Well. I suppose I should apologize for not having Little One posted yet. However, the next chapter (after much kicking and screaming) if finally coming along! The hope is to have the thing finished before I graduate!
This story is finished, but there might be some time between updates as school and editing and making triple sure the chapters are where I want them before I post. My beta readers are very poor people who get shot very large chapters. They do a very good with what I give them, however.
Thanks go to Ginny for beta-reading this one for me!
Warning: This fic is violent. Very violent. With lots of swearing. (Again, something new!... something shiny, something blue… err…) Anyway, there isn't any smex, but there is something tasty lime. If any of this doesn't suite you, please do not read.
Disclaimer: RK not mine.
The scenery flew by. Paying the price for the Nozomi train had eaten up most of her emergency cash and what she had left in her pocket was going to have to be enough. Pressing her fingers into her eyes, she worked to control her emotions. She knew two hours wasn't enough time for them to track her… and she had a head start. Closing her eyes, she took a slow breath and then reached for her bag as the train started its lurching stop. The duffle bag was heavy, weighed down with her bokken, a few changes of clothing and the black binders she kept the dojo's papers in. It was a gamble bringing those with her – but there was always the chance that one day she might be able to get it back. The laws might not change in her lifetime but maybe…
She needed to disappear.
Old Kyoto was best for that. Too many people, too much technology in new Kyoto… too many suspicious eyes that wanted to find something, anything. Adjusting her Hanshin Tigers baseball cap, she moved down the aisle. First thing was first, get off the train. It was a physical strain to keep her walk slow, to keep from running. The first time she saw a police officer she flinched, biting her tongue hard enough to taste blood. Checking her watch, checking to see how badly she was shaking, she took another deep breath. Noon. Almost five hours had passed then.
The morning had started off normal. She woke up, crawled to the coffee pot, showered and then set about doing her morning warm ups before her usual run. It was after she had locked the gate behind her that she had seen the mark. Dark, bold lines in black paint her brain had refused to process what she was seeing.
It had been near thirty years since the laws had been put into place to 'protect' the public. Laws that demanded that any magic user be immediately imprisoned an iron lined cell, that their lands and bank accounts be reabsorbed into the government. Just being accused was enough to freeze accounts until you were cleared. There were fines for false accusations of course, but so few were actually paid. Better safe than sorry, the public told itself.
Staring at the mark, it didn't take her long to figure out who had painted it. What the threat was supposed to mean. Hiruma Gohei had wanted nothing but her dojo. His style was weak and his teaching methods worse. He had needed an established dojo to gain some sort of credence. When she had refused to sell, he had made pointed threats. She had never thought him capable of naming her mage and she doubted he knew the truth behind it. He was simply attempting to scare her into selling – he would have shown up with the police and promised to make the mage talk go away.
Except she was a mage. Not a good one, but that didn't matter. It didn't matter if her skills were limited in scope and power. If all she could do was clean up minor bloodstains and keep her house free of sweat and dust. Her only chance now was to disappear.
She needed to get to Sano.
His last letter was burning a hole in her back pocket. She had been careful, always so careful to burn everything he sent her but this one was new, she had just opened it yesterday. He couldn't have changed locations so quickly and if he had, perhaps someone would know where he had disappeared to.
'Pull yourself together, Kamiya,' she scolded herself. 'Act normal. You just got off the train and its noon. Find something to eat and pretend you're not in a hurry. You're not being hunted.'
She had to choke down lunch; it lodged in her throat and was difficult to swallow. She didn't have the yen for a real lunch, instead hitting up a dango stand. The sweat bean paste wasn't the best choice, but she forced herself to chew. The unsweetened tea helped. It didn't take long to finish her meal and she didn't linger deliberately.
Old Kyoto wasn't difficult to find. You simply jumped on a bus to the bridges and crossed over. There was too much business that passed between the communities of old and new to close down the bridges. The yakuza had a firmer hold here in the old world than in Tokyo and they kept the wheels greased. It was just the mages who slipped between who had to be careful. If you were caught practicing or even being accused in new Kyoto, then there wasn't anything the yakuza would do for you.
Worried about the possibility of tails, she lost herself in the alleys and brothels. Her feet hurt and her calves and shoulders ached by the time she finally sorted out where she was. It was light outside, but was getting darker the longer she walked about. It had been too long since she sat down and she was nearing exhaustion – mentally and emotionally. Digging out the worn envelope she tried to decipher the scrawl that Sano called writing.
It took her another hour to find the place. She didn't dare ask someone for directions. Not here. By the time she arrived at the shoddy apartment complex near the edges of old Kyoto, she had only a few yen left. Her nerves were strained to the breaking point and if she didn't find somewhere to sit down soon she was going to end up crying. Taking a deep, calming breath she moved up the stairs, looking for his number. If all else failed, she could pawn the bokken and some of her clothes for cash and maybe find a place to stay for the night.
'Cross that bridge when you get there.'
The apartment number had been broken off at some point and the shades were pulled shut. Biting her sore lip, she knocked anyway. The sound of someone swearing following by a low, deep voice she didn't think was familiar came through the cracks in the door. Kaoru rubbed her damp palms along her thighs nervously. The door opened enough so that she could see the face of a young teenage boy, with a messy head of dark hair and a suspicious expression.
"What do ya want?"
"I'm looking for Sano," she said carefully. There was a blatant dislike in his eyes that strained her already emotional temper. He scowled at her and she bit her cheek.
"Who's at the door?" Sano's voice called from inside the apartment. Relief blossomed in her chest and she almost staggered.
Her eyes snapped back to the boy.
"We're not giving charity," the boy continued. "I don't know who gave you our name, but try next door."
The seams of his shirt strained as she fisted her hand in his clothing. She wasn't tall, but neither was he. Her muscles burned from the misuse of the day, but the startled expression on his face as she lifted him onto his toes was worth it.
"Listen close. I've had a really bad day. If you call me a broad again, I'll toss you down the stairs. You don't know me enough to disrespect me and I don't take charity. Now, where is Sano?"
The words were ground out between gritted teeth and brown eyes widened. He opened his mouth, possibly to spew out profanities, when Sano's voice cut through the conversation.
"Jou-chan? What are you doing here?"
Lifting her eyes from the face in front her, her knees and fingers went weak at the sight of her friend. His expression was flummoxed and she was hard pressed not to fling herself at him.
"It's a really long story and I just want to sit down."
On the word down, her voice visibly cracked and Sano blanched.
"Dammit, Yahiko let her in. No, get her bag and I'll clear a space off the couch." Sano instructed, cutting Yahiko off when he opened his mouth. "Now."
Sighing heavily, the teenager stepped aside and then reached over for her bag. A soft grunt of surprise followed her into the room as she walked towards the couch. She didn't wait for him to move the rest of the dirty magazines before falling onto it, head resting in her hands as she struggled with the sudden emotional upheaval.
"Jou-chan, you were the last person I expected to see. What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be beating the heads of pathetic teenagers who don't know how to properly swing a bokken?"
Taking several deep breaths, she finally spoke, fingers muffling her words.
"There was a mage mark on my door this morning."
Sano swore. The boy cocked a brow at her, clearly unimpressed.
"Running didn't help things," Sano said finally, "I think I have enough favors to clear this up, but it might take a few days."
Kaoru just watched him, lips pressed together.
Sano paused, his weight sinking back into the couch. "You're a mage?"
She nodded. The boy looked slightly more interested and Kaoru ignored him.
"I'm sorry I didn't mention it before now," she said. "I'm not a very good magic user, I can only handle minor clean ups."
"I owned a dojo, Sano." She said tiredly. "You start to notice when blood and sweat start disappearing while you're cleaning the other side of the floor."
Sano licked his lips. "That's how we always managed to not get into trouble with your dad."
She nodded wearily, reaching up to rub her temples with one hand. "I'm not all that strong, so I was hoping to keep it under wraps. I didn't tell you because… well, I didn't know how."
Sano shrugged and his eyes were worried. "Do you know who would have accused you?"
"A man who wanted the dojo. I wouldn't sell."
Sano ran both hands through his hair. "This is going to be a little more complicated. If you're going to stay here, you're going to need new papers and a job. Mages don't stay unemployed for long, but you're not going to want to get in with one of the smaller groups."
Yahiko leaned back, his expression set into bored lines again. "You could always talk to Misao. She always seems to know where there are jobs available."
"What can you do?"
Kaoru frowned. "Basic magic only… I can clean up blood on my floor if it's small and I never have to worry about anything smelling like sweat or teenage boys. Once, I had a kid break his nose. I couldn't do anything about that stain. I had to replace the boards. I assume I can deal with fingerprints, but I only know what I could pick up on Internet café's."
"Internet café's? Anything you learned on those things is probably a load of shit." Yahiko groused.
"Then you won't mind if she borrows your books." Sano said flatly.
Yahiko said up, his eyes flashing. "What?"
"Kid's a witch." Sano said. "His might not do you much good, but it's something."
"Witch?" Kaoru repeated.
Yahiko bristled. "You have a problem with something?"
"I'm starting to get real tired of your attitude." Kaoru warned.
"What are you planning on doing about it?" Yahiko returned.
"Not tonight." Sano said firmly.
"Why, afraid I might hurt her?" Yahiko challenged, jaw set.
"No," Sano returned as he stood, motioning Kaoru to follow. "I have the utmost confidence that she'll wipe the floor with your ungrateful ass."
Yahiko's eyes narrowed.
Kaoru struggled with her temper. Odds were she was being overly sensitive right now. Still, there was just something about Yahiko that made her want to beat him senseless. Taking a deep breath, she tried to center herself. This wasn't the time to work out her temper. She needed to lie down and possibly cry; then start dealing with her problem.
"Come on Jou-chan," Sano said. "We'll change my sheets and you can take a nap, alright?"
Kaoru nodded, walking over to her bag and picking it up. She ignored Yahiko's slightly hostile glance. She would deal with that once she was thinking properly. Just not now.
"This was not how I planned how to spend my first night in old Kyoto." Kaoru informed Sano, desperately trying to stifle a yawn behind her hand. "Please tell me we are going somewhere that has coffee."
Yahiko made a noise. "With all the drunks? It's like watered tar."
Sano shot a look over his shoulder. "They keep a good pot for the other customers. Besides, it's old Kyoto. What else were you planning on doing?"
"Sleeping," Kaoru said crossly. "On a flat surface, instead of when I was walking."
"At least you're fed."
"Honey-butter toast and a can of fried beans isn't a proper meal even by my standards." She growled under her breath as she was dragged into the side of a building. It looked old, something leftover from one of the revolutions, but inside was un-expectantly modern.
"Booth. Now." Sano gave her a long suffering sigh, but cleared a table of drunks with little more than a few words. Well, there might have been more involved but she was too tired to care.
"Man, you're a bit of a bitch, aren't you?" Yahiko questioned as he slid in front of her.
"Why did Sano make me leave behind my bokken again?"
"Why, imagining busting my head in?"
"There are so many other bones to break, why would I start with your skull?" Kaoru snapped before reaching up to cover her eyes with her palms. Coffee. Maybe something with meat, but mostly coffee.
"Here." Sano said, shoving a mug of something dark and steaming under her nose. "This should keep you human enough that we don't have to start peeling bodies off the roof."
"I don't splatter people," Kaoru mumbled, "Too messy."
"Just keep your head down, all right? You haven't been picked up yet, so that makes you fair game. Yahiko, try to keep her out of trouble."
"Whatever." The teenager answered, but it was clear he wasn't paying attention to anything he was saying or anything anyone else was saying. Kaoru sighed. She could already tell he was going to be a walking headache.
Sano nodded and disappeared. Picking up her mug, Kaoru studied the liquid in consideration and finally took a sip. Her taste buds might have just died, but it was hot.
So she took a second sip.
"I can't believe you're drinking that. Sano picked it out, so they probably thought he had been drinking."
"Tastes like hospital coffee." Kaoru muttered, "Toilet water with ink."
"Sounds about right," there was hesitation. "How much time have you spent in hospitals?"
"More than I wanted to." She returned.
Those brown eyes studied her and then he snorted.
"Right," his eyes danced around away from the table and then lit up. "I'll be back."
Kaoru sighed. She didn't mind sitting alone with watered ink, but she really wasn't in the mood to deal with anyone else. Reaching up to cover her eyes, she curled her free hand around her cup. What she really wanted was to do this later.
'We can't wait too long to introduce you. Might as well go and make contact with Misao tonight. If the police in Tokyo are looking for you, the first place there going to put out word is going to be here. You need to be up in your neck in mob cover when that happens.'
Didn't mean she had to like it. In fact, she had thrown one of the only working lamps at Sano's head when he had woke her up and demanded that she get moving. The sound of something clicking on the table startled her into peeking between her fingers. Eyes the color of her neighbor's violets stared at her from under shaggy, dark red bangs.
"You shouldn't be drinking that."
Lowering her hand, she gave him a baleful glare. "What?"
He tapped a finger next to her cup, the motion smooth and easy. "That. It's not real coffee."
"I wasn't aware it was advertised as such." She responded, not bothering to hide her mood. He didn't take the obvious hint, just watched her before the edges around his eyes deepened into what might have been a smile.
"You look hungry."
She studied him, wondering if it was possible to kill someone by strangling him with his own braid. She was pretty sure that there had been a poem about it that she had read in high school; she just couldn't remember all the details.
"I'll take that as a yes."
"Take it as a no."
This time the edges of his mouth curved. Instead of saying anything else, he stole her coffee cup and disappeared – moved with cat grace and quickness you had to be born with. Half a step into the crowd and she was alone again. Sighing, she hoped Sano hadn't paid too much for that mug of coffee; she buried her head into her palms again.
This time the clinking noise came with the smell of bread and meat. Instead of a redhead, there was a soft-eyed woman with a smile and a wave. A fresh cup of coffee that smelled delicious and several rolls stuffed with meat and cheese sat in front of her. She hesitated, because she didn't really want to encourage someone by accident. Chewing on her lip, she debated for half a second before picking her mug up and taking a sip. The hot coffee was obviously fresh and it woke up her appetite. Surely, she had made it clear that she wasn't interested?
By the time Sano showed back up, dragging an annoyed Yahiko by the collar, her dinner crumbs had been cleared and her mug had been topped off. Shoving Yahiko into the booth, he slid in.
"Well, I talked to Misao."
"They have an opening. It's all lower level work, but the salary is good. She said she would come by with the contract tomorrow and the name of a few lawyers if you want someone to explain things."
"I'm supposed to trust one of their lawyers?"
"Well, they're the only ones who deal with us. Besides, the Oniwabanshu like to keep up appearances and they try to treat us fair. If we run, they're going to have to find and kill us and then they're out however much they sunk into us."
"I'm sure that sentence will make sense in the morning when I've had eight hours of sleep." She muttered.
"Means they don't screw us over like other places; are you sure you're not stupid?" Yahiko drawled.
"I thought I told you to stop picking on her tonight." Sano warned.
"I said I would think about it." Yahiko returned. "I did and I decided she is an easy target."
Sano sighed. "I'm not patching you up."
Kaoru felt much better after having eaten and decided to let this one slide.
"Can we head out now?"
"Yeah. Yahiko, you're on the couch tonight."
Sighing, Kaoru followed them out of the bar. She didn't bother to check to see if she could see the redhead before she left. It was doubtful in this crowd that she would and she wasn't interested in speaking to him again. A glance back could have been interpreted in many ways she wasn't interested in giving.
Working for the yakuza was easy. Getting out was supposed to be harder. The Oniwabanshu wasn't technically a yakuza group, acting more as an agency that contracted individuals and then sold those services. Misao was a small boned, bouncy woman whose eyes missed little. She made up for her size in sheer presence and a braid that fell to her knees.
The contract Misao had brought was basic. She had adjusted it in a few places when Kaoru had given her a few details on what she could do and then settled in with Yahiko to play video games. Sano had ordered pizza and beer and it was turning into a strange, sitcom-y moment. Not feeling any pressure to hurry, Kaoru had been careful to read every line. It took some time to work through the twenty-page document and by the time she felt that she understood everything enough to sign, the sun had set. Yahiko was clearly fed up with the affair. She thought his poor attitude might have come from his poor winning record against Misao.
"Will you just sign already?" He snapped, throwing the controller as Misao beat him yet again.
"Nothing wrong with being cautious," Misao said with a smile.
Kaoru shrugged. "I signed five minutes ago; I just didn't want to interrupt the game."
Sano grunted something from his place on the couch.
"Well," Misao said jumping to her feet. "I should be taking that back in to be filed. Someone will bring by your first assignment in the next week or so. Salary won't start until you have completed at least one mission."
"Have a nice night and try not to burn the place down, brat."
The door shut with a bang behind the whirlwind.
"Man, you best be careful with who you fling those names around," Sano warned. "Her boyfriend has a reputation as a hard ass.
Yahiko just shrugged and turned back to his game.
Kaoru stood up. She needed to work out some kinks. Considering the layout of the room, she tilted her head at Sano.
"Do you think we can rearrange the furniture?"
He sighed before pushing himself up. Yahiko ignored them both as they heaved the couch and chairs up against the wall, giving her enough space to wave her bokken around without smashing it through a wall. She was going to be limited to basic kata as it was.
"We're going to have to get you something a little heavier for when you're on the streets." Sano muttered.
"Why? I'm just going to be cleaning out rooms and covering tracks," Kaoru said as she tightened her ponytail. "I can't think of a reason why I would need anything more than that."
Sano sighed. "At least let me take it to a friend to get some spells worked into the wood."
Yahiko turned and frowned. "What are you doing?"
"Practicing," Kaoru said with a shrug. Picking up her bokken, she closed her eyes and let herself slip into her stance.
"You know kendo?"
She cracked an eye open. "I used to teach it."
His expression was doubtful. "Any good?"
"She'll kick your ass if you don't leave her alone," Sano warned, flopping back onto the couch. "Never get between a girl and her practice. It hurts the next day."
Yahiko snorted, but kept his mouth shut. Kaoru was grateful. She needed to work out, not beat the living daylights out of someone. Moving slowly, she worked through the first three stages of Kamiya Kasshin before picking up the speed until she could hear the wood humming in her hand. She didn't dare go through the motions for the upper kata; she could put herself through a wall in this space. She didn't stop moving until her shoulders and wrists burned, and she was panting hard. Slowly working through a few simple strokes, she allowed herself to cool off before she went to repack her bokken.
She glanced at Yahiko out of the corner of her eyes and found him watching her with a newly interested expression. Figured the kid would show interest in sword skills if nothing else.
"I don't teach to kill." She told him, yanking the zipper of her bag closed. She really needed to find some place to store her gear.
"I'm a witch," he scowled. "If I kill intentionally, I lose my power."
Kaoru frowned. "I didn't know that."
"There are a lot of things you don't know," he pointed out, rolling his eyes.
"I never said that I didn't have things to learn," she returned, her own eyes narrowing.
"Oh boy," Sano muttered. "Here we go."
"You know," she said mildly, ignoring Sano. "I could understand being suspicious of me yesterday. I was new, you didn't know anything about me and I was crashing into your space. Everyone likes to have space. What I don't understand is your attitude today."
He shrugged. "There isn't any rule that says I have to like you."
"Of course not," she returned. "I would like to know what pissed you off."
Brown eyes narrowed. "You're a mage."
"Not a very good one."
"Doesn't matter," he returned. "Mage's and witches don't like each other."
He snorted. "You really are stupid."
'Physical violence will not solve this, Kamiya. Do not lose your temper.' Taking a deep breath, she considered the sulky teen.
"Alright, I'll make you a deal."
His shoulders tightened, clearly expecting something. She just wished she knew what.
"You can't kill, I don't like killing. My sword style is built around the principle of not having to kill. It's defensive. There is only one move made to kill and you won't be learning that one."
His pupils dilated. "Won't be learning?"
"You are interested in swords, are you not?" She asked hand on hip.
His jaw worked for a moment, before he gave a sharp nod.
"Then I'll teach you. With conditions."
He tried to hide his interest by narrowing his eyes.
"I won't tolerate disrespect. I have to be able to trust you to use this sword style wisely. Kamiya Kasshin is a family style, so you won't be learning any of the succession techniques and I take teaching it very seriously. I won't baby you and if I find out you have used anything I teach you to deliberately harm someone innocent or out of anger, I'll break your hand so you can't use a bokken again."
He frowned at her. "I'm not a coward."
"I know." She responded. "But strength is only good when you know how to use it."
"What do I get out of our deal?" He growled.
"Besides learning how to defend yourself?" Kaoru asked.
Yahiko crossed his arms. "Yes."
"Sano said you have books."
"He already said you could use them." Yahiko responded, eyes resentful.
"I'm not using them without your permission." She took a deep breath. "We could do an exchange. I teach you a lesson and you answer a few of my questions."
Brown eyes studied her for a long moment before he shrugged. "Whatever."
A pillow missile hit him in the back of the head.
"What the hell was that for, Rooster-head?"
"Kaoru is good. You won't find someone at her level offering to teach you for this sort of deal, you little idiot."
"She didn't look that impressive." Yahiko ground out.
"That's because she was going over basics. Even I know that," Sano said, flopping backwards.
"You're call." Kaoru said, ignoring the argument between them. "I imagine I'll figure things out eventually, with or without your books. Right now, I'm going to shower."
"Whatever." Yahiko muttered, but his eyes flickered back to her duffle back.
"We're going out for dinner, so don't take too long." Sano warned.
"Right, right." Kaoru said, sighing. There went her dreams of using up all of the ten minutes of hot water.
Kaoru groaned a little as she sucked in air, hands on top of her head. The only relief was that Sano was sucking more air than she was. Bored with waiting for some message from the Oniwabanshu, she had dragged Sano out for a run. Yahiko had been napping and she hadn't wished to deal with the whining.
"Three miles?" Sano gasped out. "You said a short run!"
"It was short," she informed him between breaths. "I usually try to run five every other day."
"Helps with breathing," she admitted. "I needed any advantage in a match. It's not perfect and I used to hate getting up so early, but it helps."
"So why did you drag me out?"
"I need someone to run with me, at least until I get used to the layout." She reminded him, motioning with one hand to start the climb up the stairs to the apartment. "Be glad I don't trust the stairs enough to run them."
He gave her a look. "Does this mean I get to drag you to the gym to lift weights?"
She chewed on her lip. "Lifting isn't a bad idea."
He nodded, opening the door and ushering her in. "Just some basic weights for toning," he agreed. "Especially if you decide you need a katana instead of a bokken."
She snorted, shaking her head as she stepped into the apartment. "I'm not interested in live steel."
"You're arguing over this again?" Yahiko's voice was gruff with sleep and his stuck all directions as he hefted a spoon to his mouth. The cereal crunched loudly and Kaoru cringed. She knew from experience that the cereal had been stale for a week.
"Man, you used up all the milk," Sano growled as he dug through the fridge.
Yahiko shrugged. He pointed his spoon at a box on the floor. "That came in."
Sano tilted his head and sighed. "Oh, that would be your information, Kaoru."
"Information?" She repeated, tightening her hair band. "About what?"
Yahiko heaved a sigh. "Basic information. Who your agent is, what your rank is, what level of cases you will be working with – who you report to after each assignment so you can get paid. Kid stuff."
One of these days, she was going to take him up to the roof and beat him over the head. Taking a deep breath, she accepted the scissors from Sano and cut the tape. Inside the box was indeed a packet and she pulled it out to start thumbing through it.
"So who's your agent?" Sano questioned, peeling a bruised banana. Kaoru made a face at the fruit before scanning the top sheet.
Sano choked and Yahiko made a spluttering noise.
"Hey! He's mine!"
"I didn't ask for him," she shot back, eyes narrowing. "It just says that it's Sano."
Sano rubbed his face. "I can see what they're doing."
Yahiko turned around and stared at him. "What?"
"Trying to give me something to do so they can apprentice you off," Sano returned, taking another bite of the fruit. He continued. "Your skills are best taught master to apprentice and I'm no witch."
Yahiko's expression was furious. "I'm not going to be trained with some idiot that makes me do all the work!"
"I take it you've had that happen?" Kaoru tried.
Yahiko's mouth thinned. "Yes."
She nodded, going back to her packet. She couldn't change anything and any question she could ask would be taken wrong. Shaking her head, she flipped to the next page.
"What does it mean when it says that punishment for failure is determined by the agent?"
"Oh. That. I had forgotten about that."
"Forgotten about what?"
He sighed. "The rules are different for mages than witches. For one thing, mages are harder to punish. A lot of the skills your good at can be sold for hard cash, so sometimes fines don't cut it. A lot of 'em are strong enough that they're harder to hurt so they had to find a way to keep things balanced. So they developed a curse-seal."
Her brow inched upward.
"Hell, Jou-chan, I know better than to do more than fine you. Shit, I don't want to do even that! You'll kick my ass when I'm sleeping!"
"What kind of seal?"
"It's a curse spell," Yahiko said with a sharp smile. "They put a seal on your hand and it works as a curse."
Sano ran his fingers through his hair. "It's supposed to just be a deterrent, but occasionally it is used in the field. Hands and fingertips have millions of nerves, so that's what they decided on. The basic seal doesn't do much 'cause they have to investigate. Marking a mage is a serious thing and no one takes it lightly. After the investigation they make the call if you deserve the full measure of the curse."
"Someone once compared it sticking their fingers into a pool of lava and somehow keeping their hand." Yahiko supplied helpfully.
"Anyway," Sano rushed, glaring at Yahiko. "It doesn't happen often. When it does, sometimes it's the mages fault; sometimes it's the clerk who keeps up with the assignments fault. Anyway, murder generally has to be involved for a mage to receive the mark."
"What happens to the office clerk?" Kaoru questioned.
"Depends." Yahiko said with a shrug. "If they torture the mage and find out the office clerk was covering up… they die. If you're going to torture mages, you kill those who magic doesn't have an effect on. Had to balance it."
"Well, enough of this!" Sano said suddenly. "Kaoru is in officially, so you know what this means?"
"Her own place?"
Kaoru sighed. "Oh goody."
Kaoru laughed as she watched Yahiko try to talk to Tsubame, the tips of his ears turning pink. Sano was shaking his head, his beer half empty in front of him.
"You're paying for this." Kaoru informed him, swirling her straw through the dark red of her daiquiri.
"You. Check. This." She said pointing. "I'm the broke newbie who hasn't gotten a job or a paycheck yet."
"This was your idea!"
She shrugged, leaning over to steal a fry from his plate. "The food was my idea. You're the one who wanted to go out."
He frowned, starring at the food. "You ordered the expensive hamburger."
"Bacon," Kaoru returned with a satisfied smile. "It's three dollars! It's not like I asked for a diamond in my martini."
"You don't like martinis."
"You're impossible." Sano growled at her, hunching a little as he continued to stare at the food as if it had suddenly turned into his enemy. Snickering, she tossed her legs out of the booth.
"I'm going to the little girl's room. I'll be back." Sano waved his hand, not looking away from his plate. Shaking her head in amusement, she strode across the mostly empty dance floor. Things were still quiet and she was thankful. While this wasn't exactly her idea of a celebratory dinner, but there was something quietly satisfying about grease.
Someone was obviously practicing for that night's shows and the base made her chest hum as she stepped out of the bathroom and dodged someone who was clearly in a hurry. Frowning, she looked at her watch. Barely ten. Surely those who had been here before them hadn't managed to consume enough alcohol that they needed to make emergency dashes already?
"Fake coffee and now grease," the mellow voice was teasing. "Are your eating habits always this healthy?"
She looked up to find herself starring into blue-violet for the second time.
"Stalking is considered rude." She returned, moving to step around him and frowning when he stepped in front of her. "Can I help you with something?"
"It isn't nice to leave someone without a name." He returned with a smile.
"I don't remember you leaving a name last time, red." She sniped back, fighting the urge to tell the people on stage to turn the sound down or rub her chest. His smile showed off the dimple in his left cheek
"Himura Kenshin, all you had to do was ask."
She blew her bangs out of her eyes. "That wasn't an invitation."
He laughed. "I think I am going to like you."
"Wonderful," she muttered, moving to step around him again. Once again, his body seemed to be between her and the path she was going to take, hands shoved in his pockets as he watched.
"All I want is your name," he coaxed, the corner of his mouth curving, "for now."
She chewed on the corner of her lip. "I'll make you a deal."
"I'm all ears," he murmured, eyes laughing.
"I'll tell you my name if you leave me alone."
He made a disapproving noise. "That's not nice."
She scowled. "For tonight, then."
"Such a high price when I have already given you my name," he returned, head tilting. "Names have power, you know."
"So do bargains," she returned, shrugging. "Odds are you can find out my name at any time. Of course," she studied the set of his shoulders and the edges of those eyes. "I don't like or trust you."
He gave a low bow, bangs covering his gaze for a split second before he lifted, "As you wish."
"Very funny," she muttered. "Everyone has seen that movie."
He simply watched her, the edge of his brow tilted. Sighing, she crossed her arms.
"Kamiya," she ground out. "Kamiya Kaoru."
"See," he teased, "that wasn't so hard."
She snorted and stepped around him. This time, he didn't step in her way. Her breath caught in her throat when he repeated her name as she passed – voice low and delighted. She refused to look back to see if he was watching. The stage was getting too loud to bear and she lifted her hand to rub a circle against her chest. Thankfully, when she returned to the booth, Sano was ready to go.
"You paid then?"
"I have a tab."
Kaoru stared at him and he lifted his hands. "Honest. Go ask Tae if you want."
She considered it, knowing her friend's attitude about paying, but then she might have to see the redhead… Himura Kenshin, again. He had agreed to leave her alone, but that didn't mean he couldn't be obvious.
"No, let's just go. The band is giving me a headache."
"That's because they sound like they're dying," Yahiko offered helpfully as he appeared. "Odds they know some zombies?"
"I don't want to think about it," Kaoru groused. "I'm tired."
"Right, right," Yahiko said with an eye roll, "world revolving around you again. How could I forget?"
"One of these days I'm going to be cleaning blood out of the carpet," Sano sighed, following the bickering pair out of the bar.