When I first came to this world Ė Earth, its name was Ė it frightened me a little. The aura was cold and impersonal, for one thing Ė all those buildings reaching for the sky, vehicles zooming along the paved roads with unbelievable speed, people rushing on like there was no tomorrow. And the clothes were uncomfortable, though you coped with it eventually. Ann said this was Tokyo, capital of a country named Japan, one of hundreds of country on Earth. I could apprehend she was very happy to be back to her previous world, so I strove not to bother her with my alarm. To keep myself safe when I was out alone, I just memorized everything she said about everyday life here Ė for example, when you were about to cross a street, you waited until the light for pedestrians Ė those were people walking in a universe of fast vehicles Ė went green.
On the other hand, alarm and disorientation aside, this was a fascinating world. The stores lining up the streets were very spacious and all sorts of merchandise, some of which I had never seen before, were available. You could get your hands on a thousand reading materials, which thrilled Ann, who was fond of reading. The only obstacle was that they were mostly in Japanese, and she couldnít understand it well. There was also this odd little black box that gave off pictures and sounds that changed every few seconds, either telling the news or showing "movies", and there were "commercials" in between. I wasnít very interested in televisions Ė sitting for hours staring at a screen wasnít my idea of an exercise Ė but Ann exclaimed she missed TV a lot, though the programs here were not very similar to what she was used to. Iíd rather go out and make monsters bite the dust. It was healthier, at any rate.
The Saints were a surprise. I hadnít thought we would meet other protectors, but meet them we did. The one called Seiya was suspicious of Ann and me, but I didnít let that disturb me. We had no evil intention, so we had nothing to worry about.
Just because I was not in Flathinnis was no reason for me to turn lazy. I got up early as usual and went for my morning exercise. I had to be careful not to get lost, though; the house the Saints and their goddess lived in was huge, bigger than the Flathinnis palace. There were more servants, too. Some looked astounded to see me while I was on my way out, but none made a move to hinder me. I ignored them and proceeded to the back yard.
The weather was almost freezing. I rubbed my palms together as I jogged around the yard. Ann would be up shortly to join me, I hoped. Doing your morning exercise on your own was little fun.
But the person to emerge from the house was not Ann; it was the Saint with the green hair and pleasant, innocent face. He saw me running and I waved noncommittally. "Hello. Mind if I do some exercise here?" What was his name? Ah yes, Shun.
"Oh no," he replied readily. He caught up with me so that we were jogging side by side. "Shiryu told us about Flathinnis last night. Ann didnít tell much, though."
"She might just want to impart the necessary information." I wondered where this was leading.
Shun didnít speak for a moment or two. "Other than monsters, does Aleron have men Ė human minions, I mean?"
I thought for a while. "If he does, weíve never seen them. All we know that heís got a lot of monsters at his disposal. Ann and I have been here for about two days, and weíve so far managed to bring downÖtwenty monsters, I think. No more than that. There may be more monsters at large. We havenít even sniffed out where Aleron is Ė but weíre sure heís here."
"Oh." Neither of us said anything for a few minutes. We did circles around the back yard, which was quite enormous.
I watched Shun surreptitiously. If what Athena said of the Saints were true, they had had a life so cruel as to be inhuman. I wondered how Shun had maintained his apparent kindness through all those ghastly things we had heard about.
"Your country Ė Flathinnis," he said at length, "who rules it? I mean, thereís got to be a ruler, right? At least someone who has the greatest authority."
I was surprised. "Ann didnít tell Shiryu? The ruler Ė"
"Shun-sama! Shun-sama!" A maid burst out of the house, looking anxious. "Youíd better come and see this."
I admit monsters werenít as exciting adversaries as Marine Generals or Specters. They didnít even sound very dangerous, barring the fact that we could do zero around them. But they had to have a human master or at least someone with human intelligence behind them. They looked too stupid to think up a defense that could neutralize a Saintís attack. Therefore, I started searching.
No luck so far Ė Iíd scoured the entire Tokyo and not come across anyone with a Cosmos level worth noting. I didnít run into any monster, either. Rather disgruntled, I went home. Shun would know what to do.
To my surprise, Seika was in my house instead of Shun. She said since all the Saints were gathering in Saoriís house, sheíd better remove herself until the crisis was over. She hadnít expected me to come home.
"Well, this is my house," I said, somewhat crossly, since she seemed to be questioning my right to be there.
"Yes, I know, I know," she said pacifically. "Shun mentions you are prone to vanish for days. So I thought maybe the house would need somebody to keep it clean and taken care of. It might as well be me."
I didnít like her presence in my house; it made me feel awkward, restrained. If it were Shun, I could do as I liked. Seika was not very familiar to me, almost a stranger. So I locked myself in my room after informing her I didnít want to be disturbed. I regretted that decision, because being jailed in my own room didnít turn out to be fun. Other than listening to the radio, which broadcast music fit only for girls, and browse through old magazines, there was little to do.
Seika knocked at seven in the evening. "Ikki-kun, dinner is ready. Are you coming out?"
Being addressed as Ikki-kun made me grit my teeth. "In a minute, Seika-neesan."
Whatever else she was, she cooked superbly. Usually Shun and I ate instant food, so homemade meal was fabulous. After dinner, she did the dishes and proceeded to watch TV.
I said, "Iím going out. Donít wait up for me Ė I bring my own key." It irritated me just to say that; Shun would know without being told. Why couldnít she just stay at the mansion? Now I felt like an intruder in my own house.
She simply smiled as she switched the channels to and fro. Women. They couldnít make up their mind, even with TV. "Be careful, Ikki."
"Oh, it will take more than Tokyo for me to have to be careful," I murmured, and hurried out before she could answer.
The temperature had been dropping again. I thought of Death Queen Island, and found myself missing that cursed place. No Ė it was not a cursed place. It was a place of fire, you either survived it or got roasted. In my case, I got better. Not initially, but time changed a lot of things.
I sauntered leisurely under the street lamps, remembering Esmeralda. In a way, she would have to die anyway Ė a sacrifice for the Phoenix in me to be born. Still, futile though it was, I sometimes hoped there was a way to have it all: the power of the Firebird and her alsoÖRot that, what got into me tonight? I didnít usually pine for the unattainable. It must be being ousted from the house. I snorted and increased my pace.
From the opposite direction a couple drifted by. The woman had her hand tucked into the manís pocket. They ignored me, talking in a low voice. I didnít pay them much attention until they abruptly came to a halt and the man said in a whisper, "Look Ė whatís that?"
I swung around and saw instantly what he meant. Vague shapes were lumbering toward us, indefinable in the dark of the night. The woman pulled out her hand from the manís pocket to shade her eyes, then shrieked.
I had no trouble recognizing a troop of monsters. Fire sang throughout me, brimming with life, head-spinning. The couple fled without a backward glance.
The monsters, about fifteen or sixteen of them, were ambling nearer, all of them replicas of the one I saw the other day. I did a check on my flow of Cosmos, and was reassured to sense it was in full power. Unless my attack got deflated again Ė hopefully not Ė I should be able to finish them tout-de-suite.
Gold-orange flames burst out around me. My Cloth gathered around me and I was clad in the Phoenixís imperishable armor. The monsters watched me through their dull eyes, but didnít slacken their pace. They would soon learn differently.
I lifted my eyes, caught off guard: I hadnít been aware of the manís presence. He rose languidly to float above the monstersí heads, surrounded by a pearl-gray glow, scrutinizing me. In the stead of an armor, he wore a white cloak which hid his body from the neck down. Black wings with pointed edges grew out of his back, fluttering every now and then. The monsters, obedient dogs that they were, had come to a standstill.
"Who are you?" I said, not moving. The very fact that I couldnít detect his Cosmos was enough to raise my hackles. The last enemy who could withhold and release Cosmos at will had been Aislinn. I hope this one wasnít prone to running away from battles as she had been.
The man landed in front of the monsters and glided toward me. He was not taking me very seriously, which didnít please me in the least. "Saint Phoenix, I presume?" he said, his voice soft and cultured. From this distance I could see his short, curly sea-blue hair and keen black eyes. His wings drooped a little as he walked.
"Who are you?" I repeated.
He clicked his heels before stopping. "They say the Phoenix always rises again." The glow grew more brilliant, "Iíd like to put the statement to the test."
I started to reply, then froze. My limbs would not budge, and my neck felt stapled to my shoulders. Not an ounce of Cosmos flickered within me now. The man spread out his palms, as though in benediction, and a black void sucked me down into nothingness.
I was just getting up when noises erupted outside and grew louder. I ran to the window to get a better look. People were milling into the front yard, all talking volubly, gesturing at something on the ground. Shun and Fenris were emerging from one side of the mansion, followed by Seiya and Shiryu. I hurried out of my room.
When I got to the front yard, everyone was gathering around something I couldnít see yet. Shun was pale. I craned my neck to see what caused all this fuss. My blood turned to ice: parts of Ikkiís armors were lying higgledy-piggledy on the ground. All of the parts, that was, except both legs. I looked up to see Seiya furious, Shiryu thoughtful, Fenris speculative.
"What is it?" Saoriís footfalls tap-tapped across the terrace as she ran toward us, Tatsumi not far behind. She noticed the discarded armor and skidded to a halt, eyes large.
Shiryu picked up the armorís breastplate. "This is Ikkiís, all right," he said meditatively. "Not a fake. I wonder what this could mean?"
Ann scuttled out, sleep tousled. She squinted down at the armor parts. "Eh? What in the name of all thatís holy are those?"
"Morning, beautiful," Fenris said cheerily. "No, I donít know what these are. Perhaps you Saints would explain it to me, and why does it shake you so greatly to see these objects?"
"Itís Ė itís my brotherís Cloth Ė his armor." Shun pressed his palm against his cheek, trying to shake his horror off. "Thereís only one way this could happenÖ" His green eyes roamed pleadingly around. Some of the servants averted their own eyes. "But Ė but there are always other possibilities, arenít there?"
Saori stared at the servants. "Did any of you notice anything untoward?"
"No, Miss," they chorused, then a young maid added, "But just before I saw these thrown here, I thought there was a movement in the garden Ė couldnít see clearly, though."
That was not very helpful. With enough amount of Cosmos, anybody could move very swiftly.
"Ikki is not dead," Seiya stated sternly. "He may have just been held captive. This is some sort of a challenge letter. The enemy has Ikki and he wants us to come."
"How will we come to him, when we donít know where he is?" I asked.
Shiryu was pulling off something that was stuck to the breastplate. It was a piece of yellowing paper. "This is our answer." He read aloud, "íTomorrow morning, in a small village fifty miles west of Tokyo.í"
We were silent. Ann rubbed at her eyes, as though trying to fully wake up. Then Saori said crisply, "It says tomorrow. Something else must be in store today, something nasty."
"Monsters," Fenris murmured.
"All over town? Again?" Ann stifled a yawn. "Weíre in for it again, wolf-boy. Iíll be ready shortly." She scratched absently at her neck, then went back to the house.
I was rather annoyed that Ann and Fenris seemed to take this as simply an interlude Ė but then, they didnít even know Ikki. How would I expect them to sympathize with Shun? I turned to Shun and thought there were tears glistening in his eyes. That could be a trick of the light, however. Shun didnít cry easily these days. I put an arm around his shoulder, squeezing it. He didnít look up from the armor parts.
All in all, the day was eventless. Ann and Fenris were out until sundown, and when they returned they said there was only a handful of monsters abroad. They were certain this was all Aleronís doing, but so far hadnít felt any sign of the man personally.
Before dinner I knocked at Shunís door. "Yes? Who is it?"
"Itís me, Shun."
There was a pause. "Come on in."
He was sitting behind his desk, doodling. He dropped the pen when I entered. "Hi."
I took the seat opposite him. On the paper was a blurred sketch of a mountainside panorama. "I just want to tell you not to worry too much," I said. "Your Niisan is a tough one to kill."
"YeahÖmaybeÖitís just that, seeing his armor delivered like that gives me a hell of a shock. It means whoeverís got Niisan has made him defenseless and intends to keep him that way." He moved a fingertip back and forth across the deskís surface. "Thatís scary, you know. Niisan is always so strong, so capable. And now Ė " His white brow crinkled. "You know what, Hyoga-san? I just have the strangest thought. If Ann and Fenris hadnít been here in the first place, all this wouldnít have happened. But itís no use blaming them, right?"
"You are strange. It isnít like you to think badly of folks."
"I am not blaming them. And it is not their fault. Itís Aleronís, for coming here."
A silence ensued. Shun turned off the reading lamp on the desk.
"When we were kids Ė before our training Ė I wouldnít have believed Iíd have my own room in this house, and be at peace with everyone else. But the priceÖ" He gave a lopsided smile.
"You donít sound much like you tonight."
This appeared to pull him out of his mood. "I donít? Well, it could be because Niisan has never been snatched off like this. Usually itís Saori."
"You tell that to Aleron if you ever see him."
Shun was startled, then laughed briefly. "Hey, it could be worse. It could have been Seiya. Heíd be so furious."
"I canít imagine anyone wanting to kidnap Seiya."
This time his laugh was more genuine. I was glad; I had helped my best friend out of his gloominess, however temporarily, and that was the world to me.
Normally I didnít like to do my hair in a ponytail, preferring just to tie it back or braid it if I want it out of the way. This evening I was pervaded by an urge to see how Iíd look wearing a ponytail. I liked what I saw in the mirror, too. I seemed every inch a schoolgirl Ė a schoolgirl from Earth, to be exact Ė and not a defender of Flathinnis. I flattened the short hairs on my forehead against my skull, preened and chuckled. The girl in the mirror looked monumentally silly.
Isnít that just like Lavesque, sighed a voice inside me. Experimenting with hairstyles while innocent people get kidnapped and get involved in a mess she caused.
"Conscience goes down the draaain," I stage-whispered in a husky Ė and awful Ė imitation of young Plucky Duckís voice. Nevertheless, my conscience did have a point; I should be thinking of Aleronís challenge. I was dragging the Saints into what was initially not their business. They didnít seem to mind, which should have made me feel guilty. But, to be honest, I wasnít. Well, a bit maybe, but I wonít be losing sleep over it. In fact, I was rather relieved to have back-ups.
I didnít know the man well Ė or maybe it was better to say I didnít know him at all Ė but I suspected Aleron to be dangerous, ruthless, someone whoíd stop at nothing. Okay, so that sounded like the back cover of a thriller novel, but it might also be true. The jerk was very powerful into the bargain. I could do with some Saints. They were aptly called too.
I straightened the front of my sweatshirt and went to the door. Dinner would be in a couple of minutes, and I wanted a good seat where I could keep an eye on everybody. The Saints were a good-looking collection, some more than the others, which was a fun side of getting to know them. A colorful lot too, Seiya with his mercurial temper, Shiryu with his enigmatic quality, Hyoga with his generous heart, and Shun with his sincerity. I wondered what the other Saint Ė Shunís brother Ė was like.
As I pulled the doorknob, Fenris nearly stumbled into the room. "Oops!" he exclaimed. "I was just going to knock. Got a minute, Ann?"
He entered as I closed the door again. He sat down on a vacant chair and I perched atop the dressing table. This was not a good habit Ė one day all dressing tables would conspire to propel me off them if I kept it up, Iíd always imagined Ė but I simply liked sitting on them, with my feet barely touching the floor. "Whatís up?"
He cast his green eyes down, then raised them. "Ann, I have something to tell you." Oh my gosh, what was it, I thought, did he see something during his monster-hunting today? Something to do with the kidnapped Saint which he didnít want to share yet with Seiya and his brothers? He took a deep breath. "I think I love you."
All blood drained out of my face, then returned in a flesh-searing rush. Even my eyes burned. I tried wildly to unscramble my disordered mind, the hot sensation from my neck upward not helping in the least bit. "Fenris Ė are you out of your mind?" was all I could manage as a start.
He looked hurt. "You know I donít joke about matters like this."
"You canít be in love with me," I half-snapped, clenching and unclenching my fist. "My God, you Ė no, you canít be. Now please letís go to dinner, Iím starving." I slipped off the dressing table. When he grabbed my wrist, I glared at him. "You let me go right this minute!" My cheeks were still uncomfortably warm, and my heartbeat was far from calm. I didnít even know what to feel.
"But it is true," he said, looking at me in the eye. I groaned inwardly, more blood pumping itself into my complexion. "The reason I never told youÖwas because I knew youíd act like this."
"And Iím damned right to do so! Let go of me, I said!" This was absolutely insane. Fenris was my friend, he couldnít be standing here and telling me this! I tugged to release my hand, but his grip was clamplike. "Fenris, this is my last warning."
Suddenly he yanked at my wrist so hard that I almost lost my balance. My foot reacted before my brain; it folded up and kicked with all the strength it got at his stomach. I could feel my heel jamming into his solar plexus.
Grunting, he dropped my arm so that we both fell on our rears. I sprang up, and froze. Fenrisí red hair was changing; it was melting like wax, then became ash-white. As his face came into view, I gasped. "You!"
The figure climbed to his feet almost gracefully. "I see you are not easily deceived."
The blood decided it was time to leave my face again. "Whereís Fenris? What have you done to him?"
He was tall and solid, his eyes coal black and his mouth thin. Fenrisí lemon yellow sweater was transforming into a maroon-and-brown armor. "He is with the Saintsí brother," he said. "You may meet him again, or you may not."
I had to restrain myself from unleashing my power at him. That would be a waste. "Now youíre making this personal," I said. "Whereís Aleron?"
"Tomorrow, Lady; tomorrow." A heavy swirl of cloud, smelling like carbon monoxide, blew at me. I stepped back, coughing, waving my hand to repel the cloud. When I looked again, the room was empty but for me.
My knees abruptly refused to support me, but I didnít oblige them. Instead I staggered against the wall, clutching at the doorjamb. Fenris, I thought, panic worming its way into me, where was Fenris? I should have known it hadnít been him. That sneaky Sloa knew how to catch me off-balance. Well, he wasnít going to outwit me again! If I saw him with Aleron tomorrow Iíd tan him.
But was Fenris safe? How did he get caught, were Aleron and Sloa playing foul? Suddenly dinner wasnít as attractive as it had been just several minutes ago. But I had to tell the Saints about this new development. They had a right to know. Iíd wait until dinner was over, though.
Ikki got kidnapped. That was new. Not that I liked it; to be able to overpower Ikki was a good indication that we must not underestimate Aleron, if that was whoíd taken Ikki away.
Come to that, how much should we trust Ann and Fenris? They had never shown anything other than willingness to cooperate, though I suspected that they could do as well on their own. After all, if theyíd managed to hound Aleron and his batch of monsters out of Flathinnis, they should have little difficulty in finishing him for good. Something was fishy here, but I didnít know what.
It was dinnertime once again. Life had been falling into a slow, drowsy routine lately. We had been eating regularly for the past few months, lack of archenemy being the main reason. If I didnít watch out for my diet, Iíd be a walking lump of flesh.
We took our seats wordlessly around the table. Ann was the last to arrive, with no sign of Fenris. I was wondering if those two were together, but my curiosity didnít extend so far as to investigate whether they slept in one room or not. It was their own business. Ann sat down next to Shun, her countenance troubled.
"Whereís Fenris?" asked Hyoga.
She shook her head. "Later."
This had to be big, but clearly she didnít want to discuss it now. So we ate in silence, the conversation restricted to salt passing. Ann didnít seem particularly agitated, although she didnít speak at all during dinner.
As the dishes were being carried away, she said, "I think Aleronís got Fenris too."
We all looked at her. "What?" I blinked. "But he returned here, didnít he?"
"Yeah. That wasnít him, though. It was Sloa, a crony of Aleronís. I forgot that Sloa can change into anyone he likes. Donít worry, heís gone now. I guess that explains the blank-faced man your sister Ė" she nodded at me " Ė saw the other day. Sloa kind ofÖI guess robs peopleís faces to put it on when he feels like it. I donít know if the victim will stay faceless forever Ė I sure pray not Ė but Sloa plays for keeps. He can transform into one of his victims anytime he wants."
Just what we needed, another morpher. "But why change into Fenris, not Ikki?" Shiryu mused. "He would have had better access to this house."
"Er, maybe because he thought heíd have to cook up a really convincing story about escaping from his kidnapper and couldnít some up with any?" Ann said with a faint blush. I saw no reason for her to blush Ė probably she thought it was a silly remark. "Anyway now I know Aleron has brought his whole troop here with him."
"So other than Sloa and the monsters, Aleron has no other minion?" said Shun.
Ann nodded. "I guess."
Saori leaned forward on her elbows. "What did they want actually in Flathinnis? You only said that they wanted to take it over. But why, exactly?"
"Why?" Ann echoed. "I donít know. Sins of the fathers, I suppose. They had a grudge against a previous king, then wanted to settle the score now." I was about to ask if the present Flathinnis monarch couldnít cope with Aleron himself when Ann pushed back her chair. "If you will excuse me, I think Iíd like to be alone for a while." She hurried away, ponytail bouncing against her nape. We stared until she went out of the dining room.
"Well," Saori broke the silence. "There isnít much we can do at the moment. Letís see what tomorrow brings."
I didnít like that very much. It was like letting someone else handle what was supposed to be your business. Iíd rather act than sit and wait. And although she was only stating the inevitable, that didnít make me like it better.
My room was warm and cozy, if cluttered. Neesan said that it was a boyís room whichever way you looked at it. I wondered what she could be doing now, in Ikki and Shunís house. Then an idea came to me and I went to the telephone.
The phone was picked up after the third ring. "Hai, moshi-moshi."
"Neesan, itís me."
"Seiya-kun!" Delight flooded into her formerly formal voice. "Iím so glad you call! How are things with you?"
I considered my reply. "Fine. Neesan, youíve been staying at Ikki and Shunís house. Did you notice anything strange? Has Ikki ever showed up at all?"
She hesitated. "Yes, once, last night. Why?"
So Aleron took Ikki last night. "Was he there for long?" I was sounding like a detective ferreting clues out of witnesses, but never mind that.
"He came in around four in the afternoon, and was out again after dinner. He didnít tell me where he was going. Is something amiss, Seiya-kun?"
Should I tell her or not? "Nothing yet, Neesan. Arenít you bored being there all by yourself?" I didnít like that question; it was somehow superficial, as though I didnít honestly care how my Neesan felt, but was only making small talk.
"Yes, itís boring now and then," she confessed with a wry laugh. "But Iíll be in the way in the mansion."
"In the wayÖNeesan, what are you talking about? You are my Neesan, youíll always be welcome here!" My hands tightened around the receiver, feeling like the worldís greatest creep. I didnít want her to be here, since what we were into might upset her, yet hearing her put my thought into words was not pleasant in the least.
Her laugh became flat. "Seiya-kun, youíre a Saint and itís a bloody life. Much as I detest it, it is what you are. Iíve got to live with that. All I can do is not hinder you. Is there anything else?"
I hated her brisk tone, and hated my own helplessness to be truthful even more. "No. Good night, Neesan."
I was halfway up the stairs when I spun and descended, heading for the music chamber where my guitar was kept. No one would be there. I could have some peace and pluck out a few songs.
To my surprise, Ann was inside the chamber when I got there. She was admiring Saoriís grand piano, tentatively stroking its surface.
"Hey," she said, pointing at the far corner where my guitar was leaning against the wall, as I entered. "Whose is that guitar?"
"Mine," I said stonily, the conversation with Neesan still lingering.
"Can I play it?"
I watched her. "You read books, and also play the guitar. Is that a way to win our trust or something?"
She bridled. "What are you suggesting?" Her voice was deceptively sweet.
"Well, Iím not lending you that guitar. A guitar has to be handled by one person only, because change of body heat will also affect its performance."
I was nothing short of astounded when she stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes. "Duh," she said, "I know more than that when it comes to playing guitar, wise-ass!" She began to march toward the far corner.
"Keep your hands off my guitar!" I intercepted her before she got within a step from the guitar. She stopped, her expression blank. Then she sighed.
"Okay, Iím sorry. I have pulled you Saints into something that shouldnít have concerned you. Be mad, bite my head off. But please let me play that guitar for a whileÖplease? I promise I wonít break it or even mishandle it." She smiled, docile and humble.
After a momentís hesitation, I fetched the guitar and gave it to her. She instantly hugged it against her, which returned my anxiety. "Watch it!"
"Sorry." Reverently she let her fingers rest against the strings. She hummed "Annieís Song" Ė what did you expect, she was a girl Ė and played the song rather in a subdued manner. She wasnít a maestro, but she never picked a discordant tune, either. When she was finished, she handed the guitar back to me. "Thatís my favorite song," she said. "That and "Dust in the Wind.í"
Sentimental rubbish, I wanted to say, but held my peace. "That was passable," I said, not wanting to flatter her. I still thought her Flathinnis story had a hole in it.
"Aleron doesnít torture his prisoners," she ventured. "At least I hope not. Sloa likes to collect faces, though. How will that affect Fenris and your fellow Saint, I wonder?"
"You donít look very apprehensive about him."
"Who, Fenris? I do worry about him, but Iím not going to keen and tear my hair out, if thatís what you mean." She sat down on the piano stool, crossing her legs. "Hey, Iím not your enemy, you know. You donít have to be so grumpy whenever Iím around. Have you been often cheated by enemies, is that it? Well, Iím not one of those enemies. Iím an open sort of person, most of the times."
I wasnít about to give her so fast a victory. "I still think thereís something else behind your story."
"Well, there isnít, take it or leave it." She got up. "Itís late now. Iíd better tuck myself in. Good night." She went out of the chamber.
The ensuing silence was deep and unpleasant. I sat down and began to play. I wasnít going to let her ruin my chance of a peaceful solitude.
But I only got as far as the second song when the guitar lost its appeal. I put it back in the corner. There was something Iíd like to do more than listening to my own solo concert.
"Come on in," Neesan exclaimed. "Whew, Iím frozen! The heater in this house has broken down, and the kotatsu isnít very much of a help." She rubbed at her arms as though in illustration.
"Iíll tell Saori, sheíll get a mechanic to fix it," I said, shutting the door.
"Wait a minute, Iíll pour you some hot chocolate."
I waited until she had put the steaming cup before me. "Neesan, Iím here to ask you to return to the mansion."
Her face closed. "Iíd rather be here."
"Well, for one thing here I can play the homemaker. I clean, wash and cook, and at the end of the day I can watch TV or read Ė Shunís got quite a roomful of books. Heís also allowed me to take a look at his paintings. Theyíre nicely done."
The unspoken words could have been anything: I hate to be in the mansion and reminded how they robbed you from me. I donít think I fit very well with your life now, you with your Sainthood and Athena and protecting mankind. I can feel of use here, whereas at the mansion I seem to be just another piece of furniture.
"But I want you to be at the mansion. To be with me."
She watched white mist curl up from my cup, then met my eyes head-on. "Seiya-kun, I know Miho doesnít like your being a Saint. To tell you the truth, neither do I, but Iím not going into that. Youíve had enough objections from Miho already. What I want to tell you is that you have your own life to lead, and I have to live with it as do you. The best I can do is not get in your way."
"Probably you need a husband, then kids." As soon as I said that I wished I hadnít. It was like I wanted to get rid of her.
She uttered a sad laugh. "Do you know what I want?" Tears were glittering in her eyes. "I want to take some time off. Get away from you for a month or two. Then maybe Iíll be back, a tougher, less melancholy me."
That shocked me. "Neesan, you canít mean that! Why, we just meet again after years Ė you canít possibly be thinking of leavingÖ"
"Yes. Yes, youíre right. Forget I said that." She wiped at her eyes, sniffling a little. "Drink your chocolate, itís getting cold."
I sipped at it obediently. "Iím very sorry, Neesan." I was now perceptive enough to understand that sheíd wanted a little brother, not a Saint of Athena. My high-risk path had been quite a strain for her, but she always hid it. Tonight, though, some of her pent-up feelings were leaking out of their shell.
"So am I. But what can we do? Itís your destiny."
"You like staying in this house, do you?"
"A lot, though I have no one to chat with. After whatever it is youíre dealing with is over, Iíll return to the mansion."
"Itíll be over tomorrow," I said steadily.
"Yes, it will Ė until the next time." Her smile blossomed suddenly. "Come here, Seiya."
Her arms felt good; her arms were nirvana. I had forgotten how good it was being hugged by my Neesan. "You return in one piece tomorrow, do you hear?" she said, ruffling my unruly hair.
"Just donít go away again, Neesan."
"I wonít. Donít you know that? I never did."
Continued to Remorse