Completing the Circle

 

Heart of Earth

 

"Hold it right there!"

Yikes! I froze in mid-step, one hand still clenched around the cold metal doorknob that would open my gateway to freedom. Then I spun back around, an appealing smile ready on my face. "Anything you say, Mama. Was there something you wanted?"

One eyebrow raised above the other on her face. "Toraeru Satoshi! Don't even think of stepping out that door! Didn't you promise to fix the roof today?" She gestured behind her. "As I recall, the tools are in the storage cupboard."

I winced. "Mama, it's so early! I have all day, don't I? And I feel -- " My voice halted, unable to properly express the need. It wasn't really my place to try and understand the Elements. And the Earth magic I held was strong enough to have more control of me than I had of it. "Earth," I managed softly, hoping she would understand. She'd be angry if I had to run off in the middle of a task I'd begun already.

She sighed, and rolled her eyes heavenward. "They never told me it would be so frustrating to deal with a Gifted young man. All right, Satoshi," she told me, then raised a hand to still my grateful thank-you's. "But I would advise you to come back before sunset. You might have trouble mending the roof in the dark."

"Thanks, Mama!" I landed a quick peck on her cheek and then ran out the door.

"Sometimes, I swear, you're still 10 years old -- not two weeks from eighteen!" she laughed, moving to watch me go.

I grinned and waved without turning back. "You won't say that when I'm a world famous Earth mage, now will you?" With that, I hurried past the trees that bordered our small house on the westward side, and into the forest. Earth... I could sense its power all around me. Only in areas like this could it be so concentrated. Perfect.

Mama and I lived on the outskirts of two cities, caught just between them. To the east, across the open fields, was Tokiwa City, the capital and one of the largest cities in the country. On a good horse, the ride there from the small wooden house was about 2 or 3 hours -- too far to travel just for supplies. Mama preferred to travel through the woods west of them, into Masara. There, I had already decided, was where I'd go first when my 18th birthday came and it was time for me to leave home. Since Earth mages were always in demand, I didn't worry much about my future. I definitely wouldn't have to get by on selling skins like Mama, that was for sure. And the journey was only about an hour on horseback, at any rate.

Lucky I'm so strong with Earth. I smiled to myself. Not many people had Elemental Magic at all, much less to the extent of control I had with mine. I could split the ground right across the entire forest, so deep you couldn't see the bottom and so wide you wouldn't be able to hear somebody shouting on the other side. And then, if I decided I didn't like what I'd done, I could fix it again, as if it had never even been there. The strength of my control was so great that I felt confident that it'd be possible for me to raise a mountain if I wished to.

Not that it was a good idea, as any Earth mage could tell you. I chuckled to myself. Anyone who couldn't sense what was right and what wasn't with the earth and its elements either didn't have Earth control, or had it to a very low degree. Being in tune with nature more or less came with the territory.

It was just under a half hour's walk to my favorite part of the woods. A branch of river ran through the forest, on its way to Masara from Tokiwa City, and surrounding it at one point was a patch of a clearing cradled by trees that filtered the sun's light just perfectly. Moss and weak snippets of grass littered the soft brown soil that I loved so much. My favorite thing to do was fall to my knees and dig my fingers into the dirt, just allowing the Earth's timeless power to flow through me. In that sort of trace, I could sit still for hours and not notice.

My thoughts were halted by a buzzing noise. I blinked, then waved an annoyed hand at the fly that had attatched itself to me. Interrupt my daydream, will you? A flicker of my fingers sent a light gust of wind at it, and the thing was blown from my face to somewhere where it wouldn't be so irritating. A smile flitted across my lips. I was never all that strong with Air, but I did have minimal control. Actually, I was stronger with Water.

If only I could use Fire... Try as I might, that was the one Element I could do nothing with, and as a result, it fascinated me. I wonder if all mages are so preoccupied with Elements they can't use. Ever since I was very little, I had found myself plagued with the same recurring dream, about once or twice every month. I was in the woods, surrounded by fire, and could do nothing to stop it. And then that tall figure... it was such a dim memory; I--I could never quite recall what that dream-person looked like -- but I did remember seeing fire in their eyes. The the surrounding Fire was... just gone, somehow, and then I was being held in somebody's arms...

That made me blush, and try to turn my thoughts away from the experience. As far as I knew, I'd never even met this person -- so it was weird to feel like that, about a dream. But it seemed like heat was coursing through my veins, and then I felt like my insides were on fire with longings that I could never manage to feel at any other time... And then I woke up. Every time.

Well, I didn't come here to fantasize about a dream-person. Trying to still my blushes, I concentrated on the soil that lay on the ground in front of me. Here, I felt more connected with Earth than any other place in the forest. I wasn't quite certain what was so special about this area, but it drew me in like nothing else. As if I'd become addicted to the hold it had on me... That sent shivers down my spine. Earth fulfilled me, more completely than anything; the connection was unmatched in intimacy... except for... I recalled the fire-warm hands of the stranger in my dream and flushed again.

Enough of this... Kneeling down in the soft dirt, I almost reverently breathed in that earthy smell. As I slid into a sitting position, my hands made contact with the ground, fingers digging into that moist brown soil -- and a sigh breezed through me. Instinct caused me to close my eyes at that initial surge of power. The world spun and dissolved all around my body, making me tremble. It was like my fingers belonged to the Earth now, sinking down into its depths as if my hands were puting down roots. It felt as if I was sinking roots into the ground myself, my heart attaching itself to the forest. Ecstacy flushed my skin, swiftly traveling deeper, and my surroundings vanished -- as though I was alone with that power and a distant memory of my confining physical self.

Lost in that trance, I could only sit helplessly as time whirled and spun.

~~~~~

"All finished!" A current of Air carried the bottle of salve from Hiroshi's hand to the shelf at his right side. He smiled at the girl whose arm he'd just bandaged up as if he were older than eighteen and a half. She was only a year or so younger than he, but she smiled shyly.

"Thank you, Mikagami-san," she said politely, handing over the correct fee for his services as healer. "You did very good work, as usual. I'm grateful for your help."

"It was nothing," he murmured, though she couldn't hear him, having already fled through the door, out of his shop and back into something more exciting. He smiled and began to organize the bottles on the shelf. It was early to be closing up, but he had somewhere to be -- and, in case of an emergency, the patient could always go to the older man who'd apprenticed him. Very rarely was there a serious accident in Masara, though.

Hiroshi enjoyed small-town life, although it tended to be slow and unexciting. As he was born in Tokiwa City and raised as a wealthy merchant's son, one would think that Hiroshi would be used to comfort -- unable to live without those luxuries. Truthfully, though, he preferred to keep things simple. He'd chosen to pursue the healer's life rather than a potential life of fame as a powerful Air mage. He couldn't remember ever regretting that choice, though he suspected his parents considered the move to Masara a step down in life. Still, happiness was more important than status.

"Did you hear the latest, Hiroshi-san?" A boy stopped to talk as he locked up the shop. "The Princesses of Hanada are coming to town! Every male in the city will be around to see them arrive!" He smiled happily. "It'll be wonderful, won't it? To see them up close..."

Hiroshi grinned. "Yes, I had heard." The letter was still in his breast pocket, kept close to his heart. Absently, as he strolled through the now-full streets, he had to wonder if there was a single man in the entire district who didn't have a secret love for one or all of the Hanada sisters. 'Perhaps Sakura with the long fair hair, or Ayame with that smooth, creamy skin, or Botan with those lovely big eyes,' people said. No, no, and no, Hiroshi thought, with amusement. My heart belongs to another.

"There they are!" somebody shouted, as Hiroshi wormed his way through the crowd. He made it to the front only by using a touch of Air to nudge people out of his way -- just in time to see the beginnings of the procession.

Normally, Hiroshi preferred not to use his powers for anything but help in everyday matters, or to aid those in need of it. But, he was willing to make exceptions if he had need of them. People tended to resent him for choosing to live the hard way rather than taking advantage of the place he'd been given in society -- and the Air magic was a symbol of that. Hiroshi was powerful enough to summon and control a storm that could literally tear houses and forests apart, and then halt it just as easily. He could, he believed, lift the entire town of Masara up in the air and then set in down again five miles from where it had been. But why on earth would he want to?

"The Princesses!" several people shouted, and Hiroshi was jerked back to reality abruptly. A glance upward showed him that the little procession of open carriages had already begun the march through town. And in the most elaborate carriage were the Princesses.

The royal carriage rode slowly through the street, pulled by two majestic white horses. Its design was such that it would be totally unsuited for travelling any long distance, but it looked positively stunning. Hiroshi had the sneaking suspicion that it had actually been carried in pieces on one of the more practical carriages, and essembled later on to join the rest of this elaborate show. To impress the crowd, more than likely. Perched in very carefully styled positions atop the cushioned carriage seats were three stunningly beautiful young ladies -- the Princesses of Hanada. Three delicate white hands waved in the air gracefully, the loose sleeves of their expensive dresses slipping down just enough to reveal pale, slender forearms. The Princesses sported appealing, near devastating smiles on ruby-red lips and wide, dark-lashed eyes that blinked and batted and broke hearts as easily as their owners might break nails. The three sisters each had different colored clothing that had likely been chosen very specifically, to avoid clashing with the others. Dark-haired Ayame wore a deep midnight gown that set off her creamy skin as best it could. Pretty, big-eyed Botan had on a dress of pale rose, and a flattering flush on her cheeks that Hiroshi suspected was not at all natural. Slender, blond Sakura sported emerald green, coloring her gown and sparkling at her ears and around her neck as well. As they rode down the streets, waving at the crowd almost triumphantly, people 'oohed' and 'ahhed' as it seemed appropriate... particularly young men, who gazed worshipfully at the Princesses, with stars shining in their eyes.

Hiroshi rolled his eyes heavenward. An elaborate show, yes, and very pretty to boot -- but he had a hard time being impressed. Of course, the procession was regal and fit for royalty, but mostly, it hid the fickle whims of three devious young ladies who only wanted the heart of every eligible male wrapped tightly around their delicate white fingers. And he wasn't about to buy into it.

"Aren't they beautiful?" some fellow beside him marvelled.

"I suppose." Hiroshi shrugged.

Another male glanced over at them. "I thought there were four Princesses of Hanada. How come there are only three there?"

Hiroshi smiled. "Oh, there are four. Just wait." He patted the letter in his pocket. "I didn't really expect to see her riding a carriage, anyway," he added quietly, to himself. The man shrugged and turned back to the show.

She came into view just then, riding on her brown and white spotted stallion, as the carriage moved forward. The smile on Hiroshi's face widened. It seemed that someone had pressured Princess Kasumi into wearing a fancy blue gown of delicate satin -- and riding side-saddle, which he knew she hated. To her credit, she didn't wear any of that face paint her sisters favoured, and her firy hair flew back loosely, instead of being tied up in some ridiculously fancy hairdo. The blue of her eyes matched the dress exactly, and she was breathtakingly lovely -- to Hiroshi, at any rate. Let the others have their flashy, phony Princesses; he would take Kasumi's healthy beauty over their fake stylishness any day. And, in the five years since he'd spoken to her in person, she'd grown considerably. Hiroshi's heart jumped at the sight of her. Kasu-chan, it's been too long...

Kasumi kept both hands on the reins as she rode, rather than waving as her sisters did, but nodded and smiled at the crowd. When her eyes lit on Hiroshi, the smile became real and very warm. So she did recognize him, even after those five years. Hiroshi held up three fingers, and she nodded, gracing him with that smile for a few more precious seconds before returning to her greeting of the general public.

Most eyes followed the first three Princesses. Hiroshi's followed Kasumi, and he stayed there watching her ride until she was too far down the street for him to see. The scrawny little adolescent was gone, and in her place was a poised young lady. Hiroshi closed his eyes for a moment. Kasumi had always kept his heart in her pocket. He wondered if she knew.

With a sigh, the healer pushed his way back through the crowd, towards his shop. He had three hours to wait now.

~~~~~

A vase smashed into the stone pillar that held up the roof of the great hall inside of Masara's noble housing, shattering into a million pieces. "Sakura, you go too far! I won't do it!" The shrill fury in that voice rivalled even the crash from the sacrificed vase.

"But Kasu-chan, it's perfect!" Ayame interjected. "Won't you at least meet with them? They're all very rich and very powerful, you know, and they could take care of you well..."

Kasumi turned on her dark-haired sister in disgust. "I will not allow you to pressure me into a marriage for the sole purpose of getting me off your hands, Ayame my dear. I know how much you long for the power these hopefuls will give you through a marriage alliance, but I refuse to be a pawn in your schemes for wealth and importance!"

Botan's large eyes went even larger with pleading. "Oh, Kasumi, please, please listen to reason..."

"I am listening to reason -- mine!" Kasumi laughed. "It's ridiculous for the three of you to even think that I would need to be taken care of! I'm one of the most powerful Water mages to come along in decades, and you think I'd need a husband to support me? Hah! You've taken leave of your senses, sister dearest."

"Kasumi, stop!" Sakura snapped. "You've had your fun! The reputation of Hanada is at stake -- do your duty!"

"Do yours first!" Kasumi retorted. "I have better things to do with my life. If you three want your alliance so badly, I suggest that one of you choose a husband from that sorry lot! I refuse to meet with any of them, and that's that!"

"You are a Princess of Hanada!" Sakura retorted haughtily. "Your duty is to your state, not your rights as a woman. I suggest you drop your foolish idealism and get on with your duties as a noble lady."

"The hell with nobility!" Kasumi ripped the pearl necklace from her throat and threw it at her sister Ayame. "You can take your 'duty' and see if it fits beside the sticks up your behinds!" She snatched off her gold bracelets and flung them at Botan. "And this is what I think of being a noble lady!" With that, she ripped her dress right down the front. All three of her sisters gasped. Kasumi shrugged off the ridiculously fancy material and threw it in Sakura's face, standing there in her underdress.

"Kasumi!" Botan gasped. "You're not decently clad!"

"I've seen you wear less," Kasumi shot back, "when you sneak back to your rooms after paying 'visits' to those pretty boy-toys you keep!" All of her sisters flushed red at that. "Oh, I did strike a tender spot, didn't I? Perhaps that's why none of you wish to marry, hmm?" She spun on her heals and marched out.

"You won't be leaving your room!" Sakura screamed after her. "Do you hear me, Kasumi? I'll have guards at every corner! You'll stay in there until you decide to behave like a proper Princess!"

"I'd starve to death first," Kasumi muttered, not looking back. Such royal brats... Well, I don't think I'll need to give the guards a shower in order to leave, as fun as that sounds. And, now that I'm in Masara again, perhaps I'll leave them for good... The idea was appealing.

Once back in her personal chambers, Kasumi stripped off the satin underdress and quickly replaced it with loose breeches and a silk shirt. Topping the outfit off with her favorite boots, she grabbed out the rope kept in her rooms for just such occasions, tied it securely to the closet door, and dropped both it and herself out the window.

Kasumi swung so that her boots had a firm grip on the marble wall, and began skillfully walking down the side of the building, her hands moving swiftly down in turn to support her pace. The climb took her less than a minute, and then she was on the ground. The fountain to her left gave her the water that took care of raising the rope back into her room, and Kasumi walked away from the housing area, satisfied.

As a skilled Water mage, Kasumi didn't have trouble dealing with small incidents like that one. From there, even, she could sense that not one drop of water had escaped her control to dampen her room. She suspected that, if given the chance, she could summon a tidal wave from the ocean, even if she were thousands of miles from being near to one. She could call down a flood from the skies, and then send it back up if she so wished. But, of course, she didn't. Magic wasn't to be used that way. Everyone knew that.

Let's see if I remember where Hiroshi's shop is... Kasumi smiled to herself, turning through the once-again familiar streets of Masara. How can I forget? I wonder if he's still an apprentice, or if he's bought the shop for himself by now... Well, I'll see soon enough.

"It's all right," she heard, upon entering the small building. "That cut isn't serious. It only needs to stay bandaged for a few days -- don't get those wrappings wet, either. I won't rebandage it for free, you know."

A chuckle followed that statement, and she heard the chink of coins -- Hiroshi was being paid, obviously. So the shop was his. She sat down in one of his chairs and glanced around the waiting room. He'd made a few changes -- for the better, she noted. It seemed a much friendlier place than she remembered.

"You're very good at this, Mikagami-san," a man -- the patient, obviously -- remarked, coming out of the back room. "We're lucky to have you around here."

"Thank you very much." And there he was... "I appreciate the kind words."

Kasumi caught herself staring, and smiled. Damn, but Hiroshi was attractive, wasn't he? Most stunning of all his features were those big blue eyes, highlighted by the thin fringe of gorgeous blond hair. Hiroshi was dressed plainly, but he couldn't hide that trim, muscular build. He held himself comfortably, not arrogantly, and Kasumi couldn't help by think that those calloused hands and that warm, faintly mischievous smile were far more attractive than a nobleman's polished charm any day. He had grown since she'd last seen him, hadn't he? But, as always, he was graced with clean good looks.

The patient caught sight of her and whistled low. "Hiroshi! You have friends I find myself wanting to meet! Who's the lovely young lady?"

Hiroshi looked over and spotted Kasumi. "Kasu-chan!" he cried, face lighting up. He held out his arms, and she laughed and threw herself into them, returning the hug. "You're early!"

"That's all you can say?" She laughed again. "Wow, Hiro-kun, it's been forever! How've you been? I haven't spoken to you since we were thirteen!"

He grinned and backed off, pulling her letter out of his pocket. "Well, we have been corresponding -- but it isn't quite the same, I know. This place has been just desolate without you, Kasumi!"

"Has it?" She grinned.

"I can see I'm intruding." Hiroshi's patient chuckled. "I'll leave the two of you to get re-acquainted." He left, and Kasumi couldn't have been happier to see him go.

"Hiro-kun, I want you to tell me everything that's happened since I've left!" she demanded. "And don't leave anything out, or I'll be angry with you!" She raised a fist mock-threateningly.

He groaned. "You've been away for five years, Kasu-chan! I can't possibly tell you everything; it'll take hours!"

"Summarize it." Kasumi grinned at his dismay. "Besides, we've got plenty of time. Come on!" She grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the door. "Let's take a little stroll."

Hiroshi laughed helplessly and gave in.

~~~~~

The head Fire mage chased after his departing monarch, waving his scroll of 'demands' around in the air like a banner of war. "Please, if your Highness would just consider..." He didn't manage to get out another word.

"Your Majesty!" Ookido Shigeru whirled on the offending man, with fire blazing in his eyes -- actual fire, a trick he'd learned on his own some years ago. "The coronation was last week, as I'm sure you recall, since it was the same day I cut off your access to the land itself as a setting for your experiments! I could have you arrested for belittling the crown!"

"Please, your Majesty," the mage babbled on. "The experiments..."

"Will not continue," Shigeru cut in fiercely. "My granfather was willing to allow it, but he wasn't Gifted. I am, and I can feel perfectly well what these 'tests' of yours do to the Elements. So, no! There will be no more! Do you hear me?"

It was difficult to make people listen to you when you'd only been running the country for a month. Shigeru was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, almost certainly. At least, that was the way he felt. Didn't those mages ever give up? It was no wonder his grandfather had abdicated. He must not have liked me very much, the young ruler thought grouchily, To have inflicted this on me. I wouldn't wish a fate this cruel on my worst enemy! Mages demanding their rights all over the place, coucillors trying to confuse him with their headache-inducing speeches, and people just like this guy with their petitions for him to sign -- petitions that were almost always littered with hidden clauses and all kinds of words phrased just right to portray one thing and mean another. Shigeru felt like toasting the slimy little opportunists to a nice crispy brown right then and there.

"Your Majesty," the man continued to protest, "Once you calm down..."

"Leave!" Shigeru clenched his teeth. Damn it, he was letting his emotions get the better of him -- again! He'd never be a good monarch if he couldn't control this. His fingertips actually smoked. "I don't want to look at you any more! Get out of my sight!" He waved an arm fiercely, gesturing down the hall, away from him.

"Sire, you truly are distraught! Perhaps you should..."

"I should nothing!" Shigeru could now feel Fire dancing about his palms, and wondered if the man was actually considering suicide. If so, this was an excellent way to achieve that objective. Well, perhaps he felt he was strong enough to protect himself from Shigeru's powers. I'll show him just how wrong he is, the young monarch thought darkly, feeling his Fire control jumping up at the surge of anger running through him. "I'd suggest you take your health into consideration and take that petition of yours elsewhere."

"Your Majesty, the petition is something that requires your immediate attention! Surely you cannot..."

"I can, and I will!" Shigeru's patience had reached the breaking point. "I told you to take your petition and ge -- "

"What's going on?"

Both the Fire mage and Shigeru spun around at the third voice. A tall, very pretty girl with dark red hair stood behind them, her pose regal and demanding. Almost like a parent who had caught two children behaving poorly at a formal event. The mage bowed, but there was almost a look of despair on his face. "Your Highness."

Shigeru smiled, feeling much more confident already. "Nanami."

She nodded briefly to him, and fixed a steady gaze on the mage, then walked forward slowly, almost deliberately. Shigeru felt like lowering his gaze, and the mage looked as if he was trying to resist the urge to grovel. "I heard my brother instructing you to leave," she remarked to him, almost conversationally. "Why exactly are you still here?"

"Your Highness..." The mage choked on his words and held out the scroll without saying anything.

"I see." Nanami took the scroll and smiled brightly at the nervous man. He looked lost without that petition to wave around. "Very well. I'll see that his Majesty gives this his full attention. We'll inform you of his decision later on." She waved a hand at him. "You may go now."

"Your Highness..." the mage tried again.

"Dismissed," Nanami said firmly, and he scurried away, muttering to himself.

"My dear sister!" Shigeru sighed with relief and grinned at Nanami. "I can't even begin to express my gratitude to you right now! You've just saved my life!"

"Don't flatter me, Shigeru," she replied calmly, and turned to raise an eyebrow at him. "I enjoy it." She handed him the scroll. "I trust you know what to do with this." Her smile spoke volumes. "Personally, I would toss it in the fire, but you may do it differently. Throw it to the dogs if you like, but don't bother reading it. It's a waste of your time. And Shigeru," she added, pointedly, "You really must work on that temper. It makes you less credible as a ruler."

"I'm very aware of that, Nanami," he said drily. "But it's not that easy." He sighed and leaned against the wall. "I just can't keep my cool when talking to them. They're a patch of ripe fools trying to tempt me into picking them." He scowled. "And I think you're lucky not to have control over any Elements; you can't truly feel what they've done. That's mostly what angers me." A glance upward showed him that she agreed. "I honestly think this country would fare better with you on the throne."

"Well, I'm not," she answered shortly. "And you are. So try and do something with it! Don't let them work you into a frenzy, Shigeru. They do it on purpose, you know. It's a very good strategy."

Shigeru stared at her, then laughed helplessly. "That only makes me all the more angry at them." He rubbed his face. "I need a break. Can you handle the Council today in my stead?"

A smile wormed its way across Nanami's face. "I would love to, my dear brother. As a favour to you, of course." Her grin turned positively vicious. Shigeru almost felt sorry for the councilors.

"Thank you, Nanami." Shigeru moved past her and she gave his shoulder a reassuring pat before hurrying off down the hallway. He shook his head. Nanami really did enjoy politics. She was almost exactly his opposite that way.

Ugh! Shigeru reached his chambers and collapsed on the bed almost immediately. Being a 20-year-old ruler was not one of his favorite positions. Political intrigue gave him a headache. I wish I could just fry the whole lot of them and be done with it! He'd felt flames curling about his fingers all morning. It was comforting, but he was on the verge of reducing his staff of mages in a rather dramatic way. And not even a fellow Fire mage would have the power to stop him from doing so.

I think I need to release these tensions. Shigeru stood and moved toward the fire place he insisted on having inside of his chambers. A flicker of his fingers set a flame burning fiercely inside, and a smile ghosted across his face. Excellent. He reached a hand into the fire and felt that familiar adreneline rush surge through him. Fire boiled in his veins, running through his body as though his blood had heated to a temperature unbearable to un-Gifted humans. Fire... Shigeru's smile turned almost wicked. He could feel power, too great for him to contain. It controlled him, not the other way around. He relished that sense of being used, a channel for energies that thrilled him in a way nothing else could. Fire made him feel alive.

Of course, being capable of levelling an entire city with a single blast, or halting an inferno in mid-burn and snuffing it out like a candle's flame was pretty good for his ego, too.

Not that he was over-confident. Not at all.

Shigeru grinned and sat back. He felt better already... ready to char-broil a couple of councillors, for certain. A pity he'd let Nanami handle them. But, sadly, it probably wouldn't do to barbeque up the members of his own Council. Too bad, really. A few of them deserved it.

Those weren't thoughts to help him relax very well. With a sigh, Shigeru flopped back onto the bed and tried to turn his thoughts to something else. He rolled over a charred part of the pillow, and blood rushed to his cheeks, heating them unmercifully. That dream last night...

It seemed like a permanent fixture in his life. Once or twice a month, he had that weird dream where he was battling a forest fire, and then... someone called for him. Maybe it was a voice, or maybe something else... it could've been a combination of both. Well, whatever it was, he couldn't resist it -- and this had nothing to do with Fire. He had to put out all of the flames in order to rescue whoever that was, and when he did... Shigeru could not get those feelings out of his head; desire being at the front (well, he was a Fire mage...), but backed by something more solid. He couldn't remember that face, those eyes -- but the memory of what it felt like to gaze at them made him go floating. He had the strangest desire to put down roots...

Well -- at any rate, those memories made it impossible for him to be the slightest bit attracted to anyone else. Not that others hadn't tried... Shigeru sighed. I'm probably the only 20-year-old highborn in Tokiwa City who's still a virgin. Even Nanami has lovers, I'm sure... The problem was that he would have to marry some noble young lady and father children.

And it wasn't all that pleasant to imagine what people would say when he couldn't.

~~~~~

All that I could be sure of when I came out of that hypnotic trance was that it was still light out. There was absolutely no way to tell how long I had crouched there, lost and dead to the world. Hours, probably. It was hard to measure time when communicating with something that had been there since the beginning, and would remain until the end. But that hardly mattered at the moment.

"Wow..." I could barely manage a whisper, being badly shaken from what I'd just found out. Not once in my life had the Earth powers summoned me for a specific reason, but... something didn't feel right. There was a sense of dread imbeded in the very fibres of the Earth. I couldn't explain it, but... somehow it almost seemed like something horrible was going to happen, and soon, but I could prevent it somehow -- just me. Different from an every-day stroll in the woods, for certain. I shook my head to clear it.

My body felt drained. It seemed like that one communication had taken every ounce of my strength. It was also pretty hot out... However, the feeling would pass fairly quickly; it was only a momentary reaction, not real exhaustion. I sat back and just breathed for a moment, recovering.

I guess I'll be out for quite a while... I should at least send a message home. Making a face, I sat up. Technically, I was still underage, and so I'd have to at least be courteous enough to say when I'd be spending 2 or 3 days -- or perhaps more -- in the forest. Huh... I might be 18 before I get the chance to go home!

The problem was, how did I spend a message when Air was my absolute weakest Element -- well, besides Fire -- and the only way to send quick messages was to use Air as a carrier?

OK... So I go to the nearest Air mage. I was halfway to his feet when I was sudden struck by the stupidest thought I'd ever had in my life, and I froze in mid-crouch. A smile inched across my face. Well, I have been wanting to get in a little more practice...

The thought stuck. I really should've tried to get rid of it somehow, but I didn't see any reason why I should, so I just smiled wider, and scrambled to my feet. I'll bet I could do it. I mean, no one ever said that just because your control is weak, you can't make it stronger, right? I'll give it a try! That decided, I lifted one hand in the air and summoned a breeze.

Talking to someone through Air magic actually involved speaking the message out loud and summoning wind currents at the same time to carry sound to the person you wanted to speak to. But how far the message carried depended on how much of a wind you could summon. And, in my particular case, that wasn't much at all.

A stubborn frown set on my face as I summoned as much of a wind as I could control. "Hello...?" I tested, then waited to see how far the waves carried. Not very far. I frowned, and tried again, straining to call more wind. The second time was a little better, but not much. I'm not trying hard enough; I have to do better! The feeble white glow surrounding my hand wavered and flickered dangerously as I strained to call more. I was trembling all over with the effort. Why won't it work? I know I can do it! I won't give up; I'll fight until I pass out, or I can make myself stronger! I --

Pain exploded behind my eyes, and I gasped. A flash of red set off by a kind of 'pop' illuminated my eyelids briefly, and then my whole body began to glow white, so brightly that I had to squeeze my eyes shut. As if some sort of energy leech had latched on to my veins, the strength began to pour from me, and a rush of exhaustion caused by powers beyond control sent me to my knees.

Uh oh... Wind wracked the trees, forcing me to topple forward, almost like I was groveling before the gathering storm in front of me. Slowly, I lifted my gaze to see what sort of trouble I'd caused, and my heart nearly stopped beating.

A nightmare stood there in front of my eyes. The storm was a rippling, whirling funnel -- a ring of chaos nearly twenty feet high and wide enough to fill up more than half the clearing. The trees bent toward it, and the winds caught up chunks of soil and grass, which gave the storm a dark, eerie look. Up in the sky, the sun was still shining brightly, making the entire scene even more freaky than it naturally had a right to be. It was way, way beyond anything that I could control.

I never heard anything about this when people talked about Air magic! I scrambled back, hands searching for something to grab onto. The storm followed, as if drawn by its creator, trying to pull me into its ominous depths. If it got close enough, it could drag me in like a rag doll. And then I'd -- I'd -- I backed up hastily, eyes never leaving that looming wind-creature. I'm not ready to die yet! I glanced around frantically, searching for an escape. Basically, I'd backed myself onto a shallow overhanging chunk above the river...

The ground crumpled beneath me. Oh damn... And then I fell.

There wasn't much time to cry for help; the fall from land to water was so brief that my yell turned to a gurgle almost immediately after it started. I choked and spit out a mouthful of water. Whipped up by the storm's winds, the river spun me around and pushed me downstream with ridiculous ease, despite my struggles.

Hurricane forgotten, I now concentrated on fighting the current -- which was a lot more difficult than it sounded. With the strength of the storm behind them, the rushing waters made short work of my resistance. So, in desperation, I reached out and did the only thing I coudl think of to save myself.

I called my Water magic.

I understood I wasn't that strong with Water, but I did have a limited amount of control. I think that, if I'd remained calm and summoned up what I had, I probably could've managed the situation. But with the hurricane, and the ground breaking away beneath me, and then being caught up in a desperate struggle to stay afloat... I panicked.

Pain exploded behind my eyes again, and the now-familiar red flash stained my eyelids. Already struggling, I now found myself choking, thrashing about, and any energy I had left virtually poured out of me. My struggles grew steadily weaker, and it got very difficult to breathe. Gasping for air, I tried to allow myself to float along. But things weren't going to be quite that simple.

A kind of rumbling sounded beneath me, and for a moment, the river held still. Then, with a violent eruption, the water exploded straight up into the air like some massive geyser. Crashing back down into the river bed, it sloshed out on all sides, soaking the banks and the trees around them. Some actually got caught up in the monster of a hurricane that still lurked around the edge of the river, steadily moving forward.

The impact was as solid as if I'd fallen onto hard stone. I crumpled up with pain, every part of me aching. The breath had been smashed out of my lungs; I struggled to fill them again. It felt as if all of the bones in my body had been shattered into a million pieces. But even worse than that was the inside, in agony over the abuse of my Elemental control. Outside, I shivered with cold. But inside, the molten fire shook and slid and burned all through me. I wanted to die.

But the river wasn't done with me yet. The splash had caused a kind of tidal wave, towering over me like some dark, demon nightmare come to life. When it hit me, it was with a force that caught up my struggling form and pushed it down into the water's depths, spinning and pulling at me until I no longer knew which way was up. My body kept struggling, fighting for life -- the basic instinct that always seemed to take over at times like that. I felt like I'd been damaged beyond repair.

Which way to the surface...? My fingers clawed at the water. Dark spots were starting to form in front of my eyes. Oh gods... It was hard to think. Too much effort... My struggles grew steadily less fervent.

The current took full possession of my body as I fell forward into oblivion.

~~~~~

Hiroshi's sudden sprint came to an abrupt halt. Dear gods, what happened here!? There had been no reasonable explaination for the storm he'd sensed just minutes before, and there was definitely no reasonable explaination for a storm that chased after a badly churning river. Oh good Lord...

"What the hell happened!?" Kasumi cried, coming to a halt beside him. "That river's going berserk!"

"The river? Look at that storm!" Hiroshi suddenly spotted something. "Kasumi, look, there's someone caught in that current!" He pointed. "A mage, you think? The storm and that water current are both following him."

"Probably. Damn!" Kasumi started to glow an intense blue. "Keep that wind out of my face!" she ordered abruptly, and dove into the water. Her azure-lined figure sliced through the current like it wasn't even there. Hiroshi watched for a moment, then turned his attention back to the storm.

Talk about a collasal mess! The Air currents had been spun around in knots! That mage is either really stupid, or really weak with Air. Or a combination of both. Well, he didn't need to waste time wondering about that. Hiroshi held up one glowing white hand, and the hurricane halted abruptly. The trees straightened slowly as he turned the winds back inward, containing the storm. That should keep it from interfering with Kasumi. He then turned his attention back to untangling the knot of Air. With a light nudge to the base, he loosened the core of the storm so that the cords at the top spread out. Working with that advantage, Hiroshi grasped the ends and twisted them through and around places where they'd been entwined with each other. With the cords freed, he only had to set the currents in the proper direction and they would calm themselves on their own in time.

All right. Hiroshi smiled in satisfaction and released Air. All that remained of the storm was a slight wind, which felt kind of refreshing, actually, since it was nearly summer time. That takes care of that. He made his way over to the riverbank, where Kasumi was dragging an inert figure from the water.

It was a boy, maybe about their age, with roughly cut black hair and pale skin. He wasn't too tall -- actually kind of short -- and his build gave him the impression of being almost delicate. A mistaken impression, Hiroshi noted, taking in the smooth line of muscle packed in those slender arms. He wasn't slight, but rather fit and thin. Which would make it that much easier for him to recover from his unfortunate experience -- if he had survived this far.

"He's still alive," Kasumi reported, setting the boy's limp form down on the grass. "I called the water out of his lungs -- he did manage to breathe some in -- so he's breathing OK. I'm not a healer, though, so I guess I'll let you take it from here."

"Thanks." Hiroshi took the right wrist between his thumb and first two fingers. A steady pulse reassured him. "You do good work, Kasu-chan. Maybe you should consider being a healer. I'll even apprentice you myself." She made a face at him, and he grinned. "I don't think this guy needs any kind of treatment right now -- just rest. We can take him back to my place until he wakes up, and then we'll hear the whole story."

"Sounds all right to me." Kasumi smiled. "So should I carry his upper half or his lower half?"

"Don't bother. I'll deal with both." Hiroshi looped a couple of Air currents around the boy's head, waist, and knees, and lifted him after them. "It's just easier this way, and besides, our hands are free now in case we need them."

"I like the way you think." She settled in beside him, and he had their patient float in front as they walked. "But won't people think it's just the slightest bit strange?"

"Yeah, but it's happened before." Hiroshi shrugged. "This isn't the first time I've had to carry an injured person back like this. When someone's been badly hurt, using Air to carry them is best because there's less jostling, and that keeps it from being quite as painful."

"I hadn't thought of that," Kasumi admitted. "But it makes sense. You're very good at this, Hiro-kun."

"Thank you." The rest of the walk was spent in comfortable silence. Hiroshi found himself taking a guilty pleasure in her admiration of his skill at his chosen profession. He couldn't help thinking it was better for a healer to feel nothing but worry for the patient, but... He couldn't help being just the slightest bit proud, as well. Her approval meant a great deal to him; again, he had to wonder if she was aware of that.

"Here we are." He opened the door and held if for Kasumi to enter first, before following after and reaching for the flint to light a fire. "Just let me get some light, Kasu-chan..."

"Don't bother." Kasumi knelt by the fire place and waved a small tongue of flame into existance. She grinned at the startlement that must have been spread across his face. "I have some Fire."

"That's useful. I have a touch of control with Earth, but not enough to do much." Hiroshi lowered the boy's body onto the couch, and grabbed a blanket to cover him. "Air is enough for me, though. I don't know what I'd say to people if I had strong control with two Elements, and still did nothing about it."

"Earth and Air don't really make a useful combination, Hiro-kun," Kasumi reminded him, sitting down in one of the kitchen chairs. "If you had Earth with a touch of Water, that'd be useful for tending the land -- but Earth and Air? No, I don't think so."

"Well, Water and Fire kind of oppose each other, don't they?" Hiroshi grinned, taking the seat across the table from her. "Fire would go best with a touch of Air to feed it, don't you think? Water and Fire could do nothing together." He shook his head.

"I don't think Fire would go best with Air!" Kasumi scoffed. "Sure, they'd be useful together, but think about it. Didn't you ever hear the legend of 'how the world was made'? Our world is entirely made up of Fire combined with Earth. If you had the both of those, there would be the potential to create another world all on your own. Fire goes best with Earth."

"True, and that means Water's best match isn't Earth," Hiroshi added. "Kasu-chan, if you mix wind and water, you get a storm. And I've heard the legend as well. Air and Water combine to support life, remember? So Water goes best with Air."

Kasumi smiled. "And that means neither of us has one of the strong combinations."

"What we have is enough." Hiroshi shrugged. "I'm not going to start getting greedy."

"True, Hiro-kun," she agreed. "I'd be perfectly happy with just the Water magic. Even though that would mean I'd have to actually get up and grab a flint to light a fire."

He grinned. "Exercise is good for us, Kasu-chan. And, you know, I'm a healer, so it's best for me to keep in good shape. I don't get paid for tending myself. Staying healthy is still in my best interest, even when speaking of my career."

"Speaking of which..." Kasumi glanced back at the couch. "When do you think he'll be waking up?"

"In a few minutes or so." Hiroshi stood and went back to check on his new patient. The color was rapidly returning to the boy's pale cheeks, which reassured him that the experience had not done serious damage. "He seems to be just exhausted. And with good reason, if he's the mage who cooked up that storm and those currents."

Kasumi snorted. "I'd like to know just what he thought he was doing, playing around with the Elements like that! Even a beginner knows better than to test their limits to that extent."

"Well, we'll hear the full story when he wakes up." Hiroshi shrugged. "I'll bet you anything that he didn't know what he was getting into. I think we're dealing with a complete novice here."

"Maybe." Kasumi sighed. "But he's still going to get a piece of my mind when he wakes up!"

Hiroshi grinned. Kid, if I were you, I'd stay unconscious!

~~~~~

The more Kasumi looked at the boy on Hiroshi's couch, the more she felt that her friend was right in guessing that he was just ignorant and not actually stupid. But still, he should've known better! What kind of idiot went charging into something without knowing what, exactly, they were doing?

"He should be waking up pretty soon." Hiroshi stood. "I'm going to get another blanket; that one looks like it's been a bit charred. I wonder why I didn't notice that before." He wandered off into another room.

Kasumi leaned over the figure on the couch. It was crazy to think, but... was there heat coming from him? She frowned. Well, maybe he's a Fire mage. That would explain it. She glanced up...

And found a pair of luminous brown eyes staring right back at her.

"AAGGHH!!!" She jumped.

Hiroshi hurried back into the room. "What's -- " He stopped, as the boy on the couch sat up abruptly and looked at them both, blinking. He looked... almost afraid. But what would he be afraid of?

"I'm not in the forest," he said, sounding surprised and even sort of alarmed. "But... I need to be! I have to get back!" He tried to get up, but Kasumi sighed and pushed him back down. There hadn't really been a need -- he was too weak to stand -- but it would be better if he didn't strain himself overly. "Hey! I have to get back there!"

Hiroshi joined her by the couch. "You're not in any condition to go running around. Get some rest."

"But you don't understand!" The boy's eyes looked desperate. "There's something wrong, and I know there's going to be something bad happening soon, and I have to be there! I have to!"

Kasumi frowned. "Well, unless you can fly, you don't exactly have any way of getting there. You can't even stand up yet!"

"But I have to be there!" he insisted.

Hiroshi sighed, kneeling beside Kasumi. "Take it easy, OK? You've had a rough time. Most of the effects should have faded by now, but I'd guess that you're feeling pretty sore inside, aren't you?"

The boy seemed to be debating whether to pursue his argument or give in to exhaustion. Apparently, the 'danger' wasn't all that immediate, because he sighed and flopped back on the couch. "Some. It's not bad. Who are you, anyway?"

"Oh, sorry." Hiroshi smiled. Kasumi shook her head. "Mikagami Hiroshi. I'm a healer, and an Air mage. And this is Kasumi, a Water mage." Kasumi noticed his exclusion of her title, but didn't comment. Of course, it was better this way. "She's the one who pulled you out of that current."

"While Hiroshi took care of the storm," she added.

"Oh." He blinked. "Well, thank you. I guess... I owe you my life."

"I think you first owe us an explaination," Kasumi remarked, fixing him with a steady gaze. "Who are you, for one, and how did those Air and Water currents start behaving so strangely, for another?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "Well... Toraeru Satoshi. And I was using the Air currents to send a message. They just... got out of control." He shrugged helplessly. "Then I fell in the water and tried to save myself, but I panicked too much, and... well... you saw what happened."

It was hard to fault him for that. Kasumi shook her head. "You need to be more careful, Satoshi. You could've been killed!"

He looked sheepish. "I know, I was stupid. But I thought..." He trailed. "Yeah. Really stupid. I won't be doing that again any time soon, though, don't worry." He shuddered. "Once was enough."

"That's good to know." Hiroshi grinned. "You should rest some more. Just relax, OK?" Satoshi seemed to take his advice, leaning back and getting comfortable. Kasumi smiled. Her friend was a natural at this healing business.

"Are you a Water or Air mage, Satoshi?" she asked. Gods help us if he is...

"Actually, I'm an Earth mage." He smiled. "I'm not very strong with Water, and even weaker with Air. But I have very strong control with Earth. It's like..." He hesitated for a while, struggling to find the proper words. "I don't know, it's just at the point where it controls me as much as I control it."

Kasumi glanced up at Hiroshi and they shared a smile. Always on the same wavelength... She knew what her friend was thinking. "We can understand that," he told Satoshi casually. "It happens when you're really strong with an Element. Kasu-chan has that with Water, and so do I, with Air."

A thought struck Kasumi, and she glanced back to Satoshi. Now that he was awake, she could no longer feel heat radiating from him, but she hadn't forgotten it. "Are you a Fire mage, Satoshi?"

He laughed. "No. That's the only Element I don't have control with."

"That's strange." Kasumi sat back, frowning. "When you were sleeping, it almost felt like there was heat coming from you. So I thought you might be a Fire mage. I guess I was wrong, though." Glancing back up, she was surprised to see a crimson blush staining his cheeks. "What?"

"Oh... I..." Satoshi ducked his head. "It's nothing," he muttered, but that flush didn't leave. "Nothing important, anyway. Never mind."

Kasumi decided not to pursue the issue. "All right, it's nothing. So what did you mean when you said something was wrong?"

"Just what I said." He shrugged. "I was bonding with Earth, and I sensed something wrong with it. Like... there was going to be some terrible disaster happening, pretty soon, and I was the only one who could stop it. I know it sounds egotistical, but..." He shrugged again, helplessly. "That's what I sensed. And, when I woke up, well... I don't know, I just freaked out. It doesn't seem as immediate right now."

Kasumi frowned. That didn't sound like a random bout of paranoia. "Was it very serious?"

"I... think so." Satoshi yawned and tried to hide it.

Hiroshi's quick eyes caught the movement immediately. "Do you need some kind of tonic, or can you sleep on your own?" he asked bluntly, then spoke over Satoshi's protests. "Hey, who's the healer here? You could exhaust yourself, or you could rest now and have energy later. And I can already tell you what you're inevitably going to choose in the end."

Satoshi sighed. "Fine. Have it your way." His eyes slid shut.

"You've got a gift with words, Hiro-kun," Kasumi remarked, when she was sure the patient was asleep. "It's amazing. You didn't even have to hold him down with Air shackles and force a sleep tonic down his throat."

Hiroshi laughed. "How relaxing would that be?"

"True." Kasumi grinned. "But it didn't take much to talk him down."

"He was tired already." Hiroshi shrugged. "It was only his stubbornness that kept him awake. I just gave him a reason to drop that, and he took it right away. And hey" -- his grin returned -- "why should I push my persuasive skills to the limit when I don't have to?"

She raised an eyebrow. "In other words, you're lazy."

"And that's a bad thing?"

~~~~~

"Shigeru!" The door to the young ruler's chambers flew open and Nanami burst in, just as Shigeru sat up, startled. She looked absolutely furious. "You're needed at once! Get out here!"

The Fire mage was on his feet in an instant, following her out the door. "What on earth is going on, Nanami?"

"Appropriate choice of words, Geru-kun," she answered, through clenched teeth. "You do recall the infamous experiments grandfather allowed his mages to indulge in? Well, they're starting to backfire. And our loyal mages -- that is, those who chose not to participate in such foolishness -- now report that there are going to be some... problems."

Shigeru made a growling noise under his breath. "Idiots! I knew nothing good would come of this! What sort of problems?"

"Could be the end of the world for all we know!" she snapped. Shigeru didn't respond to her tone -- she wasn't angry at him. "All that we have so far are reports from the Earth mages of tremors starting to form beneath the surface of the world. But so far they're just hints -- something worse is coming."

Dread started to build in Shigeru's stomach. "But they don't know what."

"No. We have to guess." Nanami turned abruptly and stalked into a room full of red, green, white, and blue garbed people. "So far, nobody knows what's happening. We don't even know where it will happen!" She waved an impatient hand at the mages, who had stopped talking long enough to bow.

"But we have pinpointed a location, Highness!" one of the Earth mages corrected earnestly. "Just after you left to fetch his Majesty." He bowed respectfully to Shigeru. "We believe there will be violent quakes, perhaps enough to split the land right to the core, and they'll likely center right around this area." He pointed at a map.

Shigeru looked down. "Masara. Why there?"

The mage hesitated at that. "We're not sure."

"Very well." Shigeru looked around at the others. "So what can we do about all of this?"

The mages all exchanged uneasy looks.

"You mean to tell me," Shigeru began, in a dangerously calm voice, "that there is some kind of cataclysm on its way, and none of you has any idea of how to stop it?" His eyes blazed.

"Sire, we're doing everything we can!" another mage babbled. "It is possible that, with all of us working together, we can avoid having excessive damage done to the city."

"The city?" Shigeru repeated flatly. The mage nodded earnestly. "And what about the rest of the country? Do we leave them to suffer?" He didn't pause for an answer. "What about Masara? They are at the center of this damnable catastrophe, and what are we doing for them?"

The mage looked around hesitantly for help, and another spoke up. "We'll have to hope they have an Earth mage who can keep most of the city's people safe."

Shigeru fixed him with a barely controlled glare. "And if they don't?"

"Sire!" a mage pointed out shrilly. "It isn't important, what happens to them. Masara is a small town, not of much consequence..."

Shigeru's fingers began to smoke.

"Brother." Nanami gave him a warning look. "The mages will do all that they can. Come with me." She walked briskly out of the room.

Shigeru gave the mages one final glare before following her. "All right, now what, Nanami? Where are we going?" He had to walk faster to keep up with her.

"You have to sign the ban on those experiments." Nanami produced a small scroll from the belt of her robe. "I had it made up myself, so don't worry about any surprises it might contain. The problem is that the head mages will also have to sign it. And that is where we're going right now -- to get their signatures."

"If I don't cook them up on the spot," Shigeru muttered. "I swear it, Nanami, if any of them try to protest..."

"Then you'll let me handle it, Shigeru." Nanami gave him a stern look. "You only have to be present, and sign the paper. I'll take care of the rest. Unless you would like to do it." She raised an eyebrow at him.

"No... I'll leave that to you." As long as she was willing to do it, he was more than willing to let her. "But I'm not in a good mood over this, Nanami. Innocent people are going to be injured out there, and if these idiots think they're going to continue their experiments, I'm not going to be able to control my temper for very long!"

"Understood." Nanami opened the door to Shigeru's Council room. The four head mages were already gathered around the table inside, their expressions openly defensive as they stood and bowed to their monarch. Shigeru sighed inwardly, and tried to keep himself under control. Don't think about it, he told himself. Don't let your emotions get involved.

"Good afternoon, Ladies, Gentlemen." Nanami's voice was frosty. "As I'm sure you're aware of by now, we are bringing the allowance of any experiments involving the Elements to a close." She unrolled the scroll. "Here we have a ban on such experiments, officially outlawing any indulgences in said activities. This," she added, placing the paper firmly down on the table and pointing, "is where you sign."

Instant reaction. "Your Highness!" the Air mage protested. "You can't be serious! The experiments are vital to the progress of Elemental control. You can't just -- "

"Can't just what? Save the world?" Shigeru gave her a sardonic glance. "Can't you sense it? Your constant dabbling in powers that are beyond your control or understanding will result in the ultimate destruction of our entire world! But, since it may involve some small advancement in your studies of Elemental magic, I suppose that doesn't really matter to you, does it?"

"Your Majesty!" The Water mage looked shocked.

"If there is any damage to Masara," Shigeru continued, unable to halt his rant now that it had begun, "I will take the blame and pay all repair expenses -- using the extra funds I will have when I eliminate your jobs!" He thrust the scroll in the face of the Fire mage. "Now sign!" The paper browned slightly under the heat of his fingers.

Wide-eyed, the mage glanced up at Nanami. "I would suggest you do as my brother orders," she said coolly. "For the safety of your job, if nothing else."

Naturally, the mages took her word for it and sprawled their signatures on the paper without further protest. Nanami was not known to make idle threats. Shigeru resisted the urge to grumble or at least make some kind of displeased noise. Everybody listened to his sister -- her word was law, and she didn't break the law any more than others did. No one dared to doubt her. He, on the other hand, had trouble being taken seriously.

"Dear gods," he groaned, when they finally had the chance to leave. "Those people give me a headache! I've only spent a few minutes with them, and my head feels like it's going to break in half. Are you sure it's wrong for me to fry them up for animal fodder, Nanami? I'm sure they'd look better once they're charred to a nice, crispy brown."

Nanami smiled. "Shigeru, I wish you'd stop trying to pretend you're a murderous dictator. You'd faint dead away at the idea of actually killing someone, and you know it."

"Try me." Shigeru growled. He reached his chambers and tore open the door, nearly ripping it off its hinges. The bed looked inviting, but he was certain he'd never be able to sleep, not with his now pounding headache. I wouldn't mind seeing that dream person again...

"I had a feeling you might need these." Nanami pulled out a small packet of herbs. "Put them in a glass of water, stir, and then drink it all. You should be able to get some rest then. And relax, brother. It's not the end of the world." She walked out the door, pulling it closed behind her.

"How do you know?" Shigeru muttered, but he followed her advice. The last thought he had before drifting off was whether the dream would seem more immediate -- if he had that dream again -- now that he'd taken drugs to sleep.

~~~~~

I opened my eyes, and saw fire. It wasn't in the forest, like usual, but directly in front of me, a more controlled flame. I was looking across it, where the light danced across that familiar but not-so-familiar face. Tonight, we joined. Tonight, we blended into one soul.

"Satoshi..." I heard my name, and whispered another back -- I couldn't tell what it was. Not yet...

I wanted it. That person, everything they were and everything my life would become with them in it. We would be together -- if only for one night. But I wanted forever...

I understood what was to come, understood who we were and why we were there. I could never explain how it felt, but there were things that held us -- love, desire, destiny -- they shaped our lives, and entwined our threads of fate, a bond that held us trapped.

"I am the heart," I whispered softly, "And you are the soul."

And we would be together.

Those eyes of fire possessed me fully... and the hands would follow soon.

I sat up, drenched in sweat.

~~~~~

That was how Hiroshi found me when he wandered in a few minutes later: sitting up, breathing hard, and soaked in sweat. Not a pretty picture, but I guess that, being a healer, he would've been used to worse.

"Something the matter?" he asked, coming over to sit in a chair near the couch.

"No... yes..." I scratched my head. "Just a dream." But what a dream... I felt my cheeks heat up unmercifully, and glanced around then. "Um, Hiroshi?"

"Yeah?"

"What's that vibrating?" It felt like the couch should be rocking, only it wasn't. My teeth jarred with the feel of it.

He blinked. "What vibrating?"

"Can't you feel it?" My whole body trembled. Was I the only one who could feel this? But... something below the surface of the earth was sending us warning signals. Warnings... This morning I'd had my first hint. And here was what it had been hinting at. My eyes widened.

"Satoshi!" Hiroshi reached toward me, alarmed. "You're shaking all over!"

"I knew it!" Throwing the blankets off, I flew to my feet, shoving Hiroshi out of the way. It was terribly rude of me, but I didn't care, at the moment. "I knew something was wrong! I've got to get back to the forest right away!" I ran for the door, only to find myself caught in a loop of Air. "Hiroshi!"

He frowned at my struggles. "Don't even try it. I -- "

That was when the first tremor hit.

It wasn't like a normal earthquake. I could feel the ground tearing apart beneath me, and it hurt! I screamed in pain. It felt like the world was ripping itself to pieces -- and to someone with the amount of Earth magic I had, it felt like being torn apart in the most agonizingly slow and painful way possible. Tears coursed down my cheeks as I shrieked out my agony to the world. The ground bucked violently, almost seeming to toss Hiroshi's house around with it. He gave a surprised yell, and I was abruptly free of Air, able to fall to my knees as waves of hurt crashed over me. Oh gods, oh gods... The earthquake threw everything around, but I stayed where I was, unmoving but for my voice, with seemed intent on screaming itself out.

Then it stopped. The pain, the quake... all but the vibrations which still sounded beneath the surface, insuring that this was not the main event -- only the beginning.

I scrambled to my feet and ran blindly down the street, toward the forest.

"Satoshi!" Hiroshi cried after me, but I couldn't stop. Not for anything. I was the only one who could stop this. The only one... And the earth was ripping itself apart all around me. I had to do something!

Why did I have to try and send that message? Nobody tried to stop me in the street; I was one of the first to be brave enough to come out after that quake. I could've been there already, could've stopped it before it started... now I'm not sure if I can...

But I'll die trying! I flung myself past the trees and summoned every ounce of Earth control I possessed. "Heal!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, and the ground shuddered beneath me. Another earthquake... Lost in the control of powers, I could hardly feel the pain, but I felt the Earth fighting me... fighing me! It had never once done that before. I struggled for control. There were massive splits forming in the land. No! I forced one shut, and five more grew to repace it. I extended my control, smoothing the ground out -- no cuts. But then it spread out past me. Masara... Ruthlessly, I halted the advance. The ground in the forest crumpled and bucked, confined to one area. I couldn't keep it like this for long. Damn it, no! I couldn't sense the source of the quakes, but I felt their power... Like another mage, fighting me. They wanted to expand. No! If I let go, they'd reach Masara... and there would be innocent people devoured by the splitting earth, crushed by the force of the quakes... That can't happen! Hold it back, Satoshi, hold it...! I looked inside myself for strength -- but didn't expect to find what I did. Fire... I was pulled in.

Surprise was the first thing I sensed. A voice: "Who are you?"

"I... you..." I sensed Fire again, and couldn't stop babbling. My dream! "Satoshi... I'm called Satoshi."

"Satoshi...?" Uncertainty was tangible then. "Are you... real?" I felt the other presense pulling back slightly.

"Yes!" I could feel my control starting to slip, back there. "Wait, please... don't go!"

"What do you want?" I felt power. Strength. Enough to help...

Desperation took over. "Help me! Please help me!" I grabbed at that strength, that ready supply of power. "Please, I'll die; they'll die! Help me, help me, help me!"

"Calm down." Then, acceptance. "Take it, then."

I had a feeling of recognition... almost, but not quite. "Thank you."

"Anything... Satoshi." Gone. I felt empty. But the strength remained...

Fire coursed through my veins... well, not quite. Hot currents of energy infused me. I renewed my grip on the Earth powers, forcing them in closer. The ground split apart even deeper around me, nearly to the core of the planet. I tried to force them closed, but the earth beneath me rumbled ominously. I couldn't fall... or everyone would die. Using my newfound power, I pulled the edges of the quake closer in toward me. This wasn't going to work; I needed more space. But Masara was right in the way of where it wanted to go. I felt like screaming in frustration. It has to work! In this cramped space, anything I forced shut would open even wider in another place.

"Satoshi!" Hiroshi's voice buzzed in my ears; he was using Air to speak to me. "What are you doing!? What's going on?"

"I told you there was something wrong!" I knew he could hear me. Well, I didn't have time for small talk at the moment. "Listen to me, Hiroshi. I want you to get everyone in Masara off of the earth! I don't care how you do it, but get them away from there!"

"What...? Why...?"

"Just do it!" I sounded like an irate employer... Well, no time for that. "Anybody left on the ground is going to be in very real danger in a moment. Get them out of there!"

"Good as done." Hiroshi's voice left me.

I extended a touch toward Masara -- and found it gone. Dear gods... Hiroshi moved the whole city!? I coudln't stop to wonder, though. With a quick motion, I extended the range of the quakes over where Masara had been. This was better... I could control it now. Pinching the cracks shut, I held the ground around them firm, so no new splits could open. Fine. Everything was under my control now, but how long could I hold it? The earth continued to shudder and I knew that the second I released it, everything would fall apart again. Why won't it end? It has to end sometime, doesn't it? I could feel my power wavering, even with that extra energy. I had to think of something fast.

Bond... I didn't stop to wonder; when that thought hit me, I fell to my knees instantly, forcing my fingers into the trembling soil. I need help! It wasn't a slow, patient bond this time; I was dragged into the Earth, sucked down into its depths like a drink of water down a thirsty man's throat. And then I could sense something...

All I could see was green, an intense glow that would've come close to blinding me if I'd been looking at it with my eyes. As it was, the sense of power was perilously close to being painful. It was like a core, or a center... the center of Earth. Like a gathering of the powers of very Earth mage in the world.

And here it was in front of me, offering me its powers.

The first contact made me scream. I don't remember what happened to me physically after that. But when I unleashed that magic, it took me with it, through the entire surface of the planet, everywhere Earth reined supreme. Through Masara, through Tokiwa... through every city, every country, every place in the world. I was in ecstacy... no, agony... it was hard to define. But I felt the earth stop shaking, and I knew I'd won. that's when it let me go.

My throat was throbbing. I stopped screaming, and slowly pulled my hands free of the ground. Every muscle in my body was sore. I felt ready to collapse. But... I'd won! Euphoria caught and held me. I'd saved Masara... I'd stopped the quakes... I'd won!

"Satoshi!" Hiroshi ran toward me, followed by Kasumi. He knelt down beside me, concerned. "Are you all right?" Kasumi crouched nearby, eyes anxious.

"No," I barely managed to croak, then smiled weakly. "But... I did it..."

"What was that?" Kasumi asked me.

"Dunno." I could feel my vision turning black. "Dunno what it was. Dunno what I did."

"You called the Heart of Earth."

All three of us looked up at once. A dark-skinned man stood directly in front of me. Except he hadn't been there before... "Hey, who are you?" Hiroshi yelped, in surprise.

I didn't wait for the answer, but sat up weakly. "Heart of Earth?" I repeated, voice wavering. At the stranger's nod, I started to laugh hoarsely. "Well," I managed, as my body began turning to jelly. "I won't be calling that again... any time soon!"

Then I collapsed.

 

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