Soul Society, Sereitei, January 14th, Midafternoon
After centuries of living a life of secrecy, stealth and subtlety, feigning ignorance and obtuseness wasn't exactly the easiest thing to do. In his own way, Mal was a determinedly honest man, who called things exactly as he saw them and was not accustomed to turning a blind eye to anything. Indeed, it was a fundamental provision of his duty to NEVER turn a blind eye to anything, to never ignore any sort of failure, whether it be a deficiency of physical strength, moral certitude or intellectual fortitude. That was the overriding proviso of the office of the Duke of Shadows... he was the watcher of the watchers, the eyes in shadows of the night that saw all acts of pettiness, corruption and personal weakness. It wasn't necessarily his position to judge what he saw, especially as regarded to the actions of his fellow Crusaders, that was more in the line of the Duke of Order, but it was his job to collect the evidence, witness the abuse of power, and report it to the proper authorities. And sometimes, if justifable, take pre-emptive action to correct a particularly deviant person. The shadows could hold poisoned blades as easily as watching eyes and listening ears after all. People were afraid of the night for a reason. Mal and his troops were one of those reasons.
All the same, it was another proviso of his duty, and one that was personally dear to him, to be flexible and adaptable, ready to serve in whatever capacity was best suited to the problems at hand, rather than being bound by a iron clad code of conduct or rulebook. Sometimes this meant coming in with a heavy hand, knives in one fist, whips in the other, to scare people back into the proper attitude. Other times a gentler touch was needed, a velvet glove concealing a poisoned needle for the recalitrant or unsubmissive. Sometimes one had to smile in the face of humiliation so that one might later smirk in victory over a bloodied and confused corpse. Sometimes it meant negotiating when he would prefer to utilize swords, and sometimes it meant using swords when he would prefer words. Sometimes it meant wilfully ignoring the well meaning dictates of his own superiors, in order to accomplish a greater goal. Better to need to beg forgiveness than ask for permission for doing what must be done but was usually distasteful to others. Indeed, it was better to act on his own initative sometimes. Censure might be handed down, punitive measures taken, but better that he suffer than those who were truly important. Better he be hung out to dry than shame or dishonor be brought onto the Crusaders as a whole. That too, was the duty of the Duke of Shadows.
And so he had deployed the Fey in their animal guises without informing the Princess, knowing that she would be annoyed with him if not outright angry when she found out. But if things did somehow backfire, the fact that she had not been involved in his decision would, at worst, just embarass her with the Shinigami thinking she could not control her own subordinates. A public punishment of some sort and open contrition on his part would assuage that embarassment quickly enough though. There was always the possibility that his head might actually roll for his insubordination but if a man worried about the time and manner of his death while in this profession, he would never be able to fufill his assigned duties. Which, at the moment, included finding out as much information about these Shinigami as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Let the Princess find out through her negotiations what the Shinigami were willing to tell them... it was Mal's job to find out what the Shinigami weren't willing to tell them, and consider how best to use that to support the goals of the Princess.
To that end, both he and his best... and maybe only true... friend Vladimo had decided that if sacrificing their own honor or even lives was the sacrifice required to help the Princess create this worthy and long lasting alliance with the Shinigami that was her goal, then such a price was worth paying. Pay two Dukes, already damaged goods in the eyes of many back home, in return for a military ally with almost a dozen Duke class fighters and no war to prevent them from sending them to the aid of the Imperium? That was a fair trade indeed! And so Vladimo had gone to test out the strength of the Shinigami Duke of Battle, or whatever the equivalent was... the 11th Division Captain. Only if the man could impress Vladimo would they be able to confidently support the Princess's goals of peace with these people. There was no point in saddling themselves with an alliance with a weak ally after all.
And so Mal was testing out his own counterpart amongst these Shinigami people, the Captain of the 2nd Division, who was also apparently commander in chief of a special assassination or covert operations squadron as well. Regardless of their strength in open battle, if the Shinigami were nothing more than sword swinging barbarians with no appreciation for subtlety or a cognitive approach to gaining combat advantage against their enemies, he could hardly give his own blessing for any alliance to come. Brute force had its place, but the Daemon's were far too numerous in their hordes for any pure force approach to work against them. The Crusaders and any allies they might gain had to not only fight hard, but they had to fight smart as well. And it was impossible to be smart in a military capacity without a capable intelligence and stealth recon force feeding information back to front line commanders and striking hard where the enemy was weak, disrupting reinforcement columns, destroying seige gear behind enemy lines or assassinating enemy commanders and elites before they could affect the battlefield.
And so Mal was going against his nature and training, and walking openly without an escort, pretending to be furtive as he flitted about the Sereitei in a simply awful parody of stealth designed to draw plenty of attention to himself from those with the duty to observe the suspicious. He had picked up several tails already, and was doing his best to observe their movements and skills out of the corners of his eyes as he continued to loiter about in places that were obviously suspcious, such as the roofs of buildings, or in half hidden alleyways near the entrances to Divisional compounds where he could ostensibly observe the comings and goings of the Shinigami. It was a hideous farce, and were he back home he would have been caught out in a matter of minutes by even the most obtuse of watchers, but with the cultural barriers and natural arrogance of any people dealing with foreigners on their home turf, he was confident that those spying on him would not realize he was baiting them.
Not until it was too late anyway. Because while as interesting and instuctive as it was to observe the rank and file observers and spies that were doing their best to see without being seen, they weren't the ones whom he was really interested in. You could learn a lot about an organization and its leader by looking at how its rank and file members were trained and how they operated in a non-practice environment, but indirect extrapolation was never preferrable to personal encounters and observation of that leader yourself. But any good leader of a stealth recon force would be far too busy with other concerns to immediately come to pursue such a relatively low level threat as he appeared to be, when that job could easily be left to trusted subordinates instead. It was only if and when those subordinates could no longer effectively trail and contain the "threat" that the master herself would come out to play. It was just a fact of life of being such a leader... no matter how much you might want to investigate everything yourself, you simply had too many demands on your time to not delegate most of the drudge work whenever possible.
They moved well, these black clad spies did, keeping out of sight of all but the most trained or experienced observers even though their garments did little to help them blend in with the predominantly white, grey and brown colors of the city buildings. And obviously they were all deeply familiar with their surroundings, and how best to use each angle of each building, each tiny little shadow or ornamental plant, to obfuscate their movements and cloak their presence from their target. They were exceptional at the deceptively hard task of remaining perfectly still while in cover, no matter how awkward that position might be for them, and their speed was also exceptional, in their ability to catch up to him in a matter of seconds whenever he shifted positions. Their best skill, however, as far as Mal was concerned, was their ability to hide their spiritual pressure, which was near absolute. He made a mental note to find out what sort of mental or physical discipline they employed in order to achieve such a result, so that he might copy it and teach it to his own subordinates.
However, he was not overly impressed with their ability to actually "blend" into their surroundings in a natural fashion. Their uniforms actually completely precluded it, which was why his own spies did not have any set uniforms, but rather wore whatever clothing that was normal in whatever area they were assigned, so that they could better blend in to the crowds, observing while in plain sight of their targets without the target ever even noticing. Nor was he all that impressed with their degree of individual initiative, which is to say, they seemed to have none at all. Quite how recon forces could be expected to operate behind enemy lines, detached from any regular communication with superiors, without displaying any individual initiative or creativity in interpreting their orders with regards to the changing combat situation, Mal did not know. These people watched him because they were ordered to do so, not because his actions were in themselves interesting to them, and so they weren't likely to react as well or fluidly to things that changed the parameters of their observations, such as if he entered an area where stealthy observation was impossible, such as a wide open courtyard or if he did something truly unexpected, like disappearing or leaving the city on the sly. They would be paralyzed for a critical few moments or even longer as they had to consult with superiors to find out what to do next.
They were talented, but they were too focused, that was their problem. They did not adapt well to changing circumstances or having to make high level judgement calls. Evidence of a too tight grip on operations by the upper echelons of command? Or was micro-management of combat squads a norm in this culture? And they were too hidebound in their tactics, too oriented upon remaining unseen and unheard to consider that sometimes the easiest way to pass unnoticed is to be in plain sight, just as part of an accepted and expected background. All it would take would be procuring some military robs and aping the emblems or mannerisms of whatever division he was currently observing, and he'd never be able to tell the difference between regular soldiers and recon members, certainly not any time soon. And if their own side could easily determine the difference, then that was a failing of the spies. Before one could ever hope to consistently decieve an enemy, one had to learn how to consistently decieve one's allies...
Leaving off his observations of the 4th Division's gateway, Mal stepped around the nearest street corner, using the low perimeter wall to momentarily break line of sight to his position from those of his watchers. It would only be a second before they shifted and reaquired him, but a second was an eternity in his line of work. Sloppy positioning on their part, because of their very reliance on remaining hidden, and the relative openness of this section of the city, the only good places to watch him and remain hidden were located within the 4th Division itself, amongst its taller outbuildings. Stroking the hilt of his Arma Sancti, Mercurius, Mal smiled, baring his unwanted but not entirely unuseful shark-like fangs, legacy of the unwilling release of his Inner Daemon by that blasted Vandire. "Adapt to all circumstances, Mercurius." Mal crooned, shucking out of his coat even as his Arma morphed and transformed itself into a caricature dummy of himself, upon which the distinctive black coat draped.
The deception was a frail one... anyone within even a dozen feet would be able to tell it was an artifical mannequin under the coat... but these watchers never got closer than fifty feet, because otherwise they couldn't remaining hidden from him. Even as he released his Arma, Mal silently incanted a Prayer to the Rex Divinia, asking for his protection from the covetous eyes of his foes, Prayer 55, "Translucence", which turned both his body and his possessions all but invisible, allowing light to pass through him for a brief time. Translucence did not last long, as maintaining it for more than a few seconds was extremely draining, but he didn't need long, as he shift-stepped away, circling around behind his watchers, dropping the invisibility effect as soon as he was once more out of their line of sight, as they settled in to watch "him" once more.
The hard part accomplished, it was matter of only a few moments work to sneak up upon one of the black clad spies, who in his arrogance gave no thought to the possibility that he might be snuck upon within his own city by someone whom he had in "plain view". Too trusting of their eyes, these Shinigami were. It was as Flaya had said... they saw, but they didn't understand what it was that they saw! Perception without understanding was worse than no perception at all, for it led to assumptions, and assumptions were deadly in this line of work. They assumed that because he had been moving slowly about for the past few hours, seemingly unaware of their presence, and had made no other attempts at real deception, that he wasn't capable of such things. This was why Mal did his best to drill... literally if need be... the idea of "never assume anything other than that your foe is better than you..." into his soldiers. Treating every enemy as if they were smarter, faster, tougher and more powerful than you were, even if it was patently not the case, was the only way to ensure you never let laxity, that worthless corruption, take root in your soul!
Grabbing the shaven headed spy from behind, Mal lifted the smaller man up into the air to deny him leverage and prevent him from kicking loose a roof tile or some other noise to alert his comrades, his right forearm pressing against the ninja's throat to cut off his air and his voice, as well as blood flow to the brain, while his left arm pinioned the man's arms to his sides. An alert man might be able to twist or kick his way free of the tight but not particularly strong hold, but taken by surprise from behind, the spy was already half unconscious before he even realized he was under attack. A few flops and twitches later and the lack of air and blood flow put him out like a snuffed candle. A minute or two of rinsing and repeating this strategy and Mal soon had an even half dozen hostages and no more "hidden" observers. He wondered how long it might be before the spies' superior noticed that their watch team was incommunicado. But while that would be an instructive thing to learn, he was more interested in playing with the big fish, rather than amusing himself with these well meaning but inadequate minnows.
Doubling back to recollect his coat and Arma, resealing his weapon, Mal improvised some bindings by tearing the black clothing of the spies into strips, which he then braided into ropes, hogtying their arms and legs tightly together behin their back, making sure the bindings were all but cutting off circulation entirely... silk cloth was a very strong, hard to tear material, especially braided like he'd done it, but it was also a slick material, and easily to wriggle out of if the bindings weren't uncommonly tight. Inverting and upending their pull up facial coverings gave him functional blindfolds, and extra lengths of braided robe allowed him to tie them all together into an easily transportable lump of mostly naked, entirely helpless Souls. As far as personal humiliations went, for a recon force member, this was probably worse than death. Though if their commander was anything like Mal was, they'd be lucky if death didn't soon come upon them anyway, for so embarassing themselves and by extension the commander and the entire unit as well. Well, that was their problem, not his, Mal thought, as he deposited his hostage bundle around the corner from the 2nd Division main gate, where they would be easily found by any roving patrols worth the name.
The addition of a hand drawn pictographic message addressed to the toothsome female captain with the braids completed his taunt-invitation, and Mal shift-stepped away with a satisified smile to wait. The day was about to get so much more fun and entertaining...
2nd Division Compound, Offices of the Divisional Commander
"That better be you, Omaeda! Lunch is two hours past and my office is suspiciously GOAT FREE!" Soi Fon hissed with poisonous cool as a timid knock sounded on the sliding panels of her office door. After leaving matters related to the creature's apprehension to her lieutenant that morning, Soi Fon had been doing her best to distract herself with other matters, including reports of other suspicious looking goats running rampart throughout many other Divisions of the Gotei 13, which only confirmed her suspicion that they were no simple animals, or at least not only simple animals, but also a cunning and well used intelligence gathering apparatus of some sort. Quite how any information the goats collected would be transmitted to their Crusader handlers, Soi Fon did not yet understand, but she had confidence that she would figure it out sooner or later. She always did, after all.
There were only a few problems that she had not been able to find the answers to despite her best efforts. One of those problems was the reasoning behind Yourichi-sama's seeming deep friendship or even... "hiss"... infatuation with Kisuke Urahara that had prompted her to abandon not only Soi Fon, but also all of her connections with her own noble clan and the Gotei 13 a century ago. Despite many attempts in those long ago days, Soi Fon had never actually caught Urahara in a compromised position with Yourichi-sama, and she had no actual proof that their relationship was anything but platonic. But her gut feeling wouldn't leave her alone about it, and she just knew that there was more to their relationship than she could ever prove. Another one of those problems was trying to figure exactly when Aizen had gone bad and turned from an asset to the Soul Society into its greatest threat. She still couldn't make heads or tails of that one, and that, more than just about anything, frightened her. How the hell was she supposed to prevent it from happening again in the future if she couldn't figure out how, when or why it had happened in the past?
Her office door slid open, and it did her temper no particular good to see that Omaeda was suspiciously absent from the hallway, as was the crimson and black furred goat that was apparently still terrorizing her compound unchecked. Perhaps sensing his Captain's mood, the Special Forces ninja that had come calling was kneeling submissively in the hall, head all but bowed to touch the floor. "I am afraid that the Vice-Captain has not yet returned from the training grounds, Captain Fon." The ninja reported, fighting down his nervousness.
"Then why the hell are you bothering me? Are you that eager to die, that you'd come here to just to make excuses for that fat slob?" Soi Fon demanded, her anger almost subsumed by her curiosity. Her subordinates had to know what sort of mood she was in, if they didn't then they didn't deserve to be her subordinates, and she did have a reputation for killing the messenger, so to speak. What could prompt this man to come knocking upon her door without good news to report? "Well...?" She prompted, as the man took a moment to find his tongue again.
"I... I don't how to say this, Captain, but there has been something of an... an incident..." The ninja replied, his mouth as dry as a salt pit.
"An incident." Soi Fon repeated, her voice like steel being drawn across a whetstone, whispery but sharp enough to cut to the bone. "How delightfully unspecific. Are we playing twenty questions now? Should I ask whether this incident involves animals, vegetables or minerals? Is that what you want me to do?" Soi Fon took a single step out from behind her desk, fingers tapping Suzumebachi's helt in a controlled but rapid rythym. "Or are you going to tell me some details before I sift them from your brain with my own FINGERS?"
"That won't be necessary, Captain." The ninja replied quickly, knowing that when dealing with his Captain, the more sarcastic she got, the closer she was to bloodily murdering you. He hurried on before he could lose his nerve, which would probably be shortly followed by his head. "The outer perimeter patrol reported in a few moments ago. A demi-squad of our recon operatives was found stashed just outside the divisional compound walls, stripped naked, blindfolded and hogtied with their own robes. It was the demi-squad assigned to tailing the Crusader Duke of Shadows, Captain. I regret to inform you that no one saw the demi-squad being deposited, and all of them have been rendered unconscious for some time, so we do not know how long the Duke has been unobserved or where he currently is. The only clue we currently possess is this note, which was left with the demi-squad." The ninja kept his head bowed but proferred a folded sheet of paper to his Captain.
For her part, Soi Fon wasn't sure whether she was going to take the note, or the note and the entire hand and arm it was held in, her entire body deathly still but trembling on the inside with a buildup of frustrated, embarassed and furious emotion that had no name. Moving her non-weapon hand with what felt like glacial slowness, she plucked the folded sheet of paper from her subordinate's hand, the knuckles of her other hand white around Suzumebachi's hilt, the blade clattering against her sheathe interior from the effort involved in keeping her sword undrawn. The sheet of paper had been sealed with some form of wax, blood red in color and impressed with some sort of seal she wasn't familiar with, a human skull with two daggers for fangs and some sort of crown emblem on its brow, no doubt the symbol of the Duke of Shadows. The seal had been slit open, the message already already perused by at least one subordinate. "So now they can write our language? What does it say?" She asked, lips tight against her teeth.
"No, Captain, it's not in Japanese." The ninja replied, and then bit his lip again as he recalled what form the note took exactly. "It... it appears... to be some sort of, uhm, comic or pictorial presentation addressed to you personally." Sweat ran freely down his face and began soaking into his half mask, and his hands creaked against the floorboards as his shoulder muscles tensed, as if in anticipation of a blow. "As for the content of the message.. well... uhm... you see... its, uhm..." He stammered, swallowing heavily. How was he going to say this without being summarily killed in the very next moment?
"So you could tell that it was addressed to me personally, but you can't tell me what it said?" Soi Fon challenged, her voice dripping scorn like acid as she watched the man practically have a nervous breakdown right there in the hall. She understood that it was a taunt, and that he didn't want to tell her because he was afraid of how she would react, but really, she'd been taunted before... Yourichi-sama used to tease her all the time back in the day, and Urahara's very existence was a taunt as far as she was concerned. How bad could some mangled comic presentation from a foreigner possibly be...? Glaring at her sputtering subordinate, Soi Fon irritably flicked the folded paper open and glanced at its contents.
The moment he saw his Captain's eyes go wide as saucers and her face flush pink, the ninja made peace with his gods, for he suspected his end was nigh. In a way though, he was content, because at least he'd gotten to see the content of that message before he died. No one, not even the most cavalier and rebellious of the 2nd Squad or Secret Remote group, would have ever dreamed of putting such images as those down on paper, much less in such intricate and clearly knowledgable detail, regardless of how many times they would joke and smirk with private longing about such things when they were far, far away from the Sereitei and their Captain. It wasn't uncommon for female Captains or officers to be targets of their male subordinates lustful thoughts after all, though when it came to people like Captain Fon, you could never let them find out about it.
The ninja came back to the here and now as he heard his Captain's teeth begin grinding together so loudly he was sure some of them were about to break, her body still deathly even as her spiritual pressure flooded out around her in thick waves, so dense that he was glad he was already kneeling on the ground, because otherwise he would have been pushed over by the power she was releasing. She seemed unable to stop staring that the pictures in the message, her nostrils flaring as she sucked in breath like a bellows fueling a furnance. He had never, even from a distance, seen his Captain this angry before... and unless he was much mistaken, the flush on her cheeks also had some embarassment mixed in, though to bring it up would be to die that instant. It was said that a picture was worth a thousand words, but if that was the case, then that message contained almost twenty thousand words that could never be spoken of in the presence of those below the age of twenty! Obscene didn't even begin to cover some of those images, all of which involved a very accurate and well proportioned drawing of Captain Fon enthusiastically involved in gratiutous sexual acts with a character that was clearly the Duke of Shadows, judging by the coat and hair.
The ninja considered himself a worldly and experienced man, but he didn't even have names for half of the positions or depicted acts in that message! The pictures had seared themselves into his brain and he couldn't get them out... wasn't even sure if he wanted to. The anatomical detail of the drawings was incredible, worthy of a storied artist. And the positions themselves were conveyed with the deranged precision of a man for whom the term "degenerate" had clearly lost all negative meaning. Especially exciting and simultaneously frightening was the attention to detail given to the Captain's facial expressions in the images, which were of course nothing like anyone had ever seen her make, but most of them had liked to imagine she was capable of making. The cartoon Soi Fon was clearly willingly undertaking these acts of degradation, submission and degeneracy, yet she still retained that prideful and arrogant cast to her face that was the dominant impression of Captain Fon most people tended to take away after meeting her. It wasn't so much a caricature of her as it was a suggestion of how she might really be in private under that kind of stimulus! And though he was doing his damndest not to think about it, for the sake of his own sanity, the flush of embarassment on her cheeks seemed to indicate that maybe some of those suggestions weren't entirely off the mark...
The crinkling of paper as Soin Fon crushed the obscene, taunting message in her fist sounded like the shattering of a glacier in the tension filled office. With a bestial snarl ripping across her lips, Soi Fon hurled the offending piece of paper across the room, hard enough to have sent it through a wall were it not just a ball of paper. Her mind was curiously blank, even as her body shivered with the erupting emotions within, and her eyes had the calm cast of someone who can see death yet welcome's it presence at her side, as she turned to look at the quivering ninja kneeling in her doorway. She really ought to slice his eyes from his head, and his tongue from his mouth this very instant, as it was clear from his posture that he was the one who had perused the message before her. The thought of anyone knowing about such filth in regards to her, even if none of it was truthful, was almost more than she could bear. But, but, a small part of her mind reminded her, if she lashed out now, no matter how good it would make her feel in the short term, in the long term, if her subordinates were afraid to share bad news with her, it would only be to her detriment.
"Did you show that note to anyone else, anyone else at all?" She asked her minion, her voice taut, ready to draw her sword and remove his head from his shoulders should he answer in the affirmative.
"N-NO, Captain! I would never..." He started to protest.
"You had best hope not. Take that note and burn it. If you at all value your life, you will forget it and its contents ever existed. If I hear even a whisper of a rumor involving anything contained within that note, you can be sure that I will inflict upon you a death that will be talked about with terror for a millenium at the very least. Once you have destroyed the note, you and that demi-squad of UTTER FOOLS will report to my personal training chamber and wait there for my return. Clearly your training has been deficient and as your commanding officer, I am taking it upon myself to PERSONALLY correct these problems before they grow any worse. You might also want to place 4th Division on short notice... they're going to need some trauma physicians to be available in the near future..." Soi Fon ordered, congratulating herself for her own lenient nature, even as the ninja whimpered, just once, just a little, at the thought of what personal training from Captain Fon would entail.
"I'm going out for a bit." She added, a predatory smile spreading across her face, like a blade being drawn from its scabbard. "Tell Omaeda that if he doesn't have that goat in hand by the time I return, that he will be better off committing seppuku with a rusty garden trowel than returning to my office in failure. And if I even think I see you thinking about what you saw in that message, I will emasculate you then and there."
"Yes, Captain..." The ninja said abjectly, but by that point in time he was speaking to an empty room, as Captain Fon had already flash stepped away. He could almost pity that bastard of a Crusader...
Sereitei, Southwestern Wall Ramparts
Mal leant indolently upon the chest high barricade of whitewashed stone that topped the city's defensive wall and stared out into the distance, looking over the crowded shanty-towns of wood and some little stone that crowded around the capital city on all sides. Well, perhaps shanty towns was selling them a little short, many of the buildings were multiple stories and looked both old and well cared for, clearly the abodes of those with wealth or status. But even the tallest such buildings didn't rise more than half the height of the inner city wall, though they did often crowd to within only ten or twenty feet of the wall in spots. Such places would make perfect attack points, where beseiging troops could get to within a stone's throw of the wall without exposing themselves to ranged fire from the defenders on the wall top. Another example of poor discipline brought on by a surfeit of peace and prosperity... such a hazard would never be allowed to develop near the walls of any fortress in the Imperium. A hundred foot wide free fire zone was the minimum, and many fortresses enforced far more stringent measures upon their attendant serf-towns.
He tapped his foot speculatively upon the walltop itself, trying to get a feel for the material, which was similar to the ganites and marbles that were used in some construction back home, yet also subtly different. It was very dense and solid material, so dense in fact that it seemed to even draw extra spirit energy out of the air into itself in order to make itself stronger, an interesting passive effect that might be of benefit to try and replicate. True, most Daemon armies did not bother with intensive magical bombardments during their attacks, instead relying on brute strength and numbers, but there were rare exceptions, and imbuing the walls of a fortress with the ability to negate magic based attacks was no bad thing. The buzzing pressure of the invisible field barrier that extended upwards, and presumably downwards, from the walltop was also interesting, though probably not something that the Imperium would seek to replicate.
He understood the logic behind it... it would take something with near Duke-like spiritual pressure to penetrate the field without being vaporized by the energy currents that made it up, or else a very large physical object, such as a siege ballista bolt or trebuchet stone, so it was an effective means of keeping most intruders out. However, the field functioned both ways, like a glass bowl, keeping defenders... and their attacks... in as well as attackers out. What good was a barrier if you could not proactively defend it? No defense could stand against concentrated attack forever, and walls or barriers alone could only slow down an invader, not stop them entirely. And unless he'd really missed something, the only unshielded ways out of the Sereitei were the four main gates. So all an attacker had to do was invest those four points with heavy forces and the defenders would be bottled up and unable to effectively retaliate or sortie against the besieging forces, trapped within their own citadel, which was no advantageous position to be in. The materials engineering of the Shinigami was exceptional... their use of their materials not so much.
The spiritual draining properties of the wall stone was just enough to help him cloak his presence from easy detection, even as he was hovering just below the level of releasing into Ascension mode. He wondered if the toothsome Captain had gotten his note yet, and if so, how long it would take her to track him down? He hoped he'd made the correct assumption regarding her temperment, that she wouldn't be able to let such a provocation as that lie, no matter that her common sense would tell her that provoking her anger was the very purpose of the note. Mal felt his lips stetch into another shark like grin, as he wondered if perhaps she might not be so much angry as she was just surprised? No doubt it had been a long time since anyone had dared be so bold with her, despite her youthful age... she couldn't be much more than three hundred, at the most. Well, angry or wrong footed or shocked, it didn't really matter to him... he just wanted her off balance a bit, wanted to provoke a reaction from the woman inside the Captain, to start her dancing to his tunes as soon as possible. As long as she was the one who was always reacting to what he did, he would always have the advantage over her.
The sigh of displacing air from behind him brought Mal's head around as he straightened to his full height, towering over the slim and svelte female Captain as she appeared a few feet away, his shadow almost reaching her as she glared at him with an expression of wary fury. With the language barrier hanging between them, there was little point in either side making accusations or taunts, at least verbally. Mal let his easy, open smile, carefully keeping lips over his fangs, do the talking for him as he blatantly looked her up and down with appraising eyes. Yes, she was indeed short, as short as a teenager, and built on a small frame, but he liked that, preferring his women to be girlish in figure rather than buxom or brawny. The tension in her muscles, the tautness of her stance, the glitter of malice in her eyes... all of these things excited and intruiged him. It had been many decades since he'd last had such a strong reaction to a woman as this. He couldn't wait to dominate her and make her his own...
For her part, Soi Fon was inwardly berating herself for allowing herself to be so obviously baited and called as this, the looseness of the Duke's muscles and his indolent posture all but screaming the fact that he'd been expecting her, indeed, was even pleased that she'd met his expectations, like a tutor proud of a particularly apt student. She itched to wipe that condescending expression off his face with the edge of her Zanpakuto, but forced herself to hold back. She was agitated and tense, twitchy and off balance, while he was as calm as a pond on a windless day. He wanted her to attack him, he was waiting for it, he was ready. Furthermore, if she were to draw her weapon first, that would automatically put her in the wrong, as he had not actually done anything illegal, unless she wanted to admit publicly that she was having their guests spied upon. Yes, everyone KNEW she was, but knowing it and admitting it were very different things...
The appraising and even admiring looks he gave her did nothing to lower her blood pressure, and the arrogant smirk he had threatened to make steam explode from her pores, the expression just dripped with condescension, like she was some puppet dancing to the motions of his fingers. Well, let him think that, but even if he had been expecting her to come, that didn't mean that her coming was exactly what he expected it to be. Reigning in her temper, Soi Fon returned his superior smirk with one of her own, crossing her arms across her chest as she eyed him right back, with the same sort of intensity that he was attempting to levy upon her. It was obvious, both from his looks now and the content of that message, that he was interested in her in a sexual manner. Normally such a thought would put her in an ugly mood, and in fact it already had, but now she was calming down enough to think a bit more rationally about it all, and about possible silver linings.
While working her way up through the ranks of the Assassination squad, Soi Fon had frequently been forced to deal with insufferable males thinking that their prowess, such as it was, should be enticing to her, to the point where she would share their bed. Much of this harassment had died off after she was taken in as Yourichi-sama's protege, but it never completely went away, not until she became the 2nd Division Captain anyway. Nowadays, if anyone had lewd thoughts about her, they did well to keep them to themselves, as she had both the power and the positional authority to make life a living hell for them if she felt the need to. It had been almost a century since she'd had to deal with unwanted male attention of any real sort, besides the idle musings of those stupid enough to think she couldn't hear them, which perhaps accounted for her strong reaction to that taunting and filthy note. But perhaps this wasn't entirely a bad thing, if this Duke of Shadows was infatuated with her. Soi Fon often ordered female members of her Division to utilize seduction in order to gather information, but she'd never actually had to exercise that skill set herself... especially against someone who was a professional peer. The challenge of it appealed, in a somewhat disconcerting way.
Of course, assuming she was willing to indulge this aberrant whim, she couldn't just come onto him, not after showing up so visibly angered by his provocation. She'd underestimated him once already, by assigned such a squad of fools to observe him, and he'd rubbed her face in her foolishness in no uncertain manner. Treating him like an idiot just because he was a giant, lanky foreigner, would be quite stupid. It was time to let go of her habitual arrogance and approach this problem in a more professional manner. Certainly, he wasn't entirely unattractive, even if some aspects of his personality and facial expressions did remind her or Urahara in some ways, and it was plain he possessed both physical skills and mental ability of no small order. Judging his age was difficult, but she doubted he was any younger than she herself was, though she was one of the younger Captains, she was just mature beyond her years, unlike Hitsugaya or Zaraki. He plainly had a perverted mind to equal Urahara's as well, and Soi Fon had to fight down a blush as her mind recalled his pictorial suggestions or taunts. He was certainly a talented artist, though his subject matter was utterly reprehensible. He was crazier that Korutsuchi if he thought he'd get her to do ANY of that stuff, but perhaps a physical relationship wasn't entirely impossible...
Certainly it would allow her a chance to learn not only the Crusader's language but also details about their culture and mannerisms and customs at an enhanced rate. Of course, there was the risk that he would learn from her as well, so she would have to be smart and cautious about things, but he was the infatuated one, not her, so that gave her the advantage. He would be more interested in her body than her mind, and while she distracted him with physical pleasure, she would be free to observe and analyze with her razor sharp mind. And, if it came to it, sharing a bed with him would make him much easier to dispose of in a convenient manner, without having to fight him on the field of battle. Not that she didn't think she could beat him, but why not be expedient about things? Yes, now that would be an accomplishment to be proud of, something to lay at Yourichi-sama's feet that she almost certainly could not say she had already achieved before! The seduction, subversion and subtle manipulation of an "enemy" Captain-class being for not only the benefit of the Soul Society, but her own personal amusement and benefit as well!
Perhaps this Captain thought herself to be impenetrable, her thoughts locked behind a wall of her face, but Mal could all but see the gears turning in her head. She was skilled, this one, talented beyond all doubt. She would have to be, to be given such a position at such a relatively young age. But she was also clearly not nearly as experienced as she thought she was, especially operating in situations beyond her personal comfort zone. She'd come angry, but now she was more analytical, obviously considering the pros and cons of accepting his implict proposition. She could not have declared her intentions to seduce him any louder if she'd disrobed right then and there, even if she herself did not immediately recognize that this was the conclusion she'd come to. It was the only natural response in this sort of situation, given the sort of people they were, after all. With a complicated and delicately balanced diplomatic situation between their two factions, any overt conflict between them would be impossible, it would start a war neither side wanted.
On the other hand, if they became involved with each other, it would simultaneously bring an alliance closer to fruition while also allowing them to subtly pump the other for information to best use to their advantage in negotiating the alliance. He... or she... who figured out the secrets and thought patterns of the other first would then have the advantage when it came time to sit down and hammer things out in a formal treaty. They could not fight with swords, nor were either of them nearly so adept with pointed words and subtle metaphor, the arms of a diplomat. But when it came to a fight of deceit, of lies and half truths and leading misconceptions cloaked in the false fires of a passion that only existed for convenience? Now that was a battlefield they could both thrive on. A battle of wills, a contest of opposed learning and deceiving ability, with a fate worse than any mundane death awaiting the loser... no, the loser of this competition would lose their pride, having been at last outmaneuvered on a field of their own choice by a superior intelligence, beaten at their own game!
Mal saw the moment that Captain Fon came to this realization and accepted it, for that was the moment her eyes met his, dark blue-black orbs boring into and studying pale hazel orbs, her brows lowering just a little as she discovered that his pupils were vertically slit, like those of a cat or other predatory beast, not at all like those of a human. However, she wasn't nearly so discomfited as he'd thought she might be, plainly either this was not her first time encountering a human with animal like characteristics or she was better at hiding her shock now that she wasn't in a embarassed rage. "I look forward to seeing you pant and moan and writhe beneath me, braids. I'm going to teach you so much about yourself that you never even suspected before." Mal told her, holding out his hand in a friendly fashion. "What will you teach me, I wonder?"
"May the best woman win." Soi Fon eventually replied, unsure what exactly the Duke had said, but understanding the challenge nonetheless. "I will enjoy reducing you to a depraved wretch of a man, drained of all substance and secrets." She accepted his handshake, loosening her muscles in expectation. He did not disappoint her, his hand enveloping and locking onto her own as he yanked her forward and up off her feet as he tossed her completely over his head. Soi Fon flipped and landed gracefully, but was almost instantly forced to duck backwards as his closed fist swept within a hairsbreadth of her nose, as he crowded in with fists and knees flying, his coat flying behind him like a folded pair of wings as he did his best to overwhelm her defenses before she could even fully get them into place. Accepted challenge or not, neither of them was interested in going a single step further until they were satisfied that they really were peers in terms of power after all. It would be meaningless to dominate someone who was palpably weaker than you after all.
Soi Fon could feel her forearm bruise down the the bone as she blocked a hammering punch from Mal that was aimed at shattering her cheekbone. He was physically stronger than her, but she was used to that... spiritual power could compensate for most biological differences between men and women when it came to fighting, except when that power was close to equal, in which case men still tended to be physically more powerful than women. However, women tended to be more agile and quick footed, and Soi Fon would gladly take speed over strength any day! What mattered it if you could pulverise every bone in her body with a single punch, if you could never catch up to her long enough to land said punch? Flash stepping away from Mal's asault before he could pin her back against the ramparts, Soi Fon retreated a few hundred feet, taking their battle down into the Sereitei proper, where she would have a better home field advantage, forcing him to chase after her, which would necessarily require him to spend a trifle more energy than she did, as he was bigger and less aerodynamic.
He appeared in front of her with admirable alacrity though, and Soi Fon upped her estimation of his power and speed, despite the awkward and heavy looking coat. The sweeping side kick he leveled in her direction probably would have pushed her across the street and through a wall, had it landed, but even as he attacked, Soi Fon dived forward, confidently grabbing his ankle with both hands as she handsprung forward, thrusting both of her feet at his jaw, forcing him to bow backwards to avoid the powerful, full body strike. With him off balance thusly, and her hands still clamped to his ankle, Soi Fon flash stepped a few feet to the right, dragging him with her as she hurled him forward and down, looking to bury him in the pavement. His body shimmered and vanished before he touched the ground though, and she felt he reappear behind her, her body already blurring away even as his hand snatched for her throat, and then they were off, both moving at near sonic speeds, appearing in any one place only for the barest fraction of a second at a time, just enough to thrust a leg or fist at where their opponent might have been.
Neither of them were being entirely serious, even with just hand to hand attacks, and they realized this at roughly the same moment. Mal was the first to escalate, holding to his policy to keep Soi Fon reacting rather than proacting. Dodging her latest attempt to kick his head right off his shoulders, he shift stepped behind her with all his speed, catching her just a bit off guard as he swept one arm around her waist and lifted her off her feet, grinning as her taut body bent against his in a not uncomfortable way as he grabbed her by the back of her silky black hair and slammed them both into the ground at high speed. However, he was wearing an Ornatus Sancti, which warded his body against most direct impacts, cutting their force significantly. She wore only her robes and the skintight under-uniform beneath, which were rather less protective. Crushing her beneath his not all that considerable weight, Mal pushed off, grinding her face into the dirt and gravel at the bottom of the pit they had cratered into the pavement as he handsprung forward, dust flying from his jacket as it flapped in the wind of his movement. He'd bought himself a second at most... but seconds were... well... an eternity in this kind of battle.
Pushing herself up, spitting dirt from her mouth as she rubbed at an abrasion on her chin and cheek, Soi Fon hurtled out of the pit, to find Mal a few body lengths away, one hand outstretched towards her in a beckoning fashion she first thought was a taunt. "Magnus, magni, magnite... Castigation 3, Pull!" Mal completed the simple incantation all in one go, as an invisible force manifested behind Soi Fon and shoved her towards him with the force of a charging warhorse. She tucked into a ball and thrust both palms at the ground, altering her trajectory from purely horizontal to a slowly rising ballistic, but it wasn't enough to put her out of Mal's reach as his doubled fists thrashed down on a path to spike her back down into the ground. However, the only thing his fists struck was her white Captain's haori, as her image vanished from beneath his strike.
"Secret Shihoin Technique 4... Utsusemi." Soi Fon explained smugly, as her real body materialized directly behind the obviously surprised Mal, and she only smirked wider as she slammed her body forward, legs widely braced, and buried an elbow in the pit of his back. The blow was a solid hit, but she was surprised at the sudden resilience the leather coat offered... clearly it was more than just clothing, as it robbed her blow at at least a fifth of its force, perhaps even more, turning a potentially disabling blow into just painful, as Mal was knocked from his feet and sent tumbling for several dozen feet, only stopping when he slammed into and partially through a low wall structure. He scrambled to his feet with annoying speed, and though he seemed a little tender, he was hardly injured seriously, and Soi Fon allowed herself a scowl of annoyance. Incanted Kido was not her strongest suit, though she did all right with Shunko, obviously. Truthfully, her greatest power came with utilizing Suzumebachi, but she couldn't just draw on him, not without taking the fight to a very dangerous new level... she could kill him in two hits if he wasn't as good as she hoped he was!
And then she was in motion once more as she heard him begin another spell, but this time he skipped his incantation and just made a single grabbing motion with his hand, like he was lowering a hat or veil over his face. "Curse 41, Cataracti!" Mal announced, utilizing some of the magic the Fey had taught him, lashing out with strands of energy with a malignent tint, a cloud of sorcerous darkness that slammed weightlessly into Soi Fon with no immediate apparent effect, other than a strangled cry of surprise. However, the true effect of the power became obvious a second later when Mal held out an arm and cleanly clotheslined the charging Captain, dumping her head over heels onto the street before she could come to a halt. She blinked her eyes furiously, and grasped her face with one hand, but neither were of any use... her eyes were covered with no cloth or energy, there was nothing to remove. Instead, her eyes themselves had filmed over and become temporarily useless, like an eldery person overwhelmed with cataracts, her vibrant eyes turning pale and milky as she temporarily lost the ability to see. Unincanted, against a person of her spiritual powers, the blindness wouldn't last long, but it was enough to disorient her for a few moments.
Mal buried his fist in her gut in the next moment, cracking the pavement beneath her as the breath whooshed out of her lungs in a heavy gasp, and he grabbed her by the hair as he lifted her to her feet and then slammed her against the wall he had so recently cratered himself. Her eyes were blinking in a more focused fashion already, even as she coughed for breath through a burning chest, and he shifted his grip from her hair to her throat, squeezing to close her windpipe and deny her the oxygen she needed. Her eyes bulged as the magical cataracts faded away, and she lifted a knee and drove it into his midsection hard enough to make him grunt, but not hard enough to loosen his grip as he burrowed in close, accepting her leg strikes as he fended away her clawing arms with his free hand, trusting to his Ornatus to keep him uninjured until she passed out from lack of air. She writhed like an eel in his grip, lips drawn back from her teeth in a bestial snarl as she struggled to break his grip, to no avail... at close quarters, in a grapple, his size and physical strength had the advantage.
Especially with her back to the wall, she had no room to try and maneuver, and as black spots began crowding into her vision, Soi Fon forced herself to focus as she croaked out one of the simplest Kido spells, Thrust, and used the spells energy to knock them both away from the wall, allowing her to twist and lunge backwards, leaving fingerprint bruises on her neck but getting loose all the same. Coughing and retching, she eyed Mal warily as he did the same to her, from across the street. "Okay... we both know we're not supposed to do this..." Soi Fon said in a wheezy but still confident voice.
"... I won't tell if you won't..." Mal replied, reading her intent if not her exact words, as her fingers closed around the hilt of her sword. He reached to his belt and grasped the silvery rod of shiny metal, the form Mercurius assumed when in "sheathed" mode.
"Sting all enemies to death, Suzumebachi!" Soi Fon ordered, drawing her Zanpakuto and releasing it in the same motion, sword morphing into the long, needle-like stinger and bracer attached to her middle finger and wrist. She flourished the deceptively small and deadly weapon at the Crusader with a evil little grin. Oh, how she HOPED he would underestimate it, it was so much more fun when the foe never saw it coming...
Mal saw and studied the small piercing implement with interest, it not being a weapon shape he had seen before. Obviously there must be more to her Ascension than was visible to the eye, just as there was to the woman herself. Small, yes, but filled with deadly surprises for the unwary and overconfident. Most likely the weapon hits themselves weren't the real threat, but instead it would be whatever condition or status effect they caused that he would need to watch out for. Well, she had released, it was only polite that he do the same. "Adapt to all circumstances, Mercurius!" Mal commanded, spinning his Arma between his hands as it elongated from rod form into a full on six foot metal quarterstaff, which he whirled about himself, letting the sun glint off its mirror-like surface before sweeping it down into a cross block defensive stance.
A staff, is it? Strange, that's not at all what I would expected from him. Is he more Kido based? A defensive weapon like a staff might make more sense then...Soi Fon mused, as she studied the Duke of Shadow. She feinted forward, and then her eyes widened considerably, as, without a single word on his part, his staff suddenly seemed to melt away, and then reformed in the next instant, but now it was more like a chain-whip, which lashed at her, and she just barely managed to turn her feint into a sideways scramble! IT CAN CHANGE FORM? WHAT THE HELL? Soi Fon thought furiously, backpedaling to try and avoid the whip, before realizing that she was running out of room in the street to go back. So instead she flash stepped forward, but by the time she reached his position, the whip had become a pair of short, stabbing blades and she found herself forced backwards under a flurry of stabs coming from two directions at once, sparks flying from her bracer as she was forced to interpose it time and again!
Mal sneaked a knee through her defenses while her arm was tied up blocking his daggers, knocking her back a half a step as Mercurius assumed the form of a greatsword, the clash of metal on metal resounding as she was again forced to use her bracer to block the swing, numbing her arm and sliding her several feet to the side. Not only could Mercurius change his form into that of any weapon Mal had ever seen before, his Arma could also adjust his mass and density in real time, to add extra weight to attacks or slip in liquid form around a parrying blade. He savored the shocked expression on Soi Fon's face as she brought down her guard only to find herself staring down a longbow with nocked shaft of silver, Mercurius changing form with each attack to prevent her from having a chance to adjust to any rythym in his attacks. She was faster than he was, but if she could never start a good attack sequence, that hardly mattered.
Even the arrow split into three small throwing daggers in mid shot, one of them even drawing blood from the skin of her shoulder as she knocked aside the other two, not bad considering it had been a point blank shot! The bow became a staff once more, and then a flail, and after that a spear, and then a sword and buckler-shield, and then spiked gauntlets, always shifting, always flowing, never staying the same from heartbeat to heartbeat, and it was clear to Mal that he was beating her, just because she couldn't predict what he was going to do next. She was forced back, step after step, until her back was to the wall once more, her pretty skin bruised and scratched and scraped from numerous near misses, her gauntlet spike weapon form ill suited to fending off a flurry of attacks. Drawing back both hands, pouring Mercurius back and forth between them like a stage magician might do a pack of cards, Mal smiled at her as he ensared her with a sudden shift to a lariet form, strands of silvery metal settling around her form, binding her arms to her sides as his thrusting foot impacted on her sternum and pinned her against the wall.
She glared at him with palpable fury, obviously shamed at be caught off guard and cornered like this. She was evenly lovelier while disheveled and helpless at his mercy, and Mal felt his grin grow... grow until she suddenly matched his look of expectant triumph, as a dense energy field suddenly enveloped her arms and legs and she burst free from Mercurius's grip like the Arma was made of thin twine and not metal. "Shunko." Soi Fon announced, smug once more, her opponent's weapon scattered to the winds, his body perfectly close at hand as arcing bolts of lightning leapt from her bare shoulderblades and atomized the wall behind her. Her stiffened palm strike pounded the Crusader Duke in the solar plexus, bowling him over in a heap as Soi Fon confidently took a step forward, the advantage now entirely hers. Mal rose to his feet, a trifle unsteady after that last strike, which felt like he'd just been kicked in the gut by a pissed off warhorse... he never would have expected such a powerful blow from her! And then he realized that her spike was covered in blood, and that his chest felt warm, and he realized she'd stabbed him too!
However, it wasn't until the black butterfly mark appeared on his chest that Mal truly realized that maybe she'd just been luring him in the whole time, the crafty bitch! And that was meant as the highest sort of compliment! He wasn't sure what her mark did, but his experience with Alyster's brands of justice told him that it wasn't likely to be anything good for him! But what was this attack form? This compression of magical energy to add strength and speed to melee attacks, and armor unprotected limbs... he'd never seen anything like it before! It was unusual for him to encounter something truly unfamiliar on the battlefield... yes, this Captain was going to be a VERY entertaining challenge after all! He was almost giddy with anticipation. Mercurius reformed in his hands, having slithered back across the ground after being burst apart, and Mal had the Arma take the form of a staff once more, that being his original form and the one most suited for a cautious but mobile posture.
They tensed in unison, about to take the fight to the next level, but before they could move, they were interrupted by another spiritual pressure. In the not so near distance, a massive column of yellow tinged energy speared into the sky, blowing away the clouds and momentarily casting the entire city into a warm, yellowish glow. Even from such a distance, the shockwave of the released spiritual energy was enough to stagger them both momentarily. "God damn you, Zaraki, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Soi Fon snapped irritably, as she felt every other Captain in the Sereitei suddenly jerk to attention as Zaraki's full combat power surged into their perceptions like a acidic tidal wave.
"Holy shit, Vlad, you sure know how to pick em..." Mal echoed, shaking his head in mingled awe and maybe a little envy. But only a very little. He exchanged glances with Soi Fon, both of them realizing that their battle was at an end now that the whole city was going to be going into a panic. Zaraki and Vladimos having a brawl... that was not desired but not unexpected. If someone saw the two of them having a fight though, that might start something bigger. Mal sighed regretfully and returned Mercurius to rod form, hooking the weapon to his belt as he dusted off his hands. He watched Soi Fon grudgingly return her sword to sword form, and then to its sheath, and then he offered her his hand once more. Suspicious, she still took it, though she did seem a little shocked when he yanked her towards him again, obviously not expecting him to go hostile again.
But he wasn't throwing her again, no, with the physical battle over, it was time to start the battle of wills, and Mal Elkiran always struck first whenever he could. Reeling the startled Soi Fon in, her all but crushed her to his chest as he bent his head down and kissed her squarely on her lips, his fangs cutting upon her tender skin as he slipped his tongue into her mouth when she gasped in shock. He almost died choking on his laughter as he saw her eyes bulge with fury, but she was too flustered by the sudden physical contact to effectively push him away. And maybe she didn't entirely want to, as she certainly could have kneed him in the balls, as he was neglecting his defense at the time, but she refrained. They stared into each other's eyes from this close vantage, and though their motuhs were otherwise occupied, their eyes were smiling... smiling and sharpening a hidden blade at the same time...
"Hey, Captain, I finally captured that fucking Goa..." Vice-Captain Omaeda exclaimed, flash stepping into the street nearby, Dain in goat form slung hogtied over one immense shoulder. It had taken some seriously underhanded tactics to catch the goat off guard... who would have ever thought a scantily clad female ninja would have been so distracting to an animal... but finally, finally the goat was captured and Omaeda's life secure once more! However, that and all other concerns vanished from Omaeda's mind as he beheld Captain Fon not just HUGGING but positively CUDDLING with the Duke of Shadows while they MADE OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET!
For his part, Dain, already working his legs free of his restraints as he contemplated which Curse would best serve him to get this oaf to drop him, was likewise stunned by seeing his Duke and his opposite number so engaged so openly! He'd always admired his boss's hedonistic streak... it was positively Fey-like sometimes. But this was a little much, wasn't it? They'd been here two days, couldn't even speak the local language and this woman was in charge of enemy intelligence services! She should be the person they LEAST wanted to get involved with! Dain traded puzzled glances with Omaeda, forgetting to act like a goat in the heat of the moment. Things were starting to get a little complicated all of a sudden...