His shoulders slumped, and Lancelot sank to the floor, absent-mindedly watching the grains of sand pour from the rapidly-deflating punching bag. He stared into thin air, unable to think or concentrate on anything -- except, that is, his thoughts and memories of Naru, the swordwoman who had defeated him and changed his entire mindset on the battle. And their fight, only a few short months ago...
"So, are you sure you want to do this?" she said, holding her helmet loosely in one hand in her rapier in the other. She shrugged. "Your choice, really. If you don't want to fight me, fine."
"I-I didn't say that!" Lancelot protested, also clutching his helmet and rapier, but a little tighter than the girl was -- she was totally poised and confident. He looked away, casting his green eyes to the ground. "It's just...I feel rather embarrassed, you having been forced into this..."
The girl - Naru Amoh, she had said her name was - just shrugged carelessly. "I don't give a damn either way. All I'm saying is that if you're gonna be my opponent, you better be ready."
"Of course I'm ready!" Lancelot retorted, his voice sounding less sure than he would have preferred. However, his female opponent only nodded, then slipped the helmet over her face, and stepped back into a proper fencing stance. Lancelot closed his eyes, trying to mentally prepare himself as best he could for this match, but he found that it was a little more difficult than usual -- after all, he didn't USUALLY fight against females, much less ones he had just met a few short hours ago. As Lancelot lowered the heavy helmet over his face, his breath echoeing against the familiar mesh of the faceplate, he couldn't help but think about the chain of events that had gotten him into this utterly odd situation...
But she doesn't look like a bad person.
It was then that Lancelot was suddenly reminded of how alone he was at the castle. There was never anyone else around but Duke, Sebastien and the other servants, and while they were good company, there was no one his age. And this girl couldn't be much older or younger than he was... With that, a single, bizarre thought ran through his mind.
Maybe we could be friends.
Throwing all his previous suspicions to the wind, Lancelot bowed slowly, then held out one white-gloved hand. "Madam, I am Lancelot Lakeknight, the first son of the Lord Lakeknight of England and a disciple of the Duke Balthermi Rambert. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss...?"
The girl, who was obviously from Scotland judging by her broad accent, gave him a dubious 'are-you-kidding-me?' look, then just sort of shook her head and took his hand in her own black-gloved one, giving it a brisk, almost impatient shake. "Naru. Pleasure. So, can you tell me where to find the Duke in this place? I have to speak with him right away."
Lancelot gave her a wobbly smile, apologetically answering, "I'm very sorry, but the Duke doesn't usually admit visitors without appointments."
She stared at him for a second with those huge aqua-green eyes, then slapped a hand over them in exasperation. "Oh, you have GOT to be joking."
"Unfortunately, I am not."
"Great. Just great." All of a sudden, as if some great inspiration had come over her, she smiled slyly at the young boy. "But you know, I was REALLY looking forward to talking with Duke. And if I don't get to by choice, I may have to use force..." She let her hand clearly slip towards the hilt of her sword, the threat quite obvious. Lancelot saw this, and, gulping, quickly said, "All right! I'll take you to see Duke! Just...no fighting, okay?"
She grinned approvingly, placing her hand back on her hip. "That's more like it. Agreed. No fighting, as long as you take me to see him."
Placidly, Lancelot led Naru to the castle, unable to say a word the entire time. It wasn't so much the fact that after her rather dangerous-sounding threat, he was absolutely terrified, but more that he didn't feel he could really say anything to her. She certainly didn't seem in the mood to chat, as she offered no words or conversation either. Lancelot kept his eyes straight ahead as he walked, hazarding a quick glance at Naru every now and then. She avoided his curious glimpses, and continued to keep her eyes forward, not focused on anything but the large castle that was drawing closer and closer. At last, they reached the doors of the castle, great, towering creations of intricately-carved stone. Lancelot swallowed hard and turned to face Naru, hoping that he didn't sound too nervous. He did. "M-miss Naru...this is the entrance to...to the castle. But I'm afraid that I...I can't let you inside. There are...security reasons..."
Naru's aqua-green eyes turned on him, then she looked away, snickering slightly. "Baka. I'm NOT going to kill your Duke, okay? I'm not so good with this thing that I'd take on a Toshindaibukai participant." She motioned to the sword at her side, seemingly not noticing - or simply ignoring - the questioning look that passed across Lancelot's face when she mentioned the Toshindaibukai.
How does SHE know about the Toshindaibukai...? Duke's mentioned it before, the weaponry tournament he attended years ago, but nothing more than that...what does she know about it?
She locked eyes with him again, looking serious. "I just want to talk to him about an urgent matter. That's all. He should recognize my name, and he'll know I'm not a threat." Naru held up her orange-gloved hands, trying to calm Lancelot down. "I swear, I'm not here to make trouble. You've got my word on that."
Lancelot honestly couldn't find the words to reply to that, so for a while, the two just stared at each other. At last, the English boy was able to nod, and he stepped forward, pushing the closest door open with little effort. He moved back, and bowed, stretching an arm out towards the open door. "Then after you, madam."
He was rewarded greatly for his decision. When he looked back up at Naru, she awarded him with a brilliant smile, an incredible opposite from her previous cold personality, and he liked the change. "Thanks. I owe you one."
It took Lancelot more than a few seconds to respond, and his face felt hot as he looked away quickly, trying to hide the rapidly-spreading blush. "Well, I...uh...shall we enter, then?"
Once more, the serious facade returned to Naru's face, and she passed through the door into the castle, with Lancelot following. With the English boy leading, the two made their way through the ancient, massive castle, down long decorated corridors and up spiralling staircases, until they finally arrived at another pair of large doors. These ones were wooden and carved with beautiful pictures, like an ornate tapestry. Hesitating only a minute, Lancelot rose a hand to the door and knocked twice, then called, "Duke...sir, you have a visitor."
There was a pause before a deep voice answered back, "Enter...and Lancelot, you may dispense with the formalities." This last part was said not unkindly.
Lancelot nearly laughed, turning to Naru. "I've been brought up to treat nobility with the highest respect, although Duke would rather me see him as a friend. When speaking to him, I tend to forget that he has requested - numerous times - for me to not address him in such a formal manner."
Naru kind of raised an eyebrow, as if to ask what his ramblings had to do with anything. Flushing again, Lancelot muttered an embarrassed apology, then opened the door to the Duke's throne room. Beyond the doors lay what had to be the largest and most elaborately-decorated room in the entire castle. It resembled a medieval throne room, with rich colours of dark greens and reds, and a marbled floor with a long crimson carpet. At the end of the grand hall was a tall throne, with an extremely large two-handed broadsword strapped to the small wall next to it. Sitting on the throne was the Duke Rambert himself, looking somewhat out-of-place in the ancient room by wearing just casual clothes, and not his traditional armour. His eyes focused on Lancelot first, but when they travelled to Naru, they seemed to be slightly surprised at the sight of her sword. Lancelot took a quick bow before the Duke, but before he could say anything, Duke spoke out in his loud, deep voice. "Well, Lancelot, you didn't mention that our visitor was such a lovely mademoiselle! What can I do for you, young lady?"
Lancelot opened his mouth to introduce her, but before any words came out, Naru took a step forward and said in a clear, earnest voice, "My name is Naru Amoh, and I am the daughter of Kayin Amoh, a former Toshindaibukai contestant. I've travelled here from Scotland to ask you, Duke Rambert, about the whereabouts of my father."
Lancelot hung back and watched the girl. As he expected, Naru stood and spoke without a measure of formality, standing firm and serious. Lancelot idly wondered if she REALLY knew how much status Duke held; he doubted it, for if she did, he'd like to think that she would be a little more polite in his presence...
Meanwhile, the Duke nodded and simply said, "Yes, I remember Kayin. Please, young lady, continue."
A sudden hope lighted in Naru's green eyes, completely replacing the stoic coolness that Lancelot had seen before. She began to talk again, and although she kept her straight tone, the young boy thought he could detect a measure of excitement in her accent-slurred voice. "Duke Rambert, I have reason to believe that my father has been missing for the past five years, perhaps more. I was left at a housing institute in Scotland in 1996, and when my father did not return for me throughout the ten years I stayed there, I decided to find him on my own. As part of my search, I've been trying to find former participants in the Toshindaibukai tournaments of 1994 and 1995, in hopes that they may be able to help me in my search." Here, her tone of voice changed to what sounded like genuine desperation. "Please, Duke...I've been looking for my father for over half a year now, and I've found nothing. I ended up here on a whim, and if you can tell me anything, anything at all, I'd..." Naru's voice nearly broke, and she dropped her gaze, looking somewhat ashamed at her display of emotion. "I'd do anything," she finished in a pleading whisper.
In the meantime, Lancelot's eyes had become larger and larger throughout her entire story. He felt pity for her rising up in his chest. So, that was her reason...but what a sad fate...
Duke, who had been listening intently to the young girl's story, looked quite apologetic when she finished. He sat up straight on his throne, and shook his head. "Regrettably, Madamoiselle Amoh, I myself have no clue as to Kayin's whereabouts. I had no idea that he was even missing. Therefore, I'm afraid I cannot assist you. I'm very sorry."
"Oh..." Naru's voice came out almost inaudible, and she bit her lower lip in what was an obvious attempt not to cry. "Well...then, I'm sorry to have bothered you. Thanks anyway. I'll leave, then..."
Lancelot couldn't look away as she brushed past him, towards the doors, blinking tears of disappointment back rapidly. She didn't even look at him. He opened his mouth, wanting to say something that could be of comfort to her, because she looked so despairing, so SAD--
But it was Duke who spoke first. Surprised, Naru turned back around, to see Duke appearing to be deep in thought. Finally, the knight nodded, and looked down at the Scottish girl with a broad smile on his face. "I believe I know someone who could most definitely help you." Here, Duke smirked almost amiably, his hand resting on the massive sheathed two-handed broadsword beside his throne. "An old...acquaintance of mine, you could say. If anyone, he would know where Kayin is."
Naru didn't even try to hide her happiness. The huge, beautiful smile burst across her face once again, as her eyes filled with gratitude. "Oh, wow...thank you...thank you so much!! What do I have to do to get the information?"
"Do? Well, I suppose..." The question seemed to take Duke offguard, but he glanced over at Lancelot and smiled. Lancelot suddenly felt very uncomfortable. This didn't look good.
Duke turned back to Naru, folding his hands across his lap and looking proud of himself. "Naru Amoh, you will take on Lancelot Lakeknight in a tradional fencing match. If you are able to defeat him, then I shall give you the information you require."
Naru nodded hastily. "Right. I accept."
"B-but...wait!" Lancelot spoke up, his nervous voice echoeing throughout the huge room. Duke looked over at his disciple, amusement written across his face. "What is it, Lancelot?"
Lancelot attempted to clear his throat many times, but it didn't seem to work. Finally, he was able to find his voice. "But Duke, a...a match? Me...against her?"
Duke had smiled warmly at the young boy. "Well, why not? It would be good practice for you, Lancelot. You've been training very hard lately, but there's nothing quite like a real opponent. I expect to see a good fight from you."
"But-" Lancelot began to protest, then decided against it. It wasn't worthwhile; the match was set.
It had only been that morning when he had gone out for an early walk on the southern grounds of the castle, enjoying the dawn's sunlight. There was something rustically beautiful about the countryside of France, even more so than the mountains of his own homeland, England. He had been walking along one of the finely-groomed lawns, reading Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, when a sudden rustle from one of the bushes on the other side of the stone wall startled him. Followed by slow, soft, deliberate footsteps across the grass on the other side.
He dropped his book immediately, his mind automatically shooting to panic. As far as he knew, there was no one else around for miles, no one who would dare set foot on Duke's property...
Except a fighter. A challenger.
It wouldn't be uncommon. Duke, being the best swordsman in France, often received a lot of challenges from travelling fighters, seeking to make a reputation by beating the modern-day knight. Lancelot had been lucky enough to watch a few of these fights, and Duke always won. He was an excellent fighter. But although he himself was a champion fencer, Lancelot didn't think he was really ready to fight against any world-travelled warriors. He grimaced inwardly, thinking about his rapier, safe in its protective case back in his bedroom. If worse came to worse, he could always fight barehanded, though he wasn't too good at it-
Suddenly, unexpectedly, a figure somersaulted up onto the wall, silhouetted against the rising sun and casting a long shadow against the grass. Lancelot squinted and held a hand above his eyes, barely able to make out the intruder's identity against the light of the sun. Finally, his eyes adjusted to the brightness, and he saw that it was a girl. A teenage girl, dressed in a red jacket and shorts over a black, oddly-cut bodysuit, with two long blonde ponytails and a pair of orange goggles strapped around her forehead. A silver cross on a brown cord dangled down her neck.
And, of course, there WAS the fact that a sheathed Claymore sword was hanging at her hip.
This whole scene in total surprised Lancelot so much that he couldn't say a word. Meanwhile, the strange girl was standing perfectly still, her cold, icy green eyes watching his every move. She was regarding him with what had to be a look of contempt on her face. She remained silent.
Lancelot, however, finally managed to find his voice -- though he was sure his eyes were far more wide than usual. "Who...w-who are YOU?"
She shrugged. "Just a wanderer." The girl vaulted down from the stone wall, landing deftly on her feet right in front of him, her knee-high white boots hardly making a sound on the grass. Lancelot took a few wary steps back, wisely deciding not to be trusting of a foreign girl with a sword who just saunters onto other people's private property. She noticed this, however, and shot him a half-smirk, knowing why he seemed so scared of her. "Oh, don't be daft. I'm not going to attack you or anything. I've just come to see Duke Rambert."
"Well...uh...miss...some people would normally prefer to use the front door," Lancelot stammered, then nearly slapped himself. Don't tell me I really SAID that! She could be some...some ruffian who's plotting to kill us, and saying something so rude would just encourage her to do so...
And that event was what brought Lancelot to this moment, staring nervously through the grill of his helmet at an identically-suited Naru, standing across from him with rapier in hand, ready to fight. She didn't look the least bit nervous or uncomfortable, which was exactly what Lancelot was feeling, amongst a mix of other emotions. She may use a Claymore, Lancelot thought rapidly, but even though she fights with a broadsword's cutting style, it appears that she knows how to fence as well. I don't know if I can win this time...not against her... He had never fought a girl in a match before, and he certainly didn't want to start with Naru...
He glanced quickly at Duke, who was standing at the sidelines, smiling proudly at him. The boy stared, then nodded once in determination. He had his reputation as a champion fencer at stake here, and Duke's belief in his skills as well...
-but she has so much more at stake-
"The match shall consist of one bout!" called the Duke, "and it will be fought in the tradional fencing style! Good luck to both of you!"
Mentally nodding to himself, Lancelot straightened up, formally saluting Duke, and then Naru. He was surprised to see that his female opponent did the same thing, without any prompting. So maybe she does know a bit... Lancelot thought, slowly moving into his expert fencing stance. He had mastered the style of fencing when he was only twelve, and he knew that his expertise would give the definite advantage over Naru. But it was still a little unnerving to see that she didn't look nervous whatsoever...
Naru began the fight very defensively, claiming the first attack with a lunge. Lancelot, surprised to see her make the first move, narrowly avoided the attack just in time. However, he didn't even have time to blink when Naru had spun around and began to jab at him with her rapier in quick, rapid thrusts. He was astounded by her speed -- she was as fast as he was, if not more so. Lancelot managed to block all of her attacks, then parried her rapier, advancing on her with a fleche -- a short leap off of his leading foot, and attempting to strike her while passing by.
...how is she so strong...?
However, Naru deftly dodged, and continued to assault him with numerous sharp thrusts. Again, Lancelot blocked her rapier, but gasped when he saw her perform a perfect coule -- an aggressive attack that slid her blade right against his. He countered with a flying parry followed by a riposte, and it was Naru's turn to block the attack. The two both retreated a few steps, trying to catch their breath and senses. Lancelot eyed the uniform-clad girl only a few feet away, confusion and hesitation crossing his face.
...what am I feeling from her...?
As fiercely as she had started, Naru charged towards him, and the match was engaged once more. Lancelot switched tactics and began to use beating, the process of trying to knock her rapier out of line by striking the weak upper portion of the blade, in order to wear her down. Naru dodged again and again, then countered with a stesso tempo -- a parry and riposte in one swift action. But Lancelot disengaged, and thwarted her parry, attacking with a lunge. She saw this action, and hastily blocked, retreating back. Once again, the two stood perfectly still, watching each other for any sudden moves. Lancelot could feel beads of sweat rolling down his face, as his mind struggled to comprehend how this foreign challenger could be besting him, one of England's greatest champions. And at the same time, he was slowly realizing something.
...I can't beat her...
Something from this thought made his hidden streak of pride flare up, and in frustration, Lancelot dashed in, attacking her with repeated cuts. It was obvious that Naru was taken aback by his sudden defensiveness, but that didn't last for long. She quickly parried his riposte, then performed a counter-riposte of her own. But although Lancelot blocked her move, she abruptly attacked with another coule, and he could feel the pressure from her rapier. Her determination to find her father.
His grip on his rapier started to weaken under the force of her sliding blade, and he understood what she was trying to do -- disarm him, thus winning the match. He met her eyes through his faceplate, two shades of green. And Lancelot Lakeknight saw something in Naru Amoh that he had never seen before.
The rapier flew out of his hand.
Stumbling backwards, Lancelot let out a short cry as his helmet slipped off, and he was sent sprawling to the ground. Wincing, he slowly rolled over, looking up in stunned surprise at Naru, holding her rapier straight out in front of her. She took off her helmet with her free hand, blond ponytails spilling across her shoulders, and locked eyes with him.
And she smiled.
"Mademoiselle Amoh...you indeed have much skill in swordplay, if you were able to best Lancelot," the Duke was saying. It was only a couple hours after the end of the match, and both combatants were back in their normal clothes, standing in front of the Duke in his throne room. Lancelot refused to take his eyes away from the ground, and Naru was looking more and more anxious. Duke nodded, regarding the young girl. "Truly, though informal, your training shows though. I offer you sincere congratulations."
Naru fidgeted nervously, obviously uncomfortable with all the talking. "Yeah...thanks, I guess. Anyway, you promised that you'd tell me who might know where my father is, if I won the match. Well, I won, so who is it?"
Duke only smiled at her lack of respect, not bothered by it in the least. He closed his eyes, looking satisfied. "Indeed, you won the match by utilizing your strength and determination to find your father. An admirable trait. There are very few living in the world today who can say that they have your strength, Mademoiselle Amoh." It appeared that Naru was about to explode if she had to wait any longer, so Duke finally gave her her answer.
"If you can find the man named Eiji Shinjo...you will definitely be able to find your father. If anyone would know Kayin's whereabouts, Eiji would."
"Eiji...?" Naru whispered, then her eyes widened suddenly, as if a realization had just struck her. "Oh my God, you're right! He WOULD know! I don't know how I could have forgotten about Eiji...but thank you! Thank you for telling me! I'll go off to Japan right away!" And with that, Naru turned and hurredly ran out of the room, not bothering to give Lancelot a second look. The boy watched her leave, clear sadness and disappointment written across his young face. Duke didn't miss this. "You liked that young swordswoman, didn't you, Lancelot?"
"I, uh...sir..." Lancelot quickly looked away, biting his lower lip nervously. "I...I wish I could go with her. I want to help her."
Duke just closed his eyes and shook his head. "No, I'm afraid you cannot. Mademoiselle Amoh has a task she must fulfill, and she must do it on her own. Otherwise, she will never grow stronger from it. I knew the look in her eyes all too well." After saying this, Duke's eyes took on a faraway look, as if he was lost in his thoughts. "How terribly saddening...that look in her eyes, and she was not even a Toshindaibukai participant..."
Lancelot looked back up at Duke, forehead furrowing in confusion. "...What is this 'Toshindaibukai'?"
"It is simply something of the past that does not need to be discussed."
"Oh...I see." Even without the last part of the sentence, Lancelot knew not to inquire any further. But as he turned to go, he stopped and looked back at the Duke, blank confusion on his young face. "Duke...why did I lose?"
Duke didn't answer, but simply raised an eyebrow at the boy, as if asking him to explain further. Lancelot looked down at his feet, seemingly ashamed. His voice was nearly a whisper. "I...I mean, I'm a champion. I've beaten the best fencers in Britain. I haven't lost a match until today. But...when I was fighting Naru, I just couldn't win. And I don't know why. I just felt like...like for the first time, I was actually seeing someone who had something to fight for. Not glory and honour and reputation. She had something that depended on her victory." His eyes returned to Duke, still confused. "How did she defeat me?"
Duke was silent for another number of minutes, before closing his eyes and smiling. "Lancelot, I believe you already know the answer."
"The match yesterday was pathetic," growled Zero. "Three straight losses. I can't see how an old fool like that magician was worthy of the shield. He couldn't even put it to good use." The man looked over at the Master, who was sitting silently at the front of the room, eyes closed. "When do WE get that weapon?"
"Yes, Master-sama," added Eos in her quiet, musical voice. "The holder of the Genbu no Tate has already been defeated. When shall we take the shield from him?" She lowered her head in respect. "Just give Zero or I the order, and it is done."
Master didn't say anything in return for a number of seconds, then just made a noise that sounded like a sigh. "It wouldn't be that easy. Despite Genma's loss, he still retains the god's power. And that will not be easy to overcome, in any event." His eyes opened, and the Gerard Foundation leader glanced at both of his executives in turn. "Things aren't quite finished yet there. I'd prefer to see our game through right to the final rounds."
A disgruntled Zero stepped forward, ready to speak, but Eos beat him to it. "But Master-sama, the weapons-"
"The weapons are still our top priority. Nothing will change that," the Master said, unconcerned. "But we must stay calm, to keep a low profile. Everything will be ruined if our contestants find out the true reason for the Toshindaibukai -- especially the other chosen ones." He cocked his head towards Zero, narrowing his eyes and almost appeared to smile in a composed manner. "Have patience, Zero. I think you'll agree when I say that it'll be much more interesting this way."
Master's male subordinate growled deep in his throat, turning away angrily. "I'm not in the mood for fun and games, Master-sama. I want the power that is rightfully ours."
"And ours it shall be," the Master said, "but in due time. We've waited this long, and day by day, we're able to rid ourselves of more obstacles that could pose threats to us. I want to make absolutely certain that nothing stands in our way."
Meanwhile, Eos had been looking thoughtful, and spoke up. "Master-sama, about the other...chosen ones...you referred to, perhaps we could test them against each other. We will be able to see a second reaction between the remaining two weapons, and it will be possible for us to monitor the other two fighters as well." A small, knowing smile spread across her fine features. "Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak."
The Master only nodded at this suggestion. "Again, your talent for mind-reading comes in useful, Eos. I had that very idea planned. As soon as there is a possibility, set a match between..." here, the Master narrowed his eyes in satisfication, "the teams led by Puella Marionette and Subaru Shinjo."
"Che. So the phoenix and the tiger will have a little fight. But they still have the weapons in their hands, and it doesn't benefit us," grumbled Zero, one of his giant fists clenching and unclenching the grip of his broadsword.
"Patience is a virtue, Zero," said the Master. He shot a rather dark glare at his executive. "A virtue you would do well to learn."
To this, Zero just gripped a fist and raised it, like he wanted to strike the Foundation's leader, and all the while, the Master just calmly watched. Zero's hidden eyes moved to the sheathed katana sitting right next to the Master, then he slowly dropped his gloved hand. He knew better than to defy Master any further -- especially when he had his sword within his reach. Instead, Zero shrugged, muttering, "What if they find out? They may be just children, but they're not totally ignorant. The longer this tournament continues, the greater the chance that they'll figure something out. They'll find something." This time, it was Zero's turn to cock his head and smirk at the Master. "Isn't that right, Master-sama?"
The Master was unspoken again, simply eyeing Zero with another dark crimson gaze. Finally, he spoke, his deep words carrying themselves throughout the large room. "IF they find out, then we'll have to resort to more...drastic measures. It won't be too difficult. I have the plans already made, just in case."
"But they are already suspicious, Master-sama," murmured Eos.
To this, the Master closed his eyes halfway, murmuring, "There's a Latin saying -- Odoisi sint dum metuunt. In other words, 'let them hate, so long as they fear'. I'm rather fond of that saying." He stood up grandly, reaching for his sword. He held the katana up, examining it in the dim light of the room. Looking at it, he smiled behind his mask.
"Because by the time the little game is finished, I have no doubt that all of them will both hate and fear me."
Three days had passed since the first fight of the tournament, and the young team of Puella, Lancelot and Fen were just about exhausted. Ever since the Toshindaibukai had formally opened, they (and every other team, it seemed) often had up to two matches a day. But so far, the three had managed to be victorious in every match. There were a few times when it had appeared that they would lose - especially when they went up against an extremely skilled team from China, and one Japanese team with a naginata-wielding woman who had nearly sliced Fen in half - but in the end, the three teenagers always came out on top. Whether it was due to skill, luck, or a bit of both, none of them could really say. Exhausted as they were, they were all extremely proud of themselves for coming so far.
"Y'know, this wasn't as hard as I thought it would be!" Fen commented that afternoon, shortly after returning from a match against a trio of staff-wielding warriors from Korea. Reclining in an armchair in Lancelot's spacious room, Fen reached down to pat Wolfy. "I mean, I didn't think we'd make it this far! It's the third day and we're cleaning house!"
"You're right!" giggled Puella, who was perched on top of the couch, swinging her bare legs back and forth happily. She took a sip from her glass of water and winked at her two young friends, wiping some of the sweat from her face. "That last match wasn't too hard...I guess we're all better than we thought!" She inwardly thanked her common sense for making her take some archery and a minimal of martial arts lessons.
"Still, we shouldn't be overconfident," Lancelot reminded them, staring out the large glass door to the balcony. He turned around and glanced at his two teammates, looking every bit serious. "We have no clue as to how long this Toshindaibukai will run for. It could be another week until the competition is narrowed down to the final contestants."
"Nah, it won't be that long," Fen replied flippantly, tossing a hand in the air. "At the rate they're going with scheduling the matches, I'm betting that this tournament's into the finals within the week. Next few days, even. You worry too much, Lance!"
Lancelot's eyes widened slightly at this comment, then their gaze dropped to the floor, looking a little ashamed. "Is that so...?"
"Mou, Lan-chan!" Puella said, bouncing off the couch and throwing her arms around Lancelot in a friendly hug from behind. "You're so sensitive! Fen didn't mean it in a bad sense, did you, Fen?"
Fen shrugged, grinning. "Just stating a fact, man."
The English boy smiled weakly, trying to keep his balance under Puella's added weight. "I take no offense to your comment, Fen."
"But y'know..." Puella started in a calmer voice, sliding off of Lancelot's back, "I'm kinda worried. I mean, the Gerard Foundation's behind this tournament, but nothing out of the ordinary's happened yet." Puella frowned. "I'm getting suspicious."
"Maybe they decided to have a decent tourney for once. No illegal stuff," commented Fen, leaning back in his chair.
His female friend shook her head rapidly in response. "No, they wouldn't! They're so mean! They attacked us at the church, and they kept threatening everyone just because of me!"
"Didn't they want the bow that you own, Pue-chan?" Lancelot asked.
Puella paused here, trying to remember the wording on some of the written threats that the heads of the orphanage had received. "Well...that's what they said, I think. But I don't know why they want it so much, other than the fact that my Suzaku no Yumi is really powerful. I mean, I guess that'd be a good reason to take it, but...I know I can't let it fall into their hands! It'd be really, really bad if THEY got ahold of it -- I just know it would!"
And I don't know what I'm going to do if they don't show themselves soon...I have to make sure that they stop attacking my family! She nodded to herself in determination. Looks like the only way to confront them is to win the tournament! Then they'll have no choice but to listen to me!
It was at this point that there was a brisk knock at the door, and Lancelot went to answer it. Puella and Fen watched from behind as he opened the door to a stiffly-clad servant, a bellboy maybe, who was holding out a piece of plain paper with a broad smile. "Sir, your fighting schedule for tomorrow."
"Oh...thank you very much," Lancelot replied, taking the slip of paper from the servant. Puella bounced off the bed immediately, and with Fen and Wolfy following, they crowded around Lancelot as he opened the paper to check their newest matches. However, they were all baffled when they saw that there was only one match scheduled for them. And both Lancelot and Puella gasped in shock at the plain typing.
Puella Marionette, Lancelot Lakeknight, Fen Barefoot versus Subaru Shinjo, Naru Amoh, Rook Castle
Fen Barefoot vs. Rook Castle
Lancelot Lakeknight vs. Naru Amoh
Puella Marionette vs. Subaru Shinjo
All matches begin at 10:00 a.m., main arena.
"No..." Puella whispered, her purple eyes wide. "Not them...!" She and her two friends had made a habit of catching that team's matches, and so far, they too had won every fight. And by now, it was obvious that those three martial artists were far more skilled than they would ever be. However, that wasn't what was bothering Puella -- or Lancelot.
I don't want to fight against Subaru... Puella thought worriedly. Not just because I know I'll lose, but I don't want him as an enemy opponent...!
Lancelot's thoughts were practically the same, as he refused to take his eyes away from the typing that read his name versus Naru Amoh. Naru...I don't want to have to fight against you again...!
Fen peered at both his stunned teammates, raising an eyebrow. "Hey guys, why do you both look so upset? I mean, I know you're friends with those team members or something, but come on -- we can't lose, right?" He grinned boyishly, striking a fighting pose. "We're not gonna lose!"
The fencer didn't respond right away, but kept staring at the paper in his hand, a hopeless look on his face. Puella gazed at Fen with round, surprised eyes, and then smiled. "You're right, Fen. We can't lose hope. We can still win!" She walked up to Lancelot, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Right, Lan-chan? Right?" He turned to look at her, still appearing dumbfounded, and she grinned. "Remember, it doesn't matter who we fight. We have our goals, and we're not gonna fail, no matter what. We've come so far already that we just CAN'T lose." Puella glanced at both of her teammates in turn, the brave smile still on her face. "I'm sure we can do it. I'm definitely sure."
"Pue-chan..." Lancelot stared at his friend in bewilderment,
"That's the spirits, guys!" Fen said enthusiastically, pumping a fist into the air. With a wink and a grin, he motioned to his and Lancelot's weapons, sitting by the door. "C'mon, you two, we've still got some time -- we should all go train a bit."
"Yes, of course!" Puella glanced over at the table where she had placed the Suzaku no Yumi, seeing it shine golden in the light of the late-day sunset. She mentally nodded to herself in determination.
Maybe I'll be able to find out the mystery behind that power I felt...and who he really is...
Subaru glanced only once at the writing on the paper, then let it drop to the floor. As usual for him in the last few days, he hadn't been feeling well, and the last thing he wanted to think about was more matches. Though it wasn't like he felt so sick that it kept him from the competition...when he was fighting, he felt fine, and he was even enjoying pitting his skills against the other tough opponents. But in all the spaces before and after the fights...something just wasn't right with him. And he wasn't entirely sure what.
Naru had been worried, of course. The two had been spending a lot of time together, mostly training, sparring and pitting their similar techniques against each other. And, although it had been a little hard for both of them in the beginning, they now frequently exchanged stories of the two swordsmen they were related to -- Eiji and Kayin. The last couple nights, they had sat up together until the early morning hours in the training gym and hotel lobby, just talking. It had been nice. But Naru had noticed that Subaru had been acting strangely in the last little while...more distant, she said.
"Are you sure there's nothing wrong?"
"No, really...nothing's wrong. I'm fine. Just a little tired, that's all."
"You've been training too much, I bet. Go get some sleep tonight instead. It'll do you good."
But he couldn't sleep at all, and he didn't know why.
He was now lying on top of his bed in his normal clothes, hands tucked behind his spiky-haired head, wide awake even though it was quite late at night. The room was entirely dim, except for streaks of moonlight that were shining in through the half-open blinds, leaving white trails splashed across the floor. In the darkness, Subaru really couldn't do much else but think about things. It was already the end of the Toshindaibukai's fourth day, and none of them had seen anything of the mysterious Gerard Foundation. They were obviously keeping themselves hidden behind the scenes, although Naru swore that it wouldn't be for long. And so far, Subaru hadn't seen any sign of his niisan. He was starting to suspect that maybe he wasn't here after all, but every time he began to think that, he reprimanded himself, knowing that he should always keep faith, keep the hope that maybe...just maybe...
He involuntarily clenched the blanket between his fingers, turning over onto his side and lowering his eyes. "I miss you, niisan..." Subaru whispered out loud, feeling like a little kid again. He gripped the blanket underneath him more tightly, as he tried not to let his emotions get the best of him. He remembered his brother's face, his smile, his laugh, his kindness and friendliness...all gone, now. And if his niisan wasn't here, then he probably wasn't anywhere, and Subaru would never see his brother again. He'd never see his brother again, and the very thought of it scared him.
Subaru decided to get his mind off of that particularly depressing topic. His eyes turned down to the floor by his bed, again studying the text on the open paper -- their team's match for tomorrow. "Fighting against that girl, huh..." he murmured out loud, half-closing his eyes drearily. Subaru thought back to the numerous matches he and his teammates had fought in the past couple days, and a small hint of a satisfied smile passed across his face. They had beaten all the competition. In fact, it seemed that their first match had been the most difficult so far, as none of the others had presented even half as much of a challenge as they did. "If all the rest of our matches are this easy, then we'll have no problem winning this tournament..."
But what about HER team...? You're fighting them tomorrow, after all...
Subaru didn't think that they were much cause for concern. He'd been so busy training in his spare time between fights that he hadn't had time to see any of their fights, but he knew that they were an undefeated team as well. That didn't really worry him. They were just a bunch of kids, after all, and Rook was right, they hardly looked experienced enough to beat them...
...but what about that connection you felt to that girl, the first day? What was that, anyway?
He opened his crimson eyes again, remembering the strange feeling he had gotten from the little blue-haired girl in the pink dress...Puella Marionette. Her huge purple eyes staring at him in surprise and shock.
Subaru still didn't understand. He supposed that it would all get figured out tomorrow morning, when they faced each other in the battle arena... He exhaled slowly, closing his eyes fully with a smile. "Either way, it should be a fun match..."
Child. Wake up.
Suddenly, something struck his mind. Without warning, images began flashing through his head, and jumbled voices began to create a blurring cacophony of sound. With a short cry of pain, Subaru rolled off of his bed, holding his head and gritting his teeth as hard as he could, trying to shut his eyes against the sights. But the pictures continued to spin by him, faster and faster, until he felt like he was being surrounded by light and sound. He dimly heard himself yell something, though it sounded distant and stange, and it only combined with the other distorted noises that wracked his mind. He could feel his eyes snap open, but he couldn't see anything but the spinning images encompassing him...he could feel himself moving, screaming, violently lashing out at anything around him, trying to make the pain stop...he couldn't control himself, couldn't control anything...
It hurts, it HURTS-
Abruptly, everything came to a jarring halt. The kaleidoscope of images began to come into view, and the voices became audible, but the realization of what they were made Subaru feel like an icy hand had just wrapped itself around the pit of his stomach. His eyes widened in shock at the sights he was seeing, and he screamed out loud, "DAMMIT, NO!! DON'T!! NO!!!"
A single voice, rising above the multitudes of other voices, began to clearly speak to him as he was watching.
It is what you fear.
But you DO know it.
"LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!"
-lies, all lies, nothing but denial and lies-
He couldn't remember anything after that. Everything began to shift again, and it all became just a maelstrom of sound, colour, images, light, and the voice...that voice...telling him, repeatedly, over and over and over again...
The loud sound of shattering glass finally caused Subaru to stop. Silence followed, broken only by Subaru's ragged breathing. He glanced around at the damage he had done to his room in dismay, truly seeing it for the first time. Two lamps had been smashed, china pieces littering the floor. A chair had been turned over, lying on its side. The bedsheets and pillow had been torn to shreds. A long crack etched through the mirror, as well as two thick cracks through the window. Subaru stared down at his hands, which were shaking and streaked with blood, and stuttered, "I...I-I....." He was able to slow his hyperventilating breaths and rapidly-beating heart, and he buried his face in one bloody hand. "I...need to get out of here..."
Get out, get away, get far, far away...
Within one of the secret monitoring rooms of the hotel, a man smiled in satisfaction at this sight. Thanks to a hidden camera planted in Subaru Shinjo's room, the Master was able to keep an eye on the boy's actions. And he was more than fascinated at Subaru's destructive, out-of-control behaviour from just a few moments ago.
"How interesting. I was right after all." His calm words to himself echoed in the dark room. He watched as Subaru hastily left his ruined hotel room, obviously very disturbed by what he had just done. The Master sat down and leaned on his hands, still smiling to himself -- but it changed to what could almost be considered a deep smirk. "Things shall now be much more...amusing. For both of us."
His gloved hand touched the sheathed sword at his side, and for an instant, he saw the fleeting sight of the child, grinning at him. Watching him with adoration, with love in his eyes.
...we were the same, it seems...it was all too familiar, like the past returning...
But a child no longer, and much more of a challenge...he smiled still. A worthy challenge indeed. "Mou sugu, Subaru...you'll get your chance to prove yourself to me. As you always wanted."
Half an hour later found Subaru by the beach that surrounded the hotel, the water and sand bathed in the white light of the moon. It was a little past midnight, so there was no one around but him. Peace and solitude. Sighing, Subaru flopped down on a small grassy hill and lay back, staring up at the night sky filled with millions of cold white stars. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to gather his wits, but it only served to bring back flashing reminders of the insanity he had just experienced. God, what the hell is wrong with me...? Why do I keep-
"Nice night out, isn't it?"
Subaru scrambled up into a sitting position, staring in surprise at the girl standing over him. "Naru?"
She smiled down at him, her casually-dressed figure dimly lit by the full moon. "Who else?" Naru motioned to the spot next to him. "Mind if I join you?"
Although he had been looking forward to being alone, he was surprised to find himself thinking that he wouldn't mind her company. "Sure."
Naru promptly sat down beside him, hugging her knees to her chest. "It's a beautiful night out tonight, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is." Subaru couldn't think of anything else to say. He had a million questions to ask her, but none of them he could actually bring himself to say aloud. A long silence passed between the two teenagers, broken sparsely by the chirps of night birds and insects, and the soft lapping of the waves below them. Finally, Naru sighed a little, and spoke. "It's weird what's going on, isn't it?"
"E?" Subaru looked over at her. "What do you mean?"
"It's like...like history's repeating itself here." Naru narrowed her eyes in thought. "I don't know how to explain it any other way. I mean, look at us. The Shinjo and Amoh. Eiji and Kayin, Subaru and Naru. We're IT, Subaru. I mean, we're definitely meant to be here, but I don't know what's going to come next for us..."
Subaru sat up, concerned. "You mean you're thinking that this was all MEANT to happen? Like it's all been some big plan or something?"
"That's what I'm thinking." Naru lay down on the grass, looking up at him. "Haven't you been getting that feeling? You know, like we're just following something bigger?" She exhaled in a quiet sigh. "There's just too many coincidences between then and now."
Subaru regarded her for a moment, and said, "I don't know. I was never a big believer of fate and destiny and all that. Niisan was, though. I guess he'd seen enough in his life to believe that there was something behind all of it. Sometimes...I tried to believe, for his sake, but I always ended up back in the doubt stage."
Naru nodded slowly. "That's like what otousan always said. He told me once that all destiny does is lead you down a path that you'd rather not go."
"Well, I'm not THAT much of a disbeliever, but-"
"What are you doing out here, anyway?" she asked, abruptly changing the subject without even looking at him. "Couldn't sleep?"
You have NO idea... "Nah. Too many things on my mind."
"Mm, I know that feeling." The blond girl was tight-lipped for a moment, then added, "I didn't sleep too well either, after otousan left."
Subaru was feeling pretty unsure about asking the question he had in mind,
-too much, you'd be giving away TOO MUCH-
but he decided to risk it anyway. "So, um...what was he like? Your father, I mean."
"Huh?" The question seemed to take Naru by surprise, but she recovered quickly, still staring up at the stars. "Otousan was...well, he was cold and closed-off sometimes, and I know he'd had a hard life and could be really mean...but...to me, he was always kind and gentle. Even though he was a lot younger than the fathers of other kids my age, I never cared. He was just...my father." She pursed her lips. "He meant the world to me." Naru glanced back over at her spiky-haired companion, who was staring off with a distant look on his face. "Why would you want to know? Don't you have a father?"
It seemed as though a shock pulsed through Subaru at that instant, and this didn't go unnoticed by Naru, who sat up quickly in concern. "What's wrong?"
"Huh? Oh-" Subaru turned back to her, the jolted look on his face disappearing as quickly as it had come. "Nothing. Really, it's nothing."
"Oh." Naru stared at him for a moment more, deciding not to pursue the question. It was obviously something that he didn't want to talk about. She didn't say another word, and lay back down instead, hands behind her head. Subaru did the same, and the uncomfortable silence appeared once more. However, Subaru broke it with another question.
"Naru? When you were at the Toshindaibukai in 1995...did you know niisan really well?"
"Hm, did I..." Naru said thoughtfully, pondering the question. "I hadn't met him before then, but I'd heard enough about him. Otousan told me about him more than once. He was otousan's closest friend, I could tell. But when I met him, and he helped save me, I got the impression that he was a genuinely nice guy, friendly, and he really did want to make a difference. Because he DID save the world, you know."
Subaru sat listening to this, then said, "...That sounds just like him."
"Do you miss him?" Naru said. "I mean, that's probably a stupid question, especially coming from me, but-"
"Yeah. I miss him. Every single day, I miss having him around. He was like-" Subaru struggled to find the right words "-like my brother, father, idol and best friend all in one. He was the only person in my life that mattered to me. And God, I was devastated when he left. The first thing I thought was, was it my fault? And I always keep thinking that maybe it was, somehow..."
"You shouldn't think like that," interjected the young girl. "It couldn't have been anything you'd done. I figured out enough about Eiji to see that he made his own choices in life, and this was probably another one of them. So don't blame yourself; it won't get you anywhere. Trust me, I know."
Subaru gazed at her for a bit, then closed his eyes and nodded. "You're right. I forget that sometimes...thanks for reminding me."
Silence between them again, except this time it lasted for nearly five minutes, neither one knowing what to say next. Naru was the first one to finally speak up.
"You said -- when we first met, you said you were named after a constellation. Which one is it?"
"The Pleiades. It's right up there, above us."
"Really? I can't see it."
"It's kinda small...get closer to me, and I'll show it to you."
"Okay..." She shifted over to him, until their bodies were touching, and he pointed up towards a small cluster of seven twinkling stars. "That's them. In Japan, the Pleiades are called 'Subaru', and that's where I got my name."
And so they lay there, side by side, looking up into the endless night. Subaru felt so strongly at that point, he wanted to tell her everything, about the strange images he kept seeing, the memories and the voices that were tearing him up inside. And at the same time, Naru was considering doing the same thing: telling him about her life, the pain she felt and the loneliness that she couldn't escape from. But they both knew they couldn't; it was too much, and neither was ready to tell anyone else just yet, so they stayed silent. Eventually, their hands brushed each other. It was right then that they realized exactly where they were, that they were practically lying cheek to cheek, and there was something between them, some kind of strange force-
Both Subaru and Naru sat up at the same time, pulling away from each other hastily. Naru felt the blood rise to her face, but when she stole a glance at Subaru, she was slightly pleased to see that he was turning red as well.
"Well, uh..." he stammered quickly, checking the watch around his wrist, "it's, uh, getting late. I'm going to go back in. Um, see you tomorrow, then?"
"Yeah, tomorrow." Naru, amused, watched Subaru jump to his feet and head back to the hotel. But when he was gone, he didn't see Naru smile to herself and murmur, "...strange boy."
And once Subaru got back to his ruined hotel room, she didn't see him smile to himself and murmur, "...ai, ka."
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