???: Storm Down the Fortress

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AYC
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???: Storm Down the Fortress

Post by AYC » Thu Apr 25, 2013 2:29 pm

She might have been a child, but even then, she had a vague, inkling sense of her own sense of morbid curiosity. Being in a hospital for so long does that to you.

She arrives in this city and meets her new caretaker for the first time. Her parents hold tightly onto her hands, and she stares up at a kindly, wise-looking old man, dressed in a familiar white coat and eye-crinkling smile.

Her eyes are wide, but she doesn't smile back. Not yet. She's hides shyly behind her parents.

"Is this her?" he asks, and his smile grows gentler, more sympathetic at her actions. She wants to trust him, but she's still not so certain about what's happening. It all feels so alien to her.

Her life has already been so abnormal.

"Dear," her mother says, "say hello to the doctor." Her slender, manicured fingers squeeze her smaller ones reassuringly.

Her reply is quiet, timid, and barely perceptible. "Hi."

Her time at the clinic is long, and it stretches for weeks. She quickly meets the doctor's daughter, a nice, easily concerned, worrying type who frequently comes over and fusses with her hair and makes her wear pretty things in the breaks between classes at the nearby university.

"I want to be a nurse," the young woman mentions once, while stitching something that looks suspiciously like a bonnet in her hands. Although she is mesmerized by the precise, careful movements of her fingers, she certainly hopes that hat isn't for her (it is quite unattractive). "After this year, I'm thinking about moving to the clinic and helping dad with his clients."

The wind that blows through the park is warm, like the older girl's smile. "I bet it gets lonely sometimes, doesn't it? Hopefully when I'm there, we'll all have some more time to spend as a family. It's something to look forward to."

Family, huh?

It's not like her parents don't come and visit her from time to time. It's not like she doesn't have anything to do when the doctor has to tend with his clients. It's not like it feels that weird to not have any other kids around to play with.

It's not like she hasn't been used to this already.

But the little girl smiles softly, understandingly, and looks forward to the aspect of expanding a family she already knows she has.

- - -

After eight months of living with the doctor, she encounters something peculiar. It's cold and wintery in the city, but she manages to get permission to go Christmas shopping with her parents after being bundled up a heavy array of scarves and warm coats.

She doesn't even know what she's looking at in the mirror when she sneaks a glance at the large sheet of glass. There's her head, definitely, and then there's a large something-or-another around her neck, and a poofy mass around her torso. With her thin legs and boots peeking out from the bottom, she looks kind of like some sort of disfigured creature-human crossbreed and it looks hilariously silly.

Even her parents laugh when she steps out of the room.

She bids her goodbyes to the doctor and his daughter when she leaves hand in mittened hands with her parents, and looks wide-eyed at the bright and colorful lights lining the streets of the city as they make the short walk to the city's shopping center. It's familiar and it's not like she hasn't seen this sort of thing before in her hometown, but she can't help but think it's still pretty. Even though it's chilly and people are giving her poofy and funny-looking appearance weird looks, she keeps herself absorbed in the illumination around her.

The inside of the mall is less attractive, with the colorful streamers and red-green-gold banners hanging above the the white walls and glass windows. It's also more crowded and a few times she nearly gets hit by a few, haphazardly swinging shopping bags and purses. Her grip on her parents' hands grow tighter as she struggles to stay close to them.

It is rather disappointing when she steps into a shop to find it just as packed at the walkways outside, but her parents are quick and instantly skirt the racks of clothes for what they're seeking. A scarf comes off her neck to be replaced with a white muffler, one of her outer coats is stripped off to make way for a new one. Vaguely, she feels like she's playing dress up with the doctor's daughter again.

The process is slow and repetitive, and her stomach growls slightly at the end of an hour. The matching mug set she had gotten for the doctor is heavy in her hands, as is the shawl for the doctor's daughter. She doesn't want to take death so lightly, but she feels like she's going to die of hunger if she doesn't eat something soon.

Her tummy growls insistently as her parents finish their purchase, and they give her an understanding, apologetic smile. Their hands tighten around hers reassuringly when they step out into the chilly night air again.

Her father steps into the crowd to purchase food from the various vendors lining the street, and her mother stays close, one hand clamped securely on her shoulder. Hopefully she gets something to eat soon, because snacking on gingerbread cookie samples hardly seems like proper sustenance for any ordinary human. Let alone one that's small and weak.

She tries to ignore the gnawing sensation inside by staring at the lumps of snow dotting the sidewalk, and ends up catching sight of something darting through the darkness of a nearby alleyway.

Luckily, it appears she doesn't need to ponder very long about it.

The person - it's a person - dashes out into the street and pushes through the throng of people walking by. He's limping, she realizes, and he looks over his shoulder at something deep in the black air behind him.

She doesn't even get the chance to contemplate it before whatever the person was looking at jumps out into the light too.

It's completely black and gossamer, with an intangible form and misted, white eyes. She can't tell what it is, but she finds herself nothing short of curious when she manages to piece two and two together.

That... thing is chasing the person.

It's very simplistic and easily understood by her childish mind. But she finds it unusually strange that no one else seems to have taken notice of the chase that's ensuing across the square.

The man, she notices, is actually old and slightly wizened in appearance. He's average in height and his hair is graying underneath his brimmed hat, and despite his limp, he's moving with a fluidity that belies his age.

It's almost inhuman.

"Mommy," she finds herself saying, her hands tugging at her mother's sleeve. "What's that?"

Her mother takes a long look in the direction of her extended finger. "Sweetie, I don't know what you're talking about," she replies, clearly confused. "There's nothing there."

It's very puzzling. But regardless of her mother's answer, she can't stop watching the scene unfolding before her, like a morbid, vicious dance.

The man jumps over the swinging limb of the creature, and at the same time, something shimmering in his hands comes down to pierce his opponent in one of its blank, white eyes. The howl the monster releases is terrible, and even if no one else seems affected, the echo sends vibrations reverberating through her bones.

For someone like her, a small child who's seen nothing of the world, the whole battle is nothing short of frightening. But her curiosity of the unknown and her childish innocence makes it impossible for her to peel her eyes away.

It's that same childishness and sense of morbid curiosity that makes her get separated from her mother in that crowd, and that same part of her that leads her to the scene of carnage against all else.
Last edited by AYC on Fri Aug 15, 2014 3:43 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: ???: Storm Down the Fortress

Post by AYC » Thu Apr 25, 2013 2:35 pm

The small figure flickers in and out of his line of vision.

The vague, shadowy outlines of the fallen Blight seem to be diminishing before his very eyes, but there's something tiny and distinctly humanoid to be made out from the rising black mists of ether.

His vision blurs and spins. If anything, it must be a figment of his imagination, dwindling at the end of his lifespan as a Stray. The dark, burgundy color of his own ether as he fades in existence mixes with the black of his foe like a twisted, bloody monochrome.

To think he would never resolve the source of that deep, burning anger he's always had inside him. That he would die not knowing.

The bitterness makes a slow, wry smile form on his withered face. Maybe he's too old for ideas like revenge and retribution after all.

Maybe he really is just better off dead.

A small hand touches his. He can barely muster the strength to comprehend the round little face staring up at him, but he manages to make out a small child at his side, dressed in an outrageously numerous amount of layers and a pretty white muffler contrasting with her dark hair.

It almost makes him want to laugh at how silly it looks. But he can't even summon the strength for that, as his mouth only opens and closes feebly in vain.

The little girl watches him curiously, her expression devoid of comprehension or pity. Her other small, mittened hand joins the first in the nest of his thin, wrinkled fingers as she clutches his hand, trying to warm it up when she realizes that it's devoid of warmth, like a corpse.

"Aren't you cold?" she asks, her voice soft and light with confusion.

When he doesn't make a response - he can't - she whips off her scarf and wraps it around his neck in one smooth motion.

Her smile is triumphant at her work, and even though it takes all his remaining effort to keep himself from turning even more incorporeal, he finds something heartwarming in her innocence.

He manages to offer a strained, crooked smile in return. It's all he can do, but the bright, beaming expression on her face is well worth it as she clutches at his gnarled hand with her mittened ones.

His heart stops when she then asks softly, "Who are you?"

- - -

Taigaki.

His name is unfamiliar on his tongue. He asks his new Crosser about it a few times, but the little lady only shrugs, smiles, and says softly, "I don't know. It was just the first thing I thought of."

It's not very helpful, but he can only sigh in response.

For the first few months he stays close to her, a little girl he discovers is inflicted with some kind of disease - something chronic or another. For the most part she seems healthy, albeit a little frail and susceptible to lapses in health, according to what he's heard the physician say.

She's small and naive and easily confused. She doesn't really understand his explanations of the world of ether, of what he does or what he has to do until he sighs and picks up a pencil and draws pictures.

"You draw good, Taigaki!" she exclaims the first time she sees it. He only looks nervously over his shoulders, in hope that no one in the clinic sees the mysteriously levitating pencil in the air.

She is fascinated by his stories - she thinks they're stories - and the way his hands flit over the paper. He's not sure if she believes him or not, but at least she's listening.

Taigaki is not sure what to do though, the first time the pair of them encounter a Blight. She is in the park with the physician's daughter ("Miss Mei," she tells him) on their daily walk when the beast comes bursting out of the bushes with a loud roar. His Crosser is visibly shaken, but her chaperone doesn't know what's going on when the little lady runs off to hide.

His chest is empty but there's a pounding thump-thump as he follows closely, leaps, and pierces the Blight in the back with a sword made of a diamond from his own ether. It cries loudly, and she hides her face in her hands as he slashes quick and downwards, ripping it in half. He coaxes his Crosser to return as the remnants of ether evaporate in the air.

She's not crying, but her eyes are wide.

"Are you okay, young lady?"

"Are you okay, Taigaki?"

He blinks. "Well, of course I am. I would be more worried about yourself."

"I'm okay! It was scary though... but Taigaki is strong! Really strong!"

He blinks again, and as the physician's daughter comes hurrying over in the distance, he's not really sure if he should be flattered by her naivete or not.

- - -

She's just a child, probably no more than six, but her maturity belies her age. The little lady is innocent, pure to a fault (like the white muffler she had given him, he remembers gently), but she's far from spoiled or even needy like most children her age, despite the amount of affection the household rains on her.

He watches her as she sits by the window, back to the street and bustle below. It's the first day of school at the nearby elementary a few blocks down, but the young lady is oblivious and only doodles away, humming and drawing oblong flowers and malformed faces instead.

"Aren't you going?" he asks, idly twirling a crayon in between his withered fingers.

She doesn't even look up or pause her coloring. "Going where?"

"To school. You're around the age for first grade, aren't you?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe?"

The little miss nods, and holds up the completed picture to him with a small sense of triumph. Her eyes are wide, looking at him curiously as if he was saying something strange and unusual. "I don't know, Taigaki. I've never been to school before."

He takes the picture from her hands, his surprise hard to hide as he brushes a thumb over the badly drawn, wrinkled face and thick mustache of the doctor. "Not preschool? Not even kindergarten?"

Her hair shifts around her shoulders as she shakes her head no. She tells him that the doctor says she's still too sick to go out very much, that she's too weak and would probably get more sick if she did. The little lady says it all very calmly, like she's merely stating facts, and a part of him wonders if she really understands what it all means.

She probably does. That's just the kind of kid she is.

Another part of him wonders if it's all that healthy for a child to remain cooped up all the time, where her only interactions with society are limited to excursions with the doctor and his daughter, occasional visits by her parents, and being in the company of an old man.

He's not even alive for god's sake. He's a dead, dead ghost.

It all sounds very pitiful to him, but his Crosser hardly seems fazed by the aspect at all. In fact, she looks at him with those same curious eyes, a tiny reassuring smile playing on her lips.

"It's okay Taigaki!" she chirps cheerfully, shuffling through her pile of messy drawings with one hand as she latches onto his hand with another. "The doctor says that he'll teach me how to read and write soon, and when Miss Mei finishes school, she said she's going to teach me counting and stuff!"

Her enthusiasm is almost enough for him to be comforted, but he still asks tentatively, softly, "But don't you want to go to school? Play with kids your age?"

The expression on her face flickers a bit with confusion, but she merely inclines her head to the side in thought a moment later. "No?" she says plainly, almost like she couldn't understand the notion. "I'm okay with being with the doctor, and Miss Mei, and Mommy and Daddy. And Taigaki too!"

His hold on her hand tightens a bit, but he's not sure if it's because he feels touched by her answer or not. "You don't want to meet new people?" he asks finally, his voice strained and weary. It's not like he can't accept what she wants, but he's concerned for her. He remembers the Doctor on the phone one day, telling who he suspects the little lady's parents that she'll get better in the future, that eventually in a few years she'll be strong enough to get by on her own.

But she's only five or six now, and she's being sheltered like a precious doll. Taigaki finds that he does dearly adore his Crosser (she's small and kind and she saved him after all), but like a wizened, batty old grandfather he finds himself worried for her future. It can't be healthy, something in himself repeats, it might even be destructive.

She's just a child.

Her other hand is cold to the touch as she places it over his. But her smile is warm, bright, and speaks of a resolution and acceptance he didn't know a child could have.

"Well, of course, I want to meet new people!" she answers, thoroughly subdued and content, "That would be very nice."

There's a pause, as she looks over her shoulder for the first time, watching the last straggling children running off in the distance. She almost looks wistful for a moment, but honestly it's overshadowed by what she says next, completely satisfied.

"But I'm also okay with what I already have."

- - -

Some time after the little lady turns seven, the number of Blights within the city suddenly spike.

She's studying with Miss Mei at the kitchen table when she suddenly stiffens and glances out the window in the direction of the park across the street. As usual her senses are unusually keen, but the sudden tension in the room makes the doctor's daughter look up in surprise, blinking quizzically at the unnaturally attentive expression on the younger girl's face.

"Is something the matter?"

The little miss merely shakes her head and recomposes herself, reciting the multiplication table to herself in soft whispers. There's a small pause between 3 x 4 and 3 x 5, where she mouths silently, 'Blight', 'park', and 'fifty meters'.

Taigaki takes his cue with nothing more than a cursory nod and light pat on her shoulder. This is the third time in the span of four days, but he's used to this by now. Even though she's gotten well enough that she can take regular walks in the company of Miss Mei and the Doctor, it's hardly safe for his Crosser, completely unable to protect herself, to go out hunting Blights.

She's too kind for her own good though, and despite what he may say to advise her, the little lady has asked him on more than one occasion to take out the Blights so they don't hurt anyone else.

"They'll only hurt Crossers," he remembers saying exasperatedly the first time, "Crossers, and other Strays. I don't think they're easy to come by."

"But what if there's an unlinked Stray out there, who can't protect himself as well as you can? He might get hurt, or worse..."

Damn this child. Although he can't say that there's anything wrong with having her heart in the right place, that doesn't stop him from wishing her heart wasn't a little too big for its own good.

Even though it was probably what had saved him in the first place those years ago.

The center of the park is empty when he arrives, but the air is thick with a chill and a dark mist. Taigaki is far from afraid, but the dense, black fog in front of him sets him on edge.

It's the Blight. Unlike the others before it, it appears to be lacking a tangible shape, and he can barely make out the dim, faintly glowing red eyes underneath the black mist undulating around it. There's a small cluttering sound as it turns slightly, probably recognizing his ether signature as a new source of food, and rushes at him in a burst of wind, accelerating the wispy mass forward like a punch.

The sudden movement hardly makes him flinch. He moves forward in a step and in the next, he dashes, his wrinkles and his withered form evaporating with the tendrils of his dark red ether, a sharp shimmering weapon in his hand. The Blight clatters and clicks away in what sounds like frustration as he takes a leap over it and bends low, swiping the diamond sword made from his ether at the monster's legs. Small bits of misting, twisted metal follow the trail of the blade as it moves through the air, but the Blight's scream drowns out the sound of his diamond scratching through its rusted limbs.

He's too used to this now. For the sake of protecting his Crosser he can hardly afford to be intimidated by his enemies, and like a cold-blooded killer he circles around the Blight again and runs into the center of the fog, thrusting the crystalline material into the partially squishy, partially crusted inner of the monster with a slight squelch and an ear-piercing shriek.

The park clears up minutes later, and his wrinkles and greying hair return with another swirl of his burgundy ether. The dark misty remnants of the Blight slowly disappear into the air, but he doesn't relax until the last drop evaporates away.

When he arrives back at the clinic again, Taigaki finds the little lady sitting outside on the front steps, idly doodling with color pencils on her lap. She looks up when she spots him - senses him, really - and jumps up, sending everything else clattering onto the sidewalk in a scattered mess.

His Crosser bounds up to him and circles around him, as if looking for physical wounds he didn't have. She knows that he's more than capable of taking care of Blights all on his own as long as she's there to provide the ether, but this child is too curious and too concerned for her own good.

"Did you take care of the Blight, Taigaki?" she asks, the end of her frilly skirt spinning with her as she twirls on the spot at the end of her circuit. Although her head is tilted slightly to the side just like when she's usually perplexed, her eyes look worried above all else.

At his stuffy, slightly offended "of course" she breaks out into a smile and takes his hand in hers happily. It's rather infectious, and he finds himself with a crooked, offhand and completely smug expression on his wizened face, even when she pauses and asks just in case,

"Are you okay, Taigaki?"

"Are you okay, young lady?" His eyebrow is raised in mock skepticism.

The little miss laughs. "Of course I am!" she replies brightly, swinging his hand with her as they climb the steps, picking up the discarded pencils as they go. "I would be more worried about you!"

He twirls a stray pencil into his hand and presents it to her with flourish, his laugh mingling with hers like a melody.
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Re: ???: Storm Down the Fortress

Post by AYC » Sun Jun 22, 2014 3:29 am

The year his Crosser turns eight is the year everything changes.

It's the year she develops her Blight-controlling Enomena, and the year she's capable and healthy enough to play more than support. Amongst other things that he'd quite honestly rather not mention.

"I might still be too sick to go out and play with other kids," she says quite frankly, shrugging nonchalantly despite the resolution in her eyes, "But if I'm good enough to fight, then it's only right that I help you too."

Vaguely he wonders if eight is the year that children usually start rebelling.

- - -

Although the little lady has gotten well enough to get around fine on her own, given that she has a chaperone, going to school has still been out of the question.

"Kids and germs and all," he mutters under his breath as Miss Mei fails for the umpteenth time to persuade her father otherwise. And to be honest, it's for probably for her own good.

"Baby steps," he hears the Doctor say quietly. "The end goal is being able to go to school on her own, to stand on her own feet. I think we still need a little more time."

But it's for that reason that Taigaki doesn't really understand it when his Crosser comes bouncing in one day, her arms full of a small bouquet of flowers. Upon further investigation, it's discovered that she had in fact received it from a boy in the neighborhood on her way back from the grocery. He had even offered to carry her bags for her on the way, but to her merit the little lady had merely declined before skipping her way back home.

Miss Mei might have gushed and squirmed in glee about the situation, and the doctor mildly amused, but Taigaki is less than pleased with this development.

"How did she even get it though, without you watching?" the Doctor had asked his daughter in an undertone, clearly suspicious despite his bemused smile.

"Well, uh, I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while and it was already a few blocks away and I didn't want to keep her waiting for me while we caught up," she replied in one breath, looking away nervously. "So I told her to go ahead, since we could already see the clinic from where we were..."

At the Doctor's dark, reprimanding look, she had smiled cheekily, vaguely smug. "Well, you know what you say, Dad. Baby steps, right?"

While the Doctor had ultimately, begrudgingly let it slide, and even granted the little lady permission to walk around on her own for the few blocks around the clinic, Taigaki secretly branded Miss Mei a traitor to the well-being of the little lady and took it upon himself to follow her around on even the shortest of trips around the block, his normally wizened eyes keen and sharp for any signs of a foolish boy admirer.

It takes a while, but he catches the boy before the end of the week, shyly but somewhat boldly running up to her on his way back from school, backpack in hand.

In the distance he can see the kid's classmates watching with an air of amusement, making mock kissing faces and snickering behind their hands. As for the boy himself, he's really not mousy like he had expected, but actually quite active. He even glares over his shoulder at his peers, a blush bright and apparent on his face.

The little lady is as oblivious as ever though, and only looks at him with her head tilted to the side, eyes wide and curious. Vaguely Taigaki can't help but wonder if she even remembers meeting this boy before.

"Hey," greets the boy offhandedly, a slight blush still reddening his face.

"Hi~!" the little lady responds cheerfully, smiling.

"How are you today?" is the response, and he can't help but notice how the boy seems to stand taller, as if trying to emphasize the small inch or two difference in their heights. It almost makes him want to laugh in distaste - not because it's understandable that a boy would want to assert what masculinity he could muster in the face of impressing a girl, but simply because he didn't like the kid.

Why?

Quite frankly, Taigaki can't really put a finger on it. It might have to do with how he doesn't like the air around the kid - that weird, haughty little boy air. Or the way the kid's hair spikes up at the back. Or the kid in general.

Something in that vein.

But to her merit, his Crosser merely inclines her head to the other side in consideration of the boy's question. Her smile doesn't really falter as she answers quite plainly, "About the same as everyday!"

The boy cracks a smile of his own, but the sincerity and eagerness behind it makes the tension in the air around Taigaki rise a lot more in hostility and apprehension. Enough so that said air practically crystallizes around him as he points and aims tiny shards of his diamond coated ether at the scrawny threat to the little lady's purity and well-being with very little remorse and mercy.

It's only because of said purity and well-being that he doesn't impale the boy on the spot. Really, if he could have his way it would be quite gruesome, and he couldn't have the little lady see that now, could he?

And so Taigaki settles for silently fuming and seething while the pair finish their conversation, the little lady apprehensively looking back at him from time to time, curious at the death traps placed around her in protection.

Honestly, what could they be talking about, he wonders through the whole exchange. It's not like the little lady knows all that much about what other kids do at school. She doesn't really even watch TV either. There's hardly any conversation to be had in the first place.

When the two finally say their goodbyes and part ways, the little lady grabs ahold of one of his wizened hands, looking up at him half-curiously, half-worriedly. "What's wrong Taigaki? You don't look so good."

Unbeknownst to him the stress had made him break out in cold sweat and had probably risen his blood pressure quite a bit. He could practically feel his face burning in rage.

"How long has this been going on," he forces out through gritted teeth, trying to sound as calm and as stern as he could, all at the same time.

The little lady merely looks perplexed in response. "What do you mean? You mean how sick you've been looking - "

With a sound like a cross between a cough and a sigh and a deep, calming breath, he repeats carefully, "How long has this been going on, between you and that... thing. I mean boy. Yes. The boy." There's a bit of an awkward pause. "Certainly him giving you flowers couldn't have been the start of it?"

His Crosser blinks at him a few times, comprehending. Then finally, she responds, as plainly as ever, "A few months?"

His eyes nearly bulge out of their sockets.

A... few months...?

A few months?!

AFEWMONTHSWHATTTTTTTTTTT!??!?!?!


WHAAAAAAATTTTTTTTTTTTT?!?!?!?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????!


A part of him is devastated with how this... this thing had managed to get under his radar for so long. Internally he starts foaming at the mouth at the madness.

"How did this come to be," he finds himself saying faintly, terror and shock written all over his face. The little lady peers at him, confused and vaguely disturbed.

"I guess we talked sometimes when I went to the grocery store with Miss Mei. I think she's friends with his big sister, so they talk a lot and don't really pay attention."

Secretly he brands Miss Mei an even bigger traitor to the well-being of the little lady.

At his silence, his Crosser tugs at his hand again. "Taigaki? Are you okay?"

He merely nods his head, and they continue their trek back to the clinic in silence, his mind fully preoccupied with processing a single thought.

Something... must be done...!

- - -

Judgement day comes sooner than expected, and boy, is he ready to dish out the punishment. It might have something to do with how he spent every waking hour scheming and scheming plot after plot for that little... thing's downfall.

If there's anything good about dying and becoming a Stray, it's that they don't need to sleep.

The day starts simply enough - the little lady spends her morning sitting at the table in the kitchen, practicing her spelling with the Doctor ("What's... acet... aceta... a-see-ta-mi-no-fen?"). It's followed by a short break for lunch ("I want to help you make potato gratin Miss Mei!"), and then a few hours after that studying math ("Long division with decimals... is hard."). In the afternoon, she usually goes out on a short walk around the block, and that's when Taigaki makes his move, flanking her closely as she steps out the door, eyes sharp as a hawk on the watch for a stupid little boy with messy black hair.

After all his eagerness and carefully planning, he's somewhat disappointed when the little lady makes her circuit around the usual few blocks and there's no sign of his target in sight. Vaguely Taigaki wonders if the school nearby is out on holiday, or if the little miss had accidentally left an hour too early or too late.

"Let's walk through the park today," his Crosser says to him, pausing for a moment when she spots the dismayed expression on his face.

"What's wrong, Taigaki? Are you constipated?"

"No, you can only get constipated if you're able to eat in the first place. Where did you learn that word anyway?"

"I learned it with the Doctor yesterday," the little miss declares proudly. "He says that people who get it have this weird kind of face, like they're unhappy or - "

"You don't need to go any farther than that!" he interrupts, wondering whether it really was a good idea to have a doctor teach spelling and reading from a combination of children's books and medical journals. "You said you wanted to walk through the park?"

"Yeah, let's go!" she agrees eagerly, tugging him along by the hand. The park is quiet when they get there, but not empty. A few young mothers pushing around strollers with small children in them here and there, and a few kids hanging around the playground, their backpacks discarded on a nearby bench. Taigaki immediately homes in on one child in particular.

The boy.


Subconsciously a very unbecoming, sinister smile makes its way across his face. On his old man face he realizes with a pang that it must look much creepier than it should, but thankfully his Crosser is more focused on a small squirrel scuttling around the trunk of a tree to notice. Now if only he could get that thing to notice.

Fortunately the boy does not disappoint, as he spots the little lady easily from his perch on the jungle gym and hurries over, backpack pulled over his shoulders. "Hey!" he calls over the catcalls and teasing from his friends.

As per usual, the little miss greets him in her customary, oblivious way, cute head-tilt, smile and all. "Hi~!"

Every time he sees this little boy blush in reply he gets strangely more infuriated.

A stupid, haughty little boy like you isn't good enough for the little lady! he mutters internally to himself all the while, the air crystallizing with his diamond ether with every second. You'll just defile her purity and well-being with your foolish, messy-haired ways and disgusting germs!

The curious, are-you-alright-Taigaki look his Crosser throws over her shoulder is enough to make him calm down and reorganize his thoughts. Today is the day this silly game of childish courtship ends, even if it's the last thing he does!

The little lady peers at him, confused, but eventually she leaves him alone to his own devices as she chats idly with the boy. Usually he'd probably have a coronary for that, but today, it's in his best interest if she doesn't notice.

Ten minutes later, the little boy is fleeing in terror, sufficiently vanquished. Taigaki fights the urge to do a triumphant victory fist pump, especially in the presence of his somewhat distressed Crosser.

Generally speaking, he had always considered his higher affinity for interacting with physical objects to be a nuisance. But not today.

Ahaha... not today boy!

Pretending to be an evil spirit haunting the little lady was a great idea. Of course, as a Stray he had been limited in how scary he could be and but given the difficulties and challenges of being invisible, but honestly it was a job well done.

And with that, the foolish little boy has been properly persuaded that staying far, far away from the little miss is within his best interests! Aha.

"Eh... what do you think was wrong with him, Taigaki?" the little lady asks, looking worried but mostly perplexed. "Or do you think it was something with... me?" At this last bit she almost looks disappointed, but he places a comforting hand on her shoulder, looking every bit like the kindly old man he usually is.

"No, no," he says airily, a warm smile on his face. "I think it's just something with the boy. He probably won't be bothering you anymore." At her persisting, concerned expression, he adds cheerily, "Don't worry about it. After all, little boys are very weird, you know. They have things like cooties and other disgusting, contagious things like that. You wouldn't want to get any more sick, right?"

"I... I-I guess so?"

- - -

A few months later and incident forgotten, Taigaki finds a different strain of puzzling events occurring.

It had all happened rather quickly, really. Literally, one moment he was getting ganged up by a group of lesser Blights and clearly handling the situation quite well, thank you very much, and the next, the Blights were all at each other's throats and tearing everything apart. Except for him, of course.

More disturbed than anything else, he had promptly stepped out of the fire and found the little lady, poking her head around the base of the tree she had sought refuge behind.

"What are they doing?" she asks curiously, surprisingly not worried very much in the slightest. Maybe after watching him beat up so many Blights of every bent and angle to be imagined, there's not much that can take her aback anymore.

"No idea. Suddenly they wanted to eat each other instead of me." It's a bit odd and not, all at the same time. While Blights were certainly made of the same thing Strays were (to an extent anyway) as far as he'd been concerned they'd always seemed to have a preference for chasing after whatever wasn't their own kind, like Strays and Crossers or even normal humans. Until today, that is.

His Crosser presses her lips into a thin line, deep in thought, tilting her head from side to side as she watches the last of the Blights turn his opponent into a puddle of wispy black ether. "It's really weird," she says tentatively, almost more to herself than anyone else. "Really, really weird."

The lone Blight sniffs around the remains of its fallen peers for a bit, strangely docile like a pet dog. It really was weird, no doubt about it. Almost unsettling even. Just watching the Blight meander around the leftovers from its buddies, not at all hungry for the little girl Crosser and the Stray nearby, sent shivers down his spine.

Better get rid of it before it gets any other ideas.

But the Blight doesn't pay him any mind when he had walks up to it, weapon drawn and killing intent intact, not even a glance. Taigaki almost feels sick to his stomach as he slashes down on it with his ethereal sword, easily and unawares as its own ether dissolves and evaporates into the air with its peers'.

As he watches the thin, wispy tendrils disappear, the only thing that goes through his mind is how something just doesn't feel quite right.

- - -

The strange Blight behavior continues for every battle after that. Sometimes large Blights would suddenly stop and stay still, other times smaller Blights would go into a frenzy and have something akin to a Blight seizure on the ground. Once in a while they'd just leave, and on an increasingly frequent basis, they'd run off to attack other Blights. Every encounter ends well enough, because he'd always destroy them anyway, but every encounter always leaves him a little more unsettled than the last.

Despite his best attempts, he couldn't figure out what was going on for the life of him.

"It's weird," the little lady says each time, hmming and humming in deep thought all the while. "Really weird. I can't figure it out." She ponders a bit more to herself silently, the little gears in her brain turning, before adding almost reassuringly, "But I think I've almost got it. Almost."

He would sure hope so.

Perhaps the threat of a breakthrough was enough however, as the number of Blights roaming around to be defeated drastically dropped from nearly daily occurrences to weekly ones. He can't say that there was an end to the anomalous behavior during these encounters, but strange as it was, at least he didn't have to think about it as much if he didn't have to see it all the time.

And Taigaki could live with that.

The thought doesn't fully resurface until two months later, after a long drought of Blights. The little lady sits up from her books on the floor so suddenly that he jumps in surprise, clutching his wizened old heart in shock. It's only after she dashes to the window, gazes tentatively out for a few minutes and says softly, "It's a Blight. A big one." that he manages to regain his demeanor.

"It's in the park," she adds, oddly puzzled. "Close enough that I don't need Miss Mei or the Doctor to come with me."

"You just need good ol' me, huh? Alright, let's get going."

His Crosser nods in reply, and after briefly notifying the Doctor of her whereabouts, dashes out the door, strangely more perplexed than he's used to seeing her. She merely shakes her head when he asks however, and ultimately Taigaki lets it be upon sight of the Blight, giant and bloated like a balloon. It even bobbed up and down a little from floating off the ground.

At first, he can't help but wonder if it's going to be like all the others, with how it seems content on just floating in the middle of the park, idly feeding off the wildlife and passerbys in the area. But then it suddenly turns, swivels a series of glowing red eyes on him, and promptly screeches, springing forward like an elastic band despite its massive size.

Yep. It's a real, fully uncultured Blight in the end after all.

A part of him is greatly relieved, and another part of him is not with how the Blight seems keenly focused on biting off his head with - was that a mouth?

The little lady is already hiding behind her favorite tree, watching intently with a mixture of worry and concern. Although the quizzical expression on her face distresses him a bit, he doesn't really have time to consider the cause lest he lose his head. In more ways than one.

With a deep breath and a surge of ether, he knocks the Blight and all of its bad breath off in one smooth motion, and with another he conjures his diamond sword and younger appearance. The Blight literally bounces a few meters away before rolling onto its stumpy feet and screeching again, its eyes glowing an even darker shade of red. There's a shuffling sound as it scurries forward a bit and springs towards him again, but Taigaki dodges it with little fanfare and a large, sharp cut to its side.

Much to his dismay, the said cut actually splurts a large quantity of ether out, not unlike a slug splurting out pus. Thankfully it's only ether and nothing toxic, but the brief moment of being showered with potentially Blight insides was thoroughly disgusting.

Even though, he repeats to himself again, it's just ether.

The Blight takes less than kindly to the treatment, its screeches increasing in volume and pitch until it becomes an earsplitting scream. He fails to fight back the urge to wince, but as he squares his shoulders and prepares to end it for good, a rapid series of scuttling sounds makes him freeze and immediately back up.

Something was moving inside the Blight. Or rather, somethings.

If bad breath and getting sprayed with ether guts was bad enough, the sight of tiny Blights crawling out of the cut he had made is even worse. If he could lose his stomach he probably would've already. The larger Blight was getting torn apart, like it had just been a egg sac for all the smaller, spiderlike Blights coming from it.

Looks like a simple sword isn't going to do the job.

Ugh.

He takes another deep breath and shatters the ether in his sword and the air into thin shards of diamond, focusing the sharp needles at the creeping mass of spider Blights. A snap of his fingers is all he needs to send them at the scrambling Blights, deafening screeches filling the air as they're impaled into little wisps of ether under his barrage.

A few minutes later, the air is dense with a mixture of burgundy and black ether. Most of the Blights have been laid to ruin, but it's to his great chagrin that the survivors of his assault, a small, inky black pool of them, seem to have reverted to battling amongst themselves. Just like the weird, anomalous Blights before them.

Except more vicious, more noisy, and oddly more organized.

So the weirdos still exist after all, he notes with disdain as one spider Blight neatly ducks to avoid another from ripping its head off with pincers.

God dammit.

"You seem to be having some trouble there," says a voice from behind him, distinctly masculine and obviously not the little lady. "Need a hand?"

- - -

The first time they encounter a Panzer is on a mere spur of the moment.

Or that's what he'd like to think, anyway.

Taigaki watches with an expression of strained trepidation as what looks to be knife embeds itself into the puddle of struggling Blights, ticks for a few moments, and then electrocutes the spiderlike creatures all at once. Even the most vicious of them twitch a bit before falling still in submission.

"Well, wasn't that easy?"

He takes it upon himself to glare at the intruder, who immediately lifts his hands up in mock surrender. "Hey, cool it dude, that's no way to greet someone who just helped you out, right?"

"Who are you?" he ends up demanding, the other man smirking in reply.

The little lady, watching the scene cautiously, peers at them from behind her tree, but the intruder catches sight of her before you can duck behind it again.

"I'm not one to play hide and seek kid. Why don't you come out here and stand next to your Stray?"

In an instant, Taigaki moves over to the little lady's side, wrinkles and older form back in place. The look he gives to the mysterious man is suspicious to say the least, if not openly hostile as he shields his Crosser with his body. Much to his chagrin, the little lady peeks out, eyes full of awe and honestly, too curious for her own good.

"What was that?" she asks, fixated on the lone knife embedded in the dissolving puddle of black ether. "Was that... Enomena?"

The other man only laughs dryly as he whips out an identical knife into his hand with a flick of the wrist. "Not at all, kiddo. This is 100% Panzer technology. It does run on ether though." His smirk is sinister as he holds it out and adds maliciously, "Wanna take a look?"

On instinct Taigaki pulls up a net of his diamond shards around the other man, the sharp ends all but piercing his skin. "I'm warning you."

Much to his disdain, the little lady eyes the weapon curiously, her eyes flitting between the blade and the intruder's face, as if she was assessing the amount of harm he was likely to be... or if he was harmful at all. Surely the little lady wouldn't think of him as the latter, would she? Young, foolish admirer boy aside, his Crosser certainly wasn't a bad judge of character...

Right?

"What's a Panzer?" she finally says, sounding a little less scared, and more comfortable than he would've liked. Inwardly he finds himself smacking his wizened old head in exasperation and hunching over into a fetal position in frustration.

"Ha," replies the other man, not at all deterred by the numerous needles of ether threatening to impale him on the spot, "I guess the easy answer is that I'm a little like you."

The little lady tilts her head to the side in confusion, and even Taigaki has to admit that he's a little curious despite his apprehension.

"Let's try this again," he continues, sheathing his weapon with another flick of the wrist. "I'm a Panzer, and a Panzer is a little like you, tiny Miss Crosser."

"Why do you use a weapon? What happened to your Enomena, Mr. Panzer?"

The wry look on the Panzer's face makes him throw his guard up again, but the man's words are said as casually as before, "We don't have any, kid. Panzers don't have Enomena because we can't use it, and so we have weapons instead. And for the record, we don't have little Stray buddies, either."

The little lady watches him, the little gears in her head turning as she tries to process the information. "So a Panzer is a Crosser who can't use Enomena or have a Stray bond..."

"That's right, kid. Golden star for you." Taigaki sends him another warning glare, but the Panzer man ignores him in favor of testing the point of one of the floating diamond shards with his finger. "Oh, that's right," he adds, his expression a mixture of smugness and boredom, "I guess if there's one thing you Crossers can't do that only we Panzers can do, it's this."

Maybe he was seeing things in his tender old age, but it almost looked like a pair of.... ears just popped up on the top of the man's head. Furry ears. He had heard about young people and these cosplay things where they would wear animal ears but Taigaki is pretty sure that those weren't there before.

The little lady behind him looks excited though, as she grabs onto his sleeve and points like a child at a zoo. Which in a weird sense, might've actually been appropriate.

"Raccoon!"

God dammit, little kids and their love of fluffy, furry things. He's almost certain that the little lady must have some kind of allergy to those critters, unless he was only imagining the little note he had found amidst the Doctor's records about her allergies. But even then that wasn't going to stop him from keeping the child far, far away from this mysterious half-animal stranger.

"Don't touch," he finds himself scolding her, as she looks at the raccoon ears longingly. "Do not touch."

"Heh," is all the Panzer says, looking oddly flattered despite his rough-looking appearance. "Didn't figure I'd be the type to be popular with the kids." At Taigaki's very vehement, very much threatening expression, he adds airily, "Don't tell me you're jealous, old man. Does your Crosser not give you enough attention?"

"Try a protective old man," he growls angrily as his Crosser looks up at him, concern and a bit of guilt on her face. "Now that we're done talking about what you are, you want to start talk about why you're here?"

"Cut the animosity gramps. I'm already kind enough to be standing here and answering your questions even with all the needles of pain you've surrounded me with."

The best answer Taigaki gives him is a harsh, cold stare. The Panzer only sighs wearily.

"Well, the truth is, I just finished running a delivery and decided to take a walk through the park. A shortcut to where I need to go, you see. Also Panzers take out Blights too, so I figured that it might be something worth defeating, you know? And then I stumbled upon Protective Grandpa here having the time of his life beating up a bunch of pipsqueak Blights. Maybe you should consider retiring, if you're having such a tough time. I think it's about time you stopped pretending to be young."

The smirk on the other man's face is mocking, and Taigaki finds himself flushing at the mention of his transformation ability. It's not that he needed to transform into a younger form to use his Enomena, or fight more effectively - for a Stray it didn't make much of a difference. It was more a psychological reassurance... that he'd be stronger, more capable if he looked younger, but he couldn't help the fact that his most natural, easiest to maintain form was that of an old man. He honestly didn't mind it either, but in a fight, it was crippling to his ego and psyche, even if it was a waste of extra ether.

The sensation of the little lady's hand on his is warm and reassuring. "It's alright Taigaki. You'll always be strong to me."

His kind smile is wiped off in an instant by the Panzer interjecting, "I wouldn't be so sure about that. Am I right, little Miss Crosser?"

The unreadable expression on the little lady's face has him worried. "What do you mean?"

"Huh. I guess you were too distracted to notice what was really going on with those Blights over there."

"... You mean the organized behavior."

"Yeah," the man replies, looking actually serious for once. "You didn't think it was just a coincidence, right?"

His mind is slow in piecing it together and quite frankly, he wasn't quite sure what the Panzer was getting at. Something the little lady knows... well, she had said that she had almost figured out the mystery behind the Blights acting out, but she hadn't told him what exactly it was...

But what did that have to do with him as Stray, and protecting her? It's not like he wasn't capable of defeating any Blights that came their way - not to brag, but he's never failed before.

"Taigaki," says the little lady, tugging on his sleeve. "I have something to tell you."

For once she's looking down, her eyes averted in what looks to be guilt. It's so foreign to him that it surprises him, but not as much as what she says next.

"It's me," she says simply, quietly. "I'm the one that's making the Blights do that. That's my Enomena."
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