Part One, Chapter II
Duo perched on the edge the bench, his expression unusually grim as he watched his cousin concentrate. Being a Light-worker himself, he knew how delicate the balance was. It was difficult enough with a single element, and the thought of having to juggle three instead of one was almost enough to make him shudder. How does he do it? I mean, the youngest person to pass the Master exam before was *fifteen*. He's two whole years younger. If he gets hurt...
The braided boy turned quickly, his grin snapping on as he waved at the trio entering the grounds. "Hey! Took you long enough to arrive. Heero's warming up."
"They'd have been stupid not to realise that." Unseen by his cousin, Heero had walked over to nod his greeting to the threesome. "You know there's another hour before it starts?"
Smirking, Duo mimicked, "They'd have been stupid not to realise that, o future Master Elementalist."
The blonde who had spoken before smiled; he was used to the cousins' daily bickering, having been subject to it for years. According to their nurses, Heero and Duo had had yelling matches ever since they were infants, and Quatre was inclined to believe it, especially since it still happened quite frequently - no screaming, of course, nor anything as unseemly especially on Heero's side, but definitely a few sarcastic remarks. Turning to the elder of the two, he said, "We know the timetable, but decided to watch you warm up. Do you mind?"
Giving him a slight smile, Heero shook his head, gesturing to the bench Duo was sitting on. "This row is reserved for all of you. Their Majesties and my parents are going to be in the wings with the judges."
Another youth raised his eyebrows at Quatre. "Your parents are coming?"
A nod, and his lips curved. "Their Majesties wanted to see the most potentially powerful Elementalist of the century. In action, I mean."
"And come on, Wufei," Duo added, "don't you ever keep track of what goes on in court? People do talk when the King and Queen decide to visit the Grounds, you know."
Wufei frowned at him, his tone a cross between dignity and marked annoyance. "Is it my fault that I actually have duties to perform?"
Duo opened his mouth to reply, but a tap from the third person stopped him. Instead, he frowned. "Trowa?"
The other boy shook his head, long bangs tumbling over his eyes, and gestured at the figure concentrating on the grounds. Duo smacked himself mentally. Hellfires, I always get carried away. Maybe one day, I'll actually remember to shut up once my patient relaxes enough. He shuffled over, allowing his companions room to sit. Silently, they watched their friend as he assumed control over the elements once more.
Suriku followed her companion as he wove his way confidently through the streets, wincing as she realised that were he not beside her, she would be totally and utterly lost. As though he sensed her thoughts, Mili smiled. "Don't worry. I'll take you back to the inn afterwards."
She sent him a grateful smile, but it dimmed as she remembered her earlier spill. Carefully, she asked, "Mili, who pays to train the Elementalists?"
Mili's eyes searched hers for a moment, then cleared as he recalled the innkeeper's words of dismissal. She's concerned about money... like she has to worry, with her strength. Even some Journeymen aren't able to attack so accurately, especially with that element. She didn't even burn herself.
He face, however betrayed nothing of his thoughts as he replied, "Don't worry, the Collegiums are funded by the crown. In return, though, you must take an oath not to use your powers against Sanq. Since the parents of most of the trainees served the crown in their time, the oath doesn't pose much of a problem. Some people still prefer to pay for private tuition, though."
Suri nodded, relief evident on her face. They walked in silence for a while, then Mili paused, pointing at a structure before them. "That area is called the Grounds. It's basically a stone clearing with stands for the people and judges. Protective spells are placed between the stands and clearing - those stop spectators from getting injured and make sure no outside help can be given to the person being tested."
"Why would anyone try to help... oh. Is that to make sure nobody starts learning stuff they aren't ready for?"
"Primarily. Some of the more advanced techniques, especially the ones dealing with nodes, can literally blow you up from the inside." The youth hesitated, then closed his mouth. Instead, he took her by the arm and led her past several guards, who bowed slightly as they passed.
Suri's frowned, both at the evasion and at the guards' treatment of her companion. They were liveried guards; if they bowed, it was only to ones of noble standing. The fact that they recognised a youth not much older than herself was enough to set off warning bells. Outwardly, however, she remained silent.
Beside her, Mili noted the frown and hid a sigh of his own. She's sharp. Guess you have to be, to work at her age - she only looks as old as Quatre. I'm going to have to tell her the truth before someone else reveals it and makes her bolt... but hellfires, it isn't every day that I find a commoner who treats me normally.
In the end, he, too, said nothing as they walked along the half-filled stands. Suri tensed; scarce as her education was, she knew crowds of nobles when she saw them, and most of those around her definitely fit into that category. Her companion appeared undeterred. He merely tightened his grip on her arm and strode towards the front row, and in fact, the people in the reserved seats were turning around. What the...
"Hi, all of you. I guess you've all beaten me again." Mili shook his head in mock regret then took the last few steps, taking a seat next to the speaker.
Suri bit her lip; her companion was definitely *not* a commoner. Neither was that braided boy who just called Mili's name, or that blonde sitting next to him, or the... Her thoughts were interrupted as her companion grinned, and pulled her down onto another seat - on the reserved row. "I-uh, Mili? Shouldn't I..." There was no denying it, she was stammering. For the love of the Goddess...
< Pretend nothing is out of normal. > Mili sent quickly to his companions. < She's a rogue Elementalist. Flamed a man earlier. Lucky I noticed her before any of the Oz spies did. I told her about Elementalists, and she's here to see Heero, but she doesn't know who I am. >
< Right. > The four youths all sent affirmative replies, and Duo leaned over to offer his hand to the blushing girl. "Hey, I'm Duo. You must have done something pretty amazing to get Mili's attention. I was starting to think he didn't like girls."
"Duo!" Mili's scowl was only half-feigned. "I swear, if I went and bought a mare one day, you'd still manage to convince people that I had my eyes on it." Inwardly, though, he was grateful; Duo's teasing was usually extremely effective at calming people down. But of course, he knows that, doesn't he?
Sure enough, Suri found her tongue again, and shook Duo's hand. "Um... I'm Suriku. Suri for short. And Mili was only..."
Duo laughed and winked at her. "Don't worry, he is rather attractive. But won't you say that I'm more your type?"
The blonde, catching on, gave Duo a slap. "Quit teasing her, you idiot. You have three more years to wait before you're allowed to court girls anyway. Or boys, since you seem to like the idea so much.
"More's the pity, but you have to wait just as long. And as for the last part... humph. Who would I try for? You?"
Shaking his head, the blonde turned to Suri. "Hi, I'm Quatre. Don't mind Duo. He's just an overgrown hormone." He gripped her hand before gesturing to the other two youths sitting on the row. "These two are Wufei and Trowa, and they're slightly more normal." He quirked a grin. "Only slightly, mind you."
Suri smiled at the three of them, easing up minutely. "Nice to meet you."
Wufei and Trowa returned her greeting, and Mili relaxed into his seat. < Thanks, everyone. > he sent, and received mental nods in reply. It's lucky they all understand the danger of untrained Elementalists on the loose, especially since...
"Hey guys, I think it's starting." Duo pointed at the lone figure in the clearing. Sure enough, silence quickly filled the stands.
For the girl's benefit, Mili whispered, "The exam starts once Heero - that's my friend - officially declares to the main judge that he's ready. After that, we're utterly forbidden to speak."
Nodding, Suri turned her full attention to the figure who was walking towards an old man - the main judge, she assumed - standing at the northern end of the clearing.
Heero strode towards the judge, carefully keeping his nervousness under reign. Sparing a glance at the stands, he smiled slightly to himself as he saw the supportive faces of his friends; he had known they would be here. There was a strange girl sitting with them though, and a commoner, as far as he could tell. He would have to ask about her later. For now, there was a more important task at hand.
"Kneel." The judge commanded, his aged voice carrying easily to the audience.
The youth knelt, his hands clasped at his knees as custom demanded.
"Heero Yuy, do you swear by your life never to use your control over the elements against the Sanq kingdom and the crown?"
"I do so swear." Heero raised his arm, curling his fingers in the sign of the oath.
"Do you swear never to use that control against the faithful citizens of Sanq?"
"I do so swear." He repeated the sign.
"Heero Yuy, you may stand. The blessing of the crown is upon you."
Heero rose, locking his arms at his side, and bowed three times, first to the main judge, then to the judges and teachers gathered in the wing, and lastly to the audience. His face was expressionless. Only those who knew him well could have recognised the signs of tension in his posture. As it was, the judge nodded, satisfied, and began the examination ceremony.
"Heero Yuy, Journeyman Elementalist, do you willingly undertake the Master Elementalist examination?"
"Do you believe you can - without outside influence - manipulate three different elements to the level required to pass the Master examination?"
"Is your body cleared of all energies that can affect your performance?"
"Then you may begin."
The youth bowed once more, then strode to the centre of the clearing, concentrating as he prepared to gather the scattered elemental energies. His body was cleansed of all residue energies, as was the Grounds, which ensured that no cheating would occur. Taking a deep breath, Heero began summoning the elemental forces. He did not just do so instinctively as he usually did; the point of the exam was to test his experience with the formal methods of calling, and those were the ones he had to use.
< Forces of chill: come hard, come cold -
A chill swept over the stands as the summons were sent, and a few shivered involuntarily. In the clearing, ice began to form on the stones. Small crystals crept over the stone, slowly spreading and merging to form a whole. Heero ignored the scene, however, and concentrated on the next element.
< Forces of heat: burn wild, burn fair,
Almost immediately, sparks licked across the ice, leaving trails of water in its wake. The ice-energies, sensing invasion, reformed and grew in clusters, mounting barriers to counter the flame. For a moment, Heero paused in his summoning, but after checking that the balance between the two elements was perfect, he continued to summon his final element.
<Forces of air: blow strong, blow deep,
For a tense moment, Heero concentrated even more heavily, fighting to make sure his weakest element balanced with the others. Gently reining back both ice and fire, he released the wind, breathing a small sigh of relief as it soared past, engaging in battle with the other elemental forces. Inwardly, he steadied the flow of energy, distributing and controlling the powers with an unfeigned familiarity. Then, he paused, raising his arm to signal to the judges that he was ready to be judged on the first part of the examination: formally summoning any three elements and allowing them to mix within the grounds, ensuring they were balanced and that none of the elements overpowered the other.
There was a long pause as the judges conferred and calculated the score, and Heero suddenly felt grateful to the person who designed the Elementalist exams - at least he would know whether he passed each section before going on to the next. He had confidence in most of the sections, but the last two... Stop it, he chided himself. You have no time for this, and concentration is everything. That's what all that training was for. Shaking himself slightly, he looked towards the wing just in time to see the main judge step out and announce, "Section one passed. You may begin the next section."
Heero nodded and walked to the wing, knowing and sensing his connection to the energies being cut. "I am ready."
"The time starts... now."
Sitting on a small stool, the youth waited. Since when did ten minutes last this long? Oh hellfires... I'm talking to myself again. Section two of the exam tested the balance of the energies, and instead of focusing on the mere appearance of balance, which could be feigned, it was designed to ensure that the summoned energies could remain in equilibrium even without the Elementalist's presence. Therefore, he had withdrawn into the shielded room and relinquished his control over the power. If the distribution had been correctly executed, the energies would mix and battle for ten minutes without any one element overpowering the others. At the moment, everything was working perfectly, and the time was almost over. Heero felt relieved, albeit tentatively so. Only one minute, now...
Suddenly, an explosion sounded outside the chamber. Startled, Heero looked out, worried that somehow, he had upset the balance. What he saw - or sensed - was even more shocking: the elements were being fed, so much so that his gift would soon be unable to control them. Quickly running out of the room and retaking control, he battled the forces in an attempt to drain off the excess energies. Filter, pass, filter, pass... no! Trying to hide his fear, he shouted, "Evacuate! I can't hold them - they're being fed..." His speech broke off as he concentrated all his talent on stalling for time.