Ami flipped through the lab handout, trying to block out the rowdy duo to her left. Over the course of the semester, she had seen them try everything from filling the strikers with alcohol and trying to light it on fire to snorting the aspirin they had just synthesized, which was sure to be loaded with impurities. She was surprised they hadn't incurred any bodily harm yet, although she wasn't ruling out the possibility. There were only two weeks left to the semester, but she had every confidence in their ability to wreak mayhem and havoc in that time. She just hoped that in the end, the chemistry building would still be standing.
The longsuffering TA reviewed the procedure and settled in for what he clearly expected to be a torturous three hours of answering questions he had already answered and enforcing a minimal standard of lab safety. After he finished, Ami headed for the back of the room to procure the necessary ingredients. She had just set her crucible to heat and things seemed to be proceeding nicely until a scuffle distracted her.
Instead of paying attention to the experiment, the goons were fooling around, pretending to spill acid on each other, and the giggly girl in the second row of stations was inadvertently egging them on with her squeals.
Ami moved her things nearly to the edge of the counter and tried to ignore them, but this was difficult to do since they were getting closer and closer by the minute. Her gaze darted between her setup and the baggy gray sweatshirt that was steadily encroaching on her personal space.
The polite request caught in her throat as a trickle of highly concentrated acid sloshed over the edge of the beaker. The redhead in the gray sweatshirt jumped back, colliding with Ami before she could get out of the way. A cold rush burned its way through her, a sensation like touching metal in the heart of winter.
In the next second, her crucible shattered, sending shards of white porcelain everywhere. Ami closed her eyes as a fragment scored her cheek, and the impression of biting cold in the overheated lab building vanished. A stinging sensation and the trickle of liquid against her skin made her put her finger to her cheek, and Ami blinked when it came away red.
The TA rushed over from where he'd been helping another student, exclaiming in shock and dismay. Figuring it was the sight of the blood that made her turn so pale, he ordered the students to turn off their Bunsen burners and not to touch anything until he recruited the first unfortunate graduate student he came across to take over for him.
As he walked her over to the nearby student health center, he speculated that the crucible might have been cracked to begin with after so many years of rough use or that its shattering might have been due to a cold breeze coming in from the window. Ami nodded politely, but for once, she wasn't going with the logical explanation. She was fairly sure that frigid blast of air had come from her, and battered lab equipment wouldn't explain the chunks of ice melting slowly on the scuffed floor tiles.
Zane whistled cheerfully. Life was good: his three-hour class was canceled for next week since the professor would be out of town, his dad had gotten basketball tickets for their favorite team over winter break, and a couple of them were meeting tonight to check out the secret passages from the blueprints Serena and Darien had found at the orphanage. He suspected Darien and Kent had already tried out a few of them, but from what Serena had told him, there were dozens more that remained to be explored.
His smile widened when a familiar head of cropped dark hair caught his eye. He changed direction, narrowly avoiding a collision with an angry bicyclist who shouldn't have been on the campus's main artery in the first place, and estimated his chances of finagling Ami into having lunch with him.
Zane had just decided that the odds were ever so slightly in his favor when he spotted tall, dark and handsome at Ami's side. His good mood evaporated when he saw the older student's earnest expression and the way she smiled up at him.
He wavered under the leafless plane tree, wondering whether he would have to quit the field. But after a last exchange of words, the interloper made his exit and Ami continued along the path, a look of mild surprise crossing her face when she spotted him.
"Oh, hi, Zane. I was hoping I might run into you."
It was difficult to stop a gleeful grin from spreading across his face, but he thought he did a good job of keeping his voice casual, all things considered. "Really? In that case – what happened to you?" he demanded when he got close enough to see the bandage on her face.
Ami started to put her fingers up to her cheek and quickly pulled them back. "It's nothing serious, just a scratch from a small accident in lab today." She conveniently left out the part about the stitches.
Zane stood in her path, keeping a gentle but firm grip on her shoulder as he examined the square of white gauze. "That looks like it must have been a pretty big scratch."
She felt her cheeks slowly heating from the intensity of his gaze, and the warmth drove the last vestiges of cold away. "I'm fine, really. It hardly hurts, and I've just come from having it treated."
He stepped back reluctantly. "What kind of accident was it?"
"Actually…that's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about."
Inside his jacket pockets, his fingers crossed hopefully. "You haven't eaten yet, have you? Why don't we grab lunch? You can tell me all about it."
"I'd like that – if you're sure you didn't have any other plans."
When he reassured her that he didn't, she smiled, and he felt his heart skip a beat. Neither of them noticed when soft, fat flakes of snow began falling in their wake.
It was Friday morning, and Jayden was running late. He had overslept and was supposed to have met Rei to work on their final project ten minutes ago. Now he was running frantically around the room looking for his things.
"Textbook, textbook, where are you?" he muttered to himself. When the drawers banged open of their own accord and his desk table wiggled one leg experimentally, he swore.
"Telext – tckex – txet! Txet!" he finally managed, and they stilled.
Jayden rubbed his temples. Ever since his powers had manifested, he had had to forcibly restrain himself from saying things like "context" or "the text supports this interpretation" in recitation, and it was making him sound like a moron. In fact, he was trying to participate as little as possible these days. The only good thing he could think of was that recitation only came once a week, and they were nearing the end of the semester.
"The Quest is ruining my life," he said bitterly.
"Can't ruin something that didn't exist in the first place," his sneaker said snidely.
He threw it back into the closet and shut the door, regretting having acquiesced to the shoe's pleas to stay animated.
"You're late," was Rei's greeting.
"Well, good morning to you, too," he replied as she got up and gathered her things. "I'm sorry, I overslept, and Shoe was being snarky."
The slight smile and the apology that had started to form on her lips disappeared when he asked, "So, do you have any plans for winter break?"
"Not really," she said shortly.
Rei could tell, without looking, that Jayden had raised his eyebrows but refrained from making any further comment. It irritated her, even though it would have irritated her more if he had said anything.
The prickly feeling that had started with an early morning phone call from her father – or rather, her father's assistant, who had then put him on the line – hadn't gone away, as she'd hoped it would. In fact, it was getting stronger, and so was her tension headache.
If there was anything she disliked almost as much as arguing with Darien, it was talking to her father.
They settled down to work without talking any more than was necessary. They sat at adjacent sides of the table closest to the fireplace, which allowed Jayden to watch her from the corner of his eye. In spite of her tart greeting, Rei seemed unusually listless.
When she put her hand up to her temples for the second time, he asked, "Are you feeling all right?"
"Want some water? Tea?" He knew by now that she hated coffee and only drank green tea.
"No. I'm fine."
"We can do this some other time–"
"I said it's fine!" she exclaimed, pushing back her chair. In the same moment, the small fire flared up, spraying sparks outwards as it roaring into the flue and consumed the synthetic firelogs in one greedy gulp.
As the flames receded to their normal size, Jayden turned to look at her. His ears were still ringing from the other students' surprised screams. "Must have been a freak accident. Are you hurt?" he asked.
"No…" Even as she said it, she glanced down at her fingers bemusedly.
He frowned and reached for her hands. "Did you get burned?"
"I don't think so. They just feel a little–"
He sucked in a sharp breath and yanked his hands back.
"Warm," Rei finished, her amethyst eyes wider than ever. "Are you all right?"
"I'll live. But you're telling me that only feels warm to you?" Jayden asked incredulously.
She looked down at her fingers again and wiggled them cautiously. "Yes. Pleasantly warm, like if you put your hands against a mug of a hot drink, but nowhere near burning. Did it feel hotter than that to you?"
He smiled wryly. "Let's just say I wouldn't describe it as falling within my 'pleasant' range for temperatures."
At her stricken look, he added quickly, "But still not hot enough to burn. I'm fine, I promise. But let's get out of here before something else crazy happens."
"…and Gary walked me over to the student health center right away, and he even stayed until they were finished to make sure I was all right, so I'm perfectly fine, Zane."
"Who's Gary?" Zane was quickly coming to the conclusion that he had never met a Gary he'd liked.
"Oh, my lab TA."
"I see. So he's good?"
Ami gave the question some serious consideration. "Research-wise, he's probably fairly good at what he does. But in lab, he's not very careful and he looks quite bored most of the time, which I guess I can't blame him for since the labs aren't at all interesting, but I don't think it's very encouraging for the students."
He suddenly felt a lot more cheerful. "Definitely not."
She continued earnestly, "But the point is, I don't think the outside temperature was cold enough today for a breeze from a window to shatter the crucible. I think it came from me. And it left a lot of ice on the floor, and I can't think of where else that could have come from."
"So you could be like Iceman!" he said enthusiastically.
"Iceman? From X-Men?"
He paused expectantly, but she only shook her head.
"No? Well, then, ask Jayden to see his collection sometime. Iceman makes his first appearance in volume 1, I think. Anyway, it's definitely one of the coolest superpowers to have."
Zane was momentarily distracted, drawn into an internal struggle over whether his telekinetic abilities measured up against hers. It was resolved when he reminded himself that being able to raid the fridge without ever having to get up from his chair was pretty hard to beat.
When he looked up again, he saw that she appeared more worried than pleased. "What's wrong?"
"What did it feel like when your power first manifested itself?"
He frowned slightly, tapping his fingers on the battered metal table. "Well, I guess it was kind of surprising. Exciting. Like making a basket you didn't really expect to go in, or one you didn't even realize you had started to shoot in the first place."
Ami stared down at her tray, which still held most of her lunch. "It didn't feel that way for me at all. It felt like…losing control, like something else took over my body. I didn't know what was happening, and it scared me.
"While I was at the student health center, all I could think was, what if I had hit one of those guys instead of just breaking the crucible?"
"It would have served those morons right."
"Temperatures that cold can give someone a serious case of frostbite! They could have lost a limb!"
"Hey. Calm down and breathe for a minute. First, you need to stop with the what-ifs. None of us could have foreseen this happening, and nothing happened to them. You didn't hurt anyone – anyone else, at least. Second, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but these things take practice. You have no idea how many things crashed to the floor before I decided it was a good idea to practice with pillows. Well, that and the RA came over to see if I was drunk or fighting with Melvin.
"You're right. It didn't feel entirely natural to me at first, either. But the more I practiced, the more I felt like it was something I'd known how to do all along, and the first time was like catching something that just slipped out of my fingers. It got away from me for a split second. I haven't felt like that since."
"Well, there was that time Kent was beating me at MarioKart and I really wanted to distract him, but other than that, nope." He grinned at her, and she smiled back hesitantly.
"I bet you can make the best snowmen or ice sculptures now," he said, suddenly inspired. Inclining his head towards the snow falling thickly outside the window, he suggested, "Why don't we practice together?"
"That sounds like a good idea," she murmured.
"Let's go now," he said, getting up to bus his tray.
"Right now? Don't you have class in fifteen minutes?"
He smirked at her. "I haven't gone to that class since the first week of the semester. It's totally useless."
Ami still looked mildly disapproving, but she followed him out the doors of the dining hall.
"Hey, how'd you know I have a class now?" Zane asked.
"We shared all our class schedules so we could decide on good meeting and research times."
"But that was like two months ago," he said.
Ami shrugged. "I have a very good memory."
"Are you sure you weren't just keeping an eye on me?" he suggested coyly.
"Oh, no," she replied immediately. "For example, I know that Serena and Lita are in Spanish class now, Darien's most likely at his lab, and–"
"Nevermind," Zane said, his shoulders slumping slightly as they walked on. "You've convinced me."
Ami tilted her chin upwards, savoring the distinct quality of winter air during a fresh snowfall. "Thank you so much for talking with me, Zane, and for taking the time out of your day to practice with me. I feel so much better now."
"Really? You do?"
"Yes." She smiled at him, and her eyes seemed bluer when her lashes were loaded with snowflakes. "I love winter."
On impulse, Zane said, "You just gave me the best idea. Tell you what: let's have a party before everyone goes away for winter break."
"A party?" she looked politely puzzled instead of thrilled, but he was sure his sudden brainstorm was a good one.
"Yeah. We'll hold it at Darien's place, and you can show off your new powers."
"Oh, but Zane…"
"Come on, it'll be fun to get together with everyone. Don't you think?"
She regarded him for a moment with those serious blue eyes, then smiled again. "Yes, I do."
Jayden wasn't sure where they were headed besides away from the building, so he was relieved when Rei said, "Can we stop here? You don't mind being outside for a bit while it's snowing, do you?"
He brushed a light layer of powdery snow off the nearest bench. "Nope. It's not all that cold, either."
They sat in companionable silence for awhile, watching the snow sugarcoating the evergreens. Finally, Rei said quietly, "I don't think what happened with the fire was a freak accident. I think…I think I might have caused it."
"Does that bother you?" Jayden inquired.
She glanced up at him, but he kept his gaze straight ahead and his posture relaxed, watching the irregular procession of students down the paths.
"Yes and no. I've always felt a sort of affinity for fire. My grandfather is a Shinto priest, and I grew up tending the sacred fire in our shrine. What happened today didn't frighten me. But I wonder if it should have."
"Why should it?"
"Well, for one thing, it could have been quite dangerous. And for another… well, people aren't really meant to have these sorts of abilities."
"Meant to? So it's a question of destiny?"
Rei frowned at him. "You keep answering me with questions and making me talk more. I think you would make a very good psychiatrist."
He put a look of horror on his face. "Anything but that!"
She smiled but continued, "Anyway, I don't think people should have the power to shoot fire from their fingertips at will."
"You think you can do that?" he asked interestedly.
"Jayden! That's not the point."
He leaned back again, knocking more snow off the armrest. "Well, put it in context. Kent can melt locks off doors, Mina can become a human flashlight, Nevan has daily conversations with the stars, and I can bring – whoa!"
He leapt up as the stone statue they had been sitting in front of shuddered to life, shedding snow like a dog shaking itself after a bath. The state was one of an armored warrior on horseback and bore a strong resemblance to Gattamelata.
The horse rose on its hindquarters, tossing its mane proudly, while its rider drew the sheathed sword at his side. That was all Rei's eyes took in before Jayden's back and outstretched arms blocked her view as he placed himself in front of her protectively.
"Who awakens this Guardian of the Quest?" the statue demanded in a sonorous voice, leveling his blade at Jayden's heart.
"Uh–" Jayden found that it was surprisingly hard to think when confronted with the possibility of being impaled by a giant, formerly stone sword. It seemed plenty sharp now.
"Lord Jadeite does." Rei's voice came from behind him, the words delivered calmly and clearly.
The warrior retracted his blade and bowed deeply. "Ah! Guardian Mars. I didn't see you there."
Jayden sat down again, feeling rather weak at the knees, and they and the statue studied each other for a moment.
"How may I be of service to you?" he asked courteously.
"Well… it was sort of an accident." At the affronted expression that passed over the man's face, Jayden added hurriedly, "But if you know anything about where we could find, er, Prince Endymion and Princess Serenity, that would be terrific."
"I'm afraid that is something you will have to discover for yourselves, and not something that you may be told."
"I was afraid that might be the case," Jayden muttered.
"Can you tell us anything you might know about them?" Rei asked.
The statue smiled unexpectedly. "I didn't know Prince Endymion, but I taught the young princess to ride her first horse. Her spirit was unparalleled, as was her heart. She couldn't speak to a person without making them smile. Our sorrows were her sorrows, and her joy was our joy. I fought for her gladly."
He looked down, patted his horse on the neck. "That's all I may reveal to you about the princess. But I can give you two more things, and some advice."
He presented the sword, now sheathed and hilt first, and a milky green stone to Jayden. "These will aid you in your Quest to find the prince and princess. Use them well."
As Jayden took the blade reverently, which was much lighter than he had expected, the statue continued, "The pommel is set with a firestone, which means it is impervious to the hottest flame. Luck to you and the rest of the Ten."
He bowed, and before their eyes, he and his mount returned to their original, immobile stone forms.
"Well…that was something," Rei murmured, still watching the statue.
"'Something' is one way to put it. How am I going to get this past the security guards?" Jayden asked, staring at the sword.
"We'll figure it out."
Mina lay on her bed, listening wide-eyed as Rei related their adventure to her. Rei was sitting at the desk with Artemis on her lap, his eyes closed in ecstasy as she scratched him gently behind the ears.
"And he pulled the sword out and pointed it at you, just like that, and Jayden didn't even flinch?"
"That's what happened," Rei confirmed. Her graceful shrug disturbed Artemis, who opened one eye in displeasure.
Mina shook her head. "I don't think I would have enjoyed being in that situation. So where's the sword now? I'd like to see it."
"We ended up leaving it at Kent's. Zane helped me distract the security guard while Jayden and Kent got the sword up the stairs." Rei smiled suddenly. "Which reminds me. Darien's holding a party next weekend. You'll come, won't you?"
"Which day is it?"
"Friday night. When Zane was 'suggesting' the idea to Darien, I made sure to lobby for Friday instead of Saturday since I know Saturday night's your sorority's charity gala. It is, isn't it?"
"Yes, thanks for remembering." Mina smiled at her. "I'll be there for sure, then. Actually, I wouldn't have minded pretending to be sick for the gala and hanging out with everyone even if the dates hadn't worked out that way."
Rei glanced up in surprise. "Really? Aren't you looking forward to it?"
She sighed and fell back onto the bed, managing to land squarely in the center of her pillows. "Not really. The more things come down to the wire, the less I think it's worth all the fuss and drama."
Rei's expression was one of confusion. "But the point of the night is to raise money for a charity, isn't it?"
Mina smiled wryly. "Yes, but most of that will be coming from the ticket sales, which are basically done. For many of the attendees, the objective will be somewhat less altruistic. They'll be going to see and be seen, and keep track of who's going with whom and who actually ends up leaving with whom. It's mildly exciting the first time around, but when girls start crying in front of the bathroom mirrors, it just feels like high school all over again."
She made a face. "That doesn't sound like much fun at all. But you'll look wonderful in that dress you bought."
"I will, but it's slightly less thrilling when you're only looking good for yourself and other girls."
"What happened to your date?"
"Oh – he and Ana Cecilia started going out, and I thought it was silly for them not to go together. I'm not going to stand in the way of true love. I did tell her to go after him when I found out she was interested, so I have only myself to blame," Mina said airily. "Plus, Ana Cecilia's date is a tool, and I'd rather go by myself than swap with her."
Rei straightened as Artemis jumped down from her lap and padded over to the bed. "Why don't you ask someone else to go with you?"
She shrugged and reached down to stroke the cat's back. "Most of my friends already have dates, and I know Nevan really doesn't want to go this year."
"What about Kent?"
Mina glanced up, her expression a cross between amusement and disbelief. "I really can't imagine him wanting to go to something like this, Rei."
"I think he would go if you asked him."
"If I'm going to torment someone, I might as well torment Nevan, who actually knows what he would be in for."
"But Nevan's not interested in you, and Kent is."
Mina started laughing, but stopped when she realized Rei was serious. "What in the world makes you think he's interested?"
Rei waved her hands distractedly. "I don't know. It's just – the way he watches you, and when you talk to each other. You have chemistry."
"You mean that look of exasperation he gets when he thinks I'm doing something dumb and he wants to do it another way?" she asked dryly.
"We'll just have to agree to disagree. Even if he doesn't hate me now, he certainly would if I dragged him to an event like this. If he would even say yes in the first place. Anyway, what's the occasion for Darien's party? It's not his birthday, is it?"
"No, that was in August. The party's actually Zane's idea, and we talked Darien into it."
"You helped?" This, on top of the tale of the statue giving them a sword and Rei's claim that Kent was interested in her, was turning out to be one of their more surprising conversations.
"It sounds like fun, all of us getting together before winter break starts. And to celebrate the end of finals."
Mina frowned. "Why did Zane want to throw a party?"
" Oh, he said something about how he'd promised Ami. Although Ami doesn't seem like the partying type," Rei said thoughtfully.
She smiled gleefully. "She's not. I bet Zane just wants to spend more time with her and is using this as an excuse."
"Really?" Rei was silent for a moment while Mina blissfully imagined all the ways she could torment Zane over winter break about his not-so-secret crush. "I can see that. They might be cute together, wouldn't they?"
"Oh, yes. I think we should help them along, otherwise he'll screw it up somehow. Or he'll ask her out and Ami will be too shy to talk to him again before graduation rolls around. Don't you think so?" Without waiting for Rei's response, she continued, "I think Friday would be a great time to put our plan into action."
"Our plan? Mina…"
Word spread quickly about the newly-discovered powers, but between finals studying and term paper writing, most of them didn't have enough time to say anything except excited but appropriately vague exclamations when they passed each other on the way to and from class, exams, the library, or the coffee shop for another caffeine fix. Nearly all of them, however, made time to drop by Kent's apartment to take a look at the sword.
When he heard yet another knock at the door, he sighed and saved the paper he was working on. He raised his eyebrows when he peered through the peephole and saw that it was Rei.
"Good morning," he greeted her after he opened the door.
Of all the girls besides Mina, he thought he probably knew Rei the best. They had actually been seeing each other quite often, since the two of them and Darien studied together fairly frequently. But Darien wasn't with her today.
"Good morning. I hope I'm not interrupting you. I won't stay long," she reassured him.
He smiled. "That's fine. Would you like anything to drink?
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
Kent regarded her curiously as they stood in the entryway. She didn't seem inclined to come in further. "Everyone and their uncle has been by to see the sword, but you've already seen it, of course."
Rei's lips twitched in a faint smile. "Sorry about that. It is pretty impressive, but haven't they got better things to do?"
"Nothing as cool as this," he said. "At least, that's what they tell me."
He was waiting politely for her to bring up the reason for her visit, so she decided she might as well jump right in. "Well, I was wondering… Are you doing anything on Saturday night?"
His knee-jerk reaction was alarm before he reminded himself that Rei already had a boyfriend and surely wouldn't be asking him on a date. "Not really. My last final is on Wednesday and my last paper is due on Thursday at midnight – 11:59, excuse me – but I didn't have any plans. We aren't having two parties, are we?"
She laughed. "No, just the one. I don't think Darien would be able to survive planning two parties so close to each other."
Rei fidgeted when he continued to eye her curiously. "Well, you see, Saturday is the night of Mina's charity gala. The one she's been planning all semester?"
He nodded. "She's told me a little about it."
"It turns out that her date isn't her date anymore. He's going with someone else."
"That's too bad. Is she very upset about it?" he asked, concerned.
"Not really. It's a long story, but it seems like she actually played matchmaker between her date and her roommate. But it does leave her dateless for the gala."
Kent blinked. "So she asked you to ask me to be her date?" It seemed rather roundabout to him.
"No! She thinks it would be boring to make someone else go with her. I'm just…telling you about it."
He asked, "You think she would want me to go with her?"
"I think you would have fun together. Don't you?" she asked quickly.
"Well, sure. I mean, I think I would – because Mina is a fun person to be around, and she makes sure those around her are having a good time. But I'm not exactly Mr. Congeniality, if you know what I mean." In spite of his seeming reluctance, Kent was already wondering if there was enough time to dry clean his suit before the event.
"I don't think Mina's looking for Mr. Congeniality."
He flushed at her knowing look. "What if she's already asked someone else?"
"She hasn't. I'm positive."
"Well… am I supposed to just call her up and tell her I'm volunteering to go with her?" Kent gave her a hard look. "It doesn't seem like she knows that you're telling me about it."
Rei smiled. "I'll take care of it. Just be ready to pick her up at six-thirty on Saturday night. Oh, and maybe some flowers, but I could pick those up for you–"
"I'll get them. I know how these things work, Rei."
"You do?" she asked in surprise.
"I went to one of these things before. I have to say, I didn't think I would ever be going to one again, but maybe things will be different this time around."
"I'm sure they will be."
AN: Apologies for the delay in getting this chapter written/posted. You can tell from the season when I was supposed to be writing this, but better late than never… Thank you so much for reading and reviewing. It really helps to keep me motivated, and it is much appreciated. Many thanks!