuck in the prep room she didn’t have far to back-up before running into the wall. As Chris made the final lunge, Hibiki ducked aside and took cover behind her girlfriend. “Miku, save me!”

    Chris began to turn again towards Miku, or more specifically Hibiki-cowering-behind-Miku, only to stop short as a smiling Komichi walked over and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Chris, I’m sure she meant it in the best way possible.”

    Chris simply stared at her friend for a moment, her anger melting away into momentary confusion followed by a light blush and a bashful glance down at her shoes. “If you say so…”

    “Wow, Ayano.” Kirika’s voice was tinged with awe. “I’ve never seen anyone calm Chris down so fast!”

    “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing about me. Chris is an amazing person, after all.”

    Her friend’s praise only caused Chris to blush even harder. ‘Oh god, I’m going to be permanently red in the face by the end of tonight.'

    “Well, certainly any friend of Chris is a friend of ours!” Tsubasa cut in, feeling as if Chris had received enough embarrassment tonight. “Would you like an autograph? Something to show off to your other friends?”

    “Really?! An autograph from Kazanari?!” Komichi’s eyes were positively sparkling.

    “Not just from Tsubasa!” Maria smiled at the girl’s enthusiasm, grabbing a pen. “I’ll sign one for you too.”

    To everyone's surprise Komichi’s excitement seemed to evaporate in seconds, replaced by an uneasy bashfulness. “Oh… I can’t… not from Maria-sama.”

    Everyone exchanged puzzled glances. Finally, Miku spoke up, “Are you not a fan or-”

    “No, no!” Komichi waved her hands frantically, “It’s really… more the opposite. It’s just… Maria-sama isn’t just an idol. She’s also the only confirmed Symphogear, one of the heroes who has saved the world several times over.” Abruptly, she turned towards Tsubasa. “Not that you aren’t also incredible, Kazanari! But…” She glanced down. “It’s just… Maria-sama feels like she’s on a whole different level. For an ordinary girl like me to get an autograph from someone like her just isn’t right.”

    For a moment, no one said anything. Maria opened her mouth for a moment, thinking she could wave Komichi’s concerns off with a “it’s fine” but then she shut it again. Such a reply… just didn’t feel adequate in the face of Komichi’s objections. How was she supposed to address an argument based on such an inadequacy from someone she hardly knew?

    Suddenly, Maria had a very good suspicion there was another reason Chris hadn’t told Komichi about the whole Symphogear thing.

    No sooner had that thought occurred to Maria then did Chris speak up. “The hell it is.”

    “Eh?” Komichi blinked in confusion at the statement.

    “I said the hell it is!” Chris repeated louder, grabbing the brunette’s hand. “Remember back when I first joined Lydian? When you, Yuki, and Otome had to basically chase me around the school to get me to perform that song at the school fair? I remember you were the one who pushed me the most to do it. And I’m glad you did! You were the biggest part of what let me grow to enjoy my life at Lydian, not just go through the motions. So like hell you aren’t good enough for one of Maria’s autographs!”

    “Chris…” Komichi muttered in surprise and awe.

    Abruptly, Chris seemed to realize that all eyes in the room were on her. Trying to tamp down on her blush and recover her posture, she dropped Komichi’s hand and placed her own hands on her hips imperiously. “Just don’t put yourself down. It makes me feel bad!”

    Komichi thoughtfully looked between Chris, Tsubasa, and Maria a few times before finally she smiled and brought out a notebook from her bag. “Well, if it’s for Chris. I guess I’ll have one of Maria-sama’s autographs after all.”

    Internally, Maria cheered as she signed the offered notebook, making sure to add the little message Take care of Chris for us underneath. Sure, Komichi was still being more formal with the honorifics then she had hoped but progress was progress! It looks like Chris was better at this then she liked to admit. Or, more probably, she indeed liked Komichi more than she endlessly professed otherwise. Maria was definitely putting her money on the latter eventuality.

    “Tsubasa, Maria.” Shinji Ogawa stuck his head through the door, “You two best be getting changed now. We don’t have long until the concert begins.”

    “I suppose we should give you two space to change.” Miku commented as she took Hibiki by the arm and began to usher her towards the door.

    Tsubasa didn’t say anything for a moment, instead shifting from one foot to another.

    Hibiki apparently noticed, as she paused for a moment against her girlfriend’s gentle guidance “Don’t worry one bit Tsubasa. We’re all here!”

    “After all, what’s the worst that could happen?” Kirika cheered happily.

    The entire room went dead silent as everyone stared at her incredulously. On their behalf, Shirabe raised a fist and gently clonked her girlfriend over the back of the head. “Dummy. Don’t jinx it.”

    -

    “They lied to me. THEY LIED TO ME! More than a decade of service. A half-dozen tours of duty. The FUCKING Noise! And this is how they repay me?! How they repay Emily?! Fuck them. They’ll pay, they’ll all pay! I’m in.”

    -

    “See? I didn’t jinx it! It went great!”

    “Tempting fate is still an awful thing to do Kiri-chan.” Shirabe replied.

    Kirika groaned and threw her hands in the air. “Well what was I supposed to say instead?”

    “I believe that when wishing someone in show business good luck your supposed to say something like ‘break a leg’.” Miku pointed out.

    “Besides, it isn’t quite over yet.” Tsubasa said. “Remember London?”

    Komichi blinked. “What happened in London? That concert seemed to go well.”

    There was an awkward pause for a few moments before Tsubasa opted for an incomplete truth. “Ah, we can’t exactly share all the details but suffice to say Maria had to fight off an attacker backstage while leaving. Feelings from the Frontier Incident were still relatively raw, after all.”

    Komichi’s mouth formed into a small “oh” of understanding and the conversation ended momentarily. The concert proper had indeed gone just swimmingly, with Maria and Tsubasa able to sing not just all the songs that they couldn’t get too last time but were also able to sing a couple of new songs that had been drafted in the interim. Tsubasa was relieved that the most dangerous part was out of the way.

    Still, as the group of eight walked back to Maria’s and Tsubasa’s dressing room, there didn’t seem to be even the slightest sign of any sort of threat. The only other people to be seen were venue workers doing their after-show jobs.

    Finally, Hibiki turned her head to look at the newest member of the group. “So, Ayano, how did you like the concert?”

    “It was fun!” Komichi pumped her fist in response. “I’ve only ever seen these on TV, but the energy of the real thing is so much different!” Then she paused as a thought occurred to her. “Although, I’ll admit, seeing the work that goes into some of the special effects did take a bit of the magic out of it.”

    “You felt that too, huh?” Chris murmured.

    “Well it’s not like we got to see the secret behind all the special effects.” Komichi quickly added. “Like that bit where you two were leaping over the surface of the water! How did you do that?!”

    Maria turned, smiled, and placed a single mischievous index finger over her lips. “Trade secret.”

    Well, it was easier than explaining that was an actual ninja technique which they had been trained in by an actual ninja.

    As if the thought alone had summoned him, Shinji appeared from down a side hall and fell in alongside Tsubasa. “Fantastic job out there you two! Are you feeling better now Tsubasa?”

    “I must admit… yes.” The swordswoman replied. “I guess Kirika was right in the end, our bad luck streak on these concerts have been broken.”

    “See? Even Tsubasa agree with me!” The blonde said.

    “You still shouldn’t say stuff that might jinx people.“ Shirabe quickly responded.

    “Well,” Shinji said as they arrived at the dressing room. “Why don’t you two take a shower and get changed and then we can take everyone out for dinner.”

    “Dinner?!” Komichi’s eyes widened. “With Kohinata and Maria-sama? So soon after the concert? I don’t-”

    “Hey!” Chris cut her off. “You are hungry right? Then really there’s no problem. Come on, Maria is still a girl like you or me.”

    Komichi looked like she wanted to continue to object, but Chris’s gaze hardened into a stubborn glare that everyone, Komichi included, seemed to recognize and finally she nodded her assent.

    ‘Well, one step at a time, I suppose.’ Maria thought as she followed Tsubasa into the dressing room. Before she started stripping off her clothing though, Maria noticed that there was something on the safe she had placed her personal effects in. Something that most certainly had not been there when she had left the dressing room. A lone envelope.

    A momentary panic overtook her as she worried that someone might have broken into the safe but a quick examination of the contents showed that nothing Maria had placed in there was missing, most importantly the pendant she kept of her sister. Taking up the envelope, a quick examination showed no names or markings on the outside. She opened the envelope to find nothing but a solitary slip of paper. And when she read what was on the paper, a shiver ran down her spine in spite of everything.

    “Maria?” Tsubasa, for her part had already finished undressing and only now noticed that Maria had paused. “What is it?”

    “Ah!” Maria quickly folded the paper so Tsubasa couldn’t see the message. “Just some well wishes. Apparently a staff member is a fan.”

    “Oh.” Tsubasa blinked, “Is that really all?”

    “Yes!” Cursing Tsubasa’s ability to be unusually perceptive at times, Maria lied hastily. “He gets a bit over dramatic in a way that’s slightly embarrassing, but that’s all! I’ll be a long in a moment.”

    Accepting the explanation, Tsubasa nodded and turned for the showers. Sighing in relief, Maria resolved that Shinji had to be told about this as soon as she could get a moment alone with him. She gave one last look at the lone english sentence written on the paper before hastily stuffing it back in the envelope.

    All SONGs must end.

    Maybe Kirika had jinxed them after all.

    -

    “... Yes, yes. This is all an affront to God. And if God has granted me the power and opportunity to correct it, then why should I not exercise His will? I’ll join.”

    -

    “I reviewed the security footage.” Shinji said as he sat back down into the driver's seat.

    “And?” It was several hours later, well into the night. Everyone had been returned home but Maria had insisted that she be the last to be dropped off so she could discuss the letter with Shinji. The ninja had taken one look at the letter and immediately drove both of them back to the venue.

    “Nothing. Between you and Tsubasa leaving for the concert and returning, not a single soul entered or exited the dressing room.” There had been a dedicated security camera trained on the door as a precaution against rabid fans. The exclusivity meant it had been easy for Shinji to find the relevant footage. “It remained closed and locked throughout the entire concert.”

    Maria frowned. “Ogawa, I know that letter was not there when we left.”

    “And I believe you.” Shinji took the letter out again and gave it another look, as if that would provide him with some additional clue. “But the only other way into the room would be through the air ducts, but those are too small for any human being to fit through and all the covers were still in place when I checked.”

    “You inspected the room?”

    “Thoroughly. Just in case this was another alchemist, we know that some of them can teleport after all.” Shinji shook his head, “Nothing, again. The janitorial staff already cleaned the room and they didn’t report finding any of the shards of the alchemists used to carry their teleport mixtures. Unfortunately, it also means they would have inadvertently covered up the potential signs of anyone else being there. Or anything.”

    Maria cocked her head. “Anything?”

    “The only remaining possibility that I can think of.” Shinji leaned back and shut his eyes in frustration. “Someone trained a small animal to slip through the air ducts and grates.”

    Maria raised an eyebrow. “So someone trained a mouse or something just to send a threat?”

    “Makes more sense then the letter appearing out of thin air.”

    Well, Shinji had her there. Maria looked down again at the slip of paper. “Do you think you can figure anything out from the message?”

    “It looks machine-typed, so a handwriting comparison is out. And we’ve both touched it, so fingerprints would be useless.” Shinji sighed. “All we can know for sure is that someone is threatening us.”

    “All SONGs must end.” Maria repeated the message to herself quietly. Then she added. “Please don’t tell Tsubasa where we found this.”

    “Because of the concert, right?” Shinji gave a sharp glance. “Do you really think that just this would devastate her or something?”

    “No.” Maria replied instantly. “Tsubasa is not remotely that fragile. Or fragile at all, really. But it would mar it, even if slightly, in her mind. And I don’t want that. I want the perfect concert for her. That’s what it was until I found the letter after all.”

    Shinji looked down the letter one more time. “Okay. I have to report this to the commander, but I’m sure he’ll agree with that request.”

    “Thank y-” Maria interrupted herself with a tremendous yawn. “Oh… I’m sorry.”

    Shinji shrugged it off with a polite smile and started the cars engine. “It’s late and you had a big concert. Let’s get you home.”

    -

    “This is more than a century’s old by now and my family doesn’t intend for it to last for a millenia. My only condition is that you guarantee that the last one will die by my hand.”

    -

    “Bikky, Bikky! Take a look at this!”

    Hibiki turned at the familiar voice only for her view to be almost completely blocked by splotches of indistinct coloring. She jerked back in surprise and almost barely avoided prematurely swallowing the egg roll she had been chewing on.

    “Yumi.” Miku cut in. “I don’t think Hibiki can read whatever is in that magazine if you’ve shoved it that close to her face.”

    “Ah! Oops. Sorry.” The splotches of color pulled back to cohere into recognizable shapes and revealed Yumi Itaba standing before Hibiki. Plopping into the seat next to Hibiki, she set the magazine down between them, next to Hibiki’s tray packed to the brim. “I just saw this and knew it would be perfect for you!”

    Twisting her head and leaning over from her spot across the Lydian cafeteria table to get a better look, Miku read the title of the ad aloud. “New NERV Headset System From Laodicea Electronics Industries. Approved for Japanese Release. A radical new breakthrough in Virtual Reality.” Dropping back down, she looked up at Yumi skeptically. “And why does Hibiki need a VR set?”

    Yumi grinned. “Awww, Hina. Your not reading the fine print! Listen to this.” Making a show of clearing her throat, she began. “The NERV Headset takes advantage of recent breakthroughs in human-machine neural technology to provide much more than a simple visual and auditory experience. It actively uses such cutting edge hardware and software to interface with the mind and assist in its development. Repeated scientific studies and statistical reports have found that, regardless of any other variables, users of NERV System have an easier time learning new skills when using the related NERV System programs. This makes the NERV Headset System perfect not just for entertainment and physical activities, but for educational and mental ones as well.”

    Hibiki tilted and scratched her head in confusion. “So… umm… that means?”

    “The ad purports that the headset can help you study better and do better on tests.” Miku’s voice still hadn’t lost her skepticism.

    “EH?! Really?! Hibiki head went from Yumi to Miku and back, her eyes widening as they processed that statement. “Wow… I had no idea that technology had advanced so far.”

    “I know, right?” Yumi nodded eagerly. “When I first read it, I thought it sounded exactly like something out of an anime. Anyway, I remembered how your always worried about passing the next test and I thought this could be a great boost for you.”

    “Yumi!” Shiori Terashima called out as she approached, lunch tray in hand, with Kuriyo Ando trailing slightly behind. “Are you bugging Bikky and Hina about that headset thing?”

    “She’s been going on about it all morning.” Kuriyo added. “And towards the end she seemed to get in her head that it’d be perfect for you, Bikky. Although really, I think she just wants one for herself.”

    “Those aren’t mutually exclusive.” Miku observed. “Although I’d have to do more research before I’m convinced this is as good as it sounds. There’s buying good luck charms at a shrine, then there’s this sort of thing.“

    Shiori nodded. “That’s what I thought. Those kinds of headsets may not exactly be as expensive as they used to be, but their still not cheap.”

    “Well, I would like to believe it.” Hibiki said examining the ad more closely. Certainly, with the salary she and Miku got as part of SONG, affording this would be no problem. But nonetheless... “I have to trust Miku though. She tends to have good instincts about these sorts of things.”

    “Ah, ye of little faith!” Yumi faked some disappointment for a moment before grinning and grabbing up the magazine again. “It’s just an idea but I guess it would be better to confirm these claims first. Let me go get my lunch then we can chat about it some more.”

    Hibiki began to nod before the full implications caught on to her. “Wait, you came straight here with that?”

    “Yep!” Was all Yumi called back as she took off for the serving table.

    “Like we said, she’s been going on about it all morning.” Kuriyo said as she took the seat next to Miku.

    For her part, Shiori took her seat on the other side of Hibiki from where Yumi had been. “Although it has been awhile since we’ve had the opportunity to just chat like this.”

    “Oh, your right!” Hibiki perked up. “I think the last time we’ve just talked was… um…”

    “Just before winter break.” Kuriyo recalled. “You know, after that big test Hina helped you pass?”

    Miku eyebrows scrunched together in thought. “That long? Really?”

    “Yep!” Shiori recalled. “Although we’ll admit, we did want to give you two a bit of space.”

    Hibiki blinked. “Why?”

    Shiori grinned. “Well, word on the school grapevine was that you two finally confessed to each other. I kinda don’t believe it, because how were you two not already basically married?”

    As if they were in-synch, Miku and Hibiki shifted uncomfortably in an almost identical manner. Shiori’s grin dropped for one of disbelief. “You mean… you two weren’t already…”

    “Well… we kinda always knew. About how we felt for each other.” Miku’s blush grew with every sentence. “It’s just we never really put it into words until last February.”

    “Although I’m glad we did!” Hibiki declared, suddenly reaching across the table to seize both of Miku’s hands. “And I’ll say it as many times as I need too: I love you, Miku!”

    Miku’s already rather intense blush erupted into a full inferno as Shiori and Kuriyo gaped at such a blunt statement.

    “EH?!” That cry hadn’t come from Miku though. The four at the table turned to see Yumi standing just a few feet away from the table, who had dropped her tray on the floor and appeared to be in a state of shock. “Bikky and Hina are actually together?!”

    Now the stare from Shiori became incredulous. “How are you the only one who didn’t already know that?”

    -

    “The training regimen seems acceptable. I would rather beat him in a fair fight though… No? Fine. It isn’t a dealbreaker, there are other ways for me to prove myself. I’ll do it.”

    -

    The sun had already set by the time Miku and Hibiki began to make their way back to their apartment. After Hibiki’s impassioned reaffirmation of her feelings for Miku, the rest of the school day had passed uneventfully enough and Hibiki had agreed to make-up to embarrassing Miku by volunteering as their shopping bag mule for their mall trip. Ever unwilling to let Hibiki shoulder the burden, however, Miku had insisted on taking at least a few of the bags for herself. Not coincidentally it also freed up just enough of Hibiki’s arm space that the two were able to hold hands as they walked home.

    “What should we have for dinner tonight?” Miku asked as they turned onto their street.

    Hibiki glanced down into one of the shopping bags as she considered the question. “Well, we picked up enough pork. So how about some Tonkatsu?”

    “That sounds good.” Miku agreed. The two lapsed back into a comfortable silence for a few seconds, just enjoying the presence of each other’s company.

    Hibiki felt it was a wonderful moment. And it was thoroughly ruined the moment she first noticed him.

    They were just one building over when she noticed him. She probably wouldn’t have seen him at all had it not been for a moment where his sunglasses caught the light off of a nearby street lamps. It only later occurred to Hibiki to wonder who wore sunglasses at night. He was standing just across the street from them, albeit further down by several dozen meters, at the lip of an alley and standing just within the pool of light from one of the street lamps. The business suit, sans tie, did make her briefly consider it was someone from SONG. But wouldn’t someone from SONG be waiting for them directly in front of the building?

    But what caused her to stop was the rigid intensity of the man’s gaze. Even behind the sunglasses, Hibiki could feel the intensity of his stare directed straight at her and Miku. It made her feel as if she was being studied by a microscope. It took another second for her to realize that even from here she could tell the man’s skin was stupendously pale. Hibiki, as with most Japanese, had largely been socialized to regard pale skin as a sign of beauty. But this man seemed so pallid that any sense of attraction was completely washed away instead by an uncanny feeling of unease.

    Before she could make out anything more, Miku noticed that Hibiki had suddenly stopped as she started to pull ahead. She turned in confusion. “Hibiki? Is everything alright?”

    “Oh, uh… yeah.” Her voice pulled Hibiki’s attention away from the awfully pale man and back to Miku. “Hey Miku do you know…” She trailed off as she looked back to find the man was gone, vanished as completely as if he never existed.

    “Huh?” Miku turned her own head in the direction Hibiki was looking for a few moments and, finding nothing, then turned with a worried expression back to her girlfriend. “Is everything alright?”

    Hibiki blinked a few times, then gave a brief laugh. Were her other hand free, she probably would have been scratching the back of her head with it in embarrassment. “Yeah. Thought I saw someone and was wondering if you knew him. Guess it was just my imagination.”

    And yet even as they entered the front door of the apartment complex, Hibiki couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a pair of eyes whose gaze was boring their way into the back of her head.

    ----​

    Author's Notes: So begins this fic idea I've had rattling around in my brain since I marathoned Symphogear two weeks ago, particularly since it's a fandom badly in need of quality fic works. We'll see if this is good enough to qualify as such.

    In case the sunglasses didn't make it obvious enough, this is NOT a Slenderman crossover. Although I would be lying if I said I didn't take at least a little inspiration from it. It isn't the only inspiration that should become apparent, though I'll let you guys try to find those.

    Next, honorifics. I have largely decided to discard them in favor of using "last name/first name" basis to illustrate degrees of formality/informality. The big exception here is when I need to use them for emphasis, such as when a character is explicitly invoking a form of address or their use is somehow unusual. You can see an example of that with Komichi's attitude towards Maria.

    Speaking of Komichi, believe it or not she is NOT an OC... mostly. She's one of the trio of classmates who chases Chris around near the start of G. I'd be amazed at anime's willingness to give otherwise unobtrusive background characters names if I hadn't seen it done well before Symphogear. Of course, having virtually no canon characterization means I'm gonna have to invent all of it, hence the "mostly".

    Finally, a fair bit of warning here: some rather major canon characters are going to die. The villains here are going to be targeting not just the Symphogear adaptors, but also their support base and that's going to mean casualties. Precisely who is gonna bite it would be spoiling but I don't want anyone accusing me of springing this sort of thing on them.
     
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  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: Come and See
    psnuker

    psnuker Commander of 10 Million Men...

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    Author's Notes: I mentally labelled the bulk of this chapter "slice of life interrupted by spooky dude". You'll probably be able to figure out why.


    Distortions
    Chapter 2:
    Come and See

    ----​

    Miku first saw him the very next afternoon.

    By that point, she was already aware that something had been bugging Hibiki and what it was. Her girlfriend had started the day well enough - that is by oversleeping - but starting from the walk to school she had become increasingly jumpy, especially when they were walking outside from one building to the other. By the lunch period, Hibiki had already informed Miku that she had spotted a very pale man in a business suit watching them, not just the night before but twice on the way to school and several times while moving between classes.

    Hibiki had even spotted him once during class, when she was looking out the window. Miku was able to narrow down which class that had been by the fact that Hibiki was yelled at by the teacher for being distracted, which perhaps counted as a favor since it fulfilled the daily quota. So far, Hibiki had reassured her he had never appeared inside the school grounds; he was always either just in front of the gate, on one of the surrounding streets, or the rooftops of the surrounding buildings.

    Piano class was one of the few classes Miku had without Hibiki. Among all the musical instruments, Miku had found piano to be her favorite. She just found something soothing about losing herself to the hand motions and the melody they created. Hibiki had tried the piano but she had a tendency to smash on the keys too hard, which risked damaging the components, something which Chris had made a number of jokes about when she had found out. In that first month after their confession, when Hibiki’s embrace alone didn’t seem to be enough to ward off Miku’s nightmares, the two had found that what worked best for Miku was to just play a little on the small piano they had acquired for their home with Hibiki next to her, just resting her head on Miku’s shoulder.

    They still occasionally did that now before bed, especially on non-school nights when they could afford to stay up a little later, even though it had been months since Miku’s last nightmare.

    The class was nearing its end and Miku had already finished her independent practice, moving instead to clean the instrumentation. Her piano’s position gave her an ideal view of the gate and it was with what was supposed to be an errant glance as she shut the piano keys cover that she saw him. Even at this distance, she could tell his gaze was fixed on her with an intensity that sent a shiver down her spine. And somehow, she could feel that he saw her as perfectly as if she was standing right in front of him.

    It took another moment for Miku to notice something else. The street outside was reasonably busy, for the time of day, and yet the people on it seemed to take no notice of an unnaturally pale man standing literally a single step outside an all-girls music school. As if to illustrate the point, Miku watched a pair of students walk right by the gate and they didn’t so much as glance at him.

    “Kohinata!” The teacher’s call caused Miku to flinch and quickly snapped her attention towards the front of the room.

    “Yes?”

    “Could you stay after class?” The piano teacher was a kindly man who had a strong reputation for the fair treatment of his students, so it was something of a surprise when he went on to say, “I’d like to talk to you about possible career options. It is your last year, you know, and you have been one of the best piano students I’ve had this year.”

    “Certainly, sensei.” Miku quickly nodded. As he smiled and turned away, Miku quickly glanced back out the window.

    The pale man was already gone. That didn’t make her feel any better.

    ----​

    Tsubasa was at one of those variety quiz shows when she first saw him.

    Initially, she barely noticed his presence. His was just an unusually pale face in the crowd of the studio audience, situated relatively towards the back, and she at first wrote him off just as some foreign tourists who had gotten a ticket to the show. But just as she began to really register the fact that his gaze never seemed to waver from her, regardless of who was talking or what was happening among the participants and host, Tsubasa was distracted by a question from the host and he was gone when her attention turned back to the audience.

    But the big confrontation came after the quiz show was over. Tsubasa was returning to the studio’s guest room when she saw the pale man again… talking to Ogawa? Tsubasa practically froze mid-step when she saw the ninja, with his glasses on, speaking to the pale man with a polite smile across the backstage area from her. At the distance they were at, their conversation was just a distant murmur.

    As Tsubasa redirected herself and instead began to make her way towards the two, the two seemed to finish their conversation. The pale man simply gave Shinji a polite farewell nod, turned, and walked off at a brisk pace.

    “Ogawa.” Tsubasa greeted her manager-slash-bodyguard. “Who was that?”

    Shinji simply blinked at the question. “Who was what?”

    Tsubasa gave him a sharp look. “The man you were just talking too!”

    “Oh! Him!” Shinji was back to his polite smile. “He said he was just a representative from another station. He wanted to know if your schedule was open for an interview this week. Unfortunately, we already had you fully booked.”

    Well, that certainly explained why that pale man was here, but not why he was watching Tsubasa like a hawk during the show. “Did… anything seem strange about him?”

    “Well…” Ogawa said frowning as his brow furrowed. “Now that you mention it. He did seem a little ill. Must have had a cold.”

    Tsubasa turned and narrowed her eyes in the direction the man had walked off too. Normally, Shinji had a good instinct about people that Tsubasa had learned to trust. It came with the territory. Ninja and all. But Tsubasa also knew it wasn’t perfect. Ryoko had proven that.

    “Is everything okay, Tsubasa?” Shinji asked.

    “I don’t know.”

    ----​

    Chris was with Komichi when she first saw him.

    They never really stuck to a single location in terms of their post-class meet-ups. Or perhaps to be more accurate, they were still trying to find a location that they liked to visit regularly. The college’s location relative to Flower made it too inconvenient, otherwise Chris would have unhesitatingly brought them there regularly.

    The restaurant they were at today seemed nice enough, with a nice view of the sea from the outdoor tables and a not unreasonable train ride from the college. Whenever the two had found an agreeable enough place they would do what any two good friends who regularly visit a locale do: talk. At first, their conversations had been limited to their classes- They were classmates after all, and their initial meet-ups had been about the convenience of having a study partner whom they already knew; but as their relationship deepened, Chris and Komiji had begun to share personal details that they had never mentioned to each other when they had only been good friends.

    But the conversation they were having at the moment… was not one of those conversations.

    “-And that’s why rainbow sprinkles are sure to be the future for donut toppings!” Komichi confidently finished. Then she paused as she noticed the look Chris was giving her. “What?”

    “Well, first off.” Chris began. “The opposite of tuna isn’t chicken. Salmon is the opposite of tuna.”

    Komichi blinked. “How do you figure? Aren’t they both fish?”

    “Well yeah. But you gotta look deeper than that.” Chris was about to jab her fork to emphasize her point, but at the last moment restrained herself. She was making more of an effort with her table manners around Komichi after the brunette had laughed at her at the first restaurant they had been too. “Ya see, salmon swim against the current while the tuna swim with it.”

    “I see.” Komichi said in thought. “Although that deal sounds like it works better for the tuna.”

    “Suppose so.” Chris agreed. “But anyways, the second thing! Rainbow sprinkles are everywhere these days. They’re already too common for them to be the future of donut toppings!”

    “What would you recommend instead?”

    Chris brought a hand to her chin, thinking for a while before answering, “Pineapple slices, I guess?”

    Komichi stared in disbelief for a second before she burst out laughing. “That’s awful! H-how would that even work?!”

    “I don’t know!” Chris blushed. “They do it for pizza!”

    “Yes!” Komichi managed between her gales of laughter. “And it’s awful!”

    “Whatever!” Chris crossed her arms as Komichi finished laughing, disgruntled. “Why are we even talking about this?”

    Wiping the last of her tears from her eyes, Komichi gave a delighted sigh. “I don’t know. We just kinda started a little while ago.” She smiled. “It’s nice though, isn’t it?”

    “I-I suppose.” Her smile made Chris’s insides suddenly feel… squishy, she supposed is how she would describe it. ‘God, Is this how Kohinata and that idiot feel around each other all the time? I… I guess I could get used to this.’

    Feeling quite self-conscious, Chris turned her gaze towards the sea… and saw the pale man.

    He was standing right next to the fence that separated the boardwalk from the sea, next to some guy with a camera who was looking in the other direction, and his laser-like gaze felt like it was boring straight into Chris’s soul. Suddenly confronted with such a bizarre and uncomfortable sight, one that reminded her a bit too much of some of the looks she received when she had been trafficked about, Chris reacted almost instinctively.

    “HEY!” She shouted, shooting up from her chair. “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT, YA CREEP?!”

    “Chris?!” Komichi recoiled in alarm. “What’s wrong?”

    “That guy!” Chris looked back to Komichi and pointed straight out at the pale man. “He was staring at us like…” She trailed off as she turned back only to find the pale man was gone and the cameraman instead had turned around, looking rather startled by her shouting. “What the-?”

    “Excuse me, miss.” The waitress had approached at her shout. “Is everything alright?”

    “Ah, yes!” Chris hastily replied, quickly taking her seat. “I just… thought I saw something and was startled by it, that is all.”

    “I see.” The waitress gave a polite smile. “Since I am here, do you need anything else?”

    “No. I think we’re fine.” Komiji replied quickly.

    Chris nodded in agreement and tried to get back on track, but in truth she didn’t feel fine; not any more.

    ----​

    Maria was giving a solo concert when she first saw him.

    It was a minor affair compared to even her regular concerts, much less one of the big joint ones she liked to have with Tsubasa. Its small size and lack of ambition is what allowed her to host it so soon after the big one with Tsubasa.

    “I’ve changed, so I can move on with pride.
    I sing a dream in my heart… in silver.”


    Maria finished the last lyric in Kono Ima wo Ikiru Hikari, her opening song for the night, and then, as the music hammered out the final note, bowed as applause and cheers rippled through the audience. She waited for the noise to settle before segueing into a little banter.

    “Everyone! Thank you for coming!” She said. It was basic boilerplate stuff, but the crowds always seemed to appreciate it. “We have a great show for you tonight and I hope you enjoy my perform-”

    Then one of the screens, the ones that focused on her face so audience members behind her or otherwise at odd and distant angles could see her, broke. By itself, that wouldn’t have been enough to throw Maria off her groove- Technical problems happened in show business, particularly at the less well-prepared concerts where there wasn’t as much time or staff to make sure everything was running at 100%; you just had to roll with it. A screen’s feed cutting to static was rather tame as far as these things went.

    Except the screen didn’t go to static. Or to be more accurate, it didn’t just go to static. Rather, one moment it was showing Maria talking into her microphone on stage. The next moment it was static. And then the very next moment it showed the pale man, staring down from the screen right at her.

    Maria froze, and not just because of the unexpected sight. Intellectually, she understood that the screen was for viewing others, not to be viewed. But a feeling welled up in her gut that the man on the screen could see her just as assuredly as she could see him. As if to make it all the weirder, the background behind the man indicated he was standing at the same place Maria was right now. When she realized that, she quickly glanced around to confirm that, yes, she was indeed alone on the stage right now.

    Maria blinked and just like that, the screen was back to normal. The crowd didn’t seem to have noticed the broken - was it broken? - screen. But they did notice Maria’s pause, which by this point was going on multiple seconds, and a wave of confusion visibly passed through them

    Tamping down on the feeling of unease, Maria swiftly realized that she had to get back on track before she accidentally wasted too much time and basically ruined the entire concert. “S-sorry about that everyone! Anyway, as I was saying, I wish you all well, and I hope everyone here enjoys my performance tonight!”

    But as the next song began, Maria felt that unease, though eminently ignorable, just would not go away.

    ----​

    Kirika and Shirabe were on an after-school date together when they first saw him.

    Had Chris been with them at the time, she probably would have shouted at them to get a room several times by now. The amount of handholding and ice cream sharing would have probably been downright unsanitary in her eyes. But while Shirabe and Kirika liked their senpai very much, they also felt like she was kind of a prude, though they were smart enough to never actually say as much when Chris was in earshot.

    However, the current moment didn’t allow much for that, probably to the imaginary Chris’s relief. She probably would have found other reasons to be exasperated. For example, what Kirika was doing at the moment. In Kirika’s defense, the grey fish in the Tokyo Sky Tower’s aquarium just wouldn’t change its face regardless of what face she herself was making.

    “Kiri-chan.” Shirabe, ever the epitome of patience, finally said after a solid minute of this. “I don’t think the fish can make any other sort of face.”

    “I know that! I just want him to laugh!” Kirika replied, failing to notice that her snappy reply sent the fish scurrying away from the glass. She turned back. “Ah! He ran off!”

    “Honestly.” Shirabe quietly smiled as Kirika went back to try and get the attention of another fish. Presumably to make more faces at.

    She glanced briefly over her shoulder… and saw the pale man. He was on the second level balcony, staring down at them. It was only because of the way Shirabe had to tilt her head to cast her gaze over her shoulder that she saw him. Almost immediately, Shirabe snapped her head back forward. Then she carefully turned her head towards Kirika until she could see him out of the corner of her eyes.

    She took a step to the left. Almost imperceptibly, his gaze adjusted. She stepped to the right. It followed.

    “Kiri-chan.” Shirabe almost whispered.

    “Yeah?” Kirika replied, still trying to catch the attention of a shark.

    “Do you see the very pale man watching us from the second floor balcony?”

    Kirika paused. Then she spun around and very visibly started scanning the second balcony.

    Shirabe resisted the brief temptation to throttle her precious, wonderful, totally derpy girlfriend with well practiced patience. After all, it wasn’t like she herself couldn’t be like that. Fortunately, the pale man didn’t seem to notice.

    Kirika then turned back and then slowly turned her head towards Shirabe, as Shirabe herself had done earlier. “Yeah, I see him. Think he might be trouble?”

    “I don’t know. Let’s confront him.” Shirabe indicated the stairs behind them, to the left.

    “What if he runs?” Kirika said back.

    Shirabe paused to think on it; then, “There’s another set of stairs over there that lead to the same hallway that connects with the other side of the balcony. You go over there, call me when your ready, then you run up the stairs. And if he’s real trouble… you have Igalima?”

    “Of course. And you have Shul-Shagana?” Shirabe nodded, but Kirika continued “But won’t the commander get angry if we just use them on some random weirdo?”

    “I have a feeling he isn’t just some random weirdo.” Shirabe muttered back.

    Kirika paused. “You might be right. That stare isn’t natural.” Then she raised her voice. “Hey, Shirabe. I’ve got to run to the restroom. Can you wait here?”

    Shirabe made the motion of very visibly nodding and Kirika, with a quick “Be right back!” ran off to her right. It was good thinking on her part, since the restrooms did lay in that direction. Surreptitiously, Shirabe glanced at the pale man from the corner of her eye.

    His head steadily turned to follow Kirika until she was out of sight then turned back to stare down at Shirabe. He made no other movement. Good.

    About a half-minute later, her phone rang.

    “I’m in position.” Kirika said. Shirabe quickly glanced at the pale man. He still hadn’t moved.

    “When I say go… GO.” Shirabe said, quickly hanging up, spinning around, and charging up the two flights of stairs. A few of the other visitors glanced at her in surprise but she moved with only just enough speed. She turned at the top to find the Pale Man was already gone but undeterred, she took off across the balcony and into the hallway on the other end.

    She and Kirika wound-up almost running into each other there.

    “What?! Did he get past you? No way!” They both said to each other simultaneously.

    They paused to catch their breath. “W-where did he go?” Kirika said, her head whipping around. “I didn’t see him at all!”

    “I don’t know.” Shirabe said. “And… I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.”

    ----​

    The final straw came at Lydian.

    Hibiki hummed happily as she waited for Miku to finish her piano class. For once, today had actually been going quite well. She hadn’t been yelled at. A quiz had returned with a grade in the solid 80s. And best of all, neither her or Miku had seen that creepy pale guy once today so far.

    The Pale Man; Hibiki still wasn’t sure when she had begun to think of that description in terms of a proper noun, had been a regular presence throughout the week and the two girls had found that the pace of encounters had done nothing to reduce how unnerving his sudden presence and watchful gaze could be. Only the fact that he had just been watching them, and always at a distance, had prevented them from already informing Genjuro or calling anyone else yet. They were close, though, as his appearances were making them nervous.

    Hibiki had already become jumpy when it came to sudden movements at the edge of her vision and Miku was feeling more and more apprehensive. It was as if the Pale Man’s mere presence was wearing at their nerves. Which made it all quite the relief when the last day of the week had thus far been completely free of any sign of him.

    “Hibiki.” Miku softly greeted as she exited her class.

    “Hey Miku!” Hibiki greeted back. The two comfortably fell in alongside one another as they began to walk down the hallway. “Good class?”

    “Rather routine, really.” Miku checked over her shoulder for a moment before asking the question, “Any sign of him?”

    Hibiki pumped her fist. “Nope! You?”

    “No.” Miku sighed with relief. “Not a sign.”

    “Looks like he’s gone. What a relief!”

    They turned the corner to the hallway leading to the stairs only to instantly freeze because the Pale Man stood at the very next intersection, facing their way. As if he had been waiting for them.

    “Okay.” Hibiki bit out. “That’s it. I’ve had enough.”

    “Hibiki?” Miku asked worriedly. “What-”

    “HEY! YOU!” Hibiki shouted as she took off towards the Pale Man.

    The moment Hibiki had shouted, the Pale Man turned and quickly walked down the other hall, disappearing out of sight.

    “Hibiki, wait!” Miku said as she recovered from her surprise.

    “COME BACK HERE! WE NEED TO TALK!” Hibiki shouted as she sprinted around the hall turn the Pale Man had walked down. Miku heard a shout of surprise and the sound of two bodies impacting the ground. Miku herself took off running but even before she reached the intersection, she heard a third, very familiar voice speak up.

    “TA-CHI-BA-NA!”

    Miku stopped at the turn and, sure enough, there was Hibiki just sitting back up, a spread of documents, and a rather angry Nakane climbing back to her feet.

    “Just what do you think you’re doing running down the halls! Especially without checking where you were going!” The blonde teacher shouted as she reached down, grabbed Hibiki’s arm, and yanked her to her feet. “Look at the mess you caused!”

    “Sorry sensei!” Hibiki replied hastily. “But I saw a suspicious person and he went down this hallway.”

    Nakane quirked a skeptical eyebrow and her next words were full of skepticism. “Nobody went passed me.”

    “It’s true. Sensei.” Miku jumped in. “Both me and Hibiki saw a very suspicious man in the hallway and Hibiki chased him this way. This isn’t really the first time we’ve seen him either. He’s been hanging around the school for several days now, but today is the first time we saw him in the school.”

    The anger disappeared from Nakane’s face, replaced first by puzzlement, then by thought, and finally concern. “This man, what did he look like?”

    Glad to have the teacher’s anger at her defused for the moment, Hibiki quickly replied. “We haven’t gotten a very good look at his face yet. But he’s wearing a business suit, a pair of sunglasses, and looks really pale.”

    “Oh dear.” The look on Nakane’s face was down right grave now. “I had already been informed of a suspicious person with such a description around the campus by two second-years earlier today and told the principle. But if you two have seen him again already… we might need to have a faculty meeting.”

    Miku and Hibiki exchanged a look of surprise. So somebody else had seen him after all? Then the same suspicion overcame both of them. “Another two underclassmen have seen him?” Miku asked.

    “Yes.” Nakane said. “I think I’ve seen you with them before in fact. Akatsuki and Tsukuyomi, I believe?” Then another scowl crossed her face. “But Tachibana!”

    “Yes!” Hibiki snapped to attention.

    “If you see a suspicious person on campus, you should find a faculty member to report him to. Or a police officer. Don’t try to chase him down on you own! What if he were a kidnapper?”

    Hibiki wanted to sigh, but knew that would only drag the lecture out even more. “Yes, sensei.”

    “As long as you understand.” Nakane glanced down at all the school documents the collision had spread everywhere. “Now could you two help me pick these up?”

    Eager to get back on the teacher’s good side, Hibiki nodded and scrambled down to begin gathering the documents back up. But the moment Nakane couldn’t see them, both Miku and Hibiki shot each other a look of silent agreement.

    They were definitely calling the others first thing after school today.

    ----​

    “Have any of you seen a very pale man following you around?” Maria opened practically without any other preamble the moment their drinks had been served at the corner booth they had chosen.

    Chris, who had already started taking a sip, almost spewed it across the entire table. “You’ve seen him too?!”

    “He first appeared in a screen at one of my concerts this week.” Maria confirmed. “I’ve seen him in person at least four more times since then.”

    “I first saw him talking to Ogawa at a show, who seemed to think he was a rep from another station. He walked off before I could talk to him.” Tsubasa said. “He was at the next two shows I did, but Ogawa didn’t mention him again. And I saw him again outside my home last night.”

    “I first saw him walking home with Miku several nights ago.” Hibiki glanced around nervously. “Then Miku saw him the next day, during her piano class.”

    “We’ve both seen him a number of times since.” Miku confirmed. “He appeared inside Lydian just yesterday. Hibiki chased him down another hallway… but he was gone by the time she turned the corner. She ran right into a teacher too.” Hibiki blanched in embarrassment at that. “Nobody else at the school, besides Kirika and Shirabe, seems to have seen him. That’s when we called everyone here.”

    “Kiri-chan and I saw him at the aquarium.” Shirabe said.

    Kirika nodded quickly. “We tried to corner him on the second level, since there were only two ways up there, so I looped around and Shirabe doubled back… but he was gone! Then we saw him on Lydian grounds this morning when we entered the school.”

    Everybody turned to stare at Chris. “I was at a restaurant with Komichi when I first saw him. I shouted at him and that seemed to scare him off for a moment. But then I saw him watching me from the station platform after I saw off Komichi and boarded the train home. And at the station near my home when the train pulled in. He was gone by the time I was through the door though. And yeah, I’ve seen him several more times since.” She scowled. “Who the hell is he?”

    “Or perhaps what is he?” Maria said levelly. “The places he is able to get and how fast he is able to escape, they just don’t match-up with any ordinary human abilities.”

    “An alchemist? A autoscorer? Another Symphogear Adaptor?” Shirabe was frowning even as she posited those ideas.

    “An alchemist seems more likely.” Tsubasa nodded. “But those teleportation crystals they use… their rather noticeable, both leaving and arriving. And it doesn’t explain why others haven’t really noticed him.”

    “Maybe he’s a ghost who’s decided to haunt us?” Hibiki suggested.

    “I-idiot!” Chris immediately replied, suddenly going slightly pale herself. “Don’t joke like that!”

    “B-besides.” Kirika added. “A g-ghost is just too ridiculous.”

    “Kiri-chan.” Shirabe said. “We’re song-powered magical girls who have literally punched a mad scientist, eldritch abominations, an ancient Sumerian priestess, the Illuminati, and the moon in the face.”

    “We punched the ancient Sumerian priestess.” Chris grumbled, indicating Hibiki and Tsubasa as well.

    Miku giggled. “When you put it like that, it sounds rather ridiculous. And makes a ghost sound rather tame.”

    “If we’re going to speculate.” Maria swiftly cut in before they could get too off-topic. “What if he’s a custodian?”

    A moment of silence met that question. The last custodian they had fought was Shem-Ha. That was tough enough and she had only been around for a few days. How bad would one who had been around for almost a week, probably even more?

    “Well...” Hibiki’s face was scrunched up in thought. “That sounds like it might be possible. Although they aren’t exactly the spooky and silent type.“

    “How do we know that?” Chris challenged. “We’ve met a grand total of two. Hardly a telling sample size.”

    “Maybe he’s a friendly custodian?” Kirika offered. “Like Enki was?”

    Tsubasa raised an eyebrow. “Stalking us doesn’t seem very friendly.”

    “Well, they aren’t human, right?” Hibiki seemed to be warming to the idea. “And if they haven’t been around humans for 5,000 years, then they might not know stalking is impolite.”

    “Wait, why are we assuming he hasn’t been around for 5,000 years?” Maria asked.

    “Well, Enki did say that all the other custodians left when Shem-Ha turned against them. That would be 5,000 years ago.” Miku nodded.

    “Um… g-guys.” Kirika said, staring wide-eyed across the room. She was too quiet though, and nobody heard her.

    “Then why did he come back?” Tsubasa challenged.

    Hibiki thought for a moment. “Maybe he noticed the curse of balal was lifted and wanted to know why?”

    “Guys.” Kirika said, louder this time.

    “Then why is he stalking us?” Chris demanded.

    “He’s… curious about the Symphogears?”

    Chris opened her mouth to challenge that guess once more, but Kirika interrupted her.

    “Guys!” She said loud enough to finally have everyone pay attention to her. Then she pointed. “T-the Pale Man. He’s here.”

    They looked. And sure enough, standing on the other end of the cafe next to the employee’s only door was the Pale Man, his gaze trained on the seven. As the adaptors processed the sight, a waitress passed the Pale Man and went through the service door. He immediately turned and began to follow her.

    “HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!” Chris shouted, practically leaping over the table as she raced across the cafe, catching the attention of every other customer in the process. The Pale Man simply ignored her and continued on through the door. A few seconds later, Chris burst into the kitchen after him… only to be met by the stares of two cooks and the waitress, who had turned around at the commotion. Of the Pale Man, there was no sign.

    “Miss?” The waitress began. “Can we help you?”

    Chris felt her face began to heat up. “Um… no. I’m fine.”

    The waitress tilted her head in confusion. “Then… I’m sorry, but this area is for employees only.”

    “Right. Sorry.” Chris answered. “I’ve gotta go.”

    She beat a hasty retreat back to her table. Her face burned under the diminishing stares of the other customers as she made her way back over to the booth and plopped back down.

    Tsubasa pulled out her communicator. “That’s it. I’m calling the commander.”

    ----​

    “A pale man?” Genjuro muttered to himself. They were all crammed in Genjuro’s office aboard SONGs HQ, rather then the bridge. Like most of the rooms on board the submarine, it was rather spacious by submarine standards, but it was still ultimately a submarine and nine people plus furniture all stuffed in meant that elbow room was starting to become limited.

    Tsubasa nodded. “We’ve all seen him. Both individually and as a group. He acts just as we described, appearing and disappearing in impossible places. And always watching us. He convinced Ogawa he was from another TV station.”

    Genjuro turned to his second. “Ogawa, do you remember this man?”

    Shinji looked troubled. “I remember the man who said he was from another TV station. I remember telling him that Tsubasa was booked for the week and thinking he looked a little sick. I remember the conversation I had with Tsubasa afterwards. But thinking back on it now, I can’t remember anything else about him. I don’t remember exactly what he looked like or if he introduced himself or even how exactly he approached me.” He bowed his head. “I’m sorry.”

    “It’s alright.” Genjuro said. “It sounds like this Pale Man has some ability to manipulate people’s perceptions and memories of him. It sounds like he was able to use that to make you think he wasn’t suspicious until you heard this.”

    Shinji shook his head. “No. I should have pursued this when Tsubasa first asked me about him.”

    “Regardless.” Genjuro was clearly mollifying his subordinate. “What’s done is done and we can’t always expect perfection, particularly not all the time. What matters is what we can do about him.”

    “Is it necessary to do anything about him?” Kirika asked. “All he’s done is watch us.”

    “And he hadn’t ever done so from within Lydian. Until today. What if he goes further then just watching?” Chris countered. “And even if he never does anything else, do you want this ultra-creepy looking dude following you and Shirabe around uninvited for the rest of your life?”

    “No.” Shirabe replied. “Kiri-chan, Chris is right. We have to do something about the Pale Man.”

    “I’d like to talk to him.” Hibiki said. “To try and figure out who he is and why he is doing this. But we can’t do that if he just… runs away every time.”

    Genjuro crossed his arms. “Frankly, all I can do right now is to investigate him through our contacts and assign personal security with orders to look out for and confront the Pale Man if they see him. But given the capabilities you described, it doesn’t sound like they would do much good. For now, just try to bear with it. If he does turn hostile… don’t hesitate to try and take him down. If you have to resort to your gears to do it, then do so. I trust all of your judgement.”

    “If he suddenly goes hostile, he might attack us before we can activate our gears.” Maria observed.

    “Heh… well, he’s in for a surprise if he thinks he could do that so easily.” Chris smirked. “Not with the training the old man here has put us through.”

    “Not all of us.” Tsubasa glanced over at Miku. “Kohinata hasn’t received any training outside of her gear.”

    Hibiki went rigid despite the comforting hand Miku quickly placed on her shoulder.

    “Then perhaps we should try to correct that.” Genjuro said. “Tachibana, Kohinata. You are both free tomorrow?”

    Miku could sense where this was going and nodded. For her own part, Hibiki broke out into a grin, her earlier fear replaced with excitement. “Master, you mean-”

    “Yes.” Genjuro nodded. “How about you both come down to get some training done.”

    Chris blanched. Miku was going to go through that?

    “I’d be happy too.” Miku said instantly.

    “YES!” Hibiki was practically leaping with excitement. “I’m going to get to train with Miku!”

    Genjuro grinned broadly. “Good! I’ll see you both first thing in the morning then!”

    At the implied dismissal, the girls got up and began to filter through the door. Chris, however, quickly stopped Miku and Hibiki right outside. “You… you do know what you’re getting into, right Kohinata?”

    Miku nodded. “I remember when Hibiki started training. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did follow her. At the time, it upset me that Hibiki wasn’t telling me why but looking back on it now, it makes me proud of her. And if I want to be able to stand by your side, I’ll have to do it too.”

    “Besides, Chris, Miku was on the track team in middle school, remember?” Hibiki threw an arm around Miku in a great big bear hug. “She’s way tougher than she looks. Don’t you underestimate my Miku.”

    Miku blushed at the proclamation of “my Miku”, but simply opted to remain silent and enjoy Hibiki’s hug.

    “Alright, alright!” Chris muttered, flustered, turning away in a huff. “Jeeze, do that stuff at home.”

    Back in the office, Genjuro turned to Shinji. “Ogawa-”

    “Sir, I’d like to apologize, again.” Shinji said. “I should never have let the Pale Man-”

    “Ogawa!” It wasn’t often that Genjuro had to see his friend beating himself up over a failure and he hated it. That said, he also knew that simply saying that Shinji was forgiven wouldn’t help. It was better to take a different tack. “If you really want to make up for it, then find out everything you can about the Pale Man.”

    Ogawa nodded. “I’ll leave no stone unturned.”

    “Good.” Genjuro said. “Now get started. I’ve got to figure out how to put some security on the girls without it being too intrusive for their privacy.”

    “Yes sir.” Shinji said, starting to head to the door. Then he paused and turned. “Do you think he might come here?”

    Genjuro waved an arm at the security camera he had installed in his office. “If he does, we’ll know about it. And if I have to take him down myself, I will.”

    ----​

    [15Z601 Secure Access. Please Enter Authentication: ******* ]
    [Authentication Verified]
    [BRAVO-ROMEO-DELTA Clearance Verified]
    [Archival Request Granted]
    [15Z601 Audio Log #54301-D-3253. Date: 06/23/2045 1012 GMT]
    [NOTE: Log Classified BRAVO-ROMEO-DELTA. Per Red Unit COMSEC Protocols, TFH-WU Callsigns Are Used For Speakers.]

    [15Z601 Link Established. Log Begins.]

    The Lamb: “Red Unit’s secured the line. Report. Have you received the orders?”
    WN-1-A: “Yes sir. Two’s perfectly satisfied, but Four complained that her target isn’t an Oscar.”
    The Lamb: “Will it be an issue?”
    WN-1-A: “No sir. I think she was just shooting shit, in her own way. My main concern is that Black Unit hasn’t sent us either Two or Four’s gear yet.”
    The Lamb: “I checked, it’s in transport at the moment. But they shouldn’t need it for these missions. They’ve received their implants, correct?”
    WN-1-A: “Yes sir. Two finished recovery from the surgery on Monday.”
    The Lamb: “Then inform them they should consider this their final initiation.”
    WN-1-A: “Yes sir.”
    The Lamb: “Any questions?”
    WN-1-A: “A few.” [Notable Pause Recorded] “We’re going overt soon, aren’t we sir?
    The Lamb: “What makes you say that?”
    WN-1-A: “Missions like these? SONG will know we’re going to be hunting them regardless of how well it goes off, even if they don’t know precisely who ‘we’ are. Doesn’t make much sense to procrastinate with this cloak-and-dagger bullshit then.”
    The Lamb: “You’re a smart woman, Lieutenant. And your right. After these missions, there’s no going back. We’re going overt within the next month. The first White Unit battlegroups have already been placed on standby.”
    WN-1-A: “In that case, what’s the status of Project Sabin?”
    The Lamb: “Months before they even have the first prototype, I’m afraid. Pale Unit’s struggling with the miniaturization process.”
    WN-1-A: “Ah. A pity. It would be useful. We’ll just have to make do.”
    The Lamb: “That’s what is expected of you. Dismissed.”

    [15Z601 Link Terminated. Log Ends]

    ----​

    ‘Room 807. All clear, nobody here. Check the cooler for the drop. Kits all here, as briefed. Examine the lane from location. Range, about 3100. Obstructions? Oh yeah, there’s the park and those trees. Then the alleyway. Tough, but doable for someone like me. Just how I like it.’

    ‘Alright, assembly. Action, barrel, stock… leave the sight off for the moment. Damn, this thing is huge! Sure, the target is tough but to bring something this big? Goddamn. At least I won’t have to worry about lugging it around. Just four rounds? Well, not a surprise there.’


    --

    “Master!” Hibiki announced into the intercom all sing-song. “The formidable duo, Miku and Hibiki, here and ready to go!”

    Miku giggled softly as Genjuro replied. “Alright, Tachibana! I’ll be right out!”

    And indeed, a few moments later he did emerge from the dojo, all dressed up in his usual red work out clothes. “Alright! Kohinata, are you ready for this?”

    “Yes, commander!” Miku replied eagerly.

    “Good!” Genjuro stated. “I figured we would start with a warm-up run before moving to the main event. And for relaxation, of course, an action movie! There’s just one problem...”

    “What’s that?” Hibiki asked.

    “I haven’t decided what movie to watch.” Genjuro turned to Miku. “Since it’s Kohinata’s first time, I figured I’d let her pick.”

    “Ah, I have no preference.” Miku waved her hand. She actually didn’t much care for action movies, not that she disliked them either. She had watched some with Hibiki and while some were interesting, most had seemed silly to her. Then again, that was before she regained her Symphogear, so maybe things would be different with that one battle under her belt… well, the one where she wasn’t brainwashed or possessed, that is.

    “I know, Master!” Hibiki shot her hand up, as if in class.

    “Yes, Tachibana!” Genjuro pointed, as if a teacher calling on a student.

    “Since the Shenshoujing’s attacks are based on energy-weapons, how about something with a lot of lasers!”

    “A sci-fi action movie, hm?” Genjuro rubbed his chin. “I don’t know how many of those I have.”

    As Hibiki and Genjuro debated on which decades old, American sci-fi blockbuster they should watch, Miku instead stepped forward from Hibiki’s side to the left of Genjuro to get a better look through the dojo’s door so she could see what his yard was like. Through the open door, she caught a glimpse of the sides of a dirt path and two buildings. Her eye was quickly drawn to the other end of the path, where spaced several meters apart from each other was a pond and healthy looking tree. And standing between that tree and pond…

    Miku’s gut roiled as she saw the Pale Man, standing perfectly still and staring right back. No, not right back. Miku wasn’t sure how she could tell, but she had no doubt that the Pale Man’s gaze was directed slightly to her left. At Genjuro. Miku opened her mouth, about to call out to Hibiki and Genjuro. To alert them to the Pale Man’s presence.

    BOOM!

    Miku staggered as something seemed to shove into her from the left. She felt something wet and slimy splash all over the same side of her face. Reaching up, she wiped at it and the front of her hand came away practically painted deep red. She turned back to the other two. She only saw Hibiki, except her entire front upper-body covered in red and bits of pink matter Miku was afraid identify. Hibiki’s head was tilted to look down slightly, her face frozen in surprise and shock, her mouth still open in the prior conversation she was having with Genjuro.

    Miku looked down. Genjuro lay on the ground. Or, to be more accurate, Genjuro’s torso, legs, and arms all lay on the ground. His head was gone. Blood flowed onto the ground from a stump of a neck.

    “... Master?” Hibiki’s voice was barely above a whisper.

    --

    ‘Target is down. Mission complete. Time to… are the two Sierra-Golf’s just going to stand there? Oh, they're in shock. Perfect! Act quick enough, I could bag three birds with one stone. Range, 3084…’

    --

    “Hey… master… get-up. This isn’t funny.” Hibiki said, her voice full of raw disbelief. Genjuro lying at her feet? Headless? Dead? Impossible. Master had always been there since the day she became a Symphogear. Supported her. Trained her. Master was strong. Master was invincible. He couldn’t just die. Especially not so suddenly like that. “Please?”

    A man in plain clothes came barrelling across the street. Hibiki, her attention locked on Genjuro’s headless body didn’t even seem to notice him. Miku did, though, and she flinched away before realizing that she knew the man’s face. She had seen him around SONGs HQ. Looking around, there were several more men in plain-clothes storming down the street.

    The man came to a stop behind to Hibiki, standing between her and the alleyway across the street. “Dammit! What happ-”

    With a loud BOOM, everything above the man’s waist exploded in a shower of gore, skin, and bits of bone that splattered in every direction, drenching Hibiki from the back. Distantly, through the ringing in her ears, Miku heard someone screaming. Strange, it sounded like herself.

    “FUCK, SNIPER!” Another of the plain-clothes SONG agents shouted, pushing Miku into the arms of another. “GET THEM INSIDE!”

    One had already grabbed the seemingly-catatonic Hibiki and was dragging her inside the dojo’s walls, which Genjuro had left ajar. The next instant, there was another BOOM and the forearm of the agent that had just pushed Miku vanished in a cloud of blood. Miku distantly registered the man’s forefinger, detached but intact, striking her chest.

    The agents seemed to have figured out the general direction of where the shots were coming from by this point, however, because they swiftly yanked Miku and Hibiki around the corner the moment they were through the dojo door. The last thing Miku remembered seeing was the midsection of the last SONG agent, who had been backing in through the dojo door with his gun drawn and scanning the street, disintegrate under the force of one last small explosion. Then she blacked out.

    --

    ‘Hmm... Not fast enough. Have to be faster next time. And better. That third shot was downright sloppy. Close enough with that last shot, even if it was simple gratuity on my part. Pity the Sierra-Golf’s got away. Time to go.’

    ----​

    Next Chapter: Ripples

    ----​

    Author's Notes: Before everyone burns me at the stake for getting Genjuro shot (assuming you are still reading and haven't already skipped to typing very angry commentary), let me explain my reasoning. Before writing the story, I typed up some... rather extensive story notes. And since the big OC's here are the villains, a healthy proportion of those notes are devoted to them. Laying out who they are, where they come from, their motivations, their MO, how they fit into the setting, etc. etc. Most of the broad strokes generalities about them are set in stone at this point, but I'm always finagling with the details. Anyways, when I finally stepped back and looked at what I had written, one of the very first observations I made was "oh yeah, one of the first things these guys are gonna do is kill Genjuro and this is how they'd do it". So half the reason this was done is because it makes sense given who the villains are, what they want, the resources they are able and willing to use, etc. etc.

    The other reason Genjuro was shot is because it throws open the door to some interesting plot points, particularly regarding Tsubasa, some of which will start to become apparent in chapter 3, that fit nicely with some of the themes I (hope I am) exploring in this story. Saying more would be spoiling, so I have to ask you to lend me some trust on this. I didn't kill Genjuro just to kill Genjuro.

    And besides, if you think you are angry about Genjuro getting shot, just wait until you see Chris's reaction to the news next chapter!

    Finally, the Pale Man (and yes, that is going to be his name for now) and his deal... well, I can't actually tell you his deal yet, because that wouldn't be any fun, but what I can say is that next chapter we actually get a tiny sliver of insight into his actual character. Because he isn't just presence to spook the adaptors out.
     
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  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: Ripples
    psnuker

    psnuker Commander of 10 Million Men...

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    Distortions
    Chapter 3:
    Ripples

    ----​

    If one was asked to sum up the predominant feeling of the briefing room in SONG Headquarters in as few words as possible, they would be hard-pressed to beat “grim disbelief”.

    The moment word had filtered back to SONG HQ about the assassination, the bridge crew had immediately arranged to get Miku and Hibiki back onboard. One helicopter ride later and the two were being cleaned up by Aoi, their blood splattered clothes swapped out for spare SONG uniforms instead. Only by then they had started to come down from their shock. Miku, having been more distant from Genjuro, handled it better but ultimately that was a relative statement. That night, for their protection, they had slept in the HQ’s living quarters. Although “slept” was probably overstating it. It was more like they clung to one another in a desperate attempt to reassure each other that everything was going to be okay. Perhaps they had actually even gotten sleep at some point. What they certainly hadn’t gotten was rest.

    Contacting the other adaptors was the second thing the bridge crew had done. Not just to inform them of the assassination, but also to confirm they themselves were not targeted. Each of the five remaining adaptors had actually laughed in nervous disbelief when the phrase “Genjuro is dead” was uttered to them, save for Chris who had instead opted to shout at them for attempting to prank her. The bridge crew didn’t for a moment hold it against them. They could scarcely believe it themselves. But in each and every case, the realization had swiftly set in that no, this had actually happened.

    Their responses had all been practically identical: drop everything they were doing at the moment and make a complete beeline for SONG HQ. Tsubasa and Maria had both practically leapt into, and out of, the helicopters sent to pick them up. Kirika and Shirabe had been so impatient that the latter had almost transformed there and then to come on her own power instead of waiting for a vehicle. Chris had actually started running for the ocean, forcing the agents sent to pick her up to find her.

    Everyone had the same two questions when they arrived: "where are Hibiki and Miku?" and “Who were the bastards that did it?”, the latter being word-for-word in Chris’s case. The crew eagerly provided the answer to the first question but regretted they could not answer the second. Bitter at the lack of news for someone to go after, the adaptors had instead focused on seeing to their friends. When night fell, they too stayed in the HQ’s living quarters.

    With the first, most urgent concern addressed, the bridge crew had immediately moved on to the next, slightly more distant concern: answering the question of “who were the bastards that did it?” Coordinating with the investigative agents in the field as well as national and local police forces, they had expected it to take at least several days before they could identify who did it.

    It was something of a surprise even to themselves when it really took just a single night. A sleepless night, but a night nonetheless. By morning, they had enough to tell the adaptors.

    Now, the adaptors awaited in a dedicated briefing room. The room was actually rarely used, normally briefings were done standing on the bridge, but everyone was tired enough that it was deemed better that they could sit down.

    Hibiki and Miku were still attached to each, although not as closely as they had been during the night. Miku was visibly doing better than Hibiki, the former’s attention heavily focused on supporting the latter who stared blankly at the far wall. Kirika and Shirabe had opted to sit right on either side of Hibiki and Miku, choosing for the moment to prioritize the comfort of their friends over the comfort of being with each other. They were clearly the least affected by the news of Genjuro’s death, though obviously “least affected” was a far cry from “unaffected”.

    Tubasa sat only slightly apart from them, her own stare only somewhat less listless then Hibiki’s. She hadn't witnessed Genjuro's death, so the shock wasn't as grave for her. For so long, she thought he was the only family member that cared for her. Even her father Yatsuhiro, the man she actually did think of as her father that is, had only shown his true feelings to her in the final year of his life. By contrast, Genjuro had always been there for her, even before Section 2 was formed.

    Maria leaned forward on the couch behind Tsubasa, a comforting hand resting on the bluenette’s shoulder. Maria wanted to hug Tsubasa like she had before their concert and like Miku and Hibiki were doing now, but even in their current state, she was more conscious about the presence of others. Maria also could not help but compare what she was feeling now with what she felt when Dr. Ver had killed Natassja.

    Then there was Chris.

    Chris left herself a much larger bearth from the others then Tsubasa did, sitting at the part of the elongated “L”-shaped couch where the two halves met. The whirl of the prior day's events and the need to support Hibiki and Miku had left with little time to contemplate over how she really felt about Genjuro's death. But a night of little sleep and a morning that so far consisted of restlessness had left her contemplating it.

    The Genjuro in Chris’s mind may not have been exactly family, or at least not biological family, like he was for Tsubasa. He may not have been as close a mentor like he was for Hibiki. But to Chris, “the Old Man” was the man who saved her, physically and spiritually. After she was backstabbed by Finé and left confused by Hibiki's words, Genjuro had come to her and, with nothing but kindness, restored her faith in humanity.

    The last time she felt like this was shortly after her parents were killed. Now, Genjuro Kazanari was dead to a sniper's bullet. Miku and Hibiki had almost been killed by the same sniper. For Chris, it felt like the world had suddenly become surreal. There was a large, obnoxious part of her screaming that this was really all a bad dream, that any moment she’d wake up in her bed at home with Genjuro alive and well. But reality continued to defy her expectations by existing.

    The door opened. Shinji, Aoi, Sakuya, and Elfnein all filtered in. And, physically speaking, as tired as the adaptors looked at the moment, the four bridge crew all looked vastly worse. The black spots under their eyes were not so much bags as they were giant suitcases.

    Sakuya stepped to the side to operate the projector while Shinji stood at the head of the table. The other three took the remaining spots on the couch. Shinji did not bother with any preamble or prefacing. “Commander Kazanari was not the only one assassinated yesterday.” Behind him, a picture propped up of a jail cell containing an empty bed with a pillow drenched in blood. “Fudou Kazanari was also found dead in his cell just minutes after the commander was shot. He had been stabbed through the head, precisely between the eyes, apparently while asleep.”

    There was a stir in the room at the news, but only in surprise. That itself wasn’t really surprising: the adaptors were only slightly more inclined to mourn the Fudou's passing than they would have mourned Adam's. “It is obvious that the two assassinations are linked. But there is no more information at the moment from the prison.”

    Shinji grimaced to himself, regretting that he wasn’t saying that just because it was technically true. Then he nodded to Sakuya. The image changed, revealing a trio of police officers and a SONG agent in an office room by an open window. They were examining what seemed to be the biggest sniper rifle the adaptors had ever seen.

    “We’ve determined this was the room the sniper who killed the commander used. The office building was largely unoccupied at the time. Several people on the street outside heard the shots and called the police.” Shinji continued. “The floor the shooter used was owned by the LifeWyze Corporation, a foreign genetics company whose products were approved for use in Japan over the last several months. But according to LifeWyze, it had been leased for the last several weeks to a third-party company who had paid an exorbitant sum for no-questions-asked access. Upon closer inspection, however, the company proved to just be a shell.” He frowned. “We are still pursuing the money trail.”

    Shinji pointed to the rifle. “The gun is a previously-unknown design anti-material rifle… well, really it’s closer to a cannon. Ballistics forensics show it was firing 30mm high explosive rounds of custom manufacture. No reloads were found and the magazine was empty, so presumably the only rounds the shooter had were the ones he fired. And this...”

    Two new pictures were up on the screen. The picture on the left was a top-down street, with the office building on the left in a circle labelled “shooter’s location”, a circle drawn in front of another house that everyone recognized as Genjuro’s dojo labelled “victim’s location”, and four lines drawn from four distinct points within the latter back to a single point on the former. The picture on the right was apparently shot from a window, judging by the frame, showing nothing more than the rooftops of another few buildings that terminated in a sea of trees. The adaptors glanced at the second picture in confusion, except for Chris whose jaw practically fell to the floor.

    “... is the trajectory of the shots and the shooters field of view.” Shinji finished.

    “That’s impossible.” Chris breathed in shock.

    “What do you mean, Chris?” Maria asked.

    “Well look at the map!” Chris jabbed her finger first at the scale. “First off, the range. That’s just over 3 kilometers! Then there are all the things that obstruct the shooters line of sight or they have to work around.” She traced her finger across one of the lines of the map. “Looking at this, they had to shoot over the roofs of these two shops, through the park, then down this alley between the two homes. That means they had to avoid hitting any of the branches in all these trees or the roof and sides of at least four buildings. All at a range of more than 3 kilometers. I couldn’t make that shot with Red Hot Blaze. Was this some kinda sniping autoscorer or something?”

    “I honestly wish it was.” Shinji replied. “Even accounting for the scope’s targeting assistance and an infrared mode, the precision required to make these shots is indeed practically inhuman. Or it would be, had there been any humans who have not achieved shots of similar difficulty. According to the experts we consulted from the JSDF, there is precisely one person in the world capable of making that shot. And a street camera saw exactly that person in the vicinity of the building earlier that morning.”

    The projected image changed to show a caucasian man’s face in what seemed to be the sort of shot one would see on a school photo. Except the man was wearing a military dress uniform capped with a beret hiding any sign of possible hair. The cocksure grin on his face was slightly at odds with his piercing blue eyes.

    “Sargent Kir Cheslav Voronin. Also known among military circles as the ‘Raven of Death’. Widely acknowledged as the world’s most capable sniper.“ Shinji announced. "Former Russian KSSO. After leaving the spetsnaz, he became a mercenary. The PMC employing him reported that he and his squad vanished in Belgrade a month ago and presumed he was dead."

    Chris stared at the picture. Kir Voronin. This was who had killed Genjuro. The man who had saved her, who had reconciled her with her parents, who had helped her seek a new dream, was dead because of this bastard. The same bastard also tried to kill Hibiki and Miku, her two most precious friends, the ones who set her on the path to salvation.

    Chris felt something new blossom in her as she stared at that picture, practically burning away the listlessness with which she had taken in much of the briefing. The closest comparison she could make was again back to the deaths of her parent. It was like what she felt when she had found out Sonya had let the package containing the bomb through. But this was much more burning. Much more intense. Much more raw.

    ‘Oh…’ Chris belatedly realized after a few seconds of contemplating the feeling. ‘So this is what pure hatred feels like.’

    “Why?” Everyone started at the sound of Hibiki’s voice. It was almost hoarse. “Why would he kill Master?” Miku’s hug on her tightened.

    “We don’t think it was just him. Or even just him and whoever killed Fudou Kazanari.” Shinji would not give Fudou the respect of either just the last or just the first name, even in death.

    “There is no record of Voronin actually leaving Belgrade or entering Japan.” Aoi added. “That means he had to have been smuggled in. In addition, the rifle would have had to already be on site, the custom design and manufacture of the rifle and its rounds, the quantity of funds that were deposited to secure this particular office, the lead time with which the office was rented. They all point to one conclusion.”

    Tsubasa caught on first. “He’s got an entire organization behind him.”

    Shinji nodded. “A well-resourced organization able to convince Voronin to betray his current employers, something a legal mercenary does not do lightly, and conduct a job as dangerous as assassinating the head of an international agency with the reputation and capabilities of SONG.”

    “An organization willing to take on the world.” Maria said quietly, clearly uncomfortable by how familiar this situation sounded.

    Tsubasa frowned as she turned over the information in her mind. “Something doesn’t make sense. This was planned and prepared for, yes, but you said Voronin was only spotted a few hours before he killed the commander. He was heading for the location, not camped out there for weeks on end.”

    “Yes?” Shinji added uncomfortably. He had an inkling where Tsubasa was going with this. He didn’t know if he would like it.

    “That means that Voronin knew he would have the opportunity to take a shot at Uncle. And given that he fired at them too, Hibiki and Kohinata.” Tsubasa continued. “That means he knew that Tachibana, Kohinata, and the commander would be there that morning. Which means that this organization he works for knew they would be there in the morning. But Tachibana and Kohinata had only made their plans with uncle the day before. There were literally only six other people who knew about this training session, all of them are in this room.” Her voice turned to ice. “And I don’t believe for one moment any of them have betrayed SONG. Not after everything we have gone through in the last two years. So how did these... people,” That line was practically spat out. “Find out about this morning’s training session?”

    Dead silence followed that question. After several seconds of contemplation, Aoi sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Tsubasa is right. The commander did tell me to clear his schedule for yesterday but he didn’t say what for. I didn’t find out there was training session scheduled until after… it all went down.”

    “Maybe one of the lower ranks is a traitor and planted a listening device?” Elfnein speculated. “I mean I don’t like to think in those terms, but an electronic record is the only thing I can think of.”

    Shinji shook his head. “We would have detected an unauthorized transmission signal and the timing is all wrong for a manually retrieved device. The only possible recording device in the office was a security camera and-” He cut himself off, all the color draining from his face in horror. “Oh my god.”

    “Ogawa?” Sakuya asked, voice ladened with concern.

    “Fujitaka, Tomosato, Elfnein.” Shinji’s voice was shooting off rapid fire. “We need to conduct a review of all our digital systems. Everything that could make even the slightest connection to the outside world, everything connected to those, everything connected to thoseeverything, no matter how indirect.”

    Elfnein’s eyes widened in realization, then Aoi and Sakuya as well. Everybody else simply looked around in confusion.

    “Erm…” Kirika piped up. “Why?”

    “The only way the organization Voronin works for could have known is if they had a copy of the security record from the camera in Genjuro’s room.“ Elfnein was practically breathless. “And the only way to do that would be to get into our security systems. And the only way to do that would be to hack into our systems to such a degree that they could copy and steal practically everything we had on our systems. Every last bit of information.”

    “WHAT?!” Chris shouted, finally turning away from glaring daggers at the image of Voronin up on the screen. “Wouldn’t you have caught something like that?”

    “Yes!” Elfnein practically shouted back. “But we didn’t! They did it without us ever having a clue! And if they could do it before, they could do it again! We have to go, now!”

    With surprising vigor despite her apparent exhaustion, Elfnein leapt out of her seat and sprinted through the door, followed shortly after by Sakuya. Aoi began to follow them, but at the door way she paused, turned, reached up, and yanked out the wires of the security camera mounted next to the door. She glanced over at the others. “Better safe than sorry.”

    Then she too ran out.

    Shirabe groaned, falling back in her chair. “Just one disaster after another.”

    “DAMNIT!” Kirika shouted. “It’s not fair! They murdered Genjuro, and they didn’t even give him a chance to fight back.”

    “That’s the point.” Tsubasa said in dawning realization. “Everything about this was set-up so that the commander would never have a chance to respond before he died. They knew that if they gave him any chance at all, they would fail. And if Voronin had failed, then he could be gone well before we tracked him down and would never be at risk himself.”

    Chris scowled. “Coward.”

    “No. Yukine. You don’t get it.” Tsubasa quickly added. “If they were willing to try that with uncle, they would be willing to try that with us.” She looked at Hibiki and Miku. “No, they did try it with us. And they could try it again. They know everything we know right up until yesterday. Maybe even up until the moment Tomasoto pulled the wiring out of that camera. This new enemy… the first sign of attack could be when it hits one of us.”

    Chris leaned back, considering Tsubasa’s words. Finally she concluded. “It’s a goddamn nightmare.”

    “We have to be always alert.” Maria said.

    “Can we do that?” Shirabe asked softly. “To always live in fear. Isn’t that… paranoia?”

    “No.” Tubasa said suddenly. “No. Commander Kazanari... Genjuro wouldn’t want that. He wouldn’t want us to live in fear.”

    “He wouldn’t.” Shinji looked around the room. “I’ll have to make arrangements.”

    “How could you make any arrangements without them finding out?” Chris demanded. “If they know, they can counter it.”

    Shinji looked over at the defunct camera. “I’ll have to go through some files a bit at home, but the commander once told me back after the Shem-Ha incident while we were out that we should take precautions against just an eventuality. He was thinking of something from the custodians, probably a result of Yggdrasil, but this is close enough.”

    “Custodians…” Miku wondered aloud, the phrase clicking something in her memory. Then her eyes widened. With everything that had happened, she had forgotten! “The Pale Man!”

    “Who… oh.” Kirika said. “Wow. I can’t believe we forgot about him!”

    “Well compared to this, Mr. Pale and Spooky isn’t as important.” Chris observed.

    “No, you don’t understand.” Miku said quickly. “He was there!”

    “The Pale Man?” Hibiki asked.

    “He was watching Commander Kazanari! I saw him just before he was shot.” Miku quickly added. “He was standing in the yard, watching the commander. I was going to point him out when...” She fell silent so suddenly that there was no doubt left precisely what the “when” was.

    “Do you think he has something to do with this?” Maria asked.

    Chris frowned. An apparently-teleporting stalker starts observing them the Monday before Genjuro is gunned down and just so happens to be there right before the murder. A coincidence? She’d bet against it if the stakes were to shoot herself with a MegaDeth Party.

    “AGH!” Hibiki finally growled out. “This is so frustrating!” She glanced up at Shinji. “Can I go help tear the cables out of the security cameras? I need to break stuff.”

    “By all means.” Shinji replied,.

    Miku sighed, but in truth she was glad for the distraction. “I’m going with you. I don’t want you electrocuting yourself.”

    “You know…” Maria said. “If we need a distraction, and some destruction, to vent, then I believe the training room still works.”

    Hibiki paused and blinked at her. Then she smiled. “Maria, you’re second best.”

    “Second best? No way!” Kirika suddenly leapt up. “Maria is the best to me!”

    Shirabe turned and fixed Kirika with a jealous glare. Kirika blanched. “Ah… Shirabe! I mean… uh…”

    Hibiki laughed. “Now you know why I said second best! Besides, nobody can top Miku!” Miku blushed, as much from Hibiki’s phrasing as from the praise.

    “Jeeze! Get a room!” Chris snapped.

    Standing at the head of the table, Shinji smiled for the first time in what felt like forever. After all the horror of the prior day, it was good to see the girls acting something like themselves again. Then the smile vanished as his thoughts returned to Fudou’s death. There was something disturbingly familiar about how he had died.

    He’d have to get the complete autopsy report to be sure.

    ----​

    It was an otherwise totally nondescript residential house tucked in a surprisingly upscale neighborhood. One would have to look very closely to spot the hidden cameras. The rain that had started around dawn was coming down hard now, not that the inhabitants of the house were paying much attention to the pitter-patter on the roof. They weren’t the types to enjoy the rain.

    The African man sitting in the foyer, positioned so he was just out of sight of anyone standing outside the door, didn’t even look up from the light machine gun he was cleaning at the knock on the door. “What’s the code?”

    “Goddamn it, Mwikiza!” A Russian accented voice shot back. “We’re not using passcodes for this. If it weren’t us, Red Unit would have alerted you otherwise the moment we stepped onto the property. You know this.”

    “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.” Mwikiza Gowon sighed, although it was more reflex at this point then anything. He had already figured everyone on this squad was damned already, with himself being the only possible exception, if God willed it. Without even looking up from his gun, he reached over and pulled back on the bolt and chain locks.

    The door slammed open and Kir Voronin, dripping wet and scowling, stormed in with water running freely down his shaved head. Behind him followed a wiry Korean woman, her dark grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, who was much more quiet as she entered through the door and snapped her umbrella shut before pushing the door closed.

    “Maybe next time, you’ll remember to leave an umbrella at the meet-up.” She said.

    Kir ignored her as he walked off towards the kitchen, muttering. “And I was in such a good mood too.”

    “Were either of you followed, Ji-Eun?” Mwikiza asked as he stood-up, reached over, and redid the locks.

    “Of course not.” Jwa Ji-Eun sniffed, slightly insulted by the question even though she knew that Mwikiza didn’t intend any. “I would not permit it and Voronin, for all his cocksure attitude around here, knows how to do exfiltration.” She glanced around as she removed her Chilseonggeom’s sheath from her side. “Where is the Lieutenant?”

    “She’s on a call with the Lamb, but she will want a debrief when she’s done.” Mwikiza said as he sat back down and began reassembling the gun. “You had best wait in the kitchen with Voronin.”

    Ji-Eun simply nodded back and headed for the kitchen. Entering, she found Voronin busy drying himself off with a towel. From the living room, immediately adjacent, she could hear the steady clinking and clanking of weights mixing in with the sound of rain on the roof. She could guess who that was. Instead of sitting at the table, she leaned both herself and her sword against one of the more out of the way counters.

    “That’s better.” Kir said loudly, tossing the towel on a rack before sitting down at the table. “Stupid twenty-four hour security period, getting me stuck in the rain.”

    At his voice, the sound of weights suddenly stopped. A few moments passed before a tall mass of muscle in the shape of a man entered the room. The man glared down at Kir for a moment before taking a seat one chair over from him. Kir simply returned the stare levelly. The staring contest went on for a few moments before the Indonesian muscle man finally began to speak.

    “So.” Timoty Darmawan began steadily. “I take it Genjuro Kazanari is dead?”

    “As a doornail.” Kir gave him a cheeky grin. “Not the toughest shot I’ve ever taken, but it had some challenge in it. Besides, it was fun to get out and shoot something again after all this time.”

    Timoty scowled. “Yes, yes. You blew him away all nice and safe without even the slightest chance of him knowing what was coming.” His voice was laced with sarcasm. “Very impressive.”

    Kir rolled his eyes. “Oh, get off your high horse. You know he would have beaten you to a pulp if we had done it your way.” The sniper pointed at his own head. “Only if one of those Symphogear girls activated would you have stood a chance at winning and even then only if they were kind enough to just stand on the sidelines. Somehow I doubt they would be that useful.”

    Timoty’s scowl deepened. “Kazanari deserved a better death than that.”

    Before Kir could respond to that, a hand clamped down on Timoty’s shoulder from behind. “Oh Timoty dear.” A new voice with a Mediterranean lilt cut in. ”We all know it’s not a question of what he deserved. Just what works!”

    “Corporal.” Timoty acknowledged wearily. “I thought you were downstairs working on some of your bombs.”

    Corporal Caprice Calcattera dropped into the seat between him and Kir, her golden eyes sparkling with interest and a dazzling smile on her lips. “I was! But then Mwikiza came down and told me Kir had got back and I was dying to hear some explosive tales.” She laughed lightly. “You know, because he actually got to shoot some explosives? I mean, sure they were small ones, but it’s been so long since I’ve been able to blow something up. Even hearing it second hand would do for now.”

    “What is there to tell there?” Kir shrugged it off. “It killed him. The shot was what I’m interested in, not what I shot him with.” He rubbed at his shoulder. “Although I’d prefer something smaller next time. AMR’s kick like hell.”

    “Boo, spoilsport.” Caprice mock pouted at him. “You have no appreciation for the art of explosive detonation.”

    “I thought the art was in explosive making?” Ji-Eun asked absently.

    Caprice turned and grinned cheekily at her. “Oh that’s fun too! Just not as fun. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a blast working on some of the stuff Pale Unit’s sent us. Especially Project Sabin, those will be AMAZING when they’re finished even if the science isn’t precisely your usual explosive work.” She huffed. “Certainly it’s better than safely dismantling it like they forced me to do in the army. That was bullshit. But what’s the point of building them if you can’t let them go KA-BOOM?”

    “So you can have a stockpile for later.” One more voice said in a tone that brooked no argument, with only a slight Texan drawl to give away her nationality. Everyone turned to see the brunette woman standing in the doorway to the hall which led to the stairs.

    Instantly, Caprice and Kir shot to their feet and snapped to attention. Ji-Eun, who was already standing, also straightened herself out and went rigid. Timoty, his bodyguard background being rather more civilian, took only slightly longer to react than the others.

    “At ease.” The Lieutenant said and everyone relaxed back into their seats, except for Ji-Eun who returned to leaning. The Lieutenant’s blue-green eyes flickered first to Ji-Eun then Voronin. “I see you two made it back.”

    “Reporting mission complete, ma’am.” Kir replied.

    “Good. Congratulations on your final initiation.” She said. “And some additional good news for both of you: Black Unit finally came through with your equipment. Corporal Calcaterra already put it in the basement armory; I imagine you’ll want to check it after the debrief. You’ll only have a few more weeks for training on it in the sims.”

    Caprice’s eyes lit up. “A few weeks. Does that mean what I think it does?”

    The Lieutenant nodded. “I just talked to the Lamb. As of now, the White Noise Squad is officially activated. Technically, we're already on standby, but the Lamb informs me it isn't quite time commence operations."

    “Yes!” Caprice pumped her arm. “Finally I’ll get to blow stuff up!”

    “Just restrain yourself for a few more weeks corporal. Get some sim time if it helps.” The Lieutenant turned to Ji-Eun. “Jwa. Feeling better?”

    “Killing a Kazanari was nice.” Ji-Eun admitted. “But an Ogawa would still be better.”

    “I know. Don’t worry. You’ll get your chance, the Lamb promised.” The Lieutenant replied. “It’s not like I can’t sympathize. I won’t rest easy until that Kohinata bitch is dead.” She turned and started back towards the stairs, calling over her shoulder. ”You and Sargent Voronin. The full debrief, my room, one mike.”

    “Ma’am.” The two acknowledged as the Lieutenant disappeared down the hall.

    “Standby, huh.” Caprice leaned back in her chair, kicking up her feet on the table, and grinned. “It’ll be on soon.”

    Timoty just shook his head and silently got up to go back to his weight training.

    Outside, the rain continued to fall, but it didn’t seem to touch the lone figure in a business suit standing in the street. Silently, the Pale Man turned from his watch on the house and disappeared into the downpour.

    ----​

    Elfnein blinked at the ceiling in confusion. She didn’t remember there being a ceiling. Last she remembered, she was at her station trawling through their electronic records trying to find the digital fingerprints of the hackers. She had been laying on something soft, her head resting on what felt like a pillow, covered in a blanket.

    Sitting up, she saw that she had been laying on a couch in one of the break rooms of the submarine closest to the bridge. A snore to her right caused her to glance over to see Sakuya occupying the couch across from her, his own blanket draped across him.

    Elfnein was able to deduce what had happened. She had probably collapsed from exhaustion and been taken over here to recuperate. What was more of a mystery to her is why Sakuya was here.

    Pushing off the couch, Elfnein made her way back to the bridge. She found Aoi Tomosato sitting at her station, scanning line after line of system code. An empty plate and almost empty coffee cup was shoved to the edge of her console.

    Aoi’s exhausted gaze swung around towards her and she gave the former homunculus a tired smile. “Oh, Elfnein. You’re awake. There’s dinner at your station.”

    Ignoring the growling in her stomach for a moment, a reminder that she had also missed yesterday's lunch, dinner and this mornings breakfast. “Dinner? Was I out that long?”

    “Oh, yes.” Aoi nodded. “You collapsed… just before mid-day, I believe? Me and Fujitaka agreed then that we should take this in shifts. We won’t work as well if we’re sleep deprived and hungry, after all. I managed to convince Fujitaka to let me take first shift.”

    “I… I see.” Elfnein replied, somewhat embarrassed that she hadn’t thought of such a solution herself. “In that case, Tomasoto, maybe you should take your rest now that I’m here.”

    “No way.” Aoi said quickly. “Two pairs of eyes are better than one and Fujitaka needs more rest.”

    “That didn’t stop you from carrying on your own.” Elfnein pointed out. “And as you said, you won’t do as well if you're sleep deprived and hungry. You don’t want to become a liability.”

    Aoi hesitated, but confronted with her own words she finally sighed and stood-up. “Alright, but I’m going to get Fujitaka up as well. Don’t forget to actually eat your food.”

    “I won’t.” Elfnein said. “We’ll have to make this shift set-up a bit more formal for future emergencies so we don’t strip ourselves to the bone.” She glanced over at the bridge, where the commander's chair now sat empty. The question of who would lead SONG now briefly arose in her head, but she shoved it aside as she made her way over to her station. She couldn’t do anything about that and had to focus on what she could deal with.

    Taking a seat, she almost disregarded the plate with dinner on it but Aoi’s reasoning continued to echo in her mind. With some reluctance she began to eat. Sakuya walked in a few minutes later, nodding to her in greetings, before returning to his own station.

    Putting the plate back where she had found it, Elfnein finally got back to work. The anti-intrusion programs she had left running to check for irregularities had all come back negative, so it looked like it had to be all manual checking. She quickly decided that Aoi and Sakuya had been right. With some food in her belly and sleep behind her, Elfnein found that going through the systems was so much… not easier, but clearer. Things that she had been overlooking all morning now leapt out her.

    It didn’t even take another hour.

    “I got it!” Elfnein shouted aloud, starting to turn towards the command station out of habit but freezing as she abruptly remembered there was no one there.

    “What? Let me see.” Sakuya said, leaping up and crossing the room quickly to Elfnein’s station.

    “Here.” Elfnein said, pointing at a line of code. Sakuya looked at it and furrowed his eyebrows.

    “That looks like a temperature control program for a server, though.” He said.

    Elfnein nodded. “Exactly. Which is why we overlooked it at first. I only noticed it when I realized that the server it’s supposed to be monitoring doesn’t actually exist.” She punched a few keys, calling up a more detailed copy of the program code. “Looking at it, it does include everything for such a program. It just also includes back-door access to an outside system.” Now she frowned. "The only thing I can't figure out is how it got there."

    “What about the location it’s granting back-door access too?” Sakuya asked.

    Elfnein gave a wry smile at that. “Oh, that should be easy enough now. Let me just run the trace program for a few minutes.”

    A few more button presses and Elfnein had SONG’s trace program up and running. And running. And running. And running.

    “Wow.” Sakuya observed after about ten minutes. “That’s… a lot of servers.”

    “Way too many.” Elfnein muttered worriedly, as the number of nodes passed the quintuple figure mark. A moment later and the number froze. The program ran for a few seconds more then finally the message popped up: [ 709 ERROR ]

    Both Elfnein and Sakuya simultaneously blinked. Finally Elfnein spoke. “Do we still have the manual for this program? I don’t remember what a 709 Error means.”

    “I think I’m going to have to call the programmers we hired to make this tracer.” Sakuya sighed. “At least we can plug the leak now.”

    ----​

    “Hibiki.” Miku asked softly, glancing up from the book she had been trying and failing to read for the past few minutes now. “Are you sure you’re alright now?”

    They were back in their room aboard SONG HQ. The adaptors had spent the day in the training simulator, blowing off steam and distracting themselves by killing simulated noise, with the only breaks bring for meals. Miku, with some help from Chris, was starting to think she had a grip on all the nuances of the Shenshoujing by now.

    They were still going to school tomorrow, but not the ordinary way. Ogawa had taken Miku, Hibiki, Kirika, and Shirabe aside to a security dead zone part of the sub, informing them that they would be dropped off near the school by car and that a perimeter was being secured. When Hibiki had asked about the funeral, Shinji had sighed and said it was still being arranged. Apparently, the alternate methods he was using to arrange everything was consuming quite some time.

    “No.” Hibiki said honestly, sitting up from where she had been just staring up at the ceiling. “I’m still not sure I entirely believe this is real.”

    Abandoning her book, Miku immediately crawled the small table and wrapped her arms around Hibiki.

    “I keep thinking back to that moment.” Hibiki continued, finally beginning to cry. “I keep wondering that maybe we should have talked inside. Maybe we should have met up somewhere else. Maybe I should have stayed more alert. Maybe if we had done that, he wouldn’t have… died.”

    “Don’t blame yourself.” Miku whispered softly in her ear, wiping at Hibiki’s tears. “There was no way we could have known. And you know it’ll be okay in the end. You’ll find Voronin. You’ll find whoever he’s working for. You’ll bring them to justice. And I’ll be right there with you, supporting you all the way. So will everyone else. I’m sure that’s what the commander would have wanted from us.”

    “Thanks Miku.” Hibiki smiled tiredly, relaxing into the embrace. “And I guess if Master… isn’t around to help you train any more, outside of our gears that is, I’ll have to do it instead! That’s what he would have expected of me, I know.”

    Miku giggled. “I’ll look forward to it, master.”

    Hibiki also laughed, albeit somewhat nervously. “Please don’t keep calling me that.”

    They lapsed back into a comfortable silence.

    “Hey, Miku.” Hibiki said after a few more moments.

    “Hm?”

    “Tomorrow, when we get home.” Hibiki continued. “Could I listen to you play the piano for a little bit?”

    “Of course.” Miku answered unhesitatingly. “I’d love too.”

    ----​

    The wake was ultimately scheduled for Thursday evening, with the funeral proper being the next day. It seemed as if everyone in SONG was there. Even the mass of agents providing security were technically on the guest list and had brought prayer beads. And even a number outside of SONG: Chris was pretty sure some of the suits in the audience were some other government bigwigs.

    The week had felt surreal to her because after the chaos of the weekend, the return to normalcy just didn’t seem right. The day to day college classes, hanging out with either Komichi or the other adaptors, or even trying to just unwind at home, Chris couldn’t help but shake the feeling that she should instead be out there. Out there getting revenge for Genjuro. Hunt down Voronin. Make him pay for what he did. And make him reveal who he was working for so she could make them pay too.

    It was as if seeing his face and knowing his responsibility for Genjuro’s death had reawakened a part of her she had long thought dead. A part she had thought Genjuro and Hibiki and everyone at Lydian had helped her kill. But it was not only back, it felt even worse: before this week, Chris hadn’t thought she could really feel such raw hate. Not even towards Finé, after she had thrown Chris away, had she felt hate like this.

    Other parts of her warred with this. The logical part of Chris pointed out that she didn’t have the first clue of where to start looking for the sniper. The part of her that Genjuro and Hibiki and all her friends had helped nurture and grow reminded her that vengeance was not the solution here. That justice tempered with understanding was what she should be feeling. The ultimate result was a fundamental emotional confusion.

    Komichi had noticed. When she asked what was wrong, Chris had simply told her that a dear friend of hers had been murdered. Komichi’s sympathetic reaction had helped just a little.

    The only unambiguous positive Chris could credit to the week was that she and all her adaptor friends hadn’t seen the Pale Man at all so far.

    As the priest read off the sutras, Chris took a moment to glance at the mostly empty front row, where the family sat, and by extension at Tsubasa. In addition to wondering how the blue-haired idol was coping, she couldn’t help but wonder about the lack of any other relatives sitting up front. Indeed, if not for Maria asking and receiving permission to sit with Tsubasa, she would have been completely alone in the front row.

    She turned to glance over at the other four adaptors sitting next to her. And then she froze as a horribly familiar figure on the other side of the room attracted her attention instead.

    There, standing between one of the columns and right next to one of the SONG agents pulling security, stood the Pale Man, his attention on Genjuro’s coffin.

    Chris felt her blood boil. Her fists clenched. The nerve, to show his face here of all places and at all times. How dare he. How dare he. She wanted to confront him. To scream at him. To sing her holy chant and reduce him to a smear across the floor with Ichaival. Only the immediate reminder that she was in the dead middle of Genjuro’s funeral held her back.

    As if he knew she saw him, his head turned purposefully and slowly so that his sunglass hidden gaze met hers. Chris waited for him to smirk. To gloat. To do something that would send her anger over the edge.

    Instead, all he did was nod at her before turning and walking away, vanishing behind the columns.

    --

    “The Pale Man.” Was the first thing Chris said when they sat down to eat in the immediate aftermath of the wake. They had managed to convince her to let them at least join the light dinner at the start of the vigil, even if she had forced everyone, save Maria, to agree to return home afterwards. “I saw him. During the wake.”

    “What did he do?” Kirika nervously glanced around the dining room, as if expecting him to appear right there and then.

    “Nothing.” Chris gripped the chopsticks she was holding so hard that they threatened to snap. “He was just watching. He’s always just watching.” Then she paused. “Well, no. He looked at me and nodded before he left. As if he was just acknowledging that I saw him.”

    “Is this like some sort of sick game to him?” Maria scowled.

    “Maybe…” Hibiki began but stopped herself.

    “Tachibana?” Tsubasa glanced at her curiously.

    “We can’t know for sure.” Hibiki said again. “Not unless we can talk to him. But what if he isn’t our enemy? What if he was trying to warn us?”

    Chris gaped at her for a moment. “Are you stupid? What kind of warning is just stalking us all spooky like? We know he can talk to people: he talked to Ogawa. If he was trying to warn us, why didn’t he just come out and talk to us?”

    “Maybe he’s scared of us?” Shirabe wondered.

    Chris turned. “Don’t tell me you believe that?!”

    “We’ve discussed this before, gone in circles and come up with nothing.” Maria huffed. “I don’t think speculating any more would be that productive. For all we know, he could have nothing to do with anything.”

    “Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about the Pale Man for now.” Miku said. “This is supposed to honor the commander’s memory, so maybe we should talk about him instead?”

    “Yeah!” Kirika said. “How about we talk about all the great stuff that he did! Happy memories, you know? Like how he showed us that one movie where that guy had to save the girl from a future robot. Or the sequel, where the future robot had to save their kid from another, even more advanced future robot!”

    “That was one of the better ones.” Chris agreed.

    “You’re just saying that ‘cause of the minigun scene.” Hibiki teased.

    “Well… hell yeah!” Chris said. “Come on, you have to admit it was pretty damn cool!”

    “Well I like that song he sang during training!” Hibiki continued on. “It was really good at getting me pumped!”

    As the girls reminisced about better times with their commander, Tsubasa remained silent, preferring to simply listen. Maria noticed this and under the table took her hand in her own. Tsubasa returned a small smile in thanks then closed her eyes momentarily to think. ‘Do you hear that Uncle? You’ve helped so many people enjoy life. Thank you for being sure we can be well enough to fight and save others.’

    ----​

    Tsubasa knew that being in the same room as the coffin for the vigil wasn’t strictly necessary. She could have slept in the room set aside nearby. But her sense of duty and her history with her uncle refused to permit her to do otherwise. She had held the vigil for her father the same way, and she would do no different for Genjuro.

    Maria stayed with her for as long as she could remain awake, but it was close to the witching hour when she had fallen asleep, slumping over onto Tsubasa’s shoulder. Only then did Tsubasa abandon her vigil, albeit only temporarily. She carried Maria to bed and tucked her into one of the provided futons. Returning to where the coffin was being held just behind the parlor, she closed the sliding door behind her and turned around.

    The Pale Man stood immediately on the other side of the coffin, staring directly at her.

    Tsubasa froze for a moment at the unexpected sight. Then she fell into an immediate fighting stance, one hand flying up to Ame No Habakiri. But she hesitated, Hibiki’s words at dinner returning to her. He was here, closer than any of them had ever seen them. Close enough to hold a normal conversation. Yet still all he was doing was standing there, looking at her.

    Tsubasa took the opportunity to examine his appearance more thoroughly. The obvious still stood out: sunglasses, the business suit without a tie and with a white undercoat, the paleness. But at this close distance she noticed some more subtle things. The unnatural paleness meant she could actually faintly see some of his major arteries. His lips were tiny, such that they barely existed at all. His hair was dark grey and probably would be disheveled if it had been grown out instead of a crew cut. And his skin was sunken and gaunt in a way that, if not for how he carries himself and his modest build, would have left Tsubasa thinking he was on death’s door.

    Finally she asked. “Who are you?”

    The Pale Man simply shrugged. Or at least that’s what she thinks it was. One of his shoulders raised in a shrug-like manner, but his head didn’t move at all. Tsubasa eyebrows furrowed as she tried to figure out the exact meaning of the gesture. So was he saying he didn’t know? Or was he saying it didn’t matter?

    “Why have you been following us?”

    To that he didn’t respond at all.

    She tried one more time. “Why are you here?”

    That triggered the most substantive reaction yet. Abruptly, without his eyes ever leaving her the Pale Man reached up with his right hand and into the left breast of his jacket, clearly reaching for something. Tsubasa tensed further, her holy chant on the tip of her tongue.

    The Pale Man pulled out a black-and-silver envelope and then held it out with both of his hands, as if giving her a business card.

    Hesitantly Tsubasa let go of Ame No Habakiri and took the envelope. An inspection showed nothing written on the envelope. With a quick glance at the Pale Man, who had returned to his perfectly still watchfulness, she opened the envelope to find it stuffed full of yen as well as a single slip of paper. Another quick confused glance at the Pale Man to confirm he was still there, then Tsubasa removed the slip. The message on it looked like hand typed English.

    Genjuro Kazanari achieved great things.

    “What is-” Tsubasa should really have not been surprised when she looked up only to find the Pale Man was gone. Should not have, but was anyways. She did a quick 360-degree inspection to assure herself that, no, he had not just moved to another part of the room and was really gone before returning to the contents of the letter. Idly she took a moment to count the money.

    She blinked, then recounted just to be sure.

    The amount of yen came out to exactly 40,000.

    ----​

    Shinji Ogawa stared apprehensively at his phone. Less because of the call he was about to make, but because the information he had to relay. It had taken until Tuesday for the UN to inform him that they had agreed he was acting commander for the moment, confirming de-jure what was de-facto for several days by then. There was something of a political competition as to who would permanently replace Genjuro. Apparently each country on the security council was fighting to get their own preferred candidate appointed. Probably so they could have more influence over SONG. Shinji had resolved not to worry about it for now.

    Tsubasa had informed him that the Pale Man had appeared the night before, totally making a mockery of their security measures, again. And left that cryptic as all hell message plus the yen. Tsubasa had said she didn’t know whether to keep it or throw it in a fire.

    And as if to top everything off, he finally had received the full autopsy report on Fudou’s death just before he left for the funeral, to say farewell to his old friend one last time. The read had only confirmed his suspicions enough that Shinji knew he had to make this call. Out of respect for his friend and his family. The phone rang, once, twice...

    “Hello.” The voice of Souji Ogawa asked.

    Nii-san.” He said. “It’s Shinji.”

    “Shinji.” Shinji’s elder brother and head of the Ogawa clan replied. “I heard about Commander Kazanari. My deepest condolences. I know how close you two were.”

    “Thank you.” Shinji replied. “But this is not about him. It’s about Fudou Kazanari.”

    “Yes. I heard about his death too.”

    “It’s obvious the two murders are linked.” Shinji continued. “They were both assassinated by an organization I believe is hunting SONG.”

    “I deduced as much.” Souji said. “But you know the clan’s rules. Unless the circumstances are extreme, you have to handle this on your own.”

    “Normally, I would agree with you.” Shinji kept his voice even. “However, I have substantial reason to believe that this concerns the clan as well.”

    “How so?” Souji asked quickly.

    “I believe that Fudou was assassinated by one of the Jwa family.”

    There were a few moments of silence before Souji spoke up again. “Are you sure?”

    “I acquired the autopsy report this morning.” Shinji relayed. “Analysis of the blade used matches the Yonggwangchamsageum precisely.”

    It wasn’t often that Shinji heard his elder brother surprised into silence, but then he supposed the past week had been full of unusual events.

    “We haven’t heard from them in a decade.” Souji pointed out.

    “But we know they are still out there. Several family members are known to work for Korean intelligence and the military.” Shinji replied. “And they only have ever used the Yonggwanggeum when they intend to come after us.”

    “I see.” Souji relented. “I’ll have to talk with some of the clan elders.”

    “Thank you, Nii-san.” Shinji finished.

    “Stay safe, Shinji.” Was Souji’s final words before he hung up.

    Shinji sighed and put away his phone and turned to head back inside. Nodding to the agent guarding the door, he stepped into the waiting room where family members waited while their loved ones were cremated. Tsubasa sat alone, quietly reading a newspaper. The other adaptors had been there for the funeral, but the cremation was for family only. The only reason Shinji had been able to stay was because of his status as acting-commander and Tsubasa’s manager.

    “Are you feeling alright, Tsubasa-san?” Shinji asked as he came over.

    “Mostly.” Tsubasa sighed. “I think I finally came to terms with it at dinner last night.” She looked up. “He may be gone, but his memory lives on. All that’s left is to bring Voronin and his group to justice. And the Pale Man, whatever his deal is.” She turned to him. “Any news on that front?”

    “Sadly no.” Shinji said with a sigh, taking the seat next to him. “The money trail has hit a dead-end. We tracked it through a number of dummy accounts and then to an elderly lady in Argentina. She’s in a retirement home and has been diagnosed with dementia for over a year. She isn’t even personally wealthy enough to have afforded the rent on that office floor.”

    “And the trace on the backdoor Elfnein found?” Tsubasa asked.

    “We ran it several more times.” Shinji replied. “Same problem each time. The coders we had hired to create the program said the error message means the trace was terminated from the outside by some kind of counter-tracer program.”

    “So the trail’s cold then.” Tsubasa concluded. “Until Voronin’s group strikes again.”

    “Or we get lucky. Which could happen.” Shinji sighed. “And I’m afraid I have more bad news.”

    Tsubasa head tilted turned curiously at that.

    “I may have to stop being your manager.” Shinji elaborated. “At least until the Security Council figures out who is going to lead SONG. The workload might become too much.”

    “Oh.” Tsubasa had honestly expected much worse at the words ‘bad news’. “Do you have anyone in mind?”

    “We’re going through some possible candidates, but the UN bureaucracy being what it is-”

    “Sir.” A new voice cut in. Shinji looked up to see the plain clothes agent leaning back through the door. “I have a Handa Kohaku here. He says he’s a lawyer for the Kazanari family.”

    “Have you checked him?” Tsubasa asked.

    The agent nodded, “He’s clean.”

    “Let him in.” Shinji said.

    The agent stood aside and Handa Kohaku stepped in. Had either Shinji or Tsubasa seen him on the street, they would have had him pegged for a professional lawyer in an instant. The slick dark hair, suit-and-tie, briefcase… they all screamed “legal profession”.

    “Tsubasa Kazanari?” He asked as he approached. Tsubasa nodded and Handa looked over at Shinji. “And...?”

    “Shinji Ogawa.” Shinji replied. “Tsubasa Kazanari’s manager. At least currently.”

    “I see.” Handa said. “Then there should be no problem in you hearing this.”

    Placing his briefcase on the floor, he took a seat immediately across from Tsubasa then folded his hands. “First, I must apologize. There was a foul-up in our messaging system and I did not receive the word that both Fudou and Genjuro Kazanari had passed until yesterday. I would have certainly contacted you earlier had I known. In both cases, I wish to extend my condolences.”

    Internally, Shinji shifted uncomfortably. That probably was more his fault than anything else, trying to keep Genjuro’s death quiet until he could arrange the funeral had likely held up some of the legal paperwork. Tsubasa, for her part, simply nodded. “That is quite alright Kohaku. Forgive my bluntness, but I would like to know what you have to discuss with me?”

    “Of course.” Handa nodded. “I was hired by Fudou Kazanari as the chief lawyer for the family’s estate and duly was appointed the executor of the familial household will. Now, his access was frozen with his arrest, so custody on decisions passed to Genjuro Kazanari. I have thus had…” He paused. “The pleasure of working with both men. However, Genjuro Kazanari decided against making any significant changes to the will. Now that both men have... passed away, that means the household estate has passed to you, Tsubasa Kazanari.”

    Tsubasa’s mouth fell open in surprise. Through dealing with all the chaos and emotions in the wake of Genjuro’s passing, the fact she was still the Kazanari heiress had completely slipped her mind.

    “I…” She started, then fell silent as the weight of the implications of what she had just acquired came crashing down on her. The Kazanari estate was enormously wealthy and powerful, which was why Fudo was able to get away with so much of what he did. Now it was hers?

    She couldn’t handle this right now.

    Fortunately, Shinji was swift on the uptake. “Unfortunately, I believe Tsubasa is rather exhausted dealing with her uncle’s passing. Perhaps we can arrange a meeting for another time?”

    Fortunately Handa nodded. “I understand.” He reached into his breast jacket and retrieved a business card. “Nonetheless, I have to advise we go through the details as soon as we can. There are legal issues, as well as inheritance taxes, we have to deal with. When you’re ready, you can contact me at this number.”

    Her mind dizzy, Tsubasa absently accepted the proffered card. “Thank you, I will.”

    Adaptor, idol, now business-political mega-conglomerate leader. Despite everything she had gone through, a part of her couldn’t help but feel that she didn’t deserve it. Another part of her wanted to get started immediately.

    ----​

    “Bikky, Hina!” The familiar voice of Yumi Itaba shouted.

    The two so-nicknamed turned to see Yumi, Shiori, and Kuriyo approaching, the former at a sprint while the latter two approached at a more leisurely pace.

    “Yumi!” Hibiki greeted back. “Good morning!”

    “Good morning!” Yumi replied enthusiastically. Then, as the group fell into step together, she continued. “Hey, guess what.”

    “What?” Hibiki asked.

    Yumi looked indignant. “You’re supposed to guess!”

    “She managed to convince her parents to order a NERV Gear.” Shiori rolled her eyes.

    “Shiori!” Yumi pouted. “They were supposed to guess!”

    “I’m not going to let them suffer through guessing on whatever new trinket has caught your interest.” The blonde sniffed. “Not to mention it isn’t all that great news.”

    “Besides, shouldn’t you be more focused on studies?” Miku asked. “The term finals are coming up next week, you know?” Next to her, Hibiki grimaced.

    “Oh, it's on extended delivery.” Yumi said. “So it won’t get here until after they’re over! And I’ll have all next term to see whether that entire ‘help you study’ thing is legit or not.”

    “You okay, Hina?” Kuriyo decided to change the subject. “I notice you seem a little stiff?”

    Miku smiled slightly. So Kuriyo noticed that, huh? “Hibiki taught me some exercises that she’s been doing all these years during the weekend.” She admitted. “I’m a little sore from the work-out.”

    “That means it worked.” Kuriyo laughed. “Just don’t let Bikky overstress you ‘till you get used to it.”

    Hibiki gave her a playful shove. “Jeeze, Kuriyo! Have a little more faith in me.”

    Miku instead simply smiled. “Oh, I know she would never do that.”

    “Oh, Hina!” Shiori jumped in. “I just remembered: someone stopped me on the way to meet up with Yumi and Kuriyo. He asked if I knew you and wanted me to pass on a message.”

    “Eh?” Miku asked. “What was it?”

    “Let’s see…” Shiori pressed a finger to her chin in thought. “It was... ‘You should have foreseen consequences’, I think?”

    “What the heck?” Yumi laughed. “That sounds like something a character in an anime would say!” She paused thoughtfully. “Or maybe a video game?”

    Neither Hibiki or Miku were laughing though. Instead they exchanged a concerned look. Finally Hibiki said. “Anything else?”

    “No.” Shiori frowned. “Although, now that I think of it, that isn’t a very polite thing to say. Why didn’t I realize that earlier?”

    “This man.” Miku said quickly. “What did he look like?”

    Shiori’s brow furrowed in confusion, he frown deepening. “It’s strange. I… actually can’t quite recall much. He seemed a little sick, I think, based on how pale he was.”

    “Shiori.” Hibiki’s voice had gone dead serious. “If you see this man again, you need to avoid him and tell us immediately.”

    Shiori blinked. “Huh?”

    “Bikky?” Kuriyo asked, surprised at the serious turn from someone normally so happy go-lucky. “Is he dangerous?”

    “We don’t know.” Miku added. “But he’s been seen following people from work around. We don’t know whether he’s friendly or hostile, but it is better not to take chances.”

    “Excuse me.” A completely new voice cut in, their Japanese tinged with a heavy accent that marked some unfamiliarity. The group turned to take in the new girl, about two years younger than them, who had approached them. Her light skin tone and eye structure marked her as foreign, either European or American, yet she wore a Lydian first year’s uniform. Long blonde hair cascaded down her back and there was nervousness in her blue-green eyes and posture, with both of her hands clasped in front of her. She was looking at Miku. “Are you Miku Kohinata?”

    “Yes?” Miku replied. “Can I help you?”

    The girl closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, the nervousness was gone. In its place was determination… and hate. Then she lunged at Miku, the separation of her hands revealing a switch knife whose blade flicked out. “DIE, SYMPHOBITCH!”

    Hibiki moved almost instinctively. In one fluid motion she stepped between Miku and the younger girl, caught the girl by the knife arm, curled inside, and flipped her around before the lunging girl could even process what was happening. She cried out in pain and surprise, the knife slipping from her hands, as Hibiki threw her down and locked her into a solid submission hold.

    “LET ME GO!” The girl was now shouting in english, thrashing futilely in Hibiki’s grip. “YOU FUCKING… DAMN IT! LET ME GO! LET ME KILL HER! I GOTTA KILL HER! PAPA, PAPA!”

    “Hina!” Yumi shouted, “Are you okay?!”

    “Y-yes.” Miku said, clutching her hands to her chest in surprise. A number of passerby, whom Miku quickly realized were plain-clothed SONG agents, had started to storm up towards them the moment the girl had revealed the knife, while others, probably just regular civilians, had turned and were watching the commotion in confusion.

    “Tachibana.” One of the plain clothes agents said as he came up. “We’ll take her from here.”

    Hibiki nodded to him but didn’t let go until the agent had slapped cuffs on the girl and had his own solid grip on her. At that point, she immediately turned to attend to Miku. Another agent had pulled out his communicator with HQ and was busy reporting about the failed attack on the adaptor’s life.

    All the while, the girl shouted, raved, and cried, alternating between either cursing at Miku, Hibiki, and the agents or screaming incoherently for her father.

    The agent with the communicator turned, “We have some cars on the way pick-up. Girls, you should all come to HQ with us.”

    “Us too?!” Kuriyo exclaimed. The agent simply nodded in reply.

    “But our classes-” Miku began.

    “Your teachers will be informed.” The agent reassured her as a trio of black cars with tinted windows appeared around the corner and pulled up along the roadside. The agents handling the girl, whose own shouting was finally beginning to taper off from exhaustion, were already hauling her over towards the rearmost vehicle. She resisted them long enough to deliver one last withering glare at Miku before finally being forced into the back seat.

    ----​

    Next Chapter: Storm Clouds

    ----​

    Authors Notes: These cliffhangers man. What is this, Symphogear G?

    For those who might not understand the significance of the “40,000 yen figure”, a quick note on Japanese funeral rites: if wikipedia isn’t lying to me, guests to a funeral are supposed to bring an envelope containing a certain amount of money to help assist in paying for the whole thing. Quantities are supposed to be between 3,000 and 30,000 yen depending on wealth and relationship to the deceased. Additionally, a video I watched on the subject claimed that guests generally bring an odd number so as to avoid multiples of the number of 4, due to its Japanese cultural associations with death.

    I leave it up to you to guess as to the significance of the Pale Man flaunting these rules in multiple different ways, particularly when combined with the message he left.
     
    Nickballas likes this.
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: Storm Clouds
    psnuker

    psnuker Commander of 10 Million Men...

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    Author’s Note: Trigger warning, there is a homophobic slur in this chapter.


    Distortions
    Chapter 4:
    Storm Clouds

    ----​

    [15Z601 Secure Access. Please Enter Authentication: ******* ]
    [Authentication Verified]
    [BRAVO-ROMEO-DELTA Clearance Verified]
    [Archival Request Granted]
    [15Z601 Audio Log #54781-K-3256. Date: 07/03/2045 0218 GMT]
    [NOTE: Log Classified BRAVO-ROMEO-DELTA. Per Red Unit COMSEC Protocols, TFH-WU Callsigns Are Used For Speakers.]

    [15Z601 Link Established. Log Begins.]

    The Lamb: “Red Unit’s secured the line. Professor-108, what’s the status of Project Sabin?”
    P108: “Developing as expected.”
    The Lamb: “So the schedule remains the same?”
    P108: “Yes.”
    The Lamb: “Alright, how about Project 54R301?”
    P108: “More significant problems. Engineering difficulty working out specific parts. Current rate; unacceptable delays.”
    The Lamb: “Do you have a solution?”
    P108: “Autoscorers.”
    [Significant Pause Recorded]
    The Lamb: “You are joking?”
    P108: “No. Equivalent autoscorer parts high technological. Tangential development from alchemical advances. No philosophical conflict.”
    The Lamb: “Ah, I see what you mean now. But don’t you already have the blueprints for them? Not to mention the ones for those cyborgs?”
    P108: “Samples permit finer measurement. Moves project timeframe to acceptable boundaries. Cyborg samples better, regretfully unavailable.”
    The Lamb: “Well, there’s only one place we can acquire autoscorer parts in quantity. Though acquisition would be.... noticeable. You are aware this means moving other schedules up?”
    P108: “Risk acceptable.”
    The Lamb: “I suppose so.”
    [Significant Pause Recorded]
    The Lamb: “One last thing. Whisky-November-1 contacted me. She wants to know if you had anything to do with Emily.”
    P108: “No.”
    The Lamb: “Are you lying to me?”
    P108: “No.”
    [Significant Pause Recorded]
    The Lamb: “Very well. I’ll have Red Unit begin moving the assets and drawing up a plan.”

    [15Z601 Link Terminated. Log Ends]

    ----​

    “Her name is Emily Acampora.” Fujitaka began, staring at the left screen on the main monitor showing the blonde girl in her cell, curled into a fetal position in the far corner. The right screen was showing an image of the smiling teenage girl in modestly casual clothes, obviously taken for some form of identification.

    For the second time in as many weeks, the adaptors had found themselves having to drop everything at the news an attempt had been made on one of their lives. The horrifying thought of this becoming a trend had already occurred to them but there was nothing to be done for that. At least this time nobody was hurt.. This did not ease Tsubasa’s nerves one bit, however. She rushed into SONG headquarters with the same urgency as she had after Genjuro’s death, and then started hovering around Miku and Hibiki like a mother hen. Ogawa would have to do something about the surviving Kazanari’s mental state.

    The commander’s chair was still empty. Ogawa couldn’t bring himself to sit in it yet, instead opting to simply stand next to it as he listened Sakuya reel off what information they had to the girls.

    Sakuya continued. “She’s an American from San Diego. Age fifteen. Daughter of Alexander and Savannah Acompora. Her father was in the US Navy, but is listed as killed in action since a year and a half ago. Her mother is an assistant surgeon. Emily was reported missing three days ago. Based on her passport, she flew in yesterday.”

    “How did she get a Lydian uniform if she’s from America?” Kirika asked.

    “Best we can tell, she stole it.” Fujitaka replied. “Probably so it would be less suspicious when she approached Kohinata.” As it was, the plain clothes agents they had following the girls to school wouldn’t have thought to suspect a fifteen year old.

    “I never met her before.” Miku’s voice was heavily distressed. “Why would she want to kill me?” Next to her, Hibiki gave her hand a comforting squeeze.

    “We’re not sure.” Ogawa sighed. “The attack was clearly planned in advance, and she had access to information she shouldn’t have known.”

    “She knew Hina was a Symphogear.” Kuriyo observed. The three friends of Miku and Hibiki had found themselves signing another round of NDAs after arriving but adding another secret onto the pile of secrets they were keeping was hardly much of an issue for anyone.

    “The Pale Man.” Tsubasa said suddenly. She looked over at Shiori. “You said the Pale Man gave you that message for Kohinata.”

    Shiori shifted uncomfortably under the idol’s judging gaze. “I think? I mean, he seemed kind of pale when he talked to me but I can’t really remember what he looked like or whether he’s as pale as you have described.”

    “Neither could I.” Ogawa’s voice was sympathetic. “Only the girls ever really seem to properly see and remember him.”

    “Was it a warning?” Hibiki wondered. “Or a threat?”

    “I’m not having another argument about whether he’s an enemy or not.” Chris growled. She jabbed a thumb at the girl on the screen. “Not to mention it doesn’t answer the question of why. Why don’t you just ask her how she knew and why she did it?”

    “We did.” Tomosato said. She pressed a button and a new window popped up showing Emily sitting across from a uniformed SONG agent.

    “Emily, please. We don’t want to hurt you. Why did you do it?” He asked in English, an autotranslation program making sure everybody understood what was being said.

    “I’m not going to talk to you.“ Her voice was tired and flat. “I’ll only talk to the adaptors. Alone.”

    Tomosato stopped closed the screen. “That’s all she ever says. Variations on it, anyways.”

    “She can’t be serious.” Yumi growled. “She tries to kill Hina and then wants to talk only after Bikky beat her up?”

    Shirabe nodded in agreement, glaring at Emily’s image. “Suspicious.”

    “Suspicious or not.” Maria spoke up. “I say we go in and talk with her.”

    Chris boggled at the redhead. “Are you out of your mind?”

    “No.” Maria retorted. Then, she began ticking the reasons off on her fingers. “One, she’s in cuffs and totally disarmed. Two, we’re on a submarine full of SONG agents, so it’s not like she’ll do anything crazy. And three, there’s seven of us and only one of her. Even if we weren’t adaptors, I’m sure we could all overpower a single, unarmed teenage girl in handcuffs.”

    Chris opened her mouth to reply then snapped it shut when she found she couldn’t muster up any objections to that.

    “I suppose that makes it fist one, reason one then.” Kirika muttered.

    --

    Emily gradually lifted her head at the sound of the cell door opening.Her eyes were red. She hoped her guests couldn’t tell she had been crying. As they filtered in, she took in the adaptors with a largely listless gaze but the moment Miku stepped through the door her stare hardened into one of baleful hate.

    The door closed behind them, but it did not lock. Maria stood next to it, ready to try and intercept Emily if she made a break for it. Kirika, Shirabe, Chris, and Tsubasa formed a semi-circle between Miku and Emily, with Chris and Tsubasa forming the front, while Hibiki remained a comforting presence directly beside her girlfriend. Emily didn’t seem to notice, simply glancing between them for several seconds but everybody could see the way her eyes hardened whenever they found their way to Miku.

    “So…” She finally said, the word being translated over the speakers a moment after she said it. She paused and glanced up for a moment at that, then apparently decided to ignore it. “You came.”

    “Why did you try to kill Miku?” Hibiki immediately demanded, her words being translated back.

    Emily didn’t answer immediately. Instead she leaned her head back and shut her eyes, suddenly seeming so very tired. Finally, she asked. “Did they tell you how my father died?”

    Chris angrily opened her mouth to demand what that had to do with anything but Maria quickly preempted her. “Only that he was killed in action.”

    Emily‘s head jerked back down, a little surprised. “Is that all?” The bitterness in her voice was overwhelming. “They didn’t even have the gumption to lie to you then. They told me the Noise killed him. You know, during the Frontier Incident. They listed all the casualties in that as from the Noise.” She scowled. “Fucking liars.”

    Well, that was plausible. Not to mention, the timeline fit with what the briefing said. But Maria was beginning to suspect another possibility. An awful, terrible possibility she wish she had realized earlier.

    Unfortunately, she couldn’t figure out how to phrase the next question before Kirika spoke up. “What does that have to do with Miku?”

    Emily scowled, her voice rising in anger. “You honestly haven’t figured it out already? YOU MORONS!” She jerked her head at Miku. “She killed him! Vaporized him with that fucking gear of hers, along with most everyone else inside the ship! All those people! And for what?! Some fucking dyke crush?”

    Miku flinched back in shock at the accusation but Hibiki scowled. “It’s not Miku’s fault! Doctor Ver brainwashed her.”

    “Bullshit!” Emily snapped back. “She agreed to trust the Doctor, even though he was one of the people holding her in a fucking cage! She agreed to wear the gear in the first place! It’s her fucking fault.“

    “She was trying to save Hibiki!” Kirika jumped in.

    “Oh don’t you try and defend her!” Emily practically screamed. “You're almost as responsible as she is for those deaths. After all, who was the one who decided to stick with the Doctor even after it became obvious how psychotic he was?! All because you were afraid of nobody remembering you? Even your girlfriend knew better than that!” Her voice lowered into a hiss. “She’s too good for you.”

    Kirika reeled back as if slapped. Angered, Shirabe tried to move forward, but Tsubasa’s arm shot out and stymied her path. For her part, Maria’s eyes narrowed. She’d have to speak with Kirika later. And Shirabe too.

    “And besides!” Emily’s glare snapped back to Hibiki. “Why was papa’s life worth less than hers?! Because she’s a Symphogear? Because she was in love with her? Does that mean the rest of our lives are mean nothing? All those people… my father… did their lives mean nothing to you?!” She yanked at her handcuffs, as if were an angry dog barely held back by a leash. “Fuck you!

    “Even so!” Hibiki angrily retorted. “None of that makes hurting Miku right! We’re sorry about your father, and if we could change his fate we would. But hurting others won’t bring him back! How is it supposed to help?”

    “Besides,” Chris bit out. “How do you know it wasn’t the Noise, huh? You weren’t there! How do you know about all this at all?!”

    Emily had been clearly building herself for a retort at Hibiki but when Chris asked that last question, all emotions seemed to drain out of her. She seemed to deflate and her angry glare turned into a vacant stare.

    “They showed me.” Emily said but this time it didn’t sound like she was talking to anyone.

    Maria’s eyes narrowed, already suspecting who ‘they’ were. “Who?”

    “They showed me.” Emily simply repeated. “They showed me the record. The record from Sefer HaChaim. It saw everything. It heard everything. It felt everything.” Her eyes teared up but the vacant stare remained. “Even Papa… Papa’s last moments.”

    Suddenly she tried to stand up. Everyone tensed but it took quite a bit for the blonde girl to stagger to her feet. She shambled forward until she was but a few steps away from both Chris and Tsubasa then stopped just when the two were just about ready to subdue her.

    “But they also showed me...” Some emotions started creeping back into Emily. Her mouth turned in a twisted, gleeful smile. Her voice took on a sense of giddiness. “They also showed me what is coming. They are coming. And Auntie… Auntie is with them. She is one of them now. They will do what I cannot. You will all die.”

    Tsubasa opened her mouth to demand who ‘they’ were, but the question died on her mouth as she noticed that something was wrong. “Look out, the cuffs are-”

    Tearing out of her handcuffs, Emily tried to charge straight past Tsubasa and Chris towards Miku. But Tsubasa was already moving and Chris was just an instant behind. The blonde hadn’t even taken one step before the two pounced on her and in another moment Emily was back on the ground, laying face down and pinned, with a small knife clattering to the floor beside her. Unlike the first time with Hibiki, this time Emily didn’t continue to struggle at all, instead she just went limp on the floor.

    The door slammed open and the SONG agents who had been standing just outside in case of trouble rushed in, followed by Ogawa. The agents quickly took over from Tsubasa and Chris, slapping a fresh pair of handcuffs on Emily and taking time to double check them before hauling her to her feet. Again, Emily didn’t resist. Indeed, she didn’t seem to be responding to anything. Her face had gone completely blank, her eyes half-lidded, and her head lolled about as gravity willed it. If not for the gentle rise and fall of her chest, they would have all thought she was dead.

    “What the hell?!” Chris shouted angrily. “How did she get out of those cuffs? And where did she get that knife?”

    “I would like to know that myself.” Ogawa said, reaching down to pick up the discarded cuffs. Her inspected them briefly. “Someone loosened them from the outside. And recently, too.”

    “How recently?” Maria asked.

    “No more than 30 minutes ago.” Ogawa answered.

    “Four Horsemen.” Emily suddenly said. Everyone turned to look at her at the sudden exclamation. “Four Horsemen.” She repeated, then fell silent again. The agents holding her glanced at Ogawa, who simply nodded, and they dragged her off.

    “Miku?” Hibiki asked her girlfriend, who was staring at the door where the agents had dragged Emily off. “Are you okay?”

    Miku blinked at the question then looked over at Hibiki and gave her a reassuring smile. But there was clear uncertainty in it and she didn’t actually respond.

    “H-hey.” Chris jumped in, trying to comfort her. “Don’t tell me you believe her crap? There’s no way she could have known like she claimed she did! I bet the Noise got him like everyone else and she’s just taking it out on us.”

    Miku bit her lip and cast her eyes down. “If you say so.”

    Hibiki simply hugged her.

    “Kohinata.” Maria said suddenly. Miku looked questioningly at her. “If you ever need to talk… my door is always open.”

    “Thank you.” Miku replied. “I may… take you up on that sometime.”

    -----​

    In light of the days events, Miku and Hibiki were permitted an excused absence from school. To ensure their safety, a SONG car drove them home. Hibiki noticed how quiet and pensive Miku was being but every time she broached the topic Miku would just brush it off with an “I’m fine”.

    Miku wasn’t sure whether Emily was telling the truth or Chris was right and she was lying. Or at least, that was what she was telling herself at the moment. How could Emily have known, really? On the other hand, she couldn’t conceive of someone being angry enough to try and kill her unless they knew for sure.

    Perhaps, Miku told herself, Emily simply believed it to be the truth that much?

    It was as Hibiki inserted the key into their apartments front door that a familiar voice called out to them. “Tachibana, Kohinata?” They turned to see their landlord, a genial old man, approaching them. “I’m so sorry to trouble you two but there’s been some trouble with the last two months’ rent payment. Could I talk to one of you about it?”

    “Oh. Ummm…” Hibiki began, looking over at Miku.

    Miku smiled softly and placed a comforting hand on Hibiki’s arm. “I’m fine, Hibiki, go ahead. I’ll try and figure out what we’ll do for lunch.”

    Hibiki hesitated for a moment, then nodded and stepped aside to let Miku by as she began talking with the landlord. “So what is the problem?”

    As she shut the door behind her, Miku gave a soft sigh. What were they going to do for lunch? Normally she’d never pass up the opportunity to cook for Hibiki, or vice-versa, but she felt as if it her heart wasn’t in it. As she crossed the living room, she pondered the question. But what did that leave? Well, they still had the bentos they had made. But perhaps it was better to preserve that for tomorrow.

    Stepping into the kitchen, Miku stopped in front of the refrigerator to inspect it’s contents. She took mental note of several things they were low on to write down later, Hibiki did love her rice, and weighed their options. But despite her best efforts to distract herself, she kept finding her mind slipping back to Emily and her accusations.

    With a sigh, she shut the refrigerator door without selecting anything. Yes, she definitely didn’t feel like cooking this time. So takeout or bento it was. Instant food wasn’t an option, that was a rule she held to fastidiously, for Hibiki’s health as much as her own. Miku turned around.

    And found the Pale Man standing in the kitchen just several meters from her.

    Miku froze in surprise at the apparition’s sudden appearance. He was here. In her home. In the apartment she and Hibiki had picked out together. Possibly the very place she hoped they would live together for the rest of their lives.

    The shock was so much that Miku found herself paralyzed by indecision. She didn’t know whether she should try to communicate with him, call out for Hibiki, or transform with the Shenshoujing. She was suddenly painfully aware of the fact that she had only just started training outside of her gear with Hibiki the weekend before. And in those moments of indecision, the Pale Man made the first move. Whatever Miku thought she expected him to do, she certainly did not expect him to reach into his jacket, pull out a photograph, and present it to her as if it was a business card.

    Well… how else was she supposed to respond to that? Hesitantly, Miku reached out and accepted the proffered photograph.

    There were four people, two women, a girl, and a man, in the photograph, all dressed in casual clothes in front of a house. Miku’s attention was immediately drawn to the girl and not just because she was at the center of the photo. Even several years younger and with her hair about half as long, there was no real way of mistaking Emily after the encounter Miku had with her earlier today. Even if she almost looked like a completely different person with the brilliant smile and laugh on her face.

    The man on Emily’s right was down on her knees and had her wrapped up in a bear hug. The woman next to him simply had a hand on the man’s shoulder and was staring fondly down at the two. It was easy to tell by the familial resemblance they were Emily’s parents. The woman on Emily’s left on the other hand certainly seemed more distantly related given the brunette hair color. She still had both Emily’s and the man’s blue-green eyes though. She appeared to be in the process of ruffling Emily’s hair.

    Miku’s attention drifted down to a scrawl on the bottom right corner. She wasn’t the most fluent in English, but she could still make out what it said.

    Me, mama, papa, & auntie together 4ever

    Miku felt her breath hitch and he shifted his rifle to a more comfortable firing position, trying to ignore the fear that ran down his spine. For the past dozen or so minutes, he could hear screams and gunfire as his crewmates tried their best to fight the Noise outside. Now, the noise was starting to quiet down. He didn’t know whether that meant the Noise were dead or everyone else was. He and the other men in the room weren’t about to stick their heads out and check.

    Even though he knew bullets wouldn’t affect the Noise, the gun provided him with a sort of comfort he wasn’t willing to give up. It also didn’t make much sense to keep it trained on the doorway when the Noise could phase through the walls to get at him, but training had a way of ingraining certain habits. Same reason he had turned over a table for cover.

    On his left, Frank suddenly cocked his head and frowned. Frank had generally had a great sense of hearing, which was surprisingly useful when it came to determining what was broken in the machinery. Frank glanced over at him. “Hey Alex, do y-”

    The high-pitched noise of the purple beam that bore through the wall to their left drowned out everything as assuredly as it consumed everything. It enveloped the whole room in it’s glow, obliterating it. And in the split second before his consciousness was burned away, his last thoughts were of Emily.


    Miku came back to herself still staring at the photograph. Except instead of it being in her hands, it was on the floor and instead of standing up, she was on her knees. Small water stains already were collecting on its surface.

    That was… that was real. That had actually happened. Miku knew that as assuredly as she knew that her own eyes were green. That was what actually happened. Emily was right. Miku had killed those people. People with families and friends and loved ones who would never see them again. All because of her own selfish desires. She was a murderer. Worse, she realized as she contemplated the thought further, that same selfishness had almost ended the world, almost ruined everything Hibiki had fought for. How could she be so arrogant as to think she could fight alongside Hibiki, who put her own heart and soul into saving others, with what she had done?

    The tears that came next were practically a flood.

    “Miku, I’m back!” Hibiki called as she entered the apartment. “Turns out there was just some confusion on the bank’s end ov-“ Hibiki froze as she entered the kitchen and saw Miku, alone, sunk down on her knees, and bawling her eyes out. The dirty-blonde’s eyes widened in alarm. ”Miku?!”

    In a flash, Hibiki was down next to Miku and embracing her. “Miku! It’s fine, totally fine.”

    “N-no Hibiki. It’s not fine!” Miku sobbed, simultaneously craving and despising the contact. “Emily’s right! I killed them! I murdered them! I’m a terrible person! I don’t deserve the Shensoujing! I don’t deserve yo-”

    “DON’T SAY THAT!” Hibiki shouted in alarm, making Miku flinch in her arms. Hibiki squeezed Miku to her tighter, speaking more softly now. “You can’t know that! Emily wasn’t-”

    “I saw it!” Miku interrupted, an unsteady hand pointing at the photo on the floor, covered in her tears. “When I looked at the photograph, I saw her father’s last moments. I felt his last moments! It was just as she said!”

    “Even so,” Hibiki said softly. “So what if you messed up in the past? That doesn’t make you a bad person. You regret it and if you could do it again, I know you wouldn’t do that. You’re Miku Kohinata, my sunshine, and you wield the Shenshoujing by my side! Nothing will ever change that.”

    “B-but-” Miku hiccuped. She heard Hibiki’s words but her thoughts kept contrasting them with what she had felt from the end of that… that record. Of a father’s love for his daughter. Of his hopes and dreams for her. Of his fear for her future when he was gone. And how it was because of Miku that he was gone. How could Hibiki forgive her for that? “H-how could you just accept-”

    Words weren’t reaching her. Hibiki could tell that. So she went with her gut instinct and kissed Miku.

    It wasn’t their first kiss. That had come after their initial confession. It wasn’t even their second kiss or third one, though those instances had been relatively more chaste. As had their fourth even if Chris, who had been a witness, disagreed that it was “chaste”.

    But this kiss was different. The first had been a confirmation of the feelings they had confessed and the understanding they had reached. The others had largely been small, quick events to tease each other… or Chris, as the case may be.

    But with this kiss now Hibiki was communicating in a way that her words could not. And when she and Miku broke the kiss a few seconds later, gazing into each others eyes, Hibiki knew she had succeeded.

    Sniffling, Miku finally leaned into the embrace now, bringing her own arms up to return it.

    “Hibiki?” Miku asked, her voice still trembling slightly from crying.

    “Hm?” Hibiki replied, stroking Miku’s hair soothingly.

    “Stay with me.”

    Hibiki softly whispered. “Always.”

    Right then and there, Miku knew without a doubt that Hibiki, at least, thought Miku did deserve her. Hibiki thought Miku was a good person. Hibiki forgave her.

    If only Miku could find a way to forgive herself.

    ----​

    “Frankly, sir, we have no idea how her cuffs were loosened or how that knife got in there.” Fujitaka said. “Emily’s refused to say anything. In fact, she’s stopped doing… anything. She’s lapsed into some kind of comatose state. We had to feed her lunch through a tube to keep her alive. And the security footage shows there was simply nobody else in the room prior to the girls.”

    Ogawa sighed. “Then it’s a lost cause. Let’s focus on what we did learn from that interrogation. First, the Four Horsemen.”

    “Well that’s obvious enough.” Elfnein said, taking a moment to blow on the cup of coffee she was drinking. “The Book of Revelations, verse six. The first four of the seven seals of the apocalypse. Four riders on horses colored white, red, black, and pale.” Then she frowned. “The problem is that there is no basis for them in any alchemical records or custodian records as being related, at least not that we’ve found. What information we have suggests they were no more than allegories for the evils of the Roman Empire, not anything related to Alchemy or the Custodians.”

    “We do have a Pale Man stalking the adaptors.” Tomosato pointed out.

    “That is so.” Elfnein conceded. “And our records are extremely far from complete. But I think that is more a coincidence. More than likely, 'Four Horsemen' is an adopted moniker.”

    “A moniker.” Ogawa muttered, putting the pieces together. “The group behind Voronin then?”

    “That seems most likely.“ Elfnein nodded. “Emily mentioned her aunt was one of them.”

    “And we know who she is.” Fujitaka said, bringing up an image on the main monitor of a severe looking brunette in dress uniform. “Lieutenant Samantha Acampora, United States Army. Younger sister of Alexander Acampora, Emily’s father. Nine years of service, Medal of Honor recipient, and survivor of two Noise attacks. There are claims she even managed to destroy some in the second instance. Rumor has it, she was the top name on the US list for their candidates to lead SONG.” Fujitaka sighed. “However, she vanished with her company three months ago. It was among the first of the UN peacekeeping units to disappear. She’s been listed as missing in action.”

    “Were they vanishings?” Ogawa wasn’t prone to voicing his thoughts aloud, but it was something he had seen Genjuro do enough. “Or were they defections?”

    Fujitaka blinked and turned at that. “That… seems like a rather extraordinary proposition. We’re talking several thousand soldiers from across dozens of different nations. Even the JSDF lost some personnel to those events.”

    “As extraordinary as one of America’s top war heroes defecting?” Tomosato pointed out. “As extraordinary as an aunt sending her niece on what is effectively a suicide mission?”

    “Well, there is no evidence yet one way or the other.” Ogawa said, although his tone made it clear he didn’t think that would last. He looked at Elfnein. “What about the other thing Emily mentioned. Sefer HaChaim, I believe?”

    Sefer Hachaim.” Elfnein repeated. “The Book of Life. In Biblical mythology, it is the book in which God writes the names of all those that he judges to be righteous. There is nothing of it in the Alchemical records, but the Custodian records we have do make a singular reference to it.” She projected up onto the screen a selection of glyphs, highlighting one particular group. “Here. This group of glyphs mention the Book of Life and say it is related to Balal, but the problem is they don’t say how or what it does.”

    “The Curse of Balal?” Fujitaka groaned. “Really? I thought we were done with that thing.”

    Tomosato’s brow creased in thought. “Emily said she was shown a record from it. That combined with the Biblical legend would imply that Sefer Hachaim is some kind of… monitoring or recording system left by the Custodians.”

    “Linking such a system to the Curse of Balal would make sense.” Elfnein agreed. “But it would have been destroyed when the curse was broken. So how could there be any records from it left?”

    “And how would the Four Horsemen have access to it?” Ogawa chuckled. “Every answered question just raises new questions, huh.” Well, that was a problem he was familiar with.

    “There is…” Elfnein paused, hesitating. “There is one more thing.” On the main monitor, she brought up the floorplan of the HQ and highlighted the cell Emily had been interrogated in. “I ran a scan of the cell blocks following the interrogation and I found… this.” She threw up a graph of wavy lines that didn’t make much sense to Ogawa. At his confused look, she explained. “It’s faint, but there is definitely some kind of… signature there. Some sort of energy was used. It seems… familiar somehow. I’d like permission to look into it further.”

    Ogawa scratched his head nervously. They only had so much personnel, so much funds, so much spare processing power in their mainframes. They were expending tons of resources as it is trying to find out more about the Four Horsemen and the Pale Man, keeping the adaptors from suffering Genjuro’s fate, and ensuring the systems in SONG Headquarters weren’t compromised again. As much as Ogawa hated to admit it, they were being stretched thin. Could they really afford to stretch themselves even further chasing what might well be a sensor’s ghost?

    “At this moment, we don’t have the manpower.” Ogawa finally decided. “We need to concentrate our efforts on finding out more about the Pale Man and the Four Horsemen. We don’t have the resources to go chasing after this right now. I’m sorry.”

    He hoped made the right decision.

    ----​

    “Thank you for coming, Kazanari.” Handa Kohaku said, all business. Tsubasa absently wondered if he had a setting other than ‘all business’. “I know your schedule must be extremely busy.”

    “I know this simply could not wait.” Tsubasa replied, her tone equally formal. “And I wish to thank you, Kohaku, for bringing it to my attention.”

    “I was simply doing my job.” Handa’s attention was on his computer now, pulling up the relevant files. “Is your manager not joining us?”

    “Ogawa has picked up a second job recently that has kept him extremely busy.” Tsubasa answered. “He may in fact have to retire from the position.”

    “I understand.” Kohaku said simply. “I believe I have everything here. So, let’s begin…”

    In the course of the several hour meeting, Tsubasa realized very rapidly one thing: it was too much. Not for her to handle, that is. Certainly, the Kazanari Foundation was enormous but between herself and the assortment of functionaries that now worked for her - and wasn’t that a heady thought! - actually running it was something she could handle.

    Rather, Tsubasa realized that the Foundation was too much power. She had understood well enough that the Foundation wielded a lot of political and economic influence but until now, going over the investments in detail, she hadn’t realized precisely how much. Her Grandfather essentially had the entire political-economic structure of Japan in the palm of his hand. Even the inroads made recently by new foreign companies marketing new technological breakthroughs since her grandfathers arrest had only lessened the hold, not broken it.

    It was simply too dangerous, Tsubasa decided. She had to get rid of it. Not all of it, it was still her family's heritage, but enough of it to break the monopoly.

    It was while running down a list of properties under the direct or indirect ownership of the foundation, trying to decide which ones to sell, which to outright donate, and which to keep, that Tsubasa came across a familiar name.

    “The Château de Tiffauges?” She looked up questioningly. “I thought the property was turned over to the UN?”

    “Not quite.” Kohaku replied. “Legally speaking, the property remains under the ownership of the Kazanari Foundation. Rather, an agreement was reached to rent out control of the property to the UN for a minimal fee. I believe some researchers contracted by SONG work there now and security is handled by the JSDF.”

    “I see.” So now she was a rentier to the UN in addition to working for them? The irony almost made her laugh out loud. Still, wouldn’t that be some sort of conflict of interest? “Could you arrange a meeting with the relevant representative? I would like to completely transfer this property to them.”

    “Are you sure, Kazanari?” Kohaku raised an eyebrow. “Your grandfather fought quite hard for that property.”

    ‘Yeah, so he could use it to further his own delusions of grandeur.’ Tsubasa thought. Out loud, she said. “I feel that it is much more suitable that the UN be given control over the site. They’re the ones in charge of SONG, after all, and SONG are the experts on such location.”

    “I see.” Kohaku nodded. “I’ll see what can be arranged.”

    Internally, Tsubasa sighed with relief. Finally, she’d be done with the Château for good.

    ----​

    [15Z601 Alert - Operation Orders Received]
    [Challenge: GOLF-FIVE-ROMEO-TANGO-ZULU-MIKE]
    [Response: ECHO-FOUR-OSCAR-BRAVO-INDIA-VICTOR]
    [Authentication Verified - TACCOM Protocols Engaged]

    White Noise Support: Authorized
    Air Support: Authorized
    Armored Support: Denied
    Indirect Fire Support: Restricted
    Long-Range Support: Restricted
    PFW Support: Denied
    Sabin Deployment: Unavailable

    [Primary Objective Set]
    Secure/Hold Objective Designated CHARLIE-DELTA-TANGO
    Secure/Hold/Egress All Objectives Designated ALPHA-SIERRA-PAPA
    Secure/Hold Perimeter Around Primary Objectives

    [Secondary Objective Set]
    Upon Egress, Liquidate Objective CHARLIE-DELTA-TANGO

    [Nonessential Objective Set]
    Upon Ingress Verification, Liquidate All Objectives Designated HVT-SIERRA-1 Through 7

    [Commencing Combat Operations]

    ----​

    Next Chapter: The White Horse

    ----​

    Author’s Notes: When I first wrote the synopsis of putting Miku through the emotional wringer in my notes that I did this chapter, I felt like a piece of shit. But when I was actually writing the scene out, I didn’t feel quite as bad oddly enough.
     
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  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: The White Horse
    psnuker

    psnuker Commander of 10 Million Men...

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    Author’s Notes: The alternative name for the chapter: “Introducing The New Mooks”

    Distortions
    Chapter 5:
    The White Horse

    ----​

    -and the fluffy kitten played with the ball of string all through the night. Our top story in international news, the territorial negotiations between the foreign ministry and the People's Republic of China are reported to be entering their final stages, with both sides close-”

    “Hey corporal.”

    Corporal Motoyuki glanced over at his guest as he dropped onto the chair next to the JSDF soldier. “Doctor Yamada. Shift over for the day?”

    “Yeah.” The SONG researcher sighed. “Not a whole lot of progress though. We haven’t been making much of that for the past few weeks.”

    “Why not?” The corporal asked. Officially, it wasn’t a question he was supposed to ask. The SONG researchers were here to investigate and help safely disassemble the Château, the JSDF was here just to provide security. But after several months, most of the personnel had developed enough of a rapport that certain issues could be unofficially shared between them. Yamada and Motoyuki was one such set of acquaintances.

    Besides, it’s not like there were going to be anyone listening in on them this deep in the Château De Tiffauges. The devastation of the immediate surroundings provided a strong degree of isolation for the staff. So long as you didn’t discuss things about the Château outside of the Château, nobody really cared.

    Yamada had once laughingly called the unofficial policy “what happens in the Château, stays in the Château.” Motoyuki didn’t get it.

    “Resource diversions.” Yamada replied. “Apparently there was a security breach and they’ve had to divert processing power to plug holes. It’s really slowed down research. Someone from the UN was here earlier to explain that.“

    “Oh. I thought I saw an unfamiliar person in a business suit around here.” Motoyuki noted. “Was that him?”

    “No tie? Sunglasses?” Yamada said, then when Motoyuki nodded he continued. “Yeah. That was him. Hope he gets some rest when he goes home. That skin tone did not look healthy.”

    “Hmm.” Motoyuki acknowledged, their conversation lapsing as they returned their attention to the news.

    “-ration announced the completion of a series of upgrades to their defense network. The upgrades were originally scheduled to be completed in April, but due to revisions to the original project introduced by-”

    A sudden, distant burst of gunfire cut through the drone of the newscaster like a bull going through a China shop. Both Yamada’s and Motoyuki’s heads jerked around at the unexpected sound. The first burst of gunfire was quickly followed by more, a lot more, rising into a positive din of combat.

    “Are we under attack?” Yamada quickly asked.

    “Impossible.” Motoyuki said, although the fact he drew his sidearm was rather contradictory to his words. “The perimeter sensors would have set the alarms off well before any attackers could breach the Château.” The magazine he loaded into his pistol continued to be at odds with what he was saying. He wished his rifle wasn’t in the armory.

    The gunfire was getting closer and was joined by the first crumps of distant explosions. Still, the alarms remained strangely silent. Motoyuki could hear indistinct shouting as several people ran past the door to the hastily constructed staff lounge they were occupying. “Stay here Doctor, I’m going to check it out.”

    Yamada gulped and slid down the chair so it was between him and the door. Motoyuki had only made it halfway across the room when the power went out.

    “Corporal?” Yamada called.

    Motoyuki had stopped, trying to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. At Yamada’s voice though, he began to turn back towards the TV and chairs.

    Then the lounge door exploded inwards. Motoyuki spun back, raising his pistol before a three round burst ripped across his chest and dropped him like a stone. At the explosion, Doctor Yamada had dropped down to the floor with a surprised yelp. His heart raced in his chest as he heard Motoyuki’s body hit the ground, followed by the thumps of what must have been at least a dozen pairs of boots enter and spread across the room.

    He looked up to find a pair of blue, dully glowing circles looking right back down at him. The minute source of light combined with his eyes adjusted to the darkness let him make out the face and outline of a soldier in full battle gear carrying an assault rifle. Or he would have been able to make out the face, if it wasn’t hidden behind a gas mask modified to be integrated with the pair of goggles.

    Yamada raised his hands in surrender.

    In return, the soldier raised his rifle and put three rounds into the doctor's head.

    Outside, on a distant skyscraper’s rooftop, a lone, pale figure idly listened to the distant sound of high flying aircraft and watched the barely visible darkened outlines of a host of parachutes descend upon the Château through the night sky.

    ----​
    “Ah!” Kirika’s head shot up from the school book she had been reading. “I can’t believe I forgot!”

    “Eh?” Chris glanced over from where she was assisting Shirabe, who for her part didn’t even look up and simply raised an inquisitive eyebrow as the only sign she had heard. “Forgot something?”

    “Hibiki managed to punch out all sorts of crazy things in the intervening time since I first took the score!” Kirika proclaimed, as if this was some sort of deeply urgent revelation. “So Fist still has the lead over Reason by a whole lot!”

    Shirabe simply nodded for a moment as if that made perfect sense before returning her attention to her studies. But Chris, for her part, was extremely unimpressed with this information. “Is that really the sort of thing you should be worried about right now?”

    “Uh.” Kirika glanced from an apathetic Shirabe to an unimpressed senpai. “Probably not...?”

    “Honestly.” Chris sighed. “I agreed to let you guys over to help you study, not to listen to every single inane thing that pops into your mind.”

    “Well, then!” Kirika jabbed an impatient finger at a line in her textbook. “Do you think you can explain to me differentiation formulas?”

    “Again?” Chris asked, although her scowl was done more to hide the smile she wanted to make. As she came over and began to walk Kirika through the basics of calculus, the thought of Voronin crossed her mind unbidden. And although she didn’t let it show, just the thought of the bastard was enough to evaporate her good mood for a while.

    There had still been no sign of the Four Horsemen for the remainder of the week, or the Pale Man for that matter, if the two were really unrelated. Emily was still stuck in a comatose state at SONG headquarters, although for some reason Maria had gone to see her once. The burning hatred Chris had felt when she first learned of the man was smoldering for the moment but it was still there. And when the thought of him crossed her mind, so too did the urge to go out there and try to find him.

    About a half-hour passed when Chris’s phone started to ring. A glance at the caller ID was enough to bring the good mood right back. She glanced over at Kirika, who finally seemed to be working at it on her own. “I have to take this.”

    Having entered what she called “the study zone”, Kirika simply nodded in response without looking away from her paper. Rolling her eyes fondly, Chris got up and picked up the phone. “Moshi-moshi.”

    “Chris!” Just the voice of Komichi Ayano was enough to return Chris to the good spirits that an entire evening with her two kouhais had taken to build. “How are you?”

    “Komichi.” Chris greeted levelly, then cast a quick glance back at Shirabe and Kirika to see if they heard. She thought she might have caught Shirabe’s at the end of returning her attention to her book, but it was always tough to tell with that one. “I’m good. How about you? What’s up?”

    “Oh, you know. Bored. Bored enough that I figured I’d call you up and see if you wanted to, I don’t know, see a movie or go to the mall or something this weekend?”

    Chris took a few moments to process what precisely Komichi was asking. Was she… asking Chris on a date? Chris felt a slight blush start to creep across her face. The two had gone places, yeah, but those had always been after class meetings, first spontaneous then routine. Besides Tsubasa’s and Maria’s concert, they hadn’t ever planned something in advance before. And even the concert was really at the behest of others.

    Unfortunately, Komichi seemed to take those moments as something else. “I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to! I just, thought, you know, it’d be nice, since I had your number and all.” The enthusiasm in her voice fell with every sentence. “But I guess you don’t-”

    Chris decided to interrupt with a definite answer. “Sure.”

    “-want to… wait, really?”

    “Well…” Again, Chris glanced over her shoulder. This time, she was almost certain that Shirabe was listening in. “I can’t this weekend. I promised to help some second-year friends from Lydian study for the weekend, so they’re staying over. You remember, the two from the concert? But I don’t have any plans at all for the next weekend. Plus, college terms will be over as well!” She paused as a question occurred to her. “You are studying for those, right?”

    The sudden “urk” from the other side told Chris everything she needed to know. She sighed. Back when they were at Lydian, it had always been a coin flip whether Ayano remembered to study for tests or not. When she did, she actually did quite well. It was when she forgot that she struggled.

    “Well, consider this your official reminder then!” Chris continued. “At least you got it an entire weekend and half a school week ahead of time, yeah?”

    “Yeah.” Ayano sounded relieved. “Thanks Chris. Guess I should consider next weekend a reward then.”

    Chris blushed, not sure how to take the idea of ‘being a reward’. “‘Suppose so. A-anyway, we can hammer out the details when we see each other in class, right?”

    “Sure! It’s a date!”

    Now Chris really lit up. “D-don’t jump to conclusions so swiftly!”

    “Ah, sorry!” Ayano said quickly, although her voice didn’t really sound sorry. It rarely did, when it came to Chris.

    It had been a while, so Chris again quickly checked over her shoulder. This time, she outright met the gazes of both Kirika and Shirabe, who went rigid. Her eyes narrowed into a threatening glare and the two hastily turned their attention back to their book. She better cut this short if they were both now paying attention to her. “Sorry, Komichi. I gotta cut this short. Looks like the juniors are getting distracted.”

    “Oh!” Ayano said in realization, then her voice really did take on an apologetic air. “Sorry, I didn’t think I’d become a distraction.”

    “When did I say that?” Chris demanded. “Really now, see ya next week.”

    “Sure. See you.”

    Hanging up, Chris turned to see Shirabe and Kirika exchanging knowing grin. As usual, Kirika’s was big and wide while Shirabe was much more restrained. Chris glanced between the two before quickly snapping. “What’s so funny?!”

    The grins vanished as the two quickly returned to their books.

    “Honestly.” Chris said, rubbing her temples. Then her phone rang. Not the phone she was still holding in her hand but the emergency one that connected directly to SONG. So too did the ones belonging too Kirika and Shirabe.

    Chris suddenly had the feeling that it was going to be a long night.

    ----​

    “At around 7:30 PM, all contact was suddenly lost with both the research and security teams at the Château De Tiffauges.” Ogawa was all business right now, as the adaptors stood on the bridge. “At 8:00 PM, a JSDF recon team was dispatched to re-establish direct contact after remote efforts had repeatedly failed.”

    An image appeared on the main screen of the recon team… or what remained of it. Four burnt-out humvees sat on a dirt road, bullet ridden corpses of JSDF soldiers strewn around them. After another moment, an additional image appeared, a far shot of the Château from a skyscraper rooftop. The most obvious addition immediately drew everyone's eyes: a pair of large aircraft with four tilt-wing jets parked in the crater, a large number of tiny figures apparently moving about around them.

    “As you can see, two large VTOLs of unidentified design have landed at the Château.” Ogawa glanced around. “They failed to appear on either JSDF or Tokyo air traffic control radar, which suggests stealth capability. We believe that the Château have been seized by members of the Four Horsemen.”

    Chris’s eyes snapped away from the screen to Ogawa. “Does that mean Voronin’s with them?”

    Ogawa eyed Chris for a moment, not expecting questions until near the end. “There have not yet been any sightings of him but the possibility is there. The JSDF has already evacuated the immediate surrounding area, secured a perimeter, and are mobilizing to retake the Château. However, due to the fact the group has seized a stronghold of heretical technology that is itself a relic, the Japanese Government has asked SONG for assistance.”

    A third image appeared, a top-down map of the entire devastated region surrounding the Château, about 5 kilometers across.

    “Attempts at low-altitude air reconnaissance were aborted when they reported lock attempts by the enemy, presumably handheld SAMs, but high altitude passes and observation from surrounding rooftops have identified anti-tank missile launchers at these locations.” As Ogawa spoke, dozens of triangles appeared in a circle following the lip of the Château’s crater walls. “They are your primary objective. You’ll deploy by helicopter to the southern part of Yoyogi Park, where you will then have to approach the Château by land.”

    “Eh?” Kirika asked. “Why not chopper us all the way in?”

    “Our helicopters don’t have the altitude to fly over handheld SAMs.” Tomasoto explained.

    Ogawa nodded. “Once you have destroyed the AT launchers, report what you can see of the Château and we’ll decide how to proceed from there. Are there any questions?”

    “Enemy defenses and force strength?” Tsubasa asked.

    “Largely unknown, but we presume at least a few thousand.” Ogawa replied. “Best we can tell from the recon, it’s practically all infantry. We haven’t seen any indication of Alca-Noise deployers, but given the history of these sorts of groups we can expect them to show up. As for the soldiers, they seem to have dug slit trenches across the area, although many of them are too well-camouflaged for us to spot. Based on the recon team, they’ll start shooting at you once you enter the cleared zone around the Château.”

    “Why don’t we just bomb these guys out?” Chris asked. “This is the fourth time we’ve had to go back there and I’m kinda getting sick of it.”

    Elfnein fielded that one. “The Château has a lot of still poorly understood heretical technology that heavily interact with each other. Their sudden destruction could cause a chain reaction that annihilates the entire Tokyo region. That’s why demolition has been so slow.”

    “One thing I don’t understand.” Maria added. “Those VTOL designs don’t look very stealthy. Tilt-wings just aren’t built for that under normal circumstances.” She should know, she had to fly one before and the only way they could stealth it was with the Shenshoujing.

    Ogawa nodded in agreement. “Frankly, the experts we talked too are baffled as well. Absent the Shenshoujing, the only way they can think of to hide such aircraft would be to construct it entirely out of radar absorbent material, but it’s impossible to do that with certain parts of the aircraft, like the jet turbines. Hopefully, their capture will yield some answers.”

    “Well, we know it’s not the Shenshoujing.” Hibiki smiled at Miku, who returned it with some slight nervousness. It was her first battle since Shem-Ha and her first real mission, so she was feeling the jitters. Tsubasa noted the exchange and made a quiet decision to talk to the two on the helicopter.

    “Any more questions?” Ogawa added.

    There was a period of silence. Then Kirika piped up. “Nope! Doesn’t look like it! Let’s kick these guys’ butts so we can get home and get some sleep!”

    Ogawa gave her a momentary smile but then looked more severe. “Remember, we’re facing human enemies here. Don’t hesitate if any Alca-Noise appears but disarm and subdue the rest. Just like Val Verde. Understood?”

    “Yes!” Everyone chorused back.



    “Kohinata.” Tsubasa had to raise her voice somewhat to be heard over the roar of the helicopters rotors. “Are you nervous?”

    From next to Miku, Hibiki suddenly looked uncharacteristically wary at what sounded like a possible challenge to her girlfriend but Tsubasa gave her a reassuring smile. Chris remained silent, only really half-listening to the exchange.

    “Yes.” Miku replied honestly. “I mean, I think I’ve got a good grasp on my gear but I am worried that I’ll prove to be a hindrance.”

    Tsubasa chuckled. “It was the same with me, the first time I deployed out to battle the Noise.”

    Both Miku and Hibiki blinked in surprise at that while Chris’s head turned.

    “I don’t think Kanade had any nervousness that first time.” Tsubasa continued. “But then Kanade was always so eager to get at the Noise, particularly before we formed Zwei Wing.” She permitted herself a moment of nostalgia at the thought of her old partner. “Anyways, it’s fine to be nervous. Just don’t let it consume you. Even if you do make a mistake, learn from it to do better next time.”

    “I-I see.” Miku smiled. “Thank you, Tsubasa. I do feel a bit better.”

    “Alright!” The pilot shouted back to them. “We’re coming up on the LZ! You girls ready?!”

    “Always!” Hibiki whooped, grabbing Miku’s hand and shooting her the widest grin she could manage. The two rose to their feet practically at the same time.

    “Don’t get too eager, you maniac!” Chris grinned as she and Tsubasa got up.

    From the pair of helicopters coming in to hover several hundred meters over dead tree’s, seven forms fell away. Seven holy chants echoed out across the abandoned park. Seven flashes of light announced the final transformation of seven girls into valkyries of song, hope, and miracles.

    But from the trenches below, hundreds of hidden eyes watched the scene without emotion. Though the scene was impressive, it just wasn’t in their nature to feel anything.



    “All White Units, HVT Sierra one through seven deployment verified. Disperse AALG, liquidate HVTs. Sacrifice authorized. Reinforcements ingressing. Red Unit Out.”



    “Rubbing that yet unhealed solitude in the wrong way.
    Sadness seeks a resting-place in anger.
    The song that should have once been a prayer.
    Lost its harmony and infringes the heart.”


    Tsubasa’s voice rang out into the otherwise still air as the seven girls charged forward into the wasteland surrounding the Château in a V formation. Hibiki was the tip of the spear, followed by Tsubasa and Kirika on either side of her. Maria and Shirabe fell in behind them. Finally the two ranged fighters, Chris and Miku, made up the respective tips.

    The moment the adaptors passed out of the woodlands and into the desolate dead zone, a hail of bullets and rockets descended upon them. The previous summer, when they had gotten back from Val Verde, Miku asked Hibiki what it was like to be shot while wearing Symphogear armor. Hibiki likened it to rain, except one didn’t get wet. Experiencing it first hand, Miku decided the description was pretty apt.

    It was only much later, after their confession, that Hibiki would realize that Miku was upset at the idea of people shooting at her. Miku didn’t hold it against her. And she could hardly fault her now.

    As Ogawa had said, the enemy was firing upon them from a network of slit trenches and foxholes that had been practically invisible until the soldiers started firing. From the adaptors’ perspective, they had practically popped out of the earth both from their front and to their left and right.

    Shouldering through gunfire and weaving between the rockets, the adaptors split up to take on the challengers. Hibiki and Miku kept moving forward, Maria and Tsubasa went left, Chris, Kirika, and Shirabe went right.

    With Gungnir already drawn back, Hibiki leapt into the air towards one foxhole. The gas-masked soldiers with their glowing blue goggles followed her with their gunfire, trying to shoot her down mid-air. She descended into their midst, aiming at empty ground between them as the force of her landing hurled them against the walls of the foxhole, knocking their weapons away to be shattered with a series of precise follow-up jabs. Miku floated over the battlefield after Hibiki, a series of precise blasts from the Shenshoujing instantly rendering the weapons from a squad in another trench useless heaps of slag.

    On the left, Tsubasa simply charged right up to one trench. Ame no Habakiri flashed, slicing their guns in two. Maria kept slightly more distance in her attacks, Airgetlamh lashing out to tear and crush another trenches weaponry.

    On the right, Kirika and Shirabe limited themselves to following Tsubasa’s example. Shul-Shagana and Igalima slashed, tore, and rent apart the weapons of two more trenches of soldiers. As her juniors acted, Chris shot the guns out of the hands of another fox hole with Ichaival’s crossbows.

    The adaptors figured they knew what would happen next. Once they got over the sudden shock of being disarmed, the soldiers would retreat or surrender. Depending on how well trained and disciplined they were, the retreat might be organized or it might be panicked. That was how it had been every other time they faced human soldiers and it had become expectation.

    It was at this point that reality diverged from expectations.

    The soldiers Hibiki had knocked over in the foxhole almost immediately sprang back up and bodily hurled themselves onto the surprised dirty-blonde in a piledriver. Tsubasa’s song cut off mid-lyric as one of the soldiers in the trench she was standing over reached out, grabbed her by the right leg, and yanked her off her feet. The rest of the soldiers in the trench immediately descended upon her, punching or stabbing with combat knives. Shirabe suffered the same fate, one of the soldiers suddenly lunging forward to grab her and drag her down, with the rest following in to deliver their own blows. The soldiers Kirika had just disarmed followed the lead of the ones that had struck at Hibiki, as one lunging forward to pile drive her.

    And for Maria, Chris, and Miku, the soldiers they disarmed all clambered out of their trenches and fox holes, some drawing combat knives as they did so, and came charging at the astonished adaptors. In particular, Chris gaped at the sight in shock. “You can’t be serious!”

    In each and every case there had been no hesitation and no moment of delay. One moment, the soldiers lost their guns, the very next they immediately were counterattacking with their bodies and knives.

    Despite suddenly throwing the adaptors on the back foot, these initial counter-attacks really did very little physical damage. It was through their sheer surprise, suddenness, and the adaptors’ unpreparedness that they even managed to so much as throw them off their feet.

    Hibiki, Tsubasa, Kirika, and Shirabe all leapt back up, throwing the soldiers who had dogpiled them aside with sheer power. But no sooner did the soldiers they had thrown off fall back to the ground then did they start to scramble back to their feet, with no sign they were stunned or winded even for a second.

    “What’s with these guys?!” Chris shouted, having transformed her crossbows into hornet pistols and was blocking their attempted blows. It wasn’t difficult, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was annoying and kept her pinned down. With a punch, she sent one of the soldiers attacking her sprawling back down on the ground but, not only did he start to get back up, his spot was just immediately occupied by another one who had been circling around, waiting for a space to get in.

    “They have to be crazy!” Kirika shouted back, stuck in a similar situation, as she blocked another blow with Igalima. She jabbed out with the scythe’s handle and sent another soldier sprawling away, only for the same thing to happen and another one leap in to take his place.

    “Get back!” Miku shouted, backing away from the soldiers bearing down on her and knocking those back who got too close with the Shenshoujing’s cables. “I don’t want to hurt you!” But if the soldiers heard her, they didn’t show it and simply pursued her with a relentless determination. Worse, since she was mostly keeping her distance, that made her a prime target for all the soldiers still in the trenches who hadn’t been disarmed.

    “Alright, that’s enough!” Hibiki shouted as she blocked another blow by the soldier trying to attack her. She struck one of the soldiers hard enough to launch him back a good several feet. This time, he didn’t get back up, out cold. Another soldier leapt forward to take his place, only to meet the same fate. In a series of jabs and blows, she knocked the soldiers attacking her out. Then turning, she launched herself at the soldiers pursuing Miku, scattering them like pinballs as she barrelled into them.

    “We can’t stay here!” Maria agreed, fending off the jabs and blows of the soldiers who had come down on her. “We have to up the ante! If they won’t run, knock ‘em out!” And in a flurry of attacks, she sent the soldiers around her crumpling to the ground unconscious.

    Tsubasa smashed a soldier unconscious with the hilt of her sword, only for another one to come charging at her. The singer held out Ame no Habakiri defensively, figuring it would ward him off and preparing to knock him back with a kick when he swerved to avoid it. But to her shock and horror, it was like he didn’t even notice it and with full force he charged right into the blade, impaling himself upon it. Any ordinary human would have been immediately debilitated by the pain of such a wound but instead the soldier just kept pushing on, driving himself deeper upon the blade until he was finally close enough for his hands to wrap around the stunned Tsubasa’s throat… and then went limp as he finally succumbed to the blood loss.

    Tsubasa stared in horror at the body slumped on her blade for so long that she was completely blindsided when another soldier slammed into her from the right. This time, she had the presence of mind to roll with the punch and threw the soldier off of her.

    Chris pistol whipped another soldier, sending him down for good, only for another to leap on her from behind. Before she could throw him off, she heard a slight “click” and then her world became dust and noise. Leaping out of the dust, she felt as if her upper body had been drenched in water and reached up to wipe at it. Her hand came away covered in blood. ‘Holy shit!’ She realized. ‘He blew himself up! They’re not just crazy. They’re positively psychotic!’

    ‘This doesn’t feel like we’re fighting humans at all!’
    Shirabe thought to herself as she disarmed another group of soldiers, only for them to lunge out at her like the last group. Some of them slugged her so hard that she heard the bones in their hands and arms break, yet they didn’t even so much as let out a grunt of pain, instead reeling back to strike with their good hands… only for Shirabe to smash them unconscious with the shielding on Shul-Shagana. ‘This determination to kill, this total lack of any self-preservation... It’s more like we’re fighting Noise!’

    And it was at that point the enemy decided to introduce a new element to the battlefield. The gunfire from those soldiers still armed slackened slightly as a number of them stopped firing to grab and throw small canisters from their belts. At the same time, a distant rumbling grew quickly grew into a series of high pitched whistles. Tsubasa looked up, saw the incoming mortar shells, and leapt upward intending to slice them in two, only for the first one she was bound to intercept to suddenly burst into a familiar red mist. The same translucent red gas began to hiss out of the canisters the soldiers had thrown and rapidly the entire battlefield was blanketed in a dull red tint.

    It took a moment for the adaptors to place why the red gas seemed familiar. A feeling of dread quickly settled in the pit of Maria’s stomach when she did. “Anti-LiNKER! They’re using Anti-LiNKER!”

    Her cry came too late, they were already exposed. They could feel the synchronization with their gears began to collapse, the backlash building. It felt worse, way worse, then when they had been exposed to the Anti-LiNKER Dr. Ver used.

    As if the anti-LiNKER wasn’t enough, a huge force of soldiers appeared over from the direction of the Château, laying down a massive barrage of fire that swept across the Adaptors, increasing the pain of the backlash. Then with a high-pitched whine of turbofans, the kicker almost literally fell upon them: four VTOL gunships, bristling with chainguns, rocket pods, and missile racks, dropped from the sky in an attack run, their weapons blazing and rolling over the adaptors in a storm of bullets and explosions, knocking them about.

    “How did those get past the JSDF?!” Chris bit out over the commlink through the pain of the backlash as her body was steadily overwhelmed by the armor trying to block all the explosions and bullets.

    “I don’t know, but we don’t have time to think about it!” Tsubasa shouted back through her own pain, “Mitigation measures, now!”

    They shed their armor, excess bits falling and crumbling away. The physical changes of their armor was more symbolic than anything else, but it was representative of the deliberate loss of power that they needed to handle the artificially lowered synch ratios. The knowledge that they were losing functions acquired through hard work and sacrifice, both their own and others, pained the adaptors but it was better than getting steadily torn apart by one's own gear. They had to jettison more than they expected, this new batch of Anti-LiNKER was potent indeed, and soon enough they found themselves wearing the armor combinations that they had fought Carol and her Autoscorers in.

    Hibiki sighed in relief as the backlash began to fade, her older combination more in line with the synch rate the Anti-LiNKER had driven her down too. But the moment was short lived, her blood froze when she heard a very familiar scream. She immediately turned and began to run towards the source. “Miku!”

    Miku had collapsed and was thrashing in pain from the backlash, the Shenshoujing still in the configuration that they had destroyed Yggdrasil with. This development didn’t escape the enemies notice, as the gunfire from their ground forces perceptibly shifted so the weight of it was now coming down on and around on Miku. Worse, two of the gunships slid into a stand off attack pattern, their attention pretty clearly focused on Miku.

    We haven’t trained her to counter Anti-LiNKER yet! She doesn’t know what to do!’ Tsubasa’s eyes widened in horrified realization. She took off after Hibiki, shouting. “Maria, Tsukuyomi, Akatsuki, Yukine, smash that gun line!”

    Hibiki leapt between Miku and the gunships just as the pair opened fire with both their chain guns and rocket pods. Both girls vanished in a torrent of smoke, dust, and explosions. The weight of fire was enough that the gas cloud of Anti-LiNKER blanketing everything perceptibly shifted.

    “Hibiki! Miku!” Kirika shouted in alarm, skidding to a halt in her charge towards the gunline. But the dust cloud lifted to reveal…

    “A wall?” Shirabe said before mentally kicking herself for not recognizing the enormous sword buried into the ground. Undoubtedly, Tsubasa would have reprimanded her had she heard. From atop Heaven’s Wrath, Tsubasa glared up at the two gunships which fell back away into a circling holding pattern.

    “Tsubasa and Tachibana will take care Kohinata!” Maria shouted, turning back towards the gunline. “Come on!”

    Hibiki shot a grateful look up at Tsubasa before turning her attention to her girlfriend, swiftly cradling her in her arms. “Miku!”

    “Hibiki?” Miku managed. She opened her eyes for a moment, only to squeeze them right back shut. “W-what’s happening? I-it hurts… s-so much.”

    “Kohinata!” Tsubasa shouted, leaping down from atop the Heaven’s Wrath. “It’s backlash from your gear! The gas forcibly destroys your ability to synchronize! You have to set it to a lower combination that you can cope with!”

    “I-I’ll try.” Miku bit out. As with the others, the edge of the Shenshoujing crumbled away and soon enough Miku was back in the armor combination she wore when she had first fought with the Shenshoujing, although thankfully without the Direct Feedback Systems headset and nerve link. The black-haired girl gave a tremendous sigh. “I’m… I’m okay now, thank you Tsubasa.”

    Tsubasa also sighed with relief as Hibiki helped Miku back up. That had been far, far too close. Even with Hibiki in the way, had she not managed to get Heaven’s Wrath down in time, the backlash from absorbing the gunship’s barrage would have undoubtedly forced Miku out of her gear and killed her. That would have been devastating, and not just for Hibiki. Tsubasa fists tightened so much that she would have drawn blood if she hadn’t been in her armor. ‘I can’t lose anyone else.’

    A rumbling sound swiftly grew into a high pitched whistle descending from above and the three adaptors leapt away just in time for the mortar rounds to burst over head and send a cluster of explosives tearing through where they had been standing. “Come on!” Tsubasa shouted, dissolving Heaven’s Wrath away, “We need to get back with the others!”

    --

    “How are they doing?” Lieutenant Acampora asked as the mortar battery a few dozen meters away fired off another volley of mixed cluster explosive and Advanced Anti-LiNKER Gas rounds.

    Voronin reached up and made a minute adjustment to his scope. “Sierra Two’s handling the AALG best. That’s who we’re poaching from right now. As for who’s handling it worst… well, that depends. Sierra Seven took it worse in an absolute sense but that’s just her inexperience talking. Factor that out, it's a tie between Sierra’s Five and Six. Pretty much what we expected.” He glanced up. “Sure you don’t want me to take any shots from here?”

    The American shook her head. “Let the Staples wear at them a bit more first. That’s what they're there for. Hell, if they keep holding back like this we might not even need to jump in.” She waved down towards the transports parked off to the side. “We’re almost done loading and Caprice has already set the charges where the Professor said too.”

    “Right.” Voronin glanced back down his scope. “What about the JSDF?”

    Samantha glanced out from her observation perch on the roof of the Château towards the distant horizon just in time for it to light up in a series of flashes and deep booms. She gave a wry smile. “They’ll be late.”

    --

    Chris’s frustration was growing. They were having to hold back against… whatever these were! They couldn’t be human, a growing conviction was telling her, there was too much pointing against it. The first glaring sign was the outright suicidal determination with which they fought and their complete non-reaction to wounds that would have debilitated any normal person.

    The fight had been going on long enough that some of the soldiers they had previously knocked out had even gotten back up and were rejoining. Even those who had broken arms or legs were limping or dragging themselves right back into the battle. Some seemed to be staggering in with clear signs of concussions, yet they still dove right back into the action.

    But that was merely the most obvious. Chris was quickly catching onto something much more subtle: the sheer silence with which the soldiers fought. There was never so much as a grunt or pant of pain or exertion from them. The vast majority of noises they ever made came from their weaponry: the clicks when they reloaded or adjusted firing settings, the noise of metal on metal when they drew their knives, the clink of pins on grenades and those Anti-LiNKER gas canisters, and of course the noise when their guns fired. Occasionally they made an unavoidable sound from their movement: the squelch of a boot slapping into a puddle of mud or a leg being dragged across the dirt. But otherwise, they moved, fought, and fell in utter silence. Even the Noise at least made a bizarre, insect-like squelching when they were around.

    That made it all the more unnerving when Chris could see that they still bled like humans. They were all well aware of this by now, since she was no longer the only one covered in their blood by this point. At least it wasn’t from anything the adaptors did. The initial reservations the soldiers had shown in shooting through each other had apparently vanished by the time they had reached the gunline the reinforcements had set up. And that first suicide bomber who had jumped Chris hadn’t been the only one.

    It wasn’t just the soldiers any more either. Mortar rounds unceasingly plunged from the sky, either dispersing more Anti-LiNKER or dumping cluster explosives on an area whenever an adaptor stayed in one place for too long. And then there were the gunships. Those were the worst, since they couldn’t actually do anything against them for fear of killing the pilots, meaning they would come down and blast away from a comfortable distance, forcing whichever adaptor they targeted into an incessant dodge pattern to avoid being staggered. And neither the mortars nor the gunships seemed to be too picky about avoiding their own soldiers if they were in close proximity to one of the adaptors. That was yet another source of the blood they were all spattered in by now.

    Yet as much as all the evidence indicated these soldiers weren’t actually human, one thing still held them back: the possibility that the evidence might be wrong.

    Chris and Miku were hanging back, shooting weapons out of the hands of soldiers and only knocking out either those who drew too close or the stragglers coming up from the back, Miku with her cables and Chris with straightforward pistol whipping. The other adaptors, by contrast, had charged in and were smashing the lights out of all those soldiers in reach. They were all a constant blur of motion, staying on the move to avoid the mortar and gunship strikes that were the only things that could at least stagger them.

    Surprisingly, it wasn’t Chris whose frustration boiled over first. As one of the gunships rolled in for an attack run on Kirika, the wielder of Igalima stopped and turned towards the rapidly approaching aircraft.

    “Kirika?!” Maria shouted when she spotted the Igalima wielder bracing herself against the oncoming assault. Shirabe turned at the shout just in time to see the gunship open fire on Kirika, it’s rockets and chain gun rounds stitching their way towards the blonde.

    At the last moment, Kirika leapt forward, arcing up straight on to meet the gunship on the lowest point of it’s run. The gunship, clearly seeing what she was trying to do, twisted, altering its trajectory too try and avoid the intercept. But Kirika fired the boosters on her armor, matching its turn. Raising her scythe, she slammed down onto the aircraft just above the armored cockpit with enough force to make the aircraft shudder.

    The gunship twisted and turned as it climbed up, bursting out of the Anti-LiNKER gas cloud, trying to throw Kirika off. But the Igalima user gripped the scythe burrowed in the chassis tight, twisted herself about so she was facing the cockpit, and then anchored herself down by digging her heels down into the armor. Only then did she yank the scythe out before pausing for a moment.

    She had expected there to be some kind of window for the pilots to look out of. Armored windows, sure, but still windows. Instead she found nothing but smooth armor. How were the crew seeing out? Cameras?

    Well, it didn’t matter. With a swing, the blonde expertly tore the top off of the armored compartment, expecting to see the shocked faces of the pilot and gunner staring up at her. Instead, she saw nothing but banks and banks of computer chips.

    She blinked for a moment before realization struck. The gunships were unmanned. That piece of knowledge established, Kirika lifted Igalima and in a single stroke bisected the gunship.

    “Kiri-chan?!” Shirabe’s voice echoed over her commlink in shock.

    “The gunships!” Kirika called back out as she plunged back towards the ground. “They’re unmanned! Drones!”

    Chris and Miku paused as they processed the words and then exchanged a glance. If the gunships were unmanned then that meant… they didn’t have to hold back against them.

    In an instant, Chris dispensed with her Hornet Pistols for the quad gatling guns of Billion Maiden and turned them skyward. In a matter of seconds, she walked the magical high-caliber rounds into one of the gunships. Rather impressively, its armor actually held for a moment before crumpling under the thunderstorm of impacts and the gunship detonated as its fuel and ammo cooked off.

    For Miku the aiming process was much simpler, the benefits of wielding a near-light speed weapon, and therefore her destruction of the gunships was that much faster. Her first blast tore off the engine of one, sending it spiralling away. Her second punched through the final gunships midsection, causing it to detonate in mid-air much as Chris’s barrage had done.

    --

    “Ah, never mind. Looks like we’ll have to step in after all.” Samantha absently said as the debris from the last gunship rained down towards the ground. “Let’s go.”

    --

    Hibiki’s fist smashed into the side of the last soldier’s head, sending him crumpling to the ground out cold. There remained a few stragglers with broken legs who were still trying to crawl their way across the bodies of their unconscious and, in a distressing number of cases, dead comrades to get at the adaptors, but so long as they kept an eye on the crawlers they weren’t even a nuisance. The mortaring had stopped about a minute beforehand, aside from the occasional Anti-LiNKER round dropping into the general vicinity, but that didn’t keep the adaptors from leaving a wary ear out for the telltale whistle of a descending round right on them.

    “Hell.” Chris groaned. She didn’t feel physically tired, the Symphogear system took care of that, but the unexpectedly gruelling fight the soldiers’ fanaticism led them too certainly weighed on her mentally. “That… that was way harder than it should have been!”

    “How far have we come?” Kirika asked, glancing up at the Chateau.

    Maria frowned, glancing over her shoulder to gauge the distance they had come. “About a half-kilometer. It’s another kilometer to the crater’s edge.” She frowned. “And I’m willing to bet there are more soldiers waiting for us.”

    “Eh?!” Miku turned at that news. “You don’t think this was all of them? There were so many...”

    “Basic military strategy is to try and always maintain some degree of reserve to cover for unexpected eventualities. At the very least, we’ve probably depleted their forces.” Tsubasa replied. Then she inquired about something that had been worrying her for a bit now but she couldn’t bring up in the heat of battle. “More importantly. Has anyone managed to raise HQ?”

    “Huh?” Hibiki immediately reached up to her earpieces. “HQ? HQ? Hello? Can anyone hear me?”

    Nothing but static greeted her on the long-range comms.

    “Were they attacked?” Shirabe’s worry was clear.

    “Wait!” Tsubasa quickly said, straining her ears into the static.

    “-lo? Hello? Can you hear me?” Elfnein’s voice managed to ring out over the long-range commlink.

    “Yes!” Hibiki almost shouted in relief. “We can hear you Elfnein!”

    “Oh thank goodness!” Elfnein’s relief was palpable even over the commlink. “Ogawa! I managed to find a way around the jamming!”

    “Good work.” Ogawa’s voice cut in after a moment. “Is everyone okay? Your synch rates look astonishingly low. And that gas cloud, is that really-?”

    “Anti-LiNKER, yes.” Maria said. “The Four Horsemen have an improved formula of Anti-LiNKER and their troops have proven to be… extraordinarily fanatical. We’ve had to drop our gear combination to mitigate.”

    “Fanatical hell!” Chris cut in. “That was downright inhuman! Didn’t you see that one guy who was missing an arm and he still emptied an entire magazine into you before trying to smash the rifle over your head?!”

    “I noticed him, yes, given that I had to knock him out.” Maria kept her retort short. “Ogawa, how much can you see?”

    “The gas cloud is fairly translucent, but it’s still thick enough to obscure the cameras we’re using, given how far they are.” Ogawa said. “I’m afraid I have some more bad news.”

    “Oh great.” Chris grumbled, although not over the commlink. She took a moment to deliver a swift kick into the head of one soldier with a broken leg who looked like he was finally crawling into lunging range, dropping him back down.

    “The JSDF troops were hit by cruise missile strikes while moving up to their assembly areas. It’ll be hours before they can get reorganized.” Ogawa said. “And the air patrols they were running have been engaged by unidentified fighters, most likely belonging to the Four Horsemen.”

    “This is starting to sound like a trap.” That observation Chris did broadcast.

    “And you’d be wrong.” A new voice cut in, a definite Korean accent in her Japanese. “All you had to do was stay out of this one. But I guess you SONG dogs just can’t help but meddle with things you shouldn’t.”

    Everyone started at that. There was… someone else in their commlink?

    “Who is this?” Ogawa asked. Only Tsubasa noticed that his voice sounded much tighter than normal.

    “Is that you, Shinji Ogawa?” The voice asked. “Have you also tried to forget about Sinwon-Up, like the rest of your shitty little clan? Perhaps you need another reminder...”

    The only warning Tsubasa received was that of Maria’s eyes widening and starting to raise Airgetlamh, but it was warning enough. She spun around, bringing up Ame no Habakiri just in time to block the oncoming blow. There was a clang of metal on metal and Tsubasa found herself staring into the angry green eyes of Jwa Ji-Eun, their swords locked together.

    “Tsubasa!” Maria shouted, turning to aid the idol… only to feel something strike her back.

    “You really should pay more attention to your own surroundings, cara.” An Italian accent purred into her ear. Maria swung Airgetlamh around but Caprice was already leaping clear away, a bright grin on her face as she tapped at the console on her arm. The satchel charge she had placed on Maria’s back detonated and strangely seemed to impart far more force than it should have, tossing Maria forward. More stunned than hurt, Maria twisted around and made a precise three point landing next to Tsubasa.

    In the meantime, Tsubasa kicked out at Jwa but the Korean woman took the opportunity to leap back away towards where Caprice had jumped. Kirika and Shirabe moved to intercept, only to stagger when what seemed like a tremendous mass of muscle plummeted from the sky and smashed down into the ground between them. Shirabe barely had time to turn to face the new threat only for Darmawan’s massive fist, clad in metal, to wrap around her head and chuck her straight into Kirika. The two quickly sprung apart in mid-air, landing by Maria.

    Chris levelled Billion Maiden at the Indonesian, but a shot rang out just as she pulled the trigger. The rifle bullet struck the adaptor’s head with far more force than it had any right too, staggering her and sending her burst of fire mostly wide. To the adaptor’s astonishment, the few shots that did strike Darmawan just caused him to turn and glare. But Chris’s head whipped around in the direction of the shot that threw her off. It took a moment for her to recognize who she saw.

    You…” Chris growled, her attention squarely focused on the cocky grin of Kir Voronin as he lowered his rifle slightly. Then it shot back up and several more shots rang out but this time Chris was already moving, leaping aside towards where her Kouhais and Maria were, causing the rounds to pass through empty space.

    “You are-” Miku began, only for a sustained barrage of machine gun fire to smash into the two ionocraft modules on her legs. Incredibly, whereas all the previous barrage of fire hadn’t done anything, these managed to perforate it. One of the rounds hit something in the module that caused the flight system to short out and Miku tottered forward at the sudden loss of her hover abilities. She barely managed to come into a controlled landing, only stopped from face planting completely when Maria reached out and steadied her. Mwikiza Gowon lowered the machine gun, grim satisfaction on his face.

    “Miku!” Hibiki shouted, lunging forward towards Gowon, Gungnir pulling back for the punch… only for the stock of a rifle to come from the side and smash her square in the face with enough force that it actually threw her aside. But with a mid-air flip she landed solidly on her feet in front of the other adaptors, facing towards the new enemy.

    The two sides faced off. Seven on one side, six on the other. The adaptors took in their new opponent. They noticed the strange bodysuits their opposition were wearing, a strange interweaving of unidentifiable fabrics and metals that seemed to meld together into a seamless blend and didn’t quite cling to the skin in the same manner as their own Symphogear suits. They certainly covered a lot more skin, completely enclosing the White Noise Squad’s bodies from neck to feet. Magazines and, in Caprice’s case, all sorts of explosives hung from the chests of those with ranged weapons.

    “White Noise squad.” Lieutenant Samantha Acampora stated, racking the action on the rifle she had hit Hibiki with. “Engaging…”

    ----​
    Next Chapter: White Noise

    ----​

    Authors Notes: I imagine some people will be wondering about the relative lack of special attacks in the fight scene this chapter. The key answer to that is actually made in the chapter, but I’ll reiterate it: the Symphogears throughout this chapter are fighting regular human infantry (or to be more accurate, what they thought were regular human infantry) and hence are very deliberately holding back. As to what the “Staples” actually are… well, that’s for a future chapter but there are hints in the name and some of the previous foreshadowing. Be fun to see which guesses are closest to being accurate.

    Poor Miku’s been getting the short stick lately a bit in this fic so far? I mean, I figured out what happened to her this chapter based on the simple fact that she's the most inexperienced and it’s been so long since they had to fight under Anti-LiNKER conditions that they didn’t prioritize training against it but any more wouldn’t be really fair, would it? Guess that means I’ll have to give her a bit of a break on that front while I ramp up the suffering on the others. So they too can then go “fuck it” and punch on through later with the power of song, friendship, and (yuri) love, of course. It’s Symphogear after all. Fortunately, there’s a couple of mechanisms that I have either winding up or already in motion which will do the job.
     
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