Episode Three: The White Tiger Roars! Dream, Heroes!

The Fukuda residence was the very picture of class and elegance, much like the family that inhabited it and the school they presided over. It was a large and stately white European-style mansion, constructed in a neoclassical style with steepled deep gray roofs, ornate gold-trimmed windows, and fancy columns supporting the whole structure. Beautiful rose gardens, featuring roses of every color decorated the mansion's neatly-manicured lawns and surrounded the mansion itself.

Said residence sat atop a hill overlooking Mirai Academy. From here, Yasu Fukuda had a perfect vantage point of her mother's school as the rays of the setting sun bathed it in a beautiful palette of warm colors. It was a sight too beautiful to waste, and she had brought out her easel and her pastels to the immense and ornate porch in front of the manor, intent on capturing the moment in her artwork.

Well, that had been the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, Yasu could not fully focus on her artwork. No matter how hard she tried, her mind kept drifting back to her .

"Thank you very much. For yesterday, I mean. I really did appreciate your guidance."

That underclassman… Hiroko Tsubasa - Yasu could not stop thinking about her no matter how hard she tried. It was ridiculous, really. They had only interacted twice, and Yasu knew full well that Hiroko was a transfer. She was just like the others. She was oblivious to Yasu's reputation now, but eventually, she would catch on, and that would be the end of it. It wasn't like Yasu would be a good friend anyway.

But there had been something subtly different about Hiroko - something about the underclassman's behavior that suggested that even if she did know what Yasu was like and how she was seen, she would not have cared. That she actively wanted to keep interacting with the Ice Princess of Mirai Academy.

That was… well, a bit troubling, Yasu mused as she attempted to at least capture the basic feeling of the sunset on her easel. If it was even true. It wasn't she knew Hiroko very well or had a reason to have anything to do with her. Unless...

Yasu looked up from her easel, towards the rose gardens that ringed the front perimeter of the Fukuda manor. A small bronze statue, cast in the likeness of a tiger, presided over the section of rose garden nearest to Yasu like a monarch overlooking his subjects.

"I could investigate her." she told the tiger, before catching herself and shaking her head. "No… she and Hamsaki-san are Pretty Cure. I am obligated to investigate them."

Simply verbalizing the idea felt strange. Invasive, even. But it wasn't as if Yasu had meant to overhear that - it was all on Izumi Hamasaki's loud mouth. Furthermore, that monster attack had taken place at her family's school and involved her mother, ergo, she had to be involved. And finally… the sooner she figured out what Hiroko Tsubasa was really like, the sooner she could stop thinking about her.

It would be a relief if she was wrong, and Hiroko was like the others. At least she would know what to do in that case. She would keep telling herself that.

"What am I supposed to do, Papa?" The statue, being a statue, remained silent, naturally. Yasu heaved a quiet sigh and dropped her eyes to her easel. "I wish you could answer that."

As Yasu picked one of her pastels back up, there was a sudden change in the air. A feeling of something off. And then a flash of violet light, right outside the corner of her vision.

When Yasu looked towards the source of the light, the tiger statue was gone. All she could do was stare uncomprehendingly at the empty spot where it had been until just a moment ago.

The Fukuda residence was not the only place affected that evening. As many students in Mirai Academy retired to the dorms or headed home, a wave of disappearances slowly rippled across the school. A favorite tennis racket. A much-loved plush. An heirloom tea set. A reliable softball glove. All these and others vanished in a burst of violet light, before their owners realized something had happened.

And as this happened, a petite figure skulked around Mirai Academy, trying (and often failing) to suppress her laughing as she went on her rounds. This was far more fun than it had any right to be, despite her several near-misses with the students here. Ah well! Wasn't anything she couldn't deal with!

Misty Oliver, a dark-skinned girl with brown eyes, and wavy, brownish-red hair was one of the few Mirai students still out and about while this strange crime wave was occuring. She sighed as she hurried towards the dorms, the evening sun catching the teddy bear charm on her school bag.

"Sheesh… I didn't think that student council paperwork would take me that long." Misty paused by the campus duck pond and took a moment to stretch. Her neck and shoulders felt so stiff after sitting hunched at that desk for so long. "Hope Izzy left some food for me."

The sound of muffled laughter caught her ears. Misty froze in place, suddenly at attention.

"Who's there?" No answer. She didn't see anyone in the vicinity either.

The sound of footsteps caught Misty's ears, and she felt the back of her neck prickle instinctively. She turned on her heel - to empty air… moments before realizing something was wrong. The charm from her bag was gone. The charm that had gone everywhere with her since she'd moved to Japan.

Misty immediately moved to retrace her steps. Maybe it had just fallen off? These things happened... but she had difficulty believing that to be the case this time. Especially since she could still feel eyes on her.

And then she saw a petite figure with cerulean hair moving just outside of the corner of her vision. Without thinking, Misty moved to address… whoever it was who had been following her-

"Excuse me! Why are you-"

-only to find her body involuntarily freezing in place as her thoughts went completely blank. When Misty regained her senses a few seconds later, she was standing by the duck pond, sans her favorite good luck charm and with no blue-haired mystery figure to be found.

No, said mystery figure was now lounging on the bough of a lofty tree elsewhere in Mirai Academy. She appeared to be a petite human girl of about thirteen, with long, wavy cerulean hair worn in a forehead-baring style with a crown braid, and dark gold eyes. She wore a frilly khaki skirt, brown boots, and a frilly wine purple button-down blouse… as well as a very smug, self-satisfied smile on her face.

The girl's eyes shined with mirth as she appraised her latest ill-gotten acquisition - Misty's teddy bear charm. From her perspective, it shined with spiritual energy - just as most everything she had taken had. She made a vague motion with one hand, and the charm vanished into thin air.

"This is too easy! Way too easy! And I haven't even visited the rest of the city!" The girl stood up, striking a pose before putting a hand by her mouth and laughing in a most noblewoman-like manner. "Ohohoho! Prepare yourselves, people of Kyuikai! Soon, you will all know my name!"

The girl remained where she was for a moment longer, still laughing smugly… and then the bough she was standing on began to strain beneath her weight. She gave a squeak of alarm and vanished in a burst of violet sparkles, leaving her perch to crash to the ground without her.

This morning was already off to a terrible start.

When Hiroko got up to make breakfast that morning, she couldn't find her favorite frying pan - the handy cast iron one her mother had kept around for years, the one she had given her younger child as a going-away present. When Muse, who was still half-asleep padded into the kitchen, Hiroko was still looking for it.

Muse tilted her head to the side, making a curious "mrrp" noise. "Hironyan? What's wrong?"

"My favorite cooking pan… I can't find it anywhere." Even as Hiroko spoke, she continued to hunt around the kitchen. "I'm sorry… I normally wouldn't care that much, but this one is important."

"You too, Hironyan?"

Hiroko looked up from her frantic search through the kitchen "What do you mean, Muse?"

"My favorite plush - you know, that little mouse? I can't find it either." Distantly, Hiroko could hear little paws scampering about in their bedroom, accompanied by discontent squeaks. "Kichu is trying to help, but…"

Hiroko blinked. "That's strange. It's not like our things could have just gotten up and walked away." She hummed thoughtfully, frowning a bit. "Unless they did . I wonder…"

It sounded absurd, but Hiroko was already a magical warrior who roomed with a talking cat and a mouse that sometimes glowed. Arbitrarily writing off any supernatural explanations for this seemed… ill-advised, even if she wasn't personally sure how something like this benefited the Shade Kingdom.

It wasn't just her and Jun who had been robbed overnight, Hiroko quickly discovered when the pair arrived at Class 3-1 and found it in absolute chaos. From the sound of it, everyone present had lost something important overnight, and everyone was broken up about it.

"My limited-edition Tomie collection disappeared before my eyes!" Kou was insistently informing Shinobu, who was already seated, busy staring into a compact and fixing their hair even as the green-haired boy rambled at them. "I know what I saw!"

Shinobu frowned, idly adjusting an out-of-place strand of hair hanging across their face. "I can believe it. Weirdly enough. My favorite makeup brushes are gone too, and I know I didn't misplace those things."

A female student was comforting an absolutely inconsolable Emi. "I wouldn't just mislay that recipe book!" she sniffled miserably. "It's a Nishimura family heirloom!"

Hiroko and Jun exchanged glances. This definitely wasn't normal. And before either of them could verbalize that thought, Izumi Hamasaki burst into the classroom, looking more than a little frantic.

"Guys, this is serious! We might have a-" Her words died in her throat as she noticed 3-1's chaotic state. "-thief… on campus."

"Oh, Izunyan!" Jun bounded over to Izumi. Hiroko followed close by. "Did you get stolen from too?"

"Yeah! My favorite sport towel is gone! Dunno what the thief would even want with that anyway." Izumi said. "And get this - my roomie, Misty saw someone in the area after she lost her favorite charm. Short, blue hair… might have been a girl? She didn't get a good look at them, unfortunately."

Hiroko lowered her voice a bit. "I wonder if that person is with the Shade Kingdom. Either way, it wouldn't hurt for the three of us to investigate them.

And then Mieko arrived, and the chaos wrought by the mysterious thefts - mostly - vanished as everyone scattered back to their seats. Sure, there was still some frantic whispering here and there, but for the most part, things seemed normal.

That was, until break rolled around, and the speculation started right back up. (Kou was blaming poltergeists, Emi was putting the idea of a mysterious phantom thief forward, and Shinobu was rolling their eyes at both of them before bringing up a crime show they had watched last night.) The Cures and Jun nodded at each other and moved to exit the classroom in favor of somewhere more private-

-only for a high school girl Hiroko had never seen before to step into 3-1 before she or the others could get even five paces to the door.

A hush fell over the classroom as the newcomer made her entrance. It wasn't difficult to see why through appearances alone, Hiroko mused. She had a regal, queenly air about her, enhanced by her fairly tall stature, long, lilac hair worn in immaculate ringlets and strikingly ice-blue eyes.

Hiroko realized that she was staring again. She did her best to tear her eyes away, even as Izumi gently elbowed her in the side.

"That's the student council president - Naomi Hikawa." she informed Hiroko and Jun under her breath. "Of course she's sticking her nose into this."

If Naomi had heard Izumi, she gave no indication. Her focus was entirely on Jun. Her eyes lingered on the other girl, as if sizing her up before she spoke.

"Jun Inoue, could I see you in the student council office for a moment?"

Jun blinked in confusion. "Huh? I mean… sure?" She had no idea what a 'student council president' was supposed to be, but something told her this girl was some kind of authority. She bowed apologetically to Hiroko and Izumi. "Sorry, Hironyan, Izunyan. We'll have to talk later!"

Naomi glanced appraisingly at Hiroko for a moment. "Actually, you should come along as well, Tsubasa-san. You're Inoue-san's roommate, so perhaps you can help me get to the bottom of this."

"Bottom of 'what', exactly?" Izumi demanded. "The thefts? Are you accusing Inoue of-" She huffed indignantly. "If you're gonna point fingers at my friends, I'm coming along too! For… moral support."

Naomi blinked in confusion. "Well, an additional perspective couldn't hurt, I suppose." she finally said. "Suit yourself, Hamasaki-san. Now - shall we be off?"

"I promise I didn't do anything!" Jun protested.

She, Hiroko, and Izumi stood before Naomi, who was seated at a large and opulent desk. The student council room was as impressive as the rest of Mirai. It sat on the top floor of the school (Naomi had insisted they take the elevator) and was decorated in shades of gray, white, and gold, with plush sofas and desks, sizable bookshelves taking up half the wall, and another desk with four plush chairs situated not far from the student council president's desk.

Naomi simply folded her hands and sighed as she regarded Jun and her friends. Her eyes lingered on Kichu, who Jun was cuddling close before she shifted focus back to the blue-haired girl.

"Inoue-san… I'm not saying you must be our thief. But when a situation like this happens, especially in a place like Mirai Academy, I am obligated to look into every possible lead, and you do fit our profile."

"Don't you think you're being unreasonable?" Izumi shot back. "Literally all you have to go on is 'short, blue hair'. That's what, at least twenty people in the student body? Assuming they're even a student."

"Inoue-san was with me all evening." Hiroko said. "There's no way she would have been able to steal anything. How would she have done it anyway? The thefts took place on a wide scale, didn't they?"

Naomi nodded. "Absurdly wide. We've received at least 75 reports and counting, and those are just on campus. And all in the space of a single evening… this was a very productive thief."

"Productive and clearly not human." Izumi said. "Jun is just an ordinary girl! She isn't capable of some kind of wild magic business like this! Use your head, Hikawa!"

Jun looked genuinely touched by Hiroko and Izumi vouching for her. Kichu seemed to echo her sentiments, even if he was doing his best to stay as quiet as well, a mouse. "You guys…"

"What if we helped you investigate the thefts?" Hiroko said. "You want to resolve this quickly, right? If you had more people, then-"

"-we could track down our thief super-quickly! And then!" Izumi knocked a fist into her hand. "We'll kick their ass and take back everyone's stuff!"

Naomi frowned disapprovingly at Izumi. "Please do not threaten violence here." And then, to Hiroko "While I appreciate the offer, I must decline. I am the student council president of Mirai Academy and heir to the Hikawa family. I cannot saddle an ordinary student with my job."

"What if I volunteered?"

Hiroko blinked. That voice… was that?

It was. Yasu Fukuda stood in the doorway of the student council, holding a large binder to her chest. From the look of it, she had been standing there for some time.

"Oh! Fukuda-san!" Naomi looked sheepish. "My apologies - I forgot I asked to speak to you about the poster designs for the cake competition. Don't worry about this - I don't want to trouble the headmistress' daughter with-"

Yasu simply stepped into the student council room and gingerly sat the binder on Naomi's desk. "I'll leave these with you for now. We can discuss them later. Will that be acceptable?"

"Sure?" Naomi looked genuinely taken aback. "But I must insist-"

Yasu did not acknowledge Naomi. She instead shifted her focus to Hiroko, who tried her best not to stare, let alone betray the heat that rose involuntarily to her face as Yasu's eyes met her own. "I'll assist with your investigations, Tsubasa-san."

"That's very kind of you, Fukuda-san." Hiroko smiled warmly at Yasu. Hopefully, Yasu couldn't see how warm her face was at the moment. "Thank you very much!"

Yasu tore her gaze away. "I'm obligated to help. That's all." As the clock tower bells rang out for next period she added "Please visit my residence after school. We can discuss our strategy there."

And then Yasu was gone. Hiroko didn't realize she was staring after her until Izumi waved a hand in front of her face and Jun gently tugged on her sleeve and reminded her that they needed to get to class.

Her eyes are so pretty... but so lonely, Hiroko thought to herself as the three of them hurried back. I wonder what kind of girl she really is.

As Pretty Cure and their mentor prepared for their meeting with Yasu Fukuda that afternoon, in hopes of catching the mysterious thief, the mysterious thief was hard at work… on an immense ice cream sundae.

The girl sat at one of Western Paradise's outdoor tables, along with two teenage boys - a muscular boy with wild, bleach blond hair, and a thin, bespectacled boy with purplish-black hair pulled into a short ponytail. She was clearly over the moon with happiness - either at the ice cream or the plain wrapped book she was engrossed in. Maybe both.

The girl took an experimental bite of the wafer in her sundae and suddenly looked up from her book, her eyes sparkling.

"This is it! This is… the ultimate victory treat! A fitting reward for all my hard work~!" She jumped up on her chair and struck a pose. "Hail to the most feared criminal in Kyuikai!"

The bespectacled boy immediately lunged towards the girl, grabbing her by the arm and firmly sitting her back down.

"Scream it from the rooftops, why don't you?" he hissed. He wore a gray turtleneck, a violet blazer, dark-rinse jeans, and black boots. "Do you want the humans to come after us, Kae?"

"But we're supposed to get caught, Tobi!" the blond boy said between large bites of his own treat - a jumbo parfait, which he was easily putting away on his own. He wore a sleeveless muscle tee, board shorts, and sandals. "The heroes catch us, and we have an epic fight of destiny', right, Boss?"

Kae bobbed her head up and down. "Correct, Kooyoo! We make trouble, Pretty Cure fights us, and then!" She began to gesture wildly and make sound effects as she spoke. "Finisher! Counterattack! Giant robot! The Magnificent Trio - victorious! Pretty Cure - defeated! Hinyu-sama - very proud!"

Tobi took a sullen sip of his own 'treat' - a bottle of plain seltzer water. "That's nice. Now, Kae, please explain to me why we couldn't just plant the damn Wrath Seed somewhere and go ."

"That's Boss to you."

"Kae , why are we screwing around like this? It's pointless."

Kae slammed a fist on the table. "We're not screwing around! We're creating despair! Take the Kyuikai people's favorite things! They despair! Use the spirits in their favorite things! Our Nikuina will be extra-strong!" She grinned smugly and gestured proudly to herself. "Another great idea from me~!"

Tobi just stared blankly at Kae… before snatching the book out of her hands at lightning speed. It was a manga centering on some Sentai or another. The villainess on the page he had opened to was gloating to the heroes about using the spirits in the town's favorite possessions against them.

"I don't know what I expected." he deadpanned.

Kae took that chance to snatch her book back. "If it works, it works!" she snapped. "This manga has a lot of good ideas!"

"Yup!" Kooyoo said. "Like the plan! And our special monster strategy! And the us!"

"And I love the us!" Kae chirped. "And! And! My sister helped too! Shahei figured out how to track down everyone's precious things in the first place!" She burst out into another noblewoman's laugh. "Ohohoho! We are a pair of natural born geniuses!" She tilted her head, as if listening to someone. "Oh, please accept the praise, Shahei! You've earned it!"

Tobi leaned forward, massaging his temples. "A pair of geniuses with a volume control problem. And shit priorities. The barrier is a thing, you know." He grimaced. "I already feel kind of sunburnt just existing here."

"Oh, Tobi, you're such a worrywart!" Kae said between bites of ice cream. "We have enough time for one last push! Not like those normal humans can stop us anyway! They're just background characters."

And with that said, Kae began working to finish off her sundae, while Kooyoo, who had already finished his parfait, eagerly pitched in. None of the Trio noticed the petite, bespectacled woman with indigo hair who stared at them for just a bit too long before hurrying on.

It was logical to assume that Yasu Fukuda would live in luxury. After all, she was the daughter of the headmistress of one of the most prestigious boarding schools in Japan. Hiroko was still not prepared for Izumi to guide her towards a pristine white manor on a hill. Even from this distance, it exuded the storybook quality that so many other things in Mirai Academy did.

"Fukuda-san really lives just like a princess." Hiroko said as she, Izumi, and Jun made their way up the paved hillside path and towards the Fukuda estate. She couldn't help but notice the colorful roses bushes that lined their path every step of the way. "I'm a bit envious."

Izumi seemed far less enthused. "If only she acted like one." She heaved a sigh. "Sorry, Tsubasa, but she has to have a motive. Fukuda never offers to help anyone normally. She just follows orders like a robot."

Jun's eyes lit up. "A robot?" Immediately, she envisioned a giant mecha-Yasu stomping through Kyoukai as she, Hiroko, and Izumi rode on her shoulders. "I wanna team up with someone like that!"

"Chuu!" agreed Kichu, who was riding on Jun's shoulder.

Hiroko frowned slightly. "Hamsaki-san… why are you assuming the worst of Fukuda-san? It really did seem like she wanted to help us."

"I'm not doing it to be mean, Tsubasa." Izumi retorted. "Hell, I tried to be Fukuda's friend, once. She just blew me right off. Said I was wasting my time and needed to leave her alone. I told you - she hates people."

Hiroko bit back the snappish retort dancing on the tip of her tongue. There was no way a girl who hated people would have had such sad and lonely eyes, she wanted to say. There was no way she had pushed away Izumi out of malice, she wanted to insist. But Izumi wasn't just her friend now - she was a fellow Cure. Getting along with her was even more important than it had been before.

So Hiroko remained quiet as the group arrived at the Fukuda estate, instead taking in the opulent sight before her. The charming scent of roses hung heavy in the air, and the sheer scale of the estate was even more apparent up close. It definitely suited someone like Yasu, she mused.

Haruki was waiting for the group when they arrived in the pristine white and gold manor foyer, which featured the same rose-themed tiling as the entrance hall. The red-haired boy was clad in kendo attire, and from the look of it, he had hurried all the way over to greet Hiroko and her companions.

"Hey, Izumi!" Haruki went a bit pink once he realized who was with her. "And Tsubasa-san! It's good to see you again. I hope you've been doing okay."

Hiroko smiled. "I've been just fine, Haruki-san." Of course he'd be a bit concerned after their first meeting. "Hamasaki-san and Inoue-san have been taking very good care of me."

"And Hironyan takes very good care of us!" Jun said. Kichu, who was doing his best to act like a plush toy, remained silent. "There's no need to worry, Harunyan!"

Haruki did a double-take at Jun. His eyes traveled to her choker and lingered there for a moment before he appeared to realize he was staring and caught himself.

"Um! R-right! Sis is in the sitting room at the end of that corridor." Here, Haruki gestured in the direction of the corridor in question. "She had the maids make tea and sweets for everyone - I hope you guys like it. And-" He hesitated a moment before adding "I'm so glad you're doing well, Tsubasa-san."

And Haruki dropped into a hasty bow, muttering something about having training he needed to finish before he hurried off, leaving Hiroko, who found herself wondering if she had done something to make him nervous, to make her way to the sitting room alongside her companions.

Yasu was waiting for the group when they arrived in the equally fancy (but still strangely warm and cozy) sitting room. The cerise-haired girl was seated in one of the three plush loveseats that faced each other in a semi-circle around an oaken coffee table, near an elegant-looking fireplace, while Hiroko and her companions sat on the one facing her.

A European-style tea set had been laid out on the coffee table, complete with rose-themed teacups, sugar bowl, saucers, and teapot. A small selection of tea time snacks had also been prepared, from floral-themed petits fours to soft pink macarons.

"Good afternoon, Tsubasa-san, Hamasaki-san, Inoue-san." Yasu nodded to each of the three in turn. Everything about her, from the teacup in her hand to her usually stoicism to her measured body language made her seem more noblewoman-like than normal. "I hope it's all to your liking."

"No, thank you, Fukuda-san." Hiroko beamed at Yasu in between sips of her tea. It really was a delicious blend. "You really didn't have to go to all this trouble for us. I greatly appreciate it."

Yasu's eyes briefly traveled to her teacup. "I'm only assisting because I have to." she said quietly. "You're the one who offered to play detective, Tsubasa-san."

Jun, who was doing her best to covertly slip bits of a petit four to Kichu without Yasu noticing, looked delighted with the idea. "You can definitely count on Great Detective Hironyan!" she said. "She's super-smart and super-kind! And Izunyan is super-strong and super-brave! They're a great combo!"

Hiroko looked a bit flustered. "I just want everyone in Mirai to feel safe again." she said. "Just like you must, Fukuda-san." Hopefully, her upperclassman didn't notice how hard she was trying to avoid staring again. "You wanted to talk strategy, didn't you? Where do you want to start?"

Yasu set her teacup and saucer down. "First of all... I would like to enlist the Pretty Cure for help."

Hiroko and Izumi exchanged glances.

"What are you talking about, Fukuda?" Izumi did a bad job of not sounding rattled. "Do you think we can like, casually phone a bunch of magical warriors up? That's not how it works!"

"Hamasaki-san is right." Hiroko sounded a bit more natural at least. "It's a logical idea, especially with how strange these thefts are… but I have no idea how we could find Pretty Cure."

Yasu was unmoved. "It shouldn't be difficult to find Pretty Cure. They're right in front of me."

"Wait, how did you-" Jun began. "I-I mean, Hironyan and Izunyan definitely aren't-!"

Kichu chose that moment to lean forward and take a big bite of the petit four on Jun's saucer. "Chuu!" he squeaked approvingly. The slightest hint of a smile played on Yasu's lips at the sight.

"I knew it!" Izumi jumped up, pointing an accusing finger at Yasu. "You did have an ulterior motive, Fukuda! You were spying on us, and now you're planning on blackmailing us!"

Yasu stared impassively at Izumi. "I did not eavesdrop. You're very loud, Hamasaki-san."

Izumi opened her mouth, ready to demand how and when Yasu would have heard her… and then her brain made the connection. The air visibly went out of her sails as she sank down onto the couch and buried her now visibly burning face in her hands.

"Please don't misunderstand." Yasu said. "I have no intention of blackmailing you two. I simply want insurance. I am obligated to help you investigate, but…" She shook her head. "I cannot do anything against those people, if that is what is going on. That's where you two come in."

"That makes a lot of sense." Hiroko said. "I'm almost certain our thief is a spirit from the Shade Kingdom myself. And I wouldn't want you to get hurt investigating them, Fukuda-san. I don't mind being your bodyguard." She frowned slightly. "But…"

Yasu inclined her head. "Is something wrong?"

Hiroko hesitated before speaking again. "I don't believe you're doing this out of obligation. You wouldn't knowingly risk your safety if you didn't care, Fukuda-san." She nodded to Jun, who was happily feeding Kichu more sweets. "I feel the same way."

"Yeah!" Jun said. "Nyasu's a good person!"

For once, Yasu looked genuinely caught off guard. "N-Nyasu ?" She proceeded to become very interested in her teacup before she spoke again, her voice back to its stoic tone. "Anyway . I appreciate the compliment, Tsubasa-san." She was avoiding eye contact with Hiroko now. "You must be generous with those."

Hiroko looked genuinely hurt. "No, I really do th-!" The sentence died in Hiroko's throat before she could finish it. This was about helping Mirai Academy, not her own selfish feelings. "So, how should we begin, Fukuda-san? I have to admit I'm a stranger to detective work."

"I'll defer to you." Yasu still wasn't quite meeting her gaze. "I prefer supporting people anyway. I'm no leader."

Hiroko managed a smile she didn't entirely feel. "Alright. I'll put together a strategy to catch our thief." With everyone here, she could manage. Hopefully. "I have to try!"

In order to piece together a mystery, one had to have as many pieces of the puzzle as possible. That was how Hiroko imagined this detective business worked anyway. She had no real confidence in what she was doing, but the fact remained that she had volunteered herself, that she wanted to help, and that everyone was relying on her. Even Yasu was deferring to her.

Besides… if she focused on gathering information, she wouldn't think about how much Yasu's words had stung, or how awful she felt for taking it so personally. It wasn't like she knew Yasu well.

"The thefts took place late in the evening, correct?" Hiroko had mused during their strategy meeting. "Most people would have been back at the dorms already - we need to speak to those who weren't."

"That can be arranged." Yasu had said. Even now, she was barely maintaining eye contact with Hiroko, who tried to pretend not to notice. "I know exactly who fits that profile. I'll focus on that ."

"So, Nyasu finds them, Hironyan and I speak to them…" Jun had glanced curiously at Izumi. "What do you want to do, Izunyan?"

"Kick the crap out of the thief once we find them, of course!" Izumi had pulled herself out of her funk by this point and was helping herself to the teatime snacks. "Fukuda wanted a bodyguard, she'll get one."

And thus, Pretty Cure and their companions began their investigation of Mirai Academy. The first interviewee was Kaori Takenaka, a third-year high school student with long, powder blue hair, worn in a forehead-baring style. She took traditional dance lessons, Yasu explained, and often practiced late into the night.

When the group tracked Kaori down, she was on one of Mirai's upper floors and headed to the student council room, a stack of papers in hand. Her violet eyes widened in alarm as she saw Yasu, as if the other girl's mere presence signified bad news.

"Oh… Fukuda-san." Kaori sounded thoroughly concerned by Yasu's mere presence. "Is something wrong? If Nao-chan did anything to upset you earlier, I'd like to offer-"

Yasu remained stone-faced and silent. That was Hiroko's cue to step in.

"Fukuda-san is helping me investigate the thefts on campus." Hiroko said. "I was told you were out late that evening - did you see anything in particular, Takenaka-san?"

"Me? Oh no…" Kaori paused thoughtfully. "Although… Misty-chan felt a presence before her charm was taken. Like someone was following her?" She hummed. "And I think the air around me felt different? It seemed… wrong?" She smiled apologetically. "I don't know how to explain it very well, sorry."

"No, that's really helpful, Takenaka-san!" Jun said. Kichu, who rode on her shoulder again, struggled not to chime in. "Thank you very much!"

Next came Sora Hoshino, a member of the astronomy club - you could always count on them to be out late at night, usually at the sizable observatory on school grounds. In fact, Sora, a petite student with short, platinum blond hair and brown skin was busy messing with the observatory telescope when Yasu led the group to them. The rest of the astronomy club gave her a wide berth, Hiroko noted.

"I saw it!" Sora said. The light caught their thick glasses as they spoke. "Little bursts of violet light, all over campus, every few minutes" They adjusted their glasses. "To think, I witnessed an actual mass spiriting away!"

"I mean, we did kind of have a monster attack campus, Hoshino." Izumi drawled. "This may as well happen." She quirked an eyebrow at Yasu. "You doing alright, Fukuda? You look a little drained."

Yasu indeed looked slightly off-color. She simply looked aside. "I'm fine. It's not your concern."

And then came Masami Kurono and Sakae Yukishiro, two members of the occult research club. You could always count on them to have information on late-night happenings, according to Yasu. This went double for Sumiko, who pretty much ran a gossip network in the school.

"Yes, I hear someone suspicious." Masami, a junior high school student with unkempt black hair and prominent dark undereye circles, did not look up from organizing the scattered pile of what appeared to be cryptid photographs on his desk as he spoke. "I thought it was an apparition at this time."

"An apparition that was yelling about how she was going to be famous or whatever." Sakae, a sullen girl with long, strawberry blond hair deadpanned. She kept staring leerily at Yasu, who remained silent and solemn as ever. "She couldn't even pronounce the name of the city right. Dumbass."

"Do you know where she might have gotten off to, Yukishiro-san?" Something about the way Sakae stared at Yasu made Hiroko nervous. Yasu looked even more off-color than she had earlier, which really wasn't helping. "Fukuda-san tells me you're quite well-connected."

"Did she now." Sakae deadpanned. "All I can say is that you're wasting your time on campus. I haven't heard anything through the grapevine about more thefts here, but I have heard rumors about stuff going down in Kyoukai. You'd be better off trying your luck there, Miss Detective."

"Well, I guess that settles it." Izumi said as the group left the club building. "Tsubasa, are you good with hitting the town? I'm cool with-" She frowned slightly. "Fukuda, are you sure you're alright?"

Yasu was lagging a bit behind the group and had pressed a hand to her head, as if she was beginning to suffer a headache. Once she realized that Izumi and the others were looking at her, she immediately tried to look composed again. "It's nothing. I'm fine."

Hiroko opened her mouth, ready to protest… only to look away when she caught Yasu's eyes. She was already feeling bad about her earlier interactions with her upperclassman.

Izumi sighed and looked away, muttering about 'typical Fukuda'. Jun, on the other hand, ran up to Yasu and gently tugged on her sleeve.

"Um… does it bother you, Nyasu? Everyone seems to be afraid of you… that'd kind of get to me after a while, I think."

Yasu looked away for a moment, taking in the Mirai students milling about on campus. From her perspective, she saw a faceless gray mob, terrifying in its scope and potential malice. They didn't seem to notice her right now, but if she gave out in front of them, if she betrayed a hint of weakness, then, they would... they would definitely-

She tore her gaze from the crowd. "I don't care."

Yasu began walking in the direction of the school gates before anyone could say anything more, forcing Hiroko and the others to hurry after her.

Yasu was not fine. The further the group got into Kyoukai City, the worse she seemed to get. By the time the group approached the shopping district, she was struggling to keep pace with everyone, and once they actually arrived there, the cerise-haired girl suddenly pitched forward, and sank to her knees.

"Fukuda-san!" Hiroko flew to Yasu's side. The latter was far paler than normal, and she was breathing raggedly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"

"I told you, I'm fine." Yasu did not sound fine. She sounded equal parts mortified and exhausted.

Hiroko could no longer keep holding her tongue. "No, you're not fine! I'm not going to ignore that!"

Izumi looked like she was going to say something herself, before she appeared to decide that Hiroko had it covered. "Inoue, could you come with me? I'm gonna get some ice cold drinks for everybody!"

Jun, who had been staring at Yasu as if she wanted to do something to help her but couldn't, at least not in front of this many humans, nodded and hurried off with Izumi.

Yasu said nothing in response, but she didn't seem offended by Hiroko speaking her mind. That was good, right? Hiroko extended a hand to her upperclassman.

"First, let's find a proper place to rest, Fukuda-san - one with lots of shade."

Yasu did not respond at first. But finally, the cerise-haired girl looked up. She looked downright baffled at Hiroko's show of kindness… almost as if she had been expecting mockery or scorn, not any kind of offer of assistance. And she had been. Even now, she half expected Hiroko to snatch her hand away and mock her for being pathetic enough to fold this easily.

But she didn't. Hiroko Tsubasa remained where she was, extending a hand towards Yasu without judgment. And finally, although it seemed like it took a Herculean amount of effort on her end, Yasu accepted it.

Hiroko ignored the surge of heat that welled in her chest as Yasu took her hand, allowing Hiroko to help her up and guide her towards a nearby park bench, which was shaded generously by a tree close by. Those feelings didn't matter either at the moment. All that mattered was making sure that her upperclassman was alright.

The two sat for a while in silence, letting the sounds of passing-by crowds fill the air as Yasu's breathing steadily stabilized. Finally, Yasu spoke. She still sounded more than a bit strained, and her focus was on the ground, not Hiroko.

"I don't understand."

Hiroko inclined her head slightly. "What do you mean, Fukuda-san?"

"Why are you doing this?" A bit of strain crept up in Yasu's voice despite her better efforts. "Why would you go out of your way for me? You're wasting your time."

Hiroko's heart sank as she recalled Izumi's tale of Yasu blowing her off before. 'You're wasting your time' - Izumi had taken it as a statement of arrogance, but it sounded more like 'I'm not worth it' to Hiroko.

Without thinking, Hiroko reached over and gave Yasu's hand a gentle squeeze. "No time spent helping people in need is wasted, Fukuda-san. I'm glad I can be here to support you like this. And I'm grateful for your help as well." She hesitated before adding. "To be honest… I'm glad we can work together like this. I've wanted to get to know you better for a while."

Yasu's eyes met Hiroko's in that moment. She looked completely perplexed, but also... relieved, somehow. But before she could respond in any fashion, Izumi and Jun arrived with some ice-cold bottles of mineral water from a nearby juice stand.

"The cavalry is here!" Izumi said as she handed out water bottles to everyone. Jun took a seat on the other side of Hiroko, before pouring a bit of mineral water and giving it to Kichu, who sat in her lap. "Sorry, didn't know what kind of juice everyone liked, so I played it safe."

Yasu said nothing at first, instead taking a moment to get some much-needed hydration. Finally, she offered Izumi a quiet "Thank you, Hamasaki-san."

Izumi looked aside awkwardly. "Yeah… any time, Fukuda." She took a very long swig of her own water... before setting it aside and proceeding to do stretches. "Soooo… you guys have any new thoughts about our thief?" she asked mid-calf stretch. "I mean, if you're down to theorize right now. I can wait."

"It's fine." Yasu said. "Just sitting here is inefficient."

"Discussing our findings couldn't hurt. That's the next step of detective work, right?" Well, that felt about right, Hiroko mused. And nobody here was objecting, so she must have been somewhat accurate. "I've discovered a few things - mainly, that there are limitations to our thief's powers."

"How so, Detective Hironyan?" Jun asked.

Hiroko hummed thoughtfully. "Hoshino-san said there were intervals between the disappearances, so our thief clearly couldn't snap her fingers and spirit everything off all at once. Furthermore, Takenaka-san said Oliver-san felt like she was being followed, and several students saw the thief around the time their possessions vanished."

"So… basically, she has to be close by when she disappears something?" Izumi began to idly stretch one shoulder, even as she spoke. "Well, that solves one issue, I guess. But how does she know what to disappear?"

"Beloved objects develop a spirit of their own." Yasu said. "Father told me that once, about a statue in our garden." Her expression darkened a bit. "Tora-san... it was one of the last gifts Father gave us. That's what she took. And that must have been how she found it."

"I promise we'll get it back, Fukuda-san." Hiroko said. "We just need a good idea of where the thieves are- "

And then a passer-by stopped in her tracks and glanced over at Hiroko. "Huh? Are you kids talking about that thief gang that was running around?

Pretty Cure and their companions looked up in confusion at the newcomer. She was fairly petite, with indigo hair mostly tucked under a floppy white beret, thick-framed glasses, and purple eyes, which lingered on Kichu, who was frozen mid-sip like a small, furry statue. She wore a white belted dress, chunky brown boots, and a long, gray cardigan.

Jun tilted her head in confusion. "Gang?"

"Yeah, there were three kids outside of Western Paradise earlier, yelling about their criminal plans?" She looked away, shuffling her feet a bit. "I might have kind of, sort of followed them? Didn't do anything 'cause I'm kind of retired," Here, her eyes lingered on Hiroko, then Izumi, and finally, Jun "but I at least got intel."

Izumi's eyes widened. "Wait, are you-?" She caught herself there. Now was not the time, as much as she wanted to quiz this woman about that moment. "I mean - what do you know? Where did they go off to?"

"They had to 'take five' for a bit, and then they were going to go a bit further south in Kyoukai. You know, around where the park is? That'd probably be a safe bet."

And with that said, the woman waved 'farewell' to the group before hurrying on, as if she had somewhere important to be. Hiroko sort of wished she could have asked her if she was, in fact, a former Cure, especially since Izumi had seemed to recognize her, but there would be other times and other opportunities. As for now-

Hiroko glanced around before lowering her voice a half step, prompting everyone to lean in a bit to hear her. "Okay, everyone. Here's what we need to do."

Hiroko sighed heavily and plopped down on a bench not far from the park. "Muse, I give up! I'm at a total loss. We've covered everywhere in Kyoukai's south end, and we still haven't found our thieves!"

Kichu, who was riding on Hiroko's shoulder, gave a dejected sigh. "Chuu…"

Muse gave a dejected meow as she laid at Hiroko's feet. "They're way too good, whoever they are, Hironyan. We shouldn't have tried to mess with geniuses."

"We were outmatched from the beginning." Hiroko sighed. "Although…" She removed the bracelet she was wearing - blue agate, interspersed with silver bands - and held it up to the light. "It's odd. If they were going after objects with lots of spirit, why not take this bracelet? It's much more valuable to me than that pan."

"Maybe it doesn't have enough spirit, Hironyan." Muse said. "Or maybe they overlooked it? I guess anyone would get sloppy after stealing so many valuable things."

Hiroko paused. She could feel eyes boring into her from some distance away. What was that if not a cue to keep going? "Maybe. Or maybe they aren't geniuses after all. A true genius thief would be able to see the value of this bracelet." She got up, dusting her skirt off. "Oh well. Nothing we can do."

There was a subtle shift in the air. A feeling of wrongness. Muse's whiskers twitched, and her pupils dilated. Hiroko smiled. One last push. One last push, and this should work. Hopefully.

"I'm disappointed. For a moment, I believed those three were geniuses. But they're just a bunch of dummies, aren't they?"

The feeling in the air intensified - and then the bracelet vanished in a burst of violet sparkles.

That was Muse's cue to act. The cat spirit was off like a shot in the direction of the park. Distantly, Hiroko could hear what sounded like an indignant scream of protest. She turned behind her and nodded.

"Let's go, guys!"

Izumi and Yasu emerged from behind some nearby trees.

"Right ahead of you, Tsubasa!" And right after she said that, Izumi tore off.

Hiroko almost followed her - and then she hesitated. Yasu was just a normal civilian, and on top of that, she had a weak constitution. Expecting to follow her was wrong, but leaving her behind also felt-

"Don't worry about me." Yasu said. "My role in this is over." She looked away sharply. "You're my bodyguard, aren't you? Do your job, Tsubasa-san."

Hiroko hesitated - but only for a second. "Of course!" She smiled warmly at Yasu. "Don't worry about me, Fukuda-san - I'll return your and everyone else's precious things soon enough."

And Hiroko was off, Kichu gripping onto her shoulder for dear life as she ran. Yasu watched her go. Hiroko Tsubasa was such a confusing person. Going out of her way to help someone like her, willingly becoming a magical warrior and, if she was to believe Haruki's telling of it, fighting a gigantic snake monster…

...there was nothing Yasu could do to help her now. And yet… some part of her was… worried? How odd.

She idled where she was for a moment before following after Hiroko and the others. A silly, foolish decision. She surprised herself by even making it. But staying here like this felt wrong .

Muse and Izumi were both facing down a girl with cerulean hair and dark gold eyes when Hiroko arrived on the scene. The girl was backed against one of the trees near the park courtyard, her expression wide-eyed and fearful as she faced down the cat spirit, who had her back arched and her fur standing on end, and the blond, who looked ready to spring into action at any moment.

"I told you, I have no idea what you're talking about!" Kae was tearing up and deliberately speaking at louder-than-average volume, in a clear bid to attract sympathy from any passers-by. "I'm just an ordinary teenage girl! I've never once thought about stealing from Kyuikai!"

Hiroko quirked an eyebrow as she took her place by Izumi's side. Kichu hopped off her shoulder and headed over to where Muse was. He too looked ready to fight.

"That's a very specific denial." she said. "And I've been informed our thief couldn't pronounce the name of the city correctly."

"Yeah!" Izumi pointed accusingly at Kae. "Give it up, Shade Kingdom servant! This is as far as you go!"

Kae stared at the group wide-eyed before bursting into crocodile tears and running off… but only three paces. Suddenly, the girl stopped in her tracks and turned back to Hiroko and the others.

"Ah… wait. How did you know I was from the Shade Kingdom?"

Hiroko smiled politely. "You just told us."

Kae blanched. For a moment, you could see the gears turning in the girl's head and slowly clicking into place… and then a switch appeared to flip in her brain. She stepped back a pace or two, putting her right in the center of the park courtyard, and burst into yet another noblewoman's laugh.

"Ohohoho! My destined rivals are such fools ! Did you really think you could trap the most fearsome criminal gang leader in the Shade Kingdom? Wrong! You're the ones who fell into my trap!"

Kae struck a pose as purple sparkles swirled around her form. Her human facade fell away, revealing a girl with chalk-white skin, solid gold eyes, and long, aqua blue hair that twitched and moved on its own. She wore a frilly sky blue and cyan dress with a large waist ribbon, a lace-up bodice with a large chest bow, overlong sleeves, and a skirt ornamented with bows, over layers of petticoats, dark cyan rights, and sky blue lace-up boots with cyan bow ornaments.

A small crowd of civilians was beginning to approach the courtyard, drawn by the bizarre sight unfolding before them. Kae didn't seem to notice or care, but it had Hiroko and the others on edge. Transforming in front of everyone wasn't an ideal option, but both Cures still had their hands on their Puricells.

"Kooyoo! Tobi!" Kae called.

Two more spirits appeared on either side of Kae in a flash of dark red and dark gray light. The first appeared to be a tall and muscular anthropomorphic ape with wild white-blond fur and red brown eyes. He wore a sleeveless dark red vest, ripped khaki pants, and white wraps around his hands and feet.

The other appeared to be a young man with avian attributes - the black wings of a crow, talons in lieu of hands, and almost beady black eyes. He had long, feathery violet hair and wore a black and dark violet robe tied with a black sash, dark gray pants, and open-toed black boots, revealing equally talon-like feet. A sword rested in a sheath at his waist.

"People of Kyuikai! Know our names!" Kae struck a pose. "The brilliant magic maiden! Kae A. Dama!"

Kooyoo followed suit. "The mighty unbreakable strongman! R. Kooyoo!"

Tobi stared blankly at his compatriots before heaving a sigh and striking a half-hearted pose of his own. "The elegant high speed swordsman. P. Tobi. Right ."

"Three hearts as one, treading the path of chaos!" the three said… mostly in sync. Tobi was off by half a step. "We are… the Magnificent Trio!"

The Trio struck a team pose as the assembled onlookers stared. Silence reigned… and then a few people in the crowd began applauding. A ripple of conversation about the "weird stage show" rippled through the air as a few people began to laugh… including Izumi, who was loudly giggle-snorting, despite her attempts to stay serious.

"S-sorry, guys!" she told the Trio. "This is just way too much, oh my god."

Even Yasu, who was watching everything unfold from a respectable distance behind another tree in the park, needed a moment to pick her jaw off the ground. She knew these thieves probably weren't normal, but… this was far beyond anything she had expected.

Kae looked mortally offended by the reception her group was getting from the crowd, and especially from Izumi, who got a death glare. "How dare you- argh! Laugh at this, humans!"

Kae withdrew something directly from one of her sleeves - a long, silver staff topped by a glowing violet crystal, which by all means should not have been able to fit in there. She slammed it on the ground, and three immense spheres materialized in the air above the courtyard… all of them comprised entirely of the objects that Kae had stolen from Mirai Academy and elsewhere.

The spheres began to blaze with red-black light. Hiroko and Izumi were instantly on high alert, and the civilians in the area instinctively began to back away as the Trio raised fists glowing with red-black energy to the sky.

"Appear! Nikuina!" Tobi cried as he clenched his fist.

Kooyoo followed his lead. "Cast the world!"

And Kae finished it off. "Into despair !"

The glow of the spheres intensified before resolving into… the components of a giant robot, or a twisted parody of one. The Nikuina assembled piece by piece - first a leg made of a melange of assorted electronics, then a leg made from twisted and warped pieces of artwork and finally arms and a torso with a large chest compartment,composed mostly of miscellaneous items and topped off with a bronze, tiger-like head.

The park-goers scattered as the Trio appeared atop the Nikuina in a burst of colorful light, with Kae standing on its head and Kooyoo and Tobi standing on its shoulders. It gave a roar, causing the civilians in the area to collapse as it drew ribbons of golden light into its mouth.

That was Hiroko and Izumi's cue to ready their Puricells, as Muse and Kichu scrambled for cover. "Pretty Cure! Spirit Unleash!"

"Soaring blue star! Cure Seiryuu!"

"Rushing black star! Cure Genbu!"

Kae broke into a grin the minute Pretty Cure appeared before her. "There they are! My destined rivals~!" She raised her staff. "Attack! Great Spirit King!"

The Nikuina gave another roar as a sword made of fused metallic objects appeared in its hand. It swung it wildly at Pretty Cure, who was forced to leap out of of the way. The sword was left to cleave through several nearby trees instead, sending them toppling to the ground as the Nikuina advanced on the Cures.

Tobi looked even less impressed than normal. "You seriously gave it a name?"

"Of course I gave it a name!" Kae shot back as the Nikuina tried to land hits on Cure Seiryuu and Cure Genbu, who searched for an opening to strike. "Great Spirit King is powered by the spirits in everyone's precious objects!" She looked way too proud of herself. "It deserves a name."

The Nikuina swung at Genbu… and she met it with a short-range burst of water from her palm. "Is that seriously why you stole everyone's stuff?" The Nikuina's aim was thrown off balance, leaving Seiryuu an opening to nail the Nikuina with a long-range blast of wind. "So you could make a stupid giant robot?"

Kae and her henchmen were forced to brace themselves as Seiryuu's blow sent the Nikuina reeling backward. It needed a moment to steady itself, and that moment was all Seiryuu and Genbu needed to move in and begin trading blows with it. "It's not stupid! It's genius! I'm a genius!"

"It's selfish!" Seiryuu shot back as she nailed the Nikuina with several wind-charged blows. "You've caused so much pain to Fukuda-san and the others for your own ego!" The Nikuina attempted to smack her away, and she deflected its punch with a gust of wind, allowing Genbu to move in. "We're going to take it all back!"

And Yasu Fukuda, who laid slouched against the tree she had been hiding behind, as gray and colorless as every other civilian in the area, felt a ray of light break through the despair-induced fog that consumed her thoughts. Hiroko… Cure Seiryuu was out there fighting for her sake.

And there was her final, definitive answer. Hiroko Tsubasa was not like all the others.

Kae responded to Cure Seiryuu's words by stomping her feet and aiming her staff right at the blue Cure. "Sh-shut up!" she snapped as she fired several violet blasts at Seiryuu. She was forced to disengage from the Nikuina… giving it an opening to smack Genbu aside and swing at her with its fists. "There's nothing selfish about this! I'm doing it for Hinyu-sama's sake, not mine!"

Genbu recovered and charged forward, placing herself between the Nikuina and Seiryuu. Her arms glowed with dark violet spirit power as she pushed back against the Nikuina's fist. Seiryuu joined her and followed suit. Together, the two Cures shoved the Nikuina away with a cry of exertion…

...and then the compartment on its chest opened. Seiryuu had a split second to process what was happening before Genbu shoved her out of the way and took the projectile that had fired forth head on, sending her slamming against a nearby tree. The black Cure was now bound to said tree with what appeared to be a tangle of different cables, strings, and ropes - and no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn't escape.

Somehow, Yasu managed to move just enough to get a clearer view of the battle. She wasn't sure how she did it, when her thoughts felt leaden and blunted, and her body felt heavier than it had during her worst episodes. But somehow, she managed… in time to see things begin to go sideways for Pretty Cure.

"Genbu!" Muse was immediately on the scene, with Kichu in tow… but the cat spirit wasn't having a lot of luck with the bindings either, even after shifting to human form and channeling her own spirit power into her arms. Kichu squeaked disconsolately as the blue-haired girl struggled with all her might.

And Seiryuu was in no position to help. The Nikuina wouldn't give her an opening to get away and help Genbu, and Kae kept up the pressure from her perch on its head. She was forced to spend all her energy evading the two's attacks and searching for an opening to attack… for as long as she could hold out.

Kooyoo pumped a fist into the air as Kae went after Seiryuu. "Go, Boss, go!"

Tobi, meanwhile, seemed bored. "Can we not just finish them off?"

Yasu stared in horror at the sight unfolding before her. Hiroko Tsubasa… Izumi Hamasaki… they were out there fighting to take back everyone's precious things, while she was stuck watching uselessly. She thought she would have been alright with such things, but...

"No time spent helping people in need is wasted, Fukuda-san."

Something welled up within Yasu, and the color slowly returned to her form as she realized she very much wasn't . She had to… no, she wanted to help Hiroko and the others. Because she… because she…

"I've wanted to get to know you better for a while."

...felt the same way, Yasu admitted to herself as a soft white aura surrounded her. No matter how much she lied to herself, no matter how hard she clung to the mantle of the Ice Princess, the pretty doll without a heart, Yasu Fukuda wanted people who cared about her. And people she was allowed to care about.

The Nikuina managed to land a hard blow on Cure Seiryuu, sending her flying aside. She managed to shakily touch down on the ground some distance away, but it was clear that the blue Cure wasn't going to hold out for much longer. The Nikuina drew back to strike-

-and Yasu Fukuda tore towards it. She wasn't sure how she managed such a feat. Even now, her chest felt like it was on fire, and her muscles were screaming at her to stop. Even as she planted herself between the Nikuina and Cure Seiryuu, she could feel herself beginning to sway on her feet.

Nevertheless, Yasu managed to stand firm, glaring defiantly at the Nikuina and the Trio, all of whom looked far too stunned to do anything. "I won't let you hurt them anymore!"

Genbu stopped struggling and stared at the sight before her. "Fukuda?"

Jun was distracted from trying to free Genbu as she realized who had showed up. "Nyasu!"

Seiryuu's eyes widened as she noticed the soft white aura that surrounded Yasu. "Is she really-?"

Kae narrowed her eyes. "I don't take orders from background characters. Now, get out of the way! My fight is with Pretty Cure, not some boring random!" She stomped a foot and pointed her staff towards Seiryuu. "Great Spirit King! Focus on the blue one!"

Yasu did not budge, even as the Nikuina lunged towards her, ready to pick her up and move her aside so it could get to Seiryuu. It was stupid. The peak of stupidity. Even as the white aura surrounding her grew in intensity, Yasu was aware she was putting herself in grave danger. But Hioko had said it herself, hadn't she?

"You wouldn't knowingly risk your safety if you didn't care, Fukuda-san."

There was a flash, and Nikuina was sent staggering backward, nearly throwing the Trio off. As Yasu registered that yes, she was still very much intact, the white crystal emerged from Jun's choker and hovered in front of her before resolving into a white and violet Puricell.

"Is this…?" Yasu hesitated as she beheld the device before her… but only for a moment. She had come this far - and how else could she properly repay Hiroko and the others? She grabbed the Puricell.

"Pretty Cure!" Yasu pushed the front five buttons on the Puricell in sequence as her form roared with white energy, which flowed into the device. "Spirit Unleash!"

Yasu was suspended in a sparkling white void, her clothes replaced with a robe of sparkling white light. A mote of light floated towards her and landed in her hand, resolving into a paintbrush made of white light. As Yasu elegantly gestured with the brus, her attire took shape piece by piece, appearing as a metallic-looking shell of paint before breaking apart into a shower of white sparks and revealing her outfit.

First came a white dress with puffy, violet-trimmed sleeves and a secondary layer of white chiffon, worn over dark gray shorts, then elbow-length white gloves with light gray tiger-striped trim, and finally, violet knee-length stockings and white, ankle-length boots with violet tips.

The paintbrush broke apart in a flurry of white sparks that swirled around Yasu like newly-falling snow. She twirled elegantly as the sparks gathered about her form before resolving into a sleeveless light gray tailcoat with lavender trim, a violet tiger stripe-printed chest bow with a white crystal brooch, and a dark violet waist ribbon.

Her glasses vanished in a burst of white light as her eyes turned cerise, and her hair tinted pink, grew out past her shoulders, and became tied up into a high ponytail with a striped white and gray hair bow. She gained white heart earrings and a white choker with a violet gem pendant as a pink and white pouch holding her Puricell appeared at her waist.

Finally, she touched down on the ground, a shower of white sparks surging up around her and white moonflower petals surging up about her form as she posed.

"Shimmering White Star! Cure Byakko!"

Seiryuu managed a smile, even as she hauled herself to her feet. "Byakko!"

Jun broke into a grin as Kichu cheered. "You did it, Nyasu!'

Kae's jaw dropped. "Another Pretty Cure?! Nobody told me about this!" She stomped a foot indignantly. "Change of plans! Great Spirit King, get her!"

The Nikuina rounded on Byakko, summoning its sword and swinging it in an arc towards her. She immediately leapt out of the way, touching down elegantly some distance away. The moment she realized what she had just done and how easily she had just done it, she smiled despite herself.

"It didn't hurt at all." the white Cure whispered incredulously.

Byakko immediately put her newfound speed and stamina to use, swiftly and gracefully dodging and weaving out of the way as the Nikuina futilely attempted to strike her. Once or twice, it seemed like it would get close, only to eat a blast of shimmering white energy fired from Byakko's hand.

As Byakko kept the Nikuina at bay, Seiryuu hurried to Genbu's side. She focused her spirit energy into one hand, slicing through the black Cure's bindings.

"Are you okay?" Seiryuu asked Genbu as she helped her to her feet.

Genbu managed a smile. "I'm as fine as I'll ever be. Now c'mon - let's finish this!"

Kae grew more and more agitated at Cure Byakko. "Damn it! Hold still!"

She fired another magic bolt from her staff at Byakko… who instinctively raised a hand in front of her. A small, shimmering metallic barrier appeared before the white Cure. The bolt of magic struck the Nikuina straight across the chest. Its body began to visibly spark as its movements slowed.

That was Seiryuu and Genbu's cue to act. The two Cures sprang towards the monster, aiming elementally-charged kicks straight at its chest. The Trio had a split second to process what was about to happen before they teleported a short distance away, leaving the Nikuina to crash back-first on the ground.

"Now, Byakko!" Jun cried.

Byakko nodded. She didn't need to ask what Jun meant by 'now' - the words came unbidden to her mind. Her form began to glow with white energy as she focused her spirit power.

"Pretty Cure!" White sparks danced around Byakko and white moonflower petals swirled about her form as an army of shimmering white energy swords took shape around her. "White Rain!"

Byakko pointed a finger towards the Nikuina with the commanding air of a princess. The energy swords flew towards it from all sides, exploding into a burst of white light on impact. It gave one last roar as it dissolved into a shower of light particles, which dissipated, leaving a huge pile of ill-gotten goods and three shriveled pieces of a Wrath Seed pod.

Tobi facepalmed as the damage inflicted on the surroundings reverted itself. "All this work, and this is your result. Incredible."

"Oh, shut up!" Kae stomped her foot petulantly. "It's not my fault! It's theirs!" She rounded on Pretty Cure. "Next time! Next time, I'll prevail! Just watch!"

Kae slammed her staff on the ground, and she and her henchmen vanished in a burst of violet sparkles. Byakko watched them depart… before the energy she had spent finally caught up with her. Her transformation dissolved as her form began to sway again.

Hiroko was at her side instantly, and Jun and Izumi were close behind her. Part of Yasu felt she should protest the way Hiroko dove to the ground and caught her before she she could fall. Part of her felt she should apologize for how exhausted she felt, to the point of being unable to manage to say anything.

She did not indulge either of those parts of her. Instead, for the first time in many years, Yasu Fukuda let herself let her guard down ever so slightly. There was nothing to fear if she rested a bit. Nothing at all.

"Well, I hoped you learned a hard lesson today." Tobi said.

He was standing at the kitchen sink in the small, cramped flat the Magnificent Trio called home, currently up to his arms in dishwater as he worked on a dishearteningly large number of dishes. Kae and Kooyoo sat at the nearby kitchen table, finishing off the remnants of what appeared to be chocolate cake.

"Yes, Tobi. I won't make the plan so complex next time." Kae groused in between bites of cake. "Geez, do you enjoy lecturing people?"

Tobi did not look up from his work. "Listen, as the adult in this room-"

Kooyoo tilted his head quizzically. "Didn't you just turn eighteen last week?"

"As the adult in this room , I have a duty to look out for you." Tobi set his scrub brush aside and turned to regard his teammates, arms crossed. "For god's sake, you two can't even clean up after yourselves."

Kae just smiled. "We don't have to! We have you, Tobi!" She got up and stretched before proceeding to undo her crown braid. "The laundry will be done by the time Hinyu-sama comes by, right? I'll be out 'til then."

"Yeah, and we'll have tomorrow's lunch too, right?" Kooyoo asked around a mouthful of cake.

Tobi sighed heavily, muttering something about spoiled children as he removed his gloves and apron and set them aside. "Yes, yes, of course. Hopefully, that geezer still pays. We barely sold any charms last week."

Kae looked completely unfazed. "Hinyu-sama will pay! And the charms will sell! Shahei has some new ideas for them anyway!" She flashed a peace sign. "See you later, boys!"

And with that said, Kae took a breath, gripped her head… and turned it all the way around, revealing a face that looked near-identical to her own, save for softer eyes and a beauty mark near her mouth. The new girl took a moment to push her hair out of her face and blink a few times before she spoke.

"Oh… hello, you two." She even sounded far different from Kae - wispy and unemotive where her sister was loud and animated. She moved to retire to her bedroom. "And goodbye. I'll be working the rest of the night."

Kooyoo started after her. "Wait! Shahei! Don't you want to chill with us a little? You can work out here, and we can talk! It'll be fun!"

Shahei smiled. There was no real emotion behind that expression. "You have very interesting priorities, Kooyoo. I wish I could be so casual." And with that said, she left without another word, still smiling.

Kooyoo and Tobi watched her go. Neither boy had missed the veiled insult in Shahei's words, but that was just how she was. You took the twins as they were, or you didn't put up with them at all.

Yasu was absorbed in drawing when Haruki found her that evening. The girl sat at the desk in her spacious and elaborate-looking bedroom, laser-focused on the drawing before her. She only looked up when Haruki set a cup of hot cocoa near her.

"Are you feeling any better?" he asked. "Mom's been worried sick about you."

"I'll be alright." Yasu said. "I just pushed myself a little harder than usual. That's all."

Haruki didn't look any less concerned… but pushing the issue with his sister wouldn't help. "I'm glad Tsubasa-san and the others helped you resolve everything at least. It's good to know Tora-san is finally back where he belongs." He paused before adding "What happened, anyway?"

Yasu just looked away. "It wasn't important." she said. "We stopped the thief, and Hikawa-san helped return everything to its rightful place. Nothing else matters."

She hadn't been expecting Naomi Hikawa to show up to Kyoukai's park in a helicopter, let alone for her personal army of black suited attendants to swarm the area in the name of redistributing everything that had been stolen, but… that was the student council president for you. She never did anything halfway.

"I guess you're right." Haruki said. "Rest well, sis." He moved to leave before pausing and adding "By the way… I'm glad you're making friends."

Calling Hiroko, Izumi, or Jun friends felt presumptuous, Yasu mused as Haruki departed. Her eyes briefly flitted to the Puricell on her desk before she stared down at her in-progress drawing - a white tiger rushing through the plains, while a black sea turtle swam through the neighboring ocean, and a blue dragon soared above the pair.

She continued to work on the blue dragon's scales. "Perhaps someday."

Perhaps someday, they would shine together. Not only as comrades with a common cause but as true friends.