Version: Manga (Exiles), FFVII references
Rating: PG-13 (for all the innuendo)
Dedicated to lover_youshould because she loved Connoisseurs Thanks for inspiring me with the Kunzite/Sephiroth conversation. :)
Draw your sword,
Be my king…
— Amiel, Meet Me In The Red Room
“I’ve got it.”
Takehiko turned his head from his essay.
Takehiko glanced down at himself. “I fail to see the resemblance.”
“You have white hair.”
“And that makes us identical twins, of course.”
“And you’re both really good with swords.”
“One, I am not a psychopath with mother issues. Two, I can actually unsheathe my sword without poking anyone in the eye.”
Isamu stared at him. “What?”
“That sword is too long.” Takehiko pointed, analysing. “Taking it out would cause some serious problems.”
Isamu smirked. “Taking your sword out usually does cause serious problems."
Takehiko sighed and lifted his eyes to the heavens. “I knew you’d bring that up sooner or later.”
“Maybe if Sephiroth had handled his sword better, he wouldn’t be so uptight,” Isamu continued, his smirk widening.
“But he’s supposed to be the best warrior in SOLDIER,” Ken said, puzzled.
Isamu ignored him, waiting to see what Takehiko would say. At first, it seemed like the older man wouldn’t say anything. Then he looked up.
“If I’m Sephiroth, does that make you Cloud? I can see the resemblance, except you’re a frizzy-haired jerk instead of spiky.”
Isamu lunged at him and Ken grabbed Isamu by the arms, his shoulders shaking with laughter. Takehiko smirked and went back to his essay. Xavier glanced up at the noise and then went back to his game suggestions: ‘Make the swords shorter.’
Title: Top of the World
Theme: Strong Wing
Version: Manga (Silver Millennium)
And I wonder (…)
If everything could ever feel this real forever,
If anything could ever be this good again,
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you,
You’ve gotta promise not to stop when I say ‘when’.
— Foo Fighters, Everlong
It was still first light when Jadeite slipped into Endymion’s bedchamber and pulled back the drapes at the windows, letting the dawn sunshine creep over the walls and breathe colour into the rich fabrics. The chamber was simply furnished but everything was of the highest quality, from the oak wardrobe and bureau to the turquoise and gold rug in front of the bed, which came from Jadeite’s own kingdom, known for its silk spinners. He pushed open the windows and stepped out onto the balcony, breathing in the soft air. The sky was pale gold, not a cloud in sight.
“Perfect,” Jadeite said softly.
He turned to look at the bed. Endymion had hunched over under the covers but that was the only sign of life. Jadeite rolled his eyes, walked back inside and poked his prince rudely in the kidneys. “Up.”
Jadeite poked him again, though further up the spine. “I’m going to keep doing this until you get up, so you might as well spare yourself the pain,” he remarked.
Endymion uncurled slowly, one arm reaching behind to rub his back. “That hurt,” he muttered, sitting up. His black hair hung in front of his eyes, which were still heavy lidded from sleep. “I changed my mind, Jadeite, I’m not going. Anything that makes me get up this early —”
“Is worth seeing,” Jadeite finished, walking towards the iron stove in the corner of Endymion’s room. He had banked the coals to keep Endymion’s clothes warm through the night, since even summer mornings could be chilly before the sun rose. “Of course, you don’t have to come. You can stay behind and miss this trip we’ve been planning for three years and I’ll tell Kunzite that you preferred your nice warm bed.”
There was a pause, then the bed creaked and Endymion stomped over. “Give me those clothes,” he muttered. “And shut the doors, it’s freezing in here.”
“Motivation,” Jadeite replied, smiling. “Kunzite thought it might help. And stop whining, it’s not that cold. We’ll see you in the dining hall.” He left the room with a careless wave. “And if you try and get back into bed, we’ll know.”
Endymion wanted to stick out his tongue but they were too old for that now. He pulled on his clothes, grumbling a little under his breath, but the scene through the doors caught his attention and he walked forward, lacing up his shirt as the sun slowly rose over the horizon. It was so long since he’d been up this early that he’d forgotten what it was like to watch the world come back to life.
Kunzite and Jadeite were waiting in the dining hall when he came down. The air smelled of fried meat and warm bread. Kunzite had already finished eating. Jadeite was polishing off a bacon sandwich. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty more,” he said when Endymion looked at the sandwich.
Kunzite pushed a bowl across, then a jug of cream and a pot of honey. “Eat this. You can have a sandwich on the way.”
Endymion sat down and poured some cream on the porridge, leaving the honey. Kunzite had a thing for honey. It was the only indulgence that he ever allowed himself, so Endymion tried not to eat too much. The porridge slipped down easily, leaving a warmth in his stomach. He could sense them watching him, but there was no pressure now that he was actually down here. The atmosphere with just Jadeite and Kunzite was calmer, easier. Endymion knew that it couldn’t have been like this if Nephrite and Zoisite had been here, they would have been agitating to get going; Nephrite and Jadeite would have been exchanging insults or jokes, with Zoisite occasionally adding something to the conversation. Fun, but not exactly helpful when you just wanted to go somewhere. Both Nephrite and Zoisite were visiting their families at the moment, so it wasn’t like they were being left behind.
When he’d finished, he put his spoon in the bowl and caught the hemp bag that Jadeite tossed over the table, sticking it in his knapsack. He felt his heart begin to beat in that familiar excitement as they walked down the corridor to the courtyard. He couldn’t believe that they were finally going into the mountains. Their horses were already saddled and waiting for them: Jadeite rode a blue roan, Kunzite rode a pure grey, and he rode black. Endymion ran a hand down his horse’s neck and rested his forehead against the smooth warm skin. “Aeolus,” he whispered and the horse’s ears flicked back at his name.
“What are you doing?” He looked up and saw that the other two were already mounted. Jadeite’s mouth was curved in an amused smile. Kunzite just looked patient. Embarrassed, Endymion put his foot in the stirrup and mounted. As soon as he was settled, they moved off, trotting out of the courtyard and down the road towards the palace gates.
Once they were out of the palace grounds, Kunzite led the way because he knew the mountains best. Endymion was in the middle, because that was the safest position, and Jadeite came at the back, looking from side to side. At first the path was relatively level, but it soon began to climb, steeper and steeper. Aeolus lowered his head, snorting, and Endymion patted his neck, whispering encouragement. He would have dismounted to make it easier, but the path was too narrow for him to walk comfortably beside a horse.
“We’re nearly there,” Jadeite said, his voice making Endymion jump after such a long silence. “They’ll have a rest soon.”
Not for the first time, Endymion wondered if his guard could read his mind. He risked a glance over his shoulder. “What are we going to see?” he asked.
Jadeite smirked. “If I haven’t told you before, why should I tell you now when we’re nearly there?”
“Because you’re feeling nice?” Endymion suggested.
Jadeite laughed. “Nice? Since when am I ‘nice’?”
Endymion shook his head and looked straight ahead again. Jadeite loved him like a brother, but that meant he was harsh like a brother, too. He could be gentle sometimes, but it never lasted long. The eyes would glitter, he would retreat inside that dark, sharp wit, and Endymion wouldn’t be able to get anything meaningful out of him. Lately he had been worse than ever.
Kunzite turned his horse up a very small, narrow track and Endymion followed him, blinking as the sunlight was cut off. It was cold in this ridge and he shivered, glad that Jadeite had insisted he bring a cloak. Then he saw that Kunzite was emerging into the light again and closed his eyes as the warmth of the sun fell over him again. When he opened them, he could see they had reached a natural plateau. Kunzite had already dismounted and hooked a nosebag behind his horse’s ears. Endymion followed his lead, unsaddling Aeolus and putting the saddle on the branch of a tree that grew out of a crevice in the cliff. He tied the reins to the same branch and patted Aeolus on the neck.
“Come and look, Endymion,” Kunzite said and Endymion turned immediately and went to him. It was rare that Kunzite relaxed enough to use his first name. The other three used it quite often in private but Kunzite was different. They’d had a few fights about it when he’d first arrived at the palace; Endymion felt that he couldn’t be friends with someone who referred to him as ‘Master’ all the time, Kunzite insisted that it was a matter of respect. Eventually, they’d compromised: Kunzite would call him ‘Master’ on very formal occasions, ‘sir’ in public, and ‘Endymion’ in private. However, Kunzite’s definition of ‘private’ was rather strict, so he called Endymion ‘sir’ most of the time. The advantage was that just one mention of Endymion’s first name from his lips could make Endymion listen to him. Right now, he was not only using Endymion’s first name but smiling as well. Endymion made a mental note that they should come into the mountains more often. Kunzite put a hand on his shoulder and turned him towards the east. “Look,” he repeated.
The whole of Elysion lay spread out before them in patches of green and gold and Endymion breathed in at the sight. All of this was his, to care and tend and guard. He felt a burning in his chest and rubbed at it. “This is amazing,” he said softly. “Thank you for bringing me up here.”
Kunzite actually laughed, deep and amused. “This is only the beginning. It looks good from here, but wait until you’re up in the air. That’s when you can really learn the lie of the land.”
“Up in the air?” Endymion turned and looked around. “But none of our horses are pegasi and unless you’ve worked out a way to make man fly, I don’t see how that’s possible.”
Jadeite laughed, walking to stand beside him. “Man doesn’t need to fly if he has friends to do it for him.”
“Friends?” Endymion repeated. Once again he was shut out and they were smiling at him, sharing some secret knowledge. He knew that it shouldn’t bother him but he couldn’t help feeling a little resentful. A few months’ seniority didn’t give them the right to keep all these secrets, he was their prince, their master, he had a right to know…
An eagle’s cry cut through the air and he flinched, looking around, for it had sounded very close. Yet the sky was empty. He turned back to his guard and found that they were laughing at him.
“That’s enough!” he said, hot with resentment. “I want to know what’s going on!”
Then a shadow suddenly dropped over him and there was a landing crunch and Endymion looked up into fierce orange eyes.
“Greetings, Prince Endymion.”
Endymion felt his throat dry up. He opened his mouth but he couldn’t speak.
“Endymion, this is my friend Boreas,” Kunzite said, the laughter gone from his voice. “He is the Lord of the Aquilgrand, the Great Eagles, and he is here to show you your land.”
Endymion just about managed to nod. He took three steps backwards and glanced at Jadeite. Jadeite winked at him. Endymion thought about pushing him over the edge.
“It is good to see you, Bishamon,” Boreas said to Kunzite, lowering his head in greeting.
Kunzite put a hand on the great head, just above the beak, his face soft with affection. “You know that’s not my name anymore, my friend.”
“It will always be your name to us,” Boreas replied. “No matter whose guard you become.” His eye flashed at Endymion, who almost apologised for Kunzite changing his name, even though it was traditional for the shitennou to use the names of precious stones once they were officially bound to their prince.
“What, no greetings for me?” Jadeite asked, diverting the eagle’s attention. Endymion silently apologised for ever thinking of throwing him over a cliff.
Boreas looked at Jadeite and Jadeite looked back, cool and composed, hands on his hips. They stared at each other and then Boreas chuckled, a scraping sound. “Greetings, Jikoku. I see that your name change has not affected you in any way.”
Jadeite bowed and Endymion realised that he was actually doing this out of respect. “I trust that the dragon clans hold to their agreement.”
“There is peace between the Northern and Eastern skies,” Boreas confirmed. “We do not forget the service you rendered us.”
Endymion was longing to ask exactly what the dragons had been doing, but he knew that asking that in front of Boreas was about the most tactless thing he could do, so he cleared his throat.
“It’s an honour to meet you, Lord Boreas,” he said, bowing in his turn. “You must forgive my previous lack of manners. My friends did not tell me you were coming… they wanted it to be a surprise.” He glanced at them and they grinned at him. “It worked. I have not ever met an Aquilgrand before.”
“We do not come to the centre often,” Boreas said. “There are too many humans, not enough space for us to hunt without fear of reprisal. But this does not mean we isolate ourselves completely. We have always maintained good relations with the High King and I intend to continue that tradition.”
Endymion. “I would be happy to continue that tradition, also, Lord Boreas.” He could feel Jadeite and Kunzite’s approval, making him bolder. “If you are ready, I am willing to take my flight now.”
Boreas bowed his head and sat down. Even then, it was a bit difficult for Endymion to get up on his back. He eventually managed by having a leg up from Kunzite. This meant a rather heavy landing but Boreas said nothing as Endymion sat up and settled himself.
“Sit behind the wings,” Kunzite instructed. “Don’t hold the top feathers; put your hands underneath them into the down, that will keep your hands warm. And it’s easier to hold,” he added.
Endymion glanced down at him and Jadeite. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Yes, but Boreas only carries one person,” Jadeite answered. “Our eagles will be arriving soon, don’t worry. Your father only allowed this because we were accompanying you. No offence meant, Boreas.”
“None taken.” Boreas stretched his neck and shrugged his shoulders, making Endymion’s stomach jump. “Are you ready, Prince Endymion?”
Endymion took a deep breath. “Yes.”
Boreas didn’t beat his wings or jump up and down. He simply walked to the edge and dived. Endymion felt the bottom drop out of his stomach and gripped the down so tightly that he thought it would come out, but he should have known better. It would take someone with far more strength than he had to do that. The wind was cold and his eyes watered. Then Boreas spread his wings and all of a sudden they were flying level, soaring upwards on the thermal and he could breathe and look around.
“This…” he said, staring at the land below them: he could see the valleys now, the gentle hills surrounding his own castle. He could see the wind ripples in the green fields of barley and corn, the darker green of oak against the beech trees, the spreading canopy of redwood forest far away to the west, where Nephrite had gone. Endymion was tempted to ask Boreas to go and visit, the look on Nephrite’s face would be priceless. He was the best horse rider out of all of them and often reminded Endymion of this fact. If he knew that Endymion had ridden an Aquilgrand…
“Higher or lower?” Boreas asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“Which is safer for you?” Endymion called back after clearing his throat, which was dry from the rushing air.
“There are not many people in this area, your Highness. We can fly lower if you wish, there will be no risk. Or higher, right up to the mountain peaks.”
“Higher,” Endymion said and Boreas laughed, lifting his wings and beating them down so that Endymion clutched at the down again, feeling insecure. At least you had stirrups on a horse. This was like bareback riding, only worse because the feathers were slippery: the freedom was delicious, but there was danger in the freedom.
“You’re doing great!”
He looked to his left and saw Jadeite, who wasn’t actually sitting on his eagle’s back, but kneeling. Endymion had to admit that looked nicer but he wasn’t about to move while they were climbing like this. Perhaps when Boreas was back on a steady wind.
“When we get up higher, we can try twisting,” Jadeite called.
“Great!” Endymion replied, even though the idea of Boreas turning vertical made him sweat.
“Don’t push him,” said a voice on Endymion’s right and Endymion felt himself go limp with relief. “If he wants to twist, he can twist. But since it’s your first flight, I recommend you stay level, Endymion. That doesn’t stop you twisting, Jadeite. I’ll stay with the prince.”
Jadeite rolled his eyes. “Spoilsport,” he said, and his eagle dived, turning vertical so that Jadeite was parallel to the earth. Endymion shuddered and looked away.
“I don’t know how he stands that.”
“Because he was already used to flying on dragons before I introduced him to the Aguiland,” Kunzite explained. He, too, was kneeling, but only on one knee, as if ready to stand up. The thought of Kunzite standing up in this wind made Endymion’s heart stutter in fear.
“Don’t do anything stupid!” he said, aware that his voice was too high.
Kunzite looked at him and gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying with you. Look, we’re as high as the mountains now, you can see the range.”
Endymion looked where he was pointing and laughed. The mountains seemed almost painted from up here, purple and brown. The tallest ones still had traces of white on their peaks and they looked like scars on the smooth golden spread of Elysion. Of course, that was what mountains were, really, he thought: the scars of the earth from when the plates had crashed together and produced peaks of granite. He looked to his right, where he could see the brown speck of Jadeite’s eagle weaving and diving and doing acrobatics.
“What’s wrong with him?” He didn’t realise he’d spoken out loud until Kunzite replied.
“I thought you would notice. He does tend to take it out on you.”
“What?” Endymion said, turning to his friend, alert. So it wasn’t just him, Jadeite was worse, and Kunzite knew why.
Kunzite put his other knee down and stretched out on his stomach. Endymion longed to do the same but he didn’t feel sure enough of his balance to move just yet. Besides, it wasn’t like sitting on Boreas was uncomfortable.
“You mustn’t take it personally. He only says these things because he knows you can handle them.”
“Kunzite, what’s happened to him?” Endymion insisted.
“Do you remember last autumn when you sent him on that diplomatic mission to Mars?”
Endymion nodded, trusting that Kunzite was not changing the subject. “Yes. But he did really well. He even took part in their games and got a respectable result. Better than most of the Martian warriors, if I remember correctly.”
“Yes.” Kunzite smiled briefly. “They were not amused. But it’s not the warriors that bothered him. He met someone there.”
For a moment, Endymion couldn’t understand what Kunzite was saying. Of course Jadeite had met someone on Mars, he’d met many people there, he’d been the official representative of Earth. Then he suddenly realised that Kunzite was talking about someone special, someone apart from all the rest. “Who?” he asked. Kunzite rolled onto his back and Boreas flew just above him, so Endymion was looking right into his face. Kunzite’s expression was serious, even a little sad.
“The Princess,” he said.
“The Princess of Mars?!”
Kunzite sat up and grabbed his ankle, twisting it slightly. “Be quiet! Do you want him to hear you?”
Endymion winced. “Sorry.”
Kunzite let go and lay down. “Yes, the Princess of Mars. Princess Erinya.”
“I know her name…” Endymion shook his head, trying to absorb this news. Jadeite did not fall in love. He flirted, he had physical affairs, but he did not love, not in the way that Kunzite was talking about. “Jadeite is in love with Princess Erinya,” Endymion repeated. Maybe if he kept saying it, he would finally accept it.
“Well… he is a prince. He’s from Earth, but he is a prince. They are equal… technically,” Endymion added, knowing that in reality there was a huge gap between a prince from Earth and a princess from Mars. Mars was allied with the Silver Millennium, Earth was publicly acknowledged to be backward. At least, that was the polite term. ‘Barbarian’ was how most people in the solar system referred to Earthlings, which was why Jadeite’s excellent performance in the Martian Games had been so offensive. How could someone from a primitive place like Earth beat any warrior from a planet as sophisticated as Mars, let alone beat most of them?
“Technically,” Kunzite repeated with a sad smile. “You and I know that there is nothing technical about this. There will be no betrothal, Endymion, let alone marriage. Princess Erinya is a lady-in-waiting of Princess Serenity. That might be negotiable, but she has also sworn a vow of chastity.”
Endymion opened his mouth, then closed it. “Shit,” he said simply.
Kunzite sighed and nodded, agreeing with the assessment.
Endymion could feel his heart breaking for Jadeite. It all made sense: the withdrawal, the anger in Jadeite’s eyes, the edge to his words. No wonder he was angry, no wonder he was frustrated: there was no possible way for him to ever win his lady’s favour. He was clever, skilled, passionate and focused, but none of these qualities meant anything because Princess Erinya was not available and never would be. Even if she could have been persuaded to give up her vow, she would not do that for someone from a lowly planet like Earth.
“He didn’t want you to know, but he’s already given himself away.” Kunzite turned onto his stomach again, watching Jadeite’s eagle, which was flying almost directly below them now, like an escort. “I’ll mention that I told you. He’ll be angry but I think he’ll be relieved, as well. It’s been hard for him.”
“Hard?” Endymion repeated in disbelief. “Your gift for understatement never ceases to amaze me, Kunzite.”
Kunzite glanced up with a small smile. “I try my best. Up for some diving? It’s not as intense as twisting and you stay horizontal.”
Endymion nodded. He didn’t try to continue the conversation. What else was there to say? Jadeite was being eaten up by unrequited love and there was nothing they could do about it. Endymion wondered for a moment what this Princess Erinya was like. She must be something to have captured Jadeite’s heart. He always said he’d never fall in love…
“Ready?” Kunzite asked. He was now kneeling again. “I’ll show you how it’s done. When you dive, you have to lay yourself flat, or you’ll get whiplash from the wind blowing your head back, and you have to squint. Pull your cloak up over your nose and mouth, that should help with your breathing,” he added.
Endymion did so without bothering to ask how Kunzite had known about his throat. Kunzite always knew these things. Jadeite had once remarked that it was a shame Kunzite had to stay on Earth because he’d be the best spy in the solar system.
“Go!” Kunzite yelled and flattened himself as his eagle folded its wings and dropped like a stone. Endymion had a wild urge to scream Kunzite’s name but he knew that was just because it looked like Kunzite was falling to his death and that wasn’t true. Kunzite had done this before, he was perfectly safe. Endymion knew that but it was difficult to believe it, because his heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was going to pound its way out of his chest.
“When you’re ready,” Boreas said. “Make yourself comfortable and take a deep breath.”
Endymion wriggled around for a moment and laid himself flat, because he knew he wouldn’t judge the moment correctly. “I’m ready,” he said, proud that his voice didn’t tremble, though he was gripping the down so tightly that his fingers were going numb.
Boreas folded his wings and they dropped straight through the air. A scream caught in Endymion’s throat and terror mixed with exhilaration. He was going to die but that was fine, he wouldn’t mind dying like this, hurtling towards earth, finally letting gravity have its will. He took a deep breath and let out a long whoop of excitement against Boreas’s feathers and Boreas screamed back, his own cry pure joy, no fear at all. Of course, he was the one with the wings.
Then the wings opened out and Endymion felt the reaction as Boreas swooped, turning the fall into an arc as they flew up again to where Kunzite and Jadeite were waiting.
“YES!” Jadeite yelled, punching the air, looking carefree for the first time in a long time. “That’s the way to do it, Endymion! Nothing holding you back!”
Endymion sat up, breathless, laughing with delight and relief at surviving. Kunzite was smiling at him, perfectly at ease. Endymion wondered if he would ever be that relaxed. Probably not. Air was not really his element, but then, air wasn’t Kunzite’s element, either.
“I want to do it again,” he said, panting. “Over and over again…” He bent over backwards and let go of the down for the first time, holding his arms up to the sun as it shone down on him. “I never want to come down!”
They laughed at him. “That’s exactly how I felt the first time I flew,” Jadeite said. “Like I could live up here. But sooner or later, you have to come down, Endymion.” His eyes darkened as he said this and he looked away.
Kunzite and Endymion exchanged a look. “As long as you come down with me, Jadeite, I don’t mind,” Endymion said honestly.
Jadeite looked at him with a lopsided smile. “Like you could get rid of me,” he said, and Endymion smiled back at him. In moments like this, he forgot all about Jadeite’s stubbornness and sharp words; in moments like this, they were simply brothers. Then Jadeite grinned.
“Race you to the top!” And he was away, the Aquilgrand streaking up into the sky.
“No, you don’t!” Endymion yelled, and Boreas moved automatically, pushing himself upwards. Endymion laid himself flat and laughed out loud. So what if he had to come down?
The important thing was that he could fly.
Author's Notes: Obviously I have stolen the giant eagle idea wholesale from J.R.R. Tolkein, you won't catch me claiming that they're my idea. I thought it would be fun to mix a bit of Middle Earth in with Elysion. 'Aquila' is the Latin for 'eagle', 'grand' is the French for 'big' or 'great' (in the old sense of the word). 'Boreas' is the name of the Greek god of the North Wind. 'Erinya' comes from the Greek word 'Erinyes', better known as the Furies, spirits of vengeance. As for Bishamon and Jikoku... well, you can look them up yourselves. ;) For those who wish to know what happened to Jadeite on Mars, I'm currently writing the story for the Resentment theme. I used the acoustic version of "Everlong" while writing this.
Title: Ashes of Victory
Version: Manga (Silver Millennium)
I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face,
But I’ve come through…
— Queen, We Are The Champions
It was close now, so close he could taste it, smell it on the wind. Victory. Jadeite gazed around the stadium, knowing that every single person in it was willing him to lose. But it didn’t matter if every Martian on the planet was willing him to lose, he knew that Endymion, Kunzite, Nephrite and Zoisite were willing him to win and that was more than enough.
“You’d better be careful,” said the referee, standing beside him. He was Jovian and therefore neutral. “He’ll be desperate to beat you, he might try anything.” The referee glanced at Jadeite with professional interest. “Are there any more like you on Earth, Lord Jadeite?”
“There’s nobody quite like me anywhere,” Jadeite said, smiling to himself. It wasn’t conceit, he was just repeating Kunzite’s words, though of course the referee didn’t know that. He did not show what he thought of Jadeite’s apparent arrogance, he just nodded and looked at his watch.
“One minute, then you’re on. I hope you’re used to being booed by now.”
“Thrive on it,” Jadeite answered, thinking that wasn’t too far from the truth. Any kind of negativity or resentment only increased his determination, no matter what the situation, and the resentment in this stadium was enough to make his hair stand on end.
The last strains of the anthem faded away and the referee walked out to announce the finalists. Jadeite felt the adrenalin pour through his body. He wasn’t going to be the overall winner, he knew that, but he was going to have a good score and he was going to show everyone that Earthlings were not barbarians and he was going to enjoy every damn moment. He heard his name called and stepped out. The wave of anger was almost overwhelming: the Martians didn’t boo him, they were far too sophisticated for that, but they just went silent. The message couldn’t have been clearer: You don’t belong here. Jadeite was highly tempted to wave at the crowd but he resisted. He hadn’t won quite yet.
“Are you ready?” the referee asked him, and Jadeite knew he wasn’t just asking about the fight but about the reaction afterwards.
“Yes,” he said, lifting his chin and gazing into the eyes of his opponent. “I’m ready.”
He actually knew the man he was fighting this time. He was one of the eight Martian Princes. The King and Queen of Mars had eight sons and one daughter, the Princess Erinya, who was a lady in waiting to Princess Serenity of the Silver Millennium. Jadeite hadn’t met her yet, although she was apparently here for the Games. There was a rumour going around that the foreigner who scored the highest would win the opportunity to escort her to the celebration ball tonight. Jadeite wondered if that would still hold true, given that he was the highest scoring foreigner. He wondered if the Martian King and Queen would actually let an Earthling near their daughter, let alone escort her to the ball. He lifted his sword, saluting his opponent.
Ajax lifted his sword in an identical salute. “Lord Jadeite. I hope you’re not a sore loser.”
Jadeite grinned, knowing that he looked wicked. “Likewise.”
Then they moved forwards and the fight begun, thrusts and parries and kicks and rolls. Jadeite could hear the crowd chanting Ajax’s name, over and over, willing their prince to win and beat the upstart, but he didn’t care. Ajax was a worthy opponent. He didn’t take any notice of the crowd, nor did he taunt Jadeite like the previous opponents. He simply fought. Jadeite respected him for that. But despite its war-like reputation, Mars hadn’t been involved in a real battle for a long, long while. Jadeite had fought in more real wars than Ajax and it was showing. He’d never thought that coming from a violent planet would be an advantage, but apparently everything had its upside.
“Why don’t you do something?” Ajax panted. “Why don’t you cast a spell or make the earth move underneath me?”
Jadeite looked at him and laughed. “So that’s what they’ve been saying. I wondered. Why don’t you use that fire magic that your family’s so proud of and burn me to ashes?”
Ajax glared at him. “What do you know about that?”
“I know your family are renowned for being great pyrotechnicians and that they can call flames out of the very air. I know that even the lowliest Martian can cook his food without ever worrying whether the fire will start. You don’t even have to burn my whole body, you can just take my sword arm, leave me helpless. Spontaneous combustion, isn’t that what you call it?”
“You know too much.”
“I do my research.”
“Research doesn’t help you on the battlefield.”
“And what would you know about the battlefield?” Jadeite asked, taunting. “I first fought in a battle when I was twelve years old. I’ve seen more war in ten years than you will see in twenty. Hell, I’ll probably die in battle. You… you will die in your bed. Just like everyone who’s allied with the Silver Millennium.”
Ajax roared in anger and charged at him. Jadeite leaped to the side and drove his sword hilt right into Ajax’s kidneys. Not a killing blow, but enough to bring Ajax down. It was a simple matter to roll him over and put the swordblade at his throat.
“Yield,” Jadeite said simply.
Ajax stared at him for a moment. “That was no magic,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“No. Just simple strategy. Do you yield?”
“I yield.” Ajax held out his hand and Jadeite pulled him up.
The referee walked over and held up Jadeite’s sword hand, announcing him the winner. There was a deadly silence. Jadeite could feel every single member of the crowd glaring at him. His skin was hot with their anger.
Then someone began to clap and Jadeite realised it was Ajax. He heard more applause and realised that the royal family had followed Ajax’s lead. The crowd could not afford to stay silent now that their rulers were showing approval and began to clap, but as slowly as possible. Jadeite bowed to them, then he turned and bowed to Ajax.
“You are a worthy opponent,” Ajax said, still clapping. “I would not do this otherwise.” He nodded towards the royal balcony. “My sister is watching us. I think she approves.”
Jadeite turned his head. It was not difficult to spot the Princess Erinya. She sat on her father’s left hand, glowing in a red dress. The royal balcony was too high for Jadeite to see much else, but he could see that she was clapping hard and that she shared her brother’s dark hair and eyes.
“Come,” Ajax said, putting his hand on Jadeite’s shoulder. “You need to go up there and collect your medal. And my father needs to officially announce your prize.”
Jadeite nodded and followed him. He could feel a thousand invisible knives stabbing into his back as he walked towards the steps which led up to the royal balcony. He knew that some of his former opponents were sitting in the crowd and that they had probably been longing to escort the Princess Erinya to the ball. Well, too bad. He’d won fair and square. They could mutter about it all they liked.
King Ares and Queen Bellona didn’t seem unhappy about his win, despite the fact he’d beaten one of their own sons. They both clapped him again as he came forward. Their seven other sons, on the other hand, seemed less impressed. They all looked at him with cold eyes. Jadeite wasn’t too surprised. After all, he’d beaten one of them.
“It’s not often that we get to see such fine swordsmanship, Lord Jadeite,” King Ares announced as Jadeite bowed. “Thank you for making the Games so interesting. The same people win the same things year after year… a wild card like you makes such a difference. We should invite you back next year!”
Jadeite had an urge to laugh out loud. He smiled politely. “I am not sure that the people would like that, your Majesty.”
“All the more reason to do it,” said Queen Bellona, glancing down at the crowd, which was now muttering. “It does not do to get too complacent about our skills, as you’ve shown us. Earth is our closest neighbour and we need to develop a better understanding.”
The looks on her sons’ faces said that they would be happy if the Earth exploded, but Jadeite didn’t point this out. He bowed again and thanked her for her kind words. King Ares turned to a footman, who came forward with an open red box. The King lifted out a medal. It flashed golden in the light. The symbol of Mars was carved on its front and it hung on a bright red velvet ribbon. Jadeite bowed his head as the King put it around his neck. The royal family started clapping again: it was obvious the people would not have done so otherwise.
“As the foreigner with the highest score, Lord Jadeite has won the honour of escorting our only daughter, the Princess Erinya, to the celebration ball this night!” King Ares announced. There was a stunned silence. Jadeite could tell without looking that the other seven princes had not known about this part. “I hope that you will treat him with all the respect that is due to a winner of the Games,” the King added and he glanced at his sons as he said this.
Jadeite finally looked at the Princess, who was now standing next to her mother, flanked by two identical women. Just as he had seen from the arena, she was wearing a red dress, probably satin. Her skin was milk white, in contrast to her brown brothers. Her hair was not black, like theirs, but a strange deep purple. Her eyes were the same colour, but they flashed red instead of blue. She was exquisite. Their eyes met and Jadeite caught his breath. He felt as if someone had lit a fire inside his chest. Then she looked away and the feeling was gone and he could breathe again. The two women were glaring at him. He turned back to the King and Queen.
“If I am to escort your daughter, I’d best get ready, your Majesties. Please excuse me,” he said, and left quickly, wondering what had just happened.
Fortunately, it was a long way back to his chambers and he had time to calm himself down and remind himself that, no matter how beautiful, she was still a princess, and a Martian princess at that. He could not afford to make any wrong moves or offend her. Jadeite was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t notice that he was being followed. He didn’t notice anything until someone stepped in front of him and he had stop short.
It was Prince Bellerophon. Jadeite glanced around and saw that he was surrounded. He looked back at Bellerophon, who was smirking.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“We don’t appreciate someone cheating in our Games,” said Bellerophon.
“Especially when that someone is a filthy barbarian from Earth,” said one behind him.
“And we don’t want a filthy, cheating barbarian from Earth escorting our only sister to the ball.”
“In fact, we don’t want you at the ball escorting anyone.”
Bellerophon pushed his face forwards so that his nose almost touched Jadeite’s. “So why don’t you give us that pretty medal and send a note saying that you’re sick?”
“And why should I do that?” Jadeite demanded.
“’Cause if you’re not sick now, you will be,” said someone on his left. “We’ll make sure of that.”
“If I’m the barbarian and you’re so sophisticated, why is it that you’re ganging up on me seven to one?” Jadeite asked coolly.
“An excellent question,” said a new voice and the princes leapt back. Jadeite felt his heart, so steady until now, start to pound.
Princess Erinya was standing right in front of them, her arms folded.
“What are you doing here?” Bellerophon demanded.
“I might ask you the same question, Lero,” she said, raising one eyebrow. “Ganging up on a prince from Earth? That’s grounds for war, and you know it.” Her eyes narrowed. “If you leave now, I won’t tell Mummy or Daddy anything about this. But if you argue, I’ll let them know exactly what you were about to do and it won’t be Lord Jadeite who misses the ball this evening. Do you understand?”
“Erinya, you can’t seriously want an Earthling to escort you – ”
“He won fairly. We all watched him. I would have known if he used any magic. And what I want is none of your business, Lero. Don’t make me repeat myself.” And Jadeite saw a few sparks fly from her fingertips.
Bellerophon glared at her. “Come on,” he said to the others and they hurried off.
Jadeite looked at Erinya. “You didn’t have to do that,” he said.
“You’re a good fighter, Lord Jadeite, but I doubt even you could handle seven Martian princes with a grudge.”
He shook his head. “No, I mean you didn’t have to step in. You could have just let them beat me up.”
Erinya walked forwards a few paces, looking into his eyes. “I like a fair fight,” she said. “That wasn’t going to be a fair fight. You weren’t even armed anymore.”
Jadeite could have argued that, but he didn’t. He bowed to her. “Then I must thank you for saving me from a nasty beating, your Highness. I shall see you tonight. What time shall I call for you?”
“Eight o’clock. Until then.” She walked away and Jadeite allowed himself to watch her for a few moments before going back to his chambers. He had a lot to think about.
Title: The Price of Fear
Version: Manga (pre-Exiles timeline)
If you'll be my flotsam
I could be half the man I used to
They said you were hot stuff...
— Venus in Furs, Baby's On Fire
He was surrounded. He was surrounded and he was going to die. They leapt around him, dancing, taunting him. They roared with hunger. They wanted to eat him up, they wanted to drink his blood and lick his bones dry. He curled up tighter, whimpering on a sore throat. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t sit up. He would die without dignity, like the cornered animal he was.
Then the door burst open and he looked up, and there, like a guardian angel, stood the boy he’d resented and challenged at every turn. All he needed was some wings and a sword. Isamu would have fallen on his knees in gratitude if he’d been able to move. “Sempai,” he whispered, his voice a mere croak.
The angel strode forward and knelt before him, grey-green eyes perfectly clear. “Come with me,” he said.
Isamu shook his head. “I can’t,” he whispered. “I can’t move.”
“Are you hurt?”
Isamu shook his head. Even now, in the midst of his fear, he felt the slightest twinge of shame. “Scared,” he whispered.
“Well, that’s something.” Kitano looked around the room. He didn’t seem at all bothered by the flames. “Fear can be overcome. A broken leg or ankle would be a lot more difficult.”
Isamu stared at him. He couldn’t believe this guy. They were surrounded by fire, the roof could collapse on them at any moment, the floor could collapse at any moment, and Kitano-sempai was actually saying that things could be worse. If Isamu hadn’t been so scared, he would have laughed.
“How did you know I was here?” he whispered.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Kitano said curtly, grabbing his arms. “The important thing is that I’ve found you. We need to get moving, I don’t know how long the stairs will last.”
Isamu froze and dug in his heels, almost pulling Kitano on top of him. “NO, I’m not going down there, I won’t, you can’t make me—!”
“SHUT UP!” Kitano yelled, pushing his face in so close that Isamu actually felt his heart stop beating for a moment. He stopped screaming.
“That’s better,” Kitano said, crouching in front of him once more, still holding his arms. “Hysteria isn’t going to help either of us.”
Isamu looked away. Even though he was sweating, even though his whole body was trembling, part of his mind was ashamed that he was behaving like this in front of Kitano-sempai. Part of his mind was actually functioning. “I can’t do it,” he whispered. “I’ve always been afraid of it… even small fires in the garden, I couldn’t stand them. I can’t move, Kitano-sempai! If they touch me, I’ll die!”
“If you think that, then you will die and I won’t be able to stop it!” Kitano shouted, making him jump. “Is that what you want, Minami-kun? To die like this, like a trapped rat?”
“Then you will have to move! I don’t care how afraid you are or why, you have to move, or we will both die here, because I’m not leaving without you!”
Isamu stared at him. He couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “You’re mad,” he said blankly.
“Maybe, but I’m not the one choosing to crouch in the corner of a burning room,” Kitano answered, holding his gaze. “Do you want to get out of here?”
Isamu nodded dumbly.
“Then I will get you out, but in return, you have to do two things for me. One, never ever stop believing that you will get out of here alive. Do you understand that?”
“Two, you always do exactly what I tell you and you do it straight away. Do you understand that?”
Isamu nodded again. Kitano looked into his eyes for a moment and then nodded in return.
“Are you ready?”
Isamu took a deep breath. His whole body felt locked but he nodded.
“Then come on!” Kitano pulled him right up onto his feet. Before that moment, Isamu would have said that Kitano didn’t have enough strength in those skinny arms of his to even lift a suitcase. But after that moment, he thought that Kitano might be able to do anything.
“Hold onto the back of my shirt! Keep your head low, you’ll breathe better that way!”
Kitano kept moving forward, testing the floor, moving forward. Isamu was trembling with fear, glancing from left to right at the flames climbing the walls. I will not die, I will not die, I will not die…
“We’re at the stairs!” Kitano turned and grabbed his arm. “You’ll have to take them at a run,” he said.
“But what about you-?”
“What did I say about the second rule?”
“Do exactly what you tell me and do it straight away.”
Isamu looked at the stairs and flinched backwards. “No, I can’t-!” he said, reeling at the inferno in front of him.
“If you don’t, you’ll die,” Kitano said behind him, stating it so plainly that Isamu closed his eyes, on the verge of weeping. He took a deep breath and threw himself forward, feeling the heat all around him. Fear choked his throat, slowed his movements, sucked the courage out of him.
It’s just like before, I’m going to die, it’s going to eat me up, all of me, I can’t escape!
Then the heat was gone and he was stumbling out into cool air and arms were catching him. He opened his eyes and gazed around in disbelief, then choked as his cousin leapt on him.
“You’re okay!” Xavier sobbed. “We looked everywhere, we couldn’t find you, we thought you were dead!”
“Where’s Kitano-sempai?” Ken demanded, grabbing his shoulder.
“Just behind me.” Isamu broke free and turned, pointing. There was nobody standing behind him. And the house wasn’t on fire. There was no fire anywhere, no smoke in the air, not even the smell of it. The windows were smooth and unbroken. The roof was neat. The porch was clean.
Isamu felt a ringing in his ears. “NO!” he screamed, lunging forward. “No, you can’t do that, you can’t do that, you cheating bastard!” But he couldn’t move, Ken was holding him back, Ken was shouting in his ear.
“What are you doing?! You can’t go back in there, that’s exactly what it wants!”
“It wants HIM!” Isamu yelled, turning and trying to fight free of Ken’s grip. “Don’t you see?! That’s what it wanted all along, it wanted him, and now it’s going to eat him up, just like it ate the others—!”
There was a roar, just like the roar of flames, except that he knew better this time. He knew it wasn’t flames at all, it was the sound of fear, it was the sound of whatever turned your blood to ice and froze your muscles. Ken let go and Isamu turned, ready to fight whatever came out of this despicable breeding ground, but as soon as he was facing the house, he saw why Ken had let go of him.
The house was bursting. The bricks were bulging outwards, the window frames were creaking and splintering, the door was warping exactly like a screaming mouth and the roof was buckling from the strain of holding everything together. Lights flickered wildly across the window glass and cracks ran down the walls. A voice screamed out and Isamu dropped to his knees, clapping his hands over his ears.
YOU WILL NOT DO THIS! YOU WILL NOT… DO THIS… TO ME! YOU ARE A CHILD, WHERE DID YOU GET SUCH POWER?!
Isamu felt Ken and Xavier drop to their knees beside him. The power rushing over and through them was like nothing they’d ever felt before. The voice shrieked again.
I AM THE GAPING MAW, THE BOTTOMLESS PIT, I WILL NOT BE DESTROYED BY A PITIFUL HUMAN LIKE YOU!
And then a new voice came, cool and strong and somehow familiar, but it was not Kitano’s voice, at least not the Kitano they knew. This voice belonged to someone much older, a full grown man, as sure of himself as a mountain.
You are an abomination. You are a blot upon the Earth. And the Earth swallows you.
Then there was a huge rumble and they all felt the earth under them move, like a mouth, opening and swallowing. The power sang in their veins and Isamu felt for one moment that he would burst with it. There was one final terrifying shriek and then terrible silence. The earth was still. Isamu forced himself to move, forced himself to look.
The house was gone. Where there had once been bricks and mortar, now there was a patch of earth, scorched black as if by a great fire. And lying in the centre of this patch of black earth, unmoving, was Kitano.
They never knew who moved first, they all reached him at the same time, falling on their knees, looking into the white face, calling his name. It was only much later, at the hospital, that Isamu realised they hadn’t been calling ‘Kitano’, they hadn’t been calling ‘sempai’ or even Kitano’s first name. They’d been calling a name that came from deep inside. It was later still when he struck a match and realised that he did not tremble inside. The pyrophobia which had haunted him his whole life had vanished on that day. He watched the flame dance upon the match head and wondered if he was willing to pay the cost.