Disclaimer: Not mine. Playing.

MARKED (SMILE)

by Beth (renfri@astercity.net)

The school bell rang out and the courtyard of the high school filled with students. Natsumi Mizuki walked more sedately than her boisterous classmates. She remembered something Kazuki said: even if you have to run, or fight, you can do it with grace. With elegance. And then he'd smiled at her, the string-laden bells in his hair twinkling. And she had smiled back, because that was what she did. Smile.

"Natsumi-chan!" one of her friends called out. "Do you have work today?"

She came out of her daydream. "No, I have the day off. Are you going somewhere, Naru-chan?"

The other girl nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, we were going to the bookshop. The new autumn/winter super-sized Vogue Fashion issue is coming out today and we wanted to look through it, see what the latest trends are."

"And they should have the new Comic Blade magazine, too," Utako, of her friends added. "I can't wait to see what's in the next installment of Matantei Loki. Come on!"

Natsumi hurried after them, frantically trying to remember what Matantei Loki was about so that she would not make a fool of herself. Lately she found the stories told by Ginji and his friends much more interesting than any manga. Who needed to read about fantastic worlds when the Infinite Fortress was visible whenever you looked up?

Walking along, she realized she was purposely slowing to keep pace with her friends. She was too used to walking with people taller than herself, she thought. Hevn had taken her to a department store the other day and bought a pair of ridiculously high-heeled pumps so that her legs would be longer. If she didn't break her neck first. She had noticed other differences, too. She now had reflexes quick enough to rescue endangered cafe equipment whenever Ban and Ginji started pushing each other over. She was kind to all animals, even rats, because in a rare talkative mood Shido had explained to her just how intelligent they were, and introduced her to his favorites. After her first successful retrieval she talked the guys into self-defense lessons, and now was not afraid of anyone she could meet in a dark alleyway. And after all she'd seen, she was not hurt or scarred. She kept smiling.

"Is your job very hard, Natsumi-chan?" Naru asked. "I'm looking for a part-time job too, and I wonder what being a waitress is like."

"It can't be very hard, because since she got the job, Natsumi-chan is always smiling," Utako remarked. "It's very good - you were so sad at the beginning of the school year. Now you always look happy."

"I met a lot of new friends," Natsumi explained. "And it's not hard because the cafe is small and we don't get too many customers."

But she knew that was not it. The smile - the bright, determined smile had become a part of her, like Ban's glasses or Shido's bandanna. That was her function in the little cafe on the edge of the shadow world of Retrievers, Transporters and magic: the cheerful, helpful girl who served coffee to the weary heroes. She did not mind. She got to hear everything, and she helped sometimes. She would not give it up for the world.

"Hey, Natsumi-chan, we're here!" Naru called out, waving her hand in front of the other girl's eyes. "Let's check out that Vogue special edition!"

The magazine was indeed interesting, and Natsumi committed a few shop addresses to memory. Those clothes would look gorgeous on Hevn and Kazuki, and she found one military-style jumpsuit that she was sure Himiko would love. But when they turned to the manga magazines, she drifted off again.

The one thing she did regret was being unable to share her stories. Naru's and Utako's biggest worries were school grades, clothes and boys. And as for her, she had spent many evenings waiting for her friends to come back, hoping they were alive and unwounded, and preparing first-aid supplies just in case. Would the schoolgirls believe a man could talk to animals, another could generate electricity and yet another needed just a single glare from behind purple sunglasses to give you a fantastic nightmare?

She heard her friends laughing explosively.

"Oh, I phased out for a moment. What's so funny?"

Naru waved her hands about. "It's - there's this guy who - you read Peace Maker?"

"Uh, no, I'm afraid not." She covered her confusion with a smile, as always.

"Then I can't really explain..."

She nodded and they went back to their manga. Natsumi wandered off along the isle. The next shelf held cookbooks, and there was this one on coffee that she had seen before and thought it might be useful in devising new kinds of beverages at the Honky Tonk...

Ah, there it was, only one copy left. Just there-

Another person's hand reached for the book at the exact same moment, and they bumped into each other.

"Ah, please excuse me," a polite voice murmured. The gloved hand withdrew, leaving her to pick up the book.

She turned to the man, noting that he looked exactly the same as he had the first time she saw him, before the retrieval at the Infinite Fortress. She offered the book to him, her hand steady despite the jolt of fear.

"I've already looked at it," she explained. "Now I want to buy it, but you're welcome to look at it if you want to."

"So kind of you." Akabane's smile mirrored hers, recognition dawning in his narrowed eyes. "I was wondering whether I would find advice here on what kind of coffee machine to buy - my old one fell to pieces."

"That's the very first chapter," Natsumi told him. She could almost taste the man's dangerous aura, but she was not a threat or a challenge, and therefore in no immediate danger. And after all she had heard, she felt like she almost knew him.

"They've got a very good review of the current top-of-the-line models."

"Well, you are the professional when it comes to making coffee," Akabane remarked. "Which one you have at the Honky Tonk?"

"This one," she pointed at the appropriate page in the book. "But a special insulated version, because Ginji-san's electricity sometimes gets out of control."

"I should probably buy the same one," he sighed. "The old one shorted out and almost electrocuted me."

"That's probably as dangerous as Ginji-san!"

"Exactly. I could not defeat Raitei, and I could not defeat my coffee machine."

"And you couldn't very well just slice it to bits," she mused, letting him know she was aware of his weapon of choice.

"Why do you think I said it fell to pieces?"

She saw Utako and Naru looking at them from the manga isle, their eyes wide as saucers. She imagined what they must be seeing - a high school girl and a tall, long-haired man in an outrageous coat and hat, both laughing so hard they had to lean on the bookshelf for support. And even when they stopped, they smiled.

It felt good.

~FINIS~