Finally, I have Internet access at my fingertips again~! *does the happiest dance I've ever done in my life*
(Been posting the chapters of this fanfic in public hotspots, you see. Since Chapter 11.)
Just a heads up: This now stands as the longest chapter of this fanfic. (And it shall remain that way. No future chapter shall be as long as this one… I hope.)
Warning: This chapter is very dialogue-heavy. I tried cutting corners. I really tried. But it just went on and on and on. You'll know why once you read it. (Should you have any suggestions on how to trim it down to size, I would love to hear them. Thanks in advance~)
Oh, and do feel free to glance at the palm of your hand several times while reading a certain part of this chapter. ^^
At the risk of sounding like a broken record… Happy reading! ^-^
And now, dedications are in order…
loser94-san: Thank you! Your support makes writing this worth my while, too! ^_^
Pewter Queen-san: Yay, marshmallows! XD I love those! Thank you so much! You know, Chapter 18 was the first time I had chosen Kaname as a "lead" character of this fanfic from the YYH character drop-down menu—until now, I've always used either just Kurama or Kurama and Hiei. But wow, how attentive of you to notice. ^^ I truly appreciate your consistent reviews! ^-^
LilyMoonstone-san: Your username reminds me of the first mystery story I've ever read, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. XD And the Jagan is…! *grins meaningfully* But let's just keep that between us for now, shall we? ^^ More revelations to come in the next chapters!
Lunalom-san: Wow, long time no hear from you indeed! Of course I remember you! (In fact, the first words that came to my mind upon reading your review were "mantis shrimp demon." XD Then I had to go check if that was you, all right. *sweat-drops*) And I remember your keen eye, too. ^^ Should you spot any accidental slips of my fingers—or brain XD—please feel free to point them out! You are always welcome here. ^-^ I'm also glad to know you're still reading!
And TeacupKitty-san, to whom this chapter is dedicated thrice: Hi there! I don't mean to sound too forward or anything, but after just reading your reviews of all my YYH fanfics so far, I like you already. ^^ I'm impressed that you noticed the subtle Kaitou x Nami foreshadow in Chapter 14—even if Kaitou wasn't a major player in this fanfic yet at that time! ^^; He is such a snob, isn't he? I have my fun writing him. XD
As for your criticism on the Japanese in this fic… Duly noted. ^-^ I'm now consciously trying to reduce my usage of it to the words that I've already used in previous chapters. Won't introduce many more new ones, as much as possible. And as for the "gasp" thing… *trying very hard not to gasp, myself* You're absolutely right! And don't worry—you weren't rude at all. ^^ Thank you for bringing that to my attention!
I just love your character interpretation of Kurama. "Perfect pretty boy" with a dark side, all right. ^^ And I totally agree with you: Kurama is likable because he's such a two-face. Had he remained the mother-loving, self-sacrificing pretty boy he was in the beginning of YYH, I myself would have just branded him as a classic case of Mary Sue and never snuck a glance his way again. XD
"It's like he's . . . some stuck-up royal lady who won't let anyone get close just because she thinks she's too important." Amen to that. ^-^ But the not-so-OC I'm writing, Setsu, seems to have a mind of her own: she thinks he's stuck up, too, but for a different personal reason. You'll get to read more of her take on him in this chapter. ^^ (I don't know why she and I agree to disagree, though. I may be writing her, but it's like she likes him better than I do. XD)
"Kurama'll always be my snooty little princess man." When I read this, I thought you had read my mind. XD Read on to find out why! And I… err… actually have more to say regarding your reviews, but I'll just PM you instead once I sort my thoughts. Thank you for everything! ^-^ Looking forward to hearing from you again!
A warm welcome to Silverwing013, DeathAngel457, , bloodyshovel, pepperjam (Are you TeacupKitty-san? ^^), DarkScott, wreathdeathscythe, roseangelriz-green27, lilmeika, and patlegrand3! I would just love to hear from you, too! Please, send me a review sometime!
19: The Saboteur
Alternative Chapter Title: Prince Charmless
(Originally entitled The Saboteur, Part 2)
Green eyes dulled into gray. The elderly lady wrapped her dark, intricately woven veil around her face, leaving only her eyes, the deep-set crinkles above them, and the dry crows' feet below them in view.
The fortuneteller sat before her card table and studied her own wizened, grisly reflection in her crystal ball. From the contour of her cheekbones alone, even without seeing the rest of her face, no one would be able to deny that she was now a woman. She appeared to be in her late sixties or early seventies—a believable age for illustrious mediums and mystics. One glaringly big, hairy mole stood out from under her left eye, but it came with the total package. If she was to play the aged, she had to look the part, flaws and all.
But her hearing was perfect. She could even overhear her next customers whispering to each other while waiting behind her black, beaded curtains.
"It's so nice of you to agree to this, Minamino-kun! I'm sure your fortune will be interesting!"
"You have always wanted to explain the unexplainable, Kitajima."
"Enter," barked the old woman with aplomb, essaying her next new role with a grand wave of her shriveled hand.
It was show time.
Her grip tighter than a vise, the chiromancer held the fingers of his left hand perfectly still. A cold bead of sweat trickled down Kurama's forehead. The tip of her pointer finger was even colder. He resisted curling his fingers into a fist as the old psychic pressed against the arched line at the base of his left thumb. "You possess a 'family ring,' okyaku-san," she began in a hoarse, raspy voice typical of her ripe age. "An uncommon line. You are strongly attached to your family."
Then she traced the line of his left palm closest to his thumb, starting from in between his pointer and thumb curving all the way down to his wrist. "Now your lifeline, okyaku-san. Observe how it branches out into two just before touching your bracelet lines." A sharp black nail slid down to the deep lines around his wrist. "You have traveled far. You are a wanderer, a journeyman who returns home."
Chocolate eyes glazing in awe as she watched Kurama's palm being read, Maya held her breath in excitement, her fingers tingling and lightly touching her lips. "You know, Minamino-kun, contrary to popular belief, the lifeline of a person's hand doesn't actually say anything about how long the lifespan of that person is! It just shows the state of his physical vitality, meaning how much of a survivor he is!"
The experienced palmist nodded in agreement. "Your mind has grasped the human hand, okyaku-san."
Kurama turned to Maya, simply humoring her interest in the supernatural. "Where did you learn that, Kitajima?"
"I must have forgotten to tell you—" Maya explained proudly to her beloved. "—I'm now taking up Paranormal Science!"
A fitting degree choice, mused Kurama. You must be enjoying it.
The fortuneteller focused back on him. "Your lifeline, okyaku-san," she repeated, digging her pointed black nail into the same line on his palm for the second time. "One of the longest I have read. And these eyes have known skin of all colors from all races. You have won many wars and seen many years. Truly a survivor."
A most fascinated Maya ahhed as the palmist took her left hand in her own.
"As for you, okyaku-san, your heart line tells me much of you." The old lady now slid a bony, icy finger along the curved line on Maya's left palm closest to her middle, ring, and little fingers. "Observe how it begins high up your hand, from in between your pointer and middle fingers. You are a strong feeler of emotion. Your emotions rule you. Observe how it ends before your thumb begins. You are very expressive of your emotion. Observe its perfect curve. You are responsive. Very sensitive. Observe its exceptional length. You seek much affection from he whom you love." Dull gray eyes darted to Kurama. "You have lofty standards to meet, okyaku-san."
Kurama froze just as Maya blushed furiously. The air thickened with discomfort.
She's one to assume, this woman.
"You have an uncommon line in your hand as well." The chiromancer stroked the deep-rooted line running from Maya's pinkie to her wrist. "An 'intuition line.' A very developed one. You possess a strong intuitive sense, and quite possibly psychic powers."
"Yes, I can sense spirits!" exclaimed Maya, leaning closer in excitement. "You're good!"
"Ah, but it is not I. Your hand tells me all." Shadowy gray eyes bore straight into her soul. "Four hands exist, one for each element found in nature. Yours is the Water Hand—a hand known to possess a strong connection to spirits."
Eager chocolate eyes spoke for themselves. "Tell me more!"
"Water Hands have delicate, long palms; long, slim fingers enmeshed with fine lines. Again, you are very emotional. You have your insecurities. But you are intelligent, highly imaginative. You are curious of the worlds beyond your grasp. As for you, okyaku-san…" She took Kurama's hand in her own again. "Yours is an Earth Hand."
Green eyes narrowed. Earth? Could she tell of my…?
"A large, square palm; strong fingers. A very manly hand. Its lines are few in number, but deeply marked into your body." The palmist nodded to herself as she examined his hand once more. "You are the well-balanced type, quite an ideal. You are reliable, dependable, more intellectual than intuitive. But you are inert. You act slowly… deliberately. You possess a propensity to violence." At this point, Maya clapped her hands over her lips and gasped. "Be careful."
"Violence?" repeated Maya, eyeing Kurama worriedly. "But—"
"Fear not, okyaku-san. This violence defines the Fire Hand as well." The chiromancer went on. "The Fire Hand has a long palm and short, small fingers. The fire-handed one is very impulsive, more intuitive than intellectual. He is explosive. He is strong, silent, but he burns like a forest fire."
The Fire Hand secretly reminded Kurama of Hiei. And to think he is a fire demon…
"You said there are four kinds of hands," Maya pointed out. "What is the fourth kind?"
"The Air Hand," supplied the old lady, still refusing to let go of Kurama's hand. "A square palm, like the Earth Hand. But longer, thinner fingers. An Air Hand is prone to be scarred very deeply. The air-handed one is both intellectual and intuitive, but intensely distrustful of his own emotions. He is quick-witted and eloquent. He is mostly truthful, but could easily become devious. A mysterious hand."
"I wonder who has an Air Hand…" murmured Maya to herself.
"Your hand, okyaku-san," the chiromancer turned back to Kurama's palm. "Observe the large fork in the middle of your palm. An interruption of energy—you have broken away from a private past."
A dark flicker crossed his face.
"Observe your chains, breaks, crosses, and forks. They whisper many stories. You are restless. You are in strain. The confusion of your perspective leads to your lack of peace of mind. Obstacles and a bitter loss lie ahead."
Maya gasped again. "That's terrible!"
"This line…" The palmist traced a line right below his pinkie. "You are a thief."
Nani? Green eyes widened. A bead of sweat trickled down both Kurama's and Maya's brows.
"I… I don't understand…" Maya shook her head, her nerves also shaking her voice. Was the room getting darker? Stuffier? Why was it becoming harder and harder to breathe?
"You steal hearts. Your love is misfortune. Your love spells ill. Danger is attracted to your woman. Death covets her body."
Kurama remained silent.
Grim gray eyes fixed onto green. "I see I have confused you more. I now give you my condolences, and word of a good fortune."
"No. We've had enough." Maya eased Kurama's hand off the diviner's and headed for the exit, sweeping up the long, majestic curtains and strings of colorful beads blocking their way through the door.
"A wedding," bade the elderly lady from her armchair, gray eyes sullying into black. "Your fate awaits."
Giant slabs of concrete floated into the air and pieced back together, rebuilding the once devastated Gaikou Fuzoku. Needle-thin glass shards fitted back into broken windows and light bulbs, doors hung back onto their hinges, and dusty rubble cemented back into smooth, sturdy sheets of scaffolding and wall.
Setsu watched it all unfold before her, keeping one eye on the lookout for any chance passersby who could accidentally bear witness to the unbelievable renovation of the school that the Kokuryuuha had destroyed. She circled the Gaikou campus grounds to survey for any other wreckages she might have missed, dragging her right leg around as if no one was watching her, because no one really was watching her—the entire school, as well as everyone who just happened to be standing on any road up to one kilometer away from it, was frozen in time.
This was the farthest-reaching Teishi she had erected yet. A voice from the back of her mind told her to immobilize even that lone airplane hovering in the sky—so that its pilots and passengers would not behold the unexplainable phenomenon taking place hundreds of air miles below them—but she decided against it. A motionless plane up in the air could possibly catch the eyes of those on the ground whom she did not include in her Standstill spell.
"For how much longer must I be in charge of damage control? Of your damage?" She spat towards the now crystal-clear sky and sighed to herself.
Helplessness gnawed at her like a rabid beast sinking its fangs into her already injured knee and biting relentlessly no matter how wildly she thrashed her leg. She knew who the true culprit was. She was also well aware that Kurama once again had her name on the top of his suspects list. But she remained trapped in her lifelong game of Taboo—she had to hold her tongue to preserve something that she was nowhere near willing to lose.
Just then, she heard the faintest rustle from the bushes behind her. Then a tiny meow.
Hn? How did a cat enter my shield?
She whirled and found a white-furred kitten with one black ear and three blacker patches on its back, near the base of its tail—which she could not see because the young animal refused to come any closer to her and simply stayed under the shrub. "Oh. Hello," she chimed, her low, mellow tone more melodious than usual. "So, what do you think?" She jerked her head behind her, motioning towards the newly repaired college building. "Good as new? Well, as 'new' as it was before the Kokuryuuha got to it…"
The sudden movement of her head sent the small creature retreating two paw steps back. Round, beady golden eyes stared back at her, wary yet willing to listen to more of her voice.
"Ne, you remind me of someone I used to play with a very long time ago." She laughed quietly to herself. You have his eyes. "He used to like it when I scratched him behind his ear. Would you like that, too?"
The baby cat meowed again, this time as if in protest. It snuck another two steps away from her, hiding itself in the leaves and crouching to avoid the twigs and spindles poking its shaggy fur.
Yeah, he doesn't trust me that much, either. A small smile curling her lips, Setsu took one light but long step towards the kitten and peered behind the hedges. "Oh, come on. I'm really no good at hide-and-seek, cat version." She could see its tail now. It was curly, like a spring, and black at its tip. "Has anyone ever told you of a ningen superstition about your tail? Ningen believe that cats with tails like yours are nicer and more affectionate than cats with straight tails. Is that true?"
She waited for it to mew again, but instead received a loud male shriek in response.
"GAIKOU-NEKO! WHERE ARE YA?"
Blue eyes widened. This guy just walked right into my—!
Suddenly, every human heart within a one-kilometer diameter of Gaikou Fuzoku began beating again. But not one single memory could recall the events of the past hour.
My Standstill doesn't work on him!
"GAIKOU-NEKO!" bellowed a tall, well-built figure peeking behind one bush after another. The college student with pompadour hair cupped his hand beside his mouth to amplify his voice even more than it already was, a fatherly worry written all over his face.
"That must be you, ne?" Setsu turned back to the kitten, bending her knees for her to get a better look at it. She propped her hands upon her knees, then winced—she had forgotten about her flesh wound. So he was holding you before you entered my shield. That explains how his reiki trickled into you as well… "So you're the official pet of this school. Yoroshiku, then." She nodded to the cat, a hurried urgency flickering in her eyes. "And mengo. I have to go—"
"OI! YOU THERE!"
Too late. Setsu had just turned her back on the little feline when she had to stop dead in her tracks.
"Did'ja see a white cat around 'ere named—" Kuwabara halted in mid-sentence. The kitten he had been searching for had sprung to its feet and onto his leg. He caught the baby cat with both hands. "—Gaikou-Neko! I missed ya, y' li'l thing! Did'ja miss me, huh? Did'ja miss me?"
A most tender love pouring out of his otherwise scratchy voice, Kuwabara was halfway through cooing, "Awww! Ya missed meeeee~!" when Setsu closed her eyes and turned her back on the man and his pet, an amused smile lingering on her lips. A gentle giant and his cat. Always an endearing sight to see.
"Oi! You there!" Kuwabara called after her again, trudging towards her retreating back with Gaikou-Neko closely clasped in his arms. "Y' found Gaikou-Neko for me! Thanks, man!"
Setsu shook her head without facing him. "Iie. He found me."
"Wanna touch 'im?"
Her eyelids broke open. Setsu whirled behind her and found a closed-eyed, toothily grinning Kuwabara holding up the kitten's front right paw towards her.
"C'mon! He won't hurt'cha!" The carrot-haired softie snuggled his cheek against Gaikou-Neko's warm, fuzzy stomach. "Not wit' these li'l itty-bitty claws, he can't!"
Maybe he saw that it wouldn't go near me… A soft chuckle escaped Setsu's lips as she stepped closer to them despite herself and slowly raised her pointer finger to level with the feline's paw, touching the soft, velvety pad with cautious hesitation. I like your friend, sempai. He's a genuinely good person.
While the now happy-go-lucky cat lover watched the reserved brunette and his pet cat from school meeting "hands," it finally hit him.
"Hey, yer Kurama's friend!"
"I am?" She blinked. I know what you mean, but I don't believe that's the right word for me…
"I thought I saw that color o' uniform b'fore! It's Kurama's! What're ya doin' 'ere? This isn't yer school!"
Careful, Kuwabara-san. You really shouldn't be referring to him by that name with just anyone.
"Cutting class," said Setsu nonchalantly, as if nothing was wrong with her response. Blue eyes trained onto the infant he was now cradling to his chest. It was purring now—and Setsu recognized the low, guttural vibrations rumbling from its throat as trusting affection—and playfully clawing off the second button of Kuwabara's school shirt. Despite his beefy, broad-shouldered physique, the young animal felt so comfortable with him. And considering how he treated it, it occupied a soft spot in his heart as well. "Just like you, apparently."
"Yeah, I guess yer right." Kuwabara sweat-dropped, clapping a hand behind his head and laughing uneasily. With most of his attention on the heartwarming little tot in his hands, the recent calamity to have hit his campus seemed to have slipped his mind in the meantime.
Good thing you're in that good a mood right now, Setsu told him only in her thoughts. Frankly, I'm not in the mood to explain what I'm doing here, either.
"Speakin' of Kurama, he said he wanted t' talk to ya! He mus' be back in yer school by now!" The kitten was now sucking on his thumb. He did not mind the tiny baby tusks teething on his finger at all. "Did'ja guys talk yet?"
"Iie," she shook her head. If he were here, he would have interrupted you by now. You're telling me too much. "He's with someone else. I believe he's on a date."
Paying no attention to his sudden jaw drop and exaggerated screaming response, she took his distraction as an opportunity to leave. She looked over her shoulder as she walked away, one leg hobbling awkwardly after the other. "And now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to go to my own."
The moment she faced away from him, she whispered a secret command.
And for one minute, Kuwabara just stood there, following her with only his eyes while cuddling the school cat to his chest. That quiet little friend of Kurama's had a pretty smile. Not as pretty as Yukina-san's, of course! But she had dimples.
She should smile more often.
Wait, what were they talking about again?
Who was he talking to?
Was somebody here just now?
A dazed Kuwabara scratched his head then lifted the kitten up to his face, as though nothing untoward had ever transpired in or near his college campus in the past few hours. "Who's a good kitty? Yer a good kitty! Yes, you are! Yes—you—are! I'm gonna take ya home to Eikichi! And you two're gonna be reeeal good friends!"
Her hands clasped behind her back, a Setsu now stepping out of the Gaikou campus gates closed her eyes.
He could defeat us.
Even from outside his school, she could still hear the brawny animal lover cooing to his cat. "But Eikichi's a girl, so ya better be on yer best behavior, y' hear?"
I just hope his untapped potential doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
The accessory that she had sewn just for him—she could not find it anywhere!
"I might have left it inside…" Maya stopped fishing inside her purse and turned her heels back towards the fortuneteller's shop. "I'll be right back, Minamino-kun!"
She sprinted back inside before he could say a word.
And even before she could, the aged mystic brushed her dark drapes aside with an even darker, knowing smile.
"I expected your return, okyaku-san."
Maya countered her welcome with a glare of both disappointment and disapproval.
"I don't like what you told Minamino-kun, ma'am! You might have hurt his feelings!" The unsatisfied customer pressed several yen bills onto the older woman's outstretched bony hand. "This should cover both of us. I just want to know one more thing, and then I'm getting out of here!"
"You wish to learn your fate as well," predicted the fortuneteller. "It is but natural. I have not read it." She scooped up Maya's hand and examined it closely. "You desire for his fate to be written in your hand, do you not?"
Maya's frown vanished. She could not go on.
She found his motorcycle parked on the grass by their usual riverbank. Several noticeable scratches now appeared along the paint of its gasoline tank.
I thought I'd find you here.
Setsu quieted her steps, tempted to float over the grass altogether so that he would not hear her approaching. But she could no longer. Especially not after so many spells in just one day.
The seat of his jeans trampling upon several long blades of grass, Kaname tossed another small stone into the stream before him just as he felt a light finger digging between his shoulder blades.
I. Never. Left. You. For. Meiou.
Gazing upon the ripple in the water where the pebble had fallen, Setsu silently sat on the ground behind him, her sweatpants sinking onto the grass, her skirt wrinkling by her folded legs. Her head hung low, she continued etching on his backbone with her pointer finger.
In. Fact. Just. Now. I. Left. Meiou. For. You.
He knew who had ambushed him from behind. But he still did not turn around to face her. Yet.
"No matter where I stray…"
Raven forelocks hid lavender eyes. A smirk curled his lips.
"… you always manage to find me, don't you?"
Her head still hung low, Setsu was about to part her lips to speak when a gloved hand stretched out over her head from in front of her and caught her by her scalp. Kaname dipped his head low—careful not to reach the point of falling onto her lap—as he pushed hers down towards his.
His face now upturned, his chin up in the air, without warning Kaname closed the gap between their faces and ambushed her lips with an upside-down kiss.
"I'm really, really sorry, Minamino-kun!" Maya blurted loudly, everything about her tightening—her already tightly shut eyelids, her grip on the handbag on her lap, her resolve. "I didn't expect that fortuneteller to be so—"
"Maa, maa," Kurama lightly laughed it off, listening to his silver teaspoon clinking against his ceramic cup as he stirred his coffee. Peaceful green eyes watched the ribbon of steam escaping the swirling, creamy brown ripple. "Ii yo. All things considered, it was an interesting experience."
"You should have picked where we went next," Maya opened her eyes to the sight of a mouthwatering slice of strawberry cheesecake on her plate. "Are you sure you don't mind it here? It's okay if we go somewhere else…!" Her tone lilted, giving off the air of a question. Just as she always did even when they were much younger than today, she was encouraging him to communicate more openly to her.
Kurama closed his eyes and took it all in: the rich, heady aroma of percolating coffee soaking the air… the ever-repetitive chug and churn of roasting beans… the bubbling of the freshest batch of strong, dark brew… the smooth saxophone jazz playing softly in the background… Warm and cozy, indulging, decadent—the typical ambience of a coffee shop, where adults take a moment for themselves to step back from the stresses of work, study, and life in general, unwind with a cup of that bittersweet privilege of adulthood, and just enjoy the true luxury of doing nothing at all, even if only for the time it takes to finish a cup.
But unlike others, Maya's café of choice was not exclusively for adults. Bookshelves lined the walls yet unoccupied by coffee tables and parlors, and three particular rows of one of them boasted of literature just for children, ranging from storybooks of timeless classics to the most rudimentary beginners' guides to reading. Kurama opened his eyes again and found Maya and himself seated at the heart of the shop, squeezed between other couples huddling close and chatting away.
He did not really thrive in a lively environment elbow to elbow with like-minded people. He valued quiet and solitude, especially when he could not find them where he was. He would have preferred a seat in a more secluded corner of the shop, with good lighting and an even better book in his hand.
"I've never dined here before," confessed Kurama, sipping from his teacup. "Their coffee is delicious. You have good taste in cafés, Kitajima."
Maya's shoulders sank in quiet relief. Minamino-kun had such a way with her. He could change her mood a full three-sixty degrees just by mellowing his voice. Warmth pouring from her own, she smiled at him in gratitude. "Thank you. You're a really nice person, Minamino-kun."
Green eyes gazed upon her upside-down reflection in his decaffeinated drink. Kitajima… She scooped up a forkful of crust from her cheesecake, delightedly popped it into her mouth, and licked a graham cracker crumb off her cherry red lips. Never had Kurama seen a female face more filled with happiness. Any man would want to protect you.
This was it. It was time.
"Kitajima," he began, bracing himself for the worst. "There's something I need to explain—"
"You're from another world."
Green eyes widened. Kurama carefully set his cup onto its saucer before his hand could possibly betray his growing discomfort within.
"I always knew you were different from everyone else, Minamino-kun. I knew you were special." Her eyes arrested his. "And I want you to know I never thought of that as a bad thing!"
Suddenly, the very first words that he had heard from her lips flooded back into his memory. "There are other worlds aside from ours! And there is life in them!"
Before he could even part his lips to speak, Maya continued. "Are you from the world where the dead are judged? Or are you from…" she paused, struggling for the right words to say next. "… the 'other' world?"
"Kitajima," Kurama's voice was catching in his throat. All his sensibilities were actively resisting this. Under his skin, he was rebelling against himself. "How did you know of those worlds…?"
Maya took a deep breath, preparing to pour her heart out to him just for him to do the same with her.
"Many years ago, my brother and I went ghost-hunting in an old, abandoned house they said was haunted. No one had set foot in it for years." Her gaze fell to the strapped purse on her lap. "We discovered a trapdoor that led to a long staircase, which then led to an underground room. I thought I saw something move down there, so I went to see what it was. I counted my steps, but…"
Her impulse to face risks is strong. Kurama told himself. Her fascination with the unknown is so powerful, she gambles her own life to confront it.
"… I never got to know how many steps it was to the bottom of the stairs."
An abrasive voice from the back of his mind haunted him. "Danger is attracted to your woman."
She shuddered from the mere memory of the dusty wooden planks beneath her feet suddenly giving way and the unspeakable horror of her five-foot fall. "My brother said I didn't wake up for days! But I wanted to sleep longer. That was the time I dreamt of it… where the dead go when they die."
She lives in a dark world, where only a fine line divides simple thrill and actual fear.
"Your image of the afterlife…" His eyes distant, Kurama cupped his chin in thought. "… came from a dream?"
"It was no ordinary dream." Her eyes misted. "So many monsters… of different skin colors… most of them with horns… They were secretaries. They filed papers everywhere. There were documents, and folders, and file cabinets! It looked like an office!"
She has been to Reikai. And lived to tell about it, concluded Kurama.
"It is an office."
Maya held a curled hand over her heart, unsure of what next to say.
"I work for them."
Lavender eyes appreciated the sky. No longer was it bleeding. It was his favorite color again. Having her by his side simply made the Human World a more beautiful place.
Kaname turned his head to the side and saw it: a carnation pink jacket spread out behind his head, serving as a blanket as they lay upon the meadow.
Unusually fond lavender eyes looked past the pink coat and the long blades of grass that separated him from her. The crook of his arm was right there, available for her to sleep on—yet she did not. Her eyes closed, Setsu rested her head against her own forearm. She was curled up beside him, but not near enough to touch any part of his body—not even enough to lie down on her own jacket.
Loose, flyaway brown strands stuck out in all the wrong places, thin tendrils wilting by her ears. The bags under her eyes were dark, yet the rest of her face seemed pale. Her lips were chapped dry despite how he had just… moistened… them. Her sweatpants were caked with dirt, especially on one knee. She was a mess. She looked exhausted.
Did that Kurama do this to her?
Had she been using her reiki to fight against him?
He took her right hand in his and uncurled her fingers. That long slash on her palm was back. And bleeding. In fact, never before had he seen it bleed this much. Considering that each of her spells took varying intensities of toll on her body, she must have pushed herself too far this time.
Heaving a sigh, Kaname let go of her hand and rose to his feet, taking her school coat with him. Just when he draped it over her body, her eyelids flew open.
Tsuki frustrated him. She just would not let him take care of her.
He said nothing and strode to his Yamaha. He ran a gloved finger against one particularly long scratch in its paintwork. A sharp twig must have scuffed his bike when he hid it among the bushes and eavesdropped on Kurama and his gang of misfits earlier that day.
"I know of a good way to get rid of that." Slipping into her Meiou coat once more, a heavy-eyed but fully awake Setsu walked up to him. She rubbed the grain from her eyes with her now sleeved wrist. "All it takes is a wax crayon, the kind that we used in our grade school art classes. It makes a pretty handy crack filler. The next time that you apply some polisher then buff over those scratches, you wouldn't even remember where they once were. If you want, I could bring my blue crayon with me next time—"
"Hn?" She arched an eyebrow in curiosity. "What, you'd rather have it repainted altogether? I could do that, too. I could paint it a different color if you like—"
"No. Leave it the way it is. I specifically chose a blue bike for two reasons."
Setsu blinked. "And what are they exactly?"
Kaname stared straight into her icy eyes.
"I'm looking at them right now."
A mischievous, meaningful smirk pulled the corners of his lips just when the answers dawned upon her.
Setsu closed her eyes and looked away, crossing her arms before her chest. "I don't buy that crap."
Kaname doubled up into shameless laughter. Their breakup lasted only two and a half days, but he had missed her and her pointless denial.
"Eeeeehhh?" Chocolate eyes widened. Maya could not believe her ears. Minamino-kun was actually baring the second, secret half of his double life to her now, after so, so long! The thrill of it all tingled in her fingers. "But I thought you were working for your stepfather and studying—"
"I divide my time," explained Kurama, taking another sip of his coffee to calm his internal turmoil. "Working for the Spirit World has not been easy. But I get by."
"The Spirit World…!" echoed Maya, a trembling awe taking her breath away. That was the name of the world that everyone else called Heaven! "W-What do you do for them, Minamino-kun?"
"Simple detective tasks," Kurama understated, knowing fully well that the truth of the nature of his duties to Reikai would worry her greatly. "I investigate the cases of those who should not be in this world."
"Do you come here to capture dead people?"
"Ii—Iiya." He sweat-dropped as Botan, Hinageshi, and the other shinigami of Reikai crossed his mind. "Another division is in charge of that. Those I round up are still alive—" At times not for much longer. "—but running from the law."
"Like fugitives. Escaped convicts from another world!" gushed Maya, her eyes glittering and her arm flailing wildly at her side in thrilled excitement, as if no one else occupied the coffee shop but them. "You sound more like a policeman than a detective, Minamino-kun! But that means you're always in dan—"
"I assure you, Kitajima, it's not as dangerous as it sounds." Forgive me, Kitajima. But you're better off not knowing this truth.
"Do you go undercover, Minamino-kun? You should!" insisted Maya, nodding. "You should shapeshift!—or alter your ectoplasmic composition at the molecular level!—or transfer to another soul vessel or host body!—so the ones you're chasing won't know who you really are and can't come after you!"
With every new suggestion she threw at him, the more he was relieved from her lack of knowledge of his true nature. I am a youko, Kitajima. You don't study my kind in your school.
Suddenly, a gasp burst from her lips.
"That other person I saw…!" She strained to recall that hauntingly beautiful white-haired, yellow-eyed man who suddenly took Minamino-kun's place that time she kissed him in her apartment. "Was that…?"
"My disguise," lied Kurama between his teeth, having decided that he had already divulged enough Reikai Tantei trade secrets for comfort. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. To be honest, I don't know why I changed form that time."
"Was it your way of protecting yourself… because… because…"
Brown forelocks fell over brown eyes. Mental rehearsal time was long past over. It was now or never!
"I… I—I'm sorry I kissed you, Minamino-kun! I won't do it again! I just did it because… because I thought…"
Kurama reached for the petite hand fisting a small cake fork from across the coffee table. A warm, gentle hand clapped over hers.
Listening to his sultry alto alone, Maya felt as though his fingers had lightly cupped her cheek and lifted her face up for him to see her better. He was so gentle. So, so gentle…
"You didn't give me a chance to explain. She works for the Spirit World as well." Mere speculation, but any alibi will do for now. "Secret services. A member of the intelligence. I was merely curious as to how she has been posing as an ordinary human all this time."
"It sounds like she's a spy," guessed Maya, her face twisting uncomfortably from their subject. "That must be why I saw her in disguise, too!"
"Nani?" Kurama leaned forward, suddenly at a loss for words. He wanted her eyewitness account, and he wanted it now.
"Just earlier today…" Maya regarded him with reservation. His eyes were not as distant and disinterested as she had always known them to be. They were now dilated, almost… desirous. Was Minamino-kun getting a little… excited? It couldn't be. He had only just admitted to her that Mayonaka-chan did not interest him in that way!
"She looked just like you!"
A small smile lighting her face, Setsu looked at him over her shoulder. "I have a lot on my mind right now. I really would appreciate some time alone."
"Where are you going?" demanded a disapproving Kaname. "I could take you there then get out of your hair—"
That smile on her face grew sweeter… shyer… sadder.
"Thank you. But you don't have to."
Her once bloodied wrist slipped off his gloved grip.
Kaname could tell—something was wrong with the way Tsuki moved. Was one of her legs busted or something?
But he could only watch her walk away.
They came to the steps of her apartment.
"I'm always really happy when you walk me home, Minamino-kun! I just…" A visibly self-conscious Maya tugged the carrying strap of her purse back up onto her shoulder. "… wanted you to know that."
But Kurama was lost in thought.
She appeared in a different form before Kitajima, just as she did to me… If she's truly in danger, then why did she involve Kitajima in all this…?
A shadow crossed green eyes.
It makes more sense if she were the enemy.
"So," Maya gripped the shoulder strap of her bag nervously. "I was thinking we could get together again sometime… I—I know how busy you are, a-and I won't take you to a fortuneteller anymore! Just…" Desperation squeaked her voice. She closed her eyes and bowed her head before him. "We could do this again whenever you want! So would you…"
I won't involve you, Kitajima. Your life has been in danger too many times before. Crimson forelocks hid green eyes. And once, because of me.
"Would you go out with me?"
I won't let you gamble your own life again.
Suddenly, the thunderous rumble of a two-stroke, two-wheeled engine erupted from the distance. Both of them listened to the approaching motorcycle in shared silence.
It's easier this way.
Kurama braced himself and took a long, deep breath. "It would be my honor, Ma—"
A most familiar slick blue Yamaha interrupted him by screeching to a stop several meters away. Kaname turned the ignition key as excited thoughts raced across Maya's mind. Was she and Minamino-kun finally—finally—finally!—officially dating at long, long last? Did he finally—finally—finally!—feel close enough to her to call her by her given name?
Kurama closed his eyes and rolled his hands into fists, his nails digging deep crescents into his palms.
It's easier if you hate me.
Blue eyes widened.
"Haha, did you…"
A calloused hand pressed against the gnarly, battered trunk of the old wisteria tree beside her human mother's grave. Her forelocks hiding her eyes, Setsu hung her head low before the stone in the sand.
"… hear that…?"
A sudden wispy, chilly breeze whispered a wordless reply.
She jammed her free hand into her skirt pocket and felt the stuffed fox-man figurine inside.
"Something tells me that she wouldn't want to give this to him now."
Both Maya's gaze and shoulders sank. In the farthest, most unfathomable depths of her memories, he had already rejected her once before. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all in her mind's eye, playing and replaying this fateful moment since she first met him in junior high, yet her heart was still infinitely unprepared for it. Much as she had expected the well-mannered but uninterested Minamino Shuuichi to reject her in the form of an apology, this was far worse… crueler. The name stung. It pained much, much more than just her ears.
Did Minamino-kun not hear what had just dropped from his lips? Did he not notice what was just… plain… wrong… with it? Did he not remember her name? Did his tongue slip?
Kaname had just swung his leg over his bike when Maya looked up again and squared her shoulders, her face glowing more brightly than ever before. To her, braving through this moment required more courage than telling the scariest story, hunting for the spookiest ghosts in the most spine-chillingly haunted mansion, and embarking on the most death-defying adventure of her lifetime all together.
"I look forward to it."
An unspoken, unspeakable sorrow now quieted what was once so melodious a voice. Green eyes refused to watch her climb the stairs.
"Ane." At that moment, Kaname recalled the accident from her early childhood that became the root of her anxiety with staircases and, albeit he had become her stepbrother years after the incident, took the opportunity to ease her fear. Oblivious to what was going on between the two, Kaname sped past Kurama and followed Maya up the staircase leading to their apartment unit. A hand in a black biker's glove grabbed hold of her arm. "You all right?"
"Of course!" Her smile was crooked. Broken. Like something else that belonged to her. "I just spent the whole afternoon with Minamino-kun!"
A shadow eclipsing his face, Kurama sighed and turned his heels to leave, green eyes noting the direction to which the blue motorbike was pointing. He headed the other way.
He paid a visit to her mother's grave, but she was not there. Neither was she in her Butterfly Cove. His next wild guess was the playground of the Yukimi City Park, where they first met.
And true enough, there she was, seated on one end of the rainbow-colored seesaw.
"Do flowers eat, too?" asked a little girl of around six sitting on the other end. She happily popped a reddish-purple octopus ball sprinkled with seaweed laver into her mouth, licking her lips in contentment. "Mmm!"
Setsu kept her legs perfectly still and her feet firmly planted on the ground to steady the pivoting wooden board, ensuring that the teeter-totter would not suddenly tilt off-balance and that the girl would not fall off. A small smile curled her lips. Her young companion was having so much fun eating with her legs dangling high up in the air.
"Aa. But they don't eat the food that we eat." Kurama overheard his classmate say. Her voice sounded higher than it usually did, but mellower. Subdued, soothing… the way a human mother cooed as she rocked the cradle of her first-born.
"They don't like octopus balls?" The inquisitive child blinked in disbelief. Never in her life had she met anyone who didn't share her fondness for her favorite snack.
Setsu shook her head, her smile never leaving her face. "They've never tried it. They don't have to. They make their own food."
"They do? Neat!" Her disagreement didn't bother her playmate in the least. The kid raised her fork to her lips again and chomped another seafood ball off its tines. "How about juice?" She held up her paper juice box and took a sip off its thin white plastic straw before speaking up again. "Do they like orange juice?"
"Not as much as they like water," Setsu shook her head.
"But water's boring! Orange juice tastes better!"
"Yes, it does. But if you pour any sweet-tasting drink—like orange juice—on them, the thirsty ants living near them will notice and crawl all over them, because the ants want the sweet juice for themselves." Blue eyes glanced at a nearby anthill in the sand. "And it's a yucky feeling to have ants crawling all over you, ne?"
"Yeah!" The now disgusted kid stuck out a reddish purple-coated tongue, stained slightly orange at the tip. "That's really yucky!"
"Flowers feel that way, too." Blue eyes wandered to the nearby park fountain. "And that's why they like water better."
"I'll give them water, then!"
Without warning, the little girl leapt off the seesaw—sending Setsu's side of the wooden plank crashing down onto the sand with a jolting thud—and raced towards the fountain, her now-empty bag of octopus balls and her fork in her hands. Sighing to herself and gingerly dusting sand grains off the seat of her skirt and sweatpants, Setsu rose from the teeter-totter herself and followed the child, who had already scooped up a bagful of water and was emptying the entire container onto just one daisy.
The flower drooped right away.
"Oh, no!" The budding gardener gasped in shock. "I killed it! But I didn't mean to…!" Tears welled up in her eyes. "Does this mean I'm bad…?" She choked back a sob.
"Iie. Don't worry. You don't have to feel bad—you didn't do anything wrong." Setsu leaned closer and clapped a reassuring hand on the girl's shoulder. "When you're full from eating a lot, you sometimes feel heavier than before, ne? That's exactly what happened to this flower. It's so full now, it can't carry itself as well as it used to. It just drank too much too fast. But it will be just fine again a little later. You'll see."
The guilt-ridden girl wiped her dripping eyes and nostrils with the backs of her palms. "I just wanted to give it something to drink, because it looked so dry! I thought it was really thirsty! And I want to make its other flower friends drink too, but this might happen again…!"
"May I borrow these?" Setsu motioned to her companion's plastic bag and fork. Once the girl nodded—in between soft sniffles—the teenager dipped the bag into the park fountain a second time and held it over an entire bed of daisies close by them. "I suggest that you do this next time."
As carefully as she could, she punched a set of holes on the bottom of the bag with the tines of the fork. A light shower of water drizzled over the flowerbed right away. "This way, the flowers won't receive more water than they can drink, and you'll get to water more of them at the same time. See?"
"Un!" The child's face brightened at once. "That's really neat!" Now beaming widely, she clapped her hands in delighted approval until Setsu handed the bag back to her.
"Here you go. You try."
The girl giggled as she spun around and around and around, sprinkling on everything around her. Including Setsu.
"Ah, I'm getting wet!" Holding a hand up before her face, the older girl pretended to groan in a blithe, playful tone most uncharacteristic of her as droplets smelling of octopus and seaweed splashed onto her cheeks and glistened against the sunlight. "I already bathed this morning, you know…!"
"It's just water, you crybaby!" retorted the now cheerful child, shamelessly laughing at her newfound friend. She now felt more mature than she did mere moments ago. Her companion might be taller and older than she was, but she herself felt bigger.
His hands stuffed into his pants pockets, a Kurama hiding three trees and a shrub away closed his eyes.
Maya buried her face deeper into her bed pillow. It was disgusting. How big, fat, and unstoppable her tears were. How hot they felt rolling down her cheeks, yet how wet they felt staining and spreading all over her pillowcase. How her own eyes could also feel so hot yet so wet. How bloodshot red they grew after a mere minute of self-pity. How red the rest of her face grew after one more. How her fingers just would not stop fisting her pillow, innocent as it was.
How she could neither hide nor control her pain.
"I have to stop…" she murmured into her pillow, plunging herself deeper and deeper into that comforting tender cloud and suffocating herself; muffling the ugliest, most disgusting voice her ears had ever heard. Silence. All she wanted was sweet, impossible silence. "I want to stop…"
Lavender eyes gazed down upon the miserable, vulnerable girl lying on her stomach in inconsolable despair, her shoulders violently wracking with sobs, her ankles twisting and writhing together, her legs thrashing up in the air once, only to slowly come down and lay still on her bed.
Did that Kurama do this to her?
"Make it stop…" she demanded of her pillow. But it only budged to the clenching of her hands.
Taking care not to place his weight anywhere on her, Kaname sat upon her bed, slowly sliding beside her right arm.
He would wait there until she insisted to be left alone.
But she never did.
"Bai-bai, Setsu-'nee-chaaan!" The little girl flailed her arms farewell from the window of the second floor of the townhouse Setsu had just turned her back on. "Bai-baaai!"
Still slightly dragging her right leg behind her left, Setsu looked over her shoulder and grinned at her playmate one last time. Only when she had walked further away from the girl's home did her smile vanish, dimples and all. Blue eyes narrowed and darted to the next tree in her path.
"You can come out now," she spat with cold certainty to the tree leaves rustling from the wind.
Our time for pleasantries is over, I see. Drawing a sigh, Kurama stepped out of the shadows, crimson wisps billowing with the dry autumn breeze.
"In fact, you could have come out earlier," continued Setsu in that harsh, hardened tone that she never even once used on the child—just on him. "I would have introduced you to her properly."
"I didn't want to intrude," said Kurama calmly, his eyes closed and his hands stuffed in his pants pockets.
"She could tell that you were following us. I had to convince her that you weren't some creepy pedophile or stalker."
"Sumanai," Kurama sweat-dropped. "Did I trouble you that much?"
"Iie. It was amusing, in a way," Setsu suddenly chuckled to herself. Something seemed to linger on her mind, though. "She said you were a 'pretty' stalker. You should be flattered."
Kurama laughed lightly, more sweat-drops forming all over his head. Well, "pedophile" would have been worse…
"So," Setsu clasped her hands together behind her back, matching his strides. "How was your date with Kitajima-san? Did you have fun?"
"It was…" I should have seen this one coming. "… interesting."
"That's not what I was asking." She was being her brutally frank self again, and preparing to drop bombshells all over him. "And that's the buzzword that most people abuse when they either don't want to describe something, or when they don't know how to describe it." Her gaze fell to the pebbled asphalt ground. "So I take it things didn't go so well. Did she have fun, at least?"
He fell silent, contemplating his words.
"Can't say that she did, huh?" She shook her head in exasperation. "Sempai, did the whole thing blow up on your face or something? I'm almost getting the idea that something horribly wrong happened."
"We went to a fortuneteller," began Kurama, choosing his facts carefully.
"Ah," Setsu looked up at the shadowing sky. Swollen clouds were about to cry. "The fortuneteller. The most incorrect job title I know."
"Incorrect?" Curious green eyes turned to her.
"Let's face it," she shrugged. "So many of them specialize in selling negativity. They have a habit of breaking only bad news and ill omens to their clients. Sometimes I believe they should be called 'misfortune tellers' instead."
Misfortune tellers… Kurama repeated after her in his mind. The elderly psychic stained his mind again.
"Your love is misfortune. Your love spells ill. Danger is attracted to your woman. Death covets her body."
… How true.
"Whatever their crystal balls or tarot cards told you, don't take them too seriously." Setsu brushed his distress aside as though she were warding off imaginary evil spirits floating around them. "Everything happens for a reason. Including bad things."
"No crystal balls or cards," Kurama pressed his lips together awhile, still weighing his words. "She read our palms."
"Same difference," Setsu tilted her head to the side, dismissing the notion altogether. "I wouldn't mind it, if I were you. I don't believe that the lines of one's hand could ever predict one's future. Look at it this way, onegai. Even the handicapped who don't have hands still have a future, ne?"
They shared a long, pensive silence.
Nothing fazes this ningen. He closed his eyes. While the supernatural fascinates Kitajima to the point of peril, she thinks nothing of it.
A small smile curled his lips.
They're really not the same.
"Sempai, you still haven't told me what's bothering you," Setsu pointed out, a frown crossing her face. "Now you don't have to talk about it if you really don't want to, but I suggest that you do. Talking it out helps."
Just then, she raised her fist to her lips and cleared her throat into it. Kurama saw her parting her lips, but the voice that spilled out of them was not at all her own.
"You know, you can tell me anything, Minamino-kun!"
Green eyes widened. She sounds…
"I'm ready!" continued an unusually effervescent Setsu, forcing her typically serene tone to escalate into a very familiar soprano. "I'm listening!"
… just like Kitajima…!
What was she trying to do—a stand-up impression of Kitajima? Was this her idea of taunting him to her? "Ma-Mayonaka-san—"
"Oh, no." Her voice was back to normal now. No. It was taken aback. Just like her eyes. She clapped a hand onto her own forehead. "Don't. Tell. Me." Her head began to shake. "Don't tell me you actually called her—"
Widened, scandalized blue eyes stared into just as wide-eyed green.
How do you jump to your conclu—
Suddenly, her left hand swung up, her palm going right for his face.
He did not move a muscle.
That calloused left palm stopped a mere sliver of space away from his cheek.
Setsu drew her hand away from his jaw slowly, reluctantly, fighting back her near-irresistible urge to slap him. Know your place, Mayonaka Setsuki. Don't let your temper get the better of you.
"She deserves to get back at you. I don't."
I know what happened between you two, you heartbreaker. I can see how it happened—through your eyes and hers.
And I'm sorry for having to pretend to find out this way.
But I also know that you're not the Urameshi type—I need not knock some sense into you with my bare hands. You're more diplomatic than that.
Much as I disapprove of what you did, you still deserve to talk this out.
She shook her head to herself. "Seriously, something is very wrong with this picture. One: Just now, were you about to let me hit you? And two: Were you about to let me hit you because what I said was…" Her frown deepened. "… true…?"
Crimson forelocks hiding green eyes, Kurama's face turned a darker shade of black. Shadowed… unreadable.
His (lack of) expression boiled her blood. Even now, he was the picture of cold, calculating calm, erecting wall upon wall of defense too high and impenetrable for her to scale. Even if I lash at you, I know—or maybe I just trust—that you won't hurt me. But you want to escape this—one way or another.
Would you try to leave?
After all, if you still can't bring yourself to reveal your truth to the woman you love the most, then you remain capable of lying to me and to everyone else.
"Sempai, I was waiting for you to defend yourself—to stop me—to say I was wrong," she insisted hotly. She felt like seizing him by his shoulders and giving him a good, firm shake or two. Or five. "But you didn't. I got the truth from you at that moment, so don't even think of lying to me now."
He stayed silent.
Green eyes finally emerged into her view.
"You seem more interested to hear her side of the story."
"Of course I feel bad for Kitajima-san." Setsu looked up at the tearful clouds seemingly about to mourn for Maya. "From a mere glance, I could tell just how much she values you. But she doesn't need me to feel bad for her—my feeling won't help her in any way. What I can do for her—" she faced him squarely. "—is to straighten things out with you."
He watched her hand slowly fall to her side.
An Air Hand.
For several minutes, Kurama remained silent.
But I can see right through you, Mayonaka-san. He cursed her inwardly, yet held on to the façade that betrayed nothing from his within. This isn't really about Kitajima. You're using her as a diversion.
You mean to distract me.
He rolled his hands, still stuffed into his pants pockets, into fists.
She had already tricked him this way once before—taking his attention away from her and her secrets by digging into his life. They were in her secret Butterfly Cove back then. Somehow she had gotten him to share his then-plan for the future—pursuing one English class in college—and his confidential apprehension in confronting Shiori about the matter.
You always turn the tables on me.
Setsu clasped her hands together behind her back to avoid clenching them into fists. "You did it on purpose, ne?" She bit her lip before continuing. "I know that you had your reasons, but I don't know what they are. Tell me, onegai," she pressed on. "I want to understand you, sempai. But I can't always understand you on my own."
I don't intend to bite your head off. I'm not here to scold or outsmart you. This isn't about gaining the upper hand.
I just want you to grow as a person.
"If you have a problem, I want to do something about it. But I can't do something about it until you share it with me."
There is still room for you for grow, my young Shaper.
"I want to understand you, sempai. But I can't always understand you on my own."
Just when I'm convinced of something about you… that you can read me…
His face fell.
… you refute me.
"I can't see through you, Minamino-sempai."
He refused to look up at that soothed, inviting voice… that dimpled smile that seemed to light up that tired face despite the sun now hiding beyond shadowed clouds.
"But I do want to see you through."
The way you weave your words…
You've tricked me again.
"You once asked me if I had hurt her before."
Setsu stopped for a split second. He had finally spoken up. "Aa. I remember that."
"I have," he confessed under his breath. How many times have I betrayed myself today? "I had let her down…"
"Just when she admitted her feelings for you," finished Setsu. "Am I right?"
He swallowed a lump back down his throat. This conversation discomforted him. Despite every wrong he had already done to her, he had objections to disclosing of Kitajima's most personal feelings.
And to revealing his own.
"I understand. You don't have to dig deeper into that," murmured Setsu, her voice more peaceful than usual. "Her business is hers to tell, not yours. What I would like to know—and hope that you would share with me—is about yourself. Why do you like Kitajima-san enough to entertain her feelings for you, yet keep her at arm's length…? Iie. Why do you push her away…?"
Finally he met her eyes. What is it about you…
"Why do you seem to be avoiding a more intimate relationship with her?"
… that I just can't refuse?
"She shouldn't be with me. She'll only put her life in danger."
"Yeah, I noticed."
Kurama froze. This was not the reaction he had expected at all.
"Let's face it," Setsu laughed lightly. "You're not exactly the safest person for any girl to hang around with." The events of the past few hours resurfaced in both their minds. His fangirls had mercilessly bullied both her and Kitajima, and it was safe to assume that this was entirely because of him. "But she wants to, despite all the risks that she'll have to take. So if she is willing to subject herself to those risks just to get closer to you and possibly become more than just your friend, then why aren't you supportive of her willingness?"
Another memory harped back to Kurama.
"You kidnapped a girl today. Where is she?"
"Oh, you know her? I'll give you a clue."
Yatsude proudly held up a small human foot by its big toe. It was torn at—and dripping fresh blood from—the knee. "What's this?"
Even until now, the hairs on his head still felt like they were standing on end. If she is ever abducted again… He turned back to Setsu. "Mayonaka-san, troublesome as they are, our classmates are not my only concern—"
"Is something about Kitajima-san herself stopping you, sempai?"
Maya's voice echoed in his ears.
"I never got to know how many steps it was to the bottom of the stairs."
"Kitajima is quite the adventurer," reasoned Kurama slowly, uneasily. "But every adventure involves an element of danger…"
"Yet it could be the thrill of that very danger that lures her to adventure in the first place, ne?"
At this point, his own thought crossed his mind: She lives in a dark world, where only a fine line divides simple thrill and actual fear.
"She does strike me as a thrill-seeker," nodded Setsu. "The curious heroine who walked through that darkened doorway simply because she didn't know any better. She's the type to whom I'd personally want to yell, 'Don't go in there!' or something like that."
She has had encounters that left her with buried memories, psychological scars, and a disappointment I thought she had forgotten. Kurama cupped his chin in thought. But her memories are not so easily erased, and the experiences I tried to make her forget linger for longer than I expect.
Being with me could open up unhealed wounds.
A raspy voice from the back of his mind spoke up. "Danger is attracted to your woman."
I had gone into the forest and rescued her from the quicksand before the tengu in Mount Kurama could take her… I had found her before Yatsude had devoured her alive…
But I was not at the top of the staircase to call out her name and tell her not to go all the way down.
I was not even with her when the Hedoki captured her to offer to Yatsude…!
"I'm sure no one has ever told you this, Minamino-sempai, but—"
I can't always be around to save her.
"—you suck with women."
A gasp caught in his throat. The dry autumn wind tore a crisp, shriveled brown leaf from its tree stalk and blew it between them.
"Mengo, sempai, but I believe you need to be told," Setsu admitted with a chuckle. "You just really suck with women."
You're not being random now, are you…?
"Sure, you're not a playboy. Far from it. Any woman would appreciate that. Heck, she would love you for it." Setsu smiled casually, sheepishly, but he knew she was more serious than she looked. "But the way you interact with women leaves some room for improvement. You sabotage your own chances at romance. Iie. On a deeper level, you sabotage your relationships with women in general!"
A frown crossed Kurama's face. "Mayonaka-san, I—"
"And it's not just Kitajima-san. How many times have you kept the truth from your own mother and thus broken her heart?"
At that moment, Shiori's discovery of his personal memento from his tournament fight with Karasu came back to him. His 'Kaa-san and Mayonaka-san had seen the torn, bloodied cloth together. That would explain what Mayonaka-san just said. He knew she was bound to open that can of worms sometime, and apparently that was now.
"How did you become so popular with the ladies, anyway? Seems to me you want them to hate you."
He kept quiet. Sometimes you remind me of Hiei. But he keeps it simple—he would just call me a fool.
"You want to protect them, but in your effort to protect them, you hurt them yourself."
Setsu knew that her words were unkind, to say the least. But it was time for someone to enlighten Minamino Shuuichi on what he had been doing horribly wrong for years.
"Let's see how your logic with Kitajima-san goes, then. I get it—being around you has threatening consequences. So you rejected her 'for her own good'," she raised both her pointer and middle fingers and curled them to gesture air quotes. "Ultimately, for her physical safety. You don't want her physically hurt. You seemed to have her in mind when you rejected her once in the past and again today. But tell me, sempai—" Blue eyes captured green and refused to let go. "She did not get physically hurt in those two instances. But she still got hurt, ne? In another way: emotionally. I'm sorry to say this, but you had hurt her."
He still stayed silent, letting everything sink in.
"In your interest to protect her from someone who could hurt her because of you, you yourself had hurt her. You can argue with me that physical and emotional hurts are different from each other. Not to a woman, sempai. And that is why I said that you suck with women. No woman will ever be convinced that 'you rejected her for her own good,' because if you were really after 'her own good,' you would not have rejected her in the first place. You would have valued her feelings over all else."
Kurama stared at the shamelessly nagging chatterbox striding alongside him, finding no answer to the question that had also been nagging his mind since he and Kitajima talked about her over coffee and cake earlier that day:
What have you become?
"It's thoughtful of you to want to ensure a woman's safety. But you must be even more careful with her sensitivity. You don't have to be a Casanova around women, sempai. Just be considerate of their feelings."
"Now, whatever it is you're hiding from Shiori-'ba-san is really none of my business, but again, I believe you need to be told: Your secret could possibly hurt her. But your keeping it from her…"
She shook her head to herself.
"… already does."
Kurama closed his eyes.
"Feel free to disagree with me on this, but I believe that the reason you sabotage your own relationships with others all boils down to the basic fact that, well, you don't like yourself very much."
She still was the same Mayonaka Setsuki he met that day.
"You are loved, Minamino-sempai. You should learn to love yourself, too."
"You seem distant from even the ones you love because you're not that much in touch with yourself, either."
In his mind, the fortuneteller's words overlapped with hers. "An interruption of energy—you have broken away from a private past."
"The trouble with you, Minamino-sempai, is that you're too selfless. And iie, not in a good way. You value yourself a lot less than you should. You have a disturbingly defeatist attitude about you: you'd willingly give something up—like whatever feelings you had or have towards Kitajima-san, for example—if it was for the benefit of something or someone else. So how could anyone else love you if you don't love yourself?"
Her voice was faltering.
"It's weird, though. Your 'selflessness'—iie, your lack of concern for yourself—also makes you selfish. Think about it. Because you throw yourself away just like that, it also means that you don't think of the feelings of those who love you… those who don't want to lose you just yet."
The blue eyes that met his green were awash in sadness.
"It's like at any time, you could just… go away and never come back."
Kurama sank into a spiral of nostalgia. His beseeching the Forlorn Hope to take his own life in lieu of his dying 'Kaa-san's… His giving his very all in his desperate battle of one-upmanship against Karasu… His bidding a short-lived farewell to his Youko self…
How many times had he put his life on the line for one cause or another? How many times had he, indeed, nearly gone away and never come back?
I've been looking back on my life very often lately.
And it's because of you.
Suddenly, a flash of thunder lit the drab gray sky. But they could see her twenty-storey condominium building by now. Pacing ahead of him and turning around, Setsu started walking backwards, her hands still behind her back, her eyes never leaving his.
"Sempai, may I tell you how I… uh, somehow love myself?"
A strong, chilly gust blustered past them. Kurama nodded quietly, his hair catching the furious wind, his forelocks thrashing against his eyes.
"Hagiri Kaname has fangirls of his own. Could you just imagine their reactions the first time that he…" Despite how nonstop a motor her mouth had been for the past few minutes, Setsu was fast becoming ill at ease with the words now leaving her lips. "… uhhh…" Still stepping in reverse, she suddenly tripped on a jagged rock she did not see coming. "… kissed me… when all of them could see?"
Kurama could imagine them. In fact, he didn't even have to strain himself.
"You know the drill." Regaining her composure, she darted a sidelong glance behind her to check for any more stony obstacles that lay in her path. "But I told myself that they couldn't hurt me. No one could hurt me without my consent. I could always choose not to feel hurt. I believe it was because I loved myself. Iie, not in the narcissistic or exaggeratedly vain way that we frown upon—or find comedic if we're watching a sitcom or something. I had to assure myself that I had every right to spend time with Hagiri Kaname, no matter what anyone else thought. Once I stopped caring what other people said and did, I was able to spend time with Ame-kun and heck, I grew to like him. Bottom line is, I found myself capable of appreciating someone else because first and foremost, I valued myself."
Another bolt of lightning forked from cloud to gloomy cloud. Setsu started unbuttoning her school coat from the bottom up.
"Yours will only be a genuine love when you have already learned to love yourself. Kitajima-san deserves someone who could give her such a love. Everyone deserves a love like that. Ne?"
Kurama smiled, still not saying a word. His gaze fell. Never thought I needed to hear this at this age.
"It's a difficult journey, learning to love yourself. I can't tell you what to love about yourself or why you should. Or how. You must find it all out on your own."
Yanking her coat sleeves off her arms, Setsu sank her front teeth into her lower lip awhile before speaking again. "I… I don't like some things you do, but…"
She took one step closer to him, flailed her Meiou jacket behind them, and draped it over both their heads just in time for the first spittle of rain. She stretched her arms out, holding her temporary umbrella over both of them until they made it into the first floor lobby of her condominium tower. Thankfully the drizzle was light, and seemed to end any moment now.
"… I can assure you, you're not alone."
Kurama watched a reddish pink heat rising to her cheeks. Mayonaka-san was blowing hot and cold—resisting the urge to slap him hard one minute, sentimental and almost… supportive… the next. How fickle, like a woman.
"… you sabotage your relationships with women…!"
The way I doubt everything you do…
"Thank you, sempai. For listening to what I have to say—"
… I must be sabotaging my relationship with you, too.
"—and for not forcing me to say what I cannot."
Kurama froze. Now she was referring to something else altogether. It all flooded back to him—that she had much to explain to him, but did not until now.
He clenched his fist in his pocket. I have other ways of finding out the truth.
"Maybe you don't suck with women that much after all," laughed Setsu.
"I'm glad to know one woman who could tolerate me nonetheless."
A disapproving eyebrow shot up. "Don't smooth-talk your way into a woman's heart, Minamino-sempai. You could end up breaking it. In fact, you could hurt a woman with just the look in your eyes."
A chuckle escaped Kurama's lips. The look in her eyes seemed to say: Man, what will I do with you?
One quick glance to the sky told him that the rain had stopped. Just as Kurama was about to head off to his own home, Setsu pounded her fist on her palm. "Something just dawned on me, sempai—the type of woman who would be right for you."
He sighed to himself. If you mention Kitajima again… or Kuwabara Shizuru… or anyone else we both know…
"You deserve someone strong. She shouldn't always need you around. Even without you—iie, especially without you—she should be able to defend herself. So that you yourself wouldn't feel the need to protect her all the time." She slipped her school coat back on, momentarily forgetting that it was damp from the rain. "Which I believe you really do feel towards certain women."
'Kaa-san and Kitajima… Kurama read in between her lines.
"The woman you end up with should fight her own battles. Not only that—she should be able to save you."
He turned his back on her and closed his eyes.
Even without telling me what I sought you for, you've given me much to think about.
"Hn. Now that I listen to myself…" Blue eyes narrowed in thought. "I know exactly what woman would be perfect for you!"
Setsu's face broke into a wide grin.
And Kurama sweat-dropped in buckets all the way home.
Setsu watched his back disappear in the distance.
She sighed to herself, closed her eyes, and headed to the tower elevator.
You deserve someone who appreciates everything you are… from the little things that you do—
A calloused finger pressed the Up button.
—such as you accompanying me home again…
Soon, the metal shafts parted to allow her inside.
… to the silent sacrifices that you make—
She stepped into the elevator and pushed for the eighth floor.
—which Kitajima-san doesn't see.
The elevator doors closed once more, their polished stainless surface reflecting her tired face.
You deserve someone who could fathom your depth.
Setsu stole a glance at the human girl in the mirror looking back at her, but just as quickly looked away.
Or maybe you'd just be better off alone.
Kurama closed his eyes. The ringing seemed even louder without his sense of sight to distract him.
Suddenly it stopped. Someone had picked up the receiver.
"What?" spat the voice into Kurama's ear.
It wasn't her.
"Who is this?" demanded the young, cheeky man on the other end. "Hello?"
Kurama simply waited, his lips forming a thin line. He had nothing to say to him.
"Tch!" grunted an impatient Hagiri Kaname a split second before hanging up.
Kurama listened to the sharp, infinite beeping of the disconnection tone, still not opening his eyes.
"Day Five. 1305 hours." Kaitou logged into his daily journal. "Mayonaka and I back to status quo. Minamino conversing with San"
He never got to finish his entry. Charcoal eyes widened behind thick-rimmed spectacles. "Mayonaka-kun, what does Minamino think he's doing, pray tell?"
Sitting on the chair beside his, Setsu was holding her trusty pencil in her drawing hand, but her undivided attention was on Kurama and a shyly shrinking Sanae facing each other on the other end of their English classroom. She spoke up amidst a bustling buzz of whispers and murmurs of shock and disbelief. "It's amusing to watch, ne? Minamino-sempai approaching a girl, as 'shy' a guy as he is."
"A rare sight indeed," Kaitou pushed his glasses back up his nose. "I never thought I'd see the day."
"Funny story," Setsu chuckled and shrugged. "Just yesterday I told him that he sucks with women, and look at 'im now." She propped her elbow on her desk and rested her chin on her palm. "Go get 'er, sempai…!"
Meanwhile, across the room, Kurama and one of his admirers slash classmates from junior high and high school were exchanging small, sweet smiles, the former trying his best not to pay any attention to his meddling underclassman colleague cheering him on from behind him.
"Sanae-san, thank you for tipping Mayonaka-san off regarding my locker."
"But…" Blood flooded to Sanae's face. She hung her head low, refusing to meet his eyes. "How did you know it was me…?"
"Your penmanship is one of a kind."
Just then, Sanae felt clouds of steam escaping her ears. Was she deflating? It sure felt like she was. Minamino-sama actually recognized her by her handwriting! And did he just pay a compliment to it? It sure felt like he did.
"Mayonaka-san thought so as well. Rest assured—she didn't show it to anyone else."
A familiarly low, mellow voice cut across the room. "Ne, sempai-tachi, why don't you two go out together sometime?"
Sanae peered over the tall Kurama's shoulder in search of that impish tease. Knowing exactly who it was, a suddenly speechless Kurama sweat-dropped. Mayonaka-san! He mentally warned a certain someone who used to be able to hear his every thought. You're pushing it…!
He laughed lightly, trying to dispel the awkwardness lingering in the air. "Yes," he began, still chuckling in between his own silences. "That suggestion sounds…"
A serenely smiling Sanae shook her head.
"It's all right. You don't have to go out with me, Minamino-sama. Just ask me out when you really want to."
Kurama did not know what to say to that. If he did not ask her out now, then she would get the idea that he didn't really want to after all…
Reinforcing her own words, Sanae nodded to him, that sweet, serene smile never once leaving her lips. "Go." Her eyes turned to the only freshman in the room. "She's been waiting."
And for one unforgettable moment, Kurama smiled at her one more time and clapped a warm, gentle hand on her shoulder… right before he walked away.
While watching his back distancing from her, the wistful, secretly wishful fangirl could only sigh.
"So," smirked Kaitou smugly, pushing his glasses further up his nose, their thick, near-opaque lenses hiding his eyes. "How was it, Minamino?"
"Now that wasn't so bad, ne?" Setsu grinned mischievously, a little dimple emerging on one corner of her lips.
Kurama had just arrived in between the two seatmates when Setsu leaned closer and muffled her voice so that only the three of them could hear.
"See, sempai? Not every girl who likes you is out to take advantage of you. Now that's the mark of someone who truly loves you."
On the other side of the advanced English classroom, Sanae's practice partner Nishizawa Ryunosuke stood beside her and followed her gaze, his eyes twinkling in awe and his drool dripping from his mouth. "Wooow… Minamino actually talked t' ya…"
Sanae turned to her class partner, her smile now slightly smaller than before. "I knew it wouldn't have worked. Even if he did open his locker."
The Minamino fanboy swabbed his excess saliva off his chin with his lacy handkerchief. "Is this about the can of paint you told me about?"
She nodded. "Aki-chan thought we could frame her. But even if everything went according to plan, I suppose Minamino-sama wouldn't have blamed her anyway."
The two Minamino Shuuichi fans fell silent as they observed their favorite colleague holding an unusually animated conversation with the word wizard Kaitou Yuu and the new kid in class. All three of them seemed to be the strong, silent type as individuals. Unapproachable, and would not approach just anyone, either. Sociopaths—they preferred to keep their distance from everyone else.
But not from each other.
Even now, their beloved Minamino-sama and that Fine Arts freshman were exchanging small talk and smiles. They seemed to be teasing Kaitou of something much too embarrassing for him to take sitting down.
"Yeah," Ryunosuke folded his arms before his chest and sighed to himself. "He likes 'er too much."
Suddenly, he heard two, three knocks from right behind him. Both Ryunosuke and Sanae whirled and found another freshman by their doorway.
Thick-rimmed spectacles glinted against the light. "Mayonaka-kun," Kaitou pointed to the door. "You have a visitor."
"Oh, no Kaitou-san!" From beside the doorframe, Nami waved her entire arm to catch the attention of the only three students in the room she knew. "I came to see you!"
Two green and two blue eyes widened. Did Kaitou just lose his soul again? Or did he freeze from (ec)static shock?
Was this his karma for breaking Kitajima's heart?
He had taken it all in before: the rich, heady aroma of percolating coffee soaking the air… the ever-repetitive chug and churn of roasting beans… the bubbling of the freshest batch of strong, dark brew… the smooth saxophone jazz playing softly in the background… Warm and cozy, indulging, decadent—the ambience of the same coffee shop where he and Kitajima went just the day before.
Was he going to be reminded of his date with her everyday from now on?
But this time, he found himself seated at a homier, more secluded corner of the shop designed to comfortably accommodate four to six customers—a parlor booth consisting of two parallel lounge sofas, a long rectangular table in between them, and a stained glass lampshade hanging above it.
Mayonaka-san was still standing before the cashier counter, either unable to make up her mind as to what to choose from the café menu, or intentionally placing her order only after all of them were done. He and Kaitou had gone in and out of there in less than two minutes—Kaitou had simply followed his recommendation and opted for the same French roast that he himself had tasted just yesterday, while today he wanted to try their specialty oolong tea. Akasaki-san had happily volunteered to claim all their purchases from the self-serve area, which she was already doing at the moment.
Kaitou never took his eyes off their female companions holding up the lines at the far end of the café. "Despite all else, I really tried to win, Minamino. I wanted to see her soul."
"So did I," admitted Kurama in a whisper, just as mindful of the distance between them and the girls. The two could arrive at their table at any time.
"Minamino," Kaitou cleared his throat, preparing himself for an awkward moment. "When you threatened to take my soul yourself, you were serious, were you not?"
A shadow eclipsed Kurama's face. He hung his head low, hiding his eyes beneath his forelocks. He said nothing.
"Had you made good on that threat, I would not have had the chance to tell you—she claims her soul is colorless." Kaitou clasped his hands together atop their parlor table, interweaving his fingers. "That otherwise frivolous piece of information must raise as many a question and an eyebrow for you as it does for me."
"Perhaps this may interest you."
And with the stealth befitting of a grand master thief, Kurama suddenly passed a folded sheet of paper under their dining table to his just as suddenly intrigued seatmate.
"Kaitou. I need you to make as much sense of this as you can. I trust that you can fill me in on anything I may have missed—"
"What's this I hear, Minamino? You need my help? Why, how—"
Kurama purposely cut him short. Neither of them had the time for deadpanning banter—not within earshot of Mayonaka-san. "You have until tomorrow."
Once again, Kaitou was beholding his former longtime rival's dark side. Snorting to himself, the reluctant salutatorian unclasped his hands and reached below the table, receiving the note on the sly and slowly opening up one of its flaps, only to lay eyes on Kurama's own writing. "I assume the message herein is in some way relevant to her, correct?"
"You be the judge," continued the consistent valedictorian in an undertone, green eyes still trained onto the female freshmen making their way to their table. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"Well, I must say you couldn't have chosen a better man for the job," scoffed Kaitou, his sense of pride swelling up from his strongest academic competitor's self-confessed faith in his skills. "And just in time. I haven't had a mildly challenging brainteaser in a while."
"Don't take this too lightly, Kaitou. It's from Reikai. Anything is possible." Kurama said in closing as they both looked up at Setsu and Nami drawing up to them, each balancing a full tray in her hands.
"Here's your orders!" A beaming Nami chimed melodiously in English, her Rs rolling off her lips like Ls. The Musicology student could keep it up only for so long—her Japanese tongue finally betrayed her right when she began setting cups and saucers onto their table. "Oolong tea for Minamino-san, and French roast for you, Kaitou-san! Enjoooy~!"
Standing next to her enthusiastic best friend, a dark, eerily silent Setsu needed not say anything for both Kurama and Kaitou to tell that she was definitely not going to play a cutesy-cute, Engrish-speaking Lolita waitress solely for their entertainment anytime soon. A shadow eclipsing her face, the serious, dangerous-looking freshman merely plopped the round tray of cakes and pastries on the free space upon their tabletop. "Just get whichever's yours."
Kurama chuckled at how glaringly different Mayonaka-san and Akasaki-san were. Meanwhile, Kaitou only had eyes and ears for one of them. "You should consider a part-time stint in a maid café, Nami," he suggested, his freckled cheeks slowly pinking from one very heavenly daydream of Akasaki Minaku in a frilly, form-fitting maid uniform. "Your English, however, leaves some room for improvement." The pedantic perfectionist then pointed out his beloved's grammatical error using the very language in which she committed it. "You should have said 'Here are your orders,' since the subject of your sentence—the 'orders'—is in plural form."
Setsu looked up from her overused sketchbook now sprawled on her side of their table, her brow raised. "Oh, cut her some slack, Kaitou-sempai—"
"No, no." A slight frown crossing her face, a concerned Nami suddenly clapped both her hands on Setsu's drawing arm, urging her senior upperclassman to go on. "Go ahead, Kaitou-san. I need this! If no one tells me what I'm saying wrong, then how am I ever going to take the same advanced English class all you guys are taking now?"
Setsu fell silent and unintentionally traded glances with an already silent Kurama taking several small, slow sips of his tea. Apparently, her best friend actually wanted to attend their class as well. But she would have to settle for pursuing it in a later term.
"There's something… sad… about that," Kurama could almost hear Setsu remark to herself, despite the fact that their minds were not telepathically linked at the time.
Or did it come from him himself?
"I'm sure you will eventually, Akasaki-san," Kurama assured Nami with an earnest smile.
"Our class isn't all it's cracked up to be, anyway," Setsu closed her eyes. "Would you seriously want to be in the same classroom as his—" She jerked her head towards Kurama sitting diagonally across her. "—legion of rabid fangirls for an entire semester?"
"Agreed," nodded Kaitou, pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. "Moreover, would you also accept being under the instruction of that terror of a lecturer called Lerner?"
"Learner?" echoed Nami in her flawed Engrish, both unfamiliar with the name of their instructor and misunderstanding what Kaitou had just said. "I don't get it. You have a teacher who's a learner at the same time?"
"No, our professor's name is Lerner," Kaitou pointed out. Kurama and Setsu were now becoming increasingly aware that their respective seatmates were leaning closer and closer to each other without even knowing it. "Which makes him both a 'teacher' and a 'Lerner' at the same time!"
"Get out!" exclaimed Nami as slang for her current state of disbelief.
An oh-so-slightly affronted Kaitou adjusted his glasses. "I don't see why I should, but you better believe it!"
"So it's true?" Nami inquired again in amused disbelief. "He's a 'teacher' and a 'Lerner' at the same time!" She clapped her hands together, her sense of humor getting the better of her. "That's so funny!" She giggled, snorting softly—but a snort remained a snort no matter how soft.
And when Kaitou began accompanying her odd laughter with his own, Setsu quietly raised an eyebrow, shook her head, and casually shrugged at a smiling but sweat-dropping Kurama. This time around, they needed only meet eyes.
"This is strange."
"You can say that again."
Moist, sponge-like morsels of cake were just about to fall off Nami's tiny fork.
But she still held it up before a tight-lipped Setsu, her other hand laid out right under the fork to catch any falling crumbs or scraps.
"Come on, Setsu-chan!" badgered a relentless Nami, batting her eyelashes as cutely as she could. "Say 'Aaaaahhh'!"
An uninterested Setsu did not even look up from her drawing book.
"Thanks, but no—"
The next thing she knew, the entire overflowing heap of syrupy sugariness had been shoved into her still-speaking mouth without so much as a warning.
The force-feeding college freshman giggled at the now horribly disfigured face of the only girl she had ever known who either didn't seem to have a sweet tooth, or must have lost it at a very young age.
Setsu gulped the forkful of cake down with a scowl. Nami simply never honored her refusals. Then again, she liked her for that.
"Nami," she spat in a gruff, disapproving huff. "That's really sweet."
Suddenly, her skin flared up, bristling like it had just caught fire. No. Like she had just been set on fire. Blue eyes darted to the source of the blistering heat and found Kaitou sizzling her alive with his bespectacled glare.
Green eyes studied the situation at hand. A smile crept up Kurama's lips. Kaitou is harboring a one-way rivalry towards "Mayonaka-kun" again…
"I meant the cake," a just as aware Setsu pointed out to Nami's jealous secret admirer. "It's too sweet."
Kaitou harrumphed and narrowed his already small eyes at her, confirming Kurama and Setsu's guess. Nami had not a clue. "But you wouldn't have known that until you tasted it yourself! So it's still a good thing that you at least gave it a try!"
A quiet Kurama chuckled at their group dynamic. These three remind me of Hiei, Kuwabara-kun, and Yukina…!
"I can see what she meant by 'sister'." A grudging Kaitou sitting next to him muttered to himself, so softly that only Kurama could hear. "She's doting on Mayonaka-kun like she were a younger one. Or a doll!"
"Coffee." Kaitou nursed his piping hot teacup with one hand. "The quintessential adult drink." With a majestic flourish, the wordsmith brought his free hand closer to a most attentive, captivated Nami. "That rich aroma, that slightly bitter edge, that feeling of warmth and mellow anticipation as you blow the steam away before taking your first sip…"
"Oh, Kaitou-san…" Nami sighed dreamily, her elbow on their café table beside her glass of iced caramel macchiato and her chin resting on her palm. On this day alone, how many times had he taken her breath away…? "You have such a way with words…"
An exasperated Setsu rolled her eyes. Thankfully, only Kurama noticed. "Oh, please," she muttered under her breath, beyond earshot of the two romancing lovebirds now sitting across each other and gazing into each other's eyes. "Anyone can talk like that."
Kurama had lost count of how many times he had sweat-dropped in the past few minutes. He could read the words in those icy blue eyes all too well: "I think I'm gonna be sick."
"This is just icing on the cake, my dear!" gloated Kaitou over his coffee, the back of his palm patting his closed journal to draw his darling's attention to it. "You have seen far from the best of me yet!"
"Can I read one of your poems?" Hazelnut eyes brightened at the sight of the published author's private record-keeper of secrets. "Please, please, please? Pretty please with ice cream and sprinkles and a naked…" she paused, unable to think of anyone who would suit her current need. "… eeto… whoever you like!—on top?"
Kurama's sweat-drop grew bigger than ever. Setsu smacked her palm onto her face.
"Oh, I am certain that you can, as you are literate and therefore possess the faculties necessary to perform the act of reading. However, you may not," taunted the word wizard, still being his pedantic perfectionist self.
"Okay," Nami conformed melodiously. "May I read one of your poems? Please, please, please? Pretty please with ice cream and sprinkles and a nake—"
"Nami, I think he gets the point," Setsu cut her off in mid-sentence on purpose, not only because the overly long gag was fast getting too old, but also because of all the salacious "Coffee, tea, or me?" scenarios involving Nami in a maid outfit of which she could see Kaitou entertaining way too much deep within the most perverted pleasure center of his brain.
"Now that you asked, yes, you may."
Kaitou spread open his journal and flipped its pages with a delicate, secretive care—after all, in its most intimate pages slept his deepest, darkest confessions to the very goddess who was about to lay her eyes on one of his masterpieces—until he came across a particular haiku of his that he dared to let her read:
Crumble, ocean tide,
crumble the rockiest shore
into fine white sand."
Unfortunately for the busily sketching Setsu, Nami just had to read it aloud. In no less than her earsplitting Engrish, of course.
"This tears it," snapped the distracted illustrator, getting up from her end of the lounge seat and taking her trusty sketchpad and pencil with her. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm moving over there."
But neither Nami nor Kaitou even heard her.
So Setsu took it as a sign that they did not mind at all, slipped towards the empty parlor behind Kurama and Kaitou's couch, and sat directly behind Kurama's back, her eyes trained past the exit of the coffee shop.
"Breaking Wave"… Kurama repeated the title of the three-lined epigram to himself. English for "Nami"!
Once Setsu was settled behind him, Kurama turned to the girl against his back, speaking in a low undertone. "Mayonaka-san, do you suppose Akasaki-san knows that poem was about—"
"Her?" Setsu finished for him in just as soft a whisper, still etching away onto her drawing pad. "Probably not. And even if Kaitou-sempai really is that 'shore' in it, I still don't think she'd read any sexual overtones between the lines."
A smirk curled Kurama's lips. Even without their minds linked, he could trust hers to know what's on his.
For several more minutes, he simply watched the romance unfolding before his eyes. "Kaitou-san, I was thinking…" Nami took Kaitou's hands in her own. "Would you be interested to write song lyrics for me?"
When a beet-red Kaitou suddenly fell silent, his glasses glinting against the lampshade light, Kurama decided to pay no more attention to them. Perhaps I should leave them to themselves as well.
Again he turned to the girl against his back. "Mayonaka-san?"
"Hn?" Setsu neither tore her eyes off the open shop door nor stopped her furious penciling.
"Mind if I join you?"
She took long to respond. "Up to you," she mumbled gruffly in between long, heavy pencil strokes. "I don't own this table anyway."
Kurama rose from his seat, whirling behind him to face her. He peered over her shoulder and studied the human subject she was immortalizing on paper: a farmer bent down amidst a field of tall cereal grasses bearing kernels on large ears, breaking his back to husk corn. The face of the man looked strangely realistic.
Suddenly, the barista behind the self-serve counter loudly barked a surname into the café microphone, calling for that particular customer to pick up his or her order. "Furukawa! Espresso for Furukawa!"
Setsu could not take any more. She stood up from her new seat and shut her sketchbook, tucking it under the crook of her arm. "Darn it, I can't concentrate. I'll just go for a walk, ne?"
Kurama was listening to her footsteps dying away when a familiar high-pitched voice snatched his attention.
"Minamino-san, where did Setsu-chan go?" piped up a curious Nami.
"Outside," relayed Kurama. "She was too distracted to draw here."
"Maybe we should go, too!"
Kaitou, quite ill at ease with the sight of his beloved and the unintentional babe magnet interacting with each other, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose to mask his growing discomfort. "Now, now, Nami, there's no reason for all three of us to keep Mayonaka-kun company." Charcoal eyes behind thick-rimmed specs shot Kurama a look that screamed Leave us alone—now! "Minamino can do that himself."
The third wheel got the message. Loud and clear.
"I'll go," Kurama sighed to himself and left the café.
He found Setsu absently nibbling the eraser tip of her pencil as she strolled along the sidewalk across the road; her hands, while clasped behind her back, clutching her sketchpad and even swinging it from side to side. Her back was turned to him, so she did not see him crossing the street to follow in her tracks.
But before he could reach her, he overheard two male voices coming from the front curb of the driveway of the five-star hotel he had just passed.
"Furukawa! You finally got yourself one of those!"
"Oh, no, I didn't buy it. I just found it in my post."
Kurama recalled the man's name as that of the customer being paged in the café. Green eyes searched for the sources of the voices and found two middle-aged men in uniform touting handguns in leather holsters on their belts. The taller one looks like…
A gasp caught in his throat. The man in Mayonaka-san's drawing!
"You just found it? You sure it's yours?"
"Well," the taller hotel security guard pointed to the name scribbled onto the takeaway cup. "It has my name on it…"
"Wow, must be your lucky day!"
"I've been thinking of ordering this very espresso since I started working here," murmured Furukawa to his curious colleague and took a long, savoring nip of his mysterious drink. "About six years ago now."
"But on our salary, we can't afford it!" laughed the other guard.
His freshman classmate now distancing further and further away, the eavesdropping college student jammed his hands in his pants pockets and continued listening to the guards with narrowed eyes.
"It's really good." The guard named Furukawa gulped down another lingering sip. "Tastes just like my wife's. She used to—"
"Yeah, yeah," the other unnamed guard brushed his story off with a wave of his hand. "You've told me a million times: she used to make you her own special blend before you went out to the field."
Field…? Kurama remembered the corn farmer in Setsu's sketchpad.
"I've always been a heavy coffee drinker. Always had to be. Back then, I'd wake up three hours before sunrise to till our corn field. Now I still need it, but to keep myself awake on the job."
Corn field, noted Kurama. That settles it.
"Yeah, I see you, man, watching our guests going in and out of that café across the street for the longest time," admitted Furukawa's fellow hotel security officer. "And I've been wondering when you'd ever just walk into that café and buy something!"
"And to think I did that every day…" whistled Furukawa in awed disbelief, more to himself than to his listener. "… for six years…"
"Heh, maybe your guardian angel took pity on you and finally gave you what you wanted!" cried the other guard, elbowing his fellow guard jokingly.
"Guardian angel," huh…?
His eyes now closed, and his hands still in his pockets, Kurama strode towards the brunette casually strolling back into the café, still dangling her drawing book to and fro and gnawing on her pencil.
Setsu had just stepped into the doors of the coffee shop when she noticed a little boy tiptoeing in front of one of the bookshelves. He was reaching for a children's storybook that someone of great stature had very unwisely shelved at the topmost ledge.
"Ngh!" The boy gnashed his teeth, refusing to give up.
Right when the child started jumping for the book in desperation, Setsu stepped in, taking her pencil out of her mouth. "Hey. Careful there," she cautioned to the boy, pointing to the thin hardback sticking out of the shelf. "It's this one, ne? I'll get it."
She stretched her arm out to its full length, but the book was just an inch out of her own reach. Just as she herself resorted to tiptoeing, another longer outstretched arm brushed against hers and drew the book out.
With a small smile, Kurama handed the fairy tale classic to the now satisfied, excited boy.
"Yay!" The child's face lit up. "Thanks, mister!"
Kurama saw the little boy off just as Setsu walked away.
"Hn. Somebody's trying to show off his really long thighs."
That same quiet smile lingered on Kurama's face. He knew the grace beneath that gruff façade.
Your intentions are commendable, Mayonaka-san, but you can't save everyone you see.
Both headed back to their original parlor table, where Kaitou and Nami were smiling teasingly at them over their now empty coffee cups.
"Did you two have fun without us?"
"Oh, no more than you two did."
For once in his life, Kaitou felt that he was a link in a chain, a member of a tight-knit circle of friends.
He and Kurama strode along the sidewalk side by side, watching their two female companions strolling several steps ahead of them. All smiles and in her element, a high-spirited Nami clung on to Setsu's left arm, appreciatively ogling one shop after another and gushing about every last window display that caught her eye.
"Hmph. Look at those two," Kaitou scoffed to his fellow male beside him, motioning to the two girls in front of them. "All close and cuddling—linking arms like schoolgirls from a shoujo-ai manga struggling with their sexual identities."
A knowing gleam twinkled in Kurama's eye.
"Why Kaitou, you're surprisingly familiar with such a genre."
Kaitou froze, gulping a lump of ample proportions back down his throat. The smile now curling Kurama's lips was suspiciously sweet. "What other secret 'interests' have you been engaging in all this time?"
Pushing his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose to regain his erratic composure, a sarcastic Kaitou stammered his way out of the grave he had dug for himself, but the deadpan Kurama swiftly delivered one witty comeback after another. Paying no attention to the two suddenly chatty boys behind them, Nami thanked her best friend once again for accompanying her on her first "date" of sorts with Kaitou.
Setsu could hear little to nothing of what she was saying. The only words that made it from her ears to her mind came from behind them: "Trust me, Kaitou. Mayonaka-san and Akasaki-san are not—"
Without even whirling to face them, a scandalized Setsu's face contorted into a sour, awful mess just as Nami ended her heartfelt speech with a promise accompanied by an assuring wink. "Don't worry, Setsu-chan! If Hagiri-kun's not cool with this, I'll take the heat from him!"
But even before his face could flicker across Setsu's mind, Nami pointed towards a large automated machine across the street. "Hey, look, minna-san! A PuriKura!"
Just then, a most excited Nami grabbed hold of one of Kaitou's arms with her free hand and broke into a mad dash across the pedestrian lane, dragging a suddenly wide-eyed Setsu and a stunned yet secretly thrilled Kaitou with her. His hands jammed into his pants pockets, Kurama looked both ways before crossing the street after them, quietly chuckling at the sight of the typically serious Kaitou and Setsu now comically flying against their will.
When he arrived behind them, Nami had long been working the controls of the do-it-yourself photo booth, choosing from the picture borders and backgrounds on the LCD screen. "It's been a long time since we last took a picture of us together, Setsu-chan!"
Standing behind the restless raven-haired girl, Kaitou stared into the monitor and adjusted his glasses. "This contraption seems to have escaped my notice until now. What did you say it was again?"
He obviously needed to take his nose out of his books and computer monitor and get out of his library of a bedroom more often. But this didn't even cross Nami's mind.
"A PuriKura!" she repeated, bursting with eagerness. She showed Setsu a backdrop filled with red and white roses. "Do you like this for our pic?"
"It's distracting for a background, ne?" Setsu admitted uneasily. "But if you like it, don't let me stop you."
Kurama volunteered to enlighten the unacquainted Kaitou. "The 'PuriKura' is just your ordinary picture-taking booth. Its name is a portmanteau of the English words 'Print Club'."
"Okay then! Get ready!" chimed Nami. "Smiiiiile, Setsu-chaaan!"
"The only difference between this and other cameras," added Setsu, stopping momentarily when the automated photo machine snapped a shot of Nami embracing her arm and cuddling against her cheek. "is that this converts your picture into thumbnail-sized photo stickers. Don't worry—it doesn't capture souls or anything!"
She and Kurama traded knowing glances and grins.
"Which is more than I can say about the two of you," muttered Kaitou grudgingly, darting dagger glares at both of them—not only for defeating him in his own Taboo games, but for making him look ignorant in front of Nami as well.
But she didn't even notice.
"People hardly use these things anymore," Nami pointed out, nostalgia in her eyes. "Since almost everyone these days have their own cameras. But I think it's a classic! You should try it, Kaitou-san! Come on, take a picture with me!"
A cheery Nami pulled a now blushing Kaitou to her side. As she oriented him with the control buttons of the self-programmable studio, Setsu stood next to Kurama with her hands clasped behind her back. "If only she knew that she didn't even have to ask."
Kurama nodded in agreement. Watching Kaitou interacting with Nami was amusing. Little by little, Mayonaka-san's best friend was somehow changing his longtime colleague and one-sided academic rival for the better. Kaitou used to take excessive pride in learning everything on his own. Now, he didn't even seem to mind being lectured to in the least. That, or he was simply putting on a good face for Nami.
As soon as the two finished having their snapshot taken, Nami flailed her hands up in the air, beckoning Kurama and Setsu closer. "Now let's all have our picture together! Come on, you guys! It'll be great!"
Him still with his hands in his pants pockets, and her still with her hands clasped behind her back, both Kurama and Setsu sighed to themselves and joined their friends.
"Do we have a choice?" Kurama spoke in a low whisper so that only Setsu would hear him.
"Did you have to ask?" Their minds did not even have to touch for this.
Their next few minutes resulted in a sheet containing four photo stickers of a beaming Nami affectionately hugging a reluctant Setsu's neck on the foreground, Kaitou adjusting his glasses behind Nami, and Kurama simply smiling behind Setsu.
A pleased Nami peered into the picture more closely. "Your blush was just so cute here, Setsu-chan!" She gushed in delight as both Kurama and Setsu eyed Kaitou meaningfully. Both of them were well aware of his tendency to get all the wrong ideas when it comes to Nami and her feelings for other people. "And you're very photogenic, Minamino-san!"
A whirlpool of emotions sweeping over him, Kaitou had not even opened his mouth to speak when Setsu murmured into his ear. "Relax, sempai. She's just speaking her mind. If she really liked him better than she did you, then she would have had their picture taken, too. But she didn't, ne?"
Kaitou's shoulders relaxed as he heaved a sigh of relief. Still entirely unaware of her secret admirer's feelings for her, Nami snapped her fingers. "Hey, why don't you two have a go at it?"
Green eyes snapped wide open.
"Hn?" Blue eyes blinked.
"A brilliant suggestion!" Kaitou smirked from beside Nami. He obviously intended to back her up all the way. "I don't see why you shouldn't. No other customer queued in line behind us anyway. And we—" he gestured towards his beloved. "—already have our own picture. Now it's your turn."
Both nonhumans had merely exchanged dubious glances when Nami planted one hand on their backs and shoved them towards the camera lens just in time for Kaitou to click the shutter button.
The surprise shot turned out to be a disaster. The still camera-shy Setsu appeared even more uncomfortable than before, neither smiling for—nor even looking at!—the camera in the first place. Not to mention she was standing too far away from Kurama, whose smile now seemed… unnatural.
"Eeeeehhh? What's this?" Nami moaned upon seeing the image for herself, as though she was actually suffering in the throes of physical pain. "MOU!"
But Kaitou devised a plan.
"Nami," he began, savoring the moment. He enjoyed the way her personal nickname rolled off his lips. It was delicious. "Perhaps we should just take another picture of the four of us together."
"But we already have a—"
Kaitou moved in towards her, cupping his hand over her ear to muffle his voice from the two seemingly uncooperative spoilsports watching their every move. Nami snapped her fingers again and clapped her hands together. "You're right, Kaitou-san! Let's just have another one with all of us in it!"
"Again?" Setsu cocked an eyebrow. Kurama sighed.
So all four of them posed for another shot, this time with Kaitou and Nami standing in front, and the taller Kurama and Setsu respectively behind them.
However, this time, right when the camera clicked, Kaitou and Nami ducked down to disappear from the picture, leaving only the two behind them in it!
But the reflexes of the taller pair were much faster than the shorter couple had expected. Come snapshot time, blue eyes had darted down, following the suddenly squatting Nami. Meanwhile, Kurama's eyes were closed, yet his right hand was very noticeably out of the photo—at that point, he had already clapped a restraining hand on the escaping Kaitou's shoulder.
Phase One of Kaitou's stratagem had failed.
"It would have been a good plan," Kurama smiled at his male friend slash rival. "Too bad it didn't work."
"You shutterbugs are sneaky." Only now did Setsu's dimple finally show.
Nami sighed as Kaitou cleared his throat.
"Oh, well." Disappointment ringing in her voice, Nami turned back to her scheming partner. "Let's just leave those two alone."
"I have a proposal for you," Kaitou bade to Nami, signaling the commencement of Phase Two of his ploy. "How about one more with just the two of us, then?"
Setsu raised a curious eyebrow and traded looks with Kurama. Kaitou was getting bolder now. "Proposal," eh? Both of them could very well imagine another one he could make to her someday.
"This time, let me handle the controls," volunteered Kaitou. "I insist."
"Okay!" The gleam in both Nami's eyes and grin held a secret.
Things between Kaitou and Nami were becoming more and more interesting. So a silently amused Kurama and Setsu watched from behind as the black-haired couple stood before the camera one more time, now much closer to each other and even holding hands. Little did they know that Kaitou and Nami had posed in such an intimate manner to leave enough room to include them in the photo!
As soon as they heard the shutters click, Kaitou directed the PuriKura machine to zoom in on Kurama and Setsu together—and actually smiling from watching him and Nami together!—and printed out only the zoomed part.
Both of them had such genuine smiles in this one. And for once, they were looking directly into the lens.
Neither Kurama nor Setsu could believe it. Kaitou had outwitted them both. Apparently, he and Nami together were a force to be reckoned with. They made a great team.
As they all walked away from the PuriKura booth, Nami handed one sheet of photo stickers to Setsu, who merely shook her head with a small smile. "Thanks but no, thanks. I can just draw any of you when I want to anyway."
Her face rounding into a cute pout, an insistent Nami still held the sheet out towards her best friend and, with her free hand, repeatedly poked the latter's cheek. "But you can't just draw from memory forever, Setsu-chan! Someday your memory won't be as good as it used to be, and you're going to forget what we all looked like today!" Nami nodded mechanically, like a toy bobble-head. "And you just might need one of these to help you remember!"
A chuckle escaped Setsu's lips. But my memory would never… She sighed. "If you say so, Nami-chan. But all of you should have the rest of them. I'll take just one."
Nami's face brightened as she pasted one sticker onto the tip of Setsu's pointer finger. "There! Setsu-chan, I know you like drawings over pictures because you love to draw—"
"Painters and photographers may both be visual artists, but the painter devotes much more time and effort to turn moments into memories. Some photographers just point and shoot." Setsu shrugged nonchalantly, not even taking one peek at the photo on her finger.
"—But photos are important too, you know! They capture stuff that happens too fast for you to draw!"
Kurama could sense the pride in Kaitou's sudden smirk. The seasoned intellectual was most proud of his beloved. He could almost hear him say "That's my girl!" or something along those lines, only a more… cerebral… version.
"Doesn't Minamino-san look just dashing in that one?" Nami grabbed Setsu's hand and brought her stickered finger closer to inattentive blue eyes. "So debonair… A real-life Prince Charming!"
An exasperated Setsu resisted the need to massage her temples. More like Prince Charmless.
Nami gushed on just as Kurama sweat-dropped. "Purinsu Minamino! I should have changed the template of the PuriKura to 'Royal' so he would have had a crown on his head! Why didn't I think of that earlier?"
Something struck Setsu. Hey… Puri. Kura. It could be short for Purinsu Kura… Then she knuckled herself on the forehead, dismissing the fleeting idea altogether. Oh, don't even think about it…! You might change his form! And you wouldn't want Nami-chan to see that—or Kaitou-sempai to see it again!
Suddenly, she felt a strip of adhesive tape sticking onto the smack middle of her forehead. Distracted blue eyes regained focus and found Nami now affixing another photo sticker, this time beneath the tufts jutting out of Kaitou's curly pompadour.
"You know, you guys, they say if you stick a PuriKura sticker of you and your friends on your friends' foreheads, the picture will stay in their memories forever! They'll never forget you!"
Now Nami was standing right before Kurama, tiptoeing the best she could to reach his brow. But she encountered two problems. One: He was the tallest among them. And two: His long forelocks protected his forehead.
"MOU!" Groaning in playful defeat, she gave up and pressed the sticker onto Setsu's right palm instead. "I can't reach it, Setsu-chan! You do it!"
Kurama sweat-dropped again just as Setsu chuckled in response. "Nami-chan, I don't think he would want me to."
Kaitou regarded her silently. Any other girl in their advanced English class would have given up an arm, a leg, and a lung for a chance to even just brush against Minamino.
Now's my chance.
Kurama took Setsu's right hand in his and peeled the sticker off her palm. Then he swept his forelocks up and attached the sticker to his now fully exposed forehead.
No. No blood on her hand now.
As crimson locks fell over his face as they always did, Setsu pointed straight at him and blinked. "Sempai, you have a widow's peak," she pointed out, her expression that of a thinker who had just had a Eureka! moment. "Hn. If you ever decide to settle down, whoever you eventually end up with—"
"Had better be careful of dying ahead of you!" Kaitou finished for her.
Both of them shared a laugh about it. Even Nami was grinning. Setsu-chan looked so happy, she could not help herself. While her typically self-possessed best friend laughed away, Nami seized the opportunity to add one more picture sticker to the left of the one already on Setsu's brow, one more to the right, one more on her chin, and a last one on her left cheek.
Having more fun than he would willingly admit, Kaitou joined in, depressing one of his own onto Setsu's other cheek. "This is for yesterday's game!"
"Look, Mayonaka-san. You have room for one more."
A smiling Kurama himself stripped a sticker off its sheet and lightly poked it onto the tip of Setsu's nose.
Setsu's face could not contort any more than it already had. Despite the absence of spider veins bulging out of her, the three of them could tell just how royally pissed off she was. Kurama chuckled to himself. This reminds me of the time Kuwabara-kun, Botan, and I put our spirit tracking stickers on Hiei.
"Just in case you all forgot, I'm not a human sticker book." Setsu closed her eyes, refusing to watch her three companions taking immense pleasure from her misery. "Besides, if we take that saying a little further, it would be more meaningful for us to put stickers right here—" she pointed to the left side of her own chest. "—to keep our loved ones close to our…" She stopped in mid-sentence, the words What the hell? written all over her face. "Never mind."
But her three listeners were well aware that she was alluding to their hearts.
"Awww!" cooed Nami, clasping her hands together. Her hazelnut eyes glittered in romantic awe. "That's so sweet!"
Kaitou's smirk grew as he adjusted his glasses. Their lenses glinted against the sun and hid his eyes. "I didn't know you had it in you, Mayonaka-kun."
"A closet romantic," remarked Kurama with a soft smile.
Clasping her hands behind her back, Setsu walked away, muttering under her breath. "Man, what was I thinking? For the love of sanity…!"
Her three friends watched her back retreating further and further away until it dawned upon Nami that she actually wasn't coming back. "Eeh?" Nami blinked and broke into a mad dash after her, leaving Kaitou and Kurama in the dust. "Wait up, Setsu-chan! Don't get mad at me! I'm sorry!" She called out to her best friend disappearing into the distance. "I love youuu~!"
Kurama closed his eyes. He needed not see Kaitou to know that Nami's outcry had rubbed him the wrong way and that he was now chasing after her. The demon-human sighed contentedly to himself, tranquil.
She locked herself in her home bathroom, where only the golden eyes of her white fox plush toy could see her and all the PuriKura stickers trimming her face.
Setsu dug her nail into the adhesive backing of the photo sticker on her nose and, with neither care nor caution, ripped it off her skin.
A stinging pain spread across her nose. Gritting her teeth, Setsu winced to herself, the bridge of her nose wrinkling from her face-twisting grimace.
Furious blue eyes glared at the backside of the thumbnail-sized photograph now stuck onto the tip of her pointer finger. Several black-tipped plugs clogging the pores of her nose dotted the small, sticky surface. She grumbled to herself, darting a glance at her fox plushie. It laughed back at her while saying nothing at all.
"What are you looking at?" she spat to her fox and its grinning golden eyes.
A smile threatening to break out of her own lips, Setsu pressed the photo sticker onto her fox's velveteen nose.
He was slipping his school coat off his left shoulder when Shiori knocked. "Shuuichi, dinner's ready."
"Hai." Kurama called out towards his bedroom door as the long sleeve of his carnation pink jacket slid down his arm. Just then, something caught his eye: a rectangular object half the size of his manager's pin stuck to his white undershirt, right by his heart.
Green eyes danced from the memory. Kaitou and Akasaki-san were hilarious in this picture. The lengths they went through to take a picture of us alone…
And the look on Mayonaka-san's face could convince anyone that someone nauseous had just thrown up at her shoes. He laughed a little.
Suddenly, green eyes widened. When did she…?
As harmless as it was, this photo sticker meant that she could very well plant something else—of a more threatening kind!—by his heart, and it would again escape his notice!
"It would be more meaningful for us to put stickers right here…"
Green eyes wandered to the notebook spread open on his bed. On a once-blank inner page, the two of them smiled right into the camera. Her dimples were especially deep in this one.
"… to keep our loved ones close to our…"
He picked up his notebook and stared back at that shyly smiling face.
"Is that what you want me to do?"
Despite everything new I find out about her…
He set it down on his desk and left the sticker on his school shirt.
She's still the same, this ningen.
Still subtle. And just a little dangerous.
THANK YOU for reading this far!
Please REVIEW! A word from you keeps me motivated!
This marks the end of the fourth arc: Meiou Daigaku. (And what a violent arc it was! *sweat-drops*) On to the fifth arc of Never Knew! \^-^/
Yeah, this was more of a "characterization" and "relationship" chapter than a "plot" one. Probably because the previous chapter and this one were originally written as just one chapter.
Kurama and Setsu's long talk scene has not seen the last of me yet! (Poor henpecked Kurama.) I'll beta its contents myself once Inspiration smacks me upside the head. XD
Oh, and I finally agree with Setsu about something: Most of Kurama's height is in his thighs. They're what make him taller than Yusuke, even if Yusuke's torso looks longer than his. (Actually, I think the torsos of all YYH characters look short. Their waistlines are drawn really high—probably because it was the '90s. XD Mrgh, I'm being too fussy over their looks here. It's not as if I'm drawing them!)
And because I can't draw them to save my life…
Shhh. Kurama and Setsu are real—
More on my profile.
Happy reviewing! ^-^ (Thank you in advance~)