Jeimii's walk home was silent. Not one single word from Ursa floated through her head as she made her way.
Looking up at the front door to her house, she sighed. How much longer was she going to be able to hide what she was? How long could she keep it up?
'It doesn't matter. I've made it this long, I can keep it up for the rest of my life is I have to,' Jeimii thought. Walking up to the door and opening it, she was greeted by the scent of cooking food, elicitiing a growl from her stomach. Now that she thought about it, she hadn't eaten much of anything today...
"Oh, there you are."
Jeimii looked up at Tohru as he made his way down the stairs. He stopped at the foot of the stairs, his head cocked to one side.
"You look a bit down," he said. Jeimii shook her head, forcing herself to smile.
"I'm fine, just hungry," she said. Tohru's eyes narrowed as he stared at her for a moment. As if satisfied with her answer, he shrugged.
"Fair enough. Right then, you and me are going to be training tonight, alright?" he said. Jeimii sighed.
"Do I have to...?"
"Yes, you do. If you don't, then Mom is going to kill someone if you happen to get mugged again. And then she'll kill me for not doing enough to help you be safe," Tohru said.
'Tell him. Tell him now,' Ursa urged, her voice, echoing loudly in Jeimii's mind. Grimacing, Jeimii raised a hand to her head.
"I really don't feel like it," Jeimii hissed. Tohru raised his hands.
"Yikes, no need to get that upset over it," he said. Jeimii shook her head, waving her hand dismissively.
"No, sorry. I've just got a headache," she said. Tohru cocked an eyebrow.
"Well, maybe it's your appetite. Go get cleaned up, and let's get something in our stomachs before we start, 'kay?"
Jeimii nodded, sighing as Tohru walked past her and into the kitchen.
Jeimii gritted her teeth, her fingers wrapping around the banister tightly.
"I don't want to. Now go away!" she hissed.
As if a door had closed somewhere in her mind, Jeimii felt Ursa's prescence disappear from her mind. After a moment of merciful silence, Jeimii breathed a sigh of relief.
'For the rest of my life...' she thought.
After what felt like a few seconds of deep sleep, Kairu was shaken awake by one of the medical technicians and sent with the rest of the team to stand on the sidelines. The current bout was between a burly Exam Master and his charges, explosions and bolts of energy flying furiously between the combatants
"Who knew a cot would so comfy after a fight like that?" Kairu mused, running his hands through his hair in an attempt to smooth it back down. Kobayashi looked over her shoulder at him.
"You were asleep for fifteen minutes. An hour would have you feeling like an old person," she said, grinning.
The four of them took a spot closest to the bleachers. As Genji turned to talk to a few of the spectators, Kairu felt someone tap on his shoulder. Turning, he found Moon standing next to him, smiling calmly.
"Well done. Not everyone could have fought an Exam Master to a standstill," she said. Ronii ran her hand across the back of her neck.
"To be fair, she was kicking us all around the field. We wouldn't have gotten as far as we did without Kairu's eyes," she said.
"Still, it was a good fight. Don't try to downplay what you accomplished," Moon said.
The fight that had been in progress on the field ended with a literal bang. Kairu turned in time to watch an Exam Master rolling across the field, coming to a stop on the opposite side from his opponents. Watching the scoreboard drop their energy level to zero, another official sounded the horn.
"Oh come on, they showed us up!" Genji complained. Moon chuckled as the student team ran over to their downed team member and helped her to her feet, as the crowd behind Kairu went nuts.
"You four all made it to the end of the bout," Moon said. She turned to Ronii and gave her a nod before leaving them.
"What's with that girl?" Kairu asked. Ronii shrugged.
"She seems nice. Which reminds me, how many more matches are there?" she asked. One of the other testing students turned to look at her.
"This was the last one. Talk about a big finish!" he said. Kairu folded his arms across his chest. If this was the last bout, then that meant the optional student bouts would be next.
The crowd around them settled down as the last team was escorted to the medical tent. As the general clamor of the students began to die down, Ronii watched as the American ERC official, Kenneth Smith, walked out onto the field, a bullhorn in his hand. He turned to the testing students and raised the bullhorn to his mouth.
"Well done to all, today! I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't impressed with how some of you handled your tests," he said. He looked over his shoulder at the field, as if noting the neumerous holes and patches of exposed dirt that now covered its surface.
"Though I can't say your powers are anything but destructive. Either way, I'm pleased to inform you that out of this testing group, only a handful of you failed the test."
There was scattered laughter as students began to poke fun at one another. With a blast of a horn from another Exam Official, the crowd fell silent again.
"As you know, the final event of today's examinations are the student bouts. While it would be simpler to let you all blow off steam with a big battle royale, I'm fairly certain your school would like to keep their sports field intact somewhat," he said. Ronii pursed her lips. There wouldn't be a field left with this bunch...
"But, instead, we will be selecting the highest-grading students for the bouts, and pitting them against our second-year assistants. We will be going the three highest, to ensure that these bouts do not drag on all day."
At this point, everyone began to talk amongst themselves. Next to her , Kairu nudged Ronii with his elbow.
"Bet you're up there," he said, grinning. Ronii felt her cheeks reddening as she shook her head.
"No way, I didn't do much of anything!" she said.
Another blast of the horn silenced the students. Kenneth smiled.
"We will have the three students named in a moment. Once were have announced them, your overall scores will be posted on the scoreboard for you to see. In the meantime, we would ask that you remain on the field. Thank you."
As Kenneth walked off the field, the speculating began again. Ronii sighed as she turned to look at Kairu.
"I hope I did well at least," she said. Kairu nodded.
"Same. Can't imagine having to explain that I failed at being an Elementalist. Still," Kairu patted Ronii on the shoulder reassuringly. Ronii turned, glancing down at his hand.
"If anyone placed in the top five, it's gotta be you," Kairu said.
Ronii grinned. At least someone was confident in her.
Leaning against the side of the bleachers, arms folded, Sun could only think about who would place where.
'And I still have second-year testing to do...' he thought.
'Your chances of facing that Takahata boy are slim to none,' Byakko said, his rumbling voice echoing in Sun's mind. Sun shrugged one shoulder dismissively.
'I know. At this point, I'm just through with today.'
"Um, excuse me?"
Sun looked up at the female official that had stopped next to him, a clipboard in one hand.
"Are you Watanabe Sun? I was asked to find you and ask you a question regarding the student bouts," the official said, looking down at her clipboard. Sighed, Sun pushed himself away from the bleachers.
"Okay, what question is that?" he asked. The official nodded and looked back down at the clipboard.
"You have been selected to face one of the three highest-ranking testing students. Would you be willing to participate?" she asked. Sun dtapped his finger against his thigh, thinking.
"Who would I be facing?" he asked. The official flipped a couple of sheets of paper over.
"You would be facing the second-placed student. I'm afraid I'm not able to give you their name just yet," she said, looking back up at Sun.
'Blow off some steam,' Byakko said. Sighing, Sun nodded.
"Yeah, sure. I'll participate," he said. Nodding, the official checked a box on her paperwork.
"Thank you, Watanabe-kun. Please report to the field's sideline," she said. As she turned to leave, Sun ran his hand across his face.
"I really hope this is worth it..."
The anticipation was hanging heavy in the air.
Students around Kairu were speculating what their scores were, and whether or not the student bouts would be as exciting as the exam bouts. Sighing, Kairu shook his head.
"Do these scores even matter...?" Kairu muttered. Next to him, Ronii looked up from her shoes. She had been silent for the last few minutes, eyes glued to her feet, wringing her hands.
"Sorry?" she asked. Kairu shook his head again.
"Nothing. Just...tired. I'm tired."
Ronii tilted her head slightly. As she opened her mouth to speak, the sound of another horn going off silenced the masses. Standing on the field was another official, a clipboard in one hand, a bullhorn in the other.
"The results of your testing have been calculated. The three highest-placing students are..."
The official looked down at his clipboard.
"Nakamura Hana, in third place."
A gaggle of testing students exploded in cheers as they raised a girl's arms into the air. She quickly pulled them from the grasp of her friends and seemed to make herself seem smaller. A blast from the horn quieted the students again.
"In second place, Yamanaka Ronii."
Kairu felt himself smiling broadly as he looked down at Ronii's shocked expression. A few students turned and loudly congratulated her. As her cheeks turned beet-red, Kairu nudged her with his arm.
"I told you you would be up there. Congrats!"
The shock faded from Ronii's face. The smile she was wearing was the biggest he'd seen from her so far.
"And in first place...Kobayashi Kira!"
Kairu and Ronii turned to watch as Kobayashi's usually-composed demeanor shattered under the praise and congratulations she recieved. Genji walked over and clapped his hand hard on her back, almost knocking her glasses off.
The official sounded the horn again, this time, holding the tone for a few seconds before stopping. Silence had fallen over the crowd. Everyone knew what came next.
"The scores for the rest of you will be displayed on the scoreboard in a moment. Before that, however, I would ask that our three placing students confirm that are willing to participate in the round of bouts that will follow," the official said. Kairu turned and looked at Ronii.
"You going to do it?" he asked quietly. Ronii didn't turn to look at him, but Kairu could see the uncertainty on her face.
"Miss Nakamura, will you be participating?" the official asked. The girl, Hana, was pushed forward by her friends. She looked around nervously.
"Um...I don't...No. No, I'm not going to," she stammered. A collective groan od disappointment rose from behind the testing students. A few of the first-years turned and began to tell off the spectators. Another horn blast stopped them both.
"Very well. Please remember, these bouts are entirely optional, and will have no effect on your overall score," the official said. Looking down at his clipboard and marking something down, he then looked back up at the students.
"Miss Yamanaka? Will you be participating?"
Ronii felt every eye around her turn to her. Everything in her body wanted nothing more than to say no, that she didn't want to.
Ronii turned and looked up at Kairu. He motioned discreetly toward the official.
"Miss Yamanaka, will you be participating in the bouts?" the official asked. Ronii's head snapped back to the official. She opened her mouth to speak, but felt the words catching in her throat.
'Ronii, come one, you have to say something,' Undine said. Ronii closed her mouth and took a deep breath, slowly letting it out as she looked around at the rest of the students. Despite the overwhelming urge to decline, a part of her was curious. What had made the officials place her second...?
"...I'll do it," Ronii said quietly. Several of the students turned and echoed her words to the official, who shook his head.
"I did not hear the words from you, Miss Yamanaka. Will you be participating?" he asked. Ronii cleared her throat.
"I am. I-I mean I will," she said. The official nodded and marked something on his clipboard. A scattering of applause came from the spectators.
"You sure you want to do this?" Kairu asked quietly. Ronii nodded.
"It's too late to back out now..." she said. Kairu studied her face for a moment before nodding.
"Okay. Give it your all."
Sun's eyes were locked on to Yamanaka. Her placing second wasn't surprising. Her abilities were useful in just about any situation, and her creative use of her dome during the obstacle course and Exam Master bout had helped secure her team a success.
"Interesting," Sun muttered under his breath. As he pushed away from the bleachers, Sun caught sight of Moon rounding the corner, her concerned face telling Sun all he needed to know.
"Who are you facing?" Moon asked, walking up to Sun and stopping in front of him. Sun looked down at her and sighed.
"Do I have to say anything?" he asked. Moon's eyes narrowed.
"Who. Are. You. Facing," she said, enunciating each word with a prod from her finger to his chest. Sun swatted her hand away.
"That Yamanaka girl. Official told me it would be the second-place student," he said. Moon's eyes narrowed further. Sun rolled his eyes.
"Oh come on, Saito, I'm not going to hurt her all that much," he said. Moon folded her arms.
"You'll hold back, despite the fact she's his friend?" she asked, the suspicion thick in her tone.
"Yes. Because she's not him. Look, Saito, I get you like her, but you're overreacting," Sun grumbled, walking past Moon. Moon slapped him hard on the shoulder, the pale skin of her cheeks turning pink.
"First, this attitude you've had is pissing me off. Second, I know you. You won't hold back anything."
Sun sighed, turning back to Moon. He laid his hands on her shoulders as gently as he could.
"I'll tell you what. She holds back, I will, too. But if she goes all-out, then I'll go all-out, too. Fair?" Moon's eyes narrowed even more.
Sun nodded and dropped his arms back to his sides.
"Good. So, did you get picked for the bout, too?" Sun asked, turning and starting back toward the field.
"Yes. I have the Kobayashi girl that was a part of my group," Moon said, remaining where she was. Sun nodded.
"Seems smart. Try not to lose," he said over his shoulder. He raised one hand and gave Moon a small wave before walking away from her. As he approached the side of the field that he would be entering from, Byakko's voice rumbled to life in Sun's head.
'I know you too well. You won't hold back,' he said. Sun grunted.
"Yamanaka's smart enough to know that I won't hold back. Therefor she won't either. So, technically, I didn't lie to Saito," Sun said. Byakko fell silent for a moment.
'...I suppose you are not wrong.'
Sun chuckled to himself.
As Ronii was directed to follow one of the officials for a last-minute medical check, Kairu felt the elation he had felt for her a few moments ago disappear, only to be replace by anxiety.
"She didn't look up to doing this," Kairu said quietly.
'No kidding. Think we should say something?' Salamander suggested. Kairu shook his head.
'Too late for that. At least she doesn't have to win. Even so...I hope she tries her hardest,' Kairu thought. Salamander chuckled.
'Aww, that's sweet.'
As Kairu opened his mouth to retort, the sound of the scoreboard pinging caught his attention. Looking up, the scoreboard was now beginning to display a list of names, as well as a series of numbers and a letter grade.
"The results are in," Kairu said, moving forward to get a better look at the board. Narrowing his eyes, he could just make out Ronii's score:
Yamanaka Ronii – Score: 1483, A+
"Not bad, Yamanaka. Let's see..." Kairu's eyes scanned the list. A hint of fear gripped him as he searched for his name, but it was quickly replaced with surprise as he found his own grade.
Takahata Kairu – Score: 1069, B
'Wow, that's...not bad at all,' Kairu thought, grinning to himself.
'Right? Now if only your math scores were that good.'
Ronii could feel her heart hammering away inside of her as she was led to the far left side of the field by the official guiding her.
'I don't think I can do this...I should have said no the moment he called on me,' Ronii thought, wringing her hands as she looked back toward the far side of the field where, most likely, her opponent would be.
'You've made it this far. Be brave, okay?' Undine said sternly. The change in tone was enough to catch Ronii off guard for a moment.
'I'm not kidding, Ronii. You practiacally carried Lover Boy and the others on your back for the last half of the obstacle course, and you managed to fend off an Elementalist was power far beyond your own. If none of that was able to bring you down right away, then another student won't be nearly as difficult.'
Ronii's eyes fixated themsevles on the back of the official's head. Undine wasn't wrong. She'd managed to get to this point. Why was she so nervous?
The official stopped Ronii and motioned toward the medical tent. The soldier that was standing guard in front of it pulled one flap of it back for her go inside.
"Step inside, Miss Yamanaka. We wish to confirm your vitals and energy levels before your bout begins," the official said. Ronii sighed and ducked into the tent. Seated at the one testing station was Kobayashi, her hand inside of another large and wire-heavy glove. The technician attending to her nodded as he tapped at his keyboard.
"Your levels look good. Let's get you unhooked," he said. As he leaned over and began helping Kobayashi undo the glove, Ronii stood off to one side, her eyes falling on the messy stacks of paper and equipment.
'Why are you so nervous?' Undine asked, bringing Ronii back to the issue at hand. She pulled her hairtie out of her hair, letting her hair fall. As she began to pull her hair back tightly, she sighed.
'...I don't want to embarass myself...' Ronii thought. Undine chuckled.
'Let me guess: You don't want Lover Boy to see you fail?' she asked. Ronii's eyes narrowed as she pulled her hair back tighter, gathering it together in her hands.
'No. I just...I don't want people to have such high expectations of me, only for me to screw it up. It's happened before,' Ronii thought. She gathered her hair is if she were making a ponytail, but then folded it back toward her head.
'Is it such a bad thing for people to have high hopes for you?'
'It is if I'm going to fail.'
Ronii looped her hair tie around the folded bunch of hair, securing it tightly before letting go. Her ponytail was now much shorter and higher on her head. As she shook her head to check how secure it was, Kobayashi stood from her chair and started for the tent's front flap.
"Good luck, Yamanaka-san," she said. Ronii gave her a nod before turning to the technician.
'You won't fail.'
Ronii glanced off to the side, slightly unnerved by the tone Undine had used. Before she could even ask, Undine spoke up again.
'You won't fail because I'm going to make sure you- no, we, won't fail. Got that?'
The sudden intensity in Undine's voice made Ronii almost as nervous as the bout did. And, for a moment, that self-doubt she had felt a moment ago was relegated to the background.
"Um, Miss Yamanaka? You okay?" the technicians asked. Ronii looked back up at the technician and nodded.
"Oh, yeah...Sorry," she said, quickly walking over to the testing station and sitting down. As the technician began to prepare the glove for Ronii, Ronii glanced off to the side again.
'Okay. I got it. If you're sure we can do this, then I'm going to trust you.'
'Good. Because the moment that fight starts, I'm going to trust you not to back down. Remember, we're a team. We either work together and succeed, or we crash and burn.'
A hint of a smile played at the corner of Ronii's lips as a bit of her confidence came back to her. Maybe Undine was right.
Maybe they could do this.