Well, good news and bad news. The good news is the chapter is done! The bad news is that for some reason, I'm not back into the Saturday mentality after all. I don't like the idea of being late all the time, so the new update day is going to officially be Sunday from now on. This doesn't mean I won't post a Saturday update if I finish a chapter early, but don't count on it. Sorry, ya'all...
On the plus side, I'm really pleased with this chapter. The end in particular came out exactly as I wanted it to. I really got into writing it, and I'm hoping it shows. Aside from that I don't have much to say except for a huge thank-you for all of my readers, especially those of you who review. I appreciate the feedback so much! It really makes me feel good to hear about what parts of the chapters you like and what you thought while reading it. A huge thank you to you all. So let's go!
The most important thing a fighter had sometimes, Mana knew, was not strength or speed, but the ability to focus. And right now she didn't even have that going for her. Rinku was making it all but impossible to focus; it seemed like every time she turned her head there he was, constantly in motion and usually yelling things she couldn't quite make out. Right now she was doing the best she could to ignore him, but she still felt like her progress was being impeded. Jin was easily stepping around every advance she made, occasionally- and this just annoyed her- giving her a sharp rap on the back of the head in the process. She cringed as he struck her lightly again. "Gotcha!"
Scowling, she bounced from foot to foot lightly, letting her feet actually leave the ground fully. She didn't like the idea of leaving her body that off balance, it was too easy to get swept, but as long as he was just evading her it seemed to work well. The girl frowned lightly, shifting her footing before approaching him again. This time...
The impact of her hand against his shoulder as he froze suddenly actually hurt. Mana yelped lightly, rubbing her now-sore fingers. "What did you stop for?"
"Felt somethin' on the air, I did!" His ears were twitching, one of the reasons Mana was glad they could do this training out in the middle of nowhere; something she had learned about Jin over the past few days was that he seemed to have a little too much fun with the prospect of getting hit. Now the sparring seemed to be forgotten as he scanned the trees; Mana turned to look just as Jin shouted. "Oi, Yusuke!"
Mana suppressed a groan as the detective picked his way through the trees. To her surprise, he was grinning. "You need to start telling me when you're in town! I just ran into Chu downtown. You want to tell me who's letting him hit the bars this early?"
"Have ya ever tried to come between biggie and his breakfast? Ya learn real fast not to do it again!" She felt the redhead give her an absentminded pat on the head before he headed over to greet his friend. It made her want to frown. Why did Urameshi have to show up now?
The detective actually nodded to her as he sauntered towards them. "Koyama." He blinked, speaking again before she could reply. "How the hell do you spend so much time with this guy here and still keep your hair neat?"
Mana gaped, resisting the urge to reach up and pat. First she'd braided it, and then she'd wound it into a bun, and it had taken almost twenty pins before she'd felt confident that today it would not get loose. "Womanly skill," she finally answered coolly. "How is Keiko doing?"
"Oh, she's doing great." His expression reminded her of an annoyed bear she'd seen in a cartoon once. Her mother had always watched strange things... "You'd think she'd leave me alone now that I'm not in school anymore, but no, she still has to nag at me about everything."
The girl nodded quietly. Somehow it made sense to her that he wouldn't be in school any more; from what she'd heard, there probably weren't any high schools in the area that would want him anyway. Urameshi seemed to take the lack of verbal response as an okay to focus his attention elsewhere, turning towards Rinku's greetings instead. Jin also stepped forward, leaving her to feel somewhat left out. The feeling surprised her; why should she have cared? Sighing, she stepped back a bit. There was no reason to try and push her way in or anything, after all. They'd all known each other long before she'd ever met Jin...
Who, the next thing she knew, was patting her on the head again. "Come on, we've been workin' long enough for one mornin'. It's time to get some lunch!"
It wasn't until they passed a store window that she saw he'd set the other butterfly right on the top of her head. Reaching up, she pulled it off and stared at it. "Jin..."
"Ya didn't even realize ya did it, did ya?" He tousled her bangs. "Ya did good. I went and let myself slip, and ya caught it."
There was no use giving it back, she realized. "Next time I'll hit you fair and square, though." It was a daunting thought, but she wasn't going to let him go easy on her forever. She just had to find a way to get stronger...
"Ya know, if ya keep walkin' and thinkin' at the same time like that, yer goin' to walk into somethin' sooner or later." Mana flinched lightly, trying to focus more on the ground in front of her as Jin laughed lightly. "Ya think too much."
"It's better than not thinking at all," she quipped back before remembering who else she was walking with. To her surprise, Urameshi actually seemed to be laughing quietly. She felt her cheeks flush as she fell silent. Fiznit...
It wasn't until they were sitting down for lunch in a small restaurant that the detective asked. "So what were you guys doing in the middle of the woods, anyway?"
"I was helpin' Mana train!" Jin sounded cheerful. "Thought I'd help her get a little stronger, I did."
"Oh..." For a moment he seemed to not know what to say. "Any progress?"
She answered quickly, before Jin had a chance. "I'm doing fine. I'm getting faster, and I have a weapon I can use now. You don't have to worry about me."
There was actually a sigh of relief from across the table. "Good. There have been some disappearances lately, so we need you to stay on your guard."
The blonde raised an eyebrow. "What kind of disappearances?"
Urameshi took a drink of his soda before replying. "Lately there have been a lot of disappearances across this providence and the next two, right? Well, we looked into it a bit, because they sounded a little fishy. People are vanishing into thin air, and it looks like most of them have histories of having a strong sixth sense or some other kind of spiritual power."
She frowned. "What do you mean, vanishing into thin air?"
"I mean we have no idea how they're being abducted. There are no signs of a struggle, and even when we've been able to find the supposed scenes Kurama can't pick up anything substantial. The most we ever get is a trace of demon energy, but the trail always goes cold too fast." He looked irate just thinking about it. "Even Hiei can't pick up anything, which means someone planned ahead pretty well. You can't trick the Jagan by chance."
Mana nodded. It sounded like something serious was going on... and of course she was being left out. "How many people have disappeared so far?"
"Close to twenty to count." The detective gave her a look. "Stay out of it, Koyama. This is way out of your league."
She stiffened. "I still have to know what's going on. I have people to look after, you know." She pointed a chopstick across the table at him. "Knowledge is the best weapon I have to defend myself."
Urameshi openly scowled. "Fine. What do you want to know?"
"Whatever you do." She smacked Jin's chopsticks away from her plate. "I'm still eating that."
"Thought ya might have forgotten it." His tone wasn't as lighthearted as it usually was; she wondered if this was worrisome to him, too. Yusuke Urameshi shifted across the table.
"From what we can gather, there have been seventeen disappearances over the last two months." He cut her off before she could respond. "That's a lot, I know. They started out slowly, only one or two a week or so, but they've been picking up the pace lately. They also started out simple, mostly kids our age without any real training,. Some of them we could only guess had any sort of power of their own based on Kurama and Kuwabara's intuitions after meeting their parents, so whoever is taking them doesn't even care if their abilities are developed or not. But the last few have come from some pretty tough families, and a couple were even trained in basic defense. They're also getting older. It looks like they're going for bigger and bigger catches every time now."
She nodded slowly. "What kind of areas are they being taken from?"
"It changes from case to case. About the only consistency we've noticed is that there hasn't been a single hit within two miles of any sort of temple or sacred grounds. I'm still not sure how Kurama noticed that, but he did. Aside from that, there's nothing."
She nodded. That didn't just sound serious, it sounded bad. "Why didn't you tell me about this sooner?"
"I've been trying to for almost a week now. You haven't exactly been easy to find." He shifted. "And besides, there hadn't been any disappearances from this city yet."
"Yet." The healer scowled. "Which means there has been one now."
He nodded with a small sigh. "Yeah, they got one across town a few days ago. It looked like they were avoiding this area, but they seem to be getting more confident. If anything, we're hoping it means the bastards will slip up soon."
She only nodded, letting it all sink in. People were vanishing, and of course it hadn't been her problem until it was too close to home. No, she reminded herself, even then it wasn't her problem. Urameshi was just telling her to be on her guard. There was a difference. "I'll be careful."
"Good. Look, I'm not telling you to go looking for trouble or anything. We don't even know if anyone who's gone missing is dead or alive. We can't afford for you to go poking around and get caught next, but..." The detective paused hesistantly. "But if you do happen to see anything suspicious, let us know, okay? Just... keep the wind at your back."
Mana almost choked on her tea. She sputtered a into her cup, only able to speak once Jin had patted her on the back a few times. "The first time I told you about that, you treated it like a joke."
Urameshi actually looked almost sheepish. "Yeah, honestly I was mentally comparing you to someone else I knew at the time." He glanced, although probably not meaning to at the time, at the redhead, who Mana noted was looking confused. "Kind of makes it hard to take that at face value."
Jin let go of the confusion to give her an accusing look. "Mana, wot can ya do that ya haven't told me about?"
She sighed, picking at her napkin. "Sometimes I can sense something coming if it's upwind of me. Only sometimes, though, some things don't register right for some reason. That's how I found you in the first place, the breeze that day was blowing straight down the alley." Jin gave her a long stare, and then out of nowhere reached over and knuckled either side of her head. She yelped. "Hey!"
"See, this is exactly the kind of thing ya need to be tellin' me about! If I'd have know ya could do that, I could have been helpin' ya with it this whole time!"
She jerked away. Damn, she could feel the pins starting to slip. So much for a Jin-proof hairstyle. "I didn't think it was important, okay? I only had someone laugh in my face the first time I ever tried to bring it up!" Urameshi flinched across the table. Jin stared at him for a moment before looking down at her. She couldn't stand it any more. She got up from the table. "I'll be back."
Even Jin didn't try to stop her as she headed for the women's restroom, slamming the door behind her and venting her frustrations on the useless hair pins instead.
The wind master sighed lightly. He was starting to figure out that these two could only get along when there was a large enough group to act as a buffer between them. "Eh, Rinku, go track down Chu, would ya? Biggie's goin' to be mad if he finds out he missed a meal." The boy nodded and ran off; scenes like that always seemed to make him uncomfortable as well. Sometimes being more observant than people gave him credit for had it's uses. That left Jin and Yusuke alone at the table. He looked across at the irate detective. Yusuke was toying with his chopsticks. "I'm bettin' ya got yer own side of the story to this, don't ya?"
"Kurama handles her better than I do. I never know what to say to her." One of the sticks bent slightly in his hands. "I'm still trying to convince myself that it's okay to let her be serious about this. I guess I'm doing a crummy job."
Jin nodded. "Ya want to talk about wot made ya so dead set against her to start with? Seems to me like there's a lot goin' on here that the two of ya can't talk through on yer own."
The detective sat back, chest heaving lightly as he sighed. "Might as well. It's not like she's going to listen to me at all about it. I still can't figure out why she even listens to you."
Maybe because I give her half a chance, the apparition thought with a frown. He could tell very easily what Mana's problem was in this situation. It was the girl's pride guiding her tongue again. He sighed; Touya had always been a better mediator than he was, but he had to give this a shot. They were both his friends. "Do ya honestly not like the girl?"
"It's never been a matter of whether I liked her or not." Yusuke frowned. "You've spent more time with her than I ever have, do you really think she could hold her own against the sort of opponents I fought in the Dark Tournament?"
Jin was forced to shake his head. "Not for a moment, I don't. Even Bakken could torn the poor lass apart with half a chance, and ya cleaned him out well enough. Mana, she never learned to really fight anythin' but other humans."
"Exactly." The young human scowled lightly. "I met a couple of kids once who would have been more of a threat to a demon than her. She could get killed doing this, and she doesn't even have the sense to realize it."
Jin glanced down at the abandoned cup of tea next to him. He wasn't amused by the situation exactly, but there was almost a sort of dark humor around just how much these two humans missed because they wouldn't talk to each other. "Yusuke, ya never even once asked her how her mother died, did ya?"
His timing could have been better; the detective had been taken a drink at the time. There was a lot of choking going around today, it seemed. "That's not exactly the kind of information she just gives out, you know. She takes things like that way too personally."
"She told me within' a day of meeting me. Her mum was some kind of detective of her own right, but didn't live through the job. Wot's worst of it is that her father doesn't even know the truth. She's been keepin' it to herself for years, not even able to do any talkin' with the one parent she's got left. She let that all out the mornin' after we met, didn't take more than a little proddin' at all."
Yusuke leaned forward, against the table. "You must have some real skill for getting her to talk. She's an absolute ice queen to everyone else."
"Sometimes it takes actively holdin' her in place 'til the conversin' is through," the wind master admitted reluctantly. "If ya catch her in the wrong mood ya usually have to corner her to get anythin' out, but she'll still talk if she's feelin' ya might actually listen."
"There's your problem, then, I never seem to catch her in anything but the wrong mood. She snaps at me from the moment I try to talk to her."
Jin nodded lightly; he'd seen that happen, too. "She can get that way. The trick is to push through it."
"More like the trick is to let Kurama deal with her," the detective muttered. "He's the diplomatic one, not me. He seems to have no problem having a conversation with her."
The redhead thought back to what Mana had said before leaving the table. "Has he ever laughed at her?"
There was a long silence before Yusuke answered, and when he did it was with only one word. "No."
Which was just what Jin had thought. "There are times when it seems to me that Mana's got more pride than Shishi. Ya gotta watch out for that."
They had to cut their conversation short as Mana finally came back to the table. She had torn her hair down, letting it hang loose down her back, but she was wearing a butterfly over either ear and that gave him some small hope. What he thought he might be dealing with were two people who were both too stubborn for their own good; Mana and Yusuke both seemed to have that same hard-headed determination that pushed them towards their goals regardless of what stood in their way. They were the kind of people, he decided, that would have made brilliant friends under any other sort of circumstances... but it was probably better to not get his hopes up. Mana's ability to hold a grudge was stronger than anything he'd ever seen in a woman before, even a few of his own ex-girlfriends that he'd rather not recall. Well, he thought ruefully, maybe one or two of them could out-do the human. But not by much.
The girl was sullen through the rest of lunch, and the sour mood carried over throughout the rest of the day. She disappeared after dinner. Playing on a hunch that had more to do with the fact that she'd changed into her gi than anything else, he headed up to the roof to find her. She was using the staff Suzuka had provided, practicing katas that flowed even more now that she had something in her hands to channel her energy with. He watched the silver pole spin in her hands, wondering why she seemed so much more confident now, her face as lined with determination as it was with anger, than she ever had in the forest. Her motions were crisp and even, enough so to make the sleeves on her gi snap slightly. On a whim Jin reached forward, intending to catch one end of the staff as it swung near him. His hand never reached it.
All at once it was as though he was seeing a different side of the girl he knew, a side that had shown glimpses of itself in the forest but had never fully emerged. She spun back, out of his way, and on a whim he followed, trying to catch hold of the weapon again. She responded to the challenge, darting back further out of his reach and then twisting mid-evasion to strike on her own. He was so used to following just her hands that the weapon itself almost caught him, but it was easy enough to adjust to the change in her reach once he'd gotten a feel for how she held the staff. She jabbed one end of the weapon at him; he blocked it with a palm, and to his surprise it stung. She had a definite hand for what she was doing, he decided. With that weapon, she could almost be called dangerous.
He approached her again, noting that her movements were completely different with the staff in her hands. She allowed herself to twist more while she had a weapon to guard herself with. Her motions were more spontaneous, harder to predict, but at the same time they were more graceful and more forceful as well. The next blow he deflected left his fingers tingling slightly, but he managed to knock her backwards once he'd gotten past it. She adjusted her footing, and to his surprise resorted to the same half-skips she'd been using earlier. He found himself having to watch her ankles and her hands at the same time, as that seemed to be the only sure way to predict her directions. It was a task that was easy enough for him, but still slightly unnerving as the staff passed by one ear as soon as he took a moment to fully focus on her feet. So that was where her skills were hidden. She was a decent fighter hand to hand, considering her level of experience, but once she had a weapon she was good. It was pointless to try and teach her to throw a decent punch. That wasn't where her strengths lay at all.
He tried twisting around behind her; she kept her feet close together and met him with another tingling blow, and this time he watched carefully to see how she did it. She didn't swing the staff so much as she jabbed it at him with short, sharp thrusts. He had to be careful to use his palms to block them, otherwise she was liable to break one of his fingers. He glanced at her eyes whenever he could; somehow the act of trying to take his head off seemed to be having an almost soothing effect on her, the angered lines on her face giving way to a more rational determination. At one point he thought he would be able to take hold of the weapon until the girl yelled sharply, throwing him off, something else she hadn't been doing before. Even that didn't prepare him, though, for when he thought he had a shot at the weapon only to be greeted by a kick. His eyes widened slightly in surprise. Well, if that was how she wanted to play...
They sparred in silence for several more minutes before he decided it was time to stop indulging her. Her eyes went wide at his first burst of speed, but her feet didn't waver- if anything, that steady side-to-side motion was starting to get mildly distracting. She changed her tactics, trying to sidestep him, but it was his turn to turn and meet her, driving her back steadily with every blow. If he hit the staff hard enough to one side it threw her balance off for perhaps a second; it took him less than a minute to take advantage of that, seizing her by one arm and forcing her to the ground. Mana's knees hit the flat rooftop with a soft thump, and for a moment all he could hear was the sound of her heavy breathing before she finally spoke. "I yield."
He let go of her arm, reaching a hand to help her up. "Now how come ya couldn't fight like that earlier?"
The healer gave a non-committal shrug before allowing him to pull her up. "I don't know. It just didn't feel the same. You seemed more intimidating out there." Her hair was a mess. He reached over and brushed some of it out of her eyes, trying not to smile at the way one clip had slipped slightly. It looked as though the winged insect was frantically holding on to the gold strands. He adjusted it for her, earning a slight scowl in response before she caught her breath and went on with the topic at hand. "I like this weapon. It feels good to use it."
"I imagined as much, watchin' ya. Ya work well with it." He gave her a smile. "Do ya feel a bit better now, maybe?"
There was another nod as the girl turned, walking over towards the edge of the building. Jin followed her as she sat down to face the setting sun. "Fighting clears my head. It won't let me think about anything else, it always makes me focus. I can't dwell on things when I'm sparring."
"I know that feelin' meself. There are times when a body just needs a good scrap." The girl nodded and then, to his great surprise, leaned her head against him. He could feel her heaving lightly still; she had worn herself down well. He smiled down at the top of her head. "Ya got me good a few times there. And here I thought I had how ya fight all figured out. Ya like makin' a fool of a fellow, don't ya?" Her reply was a weak half-laugh, and he realized that he was likely going to have to carry her downstairs. Well, that was fine with him. The wind master smiled to himself as the sun sank down below the buildings, silhouetting them as the city lights started to flicker on. Mana was a good girl, and he didn't mind helping her out. He would make a fighter of her yet. It only took a few minutes for the healer to fall asleep against his shoulder once the fiery sphere had settled, but Jin was wide awake until the last slips of color had faded from the sky, drinking it all in. There was just too much over here to pass up, too many good and amazing things to see and wonder over. There was too much life to live. Somehow, he decided, he was going to have to get her to see that, too.
Humans never did seem to realize how good the world around them was...