A/N: Thank you so much for the reviews, guys! Sorry about the wait, though. :(

-I'm currently recovering from major back surgery, and just these past two weeks I finally got on pain meds that don't make me sleepy or hallucinate. Fortunately, having hallucinated about talking cats (I swear to god, it's like my childhood love of the .hack/ series is coming back to bite me in the ass!) and ninjas somehow put me in a fantasy-writing mood, so surprise: AC got updated! Woo!

Warnings: Ditto last chapter.

-ALSO: Please remember that 'character deaths' were included in the warnings from the first chapter.

Pairings:

-some convoluted form of the OT3

-(for this chapter) elements of Golden, Dirty, Silver

Disclaimer: I do not own Prince of Tennis or Aphorism.


Chapter Six

"If he did not make them a help, they would only become a hindrance."


"That's actually a favorite of mine."

Echizen paused, one finger sliding along the edge of a worn page as his eyes moved from the familiar words over to the older boy seated at his desk. For all intents and purposes, Fuji looked to be studying; his notes on advanced calculus were out and he was filling in his worksheets in a timely manner. His eyes remained closed in that ever-present smiling expression of his, pencil grinding darkened lead against paper as he continued his work despite voicing the interjection that had broken the prior quiet atmosphere.

Despite being roommates for over a week, they rarely talked to each other. Echizen was usually busy with one thing or another, vanishing and reappearing at odd hours without a word on the matter. Fuji knew better than to pry and held himself aloof, instead content spending time in Tezuka's dorm or out with any of his other new friends. The times they were in the dorm at the same time were rare, but what had started out as wary observance from Fuji had gradually lessened to silent acquiescence.

Thus it was odd for the older boy to comment on anything of Echizen's, prompting the freshman to regard his roommate with idle eyes. He didn't close the book, letting it lay open and bared to the room; the spine was so creased that the pages remained limp and unmoving, aside from the way Echizen's fingers slid over the illustrations. A finger traced the curved, cartoon face of the Little Prince, the flat eyes of the character temporarily obscured from view. Black and white, yellow and blue - sometimes Echizen thought that if he dragged his fingers across the pictures hard enough, the colors would come off and stain his skin with their essence.

"How fitting," Echizen finally allowed. "You seem the type that would like to watch sunsets." (1)

Fuji's smiling expression stilled and dissolved into something almost sincere, a flicker of what could only be labeled as 'agony' cutting through the mask before it resumed its rightful place upon the third year's features.

"You don't seem the type at all, Echizen," Fuji replied softly, but it was clear and audible in the air that hung between them.

Echizen's lips drew up into a familiar smirk, "Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies." (2)

Fuji's eyes opened in recognition of the line, his entire figure still as he regarded his underclassman. Is that how you see us, Echizen? An investment - but for what? What reason would you need for us to enter our chrysalis?

Echizen leafed through the pages of his novella. He had read it front-to-back more times than can be counted, knew every word by heart, every illustration easily recalled in his mind's eye - if a bit distorted. Where two-dimensional eyes and stick arms and legs colored across the pages of the book, at times he would see something else. Black and white, yellow and blue - these were the colors of his prologue, of a time where he began.

"You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed," (3) Echizen recited aloud into the quiet. "Isn't that sad, Fuji-senpai?"

A moment of hesitancy passed, before once again Fuji began to scrawl his answers into the empty spaces of his worksheets. Numbers and letters, formulas forged by experience and observation and necessity; it was easy to lose himself to something that did not require him to split himself open and bare his soul. Now Fuji remembered why he never started conversations with Echizen - the boy had a way of getting to him that made his heart beat rapidly with both hate and exhilaration.

"Not at all," Fuji deferred. "To be unique to one another, to need one another - that's something that should be relished, not abhorred." He paused long enough to turn the page of his workbook, starting along the next section. "In a place like this especially, wouldn't it be better to have friends to trust your back to rather than strangers who couldn't care less?"

Echizen eyed him quietly. Fuji didn't meet the gaze, his posture straight as he waited; it was his own opinion and, in some respects, an invitation - he didn't know what Echizen's ambitions were but he knew enough to guess that it was more important to amass allies instead of enemies in Tengoku. Fuji was becoming ever more aware of his own standing in the institution, as roommate of the enigmatic freshman and part of a group that had somehow entangled itself into a web that stretched across Sections.

Fuji was smart, and clever, and talented; he manipulated his Word with the ease of a natural, trained and practiced as if he'd been expecting a fight for his life since birth. His position in a group that had earned a reputation for its ties had risen their esteem as a whole, and he saw the way Ryuuzaki-sensei would eye them as they left her class. They bared watching for their talents and someday, hopefully soon, they would be let in on the underlying intrigue that seemed to enshroud every move they made.

"Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence," Fuji recited, although in his own mind the words were in the voice of his sister. "To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter." (4)

Fuji set his pencil down, sapphire eyes finally open as they met their golden counterparts. "I never got my hands on an original French version. Is the translation from its original form just as beautiful?"

Echizen was quiet for a moment, considering the question as he slowly shut the book. He placed it atop his dresser once again but did not move from his bed, golden eyes focused on the older boy so that Fuji felt a thrill crawl along his spine at the undivided attention, even if he could not quite place why.

"I wouldn't know," Echizen finally replied, tone soft as if voicing a curse instead of mere words. "I hate this book too much to see its beauty."

The blinding light of a Trial robbed Fuji of the chance to make his reply.


Kawamura awoke to darkness. This was strange, in and of itself, because every other sense of his was reporting something else: the caress of a summer breeze against his cheeks, the itching touch of grass against the bared skin of his arms, the warmth of the sun that his eyes could feel but could not see. He tasted clean air when he opened his mouth for breath, smelled a field that reminded him of playing sports with his classmates back in elementary school, heard the sound of someone waking near him and the crunch of feet against dirt.

I can't see, Kawamura realized with a start. "I can't see!"

He sat up quickly, the darkness of his vision disorienting him as he tried to struggle to his feet. He stumbled and fell back onto his butt with a low moan, trembling hands feeling the ground around him. Why can't I see! Why!

A hand settled onto his shoulder gently, "Calm down. It's fine - we're safe for now."

Kawamura hit the appendage away with the reflexes borne from training in karate, but immediately regretted it at the pained grunt of the other male that had attempted to console him. "I-I'm sorry. It's just I can't see and I could before and- What's going on!" he finished on a more desperate note.

"We're in another Trial," the boy responded. "So you can't see at all? Not even vague shapes?"

Kawamura shook his head but regretted it as another wave of disorientation hit him. He stood back up, accepting the helping hand of the other male. To the stranger's credit, he kept a warm hand on Kawamua's forearm - likely to reassure the senior of his presence.

"It must be the Trial, for whatever reason," the boy stated. "Not that these stupid things ever make sense anyway."

Kawamura nodded in agreement, "Did anything happen to you?"

"No," came the response. "But there's another guy here. He's a few steps away and seems to be waking up though. He's a Seigaku first year: scrawny, short brown hair, with a unibrow. You know him?"

Kawamura struggled to recall the boy's name. "Horio, I think. We've never spoken though."

A small sigh. "I don't think freshmen talk to anybody, really..."

The warm hand left him and Kawamura heard the other boy step away. Not wanting to accidentally stumble and hurt himself or others, Kawamura stood still and waited. There was a shuffle of movement and the stranger's voice calling out to Horio. There was no response for a moment, then a startled squawk in a higher-pitched voice - Horio's.

"Is something wrong?" Kawamura called out, taking a step forward and readying himself for attack. Perhaps he could make a ring of fire to protect himself? It would help to see what the surroundings were like, as in this state he felt a recoil more likely... Just the thought made nausea well up in his gut.

"Hold on, we're fine-" came the reply, and a flurry of movement.

"WHAT?" Kawamura heard Horio yell.

A pause, then a longer sigh. "Hey - do you know if this guy is actually deaf or not? He can't hear!"

Kawamura shook his head, "He seems to hear just fine whenever I see him around. It must be the Trial again." So he was blind and Horio was deaf? Kawamura hadn't realized it was possible for the Trial to actually disable them in any capacity.

Footsteps came closer, and the stranger gently patted his shoulder to signal they were back together. "Other than the obvious disabilities, you both look fine. Your Words are still present on your wrists as well," came the explanation. It sounded as if he were gesturing along with his words, likely for Horio's benefit; Kawamura didn't know if he was succeeding or not.

"Wish I had a pen and some paper," came the grumbled complaint. Horio's loud "I DONT UNDERSTAND YOU." cemented the fact of miscommunication.

A small smack. "Not so loud," he hissed. His expression must have said it all because Horio didn't reply. "Who knows what might hear you!"

Kawamura fidgeted listlessly. "Do you see anything out of place? Where are we?"

"We're standing in a field of grass, not much bigger than the Dining Hall," the boy described. "We're completely surrounded by forest, but I can't see any further in - the trees are too tightly packed together and block out the light. The sky is blue, a few clouds but otherwise a normal sunny day. There's...There's nothing else."

Kawamura frowned. What are we supposed to do, then?

"Oh," the stranger seemed to remember something. "I forgot to say. I'm Fuji Yuuta - Saint Rudolph second year. You?"

"Fuji?" Kawamura echoed in surprise. "Do you have an older brother?"

"You're a friend of Aniki's?" Yuuta asked in relief.

"I'm Kawamura Takashi," the Seigaku senior greeted.

He could hear the smile in Yuuta's voice, "Kawamura-san-"

Horio let out a screech, which was the only warning Kawamura got before a giant gust of wind propelled him off his feet and sent him flying back by a few meters. He rolled to a stop in the grass, crouched and dizzy, one hand holding a fistful of grass that began to hiss as it started to scorch under his hands.

Horio was making a series of unintelligible noises that sounded somewhat like familiar words, but the tone of voice indicated he was only surprised - not in pain. Kawamura strained to hear something from Yuuta but the other boy remained silent, making the third year fear the worst; what if whatever had caused that wind had somehow incapacitated or taken Yuuta?

"Kawamura-san!"

Kawamura released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The next statement, however, promptly crushed his momentary relief.

"I-It's a monster!"


"Inui-san," Ohtori Choutarou began, leading the tall Seigaku senior gently forward. "Kajimoto-san thinks we should stay in the clearing. What do you think?"

Inui allowed the hold, perspiration breaking out across his forehead as he made sure not to stumble. Waking up blind had been frightening; without any offensive or defensive capabilities, the disability itself had nearly made his heart stop. When Ohtori had come up, Inui had tried to assess the situation coolly: out of the three people present, two of them had been...altered.

He knew he was fortunate to have gotten someone as even-tempered as Ohtori. The younger boy heeded his observations and remained calm, which was essential during a Trial. The Jyosei Shounan third year, Kajimoto, seemed to be a kindred spirit; he remained by Inui's side, clearly coming to the realization it was better for them to stick close together to better fend off any foes.

"The Trial put us here, and as there's no alternate paths discernable, we can assume that whatever we need to do will happen here," Inui nodded in agreement. With a small frown, Inui extended his arms - the familiar weight of a notebook settling into his hands came a moment later. He opened it reflexively.

"Ohtori-kun, is there anything written here?" Inui asked.

A pause, then - "Just the word 'SHEPHERD'. Does that mean anything to you?"

Inui was on the verge of scowling, "Nothing that makes sense as of yet."

Kajimoto - on Inui's left - lightly touched Inui's branded wrist, the sound of his other hand moving in the air the only thing audible for a moment. Ohtori made an agreeing sound and, Inui assumed, a similar motion a moment later.

"Kajimoto-san says that we'll try to keep you out of the way, since your power can't be used here," Ohtori explained. "His power is offensive, I think - the Word is 'SNIPER'. I can create a suitable defense so I'll be near you, Inui-san."

Inui nodded in understanding, "Thank you."

Kajimoto suddenly grabbed Inui's shoulder, making a distressed noise as he pushed Inui further towards Ohtori. The second year's gasp was the only warning before another hand clamped down on his shoulder just as what felt like hurricane winds swept by him. Strangely enough, they did not budge; it felt as if his entire body had been frozen and nailed in place, unmoved by the external forces.

"What is it?" Inui murmured as the winds died down.

Ohtori's breath was even but his grip was almost bruising, "I... I don't know."


Fuji knew he shouldn't feel amused, especially in this sort of situation, but hearing the small litany of curses come from the boy next to him pulled a smile onto his lips. Tachibana seemed calm and the type used to taking on the leadership role, so Fuji acquiesced to the Fudoumine senior's suggestions in light of his new disability. He kept one hand on the taller boy's right shoulder, making sure not to bump too closely with the boy on his other side.

Hyoutei's Oshitari, according to Tachibana. Oshitari had managed to garble out something similar to an introduction, but the loss in his hearing meant it was difficult for him to sound out the syllables in the correct fashion and at a decent volume.

"That gust of wind," Fuji started. "What was it?"

Tachibana's shoulder muscles were taut under his hands, "A giant beast just landed in the clearing. It's about 30, maybe 35 meters away."

A shuffle of movement to Fuji's left, then a hand pulling his free one up to place something inside. Feeling along the edges, Fuji recognized it as a badge. "Oshitari-kun?"

"Chaange it. Shieeld."

Fuji nodded, gripping it at an edge. He envisioned it in his mind despite not seeing it: a meter in width and half their height, steel, light enough for them to carry but heavy enough to do its job. He felt it grow in his hand, elongate for its purpose, and soon enough Oshitari had grabbed it and positioned it in front of them.

"YoU muSt ChOoSE."


Tezuka felt rather than saw the boy on his left inch closer to him, although whether that was out of fear or in need of a defense was unclear. For his part, Shishido was only scowling, keeping one steadying hand gripped around the forearm of the last member of their little party: a serene Shitenhouji third year named Chitose Senri.

"Frightening," Chitose murmured.

Tezuka didn't turn his eyes away from the beast before him even as he responded, "I thought you could not see?"

"I can't," Chitose agreed. "In the conventional sense, at least."

Tezuka didn't have enough time to figure that out. With the head and wings of an eagle but the body of a lion, the beast stood crouched before them in a way that suggested it was on the hunt and had already located its prey; it stood the height of a two-story house and the width of a firetruck's side. The claws on every paw were the size of a toddler and as thick, black as night that matched the menacing stare the creature had fixed upon them.

"YoU muSt ChOoSE."

All three of them startled. Shishido made a motion near his ears - I can hear it! - while Chitose latched a hand on to Tezuka's shoulder.

"I MuST eaT oNe oF YoU. YOu wiLl chOoSe wHiCh oNe I WiLL eAT," the creature said. The voice came in and out as if screamed from the far end of a hallway. It was a masculine voice but if Tezuka listened close enough, there was the undercurrent of a woman singing the words.

"ChOoSE NoW, TeZukA KuNImItSU."


"ChOoSE NoW, MaRUi BuNTa."

Silence elapsed. Kaidoh kept his eyes on the redhead standing just a few steps before him, idly blowing another bubble with the gum in his mouth. The Rikkaidai third year did not looked very concerned with their situation, although considering the senior was the lucky one to be left unaltered, it only made Kaidoh more wary.

Momo flailed, catching his compatriot's attention. The spiky-haired youth was apparently blind, according to the gestures Marui had been doing just minutes previous. Kaidoh had felt more confident then; despite their disabilities, they had more offensive and defensive power in comparison to the third year.

But if the chance for battle had been taken out of their hands...

Marui popped his bubble. Said something that made Momo still. Kaidoh couldn't read lips well enough and feared the worst, especially as the creature reared up with (to Kaidoh) a silent screech. The inky black eyes it had afixed upon them shuttered into a tumultuous crimson as it readied itself to lunge.

"What did you say?" Kaidoh demanded, hoping that's what it sounded like coming out of his mouth.

He looked over at Momo - who was grinning.

Marui glanced back at him, half-shrugging. Then looked back at the monster and flipped it the bird.

Oh.

Chaos erupted.


"ChOoSE NoW, EchIZeN RyOmA."

Kikumaru had transformed the moment he'd seen the freshman as he awoke in the field. He knew very little of Echizen Ryoma, and what he had heard of him, Kikumaru did not trust - a manipulator, a killer, a mystery. All three were dangerous, especially if they were locked into the same Trial and in light of what had happened to the freshman's last Trial companions.

He will kill you if he thinks it easier, Kikumaru remembered. He'd shifted into a tiger before he realized he could not hear anything, but in this form, his other senses had sharpened; it was easier to rely on his sense of smell and sight. He would need to be ready for anything, as the grip on the collar of his fur attested.

Oishi. His dear friend was blind, Kikumaru had gleaned from observing. The HEAL-user had kept a hold on Kikumaru as they moved about the field earlier, both keeping at least two meters distance between themselves and the freshman. It did not seem to do them much good as the Trial progressed.

He will kill us, Kikumaru knew as he glared over at the boy standing before them.

Oishi felt his legs weaken and the only thing keeping him standing was his hold on Kikumaru. The tiger - Oishi knew his friend to have chosen the tiger form even before Echizen told him - had begun to growl, a low, thunderous sound worming out of the animal's throat. Oishi knew his friend meant to fight.

To be honest, Oishi knew the fight was inevitable. Assuming - however hopefully - that they could fight the beast for survival should he aim to eat either of them, then that meant Kikumaru stood a chance. Kikumaru could fight, and dodge, and run - he would survive this if chosen.

Oishi knew he wouldn't.

"Echizen," Oishi began haltingly. He knew the boy stood some distance away, too far to touch but enough to hear. "Please - pick me."

Kikumaru began to crouch, growl growing louder.

"So Oishi-senpai wants to die?"

That startled Oishi so much he almost lost his hold on Kikumaru. The red-haired tiger snarled threateningly, even if he didn't know what for. The question - delivered in a bored tone, as if the asker had made an idle comment on the weather - made Oishi wish even harder he could see Echizen's face. No child in the midst of a dangerous situation had the right to sound like that.

"O-Of course not!" Oishi stammered.

Echizen let out a long breath, his tone now amused. "Kikumaru-senpai doesn't want to die either. So now what, Oishi-senpai?"

What is wrong with this guy! Oishi screamed internally.

Kikumaru had stopped growling now, recognizing them as having a conversation, but in the elapsed quiet the feline began to ready itself for a fight again. That those blue eyes were still positioned on Echizen rather than the monster itself amused Echizen to some degree. Was it his animal senses or was Kikumaru really that wary of him? To recognize the larger threat... How interesting.

"ChOoSE NoW, EchIZeN RyOmA."

Echizen made a tsk'ing sound. "He's getting impatient, senpai."

"W-We can fight him!" Oishi managed out. Between the giant predator within distance of his fingertips and the homicidal threat that just seemed to ooze from Echizen's every pore, Oishi was fairly confident they could handle most anything. Then again, he couldn't exactly see the monster to accurately judge its power.

A pause.

"Can you?" Echizen mused aloud. "Then show me."

Before Oishi could ask what the boy meant, Kikumaru had startled backwards and nearly knocked him off his feet. He could guess why a moment later when Echizen's sharp voice cut through the otherwise silent clearing.

"I choose myself."

The sound of impact caught his ears and something warm splattered across his face. A drop found its way between his lips and the taste filtered through to his tongue: metallic and warm, as familiar as his childhood.

Blood.

"ECHIZEN!"


"ChOoSE NoW, FuJI YuUTa."

Even though Kawamura couldn't see it, he could feel the power of the creature's gaze. With one hand on Horio's shoulder, he pushed the freshman boy back behind him. He couldn't hazard a guess at the younger boy's power but whatever it was, Horio was to be no closer to the danger. His father had taught him right; he was the oldest here, the biggest kid on these grounds - and that meant he had a responsibility.

"Yuuta-kun, get behind me and make sure I'm facing it," Kawamura ordered quickly. "This is probably just like the last Trial in a way. Don't listen to it."

One hand on his shoulder that adjusted his aim was all that was needed. Kawamura tried to imagine the creature in his mind, using Yuuta's description of it: giant, part bird and part lion. He imagined the setting, a clearing in an otherwise densely wooded forest.

A lighter wouldn't cut it, nor a flamethrower. The blaze could not be so tame and so controlled. It had to raze his enemy to ash and dust, had to choke it so that escape was not an option, had to frighten it so that it kept its attentions off of hunting.

A creature in a forest was prey to many things.

Wildfire. Kawamura felt the release of his Word as it scorched the nearby trees, began to chew across the grass like marching ants. The power of the blaze drew perspiration, the smoke and heat near-suffocating at this close distance. This was the cost. He knew he could kill the creature in his flames - he only hoped he could do so before the wildfire killed them first.

A gentle breeze at his back grew in power, the hand on his shoulder drawing him back as what sounded like a maelstrom began to pick up in front of him. What-?

"The wind is mine," Yuuta explained quietly.

Worry and relief bloomed simultaneously, "But the flames can kill it!"

"Then I can keep the smoke away from us and the fire on its path," Yuuta added. "Don't worry about our safety, Kawamura-san. You can go all-out."

Kawamura shuddered into life. "BURNING GREAT-O, BABY!"


"ChOoSE NoW, OhTorI CHoUtarOu."

Inui frowned, "It will react soon. I doubt it will wait forever."

Ohtori made a strangled sound of assent. It relaxed Inui to hear the younger male so torn; it made him human and it was comforting to finally see someone react so normally to a situation. Spending time with the likes of Kaidoh and Momoshirou during stressful times tended to cruelly twist his expectations.

"Same as last Trial," Kajimoto enunciated carefully. "Ignore it. Kill it?"

Inui was inclined to agree. From the sounds of it, there was nothing else out of place in the clearing - meaning nothing else to attack. The creature meant to do them imminent harm, making it an immediate threat that the monster twisted about on the Door of the Overture hadn't been.

SHEPHERD was the only clue. Drawing from the circumstances, Inui placed Ohtori as the 'shepherd' - the one meant to guide both himself and Kajimoto, who were struggling under their own alterations. This also seemed to be the reason why the creature had singled out Ohtori as the one to choose; save the strays of his flock or leave them to their deaths?

"If a wolf attacks your flock, you do not leave it alone," Inui mused aloud. "A good shepherd protects his charges."

Ohtori inhaled, then exhaled slowly. "We must kill it," the Hyoutei student decided.

Inui felt Kajimoto move forward, "I am your weapon."


"ChOoSE NoW, TaCHiBaNa KiPpEI."

Fuji mused they really had gotten lucky this time around. He wasn't certain, but from their interaction in the Dining Hall before, he had gotten the impression that if Oshitari had been the one addressed, he would have called out one of their names just to see what would happen. As it was, Tachibana was far too upstanding to risk their health.

"Insistent, isn't it?" Fuji mused pleasantly.

He had the distinct feeling Oshitari nodded, even if the other male had no idea what he was saying. It kind of felt like they were teasing Tachibana, if the low exhale was anything to go by, but there was a definite sense of control. Tachibana...didn't seem worried?

"I won't choose," Tachibana said. Fuji suspected he had meant it for them (or him, at least) but the deafening screech that ripped out of the creature meant it had taken that as an answer. Oshitari made a grunt of surprise and accidentally slammed their shoulders together in an attempt to keep them protected underneath the shield, the sound of claws scratching against metal echoing unpleasantly in the aftershocks.

All three of them held up the shield, Fuji trusting the two to move as necessary to block any upcoming attacks. "It will kill all three of us now!" Fuji deduced, using one hand to rip off his own badge. He made it a spear in short order, Oshitari taking it from his hands as Fuji and Tachibana took up the extra weight of the shield.

Fuji didn't know what Oshitari had done with the spear, but whatever it was caused the monster to cry out in another deafening pitch. Suddenly Fuji knew he was the only one holding up the shield, Tachibana leaving his side and leaving the Seigaku senior locked in a moment of terror. Had the monster snatched him?

Tachibana yelled out just before something crashed to the ground, the monster's croon dwindling into agitated clicks and momentous rustling. Another hand - Oshitari's - grabbed Fuji's arm and took the shield out of his hands, setting it to the side.

"What happened?" Fuji managed out breathlessly.

Tachibana came back to his side, the heat of his body pleasant and reassuring. "My Word," the Fudoumine boy explained, "Is RESTRAINT."

Oshitari started chuckling next to him. Fuji felt a brilliant, sincere smile stretch across his lips; they were out of immediate danger then, which meant they now had the time and energy to figure out how to get rid of the monster safely.

"Take me to a part of the creature that I can touch," Fuji asked, reaching out for the Fudoumine boy. His hand was taken into a gentle grasp, reassuring in its solidarity. Tachibana was safe. "I know a way to kill it."

"How?" Tachibana asked, even as he begun to do as requested and lead Fuji forward. The Seigaku senior could hear Oshitari behind him, still chuckling.

Fuji's smile, if possible, brightened. "I haven't decided - a chicken or a snail? A chicken is suitable symbolically, but if it's a snail, we could just sprinkle salt on it and enjoy the show."

CHANGE was a word of possibilities.


Tezuka wouldn't choose. The monster chose for him.

Shaken, he only watched as the miniature black holes erupting all along the creature's body began to tear it to bits. He did not heed its wails and screams - he couldn't quite hear it, not in his state of mind. He didn't even seem to notice when the creature was gone, the warp holes he'd ripped into existence vanishing under Chitose's blind sight.

Tezuka was drenched in blood. It soaked into his clothes, stained the skin of his hands, arms, legs, torso - it was everywhere, the only thing he could see and smell and taste.

He should have been faster. He should have used his Word first instead of trying to plan or think of alternatives to answer a riddle that wasn't even there. He should have chosen himself.

As it was, Shishido's dull eyes stared up at him. He'd been ripped nearly in two; from his right shoulder down to his hip, so that it seemed as if the right side of his body was slowly peeling off. Blood was drenched into the grass and Tezuka, who sat with most of Shishido propped up in his lap. He knew it had been futile, knew the wound was fatal the moment the creature's claws had come down and torn into the boy. Tezuka had just been to distraught to care.

"Tezuka-kun," Chitose began quietly, as if not to scare a frightened animal. "Do you see a way out?"

Tezuka finally tore his eyes away from Shishido's unseeing stare. A Door awaited them in the middle of the field. It was open and waiting, and Tezuka just somehow knew that he would have to walk through it if he wanted out.

Tezuka managed to croak out a "Yes," in reply.

"I will help carry Shishido-kun," Chitose said, reaching forward carefully and feeling around until one hand finally alighted on the distended appendage of the Hyoutei boy's right arm. "We must not leave him here. Come, Tezuka-kun - you will find that there is still something good waiting beyond that Door."


"Why is it always the Courtyard?" Momo complained aloud and to no one in particular. The Door that had deposited them back onto Tengoku grounds had slammed shut and disappeared, a sound that echoed every so often as more and more people began to show up. Momo was grateful for the sight; he'd never appreciated colors and light more in that moment, actually. Being blind had sucked.

Marui snickered, blowing another bubble. "You guys aren't bad," the redhead allowed. He looked a little windswept and dirty, courtesy of Momo's wild and unrestrained bomb-throwing from before. NET was branded into the senior's wrist, which had been very useful once he'd managed to calm Momo enough to tell him the creature had been restrained, so could he kindly content his bomb-happy self with throwing said bombs in that direction, thank you.

"I killed it, right?" Momo asked eagerly.

Kaidoh hissed next to him, "You blew it to bits, so what do you think, you idiot?"

Marui shrugged, "I don't know, with the number of snakes you had crawling all over it, it might have died from poisoning first."

Kaidoh didn't respond, even though Momo totally denied such a possibility. Before the SNAKE-user gave in to the urge to punch his compatriot in the face, Momo had run off after catching sight of the Fudoumine girl, An.

"That was interesting," Marui mused cheerfully. He had his eyes on Kaidoh but before the Seigaku second year could politely excuse himself, the redhead continued. "Playing as allies was fun. We're still totally going to kill you guys, though."

Kaidoh froze for only a second, his manners falling away to be replaced with the cold efficiency he'd been trained with. He had listened with half-an-ear to the other members as they reported but he could admit he hadn't quite believed. Now, though - this was nothing if not a direct confirmation. Of course Marui would not bother to hide it.

So the rumors about Rikkaidai are true, Kaidoh filed away. He'd have to report this to the others as well. Sizing Marui up now, Kaidoh was well aware that they both knew their own limits and the limits of their surroundings - so Marui would not try anything yet. They would not push forward quite yet. But just their existence was a threat.

Kaidoh turned away with a scowl, "You can try."

Why had Yukimura Seiichi chosen this year to appear?


Kikumaru wasn't exactly sure what happened. Whatever Echizen had said had blurred the monster into motion and before he could even hope to react, three claws had punctured through the freshman's body and sprayed blood over both himself and Oishi, before the creature swiped its claw and Echizen's body dislodged and tumbled away, the younger boy landing in an unkempt pile.

Oishi had lurched forward, mouth open in a scream - "ECHIZEN!" - and Kikumaru had forced his body into motion. The monster was already preparing to lunge for the still body - ohgod, did Echizen die? - but Kikumaru bounded forward and up, jaw crunching into the feathered neck of the creature. He could hold on for only a moment before the monster began to swing back and forth, dislodging Kikumaru's hold as blood poured from the wound.

Kikumaru hit the ground with all four feet, already crouching to spring into a run. (ItwasgoingtokillEchizenitwasgoingtokillEchizenitwasgoingtokillEchizen-) The red-haired tiger had the breath knocked out of him when one front paw swung down and knocked him aside. There was a slight tremble as the creature advanced but it was without a doubt - that monster was aiming to kill and Echizen was his prey.

Kikumaru saw Oishi rush forward, throwing a rock at the creature in order to get its attention. He earned nothing more than a shuttered eyed and, with a sudden kick, Oishi was sent back and knocked onto his side.

Kikumaru could not hear, but he knew.

("I choose myself.")

Echizen was going to die for him.

Mid-step, the creature collapsed. It jittered uncontrollably, legs moving as if to gain ground and mouth open. Its chest did not move, however, and its eyes - frantically peering around, seeking an answer - finally landed on the bloodied figure of its prey. Kikumaru found his own eyes drawn, his gaze sharp enough to see it even from this distance-

The creature sunk in on itself, dead. A door appeared a moment later, close enough that Kikumaru was practically already halfway through its open archway. As he was pulled in, he could see Echizen rise to his feet, the red of his blood blooming bigger along his uniform. Even then, as Oishi staggered to his feet, Kikumaru's eyes remained locked onto the younger boy's expression.

Echizen was smirking.


The Courtyard was rather populated when Inui found his footing in it. He was disheartened to see the Door disappear - only to realize he could see again. He opened his notebook, relishing in his sight as information tumbled into view for him.

"Shishido-san?" Ohtori choked out next to him.

Inui looked up. Standing a scant few meters away was Tezuka, eyes locked onto the corpse at his feet. Inui recognized the torn form as Shishido Ryou, the hot-tempered third year he'd met at breakfast yesterday. The tan youth at Tezuka's side was a stranger, although he looked comfortable enough to reassuringly pat the bespectacled Seigaku boy on his shoulder before wandering away.

"Oh god, he's oozing."

Inui looked up; Mukahi was floating above them all, eyes on Shishido with a disgusted turn to his lips. Oshitari appeared a moment later, Fuji and a Fudoumine boy in tow. Fuji's relieved smile directed at Inui faded at the sight of Tezuka, and the slender youth drew close enough to pull Tezuka further away from the body.

"Shishido-san," Ohtori's voice cracked. Then, quietly, he began to cry. Oshitari drew even with him and tentatively patted him on the head with the expression of someone unused to comforting others. Inui wondered if it would be bad form to punch Ohtori's friend while he was grieving.

"Oh no."

Inui turned, gratefully stepping away and closer to the owner of the horrified gasp. Kawamura had ambled up from elsewhere, eyes now on Shishido's corpse with sad eyes.

"Geez, Jiroh told him he'd die," Mukahi complained. "Why'd he have to be so gross about it?"

"Gakuto-senpai, please!" came Ohtori's sobbed reprimand.

Fuji was glaring over at the redhead, "Shut up."

Oshitari was already moving forward to intercept, hands up in a placating gesture. "Alright, everyone needs to calm down. I know it looks bad but-"

Shishido abruptly exploded into flames. This knocked both Tezuka and Fuji back a few steps, although Mukahi reamined hovering close by as Oshitari looked on with bored eyes. Ohtori was already striding forward, whipping off his uniform jacket in the process just as the flames extinguished themselves. Other than heaps of ash, Inui could make out little else behind Ohtori's broad form, but whatever it was had earned both Fuji's and Tezuka's wide-eyed looks.

Ohtori leaned down and scooped something up from the ashes, wrapping it securely in his jacket and cooing over it gently. He turned around and Inui just stared at the bundled form.

Is that...a baby? Inui was having a hard time processing this.

"Shishido's Word is REBORN," Oshitari explained in a droll voice, as if dead friends of his turned into live babies all the time. (Maybe they did? What was wrong with Hyoutei!) He gestured lazily over to the sickeningly-sweet picture of a motherly Ohtori smiling gently at the baby-form of his upperclassman. "He ages a year every hour afterwards until he hits his real age, though, so he'll be fine by tomorrow morning."

Mukahi spun upside-down, "He's bascially un-killable. It's really useful."

"That would have been good to know earlier," Inui finally managed out.

"Yeah, sorry~!"

"Our apologies."

Fuji thought the two sure as hell didn't sound sorry.

Another door flared to life nearby in the ensuing awkward silence, which Fuji had almost felt grateful for until Kikumaru tumbled out, ashen white and blue eyes wide. His gaze wasn't fixed on any of them, however; that was reserved for the two figures who came out behind him - Oishi looking stricken as Echizen took only a step forward before falling onto his back with a wet, dull smack.

Oishi was kneeling over him in less than a second. "Echizen, stay awake! You'll be fine, just stay awake!" the HEAL-user ordered, hands pulling apart the fabirc of Echizen's torn and tattered clothes. He had access to the wounds in short order, stretching one hand over the three giant holes punctured through Echizen's body. Already they started to heal over as bandages wrapped around the boy's slight frame, golden eyes watching the concentrated expression on Oishi's face without concern.

"...Fuji..." Fuji heard Kikumaru murmur. He didn't stop to comfort the redhead though, instead moving over to Echizen to get a better look. What if he had internal organ damage? What if Oishi's power wasn't enough? The possibilites made his insides freeze.

Kikumaru moved forward to cling to his friend's arm, trembling lightly, haunted blue eyes looking at something long gone. Quietly, reverently, the redhead leaned close to his best friend's ear so he was sure the words would be audible only to him.

"I'm not sure which was the monster."

Echizen stood on his own as soon as the bandages had settled into place, ignoring Oishi's concerned order not to move around. With long bangs shadowing his eyes, Echizen moved forward without pause. Fuji stood frozen as the freshman drew closer to him, coming to a stop a couple steps away. Echizen, bandaged chest exposed and caked in blood and dirt, eyed him with a look that made Fuji want to turn away and hide.

"So you are Echizen Ryoma?"

Oshitari had breached the distance, Fuji beltatedly realized. Echizen had not even deigned to glance over, eyes still reserved for Fuji even as Mukahi landed a meter away from the freshman, daring smirk on his features as his eyes sized the smaller figure up.

"You're puny!" the redhead observed candidly, his tone just shy of outright cackling. This was abruptly stopped with a choked sound, the magenta-haired boy's eyes flying wide open as he tumbled backwards, mouth open with a gasp.

Fuji wasn't sure who had moved first: Oshitari, one arm outstretched towards Echizen and eyes narrowed, the word ADAPT flared across his wrist; or Fuji himself, badge transformed into a gun and aimed straight at the bespectacled Hyoutei boy he'd just allied with only half an hour ago. Echizen stood slightly behind Fuji, expression unmoved.

"Fuji-kun," Oshitari sounded out cautiously. "You should stay out of this. It's a personal matter."

Echizen made an amused sound behind the Seigaku senior, "I bet that Monkey King wishes it was."

Mukahi pushed himself up, coughing as he greedily tried to take in air. He was glaring over at the freshman but made no comment, instead floating back onto his feet with a wince. Oshitari - seeing himself at a disadvantage - put his arm back down with a mildly-affronted frown on his face.

"Enough," Tezuka cut in, voice severe. His expression matched with the blood soaked into his clothes cut quite the intimidating figure, and Fuji found himself changing his gun back into his badge in no time at all.

"Isn't that enough excitement for now?" Oishi tried to appease.

Ohtori, still cradling a whimpering baby Shishido, glanced between his upperclassmen and the freshman boy partly obscured behind a defensive Fuji. "Senpai, we should really get going. We still need to update Atobe-san and Akutagawa-san."

Smirk resuming its occupation on his lips, Oshitari gave in. "I suppose we'll see you next week for our study group date, then? Perhaps some good will come out of it once you're out of Echizen's influence."

"Lackeys," Mukahi scoffed under his breath.

Kikumaru snarled at him, "Just leave already!"

The magenta-haired boy floated off in a huff, his two (three, counting baby Shishido) friends trailing after him without a backwards glance. The Seigaku seniors did not relax until the Hyoutei boys were well out of sight, and even then Kawamura couldn't keep wary eyes off of the freshman Fuji hovered around.

"Echizen!"

Inui would have looked visibly relieved, had anyone deigned to look in his direction in that moment. Everyone had their eyes on the approaching figure of Kaidoh, however; the Seigaku second year was jogging towards them, coming to a stop before Fuji and Echizen with a small hiss.

"Urayama was right," was all Kaidoh explained.

Echizen's expression tightened in distaste. With a nod, he pulled his featured back into aloof unconcern as he turned to regard the seniors with a sweeping gaze. Consideration filtered through his eyes: Momo and Kaidoh both had opinions of the group, combined with his own observations - not to mention their entanglement with other important elements at large. Echizen knew if he did not make them a help, they would only become a hindrance.

He turned and began to head in the direction of the Seigaku dormitories, looking back and making sure to catch the Seigaku seniors' eyes. "Come with us," he said.

Kaidoh paused, then nodded to himself and started forward. At Inui's probing look, the second year let out a low hiss, expression pinched. "It's time we explain what's really going on around here," the SNAKE-user agreed.


Day 10

Attending Students: 333

Deceased Students: 31

Students Remaining: 302


.

The seed of discord.


A/N: So like three-quarters of the way through the chapter, I started shipping KawamuraYuuta. I mostly killed that for now, but damn, crack pairings are just so easy here. XD

(1)-(4): Lines from "Le Petit Prince"

Note 1) "You seem the type that would like to watch sunsets."

- Derived from: "You see, one loves the sunset when one is so sad."

Note 2) Echizen's Word: Go on. I gave you two examples of how he used it. I SHOWED YOU. Place your bets, everyone! XD

Note 3) DOLLS: More important than you think but the idea behind them isn't what you're thinking at all. But that's okay - we've barely covered them as it is, so just wait it out and see how they crop up. The references to "dolls" and "puppets" will be numerous because they're just so important to the Plot overall.

Note 4) Shishido: I was actually going to leave him dead this chapter and revive him in the next one, just so I could hear you guys cry over it. I changed it at the last minute because I wanted to end the chapter differently. But please don't get used to characters not dying. All sorts of characters will die. ALL SORTS.

Note 5) the SHEPHERD: Students are divided into groups of 3; one is blind, one is deaf, and one - the titled "shepherd" - is left unaltered. A giant creature descends from the sky and tells the "shepherd" student to pick one person for it to eat. It will attack whoever the "shepherd" student chooses instantly. If the "shepherd" student does not pick or takes too long, the monster will just automatically attack. If the "shepherd" student opts to pick no one at all or the students just outright attack the creature, it will attack all of them. There is no trick to this Trial. Either the creature dies or the "shepherd" student's choice dies. If the "shepherd" student's choice is eaten, then the creature will disappear and the students will pass the Trial. (This goes unseen in this chapter because all of the Seigaku students are too noble and/or are too badass.) Even if a student dies during the Trial, it will not affect the pass or fail outcome. For example: Tezuka did not make a choice as "shepherd," Shishido died once he was attacked, the creature was killed and the Trial was passed.

Questions, comments, speculations, criticisms? Then...

Kindly leave a review.


As promised, an updated Character List:

-Seigaku

Tezuka Kunimitsu (concentration)

Oishi Syuuichirou (heal)

Kikumaru Eiji (cat)

Fuji Syuusuke (change)

Inui Sadaharu (data)

Kawamura Takashi (burning)

Momoshirou Takeshi (bomb)

Kaidoh Kaoru (snake)

Arai Masashi (?)

Echizen Ryoma (?)

Katou Kachirou (?)

Horio Satoshi (?)

Mizuno Katsuo (chains)

Osakada Tomoka (gun)

Ryuuzaki Sakuno (shield)

-Hyoutei

Atobe Keigo (ice)

Oshitari Yuushi (adapt)

Mukahi Gakuto (flight)

Shishido Ryou (reborn)

Akutagawa Jiroh (?)

Taki Haginosuke (flexibility)

Ohtori Choutarou (?)

Kabaji Munehiro (?)

Hiyoshi Wakashi (?)

-Rikkaidai

Yukimura Seiichi (?)

Marui Buntanet

Urayama Shiita (?)

-Shitenhouji

Chitose Senri (?)

-Yamabuki

Sengoku Kiyosumi (luck)

Akutsu Jin (?)

Hagashikata Masami (dagger) - deceased

Nishikiori Tsubasa (broadsword) - deceased

Kita Ichiuma (axe)

Dan Taichi (?)

-Fudoumine

Tachibana Kippei (restraint)

Tachibana An (archery)

Ishida Tetsu (staff)

Kamio Akira (?)

Ibu Shinji (point)

-Jyosei Shounan

Kajimoto Takahisa (sniper)

Tanaka Youhei (hear)

Tanaka Kouhei (sight)

-Rokkaku

Kisarazu Ryou (wall)

-Saint Rudolph

Akazawa Yoshirou (?)

Mizuki Hajime (?)

Kisarazu Atsushi (?)

Yanagisawa Shinya (?)

Nomura Takuya (bullwhip) - deceased

Fuji Yuuta (wind)

Kaneda Ichirou (?)

-Midoriyama

Sasabe Sanburou (knife)

-Higa

Hirakoba Rin (tonfa)