What used to be a sausage patty was now a deconstructed pile of mush on her plate. It was all Tsukiko could do not to not spill the beans on everything that had happened earlier. However, the last thing she wanted was to alienate herself from Saya further or to reopen the newly closed rift between Hoshi and herself. Still, she damn near bit through her cheek when she heard David call her name.
"Hmm?" she replied as casually as she could.
"I asked if you were still planning on trailing Sho today."
"Oh, yeah. That hasn't changed. Actually, I should probably go get ready. I'll have my phone on me, and I'll call if anything gets weird or I need backup."
She looked up from her plate long enough to see David nod his head. The questioning look in Kai's eyes damn near undid her, so she dropped her gaze back down to her plate as she pushed it to the middle of the table for the wait staff to get when they cleared it later.
As Kei was at the table, no one said anything about Hoshi's plans to keep a particularly close eye on him, but that wasn't really Tsukiko's problem. At least, it shouldn't be. Honestly, it still rubbed her the wrong way that Hoshi was training with that guy instead of her no matter what the hell he was. But if it kept Hoshi alive, how could she argue.
The elevator dinged as she approached it, and she saw a pack of guys leave it, including the distinctive tone of Sho's hair shoved under a baseball cap.
"There you are!" he said, smiling brightly at her. "I was just talking about you. You ready to head out?"
Tsukiko flushed a moment, the smile so genuine that it caught her off guard, and guilt nudged her in the back. Between the two men, she was infinitely more inclined to suspect Kei as the King. This guy was just a rocker. A really attractive rocker with some gorgeous eyes. She blinked a few times, bringing herself out of their gold-green depths.
"Umm, I was going to go throw on something a little nicer…"
"Oh, you look great as usual," he said, throwing an arm around her shoulders. She felt the flush growing.
"Well, if you say so."
"And I do. Come on, fellas, we got a rehearsal to make and a lady to entertain!"
She smiled a little, thinking that she probably got the better deal at the end of the day. Rocking out with some hunky men beat going to a training session any day of the week.
A pair of heels sat at the ready, and a heavy weight sat on her shoulders. She'd screwed up bad, and she knew it, but regretted nothing. Hoshi had always considered the transfusions as a necessary evil. She hated feeling like an invalid that needed to be treated. The infusions took a good twenty minutes or so, at least. But this morning…
The click of the gun sounded, and her feet were moving before the bullet left the barrel, and she had the old battered bulletproof vest up to catch the bullet well before she felt its impact. It finished off the star she'd been working on.
"How's that?" she asked into the earpiece she wore. "Satisfied?"
He'd holstered his weapon and was cleaning his glasses, shaking his head with a smirk on his face.
"If I wasn't, I'd just be being as stubborn as you, and one of us has to give. But if you get hit, we're done until we've worked on your speed some more. I won't be the one to put you in danger."
She resisted the urge to leap in the air with joy, smiling happily. It vaguely occurred to her that she was excited about being shot at, and erupted into a fit of giggles before making her way towards the empty space of field next to the targets.
"I hope you know that in a real fight, the assailant will be much closer than a hundred feet," he said. His body let her know how reluctant he was to finally give in to her wishes.
"We'll work our way up to that," she told him and was ready when he shot his attention back towards her. "Don't give me that. You know what we're training for. Better you than me. Just aim for the torso. It shouldn't be fatal there, even if I do get hit."
She watched him nod, taking a deep breath before letting her Chiropteran sense take over more completely, tucking a sweat soaked strand of hair behind her ear as she stood straight. Her nerves were all alight, and she could see Kei clearly from this distance, pleased when he discarded the hesitation completely and took his first shot. His words from earlier came back to her in that instant.
"You move too much. Each breath, each motion must have a purpose. Don't do more than you need to, and always position yourself so that you can go on the offense at a moment's notice."
The bullet travelled quickly, but she could make it out clearly as she was now, and Hoshi turned her body to the side, feeling the heat of the bullet as it burned through the air past her stomach.
"Good," came his voice. "I'm going to speed up now. Let me know if things get too hectic."
"Roger," she replied, and she had a moment before she heard another shot sound.
It was pushing midday, and she knew they'd been out there for at least a few hours, but instead of feeling tired, she felt calmly relaxed. Her body wove back and forth between the bullets as Kei adjusted his aim with each one. It felt almost like dancing, and she knew she was smiling slightly.
"Ready for multiples?"
He didn't get her enough time to get into position this time. The rapidfire sound came, and for the first time since training began, she felt a tendril of fear slip in her mind. Batting it away, she refocused. Two near her torso, one slightly lower, all within the spread of about a yard. Timing was everything, and Hoshi decided to push herself and threw herself forward, tumbling easily over the first two and coming dangerously close to letting the third one graze her face. She landed in a crouching position, facing Kei, who looked a little dumbfounded for a moment.
"When the hell did you learn to do that?" he asked after a moment.
"Made it up," she answered honestly. "How about we start closing the gap now?"
Again, the hesitation. She watched him take a deep breath, looking at his gun and reloading it before looking back at her.
"Fine. We'll do this your way. We'll go until you get hurt."
Her pride smarted at his assumption. "And if I hurt you first?"
At that, he smirked a little.
"Willing to make a wager on that?"
Hoshi paused for a moment, relaxing her tense muscles as her assignment came into the forefront of her thoughts. If she was supposed to be determining whether he was the King, this might be the perfect chance to push his limits and see if he gave something away. And if she won, that could be yet another chance. If she got him away from the others, alone for a little while…
"If I tag you first, you take me out shopping," she replied. "What do you want if you win?"
"A sample of your blood."
Her temper flared for a moment. "I'm still just some test subject to you, aren't I?"
"Never just that," he replied, his voice soft. "You were never 'just' anything. But I am still very much fascinated by you. And the other Queens."
That last bit was added on hastily, and she could see his cheeks color a little, the awkward man back. She let herself be flattered by the thought that he found her interesting. For so long she'd been the quiet, boring one. Fascinating was a good change.
"Deal," she told him, bringing them both back to the task at hand. "Let's see what you have."
And with that, she let the tension build up and spring her forward, taking a zig-zag motion across the field as she plotted on how best to draw first blood. She heard the bullets whizzing by her, letting instinct do most of the work for her. He only had another loaded gun before he had to reload something. Perfect chance to strike. A pair of high and low bullets came at her as he started to move around the field, trying to maintain some distance between them. He must know it was a futile effort with her speed. She spun herself in the air, feeling one of the bullets rip through the loose fabric of her pants, but forcing herself not to let the tag distract her. There were maybe ten yards between them now, and Hoshi knew the closer she got, the less reaction time she would have. He tossed one gun to the side as he drew the other full loaded one. Six more bullets. He fired one, and she started moving closer again, trying to work through his thoughts like they were her own. He was saving bullets for when she came closer, picking his shots carefully at this point.
Overwhelm him. It was her only option at this point, and if he was the King, it still may not be enough. She sprinted forward, only shifting directions when she heard the gun go off. Four bullets. Three. Two. One. The last shot sounded just as she placed the tips of her extended nails against his neck, watching a small red pearl form. She panted, her face close to his, eye to eye as her mind and body worked to process the adrenaline pouring through her body. She'd never felt a rush like this before, and it took her a moment before the pain in her side registered, and even then, it was more discomfort than anything.
"Call it a draw?" she finally gasped, only then realizing that she had him pinned to the ground, sitting on top of him. Gingerly, she eased herself off of him. His hand reached up to feel the puncture wound she'd given him, pulling his hand away with a smear of blood on it. The entire time, his eyes never left hers, and Hoshi felt distinctly like he was seeing her as a different creature entirely. Sitting back on her heels, she waited anxiously for him to say something.
He stood up, breaking eye contact, and walking over to the duffle bag he'd brought, pulled out the small first aid kit. Slapping a small bandaid on his wound, he brought the kit over and sat down next to her.
"That was terrifying," he said, a slight tremor in his voice. "But fun as hell."
Hoshi looked at him, a smile on his face as he lifted up her shirt without prelude, fishing for the tweezers and peroxide. She stared at the top of his head as he worked, watching him grimace at the condition of the shirt as he pulled it back down.
"You brought a spare, right?"
He looked back up at her, eye to eye again, and Hoshi took a moment to register what he'd said. "Umm, yeah. I think. I'll get it."
She winced a little as she got up, glad it was only a surface wound as she fished the spare tank top from the bag. Glancing over her shoulder once, she saw him dutifully turned around, waiting for her to give him the "all clear." It rather shocked her to realize she would not have minded letting him watch at all.
Haji let the door close with a soft click behind them, and Saya's eyes immediately went to the envelope on the dresser, no writing on the cover. She could feel the plastic card inside even before she opened it up and read the printed sheet enclosed with it.
"For what Red Shield won't do."
Below the statement was a web address and login information, giving Saya further access to the funds that were present on the Visa card. Farrah was really putting a lot of faith and trust in them. She balled up the paper and threw it away, stashing the card in her purse just in time to hear a knock at the door. Haji looked at her since he was still standing near it, and she nodded to him as she went over to push open the heavy curtains and let the sun into the dark room. The door closed again before she heard who it was.
"What's going on, Saya?"
She looked up to face Kai, the increased light in the room highlighting the wear of time on his features. His hair looked more gray than red, and the smile lines around his eyes seemed especially deep. How old was he now? Close to fifty, certainly. She would outlive him by hundreds… maybe even thousands of years. For a brief moment, she clearly saw the chasm that existed between them and felt the distance between his human self and her Chiropteran nature. Then the look of concern drew her back, and Kai was once again her big brother, then one she wanted to protect.
"Nothing you need to worry about," she said, not trying to keep the seriousness out of her voice.
"Way past that point, Saya," Kai said, coming closer to her. He sat down at the table near the window, elbows on the table as he ran his hands through his hair. "I've never seen Tsukiko look so tense and out of sorts. I looked at her, and she wouldn't even meet my eye."
He stopped, looking at her, waiting for her to say something. She considered whether silence or a response would be best. He saved her the trouble.
"Never… never has she ever done that. There has been no struggle, internal or external, that has ever caused her to shy away from me like that. Something isn't right, and I know it. And I know that you know what it is."
Kai's voice held neither condemnation or accusation. He was just looking for answers. Saya licked her lips, thinking of whether she could trust him or not. Thirty years was a long time. Where did his loyalties truly lie? She hated herself for even doubting him, but so much rested on her shoulders, and she refused to falter again. Her voice dropped to a whisper.
"I don't want Red Shield involved."
"I'm not asking as a Red Shield operative, Saya," he hissed, his voice as low as hers. "I'm asking as their uncle. As…as their father."
He took a deep breath to keep his voice from breaking further. "They are the closest thing I will ever have to children, Saya. I don't doubt that you care for them, but I was the one who raised them for thirty years. I've watched their first steps. Heard their first words. I dried tears, kissed wounds, sang lullabyes… They are my kids, Saya. I know you can handle yourself, and I know you'd never intentionally put them in harm's way, but I have to know. I don't know if you can understand that…"
"I wish I could," she admitted, her eyes meeting Haji's for a moment. "Maybe someday…in some sense, I will. But you are right. Be sure to let them know that you know, Kai. It's been killing them. But not here."
He nodded, standing up. "Let's go to the roof and talk. No one should hear us there who doesn't need to."
Saya took a deep breath, feeling the burden shift to something more bearable. As they left the room, she felt the warmth of Hajis hand at her back, a gentle reassurance. She'd made the right decision, and she'd defend it with everything she had.
He had her, and he knew it. She was in deeper than she knew, but he still had to be careful lest her scare her away. All that power and passion would be his if he played his cards right and his hand wasn't forced.
There was still so much that could go wrong. The other queens were very much a factor, and he had at least one Chevalier to worry about. If the other queen decided to make a Chevalier out of that other guy, that would spell major trouble. He didn't want to risk making any more Chevalier himself, especially considering his limited options. The first four had been chosen long before he'd been back in the area. New ones would point more directly at him, condemning him before he wanted to be revealed.
Then there was Red Shield, which was an annoyance at most for now. They were being careful since they didn't want to scare him. That suited his plans perfectly. He didn't want to destroy the plans he'd laid so carefully. However, he wanted what he wanted. As things stood right now, he was more than prepared to disappear with her and lock her away until she became sympathetic with his cause. And she would. Of that, he had very little doubt.
He scratched absently at the scar tissue around his ankles. Ever a constant reminder of what he worked so hard to leave behind.
"Ha, I did it!" Tsukiko yelled triumphantly to the giggles and applause from the guys around her. She handed the guitar back to Josh after finally being able to play the first few chords of the last song they'd been rehearsing.
"Just in time for lunch," Sho smiled at her.
He went to go answer the knock at the door, taking the bags from the deliveryman while handing him some cash and bringing them to the long table that sat in the middle of the room. Tsukiko bit her bottom lip, wanting to eat them all herself, but knowing she couldn't be that selfish.
A footlong sandwich came flying at her, and she caught it in both hands, waving it in thanks before sitting down and tearing into it.
"Might wanna chew between bites, you know," Sho teased her, sitting across from her in the small circle of chairs.
"Yeah, yeah," she mumbled around her mouthful.
She didn't care if this was supposed to be work or not. Tsukiko couldn't remember having so much fun since she'd been a freshman in high school. She'd been the tomboy, the one that liked to go out and get dirty with the boys afterschool, tracking dirt in the house and having to bandage up a cut or scrape every other day. They treated her like one of the guys, and she loved it. She belched; they laughed. They teased, she teased back. It was a vacation for her from the stress and problems flowing through her thoughts the past week or two.
"If you aren't careful, we might have to steal you away and make you one of our groupies," Sho said, tossing his crumpled wrapper over towards the trashcan. It bounced off to the laughter of his band members.
"You know what," Tsukiko said, doing the same thing and landing the trash squarely inside with a soft thump. "I don't think I'd mind at all. You might need to start paying me in food or something though. I eat a lot."
The guys giggled and Sho considered her with a smile on his face. She smiled back, imagining just leaving everything behind and starting fresh. No more responsibilities or criticism. Just her, the band, good music and good food. But if he was the King…
Tsukiko pushed the thought from her mind. For right now, it didn't matter. She felt comfortable in a way she hadn't felt since Saya had reappeared. As much as she didn't want to admit it, and perhaps had been ignoring it she'd put her legendary aunt on a pedestal for far too long. She'd imagined Saya and her charging into new battles. Saya would be the superhero and she'd be the trusted sidekick. Honestly, it was what she'd been training for, to be able to meet the woman who had destroyed Diva with pride and say "I can help you." However, she'd done nothing but disappoint and get in her way.
"What's with that face?"
Her eyes widened, not realizing she'd been that lost in thought. Sho looked at her, concern in his eyes. Heavens, but he did have some lovely ones.
"About my offer? I was serious, you know."
He tilted his head a little, and she looked at the floor, needing something else to focus on.
"I've got a lot of responsibilities, some messes to clean up."
"You're sixteen. What on earth could you possibly have to be responsible for?"
"My mistakes," she said softly. It was an admission that was hard for her, but she took a deep breath and reassessed her situation and the events of the day. She may have screwed things up with Saya, but she could also fix them. She knew she could. Then maybe…just maybe she could have a sliver of that dream back, even if they had to find new bad guys to fight.