Disclaimer: I do not own the series or characters. You know the rest, and who they belong to. The game "Powerball" belongs to whoever holds the royalties and rights for Gladiators. Not me.
SPOILER ALERT: Warning; this chapter holds subtle hints for the identity of a certain Reyvateil from Ar Tonelico II. If you have not played the game or finished it and do not wish it to be spoilt for you, exercise caution when reading this chapter. You have been warned. Thank you.
"Alright, ladies!" bellowed the huge figure of Mr Gengai, the games teacher. "You can't fool me with your pathetic claims you've been working out over the holidays, so we're goin' full throttle today! Warm up is 10 laps round the gym! Get to it!"
And so it went. Inevitably some of the girls held up to Gengai's warm up better than others, but most of the jogging class were huffing and puffing. Saki's heart sank when she saw Luca steaming ahead of the pack, towards the front. But far ahead in front of her was Mute, eating up the track effortlessly, albeit grinding her teeth as she attempted to overtake the leader; a tall, slim girl with flowing black hair.
Saki, on the other hand, was a different story. While she had excelled in the biology class, in sports she had never performed particularly well, and felt on the verge of collapse after the fourth lap. She wasn't the only one; Shurelia and Tyria looked equally as tired, Aurica managing a little better. They weren't able to stop, however, due to Gengai actually running alongside them, blowing his whistle and shouting encouragement…that sounded almost like orders. Saki had never experienced such exhaustion.
Eventually it was over, and Saki was all but carried to the side benches by Mute. Warm up complete, they were allowed a short breather. Saki expected that the warm up would be enough exercise for the first lesson back, but Gengai's announcement that they would be playing Powerball this lesson, along with the resounding groans from many of the other girls, made her heart sink. Mute on the other hand, was ecstatic.
"Oh, hell yeah!" she cried. "You're going down, Trulyworth!" She gestured rather offensively towards a defiant Luca, who gave her the finger.
"And thus we have our first two contender volunteers," said Gengai. "Get your protective gear on. Now!"
"Sir, this isn't fair!" whined Luca, "You can't put me in a competition against a man!"
"What was that, bitch?" yelled Mute, advancing with her fists raised.
"SHUT UP! Both of you!" roared Gengai. "Save it for the damn match!" The two girls mutinously began to put on head, chest and leg guards. Saki looked rather worried, which did not go unnoticed by Gengai.
"Listen, new girl, count yourself lucky," he said. "I'm a big believer in learning by doing, so I was gonna send you out there first, but fortunately for you, both Laude and Trulyworth have volunteered to show you how it's done, so watch closely, hear?" Saki could only nod. Gengai turned back to the group at large.
"Okay! I will now choose the gladiators!" he shouted. "Hmm, let's see now, we'll have….Amarie Gelade,"
A girl who Saki recognised from Luca's gang got up and began putting on protective gear.
A pink-haired girl Saki had never met rose to her feet.
A gasp rang out throughout the gym. The black-haired girl that Mute had been racing against stood up and began armouring herself. She showed no kind of emotion at being picked, yet Saki noticed a rather flawless grace in her movements.
"It's really becoming a full-on day, wouldn't you say?" muttered Shurelia.
"Tell me about it," replied Tyria, "he's definitely going for the big guns."
"Why's everyone so shocked?" asked Saki
Tyria looked at her sympathetically. "That's Mir. Believe it or not, she's part of our family; she's adopted. But all you need to know right now is that she's absolutely lethal in all sports."
"Especially the contact sports," whispered Shurelia, "she's like…superhuman or something."
"She doesn't play nicely-nicely, no matter who you are," whimpered Finnel, "I've still got a few bruises from last term."
"Listen to me, Saki," said Tyria, seriously. "I know Gengai's planning to put you out there after Mute and Luca. When you're on the field, stay away from Mir. Go for the outer baskets, go through the other gladiators. I know Amarie's one of Luca's posse, but it'd be safer to try your luck with her than tangle with Mir."
"Promise us!" insisted Shurelia. "We don't want you getting badly hurt on your first few days!"
Saki looked really worried now. "How…exactly is this game played?"
"Probably easier if you just watch and see."
It was one of the most brutal games Saki had ever seen, let alone been asked to compete in. The two contenders had to place colour-codeed balls in the baskets on the square pitch. One point for an outer basket, three points for the inner one. Stopping them, however, were the three gladiators, whose job it was to tackle them in any fashion short of actually striking them, so the ball touched the ground, rendering it "dead." And they were allowed to team up. Despite what had happened yesterday, Saki winced as Luca was brought down hard by Cynthia.
Mute, however, was grinning the whole way through. Despite her enormous size, she was very fast on her feet, managing to dodge and weave her way to rack up a respectable score with the outer baskets. Combined with her strength meant that any effort made by Cynthia or Amarie to slow or stop her was futile. Twenty seconds in, and Mute had scored twelve points, seven more than Luca!
But then there was the matter of Mir. It soon became clear that everything Shurelia and Tyria had said about her was true. She wasn't just good…she was breathtaking. Her power was so focused and so well executed that Luca had been floored four times in the first half-minute by her alone, and her speed meant that she could easily keep up with Mute.
When it became clear that only Mir could stop Mute, her efforts became solely focused upon her, leaving the other two to deal with Luca. And seeing as Amarie wasn't going to bring down her gang-leader, it meant that Luca was catching up, fast.
There was definitely a rivalry between Mute and Mir, Saki noted. Mute had the power, but Mir had the speed and the precision. Yet, somehow, Mute kept scoring, although Mir's intervention prevented her from getting too close to the middle basket.
Ten seconds left, and Mute decided to make one final assault on the middle basket. Charging with her head down, she let out a roar of effort. Mir was ready though, and two and fro they wrestled over the basket as time wore down. However, in a competition of straight strength, Mute had a clear advantage, and the ball edged ever-closer to the entrance of the basket.
"She's going to do it!" thought Saki, "she's going to score!"
But then, at the last moment, with literally seconds left, Mir twisted her body weight, nearly leaving the ground in the process. This meant that Mute's power and weight could only go in one direction…down.
Mute hit the ground with a huge crash, causing the floor to shake. Pinned down by Mir, she struggled desperately, but eventually the ball was forced to the floor, dead. A huge "ooooh!" of disappointment rose up from the other girls.
Gengai's whistle blew, signalling the end of the game. Mir released Mute immediately, and the other girls swarmed the pitch.
"Are you alright?" asked Saki, worriedly, examining Mute.
"Course," Mute groaned, struggling to her feet. "I so nearly had her there! Still," she cracked a wicked grin, "great fun though, eh?"
"I-if you say so,"
"Alright!" roared Gengai, stamping for attention. "The scores for this match are: Mute Laude, scoring twenty-two, Luca Trulyworth, scoring nineteen. Congratulations, Miss Laude; looks like your talk ain't all trash!"
"Congratulations, Mute!" Many people, particularly those bullied by Luca, were lining up to cheer for Mute, who was doing a victory dance. Luca withdrew to the side benches, sulking.
"And now!" cried Gengai, "for the next match up! Saki Ishikawa, let's see what you got!"
"Y-yes, Sir." Saki, now shaking, made her way over to the protective equipment.
"And your opponent shall be….let's see now…Leyka Trulyworth!"
Even in her scared state, Saki looked up to see who Gengai was talking about. A rather buxom blonde girl had risen in response to his summons, and began gearing up. She looked in no way like Luca. But surely Gengai did just say "Trulyworth"?
"Is she related to Luca?" Saki asked Mute, who was helping her put on her helmet and shin-pads.
"Yeah, non-identical twin." Mute replied. "Wouldn't have thought it, eh? Don't worry; I never spoke to her myself, but she seems fair. A bit snobby, but not a nasty bitch like her sister. Has a big fan club though, so be lucky it's the Glads grabbing her and not you!"
"I don't think that's too much comfort in this situation…" mumbled Saki, as Mute put on her helmet for her.
"Look," she said, "don't get so nervous. It's just a game. With rules. They can't tackle you unless you're in the scoring zone with a live ball in your hand. Teiwaz seems to be guarding the high-scorer, so aim for the outer baskets. But try and score in Ehrgeiz's section; I don't trust Gelade. It's only a minute and then you're done!"
"Quick, short bursts of speed will help you. Don't be afraid to duck, or trick them." Mute gave Saki a pat on the shoulder. "Keep your head down out there, Saki, good luck. Don't let them rough you up too badly!"
"Laude, stop traumatising her," said a voice from behind them. Saki looked round; it was Leyka. Mute gave an exasperated look and hurried away. When she was gone, Leyka leaned towards Saki. "Listen, new girl," she whispered, "you want some advice? Stay away from Amarie. Mir may be tough, but at least she plays fairly. Amarie wants to take you out, I overheard her talking with my sister about it a minute ago, and they both play dirty."
"Trash talk in whispers? That's a new one!" boomed Gengai, laughing at his own joke. "Alright girls, let's do this, you can gossip later."
"Remember what I've said," insisted Leyka. "I'll try and keep Amarie on me as much as I can, but watch your back out there. Good luck to you."
"Thank you so much…" Saki tried to say, but Leyka was already taking up position.
When Saki took up her own position, Amarie began to position herself so that she would be marking Saki, but Gengai was wise to it.
"Let's get this show on the road!" he yelled, "and don't even think about it, Gelade! Get back to where you were!"
Scowling, Amarie went back to marking Leyka. Saki took a quick look; it looked like Cynthia would be marking her, with Mir guarding the middle basket, just as Mute had said.
And then the whistle went.
Saki grabbed a ball from behind her and started to run towards one of the outer baskets…
And the whole world turned upside down. Saki suddenly found herself forced to the floor, the ball tightly clasped in her palm the target of the marauding arms attacking her. The second it touched the floor though, she was released. Yells could be heard from the sidelines, Mute chief among them, shouting at her to get up.
"Too slow, new blood!" Cynthia grinned from above her.
Twice more it happened. Whenever Saki got near a basket, Cynthia would floor her. She was the smallest and least powerful of the three gladiators, but to Saki it felt like being run over repeatedly by a bus. But as Saki lined up for her fourth attempt, she remembered. What was it Mute had said?
Don't be afraid to trick them! Short bursts of speed! Suddenly she knew what to do.
She began to make for one of the outer baskets. Just as Cynthia closed in for the tackle, she changed direction and ran for the basket at the closest corner. Completely taken by surprise, Cynthia wasn't able to reach Saki before she dumped the ball in the basket.
She had scored.
There was a roar of approval from the sidelines. Saki could just register Shurelia, Mute, Tyria and Finnel cheering, but the game was still going, and there was no time to think. So she took another ball, and prepared for another run.
As the game went on, it became apparent that Saki was managing to hold her own against Cynthia. Sometimes she would be caught, but by following Mute's advice she managed to score more often, and when the game was almost over, she had scored six points. She hadn't seen Amarie, either. It looked like Leyka was keeping her word and keeping her off Saki's back. She was going to be alright!
But then Saki was horrified to see Leyka smashed to the ground by Mir and Amarie combined. Amarie immediately seized the opportunity to run up to Saki's end and mark the basket she was trying to run to. Swinging around, she saw Cynthia guarding the one on the other side. There was only one option; the middle basket.
She began to sprint towards the middle of the pitch, for the first time in the game. Both Amarie and Cynthia tried to grab her. They both missed. Saki kept running.
Her heart stopped. Mir was standing directly between her and the basket.
"Head down, Saki!" Mute bellowed. "Head down and charge!"
Saki registered this just before she made contact with Mir. Lowering her head at the very last second, she felt her skull sink straight into Mir's stomach. Perhaps she was used to a tactic such as this from someone the size of Mute, but her arms seemed to pass straight over Saki's head. Mir collapsed to the ground, winded.
The way to the basket was clear. Saki was almost there when she felt a hand grasp her ankle, and completely lost her balance. The ball went flying, and she hit the ground, hard. Screaming and groaning was deafening in her ears, but as she raised her head, Gengai's whistle went. The game was over.
Saki suddenly found herself swamped by people. A stretcher had even been brought over, just in case.
"Are you okay!" cried Shurelia, trying to turn Saki over.
"Don't touch her, moron!" snarled Tyria. "Let me see her."
Once Tyria, who was a first-aider, had ensured Saki was not injured, besides a little bruising, the crowd thinned a little bit, and suddenly realised. The ball Saki had let go of had landed inside the middle basket without touching the floor.
"That ball's live!" shouted Gengai. "Well done, Ishikawa! Very gutsy for your first try! Particularly against Miss Teiwaz!"
"Mir grabbed your ankle at the last second after you floored her," explained Mute. "That was awesome, though! Can't believe that went in!"
Saki could still barely speak from exhaustion, and simply began to limp to the benches, when she was suddenly shoved over violently from behind. She landed, first on one of the baskets, then onto the floor. Her head was forced upwards and into Amarie's sneering face.
"Hell yeah, soft touch! That's from Luca! Welcome to Nemo, new bitch!" All Saki could do was yelp in pain.
Mute, enraged, began to advance on Amarie, fists raised, but someone beat her to it. A black blur seemed to pass right underneath Saki and sink its fist straight into Amarie's face. Suddenly released, Saki rolled over to see Mir virtually sitting on top of Amarie, punching her repeatedly.
There was pandemonium. Everyone descended upon the fighting pair. Luca managed to grab Amarie and pull her to safety, while it was taking the combined efforts of Gengai and Mute to restrain Mir, who was thrashing around wildly, fury etched into her normally inscrutable face.
"That's enough, Mir! THAT'S ENOUGH!" bellowed Gengai. "Just fuckin' leave it! I think she got the message." He glared in Amarie's direction. "You get yourself changed and march your arse to the head, young lady!" He waited until Amarie, groaning in pain, had left the hall, before turning to Mir. "You as well, once she leaves. You know I agree with you, but I risk my career if I don't follow this up. Sorry."
Mir's face slid back into its usual, emotionless state. "I understand," she said. It was the first time Saki had heard Mir speak. She had a very soft voice, Saki noted in surprise. She'd been expecting something deeper, more menacing perhaps.
"Well, I'd say that's Mir grounded for a while," commented Shurelia, as the group walked home at the end of the day.
"Again," agreed Tyria. "She doesn't learn, but she was right this time. I'd have jumped in there if she hadn't beaten me to it.
"We all would've done," said Mute. "That bitch Gelade had it coming"
"I don't want anyone fighting!" cried Saki. "I can't stand seeing people fight. I'm sure if everyone talks to each other, we can solve this."
Tyria shook her head. "Mir's a vigilante, Saki. She picks her causes and deals with them. I'd actually consider yourself lucky. She seems to have taken a liking to you."
"Yeah!" said Croix, who had been listening to the regaling of the tale with wide eyes. "Luca and her gang won't dare mess with you if Mir's got your back!"
"It's just odd," Aurica commented. "Mir normally doesn't like anyone."
"True," agreed Shurelia, "she barely tolerates us most of the time!"
"Maybe she was in awe of Saki's killer Powerball moves!" Croix said, misty-eyed, "I so wish I could've seen it…"
"They weren't that good," laughed Saki. "I only scored nine. Leyka scored fifteen."
"Still though," said Finnel, "that was mighty impressive. Leyka may have won, but I enjoyed watching you a hell of a lot more!"
"Anyway, this is us," said Tyria, as the group reached Hoshinose. "Get some rest Saki, see you tomorrow."
"Yeah, see you!" cried Shurelia, "you were awesome today, Saki!"
"I'll be sure to tell Lyner, Cocona and Aoto about this!" agreed Croix, not noticing Saki's double take when he said Aoto's name. "They'll be damn impressed!"
As the three of them and Finnel left, Mute and Saki were left alone.
"Listen, Saki," said Mute. "I wanted to thank ya. I had a really nice time today. First time I've actually felt like I had friends in…well, forever."
"Oh, it's no problem!" Saki was overjoyed. "I'm really happy you decided to come with us. I hope we can be good friends!"
"You can count on it. See ya." As Mute began to head off, she turned back to Saki, with a smirk on her face. "Maybe if you ask me really nicely I'll give you a hand wooing pipsqueak-boy!"
Saki was still scarlet in the face as she walked through the park separating her house from Hoshinose. Was it that obvious? She wasn't even sure how she felt about the guy who seemed to quite happily tease everyone and loaf around showing off. She still remembered the look on Finnel's face when he'd embarrassed her in front of the biology class.
"Oh well," she thought. In times like these, there was always one thing she could turn to. Her face lit up as she dug the bag of sweets from the morning out of her pocket. Great restraint on her part for there to have been any left, really.
Suddenly, a growling sounded from nearby. "Oh, no!" Saki thought, "What now?" Hadn't there been enough surprises for one day? Apparently not, as the most enormous dog she had ever seen emerged from a nearby bush and began to walk slowly towards her. It's fur was various shades of brilliant blue, and had what looked like plumage on its head. A very handsome, albeit unusual dog, but still scared the life out of Saki.
"N-nice doggie…" she muttered. The dog, still growling, started to reach for Saki's bag of sweets with its mouth. Saki was about to try to run when…
"Enja, stop it!" A girl's voice rang out. The dog immediately withdrew, sat on its hindquarters and whined, completely placid.
A most unusual girl ran up to the two of them, panting. She had brilliant green hair and a matching green leotard with what looked to be wings attached to her back. Yet she looked…familiar somehow.
"I'm so sorry!" she cried. "He has a sweet tooth, and I haven't fed him yet, but he's really friendly, honest!" Saki still didn't look convinced, so the girl gestured to her. "Come! Come! Give him a pat. He loves it!"
Nervously, and trying not to look too closely at the girl's bizarre appearance, Saki edged her hand towards the dog's head. She was soon delighted when not only did the dog not mind being stroked at all, but had some of the softest fur she had ever touched. He closed his eyes, enjoying the attention.
"See?" said the girl, "he's lovely! Sorry he scared you, though. He does that to new people sometimes."
"Oh no, it's fine," said Saki. Reaching into her bag, she produced one of the sweets to give to the dog, who ate it from her hand greedily and immediately began to beg for more.
"Oh, you're so greedy, Enja!" laughed the girl. She looked at Saki. "I haven't seen you around here before. Are you new?" Saki could have sworn she'd seen this girl before…
"Yes!" she replied, offering her hand. "Saki Ishikawa; I just moved in over the road."
"I'm Frelia Ansul!" cried the girl. "Nice to meet you!"
Suddenly Saki realised. Something Shurelia had said about the third sister in the triplets. "She dresses up as Tinkerbell and spends most of her time with the dog…"
"Um, are you Shurelia and Tyria's sister?"
"Yes! How did you know…" Ahh, yes! You must be the girl at school my sisters told me about!" said Frelia. "You're very pretty, by the way."
"Uh, thanks…" Saki struggled to think of something to say to Frelia, who did seem to have some strange habits besides her appearance, such as constantly humming a tune, and swaying on her feet. "That's a very nice-looking dog you have there."
Frelia immediately perked up. "Oh, Enja? Yeah, he's one of a kind. My best friend in the whole world, seeing as everyone else seems to think I'm weird. They just don't understand me. But Enja does, so I spend most of my time with him. He seems to like you a lot!" Sure enough, the dog was nuzzling Saki's hand in affection. She giggled slightly, his nose tickled.
"Well, we'd better get back home," announced Frelia. "Big guy here needs his dinner. Nice meeting you, Saki! I'll tell my sisters you were so nice to Enja!"
"Okay, bye! See you around…I guess." Saki called to the rapidly departing Frelia and Enja. She suddenly felt exhausted. She decided to lie down the second she got home. It had been a very, very long day, and only the second one too! But she smiled to herself, as she realised she couldn't remember a time she'd met people she'd liked more.
A/N: Ahhh, this chapter was hard to write, but fun! There you go, a back-to-back release! Actually it's because this and the previous chapter were originally intended to be one, but I decided to split them after seeing how long the end result was. I dunno if that was the right thing to do or not, your opinion on the matter is welcome.