"Quite the competition this season, don't you think?"

"Hmm."

Seemingly oblivious to the bustle of shoppers and salespeople going about their business during the peak afternoon shopping hours, the pair relaxed at their usual spot in the Piffle Princess food court, chatting over a round of tea.

"Misaki-san is looking especially strong this year...I'm amazed at how much she keeps improving. Even Hatoko-san and Oujirou-san could hardly put up a fight against her," the younger of the two pointed out. "She puts so much into every fight, it's little wonder she keeps winning. We should do the same, Sai-san, if we want to stand a chance against her."

"...that's right," her companion agreed. "Anything less and you might as well give up the fight before it starts." 'Sai-san' leaned back in her chair, as if reminiscing. "She never gives up, never stops fighting until she finds a way to win. That," she said, gazing towards the ceiling, "is her greatest strength. We both learned that the hard way...didn't we, Kaede?"

Kaede smiled. "Yes. In fact, there are quite a few who learned that lesson back then. Arisu-san, for one..."

"Mmm." Sai recalled the match in which Arisu Fujisaki had attempted to cheat Misaki Suzuhara out of a victory against her older sister Madoka by planting a signal inhibitor on Misaki's Angel, Hikaru. However, Oujirou Mihara – younger brother-in-law of the game's founder – had recognized that something was amiss, and intervened, convincing the younger Fujisaki to stop using the device and let the match continue fairly. Shortly after the match ended, Arisu – after a long talk with her older sister – decided to create her own Angel for the next tournament season to challenge Hikaru on her own terms. "She certainly has improved over the last season as well, though she still has far to go before she reaches Suzuhara's level of ability."

"True enough. And let's not forget Madoka-san as well; she never has given up trying to beat Hatoko-san, though at least it looks like she's not doing it for revenge anymore." Kaede went quiet for a moment, as if in contemplation. "Misaki-san really did change a lot of us, for the better...don't you think, Sai-san?"

"Mmm."


Whoosh! A fast roundhouse kick swept mere millimeters over Nova's head as he dropped to one knee. Shifting his center of balance, the Angel aimed a sweeping kick to take his opponent's legs out from under her. The attack connected solidly, and Mirage hit the Layer hard.

Jonathan's confidence had grown by leaps and bounds in the days since his first training session with Matthew Lee and Shadow, and his control and fighting technique were vastly improved over their first mock battle. While he knew he still had quite a way to go before he could go toe-to-toe with his mentor in an all-out battle, he was now at least capable of fighting on a roughly even level with his other sparring partner.

Mirage recovered quickly, rolling out of Nova's reach and hopping lightly back onto her feet in a ready stance. Wasting no time, the sand-colored Angel went right back on the offensive, leaping into the air and aiming a powerful flying kick directly at Nova's head. The strike missed its intended target, who was no longer there; rather, he had side-stepped out of harm's way while taking hold of Mirage's outstretched leg. In one smooth motion, using his attacker's momentum against her, Nova bodily swung his opponent completely around, then released his grip and sent her flying. Mirage landed with an audible thump, only inches from the Layer's edge. The impact was hard enough to knock off a sizable portion of the Angel's damage bar, which was now nearly half depleted; however, Nova's own bar was down to nearly one-third, and only a minute and a half remained on the match timer. Jonathan knew that he needed to go for the win quickly, or risk losing by damage points.

Not wanting to give Steven the chance to recover, Jonathan sent Nova speeding towards his fallen opponent, intent on finishing the fight. Mirage stood as the blue-clad Angel approached, and leapt to the side to avoid being forced out of the Layer. Nova slid to a stop near the Layer's edge, mere inches from his target. In that instant, Mirage lashed out with another roundhouse kick at point-blank range. Nova blocked the kick, which inflicted only minimal damage...but it also sent both Angels wildly off-balance. In a desperate bid to regain her footing before she fell out of the Layer, Mirage's arm shot out toward the only other object nearby.

Mirage's outstretched arm, rather than latching onto Nova as was intended, instead caught the other Angel on the chin in an inadvertent backhand strike. Caught completely by surprise by the unexpected blow, Jonathan could do nothing but watch as Nova tumbled across the threshold at the Layer's edge, falling to the tile below with a loud clatter — followed quickly by Mirage, who was unable to recover her own balance in time. Still, as Nova had exited the Layer first, Steven was declared the victor.

Steven deactivated his visor with a relieved sigh, while Jonathan cast an amused look across the Layer towards him. "You can't possibly tell me you actually meant to do that this time."

His opponent shrugged. "Hey, I'll take what I can get. Dumb luck is legal, you know."

Jonathan could only laugh in response, as he gathered the two Angels from where they had landed. "It was a close fight, though. I almost had you there..."

"Yeah, guess I can't argue with that," Steven agreed as he accepted Mirage. Then, something behind Jonathan caught his attention. "Well, well...look who's here." As Jonathan turned to look, Steven nodded to acknowledge the new arrival. "Where were you? You missed all of the action, not to mention my glorious victory!"

Jonathan tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a snort of laughter. "'Glorious'? I'd say 'accidental' is more like it."

Matthew Lee let out a good-natured chuckle of his own as he approached. "I daresay I'd be more inclined to believe Jonathan's account than that of our 'glorious' victor here," he noted to Kyle, who followed closely behind. "In any case, I did catch most of the match, at least from a distance. It was an entertaining fight, and I didn't want to distract either of you by walking up right in the middle of it."

That was something Jonathan could be thankful for. His control of Nova during battle had improved dramatically, true; however, it was nowhere near perfect, and even now all it would take is a mild distraction to break his concentration. I've still got quite a ways to go, he thought.

"In any case," the elder Lee continued, "I figured we might try a change of pace today. Kyle, if you would..."

His friend obligingly stepped forward. "Matt here figured that it wouldn't do you all that much good to fight the same people all the time. Some nonsense about getting a 'broader experience' or somethin...ow! Hey!" Kyle glared at Matthew, who was looking the other way with an innocent expression on his face that fooled absolutely nobody. "Ahem." He turned back to Jonathan. "So, he suggested that for today's lesson, you should fight against me and Chaos instead. Says it'll help to fight someone with a different style. So...how 'bout it?"

Jonathan quickly assented. From the fight he had seen a few days earlier between Chaos and Shadow, he figured that he and Kyle were probably at around the same skill level, and it would be nice to be able to fight someone on an even keel.


The stage was set: Nova stood at the Layer's edge in front of Jonathan, poised for battle; Chaos was in a combat-ready stance at the opposite end. Matthew, playing the part of referee, stood at the midpoint, while Steven sat on the other side in a chair borrowed from a nearby table.

"Ready?" Matthew looked at each Deus, who nodded in turn. "Angels…fight!"

No sooner had the words left his mouth than Chaos was sprinting across the Layer to start the battle in earnest. Jonathan's memory flashed back to the abbreviated fight he had seen between Kyle and Matthew during before his first battle with Steven; he had a rough idea of what to expect from the oncoming Angel, and decided to try to pre-empt it. It would be somewhat risky, but Jonathan judged that if it worked, it would be worth it. As Chaos closed the distance, Nova suddenly sprang forward; with the two Angels less than an arm's length apart, his fist shot out in a pinpoint strike.

The gamble worked — Kyle had apparently been expecting Nova to defend against the first attack, and so had left Chaos wide open to the punch. The Angel had built up enough speed that it was nigh impossible to evade, and the best defense he could manage was to throw his arms up in an effort to minimize the damage. When the blow connected it sent Chaos tumbling, momentum still carrying the lower half of the Angel's body forward even as his upper body careened backwards. The Angel slid to a halt nearly a half foot behind Nova, as his Deus tried to recover from the failed charge. Jonathan smiled as Nova turned to continue the fight.

Chaos leapt to his feet, wheeling to face his opponent. Without missing a beat, he launched into a furious assault, aiming a variety of punches and kicks at Nova. On the defensive, the blue-and-white Angel slipped backwards out of range, as his Deus considered his strategy. Chaos is all about offense, Jonathan mused. If I spend the entire fight defending, there's no way I can win, and he'll inevitably get a few lucky hits in… He knew that if he tried to attack, he'd be leaving himself open to a counter…but there weren't too many options. Hit first, and hit hardest, was the conclusion he reached. His surprise attack had knocked off nearly a third of Chaos' damage bar; even partially blocked, it had been a potent strike. Now, he had to finish the fight, which was going to be quite a bit trickier.

Wham! Chaos slipped through Nova's defense and nailed a powerful haymaker, sending him reeling. Jonathan realized he had let his attention slip; mentally berating himself, he refocused on the Layer. Seeing an opportunity, he struck back — after landing the blow, Chaos left himself open to Nova's retaliatory leg sweep that sent him sprawling onto the Layer.

Jonathan realized that this was probably the most important lesson he would learn from Kyle — in a battle, you always have to be ready to act, or your opponent will act for you. It was simple, but he knew as soon as the realization hit him that it was probably the most important lesson he would learn about Angelic Layer.

Taking the idea to heart, Jonathan renewed his assault. Not wanting to give Chaos the chance to respond, he willed Nova into action. The Angel leapt into the air, aiming a devastating drop kick at his recovering opponent. The attack missed, but it forced Chaos to retreat as he leapt back. Nova wasted no time; as soon as he landed he was already moving into the next attack, launching towards the red-and-black Angel with arms moving at such speed it was difficult for even Jonathan's eyes to follow them. Chaos was forced on the defensive, edging back to avoid the flurry of punches Nova was directing towards him, while his Deus looked keenly for an opening to retaliate. Jonathan knew that sooner or later — probably sooner — Kyle would come up with a counter to Nova's frenzied assault, and that he would need to come up with an alternative tactic quickly. He cast around in his mind for any means possible to exploit his temporary advantage.

His first battle with Shadow was the first memory to surface. A technique he had tried with impressive results, even if the execution was somewhat less than perfect…

Nova leapt back, as if to give Chaos a temporary respite. As Jonathan expected, the opposing Angel immediately charged, taking advantage of the opening. Focusing the whole of his concentration on the task, Jonathan pictured in his mind exactly what he wanted Nova to do, and willed the Angel into action.

Nova leaned backwards, arching his body over until his arms touched the Layer's surface. In one smooth movement, the Angel's legs swept over his head, an almost-perfect backflip — and just as Chaos closed to striking range, finished their arc, striking him solidly on the chin, and sending him flying backwards. Jonathan was so elated at his improved execution of the technique that his concentration momentarily slipped again, so that instead of ending up on his feet, Nova actually rolled backwards about a foot and — once again — ended up on his back instead. Jonathan could actually feel his face redden as he willed Nova back to his feet to continue the battle — only to realize, belatedly, that the battle was already over. Combined with the damage his previous assault had inflicted, the blow had been a mortal one, Chaos' damage bar completely wiped out.

Jonathan removed his headset and wiped the sweat from his brow — the mental effort it took to control the Angel during battle was considerable, though he noted that his control had improved dramatically from his first days in Angelic Layer. He supposed that it would get easier with time, as the art of directing Nova became more instinctive. For the moment, though, he stood and walked around towards Matthew, Steven, and now Kyle, who had already retrieved both Chaos and Nova from the Layer and was offering Jonathan a friendly handshake.

"Well played, Jonathan. I recognized that last move you did — it's the same one you tried on Matt last week, isn't it?"

Jonathan accepted the handshake, and nodded in the affirmative. "I figured it was as good a shot as I was going to get. It did work on Shadow, and guessed it was as likely to work on Chaos, especially since I haven't used it since that first time."

Kyle grinned sheepishly. "Doesn't help me that I ran Chaos right into it. Even after you started the backflip, it took me a second to realize what it was…too late, by then." He handed Nova to Jonathan, then turned to Matthew Lee. "I'd say he's got nothing to worry about. If he keeps fighting like that in the tourney, he'll do alright."

Steven was practically slack-jawed at the result of the battle, and even Matthew looked suitably impressed. "I might have to start putting in extra practice myself," he said, "if that was any indication of how fast you're learning. You might even have me hard-pressed to take the top spot if you keep it up."

Kyle and Steven snorted in unison. "Confident, aren't we?" remarked the younger Lee.

"Of course," Matthew dryly replied. "I have every intention of taking that first place trophy home with me this weekend. You are, of course, welcome to try and take it from me…though I'm fairly sure Shadow is up to the challenge." He arched an eyebrow at his younger brother. "In fact, would you like to try your hand right now? I'm in no hurry to leave…"

Steven blanched. "Ah, actually…oh, look at the time!" He made a display of looking at his watch, and grabbed his backpack from the chair. "I've got to get home for…um…dinner! Yeah, dinner! So, seeya Jon, Kyle!" He was quickly out the door, leaving the remaining audience to chuckle at his sudden departure.

"Some things never change," the elder Lee said with a mock sigh, and glanced down at his own watch. "Well, unless you've got anything for me, Jon, I'd hazard we've done enough for one day, wouldn't you say?"

Jonathan nodded, as he packed Nova carefully away in his backpack. He had won his first real battle today, hopefully the first of many. He had learned an important lesson that would serve him well in future matches. And, perhaps most telling that change was indeed in his future…he had made another new friend.

Before zipping his backpack closed, he looked at Nova once more. The Angel he had created to be his avatar on the Layer, an extension of his self… Jonathan smiled, both inwardly and out. We have a bright future together, Nova. Let's show Matthew Lee that we're good enough to take that trophy from him, shall we?


Author's Notes:

Um…I don't really have a good excuse for how long it took to finish this chapter. (It took, what...two years to finish it?) Anyway, it's done, and I'm going to roll right into Chapter 9 on Monday, after I recover from TGS this weekend.

Next chapter: The inaugural San Diego Area Tournament begins!