Completing the Circle

 

Spirit of Air

 

I managed to catch Satoshi's limp form before it hit the ground. Poor kid. That was the second time that day he'd have to be taken back to my place unconscious. Well, at least he's still alive. That's something to be thankful for, after today.

"I seem to have come at a bad time." The dark-skinned stranger looked down at Satoshi, then shrugged. "He'll need a while to recover. It's not every day that you have to call on the Heart of Earth. Or any other central powers, for that matter."

I was about to reply, but Kasumi beat me to it. "You still haven't answered Hiroshi's question. Who are you? And while you're at it, what do you want?"

"Sorry." He grinned. "My name's Takeshi. I'm a four-Element mage, but not that strong. And, at the moment, I'm looking for mages from a very specific prophecy." He nodded at Satoshi. "Your friend there is the Earth mage."

"What does that mean?" I beat Kasumi to the question that time. "And what are central powers?"

"Central powers are the core of every Element," Takeshi replied. "Like the Heart of Earth. If you're strong enough, you can call on them to fix major problems, like the quakes you just had. There are a few lines from the prophecy that describe those who can do something like that." He took in a breath. "'Heart of Earth, loyal and pure; Spirit of Air, determined and sure; Storm of Water, untamed and caring; Soul of Fire, relentless and daring. Only with the Circle complete will balance be restored.'" He grinned.

"Circle?" Kasumi repeated.

Takeshi smiled. "Sorry, Princess. Maybe we should continue this discussion back at the healer's house. I'll explain everything once we get there."

Kasumi and I glanced at each other. "That's OK with me," I agreed, shrugging.

"Good." He started off down the road.

"Hiroshi, can we trust this guy?" Kasumi hissed, once he seemed out of hearing range.

"I don't know," I said truthfully. "But I can be sure of one thing: if there's trouble, the two of us can handle it."

"I guess you're right." Kasumi smiled then. "Hiro-kun, I was seriously amazed with what you did to save the town. I mean, I knew you were strong, but lifting the whole place up in the air? It was very impressive, I have to say."

Heat rose to my cheeks. Kasu-chan, you have no idea what those words mean to me, coming from you! "Th-thanks." Great, I sounded like a moron. Any small amount of eloquence I'd possessed seemed to have deserted me. "It -- it wasn't that great." I managed a laugh. "Actually, I was just thinking about that earlier today, too. I believe the exact thought was 'but why on earth would I want to?'"

She laughed. "Came in handy today, didn't it? Come on, Hiroshi." She stood, and I followed her back to my place, once again using Air to lift Satoshi. I wonder if he'll ever get the chance to actually walk to my house...

Takeshi was waiting for us when we made it to my front door. Don't ask me how the man knew where I lived... "What took you so long?" he asked casually, and I had a sneaking suspicion he knew what we were talking about.

"I needed to talk privately with Hiroshi," Kasumi answered, walking into the house after I floated Satoshi inside. "It was sort of personal." I tried to hide my choking noise with a cough, and busied myself finding Satoshi a blanket.

"I understand," Takeshi said, as if he had noticed nothing -- well, maybe he really had, but I doubted it. "You expressed an interest in learning more about the prophecy." He spread his arms wide. "What did you want to know?"

"How about everything?" I finished with Satoshi and dropped into a chair. "Start at the beginning, and don't leave anything out, OK? We can have a nice little question period later on." Kasumi sat beside me and nodded.

"If you insist." Takeshi grinned. "To begin with, the prophecy is intended to apply whenever the Elements get out of balance. To make sure we know what to do, I guess." He shrugged. "Well, now is one of those times. If I remember correctly, there will be four disasters to avoid -- one for each Element. And only the four who can call up those central powers will be able to stop them."

"All right." I shrugged. "So, if Satoshi was the Earth mage, then his job is done, isn't it? I mean, the Earth crisis was avoided. He called up that 'Heart of Earth'. That means he's free to go, right?"

Takeshi shook his head. "It's not quite that simple. When the balance between the Elements becomes disrupted like that, some of those important ties start to fall apart. I'm sure you've heard the story of how the world was created..." Kasumi and I exchanged a knowing look. "Well, it's the right idea. If you lose the tie between Air and Water, things can go wrong with the atmosphere. And, with Fire and Earth..."

"I think I understand," Kasumi interrupted abruptly. "The core of our world is Fire, and the outer shell is Earth. So, if they ever broke apart..."

"The world would break apart with them," I finished. "But what does that have to do with your prophecy? I mean, there's not much that ordinary people could do about the Elements tearing apart, is there?"

"Actually, there is." Takeshi smiled. "See, when you call on these central powers, they sort of become a part of you -- or you become a part of them. Either way, those few who have used them and lived to tell about it become living representatives of that Element." He nodded to the sleeping Satoshi. "Your friend there is the Heart of Earth."

I felt understanding dawn on me. "So he would find the Fire person, and they'd combine their powers, is that it?"

Takeshi shook his head. "They combine with each other, not their powers."

"So we find a nice Fire mage for Satoshi," Kasumi began, summing up what we'd just learned. "And then we find an Air mage and a Water mage, and marry them off. Is that about right?"

"You've got the basic idea." Takeshi shrugged.

I couldn't help worrying -- but that's me, I guess. "You said there are going to be more of those cataclysms, Takeshi. So what if these mages aren't around to stop them? Won't that put us in just the slightest bit of danger? And, how do you know that the right people will be able to do what they have to in time?"

Kasumi laughed. "Always the responsible one," she commented, smiling at me.

"No need to worry, Hiroshi," Takeshi told me. "If the right person is there, then they will succeed. If they're the right person. And we'll just have to hope they get around to saving the world in time. There's a certain amount of luck involved as well as destiny."

"Great," I sighed. "So if Tardy Tom the Air mage shows up just in time to watch Masara fly away with the wind, then we're all toast, hmm? That's not very comforting, Takeshi."

He held out his hands helplessly. "Hey, I don't write the prophecies..."

I made a face. "I know, I know. I just really don't like this."

"Relax, 'Tardy Tom'," Kasumi told me, grinning wickedly. "I'm sure you'll be there in time to save the day. Maybe if you relaxed, you'd be able to see things in a brighter perspective."

I gaped at her. "You don't think that I -- "

"Why not?" She shrugged. "You know you're powerful enough. I just watched you lift a whole city up in the air, so don't deny it."

"Yeah, but..."

"You lifted a city up in the air?" Takeshi turned to stare at me.

I blushed. "So what? It's just Air currents."

"Well, it's not something that just any mage could do," Takeshi said flatly. "There are royal mages who couldn't even do that. You're very strong with Air, Hiroshi."

"Well, I'm not interested in being a full-time mage!" I protested. "I like my life just the way it is. If I'm needed, I'll help, but otherwise, I don't want any part of it."

"Nobody said you have to become a mage by profession, Hiro-kun," Kasumi told me reassuringly. "But I think that if you're the one in the prophecy, then you are going to be needed."

I sighed. "If you say so." Well, if I happened to actually be this Air mage in that prophecy, then it'd be best if Kasumi was the Water mage. Otherwise, some poor unlucky girl was going to be stuck with me, and I wouldn't be able to love her. I had a feeling that Kasumi was the only one that I could love, that way. I'd given her my heart ages ago, after all.

I shook my head. What was I thinking? I couldn't be this Air mage... could I?

Kasumi waved a hand in front of my face. "You still with us?"

"Huh? Oh, sorry." I smiled apologetically. "I guess I -- "

"Your friend's waking up," Takeshi interrupted. The two of us glanced up quickly toward Satoshi. Seeing him stir, I got out of my seat and crouched beside him. Kasumi joined me shortly after.

Satoshi's eyes opened slowly -- and the first words out of his mouth were, "Anybody got food? 'M starving."

* * *

Kasumi bit back a laugh. Figures! He comes out of a near-death experience, and the only thing he's worried about is his stomach. She looked at Hiroshi. "Got anything for him, Hiro-kun?"

"Probably." He stood. "Let me check."

Satoshi yawned. "S'what's been going on?" He looked at Takeshi. "Did we find out who this guy is?"

"Sort of." Kasumi glanced at the dark-skinned mage. "He's like a prophet, I suppose. Seems you're the Earth mage in some kind of prophecy, Satoshi. That power you used was called the Heart of Earth."

He blinked. "Prophecy? Heart of Earth?"

Kasumi sighed, and explained. "Heart of Earth is like the center of all Earth magic. And there's one for each Element. Whoever calls them becomes the actual representative of that Element -- and then they're part of the prophecy." She shrugged. "So now you're the Heart of Earth."

"OK." He seemed to be taking that in. "So now what do I do?"

"Have you ever heard the story of the creation of the world?" At his nod, she grinned. "Then you should understand why you have to marry the Fire mage, hmm?"

He closed his eyes briefly, and a smile flickered across his face. "Fire... I understand now. It makes sense."

OK, now she was lost. "What...?"

Takeshi interrupted her by clearing his throat. "Actually, Kasumi, that's not exactly accurate." At her puzzled stare, he explained, "He won't have to marry the Fire mage -- well, unless he wants to. Only the bond between Air and Water is spiritual like that. The bond between Fire and Earth is physical."

Kasumi turned in time to see a very interesting shade of red spreading across Satoshi's face. "I... physical?" he squeaked.

Takeshi coughed. "Well, it wasn't my idea..."

"Nobody said it was." Kasumi smiled. "Well, Hiroshi's going to end up marrying some Water mage, so count your blessings." She did a double take at her own words. I didn't think of that... If Hiroshi's the Air mage, he'll have to get married. The idea seemed strange.

"Do you mean that Hiroshi is the Air mage in the prophecy?" Satoshi asked curiously.

"No," Hiroshi said flatly, handing him a plate of food. "Kasu-chan has lost her mind, that's all." Kasumi laughed at him.

"Don't listen to him, Satoshi," she said. "He's just being modest. I think he's the perfect candidate. After all, he lifted Masara up in the air and held it there."

"Kasumi." Hiroshi looked pained. "Aren't you ever going to get tired of pointing that out?"

"Well, it was seriously amazing!" She wasn't lying, either. There were few things that Hiroshi could surprise her with, but the extent of his powers had been one. It was usually hard to judge Hiroshi's strength because he was generally reluctant to demonstrate. Even back when the two of them were very young, he had never showed off. So, the amount of power he actually possessed came as a shock even to her.

"It can't have been that amazing." There was a plaintive note to her friend's voice. Kasumi smiled. Now this was the Hiroshi she remembered -- from when he was five!

"How did you know where to put it back down?" Satoshi wanted to know.

Hiroshi shook his head. "I didn't. It's probably a few feet off. But I don't think it really matters, anyway. Everyone's safe, and the town in intact... that's all that counts."

"True." Satoshi resumed shovelling food into his mouth, and Kasumi watched in mild fascination. The kid could sure put it away, couldn't he?

"The human whirlpool," Hiroshi commented, grinning slightly. Satoshi blushed and slowed down somewhat.

"Speaking of food..." Kasumi sighed. "I should return to my sisters before they come to 'escort' me to dinner. Sakura usually insists that we take our meals together." She rolled her eyes heavenward. "It's painful."

"Is Sakura your sister?" Satoshi asked. Oh... right. He didn't know who she was.

"Yes, she is." Kasumi decided that she might as well explain. "I have three sisters, actually. Sakura, Ayame, and Botan. We're Princesses of Hanada, so things like etiquette have to be done properly." The last was heavily coated with sarcasm.

Satoshi blinked. "Princess? Then why are you...?"

"Mingling with the common people?" Kasumi smiled. "I'm thinking of staying in Masara." Ignoring Hiroshi's surprised look, she added, "But for now I'd rather not take advantage of Hiro-kun's generous nature. So I'll return to our housing for the night and come back here tomorrow morning."

"Oh." Satoshi looked to Hiroshi. "That reminds me... I know I'll be missed at home -- but I really think I'd better stay. You're the Air mage, so... can you help me send a message." He smiled sheepishly. "I don't think I should try it on my own."

"Of course." Hiroshi closed his eyes, and Kasumi could practically feel him concentrating. A slight wind picked up suddenly, inside the house. "Where do you live?" the Air mage asked, without opening his eyes.

"Just at the edge of the woods," Satoshi replied. "Between Masara and Tokiwa City." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, a window blew open. Hiroshi didn't even flinch. His eyes opened and he nodded at Satoshi.

Kasumi left as the dark-haired boy began the message. It wasn't as if she needed to stay and say goodbye or anything; she'd see them all the next morning, after all. And it had to be getting close to when one of her sisters would come to summon her for supper. If she wasn't back by then, there would almost certainly be an argument of some kind.

It wasn't hard to find her way back; the housing for nobles was actually located at the center of town. Kasumi wondered if her sisters had noticed anything beyond the first earthquake. Hiroshi's powers were very steady. Unless they'd looked out a window... Well, her sisters were too self-absorbed to notice what was going on around them -- even if it happened to be taking place right under their noses.

The fountain she'd used to return the rope to the inside of her room had not been treated well by the quake. It now lay practically in ruins -- but the steady stream of water that still flowed from it was enough. Kasumi called it up and had herself lifted smoothly back through her open window. Returning the water, she quickly dried her clothes and moved to her closet to find a more suitable outfit for a formal dinner. Though she defied her sisters, she would not go so far as to publically shame them.

Unless they gave her cause, of course.

A knock on the door interrupted that. "Kasumi?" Ayame's voice. Of course. They would send Ayame to fetch her. The sweet-voiced, soft-spoken little charmer. Well, she'd better not think that Kasumi would trust her any more than she would the others. "May I come in?"

"Do what you like." Kasumi resumed searching through her newly prepared closet. Dozens of useless, frilly, uncomfortable dresses stared back at her. Wonderful. Well, I'd best find something reasonably painless. The door opened behind her, but she didn't turn. Damn these pretty pieces of --

"We won't be dining formally tonight, Kasumi," Ayame told her, finally halting the search. "Sakura and Botan are making plans for our trip to Tokiwa City. We'll be leaving here in two more days. They want to arrive in time to attend some of the court functions beginning this summer."

"How fascinating." Kasumi graced her sister with a sarcastic smile. "Dinner in our rooms tonight, is it? I won't bother to dress up, then."

"Botan wants to try with the King," Ayame blurted out. Obviously, she'd been dying to spill that little secret for ages -- must've been tough for a nosy gossip like her.

Kasumi raised an eyebrow. "That didn't work when he was still the Heir, now did it? Why is she bothering to try now?" As she remembered, he'd been almost rude about it. He was too young for Sakura -- that had been the excuse. Botan was younger, but still older than him... And the last time, he had not seemed the slightest bit affected by seducation attempts. Sakura had complained rather bitterly about that, as she recalled.

"Sakura didn't succeed," Ayame corrected. "Botan wants a chance." She giggled. "They're discussing 'battle plans'."

Kasumi snorted. "If you ask me, his Majesty is being unusually wise. What makes you think he'd be interested in Botan if he didn't want Sakura? I think he's a brilliant monarch, seeing through the three of you."

A look of practiced hurt spread across Ayame's face. "Kasumi, I -- "

"Spare me, please." Kasumi rolled her eyes. "You've told me your news, now I'd appreciate a little peace, if you don't mind." She waved a hand. "Go join the others in attempting to come up with a seduction that will land Botan a Queenship. I'm sure you'd rather be there than here, at any rate."

The hurt look fell off Ayame's face as if it hadn't been there at all. "I'm only too happy to oblige, dear sister," she sneered, then left the room, shutting the door firmly behind her. Kasumi made a face.

If he knows what's good for him, Ookido Shigeru had best continue to refuse those three!

* * *

Satoshi...

Shigeru smiled almost dreamily up at the ceiling, his mind fixed on the strange waking-dream he'd just come out of. I have a name for my dream-person now. Satoshi. Even just thinking it made him shiver with excitement. Such a beautiful name... I wish we could meet in person. I would like to see, hear -- to know everything that the dreams won't tell me -- and to touch... He could almost feel soft, cool skin beneath his fingers. The imagined sensation was near-painful. Satoshi... I'm sure the person who hold that name will be beautiful as well. And I helped... Satoshi needed me, and I helped.

It made him feel so needed, so... wanted.

Shigeru grinned happily. But wanted with a desire that matches mine? I doubt it. I think that if I met this Satoshi in person, we'd have to stare deliriously into each other's eyes for that dramatic moment before we could speak. It felt so wonderful just to fantasize about his dream partner, the enigmatic, shrouded-in-mystery Satoshi. I will never want anyone else, not with the passion I feel now...

But hey, who needed an heir? If he could dream of Satoshi every night, the rest of the world would cease to matter to him at all.

And I can dream of having Satoshi in my life... in my arms... in my bed...

"Shigeru?" Once again, a knock on the door interrupted his daydreams. Nanami stepped into the room, and he sat up expectantly. "I have some good news for you, brother."

"No quakes." He had noticed, despite it all.

"Not just that," she told him. "The source of the Earth trouble was very neatly cut off for us. The mages are thoroughly baffled -- but pleased." She smiled. "I've brought one with me. Perhaps she can better explain it."

"Perhaps." Shigeru looked up at a short, blond woman in green robes.

"Tell him," Nanami instructed, as she seemed hesitant.

"Yes, your Highness." The mage bowed, then faced Shigeru. "We had prepared ourselves for the upcoming disaster, but it never came, Sire. At first, it almost seemed to gather. We believe that the Earth mage in Masara was attempting to hold the quakes -- contain them, so there would be no damage done. Of course, that would only have worked for so long, you understand."

Shigeru frowned. "Why is that?"

"The mage's power is directly connected to the amount of energy or strength they have at any given time," she replied, keeping her eyes lowered respectfully. "Once that energy is used up, that Earth mage would no longer be able to hold in the destructive force -- or else they'd use their life up trying."

That sent a shiver down Shigeru's spine as he fell back into a memory. I'll die; they'll die! Help me, help me, help me! "I see," he remarked, fighting for control. "Continue."

Nanami gave him an odd, surprised look.

"We can't quite explain what happened next, your Majesty," the Earth mage went on. "At first, we felt it spread slightly and thought that it had escaped and would shortly be coming toward us. But it didn't happen like that. There was a sense of some higher power... something none of us could identify."

"A higher power?" Shigeru repeated.

"All of the Earth mages sensed it," she told him. "But none of the others."

Shigeru closed his eyes briefly. "All right. Go on."

"That's all there is to it, Sire," she said, holding out her hands helplessly. "There was that brief sense of power, and then the Earth just went... right. There's nothing wrong with it at all now. A sense of something that's changed, but nothing whatsoever that could harm us. It's as if it had all been fixed."

"Was it a mage who did it?" he asked.

"We don't know," she admitted. "All we know is that the crisis of Earth is over. It is our belief, however, that more than one person was responsible. If it were just one person, they would have to be an exceptionally strong Earth mage."

"I would like to have it looked into," Shigeru ordered firmly. "Since the Earth powers have settled, I'm sure that you and your fellow Earth mages will be free to do so. No experiments," he added, as a precaution. "The ban still stands. I'd rather leave this as a mystery than see it repeated. If you can discover what happened without involving 'tests', please do so. If not, don't trouble yourselves." He waved for her to leave the room.

The mage glanced briefly at Nanami, recieved a nod of assent, then bowed once more and departed. Shigeru sank back onto the cushions and rubbed a hand over his eyes. Now I have to worry if my Satoshi is alive...

"Shigeru?" Nanami cautiously made her way to his side. "Is there something bothering you? You seemed unusually affected by this whole business."

He sat up once more. "I've just... I've been sleeping restlessly lately. I get strange dreams, and they make me think too much to be able to relax. I guess it keeps my mind off of those mages, though."

"I doubt that this is the end of it, Shigeru," she warned him. "Earth wasn't the only Element that was experimented on, you know. The others will be taking their turns to rise and rebel soon enough."

"I had hoped that wouldn't happen, actually." Shigeru sighed. "But I guess it's stupid to think it might not. And after hearing that story, I'm so worried that Satoshi may be -- " He stopped, realizing his slip too late.

"Satoshi?" She tilted her head at him.

"Just... someone I know," he explained to her hastily, feeling a hot blush fan across his cheeks. "I was worried -- with the quakes and all."

Nanami smiled. "Why, Shigeru," she said teasingly. "I do believe you have a lover. And here I thought you were hopelessly shy!" The look on her face somehow made his own cheeks flame even more.

"Not a lover!" he corrected quickly. Gods, this was embarrassing! "I haven't actually met Satoshi -- well, not in person, anyway."

She laughed. "Someone's been sending you love letters, then? Do you send any back, or is it a one-sided seduction?"

Good gods, my head is going to catch on fire with all this heat! "No, we aren't sending love letters!" What now? He couldn't very well tell her the truth! "We've just been... communicating. It's very different than the usual sort of relationship."

"It certainly sounds that way." She smiled wickedly at his embarrassment. "All right, Shigeru, I'll give you your privacy on this. I know you feel you have to keep your 'Satoshi' a secret -- but don't get too involved. You will have to consider the good of the state when you marry."

Shigeru really didn't want to think about that. "Would you ever want to rule, Nanami?" he asked. She'd better say yes, because if I ever met Satoshi, I wouldn't be able to marry for the state!

"I wouldn't mind." She sighed. "But I'm not ruling. And I am perfectly willing to offer you my advice when you need it -- or my assistance, if necessary. I'll see you become a good ruler yet, Shigeru."

"It's yet to be seen whether I'll remain as ruler or not, Nanami," he answered seriously.

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing." He smiled at her. "I'm just tired. Has there been any sign of another Elemental catastrophe yet, or are we still waiting?"

"There's not much else we can do at the moment, Shigeru," she said sensibly. "We can only react -- there's no way to predict what's coming."

"I suppose." He clenched a fist, feeling a few irritated sparks forming. Always on my fingers... the flames seem to like that spot, don't they? "I feel helpless, and I don't like it! I can't shake the feeling that I should be out there doing something, not waiting around like this." And the only reason I can sleep is because that's the only time I can ever be with Satoshi...

"Calm down, Shigeru," Nanami told him. "Your hands are smoking again. It'd be a good idea to try learning to control that." She walked back to the door. "You have duties, though you might not like it, and idleness won't make them go away. I can only cover for you for so long before you have to start taking care of some of this yourself. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Nanami." He sighed. "I'm grateful for your help. I can't help thinking that this is not really the challenge for me, though. I'm seriously considering abdicating."

She studied his face. "Think on it, Shigeru." She wasn't surprised; of course, it was obvious that he hated his position. "What will you do with your life? You can't just reclaim the throne, you know."

He returned the gaze as steadily. "I'll see at least one more crisis through, Nanami. But I dislike feeling useless, and I've been that way since this whole business began. I think that I might do more good somewhere else."

His sister nodded. "I'll support your decision," she assured him. "But consider it carefully, brother." Then she was gone from his room.

Shigeru sank back onto the bed, his mind busy with thoughts.

* * *

Satoshi tried his best to keep exhaustion from seeping into his voice as he spoke. "Mama, I'm going to be staying in Masara for a while. I need to rest before I can do anything just yet, and I think they might need me here."

"Are you all right, Satoshi?" she her worried voice answered back. "I felt the earthquakes... You weren't hurt, were you?"

"No, but I'm tired," he admitted. "I was fighting them, and it took a lot of energy. But I should be OK soon. I'm staying with the local healer. He's an Air mage too, so I should be safe enough." He grinned at Hiroshi, who smiled back.

"Well, I won't worry too much, then," she answered. "Be sure to come and see me on your birthday, OK?"

"I will," he promised. "Love you, Mama."

"Love you too, Satoshi." The Air contact ended.

"Kasumi left while you were talking," Takeshi informed them, once he was sure the conversation was over. "She's not very big on goodbyes, is she?" That last question seemed directed at Hiroshi.

"Never was, never will be." The healer smiled. "That's Kasumi, though." He stood. "I guess the two of you can stay here. There isn't much room, though. I have a bedroll, so one of you can sleep on the floor."

"Don't worry about it." Takeshi waved a hand. "I can camp out in the woods. I actually like it better that way, anyways. I'll come back when it looks like you need me. If and when you find the other mages, for example, you'll have to have someone perform a certain ceremony intended specifically for Fire and Earth..." He glanced at Satoshi, who felt a blush creeping onto his cheeks.

Fire and Earth. That's me, and probably my dream-person. He couldn't help but wonder what that person would be like in reality. Tall, probably. Strong. Domineering. I can soften that. Just the thought of those fire-warm hands made him tremble. And our joining is physical... He couldn't imagine how it would feel, to actually be held... be touched... be kissed... Something so beautiful and yet so sensual... It was overwhelming even to think of. Satoshi tugged the blanket closer around him.

"Are you sure?" Hiroshi asked Takeshi. "I wouldn't mind if you stayed over. I mean, it's no bother or anything."

"Don't bother yourself about it." Takeshi grinned. "I'd just get in the way." He opened the door. "Well, I guess I'll have to wish you good luck with the prophecy, until we meet again." With that, he left.

Hiroshi rolled his eyes, then smiled at Satoshi. "Well, it's just you and me. Do you need anything, Satoshi?"

He shook his head. "No, I'm fine. Just a little tired. But thanks anyway."

"Was it really very hard?" the healer asked curiously. "I mean, when you were out there trying to control Earth -- what made it so difficult?"

That was actually one of the things Satoshi had been wondering about himself. "I'm not sure," he answered, truthfully. "It wasn't like it normally is, when I control Earth. This time, it actually fought me."

"What do you mean, it fought you?" Hiroshi frowned, looking perplexed. "The Elements don't fight your control."

Satoshi spread his hands helplessly. "I know they don't, usually. But this was different. There was nothing even close to normal about this, Hiroshi. It was almost like someone was controlling them, or they'd gotten totally wild and couldn't be controlled by anyone." He looked up at the Air mage's face. "Does it say anything about that in the prophecy?"

His frown deepened. "Well, Takeshi might've mentioned something about it, but he wasn't specific. I guess these are just a series of catastrophes. We're not really sure what's coming up next."

"Can't we even make some kind of guess?" Satoshi asked, his voice almost plaintive even to his own ears. He felt like a toddler, but there was no way to still that curiousity. "Isn't there some way we can try to figure out what's coming?"

Hiroshi smiled faintly. "I think it's Air."

"You do?" Satoshi blinked. "How come?"

"I'm not really sure." The blond boy shook his head. "It's just a feeling I have... Like intuition or something. But I am an Air mage; maybe I'm picking something up, like you did with Earth."

"That makes sense," Satoshi admitted.

"You know what?" Hiroshi stood abruptly and walked toward his kitchen. "I need food. You may have eaten already, but I'm starving! And it's just about dinner time."

"I guess you're right." Satoshi yawned. "The sun is down."

Hiroshi fixed himself a plate of food, then rejoined the other boy. "You don't mind sleeping on the couch tonight, do you? I don't really have a guest room or anything like that..."

"No, it's fine." He smiled up at the healer. "I'm so tired right now that I'm sure I could sleep anywhere." His smile turned to a grin. "I do want to know if you think you might be the Air mage in that prophecy."

"It's possible, I guess," Hiroshi admitted, doubtfully. "And I know Kasumi sure does think so. But I just can't picture myself pulling off a daring rescue."

"Neither could I," Satoshi countered. "But look what happened."

Hiroshi made a face. "You don't think I am, do you? I've already got Kasumi bothering me about it..."

"I just think you could be," Satoshi cut in. "And it would be convenient if you were. But I don't know, maybe you're not."

"Hopefully I'm not." Hiroshi looked like he'd eaten something that didn't agree with him. "Or we'd all be in big trouble."

"I don't agree with that," Satoshi smiled. "But I don't imagine you're all that anxious to get married, are you?"

The Air mage now looked as if he'd been asked if he was anxious to have ten red-hot spikes rammed down his throat. "Don't even joke about that!"

"How come? Don't you want to marry?"

"Not if I don't know the bride." He raised an eyebrow. "And what about you, hmm? Your bond is 'physical'. Does it make you nervous?"

Satoshi swallowed heavily. A tall figure... achingly warm hands... that intense stare... It made him feel weak-kneed with desire. "I think I'm... waiting for a specific someone," he responded hoarsely. And I don't know who.

Hiroshi studied him. "Intuition again, right? I know what that feels like. When, to you at least, it's destiny."

Could he know? Satoshi felt himself blushing. Those dreams were his alone... Too private for anyone else to know about. Well, I guess I could trust Hiroshi -- just not with the... um, details. His face now felt hotter than the fire in his dreams. Good gods, this is horrible! The more he tried not to think of it, the more he did. "I... um... I mean..."

"It's OK, Satoshi." Hiroshi smiled reassuringly. "I know that whatever you're feeling is too personal to tell me about. I wouldn't expect you to."

"Thank you." That was a relief.

"Don't mention it." He stood and took his plate to the kitchen. "I understand perfectly. I've felt the same way myself."

Oh. That was even more of a relief. So Hiroshi hadn't known, he just knew what the feeling was like. Except now I'm curious... Well, his curiousity would just have to go unsatisfied. Hiroshi was kind enough to respect his privacy, so he could at least show the same courtesy.

"You should rest, Satoshi," the healer said, interrupting his thoughts. "Sleep is the best thing for you, after an experience like that."

Not to mention the fact that I now really want to see my dream-person again. Satoshi smiled slightly and closed his eyes obediantly. Sleep wasn't long in coming...

* * *

Fire brushed at his face slightly, but he didn't flinch. For some reason, the flame felt pleasantly warm against his skin. An intense gaze met his own across the fire. Were they alone? But why the fire? A high ring of Earth surrounded it, keeping it contained.

"Hello Satoshi." A smiled ghosted across that face... This was so much more real than the other times. "Are you ready?"

For what? Ready... Somehow, he knew. "I've been ready for this all of my life." He reached over the dancing flames with one hand, and felt warm fingers close around it. So very real...

"I want you..." But he knew.

"I know you do." No one else. I'm yours, you're mine. Nothing can ever change that. He trembled. "I wish this wasn't -- wasn't -- " His voice caught at that, and he lowered his gaze to the ground.

"A dream?" Satoshi looked up at those words. Yes, that was right. But... "It'll be real one day, Satoshi. And I will have no one else. Only you."

"You have me already," he whispered softly. "I'm yours... forever."

And I have you.

You're mine...

Forever.

* * *

I'm not sure what actually woke me up. I just... was suddenly conscious. It was probably the middle of the night, but there I was, wide awake all at once and staring up at my ceiling wondering just what the hell was going on.

That was when I heard Satoshi tossing restlessly in the next room.

Sighing, I sat up in bed, regretting it immediately as a rush of cold air hit my bare chest. I stood, snatched up a robe, and went out of the bedroom with the intention of checking on my houseguest.

Yes, he was definitely tossing in his sleep. Poor kid. I noticed most of the covers had been thrown off at some point, but he wasn't even shivering to show that he noticed the cold. His head jerked to the side, and I heard him whimper slightly. He looked flushed, like he had a fever, and as I stepped closer, I noticed that there was heat coming from him. I frowned, puzzled. Didn't he say that he didn't have any Fire magic?

Did I hear...? Yes, I definitely heard him say something. Talking in his sleep? I couldn't help leaning forward to try and catch the words.

"...'gether... f'rever..." He sighed, then tossed his head again. "Shigeru..."

I sat back into a chair, embarrassed. The way he said that name, Shigeru, it was so... well, soft. Like one would say a lover's name. It wasn't right for me to intrude on a dream so personal. I stood again, fully intending to head back to my room and try to get some sleep.

That's when Satoshi woke up.

He didn't just open his eyes -- he actually sat bolt upright, breathing heavily and looking as though the world had suddenly dropped out from beneath his feet. Then the night air finally seemed to hit him, and he shivered. I sighed, and tossed him a robe.

"H-H-Hiroshi?" he stammered, obviously still recovering from whatever dream he'd just come out of. "Wh-what...?"

"I couldn't sleep." Well, close enough. "I heard you tossing around and thought I'd come out here and make sure you were OK. Did you have a bad dream?" Right. Bad dream? Sounded like a pretty good one to me!

He blushed, naturally. "No, it wasn't bad." Then he looked up at my face, and I was surprised by the lost look in his eyes. "Hiroshi, have you ever wanted something so badly but you can't quite seem to reach it?"

I nodded slowly, thinking of Kasumi. "All the time."

He closed his eyes. "And... and it seems so close, but at the same time, you know that it's so far away you might as well wish for the moon..."

"I-I know exactly how you feel." It's like he was reading my mind or something. I could hardly believe we'd have such similar problems. "When you know what you want but feel that you can never have it... I feel like that all the time."

Satoshi's eyes opened, and I was not surprised to see that they were glassy with tears. "Does it ever stop hurting like this?" he choked out, and then his eyes overflowed and the tears spilled down over his cheeks.

Immediately, I crossed the room and hugged his shoulders. "No," I answered honestly. "It never stops hurting, but if you're strong enough to handle it, then you can find ways to enjoy life all the same."

He turned his face in toward my shoulder and sobbed quietly. "I don't want to feel like this," he told me. "Because it's like I'm not really complete and I can't go another day without -- " His voice trailed off.

"It's OK," I said, meaning both the feeling and his inability to finish the sentence. "I know how bad it is, Sato-kun. It's hard, but we have to go on, you know? Because there are things for us to do."

"I guess." He sighed, and pulled out of my hold. "Sorry for crying like that," he apologized, wiping at his tears in embarrassment. "I don't usually do this."

"That's good." I gave him a lopsided grin. "Want to talk about it?"

He hesitated.

"Come on," I urged him. "It'll make you feel better."

Satoshi let out a shaky sigh, then smiled. "You're probably right. I-I do kind of want to tell someone. But... will you tell me why you feel the same?"

Fair enough. I nodded. "OK. Now..." I faced him. "For starters, I think you should tell me who 'Shigeru' is."

He blinked. "Shigeru?"

"Well, that's the name I heard you say." I wondered about him sometimes. Did he think I couldn't hear? Or maybe he didn't know he talked in his sleep...

"Is it really?" The look on his face had shifted abruptly from misery to wonder. "Wow..." he whispered. "That's a wonderful name. Shigeru..."

I scratched my head. "OK, Satoshi. Now I'm confused."

He smiled up at me. "Well, the whole thing is just generally confusing. I'm not really sure I understand it myself." He bit his lip. "Promise you won't laugh?"

At this point I was feeling 8 years old again -- and he was acting it. "You have my permission to clobber me if I so much as snicker," I assured him.

"I'll keep that in mind." He smiled again. "I guess I should start by saying that Shigeru -- and I didn't know that name until you told me it -- is someone I've never met before." He didn't let me interrupt. "Except in dreams. See, ever since I was really little, I've had these dreams about someone... And I never could remember the details afterward, except how it felt." He gave a shaky sigh and looked to me expectantly, waiting for a reaction.

"Not laughing." I shook my head and smiled back at him. "What can I say, Satoshi? I've talked about intuition and destiny all evening, and believed it. I know you're not crazy" -- at that, he looked relieved -- "and I doubt you'd be having the same hallucination over and over for this long, unless it came from an actual experience. So why shouldn't you be able to safely assume your dreams are real?"

"I was afraid you'd think it was stupid," he murmured. "I mean, it's not something simple, Hiroshi... I'm falling for someone I've only met in dreams."

"You've already fallen, I'd say." I gave his shoulder a reassuring pat. "And it doesn't have to mean heartbreak for you. Who says it isn't destiny?"

"Maybe." His eyes lowered. "But... what if it's not? What if... what if we never get to meet; what if this person doesn't even really exist?" He was trying to hold back his tears, but I could tell how frightened he was. "What if I have to be alone forever?"

"Satoshi..." I frowned. "It doesnt help if you're feeling sorry for yourself. Hope can keep you going, you know." He looked up. "OK, now tell me about the dream."

"There's not much to tell." He sighed. "There's always fire -- usually I'm in the woods, and it's all around, but lately it's been just a smaller flame, right in front of me. In the old dream, I'd call for help and Shigeru" -- the name put stars in his eyes -- "came and saved me. Then I was being held... and just woke up. Now, I'm always just looking across the fire, and we talk and look at each other..." He sighed again, but looked happier this time. "It always makes me feel shivery all over."

I was impressed. "Quite a dream."

He colored. "It always feels so real... and I feel things for Shigeru that I can't for anyone else. I could never stand to be with any other lover, no matter what."

"That I understand." I nodded. "The only way our problems differ is that I have met the person who I can't live without, and you haven't yet."

"Tell me about yours," he insisted, now sitting up more and looking at me expectantly.

Well, I had promised. "I don't know if you noticed or not," I began slowly, "but I have been in love with Kasumi ever since we were five years old."

Satoshi blinked. "I hadn't," he admitted. "But it doesn't surprise me, when I think about it."

"Well, that's promising, I guess." I grinned ruefully. "I have never once thought of telling Kasumi how I feel. For one thing, our friendship is too well-established; if something were to happen, it would have to be in a moment where we could mutually decide on it, without one of us admitting to undying love. I'm not sure if she's ever thought of me like that, though. And the other..."

"Her rank," Satoshi filled in softly. Yes, he did understand. I wasn't sure he would.

I nodded. "It's less important than the other," I admitted to him. "I was in a decently high position at one point, and if rank was the only thing that stood in the way, I could always bring that up. The only thing I truly would have to worry about is the reaction her sisters would have to all of it." At that, I had to smile. "But I'm certain Kasumi could handle them. She's had eighteen years of practice, after all."

Satoshi laughed softly. "Are her sisters really so terrible?"

"They're demons!" I answered emphatically, then laughed, remembering something Kasumi had written me about once. "Well, they are always trying to seduce highly-ranked males to gain themselves more power. Once, the oldest sister, Sakura, tried to bed the King -- and he actually dropped her on the floor outside his chambers!" Satoshi giggled a little at that. "Kasumi wrote that she was sour about it for weeks afterward!"

"Wrote?" He looked at me questioningly.

That sobered me. "We have to keep in touch through letters most of the time," I explained. "The Princesses of Hanada rarely come to this place -- and I don't get the chance to leave, being a healer. We're apart more often than not."

Satoshi's eyes filled with sympathy. "How did you meet?"

"She was fostered in Tokiwa until she was twelve." I still remembered that, far back as it was. "And that's where my family lived. We were suitable playmates at the time, so no one tried to separate us. I apprenticed myself to a healer and moved to Masara shortly after she was sent back to Hanada." That brought a smile. "Kasumi wasn't surprised by that -- but then, she knew me better than anyone else. Once, about a year later, she and her sisters came to Masara for an extended stay -- but yesterday was actually the first time I'd seen her since then." I fell silent.

"I'm sorry," Satoshi said sincerely.

"Me too." We sat in silence for a moment, then I rose again. "I guess we should sleep. It's late." I turned back once more before reaching my room, and winked. "Pleasant dreams, Satoshi."

He just smiled.

* * *

Kasumi tugged discreetly at the sash of her dress, trying to loosen it. The thing was damn near cutting her in half! It was also a particularly hideous shade of orange, chosen for its ability to make Sakura scowl. The Water mage met her oldest sister's disgusted glower with a bright, sunny smile, then focussed on her meal.

Breakfast with the three older Princesses of Hanada was almost always a trial. Particularly in small cities like Masara where the petty little nobles fussed and fawned over them as though Goddesses had descended from Heaven into their midst. Sakura, Ayame and Botan glowed under their praise and admiration, but it only made Kasumi irritable. Fortunately enough, most of the Lords and Ladies chose to ignore her and focus all of their attention on her sisters. Sakura in her lovely rose gown drew particular notice, though Botan attracted some stares with her flirtateous blue eyes and matching dress. Ayame played the charming little innocent for all she was worth, dark hair tossing back to nearly blend in with the deep midnight material that covered her. With such eager, daring young beauties to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over, most nobles didn't even bother to glance twice at the cold-eyed Kasumi.

Most.

"Good morning, my Lady." A dark-haired, gaudily-dressed young man took the seat next to her smoothly, a practiced-looking smile ready on his face. Kasumi resisted the urge to stand up and find a chair elsewhere, or at least turn away and ignore him.

"Can I help you?" she asked coolly, not returning his smile.

The smile didn't even falter. Gods help me, another one who can't take a hint! Didn't these idiots know any better? Hiroshi would've known right away that her tone meant she wished to be left alone. "I had heard that your Ladyship was a Water mage. Perhaps you might give me a private demonstration some time later today?"

Kasumi smothered the urge to laugh in his face. Right, that was subtle. What should my answer be? 'Sorry, but I'd sooner take poison'? If only I could afford to be so rude... Then again, he might think I was joking -- it doesn't look like 'I'm not interested' could be pounded so easily into that thick skull. "I'm sorry, but I have far too much to do."

"Surely your Ladyship would not refuse the opportunity to display her skills." He took up one of her hands and kissed it, causing her frown to deepen involuntarily. Reminder to self, Kasumi: smacking him across the face with a breakfast plate is not the best way to get your point across! "There must be an opening in that busy schedule of yours, surely."

Not for you. She took in his appearance: shoulder-length, elaborately curled black hair; brightly colored tunic, doublet, and hose; and enough face paint to put her sisters to shame. What a laugh! She pictured Hiroshi's plain brown and forest green clothes. Hiro-kun is far better dressed. Thinking of the Air mage did give her an idea, though.

Kasumi smiled sweetly at the waiting lordling. "I am sorry, my good Lord, but I fear my appointment cannot be cancelled. I really must go and see the healer this morning." Well, it was the truth. Hiroshi was the healer, after all.

He eyed her warily. "The healer, my Lady?"

"Oh, yes." She gave a dramatic sigh. "It is vitally important, considering my condition." My condition of boredom, that is. I haven't lied yet...

"Condition?"

"Correct, my Lord." Kasumi pretended to swoon. "And -- oh -- I feel I have used far too much of my energy this morning. I really must return to my chambers." She clutched her stomach. "I feel positively nauseous. Perhaps," she added, feeling wicked, "your Lordship will see me back to my rooms..."

He stood and backed away, looking as though he'd been told that there had been a live beetle in the fruit he'd just consumed. "Ah... I'm sure you'll be fine, my Lady. Please call for me if you need assistance." He fled.

Kasumi smiled in amusement and left the hall. OK, maybe that last part was a lie...

Back in her chambers, she hastiliy freed herself of the uncomfortable dress and found another clean tunic and a pair of soft breeches. Thank all the gods I'm out of that snake pit! Though I'd better stick around for a while; it won't be long before one of my darling sisters comes to demand what I think I'm doing. The second she finished the thought, there was a fierce knock at her door. Kasumi smiled and raised an eyebrow. What excellent timing I have. She swung open the door and Botan stormed in, looking furious.

"What on earth did you say to that Baron, Kasumi?" she demanded, face flushed with anger. "He's practically got everyone out there convinced that you are on your deathbed, ready to keel over with the slightest breeze!"

"How charming." Kasumi smiled pleasantly. "He has a very great talent for exaggeration. Though I was ready to keel over and die of boredom from his small talk. I merely said I felt indisposed and took my leave. I do hope he isn't terribly worried."

Botan glared fiercely at her, all traces of that appealing laughter gone from her eyes. "You go too far, Kasumi," she snapped.

"If I were to go far at all, Botan my dear," the Water mage answered back coldly, "it would be to somewhere far away from the three of you and your dull playthings out there." She waved a hand back toward the hall.

"Why aren't you staying at breakfast, Kasumi?" Botan's eyes glinted maliciously. "I understand that you need your beauty rest, of course, but..." She shrugged haughtily, leaving the sentence hanging.

"Right. Well, perhaps if I slathered my face with paint, I'd look every bit the clownish Princess that you do!" Kasumi snapped back. "Now get out of my room."

"You haven't heard the last of this, sister!" Botan hissed, storming from the room. I have for this morning. Kasumi slammed the door behind her and locked it firmly.

Nice to know things like that just don't change. The previous scene had happened enough to enable her to predict what would take place at any particular time. The causes for it varied -- an offensive noble, a comment from one of her sisters, a ridiculous proposal of some sort -- but what followed was always the same. She would storm from the scene, back to her rooms, and then one of her sisters would follow to say that 'she hadn't heard the last of this' -- even though she knew that she more than likely had. And then they left her alone until lunch time. Which fit into her plans perfectly, since she intended to go and meet up with Hiroshi and Satoshi.

Kasumi glanced out the window. She could climb down the side of the wall with a rope, but it was looking windy out, which might make that a little too dangerous. It would probably be a better idea to use something which was more under her own control. And, since the fountain was still conveniently spouting water... She called it up to her window, jumped out, and had it lower her to the ground.

Yipes! It is windy! She smiled grimly and pushed on into the air currents. Almost as windy as one of Sakura's speeches on proper Princess etiquette!

It was strange, too. Yesterday, the air had been dead calm -- well, except for when Satoshi stirred up that mini-hurricane -- but today, the wind was nearly enough to keep her from moving. And it wasn't even cold, just... strong. She had to fight for every single step. It was like the wind was actually trying to push her back; trying to keep anyone who wanted to go elsewhere from even leaving the safety of their homes. Good grief! This is insane!

Well, whatever it was, Hiroshi could handle it if they needed to get out for some reason or another. Kasumi had complete and total confidence in her friend. He, of course, could do anything; he had the ability to halt storms and lift cities in the air (no, she wasn't going to forget that). No matter what the challenge, Kasumi was confident that Hiroshi could overcome it. He just needs to start believing that himself as well. He can do whatever he wants if he tries.

But... no sense lingering on that. Kasumi fought her way against the wind, toward the shelter of Hiroshi's house. There, at least, she was safe and happy at the same time.

* * *

Breakfast had already been set out by the time Shigeru made his way to the Great Hall, but the room was ominously empty. He sighed and gestured to a servant, who promptly made a plate up for him. Usually, the councillors tended to be there before him, but this morning he'd made it a point to get up early enough to be able to eat alone. After another restless night, he really did not feel up to dealing with condescending speeches and lofty glares. At the moment, he wasn't even all that hungry -- just incredibly frustrated.

I hate this. He chewed at his food listlessly. It tasted like soot -- though that was probably just him; it looked and smelled delicious. Ever since I was crowned King, I've been so damned useless! I wonder what Satoshi is doing right now...

He couldn't even blush any more. Satoshi is probably just waking up, and getting ready to go out and do important things. I'll bet he's busy making himself useful, unliked me... Shigeru scowled. Holding a pity party for one was not going to cure this feeling of complete helplessness. I need to do something, damn it!

"Shigeru?" Nanami took the seat beside him. "Sorry to interrupt you, but I'm afraid you're needed. Have you eaten enough?"

He sighed and pushed his plate away. "Yes, I'm fine. What is it?"

"Not good news, I'm afraid." She frowned. "The second major upset in the Elements has just been detected by our mages -- it'll be happening soon."

"Wonderful." Shigeru didn't even look up, but his hands clenched tightly against the heat already gathering in his palms. "What is it this time?"

"Air." If she noticed his tension, she didn't comment. "Our Air mages have reported that irregular wind patterns have already begun to form. If allowed to continue gathering strength, they will form a series of fierce hurricanes across the country."

"I don't suppose they've come up with any kind of miracle that can stop this, have they?" Shigeru stared at his hands. No smoke yet -- good.

"Not unless they did it within the space of two minutes," his sister answered. "Because that's how long it's been since I spoke with them." She stood again. "Why don't you come with me and get the details yourself?"

"Why not?" Shigeru stood, knowing his face now rivalled a thundercloud for darkness. Well, I feel dark and depressed -- why shouldn't I look it, too? "It's not like I actually can do anything; I only have Fire control. If I were an Air mage, I'd find out where this crisis was centered and go there to see what help I could be. I sure as hell wouldn't be wasting my time here!" His scowl deepened and now his fingers did begin to smoke. "I... hate... being... useless!"

"Calm yourself." Nanami appraised him coolly. "You'll scare our mages away if you walk in on their council in this condition. Relax, Shigeru. Instead of agonizing over what you can't be doing, try to learn what you can."

She was right. Shigeru took in a deep breath and tried to cool himself off. As he unclenched his hands, the smoke thinned and vanished. "All right," he said, finally. "I'll do my best, Nanami, but I can make no promises that I won't get frustrated and lose my temper."

"That's all I can ask of you, Geru-kun," she said, and smiled. "Come on."

The white-garbed mages were gathered in an oblivious bunch when Shigeru and Nanami entered the room. The others seemed to be milling about, looking lost, but the Air mages were talking animatedly, some looking decidedly nervous, others over-excited, and a few who seemed to be wishing the whole thing was over and they could go on home without having to worry about it any more. If I were one of them, Shigeru thought, watching, I'd already be on my way to wherever those storms are centered.

Mages who noticed the two of them began to bow down, with the appropriate 'your Highness' or 'your Majesty' to go along with that. The Air mages, however, did not seem to be aware of their arrival. Shigeru cleared his throat to get their attention.

"Oh! Your Majesty." The first white-robed mage bowed, and his friends followed his example. "We've located the center of the Air crisis, if you'd like to know it."

"I think I would." Shigeru moved to look at the map.

"No need for that, Sire." A second mage faced him. "This Elemental imbalance will be taking place in the exact same place as the previous one."

"Masara again?" Shigeru frowned, puzzled. "What is it about that place that makes it the center of all these catastrophes?"

"We're not sure, your Majesty," the first mage answered. "All we know is that the Earth mages found evidence that it was a single will fighting those quakes. They now believe that the counterattack was executed by an individual and not a group."

"True, Sire!" an Earth mage agreed. "We've felt the sensation of a group of mages working together to accomplish a task; it's nowhere near what we felt yesterday. When sensing a single mage at work, however, the feeling is very similar. The difference is only in the degree of power being put to use."

Then it was one person. Shigeru clasped his hands together behind his back to hide their trembling. Satoshi's words kept playing through his head. 'I'll die; they'll die! Help me, help me, help me! He frowned and pushed the thought to the back of his head. "So, you believe a similar force will halt this Air crisis as well?"

"Perhaps." The Air mage spoke up again. "We can't count on it, though. As the Earth mages told you yesterday, we are ready to defend the city. There is no way we can control what happens outside of it, though."

This time, he'd been expecting that, but it still upset him to hear it. Shigeru's hands clenched tighter. No smoke, no smoke... It seemed to be working, thus far. "I see. Well, do what you can. If the worst happens, I want you to save as many people as you possibly can. Understand?"

The mages seemed struck by the solemnity of the current happenings. "We will do our best, your Majesty," one promised, and the others nodded. Here's hoping, then, that your best will be good enough.

"Very well." He backed away, then unlocked his clenched fingers and moved toward the door, with Nanami following after. She hadn't spoken a word that whole time. "Carry on, then," he said, and walked out the door.

"That was nicely handled, Shigeru," his sister complimented him, once they were out of hearing range. "You did a good job of containing your temper."

"I feel like I'm going to burst into flame any minute," he growled, then held out his badly shaking hands. "Nanami, look at me. I'm a wreck, and that was hardly anything. You and I both know I'm not cut out to rule."

"Is that really what you think?" She glanced sideways at him.

"It's the truth!" He stopped by the door leading to his own private office. It was a pain -- but, ruling a country involved actual work. And he had let Nanami cover for him far too many times. "I have paperwork to do now, too."

She frowned. "Shigeru, just go back to your room. You're a mess."

"There's work to be done, Nanami!" he snapped, then closed his eyes and ran a still-trembling hand through his hair. "I apologize. That was uncalled for."

"You haven't been sleeping well." Now, how did she know that? Shigeru had some strong suspicions that his sister could somehow read minds. "You need as much rest as you can get. Leave the running of this country to me."

He sighed. "Fine, have it your own way. I really don't want to work, anyway." That brought a bitter laugh. "Listen to me; I sound like a pampered brat. I think I'd better get some sleep before I do or say something I'll regret later on."

"That's a very wise decision." Nanami smiled.

Shigeru returned it. "What would I do without you, Nami-chan?"

"Your own paperwork?" She closed the office door on him firmly without waiting for a reply.

* * *

"Rise and shine, Satoshi!"

Gods, no, who would possibly be so wide-awake this early in the morning? Satoshi clutched the blanket around him tighter and pretended he couldn't hear. I'm asleep, I'm asleep... just leave me alone!

The blanket was snatched away, and he gave a muffled squeak. "Sorry," Hiroshi said, not sounding apologetic at all. "But I made breakfast and it's going to get cold if you don't hurry up and eat it." He made a snickering noise as Satoshi tried to keep warm by huddling up.

Aah... The smell of food reached him. Hot food. No, I need sleep... But it smells good... After wrestling with the decision of whether to opt for more sleep or go for the food, Satoshi finally gave in and sat up, reaching for some warmer clothes. Yeah, well, who am I to deny my stomach?

"Welcome back to the real world, Sato-kun." Hiroshi grinned. He was already sitting at the table with a plate of food in front of him. "Go ahead and help yourself. I don't know when Kasumi is going to get here, but she'll probably have eaten already, so take all you want."

"Thanks." Satoshi did just that, then helped himself to a seat across from Hiroshi. "How'd you sleep last night, after... um..." He colored, embarrassed.

Hiroshi smiled. "OK, I guess. How about you?"

"No dreams." Satoshi laughed nervously. "I don't know if I'm relieved or disappointed. I mean, I actually got some sleep, but... I wanted to..."

"See Shigeru again." Hiroshi looked sympathetic. "Tough choice."

"Yeah... but I need to conserve my energy." He managed a real smile. "For when I actually do meet Shigeru." And we will meet one day... Like Hiroshi said, I have to hope.

"True." Hiroshi grinned at him for a moment, then suddenly frowned.

Satoshi stopped eating for a second. "What is it?"

"I don't know." The Air mage looked upward, still frowning. "There's a wind today, but..." He took in a deep breath. "Ah, forget it. I'm sure it's nothing." His expression showed he didn't really believe that, but if what Takeshi had said was true, there wasn't much they could do about it.

Air crisis, Satoshi thought silently, no longer really tasting the food he was stuffing into his mouth. I'll bet that's what it means. And Hiroshi thinks that too. Silence now reigned over the breakfast table. I hope we can handle it.

"Satoshi?" Hiroshi's voice made him look up. "Tell me again what happened when you were dealing with the earthquakes."

"Oh -- OK." Satoshi thought back to that time. "Uh... well... the thing I remember the most is that I had to fight the Earth -- and I'd never had to do that before; it was weird. It kind of seemed like it didn't want to do what I said any more -- like it was throwing a temper tantrum, you know? I didn't really have enough energy, because I was still tired from when I'd let Water and Air blow up in my face. But then..." He stopped, remembering that he hadn't told his friend the next part.

"But then...?" Hiroshi prompted.

"Well, I haven't told this to anybody, but then I actually made real contact with that dream person -- with Shigeru." He blushed a little. "Um... anyway, that's where I got the energy to fight as long as I did. Through that."

Hiroshi had been following his words intently. "So, without that help, you couldn't have done it?"

"No, that's not right." Satoshi shook his head. "If I was rested and at full strength, I could've done it myself. But I needed help because I'd already tired myself out."

"Oh." He seemed to relax. "So it is possible to do it alone."

Satoshi nodded. "I think so."

"All right." Hiroshi waved a hand. "Go on. What happened next?"

"Well, you sent me an Air message next -- and that's when I told you to get Masara to safety." He grinned ruefully. "I didn't know you were going to lift it up in the air, though."

Hiroshi blushed. "Why does everyone keep pointing that out?"

"I think Kasumi does it just to irritate you..." Satoshi smiled. "But it was just part of what you asked me to tell you."

"I guess you're right." Hiroshi sighed. "So what next?"

"I spread out the area of the disturbance." He scratched his head. "It was too hard to control all squished in like that. Once it was over a larger area, I could keep it under control without having new splits opening in the ground. The problem was, I couldn't actually stop the quakes, and if I let them go, everything would just go back to how it was before I got hold of them. So I had to wait for the quakes to stop."

"They wouldn't have stopped, though, would they?" Hiroshi asked. "What did you do when you figured that out?"

"Well, I was just kind of grasping at straws then, but I tried bonding with Earth." Satoshi shrugged. "I thought it might give me stronger control -- and, as it turns out, it did, because that's when that Heart of Earth offered itself to me."

Hiroshi gave him a questioning look. "What do you mean 'offered itself to you'?"

"Well, it was just sort of... there." He grinned. "All I knew was that there was a lot of power, and I could use it, so I grabbed it and then it sort of grabbed me back, and then I was going through all the Earth, and everything was fixed. It was strange."

"Hmm." Hiroshi looked thoughtful. "That's interesting. So, if there happened to be another crisis that was Air instead -- not that I'm saying there will be -- then all I'd have to do is hold the air currents in one area until the mage from the prophecy shows up to save the day -- and I'm about as strong as you, so I could probably do it, right?"

"Well, sure, Hiro-kun, but if you are the mage from the prophecy -- "

"I'm not!" He sounded just a bit too emphatic.

"You could be," Satoshi pointed out. "And, if you are, you're going to have to try that Air bond yourself sooner or later. Don't forget, OK?"

"I won't... but I won't have to worry about it, either."

And Mama used to say I was stubborn! Satoshi shook his head, smiling. I don't think I've ever heard of someone so determined not to be the hero! It would almost be admirable if it wasn't so amusing...

A loud banging on the door interrupted those thoughts. Hiroshi leapt to his feet and flung it open. "What the...?" When Satoshi looked up, it seemed like there was no one there. It also looked as though there were winds blowing all over the place outside, but couldn't quite make it indoors -- which was probably Hiroshi's Air magic at work.

Then Kasumi was practically thrown through the door, into Hiroshi's arms. "You know, it's very windy out there," she told them, a bit breathlessly.

Satoshi noted that Hiroshi's face was turning a bright crimson. Well, I guess it's not every day the love of your life flies in through your front door and lands in your arms!

* * *

I thought my voice had stopped working; I seriously couldn't seem to make any kind of sound. Great, I look like a gaping idiot -- and my face is probably about a cherry's shade of red by now too. Trying not to let my embarrassment show, I let Kasumi go and went to shut the door on the wind.

Except it wouldn't shut.

And that's when I looked outside and realized that Kausmi's casual comment about it being 'really windy' was a fairly large understatement.

I couldn't take my eyes off the wind patterns out there. Ever watch steady flows of people traveling by carriage coming from two different directions converge into traffic flows and seem to go forwards and backwards at the same time as they moved from side to side? Well, that's exactly how this looked -- or felt; it's hard to tell with Air magic. Obviously, no one else was seeing it, but I could, perfectly well. This was what I'd sensed earlier; the way they blended out there felt so wrong it made my teeth grit together painfully. It felt like the way your stomach might feel after mixing cheese, honey, salt, raw goose eggs, and mincement into one item of food. Those thing just don't go together! And these Air currents weren't mean to mix together, either. Not only was a storm brewing, but it was an out-of-control, bizarre, freak of a storm that would likely spread obscenely far, destroy a number of homes, fields, and lives, and then oh so kindly finish the job those earthquakes had set out to do and rip the world to shreds.

In short, we were probably facing our second catastrophe here.

"Great." I ignored the puzzled and -- in Satoshi's case -- dread-filled looks I was getting and faced the doorway. "Where's a prophecy mage when you need one?" I held out my hands and reached into the storm.

Fortunately for me, the thing hadn't yet reached very far, though I suspected that unusual winds were stirring up because of its interference in the atmospheric pattern. That was easily remedied, though. I spun myself into the storm and reached for the violent edges of those winds, where they were already stretching out and expanding the area of the storm at an alarming rate. No so easy to halt; they were having a wicked good time of causing terror in the skies, it looked like, and and persuading them to stop would take some doing. As I reached in to turn the currents back inwards, like I had to a lesser degree with Satoshi's mini-windstorm, I found that my Earth mage friend was all too accurate in his description of these pieces of chaos; they fought, and violently. I wasn't used to dealing with resistance like this. Well, learn, I thought relentlessly, and bent the stubborn currents to my will, slowly but completely. There. I now held the winds; the storm wouldn't be able to spread.

So it turned inwards with a vengeance.

I swore under my breath, then opened my eyes, not relaxing my grip on the storm. I was in control, but that didn't mean they wouldn't fight me. "Don't go near the door," I told my guests. Thank the gods that Kasumi had gotten here safely -- if she were still out there, in that... I don't know what I would've done, but it probably would've been something stupid.

As it was, she looked ready to fight the storm herself. "You're strong, Hiro-kun," she told me. "And you won't let it beat you, I know it." I wished I had her confidence.

There wasn't too much time to think; in another few minutes, Masara would be in serious trouble. The roof of my house was even starting to creak ominously. Stepping outside would be suicide. And I was pushing back the winds in on themselves; that wasn't helping the storm at all. So I had to make another barrior; I had to push the winds up instead of just in.

I reached down to the base of the wind factor, just above ankle-high currents. The ground actually acted as a solid base, so if I wanted to do what I had planned, I was going to have to replicate that. Before I could start to lift the near-hurricane now brewing outside my door, I was going to have to create an Air surface, and I knew the Air wasn't going to want to do that for me. Do what I say, now! I felt like snapping -- which not only wouldn't work, it would probably scare Satoshi and Kasumi. I'll get it to work... I gathered the air at the base of the storm in, painstakingly, so that it was packed densely enough to act the way the ground had to my unruly storm. Heh. Kasumi was amazed when I lifted a city... well, now I'm planning to lift a storm! It was a painful process. I wondered if I might be trying to do too much... Well, if that damned prophecy mage won't show up, then somebody has to! I braced myself for the weight of the Air currents pushing back against my 'base' and ordered it silently to move upwards, taking the storm with it.

The winds strained against my control, and it didn't move.

I can't... My shoulders sagged. What had I expected? I wasn't a big heroic mage. Kasumi was wrong; this wasn't my job. But, I'd only have to get it out of harm's way so that whoever was meant to handle it, could. How could I give up now, when I was so close to a victory? It had to work!

I felt Kasumi's hand on my shoulder. "Don't stop," she said simply, and I think just the comfort of her presense was enough. I faced the winds again, determined not to fail this time.

My enthusiastic start truly helped -- the winds gave a little, and once started, the storm was much easier to keep in motion. Slowly but surely, I lifted the currents of Air up, off the base of the earth. The job was not only painfully slow, it was energy-consuming. I could feel exhaustion sneaking up on me, ever so surely. Work now, sleep later, I ordered firmly. This was too important to be left unfinished. The second I stopped moving the storm, I knew I'd never be able to get it in motion again. It was almost surreal, with the chaotic mess of winds seeming to cut off sharply, and an expanding line of dead calm spreading beneath them. Kasumi's hand was warm on my shoulder, like it was giving me the energy I needed. Thank you, Kasu-chan... I couldn't do this... Not without you. The storm moved above Masara.

And held there.

I breathed a sigh of relief and slumped forward. Holding the now-furious storm where it was might be difficult, but it wasn't even half as difficult as moving it had been. I could take a bit of a break before I tried to unravel it.

Satoshi had crept forward and was staring out the door in awe. "That's amazing, Hiroshi," he whispered, almost reverently.

Kasumi smiled, unsurprised. "Hiroshi can do amazing things." I blinked at her, but felt too tired to argue.

"What now?" Satoshi turned toward me.

"I-I'm going to try and undo it the usual way." My voice was hoarse, like I'd been screaming too much. "See if that works."

Kasumi squeezed my shoulder lightly, but said nothing. I returned my attention to the storm.

Moving to the center of the hurricane, I tweaked at the knot of Air threads, just as I had with Satoshi's storm. This time, however, the currents required more than a light touch to loosen for me. Too strong, however, and they would tighten even more. I would have to try working with the outer threads, or the bulk of the storm. But, as I tried to grasp some of the currents, they slipped away or tugged out of my hold. Once I did get a firm grip on any of them, they twisted the wrong way as I tried to unravel them, wriggling and fighting in my 'hands' like snakes. And, if I made any small amount of progress with one particular current, at least five or six others would knot themselves further into the storm, twisting around each other as though they were laughing at my futile attempts to calm them. This isn't going to work. Normal Air methods weren't going to be able to help with this storm. What we needed was for a prophecy hero to come running in and save the day.

So where is that Air mage? I gave up trying to unravel the storm. It was unnaturally produced, and probably wasn't going to stop itself any time soon. But no ordinary Air magic could deal with it. We already know what this person is going to have to do! Where are they? I couldn't hold the storm in forever. Even now, it was slowly wearing at my control. If our tardy prophecy mage didn't arrive soon, we were going to be in real trouble. In its confinement, that storm was gaining intensity, not losing it. The minute it escaped... I held in a shudder, not wanting to think about that. Hold it for as long as you can!

"Hiroshi!" Satoshi's voice was a mix of fear and frustration. "Don't you remember what I said? About the Air bond? Why aren't you trying it?"

"Because... the prophecy mage has to do that!" I replied stubbornly.

"You are the prophecy mage!" Kasumi shot back. "Can't you see it? You're holding back the storm; no one else could do that! What are you waiting for?"

"I'm holding it until whoever that mage is gets here," I said, through gritted teeth.

"But what if it is you, and you don't do anything about it?" Satoshi demanded. "Hiro-kun, try it! What have you got to lose? Nothing at all. But you have everything to gain! Go for it!"

I looked at Satoshi's determined face, then turned to see the faith in Kasumi's eyes. Faith in me. She thought I could do it. For her, I could at least try.

"I have to go outside," I said, moving toward the door. Kasumi's hand slipped off my shoulder, but she followed me. "It's better that way."

Any response they might have made was lost as I held one hand up in the air. I hadn't bonded very often, certainly not as much as Satoshi had with Earth, but it was more or less instincitve. My eyes closed and I let Air wash over me, taking complete possession of my body. I was floating... A sensation of weightlessness made my head spin, and then a rushing freedom filled me with ecstacy. I'd forgotten how good this kind of bond felt. The physical world slipped away, and I was soaring above the clouds...

White light washed over me. Is this...? I couldn't look at it; I'd go blind! But, despite that, I couldn't seem to stop staring. There was an intensity of power there that filled me with awe. This was where I'd been drawing magic from all this time; this was where the wind drew its strength. And as I floated closer, I realized what Satoshi had been saying when he commented how 'it offered itself'. I was being allowed to tap into that power source, for this one time only.

This time, I didn't hesitate.

I grasped that light and it filled me completely, leaving no space for anything else. I remembered what Satoshi had said about 'going through all the Earth'. But I was soaring upward, into the clouds, spinning 'round and 'round until I'd lost all sense of position. For a brief second, I felt what it must be like to be the essense of this Element; to be everywhere at the same time, but never in the same place twice in a row. It was brilliant! But it ended far too soon, and I was back in an exhausted physical form, confined once more.

"Hiroshi!" Kasumi caught me as I swayed and nearly fell. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah..." I managed a smile. "You were right all along, Kasu-chan. Spirit of Air, remember? I guess that's me now."

"Of course I was right." She smiled back. "You shouldn't have doubted me."

I laughed weakly, and Satoshi joined us. "You did it!" he cried, beaming happily at me. "That was excellent, Hiroshi! You're a hero!"

"Know what?" I fixed them with my best attempt at a flat stare. "You guys... That was a lot harder than lifting a city in the air and holding it there."

Then I let myself slump forward in exhaustion, into Kasumi's warm arms.

 

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