Flower of Damocles - VoyeurTheNinja (2023)

Chapter 1: Prologue

Chapter Text

Flower of Damocles - VoyeurTheNinja (1)

"Do remind yourself that disappointing the council could lead towards your resignation, Commander Kazanari."

The firm warning from the world council's spokesperson silenced the entire bridge crew of the S.O.N.G. submarine. As Commander Genjuuro stood at his terminal with a pair of arms crossed over his chest, the man glared at the bridge's central monitor screen, a pair of yellow eyes fixated on the audio transmission they were receiving from none other than the United Nations itself. Although the Spokesperson's voice could not be described as anything less than 'polite', it was obvious to everyone on the bridge that they were none too pleased with S.O.N.G.'s latest report.

"I can assure you that we are already tracking down the culprits of the attacked convoy. It won't take long for us to apprehend them and retrieve the stolen Symphogear," Genjuuro sharply stated. The filter he needed to use whenever they were dealing with the United Nations directly was second-nature to the Commander at this point. "The assistance of Clan Hida will ensure the success of this mission without international issues, Spokesperson."

The symbol of the United Nations encompassed the entire central monitor screen while the Spokesperson responded, their tone still maintaining a sense of affability, "I sincerely hope so, Commander. The council has contributed immensely towards the development of the SG-r04, so they would be most displeased if such an item were to fall into the wrong hands. Your predecessor, Fudou, knew that well after the theft of the SG-r02 years ago." The mere mention of the Kazanari elder caused a nerve on the Commander's forehead to twitch with displeasure. "I shall do my best to ease the worries of the council in the meantime. That is all I can promise for now."

"You have our thanks, Spokesperson," Commander Genjuuro said diplomatically, lowering his gaze to see the unease which was present among the other members of the bridge crew. Fujitaka, Tomosato, and every other operator on the bridge visibly held back their tongues, for they were practically frozen at their posts. The Commander's next words were a combination of a promise and a statement. "We'll send a report as soon as we have the Sword of Damocles back in our possession."

"You have 10 days to retrieve the stolen SG-r04." The Spokesperson's words resounded throughout the bridge like an ultimatum. "I suggest that you hurry for both our sakes, Commander Kazanari."

Concluding the sound-only transmission with one last, ominous warning, the symbol of the United Nations subsequently vanished from the central monitor screen, allowing the crew of the bridge to finally relax in unison. It was as though a thick fog had made its exit from the underwater vessel's command centre, and while the situation itself had yet to be actually resolved, the S.O.N.G. personnel continued typing away on their terminals at their usual rapid pace. When Commander Genjuuro sat down at his post to process the current predicament, Tomosato went over to the man to hand him a much-needed cup of coffee. Genjuuro accepted the steaming drink with a grateful nod.

The plastic cup itself appeared miniscule within his large hands.

"I'm starting to think that our goodwill from the Shem-Ha incident is running low, Commander," Fujitaka commented, the brunette's hands expertly typing away on his terminal's interface to catch up on their latest reports. "I guess five years is all it'll take to forget what we've accomplished, huh?"

"The council is made up of politicians at the end of the day, Fujitaka," Commander Genjuuro quickly reminded him. "Regardless of what they may call themselves, it's going to be a given that they will only remember what inconveniences them." He then took a sip of the bitter drink in his grasp and grunted in approval at Tomosato's coffee mix. It was not a flavour everyone on the bridge could appreciate, but it never failed to satisfy the Commander himself. "Tomosato, give me a status report on the pursuit of the SG-r04."

Stepping back over to her terminal's seat, Tomosato's fingers inputted a dozen commands into the digital interface in the blink of an eye. "Ogawa, Tsuchiya, and Clan Hida have already begun their assault on the Illuminati Remnants' hideout, Commander," the bridge operator stated, her eyes instantly taking in a recent report from the frontlines. "They will be reporting back to us as soon as the hideout is under their control."

Operating on schedule, just like the Commander expected of Clan Hida and his two personal aides. "And what about Professor Elfnein's condition?" Genjuuro added with a mild hint of worry in his tone.

Fujitaka was the one to answer this time. Through a few inputted commands on his terminal, a medical analysis from the submarine's medical facilities made themselves visible on the bridge's central monitor screen. "The med-bay reports that the Professor had suffered only minor injuries from the attack on the convoy, Commander. They're estimating a full recovery in less than 24 hours."

There was honestly nothing better they could have expected to hear from the med-bay's personnel. Especially when they considered the state of the convoy after it had been struck by the Illuminati Remnants. The concern Genjuuro had felt in response to news of the attack was still fresh within his bones, but the Commander had been through far too much at this point to let his cool escape him so easily. Even though his instincts initially told him to deploy the Adaptors in response to the theft of the stolen Symphogear prototype, Genjuuro knew that this operation called for a far more surgical approach. After processing the operator's report, the Commander finished his coffee, and placed the empty cup aside to rest his elbows on his terminal.

"Let's hope we can finish this quietly," Commander Genjuuro remarked. It was a sentiment that was clearly shared amongst the other members of the vessel's bridge.

The command centre's large, automatic doors subsequently slid open, and Commander Genjuuro looked over his shoulder to see a familiar man striding through the bridge's parting entrance.

Carrying a sheathed katana within a gloved hand, the approaching individual's footsteps were made only audible as a gesture of simple etiquette. Each step the man took in his boots caused the crimson long-coat he donned to flutter. Through a combination of his distinct uniform, the stern look on his face, and a head of tidy brown hair, Genjuuro immediately recognized him to be Ogawa Souji, the eldest amongst the three Ogawa brothers. Even if the Commander dwarfed Souji in terms of physical height, the two stood as equals when Genjuuro rose up from his post for a shared bow of acknowledgement between them.

"Clan Hida has never once failed a mission, Commander Kazanari," Souji assured him with an unfaltering grace that was expected from a man of his position. While his glove hands rested themselves on the pommel of his katana, the Grandmaster formally announced his presence on the bridge by loudly clacking the tip of the weapon's scabbard against the metal floor. "You need not hope for what is already assured."

The man's statement earned a steady nod of approval from Commander Genjuuro. He had not expected Ogawa Souji to arrive as soon as he did, but the man was a welcome sight on the bridge regardless. "You have our thanks for your clan's assistance, Grandmaster Ogawa. It's also an honour to have the head of Clan Hida himself as a guest on our vessel." Whilst the pair spoke, Genjuuro could hear faint murmuring among the bridge's crew regarding the shared preference for red clothing from both of the two men. Whether or not Souji heard it as well, the Grandmaster's elegant expression remained unchanged.

Ever so slightly, Souji relaxed the formalities, and lifted up a gloved finger in a matter-of-fact way. "As our late grandmother used to say: 'If you receive a little kindness, give them a large serving'." The quoted phrase was accompanied by a small chuckle. "S.O.N.G. has done Clan Hida many a favour, Commander Kazanari. A simple mission to retrieve the stolen Symphogear shall be mere child's play for the warriors of Clan Hida. Especially since I have sent both Shinji and Kagero to lead the hunt."

Grandmaster Souji was nothing if not confident in the way he spoke about the students of his clan's teachings. Even though the Grandmaster carried himself with a particular sense of formality wherever he went, Genjuuro could not help but notice the soft spot Souji possessed when it came to those two men in particular. But that was a topic for another time and another place. Turning his attention back to the crew of the submarine's bridge, the Commander wasted no more time taking charge of their current situation.

"Tomosato, Fujitaka, give me a visual on the infiltration team's progress."

'They're coming out of the walls!' was a phrase that Ogawa Shinji often heard from his foes whenever he operated alongside Clan Hida. It certainly wasn't an inaccurate way to describe the methods they utilised when the infiltration team rose out from the shadows, and brought their enemies to heel within the timespan of a heartbeat. The Illuminati Remnants had been completely ready for an assault on their hideout, and yet, they had fallen just as easily as any other terror group the Clan had the task of removing like a cancer from a festering wound. Shinji would have sympathised with them if the Remnants did not attempt to unleash a horde of Alca-Noise on the surrounding townsfolk as a distraction.

An empty magazine slid out of Shinji's pistol and cluttered onto the bloodstained floor. Taking little time to reload his weapon, Shinji then switched off its safety and holstered the firearm within his black suit. Pressing a finger against the communication device on his wrist, the S.O.N.G. agent calmly called for command. "Infiltration team, reporting in. We have successfully eliminated the opposition and will begin an immediate search for the stolen prototype." Once a confirmation from the command center came through, Shinji pulled his hand away from a holographic prompt to observe the aftermath of the raid around him.

Fresh blood dripped from the glamorous ceiling chandelier above Shinji's head. As robed bodies littered the floor of the hideout's candle-lit central room, a statue dedicated to a goat-headed deity sat on top of the large circular table in the room's center. The Illuminati acolytes who had been worshipping it mere moments ago all laid at Shinji's feet, thrown kunais embedded in their gaping throats while shurikens clung to the bloodstained walls. Several other acolytes still stood on their feet, their corpses frozen in the midst of death, and their shadows pierced by bullets utilising the Clan's signature Shadow Weave technique. All but a few of the dozen wax candles placed around the central room remained lit after the infiltration team's surgical strike.

Were it not for Shinji's sharpened senses, he wouldn't have noticed the sudden shift in the density of the room's warm air. Folding his hands behind his back, the agent turned around, and acknowledged his oldest brother's closest-aid - Tsuchiya Kagero - as the young man suddenly appeared among the bodies of the Illuminati Remnants. Kagero was kneeling down on one leg with an arm held across his chest. He wore a black suit similar to Shinji and his well-kept, blonde hair ironically did little to mask his presence despite Kagero's aptitude for stealth.

"Have you managed to apprehend their leader?" Shinji inquired, his eyes still observing the unmoving corpses around them.

Kagero answered with a subtle tone of frustration and rueful shake of the head, "Unfortunately, it would appear that the head of these remnants had perished several hours before we even arrived." The younger man rose up to his feet with a rare, perturbed expression, his tightened hands formally placing themselves behind Kagero's own back. "Morikawa and Kagami suspect it to have been self-inflicted."

This was not a report Shinji expected to receive, but the capture of the Illuminati Remnants' leader was never a priority of their mission to begin with. If anything, it was just another side-task that could have possibly secured further intel on any remaining Illuminati cells. The infiltration team was in Germany for the stolen Symphogear first and foremost. "Focus on the search for our objective. We can figure out the cause-of-death afterwards." Shinji's order was swift. "The perimeter is secured, so nothing should be able to escape our notice without us-"

The faint sound of a breath being drawn halted Shinji's tongue.

Two kunais darted across the air and impaled the ribcage of an Illuminati acolyte who was slouched against the wall beside the room's double-doors. The hooded acolyte could only let out a garbled scream with a mouthful of blood before immediately collapsing onto one side to join the unmoving bodies around him. The collection of Alca-Noise shards the survivor had been grasping in his bloodied hands harmlessly spilled onto the carpeted floor, the room's faint candlelight softly bouncing off their glassy surface. It was only when both men were sure of the acolyte's final breath did Shinji and Kagero withdraw their hands from the kunais hidden within their suits.

"Your aim was a few centimetres off," Shinji politely pointed out in a teacher-like fashion.

"My apologies, Ogawa," Kagero replied, pulling out a second kunai so he could playfully twirl the weapon between his fingers. "It would appear that a broken rib is affecting my performance."

Clan Hida's nonchalant disregard for pain was an unforgettable staple of their teachings. Shinji himself remembered unnerving several members of S.O.N.G. with his own attitude towards it back when the organisation was still designated as 'Section Two'. Teaching Kagero to lose that part of him was undoubtedly on Shinji's to-do list now that they were both out of the Clan's influence and structure. Among many other things, of course. With the central room now completely cleared of hostiles, Shinji looked over to the nearby double-doors, and saw them open up for another member of Clan Hida to step inside. Dressed also in a black suit, the woman knelt down on one knee and lowered her head in respect while she gave out a brief report.

"Ogawa, Tsuchiya, we've discovered a hatch leading to an underground bunker. You may leave securing the perimeter to Morikawa and I."

"My thanks, Kagami," Shinji gratefully acknowledged her report before gesturing to Kagero for them to investigate this so-called bunker.

Stepping over the countless bodies at their feet without another word, the pair headed out of the central room, and entered a long hallway with walls that were decorated by numerous works of priceless European art. Were the paintings not stained with the splattered ichor of the Remnants, the two men would have gladly spared the artistry a few glances as they strode across the length of a long, windowless hallway. Not even the marble floors beneath their feet were spared from being tainted by the hideout's now-deceased owners.

"Still, I'm quite surprised that you were available for today's assignment," Kagero spoke up, still twirling a kunai in one hand. "Souji and I assumed you would be busy preparing for the Kazanari wedding next week."

"I'm quite capable of multi-tasking, Tsuchiya," Shinji calmly reminded his apprentice. "It's important to balance the many responsibilities that one carries in their hands. Do remember that there's more to your life than your dedication to the Clan."

Casually sheathing his weapon back inside his suit, Kagero's next words were that of a well-behaved student. "Duly noted, Ogawa."

Upon reaching another opened pair of double-doors at the end of the long hallway, the pair entered a small, empty storage room where they were greeted by Morikawa Renge, the fourth member of the infiltration team. Morikawa gave the arriving duo a polite bow, and pointed towards a discovered, secret stairway which appeared to have been hiding behind a moveable wall. "The hatch was locked, but Kagami and I managed to find a key," she explained, holding up a strange piece of metal Ogawa assumed to have belonged to the Remnants' leader. It hardly resembled anything Morikawa even described it to be as she handed it over to Kagero for further use.

Shinji made sure to give Morikawa their gratitude before redirecting their attention towards the nearby staircase. Standard procedures were followed and Shinji led the way down the steps with an unholstered firearm in his hands, and Kagero right behind him. The cramped stairway was only illuminated by wax candles clinging onto the stone walls, and yet, both Shinji and Kagero expertly navigated through the darkness like they were in clear daylight. And the further the pair descended into the depths of the hideout, the quicker they were beginning to notice this lingering stench of hot smoke in the air. Eventually, the stairway's dusty steps ended at a large, metal door with a distinct keyhole in its centre.

Both of them could tell that this thick slab of metal could endure a few mundane explosives before it would even budge.

Retrieving the metal key from one of his suit's pockets, Kagero held the strange item between two fingers. "Our weapons could most likely cut it open, but we thankfully can just use this," he said, squeezing past his senior to insert the baroque metal into the door's keyhole. While Shinji remained on-guard with his firearm in his hands, Kagero slowly turned the key-piece, causing the metal slab to emit an affirmatory ring before it slid open without issue. "You'd think they would design these with a far more complicated security measure."

The younger man's dry remark was only entertained by a small scoff from Shinji. Taking the lead once again with his eyes staring down the sights of his firearm, Shinji soundlessly stepped into an enormous, brightly-lit bunker with walls of steel and a carpet-covered floor. He was unbothered by the smoke that choked the bunker's atmosphere, for his attention was too busy directing itself at the rows of sizzling server racks which crowded the area the same way bookshelves would fill out a library. Bullet holes riddled every single one of these server racks, leaving them as barely anything more than smoking piles of useless scrap metal.

A swift hand-signal from the eldest of the two ordered the pair to split up and make their way down different aisles of the bunker. Any signs of life that did not come from them was not going to go unnoticed by their sharpened senses.

Exiting one empty aisle of the destroyed server racks, Shinji swept an attentive gaze around before his eyes fell upon a stone pedestal sitting in an unremarkable corner of the large bunker. A paper map of the entire globe was stretched across the surface of the wall behind it, and Shinji tightly held onto this firearm when he approached the stone furniture. Crude, red markings were evident across the entire length of the faded map, messily encompassing areas such as Europe, Borneo, Japan and the United States in deep, messy crimson. It was difficult to tell which part of the globe wasn't even marked at all, in fact. And the longer Shinji stared at the map, the more apparent was the unease within Shinji's thumping chest.

Sitting on top of the pedestal itself was a worn, leather-bound tome. Undoubtedly Illuminati in origin. Grasping the object's cover with one hand, Shinji kept his weapon ready in the other while he opened up the tome, and found himself staring at pages upon pages of incoherent, maddened writings. No matter how many of the withered pages he turned, the same ominous sentence was scrawled upon every single one of them,"The day of judgement arrives."

Quaint. Unfortunately, this wasn't what the pair came all the way down here for.

Closing the strange tome back up without another glance, Shinji investigated another one of the aisles to notice the incinerated body of an Illuminati acolyte lying against one of the sizzling server racks. A small switch was grasped within one of the burnt corpse's ashen hands and Shinji gingerly approached the body for a quick examination. A result of alchemical flames, he concluded to himself. No doubt the same flames that the Remnants often inflicted upon themselves in order to prevent their capture. The odour of freshly-burned skin was most foul, but Shinji had grown used to the smell of death long ago.

The wrist device on Shinji's forearm subsequently lit up from an incoming transmission, prompting the agent to momentarily holster his firearm so he could connect a sound-only line with his apprentice. "Tsuchiya, have you discovered anything of note?" Shinji asked, bringing his attention towards the holographic projection coming out of his wrist device.

"Not exactly, Ogawa," Kagero frustratingly declared from the other end of the line. "A terminal I've found states that a vault located within the lower levels of this bunker is where the Illuminati had been storing the SG-r04." There was a brief pause in Kagero's hasty report. "Apparently, it had been set to self-destruct before our attack started. But it looks like we weren't the only guests the Illuminati were expecting on their doorstep, because something or someone had halted the vault's detonation mere seconds before it could go off."

Narrowing his eyes at the implication of a possible third-party, Shinji looked over to the ashen corpse before him, inquiring, "And what of the SG-r04 itself?"

"Missing." Kagero got straight to the point. "All of the bunker's camera recordings have been deleted. And whoever arrived for the stolen prototype experienced little difficulty melting through several metres of secured vault metal. I don't even believe the Remnants on the surface were even aware of the SG-r04's disappearance until it was far too late. Regardless, I'll try and see what else I can uncover." The clacking of fingers upon keys could faintly be heard in the call's background. "What do you propose we do next, Ogawa?"

It only took a second for Shinji to come up with an order. "I'll alert command that we'll be conducting a search of the entire area," he stated, already preparing himself to send out further instructions to Morikawa and Kagami back up on the surface. "Whoever arrived for the SG-r04 can't be too far from our current location."

Clan Hida has never once failed a mission. That was what their records officially stated, at least. Despite his position, not even Souji himself could be completely certain when it came to the personal integrity of his numerous predecessors.

Holding up her smartphone in one hand, Ayano Komichi released an enchanted sigh while she gazed upon a recording of the marriage yesterday between Kazanari Tsubasa and Kazanari Maria. Having just received the video from Chris earlier on in the day, Komichi had spent the past hour rewatching the grandiose wedding from start to finish, keeping herself occupied outside the sliding entrance of a brand-new shopping mall. As Komichi leaned against the sidewalk's metal railing in a thick winter coat, December snow fell upon the city of Mitakihara, creating the atmosphere of a joyous, white wonderland. Christmas lights were practically everywhere in sight. And it was impossible for a second to pass by without hearing some sort of holiday tune in the winter air.

Komichi momentarily diverted her glimmering, green eyes away from her device to brush the accumulating snow off her long, flowing hair. Once the gesture was completed, the brunette continued fawning over the recording of the kiss between the Kazanari couple, gaining the woman a few awkward stares from the passing-by pedestrians on the bustling sidewalk. It was easy to ignore them all, of course. But when Komichi felt a firm hand suddenly deliver a sharp, playful bonk to the back of her hand, she let out a dramatic yelp, and turned around to pout at the person who had snuck up on her without making even a single sound.

Godai Yuki. A fellow agent of S.O.N.G. and Komichi's companion since childhood.

Although they both were of the same age, Yuki was noticeably the taller of the two while she kept her dark green hair tied up in a long, sports-like ponytail. A style which easily matched Yuki's almost boyish way of speaking. "You know, Otome and I made a bet that you'd be watching that when I arrived," she said, casually putting her arms behind her head. The gesture was tagged along by an exasperated sigh and a raised brow. "Looks like Darlin' isn't going to be winning the bet this time," she added with a cheeky smirk.

Komichi playfully stuck out her tongue at the woman's remark, causing Yuki to stifle a chuckle behind a closed fist. "You shouldn't sneak up on a maiden like that, Yuki. Don't you know that stress can mess with your skin?" Komichi said, theatrically crossing a pair of arms over her chest with a chin raised high. "Speaking of Otome, where is your little fiance?" she then asked, pushing herself off the sidewalk's railing to glance around their crowded surroundings. Considering Otome's height, it wouldn't be surprising if the spectacled florist was just hiding among the ocean of people that were filling out Mitakihara's busy streets.

"Darlin' is a bit busy visiting her relatives over at Kazamino, so she couldn't make it," Yuki explained with a small, defeated shrug of the shoulders. "I tried to get her to tag along, but her Ma and Pa weren't too keen on attendin' family stuff without her around." Holding up her smartphone with its screen already switched on, Yuki quickly pointed to a long list of items, plushies, and clothing. "She did give me some cash so I could buy a couple things she wanted, though."

Although Komichi was slightly disappointed for that to be the case, the brunette was a little bit relieved that their little reunion wasn't completely off the table. Their initial plans accounted for more than just the three of them, after all.

Shifting her curious gaze behind her ponytailed friend, Komichi scanned the crowded sidewalk, and whatever disappointment she initially felt quickly disappeared when she spotted a head of snow-white hair heading over towards them. Dressed in the same winter coat she often wore back in their days at Lydian, Yukine Chris was carrying a sealed cup of bubble tea in one hand as she arrived on the scene, the long, white tails of hair trailing freely behind her in an admittedly adorably fashion. It had been a long time since Chris moved over to America for her studies, so when the Adaptor greeted the pair with a wave, Komichi practically galloped towards the short woman with her arms wide-open.

"There's our little snowball!" Komichi exclaimed, capturing Chris in a big, tight hug that only made the Adaptor's face light up like the many Christmas lights hanging over their heads.

But even with the embarrassment which was clear across Chris' crimson face, she made no attempt at all to actually pry Komichi's arms off her, and instead just barked at the woman who was trying to essentially smother her. "G-Get off me!" she exclaimed between gritted teeth, both hands holding onto her bubble tea so it wouldn't spill all over the side-walk. "It's only been a couple years, dammit! No need to get all clingy like this!"

"This was probably the one thing you should've expected when you came here, ya know?" Yuki playfully remarked, arms still behind her head while she walked up to the struggling pair. In one practised motion, she smoothly held up a hand to Komichi's face, and sharply flicked her fingers against the brunette's forehead, quickly making her release their snow-white friend. As Komichi dramatically rubbed the struck area with both hands, Yuki greeted Chris with a playful bump of her fist against the short Adaptor's shoulder. "So, how was the wedding yesterday? Tachibana and the others were there too, right?"

Audibly relieved to finally be free from Komichi's clutches, Chris eased herself through a sip of her bubble tea before answering, "The wedding was pretty swell. The Dummy kept crying the entire time, so her girlfriend had to hold onto her for almost the whole thing." Chris gave an amused scoff. "Scythe and Rabbit were in charge of the food, so I ate pretty damn well, that's for sure. If you're asking about Maria and her new wife, they looked pretty damn happy the entire time."

An impressed whistle slipped out of Yuki. "Sounded like a blast."

"It does, doesn't it?" Komichi added, leaning forward again so she could give Chris a signature cat-like grin that spanned from ear-to-ear. It visibly made the Adaptor involuntarily shiver beneath her winter coat. "In fact, when I asked Kohinata the other day if she could send me a recording of the event, I heard that our little Chris was practically crying-"

"Finish that sentence, and only two living souls will be walking into that mall, Komichi." Chris' playful threat immediately zipped the woman's teasing lips, but the cat-like grin Komichi wore still remained on her face while Yuki simply shook her head with a small laugh. "Anyway! Enough standing around outside in the snow," Chris soon pointed out, jerking a thumb towards the entrance of the mall behind them. "Let's head inside for some fun already." With that said, the Adaptor soon took the lead, officially starting their reunion by bringing the gathered group into Mitakihara City's newest shopping mall.

Stepping through the crowded entrance of the giant complex, the warmer temperatures of the building felt like a shelter from the winter breeze outside and the promise of a shopper's heaven. Clothes stores, restaurants, arcades and so much more were all they could practically see as they arrived at a main lobby filled with a sea of families, friends and lovers. If one were to look upward, they would notice the ten-to-twenty floors which made up the shopping complex, all of them connected by multiple escalators and elevators. Since it was their first time walking around this place, the trio approached one of the many holographic displays that were providing a comprehensive map of the entire mall.

"Seriously?" Chris bit down on her straw and slurped up the last of her bubble tea before groaning at a particular store of superheroine merchandise on the map. "They got aValkyrangershop here, too?"

Zesshou Sentai Valkyranger.Just like the name itself would imply, the show featured six women in colour-coded costumes, each of them marked with their own vibrant personalities, unique weapons, and tragic backstories. Together, they would join hands to battle against world-threatening gods, devious witches and maniacal scientists. It had only been a few years ago when Chris informed the pair that S.O.N.G. would be financially-supporting a television show based on the adventures of the Symphogear-Wielders. And even though the 50-episode show itself turned out to be a huge success, the sheer popularity of the series was nothing Chris had even anticipated. Komichi, on the other hand, could not forget how the Adaptors had to promote the series through a few choreographed and costumed live shows.

"It was pretty cheesy, but Darlin' and I thought it was pretty good," Yuki commented, still eyeing the holographic map to make a list of eye-catching shops. "Now then, which store will we blow our cash on first?"

Komichi's eyes practically glowed with excitement at the mere thought of shopping. "Oh, there's just so much to pick from! There's a nice clothing store here! A plushie store there! And-!" A loud, audible rumble quickly erupted from Chris' stomach, prompting both Komichi and Yuki to gaze at her while the snow-white woman quietly bit down her lips out of wordless embarrassment. "... Or maybe we could grab a bite first?" Komichi soon suggested with a bright smile.

With their first stop now decided, the trio stepped into one of the lobby's elevators, and ascended towards the highest floor of the giant shopping mall. The first thing which greeted them was the smell of hot, fried food, an alluring sensation they all had to snap themselves out of before Chris and Yuki split off to go and find an empty table in the large food court. On her way to the nearby stalls, Komichi scoured between them for something that would satisfy all three of the women, all as she kept herself mindful about how much she herself was going to eat. But before Komichi could pick a stall to order from, the brunette's ears suddenly picked up the sound of a deep, feminine voice Komichi had not heard since her days in Lydian.

"Mei, where are you? Mei!"

Komichi turned her attention to the familiar tune and spun around on one heel, eventually spotting a woman with distinct brown skin and long, black hair which had been tied into a simple braid on one shoulder. While the woman looked around the busy food court with a pair of sharp, purple eyes, she held a smartphone up to one ear, caring little for the other shoppers around her in the middle of an obvious search. Komichi instantly recognized her as one of the second-year juniors back when Komichi herself was still in her third-year. But her hazy memory struggled to remember the woman's full name. Even so, Komichi approached her anyway with a friendly wave of the hand.

"Hello! Hello!"Komichi greeted the brown woman in fluent English, immediately causing her to abruptly halt right in front of the curious brunette. "Were you... looking for someone, Jiang?" The surname came to Komichi's memory just by the skin of her teeth.

Jiang spent a moment regarding Komichi with a sharp, analytical look before recognition softened up the woman's expression. "Ayano?" she asked, earning Jiang a cheerful nod of the head. "Ah. It's been a while, hasn't it?" Jiang promptly cleared her throat, and pocketed the smartphone in her hand to relax one hand on her hip. "Sorry. I was just in the middle of finding my little sister. I swore she was with me when we entered the food court, but..." She gave another worried look around the place and pensively twirled a strand of black hair around one of her fingers.

For a moment, Komichi couldn't help but feel like she was talking to a worried parent rather than a frustrated older sibling. When she opened her mouth so she could suggest something, Komichi's eyes looked past Jiang, and spotted a teenage girl who was slowly creeping up on the woman from behind. The girl was carrying a few plastic bags of Valkyranger toys in her hands. The brown skin and messy black hair of hers quickly caused Komichi to modestly point at the approaching teen with an amused smile. "Would that be her?"

Jiang turned around in an instant and faced her younger sibling with both hands placed on her hips this time, making the teen freeze where she stood with faux-shock and a cheeky smile on her face. "So, that's where you were." the older Jiang clicked her tongue in frustration. Shifting a soft glare over to the bags of merchandise in the teen's hands, Jiang didn't seem surprised at all by what her little sister was carrying. "You know, you could have at least sent me a text before running off like that, Mei."

The teenage girl barely looked any older than eighteen years-old as she continued smiling sheepishly back at her older sibling. The girl was caught red-handed, and yet, it was as though that was part of her plan to begin with. "Aw, come on!" she groaned. "It was just a quick trip. I was in-and-out before you could even say 'clock up'!" A combined sigh of relief and exasperation came out of Jiang, giving the young girl the opportunity to greet a chuckling Komichi with an eager, two-fingered salute. "Yo! Who's this lady, Jie? Someone you know?"

The older of the two siblings then turned back to Komichi with a clearly-vexed gesture towards the teenager. "Ayano, this is my sister, Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming." Kai made sure to strike a flamboyant pose for the introduction, intentionally oblivious to the plastic bags swinging haphazardly in her grasp. "Mei, this is one of my seniors from when I was still in Lydian: Ayano Komichi." The older Jiang gave a formal bow which Komichi returned in kind. "Cassandra Jiang Lanfen, in case you forgot," Lanfen added while she adjusted the black-and-white scarf wrapped around her neck.

Eyeing her past junior with a hand held up to her chin in thought, Komichi clapped her hands together, remarking, "You sure have grown a lot since Lydian, huh? Have you been doing well?

There was a faint hint of hesitation within the older sibling's purple eyes before the woman calmly answered, "You could say that. A lot's happened over the years, but I'm surviving regardless." As Kai-Ming kept her mouth sealed behind her sibling, the younger Jiang set her eyes on the food stalls around them. "Mei and I were just getting something to eat before heading back to Yamaku City," Lanfen explained, gesturing over to an empty table nearby. "Care to join us in the meantime?"

Komichi could see the growing excitement within Kai-Ming's eyes in reaction to the sister's offer, so it was pretty difficult when Komichi unfortunately had to turn them down. "Sorry, sorry. I've already got some plans for today, so I'll have to pass. But!" She directed a pair of finger-guns at the two sisters and gave them a wink. "You two go and have fun! It's the weekend, so that's what a maiden should be doing, after all!" Flashing them an encouraging smile, both siblings gave her an understanding glance in response.

"Sure. It was nice seeing you, Ayano." Lanfen gave another formal bow before she simultaneously excused herself and her sibling. "Take care of yourself."

"Ciao!" Kai-Ming shot Komichi an excited peace-sign and followed her older sister towards one of the food court's countless stalls.

Even when they were off, Komichi still couldn't help but notice how Lanfen seemed to treat her sibling more like a child than a younger sister. It was an observation she was going to elaborate on when her train of thought was suddenly interrupted by a low rumbling from Komichi's own stomach. Thinking always made you hungrier, like some would say. Bringing her eyes over to the nearest food stall, Komichi decided to just go with what they had, and hoped that Chris and Yuki were going to chow down on whatever she brought to the table.

As Komichi forked a fresh ball of takoyaki into her mouth, she looked out of the large window beside their table, and observed the falling winter snow with an entranced gaze. Sitting beside her was Yuki, who eagerly dug into a modest plate of gyoza. On the other side of the table, Chris was halfway done with her second bowl of udon by the time Komichi was even a quarter-way finished with her own bowl of food. In-between bites, the three women caught up on everything that had occurred over the past half-decade, and even if a couple years had passed since their graduation from Lydian, Komichi felt as if little had actually changed when it came to chatting with their snow-white friend. Knowing that Chris was an Adaptor couldn't affect the way both Yuki or Komichi saw her.

Still, even if things were open between them, the trio made sure to find an area of the food court which was completely vacant of anyone who could eavesdrop on their conversation.

"-it's only been a couple months since they've started, but that Dummy and her girlfriend are pretty much swamped with work over at Lydian," Chris explained in the middle of shoving her noodles into her mouth. "Being a teacher ain't easy, but it's a lot easier for the Dummy to give an excuse for why she ain't around when S.O.N.G. starts calling us up for work," she continued with a wave of her chopsticks. "Meanwhile, Scythe and Rabbit are pretty much dying in some culinary uni' over in Australia. Can't say I'm jealous of 'em."

"Sounds like things have been pretty chill for you Wielders," Yuki pointed out, her eyes glancing over to a text message from Otome in her smartphone. "It's been - what - a year since y'all have fought some Noise? Rescue work sounds pretty mundane compared to all that."

Pushing aside her emptied bowl of food, Komichi wiped her mouth with a tissue, saying, "I'm sure they're busy in other ways, Yuki. After all, aren't the Kazanaris planning on starting up that humanitarian front?" she asked Chris this time. "It can't be easy for Tsubasa now that she's also the head of the Kazanari household. Her schedule must be pretty tight if she insists on still taking the stage and doing whatever S.O.N.G. rings you gals up for."

"She's got a lot of work on her shoulders, yeah." Chris gave a shrug, not caring for the bits of food that were sticking to the corners of her mouth. "But with Maria by her side, she's been staying pretty strong. Shouldn't be surprising considering how those two have been over the years." Now that the noodles in Chris bowl had been disposed of, Chris' hands grabbed onto it by its sides, and lifted the whole thing up to her lips, leading to the Adaptor instantly downing an entire bowl's worth of broth in a single sitting. It would've been impressive if Komichi and Yuki weren't so used to seeing it by now.

Komichi found it almost adorable, even.

Returning a wistful gaze over to the expansive cityscape outside the court's window, Komichi could see countless people crowding out the streets of Mitakihara down below, and for a brief moment, she wondered what it was like to have a life that wasn't - in any way - associated with the paranormal. It's been almost 4 years now since Yuki and her had joined up with S.O.N.G. for some honest work. The fact that it's been that long by this point only brought out a dramatic sigh from Komichi. "If it's one thing I miss, it's having a weekend where I don't have to expect S.O.N.G. to suddenly ring us up for a mission," she moaned to no one in particular. "Ever since the whole mess with that stolen relic thing, I was beginning to think we wouldn't be getting a day-off for at least amonth."

"Really makes ya wonder why they're even bothering with that failed lab experiment," Chris dryly remarked before glancing over to Yuki. The ponytailed woman was still in the middle of replying to a few text messages from Otome when Chris decided to chat her up. "What about you, Yuki? Got any good stories about your time in that Hida Clan?"

Yuki delivered a teasing smirk and placed a finger over her own lips in a 'hush' motion. "Sorry, Red Hood, but that's confidential. What I can tell you though is that it's already been a while since I've transferred back to S.O.N.G.'s agency. I was handling their teachings just fine, but ever since I got engaged to Otome, I decided that I didn't wanna do anythin' that could get her to worry too much about me." Yuki slid her smartphone into her winter coat's pockets and leaned back on the backrest of her chair with her arms behind her head. "Besides, the tasks S.O.N.G. gives us aren't exactly hard compared to what Clan Hida usually made me do."

"The skills Yuki's learned from them sure do come in handy in our line of work, though," Komichi commented with a pleased grin. "It's a lot easier doing spy stuff when your partner can just sneak around in broad daylight."

"And I will remind you to not rely too much on me, Komi'," Yuki playfully snapped back at her, prompting the brunette to stick out her tongue almost reflexively.

After Chris was done finishing up her glass of juice, the crimson Adaptor placed the tall glass aside, and rose up from her chair without bothering to clean her mouth. "Anyway! Let's start shopping," she told the pair with a fist raised high. "It's been a while since we've messed around, so let's have some fun."

There were absolutely no disagreements whatsoever with Chris' suggestion. None at all. And with their food all chowed down, Komichi and Yuki eagerly followed the short woman out of the bustling food court for an exciting afternoon. Komichi in particular decided to hum an excited tune while she joined her two companions from behind, her wandering gaze shifting itself back to the nearby windows for one last look at the expansive cityscape before them. And as her green eyes took in the breath-taking sight for just a moment, Komichi couldn't help but notice these odd flickers of red lights faintly dancing among the skyline of Mitakihara City.

By the time Shinji and Kagero had returned to the S.O.N.G. submarine by helicopter, the setting sun in the horizon was already casting a soft, yellow glow onto the cities of Japan. When the two men walked through the sliding doors of the vessel's command centre, they immediately spotted Commander Genjuuro and Grandmaster Souji up ahead. Both leaders were evidently still in the middle of an ongoing conversation, so Shinji and Kagero quietly got down on their knees, and lowered their heads in shame while they waited for their superiors to conclude their formal talk. Shinji decided to announce their presence only after a full minute had passed in complete silence.

"We must apologise for our failure to retrieve the missing SG-r04," the eldest of the arrived pair stated as Kagero kept quiet at Shinji's side. "In hindsight, we may have overestimated our capabilities-".

The scabbard of Souji's ceremonial weapon loudlyclackedagainst the bridge's metal floor. The mere sound of it made both Shinji and Kagero instantly tense up in silence. "You will apologise for nothing, Shinji," Souji stated, tightening his hands around the pommel of his katana with his eyes closed shut. "Whatever happened to the SG-r04, it appears to have disappeared from the Illuminati's hands before they had even acknowledged it. Clan Hida has been monitoring the European continent for the past week, and thus far, nothing has gone in nor out without our notice."

"The time that the council has provided us is running short, but it's time better spent focusing on our objective rather than apologising," the Commander calmly added with a gesture for the pair to get up from their knees. Commander Genjuuro then eased the obvious unease on the two younger men's faces by means of a reassuring smile. "Besides, it's not like you two came back from Germany empty-handed."

Standing back on their two feet once again, Shinji attempted to calm the brewing sensation within his chest while Kagero spoke up with a direct question for the Commander, "Have our researchers managed to figure out anything about the object we discovered?"

Commander Genjuuro answered the young man's question with a firm nod before turning to Tomosato and Fujitaka, both of them still rapidly typing away at their bridge terminals. "Tomosato, bring up an image of the time." The order was instantaneously followed up and the bridge's three large monitor screens subsequently generated images of a pitch-black box covered in the distinct markings of the Illuminati. "Apparently, the Remnants had stored a secured data-codex several kilometres beneath their hideout. Professor Elfnein has been investigating it ever since we got the item excavated. And after a bit of research, the Professor says it contains encrypted information regarding beings the Remnants have designated as 'Distortions'."

Additional images flashed across the bridge's three monitor screens. This time, the digitised imagery showcased incomplete blueprints, proposals and designs for a substantial variety of armoured, humanoid-shaped creatures. No two designs were exactly identical, for each of them possessed different sets of armaments while also bearing a diverse range of armour shapes and sizes. Shinji couldn't help but note their fleeting resemblance to the fantastical depictions and stylized paintings of European knights from the earlier centuries. And as the men observed the detailed blueprints on the screens, they could all see that each automata was given a designated 'Category' along with a respective 'Type'.

Category-1. Category-2. Category-3.

Armour-Type. Blade-Type. Caster-Type.

Shinji took his usual position right next to Commander Genjuuro, inquiring, "Is this some sort of alchemical creation?"

"That's what we initially assumed at first, but it does not appear to be the case," Souji answered with a pair of stern eyes on the strange designs before them. "Although the decrypted information thus far implies that the Remnants lent some form of assistance in their tailoring, these plans do not detail any form of alchemy in the creation of these armoured automata. They also seem to have been provided by a third-party which we have yet to identify, as there are no markings pointing to a group both Clan Hida and S.O.N.G. have already encountered."

When the blueprints were finally dismissed from the large monitor screens, Commander Genjuuro sat down at his post and furrowed his brows with suspicion. "Which points to the possibility of a new foe entirely."

"Indeed," Souji said, lifting the ceremonial weapon in one hand to rest its grip on top of his shoulder. "A deal with this mysterious third-party must have gone wrong if the SG-r04 was stolen without the Remnants' notice. Not that it's deserving of any sympathy, of course." The Grandmaster then gave the Commander a sharp look which immediately informed both Shinji and Kagero of the frustration Souji undoubtedly felt within himself. "Whoever they may be, Clan Hida will be at your disposal for the immediate elimination of their leaders, Commander Kazanari. You need only request our services."

In spite of all the grace the Grandmaster typically carried himself with, the mere notion of a threat against their lands never failed to agitate the eldest of the Ogawa brothers.

Some things simply never changed.

A direct transmission suddenly appeared over the bridge's central monitor screens. When the four men turned their attention towards it, they could see that it was a sound-only call originating from the submarine's laboratories. It was Professor Elfnein. Mild signs of exhaustion were apparent in her voice when the Professor addressed them, "Commander, pardon my intrusion, but in my attempts to decrypt the Illuminati's data-codex, I have managed to uncover an audio recording that was stored alongside the encrypted information. I would suggest listening to it."

There was a brief halt in the transmission before the audio transitioned into the very recording she spoke of.

The volume of the audio itself was faint until Commander Genjuuro ordered Fujitaka to increase it and rewind the whole recording, allowing the bridge to clearly hear the panicked, gasping voice of a woman. "This is Acolyte Olivier Anderson. Our leader, Joseph Alexander, is dead. The enemy is approaching our walls. The relic pendant has been stolen and we have only hours before-" Harsh static plagued the recording, causing considerable chunks of it to be nothing but incomprehensible. "-they intend to destroy the information we've been documenting before S.O.N.G. arrives. But I've managed to salvage whatever I could. I've stored them within this codex to hide within the Earth and I can only hope that someone will be able to find this before-"

Olivier Anderson. Although it was just a personal guess from Shinji, the agent had a feeling that the incinerated acolyte he discovered within the underground bunker was this very individual. And the longer the recording went on, the more Shinji began to think that the device being used to record it was somehow being interrupted by an outside force. Whatever was the cause of the static couldn't hide the fear that coated the acolyte's raspy voice like a blanket of existential dread.

"-despite the efforts we have undertaken in order to enact a new world order, I can only now regret the role we have played in the theft of the prototype Symphogear. It pains me to say that we can now only rely on S.O.N.G. for the upcoming conflict. And while it is ridiculous to insist that the slayers of Adam are all we have to rely upon, the power of the Symphogears truly are the only things capable of turning back the coming tide. Please - to whomever may find this - you must deliver this codex to S.O.N.G. as soon as possible. They have to be aware of what we are facing. If we cannot rely on them... then I hope the afterlife is merciful on all our souls."

An abrupt end marked the recording's conclusion. A long, uncomfortable silence subsequently permeated the atmosphere of the entire bridge before the transmission switched back to Professor Elfnein.

"It shall take a few more days for me to finish decrypting the rest of the codex's information, Commander. I shall do it as fast as I can." Promises of ceaseless research were never hyperbolic when it came to the Professor. Much to the dismay of the whole crew, of course.

"Understood. But don't overwork yourself, Professor," Commander Genjuuro gently reminded her. "If anything comes up, be sure to notify us."

With the transmission itself finally coming to its own end, Souji turned back to Shinji and Kagero with both of his hands back on top of the Grandmaster's weapon-of-office. Even if the pair were no longer working directly underneath Clan Hida, the two never failed to maintain their formalities in Souji's presence. "Excellent work on discovering the data-codex. I'd recommend that you two go and get some rest afterwards." Souji looked over to Kagero in particular and gave the blonde agent a brief smile when he too noticed the lingering hints of shame on Kagero's face. "Don't beat yourself up too much. You may be a recent transfer of S.O.N.G., but your performance is anything other than lacking thus far, Kagero."

Kagero did not seem to fully believe the Grandmaster's attempts at reassurance. Even so, it didn't hold him back from giving a thankful bow in response. "I understand, Grandmaster."

Souji wordlessly acknowledged the gesture as the smile on his face quickly vanished. "The trail for the stolen Symphogear may have gone cold, but Clan Hida has recovered many an item with even less to rely on. My warriors will not rest until it has been discovered," he promised Commander Genjuuro before exchanging one last look of mutual respect with the larger man. "I will be returning to Clan Hida first thing in the morning." Souji gave a one-handed gesture for Shinji and Kagero to follow him out of the bridge. "Hopefully, we will be able to identify this new foe as soon as possible."

After the pair had excused themselves from the bridge through a respectful bow to the Commander, Shinji and Kagero turned towards the bridge's automatic entrance, and soundlessly made their way out of the command centre with Souji in-between them. Shinji could sense the obvious frustration which was surging within his apprentice's heart, and even though this was a 'problem' Clan Hida often expected their warriors to handle all by themselves, the fact they were both underneath S.O.N.G. nowadays was a clear opportunity for Shinji himself to calm the younger man's unvoiced issues. A few words with Souji in particular would give clear insight on how best to deal with his older brother's previous right-hand man.

The departing trio were only a couple steps away from the bridge's automatic doors when sharpened instincts suddenly caused the two Ogawa brothers to halt in their tracks.

Obviously unsure as to why the pair had abruptly stopped, Kagero himself halted and glanced at the two silent siblings with clear concern. But before either of them could even say anything, a powerful, violent vibration rocked the entire submarine, causing Shinji and Kagero to swiftly stab their kunais into the walls while Souji himself planted an unsheathed katana into the floor as a make-shift brace. The power to the lights soon went out, leaving the command centre in complete darkness as Commander Genjuuro held onto his terminal and demanded to know what had just hit them. The few bridge operators who weren't as fast in their reactions to the sudden shock were effortlessly thrown off their posts and onto the hard floors of a quaking command centre.

"What's going on?!" Fujitaka shrieked from his terminal, desperately clinging onto his chair for dear life.

Tomosato slammed a couple desperate inputs into her own terminal, her other hand barely maintaining its grip onto the corner of her post. "We've been hit by an unidentified wave of energy, Commander! Our main generator has been shut off! Our back-up generator is-" Her terminal's interface - along with every other computer terminal in the bridge - then went dark as the holographic projection of the globe in the command centre's middle instantly shut off. All monitor screens died out, denying the crew simple visuals of the quaking submarine's other sections.

"We're working on getting our generators up and running, Commander!" an operator from the lower sections of the bridge shouted amidst the pitch-black darkness.

Within a few chaotic minutes, the underwater vessel slowly regained its equilibrium, letting Shinji and Kagero release their grips on their wall-planted weapons before they navigated through the blinding darkness around them with ease. While Kagero ran up to Souji to ensure the Grandmaster's safety, Shinji rushed over to the bridge's lower sections, helping up any fallen operators to their feet and checking if anyone was wounded by the sudden shock to the vessel. To the agent's relief, nobody had sustained anything serious outside of a few sore bumps. Shinji's next move was to then reach into his pockets so he could ignite an emergency flare he always had on his person for situations just like this.

It was a move Kagero hurried to mimic after he noticed the actions of the far more experienced man.

Once the bridge was partially illuminated by a pair of crimson lights, Commander Genjuuro looked across the flare-lit bridge to check up on his haggard crew. "Is everyone alright?" the large man groaned from his designated post.

No injuries, so far. But the situation obviously wasn't over. After Shinji had made his way back onto the upper section of the bridge where Kagero and Souji were, they all reached for the devices on their wrists, and saw that their connection to both S.O.N.G. and Clan Hida's communications network were currently unavailable. Souji wasted little time in attempting to gain a connection before the Grandmaster calmly returned his ceremonial weapon back into its sheath. No amount of shielding would keep their communications perfectly protected from whatever they faced.

"Could this be related to whatever the Illuminati was trying to warn us about?" Kagero said to the two brothers, placing his kunai back in his suit's hidden sheathes.

Both Ogawa brothers clearly did not wish to find out the answer to his question. Not with the current state of the vessel, at least. Turning their attention over to the bridge's working crew, they could see operators rushing to get the power back on, and while Souji himself remained completely calm, Shinji couldn't help but feel the same sense of dread that he had felt within the bunker when he laid his eyes on the marked map of the globe. It was a sense of danger Shinji only began fostering after the horrible attack Noble Red staged on that concert nearly half a decade ago. But it was all instinct and nothing more in the end as Shinji waited for the power to return with his eldest brother and Kagero at his sides.

Shinji's sweating palms insisted otherwise, regardless.

It took about ten minutes for the vessel's generators to come back online. Computer terminals rang with life again, the holographic image of the globe materialised in the centre of the bridge, and the bridge's three monitor screens lit up with the emblem of S.O.N.G. emblazoned across the central screen. But before any of the relieved operators could even celebrate their success, the bridge's alarm klaxons began blaring in their ears, all while a backlog of red alerts flooded their now-awakened computer terminals. Tomosato, Fujitaka and all the other bridge's operators hurried to address the incoming alerts, their stability kept only in check by the calm and rational Commander Genjuuro.

"Tomosato, give me a status report on the situation."

"Sir, we're detecting unidentified energy readings all over the globe!" she exclaimed, beads of sweat clearly trailing down the sides of her head. "Unknown energy signatures are appearing across the United States, Europe, Australia, Borneo, the Philippines, Japan and more, Commander!"

"Bringing up a visual of Tokyo now!" Fujitaka declared, inputting a command to display a clear image of the nearby Japanese city on the central monitor screen.

The visuals came in and what the entire bridge crew witnessed could only be described as 'cracks' in reality hovering over the busy streets of Tokyo.

These giant cracks would then expand into gaping, pulsing rifts numbering in what their terminals counted to be in the hundreds all across the entire world. Operators from the lower sections of the bridge reported that military forces across the globe were already in the middle of mobilising in response to the event, and as Commander Genjuuro swiftly gave out the order to get in contact with their six Adaptors, Shinji, Souji and Kagero stood behind him, wordlessly comprehending the increasing visuals of the rifts on the monitor screens. It was as if reality itself was slowly 'ripping' apart before their very eyes.

And yet, the apparent sundering of their world was not the only occurring catastrophe. Dozens of these dark, armoured bodies were descending from the gaping rifts to make landfall wherever they were. Once the bridge had received clear images of these armoured creatures through the CCTV cameras stationed around Tokyo, everyone present knew exactly what they were facing: Distortions. The armoured automata appeared exactly as to how the Illuminati's records detailed them to be. While Shinji and Kagero could only stand by and watch as the six Adaptors battled the paranormal horrors from the skies, Souji brought up his wrist device to address every single member of Clan Hida with a single urgent message.

"All members of Clan Hida, assist with the defense of our lands immediately!" His demand came out with a rare grimace. "I repeat, abandon all current tasks and assist with the counter-attack now!"

"Hibiki, Tsubasa, Chris, Maria, Kirika and Shirabe have all been deployed, Commander!" Fujitaka declared from his post. "The Adaptors are holding their ground, but the rifts are appearing in multiple zones outside of their reach!"

Judging by the number of armoured bodies the Adaptors were cleaving through with each passing second, Shinji's first observation was that it was going to take each Adaptor at least ten minutes to secure the zones they were already attempting to defend. In those ten agonising minutes, the regular military would have to hold out until S.O.N.G.'s Symphogear-Wielders could come and assist them. The thought initially seemed optimistic until the rifts in the skies began emitting these deep, thrumming 'pulses' of cacophonic energy, sending countless arriving fighter jets and helicopters to helplessly careen out of the sky before crashing down into the cities below. The only way the military could evidently fight was through a bloody ground battle against the armoured creatures.

The enemy was everywhere.

Communications channels were swarming with pleas for assistance.

Despite their odds, Commander Genjuuro still gave out his orders to the Wielders with fiery precision while they were deployed across the world to assist with the global defence. This was not the first time they were defending the world and it clearly was not going to be their last. But as the entire bridge crew attempted to pull together a coherent battle plan with their six Adaptors, a rare alert arrived on Tomosato's terminal, prompting the woman to swing a shocked gaze over to the Commander with an urgent report.

"Commander! We've detected a seventh Aufwachen waveform in Yamaku, Japan!"

All activity on the command centre ceased for exactly one second the moment Tomosato had even uttered those words.

It was impossible, Shinji had thought, looking over the bridge operator with the very same look of disbelief Kagero and Souji themselves expressed. Commander Genjuuro audibly swore he had somehow misheard the bewildered Tomosato. It was just utterly unbelievable. And yet, when Fujitaka inputted a command to record this brand-new Aufwachen waveform, S.O.N.G.'s records identified the incoming waveform pattern in an instant.

"Commander, I'm bringing it up on the monitors!" Fujitaka announced, slamming one more input into his interface.

Three words flashed across the central monitor screen. A single sentence that caused Genjuuro to slam his hands onto his terminal while his voice escaped him in a way it had not done so for the longest time now.

"The Sword of Damocles?!"

Chapter 2: A New Hero, A New Song


For families of Chinese descent, it's typically expected to refer to your older sister as 'Jie Jie' and your younger sister as 'Mei Mei'.

Chapter Text

It had been at least three hours ever since Lanfen and Kai-Ming departed the memorial service of their parents. Neither of the two attended classes for today. Even if their respective schools hadn't authorized their absence, both sisters surely wouldn't have bothered focusing on anything their teachers were even saying. All of it would've only felt like harsh, white noise to their uncaring ears.

With only half an hour left till 6 o'clock, the setting sun shone its luminescent rays through the windows of the Jiang's household kitchen, casting a soft, yellow glow upon Lanfen's back as she tended to an active stove before her.Sinigang. A childhood favourite of both Kai-Ming and Lanfen herself. While it was the latter's first ever attempt at recreating the Filipino soup, the recipes their father had written down in an old notebook of his provided Lanfen all the necessary steps she needed in order to make it even partially edible. Such knowledge - of course - couldn't prevent the kitchen counter from transforming into a mess of chopped ingredients, scattered utensils, and dirty, used cooking pans.

Even so, Lanfen found it difficult to even care about such small things. The complete silence of the Jiang household was all she could think about.

Last she checked, Kai was in the living room. The girl had dropped herself onto their couch the moment they came back home, and even though Kai constantly insisted that she was alright, Lanfen did not fail to notice the way her little sister's shoulders trembled as they had stepped through the front door. A subsequent suggestion from Lanfen to head upstairs for a quick, relaxing bath was postponed in favour of a short nap by Kai-Ming, and up until now, Lanfen had yet to hear any sounds of footsteps heading up their house's creaking staircase.

After closing up the boiling pot with a nearby lid, Lanfen switched off the electric stove, and wiped the gathering sweat on her forehead before rinsing her hands underneath the kitchen's crowded sink. It would be a miracle if the soup tasted even mildly similar to the way it often turned out underneath their father's hands. With a small huff, Lanfen dumped her apron onto the backrest of a kitchen chair and headed into the dining room, her solemn gaze examining her quiet surroundings the entire time. The framed pictures on the walls were now just distant memories of people they would never see again, she thought. Nobody else but Kai and Lanfen would ever find themselves sitting at the dining table in front of her.

Slowly, Lanfen wiped her wet eyes with the back of one hand, and set herself down on one side of the long table while her shoulders ached from a back-alley fight yesterday. She then directed a tired gaze over to a waiting chess set, its pieces still in the middle of an unfinished match which would never see its end now that their father wasn't around. Since Lanfen hadn't dared to disturb the chess set as it sat next to a pile of homework from Lydian, a layer of dust was already building up on the chessboard and its numerous black-and-white pieces. She could still clearly remember how their parents had been suddenly called up for work when it was already a quarter to 11 PM at the time.

The pat on the head their mother gave Lanfen was the last thing she ever did before they both stepped out of the house one last time.

Glancing over to the farthest end of the dining table, her mother's rope dart still laid there, completely undisturbed since it had also been left in a hurry like so many other things. At this point, even the surface of the metal dart was already beginning to get dusty. And if Lanfen's mother was still here, she would've instantly reminded them to tidy up all of their belongings. But the teenage girl couldn't bear to return the item to her mother's training room. Not until she came back home to remind them. Lanfen knew it was a childish thought, and yet, she felt that it would only be rude to put away an object someone else was currently in the middle of using.

The gaze Lanfen held on the mementos of her parents was soon torn away without another thought. With her hand subconsciously twitching at her side, she finally dragged herself over to the living room, her footfalls barely audible even with the silence around her. As Lanfen approached the couch from behind, she wondered what she was supposed to say in order to break the silence, only to soon ponder on whether or not she should even be dispelling it in the first place. Lanfen couldn't hear anything from Kai while the younger of the two lied down on the couch, and when Lanfen walked around it in order to face her, she could see that Kai was still in the middle of a deep, long slumber. The tear stains on Kai's cheeks were as clear as the setting sun outside.

She even looked almost peaceful, Lanfen thought to herself.

After taking note of the smartphone which was peeking out from underneath her sister's hand, Lanfen went over to one of the living room's closets and quietly went through the shelves for Kai's favourite blanket. As the older sibling made sure to not generate any noise that could wake up the girl, Lanfen headed back over to the couch before gently draping a cotton blanket over Kai's form, prompting a few noises to escape from the girl's lips in the middle of her sleep. Dinner wasn't going to be ready until the rice cooker gave out its distinctive ring. With nothing else to do, an exhausted Lanfen allowed herself to drop onto the floor so she could lean against the couch's soft cushions, providing her some respite from the swirling thoughts within her aching head.

It was just the two of them now. And it was mainly up to Lanfen to decide what they were going to do from here on out.

Running one hand through the locks of her growing, black hair, Lanfen listened to Kai's soft breathing while her little sister slept behind her. There had to besomethingthey could do in order to make the coming days just a bit brighter. The London concert featuring Kazanari Tsubasa and Maria Cadenzavna Eve was about to air tomorrow night, so a watch-party for just the two of them didn't particularly sound like a bad idea. Lanfen would have to head down to the supermarket tomorrow for some suitable snacks if that was the case. Money wasn't going to be a problem for the two sisters anyway.

Should she also keep this a secret for now? Or should she tell Kai the moment it was convenient? It was hard to decide when almost nothing made sense to Lanfen right now.

Carefully, Lanfen brushed the back of two fingers against Kai's sleeping face and hoped that she was dreaming of something pleasant. The older of the two could barely sleep without falling into the depths of an intrusive nightmare. It was something Lanfen herself was used too, at least. Letting loose a hush sigh, she proceeded to rest her head against the couch's cushions before staring emptily at the ceilings above them. Lanfen couldn't care about the tears that were freely running down her cheeks at this point.

"I'll take care of you, Mei," she whispered to the cold, empty air, finally shattering the oppressive silence of the Jiang household. "No matter what happens."

As soon as Lanfen's promise left her dry, cracking lips, the uncaring tides of silence flowed back into their living room. It was never like this back then. Lanfen wished to hear the jokes their father would always tell them. The music their mother would attempt to play whenever an instrument piqued her wandering interest. The joyous yells that Kai would let out whenever Lanfen sat down with her to watch their usual Sunday morning shows. All of them, now mere remembrances of events long-gone. Lanfen was now the oldest person in the house and she barely even trusted in her own ability to take care of herself. The sheer thought of the responsibilities pressing down on her shoulders made Lanfen's heart quiver, but she held onto whatever bravery she could all for the sake of her little sister.

If it was for Kai, then Lanfen believed she could do anything.

"Jie? Jie, wake up."

The soft nudge Lanfen felt on her shoulder partially roused her from a much-needed nap. A subsequent, playful jab aimed at her sensitive waist instead caused the woman to instantly shoot open her eyes and reflexively jump in her bus seat, decisively pulling Lanfen out of a deep slumber. As Lanfen held back a grunt of discomfort, she directed an unamused stare at the younger sibling who was hiding a mischievous laugh behind her hands. Lanfen would have grilled her sister for her usual shenanigans, but the attention Kai would be receiving was most likely the very thing she wanted in the first place. And so, the eldest of the two simply turned her attention towards the windows of the bus they were riding before taking in the tall buildings, rising apartment complexes, and brightly-lit shopping centers of Yamaku City.

Judging by the streets they were passing by, the two were now only a few minutes away from their intended stop.

At their feet, several bags of brand-new scarves andValkyrangertoys could be seen sitting between their legs and the back of the bus chairs in front of them. While Lanfen gazed out of the windows - ready to hit a nearby Stop button - Kai relaxed beside her with a pair of headphones in her ears. The faint noise which was leaking out from her sister's small headphones pretty much informed Lanfen that Kai's usual music had been set to max volume. Since any suggestions to lower it down would only fall on deaf ears, Lanfen focused on the passing-by streets to her right, and pressed one of the holographic Stop buttons upon noticing a few familiar convenience stores.

Lanfen plucked out one of her sister's headphones from the younger girl's ears before she started picking up some of their bags off the bus floor. "We've arrived."

Leading the way towards the front of the halting, near-empty bus, Lanfen deposited a pair of tickets alongside a few coins into the vehicle's fare machine, letting them step onto the snowy sidewalk with all of their items in hand. Standing for up to ten floors before them was a large apartment complex alongside a few other buildings of similar height as Lanfen shielded the lower half of her face with a black-and-white scarf. The city of Yamaku was hardly any different from places like Mitakihara and Kazamino, its high-rise buildings all reaching towards the skies while people crowded out its snow-covered sidewalks. A second could hardly pass by without hearing some sort of car horn coming from the vehicles on the busy roads.

Shivering underneath her black jacket, the two entered the apartment complex's lobby to escape the December winds, its sliding doors welcoming them like it always did as Kai loudly hummed a tune at her side. 'Enter the elevator, head up to the eighth floor, take a right and stop in front of the fourth door you see', they carried out these steps without needing to think much on it, and once Lanfen had unlocked the front door of their apartment, Kai was the first to rush into the warmth of their humble abode. They placed down their bags at the hallway entrance before taking off their shoes, the lights above them flickering to life the second Lanfen had closed up the front door behind them.

"We have returned home!" Kai dramatically declared, zooming ahead into the living room with all of their bags gathered up in her hands.

Storing their footwear inside a nearby shoe closet, Lanfen gave an amused smile and walked by the bathrooms' doors to catch up with her sister. Grateful to finally be free from the cold again despite years of having stayed in Japan, she undid the scarf that was wrapped around her neck, placing it on a rack which hung onto the walls of the hallway entrance. Unsurprisingly, by the time Lanfen had stepped into the living room, Kai was already standing before the television with its remote in her hands. All of their plastic bags could be seen sitting underneath the room's dining table while an episode ofValkyrangerpopped up on the screen, prompting Lanfen to address her sibling before Kai could even slip under thekotatsutable.

"Mei, go and take a bath first," she said, turning on the room's ceiling lights by flipping a few switches on their walls. "You can watch your showsafteryou've cleaned yourself up."

Kai barely had one foot inside thekotatsubefore she was forced to rise back up to her feet, groaning, "But we barely even got ourselves dirty-" She noticed the way Lanfen crossed her arms over her chest and instantly held back her excuse. "Yeah, I guess a hot bath doesn't sound so bad." With that immediate change in her tune, Kai left her smartphone on top of thekotatsu, switched off the TV, and slid past her older sibling for the nearby bathroom. She made sure to deliver Lanfen another playful jab in her ticklish waist when she passed by her, earning Kai an exasperated complaint that was cut-off by the sound of the bathroom door closing itself shut.

"And somehow she insists she's more 'hands-on' with her friends," Lanfen dryly grumbled to no one in particular.

After she habitually dusted her hands together, Lanfen proceeded to carry out her usual home rituals now that they were back. First, she approached the holo-player stationed next to their television and clicked on a few buttons, filling the apartment with a calming jazz tune which chased away the oppressive silence. She then headed into their small kitchen through a nearby door so she could prepare the necessary ingredients for dinner later. Once Lanfen made sure that her pots, knives, pork, and vegetables were all ready, she exited the kitchen and went over to the shelf next to their dining table. Her hand ran through the spines of multiple books until Lanfen found her father's cookbook in the lower shelves. The words that were written onto its back by means of simple ink had yet to fade away even after all these years.

"Ownership of Keith S. and Margaret Jiang."

Leaving the thick book on their counter for later, Lanfen finally proceeded with the last step of her daily rituals.

The small family shrine they had set up on one side of the living room possessed a single cushion before it for Lanfen to comfortably kneel on. As her back faced the three doors that lead to the siblings' respective bedrooms alongside Lanfen's own practice room, she looked down on the shrine's small table, and gazed at the chess set which laid on top of the translucent glass. Its pieces were arranged in the same way they've been for half a decade now, the pawns, knights, rooks, bishops, kings and queens all still frozen in an ongoing battle that would never see its conclusive end. Even if they were just inanimate objects, a part of Lanfen almost sympathized with the chess pieces she had chosen to leave in such a way, all to purely satisfy her own sentimental needs.

Slowly, Lanfen drew in a practiced breath and redirected her gaze back to the shrine. A framed picture of Kai, Lanfen and their parents could be seen peacefully resting right in the middle of it.

'Keith Silverstein', 'Margaret Jiang Pao-Lin', 'Cassandra Jiang Lanfen', and 'Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming'.

"We enjoyed ourselves at this new mall today," Lanfen began, a pair of hands gripping tightly onto her knees. "It was at Mitakihara. Mei Mei almost ate too much, but I managed to stop her before she could throw up," she said with a laugh. Lanfen then cleared her throat and narrowed her purple eyes. "She's also just turned 17 yesterday. It's been a while since either of you could attend our celebrations, hasn't it?" She paused to stare at the framed picture. Nobody answered her back, of course. "... I'm still struggling to hold onto a steady job, but the money we're receiving from your old workplace is allowing us to get by. Hopefully I can find something that-" Lanfen halted her words again and the soothing music that was flowing out of the room's holo-player was all she could hear.

It was all Lanfen would ever hear no matter how long she waited.

"... I hope I'm doing enough to make you both proud. And I hope that Mei Mei can have a future I myself never could. Please watch over us, as always."

Tightening her lips together, Lanfen's tired eyes continued staring into the picture which reminded her of how happy they all used to be. A part of her wished they could reply to her words - even for just a second - but she knew it would be ridiculous of her to even expect that. It had been over half a decade since they were gone, and yet, here she was, still hoping that they would one day come back into their lives to make everything go back to what it once was. There was little wonder in why Lanfen only sat down to chat with their parents like this when Kai was obviously out of earshot. She had an image to keep up with as the eldest of the two Jiang siblings.

Lanfen proceeded to flinch when she heard the bathroom door down the hall burst open, a noise soon followed up by a satisfied sigh from her little sister. "A shower cleared with no Continues! Jie, it's your turn!"

Getting off the small cushion beneath her, Lanfen dusted her dark winter clothes while Kai re-entered the living room in a pair of colourful pajamas. With a loud war-cry, Kai dove into thekotatsuwith the grace of a rushing cheetah and made herself comfortable within its warm embrace. Lanfen could only click her tongue in a mixture of annoyance and amusement as Lanfen turned off the room's holo-player and headed for her bedroom. It certainly was an average weekend for them. Kai's usual re-watch ofValkyrangerwas practically a universal constant of it.

Stepping inside her tidy bedroom, Lanfen took out her smartphone and left it beside her laptop on a clean bedside desk. Sitting on her bed was a pile of shark plushies that had been neatly organized in a single-file as a pink, white and light-blue flag hung above the head of her bed. The oldZwei Wingposter Lanfen had been keeping for years now was stationed right next to her flag, barely showcasing any visible signs of aging due to the lengths she had taken to keep it pristine. Fetching a dry towel from her closet, Lanfen closed the door shut, and looked out her bedroom window to briefly admire the falling snow outside. Even though her brown skin could never stand the cold, there was always a beauty in the colour of the freezing weather beyond the frosted glass.

A strange flicker of red lights subsequently appeared in the clouds high above.

It was brief, but it was apparent enough to notice while Lanfen got closer to the window for a better look. "What was-?"

The distinctive, bombastic opening music ofZesshou Sentai Valkyrangersuddenly blared from the living room behind her, causing Lanfen's skin to nearly jump off her bones before the volume immediately turned itself down. A quick, "Whoops, my bad!" could be heard from the living room before Lanfen even managed to raise her voice at her little sister.

Comforting her aching temples with two fingers, Lanfen hoped that wasn't going to earn them a complaint from their neighbours. Still, she could only be grateful to have someone like Kai around. Even with all the quirks her younger sibling had accumulated over the years, Lanfen felt lucky to have a sister as supportive as Kai always was in the end. There were worse things that Kai could've turned out to be. A Tokusatsu nerd was admittedly - or unfortunately - one of the better results. With her towel draped over one arm, Lanfen promptly exited her bedroom and headed down the hall for a hot soak in the baths. Spending a bit of time in the tub never failed to ease her worries. And if she was still feeling troubled afterwards, then a bit of time in their apartment's practice room sounded like the perfect follow-up.

As a small, metal dart whipped through the air of the practice room, the rays of a setting sun peeked through the nearby windows, and reflected off the weapon's polished surface. Tethered to a rope that was wrapped around Lanfen's forearm, the rope dart snaked left and right before impaling the aluminum can which hung from the ceiling by a thin piece of string. The metal dart then withdrew itself from the ravaged metal while the brown woman danced across the room, wrapping the weapon's entire rope around her thigh using sheer, controlled momentum. Through an act of pure and practiced finesse, Lanfen's right hand snatched the whipping dart from the air and grasped onto its thin, chrome handle.

Her acrobatic form soon came to a halt, ending Lanfen's training session for the day.

Letting loose a few tired gasps for air, Lanfen glanced over to the hanging metal can, and allowed herself to make a satisfied smirk at the lack of injuries she inflicted on herself today. Gently, she undid the rope she had wrapped around her forearm and thigh, and stored the memento of her mother back inside a small, wooden chest that awaited her in the corner of the empty room. As her heart continued pounding within her ribcage, Lanfen turned around to gaze at a picture of their parents she had taped onto the wall. Her palms were undeniably crying at her sides due to sustained rope-burn, but all of the pain was ignored in favour of waiting for her mother's praise.

Nothing. Just like always. Obviously.

Dismissing herself from the practice room through a formal bow aimed at the picture itself, a sweaty Lanfen stepped outside in her sportswear, her tank top and shorts still sticking to her clammy skin while she made her way through the living room. Kai had noticeably returned to her bedroom - most likely to organize all the toys she had bought earlier - so a blanket of quiet had managed to settle itself in their living room after several hours that were comprised of nothing butValkyrangerepisodes. This allowed Lanfen to turn the living room's holo-player back on, filling their apartment this time with the relaxing tunes of lo-fi music before she went over to the apartment's small kitchen.

Humming along to the calming tunes which gently occupied their abode's atmosphere, Lanfen stepped in front of the stove and turned up the temperature into a light simmer. A batch of steam flowed out of the large pot when she took off its lid, a ladle already held in her other hand so she could scoop up a small amount of the stew Lanfen had been cooking up for dinner. Kai was definitely going to be happy to have somesinigangfor the weekend. Upon taking a sip of the sample in her ladle, Lanfen smiled at its nostalgic, sour and savoury taste. A flavour she had taken some time to perfect over the passing years.

"Mei, dinner's ready! Set the table!" she called over to her sister, switching off the stove and taking out a pair of bowls to split the soup between the two siblings.

By the time Lanfen came out of the kitchen with a tray of pork soup in her palms, Kai had already finished placing down the plates and utensils on top of their dining table. "Oh, nice!" Kai's eyes essentially glimmered with excitement at the sight of the meal Lanfen carefully brought over. Eagerly rubbing her two hands together, Kai reached over to the rice cooker on their table and popped open its lid, revealing the steaming white rice within it. "See?" she boasted with a dramatic pose for effect. "I got it doneperfectlythis time."

"Making edible rice is not an achievement, Mei," Lanfen dryly added, placing the two bowls on the table before she started scooping up some rice onto their plates. While Kai turned up the volume of the holo-player on the wall, Lanfen made sure to put just enough on Kai's plate, essentially fulfilling the growing hunger of a teenage girl. Lanfen, on the other hand, essentially served herself half the amount of rice she had placed onto Kai's plate. "Do be sure to eat your vegetables."

Kai gave an exaggerated gag as she pulled up her dining chair. "Oh, the horror," she muttered, cheekily resting her chin in one hand.

After handing Kai her serving, Lanfen sat down with her own plate, allowing dinner to finally begin while the last rays of sunlight slowly disappeared into the horizon. They could see a city of flashing colours outside their windows as they ate, the honking of cars from down the streets below faintly audible every now and then. A hot stew likesinigangwas perfect for the cold weather, and while the stew's sour taste always reminded Lanfen of times long past, the unbridled glee she could see on Kai's face as she happily dug into her food was far more satisfying to witness. It was almost hard to believe that Kai nearly threw up the first time Lanfen had attempted to manifest this very same meal.

She honestly didn't blame her little sister for reacting the way she did.

"So, how has Yaman Academy been?" Lanfen began, pushing aside the black braid on her shoulder before holding up a bowl of soup to her lips.

Swallowing down a large batch of rice in one go, Kai shielded a loud burp behind one hand before answering, "Oh, you know. The usual stuff. A bit of homework here. Some annoying group projects there," she said, hesitantly prodding the vegetables in her stew with the two ends of her chopsticks. "I got a love letter telling me to meet up with this girl underneath the school's biggest tree, but I think she chickened out in the end. Oh well." Kai gave a casual shrug.

"Doesn't mean she won't try again, to be fair," Lanfen chuckled. This was probably the fourth time this year that someone's showed any interest in her little sister. If any of Kai's stories rang true, then Yaman Academy didn't sound too different from Lydian Academy, even if they were located in completely different prefectures. She definitely needed to prepare for the day when Kai would bring over a possible partner to their apartment. "Aside from those things, how have your results been?" Lanfen asked with a raised brow this time.

As though she was drawing a revolver in the middle of a duel, Kai reached for the pockets of her pants, pulling out her smartphone to bring up a PDF she had evidently prepared. With a smug grin, she held up her phone in front of Lanfen's face and revealed a report card of results that Lanfen herself struggled to even partially achieve back when she was Kai's current age. "Ta-da! See? I told you I could do better than last time," Kai chirped, putting her device down next to her plate. "Although itwaskinda hard, nothing's really impossible for us sisters, am I right?"

"Of course," Lanfen nodded, smiling. "I did somewhat expect this, but it's good to see that you're actually taking your studies seriously. And because of that..." She placed down her spoon and chopsticks, and walked over to a selection of drawers next to their bookshelf. After rummaging through a few drawers filled with various papers and documents, Lanfen pulled out a small plastic gift and turned around to show it to her sister. "... I thought this would be a good reward for your efforts."

Settling down her own utensils as well, Kai looked closely at the colourful item in her sibling's hand before letting out an excited yell that made Lanfen wince slightly. Held between her fingers was a green-and-red, grasshopper-themed superhero with a pair of distinct, glowing compound eyes on its mask. "How?! You can't even get this thing without selling your kidney or something!" she exclaimed, surprise written clear on her face as Lanfen placed the item in her outstretched, open hands.

"You could say it was 'fate' that I came across it," Lanfen answered with a small laugh. Sitting back down at the table to continue her dinner, the woman smiled to herself while Kai excitedly held up the small keychain above her head. "It had just arrived in the mail today, for one thing. I expected you to do better this semester, so I thought I'd buy you something like this as a reward. Since your grades werekeyto your reward, it would be fitting that you'd receive a keychainfor it." Lanfen smirked at her own wordplay, but all it did was earn her a groan of pain from her little sister.

She definitely was not as good as their father when it came to making someone laugh.

Clipping the keychain onto her smartphone, Kai held up the device above her head before flashing a grateful smile at her older sister. "Thanks, Jie. I honestly didn't think you'd get me something like this," she said with a tone which was far more softer than it usually sounded. It made Lanfen pause in her meal before sharing a genuine smile with the teenage girl from across the dining table. "Anyway," Kai continued, shoving another mountain of rice into her mouth, "when are you going to bring back a lover?"

Lanfen immediately choked on her meal.

Accidentally hitting the bottom of the wooden table with her own rising knees, the brown woman scrambled over to the kitchen counter and grabbed a tissue to loudly cough into. "That's-!" Her throat now cleared up, Lanfen took a deep breath as she wiped her mouth clean with another drawn tissue. She found herself to be at a loss for words. "What even brought this up...?" Lanfen asked bewilderedly, shaking her head at the grinning girl sitting at the table.

"I mean. You know." Kai rocked left and right in her seat, purple eyes staring directly at Lanfen with a glint of clear mischief. "You've turned down a lot of people over the years, haven't you? Guys, gals and lotta pals in-between. I can't help but wonder why that'd be the case when youclearlydon't have any issues catching a person's eye." Sticking the ends of her chopsticks between her lips, Kai let out a playful hum while her eyes scanned Lanfen's toned body from head-to-toe. "I wonder...?"

Tossing the used tissues in her hands straight into a nearby dustbin, Lanfen clicked her tongue and sat back down with her elbows placed on the table. "I just..." She pursed her lips together and stared down at a half-finished plate of rice. It had been a while since Kai had asked her this sort of question. Perhaps it was time to finally stop avoiding it. "I just want to make sure that your future is certain before I can try and settle down with someone," Lanfen slowly explained, picking up her own chopsticks again to finish up her dinner. "It's as simple as that."

Kai shot her an almost-pensive glance. "You should think about yourself more, you know?"

Those soft words sharply made their way right into Lanfen's tightening chest. It was rare to hear audible concern in Kai's voice like this. Then again, she was no longer a kid anymore. Those times have long gone by, along with many other memories. "... But I did get what I wanted, didn't I?" Lanfen answered in a low voice. Slowly, she turned her head over to the small window beside their dining table, and fixated a narrowed gaze on the faint reflection she witnessed within the frosted glass. Sometimes, Lanfen couldn't believe the image that was right there before her. "I got the body I wished for. Even though it wasn't exactly easy."

"I mean... Fair. But you can still try to achieve more than that," Kai insisted with a shrug, drumming her fingers on the dining table as she clearly scrambled to compose her next few sentences out of thin air. "A better... social life for one thing. I'm grateful for everything you've done for us, but you know-" The girl scratched the back of her tomboyish, black hair. "I'd like you to also have some friends of your own. Find someone you like. I'm doing just fine myself, so you don't have to keep doing everything for me at the expense of yourself, Jie."

There was something amusing about this conversation. Kai was only one year away now from turning eighteen-years old, and yet, Lanfen was already conversing with her like this. Lanfen guessed that the absence of their parents had affected more than just the eldest of the two siblings in a way. Then again, Kai always did possess the determined streak their father was always known for. Even with both of their parents gone, parts of them still lived on within the two sisters, whether or not either of them actually noticed it to begin with. As Lanfen appreciated the sentiment Kai was earnestly showcasing, she felt her throat subtly tighten up, blocking out whatever words Lanfen intended on transmitting.

The ceiling lights flickered, catching the attention of the pair at the dining table while Lanfen stared at the blinking lights above them.

This was not something which regularly occurred.

"Maybe there's just something wrong with the power?" Kai wondered out loud, turning her sights over to the holo-player when its gentle music suddenly died out.

The living room's television switched itself on and the two swung their gazes over to the appliance as static covered its entire screen. Lanfen got up and grabbed the remote to switch off the television, but repeatedly tapping its buttons did nothing to prevent the hiss of static imagery from filling up their flickering room. The older Jiang sibling subsequently shivered when Kai wordlessly tugged her arm, showing that the screens of their smartphones were also showcasing an unchanging display of distorted images and static. A cold chill made its presence well-known down the length of Lanfen's spine. It was a feeling she had not experienced ever since the world event that had occurred almost five years ago.

Amidst the roars of static, the two heard a voice slowly arise from the speakers of their electrical appliances. It was a distorted, garbled voice which spoke through their devices in a tongue neither of them had even heard of. While Lanfen's heartbeat began to rise within her chest, Kai pointed at the static that flooded the television, allowing them to make out the faint shape of an armoured figure slowly taking form on their screens. As its voice seemingly adjusted itself into a language both of them could understand, the monochrome image of a knight-like figure made itself known with its arms folded behind its back, and a single, glowing dot for an eye shining in the middle of its helmet's visor.

"We have arrived," the figure declared, holding up a gauntlet with claw-like fingertips, "and we have come to claim what is rightfully ours. You may run. You may hide. But until the last drop of blood from the final human moistens this world's rich soil, this planet shall be an eternal battleground for the ownership of this thriving earth." The disdain in its distorted voice was clear for all to hear. "Make peace with the coming end and prepare your armies, for the crusade against Humanity begins today."

Kai's trembling hand tightly held onto Lanfen's wrist. "We'll be okay... right?" The younger girl's words came out in the form of a shaky whisper.

Slowly, Lanfen drew in a steady breath and forced herself to nod, all while putting her faith in the same powers who had saved their world time and time again.

As the television screen shut itself off once again, the ceiling lights shattered apart above them, forcing Lanfen to shield her shrieking sister from the falling shards with her own body. Crouching in the subsequent darkness of their apartment, Lanfen made sure that Kai was completely alright before she tried moving over to the bookshelves for some sort of emergency light source. But before Lanfen could even take three steps forward, Kai had suddenly grabbed onto her shoulder, the younger girl's gaze noticeably directed at something outside their window. Hesitantly, Lanfen followed the direction of Kai's wide-open eyes, and subsequently felt her breath escape her at the sight of growing, glowing 'cracks' hovering over Yamaku's dark skyline.

The fabric of reality was seemingly being torn apart.

And when these cracks expanded into glowing, pulsing rifts, Lanfen seized Kai by the hand before they prepared to run for the city's underground shelters.

There was no time to lose. The elevators and stairwells were crowded with confused, frightened tenants who all desired to escape the tall apartment complex. After grabbing their phones and putting on their winter clothes, the two sisters squeezed their way throughout the bustling staircases. Kai's hand desperately maintained a tight grip around Lanfen's palm the entire time so they wouldn't get separated in the chaos. Once they had managed to reach ground-floor, the pair rushed out of the lobby and onto the sidewalks to see the roads that were absolutely jammed with immobile vehicles. But before either of them could even catch their breath, a deep thrumming erupted from the pulsing rifts hovering above their heads, causing Lanfen's stomach to churn within her abdomen.

And yet, this harsh, violent cacophony was only the least of their worries.

Like a legion of falling angels, dozens upon dozens of large, knight-like creatures descended onto the streets below, their hulking bodies effortlessly crushing the civilians and vehicles beneath their armoured feet as moonlight gently reflected off baroque, obsidian armour. Armed with kite-shaped shields and rugged battle-axes, the sudden advent of these armoured monsters only fueled the panic of the retreating civilians in the streets. While their helmet-visors emitted an azure glow akin to burning, uncaring fire, the knights drew out their armaments in perfect unison and charged towards the fleeing crowds around them.

Kai and Lanfen were running before they had even realized it.

There was nothing else either of them could actually do. Panicked yells in the winter air transitioned into the horrified shrieks and pleas of the dying, encouraging Lanfen to hold onto her little sister's hand as they bolted down the streets towards the nearest disaster shelter. Lanfen couldn't care about anyone else other than the two of them. The adrenaline that was pumping through her blood made it all perfectly clear: Her focus was only on their own survival.

Sprinting around a sharp bend which led into another street, Kai and Lanfen skidded to an abrupt halt when they saw more of those armoured knights in the bloodied roads ahead of them. Wielding their axes within hands of dark metal, the armoured creatures' brutal swings reaped throughout the panicking crowds, cutting down the begging and the screaming with extreme prejudice beneath the shine of the Christmas lights hanging above the streets. There was seemingly no sense of malice in the way they butchered the countless people of Yamaku. It was as though they were systematically cutting down a growing infestation of weeds that had dared to even stand before their armoured forms.

"Jie, over here!" Kai exclaimed, pulling Lanfen's frozen body towards a narrow alley on their left.

Taking their chances with the deserted alleyway to their side, the two ran for it, fleeing through several bends and turns before they finally chose to rest inside the depths of the empty, tight space. They soon fell onto their aching knees and drew the cold air into their exhausted lungs. With their legs already burning with pain, the two sisters leaned against the alley junction's concrete walls, and tightly held onto one another for comfort. They could still hear the distant screams of the dying even when they were deep inside the alleyway. It was a haunting sound which only made Kai desperately place her hands over her ears as the younger girl's eyes kept themselves open for any sign of those armoured monstrosities.

Even with the uncontrollable trembling that was coursing through Lanfen's arms, she managed to take out her smartphone before opening up a map to find their way to the nearest shelter from here. Their devices were operating in perfect condition, but it was almost impossible to focus on the screen when Lanfen's hands couldn't stay still for even a single second. Forcing herself to regain her control by biting down on her lips, Lanfen grasped her phone with both of her shaking hands, and hurriedly charted an escape route throughout the empty alleyway.

"W-What are even those things?" Kai stuttered at her side, staring down the multiple paths of the junction they were in. "Are those N-Noise...?"

"I... I don't know." Lanfen's trembling whisper was barely even audible. Drawing a shaky breath into her exhausted lungs, she tried to keep up a mask of bravery, more so for Kai's own sake than herself. She needed to get them both to safety first and foremost. Even if absolute terror infected every fiber of her body. Lanfen didn't give a damn about anything or anyone else right now. "We have to get out of here. Fast," she stated, holding up a route on her phone while pointing at one of the pathways to their side. "This should get us to a shelter while avoiding the streets. The signal's getting weak, but-"

The loud shuffling of baroque metal resounded from the alley path behind them. The two sisters spun around in an instant and spotted one of those large, armoured knights slowly creeping its way towards them. Carrying an axe which was marked with foul gore and ichor, its glowing visor seemingly glared at both Kai and Lanfen, its obsidian armour visibly coated in bloody handprints that were illuminated by the light of a shattered moon. It perked its head at the faint sound of Kai's careful footsteps, and when the two sisters gingerly got up to their shaking feet, the hulking knight charged at them, trampling the trash cans in its path beneath the sheer weight of its body.

"Mei, run!"

As Kai sprinted down the path leading towards the nearby shelter, Lanfen bolted into an adjacent path, forcing the knight to chase down the older Jiang sibling instead. Lanfen could still feel her exhausted legs crying out beneath her. Her lungs were desperately gasping for air. While she could still hear the heavy footfalls of the knight right behind her, Lanfen's eyes could barely maintain their focus on the paths and bends up ahead. Its bloodied axe grinded against the ground beneath them the entire time as Lanfen leaped over the alleyway's countless pipes and dumpsters. The knight itself barely lost any momentum in its relentless pursuit whenever it plowed its way through the obstacles with ease.

A twist in Lanfen's ankle threw her off balance.

She stifled a cry and fought against the pain coursing throughout her leg, only to instead widen her eyes when a large, heavy blade cleaved into her back with a sickeningcrunch.

The next thing Lanfen knew, her limp body had tumbled into the dirty ground, eyes still wide open with shock. She tried to move, but her limbs would not respond. All she could feel was a sickening warmth that was growing across her back as the armoured knight stood over her to stare right into Lanfen's panic-ridden gaze. Ever so slowly, the knight silently raised its axe over her head. Fresh blood dripped from its blade and landed on the woman's cheeks. All sense of control over her limbs was completely lost to her at this point. The only thing Lanfen could do was to simply gaze at the ringed moon shining high in the December skies. She couldn't even let out a plea for it to not be the end.


A severed, helmeted head crashed onto the ground with a loudthud, letting Lanfen see the flickering lights which permeated the insides of the fallen, empty helmet. Her attacker's decapitated form then fell to one side and exploded into a cloud of black sand which stung Lanfen's still-open eyes. Weakly coughing out the particles that had managed to enter her mouth, Lanfen's vision was already beginning to blur by the time she managed to gaze up in shock at her mysterious saviour. She couldn't even utter the weakest syllable in response. Not even when Lanfen's protector crouched down next to her with a glass vial in their gloved hands.

Removing the vial's cork with a softpop, they began pouring an icy liquid all over Lanfen's warm back, causing her to clench her teeth when she felt a subsequent, sharp stinging sensation coursing throughout her body. "Is this where you intend to let your performance end?" the figure inquired in a sultry, almost-motherly voice. "Shall your curtain fall before you've even started?"

To Lanfen's utter disbelief, the pain which had wracked her entire body slowly melted away into complete nothingness.

She blinked several times and slowly took in a few shaking breaths. Looking up at her apparent saviour with a returning sense of sight, Lanfen saw a woman crouching down next to her with sickly-pale skin. The medium-length, blue hair which barely touched her shoulders were kept neat and trim. And a strange smile was practically plastered across the woman's face as a pair of bright, golden eyes stared right into Lanfen's purple pupils. In contrast to the diamond symbols that were prominent all over her formal, azure suit, the intent behind those eyes was a complete mystery as the ghostly woman stood back up with an emptied vial between two gloved fingers.

"... T-Thank you," Lanfen stuttered, slowly getting onto her knees. She then ran her hands all over her trembling body and felt as though she had never been wounded at all. The back of her winter jacket was ripped clean open, and yet, the only thing which remained as proof of her injuries were the dried bloodstains all over her back. Even her twisted ankle felt perfectly fine.

Sliding the glass vial into the pockets of her suit, the pale woman held a gloved fingertip over a pair of blue, curvy lips. "Do you desire the power to save your sister?" she whispered with a soft giggle.

Lanfen directed a wordless gaze right at the woman, purple eyes slowly widening. "What... did you say...?"

"Do you desire thepowerto save your sister?" she loudly repeated the question, crouching back down again so she could slowly hover her pale face mere centimeters away from the tip of Lanfen's nose. The golden eyes she possessed essentially dove into Lanfen's soul while the pale woman's honeyed words slithered into her ears, causing Lanfen to subconsciously tense up until she couldn't move. "Or is your love for her... all but an act of bravado?"

The sudden accusation practically ignited a proverbial fire within Lanfen's eyes. Knowing that Kai was somewhere out there - potentially all alone and without help - Lanfen's hands seized the pale woman by the collar of her suit. "Of course I want to save her!" she hissed between gritted teeth, the knuckles on Lanfen's fists already turning into a pale white from the sheer force of her grip. "Even if I'd have to lay down my own life, I'd do anything for her! She's the only thing I have left that matters. So, don't youdareimply-!"

The ghostly woman laughed. It was a hearty, honest laugh.

Seemingly brimming with joy at Lanfen's answer, she lifted a hand to brush the back of her glove against Lanfen's bloodstained cheek.

"Good," she cooed, unbothered by Lanfen's tight hold on her collar. "I'm pleased to have chosen someone who knows theimportanceof one's own family. Here..." Reaching a hand into one of her pockets, the woman drew out what appeared to be a red, crystal pendant. The light of the moon above reflected off its crimson surface as Lanfen stared at it in confusion and released her hold on the pale woman's outfit. "All you need to do is sing," she advised, gently placing it in one of Lanfen's hands. "Sing, and you shall wield the power of the melodious Valkyries who have saved your world many times before, as you are the one most worthy to wield theSword of Damocles."

Lanfen could hardly register what she was even hearing.

Gazing down at the red pendant in her palm, the woman in the azure suit stood back up again and casually fixed the wrinkled collar of her suit. The reflection Lanfen casted on the glimmering pendant allowed her to see the clear disbelief growing within her own purple eyes. "... Who... Who are you-?" Lanfen lifted her gaze upwards and the woman was gone.

Nobody but Lanfen herself remained in the alleyway as the sounds of the dying could still be faintly heard in the distance. It didn't matter who she was, Lanfen quickly reasoned with herself. There was only one thing she desired right now and it was Kai's assured safety. The identity of the stranger who saved her was a matter to undercover only when this living nightmare was all over. Slowly getting back onto her two feet, Lanfen held the crimson pendant up to her chest, and drew the cold, winter air into her battered lungs. All she needed to do was follow the vague words the strange woman had instructed her. All she needed to do was 'sing'. Sing.


Directing a glare up at the pulsing rifts in Yamaku's tattered skyline, Lanfen subconsciously parted her lips, and released a holy chant originating from within the farthest depths of her soul.

"Valtorah Damocles sen zizzl."

Lanfen lifted her leg and slammed the sole of her boot onto a floor of pure energy as saxophones blared in her ears. In the eternal span of just one second, fibers of black-and-white concealed her toned form within a body glove. A steel, three-point crown materialized on top of her head and connected itself to a pair of headphones that soon manifested over her ears. With her braided hair fluttering in the air, a pair of dark gauntlets slammed onto Lanfen's forearms, sealing themselves shut while a pauldron formed over her right shoulder in the stylized-shape of a Queen chess-piece. Beneath her waist, armoured boots clamped onto her legs, shielding them up to her knees as intense drumbeats and pianos conjured a tune of soothing jazz.

Gazing above to see a sword quickly descending upon her, Lanfen leaped into the air with agility far beyond her wildest dreams. The blade grazed past her face and Lanfen seized the falling arming sword by its golden grip before crashing back onto a floor of energy with a thunderous howl. As roaring trumpets conjured a tune of victory and triumph, Lanfen caressed the thick blade of her one-handed sword with a gloved palm, a small smirk completely visible on the crowned warrior's face the entire time.

With that eternal second finally past, Lanfen observed her transformed state in awe while she felt her form imbue her with a sense of superhuman strength, agility and reflexes. She felt practically invincible. Steamed hissed from numerous exhaust vents located all over her armour, and before Lanfen could even find a suitable phrase to describe this new look, she sensed a single word suddenly manifest within her mind:Symphogear. But it was not the only shard of knowledge to suddenly generate within her head. Almost instantaneously, Lanfen felt her Symphogear flood her mind with a library's worth of information, causing her to wince from the sheer mental overload of learning everything about her newfound powers faster than she could even breathe.

The name of the weapon in her right hand was as clear as day. The Sword of Damocles.

Once she felt the tide of knowledge settled itself within her mind, Lanfen got down into a crouch, and leaped into the rift-plagued skies in a single bound with the ringed moon facing her back. The crowned warrior soon crashed back into the streets, kicking up a cloud of dust and snow as a small crater blossomed beneath her armoured feet. When the last bits of the cloud finally dispersed, Lanfen found herself standing in front of a group of armoured knights, their weapons still dripping with the ichor of countless innocents. Lanfen took one wordless glance at the nearby disaster shelter's entrance behind her before glaring back right at the approaching suits of armour, her one-handed sword still in her grasp.

"You're not getting past me."

Electro-swing jazz blared from her Symphogear's built-in speakers and the knights rushed towards the crowned warrior to put an end to her groovy tune. Blitzing out of the crater to meet with the rushing monsters, Lanfen's lips subconsciously moved while she leaped into the air and unveiled a soul-fueled song to directly synchronize with her Symphogear.

"There's a new world for me to see, yet I don't know who I want to be."She cleaved off the arms of the first knight she neared, skidded to a halt behind it, and effortlessly swept her opponent off its feet with a swipe of her armoured leg. Swiftly plunging the Sword of Damocles right into its chest-plate, the suit of armour violently exploded into a cloud of obsidian sand before its back even hit the concrete."Sights surrounding me, front and back. Yet I don't know which to track."

Hearing the lumbering approach of a dozen enemies over the sound of rushing pianos, Lanfen's one-handed sword deflected several strikes with but a single, thunderous swing. The knights reeled back from her superhuman blow and Lanfen lunged towards them to cleave apart the gathered horde limb-by-limb. Each strike of her blade against their metal forms produced hot sparks which showered the singing swordswoman, the crowned warrior carrying little for their heat as she weaved between their crude blows to cut a swathe through their rapidly-depleting numbers.

"My guts ringing out a cry of worry. I don't know where to go or what to hurry-"The severed arms of the last knight in sight soon dropped onto the snowy concrete. Lanfen's blade thrusted into its chest-plate and exited out of its back with a loud, metallic screech."Can I find my way if I'm walking blind? There's something my heart needs to find!"

Withdrawing her sword from the final knight's ruined torso, the exploding suit of armour showered the storefront behind it with obsidian sand while Lanfen heard the cacophonous footfalls of a dozen more approaching enemies. Swiftly spinning around with the Sword of Damocles in her right hand, the crowned warrior spotted an amassing army of knights charging towards her from two different directions. It was as though her song had attracted every single one of the monsters in Yamaku towards this specific street.

"Searching high or low, where is it? The purpose glowing deep inside my soul."Lanfen aligned her left forearm with the pommel of her Armed Gear. The armoured gauntlet on her forearm split open, revealing the large, wired harpoon resting inside it. With a tightening of her fist, the harpoon launched outward and combined with the pommel of her sword, tethering the weapon to her left gauntlet while Lanfen called back to her rope dart training."Looking up and down, nothing fits. There's something I need to feel whole."

She took a single, graceful step on the snowy, sand-filled road. She gripped the tethered hilt of her sword in her right hand. As the roads quaked beneath the feet of a dozen monsters, Lanfen hurled her weapon towards the horde with the force of a speeding rocket. The soaring blade then skewered the heads of three knights, and with a quick tug, Lanfen retracted the weapon to dance across the streets while her tethered Armed Gear whipped through the winter air like a striking snake. The gauntlet's wire wrapped and unwrapped around Lanfen's body, expertly manipulated by a combination of momentum and the usage of the crowned warrior's entire body.

"The flashing lights filling my vision slow. Roaring cheers flood my ears, smiling for me!"Lanfen's heavy sword reaped through the knights, filling the air with clouds of obsidian sand. Feeling like she was back in her practice room, her blinding movements were a perfect replica of her mother while Lanfen's tethered sword thrusted itself into faceplates, cleaved off arms and sliced off legs faster than the knights could even react."A concert to rinse them of the lowest lows. I've a purpose that you all have to see!"

Swinging her tethered sword to the rushing beat of sticks slamming onto drums, Lanfen glared at the remaining stragglers of the sundered army behind her and prepared for the finale. Black-and-white flashed before her eyes and a name appeared in her vision, spelled out by steel letters that slammed onto a chessboard to slowly crack it apart with each ringing impact."Bishop Barrage."

Her sword swiftly returned to her right hand and ornate, crimson markings flashed across the length of its thick blade.

Smirking, Lanfen swung the Sword of Damocles in a wide arc, causing a dozen floating, glowing replicas of her weapon to manifest around her as if an entire armoury had just emptied itself. With a flick of her left wrist, the energy blades soared towards the remains of the depleted army. Each translucent sword sung through the air with a semblance of sentience while they jinked past swung axes and raised shields before stabbing right into the gaps of the enemies' ebony armour. Severed limbs fell to the floor with each blinding attack run the flying blades made on the dwindling monsters. Lanfen herself simply stood back and observed her opponents' fruitless efforts.

Hearing the shuffling of baroque metal suddenly coming from behind her, Lanfen casually glanced over her shoulder and glared at the lone knight who had managed to get close to her. She clicked her tongue in annoyance and parried a predictable attack with a loudclang. With the knight's axe now flying high into the air, the monster was left completely defenseless as Lanfen's glowing blades viciously drove themselves into her attacker. They first stabbed into its knees, then into the joints of its arms, its chest-plate, and lastly, right through the middle of its glowing faceplate.

A finisher came in the form of a swift kick right into the knight's abdomen. In an instant, the suit of armour exploded into a cloud of black sand, ending the life of the last visible knight alongside Lanfen's jazzy tune.

A subsequent ear-piercing, high-pitched wail from the rifts in Yamaku's skies attracted Lanfen's attention. Protected by the headphones she donned, Lanfen prepared herself for the arrival of additional enemies while the pulsing rifts emitted a deep howl which reverberated throughout the ravaged streets of the city. She held her breath, and then gasped when the giant rifts instead began to 'shrink', allowing the city's skyline to slowly return to what it was before. 'Is it over' was all Lanfen could assume, tightly gripping the hilt of her sword until the tears in reality vanished completely from sight.

The closure of the rifts left only faint particles that fell onto the concrete below alongside the winter snow. An eerie silence had returned to the city of Yamaku and Lanfen's glowing blades soon vanished from the air around her with but a mental command.

Detaching her harpoon from the pommel of her Armed Gear, the wired weapon slammed back into her gauntlet, letting the forearm armour close back up with a few audible clicks. The thick blade of her sword then retracted into its cross-guard and Lanfen attached the hilt of her weapon onto a piece of armour at her hip. Not a single bead of sweat had appeared on her brown skin for the entire battle, but when Lanfen's attention redirected itself back to the safety of her little sister, the crowned warrior spun around on her armoured boots, and began rushing in the direction of the nearby underground shelter.

"Mei," she whispered, feeling her heart pounding within her chest once again. Stomping throughout the sand-filled roads of Yamaku City, Lanfen's purple eyes darted around the damaged buildings around her. The reinforced metal doors that led to the underground shelter were shut closed, but the possibility of Kai still being outside was a thought which only continued to plague her mind.


Lanfen came to a screeching halt upon hearing Kai's voice and directed a panicked gaze over to one of the abandoned stores at her side. There, behind one of its broken windows, Lanfen saw her little sister slowly poking her head out from a large piece of furniture. The flickering ceiling lights above Kai's head shined on the bits of blood that stained the girl's face, tears of fear evidently flowing down her cheeks. Lanfen needed to control her superhuman speed when she suddenly bolted towards the store with a smile of utter relief. "Mei!"

Crawling out from underneath her hiding spot, Kai stared in silent awe at the strange armour her approaching sibling was wearing. Kai looked like she was about to ask a dozen questions right on the spot, but with everything that had happened in the past hour alone, the teenage girl clearly desired nothing more than to head back home and end this nightmare of an evening. After wiping her wet eyes with the sleeves of a tattered, winter coat, Kai went over to the entrance of the store to reunite with her sister, only to suddenly stop with her hand still holding onto the door's broken, metal knob.

Lanfen noticed the startled look in Kai's eyes and soon halted herself to follow her sister's gaze.

Redirecting her sights to stare down the sand-filled roads, Lanfen was barely a few steps away from the store's entrance when she noticed the faint shape of a figure appearing within the corner of her eye. Illuminated by the light of a shattered moon within the skies, a lone, human-shaped being stood in the middle of the road among the dead bodies of Yamaku's slain citizens. The fluttering, hooded cloak it wore concealed its unmoving form, preventing Lanfen from even determining whether or not it was even human. All she could make out were the glimmering, armoured boots that concealed its legs and the sharp, metallic tips of its slender fingers. Absolutely nothing had given away the cloaked being's presence until it had actually made itself known.

When the figure appeared to turn its head towards the crowned warrior, Lanfen felt a chill run down her spine, forcing one of her hands to slowly reach for the sword which was stowed on her hip. As her gloved fingers curled themselves around the golden hilt of her weapon, the cloaked figure took one soundless step towards Lanfen, a pair of golden orbs immediately shining within the shadowy depths of its tattered hood.

"Jie, watch out!"

There was a flash of emerald light.

Lanfen drew the Sword of Damocles.

She felt a wave of intense heat wash itself over her and a hitch-pitched ringing soon deafened Lanfen's ears. Her body felt weightless while she was effortlessly hurled into the air. Now completely blinded by a pure, white light, Lanfen was unable to hold back a genuine cry of pain from escaping her burning throat. The next thing she knew, she felt her body crash back onto the concrete, the reforming, protective barriers of her Symphogear immediately cushioning her from the force of the crackling impact.

Wincing from the agony which was now reverberating throughout her body, Lanfen's blinded vision slowly cleared up, giving her the sight she required to see the burning rubble that surrounded her as she laid down on her back. There was the distinctive taste of copper in her mouth. A thick fog shrouded her dazed mind. While white snow fell onto Lanfen's bloodstained cheeks, the crowned warrior slowly pulled herself up into a sitting position, and grasped her headphones with a now-empty sword-hand. Clenching her teeth in order to suppress a growing pain within her abdomen, Lanfen pulled together her consciousness, looked up at the burning roads ahead of her, and drew in a sharp breath.


The cloaked being had disappeared. The city of Yamaku was enveloped in a blanket of complete silence. And obsidian sand littered streets that were now soaked in the blood of countless civilians. Standing back up on her armoured legs, Lanfen's shocked gaze focused on the large mound of building debris which had gathered on top of where she was standing earlier. As the Sword of Damocles rested underneath a nearby pile of broken wood, the building that Kai had been hiding in now existed as nothing more than a burning ruin, its glass windows littered across the concrete in the form of broken, useless shards.

Lanfen broke into a panicked run towards the mass of debris. She felt her blood turn cold beneath her skin. Even while jolts of pain continued to rise within her abdomen, she could not stop herself from desperately calling out to her sister.

"Mei, where are you?!" Her scream practically shattered the cold, uncaring silence.

Approaching what was left of the destroyed building, Lanfen desperately searched through the countless broken glass and shattered bricks lying at her feet. Her armoured gauntlets rummaged through the heavy debris, leaving nothing unturned even while blood started to trail down the corner of Lanfen's mouth. She tossed aside broken chunks of metal with ease and ignored the fires that burned relentlessly around her. Finally, when her enhanced strength managed to push aside one last chunk of the shattered building, the bloody sight Lanfen subsequently witnessed caused the woman to freeze where she stood.

She found her.

Lanfen fell onto her knees, crushing the bloodstained glass underneath her. Her armoured, dirt-stained hands gripped the sides of her head. Squeezing her eyes shut just to deny herself the image that was right there in front of her, Lanfen felt an uncontrollable stream of tears trail down her face while she slowly lowered her head in shame. She couldn't control herself for any longer than a second. Drawing the cold, winter air into her lungs, Lanfen parted her bleeding lips, and subsequently released an agonizing cry which echoed throughout the burning, barren streets of Yamaku City.

She did not know how much time continued to past while she knelt among the burning debris. Even when the sounds of ambulances and rescue vehicles slowly resounded in the distance, Lanfen refused to move even an inch from where she was. A layer of snow was building-up on her motionless, armoured body, and all Lanfen could do was stare into her trembling, open palms with eyes that barely possessed any hint of light within their pupils. She was alive. The battle had been won. The monsters were gone and defeated. But Lanfen felt her entire world end right then and there.

After commanding her Symphogear to disappear into rising particles of black-and-white, Lanfen closed her eyes and waited for her own end at the hands of Yamaku's freezing winter.

Unfortunately, such a wish would not be fulfilled. Instead, Lanfen heard the distinct clicking of a gun's safety being switched off. It was immediately followed by what sounded to her ringing ears to be an order to hold up her hands and slowly turn around. As moonlight reflected off the glimmering, red pendant around Lanfen's neck, she hesitantly looked over her shoulder, and narrowed a pair of lifeless eyes at the sight of multiple people in suits training their firearms all on her. Led by a young man with distinct, blonde hair, Lanfen's senses had not even heard the sound of anyone approaching her before she eventually noticed them.

Chapter 3: Drifting in the Darkness

Chapter Text

Lanfen did not bother to resist when she was deprived of her belongings. She was barely even coherent when they secured her hands with large cuffs and carried Lanfen into an arriving helicopter. When the aircraft had landed, all she could make out in the darkness with her tired eyes were the 'S.O.N.G.' emblems on its opening side-doors. Maybe she had heard of it at some point, but Lanfen could not care to remember. The entire time she sat in the helicopter's seats with her escorts at her sides, Lanfen simply stared at the metal floors beneath her, eyes still sore from all the tears she had shed.

An hour had passed. Possibly even longer than that. She felt the helicopter judder upon touchdown. Following her escorts' lead, Lanfen was brought out of the aircraft to step into some sort of small landing bay. Following it were long hallways filled with people in navy-blue uniforms. Many of them were running from one area of the place to another with a sense of urgency. It was clear to Lanfen that whatever they intended to do with her, it was to be dealt with only after they were done with the issues they were currently occupied by. For now, all they did was bring her into a medical bay to clean up the few injuries she had received.

Lanfen had honestly forgotten that she was even hurt to begin with. She was growing accustomed to the taste of copper in her mouth.

Once her wounds were cleaned up and treated, the personnel escorted her through the halls again to bring Lanfen into a small, dark room. The hallway lights poured into it to shine onto a bed, a table near the door, and another open door which led to a simple bathroom. After speaking into the comm beads in their ears, they undid Lanfen's large handcuffs, handed her a bunch of plain, gray clothes, and wordlessly exited the room. The sliding door closed up and locked itself shut with a distinctive ring.

Standing in the darkness of what she assumed to be her detainment room, Lanfen slowly changed into the clothes she had been given, and left her old ones in a nearby basket before dragging herself over to the bed. The metal floors were cold to her bare feet. Her new outfit barely shielded her from the chill of the room. After everything that had happened in the past couple hours, Lanfen lied down on the small bed and buried her tearstained face in its thick blankets. It was only when she felt her guard finally drop did she begin to cry again. Everything that she had been holding back was released all at once, and by that point, Lanfen couldn't restrain her tears any longer.


It hurt to even utter a single word. While most people would find themselves terrified at the thought of being dragged somewhere by armed, unknown individuals, Lanfen still could not bother to care. She had consigned herself to whatever they had planned for her. It's not like anyone would miss her now if she were gone. Lanfen might as well have died in the attack on Yamaku City.

She pulled the pillow underneath her head, eyes kept open for what felt like forever. Her fingers would twitch every now and then, as if just to remind Lanfen that she was still alive. Physically, at least. Her mind, on the other hand, was a drifting, incoherent mess. She constantly replayed the events of tonight, over and over, to try and make sense of it. To find out what she could have done to prevent what Lanfen was still refusing to believe even until now. Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted when there was a gentle knocking on the room door.

Moving herself into a sitting position with whatever strength she had left in her, Lanfen slouched against the wall next to her bed as the locks on the door undid themselves with a loudclick.

Sliding open to one side, the light from the hallway made Lanfen squint her eyes while a familiar young man with blonde hair walked inside. It was the one who led the group which had brought her in. Holding a tray of food in his hands, he placed it on the table near the closing door, and flicked open one of the switches on the wall to turn on a small table lamp. The dim, yellow light was the only thing which even allowed Lanfen to notice the fresh-looking meal the man had brought. He looked only about a few years older than Lanfen herself.

"We will be giving you some time before we intend to question you," the young man spoke up in a formal tone. "For now, you can just wait here. Until then, we'll be providing you nourishment three times a day."

Lanfen only had enough energy to give a slow nod. Narrowing her purple eyes on the man, Lanfen's hands slowly caressed her wrists. She could feel the marks that had been left by the large handcuffs she had been brought here in. "Tell me..." Her words were hush, but clear in the silence of her detainment room. "What happened... tonight...?"

The blonde man considered his answer and walked over to the farthest side of the room. He clicked on a few buttons on the wall which Lanfen had not noticed, prompting a large monitor screen alongside the interface to switch on. With a few more inputs into the control pad, he displayed numerous images of population centers across the world. All of them were visibly ravaged by the same armoured knights that Lanfen had fought off a while ago. Countless ambulances and paramedics were rushing to save the dying. Fire trucks were trying to put out buildings that were doused in purple flames. While some cities had already been cleared of the threat, there were still a few others which were in the middle of active combat.

"They're called 'Distortions'," the man in the suit explained, contempt clear on his tongue when he referred to the knights. "We're still trying to figure out where they came from exactly, but it's clear that they're some form of battle automata." He clicked another button, bringing up more images and recorded sightings of the knights. Instead of the axes and shields which Lanfen had become familiar with, these ones were wielding blades, bows and arrows. "The death toll has currently risen to over 23,000 and counting. It's only been a little over 2 hours since their attacks had started."

'Distortions'. Lanfen imprinted that very name within her mind. Digging her fingernails into the palms of her hands, Lanfen looked away from the screen and hesitantly asked, "... And what about... my sister?"

He switched off the monitor and returned to the door. Avoiding Lanfen's gaze, the man turned away from her when he finally answered, "I'm sorry." The words felt like a nail in her chest. And it was the only thing that she honestly needed to confirm it. While Lanfen tried to hold back her tears, the man reached into his suit and carefully approached her. From his pockets, he pulled out a pair of smartphones: One was Lanfen's. The other belonged to Kai. "I managed to find it before we had to leave. You... have my condolences."

The screen of Kai's smartphone was completely shattered. Some of the internals were already visible through the broken casing. But the keychain which had been clipped onto it - the keychain which Lanfen had gifted to Kai during dinner - it had only a few noticeable scratches on it. Taking the devices into her hands, Lanfen placed hers aside and held onto Kai's smartphone in both of her shaking palms. She tightened grip on it as Lanfen squeezed her eyes shut and held the phone to her chest. The sight that Lanfen had seen when she pushed aside the last of the building debris would not leave her vision, no matter how many times she tried to deny it.

Lanfen heard the man step away from the bed. "I understand that you are facing an unfathomable loss right now. But, I must ask why were you in possession of an experimental piece of technology?" he gently inquired, returning to the table near the door. "I have met many people in my life, and you do not strike me as anything other than a regular civilian."

Wiping away the stray teardrops in her eyes, Lanfen looked straight into the man's eyes, his face barely lit by the room's small lamp. "I wanted to save my sister," she bluntly answered, fingers grasping the sheets of her bed. "I accepted it because I needed power. The power to get her to safety. And yet-" Lanfen remembered the words she had declared to the woman in the azure suit. The oath which she had made right to her pale face. In the end, Lanfen realized it was all hot air. "And yet..." Her voice started to trail off.

Clearly aware that she would not speak any further, the blonde man excused himself with a formal bow and went over the door. With a few clicks, it slid open for him to leave before it once again locked itself with a high-pitched ring. As Lanfen's head rested against the hard, steel wall of her detainment room, she could smell the aroma of the food that was on her table. Her stomach grumbled, but Lanfen could not bring herself to eat. She couldn't even bring herself to quench her parched throat with the water they had provided. But before she could try and lie down to sleep away the pain, Lanfen heard a few voices conversing outside her room. It did not sound like the man from earlier.

Shielding her face from the light of the hallway with her hands, two men entered her detainment room this time. One wore a black suit similar to the blonde man from earlier, his brown hair kept short and proper while his posture remained formal. The other was a man with a large physique and striking red hair. Wearing a matching shirt with a pink tie which was tucked into his breast-pocket, the larger man's companion handed him a data-pad to display a pair of holographic dossiers. Lanfen wondered what they were even here for when her eyes widened slightly at the images of two familiar people on the data-pad's projected holograms.

"Cassandra Jiang Lanfen," the large man addressed her in a deep voice. "So, you are the child of Keith Silverstein and Margaret Jiang Pao-Lin?" He gave her a wondering look and Lanfen slowly nodded. His expression seemed to soften when she did so. "I see. Our time is short, but I will assure you that you will be treated well here in our custody as long as you are cooperative." He closed up the data-pad in his hands and handed it over to his companion. "Even with the crimes of theft which are being charged against you, I'm sure you have your reasons for being in the situation you're in."

Sensing the honesty within the redheaded man's voice, Lanfen muttered a few words in reply, "... Thank you."

The large man's companion went over to the room table and placed a different data-pad next to her food tray. He seemed almost concerned that it had yet to be touched, "You can read up on who we are using this," he politely informed her. "While the information here is highly classified, take it as a gesture of our goodwill. We only wish for this situation to be handled without unnecessary harm."

With that done, the two excused themselves from the room and headed out the door to attend to whatever urgent matter which seemed to require them. Once their footsteps were out of earshot, Lanfen hesitantly got out of the bed and walked towards the table that was barely lit by a small, hanging lamp. The tray of food they had provided her made her mouth water, but Lanfen chose to simply grab the data-pad they had given her before sliding back into the bed. Lifting a hand to wipe away a few lingering tears, she settled herself down again in the soft cushions and closed her eyes for a moment to remember that cloaked figure. The one who had taken the life of her little sister.

Holding the data-pad close to her chest, Lanfen bit into her cracking lips until she drew blood.

The barking of Chris' twin double-barrel rotary guns went on till the ringed moon showed itself in the night skies of London. Using a combination of her Symphogear and Chris' own in-the-moment trigonometry calculations, the crimson Adaptor had expertly landed every single shot she fired ever since the rifts first opened in the night skies of Japan twelve hours ago. Her Symphogear had a bullet readied for every Category-1 Distortion that was sent her way, and while any regular military would have had their ammunition reserves run dry halfway throughout the fight, Ichaival would sooner break apart than leave Chris' heavy weapons wanting.

Sitting tight in the small passenger hold of the V.T.O.L. aircraft which S.O.N.G. requisitioned to go and retrieve her, Chris' gloved hands tightly held onto her metal harness. Through the windows of the aircraft, she solemnly gazed down onto the wrecked streets of London, a tired yawn subsequently escaping the short woman. With the confirmation that the remaining Distortions in the country were eliminated, her battle was over. Extended deployments weren't unusual in S.O.N.G., but jumping from one warzone to another across the world in the span of half a day made Chris' eyelids heavy. The winter cold wasn't making it any easier to not fall asleep.

Snow that was as white as Chris' own hair fell onto streets which were littered with a mixture of crimson and emerald sand. All of them were the remains of the Distortions that her bullets had ripped apart with ease. Chris could see ambulances and military vehicles trying to navigate through the debris-filled roads while the aircraft flew in the direction of Japan, soaring at speeds which only increased the further time went on in the passenger hold. The Category-1 Distortions were nothing too different from the Noise when it came to giving her a hard fight, but the damage they left behind was not as clean as the carbonized remains the Noise often left.

A mental image of the bodies which Chris saw in the streets of London made her take out her smartphone to text a few of her friends: Ayano Komichi, Godai Yuki, and Kaburagi Otome. Or rather, Godai Otome, now that she thought about it. Taking off one of her mittens with her teeth, she typed in a few quick messages to check up on them, and felt relieved when all three replied to her in an instant. Since the attack only occurred after Chris' reunion with her friends had ended, she had no time until now to actually call them up. Japan was 8 hours ahead of London's time-zone, so it was probably morning time there by now.

Komichi was the first to reply back to Chris. "We're A-OK! Hope you can get some rest soon, Chrissy."

Yuki was the second. "Komi' and I managed to get out of Mitakihara during the confusion. Outside of a few scratches on my van, we're all good."

Otome was the last. "My area was unaffected by the incident, but thank you for your concern. Please take care of yourself!"

Letting out a sigh of relief, Chris pocketed her smartphone and rubbed her hands together for warmth, "Thank god," she quietly muttered while she breathed into her palms.

Half an hour had passed as Chris waited for the aircraft to finally drop her off in the S.O.N.G. submarine. The passenger hold wasn't exactly spacious, but with Chris being the only one in it, the hold gave her a decent amount of room for the short woman to stretch her legs in. She was considering maybe falling asleep for the ride when the wrist communicator on her left arm rang with an audio transmission. Judging by the feather symbol and the ID number on the holographic display, she could tell who it was. With a tap on the interface, Chris held up her wrist to her face to dryly answer the call.

"Already back at base, Chairwoman?"

"Indeed, I am," Tsubasa answered, sounding formal as ever. "Maria, Akatsuki and Tsukuyomi are still on the way, so it's only Tachibana and I for now. I was simply wondering if I could check up on your end of the situation as well, Yukine."

Chris didn't know where to start to even describe their current situation. "Well, I'm doing fine myself," she mused, resting her head against the hard wall of the passenger hold. "But the world just got hit pretty hard, huh? Can't help but wonder on how the fuck are we going to clean up after this mess."

Despite the red Adaptor's crass language, Tsubasa did not disagree with her sentiment. "As the Head of the Kazanari household, I intend on ensuring that we will be able to rebuild after this, Yukine," she declared. "The number of lives lost thus far is already difficult to fathom. But we must push on regardless for the sake of those who could not. There are still countless people who require help long after the end of this battle."

"No arguments there," Chris said, silently appreciating how stalwart the Head of the Kazanari household can be in such times. "Hey... Chairwoman," she said, hearing Tsubasa reply to her call for the woman's attention. "I think I'm gonna take a nap while I'm on the way, but before I get to that... you wouldn't have happened to hear something about some new Symphogear-Wielder in Japan, have you?" she asked with a tired cough. "Maybe I was just hearing things, but I could've sworn there was something like that being screamed over the comms."

Tsubasa paused before she replied, "Your assumption would be correct, Yukine. Tomosato detected a seventh Aufwachen signature in Japan merely 12 hours ago. Ogawa and Tsuchiya have already apprehended the Wielder, but for now, we'll have to save the questions regarding it for later. We can solve the mystery of the SG-r04's return and its mysterious Wielder after we've counted our losses."

It was definitely one hell of an evening, Chris thought to herself. They already had their hands full dealing with an enemy that just practically appeared out of nowhere, and now here she was, hearing about how a failed lab prototype is suddenly now up and running. Chris probably shouldn't have betted her money on the thing getting chucked somewhere into S.O.N.G.'s storage pile. "Well, whoever that new Wielder is..." Chris said, getting comfortable in her seat for a well-deserved nap. "Let's just hope they can help with whatever that's coming next."

Downing down another steaming cup of Tomosato's mix, Commander Genjuuro laid back in his command chair to take in the gravity of their predicament. The last of the arriving Distortions had been eliminated, and with their world-wide battle having finally ended, the bridge crew of the S.O.N.G. submarine were allowed to rest for the time being. Fujitaka, Tomosato and most of the operators were either sleeping at their posts, or chatting among each other with mugs of coffee in their hands. Those who had left for a meal in the mess halls or an extensive nap in the barracks had been replaced by their reserve operators for the meantime.

Either way, the Commander felt that the crew had earned their moment of respite, especially after hours of scrambling to defend against the Distortions incursions. Glancing over to the deployable benches which had been set up on the sides of the bridge's entrance, the gathered Adaptors themselves were using the time they had right now to recollect their strength.

Unsurprisingly, Shirabe and Kirika were leaning against each other while they slept. Since they had insisted that it was better for their blankets to be distributed equally among the crew, the two shared a single blanket of their own to keep themselves warm. A half-asleep Hibiki was sitting next to them, her smartphone in hand as she slowly texted messages back home to Miku. At the bench on the other side of the entrance, Tsubasa was in the middle of deep slumber as she rested her head on Maria's lap. While her body lied across the length of the bench, a sleeping Maria leaned against the wall behind her with her hand on one of Tsubasa's cheeks.

Even with all the powers that were granted by the Symphogear, the Adaptors were not immune to exhaustion.

The command centre's doors slid open and Commander Genjuuro got off his post to welcome the arrival of Yukine Chris. Already changed into her Adaptor uniform like everyone else, all six of S.O.N.G.'s Symphogear-Wielders were now back in the underwater vessel. "Good work out there, Chris," he said to the short woman with an almost fatherly smile of approval.

"Yeah, and thanks for the quick ride, Old Man," Chris dryly replied, looking over to the other resting Adaptors. "Guessing it's time for our usual briefin'?"

Nodding at Chris' assumption, the Commander gestured her to start waking up her fellow Adaptors while the Commander disposed of his coffee cup into a nearby bin. A few friendly words to Maria and Tsubasa brought them out of their slumber, and a playful bonk on Hibiki's head made her brain kick itself back into gear. But when it came to Shirabe and Kirika, the nudge in the shoulders which Chris gave them would not rouse the two women out of their comfortable cuddle. A subsequent blunt comment from Hibiki on how the pair had grown taller than Chris by now only provoked the red Adaptor into stripping them of their blanket, a fiery act which actually woke up the groaning duo.

All six Adaptors stood to attention. With Hibiki in the centre, some of them were still clearly exhausted from their extensive fight as Commander Genjuuro formally addressed the gathered women.

"Hibiki, Tsubasa, Chris, Maria, Shirabe, Kirika. In spite of the casualties which we were unable to prevent, your efforts have managed to save more lives than we can even count," he said, arms crossed over his chest. "We were caught off-guard, there is no doubt about that. But it still didn't stop us from preventing a disaster that a world-wide attack like this could have caused." He looked over to the monitor screens, all three of them still having yet to show any signs of enemy activity. "While I would like to act as though this battle is this last we've seen of the Distortions, that likely isn't going to be the case."

"They can send as much as they want, but we'll scythe 'em all down anyway!" Kirika boasted, flashing an eager smirk.

The twin-tailed woman next to the blonde calmly agreed with her. "I'm just relieved that we managed to protect our university, even if there were still a few people who ended up getting hurt."

To the Commander's left, he could see that Tsubasa did not share the same sense of hopefulness which the duo had, something which prompted Maria to comfort her by holding onto one of her hands. While Tsubasa was the first to return to the S.O.N.G. submarine, the extensive paperwork that she had to deal with as Head of the Kazanari Household kept her well-occupied long after Hibiki, Kirika and Shirabe had returned as well. Such is the duty that was placed on her shoulders. Meanwhile, Chris seemed to be taking in the situation better than the sword-wielder, and even though their global battle was an undeniable tragedy, Hibiki's own fiery spirit had yet to be dampened by recent events.

An incoming transmission appeared on the central monitor screen of the bridge, scaring its operators to abruptly end their rest as the audio transmission was coming from none other than the United Nations itself. The Commander furrowed his brow at the familiar symbol of U.N., its ID code marking out the caller to be the world council's spokesperson. "Fujitaka, answer it," Commander Genjuuro ordered, facing the monitor screens.

Holding back a yawn with one hand, the operator connected the line, allowing the diplomatic voice of the council's spokesperson to address them through the bridge's speakers. Despite the events of the past day, they sounded as polite as they typically were. "Greetings, Commander Kazanari. It's certainly a relief to see that you and your forces have all managed to weather the storm."

"The feeling is mutual, Spokesperson," the Commander replied, sitting back down at his post while the Adaptors silently stood to attention behind him. "You could say that the lack of communication from the council thus far felt like an ill omen to us."

"I assure you, the council has some of the best security they can afford outside of heretical technology, Commander Kazanari," the Spokesperson said, almost with a tinge of amusement. "Although they are disappointed by the devastation which has been wrought by our new foe, the world council extends its gratitude to S.O.N.G. for its efforts in pushing back these horrendous attacks on our lands. Were it not for the assistance of your Adaptors across the world, many a life would have been lost. We can only pray that those who could not be saved shall find eventual peace in the afterlife."

44,000 casualties and rising, the Commander mentally noted. Even if it felt almost like a miracle that a world-wide attack claimed such a relatively low number of lives, the massacres carried out by the Distortions were nothing if not wanton butchery. At this rate, the casualty count was nearing the same numbers of the infamous concert attack which had been carried out by Noble Red years ago.

"As for matters unrelated to this global tragedy," the Spokesperson continued, shifting the conversation with ease. "The council is relieved to hear that not only were you able to retrieve the experimental SG-r04, but apparently, it had been activated in the defence against the Distortion menace. This is most intriguing."

The mere mention of the SG-r04 made the hairs on the Commander's large arms stand upright. "It was awakened by a civilian. We've already brought her in for questioning, but we only intend to do so only after we've settled the current situation with the Distortionsandthe damage they've incurred on our population centres," he explained, quietly wondering if the retrieved relic interested the council more than the amount of lives which were lost. "Alongside that, while we were able to recover the SG-r04, we were unable to obtain any information regarding the 'leader' of these Distortions. All we have for now is a recording of the message they had broadcasted before the attack."

"The latter is quite understandable. The enemy essentially had the opportunity of surprise on their side. Still-" The Spokesperson's words turned firm. "The council is currently demanding that S.O.N.G. formally deploys the SG-r04 against this new threat as soon as possible, Commander. The United Nations desires your Adaptors forces to double their efforts in the face of this new threat, even as they're considering utilizing a contingency plan initially proposed by Kazanari Yatsuhiro years ago."

Hearing this news of the Kazanari Household's involvement, the Commander looked over to Tsubasa, who was evidently aware of this judging by the look she gave him. He glanced back at the central monitor screen and said to the Spokesperson, "While I will not disagree to the notion of bolstering our Adaptors' numbers, we must at least consider the possibility of the SG-r04 having been tampered with before we had retrieved it," Commander Genjuuro argued, knowing full well that the Sword of Damocles was nowhere even halfway completed before it had been stolen. "We are not even aware of who managed to complete the SG-r04 to begin with, let alone how its completion was even possible."

"Do whatever you must to quell your worries, Commander Kazanari. But the council's order remains as it is," the Spokesperson declared. "Even if we may have to consider the possibility of recruiting the person currently accused of stealing the SG-r04, the deployment of the next-generation Symphogear is crucial in the council's willingness to continue backing both S.O.N.G. and its efforts. Especially when it's clear that there's only so much which six Adaptors can do to defend our world." With their intent made clear, the Spokesperson proceeded with the end of their conversation. "Best of luck, Commander. May you and your forces stay strong."

The transmission ceased, allowing the bridge crew and the Adaptors to relax once the symbol of the United Nations disappeared from the central monitor screen. Some of the operators went back to their much-needed rest, while a few others chose to check their terminals for any updates they had received during their respite. Getting out of his command chair with a subtle grunt of frustration, Commander Genjuuro saw that not a single one of the Symphogear-Wielders themselves seemed to enjoy having to deal with the council. It was a feeling he shared but would never voice considering the professionalism which was demanded by his position.

With the atmosphere of the bridge softening up again, Hibiki stepped forward with her hand held up and an eager question of her own.

"Master! I want to ask if we can know more about this new Symphogear-Wielder."

Having expected to hear this from Hibiki as soon as it was convenient for her, Commander Genjuuro looked over to Tomosato as she finished pouring another cup of her own coffee mix. "Tomosato, bring up her file, please." Hearing a quick confirmation from the operator, a few inputs into Tomosato's terminal brought up the Wielder's acquired profile on the central monitor screen, giving them a good look of the woman Genjuuro had met with in her detainment room. The Commander was at least glad that they managed to bring her in without any form of conflict.

'Cassandra Jiang Lanfen'. 22-years old. Born on the 1st of April, 2027. Filipino-Chinese descent. A graduate from Lydian Academy and a resident of Yamaku City in Japan. From the information which Clan Hida had gathered on her, Jiang held no records of any criminal activity in her past, nor did the woman ever participate in anything that would make her suspect of collaborating with the Bavarian Illuminati. Retrieved CCTV recordings showed her to be partaking in regular day-to-day activities in the time leading up to the Distortion attack, but when it came to the timeframe where she had been seen fighting with the SG-r04, there was no footage that showed her actually receiving the relic.

"The same age as the Dummy, huh?" Chris remarked while the others looked on at the footage of Jiang's battle.

"We'll be questioning her on how she attained the relic once she's had her time to collect herself," the Commander explained, gazing at the CCTV footage on the screens, "I don't think she's in any condition right now to be talking." When Hibiki lifted her hand to curiously ask why was that the case, Genjuuro recalled the information Kagero which had provided him. "From what Tsuchiya has reported, her younger sister was apparently a casualty of last night's attack. He found the woman sitting by herself in the ruins of Yamaku City after she had eliminated the attacking Distortions."

It wasn't surprising that out of all the Adaptors who heard this, it was Maria who appeared to be the most sympathetic with this Jiang person once she had heard Genjuuro's words. While Tsubasa tried to awkwardly hold onto the woman's hands to try and ease her wife, the Commander looked at his terminal and noticed a notification that was coming from the submarine's laboratories. He approached his post and clicked on the interface to answer an audio transmission from Professor Elfnein.

"Do you have any news, Professor?"

"I have, Commander," Professor Elfnein replied. "First of all, I must report that after analyzing the SG-r04, I can conclude that the prototype Symphogear is indeed fully-functional. I cannot find any traces of tampering within its internals, as it appears to have been completed without any deviation from the original design." Her explanation lifted some of the concerns off the Commander's shoulders, but the fact that it was completed by an unknown party still concerned him. "In addition to this, I have also finished an analysis regarding its recent Wielder. Using combat data gathered from the Sword of Damocles, Cassandra Jiang Lanfen can be confirmed to be a naturally-attuned user of the Symphogear system."

"We've finally discovered another one after all these years, have we?" Tsubasa mused, her fingers tightly intertwined with Maria's.

"Thank you for the work, Professor, and do rest up when you can," the Commander suggested, turning off the transmission to turn back to the gathered Adaptors. "Now then, does anyone have any other questions?"

"Will we be able to determine when the enemy will attack again?" Maria asked, prompting Fujitaka to speak up from his post as he folded up a thick blanket in his hands.

"With the information that the Professor's decrypted, our sensors have been updated to track the energy signatures emitted by both the 'rifts' and the Distortions," he said, holding back another yawn. "As long as our information is correct, we should be able to detect the locations of the rifts before they're even fully open. This'll give us a chance to be ready the next time those Distortions come knocking on our doorstep."

With her arms held up in the air for a stretch, Tomosato chimed in as well. "Our operators have confirmed that the information provided by the Bavarian Illuminati matches everything we've seen so far, Commander. Right down to the exact details of the enemies' capabilities and weaponry."

Relieved that they won't be caught off-guard again by the time of their next battle, Commander Genjuuro faced the six Adaptors to finally relieve them of their duty for now. "Rest up while you can," he told them, knowing it was what the women needed most right now. "We don't know when or where the Distortions are going to strike next, but as long as we're prepared, S.O.N.G. won't be lacking its efforts to continue saving lives. Carry on."

Dismissing themselves from the bridge in unison, the Adaptors turned to the entrance of the command centre and headed for the submarine's sleeping quarters. But while the others went on their way to catch up on their strength, Hibiki stayed back by herself to ask the Commander another question. It was one which the Commander was also expecting to hear from her the moment they had received word about bringing in a new Symphogear-Wielder.

"Master, will it be alright if we could talk with this 'Jiang' person?"

The urge to reach out to someone and understand them was an essential aspect of his student, no doubt about that. Sadly, the Commander had to answer her with a shake of his head, "Right now, the council's prohibiting us from making unnecessary contact with her until we've retrieved the information which we need," he said, subconsciously remembering the lifeless look he saw in the woman's purple eyes. He had not seen eyes like that for the longest time now. "For now, you'll have to wait until then, Hibiki."

Although she was disappointed by his answer, Hibiki's determined smile did not leave the woman's face. "Whoever she is, I've got a feeling that she's not as bad as the council thinks she is," Hibiki claimed, holding up a clenched fist as she winked at her Master. "S.O.N.G. has a knack for bringing in lots of great people, doesn't it?" Her cheeky observation got a small, honest laugh out of the Commander, and with that, the woman turned around towards the bridge entrance to catch up with the other Adaptors.

The woman's bright spirits were always appreciated in times like these. But as Commander Genjuuro heard the command centre's doors close back up, the large man returned to his post to stare at the monitor screens of the bridge. He thought about the demands which the council was placing on S.O.N.G., and even though the fight against the Distortions surely called for an increase in their forces, the Commander could not stop himself from worrying about the power the lingered within the depths of the now-completed Sword of Damocles.

Lanfen rarely bothered to switch on the lights of her detainment room as time went on. They had given her spares of the grey clothing she had been handed upon arrival, and while the clothing itself barely looked like anything more than a prisoner's uniform, she had little to complain about when it came to the hot waters of the bathroom shower. The meals they had given her tasted fine, but Lanfen could only stomach a few bites before she would eventually throw up more than what she had initially ingested. Water had an easier time staying in her stomach, at least.

Judging by the time which was shown on her data-pad's clock, it had been 34 hours now since the Distortions first landed. In that timeframe, Lanfen had spent hours tirelessly scrolling through the information that was available on the data-pad. She first went through the holographic articles to read up on the devastation which had been caused by the Distortions, and as the casualties finally totaled to a count of 48,084, Lanfen felt a sickening sensation within the pits of her stomach. Countries everywhere mourned the lives that had been lost, all while the Kazanari Humanitarian Front was doing its best to rebuild and help those who had been affected by the attack on their population centers.

Once she had read enough about the global disaster, Lanfen accessed S.O.N.G.'s records to read up on their countless missions against paranormal threats over the past decade. Whatever S.O.N.G. intended to do with her, Lanfen was under the assumption that they wouldn't be letting go of someone who had seen information like this so easily. She could not see an endpoint that did not involve her somehow getting further involved with S.O.N.G. as the details of the organization was laid bare before her. Noise. 'Alca-Noise'. 'Autoscorers'. And now, Distortions. S.O.N.G. had matched each and every one of these enemies with the power of so-called relics shards like the one Lanfen had attained.

And yet, even though Lanfen had acquired such an incomprehensible, near-limitless power, she had failed to protect her own little sister with it in the end.

Lanfen held all the strength of the Symphogear system, and she was still completely helpless in the face of that cloaked figure.

The memory of her attacker ignited a proverbial fire within her eyes. Rising up from underneath the blankets of her bed, the mere image of that cloaked being caused a scowl to form on Lanfen's tearstained face. Her braided hair had turned into an unkempt mess over the past day, and the latest tray of food which S.O.N.G. had provided her still sat untouched on the table near the door. As Lanfen tried to bury the memory of the sight she had witnessed beneath the burning debris of Yamaku City, she grabbed the data-pad next to her hand, and hurled it against the wall with whatever strength she had in her.

It made a loudsnapwhen the data-pad's screen shattered against hard metal. It was probably loud enough for someone outside to have heard it, but Lanfen didn't care.

As pieces of the device laid scattered across the floor of her dimly-lit room, Lanfen had found no satisfaction in what she had just done. Instead, she only felt a growing sense of remorse. Closing her eyes, Lanfen buried herself underneath her blanket and lied in her bed until her memories of that night ceased to haunt her. She had run out of tears hours ago. All she had left to do now was stew in the shadows of her detainment room, unsure of when S.O.N.G. would come inside to finally deal with her. A part of her almost wished that her Symphogear had not saved Lanfen from the attack which had killed her sister.

The blankets of her bed felt far thicker than ones Lanfen had in her own bedroom. Her pillow would be perfect to sleep on if she was able to close her eyes without falling into some sort of nightmare. Now that she was unable to keep track of how much time was passing, Lanfen stared at the ceiling above her and occupied herself with a memory which she had not recalled for ages now.

It was the night before the day of their parents' memorial service. Lanfen remembered hiding away in her bedroom to cry ceaselessly for hours. Since the young Kai had yet to understand what had even happened to their parents, Lanfen refused to break down while she was within eyesight of her younger sibling. Kai was only 11-years old then. No child deserved to hear what Lanfen had spent days preparing to tell her. The look that Kai had on her face when she finally realized why their parents wouldn't be coming back still tore at the woman's heart to this day.

But when the two sisters had to attend the memorial service itself, Lanfen had not shed a single tear, even while her sister cried freely at her side. Lanfen didn't permit herself to. Not while Kai relied on her to be her dependable older sibling. She had held onto Kai's hands for as long as she could during the memorial service, and had worn a proverbial mask which shielded everything away. All of it - Hidden underneath a stoic façade that nobody but her sister could see through. As Lanfen slowly donned that 'mask' again just for a few minutes, she slowly turned her head to gaze at the two smartphones which were resting on the room table.

The keychain that Lanfen had bought for Kai shone brightly underneath the lamp's yellow light, its material barely stained by the rubble it had been found in.

"Forgive me," Lanfen quietly pleaded, drawing the cold, uncaring air into her lungs. The silence of her detainment room was unbearable.

Two hours had passed - or maybe three - by the time Lanfen heard a knocking on her room door. It felt too early for her to be receiving lunch, and her breakfast had yet to grow cold on her room table. Getting up from her bed as she shielded her eyes from the hallway's light, Lanfen saw a familiar blonde man standing at the open doorway, his hands folded behind his back. He casted a worried gaze over to the remains of the data-pad on the floor and turned back to the unkempt woman to calmly speak to her.

"They intend to question you now. Are you in any condition to do so?" he asked, stepping inside the detainment room.

Lanfen got out from under the blankets and ran her hand through the sides of her head. She had no more tears to shed. Not for today, maybe. Her mind also felt clearer than it had been compared to the past day or so. Wanting to get this over with as soon as possible, Lanfen swung her legs over to one side of her bed and felt the cold, metal floors beneath her bare feet, "I am," she stated, standing up on her legs.

The man seemed to doubt her words, but he voiced no argument as another person in a suit came into the room with the same handcuffs they had brought Lanfen in with. Taking the large metal cuffs off the person's hands, the blonde man approached Lanfen, opening up the device with a few clicks on its key-pad. "My apologies. It's standard procedure," he said with a genuine empathy. He received no reply other than Lanfen lifting her hands for him to restrain her. "They say you haven't been eating your meals."

"I'm fine. I didn't need it," she muttered, wincing slightly when the large handcuffs covered her hands and secured themselves around her forearms to encase them in what felt like a steel coffin. The entire thing felt weighty as Lanfen held up her restrained forearms, and placed on a pair of footwear that the blonde man's companion had also brought in for her. When she was promptly escorted out into the hallway, the lights outside her room felt almost blinding to her squinting eyes.

The sounds of their clacking footsteps filled the cold air as Lanfen followed the pair through numerous large hallways. She still had no idea where they were, but Lanfen could tell that it was some sort of headquarters. There was a low rumbling somewhere in the distance, something akin to a loud reactor or engine, but Lanfen could have been mistaking it for something else. Aside from that, the curious looks which Lanfen was receiving from the crew of the base felt almost palpable. All of them were dressed in the same navy-blue uniform that had the distinct badge of S.O.N.G. on their chests.

"Please, head inside," the blonde man instructed after they had halted in front of a door at the end of another unremarkable hallway.

Following his orders, the door slid open for Lanfen to step inside the small room which she had been escorted to for her 'questioning'. While the blonde man waited outside, a camera that hung in the corner of the room's ceiling stared at Lanfen. In front of her was a table where two familiar men were waiting for her. One of them was the large man with red hair, and the other was his formal companion in the black suit. While the redheaded man sat down on a chair, his companion remained standing with a data-pad in his hands as he gestured Lanfen to sit on the chair meant for her.

Resting against the backrest of her seat, Lanfen placed her restrained hands on the table to alleviate the weight which her handcuffs placed on her forearms. She did not know whether or not she should wait for the two men to speak up first.

"My name is Kazanari Genjuuro, Tactical Commander of S.O.N.G.," the redheaded man introduced himself, resting his elbows on the table between them. "This is one of my aides, Ogawa Shinji, and we will be the ones questioning you regarding the events of the past few days. Will that be alright with you?" He was formal, but not distant. He seemed to be just as uncomfortable as Lanfen was underneath the piercing gaze of the camera which was observing them from the corner of the room.

Lanfen hesitantly nodded. "I've no complaints."

Holding up the data-pad in his hands, Ogawa displayed a holographic image of the red pendant that Lanfen had been given during the attack. "This is the SG-r04, Sword of Damocles, which I'm sure you are familiar with by now," he began, typing a command onto the data-pad to show recorded CCTV footage of Lanfen's battle. "It is a property of both S.O.N.G. and the United Nations. Before you had utilized it approximately 39 hours ago, it had been stolen from our possession by the Bavarian Illuminati. May we ask where and how did you attain such an item?"

She remembered the pale face of the person in the suit who had given the SG-r04 to her. "... It was a woman. A woman in a blue suit. Blue hair. Pale face... I was running. She saved me after a Distortion had cornered me and-" As she described the woman from what she could piece together, Ogawa recorded her words into his data-pad. "I... I didn't get her name. But when she asked if I wanted the power to save my... my sister." She drew in a shaky breath. "She gave me that pendant. And told me to sing if I wanted to use it."

"Did she ask for anything in return?" Commander Kazanari inquired, listening intently to her story.

"No. She didn't," Lanfen whispered, unsure of whether or not if that woman was even real. "It was given to me just so I could save my sister..." Repeating those words felt akin to gargling metal needles in her mouth. She had 'saved' no one. No one but herself. Staring at her weighty handcuffs with eyes which had dried up a while ago, Lanfen quietly waited for the next question to come.

It was the Commander who asked this time again, "Do you have any past experiences with paranormal events such as the Noise?"

"No. I've never encountered the Noise myself. Or paranormal creatures. Not until recently, that is," Lanfen added. Her purple eyes took a peek at the camera on the ceiling and she felt her brown skin shiver underneath its focused lens. There was another exchange of silence as Ogawa showed the Commander something which was on his data-pad. She had a feeling that their next question wasn't going to be a pleasant one.

After reading whatever Ogawa had shown him, the Commander looked back at Lanfen and slowly asked, "Do you have any next of kin?"

Relatives. Lanfen had to hold herself back from scoffing at the mere mention of it. Clenching her hands however she could within the metal coffin that were her handcuffs, Lanfen felt disgust dancing on her lips when she bitterly answered his question, "My sister was the only family I had left in my life. If any of my relatives are still out there, then they'd want nothing to do with me."

The two men calmly took in her answers and considered them for a lengthy amount of time underneath the watchful gaze of the room's camera. Their expressions betrayed nothing about what they were thinking, so Lanfen waited as Ogawa typed away on the data-pad faster than she could consistently perceive. The Commander, on the other hand, was looking at her with a subtle hint of concern in his eyes. He definitely was not the type of person she had expected from someone who looked as fierce as he did. When Ogawa whispered something into the man's ear, the Commander stood back up and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Thank you for your time," he said. "We will be returning you to your room now until further notice. For now, we will-"

"My parents," Lanfen suddenly cut him off. Lifting her head to meet his gaze, her next words sounded almost like a plea. "Did you... know them?"

Ogawa and Commander Kazanari looked back at each other, as if wondering whether they were even allowed to answer Lanfen's question. While the camera in the corner of the room maintained its watch on them, Ogawa looked back at the woman and politely addressed her curiosity, "The late Keith and Pao-Lin were once operatives of S.O.N.G. You have our apologies, but this information had to be kept classified due to the secrecy of our organization. I hope you can understand why we had to keep your family in the dark."

She didn't know whether to be mad or grateful that it took this long to even know why her parents had disappeared from her life. Why Lanfen had to be the one to essentially raise her little sister. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but Lanfen gave Ogawa a slow nod anyway, all while whispering an almost inaudible, "Thank you." Hearing the door behind her open up, she stood back up and followed the blonde man from earlier out of the room. She turned her tired gaze away from the Commander and Ogawa as she did so.

Making their way through the hallways to reach her detainment room, Lanfen's purple eyes could barely focus on the path which was ahead of her.

With a few quick inputs onto the keypad of Lanfen's handcuffs, the heavy, metal casing loosened their grip on her forearms, allowing the blonde man to slowly relieve Lanfen of her restraints. As he left the large handcuffs on the detainment room's table with a lowthud, Lanfen took a few steps back from him to notice that the broken data-pad on the room floor had already been disposed of. Still feeling remorseful for what she had done, Lanfen caressed her marked wrists and scanned the man before her with tired eyes.

"Your name," she spoke to him in a low voice, getting his attention. "I never got your name."

He gave her a polite smile and folded his hands behind his back. "You may call me 'Tsuchiya Kagero'," he said, sounding far more casual than when they had initially met a while ago. "You are Cassandra Jiang Lanfen, are you not?"

"I am," Lanfen replied with a nod, taking a note to remember the man's name. Sitting back down on her bed, she removed her uncomfortable footwear and placed them aside before looking back at Tsuchiya. "Thanks for... retrieving my sister's phone," she told him, finding it hard to truly voice her gratitude. "It means a lot to me."

Tsuchiya gave a formal bow, saying, "I'm happy to assist someone however I can. Even if our experiences seem to be the other way around, it's pleasing to see someone who just so happens to be similar to me in a certain way." His remark made Lanfen perk her head up in confusion. Seeing this, Tsuchiya held up one of his wrists and pulled down the sleeve of his suit to showcase a pink, white and light-blue armband. The familiar colours immediately made her understand as Tsuchiya suddenly held one of his fingers to a comm bead in his ear. "Yes...? Understood."

While Tsuchiya abruptly headed out of the detainment room to attend to some matter, a tired Lanfen glanced over to the room table and rested her eyes on the two smartphones that were lying on top of it. Hearing the room's lock ringing in the air, Lanfen dragged her body over to the table and slowly picked up Kai's broken device. The toy which hung from it by a chain softly jingled, causing a cold shiver to run down Lanfen's spine as the memory of that cloaked figure reappeared before her narrowing eyes.

She felt tears trail down her face once again. But they were not tears of sadness. Instead, they were those of blooming, incandescent hatred. Lanfen could feel proverbial flames burning within her eyes. A fire conjured purely out of the loathing she held for both the cloaked figure, and the Distortions that had thoroughly ravaged their world for some horrendous crusade against Humanity. The hand which had wielded the Sword of Damocles ached at her side. It ached for the sensation it had felt when she had cleaved through the Distortions one-by-one. With pursed lips, Lanfen reached for the toy which was attached to Kai's smartphone, and gently detached it from the broken device.

Leaving Kai's smartphone on the table, she attached the keychain onto her own device with a softclickand stared at the toy as it swung back and forth on its silver chain.

When she heard a sudden knocking from the room door, Lanfen quickly wiped away her tears and squeezed her eyes shut to recollect herself. As the door slid open, Lanfen saw that Tsuchiya had returned, this time holding a large suitcase in one hand and a data-pad in the other. An aura of business-like formality could be felt around him again while he placed the suitcase on the table, and handed Lanfen the data-pad. He gestured over to the room's large monitor screen, and the moment she had turned around to face it, the screen switched on to bathe the dimly-lit room with light, all while showcasing the symbol of the United Nations.

"Greetings, Miss Cassandra," an androgynous-sounding voice politely addressed her through the monitor's speakers. "I am the spokesperson of the United Nations world council. It is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance."

Tsuchiya silently stood on one side of the room while Lanfen returned the diplomatic greeting in kind, replying, "I take it that there's something needed of me?"

"Correct. After much consideration by the council, the United Nations has formally decided to offer you, Cassandra Jiang Lanfen, a chance to be recruited into S.O.N.G. as their seventh Adaptor. In other words, a Symphogear-Wielder," they stated, causing Lanfen's eyes to slightly widen as their words rendered her speechless. "As you are the only thus far who is capable of wielding the SG-r04, the U.N. intends to employ you in the defence against paranormal threats which may pose a danger to the safety of our world. If you accept this offer, the council will be willing to overlook your 'theft' of the SG-r04. They will also be providing funding for the duration of your employment, in addition to whatever S.O.N.G. shall provide you."

In her head, Lanfen knew that this wasn't going to be a real decision. Opening up the data-pad in her hands, she scrolled through the terms of their agreement and immediately saw that refusal of the offer would mean her immediate imprisonment based on Lanfen's current charges. She was hardly surprised by the hand she was being dealt with. "Will I essentially be a soldier?" she inquired, looking back at the monitor screen.

"Think of yourself more as 'disaster relief personnel', Miss Cassandra," the Spokesperson corrected her the same way an adult would point out a child's silly mistake. "Your duty would simply be to follow the orders of Commander Kazanari in order to carry out work which no regular military can ever hope to accomplish. Aside from that, you will be allowed to return to your old home and live out your life whenever you are not on an active mission."

There was nothing left for Lanfen to lose in this deal, she dryly thought to herself. As the data-pad in her hands displayed the end of the written agreement, Lanfen lifted her hand and signed it with a few strokes of her signature. After hitting the 'Accept' button, the device rang with confirmation and shut itself off. "I'll do whatever I have to if it means taking out the Distortions," Lanfen quietly swore to them. "I can promise you that."

"We look forward to seeing your results, Miss Cassandra," the Spokesperson replied, sounding noticeably pleased by her decision. "You may find additional details regarding your duties within that device. Since I'm sure that you may be finding yourself overwhelmed by your new responsibilities, you can expect us to contact you again at a later time. Until then, may the heavens smile upon your efforts, SG-r04."

The audio transmission on the wall monitor ended, and the symbol of the United Nations disappeared from the screen, allowing the shadows of the detainment room to creep back in. As Lanfen placed the data-pad on the table, Tsuchiya visibly relaxed himself before speaking up, "You have our apologies for this, Jiang," he said with an almost exasperated glance at the room's deactivated monitor screen. "S.O.N.G. does not often carry out the immoral task of plucking someone from their former life. But, this is sadly a decision which not even the Commander is capable of going against."

"It's fine." Lanfen waved off his apology, leaning against the room table with a hand on her hip. "I've no former life to return to anyway... Not anymore."

Wordlessly respecting the decision that she had just made, Tsuchiya reached for the suitcase he had brought and inputted a 16-digit code into its keypad. He gently opened up the suitcase to showcase its contents, and Lanfen subconsciously drew in a breath when she saw the S.O.N.G. uniform they had prepared for her. Alongside it was a black-and-white tie and undershirt, a familiar red pendant, and a rectangular wrist device which she had also seen being worn on the arms of everyone in this facility thus far. Lanfen took the device and held it to her arm for its automatic strap to tighten around her wrist in a flash.

"That communicator will be used for every manner of business related to S.O.N.G.," Tsuchiya explained as Lanfen opened up its holographic interface to explore its numerous options. "If nothing else is required of me, then I shall be taking my leave now," he said, heading over to the room door to permanently undo its inner lock. With a glance at S.O.N.G.'s new Adaptor, Tsuchiya gave Lanfen a friendly smile. "May fortune favour you, Jiang."

Lanfen could not give a smile in return. But she tried her best to give a respectful nod in place of it. "... Thanks, Tsuchiya."

The door closed itself, this time without an audible lock, leaving Lanfen alone in her room. With Tsuchiya gone, she went about changing into the winter uniform they had requisitioned for her. Relieved to be finally rid of her prisoner uniform, Lanfen replaced it with a navy blue jacket, a matching pair of pants, and a black-and-white undershirt. The measurements were perfectly accurate to her body, to her surprise. As she slipped her feet into a pair of boots and secured the uniform's pouch to her belt, Lanfen looked at the relic pendant in the suitcase and watched it shimmer underneath the table's yellow lamp.

Tightening the black-and-white tie around her neck, Lanfen swore a wordless oath right then and there to wield her powers for the sake of avenging her sister. She promised to Kai - and herself - that no matter how many Distortions she would have to kill, Lanfen would master the power of the Symphogear before she would find the cloaked figure that had taken Kai away from her. As a proverbial fire swirled within Lanfen's eyes, S.O.N.G.'s seventh Adaptor look forward to the day where she would seize her sister's murderer by the throat, lift them above the ground, and hear them shriek while she buried the Sword of Damocles within their chest.

Chapter 4: A Vessel of Seven Valkyries


Thank you for 150+ hits and the Kudos so far! Hopefully you're enjoying the story and that the chapters don't feel too long.

Chapter Text

A nice, hot drink right after a long night's rest never failed to lift Maria's spirits. As the boots of her Adaptor uniform thumped against the floors of the hallway, six steaming mugs of cocoa sat in the tray that Maria held in her hands. She hummed a nostalgic tune to herself on the way to the Adaptor's sleeping cabin, all while exchanging pleasant greetings with the S.O.N.G. personnel she had passed by in the submarine's accommodation module. No operations had been conducted ever since they had repelled the global attack, so the crew of the underwater vessel savored the silence of inactivity.

Arriving at the doorstep of the Adaptors' personal cabin, Maria steadied her face in front of the retinal scanner which was built into it as the security lock rang with confirmation. She moved past the sliding door and exited the accommodation module's hallway to head inside their sleeping quarters. "If anyone needs something to warm yourself up, Tomosato's made some hot cocoa," Maria announced her arrival and the tray of drinks she had brought.

As part of the privilege that came with being the six Symphogear-Wielders of S.O.N.G., their sleeping quarters were remarkably larger than the ones which were provided to the rest of the crew. There was a large table near the door for Maria to place her tray on, while a monitor screen hung on one side of the cabin, letting the Adaptors tune in to any broadcasting station around the world. Built into the wall opposite of the door were three comfortable bunk beds which the Adaptors had grown quite familiar with by now. Each bunk bed had a ladder for someone to climb onto the top, but Hibiki and Kirika more often than not preferred to ignore it in favour of leaping onto their beds for fun.

While Kirika's bed was empty, the closed curtains on Shirabe's bunk below it gave Maria a good indicator on where the mischievous blonde was right now. Tsubasa had climbed down from her own bunk to sit down on Maria's bed, a data-pad in her hands as she was busy signing a few documents from the Kazanari Household. Hibiki was happily texting away on her own bunk to a certain woman back in Japan, and beneath her, Chris busied herself with a movie on her smartphone, and an opened bag of potato chips at her side. Downtime for the Adaptors seemed to be as mundane as it usually was, Maria mused to herself, taking off her boots so she could place them on a nearby shoe rack.

Sitting down next to Tsubasa, Maria handed the busy chairwoman a mug, and sipped the cocoa that she had brought for herself. "Has anything interesting come up yet, Chris?" Maria asked the snow-white woman to her right while taking a peek at Tsubasa's paperwork-covered device.

"Huh? Oh, right," Chris mumbled through a mouthful of chips. Putting her smartphone aside, the short woman got off her bunk bed and fetched herself a mug of hot cocoa. With the steaming mug in her hand, Chris washed down the food in her mouth before turning back to the women with a satisfied sigh. "The Old Man's sent out an announcement just now actually. Turns out that Jiang woman is now an Adaptor."

"Really?" Hibiki exclaimed, rolling on her bed to lean on the metal railing of its edge. "That's great!"

With the last of her current paperwork done, Tsubasa placed her data-pad within the drawers of Maria's bunk bed, and graciously warmed herself with the drink which her wife provided. "It should not be too surprising considering the influence that the council has on our affairs," Tsubasa commented, dabbing her mouth with a napkin she had pulled out from her pocket. "Our new recruit aside, I'm most curious about this 'SG-r04'. The world council was quite adamant in its creation, which makes me wonder what lies within that so-called 'next-generation' Symphogear."

"Does the Kazanari Household have any information on it?" Maria asked, resting her head on Tsubasa's shoulder. Maria felt her cheeks turn a bit warm when the chairwoman's other hand smoothly placed itself on her waist.

"Nay, unfortunately," Tsubasa replied, relaxing her own tense body. "It seems that the Professor and Uncle are the only ones who are well-aware of the circumstances behind that Symphogear." She drank her hot cocoa and tapped her foot on the cabin floor in thought. "I would order Ogawa to investigate it, but I fear it would only incur the wrath of the council."

Dropping back onto her bunk bed, Chris' mug of cocoa was already half-empty. "Sounds about right, to be honest. Politicians and their hush-hush crap. Still, it's been a while since we've gotten a new Adaptor to rub shoulders with, huh?" Chris remarked, stuffing another handful of chips into her mouth. "Guess it's just how it is when Symphogears don't exactly rain from the sky."

Maria watched as Hibiki hopped off her bunk bed and landed on the floor with the grace of a crashing meteorite, earning her a complaint from the crimson Adaptor in the lower bunk. "And a new teammate means we've got a new opportunity to meet someone," Hibiki chirped, crossing her arms over her chest the same way the Commander would often do. "Which is why we should-" Hibiki's words came to a halt at the sight of the death glare which Chris was suddenly shooting at her. Unlike Maria and Tsubasa, it took a while for Hibiki to see that her sudden landing had caused Chris' cocoa to spill onto her own uniform. "Chris...? Do you need a tissue-?"

"Why, you-!"

"I'm sorry!"

While Maria and Tsubasa enjoyed each other's company with hot mugs of cocoa in their hands, Chris had sprung forth from her bed to imprison Hibiki within a tight headlock. Despite the height advantage which the golden god-slayer possessed, Hibiki could not break herself free from the crimson gunslinger's hold. Her helpless pleas for release echoed off the walls of their cabin, waking up the sleeping duo in Shirabe's bed with all the noise from their commotion. As the curtains of Shirabe's bunk bed were pulled aside, the group could see Shirabe and Kirika all cuddled up within the small space of their bed. The fact that they were sleeping up until now made Maria wonder what they had been even doing last night.

Rubbing her eyes with an exhausted groan, Kirika's blonde hair was the epitome of the word 'bed head'. "I was only half-listening to everything... But did someone say something about getting a new... velociraptor?" she mumbled with half-open eyes, wiping a bit of drool off the corner of her mouth.

"'Adaptor', Kirika," Maria corrected her with an amused smile. "It's about that Jiang woman. The Commander's just sent out an announcement that she will be joining us as a new teammate."

Shirabe made herself comfortable as she lied down on top of Kirika. With her arms wrapped around the blonde's body, Shirabe buried her face in her partner's chest, both of their bodies kept warm by the jackets they were using as makeshift blankets. "It's so noisy here..."

Unable to disagree with the twin-tailed woman, Maria placed her mug down on a small table near her bunk bed, and stood up to end the commotion in their sleeping cabin. "Come on now, you two. That's enough," she said, practically acting like the group's mother as Chris released the chestnut-haired woman from her iron grip, and dusted her hands with a cocky smirk. Looking satisfied after all that tussling, Chris was handed a small napkin by Maria to clean herself up. "You might want to get yourself changed unless you want to meet the new recruit with a stain on your uniform."

"Yeah. But it's not like anyone in this room has actually had a 'normal meeting' with each other anyway," Chris snarked, wiping away at the brown spill on her jacket. While Hibiki went over to the room table to grab her own mug of cocoa, the gunslinger looked right at Maria, apparently noticing something which was on the older woman's face. "Remembering old things?" she inquired in a voice that was just low enough for only the two of them to hear.

Maria had forgotten how sharp the gunslinger could be sometimes. With a wave of her hand, Maria partially shrugged Chris off with a smile. "Maybe. It's been a long time now since I've looked back in the past, honestly," Maria said, glancing over to Tsubasa who was still relaxing on her bunk bed. Maria shot the chairwoman a teasing wink, causing the blue-haired woman's cheeks to turn a subtle shade of red. "I do wonder if we should prepare something for that Jiang woman, though. She wasn't exactly brought here gently, but maybe we can arrange a sort of event now that she's joined us?"

After downing an entire mug of hot cocoa in one go, Hibiki spun around on her heel to face the women with a fist held up in the air, and a 'mustache' made out of foam on her lips. "That's a great idea, Maria! We should definitely do some kind of celebration." A potato chip which was thrown by a still-annoyed Chris bounced off Hibiki's forehead, but her fiery spirit did not falter. "I remember being brought in with handcuffs, too. But right after that, it turns out that Master had actually prepared a welcoming party when I first arrived with Gungnir!"

The proposal of a party was like a match being held against a stationary firework as Hibiki's words practically roused Kirika and Shirabe out from their comfortable slumber. The latter eagerly poked her head out of their bunk bed, pink eyes glowing with the light of an aspiring chef. "It sounds like a good opportunity to show off what we've learned in university."

"Agreed-death!" Kirika added with the same level of energy as her partner.

While Maria simply smiled at the excitement which the three were emanating at the mere idea of a party, Chris had exited the room to get herself changed, and Tsubasa took out her data-pad to continue doing some more paperwork she had just received. The Adaptor team - as chaotic as they were - now had seven members to its name. A number they had not reached ever since the battle against Shem-Ha all those years ago. Knowing full-well on how Maria herself acted after she had lost Serena all those years ago, a part of the woman had to wonder how Jiang was dealing with the loss of her own sister.

'Symphogear-Wielder'. The weight of that name had only just started to settle within Lanfen's mind. This was not a dream, and this was not a nightmare either. It was merely the path which Lanfen now treaded. Over half a decade ago, Lanfen had witnessed events such as the Frontier incident, the Magical Girl incident, and the Shem-Ha incident, all through the eyes of a helpless civilian. And now here she was, operating in the same organization that her parents had once served in. It was Lanfen's hand which had been chosen to wield the Sword of Damocles, all because a mysterious stranger had gifted her the SG-r04 on the very night the Distortions had appeared in their world.

As Lanfen finished tidying her unkempt hair into a neat braid on her left shoulder, her wrist device rang with a message from Commander Genjuuro. A quick tap on the holographic interface projected the incoming message: "You can take a look around the place while we set things up for you, Lanfen. Once you're needed on the bridge, we'll send for someone to escort you there."

Withdrawing the small hologram into her wrist device, Lanfen exited her detainment room, and walked out into the brightly-lit hallways with two smartphones in her uniform's waist-pockets. The keychain that hung from Lanfen's own device stuck out from her pocket, swinging back and forth with a faint jingle as she questioned if it was a good idea for her to be all by herself. Considering that she had been stuck in the same room for almost two days now, a part of her couldn't complain about the leniency they were suddenly giving Lanfen. Tapping into her wrist device again, she opened up a holographic map, found her bearings, and started navigating her way throughout the place.

"To think I was their prisoner just a moment ago," Lanfen whispered to herself, taking in her surroundings to memorize its spacious, metal hallways.

The sheer size of the map initially gave Lanfen the impression that she was inside some sort of underground base, but she couldn't have been more wrong. Judging by the hologram on her wrist, the submarine was designed with its own gym, some sort of 'simulation room', a commons lounge to relax in, a 'movie theatre', and every other basic commodity which a person would need to survive beneath the oceans. The crew members would give Lanfen friendly greetings whenever she occasionally passed by them, and while the Symphogear-Wielder had no complaints about being treated like one of their own so soon, Lanfen's gut feeling consistently warned her of one simple thing.

She was being monitored.

It wasn't surprising, considering how Lanfen had been dragged here in the first place. While her lone exploration of the submarine went uninterrupted the entire time, Lanfen could never shake off the feeling that there was someone - somewhere - lurking within her shadows with each and every purposeful step which Lanfen took across the vessel's long hallways. She was almost starting to prefer the intrusive glare of a ceiling camera, if she was being honest with herself. There was no point in pretending to be lenient with her.

Abruptly stopping herself in the middle of an empty hallway, Lanfen felt a sudden warmth that was trailing down her cheeks. She brought a gloved hand to her face, brushed her fingers against her brown skin, and wiped away what looked to be a few stray teardrops. Lanfen did not even realize she had been crying. Perhaps she was just getting used to it, like many things in her life thus far. Drawing the cold air into her lungs, Lanfen leaned on the hallway's hand-railing, and took out her smartphone to stare at the keychain which hung from it by a silver chain. The longer Lanfen's purple eyes gazed at the small toy, the tighter her grip on the device became.

Her sword-hand twitched at her side. It was aching for a fight. But Lanfen knew that all she could do for now was wait. Wait until the Distortions showed themselves again. Until then, the officiation of her duty as a Symphogear-Wielder, and her introduction to the six other Wielders, were the two things which she had to expect first. "Mei..." she whispered, switching on her smartphone to wistfully stare at her wallpaper. It was a picture of Kai's 17th birthday celebration. It had only been a week ago when Lanfen took this image, and yet, it felt like an eternity had already passed since then.

Gripping the railing she leaned on with an aching hand, the minutes passed on as Lanfen paused her exploration of the vessel to recollect herself. No one had walked by this part of the submarine's module, so Lanfen had the silence that she needed to calm her mind, all while Lanfen's wistful gaze remained on the memoir of moments long-past. Lanfen's ears then picked up the sound of footsteps to her right, followed up a woman's voice which sounded both curious and concerned at the same time.

"Hey, are you alright?"

Slipping her smartphone back into her uniform, Lanfen slowly turned her gaze to notice that she had been approached by a woman with short, chestnut-coloured hair. The stranger appeared to be around Lanfen's own age, judging by their equal height and youthful looks. As Lanfen pushed herself off the hand-railing, the sight of the familiar uniform which the woman was wearing made Lanfen draw in a sharp breath. "You..." Lanfen stared at the tie that the stranger wore, its colours being that of two shades of yellow compared to Lanfen's own black-and-white.

Lanfen couldn't find the words to greet her with, even when the stranger suddenly extended an open hand for a friendly handshake.

"... I'm fine." Slowly lifting one arm from her side, the stranger's grip felt hard, but welcoming when Lanfen grabbed onto her hand. The gentle smile which the chestnut-haired woman wore was probably the brightest one that Lanfen had seen in this vessel thus far. After retracting her gloved hand, Lanfen felt her words coming back to her. "Sorry about that. It's nothing you have to worry about," she claimed, placing a hand on her hip. "The name's 'Cassandra Jiang Lanfen'. I take it that you're also an... Adaptor?"

All the unique terminology used in her new line of work had not quite stuck itself in Lanfen's mind just yet.

"You bet," the chestnut-haired woman chirped, stepping a bit closer to Lanfen. Almost too close in her opinion. "I don't really have a rank like some people here do, so you can just call me 'Tachibana Hibiki'! And if my guess is correct-" Right after Tachibana had introduced herself, the woman brought a hand to her chin and essentially observed Lanfen like a curious dog. "-you're the new Adaptor that everyone's been talking about, right?" she asked with a loud snap of her two fingers.

Lanfen cleared her throat in the confirmed presence of another Adaptor and gave Tachibana a polite nod. "I am. The uniform probably gave it away, though," Lanfen dryly commented before narrowing a sharp gaze on Tachibana. "Wait..." After noticing the chestnut-haired woman's cordial demeanor and full name, lingering memories from half a decade ago slowly slipped back into Lanfen's mind. "Tachibana...?" The surname grew more familiar as it rolled off her tongue. "Tachibana Hibiki? Weren't we in the same year in Lydian?"

"We were? That's so cool," Tachibana exclaimed with a genuine tone of awe. Clapping her hands together, Tachibana gestured over to the hallway behind her. "Hey, since you're new here, let's grab a bite at the mess hall! The food here is great and you'll get to meet some of my friends, too." Her words were brimming with excitement, but seemed to be held back by a hint of restraint. It made Lanfen wonder if Tachibana had actually seen her crying just now.

Lanfen couldn't refuse her kindness, no matter how hard she tried. "... Sure. I've got time." It felt like a blessing that Lanfen's body had not rioted against her up until now. If her stomach decided to haunt her with cramps, then Lanfen would have no one but herself to blame for ignoring most of the meals which S.O.N.G. had been providing her. Stuffing her hands in the pockets of her uniform, Lanfen quietly followed Tachibana from behind as the chestnut-haired woman led her through the halls on the way to the mess hall.

"Like Miku always tells me, there's nothing's better than catching up with a delicious meal!" Tachibana exclaimed, swinging her arms in a confident stride. Neither of the two had ever talked to one another back in their days at Lydian, but Tachibana's fiery attitude was a common subject amongst whispering students. It was almost hard to believe that this woman was someone who had participated in several successful attempts to save the world. Tachibana never seemed like the kind of person you would meet on a battlefield at all. "And we're here!"

After about a minute or two of trying to match Tachibana's brisk walk, the two women walked through the sliding doors of the submarine's mess hall. Its numerous chairs and tables were noticeably absent of any actual personnel, but when Lanfen directed her gaze to the mess hall's counter, the new Wielder spotted two more women who appeared to have been waiting for them. And just like with Tachibana, Lanfen recognized the pair as her old schoolmates from back in Lydian. They were her seniors, to be precise, and that wasn't all which caught her off-guard.

One of the two waiting seniors was none other than Kazanari Tsubasa, the world-renowned songstress herself. Looking at their Adaptor uniforms with a restrained sense of surprise, Lanfen found it almost unbelievable that Kazanari Tsubasa of all people was a Symphogear-Wielder this entire time. Kazanari's enrollment in Lydian alone brought countless students to its classes, and following her graduation, the concerts which she held over the past half-decade made the songstress into an undoubtable legend all over the world.

"At first, I was gettin' worried that the Dummy got lost on her way here," the short woman with a red tie sarcastically remarked. "Turns out she just ended up running into the Rookie, huh?"

"Come now, Yukine," Kazanari chided the white-haired woman beside her in a friendly-manner. "Tachibana of all people would never lose her way to the mess hall. I'm certain that she simply went out of her way to fetch our newest recruit here."

Tachibana stuck out her tongue with a playful wink in response to two, and stopped in front of them with Lanfen at her side. Unlike the chestnut-haired woman, the senior pair in front of Lanfen could spot the awkward stiffness in their newcomer's shoulders. "Since Master and Professor Elfnein are a bit busy with some kind of meeting right now, I thought I'd go and find her so we can all get to know each other," Tachibana explained, glancing over to Lanfen with a cheerful smile and a tightly-clenched fist. "Say hello to two of our teammates: Yukine Chris and Kazanari Tsubasa!"

Even though Lanfen was not the shortest woman in the mess hall, she certainly felt like the smallest person among them all. Straightening her arms at her sides, Lanfen gave her two former school seniors a deep and formal bow. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Kazanari, Yukine," Lanfen greeted them before lifting her head back up. "I'm honestly still... trying to make sense of everything, but I hope that I can be of assistance to you all regardless." She laced her words with formality as best as Lanfen could. "If there's anything required of me, I shall carry it out as best as I can."

"You can ease off with the manners first, Rookie," Yukine lightly snarked, letting out an unshielded yawn with her hands behind her head. "We're not at Lydian anymore, so there's no need to be so polite and all that crap. We're all Adaptors, so we're pretty much all in the same boat. Even if you're a bit green compared to the rest of us."

"S.O.N.G. is a super-welcoming place!" Tachibana suddenly beamed, causing Lanfen to take a subconscious step backwards from the excited woman. "There's still three other people you have to meet, but they're really busy right now. Even so, it's been so long since-"

"Tachibana..." Kazanari called her, gently placing a hand on the woman's shoulder to try and tone down her energy. "While it's certainly nice to have another person join our ranks, I'd advise you to try and not overwhelm her," Kazanari suggested with a gesture over to Lanfen. It was now clear to even Tachibana that their new recruit had quietly withdrawn herself in the presence of those who vastly exceeded her. "Jiang, correct? Apologies for my lack of familiarity, but it's a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance."

Appreciating the space which she had just been provided, Lanfen placed a hand on her hip, and tried her best to converse with her newfound colleagues. "The pleasure is mine, really," Lanfen said, remembering how she used to be a fan of Kazanari Tsubasa during the olden days of Zwei Wing. A meeting like this should have lit some sort of excitement within her, but Lanfen found it impossible to even give a friendly smile. "Sorry if I'm lagging behind a little. It's just... surprising how many faces from Lydian also happen to be Symphogear-Wielders. Especially when one of them is none other than - well - Kazanari Tsubasa."

"Life's funny that way sometimes," Yukine commented with a shrug of her shoulders. Despite being the shortest among the four, the woman with snow-white hair somehow felt like the biggest person in the room in a figurative sense. Lanfen's instincts warned her that upsetting Yukine of all people would be something which she'd most likely regret. "Now, are we just going to just continue standing here, or are we actually going to grab somethin' to eat? I'm goddamn starving here."

Tachibana led the way to the mess hall's counter with a skip in her step at the mere mention of a meal. Following the actions of her two exasperated seniors, Lanfen grabbed one of the stacked food trays and waited in line as the mess hall's chef came out of the kitchen to take their orders. Everything was done in a fast and precise manner, just as Lanfen expected from a submarine vessel that was essentially military in everything but name. The size offerings of their meals were also generous, but Lanfen could only bring herself to order the smallest portion size which was available. Meanwhile, Tachibana and Yukine had ordered enough food for each of them to feed a whole group of people.

Settling down at one of the mess hall's empty tables, a quick whiff of the curry rice on Lanfen's plate provoked a rumbling from her stomach. Kazanari sat across the table from Lanfen with a modest bowl of udon in her hands, while Yukine and Tachibana sat at the songstress' sides, utensils already in hand as the two blitzed through their curry rice with reckless abandon. Kazanari ate with an air of dignity, but Lanfen could detect a hint of annoyance within the blue-haired woman at the table manners that her two teammates were showcasing in front of the newcomer. Kazanari was certainly as elegant as Lanfen expected her to be off-stage.

"Get used to eatin' a lot if you're gonna be working here, Rookie," Yukine advised Lanfen with a casual wag of her spoon and a mouthful of curry. "Fighting ain't something you're gonna do well if you're low on energy."

"Whether it's before or after a mission, a good meal always lifts the spirits," Tachibana happily added, grasping a bowl which contained a small, rising mountain of white rice.

Chatter inevitably died down as the Adaptors focused on finishing their meals. But while Kazanari, Yukine and Tachibana were undeniably enjoying the taste of their early lunch, Lanfen ate away at an almost autonomous pace. She wasn't throwing up, and she wasn't struggling to put anything in her stomach either. Her body clearly needed the energy. What she found strange was that Lanfen could not taste anything at all. Yukine and Tachibana had ordered the same food which was on Lanfen's half-finished plate, and they were quite vocal about the curry's fiery taste. And yet, it tasted like nothing to Lanfen's own tongue. Chalking it up to her own tolerance for spicy food, Lanfen finished the last of her meal without a second thought.

Now that she thought about it, this was probably the first time in a while that Lanfen's had a meal with someone other than her sister. Lanfen remembered offering one of her seniors - Ayano Komichi - to a meal with her and Kai when they came across each other a few days ago. She remembered Kai teasing her about asking Ayano out to a date next time, something which Lanfen promptly shrugged off as nothing more than her sister's usual teasing. Teasing which Lanfen would no longer be experiencing ever again.

A sudden vibration in Lanfen's jacket broke her train of thought. Reaching into her pockets of her uniform, Lanfen pulled out her ringing smartphone to see that her weekday alarm clock was simply operating on schedule. Since Lanfen had been preoccupied with everything else over the past few days, she had essentially forgotten to switch off the alarm once Tsuchiya had returned the device to her. Lanfen silenced the alarm with furrowed brows and gazed at the reflection she casted on her smartphone's black screen.

"Sorry about that," Lanfen muttered, sensing the curious gazes which the trio were giving her.

Gulping down a mouthful of rice, Tachibana wiped her mouth with a tissue before speaking up, "So..." She placed down one of her utensils and eagerly pointed at the keychain that dangled from Lanfen's smartphone. "That thing looks really cool! Where'd you get it?"

Lanfen subconsciously pursed her lips as her other hand grasped onto her jittering leg beneath the table. Were it not for Lanfen's gloves, her fingernails would be sharply digging into her pants. Slowly placing her smartphone back into the pockets of her uniform, Lanfen took a few seconds to calm herself before she answered Tachibana's innocent question, "It was a unique order. Limited edition and all that," Lanfen said, grasping the handle of her teacup between two twitching fingers. "It used to belong to my sister."

Her words were serene. Matter-of-fact. But the moment Lanfen had even mentioned Kai, she felt as if the atmosphere of the dining table had suddenly shifted downwards. Tachibana noticeably held back whatever she was going to say next, while Kazanari and Yukine remained silent where they sat. It wouldn't surprise Lanfen if the trio knew exactly why and how she had been dragged all the way into this submarine. Tsuchiya would have likely needed to report on how he had managed to retrieve the SG-r04 to begin with. Either way, Lanfen had no intention on burdening her new colleagues with her own personal issues right now.

Bringing her cup to her lips, the warmth of her tea was enough to help Lanfen ground herself in reality even if she couldn't really taste it. Lanfen then turned her gaze to the metal walls of the mess hall, and tapped a gloved finger onto the table with a small breath slipping between her cracked lips.

"If you're feeling troubled, we don't mind letting you talk to us about it," Tachibana suddenly told her with a genuine voice of sympathy. "We're teammates now, after all."

Hesitantly glancing back over to the chestnut-haired woman, Tachibana wore a small, but genuine smile of reassurance. It felt almost similar to the way that Kai would often smile at Lanfen whenever she was down. Almost too close for her liking. "Thanks," Lanfen whispered to her, tightening the grip of her twitching fingers around the handle of the teacup in her hand. She could feel trepidation ringing within her chest as Lanfen sat beneath the gaze of the three experienced Adaptors. "I'll try my best to not fall behind."

The Adaptors' quiet conversation progressed no further than that as it was interrupted by the howling of alarm klaxons across the underwater vessel. It was a wailing which Lanfen had not heard since she had first been brought here. Following the swift actions of her seniors, Lanfen and the trio reached for their wrist devices and tapped onto the holographic interfaces of their communicators. In an instant, they brought up an audio transmission that was coming from Commander Genjuuro himself.

"Tsubasa, Chris, Hibiki, Lanfen. The Distortions are back-"

It was time, Lanfen thought, sensing the proverbial fires within her eyes ignite at the simple mention of the Distortions. Her sword-hand was practically begging by now to be sated.

"-we've already prepared the launch bay for deployment. Tsubasa, Chris, Hibiki. I want you to head there with the others as soon as you can. As for you, Lanfen, I'm going to need you to remain on standby for now." Lanfen had to hold back her tongue from speaking out of turn right as she had heard those very words. "I know you're eager to get to work, but you'll have to meet with Professor Elfnein in the labs for the time being. We can only send you out once she's sure that your relic is cleared for combat. The rest of you, prepare for launch."

As the audio transmission ended, Tachibana, Kazanari and Yukine could all clearly see the frustration that was building-up on Lanfen's face. The scowl which she wore was impossible to hide. Yukine was the first to stand up from her seat and address the greenhorn Adaptor. "Better safe than sorry, Rookie," the short woman said, lightly clapping Lanfen on the back. "Trust me, you wouldn't want to head out there unless your 'Gear is in top-shape."

"We'll take care of this quickly, don't worry about it!" Tachibana shouted with a punch in the air for good measure.

Following her orders at the advice of the experienced Adaptors, Lanfen fixated her longing gaze on the trio as they rushed out of the empty mess hall, their footsteps soon drowned out by the wailing of the ship's alarm klaxons. Squeezing her eyes shut would not quell the proverbial fires which brewed within her eyes, but Lanfen knew that she could not act out of line, especially on her first day as an Adaptor. Orders were orders. With a deep breath, Lanfen got off her seat and dug her fingernails into her palms while she headed off in the direction of the submarine's laboratories. Her oath to her sister and herself would have to wait, even if the Distortions were now on their doorstep again.

Marching through the command center's sliding double-doors, the Distortions' return could not have come at a more inconvenient time for Commander Genjuuro. Having recently completed a meeting with the council's spokesperson, the bridge's three monitor screens were displaying numerous identified energy signatures by the time the Commander had arrived at this post. The crew of the bridge all scrambled to their terminals, accessing reports to bring up the information that they were constantly receiving from their scanners. As Genjuuro's subordinates all kicked back into work, the Commander crossed his arms over his chest and readied himself to prepare a counterattack.

"Give me a status report on the situation!"

Fujitaka was the one to announce the incoming data. "We're counting five- No, six rifts, Commander!" the bridge operator reported, typing away on his terminal to display the rising rift activities across different parts of the world. "Scanners are pinpointing their locations to California, London, Montreal, Sydney, Melbourne, and Tokyo. We're counting at least a dozen Category-1s that are about to make their way through the rifts. Energy signatures designate them to be Caster and Armour types. Estimating less than 30 minutes until those rifts open up to start dropping Distortions!"

Tomosato turned around on her post to calmly face the Commander with a report of her own. "Six of our Wielders are prepared for deployment, Commander. They're ready to launch towards the pinpointed locations on your order."

Six rifts exactly. While the Distortions had seemingly arrived in far lesser numbers, it appeared almost convenient that they would return with such a specific force. "They have clearance. Send them out!" With one order from the Commander, Tomosato and Fujitaka inputted the commands into their terminals, sending six of the ship's manned intercontinental missiles high into the skies above them. Genjuuro observed their flights paths through the three monitor screens and turned around to see Tsuchiya Kagero suddenly standing a few steps behind him. "How is Lanfen doing, Tsuchiya?"

Out of the habits which were infused within him by Clan Hida, Kagero greeted the Commander with a formal bow before he reported his observations. "Jiang appears to be taking in her new surroundings well, Commander. Even if she still seems to be processing her situation, Jiang is remarkably calm considering what she's already been through," Kagero said, folding his hands behind his back. "I will also add that she also appears to be getting along with Kazanari, Yukine and Tachibana."

"That's good to hear. My thanks, Tsuchiya," the Commander replied with a nod before turning back to the monitor screens with an obvious grimace. Maintaining an effective poker face was not a skill that Genjuuro bothered to learn, but even if he did, the Commander had a feeling that Kagero's subsequent question would have been asked regardless.

"If I may ask, Commander," Kagero said in a low voice, placing himself at the Commander's side. He kept his curious gaze on the monitor screens in front of them while he spoke. "Is there something that is expected of Jiang which not even Jiang herself is aware of? It is not often that Clan Hida is requested to monitor S.O.N.G.'s very own Symphogear-Wielders of all things. Even if she happens to be the individual who was initially charged with the theft of the SG-r04." Kagero gave the Commander a curious look and seemingly withdrew his words when the blonde man sensed the aura of unease that Genjuuro radiated. "Forgive me for my rudeness-"

"It's fine, Tsuchiya," the Commander gently told him, lifting a large arm from his side to caress his aching temples. The members of Clan Hida were evidently as sharp as the weapons they wielded. "If anything is going on, the council will make it clear themselves. For now, just keep monitoring Lanfen, and report to me if there's anything which I need to worry about."

"Understood," Kagero said, giving another bow before he excused himself from the vessel's command center.

Staring at the bridge's three large monitor screens, the six Adaptors were slowly making their way to six detected rifts. If their computer's calculations were correct, all six of them would be touching the ground with their feet by the time the rifts would open to unleash their payload of battle automata. The Category-1s weren't going to be an issue for the Symphogears at all, but as the minutes went on in the bridge, the Commander could only dread the moment when the Spokesperson would contact them once again regarding their new Symphogear-Wielder.

Following the shortest path that was provided by her wrist device's holographic map, Lanfen stepped through a sliding door to find herself standing at the entrance of a well-organized laboratory. Numerous pieces of machinery and gadgets filled the tall shelves which took up most of the room's space, giving it an atmosphere that one would expect from a laboratory which operated underneath a paranormal task force. Announcing her presence through a few audible steps into the room, the large computer terminal up ahead displayed a stream of data that pertained to some sort of 'black box'. The computer chair in front of the terminal itself strangely appeared too small for an adult to be sitting in it.

"Cassandra Jiang Lanfen?" a young voice addressed Lanfen, prompting the greenhorn Adaptor to swing her gaze over to an open doorway to her right.

A distinct 'Warning' sign adorned the metal door that closed behind the arriving person. To Lanfen's surprise, the 'Professor' she had been told to meet appeared no older than a teenage girl. In fact, she looked to be almost the same age and height as Kai was. Holding a small, old-fashioned clipboard in her hands, the Professor wore a pair of plastic goggles which hung around a neck, and a lab coat with a few visible stains on it. If it weren't for the few streaks of green that dyed her blonde hair, the small braid the Professor wore would have looked comparable to a fried shrimp's tail.

"I take it that you're Professor Elfnein?" Lanfen asked her, passing by a few tables and shelves on her approach towards the young-looking girl. "I was told to meet you." Despite the Professor's undeniable short height and teenage-appearance, her expression gave off an air of intellect that felt almost immeasurable. The title 'Professor' clearly wasn't just for show, Lanfen thought, knowing better than to underestimate someone based on their looks.

The two shared a polite handshake as Professor Elfnein held her clipboard underneath one arm and greeted Lanfen with a dip of her head. "That would be correct, Cassandra. I'm sorry to request your presence like this all of a sudden, but I felt that it would be best for me to speak with you before your first deployment." The Professor approached the large terminal of her laboratory and inputted a few commands into its keyboard. "Are you finding our vessel to be comfortable so far?"

"I... guess so," Lanfen answered, glancing at her wrists to see the faint marks which their large handcuffs had left on them. Simply remembering the feeling of her restraints made Lanfen quickly change the topic. "So, what am I needed here for, Professor?" she asked, reaching underneath her black-and-white tie to take off the relic pendant that hung around her neck.

"I only desire a final analysis of your relic fragment," the Professor answered, manifesting several detailed reports of Lanfen's Symphogear on the terminal's wide monitor screen. "This won't take long, so you can simply sit down and wait while I take a look at your Symphogear." She hit the 'Enter' key on her keyboard and one of the Professor's strange devices next to her keyboard rang with life. The egg-shaped machine split open its casing, revealing a slot inside it that was perfect for a pendant to slip into. "Simply insert it inside there, please."

If Tachibana was the friendliest face which Lanfen had seen on the ship, the Professor would be considered the most polite judging by the formality of her speech. Following her instructions, Lanfen placed her relic pendant inside the machine's slot, causing it to slowly close back up as red lights lit up across the base of the small, unusual device. After the Professor had gestured to Lanfen to take a seat anywhere she'd like, the teenager sat down on her small chair and went to work. Her fingers tapped away on her keyboard, bringing up a countless stream of data onto the monitor of her terminal.

Whatever the Professor was doing, Lanfen could not comprehend it no matter how long she peeked at the terminal's monitor. Seeing as how the Professor also seemed to be in this state of perfect focus, Lanfen went over to one of the room's tables and quietly sat down on an open chair with crossed legs. Lanfen passed the time she had right now by examining the other systems that were available on her wrist device. In addition to its communications system and holographic map, Lanfen also spotted a scanner, a built-in camera, an audio translator, and lastly, an unnamed option which was locked behind a fingerprint scanner. Lanfen had to raise a brow upon noticing this system.

Lifting her other hand from her side, Lanfen curiously pressed one finger against the fingerprint prompt, earning her a soft ring of confirmation as the scanner accepted her ID. "Identity Code accepted. Welcome, SG-r04," were the words that her wrist device displayed. Once she had pass that strange security prompt, a list of seven titled records unveiled themselves before Lanfen's very eyes. They were arranged by the following designations: SG-r01, SG-r02, SG-r03', SG-i01, SG-i02, SG-i03, and SG-x00. They were undeniably Symphogear model numbers.

Clicking on the 'SG-r01' file, several holographic screens pertaining to the Ame-no-Habakiri relic sprung forth from her wrist device. But while Lanfen initially found this all to be fascinating, the greenhorn Adaptor felt confusion creeping upon her the longer Lanfen stared at the holograms. This was not just a 'record' of Lanfen's Adaptor teammate. In fact, everything Lanfen saw before her was information that one could learn to perfectly understand Kazanari's combat prowess. Recorded footage gave her insights on Kazanari's unique attacks, her fight patterns, her strengths... and her shortcomings. It was everything which a person would need to know to understand a Wielder's battlefield potential.

"Cassandra?" Professor Elfnein called to her, immediately causing Lanfen to switch off her wrist device. The Professor spun around on her computer chair and got off her seat to approach Lanfen with a data-pad in hand. "How are you feeling?" she asked, bringing up a multitude of images on her small data-pad with a few swipes of her finger.

Shifting her focus to the Professor for now, Lanfen rested her hands on her lap and pondered about her answer. "I'm ready," Lanfen stated. "For my first mission, I mean."

"Oh." The Professor nervously chuckled, holding her data-pad to her chest. "I'm actually referring to your injuries." She took off the goggles that were hanging around her neck and placed them on a table beside them before showing Lanfen the images on her data-pad. Displayed on the device were detailed medical reports of a faint scarring on Lanfen's back. Lanfen subconsciously bit her lips with discomfort at the sight of the familiar injury. "Can you please explain what caused this?" the Professor inquired with a level of professional tact.

Slowly nodding in response, Lanfen held a hand to the data-pad and brushed her gloved fingertip against the image. "It was from a Distortion," Lanfen grimly stated, narrowing her eyes. The sickening warmth which Lanfen had felt on that night was impossible to forget. "The person who gave me the SG-r04... She saved me. If it wasn't for her... I probably wouldn't be here," Lanfen continued, glancing pass the Professor to look at the egg-shaped device where her pendant was currently stored. "I don't know what she did, but I know she used some sort of liquid to heal my injuries."

Quietly listening to Lanfen's hush story till she was obviously done, the Professor closed up her data-pad, putting aside the discomforting imagery for the sake of the Adaptor. "The healing capabilities needed for such a wound would be immense," she explained, lifting a hand to her chin in thought. "Not even our own medicinal facilities have progressed far enough to heal wounds of that size in an instant. For that to happen, it would take..." The Professor sounded equal-parts fascinated and confused as she glanced back at Lanfen and noticed that her analytical observations about the Adaptor's old injuries were also discomforting her.

Dropping the topic in an instant, Professor Elfnein opened up her data-pad again, and pulled away the medical reports to display an examination of Lanfen's combat data this time. As the Professor observed the recorded footage of Lanfen effortlessly cleaving through an army of Distortions, the Professor's voice sounded far more serious this time. "Cassandra, are you prepared to utilize the power within your Symphogear?" The question sounded like it required far more than a simple 'yes' or 'no' from the greenhorn Adaptor.

To be truthful to herself, Lanfen was still processing all of the information that the Sword of Damocles had flooded her mind with. Practically an entire library's worth of knowledge had been implanted within her brain the very moment Lanfen had donned her Symphogear. Despite having spent the past two days stuck within a detainment room, the greenhorn Adaptor still felt like she had only just started grasping the extent of her combat abilities. It was comparable to being thrown into the driver's seat of an unknown vehicle with its control manual on her lap. Even so, Lanfen refused to show hesitation in front of the Professor who had supposedly designed her Symphogear.

"I'll fulfill any tasks that I'm expected to complete, Professor," Lanfen declared without an ounce of trepidation. She had gone too far by now to start having second thoughts about her newly-accepted duties.

Strangely enough, Professor Elfnein appeared far more concerned than anything else regarding Lanfen's answer. But the Professor gave no further comment. Instead, she walked back to her terminal and clicked on a button next to the egg-shaped device, causing its shell to open up again with a low hiss. "While the Sword of Damocles has been designated as a 'next-generation' Symphogear, its capabilities are far different from the other relics," she said, plucking out the pendant from the machine's slot. "Whoever that completed the SG-r04 - and myself - evidently did not have the same capabilities as the original creator of the Symphogear."

As Professor Elfnein slowly walked back to Lanfen, the Adaptor held out her hand, allowing the teenager to slowly place the red pendant back in her possession. Judging by the way Professor Elfnein was staring at her, one would think that the relic pendant was heavier than it initially looked. Perhaps it was, in a figurative sense, even if it did not appear to look any different from any of the other relic pendants which the rest of the Adaptors wore.

"But while you will be unable to match certain feats that the other Wielders are capable of, I can assure you that your relic will make you a formidable participant of the battlefield, Cassandra," the Professor continued, her analytical gaze still kept on the relic pendant in Lanfen's gloved hand. "Can you promise me one thing?" she added, panning her sights over to Lanfen.

Sensing what felt like worry in the Professor's voice, S.O.N.G.'s seventh Adaptor silently nodded.

"Please, be responsible with the powers which you have been granted," she requested, taking a few steps back to sit down on her small chair. Due to her short height, Professor Elfnein's feet barely touched the ground while she sat. The Professor looked as if she wanted to say more, but the teenager simply folded her hands on her lap and wordlessly gazed at the floors beneath them with a sigh. Maybe she was just giving Lanfen the time she needed to process everything that the Professor had just told her out of the blue.

Lanfen lifted the pendant in her hand by its string and stared at her reflection on the shimmering crystal surface. "The circumstances surrounding my acquisition of this relic," Lanfen spoke up, placing the pendant around her neck and underneath her black-and-white tie. "I take it that all of it only makes me suspicious?"

"There are many things which S.O.N.G. is concerned with outside of how you attained the SG-r04. How it was even completed, for starters. But the situation demands that we acquire as much help as possible," the Professor answered her, relaxing back in her chair with a hand on her forehead. "Even so, while S.O.N.G. has its suspicions, I will gladly put my faith in you being a person, Jiang. Every Adaptor that S.O.N.G. has acquired thus far has always proven themselves in the end." The Professor gave Lanfen her best attempt at an encouraging smile, and Lanfen could only wordlessly appreciate her sentiment.

Even if Lanfen felt that the Professor was overestimating her.

There was a sudden knock on the door before it slid open to one side. Turning their gazes over to the room's entrance, Ogawa Shinji made his presence known with an audible greeting before glancing over to Lanfen with a polite bow. "My apologies if I am interrupting something, but your presence is required on the bridge."

"Right through these doors, please."

Arriving at their destination, Lanfen headed past the large automatic doors which led into the bridge of the S.O.N.G. submarine. She was immediately greeted by the chattering of the bridge operators as the command center was clearly in the middle of an operation. Standing nearest to the entrance was the Commander, who gave out his orders to the crew with a stalwart voice. Sitting on the Commander's left and right were a man and woman. Both of them were dressed in the navy-blue uniform while their hands typed away at their terminals at impressive speeds. On Lanfen's sides, two staircases led to the lower section of the bridge where several more operators were typing away at their posts.

The air in the room felt tense. Every word the operators uttered was one regarding an ongoing combat situation. Glancing over to the bridge's three large monitor screens, Lanfen could see live footage of Kazanari and Tachibana expertly battling the Distortions at two different parts of the globe. Yukine and three other Adaptors were also scattered throughout the world in an attempt to fend off the Distortions at six different locations. Compared to the footage of Lanfen's sword-fighting, Kazanari and Tachibana were cleaving their way through the knights with a distinct sense of 'grace' to them. A grace that easily showcased years of experience wielding their very own Symphogears.

A familiar shape in the corner of Lanfen's eyes pulled her attention away from the central monitor. Turning to the large screen on her left, Lanfen saw multiple still-images that were being analyzed on the side-screen. When she saw a snapshot of the cloaked figure who had took Kai away from her, Lanfen felt the proverbial fires igniting within her eyes again. But it was not the only thing that was being displayed. In addition to the grainy images of Kai's killer, there were captured pictures of the armoured figure which Lanfen had witnessed on her television screen before the Distortion's global attack had even started. A simple glance at the two caused Lanfen's sword-hand to twitch at her side as Commander Genjuuro turned around to greet her.

"Welcome to the bridge, Lanfen." The large man approached her with his large arms crossed over his chest. Whether or not he noticed the restrained fury within Lanfen's eyes, he made no comment on it and simply treated her kindly. "I was hoping that your entry into S.O.N.G. could have been a bit more grandiose. But it looks like that will have to wait until the Distortions are dealt with."

Hiding her twitching hand within the pocket of her uniform's jacket, Lanfen stood to attention and sharply saluted the Commander with her other hand. It was a move that appeared to be too formal for the Commander's liking. "It's fine, Commander," Lanfen insisted, resting her arm at her side again. "There's not much to celebrate, anyway."

"Debatable, but I'm sure we can argue about that some other time." Commander Genjuuro clapped the woman on the shoulder and gestured her to follow him to his post. With Ogawa mysteriously now out of sight, Lanfen stayed by the Commander's side as they watched the live footage of Kazanari and Tachibana on the central monitor screen. Since the Commander had yet to open his mouth to give out any further orders to his crew, Lanfen spoke up with a question.

"That cloaked being," Lanfen said, turning away from the footage of the ongoing operations to look back at the images of Kai's killer with disdain. "Do we have any information on them?"

Sitting down on his chair with his elbows on his terminal, the Commander appeared perturbed by Lanfen's curiosity, but answered anyway. "Other than a few unclear images and vague reports? Unfortunately, no." The Commander ordered one of the operators on the bridge's lower section to bring up additional images of the cloaked being Lanfen had asked for. None of them gave a good look at what was underneath its cloak. "Survivors described a cloaked 'monster' who had sowed destruction across the world wherever the Distortions went. But as soon as the attacks were being pushed back, it disappeared. We've been keeping an eye out for it, and it hasn't showed up since that night."

Which means they're still alive, Lanfen quietly determined. Biting down on her lip to quell her twitching sword-hand, Lanfen wanted to ask the Commander if she could lead the hunt for the cloaked figure, but she stayed her tongue. Lanfen was in no position to be requesting anything when she had yet to even participate on her first official operation. Once again, all Lanfen could do for now was wait and follow the orders of the organization which she was now a part of. It was only a matter of time until her sister's killer would show themselves. In an attempt to focus her mind on something else, Lanfen tried to quell her curiosity regarding a different topic entirely.

"My parents," Lanfen said to Commander, gazing over to the central monitor screens. It was honestly impressive seeing Tachibana bludgeon her way through an army with nothing more than her bare hands. "Did they die on missions like these?"

As though he was addressing a topic that the Commander had been expecting to talk about for a while now, the large man turned to Lanfen and answered her question with a slow nod of his head. "They were brave people. Just like the woman you're seeing on the screen," he told her, grabbing a hot mug of coffee which had been sitting next to his elbow. "They carried out their duty in order to protect people like you every day. Even if no one could really ever see it. You have our apologies for covering up the reasons for their passing."

"It's fine," Lanfen told him, placing a hand on her hip. "I... had a feeling that this was the case long ago, really. Even if I didn't want to believe it." With a quiet sigh, the greenhorn Adaptor focused on the footage of the operations, and wondered how long it would take for Lanfen herself to reach the same heights which Tachibana and Kazanari were currently at. "If anything... maybe they would be proud that I'm continuing their legacy in a way," Lanfen mused, lifting one hand to grasp the pendant beneath her tie between two gloved fingers.

Commander Genjuuro had his own theory regarding the opinions of Lanfen's parents. From the way it sounded, it felt like it came from a deep understanding of the two deceased S.O.N.G. agents. "You think they would've preferred it if you were enjoying a peaceful life instead?"

Lanfen could not find the words to answer the man's question. Maybe Lanfen simply did not want to. Regardless, neither of them had any reasonable way of actually proving either of their words. Cassandra Jiang Lanfen was now an Adaptor of S.O.N.G., a paranormal task force responsible for the defense of the world against threats such as the Noise, and the Distortions. Nothing was going to change that. Lanfen had signed her contract without hesitation, and would do so again if she were given the chance. There wasn't anything else in Lanfen's life which she would rather be doing right now. The Commander appeared sympathetic about her situation, but Lanfen felt only acceptance towards it.

"Commander, we're detecting a seventh rift appearing over a city in Kazamino, Japan!" one of the bridge operators reported, typing onto his terminal to display an image of the Japanese city. "Energy signatures designate them to be Category-1s. Blade and Caster types. Estimating less than 20 minutes until it opens. Our currently-deployed Adaptors are unable to reach it in time!"

It was the moment that Lanfen had been waiting for. The Commander's decision was clear. There was nothing else stopping her from heading out there now. As Commander Genjuuro looked over to the woman at his side, S.O.N.G.'s newest Adaptor felt her sword-hand begging for Lanfen to step out onto the field right then and there. The Commander could clearly sense her anticipation while he stood up from his post, and inputted a command onto his terminal, bringing up an image on his screen to showcase what looked like a missile with an empty interior. Commander Genjuuro's words were sharp when he finally gave the woman her first official order.

"Lanfen, prepare yourself for deployment."

Chapter 5: Who Stands Beneath the Blade


Thank you for 200+ Hits! A lot ended up happening in this chapter, so I apologize if it's a bit bloated or rough to read! Since the next few chapters after this are still being worked on, it may also take a while for the next update to arrive. Hopefully the first five chapters - which I've laid out as an introductory arc to the story - makes the early parts of this story a quality read.

Also, for those that may be uncomfortable with it, usage of alcohol will be present within this chapter.

Chapter Text

A manned, intercontinental missile was the last thing that Lanfen expected to ride for her deployment to Kazamino. Its insides could only be described as a claustrophobic, rumbling 'cage' with barely enough room to move in. Metallic segments which were weaved into the soles of Lanfen's boots mag-locked her to its 'base', keeping the Wielder in place while the missile raced towards her destination. Clutching the red pendant around her neck with a twitching hand, a transmission from one of the submarine's operators arose from Lanfen's wrist device with a report of the ongoing situation. It sounded like the woman who had been sitting on the Commander's right side at the bridge.

"Lanfen? This is Tomosato Aoi speaking. You'll be reaching the designated point in approximately three minutes. Evacuation of the city has just been completed, so there shouldn't be any concerns for civilian casualties." A holographic screen appeared up on the interior of the missile, shining a dim light amidst the darkness that made Lanfen squint her eyes. "Be careful out there, alright?"

Seeing the 3-minute countdown which appeared on the screen, Lanfen responded, "Affirmative. SG-r04, preparing for drop." The timer ticked down, and Lanfen readied herself for combat by calling back on the knowledge that her Symphogear had implanted within her mind. Numerous sword techniques, fighting styles and built-in weaponry, all of which only required Lanfen's body to instinctively follow them to the letter. Lanfen had only scraped the surface of this knowledge in her first battle, so there was plenty more to unleash upon the Distortions in her second ever fight. "Mei," Lanfen whispered, hearing the timer tick down to its last ten seconds. "Please, watch over me."

A harsh metal groaning reverberated throughout the missile when the countdown hit zero. The holographic screen vanished, and large gaps arose in the missile's dispersing casing, allowing Lanfen to feel the cold air that was rushing inside the space. The tops of Kazamino's skyscrapers could be seen down below as the missile's casing fully broke apart and rained down on the city below. Hearing its thrusters quickly die out, Lanfen's boots unlocked themselves from the base of the missile with a loudbeep. Noticing her cue to depart, the Adaptor descended onto the city, parted her lips, and felt her holy chant ring throughout the air like a siren's song.

"Valtorah Damocles sen zizzl."

A shining, crimson light engulfed Cassandra to the roars of saxophones and resonating pianos. Black-and-white fibers enveloped her body as a glimmering, three-point crown slammed onto her head and connected itself to her headphones. Thrusting her arms into a pair of dark gauntlets, Cassandra's Queen chess-piece pauldron materialized into existence on top of her right shoulder while armoured boots sealed themselves around the length of her legs. Snapping her fingers to the electro-swing Jazz that flowed out from her armour, her relic pendant magnetized itself to her chest, forming the Symphogear's ruby-like converter unit.

Greeting Kazamino's empty streets with the soles of her armoured boots, a crater erupted beneath Lanfen as her thunderous landing sent the snow around her flying onto nearby vehicles and street signs. Heralded by the rhythmic tunes of her Symphogear, the crowned warrior rose up to her feet to shoot a scornful glare at the giant 'crack' that was growing in Kazamino's skyline. As if reacting to the Adaptor's arrival, the crack 'expanded' into a shimmering, gigantic rift. Arcs of lightning crackled around it and an inhuman 'wailing' echoed throughout the city's evacuated roads. When armoured bodies began descending from the rift to make landfall, Lanfen drew the grip of her sword from her hip's black armour.

The Sword of Damocles' thick blade sprung forth from its golden cross-guard with a ringingschwing.

Category-1 Distortions. 'Blade' types. The distinction honestly didn't matter to Lanfen. It didn't matter to the Sword of Damocles either. The Distortions were nothing more than automata to sate her thirsting sword-hand with. Even as the emerald knights crashed onto the streets before her, numbering in the dozens, the size of the horde was the only quality these monsters had to their name. The knights wielded a diverse range of weapons from pairs of arming swords, to large two-handed weaponry that dwarfed the size of an average person. In exchange for their heavier weaponry, their armour was noticeably slimmer than the azure Distortions which Lanfen faced several nights ago in Yamaku.

Swiftly brandishing her one-handed sword, Lanfen narrowed her eyes at the gathering Distortions. Her words dripped with vicious contempt. "Commencing with the elimination of the enemy."

Electro-swing jazz blared from her Symphogear's speakers in defiance of the rushing Distortions' clambering footsteps. Bolting pass the abandoned vehicles on the road towards the incoming, incoherent mass of battle automata, Lanfen's body burned with a fire that could not be quelled by the winter winds. On the other end of the street, empty vehicles were shoved aside by the Distortions as every single one of the knights cared for nothing more than challenging the Symphogear-Wielder. Lanfen gladly met their mindless thirst head-on.

"My mind's begging for it all to stop, yet it still gets churned into slop."Lanfen faced the front row of the horde and cleaved open several abdomens in a single violent swing. The sensation of her blade tearing through metal with a shower of hot sparks felt utterly euphoric."What can I do but sing the days away? When you've nowhere else to stay."

The crowned warrior withdrew from the reach of a dozen ebony blades as their clumsy attacks sliced against the concrete road. With a proverbial fire in her eyes, Lanfen zipped between the upturned vehicles, easily avoiding the strikes of her foes while the Sword of Damocles rampaged through the horde. For each blow which was swung at her after-images, severed heads and limbs would clatter to the snowy ground and explode into clouds of emerald sand. By the time she had reached the backline of the gathered Distortions, Lanfen counted the dying explosions of at least twenty-four armoured bodies. It wasn't enough.

"I'm not able to hear the girl I used to be. Will I ever touch those that I long for?"Dismembering the legs of two Distortions who had just made landfall, Lanfen jammed her sword into her hip armour before seizing the falling knights by their necks. She held them above the ground with her enhanced strength and spun around to hurl the pair into the thinned-down horde behind her. Several Distortions exploded from the crashing impact of metal upon metal."I stare at those that I used to see. The monsters are begging for more."

Drawing her sword back out, Lanfen ducked beneath a desperate sword swing to the roars of excited trumpets. She repaid the rushing automata by cleaving off its arms and tackling it onto the snowy concrete. The glowing visor of the Distortion's faceplate emitted a defiant 'hissing' noise as Lanfen curled her other hand into a fist and caved-in its faceplate like a fragile tin can. The Distortion promptly exploded into sand underneath her while the crowned warrior glared at the remaining stragglers of the Distortion horde and flicked her sand-covered wrist. The rift in the sky was still open, but there were no signs of Distortion reinforcements.

"The cracking of my heart makes me scream. My tears have become an endless stream."Lanfen rushed towards the disoriented Distortions and sated the aching hunger within her sword-hand. Every crude swing against their armoured bodies. Every violent thrust into a chest-plate. Every bludgeoning strike against their faces with the pommel of her sword. None of it was enough. It was like trying to quell a fire with droplets of water."When will I be allowed a break from this world? The feelings deep in my heart are whirled."

Grabbing a Distortion by its wrist, Lanfen severed the seized limb from its torso and bludgeoned the knight in its face with its own metal arm. She caught the sword that fell from the disintegrating arm's grasp and plunged it into the knight's knee before completely decapitating it with the Sword of Damocles. Three blades subsequently struck into her back, creating a shower of sparks as the attacks harmlessly bounced off her Symphogear's protective barriers. Spinning around to face the remaining three Distortions, Lanfen struck two of them down in the span of a rapid heartbeat.

The armoured gauntlet on her left forearm quickly split open to reveal the wired harpoon within it. Saxophone howls resonated in the air, punctuating her clanking footsteps while Lanfen tightened her fist and launched the wired weapon like a striking snake. The harpoon impaled the final Distortion's thigh, allowing Lanfen to wretch the knight off its footing with a violent tug of her arm. Lanfen was on top of the Distortion the moment its back slammed against the concrete. When the knight's sword swung at Lanfen, Lanfen rewarded the desperate attack by grabbing the blade, shattering it in her grasp, and planting her own sword right into its face.

The Sword of Damocles tore through an emerald faceplate and stabbed into the concrete roads to the triumphant howls of saxophones.

It still wasn't enough to sate the proverbial fires within Lanfen's eyes.

One of the bridge operators shouted over the comm, "Incoming enemy reinforcements, Lanfen! Caster types!"

Golden lights flashed in the corner of her eye and Lanfen instinctively tumbled towards the sidewalk. The road she had been standing on erupted with violent detonations which left gaping, smoking holes within the thick concrete. Clicking her tongue in annoyance, Lanfen got back on her armoured feet and glared up at the rift to see seven Distortions slowly descending from the giant tear in reality. They donned a mixture of black, fluttering robes and shining, golden armour as broken vehicles crumpled beneath the feet of the arriving Distortions. Flickers of energy danced around their rune-marked forearms while the pointed tips of their fingers traced down glowing, eldritch glyphs in the air.

Tensing her body at the sight of these mysterious symbols, Lanfen's fingers instinctively tightened around the grip of her sword. Lances of eldritch energy subsequently catapulted towards the crowned warrior with a thunderousboom. The speeding projectiles grazed past her armoured body and blew burning, red-hot holes into the metal surfaces of the cars and trucks behind Lanfen. When the crowned warrior saw the Distortions preparing themselves for their next volley of eldritch lances, she knew that she had to end this fight here and now.

Black-and-white flashed before Lanfen's eyes. The steel letters in her vision slammed onto a cracking chessboard, spelling out the name,"Queen Quicksilver."

"Never knowing who is the true me inside. Allowing them to take me for a ride."

Armour slid forth from the casings of her headphones, forming a sleek, blank mask over her face with a large pair of circular, compound eyes. With a few audibleclicks, the white mask connected to her three-point crown as the insect-like eyes of her faceplate flashed a deep crimson glow. The Queen chess-piece on her right shoulder followed up by emitting a deep, loud humming noise. The power generators deep within the pauldron kicked into life, creating an intense vibration that coursed throughout Lanfen's entire body. Glaring at the Distortions beneath the compound lenses of her mask, the glyphs they manifested in the air solidified for their second volley of eldritch energy.

"Am I meant to break free from it all? The voices are begging for me to fall."

The white snow from the skies halted mid-air. The howling of the winter winds froze in place. The speeding lances which shot out from the Distortions' hands slowed to a crawl. As Lanfen's Symphogear bestowed her with speed beyond her comprehenshion, a holographic timer appeared beneath Lanfen's white mask.

Ten seconds.

Lanfen closed the expansive gap between her and the seven Distortions. Approaching the nearest Caster first, she violently thrusted the Sword of Damocles into its chest five different times. Lanfen then withdrew her sword from its ruined chest-plate and leaped between two other Casters to hurl her armoured fist straight at their faceplates. The crowned warrior's knuckles tore gaping holes into their helmets, causing the emerald sand inside to spill out and freeze in the air. A spinning slash for good measure bisected the two Distortions by their waists.

Seven seconds.

Rushing behind the fourth Caster, Lanfen grabbed the Distortion by the hood of its robe and crashed her knee into its back. The blade-like kneepads punctured through the armour and erupted from its chest-plate with extreme prejudice. Shoving aside the Distortion in her grasp, Lanfen bolted towards the fifth and sixth Casters, sword stowed at her hip while the crowned warrior's gauntlets split open to unleash their resting harpoons. Before the two Distortions could even finish glancing at her direction, the tips of Lanfen's harpoons had punctured large, gaping holes in their abdomens.

Three seconds.

The remaining Caster turned towards Lanfen at the pace of a lethargic snail. Energy crackled around its rune-covered arms. It was a sight that encouraged Lanfen to draw out the Sword of Damocles and rush towards it with a thirsting sword-hand. Glaring straight into its faceplate with the compound eyes of her white mask, Lanfen raised her weapon and systematically cleaved off the Distortion's limbs one-by-one. She took off the arms first. Then the legs. Each severed limb froze mid-air while they slowly disintegrated into fine bits of sand. With a final flourish of Lanfen's thick blade, her sword skewered its faceplate, tearing the knight's head off its shoulders to claim it as a macabre trophy.

Zero seconds.

"I won't allow my mind to hold me captive long. Molding my darkest thoughts into this song."

A dozen severed limbs clattered to the concrete in a cacophony of falling metal. Battered automata bodies collapsed onto the streets and exploded into clouds of sand. The winter winds continued to blow through the roads, carrying bits of the Distortions' remains with it. As the loud humming from Lanfen's shoulder pauldron slowly died out, the crowned warrior collapsed onto one knee and retracted her faceplate back into her headphones' casings. Lanfen grasped her mouth with one hand and hurled a mouthful of blood into her palm. The red stains on the black-and-white fibers was a sight which Lanfen could only stare at with apathy.

Not even her Symphogear could fully protect Lanfen from the backlash of going at such speeds as it would seem.

Hearing a familiar, ear-piercing wail from the rift in Kazamino's skyline, Lanfen glared at the pulsing rift above her and retracted the blade of her weapon back into its golden cross-guard. Within seconds, the giant tear in space sealed itself shut, letting the skies above the city revert back into its untorn reality. Once the glowing rift had completely disappeared from Lanfen's sights, the Symphogear-Wielder looked up at the winter skies, and brought a hand to her headphones to tap into its comms. "SG-r04 here. The Distortions have been eliminated."

"Affirmative, Lanfen," Tomosato replied over the line. "We've sent a helicopter to your destination for pick-up. Good work out there."

With the end of the city incursion, Lanfen stowed the grip of her sword at her hip and slowly ran her gaze over the sand-filled streets of Kazamino. Despite the carnage she had gleefully wrought upon the enemy, the crowned warrior's sword-hand was not even halfway satisfied. Lanfen clicked her tongue in annoyance and looked back at the stain on her left hand. The uncontrollable twitching that plagued it bothered Lanfen more than the sight of her own blood. It shouldn't be difficult for S.O.N.G.'s equipment to heal up her internal injuries anyway.

A flash of azure in the corner of Lanfen's eye suddenly caught her attention. Swinging her gaze over to one of Kazamino's towering buildings, Lanfen spotted a humanoid figure which appeared to be observing her on the rooftops with the sun behind their back. Their hands moved in what looked like an exaggerated gesture of applause, but when Lanfen narrowed her eyes to try and focus on the figure, the mysterious shape had vanished from her sight. Lanfen quickly reached for her headphones and tapped into her comms again. "Command?" She winced when static flooded her ears. It was a harsh noise that only cleared up after several seconds had passed.

"Is something wrong?" Tomosato finally replied.

"No. It's just... are you sure this place is clear of civilians?" Lanfen inquired, carefully examining her silent surroundings with a hand on the pommel of her sheathed sword.

It took a while for Tomosato to respond. "Scanners are picking up no other life-signs in the vicinity except for you, Lanfen. What's the matter?"

Furrowing her brow in confusion, Lanfen wondered if she was just imagining things again. Little of what had been happening over the past few days actually felt real to her to begin with. "I thought I saw her," Lanfen honestly answered, hoping that she wasn't sounding completely insane right now. "The person who gave me the Sword of Damocles."

The Commander suddenly chimed in on their conversation. Sounding concerned by the woman's words, his order was issued with zero hesitation. "We'll conduct a sweep of the area for any suspicious individuals. For now, just relax and prepare yourself for pick-up, Lanfen. Our sensors are detecting no additional signs of Distortion activity around the globe, so we're in the clear for now."

"Understood, Commander." Pulling her bloodstained hand away from her headphones, Lanfen rested her aching body against a nearby truck with a sigh escaping her lips. The adrenaline in her blood was slowly dying down. Were it not for the powers that the Symphogear granted her, Lanfen most likely would be kneeling on the ground right now to catch her breath. Feeling the cold winds which were carrying bits of the golden sand at Lanfen's feet, the crowned warrior glanced over to her aching sword-hand and scowled at it with frustration.

"Lanfen, can you please report to the bridge? There's an urgent matter that requires your attention."

Tomosato's message arrived on Lanfen's wrist device right as the helicopter's landings skids met the landing bay. Not wanting to keep them waiting, the Adaptor politely thanked the helicopter pilots for the ride and sprinted through the long hallways of the S.O.N.G. submarine. Relying on her memory this time to navigate the underwater vessel, Lanfen eventually spotted the large doors to the command center when she noticed something else: It was quiet. The entire time Lanfen had run her way to the bridge, she had not heard nor seen any of the vessel's crew members. The only sounds Lanfen could hear were her own rushing footsteps while the bridge's double-doors slid open for her entry.

A symphony of loud popping noises suddenly filled the air. The sight of colourful confetti raining down upon Lanfen made her skid to a halt. As the large doors to the command center closed themselves shut, Lanfen's mouth was slightly agape when she tried to process the sight before her with a look of utter confusion.

The intense air Lanfen initially felt in the bridge earlier had completely disappeared. In its place was a spirit of festivity which was reinforced by an array of balloons, and a large 'Welcome, Cassandra Jiang Lanfen' banner that hung from the ceiling. Bridge operators gathered around two long tables they had placed next to the Commander's post while plates of food took up every available space on the tables' surface. Leading the bridge crew in a welcoming applause for S.O.N.G.'s newest Symphogear-Wielder was a familiar woman with flowing, magenta hair, a pair of blue flower hairclips, and an Adaptor uniform of her own.

Maria. Formerly, Maria Cadenzavna Eve. Now, Kazanari Maria. Another world-renowned diva of the singing industry. Kazanari Tsubasa's status as an Adaptor had mostly deprived Lanfen of any shock she had left in her, but the confirmation of Maria's own Adaptor status was a surprise, nonetheless. "Welcome to S.O.N.G., Cassandra," Maria said, walking up to Lanfen. She stuck out a gloved hand and Lanfen hesitantly gripped it for a slow but polite handshake. The smile that Maria wore practically exuded confidence.

"I..." Lanfen blinked and gazed around at the party which the crew had set up for her. Closing up her gaping mouth, Lanfen reflexively stood to attention and saluted the older woman, much to the amusement of the senior Adaptor and the bridge crew. Lanfen honestly did not know how else to react to this sudden celebration. "Thanks, Kazanari. I'll do my best to live up to what is expected of me." The words streamed from Lanfen's mouth more as a formality rather than her actual thoughts.

Waving off her excessive politeness with a smile, the tall woman placed a hand on Lanfen's shoulder and escorted her to the party tables. Now that the intensity of work had momentarily disappeared, the bridge crew were now gladly helping themselves to plates of fried meat, bottles of soda and wine, and huge batches of finger food. "'Maria' is fine, Cassandra," the pink-haired woman assured Lanfen with a laugh. "It will only get confusing if you intend to call me that when I'm in the same room as Tsubasa, after all."

"R-Right," Lanfen nodded at her point, only now realizing the mistake that she had made. Stepping over to one of the dining tables, Maria pointed over to a bridge operator who was waving at Lanfen with an open bottle of sake in their hands. Lanfen recognized the operator from her dark-blue hair as the woman came up to the two Adaptors and cheerfully held up her bottle with cheeks which were subtly flushed. "You're 'Tomosato Aoi', correct?" Lanfen asked her, just to be sure. "It's been a pleasure work-"

"Oh, enough with the work stuff already!" Tomosato said in a laid-back voice that contrasted with her professionalism from earlier. Grabbing one of the stacked glasses near the table's bottled drinks, Tomosato poured some of her sake into it and cheerfully handed the glass over to Lanfen. The greenhorn Adaptor only took it once Lanfen received an exasperated nod from Maria at her side. "By the way, congratulations on completing your first mission! From here on out, you'll be working with me and this guy." Tomosato spun around and grabbed one of the other bridge operators near them by the shoulder. "Sakuya, get over here!"

When Tomosato pulled her fellow colleague over to introduce him to Lanfen, bits of the soda in the man's grasp almost spilled onto his navy blue uniform. Lanfen remembered the man as the other operator that was stationed on the Commander's left side. "Ack, careful Aoi- I mean- Tomosato!" he cried, holding a glass of soda in one hand and a plate of fried meat in the other. Once he made sure that his food was safe, the brunette gave Lanfen a polite dip of the head. "Hey there! The name's 'Fujitaka Sakuya'. Aside from Tomosato here, you can expect to be hearing me over the comms whenever you're out in the field."

Returning the greeting in kind, Lanfen watched while the two operators suddenly eyed one another in a way which she couldn't really describe. The pair definitely seemed quite close with one another.

Maria loudly cleared her throat, commenting, "Please try and limit how much you're drinking today, Tomosato. It's too early to be going that far, don't you think?" Her responsible reminder got a playful shrug from the bridge operator as Fujitaka assured Maria that he'll be keeping his colleague in check. After the two had scurried off to enjoy some more of the food with their colleagues, Maria gestured Lanfen to follow her over to the other table. "You've already met Tsubasa, Hibiki and Chris, haven't you? Other than myself, there's two other women whom you should meet."

Placed on the other party table were rows of opened pizza boxes that the crew eagerly sated their hunger with. When Lanfen spotted two other women who were helping themselves to plates of pizza, the Adaptors uniforms they wore quickly caught her attention. On Lanfen's left was a woman with an eager smirk on her face and boyish, blond hair which was decorated with a single x-shaped hairclip. Accompanying the blonde in her feeding frenzy was a woman with neat, black hair which had been tied into a pair of long twin-tails. Upon closer inspection of the pair, Lanfen soon recognized them as two of her juniors from her days in Lydian: Akatsuki Kirika and Tsukuyomi Shirabe.

She did not know them personally, but the class-wide food poisoning accident made them particularly infamous throughout Lydian.

"Oh hey! You're that newbie!" Akatsuki exclaimed, eagerly pointing a greasy finger at Lanfen. The blonde's eyes gave off the impression that a thousand things were simultaneously going off in her head to decide her next choice of words. "Since you look pretty skinny, be sure to eat lots! Because we sure as heck made enough to feed a whole army-death!"

Tsukuyomi silenced Akatsuki by shoving a spoonful of food into her mouth. It was a gesture that Akatsuki did not appear to mind at all as Tsukuyomi glanced over to Lanfen and formally greeted her. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Jiang. If I'm not mistaken, we've seen each other before, haven't we?" she asked, pulling her spoon out of the blonde's mouth to casually feed her another bite oftakoyaki. "Your hair seems to have grown a lot longer since then. You look a bit different, too."

Lanfen subconsciously fiddled with the braid on her left shoulder at the woman's keen observation. She wondered if she should mention something about her transition, but Lanfen held back the comment. "You're not wrong about that," Lanfen mused, placing the glass of sake which Tomosato handed her on the table for now. Glancing at the food that her two juniors apparently prepared, there wasn't anything on the tables which Lanfen couldn't describe as 'high quality'. "I'd say that seeing you two is surprising, but it looks like Lydian has a knack for accepting Symphogear-Wielders."

Lanfen's dry remark got a small chuckle out of Maria. "Now that the pleasantries are over. You should try and enjoy yourself, Cassandra," Maria suggested, grabbing an empty plate and handing it over to Lanfen. "Unless we're on a mission, we've got plenty of time to relax. It's important to gather your strength, too." Tsukuyomi and Akatsuki loudly agreed with the older Adaptor's words while the pair started piling more hot slices of pizza onto their plates.

In an attempt to follow her advice, Lanfen grabbed as much food as her appetite would seemingly allow her and soon brought her first spoonful of food to her lips. Biting down on a piece of grilled beef, Lanfen furrowed her brow when she once again found it hard to really taste anything. Lanfen then saw the anticipating stares Tsukuyomi and Akatsuki were giving her. "It's good." Lying through her teeth was always easy, even if she wasn't fond of it. "Thanks, Tsukuyomi, Akatsuki."

Seeing the clear satisfaction on the pair's grinning faces, Lanfen couldn't bear to give a contrasting opinion on the food they had prepared. Perhaps it had something to do with Lanfen's own taste buds, but that was a thought for another time. For now, Lanfen simply dug into the food with her fellow Adaptors to regain the energy she had spent during the operation.

The double-doors to the command center opened up, and Lanfen looked over her shoulder to see Tachibana excitedly wheeling in small cart of food with Kazanari and Yukine at her sides. Baskets of French fries, nuggets, and steaks filled the cart's lower racks while a small, colourful box sat on the cart's topmost rack. The sight of more food got a rousing cheer from the people on the bridge as the trio started distributing the new batches across the two party tables. It wasn't an exaggeration to say that all of this would be able to feed an army in one sitting. S.O.N.G. was proving to be as welcoming as Tachibana had claimed it to be.

Heading over to Lanfen with two plates of steaming-hot cheese fries, Yukine shoved one of the plates into Lanfen's free hand. "Eat up, Rookie," Yukine ordered her before satisfying herself with the other plate of fries she held. "Fighting in a 'Gear tends to take a lot out of you afterwards. If you get hurt in a fight 'cause you were too hungry, that's on you."

Staring at the fresh food that Yukine handed her with a raised brow, Lanfen slowly placed her plates on the table and picked up her glass of sake. Lanfen gazed at the clear liquid in her glass, and clicked her tongue when she felt one of her hands subtly twitching at her side. There was no doubt that Lanfen appreciated the celebration which the crew had readied for her. But a part of Lanfen would not settle down no matter how hard she tried to reign in herself. It was as if she was expecting the Distortions to come any moment now, all so she could continue taking out her frustrations on them. To try and calm herself down, Lanfen took a sip of her sake and felt the drink easily go down her throat.

Appreciating its savory taste, the Adaptor glanced around the party as a small observation came to her mind.

Commander Genjuuro and Professor Elfnein were nowhere to be seen.

An incoming transmission flashed across the bridge's central monitor screen, killing the celebratory mood in one fell swoop. The sight of the United Nations' symbol drew a blanket of silence across the bridge as the operators placed their items down and rushed towards their terminals. The Adaptors themselves could not do anything but also put down their meals, recognizing the ID code to be that of the world council's spokesperson. As if on cue, the bridge's large doors slid open for Commander Genjuuro to arrive with Professor Elfnein at his side. The stoic looks the two had on their faces noticeably worried Lanfen's fellow Adaptors.

Approaching his post, Commander Genjuuro crossed his arms over his chest and shared a sharp nod with the Professor. "Fujitaka, answer it," he ordered, turning back to the monitor screens. Six of the Adaptors stood to attention behind the Commander and Lanfen followed the actions of her more experienced colleagues while Fujitaka connected the lines.

"Greetings, Commander Kazanari." There was always something unnerving about the politeness of the Spokesperson's voice. "I have received the latest reports of your recent operations and must first thank you for your efforts in combating the Distortion threat with ease. The lack of any civilian casualties is especially pleasing to hear after the disaster of the global attack."

"We're just doing our job, Spokesperson," the Commander assured him. Judging by the grimace on his face, Lanfen dreaded where this conversation was going to head.

"Undoubtedly so," the Spokesperson continued. "But while celebrations for your newest Adaptor are certainly in order, the United Nations have prepared new directions for them in response to the Distortion threat. Directions which will be significantly changing how S.O.N.G. will expect to be operating from here on out, Commander Kazanari." Their ominous words sent clear unease amongst the bridge crew and the Adaptors. Lanfen could even see Professor Elfnein fidgeting at the Commander's side. But none of them could prepare for what the Spokesperson formally declared. "In order to assure the council of S.O.N.G.'s dedication to protecting our world, the Adaptors shall be permanently stationed across the globe as four separate teams until further notice."

The Commander slammed his hands onto his terminal. Professor Elfnein audibly gasped. Akatsuki and Tsukuyomi voiced a unified protest that was immediately hushed by Maria. Yukine, on the other hand, joined the two with a loud complaint as Tachibana and Kazanari tried to hold her back. The crimson Adaptor only fell back in line once Yukine saw the hardened gaze which her blue-haired teammate was giving her. Lanfen, on the other hand, pursed her lips and stayed her tongue. She did not wish to find out what would happen if a new Adaptor were to suddenly defy orders on the day of her recruitment.

Commander Genjuuro only spoke up after the Professor gave him a look that wordlessly communicated something which Lanfen could not guess. "Would it really be wise to spread out our forces like this, Spokesperson?" He glared at the monitor screen with crossed arms. "Our Adaptors have shown to operate at their best when they have others to rely on and assist them."

"That is a notion I admittedly cannot disagree with," the Spokesperson calmly spoke back. "But that specific concern is exactly why the council has also finalized the decision to initiate the proposed Kazanari Contingency Plan. In order to assuage this fear of overstretching our Adaptor forces and hamper their effectiveness, Task Force Harmony shall officially be formed to both assist your Adaptors in defending against the Distortion threat, and carry on the project proposed long ago by Yatsuhiro Kazanari." The Adaptors looked at Kazanari Tsubasa at the mention of her household. The woman showed no surprise to the notion of this so-called plan. "A unified military effort made up of the world's finest soldiers. It sounds promising, does it not?"

The Commander didn't look convinced, but he voiced no opposition. Instead, he only further inquired, "And will the council be assisting us in our transition into this new direction?"

"They will indeed be providing additional funding in order to make this change easier on the lives of your Adaptors, Commander Kazanari," the Spokesperson assured him. "In addition to that, they will be allowing you to decide which of your Adaptors shall head towards the countries which the council has ordered them to be stationed at. The world council will spare no expense in order to ensure the immediate protection of an Adaptor within their country's borders, you can be quite certain of that."

Kazanari Tsubasa stepped forward. The business-like aura she radiated was palpable. "Permission to speak, Spokesperson. Not as an Adaptor, but as Chairwoman of the Kazanari Household."

"Permission granted, Chairwoman Kazanari," the Spokesperson formally responded.

"May I request if the council can reconsider this decision?" Kazanari's words were diplomatic and straight-forward. "While I will not object to the formation of Task Force Harmony, I cannot believe that it would be a necessary move to separate my fellow Symphogear-Wielders and I in response to a foe such as the Distortions. We have accomplished countless missions across the years and have never faltered no matter where our battle takes us, whether it be on Earth or on the surface of the moon. An unpredictable threat such as the Distortions should not require such drastic changes after we have dealt with enigmatic menaces much like the Bavarian Illuminati."

There was silence before the Spokesperson responded to her. It was as if they were actually considering her words. "... While the efforts of your team are graciously appreciated, Chairwoman Kazanari, much of the goodwill which S.O.N.G. had left has sadly been eroded in the wake of the Distortion invasion. I can only extend my personal apologies as this deal is only as lenient as it is due to the successful creation - and deployment - of the SG-r04. A Symphogear made on special terms with your very own Professor Elfnein. Terms... that you Adaptors now deserve to be aware of."

Kazanari stepped back in line as the Adaptors all looked towards Professor Elfnein this time. Slowly, the Professor turned around and faced the seven women with her hands clutching onto her lab coat. "I shall explain the situation myself, Spokesperson," Professor Elfnein declared. Over at their terminals, Fujitaka and Tomosato were clearly listening in on the conversation. Neither of them seemed particularly pleased by the council's newest directives as well. "After the battle against Shem-Ha... I had struck an agreement with the United Nations. An agreement to create the SG-r04 in exchange for the resources that I required to rebuild your damaged Symphogears."

Hearing this, Lanfen remembered perusing S.O.N.G. files surrounding the battle against Shem-Ha Mephorash. The last document regarding it mentioned something about the Symphogears' converter units having been shattered to a severe degree. "Professor..." Lanfen could not stay quiet any longer. "Is there something about the Sword of Damocles which I am not even aware of?" Her words made the Professor flinch while the Commander's back continued to face the seven Adaptors. "... Professor?"

"The SG-r04..." Professor Elfnein lifted her head and gazed right at Lanfen. "The Sword of Damocles is a Symphogear that has been designed to eliminate other Symphogear-Wielders."

Lanfen's eyes widened as her blood turned cold beneath her brown skin. Yukine, Tsukuyomi and Akatsuki all let out an exclamation of shock. Tachibana gazed worryingly over to Lanfen while Maria and Kazanari turned dead silent at the Professor's words. Lanfen tried to push away the cloud which threatened to shroud her thoughts, and in the midst of recollecting herself, Lanfen slowly recalled her conversation with Professor Elfnein back in her laboratory. The words that the Professor gave Lanfen to be responsible with the power she now wielded in her hands.

Up ahead, Fujitaka and Tomosato were about to voice their own opinions until the Commander shook his head, wordlessly ordering them to stay silent. Finally moving from his post, Commander Genjuuro gave the Professor a pat on the shoulder, giving her the will to continue speaking. Regret was clear all over the teenager's face as she looked back at the Adaptors.

"Within the SG-r04 is a weapon known as the S.W.O.R.D." Dread coated her words when she even uttered the name of the device. "It was created by the order of the U.N., assuring them that if another group such as the F.I.S. were to ever appear - or if an Adaptor of S.O.N.G. itself were to stray from their path - the Sword of Damocles will alleviate the issues of an opposing Symphogear-Wielder with ease." Professor Elfnein gave a deep, pronounced bow, nearly throwing herself off her feet. "I'm sorry for the secrecy... But this was a decision which I had made in order to ensure that everyone could continue fighting-"

"No," the Commander cut-in, standing by her side. "It was my decision to finalize the project. The burdens are on me in the end." Commander Genjuuro joined the Professor with an apologetic bow towards the Adaptors and a clear grimace on his face. The nerves on his arms were practically threatening to burst open. "You all have my apologies for allowing this to happen."

Snapping herself out of the confused daze that Lanfen was in, the Adaptor hesitantly lifted a hand to grasp the pendant which hung around her neck. Lanfen gazed at the red crystal and tapped into the knowledge that her Symphogear had bestowed upon her. Browsing through a library's worth of information, Lanfen pushed aside every single irrelevant detail until she slowly arrived at one particular piece of knowledge that was buried deep within her mind. In that moment, Lanfen knew they were telling the truth. Hidden within the depths of her Symphogear was a weapon. A special weapon which made Lanfen's blood freeze the moment she even brushed against the knowledge of such a tool. Unable to comprehend even wielding such a thing, Lanfen pushed the thought aside and returned to her focus to the people around her.

"S.W.O.R.D..." She whispered the name of the Symphogear-Destroyer with barely-restrained horror.

"Do spare any malice that you may have for Commander Kazanari, Professor Elfnein and Miss Cassandra," the Spokesperson requested, clearly uncomfortable with this conversation as well. "The S.W.O.R.D. is a weapon that was put in place purely to assuage the worries of fretting politicians within the world council. While I personally understand the need for contingencies against rogue Symphogears, I believe that much like myself, S.O.N.G. will never forget its duty to protect our world. Thus, I hope that even after receiving these new orders - and being made aware of the proverbial sword which now hangs above you - S.O.N.G. will remain stalwart in the face of the Distortion menace. May the winds blow in your favour, Commander Kazanari. We will directly contact you again next time."

The transmission ended and the symbol of the United Nations disappeared from the central monitor screen. Even with the celebratory decorations that covered the walls of the bridge, and the food on the party tables which were now growing cold, the atmosphere of the command center now felt like it dangled on a thin line. No one knew what to say to break the silence until Lanfen herself stepped forward and turned around to face her fellow Adaptors. Lanfen felt everyone's gazes land on her as the woman's hands trembled with lingering horror. Had Lanfen been made aware of this duty the moment they had recruited her, she most likely wouldn't have bothered even attempting to familiarize herself with her fellow Adaptor colleagues.

"I'm sorry," Lanfen whispered to the six other Adaptors, lowering her gaze to the tips of her shaking boots.

The Commander was quick to put down her words. "You have nothing to apologize for, Lanfen," he stated, turning around to step over to his post. "We're all operating at the whims of the council here." The Commander stood next to his terminal and typed onto its interface, displaying a map of the globe onto its screen. "... Separating you all won't be an easy decision. But if either of you have anything that you want to say, you can do so now before I start assigning your new stations."

Gaining the strength to look at her fellow Adaptors, all of them appeared to have their own opinions regarding their new orders, but none of them vocalized it. Akatsuki and Shirabe were more exasperated than anything. Maria and Kazanari looked like they had quietly accepted whatever was coming next. Yukine looked like she was withholding obvious rage at the council while Tachibana looked back at Lanfen with clear concern in her eyes. Now that they knew what the council expected of Lanfen and the SG-r04, Lanfen felt that Tachibana's concern was something which she did not deserve.

The Commander went over to the silent Professor's side and addressed Lanfen with a tired sigh. "Due to the lingering suspicions surrounding your acquirement of the SG-r04, an order has just been placed to monitor you for a period of time, Lanfen. Is that alright with you?" His words only received a slow nod in response. They might as well have spared her the illusion of choice. "Until we can figure out who was it that handed you that relic, S.O.N.G. is choosing to handle you with caution. Therefore, you will be stationed in Japan with a team which I'll be assigning to you. We'll be arriving at shore soon, so you can go ahead and prepare for arrival while I speak to the others."

"Affirmative, Commander." Lanfen's words had not sounded as lifeless as they did since she had been dragged all the way here. Lanfen gave the Commander a sharp salute and marched towards the doors to the bridge, all while avoiding the gazes of her fellow Adaptors, Professor Elfnein, and the crew of the bridge. When the automatic doors slammed themselves shut behind her, Lanfen stopped herself in the middle of the empty hallway, grasped her relic pendant between two fingers, and processed the true responsibility she carried as the Wielder of the Sword of Damocles.

In a transparent attempt to allow the six Adaptors to process their new situation, Commander Genjuuro had granted them permission to relax in the submarine's commons lounge all by themselves. No one was to bother the Adaptor team unless the Commander allowed it. Not even Ogawa and Tsuchiya had permission despite their positions as the Commander's aides. It was gesture that the women appreciated when they had much to say regarding the world council, their new directives to separate the team, and the creation of the SG-r04. Unless an order for a mission had come up, the Adaptors had all the time in the world to voice their complaints without any worry for anyone listening in on their conversation.

On the lounge's couches, Kirika and Shirabe eased their frustrations and confusion through a few games on their retro Nintendo Switches. Shirabe was focusing deeply as she played while Kirika had abandoned anything which resembled the concept of an indoor voice. Chris and Tsubasa occupied themselves with a game of pool at one of the lounge's pool tables. Chris was in the lead as her precise shots pocketed balls left and right to try and vent her anger. At the lounge's bar counter, Hibiki sat with a glass of juice in her hand while Maria took out a shot glass to pour herself some vodka. Maria had taken out some of the hardier drinks they had in stock, knowing that she very much needed it right now.

Scoring another ball, Chris's grip on her cue stick threatened to snap it in her hands. "It's fucked up how the council thinks they can just order us around like this. Right after pointing out the gun they're pressing up against our back, too," Chris spat, walking around the pool table to aim for another shot. "And what's worse, I'm stuck with the Dummy in America of all people!"

Standing next to Chris with her own cue stick in her hands, Tsubasa had not actually bothered to pocket any shots of her own in the past half-hour. Instead, the Chairwoman simply leaned against the pool table and rubbed her temples with two fingers to ease an obvious headache. "How is Jiang doing?" Tsubasa asked Tachibana as the chestnut-haired woman quietly sipped her juice at the bar counter.

"I... haven't seen her around for a while now," Hibiki answered in a low voice. The woman had initially tried to go and find Cassandra after the Commander had assigned them their stations, but Maria suggested to Hibiki that they give her some alone time as well.

Pouring herself a fourth glass of vodka, Maria gulped down the shot and rested an elbow on the counter. Vodka had this strange, ironic tendency to clear Maria's mind at times. "I'm sure she's trying to take in everything like we are, Hibiki," Maria said to the woman next to her while pouring her fifth shot. As the glass slowly filled up, the eldest of the Adaptors recalled her meeting with Cassandra to ponder about the look which the woman carried in her eyes. When Maria had shook her hand, she sensed something within Cassandra. A sort of lingering... rage.

A rage that had made the hairs on the back of Maria's neck stand upright the moment she had even noticed it.

"'Task Force Harmony'," Maria spoke up, holding up her glass in her gloved hand. Glancing over to her quiet wife, Maria asked her, "Tsubasa... what is this so-called 'Task Force' anyway?"

"... It was a plan originally intended to back up the Symphogears-Wielders in times of high urgency," Tsubasa answered, storing her cue stick on a nearby rack before walking over to a couch to sit next to Shirabe and Kirika. "Before the Shem-Ha Incident, a unified effort such as Task Force Harmony was impossible. The plan was soon shelved in the wake of Shem-Ha's defeat, but with the arrival of the Distortions, the project was quickly brought back into action." She lied back against the cushions and slowly sighed. "You have my apologies for not telling either of you about this until now. I had expected the plan to be utilized, but the separation of us Wielders-"

"Stop apologizing for shit that's out of your control, Chairwoman," Chris snapped back, driving the remaining ball on the pool table into its pockets with a loudclack. "I've already had enough of that from the Old Man, the Shrimp and the Rookie, so quit actin' all sorry when all of this is pretty much just the council's damn fault." Resting the length of her cue stick on her shoulder, Chris walked over to the bar counter and sat down next to Tachibana. "Hand me a beer if you don't mind, Maria," she asked the pink-haired woman with a groan. "I sure as hell fuckin' need it."

While Maria opened up the bar's drink cabinets behind her for something which would satisfy Chris, Hibiki placed her juice on the counter and tapped into her wrist device. Bringing up a holographic map of the globe, the designated locations that the women will be assigned to in a few days were visibly marked on it. Hibiki and Chris in America. Maria and Tsubasa in London. Kirika and Shirabe in Australia. Cassandra in Japan. "Is it a good idea for her to be all by herself?" Hibiki wondered out-loud, concern clear in her voice.

"It was the Commander's decision in the end," Shirabe commented, hands still tapping away on her Switch. "I think that was the best decision he could've made, knowing our situation."

Popping open the can of German beer which Maria handed her, Chris took a swig of her drink and slammed the end of her cue stick against the metal floors. Maria had plenty of vodka for one day, so the lady intended on making sure that the snow-white woman wouldn't be drinking any more than her. With Chris' beer can on the counter, the short woman wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her uniform, saying, "I'm sure that the Rookie can handle herself just fine. She seems pretty strong from what I can guess. But since it'd be better if the Rookie had someone reliable watching her, I gave the Old Man a few personal recommendations on who'd be best to assign to her team."

Despite the exhaustion that plagued Tsubasa, the Chairwoman was still able to give a faint chuckle at Chris' words as Kirika playfully leaned against Tsubasa. The monster-hunting game which Kirika and Shirabe were playing seemed to have piqued the blue-haired woman's interest. "Trying to be a reliable woman to your juniors again, are you?" Tsubasa asked Chris in an almost teasing way.

Chris gave the Chairwoman a loud scoff before taking another swig of her beer. "I just thought it'd be a good idea if someone that knew the Rookie ended up working with her, that's all. No doubt she's gettin' overwhelmed by everything that the council expects from her. Might as well throw her a bone to help her out a bit now that the Rookie probably feels a bit nervous about chattin' with us."

Finishing her in-game 'hunt' with a loud cheer, Kirika glanced over to Chris and tilted her head to one side. "So, what've you been doing behind the scenes while we weren't looking?" she curiously asked. With those words, the eyes of five Adaptors were immediately directed at the woman with snow-white hair. All of the attention which was suddenly on Chris made the short woman scratch the back of her head.

With a shrug of her shoulders, Chris' answer sounded almost off-handed. "I called up a few old friends of mine, that's all."

The observation deck of the S.O.N.G. submarine was the one place that Lanfen remotely felt comfortable even waiting in. Sitting down amongst the rows of metal chairs in the middle of a circular room, the holographic displays which covered the walls gave Lanfen a full view of the ocean that surrounded the vessel. Large schools of fish would occasionally swim by the cameras as Lanfen gazed off into the oceanic distance. Occupying her thoughts by enrapturing it with a seemingly-endless stretch of dark blue, Lanfen could barely feel her legs while she closely held them to her chest. Lanfen was subsequently brought back into reality by a gentle buzzing from the room's intercom.

"The ship will be arriving at the harbor in one hour. All hands, be ready for arrival," one of the bridge personnel announced as per procedure.

Holding up a trembling hand with her relic pendant in her grasp, the dim-lights of the holographic displays reflected off the red crystal as Lanfen bit down on her cracking lips. In a heartbeat, Lanfen hopped off her chair, marched over to the terminal near the room's entrance, and slammed her fist against one of its buttons, causing the displays around the room to vanish one-by-one. When the last of the wall's built-in projectors shut itself off, Lanfen dropped down on one of the chairs again and grasped the sides of her aching head. Surrounded by the pitch-black darkness of the room, Lanfen could not help but wonder what Kai would think about her now if she were still around.

Despite the kindness that the Adaptors had shown Lanfen, and the celebration they had held for her formal recruitment into S.O.N.G., she felt almost foolish - if anything - for expecting to enter this organization with the idea that Lanfen would simply be fighting against Distortions. It was a fantasy which only someone like her little sister should have carried to begin with. In truth, Lanfen had joined the very group that had saved their world - not so she could fight alongside her fellow Adaptors - but so that the council could install a Symphogear-Wielder who would put down her fellow Wielders the moment any of them were seen as enemies of either S.O.N.G. or the council. Lanfen wasn't their companion, but their potential executioner.

Lanfen had personally told the Spokesperson that she would do anything if it meant taking out the Distortions. Yet, the reveal of her one true duty was all it took to shake Lanfen's resolve. Kai would probably be ashamed to have a sister like her right now.

The entrance to the observation deck opened up, allowing the light of the hallway outside to stretch into the room as Tsuchiya appeared at the doorway with a small suitcase in his hands. "May I come in?" Despite the downcast expression which Lanfen wore, she looked up at Tsuchiya and gave him a slow nod, allowing the blonde man to enter the deck with silent footsteps. "Here," he said, putting down the suitcase on the chair beside the Adaptor. "It's the clothing you wore from when we took you in. We had them cleaned up and repaired after noticing some of the damage."

Lanfen slowly looked over to the metal suitcase and drew in the cold air to speak. "... Thanks, Tsuchiya." Pocketing the red pendant in her uniform's jacket, Lanfen reached over to grab the suitcase by its handle when she suddenly turned to the blonde man. Lanfen had a question for him, and Tsuchiya seemed to have actually sensed it, judging by the way he patiently stood at her side. "Tsuchiya." Knowing that she had made his acquaintance by now, Lanfen felt that she could be a bit more forward with him. "What are your... thoughts... on the duty that I've been given by the council?"

Folding his hands behind his back, Tsuchiya stood on the stretch of light which came from the deck's open entrance while he took a moment to think about his answer. When Tsuchiya finally opened his mouth to voice it, there was a surprising hint of hesitation. "I... cannot give one, unfortunately. Following orders is something that I have simply been doing ever since I joined Clan Hida." Tsuchiya spoke like a man who had seen countless years of service, and yet, his face looked remarkably young. "While the Grandmaster is a kind man at heart, I have had to accomplish many a deed for the sake of completing our objectives. Even if my duties can be rather... distasteful."

Lanfen should have known better than to bother Tsuchiya of all people with her concerns. Despite their comparable ages, Tsuchiya gave off the impression that 'dirty work' was a task which his employers expected him to carry out as easy as breathing. "Sorry about that," Lanfen muttered with a quiet sigh.

"Still-" Tsuchiya slowly stepped towards the entrance and looked back at Lanfen with a small frown. "-I truly hope that you will never have to draw your blade on your fellow comrades, Jiang. To do such a thing towards people you're supposed to consider your companions... is a fate which few honestly deserve. Nothing hurts more than being cut by a sword that's wielded by a friend. That is... my view of it, at least."

Slowly nodding at his sentiment, Lanfen grabbed the suitcase from the chair next to her and stood up on her feet with her items in her grasp. Lanfen had initially wanted to stay in the S.O.N.G. submarine for as long as she could, but after the recent meeting with the Spokesperson, Lanfen could hardly walk around its halls without unease ringing within her head. "Thanks, Tsuchiya. I know that it sounds like that's all I can say to you, but I appreciate your input."

Tsuchiya turned around and shared a formal bow with Lanfen. "Like I said, I'm happy to help, Jiang," he assured her, walking over to the entrance to stand beneath the open doorway. "Aside from your belongings, I have actually brought something else actually. There are two people who have just arrived to meet you. I hope you don't mind making their acquaintance now." Tsuchiya looked out the doorway and quietly ushered in a pair of personnel that had apparently been standing outside. As footsteps echoed through the quiet air of the observation deck, Tsuchiya departed the room, allowing two women to step inside and finally meet with the Symphogear-Wielder.

Despite the darkness that shrouded the observation deck, Lanfen immediately recognized the pair who stood before her.

They both wore the familiar, navy blue uniforms of S.O.N.G. with its distinct badges on their chest. One of them was brunette with long, flowing hair and green, inquisitive eyes that gazed at the Adaptor from head-to-toe. Beside the brunette was a tall woman with a friendly smile on her face, and dark green hair which had been tied up into a long, bushy ponytail as she flashed Lanfen a quick wink. They promptly stood to attention in front of the Adaptor, giving her sharp salutes that Lanfen awkwardly returned in kind with her free hand. They were Ayano Komichi and Godai Yuki respectively. Two of Lanfen's old seniors from Lydian and classmates of Yukine Chris.

"Ayano," Lanfen whispered to the brunette with green eyes, slowly approaching her old senior schoolmate. It was an utter relief to see that she had survived the Distortion's global attack. "You two... were assigned to me?" Finding herself at a loss for words, Lanfen looked back and forth between the pair.

"AG-4-1, reporting for duty," Godai, the tall woman with the ponytail, casually said.

"AG-4-2, reporting for duty," Ayano cheerfully followed up her companion with a grin.

Recognizing the designated numbers of her fellow members in Team-04, Lanfen initially felt relief at being accompanied by familiar faces. But that thought was soon dampened when Lanfen remembered the fact that Godai and Ayano were also assigned to her just so S.O.N.G. could monitor their newest Adaptor. With a hand on her hip, Lanfen tried her best to maintain the formality in her speech. Realizing that these two women were also a part of S.O.N.G. hardly even fazed her. "Looking forward to keeping an eye on me, I take it?"

Ayano responded to her dry tone with somewhat of a worried glance before the brunette quietly shook her head. "While that is undeniably part of our job, we're also here to make sure that our junior has a couple of reliable seniors to work alongside with." Ayano suddenly walked up to Lanfen and slowly wrapped her arms around the Adaptor, pulling her into a comforting hug out of the blue. Lanfen was about to resist the sudden gesture when Ayano's voice took a somber turn. "We... heard about what's been going on. We're sorry about what happened to Kai."

Drawing in a sharp breath, Lanfen tightened her hands at her sides into shaking fists and squeezed her eyes shut to quell the proverbial fires which ignited within them. Lanfen could feel the trembling within Ayano's own arms while the brunette tried to comfort the Adaptor. Holding back a few stray tears of her own, Lanfen wordlessly permitted Ayano's sudden gesture. She honestly didn't even expect Ayano to remember her brief meeting with Lanfen and Kai. "I'm alright," she insisted, even if it was clear that neither of them believed her.

When Ayano pulled away from the embrace, Godai came over to them and clapped Lanfen on the shoulder with a firm but gentle hand. It had been years since Lanfen last saw Godai, but it was hard to forget the woman that Ayano could always be seen hanging around with during their time in Lydian. "We'll be movin' into the apartment next to yours in Yamaku," Godai informed Lanfen. Her words were easy-going and relaxed, even as she clearly sympathized with what Lanfen had been facing over the past few days. "We'll be going ahead of you to sign a few documents, so you might wanna go and wish the other Wielders goodbye. Wouldn't wanna leave without a few partin' words, if you catch my drift."

Mentioning the other Adaptors caused Lanfen's hands to tremble, but it did not stop her from slowly nodding at her senior's words. Tightly grasping the handle of her suitcase, Lanfen followed the two from behind while Godai and Ayano slowly headed out of the shadows of the vessel's observation deck. Intense trepidation rang within Lanfen's chest as she silently navigated through the hallways with the pair in front of her. Lanfen's tight grip on her suitcase was even causing the knuckles on her hand to turn into a pale white. It was only when the three of them arrived at a hallway junction did either of the women spoke up again.

"I'll see you later," Lanfen told them, looking down the hallway which led to the commons lounge with hesitation clearly written on her face.

Godai gave her an encouraging thumbs-up while Ayano flashed her a cheerful peace-sign. "You can do it, Jiang," Ayano told her. "Nothing has ever stopped a strong maiden like yourself, right?"

Nodding at Ayano's colourful words in an attempt to try and honestly agree with her, Lanfen separated from the two and marched in the direction of the commons lounge. The long walk across the halls felt like it went on for eternity. When Lanfen finally went through the lounge's sliding doors, she looked around the large room and spotted Kazanari, Yukine and Tachibana all gathered around the length of the lounge's bar counter. Lanfen's feet practically magnetized themselves to the floor the very moment she felt their gazes turn to her. Her voice disappeared from her throat. Her heart began pounding within her chest. Lanfen's instincts screamed at her to quickly turn-tail and exit the room.

Tachibana ran over to her and immediately grabbed Lanfen's free hand by the wrist. Wearing an unfaltering smile on her face, Tachibana's words were as genuine as she always sounded while she spoke, "Even if things may look bad right now, as long we're Wielders, then there will always be another time to shine alongside each other." Tachibana eagerly threw a fist high into the air above her. "Saying 'goodbye' is always sad, so instead, I'll say 'until next time'!"

Staring at the unflinching determination that Tachibana displayed, Lanfen was starting to understand how this woman was the person who had repeatedly seized countless victories with her bare hands. Tachibana's grip on her arm was tight, but it was a grip that only assured Lanfen of the feelings which Tachibana was trying to convey. The sentiment that she desired to communicate with zero misunderstandings between them. Feeling a slight twitch around the corners of her mouth, Lanfen could only give Tachibana a wordless nod in response.

"Lay off the Rookie, Dummy. You'll scare her off," Yukine chided the chestnut-haired woman, grabbing Tachibana by the collar to pry her off of Lanfen. It was like seeing a golden puppy being dragged away by the scruff of its neck. "Watch your back out there," Yukine advised Lanfen, dusting her gloved hands. There was a faint smell of alcohol in the short woman's breath. "Komichi and Yuki are good company, so even if they've been assigned to watch over you, you can definitely relax while they're around."

Kazanari was the next to come over. The lady gave Lanfen a formal, practiced bow before wisely speaking to the greenhorn Adaptor. "Despite the duty that the council has bestowed upon you, I look forward to cooperating with you someday, Jiang." Those were the last words which Lanfen had honestly expected to hear from her. "Regardless of the council's relentless politicking, I can assure you that you are no different than the rest of us. There will always be a next time to share a battlefield, much like Tachibana mentioned."

Slowly, Lanfen's grip on the handle of her suitcase eased up. Sensing her voice return to her, Lanfen parted her cracked lips and whispered, "The feeling is mutual, Kazanari. Yukine. Tachibana." Lanfen took a glance down at her own chest and stared at the red pendant that hung around her neck. The longer Lanfen stared at the crystal, the heavier it was beginning to feel. "The others," Lanfen said, tearing her gaze away from the glimmering pendant to look back at the trio. "Where are they?"

As though they had been summoned by Lanfen's words, Maria, Tsukuyomi and Akatsuki suddenly came out of the kitchen doorway next to the bar counter. While Maria and Tsukuyomi casually walked over towards the gathered group, Akatsuki had practically sped over to Lanfen. The blonde was carrying that colourful box which Lanfen had seen earlier during the party in the bridge, and Akatsuki was eager to hand it to her once she had skidded to a halt in front of the greenhorn Adaptor. The blonde had this proud grin on her face when Akatsuki presented the item to Lanfen.

"You better bring this with you!" Akatsuki exclaimed, panting in-between her words. "It's a cake that represents our skills as chefs, so it'd be bad if you didn't get to taste it-death!"

Taking the icy-cold box into her free hand, Lanfen noticed the black-and-white ribbon that had been used to neatly wrap it up, perfectly matching the motif of her own Symphogear. Lanfen would have smiled at the thoughtfulness behind it if she could.

"Hopefully you don't mind eating cheesecake," Tsukuyomi added, standing behind Akatsuki to casually wrap her arms around the blonde's waist. "We weren't sure what you would like, so we took a shot at guessing what you'd might enjoy instead."

Maria was the last one to approach the greenhorn Adaptor. Looking at the cake in her hand with amusement, the woman gave Lanfen the same confident smile which she had greeted Lanfen with at the party. "Take care of yourself, Cassandra." She almost sounded just like Lanfen whenever she would have to say goodbye to Kai back then. It was almost too similar for Lanfen's liking. "If you ever need tips on being a Wielder, our lines are always open for you to call us. Just do be mindful of time-zones," Maria added with a light chuckle.

"Affirmati- Sure." Lanfen cut herself off in an attempt to drop the formalities. Holding her suitcase in one hand and the cake box under her other arm, Lanfen gave them a bow that was as deep as her items would permit her. "In spite of everything that has happened today... Thank you all. I enjoyed the party, even if it was cut short. And I appreciate the cake. May we meet again on better terms next time." Lifting her head back up, Lanfen slowly turned on her heel, and walked out of the commons lounge with a heavy weight in her throat.

Lanfen did not feel like she deserved the pleasant goodbyes which her fellow Adaptors gave her as she made her exit through the sliding doors. Lanfen desperately tried to block them out from her hearing, knowing the duty that she now had to carry from here on out. The fact that all of them could even talk to her like this after what the council had revealed was a complete mystery to her. Standing in the middle of a quiet, empty hallway, Lanfen stared down at the icy box under her arm, and wordlessly prayed that she would never have to draw her sword against another Adaptor. Because deep within her, Lanfen had a feeling that she would not stop herself from accomplishing whatever the council expected of her.

Yamaku City. Lanfen had not expected to return here as soon as she did. It had been precisely almost 2 days now since the very hour when the Distortions attacked, and it was evident from a mere glance at the city that everything was still in the midst of being repaired. Everywhere Lanfen looked, she would see maintenance crews fixing up shattered windows, broken walls and damaged concrete underneath the setting sun, all while families visibly continued to mourn those who had perished in the wake of the Distortions' assault on their city. It was a dour sight which made Lanfen turn away from the tinted windows of the S.O.N.G. escort vehicle. Meanwhile, the barrier between the passenger seats and the driver seats made it impossible to even see the personnel at the front.

When the vehicle came to a halt, a message in Lanfen's wrist device gave her the cue to finally exit the black vehicle with her belongings. She stepped onto the snowy sidewalk and shivered from the winter winds that greeted Lanfen back to the entrance of her apartment complex. Before the Adaptor could even say anything, the black escort vehicle drove off, leaving Lanfen all alone on the empty sidewalk. Nothing surprising from an organization such as S.O.N.G., Lanfen thought to herself with a low huff.

Carrying her items in her hands, the large apartment complex appeared as though it had been left untouched by the carnage of the Distortion attack. If Lanfen ignored the damaged buildings next to it, her surroundings would have given her the impression that Lanfen had returned to an unchanged home with only one stark difference: Kai. Lanfen subconsciously glanced at her side, as if expecting to see someone there, but her gaze only fell onto the sand-littered concrete. The jingling toy which stuck out of her pocket by a chain was the only semblance of Kai that Lanfen had returned with. No more. No less.

Entering the apartment complex's lobby to be rid of the winter winds, Lanfen went through the motions like she always did. 'Enter the elevator, head up to the eight floor, and stop in front of the fourth door you see'. The silence that accompanied Lanfen while she did so was almost deafening. When she approached the front door of her apartment, Lanfen blinked at the sight of a batch of flowers which had been left on the welcoming mat. It could have been left there by one of Kai's friends, but there wasn't any noticeable way to find out.

Grabbing the flowers with the same hand that held onto her suitcase, Lanfen unlocked her front door and stepped into the warmth of her humble abode. She took off her shoes and the lights above Lanfen flickered to life once she had shut the door. "We're ba- I'm... back." Lanfen's initial words came out of her by pure habit. "Dammit..."

Storing the boots of her Adaptor uniform in the shoe closet, Lanfen left the flowers next to the door and headed down the hallway entrance with her belongings. She made a quick trip to the kitchen and stored the cake in the fridge before heading back out into the living room to leave her suitcase at the base of the counter. Letting out a hush sigh, the wrist device on Lanfen's left arm rang with a message from Ayano:"Do you need any help cleaning up? Yuki and I are almost done unpacking our stuff, so if you need anything, you can just message us!"

Typing a reply into the holographic interface to politely decline her offer, the projected message withdrew into her wrist device with a final tap of a translucent button. Lanfen had no intentions of seeing anyone right now, even if she appreciated Ayano's offer. Slowly glancing over to the living room's dining table, Lanfen narrowed her eyes at the sight of the meal that had been left untouched since the Distortion attack had begun. Cold rice sat on top of two unfinished plates while the pork stew inside the bowls next to them gave off an unpleasant odor. Taking off the gloves of her uniform, Lanfen placed them on the counter and bitterly got to work cleaning up the dishes until they were completely spotless.

Half an hour had passed by the time Lanfen was done. Exiting the kitchen with dried hands, she took off her relic pendant and casually dropped it next to her gloves on the room's counter. Lanfen's chores were done. There was nothing else to clean or set up. And that meant the final step of Lanfen's home rituals: Visiting the family shrine. Slowly, Lanfen knelt down on the cushion in front of the small, dusty shrine which was set up in her living room. Her eyes first went over to the chess set that sat on top of the shrine's glass table, its pieces still kept in place despite the chaos of the past few days. Lanfen's eyes then went to the framed picture which rested in the middle of the shrine.

'Keith Silverstein', 'Margaret Jiang Pao-Lin', 'Cassandra Jiang Lanfen', 'Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming'.

Lanfen desired to say that she had returned, alive and well, but what came out instead were two trembling words. "I'm sorry." To Lanfen, there was nothing else that she could say to the faces of her family. There was nothing that Lanfen could do other than hold up the oath which Lanfen had sworn to make up for her utter failure to protect her own little sister. Lanfen wanted to cry, but her tears had already run dry a while ago. Instead, she took in the silence of her apartment, and pulled out two smartphones to place them on top of the glass table before her. The keychain that hung from her own smartphone jingled softly from the slow act while Kai's broken smartphone remained silent. "I'm sorry..."

Rising up from the floor with legs which shook beneath her own weight, Lanfen looked around the apartment's living room and stared at the toys that were scattered around it. They were now belongings that no longer had an owner to return to them. Undoing the black-and-white tie around her neck, Lanfen left the piece of cloth on top of the room'skotatsuand headed over to the nearest item which had once belonged to Kai. Carefully, Lanfen took them off the shelves, and piled them into her arms to store them in her little sister's now-vacant room. In Lanfen's eyes, no one but herself deserved to go through the pain of isolating every reminder of Kai into a single room of her apartment. To her, it was just another punishment for a failure that Lanfen would never be able to undo.

Chapter 6: The Woman With No Name

Chapter Text

By the time Lanfen was finished with the last of her phone calls, the setting sun had disappeared into the horizon. A shattered moon took its place in the night sky, surrounded by a ring of debris that's been orbiting the lunar body ever since Tachibana's battle against the so-called creator of the Symphogear system. It was a quarter past 7 o'clock and Lanfen couldn't bring herself to eat. Confirming the death of her little sister to the staff members of Yaman Academy had sapped away whatever strength Lanfen had in her. Subsequently conversing over the phone with multiple government officials regarding Kai's remains only ensured the lack of an appetite for the rest of the evening.

Despite the sheer number of fatalities that the city was struggling to handle, S.O.N.G. had apparently gone through the process of initiating Kai's cremation before Lanfen had stepped inside her apartment. She could only guess that either the Commander or Tsuchiya had a hand in this. But in the end, she didn't care to find out. Her little sister was gone, and the only thing Lanfen could do now was continue her training within her apartment's practice room. Having changed into a black tank top and a pair of white shorts, the room's lone window gave Lanfen a clear view of the moon which sat high in the sky while she browsed through her training equipment within the room's storage chest.

The woodenjiansword in Lanfen's grip could not replicate the same feeling that coursed through her whenever the Sword of Damocles was in her grasp. It was slimmer, shorter, and barely a quarter of its weight. Utilizing the knowledge which her Symphogear implanted deep within her brain, Lanfen accustomed her body's muscles to a variety of fighting techniques, sword forms and practiced strikes with the Chinese sword replica. To keep herself motivated, Lanfen's wrist device sat on top of the room's wooden chest, all while projecting a hologram that displayed the numerous images S.O.N.G. possessed on Kai's killer. Every practiced swing Lanfen made was a strike which channeled the proverbial, flickering fires within her purple eyes.

With a practiced flourish of her wooden sword, Lanfen slid herjianinto a sheathe at her hip and slowly exhaled. She wiped the accumulating beads of sweat on her forehead, and went over towards the corner of the room to grab a bottle of sports water. Lanfen downed half of its contents in one swig while the length of her weapon rested on her shoulder next to her black braid. Even if Lanfen's Symphogear granted her superhuman agility, strength and endurance, the Adaptor could not ignore the need to maintain her body's own physical prowess. All that power would be for naught if Lanfen was taken out of a fight before she could even initiate her transformation. A risk she could ill-afford to let happen.

A ringing from Lanfen's wrist device pierced the silence of the practice room. Noticing an incoming audio transmission from Commander Genjuuro, Lanfen went over to the wooden chest on the opposite corner of the room and crouched down before it. She rested her sheathed practice weapon on the matted floor and pressed a finger on the device's holographic 'answer' prompt. "Is there an available mission for me, Commander?" Lanfen sharply asked, taking another swig of her sports water.

"Actually, no. If anything, it's been rather quiet on your front, Lanfen," the Commander answered her in a relaxed voice. "I'm just calling to check on you now that you've arrived back home. Komichi and Yuki tell me that you've been keeping to yourself so far. Not that it's a bad thing, of course."

Lanfen glanced aside at the wooden weapon which laid at her feet. The feeling of a sword in her hand - whether it be a replica or a real weapon - was starting to become as natural as wielding a pencil. "I'm just preparing for my next assignment, Commander," Lanfen stated, placing her empty bottle on top of the chest next to her wrist device. "I can't expect the Distortions to arrive when it's convenient. And it's not like I've anything else better to do anyway."

She had to wait for a couple of seconds until the Commander spoke again. "I see. I honestly assumed you would be resting up after everything that's happened over the past few days."

Lanfen lightly scoffed. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she dryly replied, "Sleeping isn't easy after being told what the council expects of me, Commander."

"That's... understandable." The Commander loudly cleared his throat and continued. "Regardless, I apologize for calling you like this all of a sudden. We felt that it was necessary to first give you some time to take in your duty as the Wielder of the SG-r04. Since this is a private transmission, you are free to voice whatever thoughts you have on your role as an Adaptor." Commander Genjuuro paused to emphasize his next words clearly. "Not a second of this will be put to record, just so you know. You have my word on that."

Upon hearing that statement, Lanfen desired to express nothing less than vulgar profanity. It was all she could reserve for the so-called 'world council' who ordered the Symphogear-Wielders around like pieces on a chess board. But in place of an honest condemnation, Lanfen chose to give a few hush words. "It's not an easy duty they've given me, honestly. Being sent out to fight Distortions is something I have no complaints with. But the task I'm expected to fulfill regarding the others... is something else entirely." Lanfen picked up her sword from the matted floor and slowly slid out a part of its wooden blade in front of her face. "That is all I'm willing to say, Commander."

"I won't disagree with that," the Commander said, sounding almost as tired as she was. "While I cannot deny the burdens which the Sword of Damocles is undoubtedly placing on you, I will point out that your mere status as the SG-r04's Wielder ensures our support from the council, Lanfen. Many of their members have shown themselves to be fearful of the power which we possess. Especially after the Shem-Ha Incident. It doesn't matter to them that this same power is what saved the world all those years ago. Our mere existence is seen as a potential danger that needs to be reined in, even if it's to our own detriment."

Lanfen had to let out an empty chuckle. Placing her sheathed sword next to the room's wooden chest this time, the Adaptor leaned back against the wall and huddled her bare legs close to her chest. Lanfen's brown skin felt sticky from all the sweat that her training had accumulated. "All these years of fighting, and their best course of action is to try and shoot themselves in the proverbial foot, huh?" Her jest got a small laugh out of the Commander. "It's hard to believe that this was the one idea they've chosen to go with. They could've at least told me the damn truth the moment they tried to recruit me."

"I know, Lanfen. I know." The Commander audibly grunted in annoyance. "Sadly, this is not a situation which will budge in accordance with our opinions on the matter. We don't have the luxury of going against the council's orders unless we're willing to cease our efforts in protecting the world. Whether it be sending out our Wielders to their liking, or utilizing the S.W.O.R.D., S.O.N.G. has no choice but to follow the directives it's given. If anything, I would count ourselves lucky that they're not keeping you on a tight leash. I won't doubt the possibility that they've thought about treating you more as a living weapon at some point."

Scowling at the mere mention of the dreaded weapon's name, Lanfen stared at the hologram which hovered over her wrist device as she felt a question place itself on the tip of her tongue. Upon reminding herself that nothing about this transmission was going to be put to paper, Lanfen saw this conversation as the best opportunity to ask something that's been on her mind for the past hour.

"Commander." Her words were firm. "Pardon me if this may sound sudden. But, would it be advisable to... distance myself from the rest of the other Wielders...? While I'm thankful for the kindness they've showed me, it just doesn't feel right familiarizing myself with those whom I might have to... put down."

The Commander went quiet on his side of the transmission. The silence felt almost agonizing as Lanfen waited for an answer. When he finally spoke again, it was in the same tone he used whenever Commander Genjuuro gave out his orders. "While I do not have the authority to make you finalize your decision, I will stand by whatever choice you choose to make in the end, Lanfen. You're a part of S.O.N.G. as much as any of the other Wielders, regardless of what the council expects of you. The others know that as much as I do. As the Tactical Commander of S.O.N.G., I can only ask that you not lose yourself to whatever that you've chosen to hang above your own head. That is all."

Lanfen pursed her lips and dug her fingernails into the skin of her knees. The stinging pain reminded Lanfen that she was still alive, even if it felt like a curse to her and her alone. "Understood, Commander," she said with barely a hint of strength in her words. "I apologize for having second-thoughts about my duties. On the very day I've been recruited, no less. I promise it won't happen again."

"We all have our own regrets, Lanfen. It's fine," the Commander gently assured her, clearly hearing the growing stress in her voice. "Try and rest up whenever you can. I'll have to get back to my own duties now. Good night."

The audio transmission switched off and the device's projected hologram returned to the grainy images of the cloaked being. Narrowing her eyes at the unclear photos of Kai's killer, Lanfen had to wonder where they could be hiding right now. The creature who took her little sister's life was still out there, free to return, and potentially capable of shedding further blood with the power they possessed. Last they met, Lanfen's own hesitation had given them the opportunity to strike before she could even blink. Reaching the same heights as the other Wielders in a short amount of time was not a realistic expectation, but Lanfen intended to ensure that by the time of their next meeting, Lanfen's skills with her Symphogear would be capable of taking down the very monster responsible for Kai's death.

It was the one thing which kept Lanfen going. For now, she simply needed to train. Both in her practice room, and on the battlefield itself.

Unexpectedly, her device's projected hologram switched back to another incoming audio transmission. This time, the contact ID was that of operator Fujitaka Sakuya. Lanfen pulled herself up from the matted floor, grabbed her device and pressed it against her forearm. The extending strap automatically locked itself around Lanfen's wrist before the Adaptor tapped onto the hologram to answer the transmission. "This is SG-r04, Cassandra Jiang Lanfen, reporting in."

Fujitaka's words lacked any sign of urgency that hinted the presence of danger. Instead, the operator sounded more puzzled than alarmed. "Lanfen, we've just detected an unidentified energy signature within the outskirts of Yamaku City. We'd like you and your team to investigate it and report your findings as soon as possible. Tomosato has just alerted Komichi and Yuki about this, so you can expect to meet them downstairs once you're ready."

The apparent lack of any combat tonight was disappointing. But orders were orders, Lanfen thought to herself. "Understood," the Adaptor replied. "SG-r04, heading out."

Clicking her tongue at the sudden twitching of her sword-hand, Lanfen closed the transmission and stored her wooden sword back inside the practice room's storage chest. After securing it with a key, Lanfen headed into the living room, opened up the suitcase that Tsuchiya gave her, and donned the same winter clothes which she had worn on the very night of the Distortions' global attack. It was more convenient than heading back into her bedroom to ruffle through her closet. Once Lanfen had slid her smartphone into her pocket, she grabbed her pendant, rushed out of her apartment, and headed downstairs through the elevator with a black-and-white scarf wrapped around her neck. The S.O.N.G. crew undoubtedly did an excellent job repairing her jacket after it had been ripped apart by a large battle-axe.

Lanfen shivered from the winter winds as she stepped out of the apartment complex's brightly-lit lobby. Rubbing her hands together for warmth, Lanfen spotted a large, black van that was waiting for her in front of the tall building. Godai sat in the driver seat with a can of coffee in her hand while Ayano took the passenger seat next to her. When the pair spotted the Adaptor, Ayano rolled down her door window and started beckoning her over. Similar to Lanfen, both of them had chosen to forgo their navy blue S.O.N.G. uniforms for regular civilian wear.

"Hop in the back, Jiang!" Ayano told her with a cheerful smile.

Responding with a curt nod, Lanfen stepped over to the back of the van and pulled open one of its back doors. Immediately, she was taken aback by the sight of a large computer terminal that took up an entire side of the vehicle's passenger area. It was built with the same communication devices and scanners which Lanfen had observed within the submarine's command center, and while the deactivated terminal occupied most of the space in the backseats, there was noticeably plenty of room for at least two-to-four people to gather in the back. Glancing at the sophisticated technology that S.O.N.G. utilized, Lanfen was partially relieved that her job required nothing more from her other than combat.

Lanfen climbed into the back of the vehicle and locked the door behind her before securing herself with a seatbelt. The van's engine promptly rumbled to life as Ayano brought up her wrist device to ring up the submarine's command center with her communicator.

"This is Team-04. We're now heading out to investigate the area."

As the van made its way through Yamaku City's bustling streets, the toy that dangled from Lanfen's smartphone softly jingled from the vibrations which coursed through the vehicle. Its ringing sounded like a gentle melody to Lanfen's ears while she rested in her seat, eyes closed shut to try and stave off the exhaustion that was slowly creeping up on her. Were it not for the insistent twitching within Lanfen's hands, she most likely would have been able to catch up on her sleep. The events of this afternoon didn't help. The same could be said of the fact that her new teammates were primarily here to monitor her. Lanfen appreciated the sentiment they've shown her thus far, but it didn't change the purpose of their membership within Team-04.

Opening her tired eyes, Lanfen rubbed her aching temples with one hand and glanced over to the front of the vehicle. Ayano was tapping a few commands into her own wrist device, bringing a holographic map of the area to guide their driver towards their destination. Lanfen could not see how much farther they needed to travel due to the distance between their seats, but the Adaptor could at least notice from the van's windshields that they had already exited the vicinity of Yamaku City. The van's headlights kept the roads up ahead brightly-lit while they drove through the prefecture's snowy forests.

Ayano let out a long, unshielded yawn and looked over her shoulder to notice that Lanfen was looking at her. With a cheerful grin on her face, the brunette shuffled around in her seat to face the Adaptor behind her. "Ready for your first mission as part of Team-04?" Ayano asked Lanfen, arm still held up so that Godai could read the map which she had brought up.

Lanfen was starting to wonder if they even remembered why S.O.N.G. had assigned the pair to her in the first place. "As long as Godai avoids getting us into a car accident, sure," Lanfen dryly replied, tightening the black-and-white scarf around her neck with both hands. The computer terminal which sat opposite of Lanfen barely gave her enough room to stretch her aching legs. "Aside from our orders to investigate the area, is there anything that I haven't been told about the situation?"

With her gaze still focused on the snowy roads up ahead, Godai replied to the Adaptor, "Other than something about a 'strange energy signature' near the mountain? Nothin' else, really. We get called to handle stuff like this all the time." The ponytailed woman reached for her second can of coffee in the driver compartment's cup holder and held it up with a smirk. "Normally, I'd be worried about runnin' head-first into some paranormal shtick, but since we've got a Wielder tagging along, I think this trip should be a quick one for us."

"Staying up late is bad for a maiden's skin, after all," Ayano chimed in, holding up a finger in a matter-of-fact way. "If there's any danger, I'm sure that our dependable junior will be able to take care of it without much trouble!"

Lanfen quietly warmed up her freezing, bare hands by breathing into her palms. The three of them were undeniably on a mission, and yet, the pair's attitudes gave the impression that they were on a mundane school trip. Bringing up her own wrist device to display a holographic map of Yamaku's outskirts, the van was now only a few kilometers from their destination. The energy signature's location was located somewhere within the forest, so the last stretch of distance would have to be carried out on foot once they've driven as close as they could. Withdrawing the holographic map back into her wrist device, Lanfen covered it up with the sleeve of her winter jacket and looked back at her seniors at the front.

Despite the task which the pair had been saddled with - along with the proverbial sword that Lanfen held over the heads of the other Wielders - Ayano and Godai were undeniably cordial to her. It was honestly strange to Lanfen. The Adaptor had expected them to be more uptight in their attempts to keep an eye on her for anything suspicious.

"Jiang," Ayano called her, flicking a small candy into her mouth with a satisfied hum. "Do you have any kind of music that you wanna listen to?"

Music. The very aspect which Lanfen's Symphogear wielded in order to channel its power. While she had no particular fixation for any specific genre, Lanfen's battles thus far gave her an answer to reply with. "Jazz," Lanfen slowly stated, still finding herself partially withdrawing from her two seniors. "Any type is fine."

Ayano softly nudged Godai in the arm and the van's driver promptly clicked on a few buttons that were built-into her steering wheel. The vehicle's stereo lit up with a few distinct rings, and a soothing jazz tune flowed out from its speakers, filling the cold air with the relaxing rhythms of a piano. Finding it to be similar to the same tunes which Lanfen would always play in her living room, the Adaptor slowly closed her eyes, and lightly tapped her foot on the van's floor to the beat of the track. She could hear the two at the front continue their playful banter while the three continued their careful drive through the snowy forests.

Lanfen did not track how much time had passed since Godai had switched on the stereo. While she still could not fall asleep, the jazz music that entered Lanfen's ears at least caused the stiffness in her shoulders to disappear. Every few minutes, Ayano and Godai would initiate a playful debate with one another about some mundane topic before the two would eventually come to some silly conclusion. None of their conversations could break Lanfen out of her meditative state. But when the van's computer terminal started blaring in front of her with an ear-piercing alarm, Lanfen's eyes shot open to see the large 'WARNING' signs which were flashing across its multiple screens.

"Enemies-?" Lanfen was cut off by the loud screeching of van's halting wheels. Stifling a pained grunt, Lanfen almost bit off her own tongue as the vehicle's sudden stop nearly threw everyone out of their seats. Lanfen heard a loud curse from Godai at the front, and the Adaptor quickly undid her seatbelt to rush towards the head of the van where Ayano was groaning from a mild bump on her head. Lanfen was about to ask if both of them were alright when a deafening thunderclap roared in the skies up ahead. "That's..."

A 'crack' in reality. Without any warning beforehand, a large crack had manifested in the skies around the same vicinity as their planned destination. Ayano reached for her wrist device and tapped into her communicator. But in the process of contacting the S.O.N.G. submarine, Ayano's communicator displayed a prominent 'ERROR' sign with its signal. Godai and Lanfen mimicked her action, and received the same results when they had brought up the holographic interfaces of their built-in communicators. In just those few seconds, the giant crack in reality expanded into a glimmering, pulsing rift. The loud, inhuman wailing it emitted was muffled by the thick walls of their halted van.

"Oh, great," Godai muttered, climbing out of the driver's seat and squeezing pass Lanfen to access the van's whining terminal. While Ayano desperately continued to try and contact the command center, Godai had dropped down onto the terminal's designated chair with her fingers on its keyboard. Lanfen went over to the green-haired woman's side as Godai inputted a few commands, bringing up the van's scanners. "We've got a couple Category-1s coming through the rift. Blade-Types. Damn things came out of nowhere and now- Wait-"

They both spotted another alert amidst the multiple warning signs of incoming Distortions. Godai ran her fingers through the terminal's keys, and a single sentence appeared on one of the larger screens, causing Lanfen to widen her eyes at the words:"Approximately one life sign detected."

A single civilian life sign. In the same area as the Distortions' predicted area of descent, no less. Tightly grasping onto the red pendant that hung around her neck, Lanfen's body practically moved on its own as the Adaptor suddenly swung open the van's backdoors, and jumped onto the snow-covered, concrete road. She could hear Ayano and Godai calling for her to wait for further orders, but it was too late. Lanfen had already bolted off into the tree-line while her lips parted to draw the cold air into her lungs. The howling of the winter winds could do nothing to drown out the transformation chant which echoed throughout the snowy forest.

"Valtorah Damocles sen zizzl."

A crimson light enveloped Lanfen, covering her body with black-and-white fibers to the excited howling of trumpets and saxophones. Her armoured boots locked themselves shut as Lanfen sped through the forest floor. Dark gauntlets encased themselves around her arms, allowing Lanfen to bat away the tree branches in her path as though they were fragile twigs. The chess-piece pauldron on her right shoulder powered to life with a loud hum and the three-point crown on Lanfen's head glimmered like the stars in the night sky. The Adaptor could see her teammates attempting to contact Lanfen though her large headphones, but the black van had disappeared from eyesight mere seconds ago.

Stomping through snow that blanketed the floor, the thermal containment field of Lanfen's Symphogear retained her body heat in the face of the freezing weather. Through the gaps in the forest canopy, Lanfen was able to catch glimpses of the growing rift, giving her a strong indicator that she was sprinting in the direction of her arriving enemies. Unsurprisingly, the deeper the crowned warrior headed into the snowy forest, the stronger the twitching which plagued her sword-hand became.

Lanfen bolted out of the tree-line and skidded to a halt upon reaching a large, spacious forest clearing. As the pulsing rift sat high in the sky above the forest glade, Lanfen's purple eyes shot a contemptuous glare at the emerald knights who stood around the area with swords in hand, and backs that faced the crowned warrior. Lanfen drew her bladeless weapon from the armour on her hip. A screeching howl pierced the air, created by the thick blade which had sprung forth from the Sword of Damocles' golden cross-guard. It was only then did the Distortions finally turn around to notice the Symphogear-Wielder who was brandishing her Armed Gear with a deep scowl on her face.

But when Lanfen's enhanced vision caught a distinct shape up ahead, her glare suddenly disappeared. The light of the shattered moon above shone down on the clearing, illuminating a faint figure in the middle of the gathered Distortions. There - lying completely-still in the snow - was a person. The falling snow had covered them head-to-toe in a blanket of white as the emerald knights brandished their crude weapons and marched towards the crowned warrior. Lanfen's heart immediately started pounding against her ribcage.

"Not this time."

Electro-swing jazz blared from her Symphogear's speakers, chasing away the silence that permeated the forest glade. Apparently angered by the catchy rhythm of Lanfen's groovy tune, the Distortions charged at the Adaptor with swords raised high in the air. She counted between 12-to-15 enemies in her sights. With a casual flick of her wrist, the crowned warrior narrowed her eyes on a single, armed Distortion that had chosen to approach the person who lied in the snow. The two-handed blade it wielded appeared large enough to cleave a small car in two.

"I'm not able to hear the girl I used to be. Will I ever touch those that I long for?"Lanfen stomped an armoured boot into the snowy ground and hurled her Armed Gear at the lone Distortion. The Sword of Damocles rocketed pass the approaching crowd, impaled her target in the chest, and pinned its disintegrating body to a nearby tree before it could even lift its blade for its intended execution."I stare at those that I used to see. The monsters are begging for more."

Lanfen pounced on the first Distortion that managed to reach her. Clenching her twitching hands into fists, the crowned warrior slipped under its clumsy strike before punching her attacker's head clean off its shoulders with a loudclang. As the headless knight started breaking apart, Lanfen seized one of its arming swords, and thrusted the crude weapon straight into the neckpiece of another emerald knight. The colourful sand their bodies exploded into shimmered like emerald stars amidst a field of white snow.

"The cracking of my heart makes me scream. My tears have become an endless stream."Tumbling beneath another attack, Lanfen's armoured leg kicked her next assailant off its feet, leaving it open for Lanfen to jump above the Distortion, and flatten its head beneath the soles of her descending, weighty boot. The proverbial fires in Lanfen's eyes were hardly sated."When will I be allowed a break from this world? The feelings deep in my heart are whirled."

Her left gauntlet split open, revealing the wired harpoon within it. Hearing the approach of more enemies, Lanfen aimed her forearm at her Armed Gear on the other side of the clearing and launched the harpoon past the rushing knights. The harpoon slammed into the pommel of her pinned sword and combined with its handle within seconds. Sensing the confirmation of the tethered weapon, Lanfen leaped into the sky with her retracting wire, avoiding the swings of ten blades while her right hand reclaimed the Sword of Damocles by its grip.

"Never knowing who is the true me inside. Allowing them to take me for a ride."Landing right in the middle of the gathered Distortions, Lanfen hurled her tethered weapon at her foes like a vicious, hungry snake. Her left gauntlet's wire wrapped and unwrapped itself around her body, perfectly controlled via a manipulation of its momentum as bodies were cut down left and right into exploding clouds of emerald sand. Category-1s were nothing more than dispensable fodder in her eyes. Mere chaff to quell her thirsting sword-hand."Am I meant to break free from it all? The voices are begging for me to fall."

Seizing her tethered sword by the handle, Lanfen ripped the harpoon from its transforming pommel, and withdrew the wired weapon back into her gauntlet before turning around to the last Distortion in her sights. She tossed the Sword of Damocles into her left hand and tightened her other hand into a clenched fist. Black-and-white flashed before her eyes. Excited pianos accompanied a loud clicking from her right gauntlet while steel letters slammed onto a cracking chessboard in her vision to spell out the words,"Knight Knuckle."

The emerald knight lunged at Lanfen with a bastard sword that was twice the woman's height. Unfazed by its reckless charge, the gauntlet on her right forearm expanded with multiple, sliding layers of kinetic-absorbing armour. Its built-in harpoon retracted into the depths of her growing gauntlet, replaced by a thick block of explosives which stationed itself over the giant knuckle which encased Lanfen's clenched fist. As the Distortion's blade thrusted towards the crowned warrior's face, Lanfen felt a hand-held switch slide into the grasp of her enclosed hand.

The blade grazed pass her cheek, cutting just deep enough to provoke a small shower of sparks. With a flicker of proverbial fires in her eyes, Lanfen's fist crashed itself into the Distortion's chest-plate, caving in its torso while emerald metal crumpled beneath her blow like tin foil. But Lanfen wasn't done just yet. Using her superhuman strength, Lanfen lifted the howling knight over her head, her giant forearm still embedded deep within its ruined chest-plate. The Distortion's sword slipped from its grasp and Lanfen's thumb caressed the button of the hand-held switch in her encased hand's grasp.

"I won't allow my mind to hold me captive long. Molding my darkest thoughts into this song."

Her thumb squeezed down on the switch. The explosive block stationed over her knuckles rang with confirmation. A subsequent, violent detonation blossomed over her fist like a giant sunflower and Lanfen's headphones shielded her hearing from a deafening roar that echoed throughout the snowy forest. As the thick cloud of smoke which shrouded the forest glade slowly dissipated, emerald sand fell upon Lanfen like a rain of emerald snowflakes. To her surprise, she heard an ear-piercing wail from the rift above her, and Lanfen gazed upwards to see that the giant tear in reality was already seconds away from vanishing without a trace. No reinforcements this time, it seemed.

The massive gauntlet on Lanfen's forearm quickly shrunk back into its regular shape with a cacophony of metallic clicking. Retracting the blade of her sword back into its cross-guard, Lanfen placed her weapon at her hip, and rushed over to the person who lied in the snow. Although Lanfen still kept her eyes open for any sign of lingering enemies, the crowned warrior wasted no time crouching down next to the snow-covered civilian before pressing two fingers against their neck to check for a pulse. Right as her hand made contact with the person's skin, her Symphogear's speakers had automatically silenced themselves.


Letting out a hush sigh of relief, Lanfen's hands proceeded to carefully dust off the snow which covered the person's body. With each batch of white that Lanfen shoved away, the Adaptor was able to get a good look of just whom she had just saved. There were thankfully no signs of any external injuries, as far as Lanfen could see.

Pushing away the last bits of snow, the first thing that caught Lanfen's attention was the beige straight-jacket which the person was wearing. With the absence of the rift above their heads, the undisturbed moonlight shone down on the clearing, allowing Lanfen to see the youthful face of an unconscious woman with sickly-pale skin. If the crowned warrior's guess was right, this person couldn't have been older than Lanfen herself. Drawing in a slow breath at the sight of the woman's slumbering face, Lanfen gazed at the messy, silver hair which she possessed and blinked. It was not a colour she had ever seen before as the fringes of the woman's short hair concealed the entire right side of her face.

A weak groan suddenly slipped between the unconscious woman's lips. Lanfen wouldn't have heard it were it not for the silence that permeated the forest glade.

With the Distortions surely gone, Lanfen gently slid her armoured hands underneath the woman's body, and lifted her up in a bridal-carry to spare the silver-haired woman the pain of lying down in the freezing snow. Medical care was not Lanfen's forte, but she knew that she had to get this woman somewhere warm for now. "Are... Are you alright?" Lanfen tried to ask her, hoping she would respond. To the Adaptor's relief, her hush words seemed to actually rouse the silver-haired woman from her slumber as her eyelids slowly twitched.

A pair of golden eyes opened up and weakly stared right back at Lanfen's concerned gaze. Something within the pale woman's eyes seized Lanfen's attention, leaving her speechless for a few silent seconds. When Lanfen felt her voice return to her, the silver-haired woman slowly lifted a hand from her side. The pale woman let out a slow, visible breath, and slowly caressed the wound which was faintly visible on the crowned warrior's cut cheek. Her pale fingertips felt cold to Lanfen's brown skin as the silver-haired woman's quivering lips uttered a few words that were too quiet for Lanfen to hear. Her golden eyes subsequently closed shut once again, but her right hand continued to maintain a weak hold on the back of Lanfen's neck.

"H-Hey!" Lanfen muttered, slowly growing concerned with the woman's physical condition. Taking in a deep breath, she looked around her surroundings in an attempt to remember the direction that led back to the black van. "Don't worry. I'll try and-"

"Jiaaaaaaang!" Ayano's voice called out to Lanfen from behind.

Spinning around with the unconscious woman in her gauntlet-covered arms, Lanfen spotted her senior running over to them in her winter jacket. Ayano was clearly gasping for air from the long distance which she needed to cover without the physical aid of a Symphogear. "Ayano." Lanfen went over the panting woman, effortlessly kicking away the snow in her path while the brunette caught her breath with her hands on her knees. "She needs our help. Could you request a medical pick-up from command?"

With one last gasp for air, Ayano dramatically placed her hands on her waist, and wordlessly processed the sight of the silver-haired woman whom Lanfen effortlessly held in a bridal-carry. The Adaptor had to wonder what was going on in Ayano's mind as the situation provoked nothing more than a curious, cat-like grin and a slow sigh from her senior. "Sure, sure. But please, don't run off like that again," she gently chided Lanfen, bringing up her wrist device to notice that her communicator was working again. "Since you're a part of S.O.N.G. now, you can't go around transforming willy-nilly, alright?"

"I-" Lanfen tightened her lips. "Right. Sorry about that, Ayano," she muttered, casting her gaze downwards after realizing the recklessness of her actions just now.

"Since the submarine's still in Japan, calling over a 'copter should only take about ten minu-" Ayano was cut off by the ringing of an audio transmission which her wrist device had just received. Quickly noticing that it was from Godai, Ayano tapped on the holographic prompt and answered the call, "Yuki? What's wrong?"

"I think I've found the source of the unidentified energy signature from earlier, Komi'. I'm sending you my location, 'cause you both might wanna take a look at this."

Withdrawing the holographic display back into her wrist device, Ayano and Lanfen nodded at one another before they headed off in the direction of Godai's location. Following the holographic coordinates that their teammate provided, Lanfen made sure that the silver-haired woman was resting comfortably in her arms as they went back into the forest tree-line. After several minutes of walking past tall trees and trudging through thick carpets of snow, Ayano and Lanfen arrived at a scene which neither of them had expected to see.

Lying down on its side next to a large, toppled tree was a metal, car-sized cylinder that could only be described as a 'pod'. Its door hatch was left open, revealing the small cushions which covered the pod's interior while smoke billowed from several cracks and tears on its metallic exterior. Godai was standing next to the pod with her wrist device held up to access its built-in camera. The tall woman made sure to take a generous amount of snapshots of the strange pod from every possible angle. Once she was satisfied with the images she had taken, Godai looked over to her arriving teammates and whistled at the unconscious woman in Lanfen's arms.

"If my gut feeling is right, that lady there was the one who was sleepin' in this thing," Godai commented, lightly rapping her gloved knuckles on the pod before walking over to Ayano and Lanfen. "Does this thing ring a few bells, Komi'?"

Ayano quickly left Lanfen's side to approach the pod and gaze at the markings which were engraved into its metal exterior. While the Symphogear-Wielder could not recognize the strange hieroglyphs that adorned its surface, her senior identified within mere seconds. "It's definitely something that belonged to the Bavarian Illuminati," Ayano stated, circling around the pod with a hand held to her chin. "If I'm remembering the reports correctly, this is a hibernation device. It's been a long time since we've confiscated another one of these things."

'Bavarian Illuminati'. The name of an elusive shadow organization that Lanfen had read about in S.O.N.G.'s database. Glancing down at the silver-haired woman who rested in her hands, the straight-jacket she was wearing earned her a concerned look from Lanfen. The woman's breathing was gentle despite the state that Lanfen found her in. But the Adaptor contemplated what would have happened to this woman had Lanfen arrived seconds later than she actually did. When Lanfen remembered the sensation of the woman's fingertips brushing against her wounded cheek, she felt her chest tighten ever so slightly.

"Whatever it's doing here, it must've attracted the Distortions." Godai leaned against one of the snow-covered trees with her arms resting behind her head. "You might wanna call in a team to pick this up alongside us, Komi'. If it's one thing that's for sure, we ain't heading back to the apartment anytime soon tonight."

With an overly-dramatic pout, Ayano stepped away from the smoking pod and brought up her wrist device. She tapped into her communicator and ringed up the submarine's command center with a report on the situation, and an extraction request for the team, the pod, and the woman they've found alongside it. Tomosato could be heard confirming her requests as Ayano started walking off in the direction of the van. Meanwhile, Godai approached Lanfen and playfully bumped the Adaptor in the shoulder with her fist. The smirk that the tall woman had on her face was one which was seemingly aimed at both Lanfen and the silver-haired woman who rested in her arms.

"Just leave the logistical stuff to us, Jiang," Godai said to her while casually scratching the back of her neck. "Oh, and since you're the one that found her, you're carrying that lady till we can put her down somewhere comfortable to rest up on."

Sharply nodding at her playful words, Lanfen followed her two seniors from behind as they all headed back in the direction of their parked vehicle. White snow loudly crunched beneath the weight of their feet, and although conversation was sparse due to Ayano and Godai being preoccupied with their communicators, Lanfen found it impossible to fixate her attention on anyone other than the unconscious woman she carried in her armoured hands. At some point, the slumbering woman had subtly rested her head on the Adaptor's chest, to which Lanfen could only wordlessly look at her in response. It was difficult to ignore the pale woman's frail, almost malnourished appearance.

The S.O.N.G. helicopters arrived on the scene faster than either of the women had expected. As soon as the area was secured by S.O.N.G. personnel, Team-04 and the woman they had discovered were escorted into a helicopter with medical equipment that had been readied for the care of their mysterious individual. The pod she was presumably resting in was also secured within the hatch of a large air carrier that had been requested by S.O.N.G. With the silver-haired woman now out of Lanfen's hands, the ride to the underwater vessel went on in silence as the team rested up within the crowded interior of the moving helicopter.

When the aircraft's landing skids finally touched down in the vessel's landing bay, the silver-haired woman was immediately handed over to a waiting medical team led by Professor Elfnein. The unconscious woman's vitals were perfectly stable, so there was little urgency when the medical team took her in to escort her to the vessel's med-bay. If anything, a smaller team of scientists who accompanied the Professor appeared far more interested with the Illuminati pod which had been slowly brought out onto the landing bay. Meanwhile, the members of Team-04 were called up to the vessel's bridge by the Commander to assess the situation. Judging by the chatter of the personnel they passed by in the halls, all of the other Adaptors had already departed the S.O.N.G. submarine hours ago.

The bridge's large double-doors slid open, and Lanfen marched into the command center with Ayano and Godai at her sides. The three halted in front of the Commander's post and stood to attention. Their civilian clothing made them look particularly out of place among the uniformed personnel as Lanfen formally announced their presence with a fresh bandage on her injured cheek. "Symphogear Team-04, reporting."

Holding a small data-pad in his hand, Commander Genjuuro got up from his post and waved off the formalities. "At ease, you three. I've just finished reading the report on the situation in Yamaku's outskirts. Good work in taking care of the Distortions." He looked over to Lanfen in particular and stroked his red goatee in thought. "You may have acted rashly, but combat situations admittedly call for such measures sometimes. Still, I'd advise you to not leave your teammates alone like that again whenever an urgent situation arrives."

Lanfen gulped and lowered her head to give a small, apologetic bow. "Understood, Commander."

Ayano gave the Symphogear-Wielder a playful pat on the back before she redirected her attention to Commander Genjuuro. "Have we found out anything about our mystery maiden yet?"

The Commander answered her question by glancing over to his closest bridge operators. "Fujitaka, bring up her medical reports." In accordance with his order, multiple files and images regarding the silver-haired woman were displayed across the bridge's three large monitor screens. "To start things off, our science team is quite impressed with your recent discovery." He pointed to a snapshot which Godai took of the damaged pod. "Judging by our records, Komichi was correct in pinpointing its Illuminati origins. There's no doubt that it's the same type of hibernation pod which the Illuminati once used to transport their personnel in recent times."

Godai whistled in amazement. "The Illuminati's toys really get around, huh?" Her comment earned her an unamused stare from both Lanfen and Ayano, making her pipe down in an instant. "Just sayin'."

Subtly clicking her tongue at the tall woman at her side, Lanfen spoke to the Commander with a question on her tongue. "And what about the woman herself?"

Several additional images were digitized onto the screens. This time, the photographs displayed snapshots of three individuals who Lanfen faintly recognized. The first person was an adult woman with brown skin and prominent cybernetic attachments. The second was a teenaged girl with bright, pink hair and a pair of dog-like ears. The third was that of a woman with dark-blue hair which was adorned with a white bow and a prominent streak of red hair. 'Noble Red', Lanfen remembered. They were the ones who had carried out the infamous massacre during the Kazanari concert almost five years ago. Lanfen had considered herself blessed at the time that neither her little sister nor herself were there when the incident occurred.

"We've checked our database and have matched her straight-jacket with the same ones that were utilized by the Illuminati," Commander Genjuuro continued, placing his data-pad down on his terminal to cross his large arms over his chest. His tone quickly took a dour turn. "Our science team have also discovered data-files within the pod. From what they've managed to decrypt, the files describe the woman as... 'discarded equipment'. No ID. No records of her past. In short, we can only guess that she's an abandoned experiment of the Bavarian Illuminati."

The idea of humans being treated like 'equipment' - and all of its implications - left a disgusting taste within Lanfen's mouth. But what drew the Adaptor's ire the most was the thought that the woman had been cast aside by whoever that was responsible for her, essentially leaving her to die in that snowy forest. Merely pondering about it caused old memories to resurface within Lanfen's head as she gave her seniors a side-glance, and noticed that they were completely unsurprised by the Commander's words. Lanfen wondered what sort of things both Ayano and Godai had seen by now after being in this organization for longer than she has. It was roughly only 12 hours ago when Lanfen signed that recruiting document.

Tomosato turned around in her chair and addressed the redheaded man, "Commander, we've just received new intel from Professor Elfnein. I'm bringing it up on the screen." After receiving a confirmation from the Commander, Tomosato inputted a command into her terminal, showcasing the results of an MRI scan on the bridge's central monitor screen. What immediately drew their attention was the clear image of a metallic device which was attached to the upper regions of their subject's heart.

"What... is that?" Lanfen inquired, gazing at the screen with a perturbed expression.

"Professor Elfnein states that some sort of device had been surgically implanted within the subject's internal organs," Tomosato answered, reading out a report which was visible on her terminal. "We are currently unable to determine the implant's purpose, but judging by the Professor's observations, there is no discernible way of removing it without causing permanent damage to the subject's cardiovascular system. There are no signs of energy emissions from the implant, and we are unable to identify the type of metal that's been used to form it. In addition to that-" Tomosato paused for a second, clearly unnerved by what she was reading. "The subject's cells appear to be aging at an uncontrolled rate. We're unsure what is causing this, but Professor Elfnein is already preparing medication in an attempt to stabilize it."

Ayano muttered a few quiet words of concern while Godai shook her head and scoffed, "Sounds like the Illuminati, alright. Always fucking around with their messed-up lab experiments."

The metallic implant in question was roughly designed in the shape of a stylized club symbol. The same club symbol which one would find in a deck of playing cards. Approximately measured to be a few centimeters in diameter, Lanfen could not gaze at the implant with anything other than restrained horror. She closed her eyes, and the memory of that woman's weakened stare replayed itself in her mind. When Lanfen had lifted that silver-haired woman up from the freezing snow, it was as though time had suddenly stopped itself for that brief moment.

Commander Genjuuro looked at the results of the MRI scan and told the operator, "Give the Professor our thanks, Tomosato. Have our research teams learned of anything else?"

Hearing his question, Fujitaka turned around in his chair with a report of his own. "Affirmative, Commander. We've just received word from the medical team," he said with a hand on top of his terminal's digital keyboard. "The subject has already regained consciousness and is capable of communication. Aside from her unknown implant and her apparent medical condition, the subject appears to be perfectly healthy."

Evidently surprised by how fast their patient had woken up, the Commander turned around and ran his gaze over the three waiting members of Team-04. "Normally I'd ask Ogawa or Tsuchiya to accompany me, but neither of them are available at the moment," he said with a hand on his goatee. "So, would you three like to join me in meeting with our patient?"

Lanfen answered first with a sharp nod. "If that is alright, Commander."

"We've got to make sure that our mystery maiden is doing fine, after all," Ayano cheerfully added.

"Try not to bore her, Komi'," Godai told the brunette. "The last thing we need is her falling asleep from another one of your little love stories." Her sarcastic remark earned her a playful, childlike pout from Ayano as Lanfen quietly sighed to herself between the two.

With the group's decision now made, the Commander declared his departure from the bridge to his operators, and ordered them to relax for the meantime before he went over towards the entrance. Ayano let out another long, unshielded yawn and Godai chided the woman about getting more sleep next time. Following the two from behind as they walked behind the Commander, Lanfen barely paid any attention to her teammates while they exited the command center. Before the bridge's double-doors closed themselves shut behind her, Lanfen halted in her footsteps, looked over her shoulder, and gazed at the images on the monitor screens with narrowed eyes.

"'Discarded equipment', huh?" Lanfen bitterly whispered to herself, digging her fingernails into the palms of her bare hands.

The distinct smell of antiseptics permeated the atmosphere of the submarine's medical-bay. After accompanying the Commander through multiple long corridors, the group was escorted into the patient's room by a member of the vessel's nursing crew. The room looked just like what one would expect from a medical room. It contained a reclining bed, a bedside drawer, and an array of medical equipment which Lanfen would never dare attempt to operate. The lights of the ceiling kept the room brightly-lit as the sliding door closed behind the arriving group. Sitting upright in her bed was the silver-haired woman, her one visible eye gazing around her surroundings with a glimmer of fascination.

"Would it be alright if you could spare us your time?" Commander Genjuuro kindly asked her with arms crossed over his chest.

It was only after she heard him addressing her did the silver-haired woman finally glance over to them. Currently dressed in a patient's garb with a blanket that covered her lower body, it was as if the woman had not even noticed the group's arrival up until now. The woman first assessed them with her golden eye before politely replying in a soft-spoken voice, "That would be quite fine, yes." She ran her hand through her silver hair as her fringes continued to hide the entire right side of her face.

The Commander stepped over to a small computer terminal located next to the room's entrance and inputted a sequence of button presses. Within seconds, several small chairs were deployed along the wall in front of their patient's bed, allowing the group to sit down and make themselves comfortable. Lanfen and her two teammates kept quiet for now while the Commander sat down in a chair which was far too small for him and continued talking. Lanfen noted that he was speaking in the same tone as when he had first met with the greenhorn Adaptor herself days ago.

"My name is Kazanari Genjuuro, Tactical Commander of S.O.N.G.," he carefully explained before gesturing over to the three who accompanied him. "This is Cassandra Jiang Lanfen, Ayano Komichi, and Godai Yuki. Members of Symphogear Team-04." The Commander's words seemed to initially confuse the woman, but she listened on anyway with a genuine expression of curiosity. "As members of S.O.N.G., our duty is to deal with paranormal forces that threaten the world, all while ensuring the protection of its civilians. Roughly an hour ago, these women had rescued you within the forests of Japan. I've been told that you were under attack before they had come to your aid."

The silver-haired woman suddenly grasped the side of her head, and a short wince of pain escaped her. The group grew concerned for her until she quickly waved off their obvious worries with an embarrassed smile. "M-My apologies for that. Ahem." Coughing into her fist, the woman ran her gaze over the group in front of her, and cupped her pale cheek with one hand. She appeared to be taking in her situation rather easily. "So, would it be correct of me to describe you as the guardians of this world?"

The Commander responded to her flowery words with an amused smile and a subsequent nod. Sitting next to him, Ayano chuckled at the woman's dramatic description while Godai made an off-handed comment about her princess-esque speech. It wasn't an incorrect way to describe it, Lanfen thought. For all the things they had learned of her earlier, the silver-haired woman spoke in a perfectly pleasant manner as they conversed with one another.

With a hand still cupping her cheek, the woman eyed the group in front of her again with her one visible eye, obviously fascinated by the individuals who had rescued her from danger. When her golden eye landed on Lanfen once more, the Adaptor felt the woman's gaze light up with recognition this time. "It's you," she whispered, grasping the sheets of her bed with her pale hands. "You were the one who saved me, weren't you? The singing warrior in the monochrome armour?"

Caught off-guard by her statement, Lanfen had honestly expected her to forget what had happened in that forest glade. Scratching her bandaged cheek with one finger, Lanfen shoved her hands within the pockets of her winter jacket as everyone's attention suddenly fell on her. "There was nothing else I could've done in that situation," Lanfen insisted, remembering the haste at which she moved to race towards the woman's location. "I-" She felt a small nudge in the arm from Ayano beside her, and glanced at the brunette to see an expression which essentially screamed 'go along with it'. Lanfen hesitantly changed her tune to a question. "Are you feeling any better?"

"Aside from a minor headache? I would say so." The silver-haired woman nodded. She then depreciated her gaze to the palms of her hands with a look of growing confusion. "While you all have my gratitude for saving my life... I'm afraid that I'm finding it to be quite difficult to try and... introduce myself." She grabbed the side of her head with one hand and the woman let out a frustrated sigh. "It appears that I'm unable to remember anything about who... I... really am. I'm trying my best, but-"

Commander Genjuuro shared a concerned look with the members of Team-04 and asked the woman, "Do you remember anything about how you arrived in that forest?"

The pale woman let her hands fall to her sides and sadly shook her head. "All I can remember is... running... and climbing into some sort of pod. I- Forgive me." She clasped her hands together, clearly doing whatever she could to scrounge up any sort of memory she possessed. In the process of doing so, Lanfen noticed a small teardrop which was forming in the corner of her golden eye.

Pursing her lips, Lanfen's hands tightly grasped her knees before she got up from her chair and approached one of the room's shelves. The Adaptor went through multiple boxes of equipment and medical supplies before she finally pulled out a small box of tissues from the lower shelves. "Here." Lanfen opened it up and placed it on the bedside drawer. She had grown tired of her own tears over the past few days, so she did not wish to see someone else going through the same process. "You don't need to apologize for your troubles. Especially when it's not something that's in your control to begin with."

"... Thank you." Taken aback by her sudden gesture, the silver-haired woman took out a few tissues while Lanfen stepped back towards her chair and quietly sat down between her two teammates. The red crystal pendant around her neck and the toy keychain that hung out from the phone in her pocket softly jingled in unison as Lanfen tightened the scarf around her neck. Quietly, the silver-haired woman sighed to herself and placed her balled-up tissues next to the opened box. "Is there-"

The room door slid open, and Professor Elfnein announced her presence with a tray of hot drinks in her hands. "Tomosato prepared these, so I thought I'd deliver them," the teenager explained, walking up to their patient before placing down her tray on the bedside drawer. Receiving a few thanks from the group, the tense air slowly eased up as Professor Elfnein first handed a drink to the silver-haired woman. The Commander was next, followed by Lanfen, Godai, and Ayano. With her own distinct mug in her hand, the Professor approached the Commander's side and whispered to him, "I've attempted to examine her memories earlier using my equipment. But in the end, I was unable to find anything. She truly possesses no memory of who she is, and thus far, our teams are unable to find any public records which match her physical description."

Even with the Professor's hush voice, Lanfen noticed the silver-haired woman visibly tightening her grasp on the mug in her hands. Ayano was quick to chime in. "Well, even if we're running into a bit of trouble for now, I'm sure we'll be able to solve this mess in no time." The brunette held up her mug of hot cocoa with a happy smile. "That's what S.O.N.G. does best, after all! Right?" Accompanying her high spirits was Godai, who also held up her own mug with a confident smirk. Lanfen chose not to do the same, but she appreciated the woman's attempts at lightening the atmosphere regardless.

Sipping his gigantic mug with a grunt of approval at its taste, the Commander looked back at their patient and carefully asked her, "Are you experiencing any painful sensations whatsoever? We're quite concerned with the implant that's attached to your heart."

The silver-haired woman pressed the tips of her fingers against her chest with a curious tilt of her head. "No, thankfully," she answered before glancing at the contents of her mug. "I'm... not sure why I even have this implant within me to begin with. Although, I'm certain that was obviously the case by now. Forgive me."

"It's alright," Genjuuro assured her, getting up from his chair with his drink in his hand. "For now, just try and rest up. You can leave solving the situation to us. If you need anything, don't be afraid to use the room's communicator to ring us up." The Commander's actions prompted Lanfen and her two teammates to also get up from their seats. "Professor Elfnein," he addressed the blonde teenager with streaks of green in her hair. "We're counting on you as always to help this woman out." Emphasizing his words with a quick raise of his mug, the Professor responded to him with a small nod of confidence.

Placing her mug down on the drawer next to her bed, the silver-haired woman looked at the group around her bed and held an open hand to her chest. "Thank you... all of you," she softly told them. "I hope that my troubles won't inconvenience you all too much. If I'm required to fulfill anything, you may rely on me to do so."

Ayano smiled at her before flashing her a peace sign with both of her hands. The purpose of the gesture appeared to fly over the silver-haired woman's head, strangely enough. "Don't worry about it! Just take your time catching your breath. It must've been terrible lying down in that forest all by yourself, after all!"

Seeing a quick thumbs-up from Godai and a small nod of agreement from Lanfen, the woman took in a breath to relax herself and took her hot drink into her hands again. Slowly, the silver-haired woman brought the mug to her lips, and when she finally took a sip of its hot cocoa, her one visible eye widened with obvious amazement at its taste. Lanfen wondered if this was the first time she's ever had cocoa in her life.

Now that their meeting with their patient was over, the Commander headed out of the room and continued a small conversation with the Professor at his side. Ayano and Godai followed them from behind, while Lanfen was the last to head out of the room. As the Adaptor stepped through the doorway, she noticed the pleasant smile that the silver-haired woman was giving her alongside a small wave of her hand. Much to Lanfen's surprise, she was able to return the gesture in kind with a brief smile of her own. There was a hint of sadness which Lanfen could sense behind the silver-haired woman's gentle expression.

A sadness which was buried beneath a façade that Lanfen herself found to be all too familiar.

With the absence of any ongoing operations, the members of Team-04 were told to relax within the commons lounge of the underwater vessel. Commander Genjuuro himself had joined them as he took this opportunity to step behind the bar counter, and treat the women to a custom drink recipe that he had apparently been working on over the past few months. While Ayano and Lanfen sat down at the bar counter with their elbows on the hard marble, Godai went up to the lounge's dart-boards with a couple dart missiles in her hands. To the Adaptor's amazement, Godai's throws zipped through the air, directly landing in the center of her target even when she kept her eyes completely shut.

The Commander opened up the cupboards behind him and placed down four empty glasses on the bar counter. He made sure to wipe them clean with a towel before continuing a conversation regarding their silver-haired patient. "Truth be told, this isn't the first time we've brought someone like her into S.O.N.G. Professor Elfnein herself didn't exactly arrive on our doorstep through mundane circumstances either." He picked up a blender near his leg and took out a strainer from a nearby drawer. "Still, that implant within her chest has my concerns."

Three dart missiles rocketed towards another board with a single fling of Godai's hand. One-by-one, the small darts landed side-by-side, perfectly crowding up the dart-board's center. "You think we can just have her stay here to keep her safe?" Now that three out of the five available dart-boards had their centers occupied by a swarm of darts, Godai rested her arms behind her head and glanced over to the Commander. "This place does have everything you'd need to help her recover."

Ayano spun around on her bar seat and promptly wagged her finger with a groan. "The U.N. isn't going to let someone like her stay here so easily, Yuki." The brunette kicked the air with her feet, obviously harbouring her own annoyance for the governmental powers which S.O.N.G. operated under. "We're still treading on thin ice after what the Distortions did. Because of that, there's no way we'd be able to let her remain here without the council eventually sticking their noses in our business."

Hearing an exasperated response from the tall woman, Lanfen simply observed the Commander as he delicately poured out a mixture of fruit juice into the glasses he had prepared. She could only describe it as a rainbow that had taken a thick, liquid form. To top it all off, Commander Genjuuro decorated each glass with a bright-red umbrella which had the words 'Kazanari' written on them. "Thanks," Lanfen told him when he smoothly slid a glass in front of her. Taking her hands out of her pockets, Lanfen quickly noticed the contemplative look which the large man had on his face. "Is there something wrong, Commander?"

The Commander leaned his body against the bar counter and tapped a finger on the marble before he calmly addressed the three women, "Lanfen, Komichi, Yuki, what would you all say if I chose to assign that woman underneath your care?" Sliding a glass over to the brunette beside Lanfen, he glanced at both Ayano and Godai. "Since you two are already monitoring Lanfen, adding an additional person for you two to watch over should be within my influence. My only concern is whether or not you're all willing to bear the responsibility for the safety of that woman."

Remembering the look that woman gave Lanfen when they had left her room, the Adaptor pulled out her red pendant from underneath her black-and-white scarf. She held a crimson crystal between two fingers and slowly narrowed her eyes. It somehow felt heavier than when she had first received it several nights ago. "... When I took up my duty as a Wielder, I had to accept the possibility of bearing weights far greater than anything I could imagine, Commander." Lanfen released her pendant, letting it fall back onto her chest with a soft jingle. "Besides, I've already promised that I wouldn't have second-thoughts about the orders I'm given."

The Commander slowly nodded at her words, seemingly noting the conversation they had earlier over her communicator. "I'm aware, Lanfen." He looked back at her two teammates again. "And what about the two of you?"

After completely filling up the center of the lounge's fifth and final dart-board with a crowd of dart missiles, Godai strolled over to the counter and dropped herself onto a seat next to Ayano. She gave an impressed whistle at the glass which had been reserved for her before confidently replying, "An amnesiac gal shouldn't be too hard for us to handle, Big Boss. We've done alotworse than this, so this should be a walk in the park. Right, Komi'?"

Ayano happily agreed with her companion and nodded at their Commander. "It definitely sounds like a good idea to me. I'm sure she'd appreciate staying with people whom she's familiar with until her memory comes back. It's a lot better than resting up all by herself in some sterile med-bay, too." Clasping her hands together, the brunette's eyes suddenly lit up as a proverbial lightbulb practically shone above her head. "Oh, if she's staying with us, then we'd have to get her some nice clothes! Exactly my field of expertise!"

While Ayano starting nudging Godai for a few ideas on where they should start shopping later, Lanfen saw the satisfied smile which the Commander was giving them. In one swift motion, Commander Genjuuro chugged down his own drink before placing the emptied glass within the counter's sink. He promptly dusted his hands and stepped away from the bar counter. "If that's the case, I'll be heading off to assign her to your team now. Creating the necessary documents for her should only take a few moments once I've contacted Clan Hida." He stopped at the entrance of the lounge and turned back to the members of Team-04. "I'm counting on you three to take care of her."

Ayano hopped off her chair and responded with a dramatic salute. "You can leave it to us!" Behind her, Godai got off her own seat and did the same. Lanfen hesitantly followed them, purely just to follow protocol now that the Commander was taking his leave from the room.

The large man nodded in approval at the three women and headed out of the lounge without another word. Unlike the Commander, Team-04 essentially had nothing else to do for the rest of the night but enjoy their time-off. Lanfen was ready to spring into action at the first sign of approaching Distortions, but that did not stop her from bringing a glass of colourful juice to her cracking lips. She downed the entire thing in one go, just like the Commander himself, and placed the emptied glass on the counter before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. As expected, she still couldn't taste anything. Still, Lanfen was relieved that her stomach had yet to riot against her for skipping dinner.

Lanfen felt someone's gaze fall upon her. Slowly, the Adaptor looked over her shoulder and noticed the curious stare which Godai was giving her. While Ayano had sat back down to play with her smartphone, Godai remained standing as she held up her glass in one hand and raised an eyebrow.

"So, what made you rush out into action like that?" Godai's question made Lanfen visibly flinch in her seat.

Subtly perking her ears at her companion's curiosity, Ayano herself quickly pocketed her smartphone before looking over at their junior with a finger on her lip. "Now that you mention it, thatwaspretty sudden of Jiang, wasn't it?" she wondered out loud. "While the Commander had a point about taking the initiative sometimes, I honestly didn't expect you to go out and charge into danger like that."

Lanfen's sword-hand twitched at her side as she sat beneath the inquisitive stares of her teammates. When she opened her mouth to speak, the Adaptor's answer was calm and straight to the point. "... I couldn't stand by and wait when someone could've been hurt. So, I moved. I didn't need to think." There was no point in being dishonest with them. Especially when Lanfen had placed them in potential danger by abandoning them like she did. "The last time-" Lanfen slowly redirected her gaze back at the marble counter. Her throat suddenly felt dry. "The last time I hesitated... my sister..."

Ayano and Godai withdrew their curiosity as soon as they heard those hush words. Noticing the subtle scowl that was growing on Lanfen's face, Ayano quietly got off her bar seat, and gently wrapped her arms around the woman in a comforting hug. Unlike the one from earlier in the day, Lanfen could tell that she was handling her as though she was made out of delicate glass. "Am I being too forward?" Ayano asked, just to be sure.

The Adaptor opened her mouth to reply, but instead kept quiet and slowly shook her head.

Eventually, Ayano pulled herself away from Lanfen and sat back down in her seat. Now that Godai was finished with her own glass of juice, the tall woman placed her drink in the sink and let out a tired huff. "While I still think it was pretty reckless of you to charge in head-first like that, what you did helped out someone in the end. So, I guess it balances itself out." The tall woman strolled over to the Adaptor and playfully clapped her on the shoulder. "Try to be more careful next time, though. Can't operate as a team if you're constantly running off by yourself like that, if you catch my drift."

Subconsciously shrinking beneath the honest advice of her old school seniors, Lanfen quietly nodded at her words as the three continued lingering around the commons lounge. Godai headed back to the dart-boards to restart her game, and Ayano had taken out her smartphone again to make a list of clothes to buy. Meanwhile, Lanfen could only lay her head down on the cold, marble counter in an attempt to restore her energy. Just this morning, she had to process the thought of being recruited into the same organization which her parents once operated in. A few hours after that, the council proceeded to unveil the true purpose of the SG-r04. And now, they had discovered a silver-haired woman who possessed no memory of who she was.

Lanfen was by no means physically weak, but her body could only go so far before it was essentially operating on fumes.

Dragging herself off the bar counter with a click of her tongue, Lanfen stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jacket and slowly headed over to the lounge's entrance. "If you need me, I'll be in the barracks." Lanfen heard her teammates wishing her a good night, but she could barely register their voices. She could barely even hear the sound of the lounge's automatic door as it slid open before her. Holding back a tired yawn with one hand, Lanfen felt a sudden vibration on her wrist and glanced at her communicator to see that it was ringing from a message.

In fact, the wrist devices on all three of the women's arms were now ringing in unison from a single text message.

Standing underneath the open doorway with a hand on her hip, Lanfen's device was the first one to project the arriving message. The Adaptor narrowed her tired eyes on the hologram and quickly read through a statement which was evidently written and sent out by Commander Genjuuro himself. The statement itself was a long, formal announcement, declaring that as of today, Symphogear Team-04 will officially be operating with a fourth additional member. A member that shall be referred to here on out by the name of 'Shinonome Aiko'.

Chapter 7: Golden Eyes, Golden Heart


Thank you for 280+ views and the Kudos! May the next few chapters be enjoyable now that the four members of the story's main cast have been established.

Chapter Text

An hour had passed since Lanfen had woken up to the announcement of the submarine's imminent docking. As the December snow fell upon Yamaku's crowded ship harbour, Lanfen tightened her black-and-white scarf around her neck, and observed the small waves that were crashing against the inert S.O.N.G. submarine. While she stood in the shadow of the large vessel, the Adaptor waited next to a black escort vehicle with a small bag slung over her shoulder. Godai and Ayano had gone ahead of her to procure clothes for their new teammate, leaving the task of escorting said teammate all to Lanfen. It wasn't a bad idea, Lanfen thought, since she admittedly wasn't much of a fashionista herself.

'Shinonome Aiko'. The name rolled off the tongue with ease. While most people would consider the events of the previous night to be nothing more than a dream, the paranormal aspect of S.O.N.G.'s line of work was beginning to settle itself within Lanfen's mind. The truth was clear as the mid-noon sun which hovered in Yamaku's cloudy skies: Symphogear Team-04 now contained a total of four members, and that fourth member in question was a woman with no memory of her own identity. The files in her pod marked her out as 'discarded equipment'. A mysterious implant lied within her chest. And yet, they had accepted the task of watching over Shinonome without question. It was a rather mundane duty for a Symphogear-Wielder, if anything.

"My apologies for making you wait, Jiang."

Turning her head in the direction of the docked submarine, Lanfen felt her chest slightly tighten at the sight of her new, soft-spoken teammate. While Shinonome was now wearing a proper pair of plain shoes that had been provided to her, the silver-haired woman was still dressed in the same straight-jacket which Lanfen had discovered her in. The beige uniform's loosened restraints were a persistent reminder of Shinonome's circumstances as a passing-by breeze made the woman noticeably shiver in her walk.

"It's fine, Shinonome." Lanfen's hand slowly reached for the scarf around her own neck. "But are you fine with wearing just that?" she added, stepping away from the nearby car to approach the silver-haired woman.

"I will admit, it's rather c-chilly," Shinonome stuttered with a smile which she was clearly forcing herself to maintain. "I should be fine as long as-"

Shinonome's words trailed off when Lanfen stopped in front of her, and pulled off the black-and-white scarf that was shielding the Adaptor from the winter winds. "Use this for now," Lanfen insisted, holding up the thick piece of cloth in both of her hands. "While I'm not exactly a fan of the cold, I'd rather not let you get sick right after you've spent the night in med-bay."

A surprised gaze landed on the scarf that Lanfen was offering before Shinonome gingerly took it off her hands with a small smile. "I suppose you have a point," she softly admitted. "My thanks, Jiang. The gesture is... appreciated." Carefully, Shinonome wrapped the black-and-white cloth around her own neck and curiously felt out the soft wool it was made out of. Lanfen subsequently gestured the silver-haired woman over to the nearby escort vehicle and wordlessly led her towards it.

But right as Shinonome began following Lanfen from behind, the woman had abruptly stopped in her tracks to fixate her attention on the skies above their heads. Lanfen heard the sudden absence of footsteps behind her and turned around to follow Shinonome's gaze. Curious as to what caught her attention, Lanfen could see that Shinonome's unconcealed eye was staring right at a patch of winter clouds where the sun was currently hiding behind. The Adaptor initially guessed that she was concerned about the arrival of a Distortion rift, but the astonished look which Shinonome had on her face told a different story entirely. Lanfen instead wondered if the sight of the sun was a privilege that the silver-haired woman had lacked until now.

"Shinonome," Lanfen said with a hand on her hip. "Are you alright?"

"Huh?" Shinonome swung her attention back to Lanfen. "O-Oh." She brushed off the question with an embarrassed wave of her hands. "My apologies. I just... that bright thing... the 'sun'? It's quite beautiful, isn't it? Even if the weather makes it rather hard to see it at the moment, I can't help but appreciate-" When Shinonome noticed the peculiar look which Lanfen was giving her, the woman promptly coughed into her fist, and hastily caught up to the Adaptor with a hand on her borrowed scarf. "A-Anyway. Let's not keep our escort from waiting too long."

Strange. But Lanfen herself hardly possessed the right to judge. It was almost endearing, if Lanfen was being honest with herself. Holding back whatever comment that was sitting on her tongue, Lanfen headed to over the S.O.N.G. escort vehicle, and opened up one of its doors for Shinonome to climb inside. Once the silver-haired woman had secured her seatbelt, Lanfen inputted a signal into her wrist device before entering the black car as well. The signal which Lanfen had transmitted gave the car's assigned drivers their cue as the vehicle rumbled to life, and drove out of the docked submarine's shadow to slowly exit the snowy ship harbour's premises.

The drive was hardly any different from the one Lanfen had experienced yesterday. Just like the day before, a barrier was placed between the passenger seats and the driver seats, preventing the pair from even seeing their designated drivers. While Lanfen and Shinonome sat next to each other, a large, metal suitcase rested next to the Adaptor's leg. All of the legal documents Shinonome required to pass herself off as a Japanese citizen safely rested inside it alongside a batch of medicines that Professor Elfnein had readied for her. With the morning haze still fogging up Lanfen's mind, the Adaptor reached for the bag which Godai had left with them, and pulled out an ice-cold can of coffee.

Relying on caffeine was going to be a necessary evil for Lanfen's line of work. To think it had been almost ten years since she ingested any sort of coffee into her system.

A lightpoppierced the air and Lanfen brought the opened can to her lips. Bitter. Just like she should have expected. Pulling it away from her face with audible disgust, Lanfen glanced over to Shinonome, and watched as the woman quietly peered out of the vehicle's tinted windows. Shinonome's hands were touching the glass while her face hovered close enough for her breath to start fogging up the window. Not that she really noticed it, of course. Shinonome was simply far too preoccupied with the flashing advertisement boards, car-filled roads, and towering skyscrapers of Yamaku city. The arrival of Christmas day was imminent by now, so it was impossible to glance in any direction without spotting some sort of Christmas decor which had been set up practically overnight.

"'Shinonome Aiko'," Lanfen said, causing the person in question to look back at her with a curious smile and small tilt of the head. Placing her canned coffee within the cup-holder of the armrest between them, Lanfen crossed her legs, and casually fiddled with the tips of the black braid which rested on her shoulder. "... Was it a name that the others gave you? I noticed that it didn't take long for them to send out an announcement with it."

Shinonome softly giggled and shuffled in her seat to face the Adaptor. It was a sound that was admittedly pleasing to hear. "Quite the opposite, in fact. Even before the Commander had arrived to tell me about the news, the Professor had already handed me a list of names I could choose to go by." She reached into one of her straight-jacket's few pockets and pulled out a small, pen-shaped device. A quick tap of a built-in button projected a holographic ID card with her new name on it. "I chose it because I think it sounded beautiful. Don't you think the same?"

An array of proverbial sparkles was practically flashing around Shinonome. There was a clear sense of pride with the name she had chosen for herself, and Lanfen couldn't help but be amused by it as the Adaptor replied with the briefest of smiles. "It definitely suits you; I won't deny that." Lanfen picked up her coffee and took another much-needed sip before placing it back down again. "As long as you're happy with your name, that's all that matters. When it comes to who you are, the opinions of others shouldn't really matter, if I'm being honest with you."

"That is true. But I will add that your own name suits you quite well, too." As the right side of Shinonome's face remained concealed beneath her long fringes, the silver-haired woman pocketed her ID card projector to place a hand on her pale cheek. Her left, unconcealed eye fixated itself on Lanfen with a sudden flash of curiosity. "Say, did you choose your own name as well? Because it certainly has a different 'feel' to it compared to all the others."

The longer they focused on this topic, the harder it was for Lanfen to hold back an earnest chuckle. This was probably the first casual interaction in a while now where she didn't have to concern herself with the matters of S.O.N.G., nor her duties as their greenhorn Adaptor for even one bit. And yet, it was with someone as enigmatic as Shinonome. "The surname is something that was given to me. I only chose my first names: 'Cassandra' and 'Lanfen'." One of her hands slowly reached for the smartphone in her pocket to caress the toy which hung from it by a silver chain. "Admittedly, I... needed some help when it came to picking them out."

Evidently amused by their conversation, Shinonome nodded in agreement before suddenly leaning in closer to Lanfen. "It can be quite difficult, isn't it? Even when the Professor gave me that list, I was amazed by all the names that were available to choose from. Thankfully, the Professor was able to help-" An abrupt yawn cut off her words and Shinonome cupped her mouth with her hands to shield it. She let out a small sigh before pulling herself away from Lanfen with an embarrassed smile. "I... suppose what happened last night is still taking its toll on me, isn't it?"

Anyone would say the same after what she's been through, Lanfen thought to herself. Releasing her smartphone's accessory from her grip, Lanfen gestured to the can of coffee which sat in the cup-holder between them. "I can't promise that it'll taste nice, but it should help you stay awake." When her suggestion was answered by a curious nod, Lanfen reached for the bag that Godai had left with her, and unzipped it to find a second can for Shinonome. She had to push aside a few chocolate bars before Lanfen finally pulled out another ice-cold can of caffeine. "I'd recommend tea next time, but-"

Lanfen's gaze returned to her companion and the Adaptor felt her voice suddenly abandon her. As the bag in her hand was slowly placed down on the armrest between them, Lanfen found herself to be incapable of doing anything more than blink at the sight of Shinonome taking a few meager sips from an opened can of coffee. The same can of coffee which Lanfen had been drinking from earlier. They both felt the escort vehicle halt before a red light, and Lanfen wordlessly watched while Shinonome drank up what was left inside the can with a satisfied smile. The silver-haired woman promptly placed the empty tin can aside and glanced back at Lanfen with a curious tilt of her head.

"Is something wrong, Jiang?"

There were only a few things that could surprise Lanfen nowadays. A small thing such as this shouldn't have been one of them. "... It's nothing. Don't worry about it," Lanfen muttered, popping open the second can for herself. It was difficult to ignore the subtle warmth which was growing around her cheeks. With her gaze now fixated on the tinted windows to her right, Lanfen laid back in her seat and distracted herself with her second bitter drink. From just a quick glance at the city streets around them, she could see that the repairs to Yamaku's damaged buildings were already nearing completion. "How's... the taste? It's not something that everyone can really stomach."

"A peculiar flavour, but I can see why some would find themselves relying on such a thing," Shinonome said, peering out of the nearest door window again to gaze at the colourful Christmas lights that adorned the streets. A flash of realization then proceeded to visibly hit the silver-haired woman as she diverted her gaze back to Lanfen, and nervously pressed the tips of her fingers against one another. "Oh, and on the topic of... reliance..." Shinonome whispered, hiding the lower half of her face beneath her borrowed scarf. "I... wanted to thank you for being willing to watch over me. Like I mentioned before, if there's anything I can do to help, I will try my best to... or maybe..."

Just like when Lanfen had rushed out into the snow to save her, the Adaptor felt that there was nothing else she could have chosen to do aside from the path they were now on. If there was something, Lanfen still wouldn't have thought twice about their decision. Putting down her second can in the other armrest's cup-holder, Lanfen grasped her pendant between two fingers and showed the red crystal to Shinonome. "Don't worry too much about it. You have your own issues to deal with, Shinonome," Lanfen assured her with a sharp nod. "My job is to protect people, so you can just focus on your recovery for now while we handle the rest, alright?"

Shinonome's golden eyes flickered in astonishment as she rested her twiddling fingers at her side and slowly nodded in return. "That's certainly... true," she admitted with a soft giggle which was muffled by the black-and-white scarf around Shinonome's neck. "Then, I hope we can get along nicely from here on out, Jiang. I just hope that I won't trouble you all too much." Shinonome's words were assured by a small smile from Lanfen, seemingly allowing her to finally relax as her gaze went back to the flashing city lights outside the tinted windows.

While Shinonome continued to take in the sights of Yamaku City, Lanfen had returned to her second can of coffee. Every now and then, Lanfen would curiously peek at her silver-haired companion, just to make sure that Shinonome wasn't showing any signs of physical illness. Even if her medical reports noted that she was perfectly stable, Lanfen couldn't ignore the fact that Shinonome was going to rely on medicine to keep her as healthy as she looked right now. Her metallic implant wasn't hindering her in any discernible way either, which was a relief. If anything, Lanfen was impressed by how well Shinonome had accepted her situation, in spite of the circumstances which plagued her.

Being able to converse with someone about something as mundane as their own names certainly felt nice as well. After everything that had recently occurred, Lanfen had almost forgotten what it was like to enjoy a moment of normality.


A quick press of a button caused the apartment's elevator doors to close back up. With a suitcase full of documents and medicine capsules in Lanfen's right hand, and a small bag of snacks slung over her shoulder, Lanfen and Shinonome quietly stood at each other's sides while the elevator ascended to the building's eight floor. Ayano and Godai should have returned from their shopping trip by now, so Lanfen steeled herself in preparation for whatever sort of clothes the pair had decided to buy for their new teammate. Ayano was nothing if notecstaticwhen the two had driven off ahead of her. Seeing the elevator slowly reach their destination, Lanfen felt a sudden tug on the sleeve of her winter jacket.

The Adaptor glanced aside and noticed the concern that was writ upon Shinonome's face. Lanfen quickly grew worried herself. "What's wrong?"

The silver-haired woman placed a hand on her cheek and slowly looked back at Lanfen with pursed lips. "On the way here, I couldn't help but notice how sad so many of the people in this city looked," Shinonome whispered with a mixture of curiosity and worry. "Did... something happen here recently? It's not often that one feels an atmosphere that is this... uneasy."

Shinonome's words were unsurprising, but it still prompted a small twitch of Lanfen's sword-hand. It had barely been half a week since the Distortions' global attack. With everything that's been happening lately, Lanfen felt as though it had instead been weeks by now since the rifts first tore into existence over Yamaku's skyline. "You can say that," Lanfen carefully whispered back. "A couple days ago, something... terrible happened. Not just here, but in most places around the world. Everyone's understandably a little on edge because of that."

"I see..." Shinonome muttered, sighing into her borrowed scarf while she gripped it with both of her hands. The small comfort the black-and-white provided her seemingly helped put her at ease as Shinonome held back whatever other question she clearly had regarding the recent tragedy. "I just hope that whoever that was affected by it finds peace someday. It's rather unfortunate to see this many people suffering like this."

Lanfen parted her lips to speak, but nothing came out as she simply nodded in agreement, and tightened her grip on the handle of the suitcase in her hand. The elevator subsequently juddered to a halt, and the sliding doors finally opened up before Lanfen stepped out of it to lead Shinonome to her apartment. A quick dive into her pockets brought out Lanfen's keys, but when the pair found themselves standing in front of her apartment entrance, the two quickly noticed a written note which had been taped onto the door. The words 'From Ayano Komichi' was clearly displayed on it. Lanfen had to wonder why her teammate couldn't have just sent a text message through their communicators.

Shinonome, on the other hand, was clearly amused by the old-fashioned gesture. "I'm assuming that this is from the others?" she asked, peeling the note off the door before opening it up for both of them to read. Since Lanfen and Shinonome were of the same height, the former simply needed to lean in closer to check what Ayano had written for them.

"Hello! Hello! This is Ayano Komichi (and Godai Yuki), and while we would loooooooove to talk more with our brand-new teammate today, the two of us were suddenly called in by work to deal with some boring government stuff! Boo! Anyway! We managed to finish our shopping before we needed to head off, so we've left Shinonome's clothes inside your apartment! We'll probably be back by tomorrow, so please do your best in making her feel super at-home! Pow-pow! Swish-swoosh! We picked out the best clothes for her, so there's nothing in those bags that will disappoint you even the slightest! Bye byeeeee!"

"They certainly sound busy, don't they?" Shinonome commented with a giggle, closing up the note in her hands once Lanfen had finished reading it as well.

Lanfen gave a small shrug and a dry scoff before she inserted her keys into the front door. "I can't really do much outside of fighting, so you could say that I'm relying on those two to take care of the more complicated matters. Either way, we should head inside." A couple metallic clicks rang out in succession as Lanfen opened up the door and quickly ushered Shinonome into the warmth of the apartment. When the Adaptor closed up the entrance behind her, Lanfen let out a small sigh of relief while the lights above them slowly switched on. Unfortunately, Lanfen's troubles had yet to truly leave her.

After locking the front door and sliding her keys into her pocket, Lanfen gazed down the brightly-lit hallway entrance of her apartment, and clicked her tongue at the numerous shopping bags which completely blocked their path. When Ayano promised her that she would be buying Shinonome some clothes, Lanfen assumed that she was going to be bringing in enough to last a whole week without washing anything. What Lanfen saw before them instead was a pile of shopping bags that could probably fill out an entire wardrobe in an instant. While the paychecks from their line of work were considerably high, this was simply bordering on ridiculous.

Lanfen glanced over to her right where she could see that Shinonome was just as speechless as she was.

It took the silver-haired woman a moment to even formulate a proper response. "I... don't know how I'll be able to repay them for this."

"Knowing them? This was probably free-of-charge," Lanfen dryly remarked, putting down her suitcase and the bag she was carrying so she could take off her boots, and gesture Shinonome to the shoe closet on their right. Once they had taken off their footwear, Lanfen grabbed the nearest pair of shopping bags, and started squeezing her way through the hallway entrance's literal barricade. "If you still want to 'repay' them, a simple 'thanks' in-person would be enough for those two."

With Shinonome's help, it didn't take long for the pair to bring all of the shopping bags into the apartment's living room. Despite the size of the bags, they were rather light, so there was little issue in gathering all of them underneath the living room's dining table. Lanfen counted between nine-to-eleven bags of clothes, and it was clear from their designs that Ayano had essentially gone to the best brands that one could find around Yamaku's shopping malls. That was probably to be expected of her, Lanfen admitted to herself. When the last of the bags had finally been brought to the living room, Lanfen dusted her hands, and placed them on her hips while Shinonome rested on a dining chair to curiously examine her new surroundings.

Subconsciously, Lanfen's purple eyes shifted over to her silent wrist device. The Adaptor's gaze remained on it for several seconds until Lanfen shook her head and clicked her tongue at her inability to relax. The Distortions had yet to reappear in Japan, so the only thing which mattered right now was making sure that Shinonome was comfortable in her new home. One thing at a time, Lanfen thought to herself.

The Adaptor placed the metal suitcase down on the counter near the dining table before gesturing to her apartment with a hand on her hip. "Well, this is it. The place you'll be staying in until further notice. It's not much, but it has everything you'll need," Lanfen said, trying her best to sound as welcoming as possible. As she started to give a verbal tour of the place, Shinonome listened to her without question. "There's two bathrooms near the front door. Same place where the washing machine is located, too. That room there is the practice room where I tend to train, so you won't find much in it. I have a bedroom, but since you're here, you can take it while I sleep in the living room."

Shinonome buried half of her face into the borrowed scarf around her neck, clearly feeling guilty after hearing that last sentence. "Oh... My apologies if you have to do that. I'm intruding, aren't I?"

"It's fine. I'd rather not have a guest sleep on the floor," Lanfen insisted with a small shrug when her eyes suddenly glanced over to the door that led to Kai's bedroom. The Adaptor dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands as she chose to leave the room in question out of her tour entirely. "You can go and get changed now," Lanfen told her, taking up one of the shopping bags and opening it up so she could hand over a batch of clothes to Shinonome. The straight-jacket was honestly becoming distracting to look at. "Use what you like for now. I'll get the rest of these washed by tomorrow."

Curiously taking her new clothing into her hands, Shinonome gave a polite bow and wordlessly stepped into Lanfen's bedroom. As the door locked itself shut, Lanfen let out a tired sigh before she pulled off her winter jacket. She hung the black attire on a coat rack next to herkotatsutable, all while fighting the urge to even look in the direction of her family shrine. Closing her eyes shut, Lanfen instead glanced over to the living room's shelves to try and distract herself. But while she had been thorough in removing all of Kai's belongings from the living room, it was only then did Lanfen realize that she had actually missed one last item.

It was Kai's electronic tablet.

She did not know how she had managed to miss something like that. Slowly, Lanfen stepped over to the shelves and picked up the device in both of her hands. With a quick click of a button, the tablet lit up to showcase an opened picture gallery which Kai had apparently forgotten to close. Lanfen's narrowed eyes ran their gaze over the numerous photos of Kai's birthday, her fingertips essentially moving on their own while they swiped from one image to the next. By the time Lanfen had snapped out of her entranced state, she had already reached the end of the image gallery. The last photo Kai had taken was just before the day of the global attack.

A simple image of Kai and Lanfen gleefully enjoying themselves in a Valkyranger theme-park.

"I'm sorry." The words felt almost meaningless from her at this point. But it was all Lanfen could say as she took out a thumb-drive from the shelves and inserted it into the tablet. A few taps on the device prompted it to start transferring every bit of data it possessed into the portable memory-drive. While the data transmission went on, Lanfen left the tablet on the dining table as the Adaptor leaned her body against the living room counter with eyes that were struggling to remain open.

Lanfen hoped that - with a cleared tablet - Shinonome would be able to read up on whatever she could find to help recover her memory and navigate this world. There wasn't really anything else which Lanfen knew she could do to ease Shinonome's transition into this new life. As the data transmission reached completion, there was an audible ring that prompted Lanfen to finally detach the thumb-drive from the electronic tablet. The device was now as empty as when Lanfen had first bought it for Kai during last Christmas. Not that it mattered. There was no one else to use it now other than Shinonome, after all. Now that Lanfen was done with the thumb-drive, Lanfen went back to the shelves and stowed it away on the upper segments where it would be the hardest to reach.

She heard the bedroom door open up again and Lanfen quickly wiped away the stray tears which were lingering in the corners of her eyes. When the Adaptor turned around to face the silver-haired woman, Lanfen's purple eyes widened slightly at the sight of a long, flowing skirt and a green turtleneck sweater that fitted Shinonome perfectly. But as the woman stepped out of the bedroom and playfully spun around in astonishment at her new outfit, Shinonome's golden eyes suddenly fixated their gaze on the door which led to Kai's bedroom. Seemingly entranced by its glimmering doorknob the same way Shinonome had been with the lights of Yamaku City, the silver-haired woman curiously reached out a hand towards the door.

"Never go in there." Those words came out of Lanfen's mouth like a verbal thrust. Lanfen only realized their intensity when she noticed the way Shinonome trembled from her firm, sudden warning. As Shinonome immediately retracted her hand from the doorknob, Lanfen tightened her shaking hands into fists and quickly added, "S-Sorry, I..." Lanfen tightened her lips. The way Shinonome was nervously fidgeting before her prompted the Adaptor to avoid her gaze. "No one is allowed in there," she tried to gently explain. "Not even myself. It's... personal."

Several awkward seconds passed by. The silence of the apartment was almost agonizing. By the time Lanfen was even able to look at Shinonome again, the silver-haired woman had clasped her hands together, seemingly calmed down by now. "I'll keep that in mind. Sometimes, my curiosity just gets the better of me," Shinonome politely told her with a hand on her cheek. "My apologies, Jiang." She punctuated her words with a formal bow which Lanfen felt wasn't necessary.

Unable to find the words to even respond with, Lanfen approached Shinonome with the electronic tablet held under one arm and slowly handed it over to her. "You can use this if you want to read up on anything you need. Just... be sure to take care of it. If you need me, I'll be in the practice room. My job requires me to stay in shape, after all." Lanfen received a small, wordless nod as Shinonome gingerly took the device and held it close to her chest. "I... Sorry."

Lanfen had left the living room faster than her senses could even process it. Closing the door to the practice room behind her shut, the Adaptor leaned against the hard wood, and slowly slumped against it with a sigh that was seeping through tightly-clenched teeth. The lights to the practice room had yet to be switched on, so Lanfen quietly sat down in the darkness for an amount of time she did not care to measure. When the Adaptor finally picked herself up from the matted floor, Lanfen positioned herself in front of the picture of her parents which she had taped onto a wall of her room, and knelt down before it with closed eyes.

If either of Lanfen's parents were still here, she knew that they would be admonishing her for losing control of her temper right then and there.

Genjuuro's private quarters in the S.O.N.G. submarine would be considered small by most for a man of his stature. Both physically and metaphorically. His superiors had offered him a larger alternative during the vessel's design stages, but the Commander specifically asked for a room which was no different from the ones his colleagues enjoyed. Even so, Genjuuro sat comfortably at his quarter's desk while a shelf of antique DVDs was placed next to his bed, carrying classics ranging fromThe Thing (1982), to movies such asKill BillandPacific Rim. Unfortunately, the situation at hand had given the man little time to enjoy the luxury of a good movie.

Sitting on his table were multiple monitor screens, each of them showcasing the current defensive zones that the Symphogears were holding, alongside technological details regarding the SG-r04 Sword of Damocles. Steam billowed from the giant mug of coffee which the Commander held in one hand. After taking a grateful sip of the hot drink, Genjuuro stroked his goatee in thought, and continued gazing at Professor Elfnein's analytical reports of S.O.N.G.'s newest Symphogear. The man's quiet afternoon was then interrupted by an incoming audio transmission that was flashing across every single one of his terminal's monitor screens.

The symbol of the United Nations earned itself a glare from the Commander as he inputted a command into the holographic keyboard of his terminal and connected the line.

The council's spokesperson came through the speakers, speaking as 'politely' as always. "Greetings, Commander Kazanari. I am assuming that you have already sent out your personnel to deal with the matter at hand?"

Genjuuro docked his giant mug on a special, claw-like cup-holder that was attached to his table before resting his elbows on the reinforced armrests of his chair. "Correct, Spokesperson. Two of my agents - Ayano Komichi and Godai Yuki - will soon be meeting with representatives of the Japanese government. There is currently hesitation among their numbers towards the establishment of Task Force Harmony's Japanese branch. But I can assure you that this matter will be smoothened out in less than 24 hours. You may rely on those two to settle the problem without much issue."

"Splendid work. While the council understands the trepidation that the Japanese government may have with increasing their armed forces, the mere existence of the Distortions is a threat which cannot be ignored. On the matter of the Distortions themselves, the council once again extends their gratitude to the diligent efforts of your Adaptor corps, Commander Kazanari. While the damages incurred by their counterattacks are rather unfortunate, they have done an excellent job in maintaining a global defence against the Distortion incursions. I'm sure that recent attacks in the past twelve hours will be taken care of quickly by the efforts of the Kazanari Humanitarian Front."

Polite words and gratitude. Neither of them felt like they were worth a damn when it came from the world council of all places. Holding back a tired grunt, Genjuuro leaned back in his chair and directly asked them, "When can the Adaptors be expected to receive direct assistance from Task Force Harmony, Spokesperson?"

"In no more than a day, I can promise you that. The United Nations is currently sorting out the preparations of announcing their formation to the grieving world, and while the establishment of such a force is no small feat, the growing resentment towards the Distortions has made gathering recruits, funding, and political backing all the more easier. We intend to recruit the best of the best, as S.O.N.G. certainly deserves no less than that in the battles you are often expected to face. Their deployment should considerably lessen the burden which we are currently placing on your Adaptors for the time being."

The Commander tapped a finger on the edge of his armrest, adding, "And who will the Task Force be operating under the orders of?"

"Why, they will be answering to the beck-and-call of the world council directly, Commander Kazanari. While you may seldom expect situations where command of their squadrons will have to fall under the authority of S.O.N.G., Task Force Harmony shall be a separate entity from your organization as far as I'm concerned. The world council wouldn't want so much power to accumulate beneath a single organization, as I'm sure you would understand."

A 'Section Three' in a sense, the Commander thought to himself. "Understood, Spokesperson." Despite this transmission being Genjuuro's only interaction with the Spokesperson in the past 24 hours, he was already growing tired of dealing with the council for the day. "We'll be continuing to maintain our guard against the presence of rifts until further notice. The enemy may be arriving in smaller numbers, but that isn't cause for us to ease up in the face of the enemy. May the formation of Task Force Harmony be a successful one, Spokesperson."

"And may the winds of fate blow in your favour, Commander Kazanari."

The transmission switched off as the symbol of the United Nations vanished from the Commander's monitor screens. With that meeting accomplished, Genjuuro relaxed his aching bones on the backrest of his reinforced chair, and eased his temples with two fingers. The vessel was only an hour away from reaching the shores of Europe, and while combat was often expected when it came to S.O.N.G.'s business, the crew was undeniably growing exhausted from the recent assaults in Sydney, New York, and London. He was going to have to make a mental note to prepare some sort of party for the entire workforce once they've achieved some sort of reprieve from the constant fighting.

Returning his gaze to the monitor screens, the Commander continued reading up on Lanfen's combat reports when another incoming transmission popped up on a single monitor this time. A quick read of the contact ID showed him that it was a video transmission from Maria, prompting Genjuuro to quickly answer the transmission with a single tap on his keyboard. A video screen overtook one of his side monitors, allowing the Commander to see that Maria was calling him from her shared bedroom suite in London.

Despite having fought off a group of Category-1 Casters just an hour ago, Maria was no worse for wear as she sat at an exquisite tea table in a sweater which was decorated with blue bird symbols. "It's not easy settling down for a honeymoon when the Distortions keep on appearing, isn't it?" Maria mused, holding up a hot cup of tea between her fingers with a pinkie stuck out. Behind her, Genjuuro could see the exquisite decor that lined the walls of the Kazanari's suite.

Genjuuro smiled at her little jest. "You can expect S.O.N.G. to grant you the finest of honeymoons once we have the time, Maria." He typed onto his keyboard, bringing up a list of paradise resorts on the monitor screen next to the one he was conversing with. The Commander had been planning to book the married couple a relaxing trip, but the recent global attack had obviously thrown a wrench in that idea. "Is there something you wanted to talk about? I know you're capable, but I'd prefer it if you all rested as much as you can in these exhausting times."

Maria placed her teacup down on an expensive-looking saucer plate and folded her hands on top of her lap. "It's about the S.W.O.R.D., Uncle," she stated, causing the Commander to furrow his brow at the name of the weapon. "While the Spokesperson gave us a clear idea of its purpose, I wanted to ask what it exactly does to Cassandra once it's activated on the battlefield. It doesn't sound too different from, say, the Ignite Module or Amalgam."

S.W.O.R.D. 'Symphogear-Weapon-of-Relentless-Destruction'.

When Genjuuro had signed the order to initiate the project, he wondered if he had instead signed a deal with the devil to ensure S.O.N.G.'s backing of the world council. "If one were to put it bluntly, you could say that it's a weapon which turns its Wielder into nothing more than a walking fighting machine," he slowly explained with a glance at Lanfen's combat reports on his other monitor screens. "While its main ability is to neutralize the phonic gain of an opposing Symphogear, the raw power it infuses into its Wielder alone makes it frightening opponent. It's a dire weapon. And it's the reason why I almost wished that the Sword of Damocles had been lost during its theft."

The Commander's words made Maria shift uneasily in her seat. "Are you worried that such a weapon will cause conflict within our ranks, Uncle?"

This time, Genjuuro shook his head. As his eyes fell on the images of S.O.N.G.'s newest Adaptor, something about Lanfen conjured up old memories which the Commander had not visited in a while. "The S.W.O.R.D. is a fearsome system. No doubt about that. But what worries me isn't the weapon itself. It's the Wielder." He inputted a command into his terminal, digitizing the profile of Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming on his central monitor screen. "After what she's recently experienced, I can only hope that our new Adaptor will be able to accustom herself to her new life. While the order to monitor her was placed due to Lanfen's suspected theft of the SG-r04, the order to assign Komichi and Yuki is one that's meant to help her first and foremost."

"To help her process the passing of her sister, you mean?" Maria's careful question was answered by a firm nod from the Commander.

Genjuuro honestly considered himself lucky that a pair of individuals like Komichi and Yuki just so happened to be a part of the organization. Even luckier that they were close with Chris, as it allowed them to be recommended as fast as they were. "The same reasoning can be said of the woman who's recently joined them. I knew full well that Lanfen would have an easier time talking with someone who isn't there to monitor her. In a way, Lanfen reminds me a lot of Kanade, too. So, I intend to do what I can to help her navigate what she's going through. It's a long-shot, but low chances have never stopped me from trying."

The pink-haired woman smiled and returned to her tea to take a gracious sip of her Earl Grey. "If that's the case, I'll be sharing those exact sentiments, Uncle. With how far we're currently stationed from each other, I can only pray that Cassandra will be able to process her circumstances better than I did with Serena." The mention of her own younger sister brought a wistful look to Maria's face. "I just hope that she'll be willing to reach out her hand to the other Wielders and I when the time comes. Especially when one remembers the weight which the council has just placed on her shoulders."

The Sword of Damocles. Shinonome Aiko. Distortions. A woman in an azure suit. S.W.O.R.D.

Once again, Commander Genjuuro quietly feared just who exactly had stolen the SG-r04. The council was perfectly fine with placing the blame on Lanfen as a way of 'encouraging' her recruitment. But not a single member of S.O.N.G. could entertain the idea that Lanfen had somehow stolen the relic shard from the Illuminati hideout. Furthermore, the Commander had to wonder why the SG-r04 was even handed back to them, both completely functional and without any deviation from the intended design. If their resources weren't completely occupied with handling the Distortion threat right now, the Commander wouldn't hesitate to launch a full investigation of the woman in the blue suit who Lanfen had described during her questioning. He could only hope that the presence of Task Force Harmony will genuinely lighten their burden.

Thrusts. Swings. Ripostes. Parries. And so much more. With the Chinese sword replica in her hand, Lanfen rested no more than five seconds between her practiced swings on the matted floor of her apartment's dimly-lit practice room. Her battles against the Distortions - and her desired encounter with her sister's killer - required no less of Lanfen as cold sweat dotted her brown skin over the course of several hours. Eventually, the ray of sunlight that was shining through the room's lone window began to dim. By the time Lanfen chose to even spare it a second's glance, the light which was peeking through the gaps of the window's closed curtains had already transitioned into moonlight.

That was enough for today, she finally thought to herself. Once Lanfen had stowed away her training equipment in the room's old wooden chest, she excused herself from the practice room with a bow in front of her parents' photograph, stepped out into the empty, brightly-lit living room, and headed over to the kitchen to draw a different sort of blade this time.

Kitchen knives. Chicken. Ginger. Papaya. With her father's old recipes basically imprinted in her mind, Lanfen wasted no time taking out her pots, cutting boards, and a ladle so she could prepare some good, old-fashionedtinolasoup. It was another personal favourite of Lanfen, but with the presence of her new guest, the Adaptor could only hope that Shinonome would also take a liking to this classic Filipino soup. This was going to be the first meal that Shinonome would be having outside of the S.O.N.G. submarine, no less. After washing her hands and donning an apron on top of her tank top and sports shorts, Lanfen drew out her kitchen knives and started cooking tonight's dinner.

Not too much salt. Not too little either. Wash the rice while the stew boils and then place it in the cooker before going back to the chicken in the soup. Lanfen remembered all the directions her father instructed her years ago as if it was just yesterday that he began teaching Lanfen how to cook. While the Adaptor was certain that she was nearing the same level which her father once stood on, Lanfen still couldn't help but wonder what he would say about her skills these days. This was her first-time cooking for someone other than Kai, now that she thought about it. Lanfen rarely ever found the opportunity to have someone other than her little sister try out her home-cooking.

After spending some time going through all of her memorized steps, Lanfen eventually found herself staring down on a pot of boilingtinolasoup with a prepared ladle in her hand. The soup had been boiled to a visual perfection, and although the rice itself had yet to finish cooking, Lanfen didn't mind allowing the soup to simmer for just a while longer. As practiced, she scooped up some of the soup into her ladle and brought it to her lips to check on its taste. The lack of any reaction on her tongue promptly reminded Lanfen of the recent uselessness of her taste buds as she placed down the kitchen item and clicked her tongue at her forgetfulness.


A faint noise from the living room caught her attention. Lanfen held her breath and listened in closely to realize that it was coming from the living room's television. It had been several hours by now since what had happened this afternoon, but Lanfen still couldn't forget how she suddenly lashed out against Shinonome. It wasn't Shinonome's fault to begin with, considering how Lanfen had told her nothing about Kai's bedroom beforehand. The words simply came out of her faster than Lanfen could even think. With a few swipes of her hands, Lanfen untied her apron, placed it on a rack, and switched off the stove before hesitantly dragging herself out of the apartment's kitchen.

As the Adaptor slowly stepped through the kitchen's open doorway, Lanfen spotted Shinonome making herself comfortable at the living room'skotatsutable while her attention fixated itself on the television. A nature documentary was currently playing on the screen, giving Shinonome a detailed explanation of the lush forests of Borneo alongside the numerous wildlife that peacefully lived among the dense vegetation. Just like Lanfen expected of Shinonome, the silver-haired woman was absolutely fascinated by what she was seeing. Not a single sound escaped her the entire time she sat there. Shinonome's new outfit was certainly easier to look at compared to her straight-jacket.

Lanfen slowly dug her fingernails into the palm of her sword-hand. Placing her other hand on the doorway she was standing under, Lanfen audibly gulped before carefully speaking up, "Shinonome?" Her words caused the silver-haired woman to look back at Lanfen with a small tilt of her head. "Are... you alright?" Those words have never felt any harder to say than it did right there.

Shinonome's unconcealed, golden eye blinked in evident confusion before she brought a hand to her cheek with a small smile. "What is there to worry about, Jiang? Did something occur while I wasn't looking?"

"It's about-" Lanfen noticed the gaze which Shinonome was giving her. She promptly closed her mouth and took in a deep breath to relax herself. From just a single glance at Shinonome's eyes, it was obvious that the silver-haired woman harboured no hard feelings for what Lanfen did. It was all water under the bridge and there was no reason to continue fretting over it. Lanfen felt silly for still worrying too much, and yet it was just something she couldn't help but feel ashamed of. "Could you... come over here for a second?" Lanfen gently asked her. "I'd like your opinion on tonight's dinner."

The mention of a home-cooked meal ignited a flash of curiosity within Shinonome's golden eyes. As the silver-haired woman slid out of the warmkotatsutable, Shinonome fixed her long skirt before following Lanfen through the kitchen doorway. Lanfen made sure to point out any potential hazards inside the kitchen when she brought Shinonome over to the stove, scooped up a bit of the soup into a nearby ladle, and handed it over to her golden-eyed guest. While Shinonome took a sip of the soup, the Adaptor unintentionally held her breath. A second passed by and Shinonome quizzically tilted her head to one side.

"That's amazing." Those two astonished words caused Lanfen to quietly sigh in relief. "While I am by no means a picky eater, your cooking is rather impressive, Jiang," Shinonome said, placing down the ladle on a nearby plate to give the Adaptor an earnest smile. "I can tell that you've put a lot of effort into this."

Lanfen's father probably would have been disappointed in her if her cooking skills ever degenerated. To hear that thetinolahad turned out perfectly assured Lanfen that even without her ability to taste anything right now, the Adaptor was by no means a worse cook because of it. This at least meant that Lanfen was still useful for more than just swinging the Sword of Damocles around. "The rice is still cooking, but it should be done in ten more minutes," Lanfen said, absent-mindedly scratching her bandaged cheek with one finger.

There was that flash of curiosity in those golden eyes again. Whenever Shinonome did that, Lanfen couldn't help but be distracted by those shimmering eyes. They contrasted perfectly with Lanfen's own tired, purple eyes. "Could I...?" Shinonome muttered, pressing the tips of her index fingers against one another. "Could I try and cook next time as well? It looks fun, and there's a lot I wish to learn. So..."

It wouldn't hurt to have an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, Lanfen thought, responding with the smallest of smiles. "Sure. Follow me." Taking the lead once again, Lanfen brought Shinonome out into the living room where the shelves were located. The Adaptor's hand ran itself over the spines of multiple books until her fingertips brushed against one large book in particular. Checking to make sure that it was her father's old cookbook, Lanfen brought it out and handed it over to Shinonome. "Even a beginner can use this to make something nice. Just follow the steps and you should do just fine."

The astonishment in those golden eyes were almost overwhelming. As Shinonome gingerly took the cookbook into her hands, the silver-haired woman softly smiled before she started flipping through pages of dishes, stews, and other sorts of cuisines. Lanfen didn't mind being the designated cook of the apartment, but it felt nice seeing Shinonome pick up something that caught her eye. Especially if it made Shinonome somewhat happy. But before Lanfen could mention something about her father's old cookbook, something in the corner of her eye suddenly caught her attention. Lanfen swung her gaze over to the television and noticed a news broadcast which was currently playing on the screen.

A broadcast regarding the new memorial built to honour those who were lost in the global attack days ago.

Lanfen's sword-hand ached at her side, causing her to clench it into a shaking fist while her eyes glued itself to the television's screen. She then felt a gaze fall upon her. Looking back at Shinonome, Lanfen noticed that her companion was now staring at her with obvious concern. Shinonome held the cookbook close to her chest before also setting her sights onto the television, evidently uneased by the news broadcast.

"Is this about the incident you mentioned?" Shinonome carefully asked, clearly walking on proverbial eggshells.

Lanfen returned her gaze to the television and slowly nodded. That was the only answer the Adaptor could give on the spot. In an attempt to try and distract herself, Lanfen tore her eyes away from the screen, only for her sights to unwittingly set themselves upon her family shrine. Lanfen could not know if Shinonome had gone out of her way to examine it in the past few hours, but Lanfen did not wish to ask. Kai's broken smartphone still sat on top of the glass table, clearly untouched while it was placed next to the chessboard which was frozen in an ongoing match that would never end. As the living room's yellow lights shone on the two dusty items, Lanfen wondered if it was time to finally explain just what had happened to the world.

Her voice was barely above a whisper. "A few days ago, the same monsters that attacked you appeared all over the world." Lanfen leaned against the living room's dining table with a hand on the backrest of a chair. The rice cooker which sat on top of the dining table still had yet to ring. "We managed to push them back, but a lot of people still ended up getting hurt." The image of the rifts in Yamaku's skyline flashed before her vision, causing her to softly bite down on her lip. "There were others like me on that day. Fighting to save people. If it weren't for them..."

Shinonome sat down on a dining chair with the book still held close to her chest. Seeing the distant expression that Lanfen had on her face, Shinonome quietly asked, "The others you mentioned. The ones who are like you. Do you know them well?"

Lanfen wished that were the case. The circumstances surrounding her just didn't allow it. "No," Lanfen said, knowing just how useless she probably was compared to the other Adaptors on the night of the attack. "I only took up my powers when it happened. So, I barely know them, if I'm being honest." Straight to the point and matter-of-fact. That was the only way Lanfen could convey it. Pushing herself off the dining table, Lanfen got down on the floor, and slid her legs beneath thekotatsutable to try and relax herself. "They're... nice people, but let's just say that my job makes me think twice about getting to really know them. It's complicated business."

Quietly, Shinonome placed the cookbook in her hands on top of thekotatsutable before settling herself right next to Lanfen. There was understandably nothing else that Shinonome could really say after hearing those words. She had no memory of who she was, and the world around her was obviously a wonder for Shinonome to learn now that she was free of the Bavarian Illuminati. With nothing else said between the two, Lanfen and Shinonome watched while a scrolling list of names were displayed on the screen. The listed casualties were all on Japanese soil, and yet, it went on for a timespan that felt like an eternity. Both of them gazed at the countless names who had lost their lives on that dreadful night, and said nothing to one another out of respect while the list went on.

Lanfen held her breath the entire time. She dreaded the moment when she would finally see Kai's own name appear on the screen as if her little sister was nothing more than a statistic. But as the Adaptor waited for that split second with fingernails which were digging into the skin of her legs, Lanfen's ears picked up a soft pitter-patter noise nearby. She initially assumed that some sort of leak had sprung up somewhere in their ceiling again, so when Lanfen turned her head in the direction of the source, the Adaptor was caught off-guard by the trail of tears that were freely running down Shinonome's cheeks. The silver-haired woman did not even realize she was crying at all.

"Shinonome?" Lanfen's hush voice brought her out of the trance she was in, prompting Shinonome to finally notice her own tears with widened eyes.

"Huh? O-Oh dear." Shinonome brought her hands to her face and slowly wiped her cheeks with the sleeves of her sweater, clearly as confused as Lanfen was herself. "M-My apologies. I'm not even sure why I'm tearing up this badly. I suppose I just..."

Without question, Lanfen got up from the table and went over to the room shelves to fetch an opened box of tissues. She handed it over to Shinonome before grabbing the television remote. After taking one last glance at the scrolling list of names, Lanfen switched off the appliance, and settled the remote back down on the table with a hush sigh. There was no doubt that Shinonome came from a paranormal background. The implant on her heart was proof of that. The same could be said of her medical condition. And how Shinonome had been found within a pod which listed her as 'discarded equipment'. But as Shinonome wiped away her tears with a few tissues, Lanfen could not see her as anything other than a regular, kind-hearted woman.

Lanfen herself wasn't ordinary either. She was a Symphogear-Wielder. A weapon against the Distortions. The sword that hung above the heads of the other Symphogear-Wielders. And yet, as long as they were in each other's presence, neither of them felt any different from everyone else. That was how Lanfen hoped Shinonome felt around her, at least. A warm roof to stay under was the smallest thing which Lanfen could provide for a woman like her, but doing the bare minimum rarely ever satisfied Lanfen.

Hearing a soft ring from the rice-cooker nearby, Lanfen crouched down next to Shinonome before gesturing towards the dining table. "I'll set up dinner now. Father always did say that a nice meal always made one feel better. Just give me a minute." Shinonome responded to her calm words with a soft smile, and Lanfen returned it in kind with a brief one of her own.

Although neither of them were aware of Shinonome's past, the current Shinonome was the one that mattered, and right now, the 'mundane' company which she provided was undoubtedly something Lanfen appreciated.

Ignoring the flashing advertisements that lined Shinjuku's bustling pedestrian walkways was more often than not an impossible feat. With just a glance around the red-light district of Kabukicho, Kagero could see the countless pubs and snack bars which were left unharmed by the Distortions' global attack purely due to good fortune. The freezing winds of December typically caused the average man to tighten his winter coat, but the S.O.N.G. agent could hardly be described as such. Placing one hand in the pocket of his black suit, Kagero stepped out of the crowds, and approached the doorstep of one of the buildings on his right. Hanging next to door was the sign of a particular host-club.

The Absolute Zero. Kagero wished he could have returned here alongside Souji. Unfortunately, he was not here for any sort of fun.

Tidying his blonde hair with a few brushing motions for good measure, Kagero headed through the door of a small lobby and rode a waiting elevator up to the higher levels of the modest building. Once he had stepped out of the compartment, the agent halted in the middle of a narrow corridor as Kagero was greeted by the familiar sight of the host-club's exquisite double-doors. Placed on the wall next to it were multiple rows of photographs that showcased each of the club's handsome hosts which were available to select from today. There were a few pretty faces whom Kagero had not seen the last time he had come here.

The double-doors swung open and Kagero reflexively stood to attention with his hands at his sides. Stepping out into the corridor was the youngest of the three Ogawa brothers, Ogawa Suteinu. In contrast to Kagero's dark, formal attire, Suteinu wore his personal white suit with a low-cut shirt that granted a small glimpse of his well-shaped chest. The man's earrings softly jingled along with the dog-tags which hung from his neck while Suteinu ran a hand through his fashionable hair, and approached Kagero with a welcoming smile. The cologne that clung to the host's body could practically be smelled from a mile away.

"Well now, look who it is!" Suteinu mused with a voice which had charmed many a customer over the years. Lowering his head to give an exquisite bow, he gestured Kagero over to the open double-doors behind him with an outstretched hand. "Have you come to take some time off from work, or has my eldest brother's 'right-hand man' arrived for something else entirely?"

Kagero ignored the teasing wink Suteinu gave him, and calmly cleared his throat with one hand in front of his face. "While it's certainly good to see you again, Suteinu, I'm unfortunately here on official business." He folded his hands behind his straightened back and took a subtle, curious peek past the host to gaze at the opened doorway. "As always, S.O.N.G. and I would appreciate it if you could grant us whatever information that you currently have available for us. Much of our personnel already have their hands full dealing with the aftermath of the recent global event."

Suteinu let out a playful mixture of a pout and a sigh. "Of course, of course. But let's not stress ourselves too much out here!" In one smooth motion, Suteinu took Kagero by the arm and gestured towards the doors. "I've saved the perfect, non-alcoholic drink for your return, and I'll gladly divulge what I know over a few glasses between you and I." The S.O.N.G. agent could do nothing but hesitantly nod at the charming smile which Suteinu was giving. "Excellent! Oh, I must say, your voice has grown a lot deeper since the last time you came here. I'd ask if you're interested in joining us as a host, but I think my eldest brother would quickly pay me a visit with his fancy sword in hand."

"I certainly won't doubt that," Kagero remarked with a small laugh before the two stepped into the lavish abode of the Absolute Zero. As their clean, leather shoes treaded on the club's carpeted floors, a smooth, jazzy tune flowed through the air, mixing with the voices of the customers who were relaxing on the club's sparkling couches. Kagero glanced around the eccentric lounge to take in the sight of his glamorous surroundings, and it was clear to him that little had changed here despite the recent global tragedy.

Compared to the other host-clubs which Kagero once frequented, the Absolute Zero was a brightly-lit establishment with decor that made it seem as though they had stepped into a royal palace. Many of the club's sharply-dressed hosts could be seen expertly tending to their customers with a combination of bottled drinks, light snacks, and a shower of flowery compliments for their swooning patrons. It seemed that in the aftermath of the recent attack, many of these customers had stepped through the doors of the Absolute Zero to release themselves from the pain which the tragedy placed on them. It was a sentiment that Kagero himself could easily understand.

As the pair walked by the club's countless patrons, the blonde agent's attention was caught by the small stage that was stationed in the middle of the club's massive lounge. Standing on top of it with a microphone in her hand was Morikawa, one of Kagero's old acquaintances from Clan Hida. The last time they had seen each other was during the raid on the Illuminati hideout from over a week ago. While Morikawa was obviously too busy singing her heart on the stage to notice him, it was certainly pleasing to see her enjoy her new life after Clan Hida. The red dress she donned for the occasion suited her more than the Clan's shadowy combat garbs.

The pair approached the club's bar counter and settled themselves on a pair of seats which were stationed far away from the nearest bar patrons. With a snap of his fingers, Suteinu called over the bartender, prompting the handsome man to unveil a large, unfamiliar bottle from the counter's lower cupboards. Kagero watched on with a raised brow as the bartender popped it open with a cheer before pouring out its contents into a pair of tall, readied glasses. Once both glasses had been filled to the brim, the bartender placed them within the reach of the two men, and took his leave with a bow so that he could tend to a couple of handsome men that were calling him over.

Suteinu grabbed the stem of his glass between his fingers and raised it in a modest toast. "To the blooming relationship between you and my dear eldest brother."

Kagero noticed a trio of familiar hosts who were waving at him from the other end of the bar counter, and responded in kind before turning back to Suteinu. "Don't expect me to drink too much on a weekday," he playfully reminded him, picking up his own glass before gently clinking it against Suteinu's. "And while I do appreciate the gesture, Suteinu, I will remind you again that I still have tasks to accomplish by tonight." Bringing the edge of his glass to his lips, Kagero took a small sip of his drink and gulped down the sweet liquid with a subtle smile of approval.

"What would you like to know in particular, Kagero?" Suteinu took a gentle sip of his drink and rested his chin in one hand with a suave smile.

Taking out a small napkin from his suit's inner pockets, Kagero wiped his mouth with the small cloth and quietly replied, "I require information regarding the recent rumours that's been circulating across the world, Suteinu." Kagero emphasized his next few words with a firm voice. "Particularly the ones surrounding the murders of young adult women."

The host's fingers fiddled with the dog-tags which hung around his neck. If Kagero senses weren't as sharp as they were, he wouldn't have noticed the way Suteinu's eyes examined their lively surroundings, subtly ensuring that no unwanted persons were within earshot of their conversation. The joyous singing and catchy music that surrounded them did not cause him to lower his guard down even one bit. "I didn't think S.O.N.G. was looking into that, so you may colour me surprised," Suteinu said, leaning in closer to the blonde agent. "I've been looking into myself. Thus far, I've managed to figure out a few key details that you might want to hear if you're interested."

Kagero took another sip and listened intently with a perfect poker face. "Go on."

Suteinu took out a number of photographs from his pockets and slid them in front of the blonde agent. Each image showcased snapshots of cadavers which had been taken into numerous hospitals all over the world. Judging by their timestamps, the first of these images had been taken as early as the opening hours of the Distortions' global attack. "New York. Kowloon. Melbourne. All of them were carried out by a single gunshot to a chest. My sources have recently received news of a similar murder that's just occurred within Kazamino city, but we've no idea whether this is being carried out by a group or a single person. Still, I'm sure you'll find the evidence to be quite familiar, Kagero."

Another photograph was placed in front of the agent. It was an image of the bullet that had been utilized in each and every one of the murder cases. A bullet that was clearly marked with symbols which pertained to a certain shadow organization. "The Bavarian Illuminati?" Kagero whispered with furrowed brows. The blonde picked up the photograph and held it in front of his face with a small scowl. "Even after everything we've done to wipe them out, they still intend to be a thorn in our side?"

"Tut tut, Kagero," Suteinu whispered, tapping the bar counter with one finger. "While the Illuminati is certainly a persistent cockroach that will not die out so quickly, do remember how easy it can be to undertake operations beneath a false flag." He took the photographs and neatly packed them together before sliding them into the inner pockets of Kagero's suit in one swift motion. "I'm sure Clan Hida is quite familiar with such tactics, after all." Punctuating his words with a sly chuckle, Suteinu returned to his drink and took another sip of it with a satisfied smile.

While Kagero did not appreciate verbal jabs which were aimed at Clan Hida, he could not deny the operations they had carried out for the sake of ensuring Japan's safety. "Fair enough." Kagero reached for the photographs in his suit, and made sure that the hidden kunais next to them were undisturbed by Suteinu's actions. "Is there anything else I should know about, Suteinu?"

Suteinu's smile grew wider, and he signaled the bartender to come over and refill Kagero's half-empty glass. "While this may be completely hear-say, I'm sure that you and your companions will find this next tidbit to be quite interesting." He first waited for the bartender to finish refilling Kagero's drink, and slowly opened his mouth after taking another glance around their lively surroundings. "It's been five years since the Curse of Balal was lifted, hasn't it?"

Kagero went completely-still in his seat and gave a quick, single nod. Even with his precise senses, Kagero suddenly struggled to hear the host's hush words.

"Ever since that day, I've been hearing growing whispers about a possible increase in potential Adaptors all over the world. And while this may explain the recent recruitment of S.O.N.G.'s newest Adaptor..." Suteinu hovered his lips next to Kagero's listening ear, absolutely making sure that no one but them could hear Suteinu's near-silent voice. "... My gut feeling tells me that this subtle change has caught the attention of the mysterious third-party who initially stole the Sword of Damocles."

Chapter 8: The Wounds We've Endured


Thanks you for all the Kudos, Comments and 340+ views! Happy to hear that people are enjoying this work. Unfortunately, life circumstances are getting a bit busy this month, so the next chapter will most likely take a bit longer to put out as well. Happy Halloween though!

Chapter Text

"Jie, watch out!"

Lanfen's eyes shot open to take in a shroud of pitch-back darkness. Her beating heart pounded against her ribcage, acting as a reminder that Lanfen herself still remained in the realm of the living. The Adaptor drew in the cold air to confirm it, filling her lungs completely before letting out a slow, careful exhale. Lanfen repeated this several times, eventually calming down her racing heart with each practiced breath. Once the beating in her chest slowed down to a steady pace, Lanfen gripped the futon she slept on, and pulled herself up into a sitting position. A small groan of annoyance escaped her, aimed at the sweat which drenched the oversized hoodie Lanfen wore.

Combing her long, messy hair with one hand, Lanfen turned her head to the living room's windows before narrowing her sights on the shattered moon which hovered in the winter skies. A digital clock on the shelves showed that it was only several minutes away from 3 AM. The gentle lo-fi music which flowed out of the room's holo-player did little to ease the tension in her shoulders. Shoving aside her blanket, Lanfen approached a nearby wall, and flicked on a single switch, causing a small, yellow lamp on the shelves to light up. The dim illumination it provided was all she needed to step over to thekotatsutable where her smartphone rested next to her laptop, pendant, and wrist device.

As the Adaptor picked up her smartphone, a light jingle rang from the toy which hung from it by a silver chain. Lanfen switched it on, and sat back down on her futon to distract herself by swiping through news reports of recent Distortions attacks. Her fingertip mindlessly swiped from one report to another, but no matter how many of them she read, Lanfen could not wipe away the image her eyes had witnessed beneath the bloodstained rubble of a burning building.

One single word slipped through her lips. "Mei..."

The smartphone in Lanfen's hands slipped from her loosened grip. The light clatter it let out when it hit the wooden floor felt deafening in the relative quiet of the living room. Squeezing her eyes shut, Lanfen grasped the sides of her head while the Adaptor attempted to focus on nothing more than the soft music which streamed out of the room's holo-player. This was not the first time Lanfen had woken up in the middle of the night. And she knew it wasn't going to be her last. Might as well get used to it, she thought to herself. It was just how things were nowadays.

A brief rattling came from Shinonome's bedroom door.

Lanfen slowly lifted her head and looked over her shoulder to spare the doorknob a tired glance. After a few more seconds of waiting, what was once the door to Lanfen's bedroom gingerly opened up. "Jiang?" Shinonome muttered, poking her head through the growing gap in the doorway as she rubbed an eye that was hidden behind her silver fringes.

"Sorry," Lanfen muttered, picking up her smartphone so she could settle it next to her curled-up legs. "Did I... wake you up?"

Shinonome eased the obvious worry in Lanfen's voice with a quiet shake of a head and a soft smile. "Truth be told, I had my own issues with staying asleep," she explained, stepping out of her new bedroom in a long skirt and a turtleneck sweater. "It's admittedly relieving to see that I'm not the only one who's awake at such a time." Shielding a yawn behind her hands, Shinonome made her way over to Lanfen's futon, and gestured if she could sit down next to her. A small nod was all the silver-haired woman needed to make herself comfortable on the soft futon as a minute of silence went on uninterrupted between them.

Uninterrupted, just like the entire day itself. While Distortion attacks were undoubtedly occurring in other places of the world, it was strange to realize that nothing had even occurred in Japan today. Lanfen could feel echoes of the proverbial flames flicker within her eyes, and yet, she could not do anything other than remain on standby. Ayano and Godai had yet to return, so the Adaptor had essentially spent a whole day in the presence of no one but the newest member of Symphogear Team-04. Looking at the way Shinonome stared in astonishment at the shattered moon outside their windows, Lanfen wondered if an uneventful day every now and then wasn't so undesirable.

Especially now that Lanfen wasn't living in her apartment all by herself.

"Jiang," Shinonome began, lifting the veil of quiet between them. She pressed the tips of her fingers against one another before shifting a pair of worried eyes over to Lanfen, clearly hesitating to utter her next few words. "Pardon me for asking this. But... are you alright?"

Shinonome's sudden question made Lanfen's shoulders tense up. "What do you mean?" Lanfen replied, showcasing her poorest attempt at feigning ignorance thus far.

The silver-haired woman twiddled her fingers once again, evidently mustering up the courage to ask whatever she had on her mind. "I... couldn't help but notice that... you were talking in your sleep earlier. Some of the things you said worried me. So..." The further Shinonome explained, the deeper Lanfen subconsciously dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands. "... I may not remember my own past. But I don't mind lending an ear if you're comfortable with it, Jiang. Especially now that we're... well..." She slowly gestured to the dimly-lit room around them. "... Sharing a living space."

Lanfen's throat felt tight, even after she drew in a practiced breath to relax the tension in her body. But a look into Shinonome's golden eyes allowed Lanfen to slowly ease up her hands before folding them over her lap. For once, Lanfen felt nothing emanating from her sword-hand other than the stinging sensation that her own fingernails had left on her palms. Now that she mentioned it, Lanfen had learned everything she could about Shinonome's circumstances. But the same could not be said for the other way around. "Do you really want to know?" she whispered, just in case.

"I do," Shinonome calmly answered. "You all have gone through extensive lengths to help me, haven't you? I feel that it's only right if I could do the same."

She was far too kind for her own good, Lanfen mused to herself. Then again, maybe it wasn't such a bad thing. Taking in another practiced breath, Lanfen picked up the smartphone that was laying next to her feet. The Adaptor then huddled her legs close to her chest and held up her phone in the palm of a stinging hand. The accessory which was hanging from it by a silver chain swung back and forth as Lanfen aimed a pensive gaze at it. Might as well, Lanfen thought to herself. It would be only fair if neither of them were hiding anything from each other.

"... Six years ago... I lost my parents," Lanfen started, her hush voice clear as day in the relative quiet of the living room. Just like she expected, Shinonome casted a knowing glance over to the room's family shrine while her hands subtly gripped onto the futon beneath them. "After they were gone, it was just my little sister and I," Lanfen continued, fixating her eyes back on her phone's hanging accessory. "We still had relatives. If you can even call them that," she bitterly remarked with a scoff. "But let's just say that they didn't think twice about abandoning us. Nobody wanted to associate with a 'girl' like me." The apathetic stares Lanfen witnessed at the memorial service were practically marked into her memory. "It's just how things were back then."

If S.O.N.G. hadn't financially supported them after what happened, there was little doubt that the two sisters would've ended up in the streets, or worse.

No words came from Shinonome, prompting Lanfen to carry on. "I... tried my best to take care of my sister. Being a parent wasn't something I knew well, but she grew up to be an amazing gal anyway. Better than I ever could." Smart. Sociable. Courageous. There were so many words she could use to describe Kai. "But when the Distortions first arrived... we got separated. Just when it looked like it was all over for me, a stranger saved my life, and gave me the very powers I wield right now. I honestly still wonder... if that person was even real."

Finally, Shinonome spoke up. She struggled to even voice the question that was escaping her lips. "... And what about your sister?" she asked, finally looking away from the shrine to set her golden eyes back on Lanfen.

All it required was one simple sentence. And yet, outright answering Shinonome's inquiry felt akin to swallowing a bag of rusty nails. Lanfen assumed that her wounds had all closed up by now, but it turned out that they were still fresh as ever. Drawing in a slow, practiced breath, Lanfen settled her smartphone back down on the futon, relaxed her bare legs on the floor, and met Shinonome's gaze with purple eyes that barely possessed any light in them. "I couldn't save her."

There was no point in beating around the bush. It was a failure which Lanfen could never undo no matter how many Distortions she slew on the battlefield.

Shinonome drew in a shaky breath as Lanfen's eyes remained locked with hers. "The bedroom next to yours," Lanfen whispered. "It was hers. Everything that belonged to her... is stored in there." Everything except for the tablet which Shinonome now utilized, Lanfen thought to herself, sensing something warm gathering in the corners of her tired eyes. Before the Adaptor could even wonder what it was, Lanfen felt the familiar sensation of tears slowly trailing down her cheeks. She guessed that she hadn't truly run out of them like she initially thought.

While Lanfen lifted a hand to wipe away her stray tears, Shinonome directed a heartbroken gaze over to the bedroom door in question. Merely taking in the sight of its dusty doorknob caused her to tremble as Shinonome clearly thought back on what her own actions earlier could have led to. Another question stuttered through her quivering lips, her hands now gripping onto the ends of her skirt. "... What was her name?" Shinonome's voice was hard to hear, even if the music from the room's holo-player barely obfuscated it.

"Kai-Ming." Lanfen wondered if anyone else had even uttered her name in the past few days aside from herself. "Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming. She was only 17." With those hush words finally uttered, Lanfen wiped away the last of her tears, and rested a tired gaze on the living room's windows. A small trembling coursed through Lanfen's hands, all while her ears picked up the soft pitter-patter of Shinonome's teardrops falling onto the futon. The Adaptor couldn't help but despise herself for making Shinonome cry like this. It was her job to make her comfortable in her new home after everything she's been through, after all.

Another veil of quiet draped itself between Lanfen and Shinonome. But it was one that did not feel uncomfortable for even the slightest. Instead, the pair remained at each other's sides, ignoring anything and everything but each other's presence. A memory of the final dinner which Lanfen shared with her sister inadvertently replayed before her eyes. A moment that Lanfen wished she could stretch out for just a while longer. A moment that happened in this very room before everything was changed by the arrival of the Distortions. Lanfen stifled a cry at the cessation of the memory, and slowly parted her lips to finally lift the silence between them.

Before the Adaptor could even utter a single word, Lanfen felt Shinonome's arms carefully wrap themselves around her waist, slowly bringing her into a gentle embrace that Lanfen could not pull away from. Even while the silver-haired woman buried her face in Lanfen's shoulder, the Adaptor could still pick up the sound of Shinonome's soft crying. It was a painful sound to hear as warm teardrops stained her hoodie. Lanfen initially wondered why Shinonome's tears were far stronger than her own. It was her who had lost a sister. And it was only tonight did Shinonome even learn of Kai's existence. Then again, Lanfen knew full well by now that Shinonome possessed a heart which was as tender as it was kind.

The silver-haired woman's ability to wear her emotions on her proverbial sleeves was almost admirable, if anything.

Unable to voice a single word, Lanfen lifted her own shaking arms, and carefully wrapped them around Shinonome's shaking body. She then shifted in her seat, allowing Shinonome to instead cry into the Adaptor's twisting chest. "Thanks..." There were no other words Lanfen could find in her vocabulary to express her feelings. But it was one that perfectly voiced them without misunderstanding. "I guess... we've both been through a lot, haven't we?"

The two kept their arms around each other for a length of time which Lanfen did not care to measure. Her focus was kept solely on Shinonome and her alone. There was nothing else right now that was worth the Adaptor's attention. Not even while Lanfen's heart pounded against her ribcage. Once Shinonome had seemingly shed the last of her own tender tears, the silver-haired woman pulled her tearstained face away from Lanfen, and slowly retracted her arms to wipe her own wet cheeks with the back of her hands.

"And yet... here we are," Shinonome whispered in the middle of a shaky breath. "... Alive and well. Despite everything that's happened. I'm... grateful to be here, Jiang." Her words sounded as genuine as they could have possibly been as Shinonome's teardrops finally dried. A soft smile subsequently returned to her face, shattering the heartbroken expression which Shinonome once wore. The sight of that alone eased the tension within Lanfen's shoulders.

Returning the woman's smile with a small, brief one of her own, Lanfen hesitantly pulled her own arms away from Shinonome, eyes locked with hers the entire time. "So am I," Lanfen admitted with a weak chuckle, resting her still hands back at her sides. "Life is just... unpredictable, isn't it?"

Shinonome responded with a slow, wordless nod before a subtle shade of red crossed her pale face, causing a light flutter within Lanfen's chest. It took some mental effort, but the Adaptor managed to pull her widened gaze away from the Shinonome's golden eyes, letting Lanfen glance at the digital clock which sat on the shelves. To the woman's disbelief, it was now only a few minutes from 4 AM. Lanfen almost wished that this peaceful moment could go on for just a little longer, but it was obvious to the both of them that sleep was eventually going to overtake them. Shinonome needed to recover, and few things made it harder for Lanfen to rest than having an unwell person in her care.

"You should head back to bed," Lanfen gently stated, glancing back at her companion while scratching a bandaged cheek. "Staying up late doesn't exactly do one any favours."

Shinonome pressed the tips of her fingers against one another before giving another slow nod. Lanfen had a feeling that she also wanted to sit down with her for a while longer, but the slow yawn that escaped Shinonome only proved the Adaptor's point. "... Alright," Shinonome quietly whispered, slowly standing up from the futon. After patting down the lengths of her long skirt, the woman lowered her head in a brief but formal bow. "Good night, Jiang," she gently told her. "I hope the both of us can sleep better tonight."

Responding to the formal gesture with a curt nod, Lanfen tried to utter the same thing in response, only for her words to awkwardly lodge themselves in her throat. Were it not for the small giggle that Lanfen's slip-up earned her, the Adaptor would have damned herself for looking silly as she did. "Good night," Lanfen finally said, gripping the futon beneath her with one hand. As she turned away from the Shinonome, the woman's light footfalls sounded clear to her ears. Once the light clicking of the room's locks rang in the air, a small, tired sigh slipped through Lanfen's tightened lips.

Whether or not Lanfen would be able to converse like this with the others remained to be seen. Regardless of the tasks S.O.N.G. had assigned to both Ayano and Godai, Lanfen's two seniors were her teammates as much as Shinonome was. Their duty to monitor her was clearly a formality, and the pair had proven themselves to be as unconditionally kind as every person Lanfen had met in S.O.N.G. thus far. That was something which she could not deny, no matter how strongly Lanfen's instincts advised her to keep up her mental barriers. Gazing at the shattered moon outside the windows, Lanfen simply wished that the circumstances between her and the other Wielders wasn't what it was.

By the time Lanfen finished drying all of Shinonome's newly-bought clothes, the living room's digital clock had reached 8:30 AM. Getting them all done by today initially felt impossible, but the absence of any operations thus far gave Lanfen plenty of time to deal with her errands. After folding up all of Shinonome's clothing inside a plastic trunk outside her bedroom, Lanfen proceeded to take a much-needed bath, her daily pills, and later tied her unkempt hair back into its usual black braid. It was 9 AM when Lanfen stepped out of the bathroom in her Adaptor uniform's shirt and pants. Which meant that it was now the perfect time to get breakfast ready before Shinonome could wake up.

Rice. Grilled fish. Miso soup. An average Japanese breakfast, by all means. But Lanfen spared no effort cooking it all to the best of her abilities. Breakfast was the most important part of a person's day, no matter how insistent Lanfen used to be about skipping it in her youth. Once the finishing touches had been carried out, Lanfen stepped out into the living room kitchen to settle a tray's worth of plates, bowls and utensils on top of the dining table. Right as Lanfen finished scooping out two bowls worth of rice from the cooker, the door to Shinonome's bedroom opened up, letting the silver-haired woman step outside with a small yawn behind her hand.

"Good morning, Jiang," Shinonome politely said, sleepily cupping a pale cheek in one hand.

The messy state of Shinonome's silver hair reminded Lanfen to get her a hairbrush next time. "Slept well, I take it?" Lanfen remarked, prompting the woman to respond with a bright nod. "That makes the both of us then," the Adaptor pleasantly added with a hand on her hip. With no further comment to give, the two women sat down on opposing lengths of the dining table, and clasped their hands together in appreciation for the morning meal. But right as Lanfen's hand reached out for her chopsticks, a prominent twitch coursed through her limb, causing the Adaptor to inadvertedly click her tongue in frustration.

The way Lanfen's twitching hand hovered over her utensils did not go unnoticed by the person right in front of her. "Is something the matter?" Shinonome gently asked, pausing her own breakfast to cast a worried glance over to Lanfen.

It was nothing unusual. Nothing unusual to Lanfen herself, at least. But this was probably the first time anyone had seen her recent tics up close and personal. "I'm fine," Lanfen insisted, tightening her hand into a clenched fist. Slowly settling it on the wooden table, Lanfen took in a practiced breath to ground herself in reality. "It's just hard to relax sometimes," she explained with a glance over to a nearby window. "The Distortions can come anywhere and anytime. Can't exactly let my guard down too often because of that."

The Adaptor's melancholic words shifted Shinonome's concerned look into that of sympathy. "It's the burden that you have to bear wielding such a power, isn't it?" Shinonome's question only received a mild shrug and a tired sigh in response. "Then-" Shinonome muttered, looking around the living room. "Why don't we try a distraction?" she suggested with a single clap of her hands. Setting aside her utensils for now, Shinonome got off her dining chair, and picked up the remote to the room's television set. "This should help take your mind off things."

If only it were that easy, Lanfen thought to herself. Shoveling her tasteless meal into her mouth just so she can get her own breakfast over with, Lanfen watched as the home appliance flickered to life from a tap of a single holographic button. Lanfen expected a rerun ofValkyrangerto be airing at this time, but what appeared on the screen instead was none other than a worldwide, public broadcast. "Wait." Lanfen held up a hand, stopping Shinonome before she could change the channel. "Leave it on for now."

The firmness of Lanfen's request made the silver-haired woman quizzically tilt her head before Shinonome placed down the remote, and returned to both her seat and meal.

There was little doubt about it. The worldwide broadcast was coming from the General Assembly of the United Nations itself. The very organization which funded S.O.N.G.'s efforts as a paranormal task force. While Shinonome quietly dug into her breakfast with the same gusto she had displayed during last night's dinner, Lanfen focused her attention on the television with her elbows on the table. Lanfen could hardly even blink as the live footage showcased a well-dressed United Nations speaker confidently making his way through the hall before standing up on the Assembly's rostrum. Lanfen guessed that they had tuned into the broadcast right as they were planning to start.

"Honourable chairs and fellow delegates," the Speaker began, hands firmly placed on the rostrum's edges. "It is with great pleasure that I stand before you today to herald the arrival of a 'shield'. An unbreakable 'shield' which shall officially be known throughout the world as 'Task Force Harmony'. In combination with the efforts of S.O.N.G., Task Force Harmony promises a world that shall remain impenetrable against even the most horrid of threats to the cradle of Mankind. While we can only mourn for those that were lost in the recent global disaster, the United Nations assures you that no more lives shall be lost to this 'Distortion' menace. Through a unified effort between all hands of Humanity, Mankind's finest soldiers have been summoned to-"

That was all Lanfen could stomach for one morning. Without hesitation, the Adaptor got up from her chair and swiped the remote from thekotatsutable. Once the home appliance had been silenced, Lanfen placed the remote back where it was before, and dropped herself onto her chair with an exasperated sigh. It had barely been 2 days since the Spokesperson first declared the creation of 'Task Force Harmony' to the Symphogear-Wielders. While the deployment of additional arms against the Distortion threat was an understandable one, the idea that Lanfen would operating alongside armed forces only proved that she was more of a soldier than the Spokesperson initially tried to claim.

"Jiang?" Shinonome spoke up. Lanfen lifted her head and noticed the curious gaze which Shinonome had fixated on her from across the dining table. Shinonome fiddled with a strand of her messy, silver hair, a pair of chopsticks still held in her other hand. "That was... related to your work, wasn't it?" she asked, once again walking on proverbial eggshells when it came to matters like this.

"... You could say that," Lanfen muttered with a glance at her own half-eaten meal. A part of her was honestly starting to miss being able to taste her own food. "A lot's changed ever since the Distortions showed up," Lanfen added, resting a chin in the palm of a bare hand. "Whether I like it or not, all I can do is just follow orders. Doesn't really matter what we think about the directions we're told to move in."

"But it's rather unfortunate that you have to resort to such methods, isn't it?" Shinonome's question earned her a curt, wordless nod of agreement. Letting go of the silver strands between her fingers, Shinonome placed her utensils down again before clasping her hands in a prayer. The Adaptor could only blink at the sudden gesture of faith. "Regardless of what happens, I'll be hoping for your continued success, Jiang," Shinonome stated. "You saved my life, after all. I'm sure you'll be able to do the same for others, no matter how difficult your battles may be." Punctuating her words with a kind smile, Lanfen responded to her encouragement with a brief one of her own.

"Thanks, Shinonome," Lanfen whispered, taking her chin off her hand. Even if Lanfen was by no means a fan of the military, their help was undeniably going to be needed if the Distortions ever launched a global-wide assault again. Their goals were presumably one and the same. The separation of the Symphogear-Wielders simply felt like an unnecessary move in light of Harmony's formation. "With the situation as it is, I'll probably be-"

A distinctive ring pierced the living room's air, hushing the pair's conversation in an instant. Lanfen quickly went over to thekotatsutable, and noticed the incoming audio transmission that her wrist device had just received. The contact ID belonged to Tomosato. After letting the device's automatic strap tighten itself around her wrist, a quick tap of a holographic prompt answered the emergency transmission. The bridge operator's voice emitted from the device's speakers before Lanfen could even declare her call-sign.

"Lanfen, our scanners are pinpointing a single rift formation over the city of Mitakihara." The announcement of her report made Lanfen's eyes widen slightly. Mitakihara was the closest city to Yamaku compared to Kazamino and Tokyo. "We're currently unable to estimate when the rift will open, but we've already sent a helicopter over to your current location for retrieval. Both Komichi and Yuki will be heading towards the area in a different transport later on. Yamaku City has yet to declare any evacuation procedures, so Aiko may stay in your location for the time being."

After a day of inactivity, it was time to fend off the Distortions. The mere thought of it made Lanfen's sword-hand ache at her side. "Understood. SG-r04, heading out." Confirming her orders with just those words, Lanfen switched off the transmission before spinning on her heel to face Shinonome. "Sorry, but I'll have to-" Her words halted before Lanfen even finished. Silence was all the Adaptor could give in response to Shinonome having stood up from her chair just so she could place a single, warm finger on Lanfen's parted lips.

"I'll put your breakfast in the fridge for now," Shinonome assured her, slowly pulling the tip of her index finger away from Lanfen's hushed face. "Your role as a protector takes priority over everything else. So, I will only ask that you return safely, Jiang."

Lanfen wondered how Shinonome felt about being unable to do more than stay here while she went out to face the Distortions. It was a thought Lanfen briefly lingered on while the sounds of an approaching helicopter slowly grew outside the apartment's walls. Subconsciously bringing a hand to her own lips, Lanfen blinked before a reply finally came to her. "Alright. I'll be back, Shinonome." The gentle smile that Shinonome responded with gave Lanfen all the energy she needed in place of a full morning meal. Grabbing her black-and-white scarf instead of her Adaptor uniform's tie, Lanfen quickly donned her blue jacket, slid on her gloves, and rushed out of the apartment door in her boots.

There were many ways for Lanfen to realize that she had forgotten to wash her scarf this morning. Finding out that was the case because it still carried Shinonome's scent wasn't a particularly terrible one in her eyes.

A helicopter ride was hardly the most frightening of experiences, even if one possessed a fear of heights. But when the Distortion rifts were capable of emitting 'pulses' that would send aircrafts careening back down into the earth, being escorted to a combat zone by one suddenly became far tenser than it should be. Written reports based on the Distortions attacks declared that the 'pulses' were only possible once a rift was fully formed, but such trivia did little to settle Lanfen as she stood by herself in the middle of the helicopter's cabin. Keeping a tight grip on the cabin's handles with an armoured hand, Lanfen hovered her other gloved hand over her Symphogear's silent headphones.

A Symphogear's ability to regulate her body heat far better than her Adaptor uniform never failed to confuse Lanfen. The black-and-white fibers were practically skin-tight, but not to point that it hindered Lanfen's movements nor caused any physical discomfort. While she had little issue standing inside the cabin with her armoured boots, the three-point crown which sat on Lanfen's head had a bothersome tendency to scrape the cabin's ceiling. Stationed in a piece of armour on her hip was the bladeless hilt of her Armed Gear, ready to be drawn the moment danger showed itself. If the helicopter had a chance of crashing, it wasn't going to happen while Lanfen was untransformed.

Her headphones' built-in communicators finally switched on. "SG-r04, we have arrived at zone M12-C. Prepare for landing," one of the helicopter's pilots announced as per procedure.

"Affirmative. Moving into position," Lanfen responded, letting go of the safety handles so she could position herself on the side of the cabin where the sliding doors were. With a single glance outside the window, Lanfen could see that they were mere minutes from touching down on the perfectly-evacuated streets of Mitakihara. A quick tap of her headphones switched the communications line back to the S.O.N.G. submarine's command center. "This is SG-r04, I've arrived at the designated area."

To the crowned warrior's surprise, it was Commander Genjuuro himself that responded to her in place of either Fujitaka or Tomosato. "Lanfen, we've already finished evacuating all non-combatants from the area. While the rift has yet to open, I want you to meet up with the armed forces that have established a defensive perimeter around the rift. As sudden as it may be, this will be S.O.N.G.'s first official joint operation. I'm counting on you to be on your best behaviour once you're on the ground."

The Commander's words prompted the raise a brow from Lanfen. "A 'joint operation'?"

The subsequent juddering of the helicopter's cabin cut off her question. Hearing an audio signal to depart from the craft, Lanfen carefully unlocked the cabin's sliding door before pulling it aside with a gauntlet-covered hand. The armoured boots she wore loudly clanked upon making contact with the concrete streets, audibly announcing the Adaptor's presence while white snow from the skies blanketed the roads around her with white. The growing rift in the sky would have been the first thing that caught Lanfen's attention, were it not for the fact that the crowned warrior wasn't all by herself in these evacuated streets.

APCs. 'Armoured-Personnel-Carriers'. True to their name, Lanfen spotted at least three of the large vehicles down the road, forming a makeshift barrier with the sheer size of each eight-wheeled, black-painted vehicle. All three carriers had the emblem of 'Harmony' emblazoned on their armour, instantly indicating who they were while the machine guns which were built into their copulas all swiveled in the direction of the newborn rift. As Lanfen approached the road blockade, squads of well-armed soldiers filed out of the carriers to take positions in the empty buildings around them. The one Lanfen assumed to be in charge marched towards the Adaptor as soon as they had finished giving out their orders with precise hand-signals.

Advanced body armour. Holstered ballistic rifles. Sleek, full-face helmets. Similar to the heavy vehicles they utilized, the combat uniforms Harmony's forces wore were done in a dark black while their right arms were fashioned with 'Harmony' armbands. The U.N. weren't sparing any expenses, Lanfen thought to herself while she strode over to the soldier. With utmost formality, the helmeted person before her stood to attention before greeting Lanfen with a sharp salute. "Good morning. I'm assuming that you are SG-r04?"

"Affirmative." Lanfen returned the formal salute, noting that the soldier stood a few centimeters taller than herself despite the height Lanfen's armoured boots provided. "I take it that you're in command here?" she asked, glancing at the other soldiers which were taking firing positions inside the evacuated buildings around them.

Since the rift above them had yet to open, the helmeted soldier calmly continued on. "Correct, SG-r04. I am Field Captain Yaiba Isamu," they said, gesturing to several badges on their body armour. "While I'm sure that this may be sudden for you, my forces and I look forward to seeing a Symphogear-Wielder fight up close and personal." They politely extended a hand for Lanfen to shake with. "Especially since this is the first official joint operation between S.O.N.G. and Task Force Harmony respectively."

If Lanfen was sure of one thing, it was that she wasn't going to be seeing herself as a soldier anytime soon, nor in the far future. A Symphogear-Wielder was so much more than that in her eyes. "Of course," Lanfen said, grabbing their outstretched hand to give a firm handshake. First impressions mattered if she was going to represent S.O.N.G.'s Symphogear-Wielders. "I'll make sure to keep an eye out if you need any assistance, Captain."

"Rest assured that we'll do whatever it takes to pull our own weight, SG-r04," Captain Yaiba said, pulling their hand away at the end of the gesture. "As long as we work well together, those damn monsters won't even know what hit them." As formal as the Captain sounded, Lanfen could sense that they were eager for a fight against the Distortions as much as Lanfen was herself. Before the crowned warrior could comment upon it, the communicators in both of their headgears rang with an audio transmission, prompting the duo to tap into their communicators in unison.

Operator Tomosato came up on her Symphogear's headphones. "Lanfen, scanners are estimating less than 5 minutes until the rift opens up," Tomosato declared, making Lanfen's sword-hand ache with anticipation. "Energy signatures designate them to be Category-1s. Armour-Types. We're counting at least fifty- Wait-" There was a brief pause. "Additional energy signatures detected! Category-2s are coming through the rift. Blade-Types. There's only two of them, but take caution confronting them, Lanfen! This is the first time we've detected Distortions of a higher Category."

"Understood," Lanfen calmly responded, retracting her hand from her headgear. If the Distortions were playing their stronger cards now, then the crowned warrior was more enticed than worried. Cutting through cannon fodder like Category-1s hardly sated the proverbial fires within her.

"We'll deal with the Category-1s," Captain Yaiba stated, tapping commands into their arm-bracer's digital pad to communicate with their squadrons. "We've already secured a defensive perimeter around the rift and all my troops have established firing positions. The moment the Distortions come in, we're going to light them up from every direction. I'd suggest that you remain on standby until the Category-2s arrive." A ring of confirmation resounded from the Captain's arm-bracer as they gave another salute which Lanfen returned in kind. "Are you fine with this plan, SG-r04?"

The plan they offered wasn't one which Lanfen could sensibly disagree with. "Affirmative," Lanfen said, already anticipating what the Category-2s were capable of. "Let's take care of this quick."

As if on cue, an earth-shattering thunderclap roared in the skies above their heads, encouraging the Captain to sprint back to the APCs while Lanfen shot a scornful glare at the giant 'crack' that expanded in Mitakihara's skyline. The Adaptor memorized the process at this point. In the span of few heartbeats, the giant crack in reality violently grew into a shimmering, pulsing rift that was heralded by an ear-piercing, inhuman wail. The unholy noise only made the proverbial fires in Lanfen's eyes reawaken with an incessant desire. With Task Force Harmony ready to assist her, Lanfen simply remained where she stood, and watched on as armoured bodies started descending from the rift.

A cacophony of gunfire erupted the very moment the first of the Category-1s showed themselves. As a dozen gun barrels simultaneously roared to life, countless armoured bodies of ebony were chewed to pieces by the ensuing hail of lead. Lanfen's headphones tuned out the deafening noise with ease, allowing her to quietly observe the machine guns that were relentlessly barking from the copulas of Harmony's APCs around the city. Each heavy weapon contributed a seemingly unending stream of .50 caliber rounds from their barrels, backing up the pinpoint rifle fire which were coming from a multitude of different buildings, ensure that not a single Distortion could make landfall in one unharmed piece. A quick tap of Lanfen's headphones allowed her to listen in on the precise orders that Captain Yaiba was calmly distributing to their soldiers.

Lanfen's aching sword-hand rested on the pommel of her stowed weapon the entire time she watched on. The proverbial fires within her eyes flickered, silently demanding the Category-2s to arrive just so Lanfen could test her mettle against sterner opponents. By the time Fujitaka's voice spoke up over the comms, Lanfen's fingers had already curled themselves around the hilt of her bladeless sword.

"Category-2s detected! They're about to make their way through the rift!"

Focusing her vision on the armoured bodies that were descending from the tear in reality, Lanfen spotted two distinct emerald bodies amidst the army of ebony knights. Unlike the Category-1s which were persistently flowing from the rift, Harmony's hail of gunfire could do nothing but harmlessly bounce off their metallic forms, allowing the Category-2s to descend into the streets unharmed while sunlight reflected off the silver armour trims that distinguished them from their lesser warriors. Taking this to be her cue, Lanfen bolted into a running start, and leaped over the makeshift roadblock established by the three APCs ahead of her. Their predicted zone of descent wasn't far from her current location.

"This is SG-r04, I'm moving in to engage the enemy." Those were the only words Lanfen needed to announce as she raced down the evacuated, snow-covered roads in the direction of her descending enemies.

Two. Only two human-sized bodies had managed to slip through the gunfire that was tearing into rift's descending forces. Their bodies were noticeably slimmer compared to the Category-1s, but that didn't stop the Category-2s from crashing into Mitakihara's concrete roads with the force of falling meteorite, conjuring a thundering rumble which echoed throughout the streets. Lanfen skidded to a halt several meters away from the crater their landing had created, her bladeless hilt already in her hand as she watched the two emerald knights slowly clamber out of the crater to glare at the black-and-white Symphogear-Wielder. A distinct, metallic hissing could be heard slithering out from the crimson visors of their sharp helmets.

A thick blade sprung forth from the golden cross-guard of the Sword of Damocles. In response to the crowned warrior's attempt at intimidation, the two Distortions eagerly unsheathed the two-handed, pitch-black swords which were strapped onto their backs.

Lanfen could only scoff at the sheer length of their two-handed blades. Swiftly brandishing her own one-handed sword, the proverbial fires within the crowned warrior's eyes sparked into a whirling inferno. The unending cacophony of Harmony's gunfire could not drown out the electro-swing jazz that loudly blared from her Symphogear's built-in speakers. "Commencing with the elimination of the enemy."

A blade swung at Lanfen's face before her lyrics could even begin. She gritted her teeth and smacked away the strike with a resoundingclang. Tightening her gloved fingers around the hilt of her sword, Lanfen's eyes darted left and right as the blinding speed of the Distortion's attacks defied the imposing size of its two-handed weapon. Piano keys resonated in the winter air alongside the screeching of metal grinding against metal, punctuated by the armoured feet that stomped into the concrete while the two blitzed at each other in a duel of finesse, predictions, and control. A ballet of violence where both participants parried and slashed with extreme prejudice.

"I don't know who I am and that's okay, but what's going to happen today?"A black blade sliced into Lanfen's waist, effortlessly cutting through her Symphogear's protective barrier with a flurry of sparks and blood."M-My brain burns like it'll explode, begging for it to not implode."Ignoring the spillage of her own ichor, the crowned warrior fought through the pain, and went straight for the Distortion's head. The subsequent screech of her blade being parried with utmost ease provoked a frustrated click of Lanfen's tongue.

She knew they weren't taking her seriously. The non-fatal nature of their strikes made it obvious. While the Sword of Damocles continued its dance of death with an almost rhythmic clashing of metal, the other Category-2 silently stood by the crater, observing their duel with its own two-handed weapon in its hands. The gall of such a gesture from a battle automata only stoked the proverbial fires within Lanfen's eyes.

"Can I fly before rolling out the die? Am I allowed to cry before I finally try-?"A sundering, upward blow smacked the Sword of Damocles out of Lanfen's grip and into the air. Saxophones roared in defiance, seemingly cheering Lanfen on as the black blade descended to split her down the middle. The crowned warrior gritted her teeth, narrowed her purple eyes, and clenched her hands into fists."My brain is on fire, I'll never understand. I'm going to tire, blazed from every demand."

Lanfen crashed her knuckles into the flat sides of the Distortion's blade, catching it right in front of her face as the blade shattered into a hundred broken, black shards. The closest thing to 'surprise' that a Distortion could show occupied her opponent while Lanfen sent it reeling back with a sharp kick into its abdomen. Lanfen then swung her gaze upwards, spotted her falling sword, and caught it by the hilt to brandish the Sword of Damocles in a show of defiance. The disarmed Distortion promptly stared at its broken weapon, and signaled its waiting companion to take over while it held an open, glowing palm over its shattered blade.

"I want to be under the tree in my dreams."A different pitch-black blade crashed against the Sword of Damocles."T-To breathe clean air above the depths."Blood oozed from six different wounds across Lanfen's body."All I have to do is c-climb the steps!"The second Category-2's relentless barrage of swings pushed the crowned warrior back with each mighty blow. Its two-handed sword struck with the speed of a dagger and the force of a sledgehammer. Ducking underneath a decapitating strike, Lanfen lunged for a decisive blow, only to falter when the pain of her accumulating injuries wracked throughout her body.

The split-second window of vulnerability was all the Distortion needed to slice into Lanfen's abdomen with an accompanying shower of sparks and blood.

Holding back a cry of pain, the crowned warrior leaped backwards, a hand tightly gripping onto her blood-soaked abdomen. The Symphogear's internal systems did its work to suppress the pain, giving Lanfen the ability to remain standing while the Distortion glanced at the fresh blood which stained its pitch-black blade. Patches of crimson grew on Lanfen's black-and-white fibers, but she had no time to worry about that, for the other Category-2 was suddenly missing. Scanning the streets around her with heavy eyes, Lanfen spotted the other Category-2 waiting several meters behind her with a now-repaired blade. Adrenaline pumped through her veins as the two Distortions glared at Lanfen from two different directions, stoking the proverbial fires within her eyes.

Black-and-white flashed in Lanfen's vision. The steel letters before her eyes slammed onto a cracking chessboard, spelling out the name,"Rook Reflector."

"Can I light my flame without burning my eyes?"

The Distortions raised their swords in unison and blitzed at Lanfen for a simultaneous killing blow.

"Will I be able to see past all the filthy lies?"

Metallic stakes erupted from the back of her armoured boots to stab into the snowy, blood-stained concrete. Glowing panels sprung open on the sides of Lanfen's thigh armour. Crossing her arms over her pounding chest, Lanfen narrowed her eyes as a translucent, dome-shaped barrier flashed into existence around her wounded body. The Distortions' black blades crashed into her force-field with an ear-piercing screech, causing arcs of electricity to vomit into the air.

"No idea where to look without being blinded."The absorbed kinetic force of their attacks circulated around Lanfen's translucent barrier."From the burns you all have provided."A single mental command shattered the dome-shaped force-field, transforming it into an outwards wave of paralyzing energy that sent the two Distortions reeling backwards in silent agony. Their black swords clattered to the snowy ground as the Category-2s fell onto their knees, unable to do more than spasm uncontrollably from the energies that coursed through their emerald forms.

Another flash of black-and-white. The steel letters slammed onto the chessboard to now declare,"Queen Quicksilver."

"I'll breathe with no ashes in my lungs. Not knowing what I have begun."Her armoured boots retracted their hydraulic stakes. The panels on her thighs slammed themselves shut. Armour slid forth from her headphones, forming a sleek, white mask over her face with a large pair of circular, compound eyes. As the mask connected to her three-point crown, the Queen chess-piece on her right shoulder emitted a deep humming noise. The roar of the pauldron's awakening power generators sent a revitalizing vibration throughout Lanfen's entire body."I'll ignite the fire that burns so loudly. My torch won't stop shining brightly."

Falling snow halted mid-air. The speeding bullets which tore into the falling Category-1s above her slowed into a crawl. As speed beyond Lanfen's comprehension channeled through her Symphogear, a holographic timer appeared on the insides of her armoured mask.

Ten seconds.

The crowned warrior sped towards the Distortion that was the first to draw her blood. Slamming her sword into her hip armour, Lanfen picked up the knight's newly-repaired, two-handed blade from the ground, and lifted it over her head. All form of martial grace had been thrown out the proverbial window. With the Distortion's own sword in her hand, Lanfen bludgeoned the emerald knight's body with nothing more than the intent to kill. Each savage strike tore into its chest-plate little by little, all while emerald sand spilled from its cracking form in slow-motion. A thirteenth, final blow sent the suit of armour slowly flying backwards, breaking apart the bits of snow which had gone inert from Lanfen's point-of-view.

Six seconds.

Tossing the two-handed weapon back into the ground, Lanfen drew out the Sword of Damocles, and leaped over to the remaining Category-2. The crowned warrior's armoured knee rammed into its faceplate with a slow, resoundingclangas the knight was forced onto its back. With the emerald Distortion lying helplessly beneath her, Lanfen stomped her boot onto its chest, pinning it to the concrete while she gripped the hilt of her sword in an aching sword-hand. Lanfen granted the Distortion four seconds to comprehend its situation before thrusting her thick blade straight into the glowing visor of its helmet. The Distortion's desperate death throes still couldn't sate the fires within her eyes.

Not even while the crowned warrior's blade remained firmly planted within a knight's ruptured helmet.

Zero seconds.

The white snow around her resumed their gentle descent. The bodies of two Category-2s exploded into heaps of emerald sand. The roar of one final gunshot echoed throughout the city, and Lanfen's whirring shoulder pauldron slowly died out along with her jazz music. Retracting her faceplate back into her headphones, Lanfen collapsed onto one knee before hurling a mouthful of blood into the palm of her left hand. With the Sword of Damocles still held in her sword hand, Lanfen heaved for air as a distinctive wailing came from above, telling her all she needed to know that the rift in Mitakihara's skyline had already vanished. Subsequent reports over the comms confirmed the successful elimination of the Distortion forces.

Blood trailed down from both her wounds and the corner of Lanfen's mouth. Strangely thankful that she could not taste the ichor on her tongue, Lanfen brought a blood-stained hand to her headphones, and tapped into its comms with a pained wince. "Sg-r04 here. The D-Distortions have been eliminated." It was hard to focus on Tomosato's procedural response. Simply retracting the blade of her sword just so she could stow it away on her hip armour provoked surges of pain from five different points of her body. With the battle now over, Lanfen took in a deep breath, and rose up to her feet. Her armoured legs proceeded to instantly give out underneath her. The crowned warrior wasn't even surprised.

Firm hands caught Lanfen by her gauntlet-covered arms before she could fall face-first onto the hard concrete.

Holding back another wince of pain, Lanfen slowly glanced around her to see Godai and Ayano standing at her sides with their arms on her wounded body. Visibly dressed in their navy blue S.O.N.G. uniforms, the two women carefully placed the Adaptor's arms around their necks in a combined effort to carry the injured Lanfen. The Symphogear-Wielder would insist that she was fine, were it not for the fact that Lanfen could barely feel her legs. While Godai greeted Lanfen with a proud thumbs-up, Ayano lifted the tension in the air through a simple, cheerful smile.

"Just leave to rest to us, okay?" Ayano said, her tight grip on the wounded Lanfen betraying the concern behind the smile she wore.

Responding with a slow nod, Lanfen wordlessly commanded her Symphogear to disperse into a rising batch of black-and-white particles. The matching scarf around Lanfen's neck provided her some level of comfort in spite of the injuries underneath her Adaptor uniform. Pulling her tired gaze away from her two teammates, Lanfen spotted Captain Yaiba jogging over to them with a medical team at their side. Lanfen could barely hear what the Captain was saying at this point. The annoyed groan which came out of Godai implied that it was nothing convenient. Whatever it was, the soft embrace of an emergency stretcher was all it took for Lanfen's conscious to finally drift away into darkness.

Lo-fi. The ambient, soft rhythmic tunes of lo-fi music was the only way Lanfen could bring herself to sleep. And it was the only way Lanfen could wake up without feeling the urge to strangle her alarm. Her consciousness slowly came to with each gentle beat that entered her ears like drops of water from a drizzle of rain. When Lanfen managed to lift her heavy eyelids, the plain ceiling of her apartment was the first thing which greeted her. It was a sight Lanfen gratefully welcomed alongside the warm comfort of her futon. As her blurry version began to clear up, Lanfen initially assumed that she had been dreaming. The sharp stinging sensations she subsequently felt across her body dispelled any possibility of something as silly as that.

Stifling a pained wince, the Adaptor gently pulled herself up into a sitting position. Just slow enough that her bandaged wounds wouldn't reopen from mere overexertion.

A quick peek underneath her blanket showed Lanfen that she was still in her Adaptor uniform, with the obvious exception of her scarf, boots, and everything she had worn on the top half of her body. Medical-wraps covered up most of her torso, preserving some level of modesty while her injuries healed up underneath them. Shifting her gaze over to the living room's shelves, it was apparent that three hours had passed since Lanfen went out. The sounds of clanging pots and pans could also be heard from the kitchen. Bringing her attention back to her injuries, Lanfen had a feeling that she wouldn't be able to train in a state like this. It was frustrating, but it was still impressive that she was able to move as well as she could right now. The medical technology of both S.O.N.G. and Task Force Harmony were not to be underestimated.

"Jiang," a familiar voice exclaimed, prompting Lanfen to swing her gaze over to the kitchen doorway. Concern was clear all over Shinonome's half-concealed face as she stood there with a hand over her mouth. Before Lanfen could even say anything, Shinonome rushed over to her side, and placed her hands on Lanfen to make the injured woman lie back down. "While the others assured me that you will be alright, please refrain from moving too much!" Shinonome fretted, tucking Lanfen back into her futon.

Was this the first time Shinonome ever raised her voice, Lanfen wondered, her head now resting on top of her pillow. While her injuries weren't as painful as they were before, Shinonome had a point, so Lanfen didn't resist when she was forced to relax in the comfort of her warm futon. Once the Adaptor had settled down, Shinonome let out a huff, and took a seat at Lanfen's side. "Godai and Ayano," Lanfen muttered, unable to remember anything that happened after the battle. "... Where are they?"

"They were with you the entire time your injuries were treated," Shinonome explained, placing a hand on her pale cheek. "They came by earlier to drop you off before mentioning something about 'needing to stay back and investigate the site with the Task Force', or so they said. They'll be coming back later, so they asked me to watch over you until then." The concern in her voice was obvious, even if Lanfen found it difficult to focus with the headache which wracked her skull. "My apologies. I simply... didn't expect to see you come back like this."

From where Lanfen lied down, she could see her wrist device, pendant, and smartphone all sitting on thekotatsutable behind Shinonome. Mid-noon sunlight from the room's windows shone a soft glow on her belongings as Lanfen gave a dry chuckle, and a small shake of her head. "I'm fine," Lanfen hoarsely insisted. It probably made her sound silly considering the state of her body underneath her blanket. "Just ran into some tougher enemies, that's all."

Lanfen did her best to let her injured body melt away into the warmth of the futon while Shinonome quietly remained at her side. The Adaptor was in no state to fight, but with Task Force Harmony out there, Lanfen was admittedly relieved that she now wasn't the only one who Japan was counting on to protect it from the Distortions. It was certainly easier to rest up in the presence of someone like Shinonome. Not that Lanfen would admit it, of course. As the lo-fi music from the room's holo-player chased away the silence, Lanfen glanced back at the quiet woman, Shinonome's fingers noticeably twiddling on top of her lap. Strangely enough, there was no flicker of curiosity in Shinonome's golden eyes.

Lanfen's gut feeling told her that it was something else entirely this time. "Something on your mind?" she asked. The silver-haired woman visibly flinched in her seat.

Pulling her twiddling hands away from one another, Shinonome rested them at her sides while she avoided Lanfen's tired gaze. "I suppose so," she admitted, staring out the nearest window to observe the falling snow with pursed lips. "But it simply doesn't feel right to mention it when you're all hurt like this."

A light scoff escaped Lanfen. Questions during inopportune moments were something that Lanfen had become used to ever since she first came out of the proverbial closet. "There's nothing for me to hide, Shinonome," Lanfen told her, resting her bandaged hands on top of her aching, blanket-covered chest. "Especially after last night. I'm not going anywhere soon like this, so there's no better time than now, in my opinion." Despite Lanfen's attempted casualness, the unease on Shinonome's face did not leave her.

About a minute had passed before Shinonome finally spoke up again. The trepidation in her tone was clear.

"Ever since last night, I was wondering about something," Shinonome began, twirling a strand of her silver hair between two fingers. "... Something which I couldn't ask without worry of potentially upsetting you." While Lanfen remained silent on her futon, Shinonome looked over to thekotatsutable, and set her sights on Lanfen's wrist device. "But I wanted to know," she admitted, releasing her hair from her fingers. "So, after you came back, I picked up that item of yours, and went through some of S.O.N.G.'s records. I found yours because..." The Adaptor steeled herself for Shinonome's next words. "... I wanted to know who was it that was responsible for your sister's passing."

In spite of Lanfen's efforts, she could not stop the proverbial fires from flickering within her purple eyes. For once, Lanfen found their mere presence to be nothing more than intrusion on her mind. Squeezing her eyes shut, the Adaptor drew in a slow, practiced breath before fixating a tired gaze on the ceiling above her. Nobody could be certain whether or not her sister's killer was even related to the Distortions, but Lanfen still maintained her desperate belief that fighting them would one day lead her to that mysterious cloaked being.

"My apologies if I-"

"Don't," Lanfen whispered, swiftly cutting off Shinonome's unnecessary apology. "Like I said... I have nothing to hide. Anyone who's a part of S.O.N.G. has the right to know what happened, Shinonome."

While the silver-haired woman was hardly reassured by the Adaptor's calm words, Lanfen truly held nothing against her for diving into S.O.N.G.'s records. It was Shinonome, after all. They were teammates now. And Shinonome's curiosity was to be expected of her at this point. To Lanfen, it was all an open secret. There was no point in hiding how she had ended up as S.O.N.G.'s seventh Adaptor. How Lanfen froze in the face of an enemy despite the power she held. How her own little sister paid the price for a moment's hesitation. Lanfen could not change what happened that night. All she could do now was determine her current path with the Sword of Damocles in hand.

Pulling her gaze away from the plain ceiling, the guilt which Lanfen witnessed on Shinonome's face made her wounded chest twist ever so slightly. "I guess... you know why I fight now," she muttered, partially wondering if Shinonome's image of a singing warrior in black-and-white had now changed into something else. "It's not surprising that it's for something as simple as revenge... isn't it?"

Shinonome gave no verbal response to Lanfen's hush, self-deprecating words. Instead, the silver-haired woman lifted one of her arms, and gently placed a warm palm on top of the Adaptor's bandaged, folded hands. Shinonome's fingertips felt cold. Just like when Lanfen had first saved in her in that snowy glade. But Shinonome's gentle touch somehow extinguished the proverbial fires within Lanfen's eyes over the span of five, steady heartbeats. As their hands sank and rose with the rhythmic movements of Lanfen's breathing, the Adaptor could see Shinonome's gaze pan over to her red pendant on the table this time.

"Can I say something?" Shinonome carefully asked. A curt nod was all Lanfen believed she needed. "... While I understand your desire for retribution, would it truly be wise for you to shoulder the blame for what had happened?" Her soft words inadvertently provoked a mild shiver in Lanfen's folded hands, even as Shinonome gently tightened her grip over them. "You were a normal person before you achieved your power, weren't you? If Kai-Ming was as wonderful as you make her out to be, wouldn't she want her sibling to do more than just burden herself with such a desire-?" Shinonome halted her own words before she could continue, allowing the music to flow between them again.

Shinonome's palm remained on top of Lanfen's inert hands. Her gaze remained on a glimmering, red pendant. While regret clearly crept into Shinonome's face, Lanfen remained quiet, and looked behind the silver-haired woman to gaze at the living room's family shrine. Would her parents consent to the oath which Lanfen made upon becoming an Adaptor, she wondered? Or would they be saying the same things as Shinonome right now? Regardless of the answer that Lanfen knew would never come, it's not like fate had even given her the opportunity to act out on her desperate wishes. The cloaked being was still nowhere to be found. And her simple desire for revenge had not inconvenienced her nor anyone else, as far as Lanfen could see.

There was a hint of hesitation when Shinonome pulled her palm away from Lanfen's hands. Returning it back to her side, the conversation between them continued when Shinonome parted her laps once again. "I'm sorry for intruding in your business, Jiang," she said, finally looking back at Lanfen. "I just can't help but worry for others sometimes."

Lanfen retorted with a slow shake of her head, "Never apologize for showing concern for others, Shinonome." The Adaptor's words were emphasized with the smallest smile she could muster. "... It's only human to do such a thing. I'm sure anyone would appreciate that level of kindness." Whatever effect Lanfen's improvised words had on Shinonome, she could at least see most of the unease on the silver-haired woman's face slowly wash away.

"I suppose so..." Shinonome cupped her cheek with one hand before slowly glancing over to the kitchen doorway. "I'll... go and reheat your breakfast." As Shinonome motioned to stand back up, Lanfen's bandaged hand suddenly grabbed her by the wrist, keeping the silver-haired woman at her side just for a little longer.

The Adaptor herself didn't know why she did it. The sudden action itself provoked a few surges of pain on at least three points of her body. The surprise that was writ upon Shinonome's face silenced Lanfen for a few seconds as they gazed into one another's eyes. It took a slow, practiced breath for Lanfen to retrieve her voice. "... Thanks, Shinonome. For being here," Lanfen whispered. "I... hope you can get back your memories soon."

There was that flicker in Shinonome's golden eyes again. A bright shine which was followed up by an earnest smile. "... And I hope that you will find closure one day, Jiang," Shinonome responded, taking one last look at the red pendant which sat on thekotatsutable. "One doesn't deserve to bear such a weight. Especially when you have the safety of so many others already on your shoulders."

Lanfen couldn't find the words to respond to such a melancholic statement. So, she just remained quiet, and slowly loosened her grip around Shinonome's thin wrist. Once both of Lanfen's hands had returned to her blanket-covered chest, Shinonome took a small, polite bow, and stepped through the kitchen doorway.

The Adaptor stared at the ceiling again while the silence was kept away by the holo-player's gentle beats. Resting up was all she could do for now, as much as Lanfen hated to admit it. While the softness of her futon wasn't something she could complain about, the pain Lanfen felt this morning was a sensation she would never forget. It was the first battle where the Distortions had managed to spill her blood. And it was a reminder that Lanfen still had much to do before she was on the same level of expertise as Tachibana, Kazanari, and all the other Symphogear-Wielders. Lanfen needed to remain strong in the face of these growing threats, even if it was becoming clear to her that the fire in her eyes would only be extinguished by the death of no one else but her sister's killer.

A Distortion attack was the last thing that Morikawa Renge needed right after waking up to prepare brunch. In accordance with Mitakihara's disaster procedures, the ex-operative of Clan Hida had evacuated to the city's underground bunkers until the fighting on the surface subsided. Due to the usual efforts of S.O.N.G. and the newly-sortied squadrons of Task Force Harmony, only about an hour had passed when the citizens were told that they could return to their usual affairs. Now that the city had gone back to its usual atmosphere, Renge was free to continue packing up all of her belongings inside the cardboard boxes that crowded out her small apartment.

The woman quietly sang to herself as she cleared the shelves of her bedroom. While an apartment in Tokyo wasn't exactly the cheapest of places, the fact that it was going to be covered by her new workplace relieved any stress Renge would have received. Ogawa Suteinu himself had personally given the clearance for her new apartment, so Renge was completely prepared to work herself to the bone to fully express her thanks to the man. She was no longer a part of Clan Hida, and yet, it seemed like a twist of fate that Renge still found herself indebted to another member of the Ogawa family. Suteinu at least felt far more easier to approach than his older brother, Souji.

After sealing up the fifth cardboard box in her room with a roll of duct tape, Renge turned around to a pile of belongings that she had left on her bed. The woman scrounged through a mess of nail polish, DVDs, and game cartridges before grabbing a brush to tidy up her short, boyish hair. The howling of the klaxons had erupted in the middle of her morning rituals earlier this morning, so Renge could hardly describe herself as anything more than a visual mess right now. As Renge tossed her hair brush aside, the smartphone that sat in the pockets of the old, high-school tracksuit she wore began to ring.

"Oh?" Renge slid her phone into her palm and tapped on the screen to see that it was Tsuchiya Kagero contacting her. Knowing how serious the right-hand man of Ogawa Souji often was, Renge expected nothing casual to come out of this conversation. "What's up?" she said, bringing the smartphone to her ear. "It's not often that I get a phone call from you, Tsuchiya."

"Morikawa," Tsuchiya began, sounding as formal as always. "I apologize for the sudden contact, but I wanted to confirm if you-" A wave of static suddenly spilled out of her phone's speakers, drowning out Tsuchiya's words while Renge winced from the harsh, garbled noise. Pulling the smartphone away from her ear, incomprehensible fragments of Tsuchiya's voice could be heard amidst the static for a few seconds before the line completely cut off by itself.

"What the...?" Renge shot an annoyed look at her smartphone and saw that it had completely lost connection. Odd, she thought to herself. The network in Mitakihara never really got as bad as this. "Ah, whatever," she groaned, glancing back at the boxes which crowded her tiny bedroom. "I'll just call him back later on." Leaving her smartphone on her bed with a messy pile of belongings, Renge stretched her arms before heading out of her room for a nice bottle of soda. Packing up her belongings was hard work, even if Clan Hida had trained her through far more stressful circumstances.

Stepping out of the apartment's only bedroom, the living room appeared like one would expect of someone that was about to move out to greener pastures. Stacked cardboard boxes took up whatever space Renge could sacrifice without hampering her ability to navigate her apartment. While the woman could simply rely on her training to slip through tight spaces with ease, Renge would prefer to not resort to skills that she intended to leave behind. Her life in Clan Hida was in the past. Her life as a host-club's songstress was her future. Letting out a yawn that she didn't bother to hide, Renge strolled over to the kitchen doorway when the hairs on the back of her neck slowly stood upright.

Dark blue flashed in the corner of her eye, prompting Renge to instinctually halt in her footsteps.

"You certainly have quite the voice, Lady Morikawa," a sultry voice suddenly addressed Renge as though she were but a child.

Careful as to not make any alarming movements, Renge turned her head in the direction of the living room's couch. Sweat dotted her tanned skin. Her hands were ready to defend herself at a moment's notice. When Renge finally laid her eyes on the figure that had made their presence known in the privacy of her apartment, the woman could not stop herself from drawing in a sharp breath. Years of operating in Clan Hida had honed her senses to the peak of human potential, and yet, Renge had not heard even a single footstep from anyone other than herself in the past hour.

Sitting on the living room's couch with their back turned to Renge was a lone, adult woman. Her voice clearly made her out to be a foreigner, and from what Renge was able to see, the woman possessed pale skin that could almost be perceived as a 'ghostly-white'. Her medium-length hair was neat and trim, and it was coloured in a dark blue that matched the azure, diamond-patterned suit she wore. Seemingly unaware of the fear that her mere presence was instilling within Renge, the pale woman lifted a hot cup of tea between her gloved fingers before taking a slow, gentle sip that maintained the silence between them.

Renge attempted to sound as calm as possible despite the jitters that were coursing through her. "... Can I help you?" she asked, carefully stepping towards the room's dining table in an attempt to not provoke her intruder. Renge's eyes did not leave the stranger's back for even one second. Not even as Renge slowly sat down on one of the dining chairs, and slowly brought her hands underneath the table. Not even as her fingers drew closer to the suppressed pistol that was attached to the table's underside by a magnetic lock.

The pale stranger's gloved hand placed her teacup back on a saucer with a softclinkthat felt deafening in the silence of the living room. "I have been listening to your voice for quite some time now," the intruder stated, her voice practically dripping with honey. "After last night's performance, I think I have become quite a fan of your singing, Lady Morikawa."

"Is that so?" Renge casually remarked, brushing her fingertips against the confirmed presence of her emergency weapon. With her eyes still trained on the stranger's back, Renge's nerves slowly steeled themselves for the bloodiest outcome of this conversation. She felt out the physical keypad which kept her weapon restrained before slowly inputting the 4-digit keycode purely through muscle memory. "Sorry, but I don't exactly deal with fans," she said, covering up the light tapping noise of the keypad with her voice. "Especially when they come barging into my place. It's pretty damn rude, in my opinion."

The pale woman's back continued to face Renge while they spoke to one another. Placing a chin in the palm of a black glove, the stranger in the azure suit let out a small chuckle which made Renge shiver. "My apologies if I have committed any offence, Dear." The woman brushed the fingertips of her other hand against the glass table she was sitting in front of. "But due to the difficult circumstances that plague me, I have a need for that beautiful voice of yours. The soul it's attached to can only be described as one-of-a- kind."

A soft 'chak'figuratively announced the deactivation of the firearm's magnetic lock. Renge focused her eyes on the intruder, and looked out for any signs indicating that they were onto her. After monitoring the pale woman for four agonizingly-long seconds, Renge gripped her pistol in both of her hands before carefully switching off the weapon's safety. "If you think that I'll gladly walk out of here with you..." She heard the soft 'click'of the safety being fully undone. "... You're sadly mistaken."

An honest, hearty laugh erupted from the pale woman. The sheer suddenness of it made Renge unintentionally gulp. The sweat that was dripping from her tanned skin was almost unbelievable. Renge had faced forces far deadlier than some intruder in her apartment, and yet, she could feel her heart racing as though she were an average civilian. In an attempt to clear the fog which shrouded her mind, the ex-operative desperately fell back on the grueling, mental training which Ogawa Souji had put her through over the past few years. A second was all Renge needed to prepare herself. A second was all she needed for a flash of realization to appear in her unclouded mind.

A realization that was only confirmed the longer Renge's sharp eyes stared at the back of the pale stranger before her.

This wasn't just some regular home intruder. Their description perfectly matched that of the very individual that was suspected of stealing the SG-r04. There was little doubt about it. Ogawa Shinji had distributed copies of Cassandra Jiang Lanfen's interrogation to all members of Clan Hida, and Renge had made sure to remember every single detail it carried before she stepped out of the Clan.

Placing her gloved hands on her lap, the pale woman casually lifted herself off the living room's couch with an exaggerated groan. The laughter which was streaming out of her had completely ceased, allowing silence to return to the room around them. "Unfortunately, you are in no position to decline, Lady Morikawa." Despite the threat her words clearly carried, the stranger's voice remained as sultry as when she first addressed Renge. "My goals require something far more special than your physical presence."

Renge brushed her finger against the trigger of her suppressed firearm. "Is that so?" A drop of sweat fell from her face and crashed onto the table before her with a softtap. "That makes this a lot easier for me then."

No more words were exchanged between the two. It was clear by this point that all of it was nothing more than a formality. The only sounds Renge could hear was the soft ticking noise of the living room's analog clock, and the beating heart within her chest. As Renge held her breath, the pale intruder let out a small, disappointed sigh before resting her gloved hands on her hips. The stiffness in the intruder's shoulders betrayed whatever intention the pale woman truly harboured within her.

The pale woman spun around. Renge trained her firearm straight at the woman's center. A soft'thwack'pierced the silence, and her target fell backwards like a puppet with its strings cut off. A spent bullet casing clattered to the floor, shattering the silence right as the room's glass table broke apart beneath the weight of a collapsing body. The cacophony of shattered glass which followed suit went for about a second before a tense silence returned to Renge's living room. Drawing in a breath to calm her nerves, Renge slowly got off her dining chair, and gingerly approached the stranger's body.

Renge could not hear any sounds of breathing when she rounded the living room's couch. There was only the gentletick-tockof her analog clock. With her firearm still held in both hands, Renge halted before her bare feet would start treading on broken shards. It was close enough, in her opinion. From where she stood, Renge could see the intruder's unmoving body lying in a bloody pile of bloodstained glass, eyes wide open while her mouth remained slightly agape. Blood poured forth from a hole which perfectly sat where their heart would be, giving Renge the assurance she needed to switch on her weapon's safety.

"Goddamn," Renge muttered underneath her breath, carefully placing her firearm on the couch for now. Taking lives was the duty she hated most during her time in Clan Hida. It never got easier, despite how many tried to insist. While Renge had definitely avoided whatever fate the pale woman had in store for her, there was an undeniable frustration that Renge felt now that they weren't going to be getting any answers about the SG-r04. "Huh?" Renge blinked.

Focusing her vision on the corpse's still face, Renge remembered the reports having described the woman as someone who possessed a pair of golden eyes. The body before her instead carried those of silver instead. It was a 'small' detail, but there was no way that Renge ended up misremembering even something as insignificant as that. Slowly getting onto one knee, the ex-operative carefully extended a hand towards the glass-covered corpse. As soon as her fingertips brushed against the body's diamond-pattern suit, Renge heard the familiar clicking of a gun's safety being switched off right behind her.

"A convincing doppelganger, isn't she?" asked a voice that was coated in sweet honey.

Her own pistol was still sitting on the couch. Hidden kunais slid out from Renge's sleeves. The deafening roar of a gunshot blared in her ears faster than Renge could even swing them.

Chapter 9: Reaching Out One's Hands


Thank you for 400+ views! Things have been progressing well so far, but real life has been eating up a lot of the time I've been previously using for writing. Updates are going to be really slow for the next few weeks, but hopefully I can kick back into speed around the start of December!

Chapter Text

Searching up a restaurant to order lunch from was a mundane task which took more time than Lanfen anticipated. She tried to argue that her injuries had recovered well enough for her to cook, but Shinonome was relentless in pointing out that Lanfen was in no state to do anything other than rest. It was only a matter of time till the Adaptor gave into defeat and placed a delivery to their apartment. KFC wasn't a restaurant that one would order with a healthy meal in mind, but Shinonome was at least happy to try out fried food for the first time in her life. Lanfen's useless taste buds unfortunately prevented her from enjoying a taste that would've justified ordering fast food of all things.

With lunch all finished up, Lanfen gathered the empty packaging, and disposed of them in a small bin inside their apartment's kitchen. She then held back a small wince of pain as Lanfen rinsed her bandaged hands underneath the kitchen sink's running waters. Moving her body barely provoked any pain from her injuries at this point, but Lanfen still had to hold herself back from making any extensive movements. The sooner her injuries recovered, the sooner she could return to both her training and her Adaptor duties. Lanfen had experienced enough back-alley fights in her youth to remember the limitations of the human body's ability to recover.

Shutting off the sink's lever with a quick swipe, Lanfen dried her bandaged hands with a nearby towel before stepping out of the small kitchen. Since the Adaptor wasn't keen on getting blood on her clothing, Lanfen had waived off wearing any sort of shirt or hoodie for the meantime. Allowing her modesty to be preserved only by the medical wraps around her torso admittedly felt rather embarrassing, but it was a far more desirable outcome compared to washing bloodstains off her home clothes. The apartment's built-in heater thankfully maintained a warm environment for her exposed skin.

The lo-fi tunes from the living room's holo-player kept the place from being completely silent. As gentle, acoustic beats bounced in the air, Lanfen stepped through the kitchen doorway to spot Shinonome sitting down with her legs nestled underneath thekotatsutable. Placed on top of the low table was the large, metal suitcase that contained all of Shinonome's legal documents, as well as the capsules of medicine that Professor Elfnein prepared for her. A few careful, memorized inputs into the suitcase's keypad caused it to automatically flip open and display its well-arranged, strapped-down contents.

"Professor's orders, I take it?" Lanfen remarked, approaching the table so she could slowly sit next to Shinonome.

"Undoubtedly so," Shinonome softly replied with a nod, taking out a small data-pad which was placed between the legal documents and rows of medicine capsules. "Professor Elfnein advised me to take these every day," she continued, typing on the pad to project a small list of recommended dosages. "It can be quite the hindrance, but I'm quite grateful for the Professor's efforts in watching over my health."

'Uncontrolled cell-aging'. Lanfen remembered the reports describing Shinonome's medical condition as such. While Shinonome busied herself with the Professor's advisory notes, Lanfen glanced at the opened suitcase, and counted the numerous medicine capsules which took up nearly half of the item's storage capacity. Most of them were identical to one another, but Lanfen could make out at least 4 different types of prescribed pills. S.O.N.G. only possessed surface-level information regarding the Illuminati's human experiments, so there was little that they could do at the moment outside of basic medication. It was sometimes easy to forget that Shinonome even carried such a condition, as one wouldn't even be able to guess at first glance.

A few light pops went off one-by-one as Shinonome took her required medicine. Lanfen had brought her a glass of water to ease them all down, and Shinonome appreciated the small gesture with a smile. The process took only a couple minutes, and once Shinonome was finished, Lanfen helped out with placing all of the drawn capsules back to where they once were. The gentle closure of the suitcase prompted its locks to switch back on before Shinonome placed it beside thekotatsutable with a quick sigh.

"And that's it for today," Shinonome stated with a hand on her pale cheek. A brief pause followed her words, with Shinonome subsequently pursing her lips. "I wonder... do the people of S.O.N.G. think differently of me because of this, Jiang?" Shinonome pensively asked, gazing at the Adaptor beside her. Lanfen could only respond with a confused look before Shinonome elaborated on her question. "It... mustn't have been easy acquiring all this special medication, I mean. Especially on such short notice."

There was little doubt that the Professor needed to jump through a few hoops in order to get all of this prepared. But such issues mattered little if it meant helping someone out. That was how Lanfen felt, at least. "... I'm sure you're welcomed in S.O.N.G. just like everyone else, Shinonome," Lanfen calmly assured her, slipping her sore legs underneath the warmkotatsutable. She couldn't help but remember feeling similar sentiments when Lanfen acquired her first batch of estrogen and testosterone-blockers. "No one is lesser just because they need medical accommodation," Lanfen added, earning her a tilt of the head from Shinonome. "... It's just how things are for us, isn't it?"

The woman's words of encouragement weren't the most rousing of speeches, but they seemed to have their intended effect anyway as a small smile appeared on Shinonome's face. "I suppose you're right," she muttered, twirling a strand of her silver hair around one finger. "Hopefully the Professor will be able to find a way to-" A sudden, low grumble erupted from Shinonome's abdomen, prompting her to turn a shade of red while Lanfen hid a small smile behind her hand. "It appears that I am still a bit peckish," she sheepishly admitted, placing her hands over her stomach in a poor attempt to muffle it.

Considering Shinonome's somewhat malnourished state, her capacity to eat more than two bowls of rice per meal was hardly surprising. "I'll go and check the fridge," Lanfen said, slowly pulling herself out from thekotatsutable. Shinonome could only give her an embarrassed, but appreciative nod when the Adaptor headed back into the apartment's kitchen.

Flicking the kitchen's lights back on, Lanfen opened up the refrigerator so she could examine several shelves of raw ingredients and sealed items. Shinonome had eaten up as much as she could during last night's dinner, leaving little-to-no leftovers from that to deal with today. But as Lanfen reached out a hand to grab a few simple ingredients, her purple eyes noticed a familiar box which she had completely forgotten about up until now. A distinct, decorated box which sat in the coldest compartments of the refrigerator all by itself.

It was the cake that the other Adaptors gifted her on the day Lanfen had officially joined S.O.N.G.

Lanfen fixated her eyes on the black-and-white ribbon which tied up the box. The amicable farewells the other Adaptors gave before their sudden separation were hard to forget. Pulling it out from the lower sections of the fridge, she closed up the refrigerator door, and stepped back out into the living room to settle the ice-cold box down on the dining table. The gentle 'thud' it emitted when the box met wood caused Shinonome to get out from thekotatsuso she could investigate the curious object that Lanfen had brought out. Curiosity flashed in Shinonome's golden eyes, just as Lanfen expected.

"Since we've already had lunch, dessert sounded like an obvious choice," Lanfen remarked, fetching a couple plates and utensils from the living room's counter. As Lanfen settled the dining ware down on the table, fascination was written all over Shinonome's face. It wasn't difficult to guess that this was most likely her first experience with cake, too. With one swift pull, Lanfen undid the box's monochrome ribbon, and revealed its contents for the first time.

To describe the cake as 'beautiful' would be an understatement. But it was the only word Lanfen could muster on the spot. Sitting on the table before them was an Oreo cheesecake that was large enough to feed a group of people. Black cookies had been placed around the rim of the circular, white cake, all while the solid treats sat on top of cloud-like pillows of creamy frosting. The words 'Welcome, Cassandra Jiang Lanfen' were written across its surface in bright red. Subconsciously gulping at the sight of the frozen dessert, Lanfen took up the plastic knife which was taped to the box's side, and hovered the dull blade over the circular dessert.

"I take it that this will be enough?" Lanfen said, slicing out a large portion for Shinonome. The silver-haired woman only responded with an eager, but silent nod while Lanfen placed the thick slice on a plate, and slid it over to Shinonome's side of the dining table. "... The other Wielders prepared this when I joined. But let's just say that I've been too busy to eat it till today," Lanfen quietly explained, slicing out a smaller portion so she could put it on a plate for herself.

Sitting down on opposing lengths of the rectangular furniture with their own plates before them, Lanfen watched as Shinonome dug into her frozen treat with the same gusto she had displayed during dinner and lunch. About a quarter of Shinonome's cake had been taken into her mouth before Lanfen could even lift her own fork. "This is..." Shinonome whispered, golden eyes wide with obvious amazement. "I didn't think there were things in this world that could taste this sweet. Your comrades certainly have my praise, Jiang." Shinonome scooped up another mouthful, oblivious to the frosting that stained the corners of her mouth.

Even if the cheesecake provoked nothing from Lanfen's own taste buds, Shinonome's reaction alone made taking out the cake completely worth it. It was just unfortunate that relaying Shinonome's praise to both Akatsuki and Tsukuyomi felt like an impossible task due to the arm's length which Lanfen was keeping the other Adaptors at.

Each time their utensils dug away at their cake, the light clinking of tableware against ceramic mixed with the acoustic beats from the room's holo-player. Lanfen's wrist device rested next to her smartphone and pendant on the room's counter, its complete and utter silence having remained that way ever since the injured Adaptor was brought into her apartment. The slight trembling Lanfen could feel in her sword-hand made her aware that a part of her was practically waiting for it to go off anytime now, but she knew that Commander Genjuuro would be thinking twice about deploying Lanfen in her current state.

And it was not like Lanfen had been taking it easy entirely, either. With the downtime she had right now, the greenhorn Adaptor had spent the past few hours or so going through records of the other Symphogear-Wielders just like Shinonome had done. Lanfen reasoned to herself that understanding where each of them came from would keep her from stepping on any proverbial toes if Lanfen ever needed to converse with them. Needless to say, the information that S.O.N.G. retained on her fellow Wielders was as detailed and somber as the woman expected. The Kazanaris, Yukine, Tachibana, Akatsuki, Tsukuyomi, in addition to this 'Amou Kanade', 'Kohinata Miku', and 'Serena'.

Absolutely none of the Symphogear-Wielders could be described as having led a simple life. It was the only conclusion Lanfen could come to after digging through the past records of her fellow Wielders. And while reading about them wasn't easy on the stomach, what Lanfen witnessed in those records admittedly made her admire how they were able to smile the way they did on the day Lanfen had met them. They truly were on a whole different level compared to an ex-civilian who only recently attained her pendant.

Several knocks came from the front door the moment Lanfen settled a cream-covered fork on top of an emptied plate. "I'll get it," Lanfen insisted before Shinonome could even motion to get off her chair. After wiping her mouth with a tissue, Lanfen drew her Adaptor jacket over her bare shoulders, and made her way through the apartment's hallway entrance. A few swipes of her bandaged hands undid the door's locks, letting her open it up to see both Ayano and Godai standing at her doorstep. Despite the civilian outfits they were now wearing, Lanfen subconsciously stood to attention. "Is there a mission for me?" she asked, her sword-hand slightly twitching at her side.

"Ease up, Jiang," Godai told her with an easy-going smirk. Just like she often did during their days in Lydian, the pony-tailed woman brought up an arm from her side, and playfully bumped a closed fist against Lanfen's jacket-covered shoulder. "Did you forget what you look like right now? The med-teams are going to give us an earful if those wounds of yours reopen, you know?"

Godai's casual words prompted Lanfen to ease up her tense figure as Ayano clasped her hands together with an ear-to-ear smile. "We just got back from our business in Mitakihara, and since we've just been told by command to remain on standby till you get better, we're pretty much free to do whatever we want for the day!" Ayano exclaimed, dramatically throwing her arms upward at the thought of a day-off.

To nobody's surprise but possibly Ayano herself, the brunette's lack of an indoor voice had caught the attention of the other tenant inside Lanfen's apartment. Glancing over her jacket-covered shoulder at the sound of footfalls behind her, Lanfen noticed Shinonome curiously walking up to the apartment's front door. Bits of cake frosting still stained the corners of her mouth when Shinonome approached Lanfen's side to greet their fellow teammates with a pleasant smile. "Ayano. Godai," she said, hands folded in front of her. "It's a pleasure to see you both again."

While Godai returned the pleasantries with a casual, two-finger salute, Ayano simply glanced at both Lanfen and Shinonome with a cat-like grin which sent shivers up the Adaptor's spine for some reason. It didn't take long for Ayano to reveal exactly why they were now on their doorstep. "Hi! Hi! Sorry if we're interrupting something, but since we have some time-off right now, I just thought it would be aperfectopportunity to hang out!" Ayano flashed a peace-sign with both of her hands. "And what better way to do that than with ashopping trip?"

A 'shopping trip'. Their apartment's refrigerator was completely stocked up, so there was nothing they could buy right now outside of whatever that caught their fancy. Lanfen wasn't particularly excited at the notion of being in a crowded area, but when she glanced over to Shinonome for an opinion, the woman's shimmering, golden eyes was the only answer she needed to understand Shinonome's feelings on the matter.

"I must admit..." Shinonome muttered, pressing the tips of her fingers against one another. "... I've been rather curious about getting to explore what's outside this apartment."

"Then that settles it, doesn't it?" Ayano chirped, a cat-like grin still plastered across her face. "A maiden deserves to enjoy herself to the fullest whenever she can, after all."

Glancing over to Godai for her own opinion on the matter, the cheeky smirk which the tall woman wore immediately told Lanfen that nobody was going to be escaping from this. Any argument that the Adaptor could voice right now was going to be useless in turning the tide in her favour. With a full understanding of her current situation, Lanfen slowly placed a bandaged hand on her hip, and clicked her tongue in exasperation. Admitting defeat was possibly going to be a regular occurrence for the day, and it seemed that there was nothing she could do but accept it.

"We'll be downstairs in a few minutes."

Symphogear Team-04. Today marked the first time in which all four members were gathered up in their designated vehicle, and it was for the sake of a shopping trip of all things. Due to the lack of any windows in the rear passenger seats - as well as the large terminal which took up an entire side of the van's rear - Shinonome had spent the entire ride peering in-between Ayano and Godai's seats so she could observe the busy, snow-covered roads ahead of them. Now dressed in proper winter clothing, Lanfen rested up in her seat while the van took its time driving out Yamaku City. Falling asleep was impossible, but moving around too much would only be counter-productive to Lanfen's recovery.

Half an hour had passed. Maybe even a quarter and half. However long it took to reach wherever her two seniors planned to take them, not a single second had gone by without some sort of playful conversation between Shinonome and Lanfen's two seniors in the front seats. By the time Lanfen lifted her heavy eyelids, the van's engine had already switched off, and its backdoors were opened up to let the afternoon light into the vehicle's backseats. As Godai waited outside the van's open back with her arms behind her head, Shinonome stood next to Lanfen, and carefully nudged her shoulder.

"We're here, Jiang," Shinonome softly said, welcoming the Adaptor back to the realm of consciousness with a smile.

Rubbing one eye with the back of a bandaged hand, Lanfen returned the greeting with an awkward nod before she climbed out of the van with Shinonome in tow. The black-and-white scarf around Lanfen's neck shielded her from the December winds, but the cold of winter never failed to make her shiver ever so slightly. Godai motioned to secure the van's locks, and Lanfen looked around the car park they were in to recognize where they were: Mitakihara. In spite of the Distortion incursion that had occurred here several hours ago, the bustling streets and crowded walkways gave the impression that nothing had happened at all. The falling snow and the glamorous Christmas decorations which adorned the environment especially helped to establish the image of a winter wonderland.

With a single clap of her hands, Ayano seized the attention of all three of her teammates. "Let's enjoy ourselves to the fullest today," Ayano exclaimed, swinging her arms to gesture towards the large shopping complex that they had parked next to. "Hard work should always be rewarded with hard play! And never forget to believe in justice, and hold a determination to-!"

"Komi', people are going to end up staring at us again," Godai flatly cut her off, sliding the van's keys into her leather jacket. Next to her, Shinonome stifled a giggle while Lanfen quietly sighed in exasperation. Whatever fires Ayano had tried to ignite soon died out with a whimper and playful pout from the brunette. "Right, let's get movin' already," Godai told them, stepping in the direction of the tall shopping complex. "We got better things to do today than freeze our asses off."

A crass but sensible argument, Lanfen thought to herself as she and Shinonome followed Godai's lead. Ayano gave out another playful pout before she promptly joined the trio on Mitakihara's crowded walkways. Now that Ayano and Godai were leading the way, Lanfen stayed by Shinonome's side while Christmas lights of blue, red, and yellow flashed above the heads of Mitakihara's countless civilians, conjuring a flashy spectacle which seized Shinonome's fascinated gaze. The Adaptor pondered to herself if she should hold onto Shinonome so she wouldn't lose her in the crowd, but the light twitching of Lanfen's sword-hand gave her second thoughts about doing so.

"Pray tell," Shinonome spoke up, causing the older pair in front of them to momentarily glance over their shoulders. "What is this 'Christmas' that appears to be mentioned everywhere? Despite what's been occurring lately, everyone appears to be in a better mood because of it."

Lanfen had to wonder how Shinonome hadn't yet looked up such a concept on the tablet she gave her. After Godai and Ayano shared a wordless look with one another, the former left the explanation to Ayano as she held up a gloved finger in a matter-of-fact way. Ayano evidently didn't care too much about keeping her eyes ahead while she walked. "You see, 'Christmas' is basically a special day that takes place on December 25th," Ayano began, waving a finger around like a teaching stick. "Most people spend it with friends and family to exchange gifts, but the mostimportantpart of Christmas is being with the people you care about the most."

Shinonome's eyes flickered like a sea of golden glitter, even if half her face remained hidden underneath her silver fringes. "That sounds... wonderful," she whispered, placing a mitten-covered hand on her pale cheek.

"It does, doesn't it?" Godai chimed in, her gaze still kept in front of her as they strolled amongst the crowd. "Another great part 'bout Christmas is that it's also the perfect time to stuff your face with some damn good food." Emphasizing her words with a playful chef's kiss, Godai followed the gesture up with a wistful sigh. "We still got a bit of time till Christmas arrives, but I sure as hell can't wait to kick back and relax after all these recent headaches."

While the older two duo continued elaborating on the delights of the winter holiday, Lanfen turned her attention towards the shopping complex they were slowly approaching. The mind fog that her nap conjured up was beginning to clear, and when the last of its thick clouds had vanished, a flash of recognition darted through the spinning gears of her mind. The mall that her two seniors had brought them to was the very same shopping complex where Lanfen and Kai had ran into Ayano. A coincidental reunion which occurred on the very day in which the Distortions first landed. The Adaptor wondered if the pair had intentionally brought them here out of all places in Mitakihara.

"Jiang," Godai said, pulling Lanfen out of her thoughts.

Ayano and Shinonome's attention were fixated on the large advertising screens that were built into Mitakihara's tall buildings. Placing a hand on the black-and-white scarf around her neck, Lanfen had to speak up for Godai to hear her. "Something you wanted to ask?" she said, realizing that she had not spoken much ever since they arrived.

Godai's back continued facing her, but it did not prevent Lanfen from sensing her senior's subtle concern through the sound of her voice. The way Godai scratched the back of her neck was especially a telltale sign that Lanfen vaguely remembered from the few times they interacted in their youth. "How're you feeling, so far?" Godai casually asked. "It's been a couple hours since those Cat-2s roughed you up. Damn tin cans weren't easy to handle, huh?"

In response to the woman's worries, Lanfen slipped a bandaged hand underneath her jacket to brush her fingertips against several parts of her torso. Strolling around with medical wraps underneath her winter clothes wasn't exactly comfortable, but the fact that she could even move was already a relief. "I'm fine," Lanfen insisted, stowing her hands back in her jacket's pockets. "The Category-2s weren't easy, no. But it's nothing that a bit of practice should fix. I'll most likely be combat-ready by tomorrow morning."

"Eager to get back to work, huh?" Godai laughed, narrowly avoiding bumping into a stranger on the crowded walkway. "We've got some of the best medical technology to help bring us back into a fight. And thankfully, they don't leave scars, too. Otherwise, you and I would probably be covered in them from all the crap we're expected to do." Despite the easy-going nature of Godai's words, her playful comment only reminded Lanfen that both Godai and Ayano had been in S.O.N.G. far longer than Lanfen has. All without the aide of a Symphogear, too. As Lanfen responded with a nod that Godai obviously couldn't notice, Lanfen mused that they really were her seniors in more ways than one.

Lanfen felt a gentle tug on the sleeve of her jacket. Glancing back over to Shinonome, Lanfen noticed that the woman had suddenly stopped in the middle of the walkway, prompting the Adaptor to immediately mimic the action. Had Lanfen not called out to Godai and Ayano, the two wouldn't have noticed the pair's abrupt stop. It took several seconds of squeezing through the crowd for the older duo to regroup with them. Before any of the three could ask Shinonome what was wrong, the silver-haired woman lifted a mitten-covered hand, and pointed at one of the large advertising screens that were built into the skyscrapers around them. When her fellow teammates glanced in the pointed direction, Lanfen inadvertently widened her purple eyes ever so slightly.

Displayed on the building's advertisement screen was a promotional video for an upcoming London concert. A concert held next year by none other than Kazanari Tsubasa and Kazanari Maria. With the recent advent of the Distortions, the video's barrage of promotional, flashing visuals vowed to bestow an experience that would soothe any worries which the Distortions had recently casted upon the globe. As expected of the women that were leading the Kazanari Humanitarian Front, the advertisement promised that all of the concert's profits would be dedicated towards repairing the damages caused by the worldwide attack, and assisting those who were in dire need of help.

When the promotional video finally transitioned to a different, unrelated advertisement, Shinonome lowered her arm and glanced back at Lanfen, tentatively asking her, "They're just like you, aren't they?"

The Adaptor subconsciously hovered a bandaged hand over her beating chest. Even though Lanfen was currently on a day-off, the red pendant which contained the shard of an ancient relic still rested underneath her black-and-white scarf. Lanfen had honestly brought it along without much thought, the same way one would grab their smartphone on the way out of their house. Since Shinonome had used her wrist device to look up Lanfen's records, it wasn't surprising that Shinonome's familiarization with Lanfen's fellow Symphogear-Wielders made it easy to recognize them on the spot.

"You could say that," Lanfen whispered as the four of them stood in the middle of a crowd-filled walkway. "... They're the ones that are watching over Europe right now. And unlike us, the other Teams are made up of at least two Wielders. You could say that we're the odd ones out because of that." A question arose in her mind. A question that determined whether or not Shinonome was also aware of the 'duty' that the world council had elegantly bestowed upon Lanfen's shoulders. Nothing gave off the impression that she did, and while that was probably for the best, it admittedly felt hypocritical to find relief in such after claiming that Lanfen had nothing to hide from Shinonome.

Lanfen could feel her tongue tie itself up in the middle of an attempt to utter her next words. Thankfully, Godai had gone up to the Adaptor's side, and carefully clapped her on the shoulder. "Have you been keepin' in touch with them?" Godai asked. The small - almost rueful - shake of the head which Lanfen managed to muster was all that she could give. "Well, that's understandable," Godai added with a casual shrug of her shoulders. "Right, Komi'?"

"Yep!" Ayano chirped, her ear-to-ear smile unrelenting. "A lot of things have been keeping us all busy lately, so you don't have to worry too much about what's been going on outside of Japan. But if you're curious, don't worry! Tachibana, Chris and all the other gals are doing perfectly fine." Ayano gave a playful flex of her thin arms alongside her words of reassurance. "They're strong maidens, after all. I'm sure they'll understand if you're too busy to give them a call."

With that effortless attempt at softening the atmosphere, Lanfen quietly assured herself that Shinonome truly knew nothing about the weapon that slumbered within the Sword of Damocles. Lanfen would thank her two seniors for the intervention if she could, for a weapon that was as dreaded as the S.W.O.R.D. wasn't something that Shinonome needed to be aware of. Especially while they were on a mundane trip such as this. "Of course," Lanfen said, resting a hand on her hip in a mild show of confidence that Shinonome appeared to have bought. "The... difference in time zones doesn't exactly help either."

"Anyway!" Ayano exclaimed with a loud clap of her hands, earning the oblivious brunette a few stares from the pedestrians that were walking around the gathered group. "Frowns areillegalwhenever I'm around. Especially on a day-off! So, to officially start this afternoon, let's commemorate our first day as Team-04!" In one smooth motion, Ayano's arms sliced through the winter air, gesturing towards an array of large booths that were stationed outside the nearby shopping complex. Their flashy, colourful signs quickly made them out to be a bunch of photography booths which were often used for taking souvenir pictures.

Godai had stepped between Shinonome and Lanfen to whisper a comment before either of them could even give their opinions to the suggestion. "We're probably not leaving till Komi' gets a photo, so let's just give up trying to resist, yeah?" Something about Godai's dry tone and the pained smirk she wore suggested that it would be a better idea to run unarmed against a Distortion.

Stuffing her bandaged hands back in her pockets, Lanfen quietly clicked her tongue. "Sounds about right."

Shinonome, on the other hand, met Ayano's suggestion with an eager nod. Whatever curiosity she previously displayed about their earlier conversation had been effortlessly seized by the flashing colours of the photo-booths up ahead. "It certainly sounds like the perfect way to celebrate the occasion, Ayano," Shinonome remarked, causing a proud, cat-like grin to grow on Ayano's face alongside her ego. Godai commented something about not enabling her, but a quick gesture from Lanfen held back the woman's dry wit mid-sentence.

Now that their next decision was settled, Ayano proceeded to escort all three of her teammates through the crowded walkway before ushering them into one of the large photo-booths. If Lanfen had been in one of these things before, she possessed no memory of such an occasion as Ayano slipped several yens into the booth's coin slot. Several inputs into the machine's holographic interface readied the camera, and Ayano was quick to dramatically declare that all of them should smile to the best of their abilities.

Just this morning, Lanfen had fought tooth-and-nail to turn a pair of Category-2s into piles of sand beneath her armoured boot. The medical wraps beneath her clothes were proof of her bloody, tiring fight. And yet here she was, standing in a colourful photo-booth with the three other members of Symphogear Team-04 like an everyday civilian in Mitakihara. If someone ended up revealing to her that she was simply dreaming while she slept in her futon, Lanfen would've believed them. But the reality of the situation was clear. With Shinonome standing on her left, and her two seniors on her right, the loud ticking of the camera's timer allowed Lanfen to muster the smallest of smiles.

The distinctivesnapof a camera shutter felt like a declaration that she truly was in good company.

Just like Lanfen remembered, the highest floor of the tall shopping complex was made up entirely out of an expansive food court with tables as far as they could see. It had been only a couple days ago when Lanfen and Kai ran into Ayano on this very floor, and while the two sisters were admittedly disappointed when Ayano declined the offer to join them for lunch, the chanceful meeting was welcomed all the same. Thanks to most of the group's familiarity with the area, the choice paralysis that the sheer variety of food stalls struck Shinonome with was absolved fast. Perhaps Ayano had brought them here of all places in order to make up for her initial decline.

It didn't take long to find some empty seats and a few stalls to order from. Once they had paid whatever they needed, the four women gathered around a table which was situated right next to the floor's large windows. All the other tables around them were completely vacant, giving the team the space they needed to chat with one another without worry of someone overhearing their conversation. The floor's windows also gave the quartet an expansive view of the city outside as dots of white fell from the winter skies to blanket Mitakihara's busy, crowded streets. Placing her chin in the palm of a bandaged hand, Lanfen diverted her attention away from the window to gaze at the printed photograph between her fingers.

A group photo with Lanfen, Shinonome, Ayano and Godai. She couldn't tell if this was her first time taking a picture like this. Finding a decent frame for it later on may be preferable compared to carrying it around on her person.

Sliding the picture into her winter jacket's pockets, Lanfen lifted a can of soda to her lips while Godai mirrored the action across the table with a ceramic cup of pitch-black coffee. Sitting next to Lanfen was Shinonome, who curiously prodded the batch of steaming-hottakoyakithey bought for her with a wooden toothpick. And lastly, there was Ayano, who had taken the term 'snack time' to its utmost extreme as several plates of pastries and cupcakes crowded around her area of the table. If one was capable of projecting an aura of disgust, then Lanfen could sense such a thing emanating from Godai. The pony-tailed woman could hardly look at the disgustingly-sweet desserts without quietly gagging to herself.

"At this rate, you're going to rot your teeth, Komi'," Godai commented with a raised brow, black coffee still held in her hand. "It's a damn miracle already that you don't put on any weight from all the sugary crap you stuff your face with."

Ayano merely gave her a playful wag of a frosting-coated fork before cheekily smiling to herself. "Sweets are the best things to eat after tiring yourself out, Yuki," she said in a faux sage-like manner. "If your brain needs fuel to work, there's no better pick-me-up than dessert!" Swinging her attention over to both Shinonome and Lanfen, a small piece of dark chocolate had been impaled on the tip of her fork. "Makes sense, right?" she inquired with a tongue in her cheek.

If Lanfen was being honest, nothing of what Ayano claimed had even managed to register in her mind. Her attention was aimed at Mitakihara's peaceful skyline, and although Lanfen's sword-hand remained calm thus far, the Adaptor still pondered to herself on how the other Wielders were performing in light of the Category-2s' arrival. There was little doubt that they were most likely faring better than some greenhorn Adaptor, but the Distortions were not a force to be underestimated when they knew nothing of who had sent them here - or how they even arrived - to begin with.

"I would say that it does make sense," Shinonome replied to Ayano, holding up a toothpick with atakoyakiball firmly placed on it. "It's typically wise to restore one's strength after depleting it, isn't it? One does have to pay attention to their own needs at the end of the day."

Putting down the soda can in her hand, Lanfen took her chin off her palm, and saw Ayano's expectant glance turning over to her next for her own opinion on the topic. Lanfen could only answer with a small shrug of the head before gesturing to Shinonome beside her. "What she said," Lanfen flatly replied.

"See?" Ayano said, looking back at Godai with a pompous, playful grin and a clearly-inflated ego. "My IQ is at1000%as always."

"Yeah, yeah. But you better not come to me if you need a drive to a dentist," Godai cheekily muttered with a shake of her head which roused a pout from the brunette. A vibration then arose from the pockets of Godai's jacket, prompting the woman to draw out her smartphone and switch it on. "Oh? Looks like Darling's sent me a text," she pointed out, setting her coffee cup down on its saucer plate. "Give me a couple minutes to answer this, yeah?"

While Godai quietly typed away on her smartphone, the rest of her team returned to their respective food and drinks. After spending the past few minutes simply poking at hertakoyaki, Shinonome lifted one of them up with a toothpick, and cooled down the hot ball of flour batter with two gentle blows. She then shoved the entire thing into her mouth, and widened her eyes with a quick yelp when its lingering heat immediately made her tremble in her seat. Godai and Ayano scrambled to find something ice-cold on their plates, but it merely took a second for Lanfen to hand over her half-empty soda can. The situation had diffused itself right as it started, but Godai still got off her chair anyway to fetch a cold drink from a nearby stall.

Pulling the soda can away from her lips with a small gasp, Shinonome handed the emptied drink back to Lanfen, and picked up a tissue to wipe her mouth. "My... thanks, Jiang," Shinonome muttered between a couple pants for air. "As painful as that was... it certainly tasted nice," she soon added with a small chuckle.

"Be careful next time," Lanfen advised her with a brief smile, putting aside the empty tin can. "While it does taste good, it's not going to be worth much if you don't have a tongue to taste it." Shinonome responded to her dry advice with a nod and resumed poking at hertakoyakiwith a new sense of care. Lanfen then turned her gaze over to the person that was sitting across from Shinonome, and noticed the cat-like grin which was happily sitting on Ayano's face. "... Something on your mind?" Lanfen said, unsure of what to make of that strange expression whenever it appeared.

"Oh, nothing," Ayano playfully insisted, bringing her gaze over to the window beside them to observe the falling snow outside. "I'm just glad you're alright, that's all." She took up one of her forks and scooped up a piece of cupcake into her mouth. Ayano made sure to resume talking only after she swallowed her snack. "Even if S.O.N.G. is used to treating people with bad injuries, we were still pretty worried when we found you all beaten up this morning."

Lanfen's hand subconsciously grasped the side of her abdomen. Were it not for her Symphogear's life support system, the pain she had felt when the Category-2's two-handed blade sliced through her barriers could've knocked her out from mere shock. "Not used to seeing someone hurt that badly, I take it?" Lanfen carefully inquired, and Ayano responded with a hesitant nod along with an uneasy smile. Lanfen could also see Shinonome shifting uncomfortably in her seat at the topic of Lanfen's injuries, but the silver-haired woman remained quiet regardless. "... Tell me," Lanfen continued. "S.O.N.G. hasn't once fought a threat as unpredictable as the Distortions, have they?"

Returning from her brief trip to a nearby drink stall, it was Godai who answered Lanfen's question as the tall woman sat back down on her chair, and slid over a plastic cup of fruit juice in front of Shinonome. "Not exactly, no," Godai said, giving Shinonome an encouraging thumbs-up in addition to the juice that she just handed. "But since we've got Task Force Harmony around to help us now, fighting back against the Distortions should be a lot more easier. Right, Komi'?" she said with a side-glance at her companion.

Pushing aside a couple empty, cream-covered plates, Ayano only responded to her after wiping her mouth clean with a couple tissues. "The battle this morning conveniently gave Harmony some time to set up their forces," she pointed out, holding up a gloved finger in a matter-of-fact way. "But those guys aren't going to be slacking off whenever it comes to a rift breakout, that's for sure."

'Task Force Harmony', Lanfen pondered to herself. Even if Godai and Ayano assured her of their reliability, there was still a part of her that wouldn't settle down at the thought of relying on regular armed forces to protect them from the Distortions. It was convenient not being the only one who was relied upon to protect Japan, but there was still an obvious power gap between that of Harmony's forces and S.O.N.G.'s Adaptor Corp. Narrowing her purple eyes, Lanfen looked out the large window to her left, and noticed several helicopters that were hovering in the city's skyline. 'Harmony' emblems could be seen on the side-doors of the sleek aircraft as they patrolled through the winter skies.

"How do the other Adaptors feel about this?" Lanfen asked again, purple eyes still focused on the hovering aircraft while her fingers toyed with the ends of her black braid. "Working alongside Task Force Harmony, I mean," she added after noticing the confusion that her vague question caused among her older teammates.

Both Godai and Ayano glanced at one another with pondering expressions. Without a single word uttered between them, the pair appeared to communicate what they were thinking purely through a combination of guess-work, and a familiarity with one another which had been fostered over the years. When they were done wordlessly sharing their thoughts with each other, Ayano looked back at Lanfen to answer her question. "They're perfectly fine with how things are. As long as it means keeping people safe, none of them really have any issues working alongside Task Force Harmony. Their formation was a proposal by the Kazanari Institute, after all."

"Is that so...?" Lanfen muttered, slowly leaning against the backrest of her chair.

She honestly did not know whether she should be even surprised by Ayano's response. In spite of the 'duty' that Lanfen held in regards to the other Symphogear-Wielders, the Kazanaris, Yukine, Tachibana, Akatsuki, and Tsukuyomi had all accepted her like one of their own. That was undeniable. But even so, said matter was completely different from something like Task Force Harmony. In addition to being a Task Force that fought under the direct orders of the world council, it was a Task Force which had been used to justify the sudden separation of the Adaptors across the globe.

A mild grumble arose from Lanfen's stomach. Judging from the stares that were quickly directed at her, the sound had been obviously loud enough for all three of her teammates to hear. As Lanfen clicked her tongue in annoyance, Shinonome - who had been keeping quiet the entire time - lifted one of her remainingtakoyakiballs with her toothpick, and gave it a few gentle blows before holding it in front of Lanfen's face. There was no good reason to decline a free bite. The pleasant smile that Shinonome was giving her assured Lanfen that it was alright. But the observant stares which Godai and Ayano were setting on Lanfen made her momentarily freeze on the spot.

Ayano in particular was watching on with star-filled eyes and a cat-like grin.

"Thanks," Lanfen muttered, biting the ball of flour batter off the toothpick. To her relief, thetakoyakihad cooled down enough to not burn her tongue, but still remained warm enough for it to go down without any issue. Shinonome then chuckled to herself before returning to her tea-time snack with the same toothpick Lanfen had used. Once again, the feline-esque grin that Ayano wore on her face caused a small shiver to run down her spine. Unaware of the heat which was gathering on her cheeks, Lanfen simply crossed her arms, and continued gazing out of the window to pass the time.

Three hours. Kagero had spent three hours attempting to contact Morikawa Renge by any means available. In those three hours, the text messages he sent were marked as 'seen', and yet, neither of them had received any response to his inquiries. Kagero initially reasoned that the Distortions' attack somehow affected communications within Mitakihara, but a quick investigation with S.O.N.G.'s resources proved that no meaningful damage was caused to the city's infrastructure during the incursion this morning. Further investigation into the matter also gave no reasonable explanation for the garbled static which had drowned out Kagero's phone-call the very moment Morikawa had picked up the line.

Whatever the reason was, Kagero deemed it irrelevant now that he was standing right in the middle of Morikawa's apartment with a deployed team of Clan Hida's personnel. As Clan members in black suits investigated every crevice of the small apartment, Kagero lowered his gaze to set his sights on the inert corpse of Morikawa Renge. Kagero could not believe what he was witnessing right then and there. Morikawa Renge - one of Clan Hida's best and brightest - laid dead in a pile of broken glass and a pool of her own blood. What baffled him even more was the killing blow: A gunshot which was perfectly centered on her torso, just like all the other young women that Suteinu had informed him about.

Kagero would sooner believe that Shem-Ha had somehow returned rather than accept the reality that a member of Clan Hida was somehow outwitted with ease.

Drawing the stench of death into his lungs, Kagero navigated his way through the cardboard boxes which crowded out the living room before stepping out into the apartment complex's hallway. As soon as the blonde man leaned against its walls to catch his breath, the device on his wrist rang with an incoming audio transmission. The contact ID belonged to Ogawa Shinji. Kagero answered it with a quick tap of a holographic prompt. "This is Tsuchiya Kagero," he stated, holding his wrist in front of his face.

"Have you managed to find any trace of the perpetrator, Tsuchiya?" Shinji calmly inquired. Considering the older man's current business in Europe with the two Kazanaris, Kagero hadn't expected Shinji to make contact as soon as he did.

"Nothing concrete," Kagero ruefully admitted, looking down the barren hallways on his sides. "We've managed to find a spent shell casing, but I have a lingering suspicion that it was left there on purpose for us to find." Unlike the previous murders which Kagero had been looking into, this was the first ever time that a murder scene actually generated any sort of evidence aside from the Illuminati-marked bullets that were utilized in the crime. The notion that the culprit was now playing games with them especially hit one of Kagero's nerves. "... No signs of entry. No footprints. Nothing. It was as if the murderer had vanished the moment the deed was done."

Silence followed suit. Kagero could not see nor hear how his senior reacted to the news, but the S.O.N.G. agent had spent enough time with Shinji to know how the man would respond to the death of a comrade. Unlike Kagero himself, Shinji had gone through multiple years of training to hide his emotions behind a perfect mask of unbreakable steel. The one thing that actually managed to shatter Shinji's proverbial mask was the death of Amou Kanade several years ago. "... You have my condolences, Tsuchiya," Shinji finally said. "May the one who caused this be brought to justice as soon as possible. I'll contact you again another time."

"Affirmative, Ogawa." The audio transmission switched off from Shinji's end of the call and Kagero returned his arm to his side. When the blonde man was sure that nobody but himself stood in the apartment complex's hallway, Kagero allowed himself to grit his teeth, and utter a harsh curse underneath his breath. "How could Morikawa of all people be taken out like this?" he whispered to himself, as if to help him believe the reality of the situation. Kagero intended to inquire about Morikawa's eventual job, but it appeared that it was now up to him to break the news to Suteinu later on.

A firm hand grabbed Kagero's wrist, causing the blonde agent to slightly jump and recoil from the undetected appearance of a person behind him. To his surprise, it was Ogawa Souji that stood before Kagero. Dressed in the crimson long-coat of Clan Hida's Grandmaster, Souji held his sheathed katana in a tight grip while the older man scowled at the open doorway near them out of clear remorse. Kagero tried to greet the Grandmaster by lowering his head in a bow, but Souji declined the formality with a dismissive wave of a gloved hand.

"Lift your head, Kagero," Souji ordered him, stepping closer to the apartment's entrance. "I'm simply here to mourn the loss of one of our own."

Heeding Souji's wishes, Kagero straightened his back before following the Grandmaster through the apartment's open doorway. The smell of the dead was familiar to Kagero's senses at this point, but to have it come from a member of Clan Hida was an entirely different experience. The Clan personnel inside the living room halted their duties at the appearance of the Grandmaster, and silently stood aside while Souji and Kagero approached Morikawa's inert body. Kagero remained standing, and Souji got down on both of his knees. The Grandmaster settled his sheathed, ceremonial weapon on the carpeted floor, and carefully clasped his hands in a prayer. Souji's wordless chant went on for a full minute according to the ticking clock on the living room's walls.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The Grandmaster made no sound when he finally rose up from the bloodstained floor with his katana back in his gloved hands. The cold silence which permeated the living room's atmosphere was quickly shattered when the scabbard of Souji's weapon loudlyclackedagainst the floor. Kagero and all the other personnel in the room visibly tensed at the mere sound of it. "All sentries of Clan Hida are to operate underneath a new direct order," Souji declared, his voice as calm as a running stream. "The eyes of our Clan shall maintain a permanent watch for the perpetrator of this crime. No one shall rest until the murderer of Morikawa Renge is brought to justice. While we cannot do anything for those who have already been lost, the continuation of these murders cannot be allowed to continue."

"Permission to speak, Grandmaster," Kagero said. He received a wordless nod of the head from Souji. "Shall I request Commander Genjuuro to transfer me back from S.O.N.G. to Clan Hida? If we are to uncover Morikawa's murderer, it's best that we-"

"Such a thing is not needed," Souji stated precisely, his hands placed on the pommel of his ceremonial katana. "S.O.N.G. and Commander Genjuuro are in need of both you and Shinji right now, Kagero. While your determination to avenge Morikawa is appreciated and understandable, Commander Genjuuro requires your skills more than I do as we speak." The Grandmaster turned to Kagero and placed a firm, gloved hand on the man's shoulder. "Do your best finding out what you can from within S.O.N.G. And please do so without finding yourself lost in the forest of revenge.Thatis my order for you."

Widening his eyes at the Grandmaster's firm grip, Kagero slowly turned his gaze back over to Morikawa's corpse. The way her eyes remained opened while they spoke made the S.O.N.G. agent tighten his hand at his side. Judging by the way the living room's glass table had shattered, Kagero could tell that it had broken underneath the weight of an object. And yet, Morikawa's body lied down in a way which made it impossible for the object to have been her. Something or someone must have broken it apart before Morikawa perished, but there were still no signs whatsoever that anyone but Morikawa herself had even stepped inside this apartment.

"Understood, Grandmaster," Kagero whispered, lowering his head in a bow. "I shall not disappoint you."

A cold shiver coursed through Lanfen's brown skin, derailing the woman's train of thought in the middle of the group's stroll throughout the shopping complex. With no one but herself having noticed it, the Adaptor looked around the floor building, and scanned the faces of each and every person they passed by on the way to their next store visit. The twitching in her sword-hand only vanished after she had spent a while eyeing their crowded surroundings. Returning her attention back to her chattering teammates, Lanfen followed the trio from behind while her bandaged hands held onto several bags of merchandise. It was hard to believe that about four hours had passed since they left the food-court.

Clothing. Picture-frames. More clothing. Books of romantic literature. And even more clothes. Aside from a single picture frame which Lanfen needed for her own copy of their recent photo, Lanfen had bought a single shark plushie for her to sleep with. All of her other plushies remained in Shinonome's new bedroom, and it would only be awkward to ask if she could take them out for her own use. Having an additional one around the apartment at least wouldn't hurt. Since Lanfen had also insisted that she could carry Shinonome's share of their bags, everyone but the newest member of Symphogear Team-04 were walking around the place with three-to-four bags of items in their hands. Shinonome, on the other hand, simply held onto the plastic beverage which Godai had bought for her earlier.

"Come on, Yuki," Ayano exclaimed in a sing-song voice, carrying her branded items as if they weighed nothing. "We still have three more stores to go!"

Godai could only groan at her companion's eagerness to put a dent in the paychecks S.O.N.G. regularly grants them. "I'll just say it right now, Komi': If we run out of space in the van, you're walking home."

Raising a brow at her teammates' usual banter, the small giggle the pair got out of Shinonome was a pleasant sound which took Lanfen's mind off the fact that her arms were beginning to tire from the merchandise in her hands. They were now on the last floor that Ayano intended for them to shop around, and as the Adaptor ran an uninterested gaze across the numerous shops they passed by, the sight of a familiar sign made Lanfen inadvertently halt out of nowhere. Shinonome noticed it the moment it happened and quickly prompted her two older teammates to stop and curiously turn around.

"Is something the matter, Jiang?" asked Shinonome, her beverage still held in both of her hands.

Zesshou Sentai Valkyranger.The name flashed across the storefront in the colours of blue, red, yellow, white, green, and pink. Posters and hand-drawn artwork of colourful, armoured heroes decorated every available surface, catching any eye which would fall upon it while a grandiose theme-song could be heard from within the store. It had been a long time since Lanfen last sat down with Kai to watch fifty episodes of transforming heroes going against all odds to take down a multitude of deadly villains and monsters. And it had also only been a couple days ago when Kai snuck away from her to buy whatever she could from this store. The very memory of that day sparked a momentary flicker of fire within Lanfen's purple eyes.

Godai took a few steps towards the silent Adaptor and gestured over to the flashy storefront. "Wanna head inside?" Godai carefully asked her. Lanfen guessed that Ayano must have remembered seeing the Valkyranger toys which Kai had bought.

"I'm just... reminiscing," Lanfen muttered, taking in a practiced breath to extinguish the brewing flames within her eyes. Her teammates deserved better than to be pulled in by the very burdens that Lanfen carried on her shoulders. "If the others don't want to head in, let's just... move along."

Walking over to Lanfen with a mitten-covered hand on her pale cheek, Shinonome tilted her head at the sight of the large store, and the numerous colourful heroines which decorated its storefront. Lanfen's sudden stop in front of it made her more puzzled than fascinated with the store's flashing name. "What is this supposed to be about?" she asked with a clueless glance at her teammates.

Out of the three, it was Ayano who had enthusiastically stepped in to answer Shinonome's question. "This, Shinonome, is what we call a Valkyranger store!" Ayano declared, holding up a handful of bags to gesture towards the six distinct heroines who had been plastered over the store's walls. "You see, Valkyranger is a popularTokusatsushow that ran a couple years ago and is still talked about to this day. But there's one secret about it that nobody but people likeuscan know-!" To Lanfen and Shinonome's confusion, Ayano pulled herself closer to her younger teammates, and lowered her voice until no one but the duo could hear her. "All the Valkyrangers you see... are based on S.O.N.G.'s very own Symphogear-Wielders."

Shinonome audibly gasped and widened her eyes with a mitten-covered hand over her mouth. Lanfen blinked several times in disbelief before looking over to Godai for clarification. The amused shrug which Godai responded with was all Lanfen needed to know that Ayano wasn't pulling her proverbial leg. "That... makes sense," Lanfen admitted, setting her sights on a pink-coloured heroine who possessed a prominent pair of bunny ears, and a large, heavy chainsaw in her hands. "... Too much sense." The Adaptor started to question on how she hadn't made such a connection until now.

"They certainly do look just like your comrades, don't they?" Shinonome commented with a giggle, looking over at green-coloured heroine who donned a witch-like hat, and a giant scythe that was far larger than the armoured heroine who actually wielded it. The large grin which Ayano wore clearly indicated that she enjoyed dropping a reveal like this completely out of the blue. "It's certainly a secret we'll be keeping to ourselves, Ayano," Shinonome said, sharing a smile with the brunette.

"S.O.N.G. funded it at first to help cover-up their operations. But the whole thing turned out to be a lot more popular than they expected," Godai explained with a laugh. "Anyway, do any of you wanna check out what's inside?" Ayano and Shinonome eagerly held up their hands the moment those words left Godai's lips, but Lanfen had chosen to stay her arms at her sides. "Right. Komi', you head inside and get whatever Shinonome here wants," Godai said, shifting all of her bags onto her left hand so she could clap a silent Lanfen on the shoulder. "In the meantime, I'll wait out here with Jiang. Got it?"

Responding to her companion's suggestion with a playful salute, and a renewed sense to shop to their hearts' content, Ayano promptly grabbed Shinonome by the arm, and escorted her through the poster-covered doors of the Valkyranger store. Lanfen could hear the opening music to the television series leak out from inside the store before its automatic doors closed themselves back up. Looking back at the posters and artwork which decorated the storefront, it was now practically impossible for Lanfen tonotsee her fellow Adaptors reflect on these fictional characters. Fictional characters who Kai and her had been fans of ever since their series first premiered on television. Calling this 'surreal' would be nothing more than an understatement.

While Godai and Lanfen stood outside the storefront all by themselves, Lanfen's teammate slowly took her hand off the Adaptor's shoulders to scratch the back of her own neck. "You can expect a call in a few months about the upcoming movie," Godai pointed out, casually gesturing towards a nearby announcement poster titled 'Zesshou Sentai Valkyranger: Five Years After'. "Can't use your likeness without your permission and all that stuff, ya know?"

Lanfen allowed an empty chuckle to slip out of her. The writers were going to have to perform quite the embellishment if her story was going to be even remotely interesting to viewers. "I'll look forward to it," Lanfen dryly replied, stuffing her bandaged hands inside her jacket's pockets.

Sensing her feet turn sore within her winter boots, Lanfen examined their surroundings before she approached an empty, wooden bench nearby. Godai followed her without question as the pair took the chance to sit down and relax after being led around several floors of stores and shops. Placing their bags of merchandise on the floor for now, Lanfen wordlessly crossed her legs with a huff while Godai reached into one of her bags, and pulled out a pair of energy drinks. Lanfen was never the type to rely on such things, but she couldn't refuse Godai's offer when her body was starting to operate on fumes. Two lightpopspierced the air and the pair quickly quenched their thirst.

Placing her own can between herself and the Adaptor, Godai leaned her full weight against the bench's backrest. At least several seconds had passed by between them without any exchanged words until Godai shattered the proverbial ice with a simple question. "So, how've you been doing lately?"

Exhausted. Sore. Unable to rest from time-to-time. A table full of detailed answers was ready to be served, but Lanfen instead chose to answer Godai with two curt words. "I'm fine," she insisted, hiding a small cough behind the palm of a bandaged hand. Leaving her half-empty energy drink in-between her and Godai as well, Lanfen's purple eyes avoided looking at her older teammate so she could monitor the numerous shoppers who were walking by them without a glance in the duo's direction.

"You sure about that?" Godai suddenly retorted with a questioning stare at Lanfen. "Because you sure looked like you were ready to spring into action the entire time we were strollin' around the place." The sheer, casual bluntness of her observation made Lanfen subconsciously dig her fingernails into the palm of her bandaged hands. Lanfen hardly even noticed the stinging sensation which was growing as a result of her own reaction.

Four hours. The group had been strolling for about four hours, and Godai somehow managed to notice the subtle tension in Lanfen's movements. The Adaptor had done her best to hold back the twitching of her sword-hand, and the dormant flames in her eyes, but it turned out that Lanfen might as well have described herself to be an open book. Maybe it was just useless to try and hide even the smallest things from Godai of all people. Slipping her bandaged hand underneath her black-and-white scarf, Lanfen grasped her relic pendant between two fingers, and drew in a practiced breath.

"... I've been getting used to handling the Sword of Damocles," Lanfen claimed, tightening her fingertips around the red crystal beneath her scarf. Judging by the small nod that Godai gave her, this was very much the sort of answer which her older teammate had been hoping to get out of Lanfen. "But even so, it just... doesn't feel right to reach out to the other Wielders when I..." Her next words suddenly lodged themselves in her tightening throat. Conversing with Godai felt completely different compared to someone like Shinonome.

"Still feel like a threat to the others, you mean?" Godai tentatively guessed, finishing the Adaptor's intended sentence for her.

Lanfen released her pendant from her grasp and hesitantly nodded in response. Whether she liked it or not, the Sword of Damocles contained a weapon which she held as a looming threat over the other Symphogear-Wielders. Lanfen's opinion on its existence was completely irrelevant. "I don't believe that the others would ever do anything that would upset the U.N.," Lanfen continued, resting her body against the bench with a tired sigh. "But the weight of the S.W.O.R.D. isn't something that's easy to carry regardless."

One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. Four minutes had gone by without a word between them by the time Godai had placed a hand on Lanfen's shoulder. The comforting gesture was unlike the same one Godai gave her earlier. This time, it was firm. Not too hard that it ended up hurting the injuries beneath her clothes, and not too soft that Lanfen felt nothing from the woman's careful grasp. Lanfen kept her eyes on the Valkyranger store in front of them the entire time. The fact that these characters were supposed to be the very heroines whom the U.N. now held a blade over felt like a sign. A sign that the Symphogear-Wielders were used in whatever way their superiors demanded of them.

"Even if you're a Wielder who carries one hell of an ugly job..." Godai paused her words mid-sentence, as if to find the best words she could conjure up on the spot. "... Both Komi' and I still see you as the same old junior we met all the way back in Lydian, Jiang," she stated, slowly retracting her hand to hold up her energy drink. "You don't have to carry your weights all by yourself, you know? While I'm sure that you don't feel too comfy getting familiar with a pair of gals that's been assigned to monitor you, we're here to help. In any way we can. We wouldn't have accepted being assigned to you if we only wanted to get paid, if you catch my drift."

Lanfen bit down on her cracking lips. She needed to take in another practiced breath before she could pull back her fingernails away from the palms of her bandaged hands. Slowly turning her head in the direction of her older teammate, the reassuring smile that Godai gave Lanfen was not something which she often saw back in their youth. As busy shoppers continued passing by the two silent women on the wooden bench, Godai held up her drink can in an obvious gesture which proposed a toast to the occasion.

"We're all part of Team-04, aren't we?" Godai remarked with a wink, getting a brief but amused scoff out from the Adaptor.

Picking up her own half-empty drink from the bench space between them, Lanfen tightly wrapped her fingers around the can's cold exterior, and gently clanked it against Godai's own drink. Once the celebratory gesture had been completed, the pair brought their drinks to their lips, and emptied them in perfect unison. Two hollow tin cans were then set back down between the two women while Lanfen wiped her mouth with the back of a bandaged hand. "Thanks... for today," Lanfen whispered, looking back at the Valkyranger store several steps ahead of them. "I think Shinonome and I enjoyed ourselves, all things considered."

"Anytime, Jiang," Godai told her, smirking. "But since Komi' was the one who came up with the idea, I think she gets more credit," she quickly added with a chuckle.

Speak of the devil. The very second Godai uttered her name, the automatic doors to the Valkyranger store opened back up with a melodious jingle. Coming through the doorway were Shinonome and Ayano, and in the midst of all the goods that Ayano had already bought, Lanfen could spot a single new bag being held in the woman's hands. The Adaptor could not hear what Ayano was talking about with Shinonome from where she sat, but the longer Lanfen observed them happily chatting with one another, the more she felt as though both Ayano and Godai truly hadn't changed ever since their days in Lydian Academy. Lanfen was a Symphogear-Wielder. They were S.O.N.G. agents. But Lanfen could sense that they were friends first and foremost.

If that was the case, then perhaps it wasn't going to be an issue relying on them from here on out. A miniscule part of her even hoped that Lanfen could one day do the same with the other Symphogear-Wielders.

"Interested in grabbing some drinks later on, Godai?" Lanfen whispered to her teammate. Her soft words had leaped from her tongue before she could even think about them.

Leaning forward in her seat, Godai simply responded with another cheeky smirk and a prominent thumbs-up. "Sure thing, Jiang."

Chapter 10: A Demonstration of Destruction


Thank you for 480+ views and the three Kudos! They're very appreciated and I'm happy to have been able to release at least one chapter this month! Enjoy the end of November!

November 20th/21st Edit: Another Symphogear project was just announced at the Live. Oh my Gooooood.

Chapter Text

Tokyo tower. Standing at roughly around a total height of 300 meters, the observation tower was known to be the second-tallest structure in all of Japan. The towering construct had been featured in a variety of media, and could even be seen in the background within several episodes ofZesshou Sentai Valkyranger. Whenever the last bits of sunlight disappeared into Japan's horizons, the tower's built-in LED lighting equipment would intensify to near-maximum brightness, shrouding its entirety with white and red lights. Even when it stood amongst the snow-covered city of Tokyo, and a concrete jungle of Christmas lights, Tokyo Tower sparkled like an unwavering beacon in the land of the rising sun.

But not even the shining incandescence of Tokyo Tower could overpower the presence of a tear in reality.

Fastening her grip around the Sword of Damocles' golden hilt, Lanfen gritted her teeth as the blade of her Armed Gear cleaved off a pair of rune-marked forearms with one precise strike. Her Symphogear's speakers blared its unchallenged electro-swing Jazz, drowning out the metallic clanking of two severed arms falling onto the concrete roads. Now deprived of its main source of power, the Category-2 Distortion spun around in a desperate retreat down the evacuated streets, but Lanfen was quick to deprive it of its legs through another swing of her thick blade. The fires in her eyes could not be sated by these blows, and yet, the brutality she inflicted felt warranted all the same.

The Caster-Type Distortion hit the ground face-first with a loudclang. Lanfen withdrew the blade of her Armed Gear into its cross-guard and slammed the bladeless weapon into her hip armour. With a gauntleted hand on her hip, the crowned warrior strolled over to the knight's limbless, robe-covered body, and smashed her armoured boot right into its back. Lanfen made sure to inflictjustenough force so that it was trapped underneath her foot, but not too much that the Distortion's back crumpled beneath her soles like aluminum foil beneath a hydraulic press.

Black-and-white flashed before the crowned warrior's narrowed eyes. The steel letters in her sights descended onto a cracking chessboard, declaring the name,"Pawn Punisher."

As trumpet roars filled in the silence of the evacuated streets, additional exhaust vents exposed themselves along the length of Lanfen's lower leg. A single explosive situated itself over the back of her leg while kinetic-absorbing armour encased the palm-sized grenade in a specialized shell. When the limbless Distortion tried to let out one last howl of defiance, Lanfen clicked her tongue, and mentally commanded the explosive to detonate within its shell with a muffled rumble. The concentrated force of the explosive propelled a metallic spike out from the back of her boot, sending it through the knight's torso and into the concrete beneath it in an eyeblink. With its death wail cut short, smoke spewed from the deployed vents on Lanfen's leg, blowing away the golden sand which the Distortion immediately withered into beneath her armoured boot.

The distinctive wailing of a rift closure subsequently blared across the skyline, announcing the end of the Distortion incursion within the city.

A second mental command transformed Lanfen's Symphogear into a rising batch of black-and-white particles beneath the light of a shattered moon.

Dressed once again in the winter uniform of S.O.N.G.'s Adaptor Corp, Lanfen shivered from the December winds as the sound of heavy, metallic footfalls pulled her gaze over to the roads up ahead. It was Task Force Harmony. In accordance with their newest procedures against Distortion incursions, Harmony's forces were combing the incursion zone with their latest armaments of bipedal combat walkers. Standing at about three times the height of an average person, their fully-enclosed, armoured cabins scanned the snowy streets on articulated, reverse-jointed legs. The searchlights and rotary weapons which were mounted on the chin of their cabins looked ready to find and eliminate any surviving Category-1 Distortions.

Heavy machines straight out of a sci-fi movie, Lanfen dryly mused to herself within her mind. An audio transmission then arose from her wrist device, prompting the Adaptor to bring up her forearm and answer a call from Godai. "This is SG-r04, reporting in," Lanfen declared, having forgotten to call-in after the situation diffused itself. "All three Category-2s have been eliminated. Damage to infrastructure is minimal. No injuries sustained. Zero casualties so far within the incursion zone."

"I hear ya, Jiang," Godai casually replied over the comms. "I have to settle a couple documents with Captain Yaiba first, so we'll be sticking around for a bit. Till then, you can rest up in the van with Komi. Nice job out there as always."

"Understood," Lanfen habitually responded before the transmission switched off from Godai's end of the line.

Now that the Symphogear Team had nothing else to deal with aside from the usual logistics that came after an incursion, Lanfen fastened the black-and-white tie around her neck, and turned on her heel to head in the direction of the team's parked van. Golden sand left behind by the destroyed Category-2 and Category-1 Distortions crunched beneath her boots alongside white snow as the Adaptor turned her head in the direction of Tokyo Tower, wondering if Shinonome would like to head up there in their spare time. As far as she knew, Lanfen herself hadn't visited the tower in the past decade or so.

The further the Adaptor headed down the empty sidewalk, the sooner she noticed the metal footsteps of Harmony's combat walkers disappear out of earshot, letting Lanfen take in the silence of a city area which was going to be teeming with life again in about an hour or so. Christmas decorations shone wherever Lanfen turned her head, pushing away the shadows in every possible direction while the woman held back a tired yawn, and navigated her way back to the van through a holographic map on her wrist device. After a couple minutes of mundane walking, Lanfen spotted the vehicle sitting unharmed in a parking spot far from where the Distortions had predicted to drop down earlier.

When Lanfen pulled open one of its backdoors, Ayano - who was sitting on the designated chair for the van's computer terminal - lifted her hands from its keyboard so she could greet the spent Adaptor with a cheerful wave. "Great work taking out those Category-2s, Jiang," Ayano told her with a proud grin as she gestured over to the van's frontal seats. "Yuki left some snacks for you, so you can help yourself to some Christmas chocolate while we wait for her to come back."

"Don't mind if I do," Lanfen dryly replied, climbing into the back of the vehicle and closing the doors behind her. "It's a miracle that the only thing this Symphogear needs to function is a bit of sugar and protein." Squeezing herself past Ayano's terminal chair, Lanfen fetched a small basket of candy bars that was sitting in-between the seats upfront before dropping herself onto one of the van's empty backseats. While Ayano continued typing out a report to S.O.N.G. at speeds which Lanfen could never hope to mimic, the Adaptor peeled open her first bar of chocolate, and regained the energy her armour often expended to generate all of its paranormal abilities.

Over half a week had gone by since the team's shopping trip in Mitakihara. The word 'uneventful' wasn't a word that most would use to describe their recent activities, and yet there was no better descriptor to the members of Symphogear Team-04. Every day was essentially comprised of the same thing for Lanfen: Wake up, cook, rush out at the first sign of a Distortion incursion, return home afterwards, and then sort out the usual house chores. Category-2s would consistently arrive in pairs, trios or even quartets alongside groups of Category-1s, and they would all fall prey to either Harmony's guns or the Sword of Damocles. For every battle Lanfen fought, the less wounds she would sustain in the next incursion after that.

Such was the Adaptor's determination to hone her abilities from every fight against the Distortions.

Aside from her Symphogear-Wielder duties, the inevitable arrival of Christmas was undeniably prevalent in Lanfen's everyday thoughts. The winter holiday was coming in fast, and since this was going to be Shinonome's first ever time celebrating it, Godai, Ayano, and Lanfen all intended to make it a memorable one in spite of the constant incursions across Japan.

After finishing up her fourth chocolate bar, Lanfen abstained herself from any more snacks now that it was already a quarter to midnight. She properly disposed of the empty wrappers inside a small bin next to her leg, and rubbed her bare hands together before attempting to relax in her seat. Ayano's own hands were practically a blur as the brunette's fingers audibly clacked away on the terminal's keyboard, her green eyes firmly focused on multiple monitors to read a dozen incoming messages from the S.O.N.G. submarine. While the Adaptor tapped her boot on the van's floor, a few words slipped into the back of her mind. Words originating from her conversation with Godai days ago.

"You don't have to carry your weights all by yourself, you know?"

Putting aside the basket of chocolates, Lanfen crossed her legs and loudly cleared her throat. "Ayano?" she slowly said, earning her a quizzical glance from her busy teammate. "You mind if I asked a question?"

Three inputs into the terminal's keyboard halted whatever work Ayano was occupied with. "Sure thing," Ayano replied, spinning her terminal chair around so she could face Lanfen with her body. Placing her gloved hands on top of her lap, the cheerful smile she wore wordlessly informed Lanfen that she was eager to hear whatever the Adaptor had on her mind. It honestly gave off the impression that Lanfen was instead about to ask her for some advice on their schoolwork rather than what she actually intended to inquire about.

Turning her gaze in the direction of the computer terminal's monitor screens, Lanfen could see images of recent Distortion incursions taking place in other parts of the globe: America. Australia. Europe. The other Symphogear Teams no doubt had their hands full with their own battles, even if they operated in pairs of Symphogears unlike Lanfen herself. "Do you-" A brief, proverbial fire sparked in Lanfen's eyes, causing her to quietly click her tongue. "... Do you... know anything about the cloaked being?" Lanfen carefully inquired, digging her fingernails into the palm of her hands. "The one who appeared during the global attack."

Ayano's smile did not falter, but the woman noticeably shifted in her chair at the mention of her sister's missing killer. "Oh," Ayano quietly let out. "That... Yeah. Hold on." Spinning her chair around again, Ayano faced the terminal which took up half of the van's backside, and tapped away on its keyboard, bringing up the same grainy images that Lanfen had been eyeing ever since her first day as a Symphogear-Wielder. "'Unknown Enemy-02'. S.O.N.G. and Harmony have been keeping an eye out for both it - and the one who had sent out the worldwide message - but nobody has managed to uncover anything so far," Ayano explained, looking back at Lanfen. "It's frustrating... isn't it?"

The Adaptor could only nod while the proverbial fires within her eyes danced like a dormant flame. "It is," Lanfen murmured, drawing in a practiced breath.

Unlike before, the concern on Ayano's face was clear this time. Possibly due to the fact that it was currently just the two of them inside the team's designated vehicle. "Do you intend to wait for it to show itself?" Ayano tentatively asked her, and Lanfen simply nodded again as the Symphogear-Wielder squeezed her eyes shut, momentarily extinguishing the persistent flames within them.

Almost two weeks have now passed since the Distortions launched their worldwide assault. And there was still nothing that Lanfen could do in order to gain a lead on the creature who had taken Kai away from her. Venting her frustrations on the Distortions initially gave hersomelevel of satisfaction, but there was only so much that fighting could do to sate her desires. "Avenging my sister... isn't the only thing I want, Ayano," Lanfen stated through a whisper, reopening her purple eyes. "I also want it to arrive so I can justify holding onto this sword. This sword which hangs over the heads of others, whether I like it or not." A pestered sigh slipped out from her. "... I just sound ridiculous, don't I?"

Ayano gave no reply outside of a slow shake of her head. Typing a couple inputs into the van's terminal again, Ayano dismissed the grainy images she had brought up on the monitors before she picked herself up from the terminal's designated seat. She then went over to the van's front and keyed in a few commands, bringing out a calming Jazz tune from the vehicle's audio-player. As the rhythmic keys of a piano bounced off the van's cold walls, Ayano returned to Lanfen so she could sit down next to the Adaptor with her hands on her lap again.

The brunette brought a fingertip to her lip. "Can I be the one to ask a question this time?" Ayano carefully inquired again. A wordless nod from the Adaptor gave her the permission to go ahead. "Just what exactly... is the S.W.O.R.D.?" Her tentative question made Lanfen visibly flinch at the weapon's mere name. "I- Sorry. The thing is that few people within S.O.N.G. actually have the permission to look into its documents, so..." She crossed her arms over her chest with a huff. "Neither Yuki nor myself can really learn anything about it unless we asked you directly, Jiang."

Ayano's words made sense. Unless you were Professor Elfnein, Commander Genjuuro, or the SG-r04's very own Wielder, nobody needed to know just what exactly awaited them if they ever decided to turn traitor. There was always a lingering fear in the unknown, and the world council clearly knew that when the Spokesperson first declared the presence of the S.W.O.R.D. to the organization. Furrowing her brow at the memory of that cursed briefing, Lanfen slipped a hand beneath the black-and-white tie she wore, retrieving the red pendant which rested beneath it. Dim light originating from the monitor screens in front of them reflected off the crystal as Lanfen held it above her face between two cold fingers.

Tightening her fingertips around the relic pendant, Lanfen closed her eyes again, and tapped into the knowledge that was imprinted upon her mind the very moment she had first donned her Symphogear. An ocean of information surrounded her, and the Adaptor swam through its proverbial waves, turning aside irrelevant chunks of knowledge over and over until Lanfen finally arrived at the one piece of information she had mentally blocked out. The information which detailed the power of the S.W.O.R.D. within her.

Lanfen parted her lips, allowing words to slip between them while she delved into what she was allowed to share regarding the dreaded armament. "The S.W.O.R.D. is a weapon that pushes the SG-r04 to the height of its power." Her words were calm and straight-to-the-point. "With the strength provided by this weapon, nothing can survive a confrontation with the Sword of Damocles. Its sheer might is enough to overpower any threat, no matter how wide the skill gap may be between myself and my opponent.Thatis the S.W.O.R.D." Her fingertips released the red crystal between them, allowing it to fall back onto her chest with a light jingle. "... I take it that's enough to satisfy you, Ayano?" Lanfen dryly muttered, eyes still shut.

Nothing came from her teammate beside her. Not even the faint sound of a breath. The only thing Lanfen's senses could pick up was the warmth of Ayano's comforting palm as she slowly placed it on top of Lanfen's right hand. Its tight but careful grip conveyed everything Ayano desired to communicate without misunderstanding nor uttered words. There was no sense of fear within Ayano's hand. Only concern for someone whom she had known ever since their brief meetings back in Lydian Academy half a decade ago. It was that very same unconditional kindness which made Ayano popular among Lydian's junior students.

"... How are the others even able to accept a person like me, I wonder?" What was supposed to be Lanfen's thoughts instead came out of her in the form of an unintentional whisper. A whisper that she only realized when Ayano looked up the van's ceiling, clearly conjuring an answer to reply with. Lanfen had to wonder if this was a 'mistake' she intentionally made in the end.

Ayano's hand was still placed on top of Lanfen's by the time she looked back at the Adaptor with words on her tongue.

"They've been through a lot. All of them," Ayano gently began. "They've fought alongside all sorts of people, fought against all sorts of monsters, and even worked beside those who once tried to hurt them. If it's one thing I can't doubt about those six maidens, it's that they're willing to reach out a hand to anyone who's willing to grab onto it." A smile of cheerful reassurance grew on Ayano's face. One which was reinforced through years of interactions with S.O.N.G.'s original Wielders. "And you're no different, Jiang. No matter what you think of yourself. Even if you're holding onto that scary weapon, I'm sure that Tachibana and the others will always be happy to have someone like you as a Symphogear-Wielder."

Lanfen pursed her lips and avoided the woman's gaze as her eyes swung back over to her shaking legs. It honestly felt impossible to believe either one of Ayano's claims when something like the S.W.O.R.D. rested within her relic. But since her senior knew the six Wielders better than she ever could, Lanfen could not find the words to form any sort of retort. And so the Adaptor simply remained silent, her gaze now fixated on her pendant while lights from the monitors reflected off its crimson surface. Ayano was about to speak up again when a message notification abruptly rang from the van's terminal.

Gently lifting her palm off Lanfen's inert sword-hand, Ayano returned to the terminal's designated chair before looking back at the Adaptor with an unfaltering smile. Lanfen honestly envied the confidence her teammate easily channeled, even if Ayano had no powers of her own. She would consider Ayano to be the team's unofficial leader if doing so didn't feel embarrassing. "We're always here if you need us, Jiang," Ayano stated. "That's what being your senior is about, after all. Right?"

Her sword-hand twitched at her side. "... Yeah," Lanfen muttered with a hesitant nod. "Thanks, Ayano." Once the brunette's attention returned to her work, Lanfen leaned against the cold walls of the van before releasing a silent sigh.

The Adaptor turned her head over to the front of the van and looked out the windshields where she could see snow descending from the skies above. It always felt especially peaceful right after the closure of a Distortion rift, but no matter how hard Lanfen attempted to appreciate this strange tranquility, the lingering, proverbial fires within her eyes would always prevent from her truly settling down. As Lanfen's hand took out her smartphone from her uniform's pocket, Lanfen gazed at the memento of her sister which hung from the device by a silver chain, and reminded herself of her oath. The oath of revenge which Lanfen had declared the very moment she was recruited into S.O.N.G.

The calming lo-fi tune that floated throughout Lanfen's living room accompanied her like a welcomed companion while she went about her daily chores. Cooking. Laundry. Dishwashing. All of them were little more than mundane tasks which Lanfen would go through time and time again through pure muscle memory. The ringing of an incoming transmission could come at any moment now, but that didn't stop her from carrying out her usual tasks as if today were like any other day. Having just finished a thorough sweep of the place with a broom and dustpan, the Adaptor stored the items inside a small closet before glancing around the living room for any spot she had left unclean.

Rays of afternoon light shined through the windows, illuminating the jacket of Lanfen's Adaptor uniform as it hung on the room's coat rack with her relic pendant and black-and-white tie. Placing a hand on her hip, Lanfen momentarily glanced at the silent wrist device on her arm before taking a couple hush steps around the bubbly living room. The dishes from lunchtime were all cleaned. Nothing in the laundry currently required her attention. And it was too early to be cooking dinner right now. Unaware of what her next chore should be, Lanfen absent-mindedly stepped over to the door of her training room when a glint of light flashed in the corner of her vision.

The Adaptor halted in her steps and reflexively turned around to the source, bringing her attention to none other than the doorknob of Kai's bedroom door.

A thin layer of dust had already accumulated on the metal knob. The same could most likely be said regarding the room behind the door itself. Although Lanfen could hardly go through a day without ensuring the cleanliness of her surroundings, the woman still could not bring herself to step into the vacant bedroom ever since she had stored all of Kai's belongings within it. Not for now at least. Not while Kai's killer was still out there somewhere. The elimination of her little sister's murderer was the only proverbial key which could unlock the door standing before her.


Lanfen drew in a sharp breath and shivered when she realized that her gloved hand was suddenly centimeters away from grasping the dusty doorknob.

In less than a second, the Adaptor withdrew her halted hand, placing it back at her side as the tips of her fingers twitched ever so slightly. Unsure of what prompted her to reach out for the unoccupied room, Lanfen marched over to thekotatsutable, and dropped down on one of its sides in a hasty attempt to pull her thoughts somewhere else. She placed her elbows on the wooden furniture, squeezed her eyes shut, and tried to focus on the rhythmic music which was pouring out of the room's holo-player like water from a gentle stream. Whether or not it was actually doing anything, Lanfen could not tell. But this was the only thing that she could distract herself with right on the spot.

A metallicclickarose from Shinonome's bedroom door. It was soon followed up by the woman's soft-spoken voice. "Jiang?"

Calming herself down with a practiced breath, Lanfen slowly reopened her eyes, and peeked over a stiff shoulder to see Shinonome standing underneath the doorway of her room with both of her hands hidden behind her back. The Adaptor tucked a strand of black hair behind her ear before attempting to return the silver-haired woman's pleasant smile with a small one of her own. "Was there... something you wanted?" Lanfen said, taking her heavy elbows off the table.

Replying to her question through a quick nod, Shinonome stepped out of the open doorway, hands still placed behind her back even while she made herself comfortable on an opposing side of thekotatsutable. The pleated sweater and long skirt she wore contrasted greatly with Lanfen's black-and-white undershirt and tactical pants. "There is... something I've been meaning to give you," Shinonome explained, sliding her legs beneath the table's heated blanket. "It admittedly took me quite a bit of time to prepare, so I can only hope that it's to your liking."

The Adaptor lifted a brow and rested her chin in the palm of a gloved hand as curiosity arose within her mind. It was far too early to be exchanging Christmas gifts, but Lanfen couldn't help but wonder what Shinonome had in store for her all of a sudden. If it was an item from her, Lanfen found it hard to believe that she would be disappointed by whatever the silver-haired woman intended on giving. Once Shinonome took a quick breath to steady herself, her hands moved away from her back, and settled themselves on the table between them, finally revealing the small item she had been hiding up until now.

It was a Valkyranger plushie - or to be specific - it was a hand-made plush representing Cassandra Jiang Lanfen herself in the distinct garb of a Valkyranger uniform.

Made in the same black-and-white colours of her Symphogear, Lanfen wordlessly blinked at the sight of the item while Shinonome fidgeted with the plush her hands. "I-I've been learning quite a lot of things lately. Cooking. Sewing. And even more. So, when we visited that store several days ago, Ayano and I assumed that it would be a good idea to get one of the toys to use as a basis for this." If Shinonome had instead explained to her that they were already making Valkyranger products based on Lanfen, the Adaptor would have believed her. Because the 'moe-fied' plush she held in her hands appeared no different from what they were already selling on the shelves. "Do you... like it?"

Snapping herself out of the bewildered daze she was in, Lanfen cleared her throat before carefully taking the soft plushie into her own palms. "I... I do," Lanfen quietly admitted, bringing the plush over to her side of the table as Shinonome twiddled her fingers. The Adaptor stroked her thumb against the toy's soft texture and held back a smile which was threatening to grow on her face. "Thanks, Shinonome," Lanfen muttered, gazing at the toy's monochrome helmet with an almost wistful stare. "It feels like an honour to be wearing this outfit of all things."

All the pent-up worry on Shinonome's face visibly disappeared in a heartbeat upon hearing those gentle words, now replaced by a slight, momentary shade of red that made Lanfen inadvertedly tighten her throat. "I'm pleased to hear that, Jiang," Shinonome said, cupping one of her pale cheeks with a hand. "You could say that it felt... 'necessary'. All your comrades have such colourful characters to represent them as valiant protectors of the world. It would only be right to make something which could represent how you're just as brave and gallant as the rest of them."

The Adaptor pursed her lips at the woman's flowery sentiment, hands firmly gripped onto the handmade plush in her possession. 'Brave'. 'Gallant'. Lanfen silently questioned if either of those terms could realistically be applied to her of all people. Curious as to what sort of image Shinonome had of her, Lanfen placed the expertly-crafted toy in a sitting position on the table before staring at her sword-hand with narrowed eyes. Ever since Shinonome began living with her, the silver-haired woman had been occupying herself with all sorts of books, hobbies, and documentaries just to get herself acquainted with this world. Shinonome's curiosity was a water-well with no bottom and an unending eagerness to learn whatever she could.

"Shinonome," Lanfen began, getting a curious tilt of the head from her roommate. "Have... Have any of your memories managed to come back?" she hesitantly asked, knowing how rarely either of them - or their teammates - actually went out to inquire about the woman's past. While it was sensible to not prod the circumstances of a person who could not remember anything about herself, the fact that she was an Illuminati experiment just like previous threats to S.O.N.G. would undoubtedly be a proverbial elephant in the room to some of those outside the paranormal taskforce.

To the surprise of neither of them, Shinonome slowly shook her head with one hand still placed on her cheek. "I have been attempting all sorts of recommended methods to try and jog my memories. But sadly, nothing has managed to succeed in reminding me of whom I once was," Shinonome politely explained, sounding more curious than frustrated with her own lack of success thus far. "I suppose it's not unusual for someone like me to require more time in order to retain what was suddenly lost?"

"Point... taken," Lanfen murmured, glancing out of a nearby window with her chin back in the palm of her hand again. "Still..." She slowly pressed a fingertip into the soft plushie in front of her. "Is there anything that you would like to do, Shinonome?" Looking back at her roommate, Lanfen's vague question drew clear confusion over the woman's pale-white face, prompting her to explain further. "I mean- I always thought you looked uneasy whenever I would come back from a mission. You haven't been allowed to leave this place unless someone is with you as well, so I was just..." Lanfen paused. "... Worried if that's been affecting you."

Pulling a hand away from her cheek, Shinonome hid an amused giggle behind her palm before glancing around the living room with a face half-hidden by silver hair. "You overstate my circumstances, Jiang," Shinonome playfully teased her, rousing a slight stutter out of the Adaptor. "While my options may admittedly be limited, I certainly don't mind the company that you, Godai, and Ayano are able to provide me. Regardless of my situation, I'm quite grateful to be in the care of Team-04." Her golden eyes then went over to the suitcase which was resting next to the shelves. The metal suitcase that contained all of Shinonome's daily medicine. "But if there's one thing Iwouldlike to do... it's that I simply wish that I could be more useful."

"Useful?" Lanfen crossed her arms over her chest in confusion. "We share all our housework, don't we?"

"I'm aware we do. But when I mean 'useful', I mean that-" Shinonome pressed the tips of her index fingers against one another, suddenly unsure of the words she was initially attempting to utilize. "I'm referring to doing more than just sitting here, Jiang," she slowly explained, tearing a thoughtful gaze away from the suitcase. "Every time you and the others are called to head out and protect the innocent, I... can't do anything else but wait for you all to come back. I'm aware that there's little I can realistically do to help - and that it's nothing more than a silly wish - but even I have my own moments where I desire to help others, just like yourself."

'Protect the innocent'.

Lanfen wondered if Shinonome was ever the sort of person who could run out into danger, all for the sake of others. She possessed a heart that was far kinder than almost anyone Lanfen had ever met, and it was the one reason why the Adaptor found it difficult to imagine Shinonome willingly stepping onto a battlefield. Even if their enemies were nothing more than battle automata. Bringing this up with Godai and Ayano could maybe give her some helpful insight, but until then, it was just the two of them in this small apartment. Looking down at the black-and-white plushie on the table before her, Lanfen brushed a fingertip against the soft toy, and questioned if the gentle hands which created it could ever cause harm to another.

Lanfen's purple eyes met with Shinonome's pensive gaze. "Maybe I could-?"

An all-too-familiar thunderclap roared throughout the skies of Yamaku City, causing the pair's attention to swing over to the shaking windows as Lanfen's sword-hand twitched at her side.

The device on her wrist immediately rang with an incoming audio transmission from the S.O.N.G. submarine. Lanfen answered the call with a tap of a holographic prompt and rose up from the table. "This is SG-r04, reporting in," Lanfen declared, her heart racing within her chest. "What's the situation?"

The urgency in the bridge operator's voice was unlike anything Lanfen had heard over the past few incursions. "Lanfen, our scanners are detecting a powerful rift that's estimated to open in less than 10 minutes!" Tomosato warned over the speakers, allowing both Shinonome and Lanfen to hear her within the walls of the small living room. "We've pinpointed its location and have just confirmed its presence within the outskirts of Yamaku City!"

"Here?!" Lanfen exclaimed as Shinonome worriedly clasped her hands together. Clicking her tongue at the twitching which was growing within her sword-hand, Lanfen drew in a practiced breath to calm the proverbial fires that were suddenly brewing within her eyes. If the Distortions had returned to Yamaku, then she was going to fight them off just like she did everywhere else across Japan. "Understood," Lanfen firmly stated. "SG-r04, heading out." Closing the communications line with another click of a holo-button, Lanfen retrieved her jacket, tie, and relic pendant from the room's coat rack before donning them in one quick sequence. "Shinonome-"

"I know," the woman calmly told her, blocking Lanfen's panicked words with a hushing finger which was held to the Adaptor's lips. "'Remain calm and follow any evacuation order you see'," Shinonome said, repeating the guidelines that Lanfen had taught her over the past few days verbatim. "Don't worry too much about me, Jiang," she insisted, appearing none too worried by the presence of a Distortion incursion. "Just come back safely, like you always do."

As Shinonome's index finger retracted itself from Lanfen's hushed mouth, the Adaptor held back the words she initially intended to speak, and replaced them with a sharp nod. "Of course," Lanfen said, fastening a black-and-white tie around her neck. If there was a time to bring up her roommate's wishes to Godai and Ayano, now wasn't the case. The encouraging smile Shinonome gave her wordlessly told Lanfen just as much. Now was the time to live up to the woman's image of her, and if it meant grinding the Distortion into grains of sand beneath her feet, then Lanfen was happy to oblige.

An ear-piercing screech from the van's halting wheels declared the team's arrival within Yamaku's outskirts. It took 20 minutes for Team-04 to race out of the city's vicinity, and just like their sensors predicted, a Distortion rift had erupted into existence high above the forest tree-line. Volleys of disciplined gunfire echoed from deep within the woods as Lanfen swung open the van's backdoors, and met the snow-covered road with her Symphogear's armoured boots. A quick glance at the tear in reality allowed her to spot the legion of battle automata which were raining upon the forest, provoking a deep scowl across the Adaptor's face. It was almost fortunate that there was little-to-no civilian presence in these parts of the outskirts.

"Keep your guard up out there, Jiang," Ayano advised while she sat down on the chair of the van's terminal. "We're only detecting Category-1s so far, but that could always change in an instant." Settling her hands on the terminal's keyboard, the brunette wasted no time linking up their communications with the command center of the S.O.N.G. submarine. "We've just received additional orders from command! Yuki, Jiang, we're all clear to proceed."

With one hand still holding onto the steering wheel in case they needed an 'emergency relocation', Godai shifted the vehicle's gear-lever into a parked state before flashing Lanfen a thumbs-up over her shoulder. "Show 'em what you can do like always, Jiang!"

Acknowledging her senior's encouragement with a curt nod, Lanfen patiently tapped her boot on the concrete road while Ayano inputted a specific command into the terminal. An electronic chirp of confirmation subsequently rang from the metallic crate that they had recently strapped to the van's top, heralding the deployment of a palm-sized camera drone as the crate shifted open to reveal their latest piece of equipment. Propelled by experimental hover-tech recently developed by Professor Elfnein, the drone was designed to accompany Wielders into combat zones in order to maintain a consistent visual feed of their situations.

"This is SG-r04. I'm heading towards the incursion zone." Now that the deployed drone was in the air, Lanfen sped into the tree-line, kicking up heaps of white snow with each heavy footfall.

The crowned warrior batted away the tree branches which blocked her path with her gauntleted hands. From the short glimpses she was able to make through the forest canopy's gaps, Lanfen could spot the rift glowing high in the skies, further agitating the insistent twitching within her thirsting sword-hand. The distinct barking of gunfire was growing louder the further Lanfen sped into the woods, and while ongoing comm chatter indicated nothing other than a steady counterattack, the proverbial fires within the Adaptor's eyes could never calm down in the proximity of a Distortion rift. By the time Lanfen had reached the defensive line set up by Task Force Harmony, her body was aching to throw itself into the fray just so she could handle the situation all by herself.

But the standards which were imposed upon Lanfen by her very position dissuaded the Adaptor from acting out of line. Upon reminding herself of the image that Shinonome held of her, Lanfen reigned in her burning desires, and narrowed her eyes in focus while the bellows of heavy weaponry echoed throughout the forest. Owing to the command of Captain Yaiba, orders were calmly and swiftly delivered over the comms line, expertly orchestrating the armoured soldiers who were taking cover behind the thick trunks of the forest's countless trees. The descending Category-1 Distortions were landing right in the middle of an expansive forest clearing, giving the troops a clear line of sight for their weapons to open fire unobstructed.

And yet, for every Distortion which was gunned down in a hail of lead upon making landfall, two more would easily take its place.

Contributing to the counterattack's firepower were four of Harmony's bipedal combat walkers. Having physically bulldozed their way through the forest in order to even reach this far into the woods, few could actually complain about the trail of deforestation they left behind when their rotary guns scythed through the endless horde of armoured knights like mechanical harvesters set upon a field of crops. The proverbial weight their heavy weapons added to the barrage turned Distortion after Distortion into clouds of ebony sand, all while spent bullet casings spewed forth from ejectors to melt the snow beneath the machines with fresh, hot metal.

Rushing over to the Captain with a hand on the pommel of her sheathed sword, Lanfen greeted them with a formal salute that Captain Yaiba returned in kind, even if they were busy taking cover behind the trunk of a tree. Since the Adaptor could risk taking a blow unlike Harmony's soldiers, Lanfen waived off any attempt to hide as the team's camera drone hovered right next to her. "How's the situation, Captain?" If it weren't for their specialized headgear, neither of them would be able to even hear one another amidst the deafening symphony of gunfire.

"The Category-1s are arriving one after the other, but the line is holding," the Captain stated, tapping several inputs into their arm-bracer to bring up a holographic map of the incursion zone. Going by the distinct blips on the holographic projection, Harmony's forces had managed to position their forces along the edges of the forest glade, maintaining an effective barrier between the descending automata, and the direction which led right towards Yamaku City. "Our forces have intercepted at least 14 Category-1 Distortions that were making their way to the city's borders. No Category-2s have arrived just yet, but my gut feeling tells me that this is just an appetizer for what's coming next."

"You and me both," Lanfen quietly remarked, shifting her focus back over to the raging battle before her. "Ayano." She tapped into her headphones with a free hand and faced the floating drone beside her. "Are the scanners picking up anything aside from the Category-1s? Tomosato implied something about this rift being far different than usual."

"Whatever Tomosato told you about this rift, she was most likely right, Jiang," Ayano responded over the comms. "The whole thing is pulsing with a wavelength we've never detected up until now and command hasn't relayed anything back to us about what it could mean. Tachibana and the others are also encountering this same type of rift in their zones, so-" There was a sudden pause in her words. And when the field operator spoke up again, the unease in Ayano's voice had transitioned into that of outright concern. "Wait... We're detecting an additional energy signature? Matching it with the database and... Jiang!" she exclaimed. "Scanners are picking up a single Caster-type that's on its way! It's a Category-3 Distortion!"

Curling her fingers around the grip of her Armed Gear, Lanfen felt the proverbial fires flicker within her eyes while Captain Yaiba tapped into their headgear's own built-in communicators. "Affirmative," Lanfen said, bringing her free hand away from her headphones. It was only a matter of time before the enemy finally employed their next tier of Distortions, and unlike the crowned warrior's first encounter with the Category-2s, Lanfen was more wary than eager about facing the highest of the Distortions' documented categories. "Captain Yaiba," Lanfen addressed the Field Captain once they were seemingly done with their transmission. "I take it that you've received the good news, too?"

"Just another day on the job, isn't it?" Captain Yaiba responded to the woman's sarcasm with their own dry wit. "Normally, we'd leave the higher-level creatures to you Symphogear-Wielders, but with our new walkers on the field, I'd suggest you that hang back and let their guns soften up the damn thing before you go rushing in with that sword of yours." Tapping into their arm-bracer's digital pad again, the Captain swiftly relayed the incoming arrival of a Category-3 to the rest of their forces. "Are you fine with this plan, SG-r04?"

Lanfen answered with a sharp nod before drawing her stowed weapon from her hip armour. Unsure of what she should expect from a Distortion of the highest Category, the Sword of Damocles released its blade from its golden cross-guard, letting the Adaptor rest the thick length of metal on a pauldron-covered shoulder. "I've no complaints," Lanfen told them, having wizened up by now after one too many frustrating battles against the Category-2s.

While Lanfen and Captain Yaiba awaited the arrival of the Category-3, the barrage of precise rifle fire and unrelenting hails of lead from Harmony's combat walkers refused to falter in the face of the descending Category-1s. Whenever the walking tanks' rotary guns ran dry of ammunition, the walkers would immediately lower their armoured cabins to the ground with their articulated legs, signaling a combat engineer to sprint over with a fresh crate of ammunition in their arms. Considering the fact that they were no more than just regular people beneath their advanced body armour, the unbreakable calm in which these soldiers carried out their duty was admittedly admirable. It made Lanfen wonder if her parents once carried out their own duties to S.O.N.G. with the same level of tranquility.

As pinpoint gunfire reduced a charging knight to nothing more than a cloud of black sand, what appeared to be the last of the arriving Category-1 Distortions joined its fellow automata on the forest glade, adding to the immense heaps of ebony grains that had accumulated on top of the white, casing-ridden snow. At least four Distortions had managed to brave the incoming barrage and breach the tree-line, but none of them were even able to lift their weapons before they too were torn apart by disciplined volleys of rifle fire. Lanfen gladly would have taken out the few who had managed to threaten Harmony's soldiers, but Captain Yaiba insisted with a wordless gesture that she best save her energy for the Category-3.

The communicator within Lanfen's headphones reactivated. "Category-3 detected." It was Ayano again. "It's making its way through the rift." The dread in her declaration was almost palpable.

Violent streaks of lightning crackled around the immense tear in reality. Accompanied by the deep thrumming of booming thunderclaps, Lanfen could see the awaiting soldiers around the forest discarding spent magazines, readying their ballistic armaments with fresh ones for their first ever encounter with a Category-3. Whether or not their weapons would even pose a threat to the Distortion, the crowned warrior could not say, but their commitment to the defense was never unappreciated. Maintaining a steady grip around the Sword of Damocles' golden handle, Lanfen peered through the gaps of the forest canopy, and spotted a single, armoured figure that was slowly descending from the rift in the winter skies.

"Fire on my command," Captain Yaiba ordered into their helmet's communicators. "We can't afford to let this thing reach the city."

The camera drone next to Lanfen floated through the branches above them and focused its high-powered lenses on the arriving Distortion. To an uninformed perspective, one could initially mistake the Category-3's shining, golden armour for an angel who had fallen from the heavens. Especially upon seeing the extravagant, glowing runes which marked its entire frame from head-to-toe. Unlike the lower Categories of its Type, the Distortion visibly renounced the distinctive robes that were often donned by the other Caster-Types, replaced by an extravagant, crimson cape which trailed down from its back to flutter in the winter winds. When the Distortion gracefully - and soundlessly - greeted the forest floor with its metallic heels, its glowing helmet's visor scanned its surroundings, seemingly acknowledging the mustered forces surrounding its presence.

Lanfen's twitching sword-hand desired nothing more than to cut down the creature where it stood.

"Open fire!"

A dozen muzzle flashes blossomed across the snowy forest before Lanfen even heard the ensuing barks of blazing gunfire. Rotary guns built-into the armoured cabins of Harmony's combat walkers whirred nonstop while bullet-after-bullet vomited from their spinning barrels, hosing the arriving Category-3 in a combined hail of lead which Lanfen could only watch on with her sword's blade on her shoulder. Bullet casings spat repeatedly from the clacking ejectors of countless weapons - but as impressive as itlooked- the Adaptor knew deep within her that it wasn't going to even register on what vaguely passed for a Distortion's consciousness.

"Jiang, look!" Godai suddenly exclaimed over the comms.

Narrowing her vision on the unmoving Category-3, Lanfen gritted her teeth upon noticing the abysmal results of Harmony's attempted barrage. Surrounding the Distortion was something which the Adaptor could only describe as a fog-like 'barrier'. While gun barrels across the forest relented in their futile attacks, the Category-3 remained where it stood, its golden form wreathed in smoking tendrils that effortlessly reduced a million incoming projectiles into bits of harmless carbon upon impact. The Distortion gave the soldiers the privilege of resuming their ineffective attack for several seconds before it inevitably lifted its rune-marked arms from its sides, and weaved a series of summoning gestures through the air.

"Captain Yaiba," Lanfen warned them, taking a single step forward with the Sword of Damocles in her right hand. "Please, pull back your forces."

The Captain was obviously all too aware by now of where the situation was leading. As Captain Yaiba motioned for the digital pad on their arm-bracer, flashes of emerald light burst into view one-by-one around the lone Category-3, causing the hairs on the back of Lanfen's neck to stand upright.

Conjured through the Distortion's illusive hand movements, funnel-shaped objects materialized into existence out of emerald particles before solidifying into metallic objects which possessed the same glimmering colour of their conjurer. These small, unusual manifestations would then zip through the air, flying at speeds that allowed them to dodge the incoming hail of bullets with ease. By the time Captain Yaiba managed to send out the signal to fall back, ominous lights could be seen growing within the pointed tips of the Distortion's flying funnels.

If it wasn't for the enhanced reflexes provided by Lanfen's Symphogear, the Adaptor wouldn't have been able to even process the next few seconds.

Bright, narrow particle beams spewed forth from the Distortion's floating conjurations and began melting apart Captain Yaiba's forces with the emotionless precision of a surgical knife. Like flocks of sparrows, the funnels would soar between the tree branches before suddenly halting to project superheated beams from their glowing tips. The advanced body armour worn by the Captain's soldiers did nothing to prevent the incoming blasts from reducing bewildered troops left and right into bits of black ash. In response to the evisceration of their foot soldiers, Harmony's bipedal walkers desperately attempted to ground the flying conjurations with their rotary guns, but the floating weapons were quick to aim their barrels at the legged machines.

Their hissing beams sliced right through their armoured cabins, disintegrating the combat walkers - and the screaming pilots within them - as though they were nothing more than burning tissue paper. The forest floor practically shook beneath their metal feet when the glowing-hot machines subsequently collapsed beneath the weight of their own flaming cockpits.

"Pull your forces back immediately!" Lanfen demanded, deflecting the incoming beams away from both her and the Captain with the thick blade of her Armed Gear. The unbearable stench of vaporized flesh was starting to clog her nostrils.

Needing no words to justify a tactical retreat, Captain Yaiba stayed behind the Adaptor, hailed for the carriers waiting outside the forest, and begun withdrawing what few remained of their decimated forces in the direction of Yamaku City. Lanfen covered their retreat with gritted teeth, swatting aside countless beams of super-heated particles with the Sword of Damocles as battered soldiers navigated their way through the smoldering wreckages of the fallen combat walkers. Another swift order from the Captain commanded the troops to throw down canisters of blinding smoke behind them, granting the troops additional cover from the funnels which were swooping between the branches.

"Godai, Ayano, follow the Captain back to the city's borders!" A jade beam darted past Lanfen's head, transforming the camera drone behind her into a black stain on the snowy ground. "And look up anything we know that could help me get pass the Distortion's barrier!"

In contrast to the Adaptor's desperate measures to defend her retreating comrades, the Category-3 remained where it stood, as if it were taking in the destruction its conjurations were weaving across the woods. Clicking her tongue at the sheer audacity of the battle automata, Lanfen took in a full 360 degrees view of her smoke-covered surroundings, realized that the last of Harmony's forces had finally pulled away, and immediately commanded her Symphogear to finally blare its electro-swing Jazz tune. The song in Lanfen's beating heart refused to let the Distortion resume its carnage.

"I don't know who I am and that's okay, but what's going to happen today?"Lanfen raced out of the blinding smoke-screen around her and stared down the glowing tips of a dozen floating funnels."My brain burns like it'll explode, begging for it to not implode."

Black-and-white flashed before the Adaptor's eyes. The steel letters in her vision slammed onto a cracking chessboard, declaring,"Rook Reflector."

Metallic spikes erupted from the back of Lanfen's armoured boots to stab into the forest floor. Jade particle beams bolted towards the Adaptor from every possible direction. Glowing panels sprung open on the sides of Lanfen's thigh armour. Crossing her gauntleted arms over her chest, Lanfen narrowed her eyes as a translucent, dome-shaped force-field solidified around her form, causing the searing beams to crash into it before harmlessly dispersing themselves with a skin-crawling screech that was blocked out by her protective headphones.

"Jiang!" Ayano hailed her over the comms. "Records on the Category-3 Caster state that its barrier only activates against high-velocity objects! If you want to get pass that shield, you're going to have to hit it at just the right speed!"

Godai quickly followed the field operator up with her own comment. "It ain't going to be easy, but it's the only way you're gettin' pass that damn barrier!"

The funnel swarm relented in their barrage of super-heated particle beams, fueling the crowned warrior's absorbing barrier with each jade projectile which crashed against it. "CanI fly before rolling out the die?"With a single mental command, Lanfen shattered the dome-shaped force-field, turning it into an outwards wave of stunning energy that sent the funnels around her spiraling out of the air before they were pulled to the earth by the simple rule of gravity."Am I allowed to cry before I finally try?"The hydraulic stakes within her boots retracted into their sheathes. The panels on her thighs snapped closed.

Rhythmic pianos tunes rang in the air and black-and-white flashed before her eyes. Another name appeared before her, spelled out by steel letters which now declared the name,"Bishop Barrage."

The rushing beats of stick slamming onto drums mimicked the Adaptor's pounding heart."My brain is on fire, I'll never understand."With the funnels lying paralyzed in the snow, Lanfen brandished the Sword of Damocles, its thick blade now glowing with crimson markings that flashed across its metallic length."I'm going to tire, blazed from every demand."The Category-3 still refused to even move a finger. And that was fine by Lanfen. Swinging her Armed Gear in a wide arc, the Adaptor manifested a dozen floating, glowing replicas of her sword at her sides. A subsequent flick of her wrist sent the energy blades soaring towards the unmoving Distortion, its cape fluttering weakly behind it.

The golden knight sliced a rune-marked forearm through the cold air, summoning another swarm of funnels around it before its new conjurations began zapping away at the incoming swords.

"To breathe clean air above the depths."Lanfen's armoured boots stomped across the forest glade to meet with the Distortion head-on."All I have to do is climb the steps!"Jade beams lanced towards the crowned warrior and harmlessly bounced off the soaring swords around her. Protected by her dwindling number of translucent, sentient blades, Lanfen fastened her grip around the Sword of Damocles, launched herself into the air with the sun facing her back, and thrusted straight towards the Distortion's fog-covered chest-plate.

The Adaptor's thick blade struck nothing more than an after-image of a combatant who had disappeared faster than she could even process it.

Drawing in a sharp breath, Lanfen's instincts sensed the presence of her opponent behind her, telling her just where the Category-3 was right as two jade beams directly crashed into her exposed back. The subsequent cry of pain which escaped Lanfen was drowned out by the glass-like cracking of her Symphogear's protective barriers. Warning systems within her paranormal armour blared in reaction to the particle beams' searing heat. Pain suppression systems kicked, minimizing a blinding pain that would have knocked a regular person unconscious in an instant. All of which were immediately transmitted back to the operators who were monitoring her now-muted Symphogear's vitality monitors.

"We've lost visual of incursion zone 02 and zone 04."

"Harmony Squadrons J-15A and J-15B are withdrawing into Yamaku City!"

"Symphogear Team-03 have just engaged with the Armour-Type Category-3."

Bridge operators declared their endless reports within the command center of the S.O.N.G. submarine as Commander Genjuuro stood at his post with arms crossed over his chest, calmly taking in every single bit of information they were receiving. The Distortions have finally deployed their line of Category-3s, and just like their decrypted information predicted, these specialized battle automata were formidable opponents for even the Symphogear-Wielders. Displayed on the bridge's three large monitors screens were numerous visual-feeds originating from both local CCTV and deployed camera drones, granting the bridge a clear on-the-ground look of the situations in Japan, Sydney, New York, and London.

"Tomosato," Commander Genjuuro firmly addressed one of his most trusted operators. "Give me a status report on our Wielders."

Sitting down at her shared station next to Professor Elfnein, Tomosato's hands inputted multiple commands into her terminal before she fulfilled the Commander's orders. "Chris and Hibiki have just eliminated the Armour-Type Category-3. Damage to local infrastructure is severe, but casualties are low. Maria and Tsubasa are currently pursuing a retreating Blade-Type Category-3 into the Buckingham Palace, while Kirika and Shirabe are luring an Armour-Type Category-3 away from civilian sectors." The bridge operator drew in an uneasy breath. "Lanfen is currently engaging the Caster-Type Category-3, but our sensors report accumulating damage to her systems, Commander. At this rate, she'll..."

None of the feeds they were getting from Yamaku City gave them a direct visual of the attacking Distortion nor Lanfen, only images of Harmony squadrons who were currently attempting to regroup their battered forces into a coherent defense line on the borders of the city. The only thing that granted them insights on the ongoing battle were the monitoring systems which kept an eye on the Wielders' Aufwachen waveforms, the physical status of their Symphogears, and their Phonic Gain emission levels. With each tense second that zipped by, multiple reports of barrier failures and internal damage arose from the SG-r04's data-feed, painting a dire picture of Lanfen's lone battle against the Caster-Type Distortion.

"Things aren't looking good out there for Lanfen, Commander," Fujitaka grimly remarked, fingers still swiftly typing away on his computer terminal. "We're going to have to redeploy either Hibiki or Chris to her location if we want to take out that Distortion. There's no way she'll be able to eliminate by herself in her current state."

Commander Genjuuro furrowed his red brows with a grimace. "We can't displace our Adaptor teams without the council's input, Fujitaka," he reminded the operator, right as another damage indicator arose within the SG-r04's monitoring systems. A harsh curse subsequently escaped the Commander as the large man panned his gaze across the upper bridge, and noticed the obvious concerns on Fujitaka, Tomosato, and Professor Elfnein's faces. It was enough for him to consider going against standard procedures. But as soon as the Commander began analyzing his next course of action, an incoming transmission flashed over the central monitor screen, blocking out one-third of their visual feeds.

It was the spokesperson of the United Nations.

A swift hand signal from the Commander gave Tomosato the clearance to connect the lines. Despite the current situation, the Spokesperson addressed the bridge with their usual polite tone. "The council has a request, Commander Kazanari. One which they've been meaning to inquire about for some time now."

The Commander didn't care to put on the filter that he often utilized whenever he had to deal with the council directly. "We can address that request when we're not in the middle of an operation, Spokesperson!" Genjuuro exclaimed, his hands tightening into fists at his sides. The nerves on their backs were practically about to burst. "The Adaptor Corp is currently facing the toughest Distortions we've seen so far, so now is not the time to be dealing with their concerns!"

"As unusual as it may sound, there is no better opportunity than this, Commander Kazanari," the Spokesperson elegantly argued. "The council has just received reports from Harmony's forces in Japan, and in response to the arrival of the Category-3s, they would like to request a demonstration of the SG-r04's true power. Not only as proof of its capabilities, but to also act as a reminder to all of S.O.N.G. of the circumstances in which you operate under." The implication of their statement drew a single bead of sweat on Genjuuro's face. Professor Elfnein and the two main bridge operators also visibly froze in their seats. "They are requesting that Cassandra Jiang Lanfen utilize the S.W.O.R.D. against the Category-3 Distortion."

Commander Genjuuro slammed his large hands onto the surface of his personal terminal. Fujitaka and Tomosato both went deathly silent. But Professor Elfnein wasn't afraid to voice her own opinion on the matter.

Rising from her shared station, the Professor visibly gulped before addressing their superior. "Spokesperson, the S.W.O.R.D. is an armament I've designed to only be used in the most dire of situations," she retorted, hands gripping onto the length of her white lab-coat. "While I understand the council's intentions, we cannot justify simply utilizing the S.W.O.R.D. against the Distortions without even addressing the Wielder who possesses it! If you wish to stabilize the situation in Japan before any lives are lost, then we only need to redeploy Symphogear Team-01 to Miss Cassandra's location as soon as possible."

"Your opinion is noted, Professor Elfnein," the Spokesperson politely replied. "But while I personally share your hesitations, this request from the council is made in the best interest of our world's safety first and foremost. Just like every other decision that they have made in order to counter the Distortions and their endless waves of battle automata." Genjuuro could actually tell that they were speaking the truth when it came to their skepticisms with the order, but absolutely nobody on the bridge crew were convinced thatthiswas their best course of action anyway. "We will be compensating for any damages that come as a result of this decision, Commander Kazanari. I will make sure of that."

With that statement declared, the transmission line closed up from the Spokesperson's end, prompting the symbol of the United Nations to finally vanish from the central monitor screen.

The Professor and two of Genjuuro's most reliable operators all turned to him while the large man stood at his terminal with an expression that did not hide any of the resentment he held towards the council. Fujitaka was about to remark on the situation, but a discouraging shake of the head from Tomosato held back her colleague's words. Professor Elfnein did not choose to speak, but the wordless look she gave to the Commander assured him that whatever order he was about to give next, it was one which all of them were going to go with, regardless of the consequences awaiting them on the other side.

What was supposedly a 'fight' had now become a struggle to simply survive. Ignoring the insistent blaring of her Symphogear's internal alarms, Lanfen placed all her bets on the pain-suppression systems to block out the undeniable agony which arose from the giant burn mark on her back. A reasonable person would have chosen to retreat in the direction of Task Force Harmony's newest defense line, but Lanfen never considered herself as such to begin with as the crowned warrior dashed across the forest floor in an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Jade beams persistently harried the Adaptor, turning the snow beneath her armoured boots into clouds of hot steam with each shot that grazed past Lanfen's body.

Luring the Category-3 away from the city was her lone objective.

Everything which came after it was essentially made up on the spot.

"Can I light my flame without burning my eyes?"Particle beams lanced past her head and melted into the thick tree trunks ahead of her."Will I be able to see past all the filthy lies?"Skidding into a screeching halt, Lanfen swung the Sword of Damocles behind her, deflecting the super-heated beams back into the very funnels that launched them. As the flying conjurations disintegrated into bits of emerald light, the crowned warrior spotted the Distortion slowly following her in an uncaring advance, its rune-marked forearms gently weaving through the air to bring forth more of its arcane objects.

Black-and-white flashed in her burning eyes. The steel letters slammed onto the cracking chessboard."Queen Quicksilver."

"No idea where to look without being blinded."Armour slid forth from her headphones' casings, forming a sleek mask over her face with a large pair of circular, compound eyes."From the burns you all have provided."Her face-shield docked itself with her three-point crown and the Queen chess-piece pauldron on her right shoulder thrummed with life, sending a wave of revitalizing energy throughout Lanfen's aching body.

Mists of hot steam froze in place. The swooping funnels decelerated into a sluggish pace. As the monochrome Wielder transformed into a proverbial lord of speed, Lanfen's white mask projected a holographic timer in the corner of her narrowed eyes.

Ten seconds.

The soles of her armoured boots pounded the snow beneath them, kicking up flying chunks of white while her fingers tightened their grip around the Sword of Damocles. Lanfen had played her trump card and it was time to make it count in the span of ten expansive seconds. Focusing her vision on the Distortion's slowed-down conjurations, Lanfen blitzed between the burning trees, splitting apart the obstinate funnels around her into floating halves with each precise swing of her Armed Gear. It didn't matter that the Distortion could summon more of them. Only that its magical offenses remained eliminated.

Eight seconds.

The black-and-white Wielder made a bee-line for the frozen Category-3. It had barely lifted its right foot from the forest floor when Lanfen achieved super-human speeds, and by the time she was right in front of its golden form, the Distortion's moving boot was just about to plant itself on the snowy ground again. The compound lenses of Lanfen's mask flashed a deep crimson as the crowned warrior brandished her Armed Gear and began battering its thick blade against the Distortion's fog-like barrier. Inert, smoking tendrils deflected blow after blow. Strike after strike. Thrust after thrust.

Four seconds.

Unfazed by the Adaptor's attempts to shatter the mystic shield through sheer brute force, the Distortion's rune-marked forearms slowly sliced through the air undisturbed, bringing forth emerald lights around it to conjure another swarm of its funnels. But Lanfen refused to falter. Desperate to find a way through its seemingly unbreakable defenses, Lanfen thrashed against the Category-3's barrier, even while the golden knight's newest conjurations slowly solidified into a dozen funnels around them. The fastest, shortest route was always a straight line. Such were the words often boasted by Lanfen's fellow Symphogear-Wielders.

Zero seconds.

Wisps of evaporated snow continued to dance in the winter air. Golden funnels flew amongst the branches at blinding speeds. The loud humming from Lanfen's shoulder pauldron turned silent and her armoured faceplate slid back into her headphones. Tightening her lips to hold back the tide of blood which threatened to spill out from her mouth, the crowned warrior retreated with a backwards leap, only for the Distortion's hand to suddenly thrust towards her, and imprison her throat within its rune-marked fingertips. Lanfen choked on her own tasteless ichor as the Category-3 effortlessly lifted her agony-ridden body above the ground, its metal fingers tightening around her throat, completely sealing away her power-infused lyrics.

Whatever strength Lanfen had left in her could only be spent to keep the Sword of Damocles within her weakening grasp. Blood was trailing down the corners of her mouth and the Wielder could feel the waves of pain around her body rising into a morbid crescendo. With her Phonic Gain emission cut off, the Distortion's funnels took positions at the Category-3's sides before reorienting their glowing tips right at the hissing crowned warrior. Lanfen could only scowl at the sight of its newest conjurations. Even though the Distortion had her contained within the literal palm of its hand, it didn't stop Lanfen from hurling a glob of blood and saliva at its faceplate, staining its glowing visor with a harmless but spiteful projectile.

Jade beams launched from the tips of its funnels.

The Distortion's fingers released the Adaptor's imprisoned neck, allowing the super-heated projectiles to send Lanfen flying across the forest floor while a dozen particle beams collided with her abdomen as a concentrated barrage of blinding light. She didn't have the energy to even cry out in pain as alarms blared in her ears, pointlessly alerting her to a severe breach within her protective barriers. The next thing Lanfen felt was the sensation of her back crashing back into the snowy earth, creating a small crater beneath her lying body. The Sword of Damocles had slipped from her grasp and the barriers of her armour howled relentlessly to regain their integrity. For just a single second, she felt as though all control of her limbs had been disconnected from her mind.

Trails of smoke billowed from the bruised micro-fibers of Lanfen's Symphogear. Sparks erupted from her cracked gauntlets and armoured boots. Drawing the cold air into her broken lungs, Lanfen wordlessly screamed at her aching limbs to move while the Distortion's funnels soared above her, and took aim for one last volley. The Distortion didn't even bother to stay for what was about to happen next. Having seemingly lost interest in the battered crowned warrior, the Category-3 turned on its golden heel, ran a rune-marked forearm through its lavish cape, and began marching in the direction of Harmony's defensive line, leaving its conjurations to finish the job while it resumed on its original path.

"Jiang!" Ayano screamed at the Adaptor over the comms. "I'm sending Yuki over to help! She'll be there in-!"

"S-Stay with the C-Captain," Lanfen practically pleaded, lifting a heavy forearm off the snow-covered earth. The Sword of Damocles laid next to her, mere centimeters away from her aching sword-hand. Desperate to even brush against its handle with her weakened fingertips, Lanfen glared at the floating funnels above her, and drew in a sharp breath at the sight of their glowing tips.

A burst of static poured forth from her communicators.

Bolts of azure, eldritch flames sung through the winter air and vaporized every single one of the glowing conjurations in a precise, soundless volley.

Unable to comprehend what had just even happened, Lanfen's purple eyes watched as what remained of the disintegrated funnels were scattered across the winter winds in the form of emerald particles. The Distortion's weapons were gone, but her heart continued pounding against her ribcage, still waiting for the grip of death to finally wrap itself around it. With her limbs still refusing to do more than simply twitch in pain, Lanfen turned her head towards the source of the mysterious projectiles, and subsequently widened her eyes when the crowned warrior's gaze fell upon a familiar figure.

Dressed in an azure, diamond-patterned suit which matched the colour of her neat and trim hair, the Adaptor's sudden saviour strolled across the forest floor with gloved hands on her hips, and an amused smile on her pale-white face. Golden eyes gazed at Lanfen's pain-ridden body as though the figure had just encountered an injured animal deep within Yamaku's forests. The loud crunching of her pronounced footfalls were the only thing entering Lanfen's ears outside of her headphones' static-riddled communicators. It was her. The very woman who had bestowed Lanfen with the Sword of Damocles. She was real.

Lanfen forced herself to speak, but she couldn't utter anything outside of an incoherent string of pained grunts.

"You poor thing," the pale woman cooed, brushing a gloved finger against her blue lips. "It's been a while, hasn't it, my little Valkyrie?" Letting loose a light chuckle at the sight of the severe burn marks which dotted the Adaptor's battered armour, the nameless woman proceeded to kneel down next to Lanfen before producing a familiar, glass vial from the inner pockets of her suit. She smiled at the gaze of recognition that drew itself across Lanfen's face and opened the item with a softpop. "You can't let your performance end here now, can you?" she inquired with a honeyed voice, carefully holding the vial of blue liquid to the injured woman's mouth.

Remembering the favorable results of her first experience with this strange liquid, Lanfen hesitantly permitted the entrance of the vial's contents into her throat, letting it smoothly wash down her numb windpipe.

The icy-blue liquid was cold. Colder than anything Lanfen had poured into her system. Within seconds, a sharp stinging sensation arose within several points of her body, causing Lanfen to rake the snow beneath her fingers. The pale woman wordlessly watched on while the Wielder's limbs slowly regained their vitality. Once the emptied vial had been placed back inside her pockets, Lanfen drew in another pained breath before blinking at the sudden vanishing of the agony within her body. Slowly, she pulled herself back up into a sitting position, and stared into her shaking palms. The internal systems of her Symphogear dutifully notified her that all of her internal injuries and third-degree burns were now completely healed.

"... Why?" Lanfen whispered, swinging a pair of narrowed eyes over to the smiling stranger. "Why... are you helping me?" The ghostly woman responded with a light, honest chuckle. "Just who are you...?!"

Getting up from her knees, the pale woman looked around their silent surroundings, taking in the sight of the burning trees around them. "I can't let you - of all people - die so soon," she simply answered, stroking her chin with a gloved hand. When Lanfen rose up from the snow to throw her another firm question, the nameless stranger placed a fingertip in front of her own blue lips and shot Lanfen a dramatic hush. "Who I am is not important," she insisted with a voice dripping with honey. "What matters right now is your battle against that awful monster. After all, if you cannot strike down such an opponent..." Her fingers motioned over to the Adaptor, pointing right at her Symphogear's crimson converter unit. "... You wouldn't be able to avenge your dear sister now, would you?"

Lanfen flinched at the sudden mention of her sibling, causing the pale woman to smile almost sympathetically at the sight of the Wielder's shivering shoulders.

"Hold nothing back if you truly wish to avenge her, my little Valkyrie," the nameless woman whispered, stroking Lanfen's bloodstained cheeks with the back of a gloved hand. "There is absolutely no room for hesitation on the battlefield." Withdrawing her arm without another word, the pale lady shot the speechless Adaptor another playful smile before taking a pronounced step behind Lanfen. And right as the crowned warrior spun around to desperately seize her by the shoulder, she was gone.

No trace of the woman's existence remained where Lanfen stood. Not even simple footprints in the snow-covered ground. Lanfen was completely and absolutely all by herself.

Echoes of disciplined gunfire arose within the distance, reminding Lanfen of a situation which had yet to be concluded. Wiping away the dried blood that stained the corners of her mouth, the crowned warrior looked over to the Sword of Damocles, and pursed her cracked lips as December snow buried the Armed Gear in apathetic white. She could feel the proverbial fires flickering within her eyes. Fires which had been reignited by the words of the ghostly woman who had saved her life for the second time ever. Lanfen could not deny the advice she had gifted her. Attempting to do so only wracked her brain with a persistent cloud of frustration.

The communicators within her headphones subsequently cleared up, relieved of the distorted static that had been plaguing them for several minutes now.

Lifting a hand to her reawakened communicators, Lanfen noticed an incoming transmission directly from the S.O.N.G. submarine and quickly answered it. She did not know where to even begin with what had just occurred. "This is... SG-r04," Lanfen murmured. "Reporting in."

"Lanfen!" The loud voice which addressed her wasn't Fujitaka nor Tomosato's. It was Commander Genjuuro himself who had contacted her. "Are you alright?! Our monitoring systems report that your vitals are now in the green. What's the status of your situation?!"

Parting her lips to answer the Commander's request, the image of the pale woman momentarily flashed before Lanfen's eyes, sending a cold shiver down her recovered spine. As the echoes of distant rifle fire slowly waned, Lanfen took a few steps towards her Armed Gear, and knelt down next to the buried weapon. "I'm currently in... Zone Y3A," she declared, following standard procedures. If there was a time to give an update on the person who had stolen the SG-r04, it was going to have to happen after the Category-3 was eliminated. "I'm fine... I've sustained a bit of damage, but I should be able to re-engage the Distortion, Commander. What are my orders?"

While the Commander sounded utterly relieved by Lanfen's status, the tone of his voice betrayed the concerns still lingering within him. "The Category-3 is approaching the city. Harmony's defense lines are barely holding it back and we need you to reinforce them as soon as you can. But-" Silence. Such a thing was rare from Commander Genjuuro. The abrupt moment of hesitation made Lanfen inadvertently gulp while she motioned to pick up her Armed Gear. "... Due to the severity of the situation, the council has requested the utilization of the S.W.O.R.D."

The woman's fingertips froze right as they were about to grasp the handle of the Sword of Damocles.

The shaky breath which escaped Lanfen was visible in the cold, winter air. As the Commander's grim words settled themselves within the shifting gears of her mind, Lanfen's eyes gazed down at her chest, focusing themselves on the glimmering converter unit beneath her collarbone. There were so many words that Lanfen wished to utter in response to Commander Genjuuro's statement, but the crowned warrior couldn't bear to let out even a single, pathetic syllable. Her throat may have healed to a perfect condition, but that didn't prevent her voice from lodging itself within her windpipe.

"I'm only giving this order for the sake of your survival, Lanfen," the Commander ruefully assured her. "The Category-3mustbe stopped. But I can't risk letting you face such an opponent without even the smallest chance of victory." The tone in his voice. It sounded so much like Lanfen's father all those years ago. She was honestly surprised to even remember such a small, insignificant thing. "Lanfen," Commander Genjuuro repeated, lowering his voice ever so slightly. "Do you understand me?"

The pale woman's words echoed within Lanfen's mind, untangling her thoughts with one swift sentence.

"There is absolutely no room for hesitation on the battlefield."

Lanfen bit down on her cracking lips until she drew fresh blood. Curling her fingers around the golden handle of her half-buried weapon, the black-and-white Wielder patted the snow off its thick blade, rose up from the forest floor, and turned in the direction of Harmony's defensive line. If the defeat of the Distortions required her to draw the S.W.O.R.D., then so be it, Lanfen thought to herself. It was against an enemy, and not the allies it had been originally designed to put down. Lanfen had played all of her available cards against the Category-3, and all it led to was her lying in front of death's door as a result of her attempted bravado. She would be dead by now if it wasn't for the pale woman's miraculous intervention.

"Affirmative." Whether those words were directed at the Commander's orders - or the ghostly lady's advice - she also could not tell. But her answer was heard regardless as the audio transmission switched off from the Commander's side of the line.

Moving in accordance to the knowledge that her Symphogear bestowed upon her mind, Lanfen's sword-hand ached while it hovered towards the converter unit situated on her chest. With a softclick, the Adaptor removed the ruby-like device, causing her Armed Gear to automatically reveal a glowing, crimson slot right in the middle of its golden cross-guard. Her sword was reacting to her will and it awaited the next final steps with silent diligence. Inserting the detached unit into the empty slot, Lanfen clicked the unit into place before staring apathetically at the curved, silver trigger which then slid out of the weapon's handle, ready to be activated by the crowned warrior's very own hand.

The proverbial fires within Lanfen's eyes burned brighter than ever before.

A command word situated itself on the tip of her tongue, ready to awaken the slumbering Sword of Damocles.


Chapter 11: Silence of the S.W.O.R.D.


Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and thank you for the Kudos and +550 Views!

It's been a while since the last update, but that's just how life can be when you get preoccupied with trying to adult. May the coming year be great for Symphogear fans!

Chapter Text

Flower of Damocles - VoyeurTheNinja (2)

Names. Names were constructs meant to identify individuals. Sometimes they would signify a meaning or an all-consuming purpose. And in certain circumstances, names were simply bestowed upon one's self as mere proof of their existence in this unending ocean of glimmering stars. That was what her mind understood, at least. And yet, no matter how deep she delved into the empty chasm of her own memories, she could not remember what was the very name she herself had been gifted with. To do so was to wander a wasteland deprived of life. To search for a confirmation of her own existence that may not have been real to begin with.

"I'm not able to hear the girl I used to be. Will I ever touch those that I long for? I stare at those that I used to see. The monsters are begging for more."

Sound. A pattern of sound. Reverberations flowing from one swinging beat to another. What was the term? A 'song'. Music. Products of an advancing, growing civilization.

"The cracking of my heart makes me scream. My tears have become an endless stream. When will I be allowed a break from this world? The feelings deep in my heart are whirled."

Beautiful music. A herd of consecutive drumbeats and roaring saxophones, all led by a contralto voice that mesmerized her soul the very moment it came within earshot.

"Never knowing who is the true me inside. Allowing them to take me for a ride. Am I meant to break free from it all? The voices are begging for me to fall."

Singing. A symphony of lyrics which was draped in a somber mantle of tragedy. Singing that would rouse warm tears from the corner of her eyes were she even able to open them to begin with. As her body laid motionlessly on the snowy floor of a cold, forest glade, the blood beneath her skin froze with each passing second, unable to fend off the harsh bite of a winter night. Still, she felt no fear from the thought of finally giving in to the harsh elements of nature. Not. One. Bit.

"I won't allow my mind to hold me captive long. Molding my darkest thoughts into this song."


The enchanting flow of music had ceased, now replaced by the loud crunching of footfalls that were growing louder until they were right next to her ears. A pair of fingertips then placed themselves against her cold, stiff neck before slowly withdrawing from the weak sensation of her beating heart. She wondered if it was going to be by this very hand that she would finally pass on into the great, empty void. It would not be a peaceful transition, but it would be a far quicker fate compared to submitting her soul to the palm of the world's natural elements.

And so, she waited. The mere thought of the end brought out a weak, unintentional groan from between her dry lips.

But what she had expected would not come to pass. Instead, she felt a pair of warm, armoured hands sliding beneath her unmoving body, taking her into a gentle carry before lifting her up from the snow-covered floor as though she weighed absolutely nothing.

"Are... Are you alright?" asked the very same voice which had sung those melancholic lyrics mere moments ago.

As her eyelids twitched from the trepidation within those hush words of concern, she could sense her consciousness flowing back into the seat of her mind, scaling the steep cliffs of the void in order to answer that simple question. To set her blurry gaze upon the person who had chosen to save a meaningless existence for no considerable reason. To find out why she - of all people - had been spared entry into the grand abyss of the afterlife.

When Shinonome Aiko finally reopened her tired, golden eyes, her blurry gaze only fell upon the living room of a small, cozy apartment in Yamaku City. A dream? A dream. Conjurations of the mind while one rested to regain their expended strength. Echoes of events now far in the past. While Aiko made herself comfortable within the heated blankets of the room'skotatsutable, the silver-haired woman hid a brief yawn behind one hand before lifting herself into a sitting position. Slow Jazz - Jiang's preferred genre of music - flowed out of the room's holo-player, filling the warm air with soft, percussive beats as Aiko rubbed an eye beneath the shadow of her long fringe. A quick look at the digital clock on the shelf informed her that she had been napping for about 15 minutes now.

Cupping a pale cheek with one hand, Aiko glanced at the falling snow outside the windows, and wondered if she would ever cease dreaming about the night in which Jiang first met her in that forest glade. It was the first ever memory she manifested within the depths of an amnesiac's mind, and it was a memory she would forever hold close to her heart for as long as she lived. Merely remembering the way her fingertips brushed against Jiang's scarred cheek prompted a light flutter from Aiko's heart while she looked down at her side, and noticed the handmade Valkyranger plushie sitting next to her.

29 minutes and 44 seconds had gone by ever since Jiang rushed out of the front door in her Adaptor uniform. Counting down how long each of Team-04's missions lasted was becoming relatively easy by now. It was a past-time neither Jiang, Godai nor Ayano knew of, but there was only so much that Aiko could do to keep herself busy while the rest of her teammates actually went out and placed their lives on the line. Taking the small, soft toy of Cassandra Jiang Lanfen into her hands, Aiko held the black-and-white heroine in two gentle palms, and softly smiled before holding it close to her beating chest.

She could never forget the enchanting sound of Jiang's contralto voice. The swinging beats of her Jazz music. And the somber lyrics of her paranormal song.

Jiang's song granted the Adaptor a power she needed to fight against the Distortions. And while the act itself was valiant by its very nature, Aiko knew that such efforts bore a deeper purpose behind it. A purpose to prevent tragedies which had fallen upon the Wielder from happening to anyone else in this beautiful world. A selfless duty that Aiko knew full-well by now to have been inflicted by the death of Jiang's younger sister during the arrival of the Distortions. It was a weight Jiang carried alongside the weight of the world, and all Aiko could realistically do was ponder on what she, Ayano, and Godai could do to alleviate the burdens of a self-inflicted responsibility.

Gently placing the Valkyranger toy back at her side, Aiko looked over the bedroom which had once belonged to Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming, and laid her eyes on its dusty doorknob. Rays of afternoon light shone through the windows to reflect off the round, metal knob, seizing Aiko's attention to the point that she could feel her curiosity flashing across her golden eyes. But Aiko knew better. Especially after what had happened during the first time she stepped into this very apartment. In an attempt to distract herself from the abandoned room, Aiko swung her gaze over to her tablet on thekotatsutable, and brought the digital pad into her hands.

'5-5-5'. It wasn't the most complicated of PIN codes, but there was little desire for much security on her personal tablet anyway. After unlocking the device, Aiko swiped her finger across its screen, summoning a downloaded library of books, novels, documentaries, and colourful comics. A gigantic building's worth of content all lied within the palm of her hand. Everything came to her mind quickly and easily. Every titbit and trivia about the world was fascinating, and the bottomless pit that was Aiko's curiosity gladly glutted itself to all sorts of content she could find. And yet, in spite of the information which was freely available in her grasp, all of thisstillcould not distract her from the feelings of inadequacy laying dormant within Aiko's heart.

A sensation that desired to pull her medicine-reliant body out from the comforts of Jiang's apartment, and carry out the same duties everyone else in Team-04 was expected to do.

Settling down the small tablet on top of the table once again, Aiko let loose a brief sigh before shutting off the device, letting her instead focus her wandering attention on a small, framed picture situated within the living room's shelf. It was the group photograph that Team-04 had taken during their small shopping trip in Mitakihara. A memento of their first ever outing with all four members.

Pulling her legs out from the warmth of thekotatsutable, Aiko picked herself up from the floor, and slowly made her way over to the room's well-organized shelf. Her golden eyes held their gaze on the framed photo, never diverting her attention away from it for even a split second. Once she was right in front of the shelf, Aiko lifted a pale-white hand from her side, and gingerly took the framed image into her grasp, letting her quietly appreciate the photograph with an almost wistful smile on her face. As far as Aiko was aware of, Team-04 were the closest people she knew in what passed for a 'life' right now. The first companions she ever made. And reliable individuals who she could only hope to grow closer with over the coming days.

The mere fact that Aiko was even here at all still felt like a dream too good to be true.

"Jiang," she whispered, gently brushing a thumb against the framed photo in an attempt to caress a Symphogear-Wielder's face. "Would you laugh at me if I ever asked to sing with you...?"

Frozen droplets fell through the gaps of the forest canopy and settled themselves on a blanketed floor of pure, innocent white. A distinct ringing within Lanfen's headgear declared the full reformation of her Symphogear's protective barriers. Drawing in a practiced breath, the crowned warrior inserted her detached converter unit into the empty slot of her weapon's cross-guard, and thumbed it into place with a skin-shiveringclick. The curved, silver trigger which slid out of her sword's handle earned itself an apathetic stare from Lanfen before she felt the proverbial fires within her eyes flaring into an all-consuming inferno. The memorized command word was ready to be uttered.

The Sword of Damocles awaited its first true awakening.

Wrapping one finger around the trigger, Lanfen could still feel the cold metal through the black-and-white fibers of her Symphogear.


Her finger squeezed down the chrome trigger.

Four metallic connectors impaled the sides of her crystalline converter unit.

The Sword of Damocles thrummed with a deep, stomach-churning roar, and Lanfen grinded her teeth together as a tidal wave of crimson energy erupted from its cross-guard, flooding her nervous system with revivifying bolts of heretical technology. There was no turning back. She repeated that statement endlessly. The Category-3 was on its way to Yamaku City and everyone was counting on her to stop it. Even if it meant wielding a weapon originally designed to slay her fellow Symphogear-Wielders. Fastening her fingers around the golden handle of her glowing Armed Gear, Lanfen reigned in her convulsing body, hissed between her teeth, and summoned a power she feared to even utilize up until this very moment.

"Hold nothing back if you truly wish to avenge her, my little Valkyrie."

The Sword of Damocles gladly answered her call. In response to the crowned warrior's unfaltering will, the paranormal internals of the Symphogear system began to shift, rearranging countless circuitries with each wave of energy that pulsed from her thrumming weapon. Hundreds of performance limiters were forcibly shattered apart one after the other, letting loose a strength which had been chained down this entire time. As Lanfen's nervous system willingly submitted itself to the crimson waves of her awakened blade, she could feel a sixth, supernatural sense slowly opening its proverbial eye within her mind, granting her the gift of absolute precognition. Finally, a 'lock' manifested around her mind, encasing her brain within a metaphysical coffin of pure, uncaring metal.

Fear. Hatred. Despair. Grief. Each emotion was subjugated and imprisoned all within the back of a sharpened mind, transforming Lanfen's mental landscape into a clear, unobstructed opening of pure tranquility. Just like the S.W.O.R.D. had been designed to do so from the very beginning.

The waves of revivifying energy soon died down, causing Lanfen's legs to collapse beneath her, and force the woman to catch herself by dropping onto a single armoured knee. With her hand still maintaining its grip on the now-hushed Sword of Damocles, the crowned warrior drew in the winter air at quick intervals while her heart pounded relentlessly within an aching ribcage. A pair of dilated, purple eyes stared at the converter unit within her Armed Gear's glimmering cross-guard, and took in the sight of its incandescent glow. Her mind never felt as clear as it did right now. And for the first time in ages, Lanfen felt utterlyinvincible.

Rising up from the forest floor with her sword in hand, Lanfen heard an incoming transmission within her headphones, prompting her to answer it with a punctuated press of her headgear. "SG-r04... reporting in." There were no emotions within the words which slipped between her cracked, bleeding lips. Only reverberations of a supernatural power that needed no song to fuel the systems of an awakened Symphogear.

"Jiang!" Ayano called to her over the comms. "Are you alright?! The Commander has just given us an update on your orders and we-"

"The S.W.O.R.D. has been activated," Lanfen curtly stated, closing and opening her free hand repeatedly, taking in the power which was now flowing through her veins. The idea of crushing the Category-3s head within her palm no longer felt like an impossibility. "Systems are all green. The S.W.O.R.D. is maintaining stability. I'm ready to move. Ayano, give me an update on the Category-3 Distortion."

Despite the stalwart nature of Lanfen's order, concern still remained within Ayano's voice. If anything, it only grew in response to the sudden, distinct shift in the crowned warrior's tone. "... The Category-3 is nearing the borders of Yamaku City," she slowly stated, obviously reading out reports from her side of the transmission. "I'm sending you its location. No Adaptor reinforcements are on the way, so everyone will be relying on you to finish it off. I'll be monitoring your systems from here. Just... be careful out there, alright?"

Lanfen had to wonder why her teammate was choosing to remain cautious in the advent of the S.W.O.R.D. The strongest piece in her hand was finally placed on the board, and unlike every other piece she carried within her Symphogear's arsenal of abilities, Lanfen felt utterly convinced thatthiswas going to be the path to a perfect victory. "Affirmative," Lanfen said, hearing the ringing confirmation of new information being transmitted into her headgear. It was time to settle this. "... SG-r04, proceeding with the elimination of the target."

Guided by the location that had just been uploaded into her systems, Lanfen spun in the direction of distant, echoing gunfire, and subsequently blitzed through the snowy forest. Frozen white turned into hissing steam beneath the soles of her armoured boots while the Adaptor appeared to the naked eye as nothing more than a rushing blur of black-and-white. Her earth-shaking footsteps left trails of evaporated water behind her, even while the speakers of her Symphogear remained devoid of its swinging Jazz tune. Lanfen knew where she was heading and desired nothing else. The elimination of the Category-3 was the only thing that mattered to her thirsting, aching sword-hand.

Gunfire. Simultaneously disciplined and desperate. It was Task Force Harmony.

Focusing her dilated pupils on the snowy, tree-filled path ahead of her, Lanfen's enhanced vision spotted Captain Yaiba far off in the distance, leading what was left of their troops in a desperate defense line against the lone, armoured knight who was nearing their positions with floating funnels at its sides. The Distortion's conjurations whizzed in multiple directions, avoiding the volleys of lead which would only turn into black carbon upon contact with the Category-3's fog-like barrier. The golden knight didn't even bother to fire upon the Captain's few remaining forces, seemingly content with simply waltzing towards Yamaku City as projectiles from rifles and stationed machine guns alike were turned away with ease.

The same wouldnotbe said for the Sword of Damocles.

Brandishing her empowered Armed Gear within her sword-hand, proverbial fires burned within Lanfen's eyes, causing her to squeeze down on the trigger of her weapon, and command it to initiate the full utilization of the S.W.O.R.D.'s lingering power. The Sword of Damocles obliged her without complaint, and while the expansive distance between Lanfen and her target shrunk meter-by-meter, her Armed Gear released a banshee-like wail from the converter unit deep within its golden cross-guard. A wail that echoed throughout the forest like an omen of destruction before catching the inevitable attention of both the Distortion and Harmony's defensive line.

The Category-3's funnels quickly reoriented themselves in the approaching Adaptor's direction, their gun barrels already glowing with emerald lights.

Unfazed by the sight of the funnels' glowing tips, Lanfen slashed her wailing blade across the air, deflecting the incoming lances of superheated particles in complete and utter silence. The crowned warrior's newly-awakened sixth sense alerted her to every incoming attack before they were even made. She didn't even need to calculate the rushing beams' trajectories while they harmlessly bounced off her sword to zip right back at the very funnels which fired them. By the time the Distortion even bothered to turn towards the incoming Adaptor, the last of its funnels had already disintegrated from a reflected beam of bright, deadly emerald.

Harmony's forces halted their gunfire at the sight of the monochrome blur.

The Category-3 ran an armoured hand through its lavish cape in response to the appearance of an enemy it clearly believed it had defeated.

With the last of its conjurations now gone, a smirk grew on Lanfen's face. But when a jolt of pain suddenly coursed through her spine and into the hemispheres of her collared brain, the sprinting Adaptor momentarily faltered in her earth-shaking footsteps, prompting Lanfen to click her tongue in annoyance. It was pain she had never once felt in her life. A pain that didn't need to bypass the physical, protective barriers of her Symphogear.

"Jiang!" Ayano exclaimed over the comms. "Our sensors are picking up an unidentified energy signature from your Armed Gear!"

The golden Distortion weaved a pair of rune-marked hands through the air, summoning a dozen, newly-formed arsenal at its sides. There was no time to waste. Silencing the emergency transmission, Lanfen released the trigger of her wailing sword and proceeded with the final, physical form of the S.W.O.R.D.'s true power. Commanded directly by the converter unit within her Armed Gear, the Sword of Damocles retracted its thick, physical blade into the weapon's cross-guard. Shifting internals replaced the metal component with a circular projection device, locked into place by mechanical appendages within the span of a rushing heartbeat.

"After all, if you cannot strike down such an opponent... you wouldn't be able to avenge your dear sister now, would you?"

A violent discharge of lethal, crimson plasma spewed forth from the projection device within her Armed Gear. Fueled by the very internals of an awakened Symphogear, magnetic fields generated by her weapon instantly moulded the spasming, disruptive energies into the thin, precise shape of a cylindrical, humming blade. It was a blade that casted the glow of spilled blood wherever it went. A blade built to bestow decisive judgment upon the heads of those it fell upon. The S.W.O.R.D.

A thousand jade beams lanced towards Lanfen. Proverbial fires flared within her dilated pupils.

Wielding the paranormal power of perfect precognition, the crowned warrior's energy blade danced into a flourish, and turned the incoming volleys of death right back at the infuriating conjurations that had even spat them. Countless funnels exploded into bits of emerald lights within seconds. The distance between her and the Distortion shrunk to a mere ten meters. The Category-3 solidified its fog-like barrier into a solid, physical shield of glimmering emerald, and Lanfen lunged straight for her opponent without uttering even a single lyrical verse.


Whatever passed for a Distortion's 'arrogance' subsequently disintegrated alongside the knight's physical, seemingly unbreakable shield. Like a hot knife through butter, Lanfen's cylindrical blade of humming crimson devoured the Category-3's defenses, effortlessly melting its way through the supernatural barrier before slicing off one of the Distortion's rune-marked forearms. The Symphogear-Wielder skidded to a halt, a grin written across her face while her opponent backed away from her, and grasped its cauterized stump of limb in visible, wordless shock.

Lanfen could tell that Harmony's forces were observing her. All just so the council could witness the power which they had bestowed upon her as their personal executioner.

Satisfied with having broken the 'unbreakable', Lanfen rose up from the snow-covered floor, approached the severed limb that laid several steps away from her, and lifted an armoured leg before crushing the smoking forearm beneath the soles of her boot. The Category-3 was too busy writhing in pain to notice the act of desecration. And yet, it didn't matter. The satisfaction it granted Lanfen made it all worthwhile.

Taking a single footstep towards the wounded Distortion, the crowned warrior readied herself to deliver the killing blow, and it was in that very moment when another jolt of pain ran up her spine to crash into the hemispheres of her 'locked' brain. Lanfen winced between grinding teeth, her free hand now grasping the sides of her aching head while she closed her eyes shut to flush away this strange, unidentified agony. Not now, she wordlessly pleaded to herself. Not when the Distortion was right before her, ready to be grinded into the dirt as nothing more than a useless heap of sand.

"Jiang, can you hear me?! Jiang!"

It was Ayano's voice over the comms again. Lanfen could hear her teammate panicking through the transmission, asking her what was wrong, but her pleas were slowly being drowned out. Submerged within the tidal waves which crashed against the proverbial dams within her own collared mind. Within the timespan of four, ringing heartbeats, the 'lock' that had encased her brain within a metaphysical coffin violently shattered from the sheer weight of the emotions it had attempted to conquer. Every emotion it was built to imprison - all of them - broke free and were let loose to merge with the pulsing energies of the S.W.O.R.D. across her convulsing body.


Releasing her hand from the side of her aching head, Lanfen reopened a pair of purple eyes and found herself standing all on her lonesome.

The world of winter around her had been overtaken by an unending hell-scape of fire. Fire that brewed as hot as the flames which swirled within her own diluted eyes ever since the death of her little sister, Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming. Her sword of energy remained within her other hand, casting a crimson glow around her while it emitted a deep, throaty hum. Drawing in a shaky breath, Lanfen extinguished the roaring fires around her with a single, desperate swing of her Armed Gear, leaving her in nothing more than a hush space of complete, pitch-black darkness. The blood-like light of her weapon washed over her sweating face, granting Lanfen the last bits of luminescence she could even see.

"Mei...?" Lanfen whispered, spotting the faint signs of movement up ahead.

The veil of shadows started to lift. Vision was returning to her narrowed eyes. And as the light of a winter sun rose up from the horizon, the crowned warrior focused her sights on a faint figure in front of her before fastening a skull-crushing grip around the handle of her Armed Gear.

There - standing right before the Adaptor - was the creature which Lanfen had encountered on the night of the Distortions' global attack. The one who had thrown Lanfen upon the damnable path she now treaded upon. The murderer of her little sister: Unknown Enemy-02. Lanfen had been waiting for this reunion with bated breath, and now here it was in front of her, grasping a stump of an arm while its cloaked body writhed in visible agony. Licking her cracked lips with growing anticipation, Lanfen brandished a blade of humming crimson, and focused her dilated pupils onto her target.

"You're not getting away this time."

Her words slithered out of her, coated in a thick mantle of unbridled malice. Seemingly angered by Lanfen's vicious declaration, Zero-Two turned its hooded face towards the black-and-white Adaptor before weaving its remaining, uninjured arm through the air. Familiar emerald lights manifested into view around its cloaked body - and no more than that - as Lanfen descended upon her foe to cleave off its glowing arm without another word. No scream of sorts came out of Zero-Two while the severed limb clattered to the snowy floor, the supernatural energy around its fingertips fizzling into sparks before dying out completely.

"Jie, watch out!"

"... I hear you... Mei..." Lanfen solemnly whispered, unable to remember a time when she could actually hear her little sister's voice.

Now deprived of its last remaining arm, Zero-Two turned tail to run in the opposing direction when its escape was denied wholesale by a clean, sadistic slice at its armoured legs. Its limbless body hit the ground with its back and Lanfen wasted no time pinning its pathetic torso into the snow by ramming her knee right into its chest-plate. Tossing her glowing Armed Gear into her left hand, Lanfen curled her right, prominent hand into a tight fist, and began pounding the knuckles of an armoured gauntlet into the shadows of her target's hooded face. Each blow croaked like denting metal, filling the crowned warrior's ears with a noise she had been dying to hear ever since that cursed night.

"Jiang, stop!"

Her dilated pupils savoured the sight of the warm, red fluids which pooled beneath them. Her armoured knuckles burned beneath the black-and-white fibers of her Symphogear.

Retracting her fist from the palpable crater Lanfen had formed within her foe's shadowy face, the Adaptor took in the sensation of the thick liquids that coated her knuckles before glaring into the flickering, emerald orbs which shone within the shadows of Zero-Two's hood. The proverbial fires within her dilated pupils blazed into a crescendo. Her armoured gauntlet pulled back one last time. Shutting out the voices that were pointlessly screaming into her ringing ears, Lanfen threw a fist right into Zero-Two's twitching head, and punched through its cranium with a sickening crunch, spilling the back of a skull across the innocent, white snow underneath them.

The cloaked being's body writhed for only a second before it finally went inert beneath her armoured knee.

The deed was done.

Her sister's killer laid dead below her.

And yet, not a hint of catharsis lit up within Lanfen's unmoving shell of a body.


It was strange. Lanfen had spent all this time waiting for this moment. Thisoneact of focused retribution. But accomplishing it did nothing to actually settle the fires within Lanfen's dilated pupils. She parted her cracked, bleeding lips to let out a laugh, only for nothing to come out of her windpipe. The only thing Lanfen could actually do was watch as the broken skull around her bloodied fist decomposed into bits of golden sand, carried away by an uncaring gust of cold wind.

Her Armed Gear continued to hum within her left hand, its crimson, cylindrical blade still hungering for more even if the crowned warrior was utterly deprived of any targets to set it upon. Letting loose another shaky breath, Lanfen pulled her limp body up from the snow-covered floor, and contemplated if the lack of contentment was all because of the fact that her job wasn't over yet. This wasn't the target she had been aiming for, Lanfen reasoned with herself, hearing vibrations arising within her headphones. Her sister's killer was still somewhere nearby. And the only thing she actually defeated was a mere doppelganger created by her supernatural foe.


Another voice called out to her. It wasn't Kai. No. It was someone else. Someone familiar.

"-fen, this is Tomosato! Please shut down the S.W.O.R.D. immediately! I repeat, shut down the S.W.O.R.D. immediately!"

Shut down. The mere notion of it was ridiculous. Kai's killer was still within her grasp and her powers of precognition only assured her of that. Lanfen couldn't stop now.

Not when she was so close to finally avenging her little sister.

A sudden flash of precognition coursed through the Adaptor's mind, alerting her to a danger which she had not noticed up until now. When Lanfen turned around in the direction of her would-be attackers, the crowned warrior found herself staring at dozens of shadowy, pitch-black figures who were slowly approaching her with indescribable, two-handed armaments. The shadows were screaming something at her. Something along the lines of, "Drop your weapon." And yet, Lanfen recognized neither of these distorted voices.

When the shadows finally closed in on her to seize Lanfen's glowing Armed Gear, the Adaptor tightened her grip around the humming weapon, and lunged at the closest foe with an armoured knuckle.

"Jiang, can you hear me?! Jiang!"

Inside the safe confines of Team-04's parked van, Ayano Komichi remained on the chair of the vehicle's large terminal, repeatedly calling out to the unresponsive Symphogear-Wielder over the team's dedicated communications channel. Her fingers rapidly clacked away on the keyboard, switching between countless different lines belonging to S.O.N.G., Task Force Harmony, and Yamaku's own public channels. But all attempts at reaching Jiang thus far only gave Komichi the harsh, garbled noise of blaring static. Clearly unnerved by the concerns within the operator's voice, Yuki climbed out of the driver's seat, and went over to Komichi to place a firm hand on the woman's shoulder, gaining her attention.

"Komi', what's going on?" the pony-tailed woman carefully asked her, prompting Komichi to take in a deep breath and reassert her focus on their current predicament.

"I can't get in contact with Jiang," Komichi explained, running several precise commands into the van's multi-screen terminal. "Our sensors have lost connection with her Symphogear and I can't get a reading on Jiang's vitals either. We... We should be able to get a direct visual on the situation soon." Her index finger slammed onto the Enter key and one of the terminal's screens brought up a new window, granting them a live feed of a newly-deployed camera drone which was still on its way to Jiang's last recorded location.

Focusing their attention on the enlarged camera feed, Komichi and Yuki silently watched on while the second drone hovered its way through the canopies of Yamaku's snow-covered forest. There was no point in scrambling for an update through the van's other systems. The S.O.N.G. submarine wasn't responding to their hails and the same could be said of Captain Yaiba's forces. Finally, after several, quiet minutes of undisturbed forest vegetation, the hovering drone arrived at the designated target point before reorienting its high-powered lenses on the forest floor below it.

"You've got to be shitting me," Yuki muttered to herself with a mixture of shock and bewilderment.

As Team-04's camera drone safely hovered among the branches of the trees, the live footage on the screen showcased a scene that made Komichi's blood turn cold beneath her shivering skin. Cassandra Jiang Lanfen - Japan's designated Symphogear-Wielder - silently strode across the snow-covered ground, possessing movements which matched the unfeeling motions of a living automata. With an energy blade of pure red in her hand, Jiang deflected incoming barrages of specialized stun rounds, sending them back towards the panicking soldiers who were attempting a fighting retreat into Yamaku City. The few who had chosen to hold their ground in an attempt to neutralize the Adaptor instead had their helmets shattered by the knuckles of Jiang's armoured fist, knocking them out cold before sending them flying through the air.

Lifting her quivering hands off the terminal's keyboard, Komichi wordlessly observed the live footage before them, and realized thatthiswas the power which Jiang had been fearing this entire time. The S.W.O.R.D - an armament that Jiang carried all by herself as the Sword of Damocles' very own Symphogear-Wielder. Any resemblance to the Ignite System or the Amalgam System before it were purely superficial. Unlike the restrained fury of the Ignite System, Jiang's black-and-white form moved with the emotionless precision of a calculating machine, bludgeoning Harmony's soldiers left and right with the minimalist of movements.

An incoming transmission suddenly appeared in one of the terminal's monitors, creating an automated window to showcase an emblem which neither Komichi nor Yuki enjoyed dealing with.

It was the symbol of the United Nations.

"Greetings, AG-4-2 and AG-4-1," said the Spokesperson of the U.N. The consistently-affable nature of their voice never failed to creep out Komichi. "While I would like to congratulate you on the Category-3's successful termination, it would appear that your operation has unfortunately taken a turn for the worse."

"What the hell did you do to Jiang?!" Yuki instantly barked at them, forcing Komichi to throw up an arm and calm her friend down by grabbing onto her tense forearm.

The last thing they were going to need right now was conflict with the very people who handled their paychecks. "My apologies, Spokesperson," Komichi hurriedly responded to the transmission, ignoring the frustrated stare that Yuki fired at the United Nations' symbol. "AG-4-1 and I are currently within the inner vicinity of Yamaku City. We have received no verbal updates on the situation thus far and are currently awaiting further orders from S.O.N.G. command. If I may, I would like to request an explanation for SG-r04's current actions." Being polite was always Komichi's expertise, even if it meant faking it in the face of those she despised kissing the shoes of.

A second transmission appeared on the monitors of the van's terminal. This time, it displayed the emblem of S.O.N.G., prompting Komichi to connect the lines and assume direct contact with the organization's submarine as the Spokesperson continued speaking. "Commander Kazanari and I have just completed our discussion regarding the current situation, AG-4-2. Due to your affiliation with SG-r04, I am obligated to state that the activation of the S.W.O.R.D. has unfortunately resulted in an array of unexpected side-effects. Task Force Harmony is currently attempting to subdue her and I have sent additional detachments towards your location in order to bring in the out-of-control Symphogear-Wielder."

Yuki opened her mouth to speak, and Komichi silenced her with a quick, disapproving shake of her head. It was obvious that her friend had nothing but venom in store for the United Nations. "Commander," Komichi addressed the newly-connected audio transmission this time, ignoring the way Yuki crossed her arms in annoyance. "What are our orders?"

A single second passed by before Commander Genjuuro actually addressed them. "Professor Elfnein is attempting to do whatever she can from all the way over here and is thus far unsuccessful. Lanfen's Aufwachen wave pattern is in disarray. Our vessel is hours away from your location. The S.W.O.R.D. has completely taken over her, so I cannot risk your endangerment in good conscience, Komichi." There was pause between his stern words. "Task Force Harmony will be redirecting all of their nearby forces in an attempt to subdue Lanfen. In the meantime, I want you and Yuki to get on the move and assist with the evacuation of the zones that Lanfen is predicted to enter."

Dropping herself onto one of the backseats behind Komichi, Yuki scratched the back of her head and impatiently tapped a foot on the floor of the van. "Wonderful," she sarcastically remarked under her breath. "Just going to leave everything to the U.N.'s lapdogs, huh?"

Unsure if either the Spokesperson or Commander Genjuuro actually heard her friend's comment, Komichi loudly cleared her throat before politely responding to their superiors. "Orders... confirmed. Commander, Spokesperson, may the situation resolve itself soon." And with those parting words said, both transmission windows vanished from their terminal's monitors, allowing Komichi to loudly sigh to herself while placing an aching forehead within the palms of two sweaty hands. The digital clock on the terminal ticked on, and the pair sat in complete silence.

Judging by the live footage they were still receiving from the drone, Jiang had already entered the city. Defensive lines of rifles and combat walkers were haphazardly set up to fend her off, but Komichi knew they were there just so they could slow her down for the arrival of reinforcements. Settling her hands on the keyboard again, Komichi loudly clacked away at the keys, bringing up a digital map of Yamaku City before overlaying it with the movements emitted by the Task Force's arriving detachments. Her green eyes shifted between the monitors - her focus back within her pupils - and within moments, Komichi not only calculated the estimated contact time between the convoys and Jiang's position, but she had also discovered the shortest path to take in order to reach the Adaptor from where they currently were.

The nearest convoy of reinforcements needed only an estimated time of 15 minutes to reach the Symphogear-Wielder's current position. No other Symphogear-Wielders were on their way. The defensive lines weren't going to hold, but they were definitely going to keep Jiang where she was. So, it was only up to Task Force Harmony and Symphogear Team-04 to settle this situation.

"Yuki," Komichi spoke up, inputting a command which subsequently uploaded the calculated path directly into her friend's wrist device. "Would you mind... doing something crazy for me?"

The ponytailed woman curiously tilted her head upwards in response to Komichi's sudden question. The ringing device on her wrist then caught her attention before Yuki noticed exactly what the operator had just uploaded into her systems. "... Wouldn't be the first time now, would it?" Yuki mused with a growing grin.

Nodding almost bashfully at her friend's dry words, Komichi got up from the terminal's designated chair, and faced Yuki with her hands firmly at her sides. "I want you to go and get Jiang back for us." The chuckle that quickly came out of her friend lacked any surprise within it. Yuki probably guessed what she intended all along before Komichi even spoke up. "As nonsensical as it sounds, Task Force Harmony's measures are only going to make things worse for all of us," she explained, gesturing to the live footage on the monitors. "I'll try and do what I can to help with the evacuation... so I'll be relying on the skills you've learned to settle things peacefully."

"We'redefinitelygoing to get in trouble for this, you know?" Yuki pointed out to her, even if it was obvious that Yuki herself didn't care about the consequences of their upcoming actions.

Komichi simply give a shrug of the shoulders and a cheeky wink. "And I'll just sweet-talk our way into a lesser punishment like we always do. Sounds good?" She received an easy-going nod and a thumbs-up from her old friend. "... Alright. Stay safe out there, Yuki."

Now that their next move was settled, Yuki lifted herself off the van's backseats and crouched down to bring out a suitcase from underneath the driver's seat. A layer of dust coated the thick casing as Yuki keyed in a digital PIN code before opening it up to check on her old equipment from Clan Hida. All sorts of tools laid within the suitcase, still in prime condition despite the months which have passed since their last usage. Neither Yuki nor Komichi looked forward to possibly needing to use them on Jiang, but the situation called for them to take as much precaution as possible.

Yuki closed up the old suitcase, reached into the pockets of her navy blue uniform and pulled out the keys to the van. "Don't scratch the paint," she playfully told Komichi, tossing them into Komichi's open palm with a smirk. "I'll be back before you know it." And with those confident words plainly uttered, the ponytailed woman headed towards the back of the van, opened up the rear doors, and jumped out of the vehicle with a holographic map projecting from her wrist device. Komichi would have chided her for forgetting to close the doors if they were in a different situation.

Glancing at the jingling keys in her hands, Komichi promptly closed the backdoors up with a soft chuckle. This was the way things should be, she thought to herself, getting herself into the driver's seat. This was a Team-04 matter, and even if it meant going against their current orders, Komichi was assured that either Chris or Tachibana would have approved of her decision. Securing a seatbelt around her waist, Komichi inserted the key into the van's ignition, roused the vehicle's roaring engine, and looked ahead at the currently-peaceful roads outside the windshields. There was one thing she could do right now for sure, and that was to simply get Shinonome to safety.

Following the holographic map provided by her wrist device, Yuki's steps on the ascending staircase were as noisy as a cat's footfalls, a skill which she had never forgotten ever since her days in Clan Hida. Not a single soul was seen within the underground train station she had taken a shortcut through, all in accordance with the evacuation procedures that were now arising within Yamaku City. Holding her old suitcase in one hand, Yuki spotted the open entrance to the surface above her, and slowed her pace once she neared the top of the underground station's staircase. Gunfire blared across the surface as the woman's wrist device showed that she had just arrived at Jiang's designated location. It only took 8 minutes for her to reach it.

"Right on time," Yuki quietly remarked to herself, placing down her suitcase on one of the steps before flipping it open to pull out her old equipment. Smoke bombs, an essential tool for both retreating and attacking. A half-mask rebreather, situational, even if it never hurt to have one in hand. And lastly, kunais, the most favoured weapons of Clan Hida. After placing the small rebreather within the inner pockets of her S.O.N.G. uniform, Yuki hid her smoke bombs inside her side-pockets, and strapped three kunais beneath each of her long sleeves. The navy blue uniform didn't do much to actually keep her warm, but it at least concealed her most important tools.

Closing up her suitcase back up with a light kick, Yuki took a few ginger steps up the underground staircase before slowly taking in the situation on the surface around her. Just as she expected, the defensive line that Task Force Harmony had set up in the middle of the city intersection was already crumbling into a panicked rout. Disciplined volleys of stun rounds turned into disorganized barrages, and all manner of control broke beneath the cold brutality of an uncontrollable Symphogear-Wielder. Precise blows from an armoured fist bludgeoned Harmony troopers into the snowy dirt while the combat walkers which had been attached to this force laid across the street as nothing more than dismembered, smoking wreckage.

Loud chatter over the comms at least assured Yuki that their pilots had quickly ejected from their walkers before they were inevitably cut down.

Still, Yuki didn't envy the troopers of Harmony while Jiang pounded into their bodies with enough force to rupture their advanced body armour like wet cardboard. Crouching back into the cover of the underground staircase, Yuki motioned for the device on her wrist and brought up a map of Yamaku City. There, she could see an incoming convoy led by Captain Yaiba, a few minutes away from arriving at this very intersection. Yuki counted between 6-to-10 combat walkers moving alongside the convoy, accompanied by five APCs full of fresh troops. The whole thing would have looked impressive if it wasn't for the fact that they were dealing with a Symphogear-Wielder of all things.

Two taps on her wrist device initiated an audio transmission with the Captain. The soft ringing of the connecting call allowed Yuki to notice that the sounds of fighting in the surface above her had already transitioned into an eerie silence.

A softbeepdeclared the immediate connection of the transmission. "This is Captain Yaiba speaking."

Yuki wasn't looking forward to the definite scolding she and Komi' were going to receive from the Commander, but when her old junior was in the midst of tearing Task Force Harmony a new one, the last thing Yuki was going to do was sit back and watch. "This is AG-4-1," Yuki declared, glancing up at the sunlit top of the underground staircase. "I am currently at SG-r04's location... and I would like to request an alternative to our current orders, Captain Yaiba."

"You are offering to essentially disobey the orders from our respective superiors, AG-4-1?" the Captain pointed out in a matter-of-fact way.

4 minutes until the convoy reached the intersection. The holographic map on her wrist device showed that Jiang had yet to make her move from here.

"It's a harsh way to put it. But you're exactly right, Captain," Yuki calmly responded. "This situation is nothing if not FUBAR, and while I can respect your willingness to try and secure SG-r04 yourselves... you and I both know that going up against an Adaptor isn't going to be easy." The woman went on, even if Yuki couldn't tell whether or not the Captain was even listening. "Both S.O.N.G. and the council aren't going to let any other Wielders intervene. Not if it means riskin' the loss of a Symphogear. So, if you want to keep things from gettingworse, then give me some time to settle this, alright?"

3 minutes until the convoy reached the intersection. Yuki couldn't help but feel her throat turn dry from the cold, winter wind.

The large blips in the holographic map proceeded on an unceasing path towards Jiang's location and nothing but silence came from the transmission's projection. Then, right as Yuki was about to speak up again, a response came in the form of a complete stop from the arriving convoy. The blips remained where they were, even if they did not vanish from the map. "I have no obligation to take your word, AG-4-1," said Captain Yaiba after a painstakingly long moment of quiet. "But for the sake of my men's safety, I would rather take my chances with what you're trying to offer." Their words pulled out a silent sigh of relief from the woman. "You have 20 minutes to talk to her. If SG-r04 continues to show signs of hostility, then we would have to resume with our initial orders. Godspeed."

20 minutes. Just exactly what she needed. "Loud and clear, Captain Yaiba. I owe you one for this." The transmission switched off from the Captain's end of the line as Yuki glanced in the direction of the landing above her. Leaving behind her old suitcase for now, she ascended the cold steps with quiet footfalls, bringing her up onto the surface, and out into the city intersection where Jiang silently stood with a blade of glowing, thrumming crimson. Nothing could have prepared Yuki for a situation like this. Not even if Professor Elfnein herself handed Team-04 the documents of the S.W.O.R.D. and detailed every possible risk which could come from actually using it.

Both Komi' and Yuki had been theorizing between each other on what would happen if the U.N. ever forced Jiang to unleash that damned blade. And now, here she was, carefully walking out onto a snow-covered street while tall, evacuated buildings surrounded them on all sides. The flashing lights of numerous advertisements illuminated Yuki's path, paving the way to her old school junior in the hopes that she could end all of this without shedding a single drop of blood. Otome was definitely going to give her an earful once this was all over.

Jiang remained standing right in the middle of the expansive intersection, her silent, unfocused gaze directed at the concrete beneath her as unconscious Harmony troopers laid scattered across the ground with shattered helmets and bisected rifles. Movement then appeared within the corner of Yuki's eyes, and she momentarily halted in her stride to notice a dazed, heaving Harmony trooper slowly pulling herself up from the dirt with a rifle in her hands. The broken visor of her helmet exposed a part of her bleeding face, but it didn't stop the trooper from pointing the barrel of her working weapon right at the unmoving Symphogear-Wielder.

A kunai sang through the air and stabbed into the trooper's shadow. A slow exhale escaped Yuki's lips, her right hand still stuck in the last physical motions of a throw while the Harmony trooper froze where she stood with a finger brushing against a trigger. If it was one thing Yuki could never forget from her time in Clan Hida, it was the oh-so-popular Shadow Weave technique.

Five kunais left. Three in her left sleeve and two in her right. Pulling back her attention to the silent Adaptor ahead of them, Yuki waltzed past what remained of Harmony's burning combat walkers, their smoking wreckages all bearing the hissing, glowing marks of a blade which had melted through them with temperatures Yuki couldn't even guess. She subsequently came to a careful stop, all just so Yuki could break the silence with a forced, easy-going remark. "The council sure gave you one hell of a weapon. Didn't they, Jiang?"

Violent, crimson plasma hissed above the cross-guard of Jiang's Armed Gear, kept in the shape of a cylindrical blade by forces Yuki could not understand while it casted a soft glow of blood all over Jiang's black-and-white armour. A stretch of ten unobstructed meters remained between Yuki and the Adaptor, just close enough for the S.O.N.G. agent to notice Jiang's dilated pupils redirecting their gaze in her direction. This was crazy and Yuki damn well knew it. But S.O.N.G. always resorted to the insane whenever it came to dealing with the paranormal.

Unbothered by the glare she was receiving from her old schoolmate, Yuki held up her hands in the air, just so she could somehow signal that her intentions were completely different from the unconscious troopers around them. "Jiang, I'm here to bring you back," she declared, taking a single, careful step towards the Symphogear-Wielder. Not a second could go by without Yuki keeping her eyes on that blade of pure, lethal energy. "I'm not here to hurt you, alright? While this is onehellof a situation we're in, all you got to do to end it is shut down that sword of yours and come with me."

Jiang's narrowed eyes scanned Yuki head-to-toe, regarding her the same way an automated sentry gun would to a target board placed in front of it.

"It's just you and me here, pal," Yuki tried to assure her, managing to take a second step this time without intensifying Jiang's hardened glare. "... That Category-3 from earlier? You smashed it into the dirt for good. The Distortions were pushed back and Yamaku City issafe." The incoherent words streaming out of Yuki's mouth soon came to an inconclusive halt, and the woman found herself unable to come up with anything else. All she could think of was to wait as the winter breeze blew across the silent intersection, causing Yuki to shiver under her navy blue uniform. Slowly, Jiang turned her head in Yuki's direction and parted a pair of bleeding, cracked lips.

The words on the Adaptor's tongue died in the howling wind. But with the shortened distance between them, Yuki was able to read the slow movements of Jiang's mouth.

"My sister," were the words Yuki could make out. "... Give me back my sister."

Grimacing at the implication of what Jiang was able to convey, Yuki had a feeling thatthiswas the reason for Jiang's sudden loss of control. To have confirmed directly was a whole different experience and she honestly had to chide herself for not guessing so sooner. Yuki felt guilty - if anything - for never coming up with a way to help Jiang deal with the loss of her little sister. Then again, how was she or Komi' supposed to do that when it was a topic Jiang herself clearly despised bringing up? Either way, it was no longer the time to be avoiding the elephant in the room. Not when Yuki could see that Jiang was still somewhere in there.

"Jiang," Yuki gently addressed her, taking three, four, and then five steps towards the unmoving woman. "As much as I hate to say it... I can't do anything to bring back Kai. None of us can." Jiang's sword-hand twitched at her words. "The grim reaper isn't someone who returns those it takes. Even I had to realize that a long time ago." A rare, sardonic chuckle escaped Yuki. Scratching this old wound within her was something she hadn't done since she first entered Lydian. "Still... if it's one thing Icando right now, it's to bring you back with me." She slowly lowered her raised hands. "The others are waiting for us. And I'm sure that..."

Yuki met Jiang's cold gaze with her own unfaltering eyes.

"... I'm sure that Shinonome would hate to see you like this."

There. A single, warm teardrop. The first crack on the expression of tranquil fury which Jiang wore on top of her face. Yuki drew in a cold breath, and watched in patient silence as the Adaptor lifted her sword to softly squeeze the trigger of an Armed Gear's golden handle. The blade of violent, crimson energies that projected from its cross-guard sputtered loudly before dying out completely, extinguishing the soft, red glow it had been casting onto the Adaptor's burning surroundings. While Jiang's fingers continued to keep a tight grip around the handle of her now-bladeless weapon, it didn't stop Yuki from stepping towards the woman till they were finally within arm's reach of each other.

Tears. It reminded Yuki of the time she discovered Jiang crying all by herself beneath a staircase back at Lydian. All because a bunch of her classmates harassed Jiang on her first ever year in the Academy for being 'different'. The black eyes Yuki gifted to those gossiping girls never stopped feeling cathartic to Yuki's fists. Relaxing her muscles at the nostalgia from such an old memory, Yuki picked up a hand from her side, and held it towards Jiang. "We still haven't gotten those drinks you offered to share, you know?" Yuki said with an easy-going grin, prompting the Adaptor to stare dumbfoundedly at the outstretched hand before slowly lifting an armoured, weaponless palm of her own.

18 minutes had passed.

Jiang's fingertips hovered mere centimeters away from Yuki's outstretched hand. The Captain's forces were still holding themselves back. Things were going as well as they could have, and Yuki only needed to wait forjusta second longer. "... You can do it," she encouraged her friend under her breath, giving Jiang whatever she needed in order to take next important step. Seeing the fury within the Adaptor's eyes wavering into a weak, calming flame, Yuki held her breath, and subsequently spotted movement within the corner of her eye, leading Yuki to the faint shape of an azure figure standing on the rooftop of a building at their side.

The deafening roar of a gunshot shattered the silent air.

Yuki reflexively reeled backwards. The handles of her kunais brushed against her palms and the woman could only gasp as Jiang's armoured hand hovered next to her unharmed headphones. There, held between the Adaptor's fingertips, was a smoking, physical bullet, unlike anything S.O.N.G. nor Task Force Harmony possessed within their known armoury. "J-Jiang...?" Yuki carefully called out, her teammate's silent gaze now diverted away from hers.

Jiang shifted the bullet into her palm and crushed it into a thousand shards of raining, hot lead.

The Adaptor's eyes shot open, her dilated pupils now devoid of even a single hint of recognition. Lethal, crimson plasma discharged from the handle of Jiang's Armed Gear and Yuki gritted her teeth while a pair of smoke bombs exploded within her hands. A white, obscuring cloud enveloped the city intersection, blinding Yuki as a cylindrical blade of roaring crimson grazed past her face, and incinerated the very hairs on her cheeks. The glowing blade then melted into the concrete beneath her, forcing Yuki into a speeding retreat fueled by pure adrenaline.

"Get clear of the area!" Captain Yaiba's magnified voice suddenly echoed throughout the streets.

Jumping back into the safety of the underground staircase, Yuki huddled against the wall of the station entryway, and gasped for air while volleys of stun rounds could be heard whizzing across the intersection. But even when deprived of her sight, Jiang's Armed Gear still swung through the air, deflecting every incoming bolt into her surroundings with ease. Yuki's hand motioned for the kunais in her sleeves and stopped short of actually taking them out. It was pointless, she thought, knowing that there was no way she could land a Shadow Weave if Jiang was capable of catching a damnbulletlike that.

She kept herself standing with a hand on the staircase's railing and shifted her eyes over to the same building where she had spotted Jiang's attacker. No trace of a soul, no matter how long Yuki focused her gaze on that damned rooftop. "Komi', can you-" She held up an arm to her face and felt her breath escape her. Strapped onto Yuki's forearm was her wrist device - or rather - what was left of the standard-issue equipment as smoke hissed from nothing more than a pile of melted remains.

Picking up her old suitcase in one hand, Yuki took one last glance at the smoke-covered intersection before making her escape into the underground train station. It would be a miracle if her smartphone could still reach Komi' in a situation like this.

Over the time she had spent living in Jiang's cozy apartment, Aiko quickly came to appreciate the aroma of fresh, hot tea. Holding up a kettle of water in both of her hands, Aiko poured the boiling liquid into a readied teapot, and made sure to follow the instructions she had produced from her digital tablet earlier. A pot of green tea felt like the perfect thing to welcome someone back home with after a tiring day, so Aiko made sure to be careful when she picked up the filled teapot, and carried it out of the apartment's small kitchen. Leaving it on top of thekotatsutable, Aiko's handmade plushie of Jiang sat next to it as she picked up a remote to switch on the living room's television.

Zesshou Sentai Valkyranger. Holding back a giggle at the extravagant title which flashed across the screen, Aiko found herself honestly looking forward to breezing through all 50 episodes of an action-packed, drama-filled television series. But before Aiko could lift her pot of tea for the first cup of the day, the program playing in front of her was suddenly interrupted by a large, blue card that overlaid itself over the ongoing show. Accompanying the card was a distinct ring, immediately catching Aiko's attention while her golden eyes read out the words on the emergency declaration.

"Please remain calm and evacuate the building. Kindly head for the nearest public shelter and await further orders from official authorities."

59 minutes and 44 seconds went by since Jiang headed out of the apartment earlier. It wasn't unusual for her missions to last for a while, but it didn't stop Aiko from cupping a pale cheek in one hand, wondering if she should simply wait for the others to come back. Her wordless question was quickly answered by a distinct pattern of knocks on the front door, prompting Aiko to get up from the floor, and rush over to the apartment's entrance barefooted. Undoing the several locks on the door, Aiko carefully opened it up to see Ayano standing on her doorstep, hands on her knees as the woman gasped repeatedly for air.

"Ayano?" Aiko pulled a hand away from her cheek. "Is something the matter-?"

The brunette abruptly held up a flat palm, cutting off her question while Ayano coughed into a fist to recollect herself. "W-We need to get to safety!" the woman explained between her persistent gasps. "It's dangerous to stay here right now, so I came to pick you up! Get inside, grab anything important, and meet me at the van downstairs, okay?"

Glancing worriedly at Ayano's frantic instructions, Aiko had to ponder about the ongoing situation with the Distortions. "Where are Jiang and Godai?" Aiko quickly asked, poking her head out the doorway so she could look down the empty hallways.

"They're fine! Don't worry about them," Ayano insisted with a bright smile, brushing off her worries using a waving pair of fingers. "They're a biiiiiiiiit occupied with something else right now. Just focus on getting yourself dressed and getting yourself to safety, alright?" Aiko wasn't completely convinced to disregard the status of the missing pair, but she remained quiet anyway while Ayano motioned for the elevators further down the hall, and stepped towards them with a waving hand. "Oh, and don't forget to grab a coat before you leave!"

Nodding politely at the woman's hasty instructions, Aiko waited for Ayano to disappear around the corner before she stepped back into the apartment and closed the front door. Electrical appliances. Her digital tablet. The temperature controls. Aiko diligently switched off whatever she wasn't going to need for the sake of the power bill, and only then proceeded with getting herself dressed for the cold winter streets. First, a pair of shoes that Ayano bought for her when she first joined the team. Afterwards, a basic winter coat which matched her silver hair. Lastly, a black-and-white scarf. The very same one Jiang had lent her when Aiko departed from the S.O.N.G. submarine. Tightening the warm cloth around her neck, Aiko took a small, curious whiff of the apparel before making her way down the large apartment complex.

The confusion within Aiko was evidently shared among the other tenants who were departing their own apartments in response to the sudden evacuation.

By the time she finished securing herself in the backseats of the Team's designated vehicle, its engine had already rumbled into life, letting Ayano drive down the noisy streets at speeds that only made Aiko hold on tight to her black-and-white scarf. Lights and sounds were pouring out of the large terminal on the other side of the van, filling the vehicle with a string of noise Aiko couldn't distinguish from another. Focusing her sights on the backdoors' windows instead, Aiko curiously looked at the streets behind them, and saw the numerous crowds who were making their way towards the public shelters. Armed, helmeted individuals fitted with black body armour could be seen guiding them alongside official authorities, making Aiko question if this predicament was even related to the Distortions at all.

Everything should be fine as long as Godai and Jiang were safe, Aiko calmly thought to herself, even if her heart desired to do more than run and hide like the civilians she was witnessing.

Clasping her cold, bare hands over one another, Aiko's inquisitive eyes again shifted back onto the terminal which took up half of the backseats. She tried to make sense of the reports that were flooding into the console. Even though she wasn't trained to comprehend the large monitor's ongoing contents, Aiko's golden eyes still made out an emergency request for reinforcements. "Jiang," Aiko whispered beneath her black-and-white scarf, shifting her face downwards until it covered up half of her pale-white face. "You're safe out there, aren't you?"

The van came into a screeching halt, nearly throwing Aiko off her seat were it not for the secured belt around her torso. Wincing at the ear-piercing noise of screaming rubber, Aiko swung her gaze over to the driver's compartment and out of the front windshields while Ayano groaned out loud.


Several of the full-helmeted officials from earlier stood in front of their van, gesturing it to halt right before it entered a large intersection. Vehicles were lining up behind them, and Ayano simply gripped onto the steering wheel as the black-armoured men appeared to be clearing a path. Aiko's guess was quickly proven correct as more of the same individuals marched across the intersection from an adjacent road on their right. Accompanying these armed forces were large, two-legged mechanical beasts, all of them wielding weapons that made Aiko quickly hid behind Ayano's chair.

Guns. Armaments far more frightening than the noble shape of a blade or the elegant curve of a bow. The very sounds they could make were like a thunderstorm to Aiko's ears.

A loud wailing arose from the van's terminal, prompting Ayano to shift the vehicle's gears, undo her seatbelt, and squeeze past Aiko with a rushed apology. She then dropped herself onto the console's designated chair and clacked away on its keyboard without another word. Noticing the increasingly-worried look on Ayano's expression only stoked Aiko's own concerns inside her. She knew that she had no business interfering with the duties of her teammate, and yet, it was that very reasoning which yelled at her to do more than be a designated civilian among hard-working protectors.

"Head back!" a voice at the front suddenly exclaimed. "Head back now!"

The two women turned their attention over to the front and saw some of the black-armoured men yelling at the queued-up vehicles to drive the other way. Those who were not addressing the gathered civilians instead took up combat positions around the intersection, visibly aiming their armaments at the adjacent road on Aiko's left while rotary weapons began whirring on the mounts of three mechanical beats. Ayano rushed back into the driver's seat, tapped into her wrist device, and projected an outgoing transmission.

"Yuki?!" she called out, even if the communication lines refused to connect. "Yuki, where are you?!"

An eardrum-smashing cacophony erupted outside the van and Aiko had to clasp her hands tightly over her ears. A thousand gun barrels simultaneously erupted, vomiting a barrage of glowing, blue bolts down a road neither of the pair could actually see. Ayano still tried out to call to her teammate beneath the ensuing roars of gunfire, all while Aiko huddled behind the driver's chair with eyes that were unable to tear themselves away from the sight of real, ongoing combat. This was the very thing Jiang had been facing every day, she realized. The loud barks of deadly weapons. The strict shouting of orders. Aiko hadn't even noticed her shaking legs until she brought a hand downwards and felt them quaking beneath her fingertips.

She readied herself to set her golden eyes upon them again. The Distortions.

The ones who would have taken her life were it not for the valiant blade of a singing, black-and-white warrior. But as the attack outside their windshields slowly devolved into a panicked defense, a familiar pair of wired harpoons soared through the air, impaling the armoured legs of one mechanical beast. The two-legged walker only had moment to recognize the attack before it was pulled out from underneath itself, sending it toppling to the streets while a speeding, monochrome blur descended upon the intersection. The blinding figure zipped between the two remaining walkers and butchered apart their robotic forms, forcing their cockpits to eject into the skies in an attempt to escape an uncertain fate.

When the last mechanical beast fell onto the concrete as nothing more than a heap of burning wreckage, the attacker responsible for its destruction halted in her steps, faced the black-armoured individuals around her, and brandished a cylindrical blade of glowing crimson within one hand.

Aiko felt her mind black out for a single second. "... Jiang?" A pair of shaking hands reached for the black-and-white scarf around her neck. "Ayano...? What is she...?" Turning her widened eyes away from the ensuing destruction, Aiko glanced over to her teammate for questions, only for the brunette to simply get off her seat, and rest a firm hand on the shoulder of Aiko's jacket.

"It's too dangerous to stay here," Ayano told her, not even looking at the situation beyond the van's windshields. "We... We have to move, alright? I can't risk you getting hurt and all."

Her teammate's expression was the same cheerful one it always was, but Ayano's tight grip on Aiko's form betrayed what she was really feeling inside, communicating everything the brunette refused to show in that exact moment. Glancing back at the brutality out on the burning streets, Aiko still had to take in just what was happening in the span of but a few tense seconds: There was no singing. No music. No fancy flourishes nor any extravagant techniques. Absolutely nothing of what Aiko had witnessed in that snowy forest glade was displayed before her. Only a sorrow which was now unchained and set loose upon Jiang's own comrades. While nobody was willing to tell Aiko anything, she knew deep down justwhythis was happening.

Why the Symphogear-Wielder of Japan assaulted the armed forces around her with the same methodical cruelty of the Distortions.

Unable to form any sort of retort in return, Aiko tightened her lips and allowed Ayano to guide them to the back of the van. They swung open its backdoors, giving them a clear view of the countless civilians who had abandoned their vehicles in favour of retreating down the roads in an uncontrollable panic. Aiko tried to do the opposite and instead kept herself calm, shutting out the deafening roars of gunfire by simply keeping her hands clasped tightly over her ringing ears. After stepping down onto the snowy concrete, Ayano locked the vehicle and subsequently led them through the crowds in a hasty sprint, her wrist device brought back up to attempt another emergency transmission.

Aiko's legs were aching within her winter footwear. Her heart was pounding harder than it had ever beaten before. The falling snow did absolutely nothing to halt the creeping sweat on her face and her pace was beginning to slow down behind the far more athletic Ayano. But as her new boots desperately carried her to safety across a road of panicking, innocent civilians, Aiko felt a voice slowly rising within her, igniting a spark which only led to a single, simple realization.

This was her one chance to save Jiang.

And her first opportunity to actually dosomething.

For at least a week, Aiko had been stuck inside that apartment, waiting, sleeping, and constantly hoping for the best until Jiang would inevitably return from her missions to protect the innocents of this kind world. And yet, here she was, in the midst of a retreat from a rampage that Aiko herself knew full well the reasons for. She was afraid. Her shaking, heaving body told her just as much. A reasonable person would have continued running. But Aiko's burning desire to reach out for Jiang and help her just like what the Adaptor had been doing for Aiko was far, far stronger than any seed of lingering fear.

Abruptly pulling herself into a concrete-scratching halt, Aiko tightened her hands and watched while Ayano ran further and further down the crowded road, too occupied with her attempted transmission to notice Aiko's sudden stop. "Forgive me, Ayano." A pointless whisper came out of her and buried itself beneath the deafening barks of blossoming gun barrels. "This is simply a matter I cannot ignore."

Aiko spun around on the heels of a winter boot and immediately bolted back towards the scene she had been running from, her hand holding tightly onto a flowing scarf of black-and-white the entire time. Panicked, screaming civilians ran past her, nearly crashing into Aiko several times as the silver-haired woman desperately navigated her way through a road jammed with abandoned vehicles. At some point, Aiko had begun to hear Ayano's voice calling out to her, but it was far too late to turn back now. This was the path she had chosen and it was a decision Aiko took up without any sense of regret.

In the middle of the combat-filled intersection, a thrumming, crimson blade emitted a ghastly wail while blue bolts bounced off its form, reflecting the stunning projectiles back at the armoured soldiers who were desperately trying to surround the Adaptor. Combat orders turned into unintelligible words beneath the helmets of spasming, electrified soldiers, and Jiang lunged at the last of her attackers to bludgeon them into the concrete with a blow from a gauntlet-covered fist. The soldier instantly fell onto her back with a loud cry of pain, but refused to let go of the rifle in her hands.

"Jiang!" Aiko ran by the Team's halted vehicle and into the expansive, wreckage-filled intersection. "Please, stop!"

Unable to contain her fright beneath the silent ferocity of the attacking Wielder, the last soldier let out a terrified yell and drew her working rifle on Jiang. The Adaptor's armoured hand then seized the barrel of her shaking weapon, crumpling it within her palm before tearing the now-useless rifle away from the soldier's grasp. Suddenly deprived of any means of self-defense, the stunned soldier simply shielded her face with her arms as Jiang brandished her Armed Gear, and slowly lifted a sword of thrumming crimson above their heads.


Aiko threw herself right in front of the cowering soldier. Jiang's wailing blade completely engulfed her vision. Immediately freezing at the sight of a rushing Armed Gear, Aiko closed her eyes shut and planted herself right where she stood.

And so, she waited. The mere thought of the end made her legs tremble beneath the weight of her body.

But what Aiko had expected would not come to pass. Instead, she felt the relentless thrumming of Jiang's crimson blade filling her ears, and no more than that, granting Aiko the will to slowly draw open her eyelids. Hovering before her was the cylindrical, glowing form of a violent, wailing sword, its all-consuming heat a mere movement away from touching the tip of Aiko's nose. Locked in the last physical motions of a full-on attack, Jiang's dilated pupils fixated themselves onto Aiko, and glared at the trembling woman as though she was but a mere stranger.

"Lanfen..." A single word choked itself out of Aiko's tightening throat. "Please... stop this." Aiko's hands gripped the scarf around her neck, mustering whatever bravery she still contained within her. "You're better than this. I know that you're... hurting. That you're in pain..." The Armed Gear's humming blade remained where it was, moments away from cutting down Aiko right then and there. "... But if you continue on like this, you would only end up doing something you'll regret for the rest of your life." Aiko widened eyes stared into Jiang's dilated pupils and saw her own terrified expression reflecting back at her. "Please..."

From a distance, Ayano was screaming at Aiko to get back, even while the operator was being restrained by more armoured men who had just arrived on the scene.

But it didn't matter how many soldiers were actually surrounding them. Aiko refused to turn her gaze away from Jiang's hardened glare. Innocent, white snow fell upon the intersection and slowly accumulated on both of their unmoving forms, all while Jiang's pauldron-covered shoulder rose up and down with the rhythm of her slow, noiseless breathing. No more words could be forced out of Aiko's windpipe. The mere act of maintaining her consciousness took everything she had left inside her. Digging her fingers into the black-and-white cloth around her neck, Aiko saw the sheer, unrestrained fury that clouded the Adaptor's eyes, and recognized them as the same anger she had been aware of ever since Aiko discovered Jiang's reason for fighting.

Even so, Aiko knew that Jiang was so much more than a mere weapon of vengeance.

Slowly, she lifted a single, trembling arm from her side and hovered her palm towards the Adaptor's frozen expression. Maintaining her courage before the crimson blade which hovered right in front of her, Aiko brushed her fingertips against a brown, scarred cheek, and mirrored the very same gesture she had attempted when the pair first met within the forests outside this very city.

Aiko did not know if this would even work.

It was the only measure her mind could think of.

And it was an action pulled forth by the very same will which had allowed Aiko to throw herself into the path of Jiang's wailing blade.

Cupping the Adaptor's face within the palm of a gentle, pale-white hand, Aiko looked into those dilated pupils, and saw the tranquil fury within them begin to wane, replaced by a horrified realization that slowly crept onto Jiang's now-shifting expression.

"... Aiko?"

The silver-haired woman felt warm teardrops manifest within the corners of her golden eyes.

As though the Adaptor had just awakened from the most frightening of nightmares, Jiang's gaze slowly panned over to the geyser of hissing, violent energy in her hand, and immediately withdrew its blade away from Aiko's tear-stained face. While the cowering soldier behind Aiko gave herself the opportunity to finally run towards her waiting comrades, Aiko remained where she stood, allowing Jiang to pull away from the caress of her warm hand. The Adaptor then took a few steps back, and fixated a horrified gaze onto the Armed Gear within her sword-hand, all while luminescent cracks started to form all across the armour of her black-and-white Symphogear. The finale was nearing.

Showers of sparks hissed from rupturing, monochrome metal. A cylindrical, crimson blade sputtered and waned.

Intending to see this through until the very end, Aiko held onto her black-and-white scarf and watched as the flames within Jiang's eyes finally extinguished themselves. Now, she once again recognized them as the very same eyes Aiko had witnessed when Jiang first carried her in a pair of warm, gauntleted arms. For just a brief moment, Jiang's gaze met with hers, and held each other in a long-awaited reunion, granting the Adaptor the last bit of mental strength she needed to finally shatter her own armour into a hundred dissipating fragments.

Jiang's Adaptor uniform returned into view.

The thrumming blade of energized crimson vanished from sight.

A broken, golden handle crashed onto the concrete and the light clattering of a falling pendant rang in Aiko's ears.

Immediately, Jiang's legs gave out beneath her, sending her falling forward and into Aiko's weak, but welcoming arms. It was over. The sounds of fighting had left their surroundings and a calm silence soon began to seep into the evacuated streets, all while the silver-haired woman continued to hold onto the unconscious body of the Adaptor in her arms. As Ayano's rushing footsteps grew in the air, Aiko caressed Jiang's scarred cheek within her palm once again, and listened intently to the steady, matching beats coming from both of their hearts.

Chapter 12: Moving On from Your Memory


Hi hi! It's been about over a month since the last update and I hope everyone enjoyed the Lunar New Year. Thank you for 660+ views! A lot has been going on during January, so I'm happy to have released this chapter even if I had to take a bit longer with it. Regardless, with the release of this chapter, Flower of Damocles has now concluded its first main arc. A second 2-chapter mini arc will be starting with the subsequent chapter, and while I am ecstatic to show what I plan to unfold over the story's second half, the update pace of Flower of Damocles definitely will have to slow down from here on out.

Putting out the first 12 chapters was absolutely fun, but the second half will require further outlining and care, making me hesitant about uploading through the previous weekly or even bi-weekly rate. Writing has also taken a lot of energy and I'd like some of that to also go into some of the other hobbies which I've been bouncing around with, too. ^ ^'

Anyway! I hope that Flower of Damocles has been a satisfying read thus far, and I hope that it's providing an entertaining look at a 'Next Generation' Symphogear story!

Chapter Text

No matter how many times Aiko witnessed the shattered moon in the night sky, she would always find herself mesmerized by its soft, ethereal glow. Hovering against a backdrop of glittering stars, the ring of debris which orbited the lunar body had apparently only existed for half a decade or so. It was an ever-present mark of a hard-fought battle - or so S.O.N.G.'s records claimed - against a defeated foe by the name of 'Fine'. If the reports regarding subsequent conflicts such as the Magical Girl Incident or Shem-Ha's Ascension rang true, then it wasn't difficult for Aiko to understand why the public regarded the Distortions as nothing more than an ongoing disaster for officials to solve. The human mind was amazingly capable of accustoming itself to many a conflict.


Snapping herself out of an absent-minded fixation, Aiko dragged her wandering attention from the restaurant's windows beside her, and back over to her two teammates from across the table before cupping one cheek with a pale-white hand. "Ah- My apologies, Ayano," Aiko inelegantly responded, her doffed winter coat neatly folded up on the vacant dining chair beside her. "I couldn't help but p-ponder to myself for a bit."

Precisely 6 hours and 23 minutes had gone by ever since Jiang was transferred to Yamaku's public hospital. Aiko, Ayano and Godai spent at least 5 of those hours awaiting further orders inside their respective apartments, and by the time S.O.N.G. gave the team permission to freely move around again, the streets of Yamaku City were reinvigorated once more with the atmosphere of a bustling metropolis. With nothing on their current agenda, the remaining members of Symphogear Team-04 now awaited their dinner inside a pizza parlour Ayano had searched up. The Christmas lights weakly flickering over the trio's heads did little to lift the mood while they sat in a secluded corner of the restaurant for a semblance of privacy.

"Anything you're worried about in particular?" Ayano gently asked, hands neatly folded on top of one another. Sitting right next to her was Godai. Both of them were still in their respective S.O.N.G. uniforms as Godai was occupied with setting up a newly-issued communication device that was strapped onto her left wrist. The previous one she apparently owned until today sat right in the middle of the restaurant's dining table. Its cold, melted remains gave off the impression that it had been chucked into a furnace before it was pulled out some time afterwards.

Aiko had yet to loosen the borrowed black-and-white scarf around her neck. Even if the restaurant's heaters provided the perfect amount of warmth, she still could not bring herself to forgo its familiar, comforting touch. "Jiang," Aiko hesitantly answered with a hand still on her naturally-pale face. "I simply want to know how she is doing right now." Judging by the understanding smile Ayano silently reacted with, Aiko assumed that her answer was something her teammate already anticipated.

"Captain Yaiba says Harmony will be keepin' an eye on Jiang till her condition stabilizes," Godai informed them, her fingers still tapping away on a chirping wrist device. "So far, Jiang hasn't regained consciousness. But the Captain says we should be allowed to visit her startin' from tomorrow onwards." Inputting two more commands into a holographic prompt, the pony-tailed woman's wrist device subsequently emitted a confirming ring, bringing out a curt huff from its owner. "But that aside-" Godai looked up at Aiko with a small raise of a brow, "-it was pretty crazy, ya know? Hearin' about what you pulled."

The older woman's casual comment prompted a confused tilt of Aiko's head.

"Not just anyone can rush into danger like that," Ayano smoothly interjected with a quick sigh. "In fact, I almost got aheart attackwhen I noticed you running towards Jiang all of a sudden. It's not every day I get to see something happen along those lines." The brunette then clasped her hands together in a sudden motion of appeal and served Aiko a small but playful wink. "So, I'd bereallygrateful if you didn't do something like that again... Okay?"

Noticing Godai's nod of agreement, Aiko lowered her palm from her cheek, and slowly re-winded the events from less than 12 hours ago: The dreadful wailing of a crimson blade, the relentless pounding of Aiko's beating heart, and the warmth of Jiang's scarred cheek beneath her bare fingertips. Those were but a few of the fragments Aiko was able to uncover within her exhausted mind while she honed in on that specific moment where Jiang's dilated pupils had her in the Adaptor's sights. It truly was as if Aiko had been nothing more than a stranger who had thrown herself in front of Jiang's blade, all to prevent the loss of any innocent lives. Jiang's unrecognizable gaze in and of itself frightened Aiko more than the thrumming blade which threatened to cut her down on the spot.

"... I must apologize for any inconvenience I may have caused, Ayano, Godai," Aiko said to them, gripping a warm, black-and-white scarf with one hand. "I'm sure many did not appreciate my sudden interference."

While Ayano cheerfully smiled back at the silver-haired woman in return, Godai gave a casual shrug of the shoulders. "It was still pretty commendable of ya for tryin' to help," she reasoned. "It ended up fixing the situation in the end. So, why don't we just eat up and relax for now?" Godai suggested with quick thumbs-up. "Our food's finally on its way here, too."

Upon hearing those words, Aiko curiously peeked over her shoulder, and saw one of the restaurant's waitresses striding over to their corner of the parlour. Held in the worker's hands was a large pan of smoking-hot pizza that Aiko immediately picked up on through its enrapturing aroma alone. Once they thanked the waitress for the arriving meal, Ayano began distributing plates and utensils as Godai popped open a few cold cans of soda. 'Pizza'. Aiko recognized the round dish from her extensive inquiries online, but the images she witnessed paled in comparison to actually seeing it first-hand. She would have continued staring at the meal with fascination in her golden eyes if the sudden rumbling of Aiko's stomach didn't remind her to pick up her first slice and start digging in.

The sounds of utensils lightly scraping against ceramic plates intermixed with the light chatter between the senior teammates from across the table. Due to the warm cheese, crunchy bread, and savoury meat stuffed inside Aiko's mouth, she was far too preoccupied to contribute anything to the ongoing conversation, prompting the silver-haired woman to quietly watch instead while Ayano and Godai playfully nagged one another. Their regular bickering would come off as genuine tension if it wasn't for the puckish energy in their exchanges.

"Geez, you wouldn't have to wash your hands later on if you just used a fork and knife, Yuki."

"Come on, it's pizza! There's no better way to chow down than gettin' down and dirty with it."

Aiko needed to hold back a brief giggle at Ayano's almost exaggerated sigh of exasperation. She would bring up her own arguments to assist the brunette, but it was simply far more fun to let things play out between the two older women. It also allowed Aiko to further calm down her nerves after the events earlier on in the day. Once Aiko was finished with what she counted to be her fourth slice of pizza, she settled her utensils on one side, and wiped her mouth clean with a provided napkin next to her elbow. Both Godai and Ayano were noticeably still on their second and first slices respectively, and neither of the two seemed to notice just how fast their new teammate wolfed down her dinner.

"Ayano?" Aiko spoke up, halting an ongoing exchange between the pair.

Ayano curiously glanced back at Aiko with a fork still in-between a pair of tomato sauce-stained lips.

"Would either of you... be alright... if I asked a question?" the silver-haired woman carefully pressed on, urging Godai to immediately guess the intent behind her words.

The pony-tailed woman was blunt and direct like Aiko had learned to expect of her. "It's about what happened a couple hours back, isn't it?"

A slow, confirming nod from Aiko led the two to share an extensive, contemplative look between one another. It was a gaze which said absolutely nothing, and yet, still communicated all the two visibly needed - and wanted - to say within mere seconds while cold silence crept between the team. Their dinner tasted amazing as much as it was fulfilling, and with that basic need settled, Aiko's attention could not help but resume its focus on the situation regarding Team-04's lone Symphogear-Wielder. Absolutely nobody had given her a semblance of an explanation thus far, and since they were now out of any official's earshot, Aiko desired to hear her teammate's own thoughts regarding this afternoon.

Placing her utensils away for now, Ayano gave herself a small sip of her soda can before slowly leaning against the backrest of her chair. The cheerful expression Ayano regularly wore subtly shifted into that of clear introspection. "While we don't have a complete understanding on the specifics, what wedoknow is that everything that occurred today... was because of a weapon called the 'S.W.O.R.D.'," Ayano explained in a hush whisper as Godai visibly turned quiet beside her. "It's a powerful weapon stored within Jiang's Armed Gear. Something we were told would only be used as a last resort."

Aiko gripped onto the black-and-white scarf around her neck again with both of her hands this time. Something about the weapon's name alone made her skin shiver beneath her warm, winter clothes. "Is this a weapon that the other Wielders also possess?" she hesitantly asked.

A careful shake of the head was the answer Ayano gave in return. It was almost strange seeing the brunette like this. The distinct shift in Ayano's tone was especially noticeable. "It's completely unique to Jiang's Symphogear. Because as far as everyone's concerned-" Her words suddenly trailed off. It was clear that Ayano was struggling to even formulate her next few sentences. "As far as everyone's concerned... the world council recruited Jiang not only to grant S.O.N.G. their newest Adaptor, but to also assign her the duty of becoming any opposing Symphogear's potential executioner."

The blood within Aiko's veins froze. Her two teammates from across the table turned silent. The Christmas lights continued flashing above their heads and the light of a shattered moon shined through the windows beside them to fall upon Aiko's shuddering hand. Processing the matter-of-fact words which had managed to slip into her eardrums, Aiko once again re-winded recent events, and manifested memories dating back to almost a week ago. She remembered how Jiang clearly distanced herself from her fellow Adaptors. How she would hesitate at the mere mention of Wielders other than herself. Aiko assumed it to be purely a matter of professionalism, but she could have never expected it to have been a result of a duty like this.

A 'Symphogear-Killer'.

The Symphogear-Wielders were some of the world's greatest defenders against hostile paranormal activity. And yet, here she was, learning about the proverbial sword which dangled above their heads.

Godai shattered the awkward silence using a few calm words of her own. "Both of us hoped that Jiang would never need to use it," she explained, letting out a sardonic chuckle. "But let's just say that it's hard for our higher-ups to take a 'no' for an answer."

Taking her weight off her chair's backrest, Ayano couldn't help but agree with her friend. "I didn't expect her to lose control like she did," Ayano added. She took another swig of her ice-cold drink before continuing. "In hindsight, maybe we should've thought twice about that when she's-" Ayano narrowed her green eyes and drew the warm air into herself, "-holding so much within her. Especially after what happened to her little sister."

Aiko kept her lips completely shut and ran a thoughtful gaze over her two teammates. She needed to take in this information as calmly as she could. The death of Jiang's sister, the duty of protecting innocents from the Distortions, and now, the responsibility of being the very blade which held itself against the necks of her fellow Adaptors. These were merely three of the responsibilities Jiang carried on her shoulders without any obvious complaint. Even with the supernatural powers bestowed upon her by the Symphogear system, Aiko couldn't fathom how much Jiang endured ever since she first attained her Armed Gear, the Sword of Damocles.

"The others," Aiko herself finally spoke again. "After what happened today... what do the other Adaptors think of her?"

Her hush question made the pair wordlessly glance at each other again in thought.

A simple musing turned out to be Godai's answer. "Guess Komi' and I'll have to ask them directly, won't we?"



The command word jolted through the pitch-black tunnels of Lanfen's mind like the revivifying shocks of a defibrillator. It was but a single, four-letter word originating from one of the many languages created by theCurse of Balal. And yet, the mere echo of its decisive utterance seized the Adaptor's mind from the darkened depths of a bottomless ocean, lifting it above the surface to grant Lanfen the slightest spark of consciousness. The lids of her closed eyes weighed akin to anvils. The gentle thumping within her chest went on without pause. As Lanfen's five senses reconnected with her mind, the distinct beeping of a heart-rate monitor could be heard somewhere nearby from wherever she laid.


Odourless air occupied the internals of her lungs, confirming Lanfen's place amongst the living while stiff fingers felt out the soft blanket draped over her body. The material's texture was unfamiliar. And the same could be said of the soft pillow Lanfen's head rested on as the audible ticking of a clock's hands marched on right above her. None of it felt real. Mirages of a scrambled, exhausted mind, the Symphogear-Wielder reasoned with herself. The thick haze surrounding her thoughts made it especially impossible to remember how or why she was even here in the first place.

"... Aiko?"

When Lanfen finally managed to lift her heavy eyelids, she was greeted by the mundane sight of a dimly-lit hospital room. Nobody but the Symphogear-Wielder herself occupied its generous, sterilized space.

Whatever light was present came from a small bedside lamp to her left, allowing her to see the bag of IV fluid that was hanging from a mobile stand by a hook. The end of the bag's tubing was still attached to the blood vessels of Lanfen's left hand, and a small bowl of wrapped candy could be seen sitting on a wooden table at the foot of her bed. A white patient's gown replaced her Adaptor uniform. Lanfen's long, black hair was an untidy, ragged mess. If the chair placed next to her bed had been occupied at some point during the duration of her slumber, Lanfen wasn't able to guess. Her mind was simply too occupied recognizing the fact that both her relic pendant and wrist device were completely absent.

A pained wince sipped between a pair of chapped lips, falling onto the ears of no one but the awakened woman herself.

Blinking lights could be seen emanating from a medical bracelet strapped onto her right wrist. It wasn't hard for even her foggy mind to guess that it was what connected her vitals to the wireless heart-rate monitor stationed several steps away from the room's bed.

Grasping the bed's cold, metal railing with one hand, Lanfen took her time bringing her body up into a sitting position before blinking confusingly into her shaking palms. She tried to ease the persistent vibrations by balling them into tight fists, but the Adaptor could still feel the trembling return to them not long after. Whatever, she dismissed it in her mind, turning aside to notice her smartphone sitting right underneath the room's bedside lamp. After taking back the item into her possession, Lanfen lifted her right hand, and briefly caressed the toy which hung from the phone by a silver chain. A subsequent click of a button then lit up the smartphone's lock-screen interface.

2049, December 23rd.

1:31 PM.

Lanfen blinked at the sight of the displayed date.

24 hours. A full day had suddenly passed by since she could last remember. It couldn't be right. Inputting the five-digit code to unlock her smartphone, Lanfen was about to bring up the text messaging app when the Adaptor glanced back at her bed's pillow, and widened her purple eyes at the small item that had been resting right next to Lanfen without her notice: A black-and-white, handcrafted plush. Hovering a motionless finger over her phone's screen, she switched it off with a quick click, and returned it to the bedside drawer. Both of her hands motioned towards the Valkyranger plushie before holding the weightless item right in front of Lanfen's frozen expression. The toy's visor practically locked themselves with the Adaptor's eyes.

"There is... something I've been meaning to give you."

A spark flashed within the gaps of her disjointed memories, rebuilding their vital bridges while the trembling in Lanfen's hands only intensified. The haze surrounding her clouded thoughts began to lift itself, and the wailing of a crimson blade echoed in her ears, allowing her to vaguely remember what had happened before Lanfen found herself lying in this plain, sterile room.

The S.W.O.R.D. was activated.

And Lanfen's finger willingly pulled its cold, chrome trigger.

Whether or not she had been given the order to actually activate it felt irrelevant. The Distortions had deployed their Category-3s, and in order to actually cut down a near-unstoppable foe, Lanfen needed to awaken the Sword of Damocles' full power for the first time ever. No other card could have been played in that situation. But as soon as her Armed Gear showcased its true purpose, Lanfen lost herself. The emotional dampeners meant to clamp around her mind completely broke beneath the sheer weight ofeverythingLanfen had been sealing away up until now. The energies of the S.W.O.R.D. subsequently fused with these very same emotions, and resulted in a tranquil fury directed not only at the Distortions, but also at Lanfen's very own allies.

Everything and everyone were simply unrecognizable beneath the proverbial fires blinding her dilated pupils.

Lanfen sought catharsis for her sister's death - and in doing so - only led to her becoming a monster no different from the cloaked being she swore revenge on.

The black-and-white toy slipped between Lanfen's trembling hands and landed on her lap with a soft thud. The repeated beeping of the room's heart-rate monitor hastened into a frantic pace, drowning out the soft pitter-patter of droplets falling onto Lanfen's blanket. Drawing in a shaky breath, the Adaptor brought her quivering fingertips to a scarred cheek and felt the warm tears which were suddenly trailing down her face. Denying it all would not halt the ongoing stream. Lanfen was Japan's designated protector - and in spite of her promise to fulfill her duty like everyone else - she had only placed everyone she cared about in danger. All because of her inability to reign in her own cumbersome emotions.

She no longer felt deserving of the handcrafted gift on her lap. It was meant only for a Wielder who everyone could rely on for their protection.

And Lanfen only proved in the end that she wasn't the kind of individual S.O.N.G. needed - and wanted - her to be.

A brief rattling resounded from the room's doorknob. The door itself then opened up and Lanfen hastily lifted an arm to dry her hot tears with a bracelet-covered wrist. She was undoubtedly a pathetic sight to witness right now. All that paranormal power bestowed upon her, and yet, Lanfen still couldn't live up to the simple expectations she had placed upon herself. After wiping away the last of her halting tears, the Adaptor drew in the hospital's sterile air, lowered her hand, and hesitantly brought a tired gaze over to the now-opened door.

Shinonome stood underneath the open doorway, a distinct black-and-white scarf visibly wrapped around her neck as a folded winter coat draped itself over one of her arms.

The woman's golden eyes peeked out from the large, silver fringe concealing half of a constantly-pale face, locking a widened, silent gaze with Lanfen's own shocked, purple eyes. Shinonome still had yet to pry her fingers off the door's metal knob, and the seconds passing by felt like an eternity of speechlessness, punctuated by the hastened beeping of the room's heart-rate monitor. Neither of them clearly knew what to say in this very moment, and neither were evidently brave enough to take that first important step towards shattering the ice.

The scarf Shinonome donned. It was deniably Lanfen's.

And it was also the very same scarf Shinonome had been wearing when she jumped into the path of a wailing, crimson blade.

Mustering whatever strength she still contained within her, a single word placed itself on the Adaptor's useless tongue. "Shinonome-"

The frantic clacking of shoes against the floor cut her short, and before Lanfen could even process it, Shinonome's arms had seized the bewildered Adaptor in a tight, warm embrace. It was honestly the last thing Lanfen expected her to do after everything the Adaptor caused with her own two hands: The injuries inflicted on Task Force Harmony's soldiers, the destruction of countless Harmony walkers, and the widespread panic she inflicted on Yamaku City's civilian populace. Everything she was responsible for weighed down on Lanfen and her alone, causing the woman to leave her hands hanging at her sides while Shinonome's arms tightened themselves around the Adaptor's useless form. The mere sensation of Shinonome's trembling made Lanfen subconsciously grit her teeth.

She was one of the few people Lanfen ever thought of about hurting, one way or another.

Squeezing her purple eyes shut, the Adaptor proceeded to count the repeated beeping of the room's heart-rate monitor, drawing her mind away from the brewing guilt within her chest until Shinonome's shaking inevitably ceased. Lanfen waited for the heart-rate monitor to ring out for at least half a minute before the Adaptor actually spoke up again. "Sorry, Shinonome..." The singing warrior's voice barely contained even an ounce of energy. "I'm so sorry..."

Shinonome's tight grip around Lanfen's body refused to loosen itself even slightly.

Keeping her pale face buried within Lanfen's shoulder, Shinonome then let out a stream of hush, shaky words. "I'm r-relieved to simply s-see you, Jiang."

'Relieved'. The Adaptor could only fathom why Shinonome would even be willing to admit such a thing after recent events. Even a person like Shinonome should have her own limits on the kindness within her soft heart. "I-" Lanfen's arms continued to hang uselessly at her sides. "I'm glad... to see you, too..." she whispered without regret, not knowing what else she could even reply with without uttering a lie. Lying to Shinonome was something she'd never forgive herself for. "Thank you... Shinonome..."

With those few words exchanged between one another, Shinonome gently eased up her grip around Lanfen, letting the silver-haired woman hesitantly pull away so she could pick up the winter coat she dropped on the floor earlier. A quick observation from Lanfen noticed the marks of tear-shedding in Shinonome's own golden eyes. Those marks couldn't have been there for longer than a few hours. And had Lanfen not miraculously halted her crimson blade yesterday, the expression on Shinonome's face would have been completely different altogether.

While Shinonome motioned to close the room's still-open door, Lanfen brought up a hand and inputted a command into the bed's holographic interface to her right. The confirming press of a prompt subsequently elevated the upper half of the hospital bed, raising it up until Lanfen could lie down on a diagonal surface this time. When the bed audibly locked itself into its requested shape, Lanfen hesitantly glanced back at Shinonome, and noticed her now sitting down on the vacant chair beside her with a bowl of candy placed on top of her thighs. It was only now did the Adaptor notice the small paper note which was sitting in the middle of the candy stack. The words were almost hard to make out amidst a shower of decorative glitter.

"From Ayano Komichi."

She honestly shouldn't have, Lanfen dourly remarked in her mind.

Resting her sore head on the elevated bed's pillow again, the Adaptor closed her eyes shut, this time focusing her senses on the sound of Shinonome gently unwrapping a candy bar. "What did I miss... while I was unconscious?" she slowly inquired, knowing full well that Japan would have been deprived of its designated Symphogear-Wielder for some time now.

"Everyone in Symphogear Team-04 is on standby," Shinonome explained, still fiddling with getting the candy bar open. "Your hospitalization partially necessitated it. The rest of us normally wouldn't have received the same commands-" her fumbling hands went still for a brief few seconds,"-but the higher-ups were unfortunately upset with our 'inability to follow orders'. Or so they claim."

Ayano. Godai. Lanfen brought a pair of fingers over to the top of her left hand and felt out the tube that was inserted beneath the surface of her brown skin. Even with her cleared mind, it was difficult remembering the exact details leading up to the events of the S.W.O.R.D.'s activation. Rummaging through the memories of it all felt like diving into a pile of needles for a single piece of hay. But in the middle of all those fragmented visions was a distinct moment of clarity: Godai's sincere attempt to calm Lanfen down through words and no more than that. A crazy idea she could have only expected from her two school seniors.


Pulling open her heavy eyelids again, Lanfen looked aside to see Shinonome offering her an opened bar of chocolate. Chocolate with peanuts. Just so happened to be Lanfen's favourite. Or perhaps Ayano's ability to remember the small details was something the Adaptor continued to underestimate. "... Thanks," Lanfen muttered with a curt nod, taking the bar off Shinonome's tender fingers before slowly biting into it with a smallcrunch. It was tasteless, of course. Her tastebuds were as useless as ever. But she couldn't decline a bit of actual sustenance after being hooked up to an IV bag for a whole day now.

"The Distortions have not appeared ever since those larger ones were vanquished," Shinonome continued, moving the bowl of candy on her thighs to the bedside drawer this time. "And in regards to your pendant..." The sudden mention of the Symphogear caused Lanfen's sword-hand to twitch. A reaction Shinonome silently noticed with her sharp, golden eyes. "... It's currently with Professor Elfnein. From the reports both Ayano and Godai have received, we can expect one of your companions - Yukine Chris - to be stationed in Japan until further notice."

A decision Lanfen fully understood - and quietly dreaded - as she expected all of S.O.N.G. by now to have learned of what happened yesterday. The burden of the S.W.O.R.D. was a concept Lanfen still found impossible to verbalize. All she could say was that it existed simply to 'discourage' the Wielders - and anyone else in S.O.N.G. - from going against the goals of the world council's need for global security against heretical technology. And with her little demonstration of its power yesterday, everyone within S.O.N.G. and Task Force Harmony now knew what to expect if the world council ever decided to drop the Sword of Damocles onto their heads. Absolutely nothing could turn aside the wailing, crimson blade generated by Lanfen's Armed Gear.

Not even the unstoppable fist of the God-Killer, Gungnir.

Its usefulness against the strongest of the Distortions was purely happenstance.

Disposing the empty candy wrapper inside the room's bedside dustbin, Lanfen narrowed her purple eyes and glared into the palm of her aching sword-hand. The sensation of its knuckles rupturing apart the Category-3's face-plate still felt fresh in her mind. "I wonder... do they all now see me for what I really am?" Her hush, seemingly aimless musing caused Shinonome to questionably tilt her head sideways. "A sword that's useless for even a simple thing like revenge." Lanfen stated with gritted teeth, digging her fingernails into an aching palm. "A threat to everything I've-"

Warm fingertips brushed against Lanfen's scarred cheek, silencing the Adaptor's words while Shinonome's hand gently cupped her grimacing face.

Lanfen knew this feeling. It was the very same one she had experienced in the midst of a tranquil rampage. A warmth which scattered the blinding fires within her dilated pupils.

"Please..." Shinonome whispered, her voice barely audible beneath the uncaring ringing of the room's heart-rate monitor. A quick glance at the silver-haired woman allowed Lanfen to see that Shinonome herself was also on the verge of tears, but it was held back by the same courage she had displayed in front of Lanfen's wailing blade. "Don't say such things, Jiang. We may have only known each other for a while now... but from what I've been able to witness, I can say wholeheartedly that you're more than what you claim yourself to be."

The Adaptor couldn't help but lightly scoff. Whether it was aimed at Shinonome or herself, Lanfen couldn't guess. "... If that's really the case, then we wouldn't be in this situation to begin with," Lanfen quietly argued, gazing down at her lap to stare at the untouched black-and-white plushie Shinonome herself created. "If someone else was wielding this Symphogear - if someonebetterwas in charge of it - you wouldn't have needed to endanger yourself, Shinonome." Her dry throat began to tighten. "Godai and Ayano wouldn't have needed to defy orders. Nobody would've been hurt. And all this wouldn't have happened if I just-!" hot tears were flowing down her cheeks again, wetting Shinonome's warm fingers, "-moved on from what happened to Kai...!"

The fingernails on both of Lanfen's hands dug into her shaking palms till they were on the verge of shedding blood. Shinonome kept her own hand placed on Lanfen's scarred cheek, never pulling away even as the Adaptor's tears continued to flow uninhibited.

And so, the Symphogear-Wielder cried.

She cried with the same unrestrained grief Lanfen experienced on the very night Kai-Ming was taken away from her. Everything she chose to bottle up and store away in the farthest back of her mind. All of it broke loose. No more barricades. No more attempts at maintaining a mask of stoicism. In that moment, she was simply Cassandra Jiang Lanfen, a 22-year old trans woman with a family in the grave. An individual who did not understandwhyshe was chosen to wield the Sword of Damocles, and a person who ironically would have no apparent reason in life were it not for her one-in-a-thousand potential to wield a Symphogear. These were the pieces Lanfen could only play with on the board. And it felt like a stroke of luck that she was not killed like her sister on the night of the global attack.

Minutes passed on.

And the beeping of the room's heart-rate monitor began to slow down to its original, steady pace.

When the last of Lanfen's tears seemingly dripped onto her stained blanket, Shinonome rose up from her chair, and leaned onto the bed's metal railing. Her arms pulled the Adaptor into an embrace once more, letting Lanfen bury her face in Shinonome's shoulder this time as the silver-haired woman whispered her own words of sentiment into Lanfen's ear. "... It was my own decision to help you, Jiang," she firmly declared. "I... I had the opportunity of running away. Like everyone else." A pale-white hand ran through the Adaptor's long, messy hair. "But in the end, I chose to stay and help you... like you did for me on the night we met."

Ever so slowly, Lanfen withdrew her tear-stained face from Shinonome's shoulder and looked up to witness the warm, comforting smile Shinonome wore behind a long fringe of concealing silver.

The very same smile she would always wear whenever the Adaptor came back home from a mission against the paranormal.

"You carry so much within you," Shinonome continued, carefully removing the borrowed black-and-white scarf she wore. "The safety of this world. The burden of your sister's passing." She paused for a moment, hesitation marking her motions. "... And the weight of an executioner's blade." Both of them turned silent at the reminder of Lanfen's one duty, but they did not break their shared gaze while Shinonome seemingly steeled herself. "I know that I have no right to intrude. Especially when I am no more than a civilian. But even so..." Hearing that phrase was so familiar. Lanfen couldn't tell why, even as Shinonome began wrapping a black-and-white scarf around Lanfen's stiff neck. "I want to request that... you allow yourself to share your burdens with me... and the others..."

A gentle tug secured the scarf's grip around Lanfen. The scent it carried wasn't exactly unpleasant to the Adaptor's senses.

"It's the smallest thing I can do," Shinonome stated, tightening her lips. "Especially if it's for the singing warrior who didn't hesitate to save my life."

A distinct warmth ran throughout Lanfen's cheeks, a mark of her now-halted tears. And yet, a part of Lanfen felt that the reasoning for it this time was something else entirely. Focusing her purple eyes on Shinonome's determined gaze, the Adaptor could see that the woman's attention was fixated on Lanfen and absolutely nothing else. Shinonome's fascination with the world could bring her gaze towards many things, but it was clear to both of them that only Lanfen held its proverbial hand in this very moment. "Shinonome," Lanfen hoarsely called out to her. "Would you be willing to bear... with a troublesome girl like me?"

The ensuing giggle which escaped Shinonome's lips was the most pleasing thing Lanfen had experienced in the past 24 hours. "That's exactly what you've been undertaking with me to begin with, haven't you?"

"You can go on ahead, Shino'. If Jiang's already awake, just hit us up with a text," was the advice Yuki gave to Shinonome right as they stepped inside the public hospital.

None of them knew how Jiang was going to react after waking up in a hospital bed, and that was before any of them even thought about how she'd be feeling after yesterday's events, both in a physical and mental sense. Komichi's advice was to take things slowly, so it was easy for them to suggest that Shinonome should be the first familiar face for Jiang to see. If Captain Yaiba was still stationed at the premise, neither Yuki nor Komichi spotted them yet. A quick look around the hospital's main lobby only allowed Yuki to see hospital personnel and chattering civilians minding their business around the reception desks and numerous lobby chairs. The atmosphere really didn't give the impression that this place used to be flooded with people after the Distortions' worldwide assault.

A softpopcame from an opened can of coffee in Yuki's hand. Never too late and never too early for one, she would always tell herself. So, while Yuki downed an entire can of coffee on a soft lobby chair, Komichi occupied the seat next to hers, quietly minding her business as an index finger gently flicked through the pages of a certain book.Bloom Into You. Yuki swore Komichi had reread the entire thing four times by now. And nothing short of an earthquake was going to snap the woman out of her Zen-like focus unless Yuki felt like tickling the book's well-kept cover with a kunai.

Between their legs sat a mundane suitcase. It contained not much else other than a simple change of clothes for their hospitalized Adaptor. Komichi went on and on about being morally obligated to buy Jiang a brand new set of clothes, but it thankfully didn't take much time for Shinonome to rummage through Jiang's closet for something both comfortable and familiar. Yuki - of course - personally chose to side with the very person whom the Adaptor shared an apartment with.

A sudden ring subsequently resounded from the ponytailed-woman's brand-new wrist device, prompting Yuki to accurately toss her emptied can inside a nearby dustbin before leaving her comfortable seat. To absolutely none of Yuki's surprise, Komichi didn't even acknowledge the shifts in her surroundings for even a second while Yuki went over to one of the lobby's walls and answered the incoming audio transmission. "This is AG-4-1, reportin' in," she declared, standing before one of the hospital's many decorative paintings.

Another short glance around the lobby reassured Yuki that she was out of any civilian's earshot.

"Yuki, this is Tomosato," responded the bridge operator. It was roughly about 3 AM for Tomosato if the submarine's current location was anything to go by, and yet, the woman called in like she was still operating on a perfect 8-hour sleep schedule. "I'm contacting you to report an update regarding your inquiry from yesterday. I will also be uploading several files into the database for both you and Komichi to read through afterwards."

A report regarding Jiang's sudden attacker yesterday wasn't something Yuki expected to get so soon, but she definitely wasn't about to complain. Whoever shot the Adaptor in the middle of Yuki's attempt to calm her down was a lingering mystery neither Yuki nor Komichi were able to solve last night, even with the assistance of Task Force Harmony personnel.

"The investigators we've sent have completed their analysis of the situation, and unfortunately, none of them were able to uncover any concrete results. There is no available footage of the area at the time of the incident, and our scanner's records did not pick up any readable life-signs within the vicinity other than yours, Lanfen's, and Captain Yaiba's personnel." The bridge operator's report made Yuki scratch the back of her head. It wouldn't be unrealistic if the attacker had somehow hidden their signature. "While we are currently empty-handed, I will also report that Tsuchiya came forward two hours ago to take this case into his hands. Whatever we may find next, you can expect an update to arrive through him instead."

Tsuchiya Kagero? Grandmaster Ogawa's top student and one of Commander Genjuuro's personal aides himself? Best thing Yuki has heard all day, really. While the few years she racked up in Clan Hida barely compared to other transfers like Tsuchiya Kagero and Ogawa Shinji, it was enough for her to personally witness what a decade of the Clan's teachings could do to a dedicated student unlike herself. If anything, this little mystery of theirs was probably going to be cleared up in less than a week now that they've got someone from the top on the case.

"Gotcha," Yuki replied with a smirk. "Thanks for the update, Tomosato. I'll be keepin' an eye out around these parts myself in the meantime, too. Cheers." And with those words said, she ended the transmission before rolling her sore shoulders. A sudden vibration within the pockets of her winter jacket then got Yuki to curiously pull out her smartphone.

"Jiang has awoken," read the text message from Shinonome. "She says it's fine if you two visited as well."

"Sleeping Beauty's already up, huh?" Yuki muttered to no one in particular. After sliding her phone back inside her cargo pants' pockets this time, the ponytailed woman waltzed back over to the lobby chairs, positioning herself right behind the backrest of Komichi's seat. "Hey, Komi'. It's time." Her modest call obviously fell on deaf ears, drowned out even further by the cheerful hum her friend was letting out with each flick of a page. "Oh, for the love of..." Yuki thrusted a hand downwards and effortlessly snatched the item right out of Komichi's fingers.


"Our little sword's awake," Yuki playfully pointed out with Komichi's book all closed up in one hand. "And it's about time for us to pay her a visit."

Hopping out of the chair with both her arms held out at her sides, Komichi dramatically spun on one foot before pouting right back at Yuki. Sometimes, it was like they never left their days in Lydian Academy behind them. "W-Well, that's great to hear," Komichi admitted. "But, please don't do that again." The brunette then reached forward and took her precious book back without resistance, giving its cover a few gentle strokes for good measure. "Treasures such as these aren't easy to find nowadays, so I'd prefer to keep them inperfectcondition."

"Says the lass who insists on bringing them into all sorts of undercover missions," Yuki dryly pointed out, earning her another exaggerated pout from Komichi. The amount of times Yuki found a misplacedyurinovel among their van's document storage could be counted on more than one hand by now. "Anyway, we better get going. Can't just leave everything to Shino' now, can we?"

Once Komichi's little book was soundly kept away, Komichi picked up the suitcase containing Jiang's clothes, and quietly followed Yuki through the peaceful corridors of the public hospital. The directions given to them through an earlier message from Captain Yaiba made things easy as the pair quickly found a specific door surrounded by many identical room entrances. Aside from the numerical designation on its surface, the door to Jiang's room was made distinct from all the other rooms through the placement of a pair of armed personnel. S.O.N.G. wasn't about to leave one of its Symphogear-Wielders unguarded, so it wasn't surprising when Commander Genjuuro requested the stationing of Task Force Harmony's soldiers.

A quick flash of their ID codes from their wrist devices permitted the duo entry after one of the full-helmeted guards wordlessly confirmed their respective numbers.

"Appreciated," Yuki said to them with a casual, two-finger salute before stepping inside.

To the relief of both women, things were looking about as fine as they could've expected.

"Am I doing this correctly, Jiang?"

"Yeah. Thanks. It's not every day I... have someone to actually help me with this."

While Yuki carefully closed up the door behind them, Komichi happily gave herself a moment to observe the sight in front of them: Shinonome was sitting on a chair next to Jiang's hospital bed, her hands delicately navigating their way through the Adaptor's unkempt hair to try and braid it back into its usual tidy shape. Jiang herself remained completely still in her elevated bed, both hands clearly holding onto a small black-and-white plush the same way Yuki used to do with her toys. It also wasn't hard to guess that Jiang had been crying some time earlier. Not that Yuki was about to point it out, of course. It was almost a relief - if anything - after dealing with Jiang's stoic exterior for about a week now.

"We don't happen to be intruding on anything, are we?" asked Komichi, who greeted both Jiang and Shinonome with a smile and a wink.

"Cut that out," Yuki said, making herself known through a sharp but playful bonk on the back of Komichi's head. The puppy-like yelp it got out of the cheeky brunette could have at least been a bit more convincing. "Hey there," Yuki said to the Adaptor this time, stepping over to the room's bed with her pouting friend in tow. "If you're wonderin' where your communicator went, don't worry about it. Komi' kept it inside the van, so you'll be getting that back soon, at least."

Through the use of a modest but secure hair-tie, Shinonome accomplished her task of turning Jiang's messy hair back into a braid on the woman's left shoulder. A quick thanks from the Adaptor afterwards led to a satisfied Shinonome putting herself back in her chair while Jiang slowly turned her attention to the arriving pair. "Ayano, Godai," Jiang began, lifting a contemplative gaze at them. Her hands visibly tightened their grip on the handcrafted plush in her grasp. "About what happened yesterday-"

Yuki instantly held up a palm, ceasing what they knew to expect from their old Lydian junior. "There's no need for any of that stuff," she claimed, casually relaxing both of her arms behind her head this time. "A lot of people got hurt. Sure. But the council thankfully intends on taking full responsibility for everything that happened. Pretty easy for them considering how deep their pockets run and all, right?" A supportive nod came from Komichi, who then placed the suitcase she carried on top of the room's bedside drawer. "So, yeah. You got nothin' to worry about. Other than your own recovery, of course," Yuki added with a small chuckle.

Narrowing her purple eyes in thought, Jiang let go of the small toy in her hands, and quietly clicked her tongue. "... Aren't all of you still in trouble because of me?"

"What we did wasmyidea from the start," Komichi smoothly added, proudly placing a hand on her chest even though disobeying orders could've given them far worse consequences. Their current orders to remain on standby was - funnily enough - all thanks to the woman's negotiation expertise. "The Commander and the Spokesperson wanted us to leave everything to Task Force Harmony. But since the idea soundedcompletelycrazy to me, I didn't think there was any better way we could've actually handled the situation."

Yuki subconsciously brought one hand over to her own face, distinctively remembering how Jiang's crimson blade incinerated the tiny hairs off it through a simple glancing blow. "Oh, definitely," she dryly added. "But don't try and take too much of the credit, Komi'," Yuki said with a playful glance over at Shinonome. "What Shino' accomplished wasn't actually your idea to begin with."

The playful jab roused up another pout from her friend. Something like this never stopped being fun.

Despite their combined attempts at levity, Jiang did not shed the contemplative look in her eyes, which was probably par for the course when it came to her of all people. It did, at least, get the Adaptor to halt whatever apology Jiang must have been preparing as a giggling Shinonome spoke up beside the woman. "Have either of you received any updates from the doctor?"

It was Yuki who sated the silver-haired gal's possibly-unending curiosity. "They're willin' to discharge her once we get a few paperwork signed up," she explained, even if the exact logistical details were mostly likely better remembered by Komichi. "But before we go ringing up the staff, Komi' and I actually have somethin' to show you, Jiang." A quick flick of a hand prompted Komichi to produce a small digital tablet from the insides of her winter coat. While her friend inputted several commands into its interface, Jiang seemed to instinctively tense up at the ringing of its pressed keys.

"Are these new orders from the Commander?"

Yuki really couldn't stop herself from chiding the woman for her inability to 'switch off' the Adaptor side of her brain. "S.O.N.G. isn't the kind of organization that would give work to a hospital patient, pal." She then scratched the back of her head. "... Not as far as I know, at least." A flustered, incoherent apology of all things spilled from Jiang's mouth in response to Yuki's dry words, causing Shinonome to giggle in amusement again at her bedside. Whatever happened in this room while both Komichi and Yuki were absent, they did not know, but Jiang felt a lot 'softer' as a result of it. Vulnerable, even.

Maybe that's what being deprived of a relic pendant would do to a greenhorn Symphogear-Wielder?

With a sharp tap of a holographic prompt, the digital tablet in Komichi's hands emitted a large projection at the feet of Jiang's bed, showcasing a recorded video message from a member of Symphogear Team-03 in America: Tachibana Hibiki. Wielder of the Symphogear, Gungnir. Jiang's eyes instantly widened at the sight of the chestnut-haired woman, her hands once again holding onto the black-and-white plushie on her lap almost apparently out of reflex.

Tachibana herself sat on an orange-and-purple couch inside a tidy, modest apartment living room. She was also still in her Adaptor uniform, her orange tie and undershirt being the features which distinguished Tachibana from Jiang's own black-and-white variant of the same wear. After loudly clearing her throat, Tachibana reached for a bunch of messily-written notes on the coffee table in front of her, taking them into her hands for a quick memorization before lowering them again to focus on the camera. "Hi there, Jiang," Tachibana awkwardly began. "I hope you're doing well by the time you see this. And I'm sorry for not being able to do anything from all the way here. But if there's one thing I was told I can do... it's to send this recording."

"Hibiki!" a voice somewhere in the background called out to her. "Dinner is almost ready!"

The instant mention of food ignited a prominent flare within Tachibana's eyes, only for the Adaptor to restrain them in the face of the camera's ongoing recording. Both Kohinata and Tachibana definitely sounded like they were handling their stay in New York pretty well. "I'll be there in a few minutes!" Tachibana happily called back to her girlfriend, nearly dropping the crumpled notes in her grasp as she did so. "A-Anyway-!" She sat back down, straightened her back, and took in a deep breath.

Another quick look at her notes reminded Tachibana what she was about to say next.

The determined smile she wore didn't falter for even a split-second. "We've been hearing a lot from Godai and Ayano. How hard you've been fighting as the newest Adaptor. How you've been doing your best to protect everyone in Japan. And how stressful your... duties... have been for you lately." A pause followed up on her words and Tachibana placed her notes back down on the table, leaving them there to rely on nothing more than the feelings she wanted to relay without misunderstanding. "I know this won't instantly bridge things between us. It can't be easy being the Sword of Damocles' Wielder, and a lot of responsibilities are on your hands alone. But even so..."

Tachibana's distinct phrase. Sometimes, it felt contagious.

"... I want you to know that even with the burdens you carry, and the S.W.O.R.D. you're expected to wield-" Tachibana softened her gaze along with her smile, "-every one of us will always be happy to welcome you as one of the world's protectors, Jiang. No matter what. Heck, I'd treat you and your team to a meal with Miku and I if we could, but I guess we'll have to save it for when we can all get back together, huh?" the chestnut-haired woman happily laughed. "Keep on pushing forward with your chin up," Tachibana requested with a determined fist held up. "You have so manyamazingpeople around you to rely on. And even if the power of the Symphogear may seem like a curse... a 'curse' is only a few switches away from being 'cures', right?"

The Wielder of Gungnir gave one last honest smile before the recording finally came to its conclusion.

Relieved to have received everyone's recordings just a few hours ago, Yuki leaned against the room's plain wall, and satisfyingly crossed her arms over chest.

An expected silence permeated the room as Komichi placed the digital tablet back inside her coat, stating, "You can look at all the messages from the other Wielders once you've been discharged." She waved a raised finger, adding, "A few of them are pretty long, too. But we wanted to make sure that you at least saw what Tachibana wanted to say. It may seem hard to believe, but all of them were really worried about you after they heard about what happened yesterday."

A sentiment Jiang herself most likely would've found hard to believe unless her own eyes saw one of the recordings, for sure.

The Symphogear-Wielders were an accepting lot. Tachibana, Akatsuki, Tsukuyomi, Chris, and the Kazanaris. Most of them have tossed threats and exchanged blows with each other at some point during their first few years as S.O.N.G.'s six main Adaptors. Heck, over half of them used to be actual enemies on the battlefield before they ended up fighting alongside Tachibana as dependable allies. The same could also be said of long-passed individuals like Carol and Saint-Germain, if the reports were anything to go by. But Jiang personally didn't see any of that. All she could see were the six heroines who saved the world time and time again, their fantastic feats all transformed into a heroic franchise practically everyone in Japan now knew about.

Heroines that just about anyone would find hard to live up to since they never witnessed just how much the six actually struggled to be the world's undefeated protectors.

Slowly, Jiang drew in a shaky breath and squeezed her eyes shut. She tried responding to Komichi's words, but nothing came out of her parted lips other than a stream of silence. Komichi and Yuki both stayed quiet. Next to the Adaptor, Shinonome carefully lifted an arm, and placed her palm on top of Jiang's trembling hand, subtly easing its persistent shaking.

"Do you need some alone time?" Yuki carefully asked, unsure if she wanted any space right now.

"... It's fine," were the words which squeezed themselves out of Jiang's throat. "You can stay." It sounded more like a plea than a direct statement.

And so, both Yuki and Komichi abided by their junior's words, letting the conversation between them remain sparse as they sat on the sidelines, and allowed Jiang to process the feelings personally conveyed by Tachibana herself. The heroine who defeated Shem-Ha almost five years ago, and the person who Chris insisted wouldalwaysreach out a hand to someone as long as they were willing to reach her back. When Yuki and Komichi first found themselves assigned to Jiang, they honestly didn't know how to treat her. A combination of her little sister's passing, and the true purpose of her Armed Gear, made them go with just treating her like an old junior who had reunited with her seniors. But their hesitation - in the end - probably led them to this hospital room to begin with.

"Thank you," Jiang whispered to them, lifting the silence. "For everything."

Pushing herself back onto her two feet, Yuki went over to the foot of Jiang's bed and rested one palm on its railing. "This is just one of the first things we should honestly be doing, Jiang," she remarked, seeing the Adaptor's hands tighten themselves around the black-and-white plush in her fingers. "We're on standby until further notice, and with all this free time we've got on hand, all of us are willing to do whatever we can to help. No matter what it takes." A glance followed up on her promise, aimed at both Shinonome and Komichi. "Right, you two?"

"Certainly." Shinonome was the first to declare.

Komichi added a cheerful nod to her own words. "It's my job to watch out for an old junior of ours, after all."

Things were going as well as Yuki could've wanted. "So, if there's anything you want," Yuki continued. "Don't be afraid to ask us, alright?"

Jiang's right-hand twitched. A habitual tic both Yuki and Komichi noticed since a couple days ago.

Reopening her reddish, purple eyes, Jiang settled an unsure gaze on Yuki with pursed lips. "Then... I would like to request something, Godai. Something I'd... like to do after we've leave this place." Yuki showed no disagreement in response, letting the Adaptor explain herself further while Komichi and Shinonome listened on intently. "There's a place I want you to take us." Her words carried none of the steel Jiang typically spoke with. "A location I've been thinking about for a while now, but always hesitated about actually going."

Commander Genjuuro's clacking footsteps echoed through the hallways of the S.O.N.G. submarine on the way to the Professor's laboratory, chasing away a silence that had fallen upon the vessel ever since the Wielders vanquished the last of the Category-3 Distortions. Peacetime. Such a thing had become rare these days, giving Genjuuro the impression that the Distortions were always about to knock on their door any moment now. Still, the crew of the S.O.N.G. vessel earned their respite, and the last thing he would ever do was keep his crew running till they were on the verge of collapse. A negotiation for better pay was undoubtedly needed from the world council if they were going to continue operating at this extensive rate.

Taking a turn around a sharp corner, the Commander spotted a figure ahead. Noticing the suited person who stood in front of the upcoming hallway's designated vending machine, it was Tsuchiya Kagero, currently the only right-hand man who was available to Genjuuro ever since Shinji needed to be stationed in England with Tsubasa and Maria. "Tsuchiya," Genjuuro called over to him, prompting the blonde man to acknowledge the Commander with evident stretches of black beneath his young eyes.

"Greetings, Commander," Kagero said, turning himself to lower his body into a momentary bow. "Is there something you require of me?"

All business and no fun. Evidently a student of Ogawa Shinji's teachings. "None at all, actually." Genjuuro looked over to the disposal bin beside the vending machine and noticed at least three-to-four emptied cans of black coffee. A fifth can already sat inside the pick-box of the machine itself, causing the Commander to cross his arms with a raised brow. "I was just wondering how you've been doing over the past week. The Grandmaster tells me that you've been keeping yourself occupied lately. And while I'm sure Shinji would approve of your efforts, I'd prefer it if you didn't burn yourself out working too hard."

Folding both of his hands behind his back in a typical display of formality, Kagero politely dismissed Genjuuro's concerns with a steady smile. The attempt would have worked if the young man didn't bear the obvious eyebags on his face. "I assure you that I'm quite alright, Commander," Kagero claimed, getting down on one knee so he could fish out the cold can of coffee from the vending machine near them. "Judging by the investigations I've been conducting, there have been no detected cases of homicide in Japan ever since the murder of Morikawa Renge. Some would see this inactivity as good fortune, but I would be ashamed to let my guard down so easily."

The light popping of an opened tin can pierced the quiet air.

Kagero made sure to take a quick whiff of the coffee in his hands. "Though, I would admit that I was rather surprised to hear of Jiang's mysterious assailant yesterday," the young man added, furrowing his brows in deep calculative thought. "If fate is kind enough to us all, such an individual may hopefully allow us to uncover the ones responsible for the Sword of Damocles' initial theft."

If only things were that easy, Genjuuro mused to himself, wondering if he too should have a can of caffeine. But after deciding to spare his tongue the taste of any more coffee, the Commander focused on the young man again, saying, "I won't discourage you from your duties, Tsuchiya. It would only be right to arrest the one responsible for all these recent murders. Especially after the loss of a fine comrade." A fifth emptied can of coffee was dropped into the nearby bin with a smallclunk. "I will only request that you keep yourself from digging too deep, lest you end up in a situation far larger than you expected. Understood?"

Placing his hands behind his back again, Kagero answered the Commander with a sharp bow. "I understand, Commander." The young man then lifted his head and adjusted the disheveled collar of his black suit. "My apologies, but I'll have to take my leave now, Commander. I am currently expecting another report from my compatriots in less than ten minutes."

"Go right ahead," Genjuuro told him, stepping aside so Kagero could head down the hallway from which the large man came from. A shared nod ended the conversation there as the Commander took the time to watch while his new right-hand man headed off for whatever that required him. For someone who had just recently loss one of his own, Kagero appeared far more restrained than Genjuuro initially expected of such a youthful lad. Another result of Shinji's strict teaching, perhaps.

Continuing his march over to Professor Elfnein's laboratory, it took Genjuuro two more turns around a bunch of corners for him to finally reach the lab's sliding door. He declared his ID code into a receiver next to the entrance and made his way through the automatic entrance without further hassle. Once inside, Genjuuro carefully navigated his way past the laboratory's numerous tall shelves, making sure not to bump into any of the Professor's countless gadgets before approaching the large terminal up ahead. There, sat Professor Elfnein, who was within the comforts of her personalized chair - and judging by the looks of it - already fast asleep.

The Professor's arms laid themselves on top of the terminal's desk, giving the teenager an improvised pillow for her head to rest on as her shoulders rose up and down with the rhythm of her breathing.

Commander Genjuuro himself couldn't be surprised. Professor Elfnein sounded like she was on the tip of exhaustion when she had called him to her laboratory, and if Tomosato's claims were accurate, the Professor had not achieved a sliver of sleep ever since Lanfen's relic pendant arrived in the submarine by helicopter. The same could be said of Genjuuro himself, admittedly. The activation of the S.W.O.R.D. may have defeated the Category-3 in Japan, but nobody on the bridge deemed it a worthy cost for the destruction Lanfen caused afterwards. It was practically a miracle that nobody lost their life in the ensuing rampage.

The last thing the Commander needed right now was the fallout of a Symphogear-Wielder having claimed the life of a human being.

Listening to the soft breathing of the Professor while she slept, Genjuuro examined the laboratory's surroundings, and quickly found a folded-up blanket stationed on a nearby shelf. His height made it easy to reach the item before he unraveled it and carefully draped the blanket over the teenager's sleeping form. With how things were looking right now, all Genjuuro could was examine the terminal's active screen in front of them, witnessing recorded footage of the operation in Yamaku City merely a day ago alongside displays of other ongoing experiments.

Records of the Sword of Damocles' Aufwachen waveform. An analysis of Lanfen's brain waves at the time of the S.W.O.R.D.'s activation. Records of her converter unit's internal systems. And lastly, a report on the S.W.O.R.D.'s emotional dampeners, which led to a hypothesis regarding the subsequent breaking of those very suppressants. But all of these were only half of the work that the Professor had been conducting merely overnight. While Professor Elfnein was already in the midst of formulating a new sub-system which could prevent another situation similar to yesterday's rampage, the Professor had also set her sights on a discovery that none of the world's top researchers had yet to truly uncover.

The scientific causes behind the Distortion rifts.

The absence of Lanfen's relic pendant was a sensation she could not begin to comprehend.

Even though her wrist device was now back in her possession, the ruby-like crystal itself felt like it was a part of her ever since Lanfen subconsciously uttered the hymns of her transformation chant. One could say that it was a physical reminder of the point in her life where everything took a turn in a completely different direction. Even if this return to normalcy was only temporary, Lanfen practically strode the path of a normal civilian again, carrying the distinct knowledge of the paranormal beings which threatened the world. A Symphogear Team without an actual Symphogear. Nonetheless, the free time they had right now was a luxury few in S.O.N.G. had these days, so Lanfen intended to spend it wisely.

A few words from Godai behind her brought Lanfen's attention back to her surroundings. "That's the place, huh?"

The Mitakihara Disaster Memorial. Constructed in memoriam of those who were lost during the Distortions' global attack, the expansive, open-air memorial was going to be the first out of many that were proposed by the Japanese government. It was situated right next to one of Mitakihara's artificial riverbanks, and designed to be capable of accommodating the hundreds who arrived to pay their respects. The winter air surrounding the memorial itself was particularly thick. It had taken the group some time to find an open in its parking lot. Having arrived here mere minutes ago, Lanfen could see the setting sun in the horizon, its incandescent form currently casting a dying glow across Mitakihara's white skies.

Descending snow gently fell upon the memorial's concrete flooring and the bouquets of flowers each of the four women carried, drawing the pure-white image of a winter realm juxtaposed by the locale's official purpose. Situated around the wide-open area were countless tall plaques of marble which stood larger than the average person. Each plaque carried the engraved names of those who lost their lives on Japanese soil, and numerous people could be seen gathering around these objects of marble with their hands clasped together in prayer.

Godai and Ayano understandably kept themselves quiet ever since the Team stepped into the memorial's perimeter. Shinonome, on the other hand, was casting a sympathetic glance at the organized plaques around them, witnessing the numerous names written into each and every one of them. But Shinonome did not let her curiosity slow down her pace while the four navigated between the tall blocks of marble, silently going through countless lists of the deceased until they found the one commemorative plaque Lanfen had come here for to begin with. A particular plaque at the edge of the memorial which held a name few actually spoke of nowadays.

"Cynthia Jiang Kai-Ming."

Shifting the bouquet in her hands so that it rested beneath a single arm, Lanfen slowly lifted a freed hand from her side before brushing its fingertips against the engraved name. The cold marble bit into her bare finger with the teeth of winter. The very same way the icy winds had done so on the night Lanfen lost her sister. If she was about to cry, then it would seem that Lanfen was out of tears for today. All she could do instead was part her chapped lips before uttering a single sentence in the language their mother - Margaret Jiang Pao-Lin - taught them years before she would leave their lives.

"Take care, Mei."

The Mandarin phrase exited her dry throat without issue before it accompanied the numerous prayers uttered by everyone else in the memorial's premises. After withdrawing her hand away from the cold marble, Lanfen set about placing her flowers at its base, a gesture soon followed up by Godai, Ayano, and lastly, Shinonome. Once all four bouquets had joined the countless other flowers left behind all the other visitors, Lanfen took a moment to witness their lush colours, remembering how these were the very same sort of flowers Kai and her would bring to their parents' gravestone.

She wondered what both of their parents would say about the path Lanfen now found herself standing in.

Ever since she attained her title as a Symphogear-Wielder, Lanfen would constantly insist to herself that both of them would have encouraged her to wield the Sword of Damocles. All to ease the souls of the departed, while also obtaining a purpose in life through the very organization they had operated in until their demise. And yet, Lanfen now could no longer hold faith in such an assumption without sensing the bitter, proverbial taste of a self-serving lie on her tongue. So much could have been prevented. She knew that well by now. Their father would always boast about the strength in relying on others, but the passing years evidently blanketed the memories of those Lanfen could never expect to return.

Kai would've gladly chastised her for forgetting if she could.

"I'd like you to also have some friends of your own. Find someone you like. I'm doing just fine myself, so you don't have to keep doing everything for me at the expense of yourself."

Kai's words lingered within the halls of Lanfen's hazy mind. A memory from their last ever meal together. Right before the Distortions first struck their world.

Staring into the palm of an opened sword-hand, Lanfen felt nothing from her stiff fingers. Not even a hint of the twitching which had plagued her ever since that dreaded night. Lanfen didn't know whether to feel relieved or confused, but she accepted it anyway before allowing the hand to rest back at her side. This time, Lanfen brought her attention over to the faces of her three teammates behind her, and watched as they all wordlessly waited for her. Godai Yuki. Ayano Komichi. Shinonome Aiko. Lanfen trained relentlessly so she could protect each and every one of them. But it was her who needed to be saved in the end. The one who actually possessed the paranormal power of a Symphogear.

Until today, at least.

Nothing could convey the aching feeling in her chest. Not even a single word. And yet, the patient expressions on each of their faces told Lanfen well enough that maybe she didn't need to do such a thing.

Resting one hand on her hip, Lanfen gave herself one last glance at the plaque in front of them before a familiar voice politely addressed her.

"Cassandra Jiang Lanfen?"

That voice. It was one Lanfen remembered often hearing beneath the cover of a full-face helmet. Turning around in unison with the rest of Team-04, Lanfen subsequently came face-to-face with the well-dressed person who had clearly called out her name. Her purple eyes first focused on the distinct Task Force Harmony armband the person before them donned. Their short, black hair was kept well within the limits of military standards. A bouquet of flowers rested underneath one of their arms while their other arm laid injured within a sling and a cast. Sunset light reflected off the badge on their chest, indicating their rank.

"Captain Yaiba," Lanfen slowly addressed them in return, prompting Godai and Ayano to do the same at her sides.

When the three attempted to follow up their procedural greeting with a regular salute, the Captain quickly dismissed their gestures through the wave of an uninjured palm. "Neither of us are currently on duty, so there's hardly a need for any formalities," they lightly pointed out with an amused smile. "Greetings, Team-04. I'm pleased to see that you're already out of the hospital as well, Miss Cassandra. I'd recommend not pushing yourself too hard in the meantime, though. Modern medicine has its limits."

"... Understood, Captain." Hesitantly lowering a lifted hand alongside Godai and Ayano, Lanfen's eyes slowly panned over to the Captain's arm as it hung on a medical sling. Even though nobody had been willing to show her any recordings of her rampage across Yamaku City, Lanfen felt that it was a safe guess to assume that she was responsible for the broken limb. She couldn't look at the injured arm for any longer than five seconds without grimacing every so slightly. "I take it that you have business with me?" Lanfen inquired of them.

The Captain answered with a sharp nod, "My apologies if this may seem sudden, but I would like to have a discussion with just yourself, Miss Cassandra." They then motioned to Shinonome, Ayano and Godai with an unharmed palm. "As long as it's not inconvenient for your team, that is."

Ayano was the first to answer them. "It should be fine with us. We'll just wait for Jiang at the entrance." Placing her hands on the shoulders of both Shinonome and Godai, the brunette subsequently assured Lanfen with a small nod. "Just don't take too long, alright? We have a nice buffet to head to, after all." A casual shrug from Godai indicated no complaints with Ayano's suggestion. Shinonome, on the other hand, clearly hesitated at the thought of leaving Lanfen's side even for a moment. It took the smallest of smiles from Lanfen and a small pat in the back from Godai for Shinonome's pensiveness to visibly settle down.

"I apologize again for the suddenness of my request," Captain Yaiba said before looking over at Shinonome. "But before we part, I would like to also extend my thanks to you, Miss Shinonome." The silver-haired woman in question understandably tilted her head in confusion. "I owe you much for the bravery you displayed," they quickly elaborated. "If it wasn't for what you did, I'm sure Task Force Harmony would've been unable to actually settle the situation."

"I s-see," Shinonome stammered, giving a polite nod for good measure. "I assure you that the action I undertook was simply the right thing to do, Captain."

Sagely nodding at the woman's polite insistence, Captain Yaiba gave the trio a farewell bow while Ayano proceeded to bring Godai and Shinonome with her past the groups of civilians around them. Once the three were out of sight, a quick gesture from the Captain indicated Lanfen to accompany them across a stretch of the memorial's open-air perimeter. The crunching of their footfalls filled in the silence between them. Neither Captain Yaiba nor Lanfen notably held the power they normally wielded in the face of a Distortion incursion. As they currently were now, both individuals appeared no different from all the other mourning civilians in sight, even with the distinct armband on the Captain's arm.

Eventually, the pair halted beneath the shadow of another marble plaque and Lanfen kept quiet as the Captain settled their bouquet at its already-crowded base. Captain Yaiba then closed their eyes in a wordless prayer, undisturbed by the frozen bits of white that fell from the skies above them. One minute passed. Two minutes passed. Three minutes. And then, four. The Captain's reopened eyes marked the end of whatever they intended on conveying to the departed, giving Lanfen a cue to speak up again.

"What were their names?" Lanfen carefully asked, reading the engraved writings on the black marble.

The Captain didn't even hesitate with their answer. "Yaiba Yua," they said, letting loose a small, wistful sigh soon after. "She was my mother. We were all in Tokyo at the time of the attack. She maybe could've made it if we didn't get separated during the confusion." Their uninjured arm combed its fingers through the side of their black hair, brushing off some of the snow which dotted it with white. "Sometimes I miss her. Sometimes I don't. Can't really explain it, but it is what it is."

Spotting the declared name on the plaque's engraved list, Lanfen stowed her hands inside the pockets of her black jacket, the black-and-white scarf around her neck perfectly keeping her warm in the face of the winter breeze. "... You have my condolences, Captain."

"The feeling is mutual," they quickly responded with a chuckle. "After everything calmed down yesterday, I got to hear from your friends about what happened to your sister. Said it was what led to the whole thing aside from a stupid decision by the council." The reminder of Lanfen's actions felt like salt upon open wounds, but she at least found a sort of amusement in hearing them openly express derision for the higher-ups. "S.O.N.G. and Task Force Harmony. I guess it's not hard to find those who carry out their duties for their own personal reasons, huh?"

It was to be expected, Lanfen felt. Their line of work would undoubtedly bring many who had been personally affected by creatures like the Noise and the Distortions alike. "You've got a point there," Lanfen dryly responded before focusing again on the Captain's slung arm. "... How long is that... expected to heal, if I may ask?" A part of her still wanted to apologize for it, but Lanfen knew that it would only be rebuked like every other apology she's attempted thus far.

"Going by the doctor's orders? No more than two days," they simply replied. "But, I guess I should get to the point of why I asked to speak with you, shouldn't I?" The shifting of the topic made Lanfen inadvertently tense up as the Captain focused their eyes on the tall plaque. "Tell me, Miss Cassandra, will you be able to control the S.W.O.R.D. the next time you're forced to unsheathe it?" Their tone was hush. Just enough for Lanfen to hear while still avoiding the earshot of the numerous civilians around them.

Drawing in practiced breath, Lanfen pulled her sword-hand out of her pocket, and grasped the black-and-white scarf around her neck for comfort. The simple presence of Shinonome's lingering scent eased the growing tension within her shoulders. "It's the only thing I can realistically do, isn't it?" she dryly told them. "Even though my sister's killer is still out there somewhere... I... I can't use that as an excuse to repeat what happened." The fact that nobody perished from her tranquil rampage felt like an act of divine intervention.

A warning of what could have happened had Lanfen fully given herself into the fires within her eyes.

Stroking their smooth chin at the sound of her firm words, Captain Yaiba continued, "I understand what you're going through. I really do. And I'm sure you're aware by now that what you're carrying is easier to bear when you let yourself rely on your compatriots. Plenty of people in Task Force Harmony learn to do exactly that to help steel themselves in the face of what we fight daily." Lanfen quietly pursed her lips at the Captain's statement. "I will promise you this: Wewillfind the ones responsible for the events of that night. Even if they're content with hiding for now, our guard is never down. Until then, I want to simply ask that you take the time to reign in your emotions. I've personally known many who ended up in an early grave because of their inability to do so."

Swallowing Captain Yaiba's words felt like a bitter pill. But it was something Lanfen knew she needed to hear outright from someone who bore an injury she herself caused with her own two hands. "... I understand, Captain. Thank you, really." Reaching into the upper pockets of her black jacket this time, Lanfen carefully drew out her smartphone, causing a few light jingles to resound from a toy which hung from the device by a silver chain. The gift Lanfen gave to Kai before everything happened. "I... look forward to working alongside you again next time," Lanfen honestly said to them. "I've no complaints so far collaborating with you."

"Again, the feeling is mutual," they responded before letting out a small laugh. "So, what do you plan on doing for now, Miss Cassandra?"

Tearing her narrowed eyes away from the memento of her sister, Lanfen slowly peered behind them, and gazed past the hundreds of people standing around the memorial. There - at the entrance of the area - stood the three other members of Symphogear Team-04. All of them were quietly conversing with each other on a topic she could not hear from where she stood. While Lanfen could still feel the proverbial fires lingering in the depths of her eyes, the pleasant smile Shinonome wore kept their persistent flames at bay. The proverbial scar left behind by Kai's death would not - and could not - heal so soon.

But even so, Lanfen found herself believing for once that she could grab onto the hands everyone else extended towards her.

Chapter 13: Steps Towards a New Tomorrow


Hi hi! It's been about 10 weeks now since the last update and I hope the previous chapter gave plenty to enjoy before this one. Life has been rather busy, but it's not stopping me from planning out and working on FoD. Before this update was posted, I had chosen to go back and retool Chapters 1 and 2 (Chapters 3 and 4 will be retooled as well after Chapter 13 and 14 have both been posted), so those should feel smoother now compared to before.

Anyway, thank you for all the views and Kudos recently, and I hope you enjoy this Part 1 of a 2-part story arc where things get to relax and build-up before the second half of FoD truly unfolds! Also, as of today, FoD's length will officially be increased to 26 Chapters to accommodate certain plot points! Chapter 14 should be released in 4-5 weeks time, so it won't be long till the next update! Enjoy!

Chapter Text

Narita International Airport. Located within Japan's Chiba Prefecture, the airport consisted of three terminal buildings meant to handle domestic and international flights, making it an essential location for those coming into the land of the rising sun. The commonly-chosen methods of transportation towards Narita Airport were either designated buses, railway services, or taxis if money wasn't going to be an issue. With a combined number of 88 cafes, bars and restaurants, it was easy to find yourself distracted by a dozen sights and luxuries right after arriving from overseas. And it was here in Narita Airport where Lanfen and Ayano awaited the imminent arrival of none other than Yukine Chris.

Soft, winter sunlight shone down on one of the open observation decks as Lanfen stood before its high fences with a hand on its cold, metal railing. Purple eyes half-heartedly gazed past the barrier to wistfully view each aircraft that took its metallic mass into the skies, keeping the Adaptor occupied even if her mind had been wandering aimlessly for the past half-hour now. Lanfen barely paid any attention to all the other nearby civilians making themselves comfortable in the relaxation spot. The only reason she even noticed them at all was because of the audible exclamations which would arise from awestruck children whenever a plane took off from the airport's runway.

A sensation Lanfen almost found to be nostalgic even if she couldn't put a finger as to why.

"Lost in your thoughts again?"

Turning her head at the appearance of Ayano's cheerful jest, Lanfen saw her approaching teammate carrying a pair of coffee cans in both hands, and a typical smile on her face. The Adaptor almost wanted to entertain the thought that Ayano could somehow read minds. "If you're expecting me to start singing, you're better off not holding your breath, Ayano," Lanfen dryly said, taking a gloved hand off the deck's railing so she could be handed a fresh can of iced caffeine. "I take it that Yukine's flight is almost here?"

"In a bit," Ayano replied, standing at Lanfen's side with one eye closed in a wink. "I told Chris where to find us once she's arrived, so I think she'll be perfectly alright."

There was no doubt that senior Wielders like Yukine would be used to all the intricacies of air travel. Lanfen couldn't exactly say the same for herself while the sharp popping of tins being opened momentarily pierced the cold air. After taking their first sips of afternoon coffee, Lanfen dropped herself onto the nearest available bench, and crossed her legs in an attempt to actually relax her tense body. Even if a S.O.N.G. communicator was still strapped to her wrist, Lanfen's relic pendant wasn't on her person. So, if the Distortions decided to appear, they would have no choice other than to evacuate like all the civilians she could see on the observation deck. They couldn't go against the Commander's orders, after all.

Fascinated by the sight of the departing aircrafts, Ayano took an empty seat next to Lanfen on the bench, a merry tune quietly streaming out of her the entire time. It had been a moment since the last time Team-04 was allowed to experience a day-off. There were still no updates from Professor Elfnein regarding the Sword of Damocles so far, but the mere thought of its eventual return made the Adaptor's sword-hand itch. Lanfen would have found it easier to set aside the thought of the Armed Gear if it wasn't for the known presence of Clan Hida operatives laying undetected within their surroundings.

The suggestion came from Tsuchiya Kagero himself. The moment Lanfen received word regarding her mysterious attacker during her uncontrolled rampage with the S.W.O.R.D., nobody within Team-04 wanted to argue against the idea of implementing a level of security for the duration of the Sword of Damocles' maintenance. Still, the whole thing gave Lanfen a strange sensation of reassurance. Almost any one of the mingling civilians within their sights could be an agent of Clan Hida. A skilled operative who would be ready to intercept anyone they deemed to be a threat towards one of S.O.N.G.'s seven Wielders. Even if one of Lanfen's own teammates had personally trained underneath them, Godai hardly measured herself to be the same as a full-on agent of Clan Hida.

At least two or three more airplanes had descended down onto the airport by the time Lanfen was halfway done with her canned coffee. At some point, her eyes subconsciously drifted over to her left wrist, shifting Lanfen's attention away from the civilian aircraft, and onto the standard-issue communicator she had been given when Lanfen was recruited into S.O.N.G.'s Adaptor Corp. The rectangular device was completely silent, and yet, she still expected it to light up with new orders the moment her guard was allowed to be fully let down.

"Jiang," Ayano formally addressed her, causing Lanfen to flinch before she awkwardly looked over to her senior. The disapproving wag of the finger Ayano showed was somehow simultaneously playful and serious. "We're on standby, remember? If S.O.N.G. has any work for us, it's going to be me who will hear about it first," she said, taking an exaggerated, lady-like sip of her coffee can. "Besides, you've already got an order to fulfill, and it's to take it easy after everything that's happened recently. It shouldn't be that hard, right?"

The sheepish apology which poured out of Lanfen was about as inelegant as it could have been. "R-Right. Sorry, Ayano." Hiding her wrist device beneath the sleeves of her civilian winter jacket, Lanfen let out a small sigh, and returned to the mundane sights around them, milk coffee still in one hand.

'Mundane'. It really was the perfect word to describe their day so far. Christmas was tomorrow and there were still no signs of the Distortions world-wide ever since the defeat of the Category-3s nearly two days ago. An optimist would have considered the Distortion conflict to be over by now, but Lanfen could never hold onto that sort of mindset for long. Even so, the Adaptor managed to find a part of her who could at least observe the deck around them, all in an attempt to draw out a couple nostalgia-tinged memories of this particular airport.

"It's been a while since I last came here," Lanfen quietly said, leaving a half-empty coffee can between her and Ayano. "Nothing's really changed much since then, I guess?"

Ayano gave a curious lift of an eyebrow and held her drink in both her hands, tentatively replying, "When was the last time you've stepped foot here?"

The Adaptor's answer was calm and straight-to-the-point. "It was with my parents. Right before I enrolled in Lydian." Just like Lanfen anticipated, the sudden mention of her family wedged a sharp silence right into their conversation, leaving the faint chatter of nearby civilians to fill-in the ensuing void. Lanfen then placed her chin in the palm of a gloved hand and shattered the proverbial ice before Ayano herself could. "They had just come back from an overseas assignment at the time. Mei and I came here by train to welcome them. She wouldn't stop running around the place until our mother scolded her, too. Before that, I managed to save Mei from falling right onto her face at one point."

While Lanfen faintly snickered at that last particular detail, Ayano remained quiet and listened on intently with an amused smile. To be able to talk about something as mundane as her old trips to Narita Airport somehow felt relieving. Lanfen didn't understand why, but she didn't desire to know the reason anyway.

"We had dinner here before heading over to our old house in Tokyo. I think it was even the first time I got called 'ma'am' by a waitress. Felt almost like a dream when it happened." Grasping her coffee can between two gloved fingers again, Lanfen downed the rest of its contents in one go this time before pulling her chapped lips away from the polished tin. "... I'd be lying if I said I never thought about reliving those memories. The fact that it's getting harder to even remember them all isn't exactly great, but..." She narrowed her eyes and set her sights on the fourth descending aircraft Lanfen witnessed thus far. "I can at least say that all of it still happened, can't I...?"

Ayano allowed the silence between them to last for about a minute before the older woman nodded at what was supposed to be a rhetorical question. "Your family sounds like they were amazing, Jiang," she said, carefully finishing her own can with one last sip. "Your parents were able to be there for the two of you, even when they were busy with S.O.N.G.'s assignments. Meanwhile, I'm finding it hard to even regularlyvisitmy own parents in-between all of our missions together. And as for Kai," Ayano briefly stopped herself, "she was a great kid... She had an amazing smile, too. The short time where I was able to talk with her was especially fun."

Ayano's parents. Lanfen noted that they had yet to meet the Adaptor thus far. No info of Ayano's parents could also be found within S.O.N.G.'s database of personnel, so they were probably outside of the paranormal business unlike their daughter. It almost made Lanfen wonder if they were fully aware of the dangers Ayano regularly got herself involved with without the aid of any supernatural abilities. Whatever was the case, Lanfen quietly wished them well in continuing their lives as an unbroken family. Nobody else within Team-04 could experience such a simple luxury.

Over the course of the next few minutes, the coffee within their cans dried up along with their conversation, prompting the pair to leave the bench and dispose of their garbage within the designated bins nearby. Once the empty tins were placed where they should be, Ayano dusted her palms, and looked over to Lanfen who was still watching the descending airplanes beyond the observation deck's high fences.

"Jiang?" Ayano called her, bringing the brown woman's attention over. "This may sound a little out of the blue, but at this point, should wereallybe staying on a last-name basis?"

Lanfen could only soundlessly balk at the sudden question. Placing one hand on her hip, Lanfen scratched a scarred cheek with her other hand, unsure of what to say since she had become rather used to referring to everyone by their surnames. Other than Maria - who was neither Japanese nor Chinese to begin with - Lanfen could not remember a single person she actually knew whom she referred to by their first names. Nobody in Lydian Academy were close enough to warrant it. The same could be said for every other person Lanfen subsequently met after her own graduation.

"I won't push it if you're not comfortable with the idea," Ayano continued, clapping her hands together with another cheerful smile. "But if youdon'tmind it at all, then maybe you can start by first bringing up this idea with Shinonome?"

This time, the Symphogear-Wielder felt her face warm up considerably from the unexpected mention of their fellow teammate: Shinonome Aiko. The amnesiac, silver-haired woman who had witnessed Lanfen's inability to restrain her tears within the room of a public hospital. The person Lanfen had rescued from the Distortions beneath the light of a shattered moon. "Why are..." Lanfen habitually clicked her tongue and turned away from the smiling brunette. "... Why bring her up all of a sudden?" she muttered, barely managing to even form a coherent reply.

The cat-like grin which grew on Ayano's face initially felt like the only answer Lanfen would actually receive. "She's the one you should be taking that step with first, isn't she?" she teasingly responded, using the fingers on her hands to form the crude outline of a stylized heart. Lanfen's only response to the flamboyant gesture was to wordlessly fiddle with the tip of her braided hair. "Or is there something that's making you - a maiden who can bench-press a truck if you wanted to - alittlehesitant about the idea?"

The physical capabilities that were granted by Lanfen's Symphogear were completely irrelevant to anything Ayano was proposing. It was obvious Ayano knew it for a fact, but it didn't stop the brunette anyway from continuing to smile at Lanfen with that frightening, cat-like grin of hers. The simple sight of it made the Adaptor shiver beneath her jacket even though she had faced down creatures like the Distortions numerous times by now. Thankfully, the conversation between the two was interrupted when a familiar voice began calling them from afar.

"Oi! Komichi! Rookie!"

Turning their heads in perfect unison, Ayano and Lanfen looked in the direction of the observation deck's entrance, and spotted Yukine Chris strolling over to them in a winter coat with her luggage bag rolling behind her. Lanfen could not be any more relieved to see the arrival of another person - let alone another Symphogear-Wielder - as the older but shorter woman halted a couple steps before them. The confident smile Yukine wore was to be expected of someone who had been in the paranormal business years before Lanfen's fingers even brushed against the Sword of Damocles.

Unlike Lanfen though, Ayano evidently regarded little for her resume as the brunette greeted the white-haired woman by practically throwing her arms around Yukine in an excited glomp. "There's my little snowball!" Ayano exclaimed with absolutely no regard for their surroundings.

A subsequent, bewildered yell understandably arose from the crimson Adaptor, earning the trio a few looks from some of the mingling civilians around them while Yukine desperately attempted to fight off Ayano's bear-like grasp. "H-Hey! Not this again, c-come on!" She unsurprisingly looked over to Lanfen, clearly desperate for some sort of miracle. "Rookie! Help me, would ya?!"

"Aww, don't be like that, Chris!" Ayano cheerfully insisted, eagerly rubbing her cheek against Yukine's like she was some sort of touch-starved puppy. "It's not every day I get to see you, after all!"

Lanfen let loose a simple sigh and coughed into a closed fist. "Maybe we should-?"

"A little personal space would be nice, dammit!" Yukine barked, unable to free herself from imprisonment within Ayano's arms.

Unsure of what she could even contribute at this point, Lanfen simply chose to let the entire thing diffuse itself naturally as she stuffed her gloved hands inside the pockets of her winter jacket. She then shook her head at Ayano's carefree invasion of Yukine's privacy and slowly tuned out the loud noises coming from them. The last time Lanfen remembered being with another Adaptor in-person was nearly two weeks ago, right after they all had learned of Lanfen's true duty as the Sword of Damocles' designated Wielder. The her of yesterday would have hesitated to even stand this close with Yukine, but after going through the sentimental messages the other Wielders had sent in response to Lanfen's hospitalization, she now felt capable of doing more than just standing by with her feet magnetized to the ground out of sheer trepidation.

When Ayano finally released Yukine from her grasp with a teasing smile, Lanfen took a single step towards the senior Adaptor and greeted the snow-white woman with a formal bow. The sheer sharpness of the gesture could have sliced a tree in half. "We're honoured to have you watch over us in the meantime, Yukine," she said smoothly and politely. "I hope there were no problems with your flight."

Yukine gave Ayano a quick, exasperated elbow shove and the brunette grinned back at her before the short woman returned to Lanfen with a raised brow. "Well, you can relax as long as I'm here, Rookie." Confidence returned to Yukine's voice the moment she was allowed to recollect herself. "It'll take a lot for those tin cans to slow me down if they ever come knocking again. Doesn't matter if they're a Category-1, 2 or 3. I've got plenty of bullets to go around, for sure."

Lanfen lifted her head back up and nodded in appreciation at the woman's unfaltering boast. If they were being technical, it's not like this was going to be the first time Lanfen needed to rely on other people like Yukine to protect them. Her and all the other Wielders had been doing exactly that for at least five years now. The only difference was how Lanfen was even aware of it nowadays.

"Feeling better now?" Yukine asked this time, her voice somewhat lowering itself.

Lanfen needed a second to even realize what she was referring to before she curtly nodded in response. "I'm... doing my best," Lanfen murmured, brushing the tips of her fingers against the surface of her sword-hand's itching palm. "Ayano and the others have been especially helpful. I don't think I would be doing as well as I have been if it... weren't for them." No point in hiding such a fact, Lanfen thought to herself. Even Captain Yaiba and Tsuchiya knew full-well that her team was the only reason Lanfen had yet to dig herself into a hole far too deep to climb out of.

Crossing her arms over her chest in a rather familiar fashion, Yukine looked back at Ayano again, saying, "Well, I guess it wasn't such a bad idea when I recommended Komichi and Yuki to be your teammates, huh?" A playful scoff accompanied her dry words. "They're not exactly some of S.O.N.G.'s best and brightest. But I guess they can be useful sometimes."

Ayano dramatically placed one hand over her chest in a faux display of wounded pride, only to then wink back at Yukine with her tongue stuck out. The few stares she was getting from some of the children around the deck weren't exactly undeserved. "Oh, come now, Chris. It's the day before Christmas! Santa isn't going to give you a present if you keep acting like-" Lanfen loudly cleared her throat and Ayano trailed off into a different sentence entirely. "Ahem. What I meant to say is: Oh, I can't wait to celebrate Christmas together! It's been so long since we-!"

"Stop blubbering about things everyone knows already, Komichi!" Yukine barked, causing Lanfen to slightly wince at the intensity of her voice.

Lanfen was rather grateful that she was never once the target of Yukine's fiery tongue. From what she was able to remember of the interactions between Ayano and Yukine back at Lydian Academy, there was practically no difference in the way the pair chatted with one another even though it's been nearly five years since their graduation.

Yukine Chris. A soon-to-be 23-year old woman who wielded the SG-r02 Ichaival. She was the first enemy Symphogear-Wielder to be brought into S.O.N.G. partially due to Tachibana's desire to reach out to others, or so Ayano claimed. If any of it was true, then the pedestal Lanfen initially placed all the other Wielders on top of was an aspect she surely needed to tear down over time. Because as far as she knew by now, every one of the Symphogear-Wielders were hardly any different from the people they fought to protect. They were human, just like everyone else. With all the good and bad which came with being born into this world.

After securing the scarf around her neck with a brief tug of its black-and-white fabric, Aiko returned her half-hidden eyes back to the terminals in front of her, resuming her digestion of an introductory manual prepared by Ayano Komichi herself. The light rumbling of the moving van barely distracted her as Aiko familiarized herself with S.O.N.G. communications etiquette, the control panel's numerous command inputs, and the utmost basics of being a team operator. Godai was at the front of the vehicle, hands on its steering apparatus like usual while the ponytailed woman navigated the rural roads ahead. If Aiko wasn't so busy with her digital manual, she would've gladly admired the fields of endless white beyond the van's windshields.

The terminal's designated chair was certainly comfortable to sit on. Even though Aiko hadn't stood up from it for about 2 hours now, she could tell that a considerable amount of thought went into the ergonomic design of having an entire computer terminal inside the back of a van. And with the introductory manual prepared by Ayano, Aiko found it perfectly easy to consume every bit of information a S.O.N.G. operator was expected to remember over the course of their journey towards northern Japan.

The prospect of becoming Team-04's new operator was Jiang's own idea. With the Adaptor having brought it up last night in the middle of a buffet dinner, both Godai and Ayano eagerly submitted the request over to Commander Genjuuro for his consideration, leaving Aiko to wait until the Commander or one of his two aides could respond to them. The entire thing nearly prevented Aiko from even sleeping last night. Because if the request were to be actually accepted, then she would finally be capable of contributing to the protection of this world. A world that contained countless wonders and dozens of beautiful souls.

No longer would Aiko be stuck inside an apartment, unable to do anything but wait for the others to return from their daily missions.

Feeling utterly motivated to read up whatever she could as fast as she could, Aiko focused on the terminal's screens, and took in everything Ayano's manual could bestow upon her, essentially stretching her ability to process incoming information to its limits. But over the following hours, her drifting attention began to tire, leading to it redirecting itself to the scarf around Aiko's neck instead. As one of Aiko's hands caressed the monochrome scarf, the thought of its owner slowly came to mind: Cassandra Jiang Lanfen, Wielder of the Sword of Damocles. The personal debt Aiko felt she owed to her and their two teammates was something which could only be fulfilled by her personal assistance on the fields of battle itself.

Gently, Aiko felt out the borrowed scarf's warm material and smiled at its monochrome colours. The same colours that adorned Jiang's own supernatural suit of armour.

A light judder ran throughout the van's floor. It was a sensation soon followed up by the sound of slowing wheels and the abrupt halting of the vehicle's engine. "Shino', we're here," Godai announced from her driver's seat. "Make sure you leave nothing turned on, yeah?"

The clock within the corner of one terminal screen stated that it had been 3-4 hours now since their van departed from Yamaku City. Through a few designated inputs into the control panel, Aiko dismissed the introductory manual spread across the screens before shutting off the van's terminal entirely, letting her get off its comfortable seat and open up the vehicle's backdoors. Needless to say, the sights that awaited her outside took Aiko's breath away in an instant.

As piles of gathering snow crunched beneath her boots, Aiko cupped a pale-white cheek in one hand and gazed around her surroundings, practically twirling her body around in an awkward dance. The still-open backdoors of the van no longer registered in her thoughts. Everything Aiko could see was a stark contrast to the concrete jungles of Yamaku City. There wasn't a single towering building in sight, for the town's traditional architecture almost never went higher than two floors. Stretches of tall trees could be seen surrounding the town's borders, practically secluding this winter haven from the bustling nature of the cities beyond. To conclude it all, white snow fell from the skies above, covering everything in a blanket of purity.

The sound of closing metal suddenly resounded in the air. Aiko quivered and turned around to notice Godai looking at her with one hand on the van's closed backdoors. The amused smirk the ponytailed woman was wearing subconsciously made Aiko twiddle her fingers in embarrassment.

"Welcome to my hometown," Godai said, taking a single glance around them the same way someone would look at a decades-old photograph. "The sights here ain't as impressive as what you'd see in a city, but it sure as hell feels a lot more quieter around these parts." She took out a bunch of keys from a pocket of her jeans and locked the van up behind her with the press of a button. "Let's get going. We got better things to do here than freeze our asses off outside."

Taking no issue with Godai's rather crude suggestion, Aiko hid the lower half of her face within the comforts of a borrowed scarf, and followed her teammate from behind while they strode through the snow-laden streets. Unlike Yamaku City's crowded, urban roads, it was easy to stroll through the town without seeing another soul for some time, ensuring the presence of an unceasing quiet which was only interrupted by the duo's crunching footfalls. If Aiko's assumption was any bit accurate, the town must have been completely untouched by the devastation wrought by the Distortions' global attack. Still, Aiko knew that S.O.N.G. would never disregard the chance of future rifts appearing in even the most secluded of areas.

The path towards their destination barely required anything more than a brisk walk. When the pair eventually stopped before one of the many two-floor, wooden buildings lining the streets, Godai rapped her knuckles on its front door in a particular pattern, summoning the sounds of rushing footsteps from within the household. "Here she comes," Godai said, now wearing an anticipatory grin as Aiko responded with a tilt of the head. "Komi' didn't tell you who we were visitin', did she? Don't worry. You'll find out soon enough."

Curiosity immediately welled up within Aiko's mind, forcing the silver-haired woman to calm herself down and diligently wait for whoever was on their way.

After several more footsteps clambered from within the household, its front door slid to one side, unveiling a bespectacled woman who was half a head shorter than Aiko herself. Her inviting smile shined like the beaming gaze her green eyes acknowledged the two with, and the bob-cut style of the arriving woman's hair gave the brunette a stylish flair on par with the flowery dress she wore. "Honey!" the woman exclaimed while Godai stepped forward to embrace her without another word. "You should have called if you were going to arrive so early!"

"What can I say?" Godai responded, casually planting a quick kiss on the woman's forehead. "I can't keep my darling waiting too long for me now, can I?"

As Godai and the arriving woman obviously enjoyed their apparent reunion, Aiko felt this sudden warmth gathering within her cheeks, and subconsciously felt them out with both hands. Whether or not the sight in front of Aiko was the reason for her body's reaction, she couldn't find a confirmation, so she just continued staying silent until the pair were done with their extravagant greetings. The energy Aiko sensed within their mannerisms was completely different from what she usually felt between Godai and Ayano, so it would only be rude to disturb the little bubble they two had made for themselves.

"Shino'," Godai said, turning to Aiko with one arm wrapped around the arriving woman's waist. "Meet Kaburagi Otome. She's an old classmate of Komi' and me, and as of a year ago, my dear fiancé." She flashed a pearly-white smirk and Kaburagi proceeded to excitedly wave at Aiko even if her outfit was ill-suited for exposure to the current weather. Kaburagi was almost akin to a bright sun in human form if the comparison made any sense. "Darling, this is Shinonome Aiko, the gal I've been mentioning in our little chats lately."

Fiancé. Aiko wracked her Japanese vocabulary for a moment to remember the unusual term, and when a rough definition finally came to her, the words Aiko initially intended to speak transitioned into astonished muttering. "G-Greetings, Kaburagi." Aiko's hands grasped the monochrome scarf around her neck this time. "It's a pleasure to m-meet you. I hope my presence won't be too troublesome for you two." An informal term existed to describe being a detrimental presence between such a close pair. Unfortunately, Aiko's mind was too busy registering the fact that one of her teammates was going to be carrying out the ceremonial bonds of marriage one day.

"Come in, come in!" Kaburagi told them, grabbing onto the pair by their wrists before excitedly pulling them into her opened household. "Honey's been telling me about how you've been a lot of help lately, so it's nice to finally meet you like this, Shinononome!"

"It's 'Shinonome', Kaburagi-"

The sound of the front door slamming itself shut behind them cut off Aiko's timid correction. Regardless, she appreciated the invitation into the personal abode now that they were free from the winter's icy grasp. And to Aiko's surprise, the inside of Kaburagi's household appeared far more modern than its exterior would imply: Electrical heaters, modern lighting fixtures, and appliances with holographic interfaces like the ones Jiang owned in her apartment all blended together with traditional Japanese design and Christmas decorations to form a memorable feast to her senses. Of course, Aiko soon brought herself back to reality and started following typical etiquette by taking off her snow-covered footwear.

"Welcome to the Godai household!" Kaburagi exclaimed with a bow while the arriving duo placed their boots on one side of the house's entrance. "Tonight is the night of Christmas Eve! And since it's rare for us to be having so many people later, I swear to concoct the grandest dinner a Symphogear-Wielder could ever enjoy!" She then gestured over to the nearby living room in a grandiose fashion. "Don't be afraid to make yourself comfortable for now!"

Mildly taken aback by the uncontrolled excitement within Kaburagi, Aiko hesitantly glanced over to where the kitchen presumably was, asking, "Do you require any assistance preparing for dinner later? You must have quite the task on your hands if you intend to cook for so many people."

"Not at all!" Kaburagi bravely exclaimed, pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. "A Kaburagi's pride is always their tenacity in the kitchen and their skills with a knife! Have no worry and relax instead, Shinononome!"

Aiko wasn't particularly keen on standing by when she could possibly help, but the small nudge Godai gave her encouraged Aiko to follow the house owner's suggestion in the end. While Kaburagi and Godai promptly made their way up the house's staircase, Aiko went inside the living room, and allowed her curiosity to run her gaze over practically everything in sight. Santa decorations, reindeer toys, and even a small tree with flashing lights wrapped around it enforced the image of a typical Christmas household as Aiko looked to the nearby shelves and noticed several framed photographs lining their wooden racks.

Making sure she didn't bump into anything fragile, the silver-haired woman observed the framed photos up-close with eye-sparkling interest. The first one she saw was of a man and woman standing inside a church for what was obviously a marriage ceremony. If Aiko squinted her eyes hard enough, the woman in the white dress would've been a splitting image of her teammate, Godai Yuki. The second photograph next to it instead portrayed a man on a motorcycle with another taller man standing beside him in a police uniform. A number on the second image dated the photo to as far back as 49 years ago. Roughly two decades before the photograph Aiko first spotted.

Aiko was then about to take a peek at Godai's graduation photos when she suddenly heard footsteps coming from behind. She instantly whipped around and saw Godai looking past Aiko to also take her own glance at the framed photographs on the shelves. The sense of wistfulness in the ponytailed woman's eyes appeared for only a second before Godai spoke up. "I'm guessin' you wanna know their names?" A curt nod of the head was Aiko's answer to Godai's laid-back question. "Well, the married couple over there are my parents: Godai Ono and Godai Natsume. And the two guys in the other photo? My great-uncle Yusuke and a friend of his. I usually just call him 'Uncle Yusuke', though."

Looking around the large household at the mention of Godai's parents, Aiko found the place to be far quieter than what the photographs would imply. "Where are-?"

"They're gone," Godai instantly told her, prompting Aiko to immediately freeze up at the nonchalance of the statement while Godai slowly scratched the back of her head with one hand. Godai then took a seat on the living room's large sofa and gave a mild shrug to ease Aiko's visible, growing tension. "Car accident. Just happened one night when I was still studyin' in Lydian. Didn't even hear about it till Uncle Yusuke gave me a call."

Pursing her lips at Godai's surprisingly succint explanation, Aiko couldn't immediately untangle the rising, twisting sensation in her stomach just with her teammate's easy-going attitude. "Godai..."

"It's fine," Godai insisted with another casual shrug of the shoulders. "Uncle Yusuke's been the one takin' care of me since then. Otome and Komi' were also there to help me get through the worst of it. God knows I wouldn't have wanted anybody else backing me up at the time." Godai's carefree smile didn't leave her face for even a split-second. "Sometimes, the grim reaper just decides to take away people when you're not looking, Shino'. But even if they're gone, I know that I still got plenty of other folks around me to count on."

"That is... true," Aiko quietly said, stepping away from the shelves to sit down next to Godai with a pair of stiff hands on her lap. Her teammate's affable nature was sometimes just incomprehensible to her. "... Even if I still do not understand what it means to have a family, I'm sure it must have been difficult at the time."

Soundlessly, Godai drummed her fingers on the couch's armrest, her gaze once again back on the photographs on the nearby shelf instead of the colourful decor around them. "You're not wrong there," she admitted in a hush tone. "Again... I was never by myself after what happened. And because of that... I guess ya could say I wanna treat Jiang to the same thing Komi' and Otome did for me. No matter what pace we need to go through." The sudden mention of the Adaptor made Aiko perk her ears. "Jiang didn't have many folks around her when she lost her parents. So, the least I could do for her now is be friend of hers. It's what being teammates is for, right?"

A sense of sincerity soon returned to Godai's smile, and Aiko returned it by attempting one of her own before gazing upwards at the flashing Christmas lights above their heads.

This was going to be her first ever night celebrating Christmas, and all of it contributed to the mental healing of the Team's designated Symphogear-Wielder. Aiko couldn't describe how she felt about being able to partake in such a thing, but if there was one thing she knew for certain, it was that Aiko was determined to be one of the few who would stand by Jiang's side without a sense of regret. Aiko made herself clear to the Adaptor yesterday on how willing she was to assist with the burdens Jiang forced only onto herself, and if Jiang needed more time to feel comfortable doing so, then it was time she, Godai and Ayano were all willing to wait for.

As per requested by the group, a S.O.N.G. escort vehicle had arrived in Narita Airport, giving Lanfen, Yukine and Ayano the ride they required to head far northward where Godai's hometown resided. It was the same type of black vehicle Lanfen had already ridden in twice now, even if its passenger compartment was visibly altered to accommodate twice its carrying capacity. Just like the previous vehicles, a physical barrier sat between the passenger seats and the drivers upfront, preventing the trio from even interacting with the vehicle's operators. This wasn't something Yukine nor Ayano seemed to actually care about compared to the hours-long trip they were expecting to endure.

While Lanfen rested in her seat with her chin in the palm of one hand, Ayano sat next to her, eyes closed shut with her head leaning on a cushion as the vehicle wouldn't be arriving for about another hour or two. Sitting opposite of the pair was Yukine, a plastic cup of boba tea held in one hand with her smartphone in the other. Absolutely nothing was going on right now, and yet, Lanfen could still feel flickers of proverbial fires dancing within her eyes, forcing the greenhorn Adaptor to extinguish them by gazing out of the tinted windows to her left. The expansive, open fields of white Lanfen witnessed were almost something one would only see from a well-regarded painting within a museum.

A painting which could instantly wither away from the unpredictable arrival of a Distortion rift.

"Ease up, Rookie," Yukine spoke up, one hand still typing away on her smartphone. The sheer suddenness of her words made Lanfen almost jump where she sat. "Spending your free time worrying about when an enemy could appear ain't exactly advisable. You'll just run yourself ragged at some point."

Silently agreeing with the far-more experienced Wielder sitting across from her, Lanfen brought one hand into her jacket's pockets and slowly drew out her own smartphone. The toy that was attached to it by a silver chain momentarily seized Lanfen's gaze before she unlocked the device's screen for a glimpse at recent world news. Unsurprisingly, the first headline she saw involved Kazanari Maria and Kazanari Tsubasa. The pair were apparently handling a large charity run in London with the assistance of their humanitarian front. Even if it had been some time now since the global attack, efforts were still being made to help the world recover from the casualties it inflicted and the lives it irreversibly changed.

It was an admirable effort, Lanfen quietly admitted. Combating Noise and Distortions was undeniably a boon for the world, but it was another level entirely to help others without needing the swing of a blade.

Panning her gaze upwards from her smartphone, Lanfen looked over to Yukine, and saw the veteran Wielder emptying her drink before leaving it inside a nearby cup holder for convenience. Casual conversation had all but died out after the first hour of their drive, so Lanfen intended to change that, albeit by introducing a far more different topic this time. "Yukine," Lanfen said, her hand still holding onto her phone, "would you mind answering something I've been wondering about?"

The snow-white woman glanced over to the sleeping Ayano, dryly replying, "Don't tell me she's been giving ya embarrassing secrets about me." Lanfen made sure to ease her understandable worries by curtly shaking her head. The sight of relief which escaped Yukine was palpable even from where they were sitting from one other. "Go ahead then."

Lanfen took a second glance at the news image of the Kazanari couple on her smartphone before returning to Yukine. She hoped that the question she had in mind wasn't going to be too personal for someone like Yukine. "How were you... and the others like when you all first started working together?"

Immediately, Yukine crossed her arms defensively at the question, practically the same way Commander Genjuuro would often do whenever he stood at his post in the S.O.N.G. submarine's command center. "W-Well," Yukine sputtered, suddenly looking everywhere except in front of her, "we were sort of a mess, I guess?" Lanfen could sense the restrained pain in her answer. "There were plenty of times where things just got chaotic but, like, it would always turn out well in the end, if that makes any lick of sense." Leaning against the headrest of her chair, Yukine weakly threw her arms upwards. "I guess that's just how S.O.N.G. gets by in the end? A lot of luck andlotof improvisation."

The sound of a shuffling seat made itself known and both Adaptors deviated their attention to notice Ayano peering at them with half-open eyes, and a small, cat-like grin on her face. "In the end," Ayano said, hiding a small yawn behind the palm of her hand, "none of it ever stopped you all from being wonderful schoolmates, huh?"

"Go back to sleep, Komichi," Yukine practically ordered her with an accompanying pout. "None of that ain't really relevant to the Rookie's question, ya know?"

The feline-esque grin Ayano wore only grew wider with a rising sense of mischief as Ayano nestled herself within her corner and closed her eyes again. Lanfen still chose to believe that she was still listening in on them regardless. After returning to the experienced Adaptor on the other side of the passenger compartment, Lanfen's eyes pinpointed the straps of the ruby-like pendant Yukine was undoubtedly wearing beneath her winter outfit, quickly reminding her of the system both of them operated in order to protect the world: The Symphogear. Yukine wielded the crimson SG-r02 and Lanfen wielded the black-and-white SG-r04. Despite being a next-generation Symphogear, the SG-r04 could never contend with its predecessors when it came to unleashing raw devastation against hordes of enemies.

It couldn't, for the Sword of Damocles was ultimately designed with the primary focus of engaging lone combatants and eliminating them with extreme prejudice.

Sensing the hairs on the back of her neck immediately stand up from the memory of a crimson blade howling relentlessly within the palm of her hand, Lanfen tightened her grip around the smartphone she held before taking in a practiced breath. "Yukine," Lanfen called her again, her voice lower than before, "can I ask you another question? You don't have to answer this one if you don't want to."

Yukine stared right at her and answered in an equally-serious tone, "Sure."

Almost instantaneously, Lanfen's readied words lodged themselves right in her tightening throat. It was silly of her. She had been practicing to ask this question since last night, and yet here she was, suddenly unable to spit it out. Carefully, Lanfen slid her smartphone back inside her jacket, and gripped the leather seats she sat on with both hands. "... Yukine, do you personally think it would have been better," her fingernails dug deep into tanned leather, "if the Sword of Damocles had chosen someone else...?"

Silence expectedly followed suit. It was probably the best thing that could have come in response to such an abrupt question.

Focusing her attention on Yukine alone, the snow-white woman subtly tensed up within her seat while Lanfen maintained unwavering, unbroken eye-contact. When Yukine finally decided to answer her question, the far more experienced Adaptor was as straightforward as she could have been. But what Lanfen didn't expect was for Yukine's answer to be in the form of her own armour-piercing question. "Rookie, would you give up your Symphogear if you had the chance?"

None of the words Lanfen readied in her mind were designed for the response she actually received.

Now unsure of what she should even be saying next, Lanfen's purple eyes simply widened as the greenhorn Adaptor's fingernails dug themselves deeper into the car seats. 'Give up'. Lanfen honestly never once imagined a situation where she had any true agency with being chosen by her Armed Gear. "... I wouldn't," Lanfen admitted the first thing that came into her mind. "Even if I... have to endure the possibility of following an order where I'd have to take someone's life... I can't deny the fact that my Symphogear still gave me the chance to save countless lives. I failed to save... my sister. But I also succeeded in saving others who I..." Her next few words trailed off, leaving Lanfen's admission without a conclusive end.

But within Lanfen's swirling mind, she knew that her tied tongue was just about to bring up Shinonome Aiko.

The woman whom Lanfen had saved - and had been saved by - in the measly timespan of nearly two weeks.

Once a couple minutes had passed by without another syllable from Lanfen, Yukine leaned forward in her seat, and pulled out the red pendant which rested beneath her winter coat. "None of us had any choice when it came to wielding our Symphogears, Rookie," she bluntly admitted, catching Lanfen off-guard. "The Chairwoman got picked for her sword when she was just a little kid. The Dummy ended up with one being lodged inside her. Maria, Scythe and Rabbit? Treated like beakers and test tubes in a lab experiment. I had mine forced on me at some point just 'cause I was compatible." Yukine waved the tiny pendant between her fingers before giving the same carefree shrug Godai would always do.

Absolutely nothing of what Lanfen listened to sounded pleasant. But it didn't stop Yukine from wearing that confident grin on her face.

"Even if we can't figure out why someone gave ya that thing-" Yukine released her pendant and allowed it to fall back onto her chest. "What matters in the end is what ya choose do with it, right?"

Lanfen gave no audible answer, and yet, Yukine somehow understood the rising acknowledgement the greenhorn Adaptor felt within her beating chest, letting the older of the two lean back in her seat again while Lanfen slowly pried her fingers off the car seat beneath her. For a second, Lanfen swore she could see a bit of a smile appear on Ayano's face again in the corner of her eye. If Ayano had been listening, Lanfen didn't mind, for none of the feelings she wanted to convey were anything she desired to keep from everyone else at this point. There was nothingtohide by this point, she thought.

Nothing except the feelings Lanfen was still attempting to navigate when it came to a certain silver-haired member of Symphogear Team-04.

With the conversation between the trio having once again died down, the rest of the ride towards Godai's hometown went on in silence as Lanfen watched the sun slowly sink into the distant horizon. Yukine was going to be staying in Kaburagi's household for the duration of her stay in Japan, so she unfortunately wasn't going to be coming with Team-04 back to Yamaku City after their later celebrations. There was plenty Lanfen could ask of an experienced Wielder like Yukine, but with the Distortions still posing a worldwide threat, all of those questions were best saved for another time. The ride through these snow-covered roads was draining on the mind, and by the time they were in front of Kaburagi's household, the trio were simply glad to be back on their feet.

Bright lights illuminated the traditional architecture of the entire town while Lanfen, Yukine and Ayano stood outside the front door to their destination. Their escort vehicle was already well out of sight, leaving Ayano to declare their arrival by giving a small knock on the wooden entrance.

Without her usual black-and-white scarf on hand, Lanfen needed to endure the dropping temperatures of northern Japan with what she had on her person. Unlike Ayano and Yukine who were seemingly unaffected by the cold winter, Lanfen was shivering relentlessly beneath her jacket. To her immediate relief, the front door they were waiting in front of slid open, and the group was greeted by the arrival of Kaburagi Otome, another senior of Lanfen during her days in Lydian. The bespectacled woman's greetings towards Ayano and Yukine were as warm as a shining sun, but Lanfen couldn't register any of it when she was too busy worrying about her body temperatures falling far too low for her liking.

"Welcome to the Godai household!" Kaburagi exclaimed after the trio hurriedly entered the warm comfort of her abode. "Honey and I are almost done preparing dinner, so you don't have to wait long till everyone can start filling their stomachs!"

After warming up her shivering palms with a simple breath into them, Lanfen placed her boots inside the entrance's footwear cabinet, and observed the ecstatic hugs Kaburagi gave to both Ayano and Yukine. The former gladly returned the gesture with double the energy, but the latter unsurprisingly reacted with an assortment of yelling and a face that was as flushed as a tomato. Kaburagi Otome. She too had not changed much since graduation and Lanfen welcomed such a thing in tense times like these. With her sword-hand still twitching at her side, Lanfen waited for Yukine and Ayano to head upstairs with the former's luggage before she finally approached Kaburagi and greeted her with a precise bow.

"... It's nice to see you again, Kaburagi," Lanfen formally said, lifting her head while Christmas ornaments and lights flashed all around them. "The dinner invitation was an honour to receive."

To Lanfen's surprise, Kaburagi seemed to be restraining her usual brimming energy in the presence of an arriving past junior. "It would only be right to invite you alongside everyone else, Jiang," she insisted, pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose in a matter-of-fact way. "Still, it's definitely amazing to see one of my juniors as a Symphogear-Wielder now! That makes you the seventh person from Lydian Academy to become one, huh?"

The seventh and hopefully last one to become a Wielder, Lanfen mused to herself, already finding it rather coincidental how so many Candidates derived from Lydian Academy. "It's a job at the end of the day," Lanfen simply told Kaburagi, stuffing her still-shivering hands into the pockets of her jacket. "In the end... I'm just doing whatever I can to help both myself and everyone else."

Kaburagi nodded respectfully at Lanfen's statement before politely gesturing towards the living room where the voices of Shinonome and Godai could faintly be heard. "I hope you can enjoy yourself tonight, Jiang. There's no better day to take it easy than Christmas Eve. So," she snapped her fingers and flashed a smile which was almost too blinding for Lanfen to witness directly, "just leave all your worries at the door and make the best memories you can while you're here, okay?"

Sensing the flickers of proverbial fires dancing within her purple eyes again, Lanfen rested one hand on her hip, and extinguished the blinding heat within her vision with one glance at the living room nearby. There, she could spot Godai presenting a display of extraordinary dexterity to Shinonome by showing off her skills with a bunch of playing cards. To the silver-haired woman's amazement, mere swipes of Godai's hand caused the cards she held to disappear in a flash, earning Godai a respectable clap of applause beneath the colourful lights of the Christmas decorations around them.

This was going to be Lanfen's first Christmas without her little sister.

But it was also going to be her first ever Christmas with the members of Team-04.

"Dinner is ready, everybody!"

Kaburagi's ecstatic announcement echoed throughout the household's merry halls barely five minutes after the arrival of Jiang, Ayano, and the senior Symphogear-Wielder whom Aiko had heard about. Upon perceiving the house owner's declaration, Godai took the opportunity to lead Aiko and Jiang out of the living room, and over to a pair of doors that led to the house's dining area. Once both Ayano and Yukine returned from the house's upper floors, Godai slid open the double-doors, and revealed the room behind it with her trademark smirk plastered across her face.

In that moment, Aiko called upon her extensive research into the cultures around the world and identified the dishes before them in the span of a rising heartbeat.Tonkatsu, alternatively known as deep-fried pork cutlet, was the first thing which caught Aiko's widening gaze as an immense platter of the dish sat in the middle of a readied, long table beneath the soft glow of candlelight. A large pan of pizza sat next to thetonkatsu, its cheesy aroma instantly tickling Aiko's nose the moment the room's doors were pushed aside. Of course, dessert was also present in the form ofmochi- pounded rice cake - and several pre-sliced servings of lavish Christmas cake. For drinks, Kaburagi had prepared three bottles ofchanmery, a carbonated beverage meant to invoke the prestige of champagne.

"I'd suggest you hold nothing back if ya wanna have the best Christmas dinner there is!" Godai exclaimed, ushering the gathered group into the two sides of the room's long table while her fiancé opened up one of the bottles with a loudpop. "There is only one rule for tonight, and it's to eat till you're knocking on heaven's door!"

The festivities truly began once everyone was sitting comfortably in their respective seats. With Aiko sitting in-between a calm Jiang on her left, and an absolutely shaken Ayano on her right, Aiko waited until everyone else had taken their servings before she too began filling up her plate with the mouth-watering meals on the table. Her stomach chastised her for being sluggish by letting out a complaining rumble, but Aiko intended to prioritize everyone else's needs before her own. The patience she endured only made Aiko's first spoonful of fried meat all the more delicious to her taste buds.

"Like she said, don't hold yourself back, Shinonome," Jiang spoke up next to Aiko, delicately digging into a slice of pizza with a knife and fork unlike Godai further down the table. Kaburagi was thankfully quick to cease any pointless arguments between Ayano and Godai about whether or not utensils were even suitable for pizza. "Besides, we have to make sure your first Christmas is a memorable one, don't we?"

Swallowing a mouthful of both pork and pizza in one go, Aiko dabbed her mouth with a provided napkin before nodding at the Adaptor's words. Even though the expression Jiang wore while she ate didn't match Ayano's own brimming excitement nor Godai's party-like demeanor, the aura Jiang radiated bore none of the intensity she had been shielding herself with over the past two weeks. Her guard was undoubtedly still raised to a degree, and yet, Aiko could sense the smallest of openings being left open around the brown woman. Aiko would've spent another minute observing Jiang, but when the Adaptor glanced back at her with a raised brow, Aiko hastily swung her attention back to her dinner-plate and pretended like nothing was going on.

No comment came out of Jiang aside from a small exhale of what seemed like amusement.

"I missed your cooking so much!" Ayano cried from her seat, earning exasperated sighs from the two present Symphogear-Wielders at the table. "Gosh, why can't any of S.O.N.G.'s cafeteria food taste this good?!"

"You better leave some of the Christmas desserts for everyone else, Komi'," Godai reminded her with a wag of a cheese-covered finger, only to receive the childish stick of the tongue from her dramatic friend.

"A dining table is a battle royale, Yuki," Ayano sagely stated, crossing her utensils as though she were crossing blades, "and those who don't fight won't survive."

"Komichi," Yukine dryly spoke up while she sat across the table from both Jiang and Aiko, "will I ever have a meal with you without needin' to hear the weirdest damn things you could ever say?"

Kaburagi was the one to enthusiastically answer her as the house owner pushed a pair of glasses up the bridge of her nose with an index finger. "Not for another five years, probably!"

If verbal sparring around the table was a staple of a Christmas celebration, then Aiko easily found it to be a convenient source of entertainment in the middle of a delicious meal. Neither her nor Jiang evidently wanted to contribute to the ongoing chatter, so the both of them merely focused on scarfing down Kaburagi's cooking while watching the smooth back-and-forth between the four other women with interest. After shoveling her fifth spoonful of fried meat into her mouth, Aiko looked to Jiang again, and noticed a bit ofmochisticking itself to the woman's scarred cheek apparently without her notice. Aiko intended on tapping the oblivious Jiang on the shoulder at first.

But with Jiang's attention being focused solely on her meal, Aiko instead placed down her utensils, reached for the stuck piece of rice cake with one hand, and plucked it off the woman's scarred cheek without a word. Jiang visibly flinched at the sudden gesture. When she glanced back at the silver-haired woman with a pair of widened, purple eyes, Jiang could only wordlessly watch as Aiko stuck the retrieved piece ofmochibetween her lips. "This is... quite delicious," Aiko commented, her golden eyes flickering in astonishment at her first ever bite of Japanese rice cake, "don't you think so, too-?"

Aiko looked back at the Adaptor and finally noticed the bewildered expression Jiang wore alongside the shades of growing pink on her face.

Jiang's sudden silence received only an oblivious tilt of the head from Aiko. "Did I-" She worriedly pressed the tips of her fingers against one another. "-Do something wrong...?"

Immediately, Jiang defused Aiko's worries with a shake of her head before scratching a scarred cheek with one finger. "N-No. It's fine." Jiang picked up a spoonful ofmochiwith a clearly-trembling hand and stayed completely still for a second before slowly aiming the utensil at Aiko's direction. "... Want another bite?" she asked with clear control over herself this time. "I'm not that great with sticky food, so-" Her sentence was then left half-completed as Aiko gladly took a bite of Jiang's spoon and devoured the offered dessert in one go.

Pulling herself back into her seat with one hand cupping onto a pale-white cheek, Aiko savoured the taste ofmochibefore gulping it all down. The satisfied noise Aiko let out was a sound which Jiang responded with an amused exhale of her own.Mochiwas surely going onto the growing list of Aiko's favourite Japanese food.

The sense that someone was looking at Aiko subsequently made itself known within the silver-haired woman's mind. After narrowing her attention on the person who she presumed to be the source, Aiko looked across the table, and noticed a senior Symphogear-Wielder staring at both her and Jiang with an expression which could only be read as 'vexed'. Not that Aiko was able to figure out the reason behind it, unfortunately. "You are Yukine Chris, correct?" Aiko politely asked her since the two had yet to make each other's acquaintance. "S.O.N.G. tells me that you're quite capable when it comes to saving lives."

"They're probably exaggerating, but they're not too far off the mark," Yukine replied, tapping her plate with the greasy prongs of a metal fork. "So, you're Shinonome Aiko, huh?" She gave a side-glance at Godai and Ayano down the table. "Those two have mentioned ya a couple times. Said they were taking care of ya after they found ya somewhere out in a forest." Yukine shrugged and slowly went back to her meal. "I don't fully know what's going on, but have ya gotten any luck with those memories of yours?"

While Jiang noticeably furrowed her brows at the sudden mention of Aiko's unique circumstances, the silver-haired woman herself calmly rested her hands on the edges of her seat, responding, "Nothing yet, unfortunately." The absence of any regret or sadness within her answer was a strange feeling, but Aiko continued on without pause. "Honestly, as serious as it may be, it's not something I'm particularly worried about," Aiko stated, leaving out the fact that a part of her apparently bore little issue with leaving whoever she was before completely behind her.

Halting her own meal momentarily, Jiang's attempts at hiding the concern within her own voice was both fruitless and appreciated. "Are you really alright with it, Shinonome?"

"'Alright' would admittedly be an inaccurate way of putting it." Aiko shook her head and hid a giggle behind the palm of one hand. "... But right now, with the things I possess and the people who surround me..." She thought back on the time that had already passed since S.O.N.G. first found her within a forest's snowy glade. Aiko couldn't believe how it's been only half a month since her rescue. The time since then just felt longer than it actually was. "... I can say that I feel little regret about being where I am, who I am, Jiang."

As verbal exchanges on their side of the table abruptly dimmed down from Aiko's near-melancholic words, the silver-haired woman kept her hands on the edges of her seat, and silently wondered if her response was too unusual of an answer for the two Symphogear-Wielders. It wouldn't be the first time Aiko had said something perplexing to everyone else, and it wouldn't be the last time she made such a mistake. It was just how her mind decided to convey the multitude of feelings within her mind. But right as Aiko moved to break the silence, she felt something brush against the back of her hand, and slowly peeked aside to see Jiang's warm palm gently placing itself over her still left hand. The hesitation within the Adaptor's fingers was clear.

And yet, Jiang made no move to abort the gesture while she proceeded to hold onto Aiko in an obvious attempt at comfort.

It matched the conclusion Aiko herself had come to a day ago: Jiang's hand was capable of more than just holding onto a sword of revenge.

"We all eventually find a home for ourselves," Yukine suddenly stated from across the dining table, wearing a smile that lasted for only a second. Whatever feelings she hid still showed itself through the wistful gaze the senior Wielder proceeded to direct at the bantering trio further down the table. "In the end, it's up to you where ya wanna get comfortable, right?"

Nodding sharply at Yukine's wise words, Aiko stared graciously at the hot, delicious food she had the luxury of even eating before focusing once more on the warmth Jiang's comforting palm simply provided her. "You surely have a point there, Yukine," Aiko said, finding the crimson Wielder to be far more wiser than what S.O.N.G. files and reports initially made her out to be. "Jiang certainly possesses reliable seniors she can count on, doesn't she?"

Although Aiko's compliment was merely a polite phrase that was typical of herself, its simple utterance instantly made Yukine loose the grip she had on her utensils, causing them to clumsily clatter onto her plate.

The sharp noise inevitably attracted the attention of Godai and Ayano on the other side of the table, and as the duo started prodding the flustered Wielder with teasing questions and remarks, Aiko and Jiang watched on in amusement at each other's sides. Being the target of both Godai and Ayano was a fate even an Adaptor evidently treated with dread. The way the Yukine soon lost control over her speech in the face of Ayano's verbal barrages only proved that. But while the sights before them surely made for a memorable Christmas dinner, what truly caught Aiko's attention was the light, unrestrained laughter she could hear streaming out of Jiang's lips. It was the first honest laugh Aiko had ever heard from her.

And it was a pleasant sound she wouldn't be forgetting so soon.

The whole evening flew by before Lanfen even noticed it. It was just how time worked if you were too occupied living in the present. With only 5 minutes remaining till 11 PM, Lanfen rested up in the back of the team's parked van, waiting for both Godai and Shinonome to finish saying their goodbyes while Ayano sat in the vehicle's forward passenger seat. As the Adaptor continued to stare absent-mindedly at the deactivated terminal in front of her, Ayano freely tapped away on her smartphone, preventing a second of silence from settling inside the vehicle's darkened interior by playing a few recordings of the other Wielders celebrating the winter holiday. Meanwhile, Lanfen's mind could only focus on one particular moment from earlier.

Her literal attempt at reaching out for Shinonome's hand.

If Lanfen was being honest with herself, her body had moved in that moment before a single thought could even be finalized within her mind. Shinonome's statement to Yukine possessed no hint of untruth, but a part of Lanfen still could not help but worry when the topic of Shinonome's memories came up during dinner. Not that Lanfen held anything against Yukine for it, of course. That part of Shinonome always felt like a proverbial elephant in the room. In the end, Lanfen' chosen course of action was to mimic the same comforting gesture Ayano had done for her several days ago. Whether or not it actually helped with anything was completely up in the air.

Several of the van's doors opened and Lanfen snapped herself out of her thoughts to see Shinonome stepping into the comforts of the van's backseats with a black-and-white scarf around her neck. At the front, Godai hauled herself into the driver's seat, two cans of coffee in one hand while the two promptly closed the vehicle's doors back up. Godai was definitely going to need help staying up if she intended on handling the wheel for the entire way back to Yamaku City.

"Alright, time to hit the road," Godai said, inserting the van's key into its ignition. "Here's to hopin' that our next visit here won't be too far off."

"I concur," Shinonome added as she sat down on the terminal's designated chair and activated several of the control panel's switches. "A brief respite from the sights of a city certainly eases the mind, wouldn't you say?"

Hearing a loud exclamation of agreement from Ayano at the front, Lanfen's purple eyes narrowed on the scarf she had lent to Shinonome for today, and felt her chest slightly tighten beneath her black jacket. 'We all eventually find a home for ourselves,' were the words Yukine gave her. Lanfen could only wonder if there was a place Shinonome desired to be other than the company of Team-04. But it was a thought Lanfen had no desire to voice. After the last of the terminal's monitors before her switched themselves on, Lanfen heard the van's engine rumbling to life, announcing the group's departure from Godai's hometown and the end of their mundane road trip.

Slowly, the vehicle made its way through the town's snow-laden streets. Not a single person could be seen wandering around outside at this point of time and the members of Team-04 were evidently settling down after the evening festivities. Godai operated the wheel, sipping a can of coffee in one hand. Ayano was on her phone, presumably texting the other Wielders about their own preparations for Christmas. On the terminal's designated chair, Shinonome's hands typed away on the van's control panel, bringing up digital text and images from the manual Ayano had provided. At some point, Lanfen felt her smartphone vibrate within her jacket, prompting her to pull it out and notice a text message from Ayano of all things.

"Did you enjoy yourself tonight?" the message read, accompanied by an emoticon indicating sly curiosity.

Lanfen leaned against the vehicle's reinforced walls and lightly exhaled before thumbing a response. "I did." She sent the message and then typed out a second one. "It's not every day I get to travel this far north. Let alone to a place this secluded. It's nice." Whatever Lanfen felt about coming all the way here still couldn't prevent her from shivering beneath her jacket every few minutes. A little over half a decade of staying in Japan just was not enough to get used to the cold for her.

"I'm happy to hear that!" Ayano's reply came with a smiling emoticon and a sticker of a red Valkyranger flashing a thumbs-up. "Making sure that you're able to smile again one day is our job as your seniors! After all, frowns areillegalwhenever I'm around, so those bad feelings inside your head better be ready for us to never back down! Ever!" Emoticons meant to convey bold ferocity accompanied the arriving message. Lanfen could only playfully scoff at the eccentric text, even if she did honestly appreciate Ayano's efforts.

"Affirmative," was Lanfen's only reply as she placed her smartphone back inside her pocket and stared at the numerous, glowing monitors on the other side of the van.

Watching the countless paragraphs of text fly across the digital screens, Shinonome's fingers tapped away on the keys at a pace which rivaled their two teammates, letting the silver-haired woman go through huge swaths of the three digit-page manual faster than Lanfen could even comprehend. Shinonome barely moved in her seat while she did so. But even if the manual's contents didn't appear to faze her, Lanfen herself couldn't help but lean forward in her seat before she tried getting Shinonome's attention through a delicate tap on the shoulder. It took a second try for Shinonome to actually notice the Adaptor's wordless gesture.

"Was there something you needed?" Shinonome paused the manual with a tap of a button and reoriented her chair around.

Opening her mouth slightly to speak, Lanfen felt her words place themselves on her tongue, only for them to suddenly leave her at the last possible moment. The ensuing silence understandably made Shinonome curiously tilt her head. In truth, Lanfen desired to ask if joining them on their missions was what Shinonome really desired. No matter how noble their duties appeared to an outsider, they were undeniably putting their lives on the line, with or without a Symphogear. So, Lanfen wondered if Shinonome was truly prepared for what could be expected of her. But the longer the Adaptor actually ruminated on this train of thought, the tighter her grasp became around the hazy memory of Shinonome attempting to save Lanfen from the S.W.O.R.D.'s near-unbreakable grip.

Lanfen's sword-hand still trembled at even the faintest reminders of that moment.

And yet, that very memory itself was the answer to Lanfen's unspoken question. Shinonome did not posssess the bravest of souls. But she was willing to do whatever she could to assist with this world's protection, no matter how small her contributions may actually end up being in the long run. Lanfen carried no right to judge Shinonome's resolve when she herself did not have anything similar shining within her. All Lanfen actually had was the proverbial fire of lingering, dormant revenge.

"Jiang?" Shinonome's voice pulled Lanfen out of her wavering thoughts like the safety line of a diver's heavy suit.

Fixating her gaze again on Shinonome's half-concealed face, Lanfen witnessed her golden eyes looking back at the Adaptor with growing concern, causing her to scramble for something to conclude her silence. The only words that could come to mind were of Ayano's from earlier on in the day. "I..." Lanfen scratched her scarred cheek and tightly pursed her lips. "I have a request, Shinonome. Not just to you," she raised her voice so the two at the front could also hear her, "but to Ayano and Godai as well."

"This isn't about a pay-raise, is it?" Godai sarcastically responded, still navigating their vehicle out of the town's snowy streets.

On the passenger seat beside Godai, Ayano stayed quiet with a cat-like grin on her face, making it obvious that she already knew what Lanfen was about to say.

If it wasn't for everything that had happened today, Lanfen's so-called request would've been something to ask at another time. After steeling her nerves and drawing in a practiced breath, Lanfen noticed the wondering look Shinonome was giving her, and carefully asked them all, "Would it be alright if we dropped the surnames from now on?" She saw Ayano giving a subdued clap of her hands at the front. "It... would be easier if we just went with our first names, wouldn't it? It's what Tachibana and the others are doing, s-so..." No other convenient reasons could find themselves forming on the tip of Lanfen's tongue, leaving it to instead awkwardly tie itself up.

While Godai gave an impressed whistle in response to Lanfen's proposition, Shinonome raised up her hand with another curious tilt of the head. "From what I've been able to learn, addressing a person by their first name around these parts implies a level of closeness between the speaker and the receiver, doesn't it?" The sheer formality of her presented definition pulled an earnest chuckle out of Ayano and the smallest of smiles from Lanfen. Their responses quickly worried her. "W-Were my findings incorrect?"

"Nah, you got it right," Godai reassured her, sipping a can of coffee with a smirk. "Probably a way better explanation than what Komi' was about to give, honestly."

As Ayano shot Godai a playful stick of her tongue along with an overly-dramatic pout, Shinonome placed one hand over her chest in a gesture of visible relief. Her golden eyes then flickered with clear, golden astonishment half-hidden behind a concealing fringe of silver. The way they did so was always fascinating for Lanfen to observe. "In that case, that sounds like a splendid idea, Jiang." Shinonome looked over to the pair at the front. "Is anyone in disagreement?"

"I've got nothin' to complain about," Godai said with a shrug of her shoulders.

Ayano, on the other hand, answered with a dramatic finger snap. "I think it's a genius idea," she exclaimed in an almost sing-song voice. "It would be the perfect way to end the day, the perfect way to celebrate Christmas,andthe perfect way to celebrate our time together so far!" Ayano flashed Lanfen a peace-sign with two fingers before giving the Adaptor a cheeky wink.

It took Lanfen four seconds to realize that it was herself who would be taking credit for this idea.

Lanfen should have expected it from someone like Ayano, and yet, she found herself taken aback anyway by her sly teammate. But before Lanfen could even try and point it out, she heard a cracklingboomsuddenly resound from beyond the vehicle's walls, causing her sword-hand to twitch at her side as Shinonome visibly jumped in her seat. The van subsequently came into a halt and Lanfen expected the worst. She couldn't even stop the hairs on the back of her neck from rising slightly. So, when Lanfen moved towards the front of the van, the Adaptor looked out the windshields for any signs of danger, only to then draw in a sharp breath when she witnessed a different kind of light blossoming across the winter skies.


Like a garden of flowers sitting amongst the endless backdrop of a starry ocean, countless fireworks rocketed into the night skies before blooming into roaring orbs of a hundred different colours. The mere sight of their fiery petals left Lanfen's mouth slightly agape as Ayano in front of her whipped out a smartphone to hastily record the whole thing. Behind Godai's seat, Shinonome watched with a pair of unblinking eyes, taking in the entire show like she could not believe what she was even witnessing in the moment. The only one who wasn't surprised by the fireworks display at all was the van's own driver.

"Oh yeah." Godai leaned back in her chair, coffee in hand. "I heard there was somethin' like this being planned. Almost forgot 'bout it.".

Each time a firework detonated in the skies with a crackling roar, a part of Lanfen found itself strangely relieved that she could look into the skies like this, expecting nothing more than a celebratory display rather than the unforgettable sight of a tear in reality. With her elbow on the back of Ayano's seat, Lanfen momentarily drew her focus away from the fireworks, letting her instead run a wordless gaze across the three women who had been accompanying her ever since Lanfen's advent as S.O.N.G.'s seventh Adaptor. Godai Yuki, Ayano Komichi, and Shinonome Aiko. They were the kind of people Kai would have loved to meet. And a group of companions Lanfen couldn't appreciate more for simply having.

"It's an amazing sight, isn't it?" Shinonome muttered, eyes flickering in astonishment as the blooming lights reflected in her golden irises.

Lanfen gave a small nod of the head. "It really is."

Her curt words garnered no comment from anyone of her companions, but when Lanfen had uttered them in response to Shinonome's awe-struck words, the Adaptor's eyes were not directed at the blossoming fires in the skies. Instead, Lanfen's gaze fixated itself on the earnest smile Shinonome bore without a hint of restraint. No matter how dazzling the bright fireworks beyond the windshields actually were, it was Shinonome's own beauty that could truly settle the unease within Lanfen's chest. And it was also Shinonome's clear happiness which extinguished the proverbial fires lying dormant behind Lanfen's purple eyes.

Chapter 14: A Fleeting Stage of Serenity


Hello! It's been 4 weeks since the last update and I'm here to conclude this 2-part mini arc! Life has been hectic, but it hasn't been stopping me from putting the proverbial pen to paper. With the end of this mini arc, I'll now be setting the extensive outlines for chapters 15 to 19! FoD has officially passed it's halfway point, so I intend to take my time with the future chapters just so I can properly handle the topics and conflicts I've been planning with care. Thanks you for the 900+ hits and I hope you enjoy the update!

Chapter Text

2049, December 25th. It was Lanfen's third day without her Symphogear. And it was also a time of giving and sharing. Outside the window of Lanfen's apartment kitchen, Yamaku City's countless civilians could be witnessed crowding out the streets below, heading to wherever they desired for the holiday occasion. In contrast to their thick, winter outfits, Lanfen herself donned a comfortable hoodie alongside a pair of sweatpants, making this the second morning in a row where she wasn't required to put on the Adaptor Corp uniform. But ever since word of the S.O.N.G. submarine's upcoming approach reached them roughly an hour ago, Team-04's standby order most likely wasn't going to last for another day.

The Sword of Damocles' delivery to the apartment was to be carried out once the vessel reached harbour for shore leave. And until Lanfen's pendant actually arrived on her doorstep, all she could do for now was look forward to a Christmas lunch out in the city later as she prepared a tray of hot drinks to contribute towards the apartment's Christmas spirit. Neither were particularly difficult tasks to accomplish while the three other members of Symphogear Team-04 spent the morning relaxing in Lanfen's living room.

Inside her abode's small kitchen, Lanfen stood in front of a counter as her hands carried out the measly craft of making four different drinks. Each of them were specifically made to suit the tastes of their intended recipients and had been noted down by Lanfen after a quick inquiry among the group. For Shinonome - or rather - Aiko, her drink was that of simple, modest green tea. Nothing complicated since it was all she desired to soothe her wandering mind. Yuki's on the other hand was a predictable mug of black, bitter coffee that would be considered the polar opposite of Komichi's sweet, hot Milo. In-between all of them was Lanfen's glass of honey lemon tea. The same beverage her younger sister used to drink every morning.

After gently settling down all four drinks on a rectangular, wooden tray, Lanfen heard a distinct beeping noise, and looked aside to see her detached wrist device lighting up on top of the kitchen counter. A single e-mail had just arrived, and a holographic notice declared its sender to be none other than Kazanari Maria.

Lanfen promptly secured the wrist device around her arm with a quick use of its automatic strap and displayed the arriving e-mail with a click of a holographic prompt. While steam continued billowing from the four mugs before her, Lanfen glanced at the wrist device's projected display, and tried her best to read Maria's message even if her mind was still on the verge of waking up far earlier than she would prefer on a day-off.

"Dear Cassandra, I sincerely hope you've been managing to enjoy yourself to the best of your ability during times like these. I've been hearing good things about you from Chris lately, and since the Distortions haven't been showing themselves, I felt that it would be fitting to send you a holiday greeting."

Kazanari Maria.

Formerly known as Maria Cadenzavna Eve up until her recent marriage, the free time which was granted by Team-04's standby order gave Lanfen ample opportunities to look into the world-renowned singer's profile within S.O.N.G.'s database. Lanfen wondered if Aiko's inherent curiosity was somewhat starting to rub off onto her, but such a thought was irrelevant compared to what Lanfen had learned about just last night: The death of Serena Cadenzavna Eve, Maria's younger sister and the previous Wielder of the SG-x00. The loss of the young Adaptor happened over a decade ago, and although the similarities of their circumstances made Maria an obvious person to seek advice from, Lanfen hesitated to do so.

Not for now, she reasoned with herself as Lanfen had no desire to sully the spirit of the winter season by reopening someone else's old wounds. With that politeness in mind, Lanfen shook her intrusive thoughts away before finishing her read-through of Maria's e-mail.

"Enjoy yourself whenever you can, Cassandra. Because even if you're a Wielder, we still have a responsibility to be ourselves whenever we're not holding onto our Armed Gears. What we do outside the battlefield is just as important as the things we accomplish inside of it. Happy Holidays, Cassandra Jiang Lanfen. From, Kazanari Maria."

Dismissing the holographic display with a swipe of her hand, Lanfen summoned a small keyboard from her wrist device, and quickly typed in a response to the senior Adaptor. Maria's sentiment was well-appreciated - that was for sure - but there was only so much Lanfen could convey over digital text compared to a face-to-face conversation. Even so, Lanfen wished Maria well in return, and politely asked her to send Kazanari Tsubasa her regards before hitting the 'Send' prompt. Being colleagues with two world-famous singers like the Kazanari duo admittedly still felt like a fantasy to Lanfen.

After the message was confirmed to have been sent, the Adaptor returned to the tray of waiting drinks in front of her, and carefully brought it out of the kitchen.

Soothing, Christmas-themed lo-fi music could be heard flowing out of the living room's holo-player as Lanfen stepped towards akotatsutable that had all but one of its sides currently occupied by a member of Symphogear Team-04. Due to a lack of time, the small apartment was sparse when it came to any sort of Christmas decorations. But such a thing hardly prevented any one of Lanfen's guests from getting into the holiday spirit anyway. With the soft, percussive beats of a lo-fi tune in her ears, Lanfen crouched down on an available side of the room's kotatsubefore setting her tray of drinks on top of its wooden surface. The small back-and-forth which was currently going on between Komichi and Yuki was thankfully easy to ignore.

"-like I said, Komi'," Yuki argued, slicing her hand across the air to emphasize her point, "if we're gonna get Chris a birthday gift, it's gotta be a box of Gunpla!"

Komichi wagged one finger in response to Yuki's fourth proposal for a model kit before showcasing a bunch of colourful plushies through the smartphone she held in her other hand. The casual outfits both of them were wearing contrasted with their equipped wrist devices similar to Lanfen's own home-wear. "Chris is a delicate maiden, Yuki," Komichi dramatically exclaimed, "which means that our course of action should be to buy her that new Lovekov plushie! I'm sure just havingoneof those little snakes will melt that soft, little heart of hers."

While Yuki and Komichi went on with their energetic, verbal spar at Lanfen's sides, Aiko sat across the table from the Adaptor's position with her attention currently fixated on the room's television. A re-run of a Christmas-themed Valkyranger episode was currently on the air because of popular demand, so it wasn't much of a surprise to see Aiko being completely enamored by the sight of ValkyrieRed, ValkyrieBlue and ValkyrieYellow desperately racing across the world to deliver millions of presents before sunrise. Aiko only faced thekotatsutable again once Lanfen had audibly settled a mug of green tea before her. Its lingering heat didn't seem to bother Aiko at all when she eagerly took the arriving drink into her hands.

"My thanks, Jiang- I mean... L-Lanfen," Aiko awkwardly corrected herself with a grateful nod. Both her and the Adaptor were obviously still getting used to the whole 'first-name basis' thing.

"No need to worry about it," Lanfen reassured her, a glass of honey lemon tea already held in one hand while a black-and-white Valkyranger plushie sat on her lap. "It's not the first time someone's needed to get used to my name anyway." Obviously, Lanfen's dry remark prompted only a confused tilt of the head from Aiko. But the knowing smirk she noticed on Yuki's face meant that at least someone at the table understood what she really meant. The Adaptor was quick to switch the topic soon after. "I take it that the drinks are to everyone's tastes?"

Yuki took a swig of her pitch-black coffee before giving a prominent thumbs-up. "Just the way I like it."

Aiko warmed herself up with her green tea and visibly exhaled with her golden eyes closed up for a moment. "Certainly."

"Positively!" Komichi subsequently chirped, raising her mug of Milo as if it were the Holy Grail itself. "Now then," she said, swiftly returning to a halted debate with her ponytailed old classmate, "where were we?"

Satisfied with the results of her morning craft, Lanfen continued to avoid getting herself pulled into the banter between Yuki and Komichi, leaving the pair to settle the final decision for Yukine's birthday gift by themselves as Aiko watched on with visible amusement. Since Lanfen's unfamiliarity with the senior Adaptor gave little credence to any opinion she could offer, Lanfen instead glanced at the room's dining table behind her, setting her sights on the batch of Christmas presents that had been prepared for the group's planned gift exchange. Such a thing would not have been prepared on such short notice if Komichi hadn't been so gung-ho about going through with it.

Lanfen was admittedly worried about whether or not the gifts she readied for her companions would be satisfactory. The proverbial butterflies in her stomach wouldn't even settle down at the idea that it was really the thought behind a gift which actually counted. So, in order to settle down her brewing worries, Lanfen pulled out a large shark plushie from underneath thekotatsutable, granting herself a comfortable object to lean forward on while she brought a glass of tea to her mouth. But the moment Lanfen felt the honey-mixed beverage enter her mouth, her eyes reflexively widened themselves ever so slightly, leading the Adaptor to slowly withdraw the warm glass away from her parted lips.

Her sense of taste. It was somewhat usable again.

Lanfen took a generous sip of her tea again just to be sure, and when she felt the distinct taste of honey mark itself on her tongue, she couldn't help but scoff at how much she had actually missed having a pair of working tastebuds. Whatever relief Lanfen felt towards this discovery also turned out to be writ all over her face, because Aiko was quick to speak up from across the table with a cup of green tea still in her hands.

"It seems that your spirits are burning bright today," Aiko remarked with a giggle, prompting Lanfen to put down her glass before awkwardly scratching a lingering cheek-scar.

"I-I guess." Lanfen coughed into her fist and hurriedly gestured towards the pile of gifts on the apartment's dining table. "A-Anyway. I think it's about time we started the gift-exchange. I hear Santa Claus might take them away if we're too slow for his liking." To absolutely none of her surprise, Lanfen's pitiful attempt at even the smallest of jokes registered across nobody's faces. In fact, a bit of momentary concern seemed to actually draw itself on Aiko's expression at the idea of their Christmas presents being unreasonably withdrawn. Yuki, on the other hand, just awkwardly smiled at the Adaptor's words while Komichi reacted with a supportive gesture of applause.

Their reactions genuinely couldn't have been worse from Lanfen's point-of-view.

"She does have a point," Komichi said, dropping her verbal sparring with Yuki for now. "But if we're going to start with the gift-exchange..." After placing down her mug on top of thekotatsu, the brunette held a single finger in front of her lips and released a mischievous tune. "... Who shall westartwith first?" Komichi made sure to punctuate her sing-song question with a well-expected cat-like grin. The sight of it still sent shivers rumbling down Lanfen's spine.

Coffee still held in one hand, Yuki gave jerked a thumb towards the Team's Adaptor. "I'll put 'Fen for first pick."

Aiko was the second person to cast a vote. "I concur," the silver-haired woman said, hands now resting on top of her lap. "It would certainly be fitting to start with the host of the occasion, wouldn't it?"

Mildly taken aback at being placed underneath the spotlight all of a sudden, Lanfen was about to suggest for someone else when she noticed Komichi's feline grin growing even wider. Three votes out of four. There was no way to actually change things with these sorts of odds. Thus, the Adaptor wordlessly admitted defeat and went along with the group's current choice. The curt nod Lanfen gave was practically the cue Komichi needed for her to slide out of the table as the eldest of the four went over to the pile of gifts, and started hauling them over till they were all within arm's reach of the room'skotatsu. The gift-exchange had officially begun. There was no turning back once the proverbial die was cast.

Three gifts were soon placed in front of Lanfen. Each of them could conveniently be held in one hand and were all decorated with wrappings of a distinct black-and-white motif.

Hovering her palm over the waiting presents, Lanfen saw no names on the wrappings to actually indicate the giver of each gift, so the Adaptor left things to chance, and opened up her first present with her eyes closed shut. Yuki, Komichi and Aiko were all practically watching her with bated breaths.

With the last bits of a black-and-white wrapping now undone, Lanfen held up her first gift for all of them to see, revealing a pair of wireless earbuds, and a small, square-shaped device that was smaller than the palm of her hand. A micro-player. Lanfen remembered seeing advertisements of these things being displayed all over multiple storefronts during the group's visit to Mitakihara last week. The device had a convenient 10-terabyte internal storage and was capable of enduring all sorts of punishment without any fear of malfunction nor damage.

"Picked out mine first, did you?" Komichi chuckled before flashing a cheeky wink. "Normally, you'd need to spend an arm and a leg to even find a place with that lil' thing in stock, but let's just say that I have myconnections."

Lanfen let out an amused exhale and settled the item down with a small smile. "Thanks, Komichi," she quietly said to her, prompting the brunette to point an eager pair of finger-guns back in response. Lanfen wasn't sure if she actually had 10-terabytes worth of music to transfer into micro-player, but she wasn't going to complain. Moving on, the Adaptor proceeded onto her second gift, and chose one of the remaining two presents with a proverbial coin-toss. The subtle, subsequent smirk she noticed on Yuki's face made Lanfen's next selection obvious while she unwrapped her next gift.

After unveiling her next present with a small huff, Lanfen initially struggled to make out what it even was. It was a thick, rectangular-shaped, metal object with a circular hole on its top side, and a colour scheme which was reminiscent of a chess-board. Thankfully, Yuki decided to give an explanation. "It's a belt-buckle," Yuki pointed out with her coffee in one hand. "Since it can be a bit of a hassle carrying a pendant around your neck, I thought I'd give ya somethin' to store it in. Can't lose your pendant if it's kept inside somethin' like that, am I right?"

A belt-buckle. Lanfen felt an amused laugh nearly leak out of her at the reveal. Many of the costumed superheroes her little sister constantly idolized were practically famous for wearing belt-shaped transformation devices. Lanfen would never put herself on the same pedestal they all stood on, but the Adaptor felt honoured to be carrying around such an item regardless. "Don't expect me to start dramatically posing just because I have this now," Lanfen dryly remarked, placing the buckle beside her new micro-player. "... But thank you, Yuki."

"Anytime," the pony-tailed woman said with a grin.

Only one gift remained now. And it was surely Aiko's. Subconsciously gulping at what she could have prepared, Lanfen unwrapped her final present, gently taking apart the black-and-white decor before the last bits of wrapping paper were all on the living room floor. There - sitting on the palm of Lanfen's hand - was a silver pocket-watch that glimmered beneath the morning rays of sunlight which were shining through the living room's windows. Its chrome-like metal earned an impressed whistle from Yuki and an amazed stare from Komichi. Lanfen herself found her gaze unable to take its focus away from the pocket-watch as a press of a side-button flipped open the gift's casing to showcase the old-fashioned analog clock within it.

The ensuing silence between the group was then halted by an explanation from the gift-giver herself. "I-I had requested it from Professor Elfnein," Aiko said, twiddling her index fingers together beneath the surprised gazes of her three companions. "I w-was wondering what a sufficient gift would be like... so I contacted the Professor and-" The pale-white cheeks on her face turned a slight shade of red. "In the end, I asked for an item to be made out of the pod you three had discovered alongside me."

Aiko's stilted explanation roused another whistle from Yuki. Komichi practically applauded at the thought behind the gift. Meanwhile, Lanfen could only attempt to try and hide an uncontrollable, growing smile behind her other hand.

Closing up the pocket-watch Lanfen held in her grasp, the Adaptor brushed a thumb against its silver casing, and wondered if this item was essentially a physical memento of how they had found Aiko. How Symphogear Team-04 had first met its fourth and latest member within the snowy outskirts of Yamaku City. Lanfen couldn't imagine a better gift to receive from her. "It's a wonderful present, Aiko... I'll be sure to treasure it," the Adaptor promised her, locking a pair of determined eyes with Aiko's half-concealed face. The sharpness of Lanfen's words made the silver-haired woman lightly giggle in amusement.

"I'm relieved to hear that, Lanfen."

Lanfen's declaration was far more dramatic than she initially intended. And yet, the Adaptor hardly minded at all. Ignoring the cat-like grin that Komichi was - without a doubt - aiming right at her, Lanfen took in the sights of the Christmas gifts she had just received, and found it partially hard to believe she deserved any of them. The incident with the S.W.O.R.D. still tainted the edges of her memory. And with her pendant's inevitable return, Lanfen will soon be returning to the battlefield again alongside the same people she had unintentionally harmed during her tranquil rampage. She couldn't afford to let the proverbial fire in her eyes blind her. Not again. Not when it could lead to actual deaths the next time Lanfen lost control.

Drawing in a practiced breath, Lanfen returned her gaze to her surrounding team and gave them a curt nod. "Again. Thank you, everyone. Really," she said, her hand gripping tightly onto Aiko's pocket-watch. Lanfen attempted to smile, but forcing herself to do so only ended up with an awkward tug at the corners of her mouth instead. Even so, her sentiment was clearly conveyed as Komichi clapped her hands together before directing an eager grin towards Yuki and Aiko.

"Let's vote for the next person, shall we?"

If a single morning out of an entire year could last for as long as Aiko desired, she would have little qualms with stretching out the current day into an everlasting, harmonious present for her companions to revel in. The silver-haired woman had indulged herself in countless Christmas-themed media leading up to the winter holiday, and yet, Aiko still found herself overwhelmed by the actual experience. No words within her growing vocabulary could describe the thoughts that whirled around Aiko's mind as the group's gift-exchange proceeded until its inevitable conclusion without an interrupted moment. Even a term such as 'blissful' would be considered a severe understatement.

Once each member of Symphogear Team-04 had received their assorted Christmas gifts, all of them spent half a morning's hour simply living in the present. There were no calls to deploy for a mission. No alerts about an upcoming Distortion rift or impending disaster. Just the peace and quiet one could expect from a joyous day such as this. At some point later on, Yuki and Komichi needed to return to their apartment next door, leaving Lanfen and Aiko to tidy up the living room so the former could prepare for her pendant's upcoming delivery. Team-04 was expected to return to duty soon, and hopefully, Aiko would be tagging alongside them on their mission to protect this lush world.

Aiko rested within the comforts of her bedroom while Lanfen waited right outside for S.O.N.G. to arrive with her Symphogear. Although the bedroom itself undoubtedly belonged to Aiko these days, almost all of the Adaptor's personal belongings still remained within it, with Lanfen's laptop being the one item she had chosen to bring out into the living room. Everything else were items that Aiko could not bring herself to disturb, such as the numerous shark plushies which rested alongside her on the bed, and the flag of pink, white, and light-blue that still hung above the bed's head. There was also an old poster of two singing idols stationed beside the flag, one of whom Aiko recognized to be the Symphogear-Wielder, Kazanari Tsubasa.

On the room's shark-infested bed, Aiko sat with her legs huddled together as rays of light peeked through the bedroom's lone window, casting a soft glow onto the silver hair that concealed half of her face. The Christmas presents she had received were arranged in front of her, almost as if to prove they were well and truly real.

Aiko's first present was a smartphone from Yuki. Since Aiko was going to be granted the autonomy to roam around by herself soon, her companions wanted to bestow upon her a way to communicate with them. It was fortunately not too different from the tablet Lanfen had granted her, so it only took a short while for Aiko to set everything up. Her chosen wallpaper was, of course, the group photograph they had taken during their shopping trip in Mitakihara. The subsequent present Aiko received came from Komichi in the form of a Christmas bracelet with an attached charm. It was apparently meant to signify Aiko's first ever Christmas while also granting an abundance of good luck for the future. A strange but fascinating gift if Aiko could say so herself.

The third and final gift came from Lanfen, and it was the present Aiko could hardly avert her golden eyes away from.

A black-and-white scarf.

The monochrome item had apparently been woven together just last night. If Lanfen hadn't sewn Aiko's full name into its soft fabric using threads of bright gold, it would have been a perfect replica of the scarf that belonged to Lanfen herself. And while a scarf of all things was an admittedly simple choice for a Christmas present, Aiko still wouldn't have wished for anything else from Lanfen. It was the perfect gift in her eyes, and nothing could be argued against it.

With Aiko's first ever Christmas presents all lying before her, she brought up her hand, and felt out the material of her new winter scarf beneath a pair of tender fingers.

Cassandra Jiang Lanfen. The Symphogear-Wielder of the SG-r04 and Japan's designated protector. As the thumping of a beating heart echoed throughout the canals of her warming ears, Aiko drew up a mental image of Lanfen standing firmly within the peaceful glade of a snowy forest, and contrasted it with the tear-stricken woman whom she had witnessed inside the room of a public hospital. Both of them were one in the same. Two sides of the same coin who had reached out to help Aiko even if the Adaptor was only now learning to accept the hands of others. Their meeting marked the first coherent memory within Aiko's mind, and the further said night passed on into history, the harder it became for Aiko to ignore the strange warmth growing within her chest.

Aiko always knew she had this affinity to process almost any information that was placed before her. So, it came off as a streak of irony when the very same mind she could consistently rely on turned out to be incapable of processing what she truly felt about Lanfen. Aiko knew she desired to assist her. To help her eventually find closure for the weights she constantly carried on her shoulders. But if Aiko removed the veneer of politeness which she had been training to wear for the sake of everyone's concerns, it would become obvious that her understanding of human interaction only went as far as what Aiko had learned from a guide-book that Professor Elfnein had discreetly provided.

The silver-haired woman's warm ears subsequently perked at the sound of the apartment's front door closing itself back up.

With curiosity once again flickering across her golden eyes, Aiko got off the bed, soundlessly went up to the room's entrance, and peeked through a small gap in the doorway to spot Lanfen placing down a suitcase on the living room's dining table. The sight of the S.O.N.G. emblem on the casing's steel material prompted Aiko to curiously step out of her bedroom through a couple silent footsteps. Seeking some advice for her worries from either Komichi or Yuki sounded like a reasonable move to carry out during their Christmas lunch later on.

"I'm assuming that your Symphogear has arrived?" Aiko tentatively asked on her approach towards the Adaptor.

Lanfen gave a brief nod of the head and oriented the prone suitcase until its locks were facing the Adaptor. "Captain Yaiba came by to pass it on with a couple of their personnel," she explained, carefully inputting a 16-digit code into the item's security keypad. "I guess it shouldn't be surprising that they're still keeping their guard up. Neither the Captain nor the rest of Task Force Harmony can really afford to let the Distortions catch them unaware." Adding a small shrug to her calm remark, Lanfen pressed a large button on the suitcase once the code was fully entered, causing several clicks to resound from the steel object as Aiko quietly placed herself on Lanfen's side.

When the last of the security locks audibly undid themselves, the suitcase presented a biometric scanner for Lanfen to slowly press her thumb against, finally getting her pass the remaining security measure. Aiko couldn't help but entertain the possibility of the suitcase suddenly causing itself to detonate in the absence of a proper thumbprint. The spy-thriller Aiko had sat down to watch just last week was far too entertaining to already forget.

Lanfen flipped open the unlocked case and visibly narrowed her eyes at the sight of the ruby-like pendant which was held down by a few mundane restraints. Slowly, the Adaptor tightly gripped the edge of the dining table with both of her hands, almost as if to control the slight twitching that Aiko could notice from where she stood. Lanfen said utterly nothing for the next few seconds. Instead, she allowed the living room to remain completely silent as the holo-player on the wall had been left deactivated after Yuki and Komichi departed for their apartment. Aiko attempted to add a comment of her own, but when her own eyes laid their attention on the pendant, a brief memory of a crimson, howling blade instantaneously flashed before her consciousness.

She shivered from the image of Lanfen's blade swinging right towards her face, forcing Aiko to recollect herself for a second before she could even speak up. "Lanfen." Aiko gently tugged onto the woman by the sleeve of her black hoodie. "... Are you worried?" It was obvious that the Adaptor was understandably hesitant about wielding her Armed Gear again. Even so, simply voicing one's own concerns was a matter of etiquette Aiko had trained herself to wield for the sake of others.

"... You could say that," Lanfen admitted through a hush, self-deprecating scoff. The grip she maintained on the dining table's edge did not loosen even slightly. "It's just- There's something else, Aiko. Something other than what happened a couple days ago." The Adaptor furrowed her brows before continuing. "I know I really shouldn't... but... I thought about it again just now." Lanfen's words lowered in volume with each drawn breath. "The one who took away my sister."

Aiko could not stop herself from instinctively trembling at the mention of the being who hadn't been seen since the Distortions' worldwide attack. 'Unknown Enemy-02'. If what little information they recorded about it was even remotely accurate, the destruction it could wrought upon innocent civilians was a potential danger that only a Symphogear-Wielder could realistically halt. Simply remembering the pictured aftermaths of its city-massacring powers made Aiko's innards briefly tie themselves up into uncomfortable, palpable knots.

Through the simple removal of the pendant's restraints, Lanfen held up the ruby-like item between her fingers, continuing, "There will come a day where we'll finally eliminate it. And as great as that may sound... I can't help but wonder what I would be able to do with myself once it's actually happened." Lanfen let out another scoff aimed at herself. "Not exactly something most would want to hear from a 'protector of the world', huh?"

Unsure of the implications within her sour words, Aiko leaned her body onto the edge of the dining table and asked, "What do you mean?" She gave a habitual tilt of the head.

"Tachibana and the others... They all have things they can do outside of being an Adaptor," Lanfen stated, her pendant still held between two twitching fingers. "Tachibana is a teacher. The Kazanaris go around the world helping whoever they can, however they can. Akatsuki and Tsukuyomi are planning to graduate from university. Meanwhile, I-" The Adaptor's next words seemingly halted themselves, as though Lanfen needed to alter what she was about to say completely. "... I don't," she whispered, placing the pendant down on the wooden table before she closed up the now-unneeded suitcase. "There's only training. And fighting. And it makes me wonder if there's any way for me to be useful outside of just swinging around an Armed Gear."

None of what Aiko had heard was anything she remotely expected to hear from one of S.O.N.G.'s own enlisted personnel. Much less a Symphogear-Wielder.

Thus, she granted Lanfen several minutes of uninterrupted silence, all so Aiko herself could ponder upon the Adaptor's extensive explanation.

All of Lanfen's fellow Symphogear-Wielders inarguably possessed roles in society which would remain relevant in a world that did not require forces such as S.O.N.G. and Task Force Harmony. But even if that was the case, it felt almost unfair for Lanfen to measure herself against individuals who have wielded their Armed Gears for at least half a decade now. While Aiko herself was not aware of what each Wielder had personally gone through during their years of active duty, it would not be unreasonable to guess that at least a few of Lanfen's more-experienced colleagues had gone through the same exact position Lanfen currently found herself in. Even Aiko - who was only now finding a purpose in being a possible operator of S.O.N.G. - could at least sense such a possibility.

If the self-doubt Lanfen expressed led to at least one train of thought, it was the words Aiko proceeded to propose with her hand held tightly over her beating chest. "Shall we look for one together, then?" Aiko whispered, causing Lanfen to slowly perk her head upwards. "A purpose outside of fighting, I mean." As she gently grabbed onto Lanfen by the Adaptor's twitching hand, Aiko closed the distance between them ever so slightly, and manifested the same calming smile she always wore. The Distortions were not going to be an everlasting threat for sure. But there was always more to be done outside of a burning battlefield.

With her hand now within Aiko's gentle grasp, Lanfen pursed her lips and visibly considered the silver-haired woman's proposition.

"Yuki and Komichi should be able to help us, shouldn't they?" Aiko slowly reassured her. "I'm sure they would be happy to lend their assistance however they can."

Hesitantly, Lanfen returned Aiko's unfaltering smile with a small one of her own before slowly nodding at the notion. "... Sure," she said, almost as if to reassure herself rather than to actually answer Aiko's words. "Let's just hope that it won't be too much of a bother for them." A tone of dry wit slowly returned to Lanfen's tone. "God knows S.O.N.G. already gives them enough paperwork to snap a desk in half."

Aiko responded to the Adaptor's remark with a brief giggle and panned her golden eyes downwards to the hand she was carefully holding onto. It was warm. Far warmer than any hand that was only useful for bringing harm and destruction onto the fields of combat. And most of all, it was a hand which showed no resistance to her gentle, reassuring caress. Aiko would have gladly continued holding onto it for just a moment longer, but when a notification suddenly resounded from the Adaptor's wrist device, Aiko abruptly retracted her grasp before awkwardly taking a step backwards. She then felt her face warm up for a brief moment, forcing Aiko to avoid Lanfen's surprised gaze by instinctively facing her back towards her.

"I l-let you tend to that," Aiko said, cupping a warm, pale-white cheek in one hand. "... I can't distract you from your duties now, can I?"

Lanfen's own words possessed a slight stutter of its own when the woman responded in kind. "R-Right. And... thank you, Aiko." Lanfen silenced her ringing wrist device with a motion of her hand. "If I'm being honest, having you... and the others here... has really helped me enjoy the past few days," she said with an almost tender voice. "I honestly don't know what I would've done with myself otherwise."

Taking a brief glimpse at the Symphogear-Wielder behind her, Aiko noticed a slight shade of red on the woman's brown cheeks before Aiko quietly lifted her foot, and retreated back inside her room with a pleased smile drawn across her face. Once the door was closed behind her with a satisfyingclickof its lock, Aiko leaned against the wooden entrance, and glanced back again at the black-and-white scarf that Lanfen had personally weaved for her beneath the light of a shattered moon. There was one last thing Aiko desired to say right before their conversation abruptly ended, but she could not bring herself to voice it out. Because a part of Aiko only felt that it would be conceited of her to suddenly ask for a future where they could blissfully continue relying on one another.

If Symphogear Team-04 considered Lanfen and Aiko's apartment to be a place where everyone could take a breather, then the apartment Yuki and Komichi lived in next door would be the one where it was all business and paperwork. The pair enjoyed few opportunities to decorate their new living place because of how recently they had moved in. All the political negotiations Yuki and Komichi needed to handle alongside their many joint-operations with Task Force Harmony didn't exactly free up their schedule either. So, what little personality their living place got was reliant on Komichi sprucing up the place with framed photos of the pair's time in Lydian Academy, and flashy show posters of the Takarazuka Theater.

It was - in Yuki's opinion - an alright place to stay in, all things considered.

At their living room's dining table, Yuki sat down with her laptop opened up as Komichi situated herself on an opposing tableside. An ongoing video transmission was playing out across the laptop's screen, originating from their organization's approaching submarine. Fujitaka had contacted them with important news to hear, and more paperwork to sign, just what the pair had become used to expect daily ever since they were attached to a Symphogear Team. While Yuki fought to keep her eyelids open during her conversation with Fujitaka, Komichi cheerfully hummed to herself as the brunette decorated her fingernails with glittery nail polish of black-and-white.

"-with the submitted documents already approved, the Commander can now officialize Shinonome Aiko's recruitment request," Fujitaka formally explained, typing his fingers into the bridge's terminal to bring up several windows of scanned documentation onto Yuki's end of the transmission. "All of Aiko's trials so far show an exceptional aptitude for her expected tasks, and while there are still additional processes for us to carry out, you can expect her to be officially accepted into S.O.N.G. once we've reached shore."

Yuki rubbed one of her eyes with the back of a hand and responded to the bridge operator with her chin now resting on her palm. "Can we expect a welcomin' party with the Commander tonight?" she cheekily inquired, vaguely remembering how Commander Genjuuro had previously thrown a party for the pair when the two were first accepted into the organization. Lanfen's own welcoming party was S.O.N.G.'s most recent one, in fact. "It'd be pretty fittin' to combine it with a Christmas party, if ya catch my drift."

Fujitaka gave an amused laugh before the man sadly responded, "Unfortunately, Commander Genjuuro will be carrying out a meeting with the Japanese government tonight, which means he probably won't be available for any leisure activities until tomorrow morning." The brief mention of Japanese bureaucracy almost kicked up Yuki's gag reflex. The number of hoops S.O.N.G. needed to jump through in order to get certain things approved was about as pleasant as experiencing sleep-paralysis. "Either way, Tomosato and I are wishing you good luck out there, Yuki. Chris will be returning to America tonight, so we'll be counting on you four to protect the country with everything you got."

"With all four of us together, I'm sure there ain't much that we can't handle," Yuki replied, smirking. "But yeah, thanks for the heads-up, Fujitaka." She gave the bridge operator a casual, two-finger salute with what little energy Yuki had. "We'll contact you again like always if we need anythin' on our end. You and Tomosato better enjoy yourselves today, alright?" After Fujitaka responded with a polite gesture of his own, Yuki shut off the transmission with the press of a key and relaxed in her dining chair. The audible sigh she slowly released was aimed at no one in particular.

"Things look like they're turning out well, aren't they?" Komichi mused from where she sat, her attention still focused on getting her nails all coloured up with two thin coats on each of her outstretched fingers. "I almost thought they'd actually refuse to let Aiko even join considering heryou-know-whatwith the Illuminati."

Rubbing both eyes with a sleeved forearm this time, Yuki leaned forward in her seat to rest a pair of sore elbows on the dining table. When she glanced over to the corner of their living room, the presence of the still-unopened boxes which were all piled up right next to their couch roused an annoyed groan out of Yuki. To distract herself from this sore sight, she began typing onto her opened laptop, quickly bringing up scanned images of the abnormal implant that was attached to Aiko's heart. None of the information they currently had on the Illuminati could explain its purpose - let alone what it even was - but the fact that it wasn't visibly hampering Aiko in any way at least gave no urgent cause for concern.

"If the Commander is gonna give his approval, I ain't about to complain about it." Yuki shrugged her shoulders before letting out the most childish groan she could muster. "But I wasjuststartin' to get used to remainin' on standby, ya know? We are definitely gonna be swimmin' up to our necks in work once we're back out in the field again."

"Yuki," Komichi chided her, settling down her nail polish brush so she could wag a scolding finger with a hand which was only partially finished with its applied colour scheme, "is that really what you're annoyed about the most? If Chris was allowed to stay just alillonger, we could've celebrated her birthday with all the love she deserves!" Komichi released a small pout and stomped her foot on the floor before picking her brush again. "I was almost done picking out a good cake for her, too," she dramatically bemoaned. "Oh, how fate can be cruel sometimes."

Through a mental sweep of her mind, Yuki brushed off Komichi's extensive complaints, and glanced aside at the living room window beside them to notice the Task Force Harmony helicopters that were patrolling the city as per standard protocol. If Yuki was being honest, it was sort of unnerving for the Distortions to suddenly cease any activities after nearly half a month of daily rift appearances. Explanations about the Distortions' actual origins were still up in the air, but Yuki couldn't care less about learning where they came from after experiencing a couple world-ending threats herself over the past decade. With her head now taken off her palm, Yuki dismissed the images of Aiko's heart implant away from her laptop's screen, and subsequently heard a text message arrive on her friend's smartphone.

A quick peek at the sender's name indicated it was from a person by the name of 'Kuriyo Ando'.

Komichi placed down her nail polish brush again before expanding the message with a tap of her smartphone's screen. Yuki didn't bother to peek at its contents because it was none of her business. The playful hum Komichi was letting out as she typed in a response implied that it was probably nothing serious anyway. And once her old friend had sent out her reply, Komichi went back to decorating her fingernails like nothing happened at all. Silence soon returned to their surroundings, prompting Yuki to wonder if she should try and install a holo-player in their place the next time the pair was on a day-off. Lanfen definitely got whatever mileage she could get out of her own apartment's holo-player.

Regardless of whatever Yuki was planning on doing next, her next question wouldn't have been aired out if the two women weren't so close with each other. "Was that anythin' important?"

Komichi gave a playful wink and an uncharacteristically off-handed response in return. "Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't," she said with a mischievous giggle.

With her elbows still on top of the table's hard wood, Yuki smacked her lips together, finding them more parched than she expected after her extensive talk with Fujitaka earlier. Not that it could distract Yuki from seeing through the thick surface of Komichi's cheerful words, of course. "It was a date offer, wasn't it?" Komichi gave no response to Yuki's laid-back guess and simply continued applying thin coats of either black or white onto the surface of her fingernails. "... And you turned her down, didn't you?"

Her old friend only spoke up after Yuki's second observation was allowed to sit in the cold air for a few seconds. "Correct on both accounts," she casually said, not breaking her focus away from her fingernails for even a brief moment. "Kuriyo had a spare ticket to go see a movie today. I was apparently her first choice," Komichi added lightly.

Letting loose an exasperated sigh out of sheer habit, Yuki closed up her S.O.N.G. laptop before bringing one of her tired legs over to her chest, letting her right foot rest on top of her seat after she slid off its loose slipper. "Really?" Yuki exclaimed, resting her head on the backrest of her dining chair, "why turn her down if she's interested? Kuriyo definitely looks like someone who suits your taste, doesn't she?" She scrunched up her brows and started calculating what could've led to Komichi's conclusion. "Or did somethin' happen while I wasn't lookin'?"

To none of Yuki's surprise, Komichi stayed quiet, and instead remained focused on finishing up her nail polish for the next minute or two. Once they were all done, Komichi gave her black-and-white nails a gentle puff of her breath, and placed her hands on the table to show off the familiar colour scheme of their junior's Symphogear. It was admittedly a neat sight to Yuki's eyes, but she was never the type to apply nail decor on herself. "It's not Kuriyo's fault or anything like that," Komichi quietly explained, now tracing an invisible heart or two onto the wooden dining table with one finger. "In fact, you could say it's my own."

Yuki lifted a questionable eyebrow at this. For all of Komichi's quirks, such as her unrivaled sweet-tooth, her constant obsession with collectingyurimanga, and the terrifying glee she took with playing 'match-maker' for a lot of girls back in Lydian, Komichi was a woman who graduated from Lydian Academy to the dismay of many, many fawning juniors Yuki did not personally know by name. Even some of the few people they later met in S.O.N.G. got along perfectly fine with Komichi. So, it was pretty hard for Yuki to believe that it was Komichi's own qualities as a person which made her hesitant about dedicating herself to a romantic partner.

"And what... does that mean exactly, Komi'?" Yuki tried to ask, already feeling the air around them growing thicker from their conversation.

"All things considered, I'm just a normal maiden," Komichi elaborated further with a smile. "Sure, I may be one of S.O.N.G.'s top participants in the firing range, but that's pretty mundane when you look at the big picture." She blew into her polished fingernails once more and continued tracing invisible, playful shapes onto the table. "You're a half-trainedkunoichi, Yuki," Komichi pointed out, giggling. "Aiko is shaping up to be a better operator than I ever could with how fast she's learning things. And Lanfen? Lanfen is a Symphogear-Wielder. You and I don't need to think too hard on why what's so gosh-darned amazing."

Yuki nodded along to her melancholic observations, all while putting together her own words to respond with. Since this was the first time Komichi had ever spoken to her about something like this, Yuki struggled to find her main point, let alone find the right words to even reply with. "So... you're saying you're feelin' inadequate, I'm guessin'?"

And to Yuki's surprise, Komichi shook her head. "Not at all," she said, subtly dimming down her smile. "Me being relatively 'normal' doesn't bother me at all, Yuki. But when I consider the things we do... and the risks I'm taking as a normal person..." Komichi's right hand noticeably shivered before the brunette hid it beneath the palm of her other hand. "... It makes me hesitate about finding someone to be with. After all, it'd be really rude to make someone get worried about me every time I go out to try and save the world like everyone else, wouldn't it?" she remarked with an uncharacteristically empty laugh. "I even once asked Tomosato and Fujitaka for advice about this, too. And to an extent, they pretty much feel the same way I do."

Noticing the wistful look that Komichi rarely wore around the presence of other people, Yuki furrowed her brows, and reminded herself on how much her old friend indulged in romance, both in fiction and between real people like Yuki and Otome. Komichi was the reason the two got engaged in the first place and Yuki could never thank her enough for giving her the mental push she needed to actually propose to Otome. If Yuki could describe it in her own words, she'd call it a 'selfish' sense of selflessness to essentially prioritize everyone else's happiness over her own. It was an infuriating part of Komichi to deal with sometimes, but Yuki could never bring herself to complain about it when Komichi's decisions were always sincerely made out of good faith.

Now, Yuki found herself hearing something completely new directly from Komichi's own lips.

The pair had participated in twelve different undercover missions as S.O.N.G. agents by now, and yet, Yuki never once considered what she had just heard to be the actual reason for Komichi's apparent disinterest in finding a partner.

She'd kick herself in the ass if Yuki was even capable of such a thing.

Holding up an arm from her side, Yuki extended one hand towards her friend and slowly tightened it to propose a casual bump of their fists. The same gesture they would always do ever since they first met in kindergarten. "If it means anythin', Komi', I'm with ya till the end of the line," Yuki tried to reassure her, unsure of what else she could even be saying right now, "even if you can be a real pain in the butt sometimes."

Komichi gave a genuine smile at the offered gesture before the knuckles of her own hand bumped themselves against Yuki's waiting fist. "Big words coming from you, Yuki." She playfully stuck out her tongue. "How would you evendealwith all the paperwork S.O.N.G. gives us if my expertise wasn't around to knock some responsibility into you?"

Before Yuki could respond to Komichi's cheeky remark with an eager verbal counterattack of her own, the pair heard the ringing of an incoming transmission suddenly arise from Komichi's wrist device, prompting the brunette to pull up her shirt's long sleeve so she could answer it. Through a quick tap of a holographic prompt, a display projected itself from the ringing communicator, showcasing a visual transmission from a blonde man who was dressed in the distinctive suit of Clan Hida. It was Tsuchiya Kagero, one of Commander Genjuuro's two personal aides, and an exceptional student of Grandmaster Ogawa Souji.

"Miss Ayano, Miss Godai," he formally addressed them with a slight bow of his head, "pardon me for contacting you on such short notice, but our vessel will be reaching shore within 20 minutes, and we would like to summon Symphogear Team-04 for an urgent meeting."

"Shall we look for one together, then? A purpose outside of fighting."

Aiko's gentle words repeated themselves within the back of Lanfen's mind before the Adaptor shook her head to maintain her focus on Professor Elfnein's delivered message. With her personal futon all set up beside the living room'skotatsutable, Lanfen laid down on the deployed mattress as her head rested itself on a large, shark-shaped plushie. Her braided hair was also undone, letting it spread out in multiple directions while Lanfen's forearm hovered over her with a holographic screen currently projecting itself from her wrist device. Judging by the sheer length of the arriving message, the number of changes Professor Elfnein had made to the Sword of Damocles were extensive.

"After considering the incident that had occurred on the 22nd of December, 2049," the message read, "I have chosen to implement multiple safety measures within the SG-r04's internal systems. To start, I've installed a built-in scanner capable of maintaining constant observation of your brainwave patterns during the S.W.O.R.D.'s operational time." Lanfen blinked at the clinical details. "This scanner will be operating in tandem with a kill-switch which will automatically shut down the S.W.O.R.D. in the immediate presence of a particular brainwave pattern, essentially deactivating it before you can end up losing control over yourself. In addition to this, I have adjusted your Symphogear's defensive systems, ensuring that its protective barriers are intensified whenever you achieve speeds faster than sound."

An adjustment that is well-appreciated, Lanfen thought to herself. Her Symphogear'sQuicksilver Queenability was its most reliable tool against her opponents. Outside of a reasonable cooldown period of about 10-to-20 minutes, the intense g-forces Lanfen regularly inflicted on herself during its activation was never something she could endure without coughing up some blood.

Continuing on with the Professor's message, it proceeded to list out several more minor details regarding Lanfen's returned Symphogear. The Adaptor tried her best to not skim over them despite their intimidating lengths, and when the last written sentence had been read out, Lanfen typed in a message to thank the Professor for her assistance. "I'll accomplish my duties to the best of my abilities," Lanfen added into her formal response, knowing that the Professor was most likely terribly occupied with her research into the Distortion rifts. The term 'workaholic' was apparently often applied to the genius teenager by many a S.O.N.G. personnel. "And I'll try to not let any of your efforts go to waste."

As the Adaptor typed out the last few sentences of her message, Lanfen motioned over to hit the 'Send' button when her finger suddenly decided to abruptly freeze up right above the translucent, holographic keyboard.

In the back of her mind, Lanfen desired to know if Professor Elfnein still trusted her with the power of a Symphogear. And yet, when an actual opportunity to rest her unease now showed itself, Lanfen instead chose to clench her teeth tightly together before leaving the question out entirely.

"Merry Christmas, Professor Elfnein," was the written statement she concluded the prepared message with.

Hearing the audible confirmation of the message's delivery, Lanfen shut off her wrist device, and allowed her hovering forearm to lazily fall back onto the soft futon. About an hour still remained until the group's planned outing for a Christmas lunch, leaving the Adaptor to spend what time she had left quietly staring at the ceiling of her apartment's living room. The holo-player on the wall was still completely silent. Aiko was also probably keeping herself occupied with her brand-new smartphone. After remembering the fascinated look Aiko had displayed when she unveiled the black-and-white scarf that Lanfen had prepared, the Adaptor turned her head aside to see Aiko's gifted pocket-watch lying right beside her.

The bits of sunlight which were shining through the gaps of the living room's closed curtains faintly shone down on the chrome item, causing the reflected rays to bounce onto the faint scarring on Lanfen's cheek as she caressed the pocket-watch with one hand.

Lanfen's new measurer of time was breathtakingly beautiful. Much like the person who had bestowed it upon the Symphogear-Wielder.

Slowly drawing her fingertips away from the item, Lanfen carefully pulled herself into a sitting position before she started hooking the pocket-watch's attached chain around her neck. Prepping another glass of honey lemon tea didn't sound like a particularly bad idea right now. Lanfen was also sure that Aiko wouldn't refuse a glass of green tea, either. With those two tasks now on the forefront of her mind, she stood up from the comfort of her futon, and made her way across the silent living room. But as Lanfen passed by the room's dining table, her eyes subconsciously turned their attention aside, forcing the Adaptor to suddenly come to a halt while her gaze directed itself towards the nearby shelves.

It had been over a week by now, but Lanfen could never forget about the thumb-drive she had quietly hidden away. Said memory drive contained every bit of data which was once stored inside the electronic tablet that Aiko now utilized as her own personal device. It could also be seen as a capsule of so many things the Adaptor attempted to bury deep down within the depths of her memories. The Lanfen of before would have decided to just leave it tucked away on the shelves for good, but the her of today no longer felt such an irrational desire tugging incessantly at her chest.

Through a couple tentative footsteps, Lanfen approached the living room's shelves and reached out one arm so she could begin feeling out its topmost rack. All her fingers expectedly felt at first were its accumulating layers of dust particles. Not that it was surprising since Lanfen practically tossed the thumb-drive up there without a care for where it actually landed. The main point was to hide it well, both from Aiko and from the Adaptor herself.

She soon felt something solid brushing itself against her fingers and Lanfen quickly seized the object out of guesswork before retracting her outstretched arm. There, right in the grasp of her hand, was the black memory drive she was looking for. A coat of dust already covered up half of the tiny object, prompting Lanfen to brush it all off with a quick swipe of her thumb. So much was stored inside this one item, she thought to herself. All kept away just because Lanfen partially desired to isolate her lingering memories of Kai until her sister's killer was finally found and defeated. Now, she couldn't bear leaving such an important trove of recorded memories to be potentially forgotten by even herself.

Sliding the retrieved drive into one of her sweatpants' pockets, Lanfen swiftly turned her body around, and settled a pair of narrowed eyes onto the knob of Kai's bedroom door. The room behind it remained perfectly untouched as far as the Adaptor was aware of. Lanfen trusted Aiko to leave it alone, after all. And unlike before, Lanfen no longer felt her sword-hand instinctively tremble at the mere thought of grasping its dusty doorknob.

One step. Two steps.

The Adaptor's heavy feet dragged themselves across the floor as if they had a will of their own.

Three steps. Four steps.

Kai's bedroom door was now right in front of her again.

Taking in a practiced breath, Lanfen grabbed the bedroom door by its knob, and slowly turned the metal handle around, causing an audiblecreakto resound from the entrance as the gap in its doorway grew ever wider.

Lanfen would've heard such a sound if the pounding of her heart wasn't drowning out everything else from her eardrums.

Stepping inside the darkened room with a pair of tightening lips, Lanfen slowly ran her gaze across Kai's personal living space, and saw the thick blankets of dust which covered practically everything in sight. All of Kai's items that once decorated the living room were here and all accounted for. There were no opened sources of light, save for the dim sunlight which poured in from the opened doorway while Lanfen knelt down right in the middle of her little sister's assorted belongings. The animal-themed lamp on Kai's computer desk was most likely still functional, but Lanfen desired nothing more than for the shadows of her little sister's bedroom to physically overtake her unmoving form. Drawing in another practiced breath, the Adaptor took out her smartphone, and placed it on the floor in front of her.

The jingling of the toy that was attached to it by a silver chain was slowly becoming the only audible sound in Lanfen's ears.

She allowed her beating heart to return to its regular pace before Lanfen decided to finally end the silence. "Mei," she whispered, addressing her younger sister as if Kai never left her to begin with. "I hope... you're doing well by yourself out there. We haven't talked in a while, but the one who took you-" Lanfen felt flickers of a proverbial fire dancing across her purple eyes. "-The one who took you away from me is still out there. And I'm sorry for that, Mei. S.O.N.G. hasn't found any clues on its location yet. But even so... I'm doing well myself, at least." Silence. Cold, harsh silence. "... I've made good friends over the past weeks. People I can rely on. People who I can always trust."

The only things Lanfen maintained for an audience were Kai's dust-covered toys. And somehow, Lanfen could still remember when she had bought each and every one of them for her little sister.

"There's also another person, Mei," Lanfen continued, sensing her heartbeat rising up again with the shift of her conversation. "She's been a great help ever since we met. She's someone who - despite her own circumstances - has been the only one I could ironically associate with a sense of 'normalcy' up until now." She released a dry chuckle. "But since she could be joining me on our missions soon... even that won't be staying the same for long." Lanfen waited for four exact heartbeats, just in case she somehow received any sort of response. Predictably, nothing came. "It's strange. But I want her to choose a path she herself wants. Where it leads to won't matter to me... as long as it makes her happy."

Silence. Again. Obviously. Just like whenever Lanfen attempted to speak to her parents.

Without any uttered words this time, Lanfen closed her tearless eyes, and began ruminating on her growing feelings for Shinonome Aiko. Lanfen couldn't tell how long she chose to sit there, completely unmoving save for the way her shoulders rose with the rhythm of her breathing. But when the Adaptor's pondering came to its inevitable end, Lanfen found herself at the same conclusion she had already come to during the depths of her slumber just last night. One of Kai's last ever wishes was for Lanfen to find someone she could care about. And yet, the event of Kai's recent loss still left a proverbial, gaping wound in Lanfen's own ability to open up to someone else. It was one thing to let herself bond with Team-04.

But when it came to the idea of letting Shinonome Aiko into her still-beating heart, Lanfen desired to ask just one question, "Am I being selfish, Mei?"

None of the ownerless belongings around the Adaptor gave any sort of answer. Absolutely nothing.

Thus, Lanfen proceeded to lower her head in a respectful bow before she picked up her smartphone, and carefully slid it back into her pockets with a light jingle of its attached memento.

The answer she sought for would never come. Not unless Lanfen ever decided to turn such a vulnerable question towards her own companions instead.

A knock on the door of Kai's bedroom was subsequently heard. Lanfen quickly looked over her shoulder and softened her narrowed gaze to notice Aiko hiding behind the door-frame with golden eyes that were visibly astonished by the sight of the opened room. Reflexively tensing at the presence of the silver-haired woman, Lanfen immediately wondered if Aiko had actually managed to hear what Lanfen voiced out. Judging by the look in Aiko's honest, flickering eyes, the Adaptor's hush words most likely evaded any detection out of sheer, dumb luck.

"You can come in if you want," Lanfen gently reassured her, no longer desiring to prohibit both Aiko and herself from entering this one part of their shared apartment.

Surprisingly, Aiko politely declined the offer with the shake of her head and a tepid smile. "It's fine," she insisted, redirecting her golden eyes out of the darkened bedroom and towards the sun-lit living room instead. "I'm sure there will be a better time for me to do so, anyway."

Respecting Aiko's wishes without another word, Lanfen got back up to her feet, and took one last glance around the dust-covered room. She did have a point. Aiko deserved to step inside only when this entire space was completely cleaned from top to bottom. With that future errand now on Lanfen's mental to-do list, she slowly exited her younger sister's bedroom, leaving it alone again for now. And when its wooden entrance was closed back up once more, the Adaptor kept her grip on the doorknob while Aiko quietly stood beside her with a folded pair of hands.

"My sister would've showed you around her room if she could," Lanfen muttered with a small snicker. "... She always liked showing off her collection to anyone she knew."

Aiko simply pressed the tips of two index fingers against one another at the idea. "That certainly sounds... wonderful, Lanfen," she said, leaning her body against the wall right next to Kai's bedroom door. "Kai must have been a joy to be around with, judging from the way you always reminisce about her."

"She was," Lanfen calmly agreed, slowly reaching her free hand into one of her sweatpants' occupied pockets. "So, if you're interested in hearing more about her, then... you can use this." She hesitantly drew out the retrieved thumb-drive and held it towards Aiko, earning a small quizzical tilt of the woman's head. Lanfen initially thought about explaining who Aiko's tablet originally belonged to, but she instead chose to leave such information out of the conversation for now. "This thing contains a lot of old memories about my sister," she carefully explained, slowly releasing her tight grip around the doorknob of Kai's bedroom entrance. "You can have it."

Widening her golden eyes at the sudden gift, Aiko gingerly took the small item into her grasp. "I-I see." She held it in front of her astonished face with both hands before bringing it close to her chest. "I'll admit that I feel... almost undeserving of such a thing, but I shall keep it safe." Aiko directed a small, subsequent smile at Lanfen, and the Adaptor slowly returned it in kind as one of her hands subconsciously fiddled with the messy ends of her undone, black hair.

Lanfen immediately thought about suggesting something they could do together to relax. Something to take the pressure of any upcoming missions off their minds until it was time for their Christmas lunch. A day like this only came once a year and it would only be a waste to spend it simply moping around, contemplating her thoughts. But when Lanfen decided to voice her first proposal, her wrist device suddenly rang up with an incoming audio transmission, forcing the Adaptor to swiftly answer a call from Yuki of all people. This wasn't a good omen, Lanfen subsequently thought. Communication through their wrist devices was something they agreed to only utilize today if the situation was ever urgent.

"What is it?" Lanfen answered, already growing worried by the sudden transmission.

"We're being called over for a meeting, 'Fen." Yuki's straightforward tone implied just as much. "Looks like we're gonna have to put that Christmas lunch on hold for now."

The last time Shinonome Aiko stepped through the metal corridors of the S.O.N.G. submarine, she was but a directionless amnesiac with a necessary reliance on the three other members of Symphogear Team-04. By the time all four women returned to the arriving underwater vessel, Aiko may as well have considered herself to be a member of the group over whatever her unknown past originally defined her to be. She felt little point in blindly digging for an explanation for where she possibly came from, and instead chose to move forward with the individuals who Aiko had come to bond with over the passing days. Regardless, Team-04's recent summons couldn't have come on a far more inconvenient day.

When the order to gather up in the submarine was conveyed to both Aiko and Lanfen, the latter formally confirmed the request while the former felt a bit of surprise at being told to come along. It was an opportunity to don the monochrome scarf Lanfen had gifted her, so Aiko felt no reason to argue against it, even if she personally found it strange how she was being called over as well. Once they were both in their winter outfits, the pair met up with Yuki and Komichi in the team's van, and departed for the set of coordinates which S.O.N.G. had transmitted over to Team-04. They arrived there in precisely an hour and boarded the vessel to soon be escorted into an oval-shaped room that Aiko assumed was the assembly hall.

About 20-to-30 other people could be observed patiently sitting on the hall's deployable seats. And as the members of Team-04 walked over to the numbered chairs which were reserved for them, Aiko curiously analyzed the room to notice a circular, table-like contraption situated right in its middle. All of the hall's numerous seats were oriented towards the glowing machine and were noticeably far too stiff for even Yuki and Komichi to comfortably sit on without complaint. Looking around the assembly hall again, Aiko also couldn't help but notice how the team stood out in their civilian wear. In addition to the formal, black suits that the other individuals were wearing, the aura these unfamiliar people radiated was drastically different from even S.O.N.G.'s own personnel.

Aiko was about to verbally comment on this to Lanfen beside her when one of the assembly hall's double-doors suddenly slid open, letting a young, blonde man who Aiko recognized as 'Tsuchiya Kagero' to make his entrance with an accompanying, redheaded woman. The room's ceiling lights soon dimmed down and the arriving duo took positions on opposing sides of the room's table-like contraption in the middle.

"You all have our appreciation for gathering here today," Tsuchiya politely began, folding his hands behind his back. "Unfortunately, the situation we are currently facing is one which does not provide us the luxury of exchanging seasonal pleasantries." He gestured towards his redheaded, formal-looking companion and addressed her with a curt nod. "Kagami, if you may."

Through a few command inputs into the circular, table-like machine, holographic projections proceeded to take shape over the contraption's translucent surface, displaying the civilian profiles of multiple young women for everyone in the hall to clearly see. Few of these women lived in the same continent as one another while most of the showcased faces originated from different parts of the globe. North America. South Africa. Japan. The Philippines. Australia. Borneo. All of them also appeared barely a couple years older than Lanfen, Aiko, and their two older teammates.

Tsuchiya cleared his throat and resumed. "Over the past week, Clan Hida has been investigating the reported deaths of young women both inside and outside of our country's national borders. Normally, such a task would not be in our legal jurisdiction, but investigations into the reasoning behind these deaths point to a possible perpetrator." The blonde man gestured towards another manifesting hologram on the assembly hall's display terminal and pointed at a snake-like emblem which made Aiko instinctively shiver in her seat. "The Bavarian Illuminati."

Some of the gathered individuals in the hall began faintly murmuring to one another. Yuki even muttered something under her breath over to Komichi. Meanwhile, Aiko could only focus her widening, golden eyes on the distinctive logo that hovered over the display terminal. The reports from Aiko's hibernation pod informed her enough of what to expect. The Bavarian Illuminati were the apparent reason for Aiko's existence as a living experiment. They were also infamous for being a difficult foe to permanently defeat. Even though she possessed no memory of her time in their ownership, Aiko could still feel her left hand tightly gripping onto the black-and-white scarf around her neck, giving her the will to take in a deep, punctuated breath.

Aiko only felt her shoulders starting to loosen up when she sensed a warm palm gently holding onto her other hand which was dangling at her side. She didn't need to redirect her golden eyes to actually confirm who it belonged to. Instead, Aiko took a side-glance at Lanfen beside her, and cleared away the obvious, growing concern on the Adaptor's silent expression by means of a reassuring smile. It was obvious that both of them would be exchanging words right now if they weren't in the middle of a meeting.

"11 deceased women have already been confirmed by official reports," Tsuchiya sharply continued. "Each murder was carried out with a single shot from a firearm, and although we cannot confirm any alchemic purposes behind its munitions, what we can confirm is that the markings of the Illuminati were present on each utilized round." Additional holographic constructs appeared over the terminal, showcasing the aforementioned ammunition in extensive detail. "Investigations are currently ongoing to predict who and where the perpetrators may strike next, and so far, the current theory is that they may be targeting individuals who possess the innate potential to awaken a Symphogear."

As Aiko casted a worried glance over to a seemingly unfazed Lanfen, Komichi raised her hand, catching Tsuchiya's attention.

"Do we have any evidence for this theory?" the brunette formally inquired.

With his eyes now focused on Team-04's general direction, Tsuchiya motioned over to his redheaded companion, prompting Kagami to provide an explanation in his stead. "AG-4-2," she addressed Komichi by her designated number, "in addition to these findings, the investigation we've conducted into the sudden attack on your team's Symphogear-Wielder has also allowed us to piece together the munition that was used in the assumed attempt on SG-r04's life." Kagami typed a command into the display terminal and brought up a digital reconstruction of a shattered bullet right next to the ones used in the reported murders. "We've confirmed their origins to be one in the same."

Lanfen audibly clicked her tongue, Yuki released unrestrained bafflement at Kagami's statement, Komichi calmly nodded in response, and Aiko buried her fingers deep within the monochrome scarf she wore. The Symphogear-Wielders were the world's main defense against paranormal threats, so Aiko could not help but feel her hands grow cold from the theory that a group was actively culling any possible Adaptors. Let alone young, innocent women like Lanfen herself.

"Judging by recently-reported deaths, we can narrow down the perpetrators' current, active location to the islands of Japan," Tsuchiya continued, barely faltering. "5 Illuminati hideouts have just been confirmed across the country. While we cannot b