A/N: Well, would you look at that! I'm still not dead! :D Sorry, bad joke, I know. But, after so long, yes! I do have an update! Not to mention, just before my exam period! Joy to the world! ^_^ Before I start, I want to thank everyone for all the kind reviews you've gifted to me. To know that people have taken the time to send me these comments really made me happy. So, again, thanks. Now, without further ado, I present to you this chapter!
"Come one and come all, nya! Watch her! Look at her, a beautiful dancer and one of the most gorgeous girls of her time, nya!" A loud shout rang out, calling out to passers by; the people of the small yet bustling town they were anchored in for the time being. "You can pay after you've watched the entire performance, nya! She's the princess that colours the desert, the exotic gem between the sand!"
"Oi." For only a moment, the shouting came to a pause and the figure of a young boy turned around to face the intimidating azure eyes of the lute player.
"What is it, Ikuto, nya?" Sharp eyes looked at him without blinking, and words seemed to cling to the walls of his throat, refusing to be spoken. "Ah…"
"What are you doing out here, you little runt?" He asked in a low voice, continuing to strum the strings of his instrument, watching Amu from the corner of his eye. Of course the question had nothing to do with his physical appearance; Yoru was disguised as an ordinary human boy who seemingly accompanied the dancer, so no one other than his master and her companion were knowledgeable about his masquerade. "Why are you advertising her so explicitly? You're aware of what can happen if we aren't careful."
Ikuto was the master of disguises, however, it was in that second that Yoru felt the wariness and veiled fear the devil concealed within his aloof nature. After the last experience, Yoru was careful not to bring up the incident that happened merely weeks ago. The memory was still freshly embedded into all of their minds and speaking about the near-death experience with Gozen was taboo.
Straightening himself out, Yoru was able to look at the devil without worrying about himself; right now, he was concerned about Amu. "I know, nya. But I made sure to check the entire town before and it doesn't seem anyone knows anything about 'that'."
If Ikuto found it unexpected or was surprised by what the genie told him, he didn't show it. "If anything should happen, I'm letting you know ahead of time that Amu and I will be having roast chicken tonight."
"Roast chicken? Really, nya?" Yoru mewled excitedly, almost daring to salivate before noticing the glower of the demon in front of him.
"Yes. Chicken. Though I doubt you'd be there to enjoy it as much as I would." As if he felt the restrained threat throttle him already, his hands jumped to his neck in fear and Yoru stumbled off in a babble of 'yes' and 'of course' and 'just as you wish'. It had been a long time since Ikuto had found the pleasure of bossing around the weak genie – usually attempting to pacify Amu by simply trying to be "civil" with it. However, when she wasn't aware of it, their tale took a completely different turn.
"You don't want to miss it, nya! Watch the performance that steals the gaze of peasants and princes alike," Yoru yelled, running toward his master as fast as his little legs could take him – looking over his should all the while at Ikuto's glower. He ran around Amu in circles, while she spun on her toes gracefully. "The beautiful Amu is here to bring you dances that can make flowers bloom!"
The crowd cheered and applauded loudly when Amu scooped the child-disguised Yoru into her arms and spun him around in her arms, making him squeal giddily with flailing arms. Ikuto looked over with pursed lips when she let the genie down, Yoru tittering on his toes from a small dizzy spell as his vision swam. He collected the money from the very entertained crowd with a big grin. The humans ruffled his brown hair affectionately while he strolled about them with the colour-faded, patchwork bag. Yoru watched his master bow graciously with a proud grin; however, his grin became blatant snickers when Amu forcefully pulled Ikuto from the shadows. In seconds, his sniggering turned into loud guffawing when his very persuasive master made the devil give a bow – or rather a curt nod to the audience, albeit it was still reluctant.
Slowly, as the show came to an end, the crowd of people dispersed to go about their own business and Yoru went back to Amu; he shook the bag around and watched her eyes sparkle at the jubilant sound of somewhat muffled clinging.
"This is great! We'll have a feast tonight!" She cheered, her face splitting in a grin from ear to ear. Her elated words became dampened by the cover of the robe Ikuto tugged over her head and pulled down to cover the euphoric dancer. But even Amu's stifled words held her euphoria, making Ikuto's mouth turn up at the corners.
"Can we have fish for dinner, nya?" Amu's head popped out of the end of her dark wrap, and Ikuto upturned lips turned down into a frown – the genie had stolen his usual request after a bountiful performance. "And can it be seasoned with those yummy spices you use master, nya? Nya, can we even have lots and lots of dessert, nya?"
"Of course," She said with a gentle smile; the genie certainly had taken after her. Amu looked at Ikuto's stoic face and giggled, seeing the pout in his eyes. She fixed the wrappings of his robe around his neck, smoothing them down while her eyes laughed at him. "I'll make a lot of yummy fish for all of us and dessert as well." Pulling up her hood, she handed the genie two coins to buy whatever wished.
"Master Amu is the best master ever, nya!" Yoru mewled, wrapping his new arms around the human. The three of them walked around the village and to different stalls, shopping for food and other supplies.
While looking at some apples, Amu remembered something and turned to Yoru with a sceptically arched eyebrow. "Yoru, what were you saying today to the audience?"
"Nya?" The genie looked up at her with wide golden-caramel irises, different from his usual bright yellow eyes, and cheeks full from his spending. Amu crouched down to his height and wiped off the remnants of a cream pastry that stuck to sides of his face, brushing off the crumbles that had fallen onto his garments.
"Well, you certainly were enthusiastic today," she chirped, picking him up into her arms while they continued to look around. "Though I have to admit, the things you said were terribly embarrassing."
Yoru looked astonished, his mouth agape indignantly. "What are you saying, nya? It was just right to attract customers! Look at how much money we earned, master, nya!" Amu looked dubious – although it was true that they had received much attention from the town. "Besides, I wasn't lying, nya. My old master, that Prince Tadase, did like you, nya," Yoru shrugged in a matter of fact tone.
Ikuto's expressionless gaze perked up at the mention of the kiddy Prince and Amu seemed to kindle a fire on her own face, making the devil turn his head away when she started stammering incoherently. "B-But–you see that was only–th-that doesn't–what if somebody knew about the mark and something happened to us again," she finished pathetically.
"Nya, don't worry, master!" The genie beamed, hopping down onto the ground from his master's arms. "As long as they don't know the meaning of the Akuma no Hana mark, nothing will ever happen, nya. At any rate, just in case you got worried, nya, I made sure to check the entire town and no one here knows anything about it." Noticing another stall of exotic pet fishes and birds, Yoru scampered off by himself, completely oblivious of Ikuto glaring after him.
"I hope he's right," Amu sighed in an undertone, leaning on the man beside her. Ikuto looked at the girl's drained face, drooping in her anxiety. He felt the fear radiating from within her as she recalled what had happened several weeks ago. The incident with Gozen still made her feel disconcerted, giving her nightmares at a time on some nights.
It was those dark, new moon nights where she woke up in a groggy and dishevelled state; whimpering and panting at the haunting reminiscence of the devil that had revealed the beginning of her fate as a sacrifice, owned by the devil – Ikuto, himself. Yet, with the twist that fate played with the duo, it was in her devil's arms she found shelter; warmth; love. It was her own safe haven away from her recurring distress. Every instance that it would occur, Ikuto would be by her side, arms open and reassuring, while she clambered into them cosily; he whispered her name – and only her name – over and over again, in the confines of her ear.
"Come on," Ikuto said, breaking the girl out of her reverie. "You still have a few more things you need to get." She nodded slowly, grateful that he did not bring up her train of thought and walked on.
They shopped around; Amu looked at the quality of different foods, asking for Ikuto's opinion, but only receiving an apathetic shrug in response. She scowled at him, making him grin wolfishly in return. At the end of their escapade in the market for what they needed, Amu dragged her companion around at her own leisurely pace to look at – in his opinion – ridiculous and redundant items.
He turned his attention back to the dancer, expecting her to lash out at him for not caring much about the small, over-priced things that awed her, "Hm."
"You almost knocked over that child over there," Amu said, lips pursed and hands on her hips. "At least pay attention to your surroundings." At least he was correct about her scolding him, but he disagreed with her sentiment; he was paying strict attention for anything that may be harmful towards his flower.
"Whatever you say, Strawberry," he drawled, eyes gleaming with wicked mocking. His satisfaction bloomed when she scowled at him, childishly poking her tongue at him before dragging him off by the arm again.
Amu came to a stop at a jewellery stand; her golden eyes glittered as she scrutinized the striking jewels and exotic feathers that decorated it. However, what caught her eyes the most were a simple pair of jewellery that she was quite familiar with already: a pair of jagged fang earrings. They seemed to be have made from the fangs of a large animal, held by intricately sculpted metal weavings with a silver hook. Amu glimpsed back at Ikuto, as his own very similar pair weaved in and out of sight by his long, dark hair.
She bought him the set with her first earnings as a young dancer and they were quite old now, slightly roughened through time although in very polished condition. He wore them everyday, as Amu noted now; her stomach fluttering with pride at the fact. But she turned away frowning; they were almost twelve years old by now, more or less. Amu looked down at the fangs again, fingering them lightly.
'It's been a long time since I've actually bought Ikuto a real present,' she mused. The last item she bought for him was a new pair of khussas and that had been several months ago.
"See anything you like, Miss?" Amu was startled at the address, and she looked up to see a young man grinning at her from behind the stall. She could only assume he was the owner of the stall.
Amu smiled back timidly, retracting her hand from the earrings. "Well, I suppose. I'm not sure whether to get them or-"
"Ah, don't worry about those little thoughts in your head! Your mind always has something or the other to find fault with!" The man's green-ivy irises twinkled, as if laughing festively, his voice matching them. "Follow whatever your heart tells you, that's what matters the most." He winked at Amu and she smiled more openly, nodding her head at the outlook.
Suddenly, she felt Ikuto's hand at her waist, pulling her closer to his side; she looked up at him, her brows quirking up in query. She tensed faintly, asking him, "Is everything alright, Ikuto?"
"Fine," he replied monotonously, eyeing the human in front of him none too pleasantly. Vaguely, Ikuto's eyes narrowed when the shopkeeper laughed loudly once more.
"Not to worry, my friend," The man grinned cheekily. He ran a hair through his messy cinnamon hair, complementing the faint scent of spice that rolled off of him – though it was debateable if that came from the spice vendor next to the jewellery stall. He looked between the two in amusement, "I'm a married man myself, so I'm not about to go wife-napping others' women. So, nothing to worry about, good man."
Amu squeaked at the sudden assumption, her cheeks glowing a dark crimson hue as she avoided Ikuto's piercing gaze. 'Married? What in the world does he mean by me and Ikuto married?' She felt herself swallow thickly, the idea floating in her mind pensively. Amu imagined Ikuto holding her close – nothing unfamiliar to her – yet his face inched nearer and nearer, almost about to…
She shook the idea away, her eyes reflecting her open horror; yet it terrified Amu most how her mind seemed to consider and yield to the entire notion of what the vendor had said. Amu could feel the intensity of his glaring smirk; only he would grin at something like that, as if it were some kind of joke! She punched his arm roughly when he began to stroke her waist in massaging circles with his thumb, as his hand tightly held onto her still.
"I–him–W-we're not married," Amu babbled as she tried, to no avail, scoot away from Ikuto. She hissed furiously at him, "Let me go."
"Oh, that's not what that grin tells me," the man pointed out, laughing at the reaction he got from the couple. Amu swatted away her companion's nearing face, flushing – it reminded her of what she had previously thought of. But soon, she had forgotten about Ikuto's antics, as her attention was diverted to something else going on a few stalls down from where she stood. Her forehead creased, brows knitting together, when she saw a handful of men surrounding a petite woman; they were pulling forcefully at her hand and it was obvious she was struggling to free herself.
"Come on, don't struggle! We're just trying to help you because you didn't look so good," one of them sighed heavily.
"Yeah, we can help you out. Trust us," the hefty male heaving at the woman's arm sneered, the false innocence in his voice contradicting his brute actions.
"I'm fine," the quiet voice of the hooded woman spoke. Amu could only make out parts of her face but the woman did look unnaturally pale and sick. The dancer turned away from Ikuto, who seeing her line of vision, rushed after Amu. Even the vendor, seeing the scuffle with the woman, dashed after the two frantically.
Impulsively as ever, the pink haired girl pushed past the surrounding horde of males and grabbed arm of the man latched to the woman. "Don't be aggressive and just let her go. She obviously does not wish to go anywhere with the likes of you."
'Stupid girl!' Ikuto thought as he went to the dancer's side, making his way through the scrawny and pathetic bodies of affronted men. "Amu, don-"
"Who's the kid?" One snapped, pushing himself in front of Ikuto.
"It's that dancer girl. The one who was performing in the middle of the bazaar just now, a few minutes ago," another growled. "We might as well sell her off as well then. Get big money if we auction her off at some slave market."
They made a grab for her hand as well, but Amu would not let go of the ill woman with her; not giving up without her own fight, Amu kicked the first man who attempted to grab her. Howling as he clutched the spot where he had been lashed out at, the girl scratched another man in the face. By then, the jewellery store's vendor had shown up into the fray as well.
"Let go of the girls!" Even he took the turn to swing at the man holding the girls' arms. "Who the hell do you think you people are, trying to kidnap and sell them off? How can you call yourselves men?"
The man leaped back, avoiding the merchant's punch, and took out his own blade – a dagger, that was about half his arm's length. "Those who have nothing to do with this should step back, meaning you, you meddling fool!" Swishing the blade about, the store owner stood in front of the two girls protectively leaning back to avoid the cutting edge from grazing him. Still, it cut through his robe and tunic, leaving a large and gapping tear down the front while the robe swished backwards.
Looking back at the man, Amu searched for any signs of a wound or blood but found none; however, she did a double take back to the man's chest, eyes widening with what she saw. On his chest, a mark was tattooed across the span of his torso. Her mouth went slack as she took in the details of the mark; large and blackened, elaborately shaped like a blooming rose. It was very similar to Amu's own tattoo: the symbol of an Akuma no Hana, the Devil's marking of a borrowed heart.
The vendor stepped forward with a dark snarl, teeth bared while he grit out menacingly, "I think I do have something to do with this, since this woman was trying to save my wife." The man bearing the dagger scoffed, spitting at the ground repulsively.
"Piece of trash, don't try and show off-" However his words were cut short as he received a bruising and sound blow to his right cheek, making him topple to the ground in a small cloud of dirt. Coughing wildly, he looked up to his assaulter – whose foot now rested not-so-gently on the side of his face.
"If you don't wish to become a corpse in the next fifteen seconds," Ikuto threatened with sinister eyes, his countenance vicious. "I suggest you get out of my sight and out of this town. Immediately. Or I can promise you will fail to see the light of day for the rest of eternity."
"You didn't have to bloody them up that badly, Ikuto!" Amu reprimanded, wiping off the traces of dirt around his cheeks with her robe. Her lips went up into a snarl when he simply gave her his usual condescending smirk.
"I don't break my promises, Strawberry," he drawled, pulling her closer next to him. "They should be thankful you're nice enough to have stopped it." She punched his arm once more that day, but turned around when she heard the sound of footsteps and saw their host entering the room with a tray of tea and pastries. Her previous agitation faded away.
"Ah, thank you very much, sir. You're being extremely generous by even treating us to tea, but really, all this isn't necessary." Amu said hastily, as he set the tray down in front of them. Yoru didn't seem to heed his master's words, digging into the delicious looking pastries contentedly. "Besides you have to tend to your shop and-"
"I thought I told you it was no trouble?" He said teasingly. "Please, call me Kukai, there's no need for formalities. Besides, that isn't my store. I was only filling in for the man who owns it while he did some chores and whatnot. I actually work as a handicraftsman in this town and sell my things to the merchants who sell them to others. The details are a complete bore so I won't waste time on them."
"If you say so," Amu sighed demurely, reluctantly taking the tea that Kukai offered her.
"I don't mind, nya!" Yoru chirped; bits of the pastry flying out of his over-stuffed mouth. Frosting smeared his cheeks and Amu wiped away the mess with the corner of her robe, just as she had before. She giggled as he chomped happily into another pastry.
"You've had so much sugar today. Slow down or you might find yourself with painful craters rotting out your teeth," She chided kindly, while her genie grinned, mouth brimming with food.
"I thought you said you weren't married?" He grinned slyly, eye brows wiggling suggestively. "Where'd this little guy pop out of?"
Amu looked scandalized, face steaming. Yoru choked on his pastry, his coughing hiding his bout of laughter at the situation he had no idea had occurred when he was not present. "I–He–We're not–Yoru isn't my ch-child!"
Ikuto scoffed, muttering audibly under his breath, "As if I'd produce an idiot like that."
"Yeah!" Yoru agreed, having finally swallowed up his snack. He reached out for his third one before realizing what his master's companion had said, turning to him indignantly. "Hey! I am not an idiot!" Kukai merely chuckled.
"You should come out here and thank them too, Utau! Don't worry they don't bite." He laughed boisterously, his head turning back to the doorway. He winked at the dancer, "She's a little shy around strangers." Amu glanced at the woman standing there and her eyes sparkled as the woman stepped forward.
'She's beautiful,' Amu thought with a soft sigh. The woman, Utau, had golden-blonde hair that fell to her knees, swishing around with every step she took. Her eyes were a violet amethyst; true to the name of the very jewel, they glistened under her sweeping eyelashes. She also had rosy cheeks above a smooth complexion; her lips were pulled ever so slightly at the corners at Amu's blatant awe.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Utau," Amu extended politely, her voice soft as she sat before such an elegant presence. The woman only gave a small nod in the dancer's direction; her steadfast gaze seemed to unnerve Amu, as she fidgeted with the bottom of her rosy locks, flustered.
"Actually, her body became ill a little around a year ago. Come sit with us, love," Utau sat down beside Kukai, the man cradling her next to him lovingly. His gaze towards his wife was full of adoration. "She seemed to be in good health today, so I forced her out today and let her stroll around while I briefly went to help out that vendor. But it was my fault for taking her out in her condition and leaving her alone." His voice was gloomy, while he gave his wife an apologetic and aching smile.
Amu looked between them with a tender smile; Ikuto had been staring through the entire situation very sharply. He had more than just a suspicion for something bad. He had has eyes fixed on the couple in front of him, staring coldly and unsympathetically at the two. Rising to his feet, he pulled up Amu beside him and started dragging her off.
Startled by the sudden mood change, Amu stumbled along with her own protests while Yoru scrambled along behind them. "Ikuto? What in the world-"
"We are leaving this town right now," He snapped without looking back at the dancer and avoiding the looks of their hosts. "There is nothing more we have to do here."
"But it's already very late." Amu pulled him to a stop as she whipped her head to look at Utau, who spoke for the first time since their arrival. "It wouldn't be safe to go out at this time, and I'm sure you will not find it unpleasant in our company."
Kukai smiled nervously, putting a hand to her shoulder, "You shouldn't force them, Utau." Amu looked at Ikuto pleadingly, not understanding why he had suddenly become so bitter around such generous people, but he did not face her in the least and continued dragging her along.
"I decline. Akuma no Hana have enough enemies of their own, yet we have two over here. Nothing but trouble will come out of this," He gnashed out pitilessly, not worried about hurting any person's feelings –especially the duo serving them. "We don't know if something dangerous is lurking around and this house definitely isn't an exception."
"Wait, they're only–Ikuto, will you please listen to what I have to say!" Amu shouted. Turning his face around forcefully, her hands gripped the side of his head tightly. The devil looked at her quietly, face blank even after her outburst – but his eyes betrayed his trepidation. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "But–It's just–I want to talk some more with Kukai. This… This is the first time I've met another Akuma no Hana, another person with a mark. Someone like me. To me, he's the only one of my kind, so I'm sorry, even though I know you don't want to stay. Please don't be upset, but understand why I have to do this."
Ikuto narrowed his eyes and for the first time ever, Amu felt herself cower in his presence as a dark shadow overwhelmed half of his face, the other half just barely illuminated by the sliver of the sun's final glare for the day. Still, she held her ground, her eyes imploring him.
"You know that we can't. It's dangerous here…"
Yoru sat in the silence of the room, unnerved by the think tension of the atmosphere. The thickness could rival that of a chunky stew from the mucky sludge found after river floods. It was enough to make him suffocate in his human skin – choking because of silence.
He watched wordlessly; the words hung onto his tongue in the silence, waiting for a chance to leap out but were intimidated. Instead, they stood at the tip, waiting and watching. Amu sat in the corner of the dimly lit room, her face illuminated sadly by the candles that flickered wistfully next to her. Her skin steamed with the freshness of her wash and she sat alone, on a lush mattress of silk and feathers. The platform squished down at her weight and his forlorn master sat lost in thought, playing with the damp curls that fell down from her head in a corona around her.
The genie stared down at his human fingers, wiggling them experimentally before he lifted his head in vigilance. The faint sound of bare feet prodded against polished porcelain tiles, the hushed sound nearing the candle-lit chamber leisurely; almost cautiously.
Knowing who it was, the genie looked to his master, waiting for her response when the walker would show up. Yoru watched her eyes widen up and flicker down to her clasped hands in a haste. Her chest heaved with noiseless pants, the symbol etched on her skin moving in sync; her golden hues betrayed the erratic thump of her heart.
Dark russet eyes travelled to the reason of his master's discomposure, following the man as he ambled around to the opposite side of the room and settled a neat stack of blankets down by their travelling satchels. In his other hand, he held an oil lamp that cast an eerie glow to the pale contours of his human face. The flame of the lamp flitted like a tiny, bright whip from his movements.
It was here that the words sitting in the cavern of the genie's mouth longed to make their presence known; to butcher this awkwardly sculpted and disquieting quiet; to annihilate the noiselessness and the lifelessness. Finally, Yoru decided he would say something to slice the awkward quiet of the usually bickering duo and opened his mouth to-
"Your hair's wet," Amu blurted, slowly looking up at Ikuto. He tilted his head just a fraction in her direction, looking at her from the corner of his eyes – he almost seemed wary.
"Y-Your hair, it's still wet." Her voice dropped down a notch, barely above a whisper, "It's dripping onto your tunic. If you sleep like that, you'll end up catching a cold." Reaching behind her, she brought out a downy cloth and held it up in the air. Her eyes never left his, beckoning him to take the fluffy towel.
Ikuto turned around and walked over to her, slowly; stepping onto the mattress, his feet sunk into the cushiony edge. To her surprise – and happiness, too – Ikuto knelt down until he sat on his knees in front of her. She could make out the fresh musk of Ikuto from how close they sat; the scent of morning seemed to assault her nose in the dim of night. It was a scent as indescribable and unique as the man sitting before her, dark eyes boring through her as if they could make their gaze through her skin.
They watched each other for a moment until finally Ikuto tipped his head forward, near Amu; trickles of water were absorbed into the fabric of the soft pallet, creating dark spots when they dripped. 'D-Does he want me to...?'
As Amu reached her hands out to his head – still holding the feathery towel – Yoru had concluded that he would also go to sleep, then. However, he would be resting in the ring. He was aware that they had much to discuss and they weren't very attentive of him at the moment anyway. Switching back to his true form – not even the measly "poof!" of his transformation had distracted the couple – he let himself descend to his lair, still watching Amu and Ikuto without a word.
'Maybe if Ikuto's nice to her, just maybe, he'll get his first kiss from master Amu,' the genie mused dryly. Yoru faded from that quiet, candle-lit chamber and into his own slumber, 'If master even wants to, that is. I wonder how the Prince would react if he saw that.'