Jun steadily watched his opponent across the width of the practice Layer, beginning to get an idea of just how it was that people became so obsessed with competing in this game. Beyond that, though, the sight of something so closely resembling one of the dolls he had once known—even though she was nothing but a pale shadow of the original—stirred something within him. For a moment, the tableau presented on the Layer reminded him of an old samurai movie, the resemblance only heightened when Ayame's Angel began to race forward.
One hand extended in front of itself, Ansei threw a devastating punch at Suigin Tou, followed up by a somersault kick intended to knock her cleanly off the Layer. Contrary to what Jun would have guessed based on her earlier behavior, Ayame was apparently in no mood to play around. With fluid grace, however, Suigin Tou wrapped her broad wings around herself, presenting them before her almost like a shield—which was exactly what they were, in this form.
Both blows thudded harmlessly into the black-feathered barrier, and though Suigin Tou slid backwards slightly from the impacts' force, her health meter remained full. Jun breathed a silent sigh of relief; though he had designed her to be highly defense-focused—something he found quite amusing in an ironic sort of way—he had had no way of testing that part of the design until now. Most of his practice time had gone into simply learning to control her wings, and the smooth way they responded now to his every thought made him grateful for that time spent.
Time to try something else now, he thought as the other Angel continued to hammer Suigin Tou with ineffectual attacks. Her health bar had barely budged from full, but she was beginning to get a bit too close to the edge of the Layer for his comfort. Suddenly, during a momentary pause in Ansei's attacks, Suigin Tou's wings swept outward, rocking the taller Angel backwards and putting it on the defensive for the first time in the match. Ayame recovered quickly, though, directing her Angel into a high, arcing jump intended to position it to take advantage of Suigin Tou's comparatively vulnerable back.
Unfortunately for it, however, the jump also placed it right next to the Layer's edge, and when it landed, Suigin Tou was already dropping into a spinning leg sweep that knocked it off its feet. It would have fallen then, if not for the hand that reached out to clamp around its throat. Her wings draped around herself like a heavy black cloak, Suigin Tou held her opponent off the ground, shrugging off the desperate pounding of its fists and feet as she dangled it over the edge of the Layer.
Perhaps he was being a bit cruel in prolonging the fight, Jun thought as he saw the disbelieving expression on Ayame's face, but he had done nothing to harm her Angel in any way, which was more than he could say for her. Still, there was no point in drawing things out any further; he had gained what he wanted from this fight.
With a flick of her wrist, Suigin Tou tossed her opponent out of the Layer, sending it tumbling to the carpeted floor. Her expression had remained constant throughout the match, frozen in an arrogant mask that perfectly echoed her namesake's, and for a moment Jun shivered as he remembered seeing that same expression in much less pleasant circumstances.
Holding out his hand, he directed her to step off the Layer, and as she left the influence of the generating field that provided her with the ability to move and fight—as she became it once more—he gently caught his Angel and transferred it to the crook of his arm once again. Its wings had folded away as designed, their memory-metal spars retracting back into its torso so that it looked like nothing more than an ordinary, off the shelf Angel at first glance, and he looked up to see Ayame eyeing him with a speculative expression on her face.
"Your Angel," he said curtly, picking the black-clad doll up off the floor and holding it out for her to take. "It's unharmed." There was no need to point out how easily he could have damaged it if he had wished; the swiftness of his victory was ample proof of that.
To Jun's mild interest, Ayame seemed to accept her loss with much more grace than she usually exhibited even after winning, as she simply nodded and took her Angel from him. Giving him a slight, respectful bow—which apparently surprised her just as much as it did him, judging by the way her eyes momentarily widened—she turned and left, and he lost sight of her amidst the late-afternoon crowd.
Well, that was interesting, he thought, shrugging as he prepared to leave as well. He supposed everyone had their own quirks, though, and apparently Ayame's was that, unlike most bullies, she appreciated a strong opponent. It was almost enough to make him reconsider his opinion of her, until he remembered the look on the face of the young girl who had had her Angel's knee shattered.
"Wow, that was so cool! And your Angel…she's so pretty, and she has wings! Is she like Athena? I think Athena's are better, though, since they're white and glowy. Can I see her?"
Jun felt his jaw drop at the verbal torrent coming from the girl standing next to him, who seemed to have recovered admirably over the course of the past few minutes. She was still holding her Angel with its broken leg—carefully, he noticed, in such a way as not to risk further damage to it—but she appeared to have all but forgotten about it in the wake of her rapt interest in his own Angel. Ironically, despite his profession he seldom dealt directly with children, and he found himself both amused and impressed at her resilience.
"Here, I'll trade you," he said, smiling at her as he held out his Angel for her to take. Eagerly, she did, but then her face fell as she looked down at her own Angel. With a great display of reluctance, she offered it to him, but he could tell she was confused as to why he wanted to see it.
Admittedly, the blue hakama and haori clothing the doll, both obviously hand-stitched—and not very expertly, at that—did not compare to the exquisitely detailed black dress he had created for Suigin Tou. The simple fact that she had gone to the trouble of sewing them herself, though, rather than simply selecting from the variety of Angel clothes every Piffle Princess offered, was enough to impress him, but his true interest in her Angel lay in the damage it had taken.
While the girl carefully turned Suigin Tou over in her hands, her eyes rapt and attentive, he raised the hem of the hakama covering her Angel's damaged leg. As he had expected, the knee joint was a mess, with metal shards from the destroyed actuator poking through the synthetic skin covering it. He would have to take it to his shop to confirm anything, but he suspected the entire leg would need to be replaced, and Angels were inexpensive enough that most people preferred to simply buy a new one in the event that something like this happened rather than bother with such major repairs.
"Where did you get her clothes, Mister?" the girl asked, interrupting his examination. "They're really pretty, and I've never seen any other Angel wearing anything like them."
No, you haven't, Jun thought, smiling slightly. He had patterned his Angel's clothes as closely after its namesake's as possible, drawing on memory and the very few photographs of her he owned, and while they might not be exactly the same, they were very close. Of course, some changes had had to be made in order to conform to the Angelic Layer tournament rules, so the fabric of its dress was a high-grade synthetic that only resembled velvet, and its layered petticoats and knee-length stockings weren't really made of the lace they appeared to be. Only the thin black ribbon tied around its throat was ordinary.
"I imagine he made them. Isn't that right, Sakurada-san?"
The woman's voice, coming from behind him, startled him so much he nearly dropped the Angel he was holding. He knew that voice, though the last time he had heard it had been over ten years ago, and suddenly he realized why the girl's face seemed so familiar.
"Tomoe?" he blurted out, turning to see if it could really be her. She was dressed casually in jeans and a sleeveless green blouse, and at first glance appeared to have aged little since the last time he had seen her. Her arched eyebrows and cool, slightly imperious expression were also exactly as he remembered, and he flushed slightly as he realized he had probably been a bit too familiar in his greeting.
"Um…sorry, Kashi—" Jun paused, then, unsure what to say; presumably she had taken her husband's family name, but he had no idea what that was, as he knew he had never received any sort of wedding notice from her—which disappointed him, now that he thought about it. Even if they had grown apart after her family moved up to Tokyo, just before their last year of high school, they had been close friends for several years before then.
Somewhat unexpectedly, she replied, "Tomoe is fine," giving him one of her rare, small smiles—only the slightest upturn of her lips, and only for a moment, but it was so reminiscent of how she used to act that he found himself smiling in return. Despite his first reaction, he could see now that there were differences between the teenaged girl he remembered and the woman standing in front of him now, most of them intangible, but that smile was still the same.
"I'm not at all surprised to see you've made an Angel," Tomoe continued. "I would have expected you to use her as your model, though." Her face twitched momentarily, and he knew she was remembering the various events they had both been involved in back in middle school, even if only peripherally in her case.
Jun sighed. He should have expected that question, he supposed, though he was surprised she was being so open with him; after all, it had been a long time since they last knew each other, and she had always been reserved. Perhaps that part of her had changed as well, but somehow he doubted it.
"She didn't enjoy fighting," he replied after a moment, and that seemed to be enough for Tomoe, as she simply nodded and began to lead her daughter over to one of the booths set along the wall. Jun followed them, still holding the girl's broken Angel in one hand. It was an odd feeling, meeting an old friend after so long, and he found himself wondering what to talk about with her. Just then, though, his mobile phone beeped insistently, and he sighed as he pulled it out and checked the display. He had planned to open his shop this evening for a while, since it was getting close to Christmas, though at the moment he would much rather have stayed to talk with Tomoe.
"I'm really sorry," he said as he tucked his phone away again. "It's wonderful seeing you again, and I wish I could stay longer, but I need to get back to work."
Tomoe nodded, though Jun thought he detected a hint of disappointment in her expression, if only for a moment. "I understand," she said. "Yuki and I should probably be going as well. She has schoolwork, and she's spent more than enough time here already."
She gave him another tiny smile, this one slightly exasperated, when her daughter chimed in with, "But Mama, I want to look at the Angel some more!"
As Jun glanced down at her own Angel, which he was still holding, a solution came to him. Reaching into his pocket, he took out one of his business cards and handed it to Tomoe, feeling a brief sense of pride when her eyes widened slightly. It was somewhat unusual for someone his age to own his own business, but though things had been hard for the first few years, he had finally managed to establish himself fairly well.
"Your daughter's Angel was damaged fairly badly in a match today," he said, setting it on the table in front of him so she could see it. "I don't normally do many Angel repairs, but I do have the equipment and a license from the AL Corporation, and I could take a closer look at it if you would be interested.
"Of course, if you would rather just buy a new Angel instead, don't worry about it," he added, feeling slightly disappointed when Tomoe failed to respond. "I know it's probably not worth the bother, but some people do become attached to their Angels."
Tomoe shook her head. "No, it's not that," she said. "She may have forgotten about it for now, but I doubt Yuki would ever forgive me if I suggested replacing her 'Kin-chan'.
"All right," she said, after a moment's more thought. "Thank you for the offer. I'll plan to bring Yuki over after school tomorrow—but I have to warn you, you're probably never going to get rid of her afterwards."
Jun smiled, then passed Yuki her Angel, accepting his own from her in return. "That's not a problem," he said. "You'd be surprised how many of the dolls I sell are to people trying to build collections. It'll be nice having someone there who's interested in them for their own sake and not just as an investment."
"I'll see you tomorrow, then," Tomoe replied, nodding in farewell as she led her daughter out of the store. "I'm glad we met again, Jun."
So am I, Jun thought. Today had been a good day for him; not only had he successfully tested the Angel he had been working on for months, he had also run into someone he had honestly never expected to see again. Even the prospect of several more hours of work ahead of him was insufficient to dampen his mood.
Author's Notes: Well, I felt like writing a bit more of this story, so here it is. It's short compared to chapters of Soul Voice, but hopefully it still managed to be interesting. I know the background information is still rather vague, but thats intentional at this point, and things will begin to clear up in time. Thank you all for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoyed it!