Chapter 20:

Tongue-tied (+ Author's Notes II)

Half-Paid Heroes

Ella didn't manage to sleep a wink, even a day after her confrontation with Chris's brother. She had been wondering about his proposition, haunted by the scythe that had been touching her neck.

With her heart settling into her throat, she arrived at the Tung residence - Martin's and Chris's house - and agreed to this meeting as soon as the brother came to the doorstep, still draped in his baggy white button-up shirt covered in residual art, which he had probably slept in.

The blonde was completely aware of someone watching her from somewhere, but she wasn't sure who was watching or where they were watching from, so she stood there and waited for a few agonising seconds for the watcher to come out...




These strange noises broke the silence of the neighbourhood, and certainly enough, she whipped around to find a silver-haired man in a wheelchair at the wooden fence. Although he was wearing an off-white woollen sweater and checkered pants that gave him the appearance of someone's grandfather and thus he seemed vulnerable, the aura he seemed to exude simply from his stern gaze, high nose and wrinkled face was one of a contradictory strength and dominance.

It was none other than Takahiro Odagaki.
"W-What do you want from me?" Ella stammered, almost backing into the older boy before remembering he was there.

"You're the friend of Heart Hope, huh?" the old man mused. He broke into a barking laugh while Ella took in Martin's stone-cold expression. 

After a moment of hesitation, she nodded, punctuating her reply with an audible gulp.

The man rummaged in a backpack, which was strapped to the wheelchair, and presented to Ella a simple silver ring that had an eerie bright white glow. "This is meant to be one of the five items that brings forth the Hearts. Take it."

According to some of the paperwork Kirikagura made Ella read, there were only four Hearts - Hope, Passion, Wisdom and Courage - of which two were with the Kirikagura Company already.

How could there have been a fifth?

While she pondered the decision, Odagaki delicately slid the ring on to one of Ella's fingers, his hands shaking with trepidation. Ella tried to block out the transformation from her mind, but she was enveloped in the ring's light...

...and once her transformation had ceased, the older man declared, "Welcome to the world, Heart Despair." 

The obsidian star sapphire shone on her ring as the full glory of her outfit was revealed - she had a white sleeveless dress that reached her knees, with the three layers of her skirt hemmed in a bloody shade of vermillion. A camellia brooch, also a deep red, sat on her lapel, and as she swept into a curtsy, she revealed more of her black-stocking-covered legs and white ankle boots. 

"Glad to finally be of this earth," Heart Despair told them, the black crown ornament on her white headband gleaming in the early light.

Ella tried to regain autonomy, but she couldn't.

She was trapped in her own body.
---- Author's Notes II ----
[Heatwave and Reality vs. Fiction (ch 18 - 19)]
* These were originally intended to be bundled as a bonus chapter, hence the reason they both have titles despite the latter being part of the real story. However, they filled a niche I'd forgotten to fill a lot earlier and I needed a lighter segment after Rage Against the Machine (ch 15 - 17).
* This was originally going to be titled after the former and not the latter but...see above. The title of the former is also the reason why Chris's opponent's character uses flaming arrows.
* The latter was inspired by rereading the first 6 or so chapters of Perfect World, and was based on part of a story framework I had in my head - the moment where Ella confronts Martin in ch 14 was the alternative and although the segue into that moment works less, I think the decision worked in the end. The former I thought up while on a roadtrip.

* I've been trying to pace the remaining story so that it doesn't go off the deep end, something I mentioned to Gerry Hines as a sin of White Parasite. Akihisa's backstory inevitably sits near the climax, so I have to keep postponing it until it's the right time for it.
* Souta was meant to be introduced in the same chapter where Odagaki appears for the first time, which was meant to be at one of those youth disco things parents sometimes hold. He was meant to be a Kirikagura mole within Odagaki's company, but I figured the story was way too confusing as it was.
* Odagaki's wheelchair was meant to become something akin to a Tachikoma (from Ghost in the Shell), but me watching The Reflection in the summer 2017 anime season killed that off way too early...hence the Ella and Martin confrontation in ch 14.
* During previous revisions of this story, there were five Hearts. In fact, that's what previous versions of this story were called - The Five Hearts. However, I couldn't get enough of an idea on the fifth Heart (originally Heart Luck) until she became Heart Despair in this version. I keep calling her "Heart Desire" instead of "Heart Despair", but that's going a bit far with the puns...

Gerry Hines