CounterSpin by purple jellybean hoarder

Warning: Random craziness ahead. One whopping strange chapter. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: sadly, I didn't come up with the title either.

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Chapter 7: D & D, Dungeons and Dragons(TM)
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"Hm."

Ryoma looked bitterly at his breakfast. Glared at it. Then slid his eyes to the fork over at his left and tried to stare that down too. He clenched his fists on his lap and slouched back into his seat, lips forming a small frown.

Of all the possible infuriating, preposterous and irrational ways to prove a point—

Olive eyes flicked up once but then trailed back down to the plate before him. There wasn't anything wrong with it. No, not today, strangely. But that wasn't the point. Fuji must have been planning this whole disaster for some while now, that bastard. Was the concept of acting 'normal' so hard to accept?

Calm down, he silently told himself. Don't crack. Fuji was only up with another one of his ridiculous games… again. He'd grow tired of it soon enough when he realizes that Echizen Ryoma isn't someone who gets easily persuaded—

"Ryoma, you've been staring at your toast for the past ten minutes. It's going to get cold."

or damn intimidated, either.

He watched with glowering eyes at how Fuji smoothly slid into the opposite seat with his own food. That delicious smell wafted over to where he was and he struggled to keep those taste buds under control.

"Um."

Fuji stopped picking up his chopsticks halfway to peer at the scowl on the other's face. "Ryoma? You are hungry, right?" He paused a bit before continuing. "Is the toast ok? I can always get you another one—"

"I'm fine," he snapped irritably. And with that said, Ryoma slowly picked up the piece of bread, feeling that heavy weight of dread settling at the bottom of his stomach. Curse that time Fuji took him to a Japanese restaurant. Curse his preference for Japanese food. Curse his decision to ask for seconds…

"If I knew better, Ryoma, I would say that you don't like it," came Fuji's voice again. "But I've never heard a complaint once. You were always so happy and forgiving with whatever I gave you— like that fiasco with the burnt chicken. Or that bizarre accident where I knocked the vinegar into the potatoes. And…" Fuji tilted his head with a sheepish smile, "let's not forget the time when I mistook the Tabasco sauce for olive oil. Maa, that was so embarrassing—"

Ryoma managed to not flinch at the memory.

"—which reminds me to buy more Tabasco sauce. And more wasabi. Wasabi's the best." Fuji leaned forward and rested his cheek against his palm. "But Ryoma, is there anything you want me to pick up as well? Cookies? Fruit? Milk...?"

A certain type of grape flavored drink?

"—nothing?" A puzzled look was thrown at Ryoma, still oblivious to those seething eyes. "Even a little input? Absolutely no preferences?" Fuji leaned back into his seat, letting out a helpless sigh. "Really now, I seriously wonder what you like to eat sometimes."

The dish that you're eating! The same damn food that you've been taunting me for the last two months! The very kind of stuff that defines Japanese cuisine!

"You know that you can always talk to me, right? I'd love to hear your opinions." There was a sound of movement and Ryoma suddenly found Fuji's face very close, blue eyes staring straight into his. "Ryoma, I'm serious. We practically live together. I don't want you to feel awkward at all. I'll feel bad if you don't like the food. I'm not the kind of person who would get offended easily. Honest. You never tell me anything." He trailed off into an uncomfortable silence.

"…unless it's a secret." And Fuji sat back again, innocent once more.

Creepy bastard.

Ryoma narrowed his eyes and carefully observed the other before him. Even after all that time spent on deciphering this strange youth, the puzzle remained the same: the one known as Fuji Syusuke was frustrating, mystifying, and incredibly complicated.

But then, there were moments. Moments where he noticed a subtle shift from that cool exterior and witnessed from that rare sparkle, tiny brief glimpses of another life. Such as that time they watched fireflies together. Or when Fuji had first taught him how to properly hold that red wakizashi—

And then, that moment just now.

It was all so confusing. Upon illusions that soon reverted back to its original form. It always left him wondering if they really did occur—when that old pretense slipped off and revealed something deeper; it almost seemed surreal…

Like that night.

He quickly stopped that train of thought. A foolish slip of weakness, he reminded himself. From the stress. From the new environment. That was all. And Fuji-senpai was just there to comfort him. It was only natural.

To be guarded, to be untouchable—these were qualities he had yet to perfect. To build, to learn, to experience this life like a constant battle, over and over again. Fight fire with fire, went the saying… but what happens when that fire turns out to be a full blown blaze?

"Japanese food."

Fuji's head snapped up and he looked at Ryoma in surprise. "I'm sorry. What was that?"

Ryoma tried hard to fight off that embarrassing blush. "I said," he almost growled out, "I like Japanese food."

Fuji let out a beautiful smile and immediately switched their breakfasts around. Ryoma watched, transfixed, as that mouthwatering plate of rice and roasted fish came closer before him, his fingers just itching to grab the chopsticks…

"That wasn't so hard now, was it?"

Ryoma shot him a sour look. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't be silly, Ryoma," said Fuji. "You're so stubborn, it just can't be healthy. You've got to relax. Everyone's going to be scared away if you're so uptight all the time. And you never accept my help either. Maybe I should take you to see Inui instead. He's very good at worming out people's issues—"

"I do not have issues!"

"Oh?" Fuji stopped and Ryoma thought he saw a glimmer of blue from those closed eyes. "Now Ryoma, there are many things I tolerate, and lying is not one of them. Especially when it's not going to get you out of this situation. But since you are still," he stressed on the word, "stubborn about it, I suppose we can arrange for something."

"…"

"Don't make that face. There's nothing to worry about. Nothing dangerous. Only a simple bet. Where you can put that stubborn attitude to use."

A pause.

"Now stop it. I'll even make it fun. If I lose, I'll have to do something you tell me. But if it turns out otherwise…" Fuji smiled gently before straightening up in his seat, folding his arms on the table. "How about we lay the conditions down right now? It can be anything you wish."

Anything?

"A friendly game. With no tricks." He chuckled, "you're not scared, are you?"

Bright eyes flashed. "Fine. If I win, you'll have to burn that entire stash of pictures of me in a Harlequin suit."

Blue eyes revealed themselves, clearly not amused. "And if I win," purred Fuji, that pleasant voice now echoed with a dark undertone, "you'll have to stop locking your door at night."

He leaned closer. "So I can start a pajamas theme collection."

Ryoma paled.

---

If there ever was a quote that mentioned how sunny days brought in sunny thoughts, that person ought to be smacked.

No. Make that maimed.

"PAINTBALL!" cried Momo as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "It's only paintball, Inui-senpai! Stop making it so complicated!"

"You were always such a killjoy, Momo. There's nothing wrong with a little competition—"

"That's not called competition!" Momo jabbed violently at the innocent looking water cooler. "That's called…induced suicide!"

Eiji slowly edged himself away from the crowd that was standing at a 5 meter radius away from Inui. Maybe, if he was quiet enough, he could slip away and dash home as if nothing ever happened—

"And no chickening out. Or it's an automatic glassful of Hyper Remix Sparkling Soda. Kikumaru, that means you."

"Whaaat?" Eiji spun around and glared daggers at Inui. "Who made such a stupid rule?" He stomped back to the circle, determined to get some say in this. "I'm not in the mood for another stomach ache! Who knows what's in that nasty stuff? It's all white and frothy and if you tilt your head at just the right angle, you can see the vapor coming out from it!"

"Now, just let me explain—"

"I don't care what you have to say about this! There is no way I'm going to drink that disgusting contra-productive ooze! And trust me, I had to try all of them! They smell bad, taste bad and most of all, sound bad! Can't you think of better names!"

If Eiji had bothered to look around him, he would've realized that he was beginning to form a respectable 5 meter radius circle of his own.

"And how did it get involved with paintball, anyway! I thought this was a team outing! As in fun! As in not scared shitless! Because I am never—" He stopped. "Why is the soda glowing?"

Inui's glasses glinted. "New ingredient. Florescent bacteria—"

"Waaaahhh!"

"—relatively harmless—"

"Nyaaaaa! Save me, Oishi!"

"—adds a tangy feel to the taste buds—" But by that time, complete pandemonium had broken out, and no one could hear themselves let alone hear Inui.

Among the few who could still make out that distant cry of what little was left of their dignity, Ryoma stood a little off to the side, tugging at his dark baggy pants. The quiet uneasiness that first appeared as a tiny shiver had somehow amplified into a restless disaster when Inui-senpai introduced another awful creation. Of course, this didn't mean that he was scared. Oh no. Even if he had never played 'paintball' in his life and had no prior training on how to aim anything with a gun, he was still going to take the challenge head on.

Nor did it mean that he was about to back out either. Absolutely not. Strictly forbidden. He was going to stick by this until the very end, even if it killed him. Because he wasn't about to allow Fuji the gratification of knowing just how deep the trouble he was in…

"It isn't so bad, Ryoma," said Fuji, who was standing calmly next to him. "If you hate the drink so much, all you have to do is find one of the red ribbons. Or if you get hit before eliminating anyone, you'll only need to drink a tiny sample. Of course, the amount increases with the number of people you hit." His eyes swept to the other side of the wood clearing, pausing only for a moment on an individual named Mizuki. "And look, there are so many targets. You'll do fine."

Ryoma looked away.

"Now don't be a spoilsport. Even I'm planning to go all out. As much as I would love to try Inui's new drink, there's a much better prize I'm after, ne?" He smiled gently and moved his mouth to the other's ear, as if in a whisper—

I do hope you're ready, Ryoma. Because the game begins now…

-

Stealth. Like the tiger of the jungle, like the wildcat of the mountains, like the snapping turtle of the murky waters—where was the stupid Mamushi when you needed him?

Momo squatted near the bushes, sharp eyes picking out any movement through a tiny peephole. Damn, if it weren't for that damn Psi-detector, he would be waltzing through this like moon walk. Yet here he was, hiding like some scared little duck, defenseless and unable to do much about the situation.

"Psst, Momo. Don't fall asleep. Our sanity's at stake."

"Eh. Kikumaru-senpai. I don't think you should bother him anymore…"

A rustle. "Nonsense, Kachirou. We have to make sure he's doing his job."

"But, Kikumaru-senpai. You might distract him. He needs concentration," came another whispered reply.

"Are you serious? This is Momo we're talking about! Like he has any to begin with—!"

Momo's head whipped to his left, a vein visibly throbbing. "All of you," he hissed, "hush up! What if someone hears?" He glanced fearfully behind him, before turning back to the group. "Look, this is getting us nowhere. We need a plan. We got Jirou only because he was still sleepwalking. And that Yanagisawa just happened to walk right into the clearing when we all jumped him. But if Eiji-senpai hadn't spotted Tezuka right after, we all would be facing that hideous juice by now."

The others shivered.

"What I'm getting at is, we've need to be more aggressive. Waiting is useless. We need to strike. And we need that ribbon. Even if we're a team, there are still a lot of people who are playing individually. Heck, there are only 5 ribbons! Five! Think of what that means!"

"So what I suggest is this," said Momo, after regaining some composure, "we'll spread out to cover more ground, while we shoot down every person that crosses our path… er, with some exceptions. Because in that case, we'll have to run for our lives."

They nodded. Well, except for one.

"Where's Horio-kun?"

-

Horio Satoshi had always prided himself as a clever guy. So when he realized that the group wasn't getting much of anything done, he decided to take the initiative and scout ahead.

He was an innovator, an explorer. He was resourceful; he was cautious. He crept along the thickets, blended into the wavering shadows. Under a watchful eye, he observed. Silence was his ally, patience was his strength. He was every bit like the feared hunter: calculating and deadly.

He picked up a movement on the other side of a row of hedges and grinned. Another unsuspecting target. Just wait until he tells his senpai-tachi about this.

He carefully crept over and dropped to a crouch. He made another check on his gun and adjusted his bright yellow helmet. Better not get careless. As his two years of experience in paintball had taught him, it was to be always on the alert. No matter what happened, no matter what the circumstance was, when one was in a dangerous situation, never for a second let the mind wander off—

And that was how he collided head on into a very surprised Echizen Ryoma.

-

It was two hours into the game when Mizuki Hajime came up with the unpleasant revelation that he may have lost the whereabouts of a certain rival.

He stepped back into the shadow of a big oak tree while he mentally backtracked his thoughts. He was almost certain that said rival made a sharp turn to the left past the small bush before zigzagging over to the small birch next to the main path.

…or was it straight past the small bush and then crossing over the main path to the other side …?

Uh oh.

Mizuki rolled his eyes and let out a frustrated sigh. Arg, all his efforts—wasted! And here he thought that he could finally corner and show that infuriating Fuji Syusuke that at least he could best him in something. Oh, he would love see that face, so full of shock and disbelief, finally realizing that he, the great Mizuki Hajime, was on par with him and above all— at long bloody last— acknowledging him as a damn rival…!

He paused in mid rant and strained his ears at a growing rumble. Wolves? Wild boar? That can't be right, this forest was built on artificial grounds and no dangerous animals were ever reported to have been brought here. So what then, was making that noise?

His eyes widened and swiftly dove into a group of dense shrubs just as Aoi Kentarou and Kisarazu Ryou grinded to a screeching halt to jump into the very same spot he was currently occupying.

Three pairs of shocked eyes stared at one another. Blinked. Then stared some more.

"What—"

Kisarazu slapped a hand over Mizuki's mouth and turned to Kentarou. "I think he got Atsushi. Damn, I didn't think that he'll see through that trick."

"Ugh. I shouldn't have joked around like that. But he really looked harmless."

"You should've just shot him in the very beginning. He has already demolished half of the team."

"I didn't mean to give him target practice! He hardly had any aim in the beginning!"

"That was before! Now he doesn't even need to turn his head anymore!"

Mizuki decided he didn't quite like the idea of being ignored and promptly yanked that offending hand from his mouth. Thank goodness he taught Atsushi better manners. "What are you talking about? Who's he?"

"Quiet, Mizuki. He's coming."

Better manners indeed.

He curiously peered down the path from which the two ran up. Another worthy opponent? Was it Tezuka? Atobe?

He nearly sighed in disappointment when he saw Echizen Ryoma instead—

"Don't move, Senpai." Kentarou hissed frantically between his teeth. "Once you move, you're dead."

—and did a double take.

-

Inui didn't bother hiding his grin when he saw Oishi emerge into the clearing. "So? Who was it?"

If possible, Oishi's expression grew even more miserable. "Tezuka."

"Ah." Inui gave the monitor a quick glance. "He's doing amazingly well, as usual. Eight hits and counting."

"Geez, don't remind me." He nervously eyed the sprawled and moaning group behind him and then at the glass of frothy juice in Inui's hand. "Er, do I really have to drink that much?"

"What? Oh, of course. The amount doubles for every person you take down. Did I forget to mention that?"

Oishi felt the color drain from his face and muttered a quick excuse for the washroom.

Inui shrugged and turned back to the Psi-detector. Hm, not spiking yet, he noted, somewhat disheartened. He scanned the data readings: Taka-san was still in the game; Kikumaru's team had one down; Atobe had the second highest hits and… Fuji had no hits. Well, that was odd. Wasn't Fuji the one who suggested the whole paintball idea?

He read on and felt utterly stumped when he found yet another strange discovery: wasn't Echizen the one who claimed that he had no experience in paintball? Because those numbers told a completely different story.

"Ii data," he mumbled as he whipped out a notebook.

-

Shock, he figured with a tinge of irony, was probably keeping him from reacting from the whole absurdity of it all. Save for that unholy screaming from a previously unknown nook in his mind, Mizuki could say that he felt pretty calm about it.

Keeping calm was good. Fidgeting was bad.

He thought frantically through his choices: run, shoot or hide? Staying put could be his best bet. Maybe, if they were quiet long enough, Echizen would give up and leave. Or, if they were equally lucky, Echizen would overlook and pass by them altogether! As long as no one made a noise or bumped into anything, things were going to be just fine

The shrubs on the other side of the road suddenly wavered a bit and a squirrel shot out from underneath the safety of the shade. The three of them watched tensely from the corner of their eyes, desperate to draw their attention elsewhere—

splot!

Or not.

Mizuki darted his eyes back to the ever approaching figure and attempted to reboot his brain. Please tell him he did not just see that, he pleaded silently. Please tell him that the Big Bad Sharpshooter wasn't going to annihilate him from the game.

A weakness. If he only knew a weakness.

Echizen Ryoma. Height: 151cm; weight: 50kg; blood type: O; left hand dominant, rattled off a little voice in his head. Current housemate to Fuji Syusuke. Has psychokinetic abilities—

Oh, he had heard about his psychokinesis all right. He had heard about it from the Council. Yuuta-kun was furious when he found out, shutting himself in his room for days. A complicated and touchy subject, considering his family's history. It was understandable.

And that was why he did not come today, why he deliberately ignored his brother's invitation again. Perhaps it was better to fantasize than to encounter this sinking reality. Perhaps it was easier to imagine him as a nameless nobody instead of someone who had finally caught his precious brother's attention…

The leaves gave a muffed crunch in the dead silence and Mizuki slumped lower. As much as he was unwilling to admit, Echizen was sneaking closer and closer to their location. Exactly how he was pulling this off remained unsolved. The path was lined with dense vegetation on either side and the only sounds were those from the occasional chatter of birds. What was giving them away?

He slid his gaze over to where Kisarazu was shifting uncomfortably in his spot and frowned. The afternoon temperature for that day was a little too warm for early summer and huddling in a tiny area was certainly not the best idea in this weather. But if what he suspected was correct, then they were in a deeper trouble than he had first thought—

They all knew the risks. If the threat was not enough, then the consequence was. So that was why they did not dare inflict their abilities on each other during the game. A slip or an accident, anything could turn out disastrous. The concept itself was easy to understand: according to psychical law, all exerted physic actions were apparent in the form of waves. The stronger the wave, the stronger the force. That was the principle.

But there were always exceptions. And the detection of moving objects was the most basal form of psychokinesis. It required little to no conscious effort. It was a property that curiously did not work like the way sonars do. The waves flowed into all minds, yet only those with the natural gift can decipher them.

So this was why Echizen was still in the game and why the Psi-dectector had not tipped off. With this kind of edge, he could predict the trajectory of moving objects; he could even attune his sensitivity to the movements of those who he had encountered— Mizuki gulped nervously.

The eventual end to their one-sided stalement turned out rather differently than he had imagined. Either he had incredible luck, or those hours spent from spying on Fuji-kun had finally paid off, because with another sure 'splot!' Echizen missed him and nailed Kisarazu on the chest. Kentarou, who was closest to Kisarazu, gave a startled jump and bolted out from his hiding place. He glanced wildly at that smug face before pelting down the opposite end of the road, the other hot on his heels.

Whoa. Scary.

Mizuki emerged slowly from the shrubs once it was quiet again, his hand clutched loosely onto the paint gun. He turned to see Kisarazu stumble in the direction of the entrance gates, grumbling as he went. Mizuki watched him leave, not quite sure of what to say. His mind was still refreshingly blank from the traumatic episode, and he was feeling much too relieved to care. But what he did know was that faint trickle of a different sort of excitement, a tantalizing suspense, wrapped up in some delicious feelthat he didn't quite remember in so long. He knew that he had stumbled upon something forbidden, something meant to stay secret. Nonetheless, he felt privileged at the chance.

So there was more to this power than what everyone had been led to believe, and the level of play would continue to rise no matter what the Council may think. Like when the first theory of hybridization was proposed, it had been a breakthrough, a revolution. Along came the second one and the possibilities appeared endless. Despite the price the Fujis had paid for their knowledge and perception, everything would continue to move on in radical steps, beyond what was once that tiny and conventional window of imagination…

God, he found himself wondering, what else was he unaware of?

He heard a soft thump from behind and wheeled around. Speechless, he stared down at the gun barrel pointed alarmingly close to his chest, then up into striking blue eyes.

"I suppose he has about enough practice by now, don't you think?"

Oh shit.

-

"Alright," Momo grounded out, "so nobody has found anything. That's still fine. As long as the game is still going and we aren't eliminated yet, there is nothing to worry about."

"Eiji-senpai should be coming back anytime now," he said, voice growing steadily lower as his mood darkened, "and we'll search again. No need to panic. Just stay calm. Just calm. Stay calm. Calmness."

Kachirou and Katsuo exchanged a questionable gaze.

"And where the hell is Horio? He disappeared! Just wait until I get my hands on him," cried Momo, shaking his fist, "and that'll teach him to think twice about ever abandoning his teammates! I'll knock so much sense into him that he'll—"

They nearly screamed bloody murder when Eiji landed wordlessly beside them, disheveled and breathless. Both hands grabbed Momo's shoulders and shook them vigorously. "Oh— oh God!" he wheezed. "He tried to kill me!"

"Huh?"

"Paint grenades— "

"What?"

"Like a freakin' angry rabbit—"

"Who?"

"Heading this way—"

"…"

"Into mud puddle!"

Momo resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the incoherent babble. He tugged the hands off him and attempted to try again. Afterall, anyone who got Eiji-senpai this frazzled deserved some attention. "Eiji-senpai! Would you— I said listen—calm down! I can't understand anything when you're hyperventilating so much!"

"Nevermind," said Eiji after a few excruciating seconds, still struggling to catch his breath, "just start running. Run! Before he finds us!"

He snapped his mouth shut when the shrubs behind them parted. The four of them scampered back as a figure stepped out. A figure covered in mud from head to toe. Angry eyes bored right at them.

"Allow me to repay you for pushing me into the nearby ditch," Ryoma growled, tilting his head as he pulled his gun up. The sunlight reflected off from the cool metal of the gun and into those olive eyes, giving them an odd golden color. They seemed to glow intensely all at once, burning away like hellfire.

"Mada mada dane."

And that was when they all ran for their lives.

-

Blue eyes blinked into focus, sweeping the area in hasty motions. Amongst the darker shades of the forest floor, he nearly missed the blood red of a fluttering ribbon.

Eyes blinked again and Eiji signaled to the team running beside him. They skidded along the ground, legs angling for friction before diving into another heavily wooded area.

The sound of a second thump behind them was still too close for comfort. This wild goose chase had been going on for much too long and it was about time it ended. As much as he loved the thrill of participating in their rare get-together events, dancing a dangerous tango with Inui's juice proved detrimental to anyone's health. He was going to snatch the ribbon and win this cursed match no matter how much he loved Ochibi.

Consciousness be damned.

The group was able to rush forward a few more steps before the pellet of paintballs came. Sure, deadly shots. Ones that missed them by mere millimeters. Either by chance or luck, no one was willing to question further.

splot!

Ryoma appeared silently next to them and they nearly veered off course. Kachirou was down. Eyes flashed with trepidation, breaths came out in harsh gasps and footfalls thundered in the silence. Guns poised, hands gripping it like a lifeline. There really was nowhere to run, was there? The final showdown was here.

Ryoma slipped a bit from the mud stuck on the sole of his heel but no one seemed to notice. They were much too absorbed by the doom that would fall upon them least they lost. Much too terrified at the mere image of that foul tasting sludge. Eiji swallowed hard, throat suddenly dry. The fast, easy win he had in mind was drifting further and further away from his reach by the second. Especially with the current situation, if that ominous presence was any indication at all. They all stared hauntingly back, eyes blank and unfocused. Letting everything fall away save for that same metal gleam, that same kind of determination they had seen only a few moments ago rushing up to meet them from over Ryoma's shoulder…

wait, wasn't that—

Splot! Splot!

"—yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!"

splotsplotsplotsplotsplotsplostplostplostplostplostplostplostplot

-

"And then… and then," giggled Momo, tears streaming down his face. "Echizen got smacked in the buttcheeks!"

Ryoma turned away from the crowd, growling softly at the attention and sulked darkly. Anything to get his mind away from the embarrassment that threatened to explode from what little his tolerance could handle.

He had a faint idea that he was being followed throughout the game. The person always stayed a fair distance away so he never gave it a second thought. But just when his mind was so preoccupied with bringing Kikumaru-senpai's team down did he momentarily forget about the potential danger—Fuji came out of nowhere and slaughtered them all.

In a blink of an eye, the game was over.

"Don't be upset Ryoma," cooed Fuji from behind. It was just his rotten luck that Fuji did not mind the sticky mixture of paint and mud either and tenderly pressed his cheek against his. "If you're unhappy about this, I promise to make it up to you tonight. After I take those pictures, that is."

Ryoma pressed his lips together. That sounded so wrong.

"Congratulations, Echizen," Inui saturated over gleefully. "You just won yourself half of the juice I brought over. It's a bit much to finish all of it right here. So make sure you do that once you get home."

"I'll watch him," offered Fuji with utmost seriousness.

Ryoma shut his eyes and groaned inwardly.

Inui looked at his watch. "Hm, I guess that's it. Let's call it a day." And everyone began to shuffle toward the changing rooms; some were still stumbling from the after affects of Inui's soda. They were about to pass the forest gates when someone remembered something important.

"Wait," said Oshitari. "Has anyone seen Atobe?"

Everybody looked around.

"Screw that," someone else shouted, "where's Tezuka!"

-

: meanwhile… :

"Well, it seems like I have caught someone unaware." Atobe grinned triumphantly at the figure standing a few meters away.

Tezuka turned around and sighed. They both had their ribbons, so getting hit meant nothing. The game was pretty much finished if not done already, and everyone was probably waiting for them to come back. The sooner Atobe got what he wanted, the sooner he could go home. He halfheartedly raised his hands above his head. "Let's get this over with."

Atobe narrowed his eyes at the mocking gesture and raised his gun. "Patience, Tezuka. Patience."

: 5 minutes later… :

"Atobe," said Tezuka with an annoyed suspicion growing in his voice, "you're out of paintballs, aren't you?"

"Wh-what? What gave you that idea? I'm just giving you some time to admire my alluring stance before— hey, where are you going?"

Tezuka had promptly turned his back and resumed walking.

"Tezuka! Come back here!" Atobe yelled with as much grace as he could muster. "Don't walk away when someone is talking! Ore-sama is not finished yet!"

Tezuka walked even faster.

"I'll tell you something, Tezuka. There is only one true winner at this game," fumed Atobe, chasing the other in determined strides. Neither was willing to slow down and neither was willing to bend to each other's demand.

"…and it sure isn't you!"

---

The soft light from the chandeliers gave off a romantic air to the place. The rich carpet and the antique paintings did too. Everywhere in the long hallway was layered in elegance and splendor. There was a kind of mythical beauty to the whole scene, a timeless enchantment, that would be dazzling and delightful— had the grim silence not told otherwise.

Tezuka stood patiently before the tall mahogany doors. His eyes idly traced the animal figures that were carved deeply into the thick wood. Glossy, varnished eyes stared right back: they were the silent and solemn witnesses to those who passed through their gates; fierce guardians to their posts. He had once wondered if they had ever been real at all— the details that gave them life and color were so fine, so intricate, so carefully made. It seemed like only yesterday when he first laid his eyes upon them, when he was still unworldly and inexperienced, holding rapt fascination in all his senses.

But those days were long gone. And in the end, those carvings were still such soulless things. The fantasy drew to a close; its magic disappeared. He began to see the world as it was intended to be seen. Everything sharpened, grew more focused. He shook his head slowly, deliberately. There was nothing to feel regretful over. Nothing to miss. He had simply grown up, shedding away that tattered shell of ignorance he had never knew existed.

Some things were never meant to stay forever. He lost, he learned, he sacrificed, he perfected. And in time, became the person he was now.

Because what had replaced that childish wonder was something far more crucial and complex. Because he could not afford to be careless here, especially here of all places…

"Tezuka-san," a timid voice broke through his thoughts. "The Inner Chamber is ready to see you now…. desu."

He nodded to the messenger and stepped through the now opened doors. The curtains hanging from the opposite end of the room were drawn tightly shut, shielding away all forms of cool natural light. In fact, the only source of light came from the large semicircular table located at the centre of the room.

The light was odd, unearthly. It gurgled up the solid stone floor within the hollowed circle of the grand conference table and whirled about the inner perimeter like a heavy fog. Some crept halfway up the cherry wood, hugging the back/private panel of the enormous desk. It pulsed a deep rich blue in the small vicinity, the glow dancing outwards until it wandered too far from its source. The darkness beyond the blue bubble was so vast that he had never once been certain on how big the room actually was. It was impossible to make out the walls closing in from all four sides. There may had once been a time when he had walked into this place filled with light and laughter, merriment and earnestness— yet it was these such things where he could not quite recall anything at all. No matter how he thought on it, it always left him puzzled and confused. The anger did not always accompany these thoughts, but when it did, it was intense. The hot, unbidden anger that arose from helplessness, from a broken promise. It was as if nothing had changed over the years, and he was still that wide-eyed and innocent little boy. Here was ignorance in another form, and the vague memories that haunted him in their beckoning wake did not let him rest. So that in desperation, he looked to the only place he could turn to, feared it, became drawn to it. Yet the room was as mysterious as it was relentless to reveal its secrets. Concealment and darkness, no matter how many times he had been here, the atmosphere always felt uncomfortable, artificial and cold.

Once again, the chamber did not inspire as much awe as he had first felt, but it was breathtaking nonetheless. It was not majestic, unlike what he had observed just on the other side of the walls. It was, instead, unnatural and exotic, holding a strange quality that almost seemed alien.

The messenger, Tezuka noted, was no longer with him and the echoes of his footsteps became his only company. He felt like he was walking on thin air, towards the light at the end of a long tunnel. The strange glow tempted him closer, and he obeyed, stepping up to the opened end of the semicircular desk, eyes narrowing in concentration at what that pulsing blue light could only evoke.

The arrangement was designed so that he could barely make out the seated shadows in all of their secrecy, but they could always see him from the illumination of the floor.

"Tezuka-kun," it was a pleasant voice, "I hope you are doing well. We've been hearing good things from your team."

"Thank you, Sakaki-sensei." They had been their mentors and later, confidants at some point or another. Old habits were hard to break.

"It appears that your team has no troubles in tracing the enemy. I wonder what kind of words you say to them. Team dynamics is such a riveting subject." Lips twisted wiry and the voice dropped to a chilling tone. "But we are gathered here for a greater purpose, and as you may already know, no team is perfect in everything they do…"

"A source has indicated that the rebels are moving again. Apparently, they are very interested in a certain Jasper stone." He chuckled lowly at the other's puzzled expression. "We chose you to come here instead. We all remember how the last time Fuji carried out a mission turned out; we nearly lost the poor boy to the enemy—"

"With all due respects Sir," it was amazing how Tezuka managed to keep his voice even, "it was you who explicitly ordered him to—"

"—but I suppose he has redeemed himself by providing us with a certain new piece of information." The words were mocking, and Tezuka thought he caught sight of scornful eyes.

"Your progress report on Echizen Ryoma's psychic condition has been reassessed. We believe he has enough training already and should be given some fieldwork." He pushed a folder out to him. "Here are the assignment details. Investigate and stop their advances. I'm sure you're more than capable of handling them."

Murmurs of agreement.

"But," Tezuka started. He stared hard at the folder in his hand.

"Tezuka-kun, Ryuzaki-sensei has handed me full responsibility for your team before her illness. I expect you to obey me as you do for her. Do you understand?"

"Then pardon my idle comment." He would had reacted to the stunned silence were he not so desperate. "There is no need for the Council to concentrate so much on Echizen Ryoma anymore. The team will handle his training. If it is infiltration you are worried about, I will send some members for this mission. We will provide backup assistance if you chose to find another team. Anything we will help to do in our power… but we cannot send the entire team out." He knew he sounded foolish; he knew he acted rashly. He was just a single voice against the might of the Central Council. But he had to get this through them; he had to make them realize the kind of power they were playing with. For despite all the preparations and tests they had planned and given, a certain critical period must first be fulfilled in order for psychic control to evolve fully—Echizen Ryoma was not ready yet…

"Don't be impudent, Tezuka. It should be obvious by now of what we wish to accomplish. The final documents to the original Hybrid Theory were destroyed well before it could even reach us. You should be familiar with the protocols by now—"

—and what had confirmed Tezuka's worst fears, his purpose becoming painfully clearer by the second…

"—because after all this waiting, for all the nonsense we have endured, we don't want to cling onto a fleeting hope. We need confirmation on it; we need it to be on an official report."

—a rift, a chasm. Just like what the other captains were slowly becoming. He would be a puppet, become disconnected from his team if he was not careful. He had to act fast. For their sake and safety, he had to be alert and cunning. He had to maintain a clear head, keep Echizen on a low profile and safe from prying minds—

Safe from you…

"So Tezuka-kun, I take that you finally understand the situation here. There is no time to waste. We have the key and we have the advantage. I certainly hope that you are not holding anything back from us. Are we clear?"

Tezuka nodded weakly. He needed to go to his office to think, to figure a way around this decision. He gave a short bow, the customary parting words sounding strange to his ears, and quickly left.

Sharp eyes followed him out. It was when the door finally clicked shut that other stony figures began to talk. "You shouldn't have mentioned the theory, Sakaki-sensei. Now he'll probably tell his team about it."

"Sending Tezuka-kun here was a very big risk. We would be better off with asking for their vice captain, Oishi Syuichirou."

"Don't forget," another voice interjected, "that he is a passive psychic. Screening certain aspects of our unconscious mental states is a difficult if not impossible task in itself—"

"And if Fuji Syusuke ever comes back here again, our purpose would be stripped clear even before we open our mouths to speak—"

"Everyone, please." Sakaki's calm voice floated across the room, and the chatter gradually died down. "It is unfortunate that we need to plan so delicately around the situation. The talents of these individuals do come at a price, after all. The mission will go as planned— I will make sure of it. We'll catch Tezuka-kun before he leaves his office and purge his memory again. This blue curse will slug his clairvoyance for at least another few hours and prevent his full power from interfering with the process."

He glanced at the expectant faces through the blue light. These were the people who supported him, stood by him, carried out his word. A sense of pride rose from his chest to overwhelm the anguish that had flashed through him a moment before. It was a feeling meant only for him, to be understood only by him. That much he knew.

"The guilt we bear may consume us and prevent us from fulfilling our hopes. Yet I ask you all to open your hearts one last time to let loose that vengeful spirit. Those past mistakes will be atoned for, let there be no doubts. So long as this deep revenge fuels us and guides our will, everything else falls irrelevant. We will master the Hybrid Theory in all of its complexity and launch it full force at the enemy. For Earth, for honor, there is nothing more important than the revival of a certain intent and ambition… as we finally take back that lost chrono power, brace yourselves for the approaching roar of our greatest and most pressing goal— the Timekeeper of Earth."

-----to be continued

Hm. Well. My stab at humour scares even me. I strongly detest this chapter, dammit! Many times I had thought: God, screw this! Writing humour is hard… dammit! (Not to mention that it totally threw off my style. Readers: "Style? What style?" Jellybean Hoarder: "Alright, I'll stop lying to myself.") But then, I knew that I was being such a bad girl, going on hiatus and all, that I just had to compensate for it—did it work? I keep breaking the record for long chapters, so I hope there are some happy readers out there. And anyway, after watching those episodes and reading pot manga about their 'fun' days (snicker), I also wanted to contribute a little something to the whole … torment(!) of it all. Don't get me wrong, I love the pot boys… really (sweatdrops). If this chapter was confusing and hard to follow, sorry again. I hope it was better than my last chapters. Always striving for improvement here! Please give me more constructive comments! But anyway, I really tried hard. I don't think I've ever killed so many brain cells. I seriously think I'm slipping. Writing style getting worse now. Give me some input, please. It's hard to judge esp. when I'm the writer. Dramatic last paragraph didn't come out the way I wanted it to, but I'm through with editing this shit….er, chapter.

Ohohohoho! (please excuse the bouts of insanity that may pop up once in a while)

Well, I have another pairing I have developed a liking for: SasuNaru! (starts foaming at the mouth). That was one of the many reasons why it took so long to update, because I wanted a double posting. So… uh… while I try to keep my sanity in check, find time for myself and struggle to finish the next chapter, feel free to drop me a comment or two. I feel lonely whenever I talk like this. It makes it seem as if I'm really talking to poor ol' meself. Or am I the only one feeling this way?

So, because many of you have met my good friend Procrastination, I have come up with a tentative solution. No sorry, it doesn't make me write faster (although there are ways of achieving this, but I shouldn't give you guys any ideas). The new solution is this: I post a more detailed status of my fic(s) in my author info page so nobody will be feeling dismayed or anxious should I not update for a while. Mind you, this is just an option for those who want it. If I don't hear anyone wanting this, then I won't bother with it.

Yoshikochan has graciously agreed to host CounterSpin on her website! (throws out marshmallows and bon-bons!) Visit her site and once again, thanks a lot, Yoshikochan! (heart!)

…since I can no longer answer to peer reviews on ffnet and I don't have the time to do individual sendings, please turn to Yoshikochan's CounterSpin version on her site for all responses.

One last comment: I've 6th compilation album… GET IT!

Thanks:

Yoshikochan: thanks a lot for the comment. I really like to capture important moments with memorable lines. That's half the reason why it takes so long for me to write. I want to do a good job on this!

Psychotic Azn: well, the hiatus has been a year already, so…. Please don't kick me? It's so hard, already, school and midterms, projects and conferences! Try to understand 

Cheeseburger of Doom: I don't like angst at all, and wonder why some people out there do. I thought that I'll be pounded for adding fujiryo angst, but at least someone appreciates it! Thanks for the comment.

Ann: updating…and trying…

Risen: I try to keep readers on their toes…although the effect has probably gone away due to hiatus and ebbing interest for this fic. I completely agree with the angst part and how I don't like it either, but it's important plot stuff, so I must write it. Alas. And speaking of about FMA… ! gosh, I don't even want to start with the complexity of that anime/manga. Don't be sad with the insufficient number of fujiryo fic. As far as I can tell, there's been a lot of contributions! Anyway, thanks for your like (love?) for this fic!

Hannah: I tried to make the last chapter sad….and I succeeded! Thanks for the review!

Celestral Moon: weird? So long as you enjoy it, all is well.

Kawaii Chibi Yami: I try to keep angst down as much as possible. I rather prefer humor, as hard as it is for me to write it. But angst does build up plot nicely  And naughty… not dirty… ideas shall run rampant whether or not I can help it. (rubs hands gleefully)

Angela: ok. I think I owe you the biggest apology. But seriously, 7 reviews really got to me… and made me insanely happy. Tell me, do you really love this fic? No one can love a fic that much. That much love is not healthy! But fujiryos are awesome, I tell you! I was unable to prevent myself from going onto hiatus, but I hope that you still want to know how this story is going to turn out!

Hagane: I think I already did a whole lot of disappointing from hiatus break. Your comment was too flattering….and I'll try to write …even… more. Thanks for the comment!

Kuro: ok! (gets fired up) I'll write more!

Kiwee: was fujiryo in this chapter yummy enough? I tried hard…honest! Unfortunately, I cannot draw for beans, so, do use imagination to the fullest extent for the last scene….(pouts)

KagomeGirl21: I like draw out people's emotions in stories. I think it makes something more enjoyable to read. Thanks for your comment.

Gia: I'm very happy that you like this story. Hopefully you would want to read more despite the hiatus…?

Ronin101: thanks for putting your comment up. Comments really mean a lot to me. It's the only way I know that people are interested in this fic. Being a university student leaves me with very little time for anything else, so expect a few more delays!

Ishka: I tend to strive for a less conventional plot to challenge myself. I'm glad that this fic caught your attention!

Black Hikari: aw, thanks for your comment! The 'dream' is something that's going to be developed in the coming chapters, so stay tuned! The hiatus thing was unavoidable, unfortunately. Depending on the situation, the fluff may get fluffier!