1 Volume One, Chapter One

Emilia knocked on the door and stepped back. The castle was huge, but the guards knew her and let her through. She was still thinking about the conversation Matthew and Nate had the day before. It was in the back of her mind for now; the door in front of her looked like the massive doors of a throne room, so the fact that it was only the door to the prince's bedroom was a bit on the baffling side. After a moment, the ornate, red door that loomed above her swung forward. The prince peeked his head out, his eyes sweeping the room until he found her.

"Hey, Ems! You ready?"

Emilia nodded in response to the prince's question. "I still don't know where we're going, though. Why won't you tell me?"

Emilia gasped as he gripped her sleeve and pulled her into his room, shutting the door. She exasperatedly straightened her sleeve back out and looked back at the prince. He looked around (as if someone might be hiding in his room) and looked back at Emilia, a twinkle in his eyes that hyped what he was about to say far more than he could hope for something he had yet to even say.

"We're going to a huge fighting tournament. Dad approved, so long as I don't do something stupid." The prince put a hand on her shoulder, catching himself before he forced her to do something she didn't want to do. "Of course, that is if you want to go...?"

Emilia thought about it. Her mind wondered back to what she heard Matthew say to Nate, and figured that she wanted to go mostly to see if Matthew was there. She didn't even know if it was the right tournament, but she wanted to know if Matthew would be there, and if he really had the battle prowess he had mentioned.

"...Okay. Sounds fun. Just make sure you don't do anything dumb, Alias. You'd better keep yourself under wraps."

Prince Alias smiled, cheering to himself for convincing Emilia so easily. "Well, I'm ready to get going whenever you are. It'll be two hours there by carriage."

Emilia nodded as she sighed, following Alias out the door. He'd been ambitious since he was young, as had Emilia, but she had grown out of it for the most part (or at least her ambitious nature had evolved to a romantic ambition instead). A fighting tournament, though?

"What's this tournament called, Alias?"

The prince snapped his royal robe on as he walked, replying "I think it's the tri-city combat tournament." Emilia recognized the name immediately. "Don't tell anyone though, this is super under-cover style stuff. There are punishments for ratting on 'em because they could get shut down."

Something told her she'd be seeing someone she knew at the tournament, but she didn't get her hopes up. Surely it was a fluke.

At the same time, Matthew was jogging down the street in hopes that he'd make it to the tournament in time. He was never able to find a ride to get to the place, especially since carriages were terribly expensive to rent. No one was willing to take him out of town either, and he had little more than two hours to get there. He was in incredible shape, but sprinting before a fight was a terrible misuse of his body; he decided to jog, hopefully finding a carriage that was heading the direction he was going. He jogged for about five minutes before a carriage ride by, and he heard a boy in the back shout an order at the driver to slow down. The door opened right next to Matthew and a red-haired boy in fancy robes peeked out.

"How far do you need to go?" The boy was smiling, his helping hand metaphorically extended to Matthew.

"The next town over, actually," Matthew replied, slowing down to walk next to the open door. "About an hour that way."

The boy motioned for Matthew to climb in as he moved out of the way, and Matthew came nowhere close to denying the offer. He clamped his hand around the rail and pulled himself in, taking a seat next to the boy.

Matthew lifted his head as he breathed, saying "Thank you. I could have been running and still been late."

"Don't mention it."

Matthew may have been catching his breath, but that voice sounded familiar and also not male. He glanced over and found Emilia sitting next to him, which took his breath away once more.

"Oh, hey Emilia! Wait... That means..." He finally took a look around. "Holy crap... I'm in the prince's carriage."

Alias held a hand out. "Pleasure to meet you, Matthew. You're all the lass ever talks about if it isn't beating that Eddy chap to a pulp."

Matthew reluctantly shook the prince's hand, grinning. "This is too surreal. I knew you know Emilia, but I never thought I'd..." Matthew shrugged. "Oh well. Where are you two going?"

The prince cleared his throat nervously. "Um... An event... In Ronis."

"Oh," Matthew realized, "the tournament?"

Emilia looked at Alias, who immediately dismissed any will to hide the fact. "Yeah, that's it. So you know about it?"

Emilia leaned forward to listen closely to what he said.

"Yeah," Matthew said with a shrug. "I was paid to do concessions last year, and they said I could have really good seats this year. If you want, I'll try to get you guys in."

Alias grinned, hyping himself over the possibility of some top tier seats. "Man, that sounds great."

Emilia knew, of course, that he had lied. She knew also that he loved her. Her spine stiffened each time the others addressed her, chills throwing her tingling nerves into shock. She wasn't paying attention at all. Her own thoughts so encapsulated her with wonder and awe that Mathias kept everything from her that her respect for him only multiplied by the second. What if...

She lifted her fingers slightly, pointing them toward Matthew. Before she could think anything, however, Matthew put his hand on top of hers.

"But Emilia and I are best friends, so I couldn't imagine fighting her in the tournament even if I could win." Alias looked at Emilia, grinning as Matthew talked about her strength. With only her attention on Matthew, he shook his head slowly to tell her that, not only did he realize what she was doing, but that he was opposed. "But there is no need for that. Right, Emilia?"

She blinked once or twice, then regained composure. "Of course. I'd smack you down in a heartbeat."

Matthew patted her hand once, and let go.

...

Was she... Overreacting? Matthew was quite the perceptive one, wasn't he? He naturally swung back into conversation with all the elegance of a ballerina in the midst of a recital, while Emilia found herself teetering on the edge of insanity. Each careening of the carriage on the stone road below twisted another knot in Emilia's stomach. Not knowing what to feel, she resorted to the thought that she'd been tricked. Bamboozled. She felt betrayed by her best friend; one who had always been by her side, yet hidden so much from her. She lifted her fingers again, pointing them straight at Matthew. When he looked her way, his eyes widened; hers narrowed as she sourly shot magic toward him.

Matthew felt the need to satisfy her every desire riling within him, but he strangled it down like an Australian man trying to strangle an alligator with his boomerang.

"You alright, Matthew? You don't look too well." Alias pressed the back of his hand against Matthew's forehead, testing his temperature. "You don't feel hot."

Matthew opened the door and barfed out the side of the carriage, to the dismay of the others.

"What in the hell was that, Mat?" Emilia asked.

"My pride— I mean, sometimes my body builds up a huge amount of magic, but since I never use it, it gets dispelled by force at times."

Emilia had never known about this, but that one was genuinely a candid statement; Matthew often DID build up a huge amount of magic that needed to be dispelled. What he was hiding was the fact that going against her spell took a lot of willpower, and it genuinely hurt his stomach. The tension between Matthew and Emilia grew throughout the entire ride.

But it was all okay because Prince Alias didn't notice and kept the conversation going while remaining in the utter bliss that is ignorance to the situation. For him, the trip was an hour long. For the others, this carriage ride through the eight gates of hell before it arrived at the tournament.

One might wonder how a huge fighting tournament could be concealed from the public eye for so long. Each year, the tournament was held in the basement of the castle in Ronis, lit by fire all around. It was meant to be primal, but they still had some of the locals with ice and wind abilities on duty, blowing a chilly wind through the place to keep it cooled off.

Alias led them through the castle and to the basement, although Matthew knew the way arguably better and would NOT have gotten lost near the restrooms and suffered a horrendous stench for five minutes but he appreciated that the prince of his city was willing to take control of a situation and let it slide. When they finally got there, however, Emilia was standing right in front of him. It was all he could do to look away from her and keep himself cool.

When Emilia realized the line was stopped, and that they would be waiting a while, she tugged Matthew's arm to get his attention. When he looked up at her, she nodded toward a short corridor that was probably normally used for trash, but it was empty and hidden from the crowd. Wordlessly, he followed her over, leaving a yet still oblivious Alias waiting in line.

Once they were in the dark, Matthew leaned his back against the wall and looked away from her.

"You don't seem yourself, Mat," she said scoldingly, tapping her foot. "Can't you even look at me?"

Matthew snickered sarcastically. "You know what you did."

"And I'm sure you can't guess why."

Emilia's words caught him by surprise; what could he have done? He was a bit more chipper that day than usual, but he had his days. "N-no, I genuinely can't, Emilia! The question isn't what's wrong with me; I should be asking you!"

Emilia sighed. "Why aren't you just giving in, you idiot?"

Matthew's racing mind came to a screeching halt. "...You heard."

"Eddy got worried and sent me out after you. When I got outside, I listened in instead of charging in."

Matthew didn't say a word. He had no idea she was listening, and now she knew what he had always wanted to say.

"I can't understand why you'd keep so much from me, Matthew. I tell you everything. I want to be the one who supports you, your best friend..." After a deep breath, she added, "...I want to know how you feel about me. Even if I don't reciprocate."

"It's not about me," Matthew muttered.

Emilia leaned in closer. "I didn't hear you. Speak up, Mat."

He wrapped his hands around her arms, bent over in shame. "It's not about me, damn it. It's you I'm worried about." His hands lost their grip and his arms fell limp. "I love you so much, Emilia. You can't reduce me to a physical love even if you want to, because I want what's best for you more than I will ever want you."

Emilia gripped him and pulled him into a tight hug. "This is ridiculous. I love you too, and I want what's best for you, too."

Slowly, Matthew felt the power of Emilia's magic taking him over, the morals he'd built up melting from his convictions. He raised his head, his lips moving closer to hers. She puckered her own, waiting for him to make contact, but to her dismay he stopped.

She quietly whispered "What gives?"

Matthew's will retightened just enough for him to say "I forgot Axel was here."

Just as his mind let him drift forward, Axel slugged him across the cheek, knocking him from Emilia's arms and startling her. "Everyone forgets about Axel."

Emilia looked around confusedly. "W-what the hell?"

Matthew patted at his cheek with two fingers, thanking Axel for dropping in. "Perfect timing, Axe."

Axel leaned against the wall with Emilia. "Axel's parents pay more attention to Axel's older sister. Axel has free time."

Matthew pointed out the spot in line, and Axel traunced in that direction, ahead of the other two. Before they started walking, Matthew leaned in close and whispered "I'd prefer that you un-curse me, Emilia."

She looked back at him as if he was crazy. "Mat, we didn't even go into the part about you being a fighting prodigy. You don't tell me anything, so I won't help you out." Matthew wanted to protest, but before he could get any words out she sassily said "You never even told me your ability. I don't know anything about you, Matthew. If you want to talk, I'll consider it."

He followed her out of the corridor and back to the line, adding "But I'm not even your type!"

She turned and exasperatedly asked, "Says who?"

Matthew tapped on Axel's shoulder, causing his emotionless one-way-street of a friend to turn toward him. "Axel, what kind of person would Emilia be happiest spending her life in relationship with?"

Axel spit out his answer like a machine: "Judging by Emilia's personality and growth, Axel thinks Emilia would be happiest with a closed flower that is willing to open up for her, someone who is not generally good around people or sharing his thoughts but can grow to trust and be trusted. Not a jockey or pretty-boy type especially."

Emilia looked over at Matthew, grinning at Axel's accurate description of him. "That sounds like you, Mat."

Alias nodded, butting in to say "I don't know you too good, but that seems like you."

Matthew elbowed Axel and murmured, "What happened to the answer you give me last year? I look like a dumbass right now."

Axel held his hand, sifting through his memories. "Ah, you must be referring to when I told you she would like to date someone of the impressively pretty-boy type."

Matthew nodded. "Y-yeah, that's the one."

Axel began playing with Matthew's fingers as he said "Axel recalls that, but Axel also recalls that your question was 'what kind of boy would Emilia be happy with right now in a dating kind of way, asking for a friend'."

Matthew's face turned redder than the fires that illuminated the huge room. "Asking for a friend, huh?" Emilia teased.

Matthew looked away. "A-anyways, I don't want to wait in line. Follow me."

Emilia and the others reluctantly stepped out of line after Matthew, following him to a gate guarded by a huge, burly guy.

"You're young, kid. You got I.D.?"

Matthew took his scarf and held it over his mouth. The guard immediately and wordlessly let him through. When Alias wondered what was happening, Emilia quickly explained that Matthew was one of the fighters, but didn't want them to know. Again, they followed him to some seats right next to the cage, seating themselves in the front row.

"So what's your stage name? I must have seen you here before," Alias questioned.

"Nameless Combatant."

Alias choked on his saliva. "You're the guy that swept the floor with everyone for six years straight?"

"Since I was thirteen," Matthew said with a nod.

As the crowd poured in, Alias could only stare at Matthew in awe and respect. The Nameless Combatant was the greatest fighter he'd ever seen, and Matthew didn't even use an ability to help him fight— a great feat in a tournament focused on putting abilities against one another to see who had mastered theirs better, and whose was more practical for battle.

It wasn't long before everyone was seated and a man stood on the stage in the middle of the cage. He took a deep breath, and screamed at the top of his lungs, "Are you all REEEADYYY?"

Matthew could tell his ability had something to do with sound amplification, which they had yet to have at this tournament. He was glad to see that the event was gaining enough traction to get more amenities in place for presentation.

After the crowd cheered for a few seconds, he screamed "LET'S GET RIIIIIIIIIIIGHT INTO THE TOURNEY!!!"

He announced the first two combatants, calling them to the stage and giving them five minutes to be there. It was a painstakingly long time that was only accentuated by the fact that Emilia was subconsciously moving closer to Matthew every few seconds; by the time both fighters had taken their place on stage, Emilia was borderline leaning on Matthew's shoulder.

"First up, we have Lightline!" the announcer boomed, pointing at a boy with white hair who was leaned against the corner, smirking. Matthew came out of his worry and immediately drew a notebook from his pocket. He jotted 'Lightline' as the announcer continued. "On the other side, we have Eyes!"

The boy on the other side was dressed reminiscently of a ninja, completely lifeless except the occasional shift on his feet. He had two swords, but Matthew knew that according to the rules, he had been given replacements that were incapable of slicing anything at all, completely dull. The only skin visible on the one named Eyes was... Well, just his eyes.

"Alright, boys! Get ready to battle!" As the announcer readied them, the crowd roared. Alias wondered how at least five hundred people in the basement of a royal castle, but when he saw the king bouncing excitedly in his seat and dropping mounds of popcorn on the ground he understood.

The announcer hopped out of the ring and counted from three to one, causing the audience to join in continually starting at two, then cheer as loudly as possible when he let the match begin. In a split second, a flash of light blinded everyone in the audience. When Matthew looked back up, he saw that the one called Lightline was pounding away at Eyes, who was holding his face in his hands. He took an occasional swing at Lightline, but nothing substantial enough to stop his barrage of blows that overcame him. Eyes stood no chance.

It wasn't long before Eyes lay on the ground, helpless and nearly lifeless. Matthew angrily closed his book and sighed, waiting as they helped Eyes off the mat, followed by a stuck-up wave from Lightline. Matthew hated his underhanded tactic, but it was viable and therefore useable.

"And now!" the announcer yelled, cutting through the audience's cries and boos, "The moment you've all been waiting for is close to arriving. Next up, we have another new challenger! I need boulder up to the stage. And I need you."

Matthew looked up, surprised he was going this early in the roster.

"You know who I mean. Y'all got five minutes!"

The announcer sat in a wooden chair just outside the cage, waiting for the next contestants. Emilia was wondering who the announcer could mean, and she had a hunch that it was Matthew. When she looked over, he was no longer sitting in his seat. She was almost startled that he had disappeared, considering she had basically been leaning on his shoulder for five minutes by that point. "Did... Did you see him leave?" She tapped on Axel's shoulder as she said it.

Axel turned and looked at Emilia. "Axel notices everyone. Axel is a perfect foil to modern society who, in the rush of living, misses out on the small things..." Axel pushed his glasses up, glaring at her as he claiming the moral high ground. "...Like noticing Axel."

Emilia rolled her eyes, crossing her arms and turning back to Alias. When he looked over and noticed that Matthew was no longer there, he asked Emilia, "Where's your friend?"

She huffed, plopping her chin in her hands exasperatedly. "He left."

Matthew took his bag into the bathroom, closing himself in and locking the door. As quickly as possible, he threw off all his clothes except his underwear and socks. He opened his bag and pulled out some half-shin sweatpants and a black shirt to match.

With a sigh, he muttered, "It's go time."

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