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19 April 2007 @ 08:59 pm
Tears of the Sea, ch. 10 (MKR)  
Title: Tears of the Sea
Fandom: Magic Knight Rayearth
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama/Action/Adventure
Publish Date: 5/2/2004 through 12/24/2005
Disclaimer: I do not own Magic Knight Rayearth... *roasts Mokona to make s'mores*



Umi’s gloved hands clenched nervously into fists; after a moment, she made a conscious effort to relax, and unclenched them. Her knuckles ached now, and nothing could stop the tremors that racked her body from head to toe.

“Do not worry,” Selece’s voice echoed in her mind, almost sympathetically, and she looked up, though she couldn’t see the mashin’s face. “No harm shall come to thee. I shall not allow it.”

“Appreciate it,” she murmured, looking down. Below them loomed the shadowed turrets of Xander’s palace. This was only the second time she had seen this building from the outside, the first having been at the moment of her rescue, when she had taken Tama with her.

“It’ll be all right,” Fuu said with a cheerfulness that was only skin-deep. No one was quite sure from where Windam’s Knight had been dragging up the energy to present that happy front, but no one believed it was real. She still skittered away from Ferio like a frightened rabbit hiding from a fox, and refused to discuss the Cephirean Prince when the topic was brought up. Once, she had actually feigned a sudden hearing loss when someone had mentioned Ferio’s name in the midst of a conversation.

She had been miraculously healed when the subject changed.

Umi was worried for herself, naturally, but she was more concerned for her heartbroken friend. If Fuu kept this charade up, she was going to burn herself out, and then things would be even worse. She made a mental note to talk to Fuu about it when they got back to the palace.

Her friends were more important to her than her own mental health.

A burst of blue light transported her down to the castle’s highest turret. The mashin-armor faded; she was wearing slightly more protective armor than the usual one-shouldered piece—it was far more similar to the full chest-plate and two shoulderpads that had been bestowed upon her at the revival of the mashin. All in her trademark shade of blue.

Beside her were two other beams in red and green, producing two similarly-clad young women in red and green respectively. There were further flashes of light as the three Magic Knights drew Escudo-made swords from glove-gems.

The flying-craft Mokona had summoned up for them lighted on the stone tower beside them, and the small invading army, as it were, flooded out, assembling around their heroes and appointed leaders.

There was a soft hiss of metal sliding against leather as Lafaraga drew his sword and turned to the Knights. “Shall we go, then?” Though the words were light and he was smiling faintly, it was a grim smile, and his tone and words held no jocular tones.

“We can cover more ground if we pair up,” Fuu pointed out, ever level-headed and ever logical. “At least for the first go around.” They quickly paired off: Umi and Ascot, Lantis and Hikaru, Lafarga and Presea, and Fuu and Ferio—mostly because he grabbed her arm and refused to let go, so she acquiesed with nothing more than a nod. She did, however, quickly pull away from her appointed companion

Fuu pushed the point of her sword against the ground and leaned on it, her casual posture betraying her mood and the severity of the situation, as well as her own personal problems. However, in the true Fuu style, she pushed her own feelings aside and reviewed the plan she had discussed with Clef earlier. “Remember what we talked about before. Stay with your parners. Watch each others’ backs. Hikaru, Umi, and I will keep in touch with each other. Lafarga, Presea, you two will have to be doubly careful. If there’s trouble for the two of you, Lafarga has magic. We can find you that way.” The pair nodded vigorously.

“If something goes very wrong, we’ll call the mashin and haul everyone out that way,” she went on. “Windam, Selece, and Rayearth have already told us that they can and will carry double. Everyone remember the rest?” There was a silent chorus of nods, and Fuu swept her Escudo sword up onto her shoulder; the weapon was as long as she was tall. “Okay, let’s go.”

Further weapons were drawn, and poker-faces slammed down in battle-readiness. Armed and as ready as they would ever be, they started down into the palace, deep into the belly of the beast. Umi let Hikaru and Fuu lead, bringing up the rear of the trio as they headed down the uneven stone stairs. Her focus was sharply divided between keeping her eyes open for attack or ambush, and trying to make sure that her hands weren’t shaking visibly.

-o-


“Is anything happening?” Kagura demanded. She didn’t mean to sound like she was whining, but she was nervous as hell. Her movements betrayed her anxiety as she hopped from one foot to the other, back and forth, like an impatient child.

“Jesus freakin’ Christ on a pogo stick, would you calm down?” Takeshi exploded suddenly. One hand slid angrily through dark hair, tangling in the short, spiky mane. “You’re driving me nuts!”

He was irritated as hell, and his longtime friend had just annoyed him a little too much with her inability to sit still and wait patiently for what was going to inevitably occur. But the second the words were out of his mouth, he knew he’d made a mistake. Instantly, he regretted it.

Kagura looked at him with wide, startled eyes. Caldina had even decided to get in on the action, and was standing behind the girl, giving him a reproachful look. Even Clef had raised an eyebrow, though he wasn’t sure if it was due to the actual outburst itself or if the diminuitive mage was merely betraying his confusion at Takeshi’s strange choice of words.

If he didn’t say something, she would probably start to cry. And from there, it would just get ugly. Bleeding hearts of the world, UNITE! he thought halfheartedly in a slight bout with self-beration as he sighed and just decided not to postpone the inevitable. “Sorry…didn’t mean to snap…stressed…”

But she simply nodded, sombering with surprising speed. All attention returned to the viewing globe—or the “deranged magic TV thing,” as Kagura had once called it during a fit of ‘this place is so screwed up and nothing makes sense.’ It had been right after Umi had shown her the two-dimensional spring at Eterna.

Now, though, their concern was not over the strangeness of the magical world that was called Cephiro, or over the monsters that lurked around, both in the palace and in the wilderness outside. Everyone was united in the room in their worry and fretting over their heroes, anxiously awaiting their return, safe and sound, in one piece.

The mashin were once again proving their worth, giving a springboard for the rest of the palace to watch the unfolding events at Xander’s palace. The three spirit-gods were waiting over Xander’s palace, prepared to snatch the Cephirean warriors up from the jaws of Death, if need be. They were linked in with their respective Knights.

“Have they always been able to do this?” Umi had asked as the fighters had been preparing to leave. They had just been informed of the mashin’s further participation in the siege of the castle—to see through the eyes of their Knights to enable the Cephirean palace to follow their progress.

Selece’s voice had popped into her head at that point. :We are very multi-talented.:

The Water Knight had rolled her eyes. “No offense, Selece, but it’s a little…um, unsettling to know you’re inside my head like that.” She paused. “Can you really see my thoughts and stuff?”

To her open amazement, there was a low chuckle. :Yes, I can. You have a very dirty mind.:

It was several minutes before Umi was able to speak coherently again.


Kagura still wasn’t sure what to make of those mashins. They still scared the crap out of her, but Umi seemed completely at ease with the idea of working with a giant robot thing that was actually alive.

“I’m just worried ‘bout Ascot,” Caldina half-mumbled. “I wish he’d stayed behind, insteada going off to play Hero.” Kagura gave her a Look, and the dancer grinned. “Oh, ya didn’t notice?”

The door opened with only the slightest creak to betray the arrival of someone new, interrupting that potentially dangerous conversation. Everyone’s eyes automatically moved to the door. Caldina bounded over and threw her arms around the newcomer. “We were wonderin’ where ya went!”

Tama looked mortified at the amount of attention she was suddenly receiving, and squirmed uncomfortably in Caldina’s crushing grasp. When the Chizetan dancer finally released her, she shied away a little, and managed to position herself on the other side of Kagura for safety. “Please pardon the intrusion…I wanted to see…”

The Earth girl offered the timid maid a kind smile. “You’re worried about Umi too, aren’t you?”

A shy nod.

“Don’t worry,” Takeshi said with far more confidence then he actually felt. “I’ve seen these guys in action. They can take care of themselves. They’ll come back to us, safe and sound.”

“Indeed. I agree.”

The female voice made everyone jump, and they all stared in amazement as Caliana strolled in. She looked far more relaxed then anyone there could ever remember seeing her. Truthfully, they hadn’t seen much of the Aldarbian Princess since the callous announcement of her engagement with Ferio.

“I decided it would be wise to stay out of sight,” she answered the unspoken question. “Your Knight of Fire seems to have quite a taste for my blood.” The comment was void of inflection; there was no accusation or ill will. She was simply making a statement about Hikaru’s blatant anger with her. “So they’ve gone. I would like to watch.” There was definitely something going on behind her dark eyes, some deep thought stirring around. But she did not seem eager to share whatever the thought was, and so the potential issue was not pressed.

As if on cue, the viewing globe exploded with light; everyone instinctively covered their eyes. After a few scant seconds, the light faded into an actual image, and the odd little audience of sorts gathered around to watch and hope.

-o-


“This way.”

For Umi, darting around the maze of corridors and passageways in the palace was an exercise in retracing steps she had taken in the dark. But she was fairly certain that she was going in the right direction. Or at least the general direction that they needed to be going.

Ascot, her assigned ‘partner-in-crime,’ as it were, didn’t ask questions. He simply followed. In fact, he’d barely said two words since they’d started on this mission of theirs. Umi wished vaguely that she could see his eyes, at least; it might have given her a clue as to what he was thinking.

The palace was silent as the grave—a chilling analogy, given the circumstances. But there was no one out and about, whereas before there had been a few stray servants wandering here and there, a few lone soldiers marching patrols around the corridors. It was empty and quiet, and altogether unnerving.

But Umi refused to let Ascot see how truly nervous she was. Instead, she lead the way, looking and listening for any sign of a threat or attack. But there was nothing. It was calm. Far too calm…

TWINGE…

“Stop,” she said suddenly, her instincts suddenly screaming in warning. Ascot froze instantly. He was about two feet behind her, letting her take the lead. “Something’s wrong…don’t let your guard down.”

Blue eyes scanned up and down the corridor, searching for whatever it was that had sent her Magic Knight senses a-tingling. There was nothing…the hallway was vacant, save for her and her silent partner. She wished Ascot would speak more than he had—the silence was unnerving.

But the silence was broken when something crashed down from the ceiling, hitting the floor between her and her partner. She heard Ascot shout, but couldn’t understand what he said, as she let out a cry of her own. Unthinkingly, Umi dove out of the way, sliding across the stone floor. Her sword clattered against the floor as she instinctively put her arms over her head to protect herself, an act driven home from years of tornado drills and the like as a child in primary school. She did not move.

A cloud of dust swept by her, shaken up by the falling object. She waited until the dust had settled before she dared to move. Slowly, she lifted her arms from her head and automatically brushed her long hair back from her face; a miniature dust cloud fell from her mane at the disturbance. Slowly, she turned and looked back at where she had been standing a minute ago.

Or, more accurately, beyond that spot.

What had come crashing down from the ceiling was an enormous stone door. There had been only a couple of scant feet of space between her and Ascot, and in that mere space, the heavy rock had fallen, blocking off the entire corridor and effectively separating them.

Grabbing her sword with one hand and shoving the last few strands of stray hair back into her headband, Umi scrambled to her feet and over to the stone door. Her empty hand pressed against the engraved rock desperately. “Ascot! Ascot!” she screamed, hoping against hope that he could hear her.

“Umi? Are you all right? Umi?” his voice, muffled and frantic, called back.

Umi was nearly bowled over by a rush of relief and other strange, jumbled emotions she couldn’t quite name at that moment. “I’m fine, don’t worry,” she yelled. “But I can’t get to you.” Meanwhile, her mind was racing frantically. The whole idea of the quote-unquote ‘buddy system’ was to keep everyone a little safer by having someone to watch their back. She wasn’t supposed to get separated from her partner!

In truth, she was more concerned about Ascot than she was about herself. She had her magic and her sword; she could defend herself. Ascot…he was a summoner. But should his friends fail? Then what?

She had to find a way to get back to him, before something happened to either of them. Unless…

Umi reached with her mind, a link built up over years of friendship, aided by magic. :Fuu? Are you there?: If one of them was nearby, then things would be a whole lot easier: send Ascot off with them, and then worry about herself.

She was thrilled when she heard Fuu’s voice in her mind. :Umi?: What happened:

Quickly and succintly, Umi explained what had just happened to split her up from her partner :Where are you? I’d prefer for Ascot to not be by himself.:

:We’ll find him. But what about you?:

:Don’t worry about me,:
Umi said back. :I’ll be okay. If it comes to it, I’ll call Selece.:

Hesitation. Then a reluctant, :Okay. We’ll find Ascot. You watch out.:

“Ascot,” she hollered, hoping he would calm down and listen to her. “Fuu’s going to come find you. Don’t worry about me. I got myself out of here once, and I can do it again.”

The protests began immediately. “Umi, no. It’s not safe! I’m not leaving without you!”

“You don’t have a choice!” she replied. “Please. This is the best way.” She stepped back from the wall and took a deep breath to steady her own jangling nerves as well as suppress something that was pulling at her, but that was as yet without name. “I’m going to go find my way out. Be safe, Ascot! I’ll see you soon!” She turned and sprinted away before her resolve broke, hearing his faint protests and entreaties for her to wait, not to go.

But they were lost in seconds, swallowed by distance and a thick sheet of rock.

Umi kept moving, but reached once more with her mind. :Hikaru? Where are you?:

:I’m here, and I know what’s going on,:
the response was instant, as though the lithe redhead had just been waiting for the contact. :Lantis and I will look for you. Just sit tight.:

:I feel better if I keep moving,:
Umi said, turning a corner. :The longer I sit still, the more likely it is that they’ll grab me.: She shuddered, and knew that Hikaru could feel it. :I don’t want them to get me again. I’ll…I’ll keep going. We’ll find each other soon. And like I told Fuu, I’ll call Selece the instant it gets bad. I won’t be taken prisoner again.:

A sort of mental nod from Hikaru. :Okay. We’ll look for you. Be safe.:

The connection fell out, and Umi once again restored her focus on moving around and looking for something that could give them a hint as to their enemy’s weakness. At that moment, she was desperately hoping that she would wake up and find the whole ordeal had been merely a nightmare.

She rounded a corner—and for the second time dove to the floor to avoid losing her head. This time, it was a large red fireball that had come flying at her, cutting it close enough that she felt the searing heat on her face and hands. She flipped over and hoisted back to her feet in record time, glaring angrily at her opponent and attacker.

Aeric glared right back at her, a too-handsome, too-lazy smirk sitting comfortably on his face. “Lady Umi, we meet again. I see you have returned to us.” He lowered the hand that had been raised parallel to the floor—no doubt the hand that had launched the magical attack at her.

She fought back the urge to either flee or scream, and instead smirked right back at him. “Funny. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to run into you. Bad luck on my part, I guess.”

He didn’t seem at all fazed by the jibe. Instead he pushed lazily off the wall he had been leaning against and took a few slow, casual steps towards her. “You would do well to surrender, and place yourself back into Xander’s capable hands.” His hand slid easily to the hilt of the sword hanging on his hip and drew the blade a few inches, in a clear indication of what would happen should she decline.

Which is exactly what Umi intended to do.

“I can only imagine what Xander’s hands would do to me,” she shot back. “No, I think I’ll just kick your ass, and then be on my merry way.” She renewed her grip on her own sword, and waited. She would not draw her blade first; let him be the instigator.

And he did. There was the hissing sound of metal against leather as sword left sheath. “Very well, Lady Magic Knight. Then let us rematch.” He raised his sword to chin level, holding it horizontally above the ground, and ran his tongue over the blade, his eyes glimmering in anticipation.

Umi raised her sword to a salute—hilt at the level of her heart, blade pointed straight up so that it ran directly in front of her nose. “At your pleasure, sir.” That last was said with a definite sarcasm.

And without another word, the fight was commenced.

There was a steady rhythm of metal against metal, steel against Escudo, a clanging sound that rang and echoed throughout the empty corridors of Xander’s palace. Driven by anger, Umi matched the formidable general blow for painstaking blow. Parries and blocks, thrusts and lunges met in an intricate dance, a tango that could mean life or death, liberty or imprisonment. It was a lethal waltz to invisible music, and they were making up the steps as they went along.

The dance went on for an indeterminate length of time, and when they finally stepped a little farther apart to catch their breath. Swords remained raised, muscles still taunt and battle-ready, eyes never leaving the other’s face. Both were breathing heavily, and Umi moved her free hand to her forehead to brush away a few beads of perspiration that had dotted there. She saw the same marks of exhertion on Aeric’s face, though he made no attempt to wipe them away.

“Shall we continue?” he asked after a moment of silence that had been tempered only by their heavy breathing. Umi merely raised her sword again in acceptance of his challenge.

And so the dance began anew.

“So what of Xander’s plans?” Umi asked, expertly blocking another of his blows. “What does he want with Cephiro and the Magic Knights? I know you know.”

“It is simple,” he responded, lunging again as she spun neatly out of the way. “Power. In all worlds, be it yours or ours, there is only power. No good, no evil. Merely power and those who dare to seek it and claim it. My lord will take this power.”

Umi found dozens of Harry Potter jokes running through her head, but brushed them aside, knowing that they would fall on ignorant ears. “So he just wants to take over?” Aeric’s smirk of a reply told her everything she wanted to know. So at least I got something out of this. I know what he’s after—not that it wasn’t totally obvious, but at least it’s confirmed. But what’s his plan, exactly? There’s no way I’ll get this bastard to tell me. Crap…

“Tell me, Umi,” Aeric said smoothly once a few minutes of silent swordplay had passed. “I believe I asked you a question earlier—your role as a Magic Knight. Have you an answer for me yet?”

“You’re trying to distract me. It won’t work,” Umi snarled, hiding the fact that he had brought up the one topic she didn’t want to discuss. Her doubts were already securely in place, and they were in no need of any reinforcement.

“And you, milady, are avoiding the question,” he replied smoothly.

Don’t fall into the trap…don’t fall into it. It’s a trap. He’s baiting you, don’t listen… Umi repeated that over and over again in her head, a mantra to protect her own sanity. She simply said, “My friends and I are none of your concern. So back off.” She slashed at him, and her surprise was as great as his own when the sound of tearing cloth accompanied that slash.

She had caught the hemline of his cape with her sword, slicing a neat tear across the bottom of the fabric. The first blow actually landed during their little duel in the hallway. Aeric’s eyes visibly widened in surprise, while Umi allowed herself the tiniest amount of gloating before the somber mask crashed back down over her features, the mask of a Knight engaged in a battle for her life and freedom.

But Aeric recovered quickly and threw her a smile. “So you landed a hit. I applaud you. Perhaps the stories I have heard of your helplessness in battle were exaggerated.” She did not reply, though her eyes hardened in a way that even she could not control. “You guard your secrets well, Magic Knight. But I can see through you. You know I’m right. I’m sure that your so-called friends would agree, were they here. If they even care enough, that is.”

That was it. Umi’s tenuous hold on her temper snapped, and she lashed out with her sword. In the instant that he moved to avoid it, she spun nimbly on one foot, circling her other leg up in a flawless roundhouse kick; it was almost her signature move. Out of all the self-defense manuevers Hikaru had taught her, this was the one that suited her best, utilizing her long legs and a sense of balance honed from years of fencing.

He had been expecting the sword blow, but not the kick, and her foot slammed into his face. She took great pleasure in making sure that her heel rammed right into his nose, though the crunching sound that made was enough to make her cringe.

The shock of the direct hit to the face was enough to make the sword fall from his hand; it clattered noisily to the ground as he followed suit, tumbling to the floor, clutching his wounded face. Despite his hand being in the way, Umi saw a thin trickle of blood running from his nose.

Aeric recovered quickly and grabbed at his fallen sword, but it was too late. The tip of Umi’s Escudo-made sword was pointed at his throat, and her eyes were glimmering darkly at him. “Don’t. You. EVER. Talk about my friends like that again, do you understand me?” The point of her blade touched the skin on his neck. “Or it will be your last.” Something about the way she said it left no room for doubt.

But the swordsman still smirked at her. “Doesn’t it bother your friends, the way they always have to look out for you and protect you the way they do? How many times have they had to pull you from danger? How many times have they been hurt for your sake?”

The sword in Umi’s hand trembled ever so slightly. But Aeric did not miss it, and he grinned.

“And furthermore, would you like to know how truly pathetic you are, Umi?” he said sweetly, though there was that ever-present tinge of condescending smugness underneath is. “You let me escape again.” And he faded from sight. There one second, and gone when she blinked.

“W-wait!” Umi yelped belatedly, but it was too late. He was gone.

She was alone in the corridor, with nothing but her sword and her dark, dark thoughts.

You messed up again, didn’t you? that cruel, unforgiving little voice in her head said. It had a tendency to pop out the most at times like this. Let him get away, got no information. Nothing. Can’t you do anything right? Maybe he was right…you are a failure.

“Shut up…” she whispered, willing that little notion to go away and never rear its ugly head again.

“Are you all right, Umi?”

“Umi, are you okay?”

The chorus of two voices speaking in near unision made her jump, startling her out of her thoughts. She slammed a smiling mask down onto her face, shutting away any and all insecurities. Then she turned and bestowed that charming, winning grin on Hikaru and Fuu, both of whom were sprinting towards her. “I’m absolutely fine, you guys. No problems here. I’m glad you found me before something happened, though. But why aren’t you guys with your partners? What’s going on?”

“All kinds of really weird stuff started happening—people got separated, stuff falling from the ceiling, attacks…we decided to regroup and either go together or get out of here,” Hikaru said in a rush; her sword was clutched possessively in her hand. “Then I guess that Xander guy sent some of his thugs to get us. I ran to find you, and ran into Fuu, and Ferio went ahead to the fight.”

“We’ve gotta get back there and help them!” Fuu cried. “Let’s go!”

Swallowing her doubts, Umi nodded grimly, and the three Magic Knights raced back towards the battle that was threatening their dear friends. But she was taken aback when Fuu touched her shoulder and leaned over to her in mid-stride and whispered, “You’re not okay, you’re lying through your teeth. When we get back to Cephiro, we need to talk.”

Umi looked startled, but nodded mutely before turning her attention back towards the finish line.

-o-


The clang of swords and the swearing of those lost in the moment and the heat of battle were the sounds that invaded Umi’s ears as she followed Hikaru and Fuu back to the turret at top speed. They had been accosted at the spot where they had landed, and returned to be picked up by mashin and flying craft.

The group from Cephiro had just barely reconvened when a small detachment of soldiers had descended upon them, and the battle had quickly been joined. Each of the Cephireans fought according to their own skills and talents: Ferio and Presea relied entirely on the sword, Lantis and Lafarga were using both blade and magic, and Ascot had called some of his fiercest friends to combat the threat, sending some of Xander’s forces scattering. The Magic Knights dove into the fray headfirst, first with swords, and then with magic of water, wind, and fire.

The floor was littered with the wounded, the dying, and the dead—all wearing the black armor that marked them as the enemy. There were precious few scratches, cuts, and bruises marking the Cephirean team as having been in a fight, but everyone was all too aware of how quickly that could change. A second’s lapse in concentration, a hidden knife…there were a thousand and one ways for all of them to get themselves killed—few of them pleasant.

But this stopped none of them from engaging in fierce combat. They were outnumbered, by and large, but their skills more than made up for their numerical shortcomings.

Fuu was being particularly vicious against those who chose to challenge her. She had a lot of anger as of late, and though normally she would have felt horrible about what was happening, those poor nameless, faceless minions had crossed her at the wrong time.

Ferio.

Caliana.

Whatever had happened to Umi.

She had never been so angry in her life, or so hurt and heartbroken. And so her fury, her wrath, her vengeance was laid upon the heads of these nameless individuals. Later, she would mourn. But right now, she was taking out as much of her frustration as was possible.

The fight was almost over. At the rate things were going, they would take out the last of these minions and be gone within a few more minutes.

Slicing down another one (not a killing blow, but definitely one that would put the man on the sidelines for the rest of the fight), she whirled around, looking for another fight, another opponent…

…and froze.

No…no!

There was a burst of green light as her sword was sent back into her gem, and she ran, a mad dash that led her all the way across the room. She shoved past a blockade of black-armored figures, desperate to make it. Time went stone-still around her, yet it seemed like she would never get there before…

Yes…

Yes…

Her hands closed around soft linen fabric; her cheek pressed against something solid and warm. And something sharp plunged into her back, held by the hand of another. She couldn’t even scream; she managed nothing more than a choked gasp. But she clung to that fabric with every ounce of her rapidly-depleting strength. She felt so tired…

Around her, the room went silent and still, punctuated only by a few gasps. Hikaru screamed.

Ferio went rigid, eyes wide in the horror of realization. He didn’t even have the wits to move.

The slight pressure on his back abated as she moved; the hands clutching at the back of his tunic loosened, then released their grip entirely as Fuu slowly slide to an unmoving heap on the floor. A long dagger protruded from her back.

A dagger that had been intended for Ferio.

There was no movement in the room whatsoever for a long, tense minute. Then Ferio let out a strangled cry, a sound torn violently from a masculine throat, and fell to his knees; his sword clattered to the stone floor beside him, but he ignored it. In a heartbeat, he had wrapped his arms around the limp form, cradling Fuu as gently as a mother would hold her child.

In a burst of unabridled fury, Umi’s sword sliced the air—and the black-armored man whose hand had held that dagger let out a scream and fell writhing to the stone floor, spurting blood from a gaping wound on his lower torso. The last few minions turned and fled.

The fight was over. They had won the battle.

But…at what cost?

The Cephirean team watched the scene, unsure of what to do. Presea sheathed her sword, biting her lip to hold back the flood of tears that had welled in her eyes. Hikaru wept without shame beside her. Tiny rivulets of waters ran down Umi’s face, but none dared approach right away.

The dagger lay on the ground beside Fuu, covered in something crimson and sticky. Ferio had pulled it from her shoulder when he’d gathered her to him. And now, the proud Cephirean Prince was clinging to the fallen Knight, whispering something that no one else could hear, even in the silence.

“I—I think…” Lantis started, but faltered. It was probably one of the few times in his life he had ever been at such a total loss over what to do. Finally, he sighed. “I’ll get the flying craft the Creator gave us. The sooner we can get her back to Cephiro, the safer she’ll be.” This seemed to break the tension in the room to a certain degree, and everyone slowly began to move towards the edge of the roof in search of their escape vehicles.

Still kneeling on the floor, still holding the unmoving form to him, Ferio whispered, “Please don’t leave me…please don’t leave me…I love you…”

And in the faintest of whispers, merely a hitched breath tumbling across otherwise unmoving lips, Fuu’s voice. “I’m sorry…but…I love you…”

A beam of green light suddenly tore Fuu from his arms as she was pulled into the safety of Windam, her mashin. The rumbling baritone echoed to everyone’s thoughts. :I will not allow my Knight to perish. She shall not die. I shall take care of her.:

No one questioned the spirit-god’s word.

The team piled into Mokona’s flying craft, and the other two Magic Knights summoned their mashin. And on all fronts, it was a long, silent ride back to the palace. Precious little information had been gained…but they had something.

Though nothing they had gained, they all knew, was worth the life of their friend.

-o-


The throne room erupted into something very similar to mass hysteria. Kagura and Caldina were screaming at the top of their lungs; the resulting cacaphony could have shattered glass. Takeshi was swearing quite colorfully under his breath, and Clef was already throwing out orders to waiting servants to prepare for the return of the miniature army.

But no one noticed the two who seemed so calm. Tama had not moved or spoken at all since the fight had unfolded; even now, she simply watched silently through wide blue eyes that were enormous in her pale face. And beside her, Caliana was much the same—quiet, and contemplative.

It wasn’t until a few moments later that any calm words were spoken. “They really do love each other, don’t they?” Soft and even, the question was a boulder dropped into a puddle; somehow, it was heard by all, even over the hysterics.

The throne room went completely still as everyone looked at Caliana questioningly.

She pushed her hair back with one hand—she hadn’t bothered to put it up that morning, opting instead to leave it hanging its full length, partway down her back—and regarded them with cool, calm eyes. “I know none of you seem to think very highly of me. But let me make something clear. I am here because my father arranged this union. No one told me that the Prince’s heart already belonged to another.”

Caldina’s jaw was openly hanging on the floor. Clef looked as though he was about to say something, but Caliana continued, and he shut his mouth very quickly as she went on. It was quite obvious that the Aldarbian Princess had been holding her peace for quite some time now, and her feelings were finally coming out into the open.

“Furthermore, it is not my fault that Fuu was not told of the impending arrangement, nor was I out of line in assuming that it was common knowledge. I am very sorry that the young woman had to find out in such a way, and had I known, I would have handled the situation far differently than I did, but the sad fact is that I cannot change the past. I will do what I can to set things right between Fuu and the Prince. I will not, however, shoulder the entire blame for the situation.”

Throughout this entire statement, never once did Caliana raise her voice; her tone remained even and calm. Her hands were folded demurely in front of her, chin slightly raised in a decidedly-regal air. And her expression was not the usual shuttered look that she was wont to wear. Instead, it was the same as her voice—relaxed, and completely composed. It was as though a mask had been lifted.

She sidestepped a shocked Caldina and headed towards the door. “They shall return presently. I would like to speak with Fuu at that time.” A soft smile crossed the Princess’ face. “I have a feeling that she will be fine. She does not seem like the type to be beaten by something like that.”

Without another word, she left the stunned silence behind.

-o-


Umi bit her lip in vexation, willing herself not to cry. But the attempt was in vain.

Nestled within the heart of her mashin, she was afforded enough privacy that she decided to let a few of her frustrations out. They came out as tears, a few tiny rivulets that streamed down her face. She brushed desperately at her eyes with one gloved hand, but they persisted. One gave way to dozens, and her gloves soon held a certain salty dampness.

:Umi…: Selece’s booming baritone was surprisingly timid in her mind, as though the mighty spirit-god was unsure of whether or not he should dare intrude into the private thoughts of his Magic Knight, so obviously upset at that moment.

“It’s okay,” she waved a hand, as though brushing the words away. “Just…just give me a second.”

A few deep breaths and exertion of iron will brought her emotions back under control. The tears subsided, and she was proud that her breathing only trembled a little bit, a tremor that faded with each breath she took until she was completely under that iron control. Her eyes were red, but that last telltale sign would hopefully fade soon.

Fuu…her sweet, soft-spoken friend. The brains behind their circle of friends. The quiet, consistent voice of reason when their scheming and goofing off got out of hand, but the one at the forefront when practical jokes were within the bounds of reason, sanity, and not getting arrested.

Fuu, who had been blessed and cursed to fall in love with a mysterious wanderer in the Forest of Silence, a swordsman who turned out to be none other than the Prince of Cephiro himself. The younger brother of the one they had killed. Her heart had been shattered, and yet she pressed on; after the first few hours of overwhelming disbelief and crushing heartbreak, she had stalwartly refused to give in to her loneliness, instead focusing on Cephiro and the task at hand. After all, she was a Magic Knight. She had made a promise to the land, and she would keep it, no matter her own pain.

She wasn’t going to die. Windam had given his word that his Knight would not perish, and she believed him. She had learned long ago that few things were more trustworthy than a spirit-god’s word. So Fuu would survive. But what about her heart? She had been willing to give her very life…

As the crystalline palace of Cephiro loomed ahead, Umi brushed away the last of her own emotions and pulled down a mask she had donned so long ago. Her first focus needed to be her friends and her duties as the Knight of Selece. Her own problems would have to wait.

But she was still in awe of her friend. Fuu had been prepared to die for Ferio.

She wondered if she would ever have that kind of courage.

-o-


The residents who had remained at the palace waited anxiously as the three mashin zoomed into view; the flying craft Mokona had whipped up for them was trailing along behind them. It was Lantis’ spirit-horse, however, which landed first. In a flare of magic, the creature vanished, and he waited with the others with absolutely no patience.

Finally, there were three beams of light in the colors of the Magic Knights—red, blue, and green. Red and blue produced two girls who seemed to be in relatively good health. The green materialized into an unconscious young woman, laid out on her back on the ground.

Lantis didn’t even wait for anyone to say anything. He stepped around Hikaru and moved to the unconscious Knight’s side. In one fluid movement he scooped the unresisting form into his arms and headed down the corridor, following Hikaru’s quick footsteps towards the hall that housed the rooms allocated to the Magic Knights for the duration of their stay in Cephiro.

Umi watched them leave, brows knitted together in thought. She heard a movement behind her, and turned her head to see Ferio starting after Lantis. She frowned, then smiled sacchirinely. “Oh, Ferio?”

He stopped. The opportunity was perfect, especially because Fuu wasn’t there to protect him.

Giving into the singular urge she’d had since this whole mess had started, Umi pulled back a fist, and slammed it into Ferio’s cheek with all the force she could muster, landing a perfect punch on his face. Even as tired as she was, it was a considerable amount of force, spurred by her anger over Fuu’s situation and a certain amount of frustration over her own doubts and misgivings. Coupled with the fact that he simply wasn’t expecting it, the blow was enough to send the Cephirean Prince tumbling to the ground with a few drops of blood already dripping from his nose.

“You’re a selfish son of a bitch, and for your sake you had better hope she pulls through,” Umi growled, glaring down at him. Braver men than Ferio would have quailed beneath that murderous glare; it was the one she normally reserved as a last resort for males that didn’t understand the meaning of the words ‘leave me alone.’ This was a glare that was probably capable of killing small animals.

Not bothering with any further, ah, pleasantries or explanations—not that such things were really required at this point—she turned on her heel and stalked after Fuu, leaving him half-sprawled on the floor.

For a long moment, no one moved. They were all too stunned.

Their collective surprise was furthered when Caliana broke away from Caldina’s side and gave her fiancée a glare that was surprisingly similar to the one Umi had so generously bestowed upon him only moments before. “I think you deserved that.” She turned to Presea and addressed the pharle in a far more pleasant tone. “When the Magic Knight awakens, please let me know. I wish to speak with her.”

Everyone stared, flabbergasted, as the Aldarbian Princess strolled away, head held high.

-o-


The fine white silk slid over his hands with the slightest of hissing sounds. Xander examined the gloves with a well-trained eye, and smiled. Ah, such were the finer things in life.

Behind him, Aeric waited silently, a mere touch of anxiety betrayed in his endlessly-fidgeting hands. He would know his fate in a few scant moments.

Finally, apparently satisfied with his gloves, Xander turned to his general, looking far too calm for Aeric’s liking. “You know, this could work out quite nicely.” He almost seemed to be thinking out loud. “Yes, I think we can turn this recent string of events to our advantage.” A pause, followed by a smirk. “That will do quite nicely, I think. You were quite brilliant to instill doubt in our water-lily. It will make things much easier.”

Aeric bit back a sigh of relief and merely bowed in thanks.

“I think the Magic Knight will take care of our little problems for us,” Xander smirked.

Magic Knight? Aeric briefly pondered why it was a singular noun, but he was pretty sure he could guess which Knight his lord was referring to. He shoved the thoughts aside and forced himself to continue listening as Xander went on.

“It is time, my friend,” Xander rubbed his newly-gloved hands together with careful precision. “We shall begin, but it seems that our plans will change. We will not start with Cephiro.”