I couldn't tell if it was morning or afternoon when I walked outside. The sun was a bright haze, though the air was cool. I was still in my nightgown and walked barefoot out of the cool-tiled terrace onto the grass. It was a short walk from my room in the palace to a knoll overlooking a valley filled with pale flowers. It was there that I stopped.
It always seemed breezy in Cefiro. My gown whipped up around me and my hair went into my eyes. This wind carried the scent of honeysuckle. Yesterday it had been cinnamon. Both were two of my favorite scents and I couldn't help but wonder if there really was honeysuckle out there, or if it was my wishes that created the smells, even unconsiously. That's what was fun about Cefiro.
A bird that looked as if it was made of thistledown flitted by me, white against the perfect blue of the sky.
Perfect, perfect. I balanced up on my toes and gave myself a hug as the wind did it's best to embarrass me in my nightgown. The cool breeze twined around my legs and shot up my back, escaping through my hair. Bliss, that's what it was. I loved it here. Even fighting the occasional monster was a small price to pay for escaping the 'real world'.
I had never understood why the other three Knights had so longed to retrun to Tokyo. But then, they had all had families, friends, even pets...something to return to.
I had been in orphanages until I was old enough to be sent away to school. I hadn't been much of a scholar and I'd been moved around so often I'd never been able to make any real friendships. My nomadic lifestyle hadn't allowed for pets either.
Here, though, I could have whatever I wished for...And so far there had been only one thing I had found missing in this wonderful place.
Clef had always become uncomfortable when I flirted with him. I'd noticed a spark of anger in Umi when I tried it, too. I don't know if they were aware of it or not, but there was something between them, and I didn't want to wade into that. Lantis and Hikaru were the most recent lovebugs I knew of. I hope the man I fall in love with won't be so tall I need a ladder to kiss him! But they really are cute together. And, of course, Fuu and Ferio were as cuddly as a pair of bunnybats. Caldina and Lafarga had taken up with each other, and even Ascot was looking dreamy these days. My flirtations were wasted on him. Whoever his mind was on, it wasn't me.
I wasn't sure where my craving for romance had come from. I'd never considered myself boycrazy. I guess that in a world where I was surrounded by such beauty and love, I wanted to feel it on the inside, too. It was lonesome somehow, as if there was something more I needed that the others had all managed to find for themselves. The only time I didn't feel that way was inside my Machin.
The others had all been leery of my Machin in the beginning. I know they weren't expecting there to be a fourth Knight, but I wasn't expecting to be attacked by them either. Even when we had all calmed down, they didn't like that my Machin was a creature called Innova.
Once they explained, I was more
sympathetic. Poor Fuu, especially, had been forced to fight a similar being to save Ferio and reach her own Machin, Windam.
Whether or not their Innova was the same as mine, I didn't care. He'd been so beautiful, there in the Storm Shrine, like some huge, wolfish, faerie creature, too wonderful to exist outside of a dream.
On a whim, I summoned my Machin, willing my gown into my full Magic Knight dress. Safe inside him, I looked over Cefiro again. I could see farther, with the advantage of his height.
"Innova," I called softly, knowing I didn't really need to speak for him to hear me. "Was it you who fought the Magic Knights before? Are you the Innova they remember?"
"I am," his voice wasn't as deep as the other Machins'. It was soft and carried an old, old sadness. "I am the most powerful kind of magical creature in Cefiro. I could not be killed completely, though I was long in healing. I returned to the Storm Shrine where I was born to guard it as a Machin until you came."
"What's wrong?" I asked him, pained by his sorrow. He paused for a long moment before I heard him again, this time in my mind.
"I wanted more than anything," he said. "To serve Priest Zagato well. To grant him his wish for happiness with the Princess Emeraude. He loved her so."
"And you loved him," I realized, putting my hand over the pulse in my throat. It was a habit of mine, to feel my heartbeat when I was upset. "Enough to help him destroy your world, so that he'd be happy with the one he loved..."
Innova was silent after that, so shyly, I began to tell him about my world, the one I'd left behind. I told him about the orphanage, about all the schools I was sent to, and how much I loved it here in Cefiro.
"If they ever try to send me back there, Innova," I told him. "Please hold me here. I don't want to leave this place or the people, or you, for that matter."
He was still quiet, but I felt like he was listening. After a few moments of silence between us, I had him fly us down over that valley. We followed a river's winding path to a where it sprang as a waterfall from a mountainside. I left his armor to run through the same pale flowers and pulled off my ankle boots by the shore. Spray from the falls tickled me and wet down my fly-away hair. I pulled off my cape and metal headpiece and anything else unnecessary and waded into the bitingly cold water.
I winced and gasped and then, feeling silly, pranced around a bit to get up the nerve to dive in. Finally, with a squeal, I sank under and swam around until feeling returned to my body. I thought I could feel an undercurrent of amusement from Innova as he stood on shore, as impassive as a statue. I couldn't help but wish he could come in and play, too.
Soon, a mental call from the palace brought us home for some presentation or another. I was bored and didn't pay much attention. Afterwards, I sparred with Hikaru for fun, though my heart wasn't in it. Then she broke off to help Umi chase Mokona, who had swiped something of hers. Fuu and Ferio had disappeared early from the presentation and I had no doubts why.
That thought made me wistful again and I left Umi and Hikaru to Mokona's pursuit while I wandered up to a secluded part of the palace. It was a small, open hallway to a tower, countless stories above the courtyard. I crawled up to sit on the edge of the wall. Cefiro had banished my fear of heights as well. I looked out over the land again and heaved a sigh.
Surely, I thought. There's someone here who loves me or will soon. I didn't want to feel sorry for myself, but the whole thing smacked of melancholy, and I felt weighed down by it.
"Wish I may,wish I might," I said aloud. Maybe if I wished hard enough, Cefiro would grant me this one too! Heartened by that idea, I spent awhile making a list of charactoristics necessary in my perfect love. I'd want him to be kind, of course. Cute, charming, loving, and faithful. He'd have to be brave when I was in trouble, and always be hurt enough in my rescue that I 'd get to nurse him afterwards. (The whole wounded hero notion was knee-quiveringly romantic, in my mind.) He'd have to feed me bonbons in bed for breakfast every morning and tell me I'm beautiful when I'm mussed, and knit me a sweater for Christmas.
At that point, I found myself giggling. It was silly to make lists like this, but the whole practice made me feel better. I skipped back the way I had come, running down a long spiral staircase back to the main palace. Rounding one corner, I nearly collided with Presea, who was on her way up. We both gasped and I slid to a halt, with only a little stumble.
"You startled me, young Knight," she said with a smile, but my attention was on the object she was carrying. It was a broken sword, the hilt design reminding me of an Earth ram with spiraling horns. It looked to be made of copper. I could tell that it was an Escuda weapon, a sword for a Magic Knight.
"What is it?" I asked. Presea became more solemn. She held it for me to see better.
"There's a part of the Magic Knight legend that isn't well known," she said. "It's said that many ages before Hikaru and her friends were called here, there was a Knight who had Earth powers. The Machin's name was Arieon and with it, the fourth Knight gave her life to prevent some calamity history only hints at. Her sword was broken and her Machin disappeared. They say it returned to its shrine, but even that place has disappeared now. All that is left, is the story and this piece of sword."
"That's so sad..." I touched the hilt with one finger. Presea nodded slowly and we were both quiet for a long moment. Then she smiled again.
"Perhaps they'll return, also, now that you have come," she said more brightly. "And I intend to have the sword repaired by then. You'd better hurry if you want to make it to dinner."
I couldn't believe it was that late already. How long had I been up there dreaming up the perfect guy?? So, thanking Presea, I turned and ran the rest of the way down the stairs to the banquet hall. I arrived, hair everywhere and out of breath, as usual. I got a few chuckles from the locals and slunk to my chair between Umi and Ascot. Maybe what I needed was my old watch from Earth. It was probably in my room somewhere if Mokona hadn't taken it.
"You get later everyday," Ascot nudged me with his elbow, interrupting my train of thought. "What do you do out there by yourself?"
"Maybe she's not by herself," Umi said sweetly, taking a sip from a glass shaped like a morning glory. She gave me a little wink and I felt myself blush, which of course, only made it look like I was hiding something...
Ascot immediatly pounced on this opportunity to pester me and soon the whole table wanted to know who I'd been secretly meeting.
"It's not like that!" I was getting frantic to change the subject. "I was talking to Presea about the Earth Knight who disapeared!"
Some of the elders present, who knew the story, fell silent to nod wisely at each other. I had to explain to those who hadn't heard it, and to my immense relief, they started talking about that instead.
Hikaru wanted to have some sort of search to find the lost Machin Arieon, and through it revive the lost Knight. Fuu suggested that if the lost Knight had been born again back on Earth, perhaps the Pillar could call her back to Cefiro.
Umi didn't seem that interested.
"We should probably wait until Presea finishes the sword," I said, eating a chicken and cheese muffin. "That could probably help us, too."
"And we'll have to resolve the situation in Luasia before it gets bad, too," Fuu added. I must looked as blank as I felt, because she smiled at me a little mischeiviously. "I know you were at the presention. Weren't you listening at all?"
I shook my head, feeling sheepish, which Ascot increased ten-fold by muttering that my mind must've been on someone else. My cheeks went hot again. Umi giggled and even Fuu grinned a little. Hikaru blinked at me innocently, missing the point. I sighed, praying that this meal would be over soon, and Fuu, having mercy, told me what I'd missed earlier.
The city of Lausia, miles to the north, was being slowly overtaken by some creeping moss that grew in the damp. Unfortunately, they were also in the middle of the rainy season. I didn't think moss was a problem that required Magic Knights and said so. Umi agreed, Hikaru was adamant about helping the townspeople. She was going there in the morning.
"You'll come with me, right?" she asked. "They're getting enough wind and water from all those storms, so Umi and Fuu should probably stay."
"Alright," I shrugged. "If you think I'll be any help." I felt a little stupid, planning an attack on some fuzzy plant life, but then I remembered the monsters I'd fought before I'd reached Innova. Some of them hadn't been what anyone would consider dangerous until they had to face it down when it was enraged. The moss could very well be dangerous. I had gotten a little cocky, maybe, what with my new status and magic weapons. Adopting some of Hikaru's enthusiasm, I talked to her a little bit about our plans, then swiped a small pie from the dessert tray on my way to my room.
Once there, I peeled off my clothes, but left my wrist charm on. Through it I could contact both my Escuda weapon and Innova and I felt better with that security. My room smelled of lightning, I thought, that sharp, fresh, tingly storm-smell. I noticed that the decor had changed color as well, from the lavender it had been this morning to a snowy white. I wondered if it was the palace staff or Cefiro itself that had done it.
I was more tired than I realized. It had been a busy day, though it seemed I'd spent a lot of it mooning around. I untangled the barette from my hair and put it down on a table. I'd look for the watch in the morning...maybe. I collapsed in my newly white bed and it seemed to me that I must've dreamed because the bed shifted beneath me. The sheets melted into sleek fur and it took a drowsy moment to realize that I was nestled into the back of the wolf-like Innova, as I'd seen him in the Storm Shrine. As before, I was dazed at how beautiful he was.
He turned to look at me and the singing power of the lightning we shared exploded out of my heart and went coursing through me in white-hot zigzags. I was gasping from it. My hands balled into fists when I couldn't stand the sensation of electricity pooling into my fingertips anymore. Was I dreaming? Innova's golden eyes stared into mine. Lightning danced over him like static. I could feel it play over my skin as well, in tingling waves that brought goosebumps up all over me. He lowered his head until the point of his horn touched my brow.
I'm not sure what happened then, but the world went white and zinging and lightning shot through my veins and spiraled its way through my brain. If I had been able to form a thought in my mind, I would've thought I was floating on some impossible soft sea of furs, while all the lightning in existence went screaming through me. Somewhere in the distance, I heard Innova howl out his war cry and I would have called back to him if I had been able. But then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over, and I was gasping, alone in my bed, every hair on my body standing on end.
"Innova?" my voice was a bare whisper through my gasps for breath. There wasn't an answer. Where I had been bone-weary before, I was wide awake now and where I had thought that the my experience had been too intense for me to bear for long, I now craved more of it. "Innova?"
I looked down at the gem on my wrist. My arm quivered with the force of my hammering heartbeat. Out of habit, I pressed two fingers to the base of my throat to feel my pulse throb. Still shaking, I pulled on some clothing and ran outside. It was dark, only a few lights were still on in the palace, so whatever has just happened had taken much longer than I had thought. I ran out barefoot into the grass and summoned him up as a Machin. I had been hoping he'd appear in his wolf form again, but didn't care too much at this point. I ran toward him and he brought me inside his armor.
"Was it real?" I asked him, still gasping a little."Was I dreaming? Did you really do that? Did I dream it??Innova?"
"This is Cefiro," he said gently. "Dreams can be real. This is a world where reality is decided by will."
"Then I want to know!" I know I sounded hysterical, but I couldn't help it. My heartbeat was so loud in my ears, I didn't even know if I was screaming or not. "That wasn't an answer!! I want to know, Innova!"
"What is it you wish to know?" he asked and I felt light-headed
"I want to know what happened just now!" I resisted the urge to pound the sides of the armor. "I want to know what it was, and if it was real, and...and if it was, I want more of it!" He was quiet, perhaps surprised? I couldn't tell."What was it, Innova? What did you do?"
"You'll know tomorrow," he said simply. I felt myself slump a little. That weariness was returning. I sagged against the side of the armor and sighed again.
"I wish you were soft all the time," I mumbled, putting a hand on he side of the armor."I wish you made more sense. I wish you'd come out of this thing" I gave the armor a knock with my knuckles."And play with me sometimes. Can you?"
Again, he didn't answer and I was getting sleepier by the second. I let my head drop down onto my knees and it was morning again when I came to, once more in my bed.
"Hikaru had just leaned in my doorway, without knocking. Or maybe she had, I thought, and I slept through it. She was carrying a tray loaded down with food.
"It's time!" she chirped. I brought you breakfast to save you time." She put the tray on the bed next to me and hopped up beside it. She had brought me a strawberry crepe, a peeled orange, porridge with honey, a sweet roll, and three pieces of bacon, along with a glass of milk. She'd probably just ransacked the kitchen.
"Thanks," I dragged myself out of bed and yawned my way to my wardrobe. Since Hikaru was there, I chose the outfit she had given me as an apology for nearly laying my head open when we first met. It always seemed to please her to see me in it, and her face beamed as soon as I pulled it out.
Once dressed, I ate while she tackled my hair, even more tangled than usual from sleep. I managed to eat about half the food she'd brought by the time she was able to beat my mane into some form of submission. I pulled on my boots and we trotted outside to call our Machins. Rayearth and Innova appeared, one in a swirl of flame, the other in a flash of lightning. Goosebumps prickled across my shoulders as I thought about what had happened the night before. He has said I'd find out today...Once inside him, I couldn't think of anything to say as we flew towards Lausia.
Hikaru commented on how quiet I was and I lied, telling her that I wasn't completely awake yet. I was awake, so awake I felt a little sick. As Cefiro slid away beneath me, I tried to think of what could possibly have happened.
Soon, we arrived in a dreary, drizzly town. No one was in sight, not surprising, since the weather was so bad. Hikaru and I left our Machins to wander around. Half of the town did have moss growing over it, blanketing the buildings and streets. I couldn't help but find it a little charming, sort of like a Chia-town. I was grinning at that thought when a man appeared down one of the empty streets. Hikaru called a greeting, assuming, like me, that he had come to meet us. He made no sign of having heard.
As he got nearer, we could tell that his stride was stiff and zombie-like. I pulled back a bit, getting that famous 'bad feeling'. Hikaru was as worried as I was, but being braver. She called out to him again and had to step back as he lurched by her. It was then that we saw that his back was covered in the same moss as the town. I flinched. Hikaru gasped. So much for the moss being charming...I thought.
Hikaru rushed forward and grabbed two handfuls of it to rip it off his back. It took clothing and skin away with it, leaving two gaping wounds in the man's back. She staggered away with another gasp. He continues his shambling walk past us. Hikaru looked from him to her hands and then screamed.
Jolted out of my horror, I ran to her side. The moss had attatched itself to her fingers and was spreading to her palms. I grabbed her wrists and pulled her arms away from her body so it wouldn't spread to the rest of her. The moss undulated towards my hands.
"Burn it off!" I screamed, letting go of her quickly. "Use your power!" A quick blaze erupted from her hands, shriveling the moss away. She shook her hands, gasping, and I took them to see if she was hurt. Her skin was hot from the flames, but I couldn't see an injury.
A ripping, rumble of a sound made up both turn to see the blanket of moss had pulled itself up from the town. It reared up like a tidal wave over us. The top was all damp, fuzzy moss, but the underside was a mass of old bones, some animal, some not, and enmeshed human bodies. It looked like the whole town had been trapped in the moss' roots. It was awful. I felt cold seep through my stomach. It looked like a sheet of collaged Holocaust footage, writhing over us. I felt Hikaru's warm hand clutch mine. We broke and ran for our Machins.
"It's a monster!" she shouted unnecesarily. "How can we fight it without hurting all the people trapped in it?"
"I don't know!" I shouted back, as Innova beamed me in. "But we have to do something!" That was an unnecesary statement, too, I realized, but didn't think it mattered too much. Rayearth called forth Hikaru's sword and they lunged in to take a slash at the moss. It darted away, as graceful as a snake. Hikaru released one of her spells, raining fireballs down on it. I could almost hear her praying that it wouldn't hurt the townspeople.
Great chunks of it were burned away, but it didn't slow it down any. There must've been miles of it, much too much for a few hole to bother it. I had my own weapon out, but didn't see how it would do any better that Hikaru's had. The moss heaved itself upright like a tsunami of horrors, taller even than our Machins. It crested like a wave.
Get out of its way!" I screamed. Rayearth launched skyward and I sent Innova after him, just as the moss came crashing down again. We hovered over it, both at a loss.
"What'll we do?" I whispered, not expecting an answer. This time, however, one came. A familiar jolt ripped its way through and Innova's voice filled my mind.
"The spell I gave you last night," he murmered. "Remember it now." And I did. The spell came to me, carried in waves of shimmering power through my body. Barely aware of what I was doing, I arched backwards, weaving my arms into a motion that called the lightning down in a crackling spiral. I felt a rush of excitement from Innova, his pleasure in the use of his power. Then,
I released the howling tornado of energy onto the creature below.
I could hardly see what was happening through the haze, but I heard Hikaru cry out. Too lost in the spell to even wonder if she'd been caught in it, I was awash inthe glory of such power. I could feel something happen with Innova's presence. It wrapped around me. He was as joyful as a child in the full rush of the lightning that was part of him. Drawn to his pleasure, I embraced it and added my own. It was almost a bonding, as if we'd merged into one syncronized being instead of Knight and Armor. As the spell spent itself out, we were pulled back to our separate selves. I thought I caught a touch of reluctance from him at our parting, but it may have been my own.
Then, I looked down. My cyclone had ripped the moss creature apart. The townspeople were flung about in heaps. My pleasure was stabbed through with guilt. Had I killed them? Had the spell been too powerful? I beamed down to see how bad it was. Hikaru was already there, kneeling by a prone figure.
"It's alright!," she called. "I think they're all alive, but we need a healer here fast!"
"Probably a few of them would be better," I said, dropping beside a woman whose long hair reminded me of Umi's. I gulped, wondering how much of the damage was mine and couldn't be blamed on the moss. She was alive, but unmoving.
"I'll get Fuu," Hikaru said, standing again. "There's a village to the east, over those mountains. You go there and bring what healers they have here." It was obvious she didn't want to leave so many injured people spread across the landscape like autumn leaves, but we both knew neither one of us could help them. There was no choice but to go for help. I returned to Innova and we flew eastward.
"That was what you did last night," I was thinking aloud. "You filled me with that spell. The power of it was amazing! I never thought..."
He was quiet again. A sudden pang of diappointment stabbed me. Some part of me had been hoping Innova's visit was something mysterious and strange, nothing as mundane as giving me a spell he'd knew I'd need. It was like thinking your crush was meeting you for romantic reasons, only to find out he just wanted a homework assignment. Then, I realized what I was thinking, and Innova did, too.
Well,there, I thought suddenly, blushing bright. Thinking of that, I suddenly longed to burrow into his thick, white pelt again. He was just so beautiful. Tears sprang to my eyes and I blinked them back. Wonderful. And now he knew it, too.
Three days passed. The Lausians had been healed up by Fuu and the healers I'd recruited from the neighboring town. They were pulling their town back together bit by bit. Hikaru had wowed the court with tales of the storm tornado I'd called down. I took what comfort I could from her praise and hid myself away in the palace. I hadn't called up Innova since we'd returned from Lausia and he hadn't contacted me either.
Thus, I was alone with my confused feelings and they made poor companions. Always a late sleeper, I gave up on breakfast entirely and lost interest in lunch as another week crawled by. I didn't want to face the crow of people at the table when I had enough clamor in my head. I found myself in tears often and avoided everyone so I wouldn't have to explain.
Eventually, Clef came to see me. He tried to be official, which I imagine was hard for him when he was only about half my size. I didn't have any answers for him, though, and his demeanor changed to concern. I was touched and wanted to just squeeze him up like a stuffed toy and sob my emotions out into his oversized robes. He would have forgiven me for it,too, but I couldn't bear to have to explain why afterwards.
Later, he sent Hikaru to me. I knew he had because she wouldn't have noticed that my absence came from heartache. She crept to my side one night while I was outside watching fireflies. She sat beside me in the grass and took my hand.
"Why are you so sad?" she asked, my pain becoming hers. "Is it because of the monster? I had one bad dream about it, but then it went away."
I hugged her and let her think what she wanted. The fireflies danced and I tried not to remember that they were calling to mates to come join them with their lights. Even Cefiro's bugs had it more together than I did, I thought. The first smile I'd had in days appeared at the unbidden thought of myself with a glowing butt. Fireflies were also called lightning bugs, I remembered, shivering at the recollection of the power I hadn't used in awhile.
Hikaru saw the smile and left happy, thinking it had helped. Fuu wasn't so sure and came to me the next day while I sat on the lawn, blowing dandelion seeds out to the breeze.
"7 o'clock," I said, holding it up to her. She took the half-blown puffball from me and looked at it, then blinked at me. I told her of the grade school song about telling time by a dandelion clock, which she apparently hadn't heard before. She smiled a little and sat down beside me. Sunlight sparked off her wrist gem, flashing green. I looked at my own purple gem and resisted a fornlorn sigh.
"Something is troubling you," she said, adjusting her glasses. "Is it something we can help you with? Have you finally started to miss your home?"
"No, it's nothing like that," I flicked at another flower, sending more drifting seeds through the air. "This is my home." She studied me for a long, quiet time, the wind making her hair as tousled as mine.
"As Magic Knights, Hikaru, Umi, and I have learned to work together to solve our problems," she said, leaning forward to put a hand on my arm. "You're one of us now, and we'll help you however we can. Don't feel left out. We're all here." I thanked her. She hugged me and went to meet Ferio inthe orchard.
Left out, I thought. Yep, that was it. But not the way she meant. I had never worried about my place with the Magic Knights. With Innova as my armor, my self-confidence had soared. I was the chosen Knight of the Storm. I had a legendary creature at my disposal, a sword that more than compensated for my lack of swordsmanship, and some truly kickass magic powers. Being accepted as a Magic Knight had been merely a bonus.
Two more days passed before Umi showed up. She came in her old school uniform. I had burned mine.
"Well, what's wrong?" she asked. "You can't be homesick after spending so much time telling us how you never wanted to leave!" That's what I liked about Umi, no beating around the bush for her. She didn't bother to sit down. I had been sitting on the edge of a fountain, feeding a large silver fish the bread from the lunch I'd barely eaten. The fish looked at me with some impatience as I paused. So did Umi. She put her hands on her hips and tapped one foot.
"Everyone's noticed," she continued, tossing her head. "Presea hasn't been out of her workshop in forever and even she asked about you! So what's your problem?"
I stared hard at the fish to try to form some reply she'd accept. The fish stared back. Umi leaned around to catch my eye again. Her expression had softened some.
"Nasty break up?" her voice had lowered, though there was no one nearby. "You know...your secret boyfriend or whatever? You were so happy disappearing like that every now and then. We all thought it was so cute...But now, you don't ever leave the palace and you always look so downhearted...Did it not work out?"
That was the closest guess to the truth I'd heard yet, so I ventured an answer. Umi sank to the stone next to me to listen.
"There wasn't--much... chance, I guess, for anything to work out." I felt like I was confessing a crime. "I was always happy with him, until it occurred to me how-how much I liked him, and then, realizing that, I knew that it's not something that can work out..."
"Who is it?" Umi's face was alight with interest. She was delighted that I had opened up, I knew, and intrigued by this new gossip. Her question hit that aching nerve once again, and I clenched my eyes shut against the next wave of tears.
"Someone I can't have," I nearly snapped, trying to use anger to dry up the sadness. The bread was crushed in my tightened fist. It was true. Even if he wasn't a spirit guardian of the Storm Shrine, he'd still be an incredible magical creature, too far byond the reach of and human, even a Magic Knight. Even if we could be considered equals, I doubted he'd find anything attractive in me, the skinny, desheveled space case who'd been the outcast everywhere I'd ever been but here. And even if he could consider a human as an object of desire, he'd already found one to love and it wasn't me...He'd already given everything, down to his own life, to serve the one he'd loved beyond all things.
I had wondered earlier if it had been for Zagato himself or a shared love of the Princess that had inspired Innova to such devotion. It didn't matter. Of all the people I had ever known, he had been the one I was truly the happiest with, at least until it had occurred to me that I loved him. It didn't matter, though. He didn't, maybe even couldn't, love me back.
The tears began again. I heard a distressed sound from Umi when she saw them. He hands fluttered around me like butterflies, trying to pet and soothe, while she rattled out hollow words of comfort. It was what I had been afraid of, once begun and witnessed, my tears rolled out like the sea. I sobbed into my hands. My whole body burned with relief at the release.
I cried until my sleeves and collar were soaked from the run off. My legs gave out, my nose was streaming, and my vision was blurred from the flood. I don't cry prettily, perhaps because I have so little practice doing it, but now the dams had broken.
I wailed like a child, so it was no surprise to find myself being held like one. Arms wrapped around me. I was held to someone's chest and rocked slowly. Strange hand stroked my hair and wiped at my tears. Disembodied voiced murmered a thousand meaningless reassurances. Finally, tears depleted, I came to myself sniffling and gasping into Ascot's shirt. A huge damp spot spread across his chest where I had buried my face against it. Even then I was clutching handfuls of his clothing. He held me in his lap, still rocking me gently. Embarrassed, I wiped at my nose with the back of my hand. I felt weak and dazed and ashamedly grateful to be held.
"Coming back to us now?" he asked with a touch of humor. His smile was too gentle to be teasing, though, and there was genuine relief and sympathy in his eyes. He brushed a tear from my cheek and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. I felt too sheepish to answer. I had soaked the poor man with sobs and sniffles. My eyes ached, but I turned to see all three of the other Knights kneeling around us. Each had a hand on me somewhere and they had concern on all their faces. So did Presea, Ferio, Caldina, Lafarga, Lantis, Mokona, and everyone else who'd come for the show. I was mortified.
"Puu?" Mokona asked. I didn't even try to figure out what it meant.
"Thanks," I told them. "I think it's over now." A few smiles broke out at that. Ferio gave me hanky so I could finally blow my nose. I had a roaring headache from it all.
"You should have a good rest, then a hot bath," Presea said kindly. "That'll put you right in no time."
"I'll make some tea for you," Fuu offered, rising to her feet.
"You should eat something too," added Ascot, giving my ribs a pat. "You're even thinner than before."
"I'll make you a tray!" crowed Hikaru, bouncing up like Mokona. "And bring it to you when you've napped!"
I tried to protest, but hadn't the strength. I could feel the undercurrent of relief form everyone. They were glad I had whatever it was out of my system and they all wanted to help now that they had some idea as to what the problem was. Only I knew that the whole sobfest had only gotten me a lot of attention and Ascot's shirt wet.
After everyone had offered me advice and a snack, Ascot stood and carried me off as if I weighed nothing. I felt as drained as he said I looked. Once out of sight of everyone, he nuzzled my ear and sighed.
"I'm sorry for how I've teased you," he said, sounding sincerely contrite. "If I had known you were having well, relationship problems, I never would've picked on you about your boyfriend." A lighter tone crept into his voice as he added, more jokingly. "I'll let you wear my hat for a whole day if you forgive me."
I had never seen Ascot without his hat, and I felt myself smile a bit at the offer.
"Deal," I said, resting my pounding head on his heartbeat. His smile widened into a grin. He shouldered my room's door open and carried me inside.
"White again, huh?" he asked, looking around. "Looks like you're here to stay then." I must've looked a spuzzled as I felt because he explained quickly. "All the palace's decor is in white, except for the Magic Knights' quarters, which always shifted to that Knight's color when they moved in. When they came to stay, it turned white again."
That was the most comforting thing I heard in ages. So, I was here to stay...I heaved a long, aching sigh of relief. Ascot dropped me only a little roughly on my bed, just as Fuu walked in with a pot and cup of tea. She put it on my bedside table and left with a smile. Ascot ruffled my already wild hair and grinned.
"I'd better go change," he said, pulling his wet shirt away from his skin. I apologized, but he shook his head.
"Don't worry about it," He took off his hat and plopped it down on my head. It covered my eyes. "Drink up. Rest up. Wash up. Eat up. Then, you'll feel better."
He gave me a cheerful wink I could barely see through his bangs and left, closing the door behind him. Warmed by the obvious concern of my friends, I pulled off my clothes, leaving the hat on for grins. I drank the first cup of tea in gulps, the next two in sips. By the end of the third, I had relaxed. I was wrung out and exhausted.
A nice long nap sounded like a great idea, I thought, snuggling under the covers. Then, a steaming hot soak in the tub. That'll be nice...And then, hopefully, I'll have an appetite for whatever Hikaru cooks up. A yawn interrupted my thoughts and I sank into sleep as pale and soft as my bed.
In dreams, Innova padded to my bed on whisper-soft paws. Through my sleepiness, I could barely hear him speaking softly. I tried to swim out of my dream-fog to hear him better. He spoke quietly about the love he had known before. I wanted to ask him if it had been for Emeraude or Zagato, but I couldn't speak. He spoke on about how he was sorry about hurting me the way he had. That he wasn't sure how to love anymore now that so long had passed. He was ancient, a spiritual creature. I was a pathetically young, mortal creature of flesh. This worried him.
He was afraid for me, he said. Of all the creatures, human or otherwise in Cefiro, I was the one best able to bear his touch. The fact that the storm he was born from had chosen me as another house for its power was a comfort to him.
I had missed him and even though I wasn't able to move to hug him, he lowered his snowy body over my bed so I could feel the silky softness of his pelt again. Then, I felt a growl rumble through his frame. He was sniffing at Ascot's hat, still on my head, though I had taken everything else off. Was he jealous?? That thought warmed me to my toes and got another rumble from Innova.
He was! He was jealous of Ascot! I wanted to laugh out loud. I was immediately sorry for it when he stood up again, though. His huge yellow eyes peered down at me through the darkness in my room.
"I am your Armor," he snapped, teeth a flash in the dark. "You are my Knight. I gave up my human form in my last attempt to save the Princess from your fellow Knights. I can only be as you see me."
I wanted to tell him that he was much too beautiful for me to ever want him to be something else, but knew I couldn't. So I did my best to think it, hoping that he'd be able to hear my thoughts instead. It seemed to work. His posture softened and his eyes became gentler. Knowing he did care about me was enough for me to be in euphorichappiness just then. He had given everything to grant happiness to the ones he loved, now it was my turn to grant it to him, if I could.
I awoke, well into the next morning. My tub was full of hot water and minty,green bubbles. A cup of cocoa sat beside it as well as a tray of what could only be described as Hikaru-style 'comfort food.' I had a long and deliriously wonderful soak, followed by the first real meal I'd had in ages.
My hair smelled like mint and my breath smelled like chocolate as I went to return Ascot's hat. He greeted me cheerfully, and I thanked him again for his comfort the day before. He seemed modest and a little embarrassed by my gratitude.
We were both called to the main court room for a new monster report. A ragged, shaking messenger had come begging for help. Fuu offered to go, Hikaru couldn't be held back. I was left with Umi, who wanted to know more about my love life.
"How is rebound treating you?" she'd asked with a nudge in the ribs. "You and Ascot were sure cozy! Anything there?"
I was saved from answering by Mokona. he bounced off my head to tackle Umi. He flew into her face and glomped on, muffling her shrieks of outrage. I noticed he was wearing my watch around one of his ears. He leapt free with his usual cry of "Puu!" and tore off. Umi was hard after him with a mallet she'd found somewhere, still screaming at him. I watched in half-amused horror as he led her straight into Presea'a workshop. The resulting clangs, bangs, shrieks,and shouts
were plenty loud enough to bring a crowd, in which I conveniantely escaped.