Challenge

 

SAORI

 

Only when some of the rain splashed into the front of my dress did I realize I had to get him in, or he would catch pneumonia; the shock of seeing him was that great. I half dragged him in. He stood patiently, a puddle of water forming rapidly around his feet, as I shut and barred the door. Ushering him to the table, I desperately hoped Kelsey kept a towel or two in her room. I certainly had no intention to hunt for towels through the other rooms.

"Are you hungry?" I said. When I got no response, I slapped my forehead mentally; my back was to him, and of course he couldnít read my lips. Looking over my shoulder, I repeated my question. He nodded. "Iíll go and prepareÖsomething for you," I ended vaguely, and ran to the kitchen.

Cabinets lined the wall, with no stove in sight. I looked frantically around. What did twenty-second century people cook with? Surely they still needed a cooker of some sort? Unless ready food were put into boxes from the factory and all you had to do was put them in plates. I opened the nearest cabinet. Sure enough, there were boxes there with pictures of food. Grabbing one with the picture of a steaming bowl of chicken soup (did chicken survive the last two hundred years?) my eyes roamed around again, futilely looking for the cooker or whatever it was people here used to heat up food.

The boy raised his head when I walked in, bowl in one hand. It had indeed been ready food, but cold. "I couldnít find the cooker," I apologized lamely. He didnít react, but those intense eyes followed my every movement as I put the bowl down before him. "Here, have some." Then, carefully, "Can you tell me your name?"

He blinked several times. "SuhÖSuh-pieÖSuh-pie-row." His voice had an odd guttural quality and the syllables sounded caught in his throat.

I tried to make sense out of that. "Spy? No? Er Ė Spire? No? Spiro? Yes?" He beamed, and I felt cheered, in spite of my failure to dish up warm food. I leaned across the table. "How did you know who I was, Spiro? Oh, forgive me, finish that, er, soup first. Then we can talk."

Judging from the way he devoured the food, I estimated that he had gone for days without any. I thought I should give him some drink to go with it, but that could wait. When the bowl had been scraped clean, he pushed the bowl to the middle of the table and bowed at me.

"Youíre very welcome," I said, smiling. "Why do you need to see me, Spiro?"

As an answer he extended both hands, fingers splayed. After a secondís hesitation I gripped them. It was surprising that his sticklike arms, poking out of his cocoa brown homespun, could return my grip with considerable strength. It must be the soup, meager though it was. He screwed his eyes shut, opened them and gazed at me. I guessed he was asking me to close my eyes, so I did.

There was a startling feeling of weightlessness, then a quiet so absolute it was frightening. Life was never without a sound; even in an empty house alone at night there was still the distant sound of people or passing vehicles, the regular tick-ticking of a clock, our own footfalls. This deafening quiet alarmed me, then I heard a deep, clear voice: Donít be afraid, Lady Athena. Now we can speak.

I opened my eyes and they immediately grew wide. I was floating in space, the infinite universe stretching on and on around me. Behind Spiro, who was contemplating me with those remarkable eyes and still holding my hands, was a blue planet, the sun peeping over its edge. Light-years away stars shone, indifferent and fixed, and I thought incoherently that they didnít twinkle because there was no atmosphere to distort their beam.

"Where is this, Spiro?" I asked, forcing myself to sound calm. If Saori was anxious and wanted to back away, too bad. She had to see this one through first.

My realm, I suppose you can call it that. The only place where I can communicateÖto a degree.

"All right." That wasnít very convincing, but I could accept it for now. "What is it you wish to see me about?" I realized too late that I was using the wrong diction; I sounded like a royalty receiving a subject. Saori was still around, apparentlyÖor was it Athena asserting her authority?

I was sent by Kronos. The one who is besieging your Earth now.

The name jolted me. "Kronos? Isnít he Ė hasnít he been dead for aeons?" Kronos was the Titan who had overthrown his father Uranus so he could claim Earth as his own. In turn he had been dethroned by his son, Zeus. I didnít think Kronos had survived after all this time.

He has come to life again. He wasnít truly dead then. But he is eaten away by corrosive diseases, or perhaps he is simply too old to live. His life force is dwindling away and he cannot come to terms with it. But he still has a tremendous amount of power. Two centuries ago, he heard of your Saints and how they had achieved the impossible: defeating Hades. He had cumulated his energy since then. He uses the present centuryís Saints to lure Seiya and the others here, where he can challenge them. The monsters he creates as a camouflage, to lead your Saints into thinking that monsters are all there is to it.

The voice was neutral to the point of monotonous, but the words galvanized me. This was the first time anyone had ever challenged my Saints and not me. "Why doesnít he challenge me instead?" I muttered.

You he considers too powerful for him. Against the Saints, his odds at winning would be greater.

Suddenly I recalled the dead man in the gutter. "Heís been preying on the people of this town, hasnít he? Heís taken away their Ė life force, as you call it. I saw one of the victims today."

Thatís correct, my Lady, Spiro answered in a surprised tone. He is doing that. Yet even taking away life force from the townsfolk cannot sustain him for long. When your Saints are dead, heís going to take their life force. That way, he may be powerful enough to challenge you.

This was getting increasingly dreadful. I hoped Seiya and the others would return soon. "How do we find him? He intends to be found, doesnít he?"

It is to that purpose that he dispatched me here. Tomorrow morning your Saints are to go to the junkyard at the outskirts of town. There they will know how to reach him.

It was a trap, loud and clear, but I saw no other choice. "They will be there," I promised. I wondered if all the Saints were to come, or only the twentieth century ones. The latter, I suspected Ė Kronos had gone to so much trouble to invite them here, he would want to contend with them only.

Spiro smiled at me. It was a sad, beautiful smile. Thank you, Lady Athena. Iím glad you donít treat me like an enemy.

"Itís Kronos who is my enemy. You are just his errand boy," I said, then could have bitten off my tongue. What was it with me today? Was I so upset that I had to resort to speaking condescendingly? I hurried on, "What about Gilland, is he unhurt?"

Gilland is fine, Spiro replied succinctly, and I breathed secretly in relief. Please close your eyes again, my lady.

I did so, and my weight returned. When I opened my eyes I was once again inside the house. The storm had abated to a light rain. Spiro released my hands and got to his feet, turned on his heels and marched toward the door.

"Wait!" I cried out, then, realizing my mistake, raced over to him to tap him on the shoulder. He looked up at me. "Couldnít you stay a little while longer? I donít think Kronos needs you back instantly." There was still so much I would like to ask him Ė who he was, how he had ended up at Kronosí service.

He shook his head, miming an angry face, then raised nine fingers. I stared at him uncomprehendingly before I caught his meaning: when the Saints got home, they wouldnít rejoice seeing an envoy from the enemy, even though the envoy brought some good news. Spiro bowed flawlessly and went out. Before he closed the door behind him, I noticed that the rain was now no more than a drizzle.

The confrontation with Kronos Ė should I be coming along, or shouldnít I? I didnít want my Saints to face Kronos on their own. We were supposed to fight together, I had vowed that to myself. But would I be able to convince them of that? I had to Ė I had come this far and I might as well go all the way. I sat down slowly, hoping they would come home soon.

 

 

EDAN

 

Sunlight streamed against my eyes, and I had to squint. "Looks like the rain has stopped for good," I remarked, a bit surprised. Gray clouds were scattering and thinning, parting to let the sun reappear in its full glory. Aside from the water dripping from roof edges and pooling in the street, there was little that indicated that a downpour had just fallen. I slipped out through the heavy warehouse door. "Give me a hand?" I asked Desmo.

As he nodded and moved to help me open the door wider, someone skipped past me. I glanced at him idly when his face jogged a file inside my memory. It was the boy I had seen earlier, the one who had been studying our house. I broke into a dash.

"Edan?" called out Demoís confused voice. I ignored it, accelerating. Where was that boy? Ah, there, around the bend! My attention was so riveted on him that I didnít see the man coming out of a building. I ran into him and we fell together in a tangle of limbs.

"Hey! Are your eyes on your ass, you stupid jerk?" the man yelled. I shot to my feet, looking around wildly, finding that the boy had vanished. Could he already be out of the settlement? I hurried off, the manís curses in my wake.

He had indeed gone past the town limit, and was walking sedately away when I caught him in sight. There was no solid reason why I wanted to pin him down and question him Ė I just knew I did. The boy couldnít be a coincidental factor here. My instinct, which was rarely wrong, informed me he was important. Important in what way, I couldnít be sure, but he was. I increased my pace. He didnít even turn around.

"Leave him be, Edan."

I skidded to a halt, looked over my shoulder. Aislinn was watching me with her catlike yellowish eyes. Had she been following me? I hadnít sensed her. But probably that was due to my mind being fully occupied with the boy.

"This is none of your business," I said coldly. I didnít like her Ė hated her, truth be told. When Desmo worked in her club she had used him, both in bed and as a fighter in the ring. Her husband was either too busy to notice or too stupid. After Desmo bored her, she got rid of him as you would a run-down old pair of shoes. Desmo had said it was mostly because he was very young and eager to please, but that hadnít made me forgive Aislinn Ė on the contrary. She had manipulated him through his ignorance and that was for me unpardonable.

Her eyebrows soared. "Catching the boy now wonít return Gilland to you. All in good time."

My caution grew tenfold. "What do you know about Gilland?"

Suddenly, as shocking as thunder in the middle of a sunny day, Cosmos exploded from her, so powerfully that my own Cosmos rose in reflex. When I looked again, Aislinn was surrounded in a blinding glare of electric blue energy the color of which matched her hair. She took a step toward me and it was all I could do not to quail.

"Return to your friends and wait for further instructions," she commanded in a high, eerie tone. The Cosmos radiated at me in waves. I could feel my Cosmos quavering before it. Aislinn was the enemy all along?

"Where is Gilland, you bitch?" I said, not angrily, just uncompromisingly.

A ball of light materialized on her upturned palm, and, without warning, she hurled it at me. I was unprepared, and it hit me squarely, throwing me off my feet. It was like running head-on into a brick wall. I couldnít help crying out, and fell on my rear. Every inch of me throbbed in pain, my head swimming. I struggled to my knees, trying not to flinch as my eyes met the Cosmos burning around her.

"Donít you call me names," she said.

"Why, canít face the truth? You are a slut, Aislinn. You used Desmo then you dumped him. You never even thought of him as human, did you?" In spite of the pain, my voice rose and shook a trifle. I managed to stand up at last, though my legs swayed. "So youíve got a lot of Cosmos. Big deal. Weíll make you return Gilland to us no matter what."

"Iím not the one holding him. Donít waste your time on me."

"Then where is he?" Silently I gathered every scrap of Cosmos I could. Battered though I was, this fight was far from over.

She regarded me with cool hauteur. "Like I said, get back to your friends. Youíll know how to find him."

"Iím going to fight you here and now anyway. Not for Gilland. But for Desmo."

"You shall lose, Saint Phoenix."

"Let me decide that." My Cosmos flared into life. Wings of fire spread open from my back and flapped, spitting sparks of flame. "Phoenix Eternal Naphtha!"

A globe of white fire, on whose surface tendrils of smoke danced, flew at high speed straight at Aislinn. She pointed a finger at the globe, almost lazily, and it stopped halfway. My breath felt stuck in my throat. Whatever I had estimated, I hadnít thought that her power would amount to this. I fully realized now what serious danger I had put myself in. Then she snapped her fingers, and the globe whirred back at me.

For one merciful moment consciousness fled. When it returned, I was in so much agony that everything was a blur. It took me a few seconds to know I was lying on my back, scorched and stunned. Aislinn was standing above me, the sun directly behind her, so that I couldnít read her expression.

"What a waste," she said, and another discharge of Cosmos smashed into me.

 

 

SHUN

 

"Where has Edan gone to?" Kelsey said, puzzled. She peered out, looking this way and that, and gave up.

"Mustíve seen something worth chasing for," Magaski commented.

Outside the weather was once again sunny and getting warm. It was rather unsettling to see so bright a day after a heavy rain, as though the rain had never been, merely an illusion.

"Letís go home," Seiya suggested. "Maybe Saori has a better idea."

Desmo glanced at him. "Saori? You call Lady Athena by her mortal name?"

"Well, I donít intend to go around calling her Lady anything Ė not my style," said Seiya, somewhat crossly and on the defensive. I smiled to myself. Despite his strong feelings for her, Seiya still remembered the bratty little snob who used to make his life a misery all those years ago. Saori had gone a long way from there, but the memory remained.

Shiryu was saying as we left the warehouse, "Today has been like the quiet before a storm. The enemy is going to strike soon, the time and place of his own choosing. And we can do nothing about it."

"The most galling thing is, we donít know who or where he is," amended Hyoga.

"Well, not all enemies like to announce themselves with fanfare," I said. "Some may like to be furtive."

Seiya scowled at this. "To me itís a sign of cravenness."

"Or a devious, scheming mind," said Desmo.

"I for one donít care what sort of enemy it is," joined in Kelsey, "as long asÖ" She stopped so abruptly that we all turned to her. Her eyes went round and she began to gasp, as if fighting for breath. "Oh my God! Oh my God!"

"Kelsey?" Magaskiís voice was sharp with concern as he moved toward her. A few passersby were looking our way, curious. Desmo drew her to the sidewalk, shielding her from their sight.

"Gilland!" Kelsey whispered, eyes still round, one hand pressed against her ear.

"Gilland?" Desmo repeated unbelievingly. "Where?" The rest of us searched around, but there was no sign of Seiyaís fellow Saint.

"Ssh!" she hissed, so violently that we did hush. Several seconds passed. Then her hand dropped from her head as she exhaled, the light gone out of her. "Heís all right. Gilland is all right."

"What was that all about?" Hyoga asked.

She blinked at us, then a relieved smile trembled at her lips. "Sorry. I heard his voice out of the blue Ė it spoke inside my mind, just like that. Canít tell where it was from. Nor did I hear very clearly. But I did know one thing now Ė heís all right. Otherwise he wouldnít be able to contact me. It was amazing." Tears brimmed in her eyes and she knuckled them away. "I heard it said that you Saints could communicate with each other even when you were apartÖmaybe thatís what Iíve just experienced. Gilland was calling to me, and I heard him."

A short silence fell, broken by Shiryuís voice, "Iím glad. Now that we know Gilland is safe Ė temporarily at least Ė we can concentrate better on what we are going to do."

"Yes, yes," Kelsey nodded enthusiastically. It occurred to me that she cared a great deal about Gilland, and maybe not just as one Saint to another would.

The rest of the journey home proceeded in silence. Kelsey was visibly happy, and would start to smile before pursing her mouth and striving to appear nonchalant. The others were busy with their own private thoughts. I for one was thinking where Niisan could be. I knew he preferred his own company, especially when he had something gnawing at him. Didnít he realize two heads were better than one? Then again Ė that was Niisan. I couldnít hope to change my brother, any more than I hoped him to change me.

We found a grim-faced Saori in the house. "We have to talk," she said gravely. As soon as we were all inside, she poured forth the whole story, and we listened, half appalled, half thrilled at this progress. She finished by saying, "It seems we will have to wait again Ė until tomorrow morning."

No one spoke for some time. Then Seiya banged a fist against the wall, eyes angry. "Heís made fools out of us."

"No," said Magaski dryly, "weíre merely playing by his rules, which is what he wants."

The door clicked open, and we all swung around, ready for anything. It was Niisan. His fellow Phoenix Saint was slung across one shoulder, unconscious. "Found him on the outskirts of town," Niisan said tersely.

 

 

SHIRYU

 

I looked around when Kelsey slipped out of Edanís room. "How is he?" I inquired.

She shrugged, looking perturbed. "Whoever it is heís fought with was very strong. I thought it might be Kronos himself, but Desmo says no. According to Lady Athenaís story, Kronos only wants to face you and the other twentieth century Saints. If it was us he was after, heíd be on our back a long time ago." She shook her head as I made to enter the room. "Desmoís with him and I donít think heíd like a third party."

A small pause descended. Thunder rumbled somewhere within the dark clouds which had begun to thicken in the sky for the second time that day. I was about to leave when Kelsey mused, "We arenít worthy of our names, are we?"

That stopped me. "What do you mean?"

"Isnít it obvious? Kronos only wants to deal with Seiya, yourself, and the others. You are the genuine article. We just happen to share the names, nothing more. Which goes to prove that itís not easy to be heroes. It needs lots of sacrifices. We havenít made much of a sacrifice Ė our Cosmos was practically handed over to us. Whereas you five have had tough lives, clashed against gods, lost much. You are the true chosen Saints of Athena."

Her self-deprecation both amused and saddened me. "If you are willing to make the sacrifices only to be exalted Ė donít, Kelsey."

She raised her eyes to meet mine straight on. "None of you ever regrets it, right?" she demanded, her tone bordering on fierceness. "Why? Does it really pay off to be Saints, so much so that you donít mind never having normal lives? Tell me, Shiryu Ė because I donít know. I canít know. I and my friends have never had any real test yet. Weíve never been properly blooded."

"Tomorrow may be your chance."

The green eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?"

"Someone else is stalking this town other than Kronos Ė the person who attacked Edan. Perhaps tomorrow, after Seiya, I and the others are gone, he will come to seek you out."

"Oh. Well." The anger receded, and she looked once more the girlish sprite. A grin in which nastiness and excitement mingled was etched across her face. "I canít wait. Let him come and maybe I can thrash him about a bitÖwith some help from Desmo and Magaski, it goes without saying."

I smiled in spite of myself. She was such a passionate individual, so eager to be a Saint in its fullest sense. Her brothers Ė like us, it was apparent that they were all siblings in spirit Ė must be feeling the same, yet they didnít show it the emphatic way she did. "Kelsey, it doesnít escape me that youíre worried that you, Desmo, Magaski, Edan, and Gilland are a shame to us. Well, youíre not. We are proud to have you as fellow Saints."

She ducked her head, looking embarrassed. "Aww. You only say that to be polite."

"Believe it or not, it is up to you."

 

 

DESMO

 

"How are you feeling?" I said, bending over Edan. There didnít seem to be any serious damage, although he was incredibly pale and his respiration was shallow. As if to confirm this, he grunted, tried to shift. I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Donít move. Donít even talk if youíre not up to it."

"But I do want to talk," he breathed. "Who brought me here?"

I listened closely to his voice. It sounded normal enough; very small, granted, but at least he wasnít gasping or slurring his words. That was a good sign. "Ikki."

He snorted, then flinched. "I forgot sick people arenít supposed to laugh."

"Whatís there to laugh about?"

"Well, I just remember him referring to us as a bunch of sissies. It turns out that the statement is a truthful one."

"What happened, Edan?"

For a few minutes he was so quiet that I suspected him to have fallen asleep. I was going to tiptoe out when he said, his voice marginally stronger, "Desmo, Iíd like to know one thing, if you donít mind. Have you still got hard feelings against Aislinn?"

This was so off topic that I could only stare. "Whatís she got to do with this?"

"Please answer me first. Well?"

I carefully weighed my reply. "Sheís part of a past Iíd much rather see buried deep," I said at length. "I was very young then, impressionable. I thought being a prizefighter was the top of the world. To me sheíd seemed so mature, so sophisticated, yet she deigned to notice me, a newcomer. I was dazzled and thought I was extremely lucky Ė before I discovered I was no more than a lapdog to her."

A ghost of a smile showed across Edanís mouth. "Iím sorry, Desmo. I know how much it hurts you to recall all that."

"If this is relevant to our present situation, Iíll accept the apology."

"Iíve been grieving for you, you know."

That astonished me. "Edan, I hate to be pitied."

"Yes, yes, but humor me first." He moved his head a little so that it rested more comfortably on the pillow. "How long have the five of us known each other?"

I sat down on a nearby stool. "A couple of weeks? Thatís not too long."

"Thatís right. But Iíve known you longer than that."

"That you have." Edan was the first fellow Saint I stumbled upon. I had met him scant days after I quit the ring, more than two years ago. He was the first person to learn about Aislinn and the only one who knew almost all there was to know about it. As we came across the others, they too gleaned bits of information about that chapter of my life, which resulted in my being suspicious that they pitied me. I hated being an object of pity more than anything else. Not that they ever mentioned it. That callous they were not.

Edan nodded. "How do you feel toward her now? Honestly?"

"I cope with it. Thatís not to say I want to renew my acquaintance with her, but neither am I going to act guilty whenever I see her."

"When you took Seiya and the others to the club, I was kind of speechless."

"Maybe it was part selfishness. I wanted to show her she means nothing to me now and all that was past was indeed past. Anyhow where is all this leading to?"

He didnít respond straight away. "During those days, did you know her well? Please. Iím not what Magaski would call indulging a vulgar curiosity."

I struggled to keep a serene countenance. Edan must have a good reason, to pry into an area he would usually never go near. "Not too well. Which specific aspects of her that you need to know? Can she cook? Is she a marvelous lover?" Seeing Edanís color wane even more, I immediately wanted to kick myself. "Iím sorry."

"Donít be. Do you know she has the greatest amount of Cosmos Iíve ever encountered?"

That jolted; I practically gawked. "It was Aislinn who attacked you?"

"None other than."

I shook my head. "Itís hard to believe."

"I felt exactly the same. Thatís why I asked you all those stupid questions. I wanted to know how the state of things are between you and her."

"If she hurt my friends, Iíd make her pay."

Edan smiled weakly. "When I said Iíve been grieving for you, I meant it. You didnít deserve what you get. You are a truly nice man, Desmo. No one has the right to treat you the way she did. Sometimes I think I want to harm her in return." The smile became slightly bitter. "Now I know for sure that will be easier said than done."

"That reminds me," I said, and repeated what I had heard from Lady Athena about Kronos.

Edan listened without interrupting as the story unfolded. "Then Aislinn might be his spy," he said after I had finished.

"But why has she lain low all this time? Why not strike while we were unprepared?"

"Kronos would rather deal with Seiya and the others than with us. Weíre small fish Ė not worth fighting against. My guess is, while Kronos handles them, Aislinn will make sure no twenty-second century Saint will survive." Edan sighed. "If Gilland were here, heíd come up with better answers, Iím sure."

"Yes." I was still pondering on the detailed discussion about Aislinn and myself weíd just had.

He must have noticed it in my face, for he said, "All I wanted to say was that I care a lot about you, since weíre good friends Ė or so I presume. I called Aislinn a couple of not so flattering things before she knocked me out, and Iím glad I did. Iíd do it again."

Something caught at my throat, and I forced it away. "Donít make a habit of that."

"Of what? Defending a good friend? Iím afraid you canít do a thing to stop me Ė itís like a benign tumor." He gave a snort. "While weíre at this soppy subject, Iíd better tell you we all love you. Youíve been a real brother to us all, Desmo."

I got to my feet. "That blow mustíve been more serious than I thought, otherwise you wouldnít get into such a maudlin mood. Iíll leave you to rest."

His eyes closed. "Shoo."

I exited the room.

 

 

SEIYA

 

I was filled with anticipation as the day wore away. Finally, the prospect of battle, and no legions of underlings to hamper us. Kronos didnít seem to have collected many followers during the millenium he had been dormant. Or maybe he was content to have only two Ė the woman Aislinn and the boy Spiro. That was an odd pair, but then, Kronos was free to choose his own minions.

After dinner, Saori asked to talk to me in private. She declared her intention to go with us tomorrow.

That didnít sit well with me. "Saori-san, you know that itís going to be very dangerous. Kronos is very powerful, and, if what Spiro said is true, rather demented into the bargain. It will be safer for you to stay here. Desmo, Magaski and Kelsey will look after you."

For some reason the last sentence seemed to offend her; her lavender eyebrows drew together. "Is that what I am to you all this time, Seiya?" she said in a low voice which didnít hide the mounting anger underneath. "Something to Ďlook afterí?"

"Uh, no," I said, uncomfortable now. "You are Athena, Saori-san, and weíve sworn to protect you. You know that." Why was she suddenly so heated up? Was it Kido Saori, who resented not having her way, namely being able to come along with us tomorrow?

She was looking searchingly at me. "If you canít understand why I want to go with you, then you disappoint me. Itís precisely because Iím Athena that I want to be with my Saints. All right, so Kronos mainly wants to challenge you and leave me out. But that doesnít give me the right to just sit and wait until the whole thing ends. It doesnít work that way, Seiya."

I hunted for an argument. "Itís important that you be kept safe."

"And itís not important that Seiya, Shiryu, Hyoga, Shun and Ikki are? Just how much do you value your own lives?"

Saori was changing, but whether for the better or the worse I couldnít tell yet. Saori as Saori emerged more rarely these days than of yore. Not that she had vanished completely, but more often I found myself talking to a woman whose existence sometimes baffled me, for I was still reconciling that womanís personality with Saoriís face. I wondered if that woman was Athena, and if Kido Saori was receding farther into the backgroundÖBut what was the matter with me? I didnít ordinarily put Saori and Athena into separate compartments. My duty was to defend Athena and if that also meant defending Saori, so be it. I wasnít prone to making distinctions.

"Athenaís life is more important," I said, and hated the lame sound of it.

She seized on this. "And for Athena the lives of her Saints are just as important."

"Itís better for you to stay here in case Ė something happens."

I discerned in her expression that her emotions and Saoriís upbringing as a well-mannered young lady were at war. The former gaining an upper hand, she said, "In other words, it doesnít matter if you die as long Athena doesnít?"

"Saori-sanÖ"

"Donít Saori-san me! And donít be such an obdurate prig. Iím coming with you tomorrow and thatís that."

I tried a different tack. "Itís us Kronos is waiting for. If he sees you along and becomes angry, whoís there to guarantee he isnít going to retaliate by, for instance, telling Aislinn to burn down this whole town? She seems a very powerful being."

Her fury subsided, replaced by horror. "He wouldnít!"

"From past experiences, most enemies would dare anything, and they didnít care for human lives."

"And there you have it. I do care for human lives Ė in this case, yours Ė which is why I insist on coming."

I wished for Shiryuís brain and calm, for mine were starting to falter before her persistence, which would have been admirable under any other circumstances. But she must be made to understand that we couldnít afford to have her with us. "Saori-san, weíll be able to concentrate better if weíre on our own."

That this was a fatal mistake was instantly clear from her flushed face. "So thatís it, isnít it? Iím a hindrance. You want to defend Athena but you wonít babysit Saori."

My temper was beginning to fray. I usually responded with anger when provoked and this time was no exception. "This is not about babysitting Ė this is about bringing down Kronos as fast as we can!"

"Is that so?" Her eyes were bright with the intensity of her emotions.

"Yes, it is! And youíd better stop acting like a spoiled bitchÖ" I stopped, aghast. Now she was going to bite my head off and I deserved it. I braced myself, waiting for the attack.

It never came. Her high color drained out of her face, leaving it pale and strained. For a moment there was a tense, fraught silence. Then she nodded heavily. "Iím sorry. I shouldnít have shouted at you. You are right, I should be here." She turned on her heels and walked away, stiff and hurt.

"Saori-san!" I caught up with her, expecting anything but this. "Itís me whoís sorry. IÖdonít know what got into me." Iíd rather have her howling with rage than giving me the cold shoulder for the next couple of days. Sulking people didnít get along well with my nerves. "Iím sorry, okay?"

The lavender eyes remained aloof. "No, youíre not."

"I am! You donít thinkÖ"

"Oh, you are sorry for shouting back at me, that I believe. But not for thinking of me as a Ďspoiled bitchí. I suppose Iíve had that one coming for years." A smile appeared reluctantly. "All those time having to endure a pampered girl must have been too much for you."

I was at a total loss for words. "Saori-san, IÖ"

"Never mind that." She abruptly looked brisk. "I will stay here tomorrow as you want, Seiya. Just promise all of you will return safely. I canít afford to lose any of you."

With that, she left.

Shiryu came in not long after while I was still slumped on the floor Ė Desmo and the others didnít care much for chairs, it looked like Ė and said mildly, "Have you had a verbal war with Saori-san?"

"Why did you ask?" I said, somewhat tartly, then grimaced. "Sorry, Iím not exactly in a good mood."

He seated himself on my right. "Was it so bad?"

I gave him a summary of what had happened. "The weirdest thing is that she didnít strike back. She just Ė sort of Ė I donít know, retreated into herself. By rights she should have decapitated me at the very least. In all her life no one called her names to her face."

"Except you. While we were still small and living at the Kido mansion, you and her were foes, as I remember it."

"I just wish Athena would reincarnate into someone less rich," I grumbled.

Shiryu smiled slightly. "Had she, there would have been no money to gather and house a hundred children and send them into places all over the globe to be Saints."

"Yeah, well, thatís one way of looking at it." I had to admit that there was some relief along with the guilt. Saori had that one coming for years, as she had put it. And yet Ė I shouldnít have lost control like that. It didnít do to be in bad terms with someone you had sworn to protect with your life. On the other hand, she had accepted it gracefully enough, and this bothered me. Had she changed? Was it possible? "Shiryu, do you think sheís mellowing? You know, growing less of a snob?"

One black eyebrow lifted quizzically. "Has it ever occurred to you that being Athena is hard? Especially for someone with her background. And she doesnít have a say in the matter. She canít refuse or pass the torch to someone else. She has been chosen as Athena and thereís no way out. She may even resent it. In a way sheís like us. We canít abandon being Saints when the going gets tough, can we?"

I contemplated the possibility. "Maybe, yeah, that makes sense. Does that explain why she can be bratty at times? Because she doesnít like being saddled with such a huge responsibility?"

"The answer, I believe, is known to Saori-san herself."

 

 

HYOGA

 

The house had a balcony on the second floor, but so narrow was it that it hardly merited the name. It was, however, a pleasant and secluded place, which I needed. So there I went, hoping for some time to think before bedtime.

Ikki was already there, leaning against the rickety railing and staring out into the night. I decided on going back, then knew it would seem rude. Not that Ikki would be concerned one iota whether I was being rude or not Ė rather, I couldnít bring myself to do so. Thus I stayed on the balcony, and stared too into the enveloping dark.

The stars overhead were hard and cold Ė like the ones youíd see in the Polar regions, I thought. This future was a dismal one. It took a certain kind of courage to live here. How did Desmo and the others feel about this gloomy world they were inhabiting? Or were they inured to it already, having grown up in it? The ability to adapt in humans was sometimes amazing. My brothers and I were probably the best examples. We survived six years of hard training, whereas about ninety other children perished.

I threw a cursory glance at Ikki, who completely ignored me. "How did you find Edan?" I asked, to make conversation.

"I saw Aislinn earlier and felt her Cosmos. It was still raining then. After the rain abated a little, I followed the trail of that Cosmos and ended up outside the town limit. I saw Edan but not Aislinn. She might have returned to Kronos."

"Oh." I imagined Ikki didnít fancy sharing a bed with a sick person, hence his coming to this balcony. "Our future fellow Saints arenít very weak, you know."

In the dark I saw his dark blue eyes glitter. "I know what youíre going to say. They are brave in their own way. Safeguarding a deteriorating world against an unknown enemy, without even Athena to lend them moral support."

"There, you see? They arenít weaklings. Theyíve simply lived their lives differently than we did." I remembered Mommaís death and being separated from her, and spending half my lifetime thinking of myself as a lone fighter. That was before we fought with the Gold Saints in Sanctuary, when I realized my brothers and I were one Ė they were my family, my soulmates. I detected a similar bond among Desmo and his friends. That must have been what made being Saints bearable.

Ikki didnít answer. Probably the subject bored him. Silence wrapped the balcony again. The wind blew despondently about, neither cooling nor clean. It carried with it fine particles of dust. Yes, I thought, being Saints in this age certainly needed courage.

"This Kronos," Ikki was saying slowly, "if what Spiro said was true Ė that heís being eaten with diseases Ė it canít be too hard to defeat him."

"But the Cosmos we felt when Gilland was taken away was enormous."

"It didnít necessarily belong to Kronos. What if it belonged to, for example, Aislinn?"

There was a possibility. "Or Spiro couldíve been sent to feed us false information," I said, half to myself.

"We shall see tomorrow. Why arenít you sleeping already?"

"Why arenít you?"

"Desmo wouldnít like it if I usurped Edanís bed. Heíll need rest and peace."

I eyed him skeptically. "You donít usually listen to others, or care much what they think."

"I also happen to think a sick bedmate isnít much fun. I suppose Iíll join Shiryu in the living room."

To my surprise Ė and Ikkiís too, I could tell Ė the living room was far from abandoned. Seiya, Shiryu and Shun were there, sitting alongside the wall, and they raised their heads as we entered.

"Whatís the occasion?" I asked, plopping down next to Seiya. Ikki predictably took his place beside Shun.

"We donít like having to share our beds with others," Seiya proclaimed.

"And we suspect that our hosts donít either," amended Shun. "But since they donít have bedrooms to spare, theyíre willing to put up with us."

Another silence fell. I drew my knees up and rested my chin on them. A few voices outside passed the house, laughing raucously before fading away. All of a sudden I missed the sound of running vehicles in the distance. Or, if that was a remote possibility, the strong, steady susurration of the Arctic wind. The twenty-second century felt so devoid of life.

"This isnít right," Seiya said, breaking the silence.

"What isnít?" I asked.

"That story Spiro gave to Saori-san. Sounds too smooth for me. Kronos wants us here so he can have a nice personal clash, and the winner goes home with all the trophies. Too pat. There must be something behind it."

Ikki eyed him without a trace of derision. "Itís as if youíre actually growing more acute, Seiya."

Seiya was too busy with his thoughts to take offense at Ė or, I suspected, even to notice Ė Ikkiís words. He frowned with concentration. "And whatís this stuff about not wanting to deal with Athena because she may prove to be the obvious winner? That sounds fishy to me. In the past everyone always wanted to get to Athena, whereas we were mostly considered as obstacles that must be squashed underfoot."

I saw Ikkiís mouth twitch with amusement at the metaphor. He was probably thinking that it was best applied to Seiya himself. Shiryu said, "Perhaps Kronos is certain he will be able to take our Cosmos first, thereby doubling his strength when itís time to face Athena directly."

Shun nodded. "I can understand that."

"Saori might want to come with us," I said.

Seiya winced a little at this. "She isnít coming. She will stay here with Desmo and the others."

Another silence interfered before the conversation continued. "How are we going to get back to the twentieth century?" Ikki said to no one in particular. "Gilland brought us here, but he wasnít the one who actually made it possible, I guess, but Kronos, Aislinn or whoever."

"Weíll find a way," I replied. "We usually do."

"Do you suppose Gilland is safe and sound?" Shun said.

"Heíd better be, or Kronos will pay." Seiya leaned against the wall, hands folded across his stomach. "Funny, I just realize it now. If Desmo and the others donít have Cloths, can it mean that no Cloths are there to be taken possession of? That somewhere during the two centuries, those Cloths just Ė disappeared?"

"I donít think itís likely," I pointed out. "Even after we die, somebody must have looked after our Cloths. And the Cloths can recognize their rightful owners. When the rightful owners come, the Cloths will come to them on their own volition."

Shunís large green eyes grew wider. "Are you implying that Desmo and the others are not rightful Saints?"

"No, thatís not what Iím referring to! Maybe those Cloths are hidden in a place none of them have found. Those Cloths are there, waiting to be worn."

Shiryu said quietly, "Or they canít be worn because we are here."

"So the Cloths feel we are more entitled to wear them, and not Desmo and his friends?" Ikki demanded.

"Nothing like that. The Cloths still by rights belong to twentieth-century Saints, and normally it will still be two hundred years before other Saints can wear them. So you see, a Cloth cannot serve two masters at the same time. Though it may be that Desmo and the rest will find the Cloths to claim as their own one day."

Seiya scowled as Shiryu explained. "What youíre saying is that at present thereís only one Cloth for two Saints and they have to take turns wearing it. It happens to be our turn and we canít very well lend them to Desmo and the rest. Is that it?" He seemed vaguely uneasy, as though he had deprived our twenty-second century counterparts of something very vital.

"More or less like that, yes," Shiryu nodded.

This time Ikki did smile. "Seiya, you are becoming more and more intellectually alert."

Seiya glanced at him darkly, but said nothing.

Shun yawned, then clapped a guilty hand over his mouth. "It is my bedtime after all."

"Weíre all in need of sleep," Shiryu agreed.

That night the five of us slept in the living room.

 

 

SAORI

 

To my relief, Kelsey was in no mood for a chat that night. After taking off her jacket, shoes and bandanna, she climbed into bed, smiled shyly at me and proceeded to fall asleep. I had the time to wonder at this change of attitude before my mind shifted on a more personal issue.

I had lost my temper and that wasnít good; in fact, that was awful. Seiya had also lost his, which resulted in him calling me a spoiled bitch. I knew I was one, yet hearing it hurled at me was quite a shock. It took me a mighty effort to calm down and think rationally, when my injured pride screamed at me to hack at him with nails. Looking back, I was thankful I had been in control of myself.

He had harbored that impression for as long as we knew each other, I concluded. Tonight it just slipped. No doubt he was contrite, but the thing was that I hadnít intended to go with them tomorrow because I wanted to. It was because I had to. Athena couldnít kick her heels at home while her Saints were fighting a battle, be it on her behalf or on their own. Besides, wouldnít a faster victory be better?

However, Seiya was adamant that I would not be coming. Since I was loath to get into another argument with him, I had no other option than to meekly say yes. I hated that. Saints were supposed to obey Athena, not the other way around. Now who was thinking that Ė Athena or Saori? Just how much of Saori wanted to join tomorrowís battle, and how much of Athena? I rolled onto my side, my hand burrowing under the pillow in search of a cooler spot. Next to me, Kelsey was starting to snore softly.

It could be the reason why I and Seiya sometimes didnít get along, I said to myself. He revered Athena, and he liked Ė loved maybe? Ė Saori, but he wanted her to behave as he saw fit. And the suitable behavior didnít include going to enemyís territory when grim battle was about to commence. Rot that boy, didnít he realize Earthís safety depended on both the Saints and Athena? Both sides must do the job. Not that I had the time or sufficient verbal skills to convince him. Again, rot him.

I heaved a sigh. Kelsey murmured inarticulately, then fell silent again. Well, I had done my best. Whatever would be, would be.

 

 

Continued to Saints at Heart