Hi, guys. I don't have much time, which works out, because I said I'd be writing shorter author's notes anyway (though the end of chapter note got pretty long). The reason for this is that I think I'm going to lose my internet connection (again, I know – I'm so sorry!), and I'm scrambling to get things done. I'm letting everyone know here because I don't know if I'll have time to note it in my profile, so if you have a spare moment, spread the word for me. Anyway, time for review replies!

…Except there were no reviews last time. I knew the last chapter turned out bad – I knew it… :( In any case, I'm still leaving the space here in case chapter three is reviewed sometime in the future. Another important note: my writing has gotten wordier since I last wrote for Maple Leaf, so I've increased the chapter word count to around 7,000 to 8,000 words, instead of the prior 6,000. So, I think that's about it… Read on!

Her feet carry her through the forest, breaking twigs in their pressure and haste. Her breath is labored, coming out in shaky pants. The right side of her face is soaked with tears that she is unable to stop. She falters for only a moment, when a low tree branch catches and tears the fabric of her apron. And then her efforts are renewed.

He will catch her, if she isn't fast enough. She has to hurry.

Why can't she be strong and quick, like the rest of her companions? Why does she always have to be so... useless?

She stumbles, cries out, catching herself on the base of a tree and then pushing off, her cry having slipped into sobbing. She knows he might hear her, but she can't hold it in anymore.

For a moment, she can hear her Darling yelling for her to run, to get away... And she had listened to him, but she shouldn't have. She should have stayed by his side... Why didn't she stay with him?...

She screams as her foot slips between the ground and a thick tree root, sending her sprawling; a few smaller roots cut her during the landing. She whimpers, her hands clenching into fists. He will surely catch her now.

As if her thoughts have been heard, she hears a growl from behind her. Her head turns around, almost against her will, and she goes silent with fear.

The dark energy formed in the palm of the Shadow's red, clawed hand. Nene's face betrayed no remorse, and in his eyes, there might have even been a glimmer of delight.

Bouquet woke up gasping, head pounding, feeling grateful that she hadn't screamed awake, hoping that she hadn't made any loud noises while she was asleep.

She swung her feet over the side of the bed, palm pressed against her forehead. She still felt the fear, swimming around in her stomach, making her heart beat like a drum. That day... The day Nene took everyone but her and Marumaro... It hadn't happened the way it had in the dream, but it didn't make her feel any less afraid.

She brought her knees up to her chest, feet planted firmly on the sheet-covered mattress. There was one thing that had been real in the dream, burned into her mind's eye - Shu, yelling at her to run away. The thing that hadn't been in the dream was that when she hadn't complied, he'd shouted at Marumaro to get her to safety (and then, of course, the dream hadn't brought up when she'd kicked and screamed, either).

But, if Shu had done that... If he had tried to make sure she was safe... He had to feel something for her, had to care at least a little. And though a small consolation, she held onto it as tightly as she could.

準備 (じゅんび)/Junbi (Preparations)

"Come on, lazy," Kluke got a firm grip on his forearms, then yanked Shu into a sitting position, even as his head lolled back in his half-asleep state. "You've gotta get up."

Shu's eyes were still closed, and his voice was slow and sleep-slurred. "No one should be as awake as you are right now; not when it's this early," he moaned. "It's inhuman."

"Not more inhuman than your appetite or your tendency to sleep in," was Kluke's wry answer. "Now, up."

Letting out another, and if even possible, more miserable moan, Shu was too tired to resist her tugging, and soon stood on his feet, albeit almost falling over just about every second.

About twenty seconds later, Kluke let out a frustrated groan when Shu fell into her for the seventh time. "Would you wake up already?"

"I don't know why you bother, Kluke," Jiro muttered as he walked past, stacks of paper, a quill and an ink bottle in his hands. "He's impossible in the morning."

Kluke sighed, closing her eyes as Shu slumped against her shoulder and snored. "Don't I know it."

Shu looked around the main room curiously. "Where's Bouquet?"

"Still in our room," Kluke answered. "She said she'd be here in a few minutes. I don't know why, but she's been really quiet today. Also - and this is even weirder - I think she might've woken up earlier than any of us." For Bouquet's sake, she said nothing else; Kluke knew something was wrong, but had no idea what it could be.

Shu's eyebrows furrowed. Maybe I'll talk to her later...

Now that he was closer, Shu saw Kaede laying out some papers on the table. Further examination revealed them to be the Extra Seven.

Jiro looked up from the pages when Shu and Kluke were near. "What happened to Bouquet?"

As Kluke told him the same thing, Shu noticed again that Kaede had laid out more paper. These, however, appeared to be nothing more than blank sheets. He had no idea what she planned to use them for. A list, maybe?

One of the doors creaked open. Bouquet stepped out and quietly closed it behind her. It seemed like she had to force the smile she wore. "Morning, everyone."

Shu started towards her. "Bouquet-"

"Good," Jiro nodded. "Everyone's here, then. There are a few things we should talk about."

The doors to the throne room opened. Szabo floated through. He bowed to Grand Kingdom's king, arm over his chest. "Nene-sama."

"How did things proceed with the cargo transfer?"

"The cargo! The cargo!"

"There was some..." Szabo chose the next word carefully. "... resistance. But other than that, it was fairly successful. The cargo's security has been maintained."

"Excellent." Nene's smirk broadened.

"Excellent! Excellent!"

"Translate it?" Shu looked at Jiro incredulously. "How are we supposed to translate it?"

"I know some of the ancient language," Kaede spoke up quietly. "Not all of it, obviously, but enough to translate this. That's probably part of the reason I was there; I already knew a little before Mafe's destruction, so all Nene had to do was teach me some more." She looked down at her hands, folded on the table. "I probably would've started the translation process fairly soon... But that's before all of you came. Before I found out the truth about Nene." With the last sentence, she couldn't keep the bitterness from leaking into her voice. Even after everything, the betrayal still stung her.

"Even so..." Shu's shoulders slumped. They were serious, weren't they? "I don't know about this. It seems really complicated."

Marumaro put both index fingers to the sides of his potted head. "I looked at it while you were still asleep, Shu, and my brain is still hurting, maro."

"She's already translated most of the first sentence of the first chapter," Jiro looked at him with lidded eyes. "Even if it's too much for you two to take in, Kaede has it under control."

"Of course, maro!" Despite the glare that Shu sent to Jiro, Marumaro was still upbeat. "If Kaede-chan is handling it, everything will be perfect, maro!"

Well, even if Marumaro couldn't see a comment for what it was, Shu certainly could. (... Sometimes.) "You shouldn't be so cheerful after we've just been insulted, Marumaro." He turned to Jiro, folding his arms. "And since you're so much smarter than us, what exactly are you going to be doing?"

Jiro blinked at him a few times. Then he cleared his throat, and a moment later, shuffled his feet. When the words finally came, he spoke tightly, yet slowly as if he were searching for the words. "... Observing the translation and waiting for requests of assistance."

"... So, basically," Shu stepped towards him until he was right next to Jiro, "you're not doing anything."

"Hmph." Jiro only looked forward, refusing to meet Shu's eyes.

Marumaro had somehow gotten to Jiro's other side. "So, I guess that means the three of us are all in the same boat, right, maro?" Tilting his head back so Jiro couldn't see him, the Devee boy waggled his eyebrows to Shu, who immediately caught on to what he was up to.

Two can play at this game, Jiro. His rival already had his eyes closed, and his eyebrow twitched; clearly annoyed, and thus clearly a success. "Yeah, I think that's what it means, Marumaro. So... That would kind of make us comrades in doing nothing, huh?"

"One, I am not doing nothing," Jiro had rather suddenly opened his eyes, and was now just as suddenly stabbing a finger into Shu's chest. "And two, don't you dare compare me to you two idiots."

"Lighten up and stop worrying, maro!" Marumaro patted Jiro on the back, which immediately made him stiffen, his face taking on an expression of shocked fury.

"Marumaro's right." Shu threw an arm around Jiro's shoulders, in what would be a good-natured way, if not for the sly grin he was wearing. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, Jiro-kun."

The honorific brought about a fight that had plenty of screaming, shaking, jabbing of elbows, Kaede laying protectively on the table to defend the Extra Seven, and someone twice kicking Marumaro in the head - which lasted for around twenty-five minutes.

"Alright," Kluke took a steadying breath. "Now that we've gotten that out of our systems, can we please get back to what's more important?"

Shu, Marumaro, and Jiro sullenly looked at each other, then back at Kluke with a reluctant nod.

"Good. I'm going to be helping Kaede with the translation, as well as helping to copy down the translated text. Shu, you're going to go shopping for a new mechat part; I'll give it to you before you go." As he promptly squawked at it being "unfair", Kluke glanced at Bouquet. She remembered seeing the other girl this morning, looking so small and sad as she sat on her bed with knees drawn up. "...And Bouquet will come with you, to pick up some food, for dinner and for the road."

Bouquet's head shot up, her eyes brimming with surprise. And gratitude.

"Jiro and Marumaro, you'll be assisting Kaede and I when we need it."

Marumaro let out an ecstatic "maro". Jiro glared at him.

"Everybody got it?" There were collective nods and voiced agreements, so Kluke ended with, "Okay; we have a lot to do, so let's get to it."

"I can't believe Kluke," Shu grumbled, kicking a stone and sending it flying. "I mean, what do I know about mechats? And yet she gives me the job of getting a part for one."

"Don't worry." Though small, Bouquet managed a smile. "You have it with you, right?" Shu nodded slowly, giving his short pocket a single pat. "So it'll work out."

"Thanks, Bouquet. And... thanks for bandaging me up, too." Shu, half-unconsciously, grabbed the white dressing on his forearm, where Kluke had inadvertently scratched him (apologizing profusely afterwards, which Shu had found a little surreal, since she regularly hit him with a frying pan and always had no remorse) when she'd been trying to punch Marumaro during the earlier tussle.

"Oh... You're welcome." Bouquet blushed, pretending to busy herself with examining the shopping list. Somehow, Kluke had seen that Bouquet had been feeling down today, and had been kind enough to give her some time with Shu. It had surprised Bouquet - the two fought over Shu regularly, and rarely got along because of it, so for Kluke to be so nice to her... I have to make it up to her somehow. "So... We're going to the blacksmith's first, right?"

"Yeah." Shu's eyes clouded. Just as Bouquet was trying to decipher what it could mean, the moment passed. "We'll get the groceries afterward. It'll keep the food from spoiling."

Bouquet stopped walking suddenly, pointing ahead. "Hey, what's going on over there?" A crowd of people had gathered, murmuring amongst themselves.

"I don't know. Let's check it out!" Shu broke into a jog.

"Wait a minute! Darling!" Bouquet hurried after him, the shopping basket rocking back and forth on her arm, bouncing against her side.

The people consisted mostly of adults, which meant that neither Bouquet nor Shu could see anything. However, their smaller size allowed them to navigate the throng and push forward to the front, just in time to view the scene unfolding in front of them.

"And we'll just be taking this as well..." A man, smirking, loaded metal objects into a bag.

A girl, a few years older than Shu and Bouquet, hurdled herself at him. "Stop it-!"

"Get back!" A woman shoved her, sending the girl sprawling to the ground. "This is ours now."

A second man, presumably with the other man and woman, sneered down at the girl. "Maybe next time you'll keep an eye on your brother. Make sure he doesn't steal from the wrong people."

The second man moved, and Bouquet went rigid as she saw a Mecha Robo. Are these people with Grand Kingdom? They didn't look like it - they didn't wear any of the armor that Grand Kingdom's army wore. The thought crossed her mind that they could be with Rogi, but something told her that wasn't the case. She glanced at Shu; his jaw was clenched tight.

The first man tossed in one last object, then shouldered the bag. "Thank you for doing business with us. We'll be sure to come by again soon." He laughed boisterously.

As the other two turned, Bouquet spotted a second Mecha Robo. The three of them, with a robot on each side of them, walked away.

The girl watched them go. When they were out of sight, she swore and pounded the ground with her fist. A few people from the crowd came and crouched down next to her, asking if she was alright. Her reply, though in the affirmative, came out muted.

Bouquet turned towards her fiancé. "Shu-"

"We have to do something." He stared at the ground. His hands were clenched fists at his sides. "I know we're not supposed to draw attention to ourselves, but we have to do something. We can't just stand by and let things like this happen."

Bouquet nodded. "Whatever you want to do, I'm with you."

Something tugged at Bouquet's apron ties, and it made her look down. A little boy held onto them, and had Shu's sash in his other hand. His gaze was fixed on them intently. "I know you two. You guys are Shadow Users."

Shu laughed nervously, hands behind his head. "I-I don't know what you're talking about..."

"I saw both of you on a Grand Kingdom wanted poster. I won't turn you in, I promise-"

"Keep your voice down, kid. The last thing we need is trouble with Grand Kingdom." Shu had brought his face mere inches from the young boy's. He glanced back and forth, seeing if anyone had heard. The crowd was still concerned with the girl's welfare, though, and hadn't noticed the children talking. "Okay, maybe we might be Shadow Users. What of it?"

"I read what the poster said. You and your friends are really powerful, especially you and your Shadow, Rusty Nail."

"Blue Dragon." Bouquet swore that she could steam coming out of Shu's ears as he glared down at the younger child. "My Shadow's name is Blue Dragon. Rusty Nail is the name of our attack."

"Oh. Sorry." The apology was quick and brief. Shu continued to glare at him, but this went unnoticed by the boy. "But if your Shadows are really strong, then that means you can stop those thieves that took my sister's stuff."

"You mean the girl behind us?" Bouquet pointed to her. When she looked back, the boy nodded.

"Well," Shu folded his arms. "We were going to try and help anyway..."

"That's great!" He raised a fist to the air. "We'll all stop those guys!"

"Hold on a second," Shu stood akimbo. "What's with this 'we'? Bouquet and I are going, but I don't know about you. It's too dangerous."

"Well, of course it would be too dangerous for me like this." The little boy grinned up at Shu. "That's why you're going to make me your apprentice!"

When Shu jumped back in alarm, the comical expression he was wearing would have made Bouquet laugh - if not for the absolute certainty she felt that this was the start of nothing but trouble. "My what?"

Tonto only stared up at him, undeterred. "Your apprentice."

"Now, just hold on a second!" Shu flailed his arms. "You- you can't be serious! I can't- I don't know how- you don't even have any way to defend yourself."

"Look, it's not that hard." The boy was standing his ground, determined. "All I want is to get strong and teach those thieves a lesson. They're always tormenting us, and I want to put an end to it. All you have to do is help me get strong."

"It's not that easy." Shu scratched the back of his head. "Trust me, it's not."

"Shu..." Bouquet leaned over and whispered in his ear. When she was done, he nodded at her.

"Alright. Here's how this is going to go." Shu pointed at him. "You can come with us while we get back your sister's stuff. If I have to fight them, you make sure that you watch me, because that's going to be the way I'll show you how to get strong. I don't have time for an apprentice, but I can get you started on the right track before I have to leave the village."

The boy didn't look all that happy, but he didn't oppose the idea, either. "Fine."

"Good." Shu turned to the direction the thieves had gone. "Now, I know they went in this direction, but do you know exactly where they went to-?"

"Tonto!" The boy's sister stomped towards them. "What do you think you're doing?"

He was undaunted. "Neechan, it's great!" Gesturing at Shu, he added, "He's going to make me his apprentice-!"

"-I already told you I don't have time for an apprentice-!" But Tonto was already talking over him.

"-and the best part is, they're going to get your stuff back!"

With Tonto's noisy chatter vacant, the sudden silence was long and uncomfortable. Shu and Bouquet glanced at each other, both of them unsure about all of it.

Finally, Tonto's sister spoke. "... Get in the house. Now."

Hurt flickered across the young boy's features. "But, Neechan-"

"Now, I said." Her arm was stiffly outstretched towards the entrance.

With heavy feet, Tonto trudged to the house, shutting the door behind him.

"You two." Both Shu and Bouquet jerked when the attention was directed at them. "You're two of the Shadow Users that Grand Kingdom is searching for, right?"

At this rate, we'll have to leave town before sundown. Shu swallowed hard. "Yeah, that's right."

"... Come inside. I'd like to talk to you."

When they entered the interior of the house that Tonto and his sister shared, Shu froze as he took it in.

The anvil. Homesickness, a burden forced onto him that was so very heavy. Tonto's sister is the village blacksmith. He should have known. Hadn't he seen all of those metal objects the thieves took?

... Was it that easy for him to forget?

"Sorry that it's a mess. I was in the middle of working when those people... Anyway." Tonto's sister straightened, striding towards a table and chairs. "Come and sit over here."

Once they were all seated, Bouquet spoke up first. "So... What did you want to talk to us about?"

The older girl looked away. "... Stay away from my brother."

"What?" Shu was taken aback. He could tell she didn't particularly like them, but for her to be so direct was like being blasted by bracing cold wind. "Why?"

She looked at them with narrow, sharp eyes. "Because Shadow Users have been nothing but trouble for our village. It's because of Shadow Users that our village was attacked five years ago." The penetrating gaze softened with sadness. "And it's because of Shadow Users, and that very same attack by Grand Kingdom, that our parents are dead."

Shu dropped his head, staring at the table as his hands tightened into fists on his thighs. Because of Shadow Users... Just like Talta had been attacked. Because of him. The guilt was almost unbearable. I have to try harder.

Tonto's sister sighed. "Look... If you're planning to get back my goods, I'm certainly not going to stop you. I'd be happy you did. But afterwards, I would really appreciate it if you and your friends would leave and go as far away from here as you can." When she twisted her head to the side, Shu could see the glimmer of tears in her eyes.

"Amalia! Amalia, are you there?" There was a loud, insistent banging on the front door. With a sigh, Tonto's sister stood and, after crossing the short distance, opened it. A fairly plump woman entered, near breathless. "Amalia, it's Tonto-"

"Little rascal must've snuck out again..." Tonto's sister muttered, mostly to herself. "Well, what did he steal this time? Was it your apples? Maybe more potatoes? Or did he try tomatoes again?"

The woman shook her head. "Amalia, he... The thieves have taken him hostage."

Tonto's sister, Amalia, went utterly silent as all color drained from her face.

"Bouquet," Shu stood up. "Come on. Let's go."

End of Part One

*eyecatch of Bouquet and Hippopotamus*

Beginning of Part Two

Ow. Stupid forest. Stupid thieves. Stupid twigs, embedding themselves in the middle of her bare feet.

She finally made it to the clearing, where her Darling was still pointedly facing away from the direction she'd gone. Bouquet had to hold in a giggle. So shy! Or was he perhaps just playing hard to get...? "I'm back, Shu."

"Are you dressed yet?"

"Not yet." Used to turning invisible after years of practice, Bouquet was always quick about getting her clothes back on. Once she was done, she made herself visible again; as the pink smoke dissipated in the air, she tossed one of her pigtails. "Alright, you can turn around now."

Shu was hesitant as he tilted his head, as if he suspected her of not being honest and for her to still be undressed. When he spotted her from the corner of his eye, though, he made a quick pivot. "So, what does it look like?"

"It's only those three from earlier, along with the two Mecha Robos. They have Tonto tied up and sitting on the ground. There are metal boxes pilled at the mouth of a cave; I think they're using it as a barrier, but I couldn't tell you what it's for." Bouquet paused, thinking, then spoke. "We should be careful, but I think we can take them. They don't seem very strong."

"Good." Shu grinned. "Let's hurry, then, so we don't keep the others waiting."

She gripped the wrench tightly. Following them was probably a bad idea, but Amalia couldn't help it.

Those thieves... They'd taken Tonto. They'd taken her baby brother. The only family she had left. How was she supposed to just idly sit, waiting for two ten-year-old Shadow Users to bring him home?

Shadow Users... No, she wouldn't depend on them. Not for anything. Nothing important, anyway. They could get back her metal workings if they felt so obliged, but Tonto was her responsibility and no one else's.

No one else's anymore. Those two men (two Shadow Users, two monsters) from five years ago had seen to that.

She still remembered that final night. A pat on the head, a warm smile. Look after your brother. We'll be back soon.

But they never had come back. The chance to fulfill that promise had been taken away from them.

She jumped as she heard the sound of an explosion. A great cloud of smoke wafted in the air, near the territory of the thieves. Her pulse hiked. Tonto! She ran as fast as her feet could carry her.

How could things have gone so wrong?

They had underestimated the thieves and overestimated their own power. Bouquet had been taken down quickly; she was still clutching her arm tightly, in a worrying way that made Shu's stomach twist whenever he had a second to glance her way.

They should have gone to the others instead of facing these guys by themselves, but... Shu guessed he'd just wanted to prove - to himself, more than anyone else - that he was strong enough. That the next time they found Zola, the next time they faced Nene, he would be ready. He would not falter. He would not fail.

So much for that.

"What's wrong, kid?" The taller of the two men taunted him. "Starting to feel tired? Or just realizing that you're in over your head?"

"Hey, Shu!" Blue Dragon snapped at him. "Get up already! Don't let him talk about us like that!"

"You're right." Shu got to his feet, grounding his teeth together. If he couldn't get past this, how was he supposed to face the stronger challenges that were still to come? No - he wouldn't lose to this bunch of thieving creeps! "Let's do it, Blue Dragon!"

They set off a Fire Crisis. The thief dodged it by a hair, but was thrown into his companion; both of them were knocked unconscious. As an added plus, the Mecha Robo was destroyed. Shu let out a victorious holler, only in time to remember the other robot a second too late.

But a well-placed rock threw off the Robo's aim, its ammunition just missing Shu. His eyes darted to the side, where the rock had come from. Tonto...! He'd forgotten that Bouquet had gotten the chance to untie him, before she got hurt. Stupidly, Shu had thought he would run. But he still thinks he's my apprentice... Crazy idiot!

Shu started dashing towards Tonto, but not before the woman had the younger boy by the collar of his shirt. "Still interfering, are you? Maybe we ought to deal with you once and for all..."

An image passed through his mind's eye. Grand Kingdom soldiers, grabbing his friends. Taichi afraid. Hibiki sobbing. The look of defeat on Tsubasa's face. And Kluke, crying out for help.

No. Never again would anyone suffer from his hesitation, his inadequacy. His weakness, that still lingers (it had to still be there, he thought, because he kept failing time and time again).

Anything else the thief might've said was lost as Shu slammed into her, shoulder first - which made said shoulder give an agonizing ache (it had been hit earlier, and that hadn't helped), the now-throbbing ache doubling in feeling when he landed on his side. Bad idea. Very, very bad idea. He blinked through the fog of pain, trying to get his bearings-

Shu yelped when someone tugged hard on his injured arm, dragging him roughly to his feet. It was the woman, and she was not happy. "You've gotten in our way long enough." She pulled her arm back, and Shu braced himself for whatever would be next-

It never came. There was a thud, and the thief's eyes widened, before shutting as she let go of Shu and fell unconscious. He staggered, nearly dragged down by her slackened grip, but managed to stay upright on weak legs. When he looked up, he saw Tonto's sister standing there, a wrench in her hand. It took him off guard when he saw concern in her eyes. "Are you okay?"

Doesn't she hate us...? The thought was jumbled and distant, which probably should have clued him in that something was off. But it wasn't until he stepped forward while trying to answer, and everything started to suddenly blur, that Shu realized he was about to pass out.

Shu scrunched his eyes as he woke, before opening them to light right in his face. Once his vision had adjusted, he saw the source of the brightness - a window showing that the sky was clear and blue, the sun high and shining. Late afternoon, then.

For a moment, he thought he might be home - the same smell and warmth wafted through the room, just like when Grandpa was metalworking in the early morning... But his memory came back to him, and he knew it couldn't be true.

Quite suddenly, his field of vision was obscured by a pair of purple eyes that shone with surprise, happiness, and something else he couldn't identify. "Darling!"

"Bouquet..." He spoke her name softly, almost unbelieving. But, why? I knew that she'd be there... didn't I? Quickly discarding the thought as unimportant, Shu started sitting up, wincing a little as he lifted himself on his elbows. He could see that Bouquet sat in a chair at his bedside, and in another chair was Tonto's sister (which, reasonably, surprised him).

"Thank goodness you're awake! I... I was so..." Bouquet didn't even finish, only tightly clenched the sheet covering him. She couldn't say it. They'd faced worse, but... He... He had just been so still... Bouquet shook off those thoughts, though; she wouldn't let her Darling see her so down. "I'll go tell Tonto!" She hopped to her feet, running out of the room.

Tonto's sister was looking in the direction Bouquet had gone. "How are you feeling?"

"Alright, I guess." Shu was about to ask what had happened while he'd been out, but Amalia began speaking again.

"So... Your fiancée."

"Not really." Shu couldn't fight a light tinge that overtook his face. At Amalia's sudden glance and raised eyebrow, he amended, "Well... Maybe. It's a long story."

"I see." She pulled something out of her pocket, and Shu saw with a start that it was the same kind of mechat part Kluke had given him. This one was made of black metal instead of grayish-brown, though, and looked shinier. Unlike the other one, it also had no dents to speak of. "Bouquet gave me the original. This is for you... as thanks for saving my brother."

Shu felt an inexplicable lump in his throat. "Thank you." He let her drop it into his hand.

"Also," she continued," I'd... like to apologize, for my behavior. Even if you hadn't saved my brother, it was wrong of me to act in such a way." She stared at her lap. "It's just... I feel so angry at the men who killed my parents. I miss my mom and dad terribly. But I should have remembered that not all Shadow Users are the same." Amalia lifted her head, smiling at him. "I won't make that mistake again."

There was a loud bang as the door shoved open and hit the opposite wall. Out stepped Tonto... wearing a red cape. And a pot on his head. And he wielded an awfully crooked stick. Behind Tonto stood Bouquet, looking embarrassed for the young boy.

Amalia's face was a strange mixture of horror, weariness and acceptance, with her voice matching. "... I don't really want to know what this is about, do I?"

Bouquet shook her head. "No, you don't."

"Master, look!" Tonto rushed forward. Shu winced at the new name. "You've set me on the right path, and now I'm going to become strong just like you!"

Shu dropped his head into his hands. "If anyone asks why you have a pot on your head, please don't say that I'm responsible for it."

"Tonto!" Amalia stood up, furious. "Take off that get-up this instant!"

"Nuh uh, Sis!" Tonto put his fists on his hips. "I'm going to defend the village, and this is my defending outfit!" He took up what supposedly passed as a heroic pose. "Thieves and bad people all over will never come near our village again when they hear of the powerful Tonto, diligently trained under the mighty Shu-sama and his Shadow Rusty Nail!"

"Blue Dragon!" Shu almost shrieked it.

"You're not doing anything of the sort!" Amalia rushed at him, and Tonto darted away, laughing. "Tonto, get over here now! Behave yourself!"

"You should behave yourself first, Sis!" Tonto chortled, ducking under the table. He only gained a little speed, though - his sister had gone around it, but her legs were much longer. "Being all grumpy and grouchy like that, you'll never get a husband."

That, apparently, was a nerve. "I'LL KILL YOU!"

The two quickly delved into a very loud, very sibling-like shouting match - which, for those watching, was equal parts endearing and terrifying - all the while darting around the room, moving over, under, and around various household objects as necessary. Shu was just very grateful that they hadn't yet jumped over the bed; the last thing he wanted was to get in between the two of them.

He nearly jumped when Bouquet perched on the bed next to him. She scooted close, wrapping her arms around one of his, sighing as she laid her head on his shoulder. "Well... It's not a honeymoon, but at least we have some time together, right?"

Shu could only groan, and hope that he would escape from this situation unharmed by any of those involved, and perhaps even with his dignity intact.

Rethinking it... He couldn't be sure, but the latter was maybe too much to hope for.

Things had been going fairly well at the inn. All was quiet and peaceful, at least, so they considered that well enough.

So it took everyone by surprise when the door swung open, and Shu came in and collapsed face down on the couch with an exhausted yet muffled noise. Bouquet came in behind him, shutting the door with her hip (Marumaro watched this movement intently), one arm clutching the shopping basket and the other precariously holding onto a paper bag, both brimming with groceries.

Worried, Kluke dropped her pen and dashed over to Shu. She knelt at the foot of the couch, placing a hand on his back as she tried to see his face. "Shu? Are you okay?"

Her only answer was (albeit dampened by the couch pillow) a sound between a groan and a wail.

"We had a long day." Bouquet set the groceries on the table not covered by the Extra Seven and its translations. "I'll explain it while we put the food away. Kluke, can you help me?"

As Kluke began stuffing things into their packs - only what was to be used for dinner would actually go on the shelves - Bouquet explained everything that had taken place with Tonto and his sister.

At the end of Bouquet's explanation, Kluke glanced at Shu, who had finally removed his face from the pillow - but only because he had fallen asleep. "You should have gotten us."

"But we did it, though." Bouquet beamed, looking at Shu also. "Just Darling and me." Her eyes and her voice held so much pride, then. There was very little of the romantic lilt that usually filled her voice when she spoke of both herself and Shu. She was happy and proud, because they had saved someone all on their own. They had shown that they could do something, too.

Kluke realized, then, with startling clarity, how it must be for Bouquet. Before getting Phoenix, she had once been the weakest, the one everyone protected. The helpless one. The one that considered themselves useless. But now that she had her Phoenix, that unwanted role had fallen to Bouquet.

And Kluke knew how agonizing it was. How sometimes you'd wish you weren't even a part of the team. How much it made you despair.

In addition to Bouquet, there was Shu. He would bluster and brag all the time, and was even perhaps the strongest of them, but out of everyone he was the most insecure about his Shadow by a mile. Kluke knew he felt weak, and that he worried he was a liability. Zola's capture had only made all of that intensify. Whenever she thought of it, Kluke kept seeing him on that cliff back in Talta, looking so small and young, so sad and lost.

Kluke lifted her head and smiled at Bouquet. "You both did well. Really well."

It was late at night now. The full moon bathed the inn room in its light, the shadows making everything slightly blue. Kaede would be observing it happily as she enjoyed the quiet, if she weren't so tired.

As soon as Shu had awoken, they had all dove headfirst into the translation of the Extra Seven, only stopping to eat dinner before going back at it again. They had all fallen asleep in various spots of the room - only Marumaro had made it to his bed. Kaede had never even dozed; she had been going all this time, and she didn't intend to stop.

She did, however, need a break. So she had made her way to the tiny wooden balcony.

Kaede's mind wandered as she leaned on the railing. So much had happened these past few days. She had been betrayed. She had learned her brother was still alive. She had begun traveling with these strangers turned friends, who had quickly closed in around her - becoming the armor that protected and the blanket that comforted. Like... Like a family.

So much lost, yet so much gained.

"Maro?" She whirled around, coming face to face with Marumaro. "Why are you still awake, maro?"

Kaede relaxed. "I have to keep translating. We have to figure out the mystery of the Extra Seven, and we won't be able to do that until the pages are translated." What she didn't mention was her doubt; as she began to steadily understand more and more of the text, it slowly became clear that she had no idea how it would help them. Nene had hinted that each Warrior of Light knew things about their page that no one else knew, but would that really help them in the long run?

Marumaro nodded slowly. "That's true, but you need your rest, maro."

She rubbed her arms, feeling warmed by his concern. "I will, eventually." Kaede could tell that Marumaro wanted to protest, so she quickly changed the subject. "It's a beautiful night, at least."

He gave a little nod. "Maro..." Marumaro glanced at her shyly, and the words were out of his mouth before he gave it a second thought. "... I really admire you, maro."

Her eyes darted to his, incredibly shocked. "You... You admire me?"

Marumaro considered backpedaling, but decided against it. Another nod. "Y-you have a lot of courage, maro." Why was he stuttering? Why did he feel so nervous? "And a lot of kindness, too, maro." He took a deep breath. "Kaede-chan, you're... a really great person, maro."

She knew her face was probably flaming by now. "I... Maro-kun... I don't really know what to say..." She faced towards the moon. After a moment's pause, she said, "Thank you."

Marumaro smiled at her, content just to watch her as she watched the moon. He wondered why he was acting so strangely, so different from his usual behavior, but found that he couldn't bring himself to care.

There was a girl standing right beside him, with no one around to stop him, and for maybe the first time in his life, Marumaro didn't feel the urge to lift her skirt or grope her breasts - and he still felt happy anyway.

When everyone woke up the next morning, they were surprised to see Marumaro and Kaede already awake. But they were even more surprised when the two of them handed out the fully translated pages of the Extra Seven.

"This is great. It's been completely translated into our current language." Shu grinned at Kaede and Marumaro.

Bouquet, still looking at the page she'd been given, furrowed her eyebrows. "It looks like a children's story."

"That's nothing, maro." Marumaro waved dismissively. "One is completely numbers, and another is just a single sentence with a picture."

Jiro lowered his page. "What does it mean, Kaede?"

She looked a little bashful. "Honestly, I'm not really sure. I know that these pages are the key to unlocking our powers, but I don't know how they're going to do that. Nene said," she swallowed hard, wishing that bottling up her anger could be as easy as that simple, everyday motion, "that each Shadow User would recognize something about their page. Now I usually wouldn't trust what he says, but he told me that before I turned on him. And if he wanted my help with the translation, I'm not sure he would lie about an important part of the process."

"What do we do, then?" The question had been directed at Kaede first, but then Kluke looked around at all of them. "The Extra Seven seems to be a puzzle, expertly crafted so that we would be the only ones that could figure out. But if we can't decipher what it means, then what?"

"Then we'll go to the ruins," Shu said. "Maybe the Extra Seven will lead us to something that's there."

"Sounds like a good idea, maro." Marumaro grinned at him.

"Where should we go first?" Bouquet asked.

"Mafe." Kaede spoke so quietly that they barely heard her.

Something akin to alarm (or perhaps panic was a more accurate word) darted across Jiro's face. "Kaede-"

"I want to go to Mafe." She said it louder, her voice gaining strength. "I... I have to know. I have to see... whatever's left..."

Jiro looked at her for a long moment, no discernable emotion crossing his features. Then, finally, he looked away.

Kluke walked up to Kaede. The two girls shared a small smile as Kluke offered her paper, even though they were both filled with apprehension. "Mafe it is, then."

End of Part Two

*eyecatch of Shu and Blue Dragon*

Chapter Preview

*cue scenes from next chapter in background*

Narrator: The Shu-tachi begin their journey to Mafe, but encounter problems when they must leave the mechat behind due to a narrow canyon.

Marumaro: Hey, what's the funny little creature, maro?

Kluke: I know what that is! It's a Kelolon!

Jiro: Wh-what?

Shu: Hey, Kluke, you have a Kelolon charm on your backpack, don't you?

Kaede: How cute! I want to see!

Jiro: How could you think something so slimy is cute…?

Narrator: Next chapter of Blue Dragon: Maple Leaf – Kelolon Troubles.

Chapter 4 done! :D Also, this ends the first block of "episodes", so to speak, since most of the Blue Dragon DVDs had four episodes per disc (in Japan, at least). I was actually very happy with this chapter, which surprised me (it's an improvement over last time, anyway, I think). There were things that probably should have been touched on, such as Shu's melancholy from Zola being taken again, but I figured that the Shu-tachi needed a break; they've been having it a little rough lately, so a more cheerful plot seemed to be an order, in addition to the positive outlook brought on by the translation of the Extra Seven. Anyway… As you've probably noticed, there are changes here to the general framework of Episodes 27 and 32, the two episodes that I sort of meshed together to make this chapter. The scene where Shu and Marumaro teased Jiro was slightly different, which was mostly because I couldn't remember it exactly; Bouquet accompanied Shu to get the mechat part, because I thought it was a bit unfair that they sent him by himself; the Episode 32 plotline of this chapter was compacted and shortened, simply because there wasn't the room (I also gave Tonto's sister the name of Amalia, which I hope no one minds, simply because I didn't want to call her "Tonto's sister" for the entire thing; she's also not as harsh as she was in the original series); the Shu-tachi won't be going to get the mechat, since they already have it, which helped to shorten the Episode 27 plot; and though this is a bit of a spoiler, perhaps, they're going to Mafe first partly because Kaede has unwittingly mistranslated the numbers of the chapters, and thinks that her page is the first (I'm saying this now, because as far as I know, this won't be addressed in the story since they'll never know there was another way). Also of note: the next two episode chapters were the first two formulated as well as the first two to have pieces of them written (additionally, there were about three prototype chapters, but most of those have been discarded because they had bad plotlines and were badly written, though some themes from them were kept and lines recycled into upcoming chapters), and are always what comes to mind when I think of Maple Leaf; I'm really looking forward to writing them. And another note, though probably not as important – I found it incredibly funny when Tonto called Blue Dragon "Rusty Nail", and laughed both times I wrote it, especially the second time after Shu wakes up. Especially, especially the second time. I'm rambling, though. I'm so sorry – I promised shorter notes. I'll try to keep it from happening again.

So! If you can, please review and let me know what you think. :) Normally, I would put up the poll, but since I'm unsure of my internet at the moment, I'm going to wait. Once I am certain –whether I've be reconnected or was just never disconnected in the first place – I'll put it up, and updating can resume as normally. I may put up a few oneshots if I have any spare time, since there are several close to completion, but I may run out of time before I get the chance. Anyway… I'm unsure of when I'll be able to update next, but I'll try to do so whenever I can. So, hopefully I'll see you soon!