Thank you Wolf-Maiden Mitsuki and Otaku-neku for reviewing!
"The final mystery is oneself."
"So you can't tell me why we're looking for this demon?" Ryo asked, yet again.
I fixed him with an irritated look. He grinned at it—obviously pleased that he was annoying me. While glaring at him, a tree root tripped me and I stumbled. Ryo's smirk widened.
"No. Like Kurama said, and like I've told you several million times..." I flipped my hair back behind my shoulder, grabbing a rubber band from my wrist to pull in into a knot, "it's confidential."
"Well, I'm just saying..." Ryo shrugged, lacing his fingers behind his head as we walked, "we've walked around this damn forest three times already, but I'm getting nothing. If I knew what I was searching for..."
"It's confidential." I repeated through my teeth. I had no idea that this boy could be so annoying. I was seriously regretting the moment when I informally recruited him to Kurama's and my fruitless investigation. At least Kurama didn't nag. Much.
We walked in silence through the darkening forest, and I squinted up into the setting sun.
"Don't you have to go home or something?" I asked, glancing over at him, still frowning from irritation. "Because I'm going to have to ditch you pretty soon..."
"Yeah," Ryo shrugged again. "I live alone, come and go as I please."
I raised an eyebrow at the guarded tenor of his voice.
"No parents?" I questioned.
Ryo frowned, eyes hardening. He looked away from me, staring—glaring, really—at the foliage surrounding us. The side of his face I could see was taut; his lips turned down into a grimace.
I could tell it was a touchy subject, so I fell silent and didn't pursue it.
"Are you certain that he can be trusted?" Kurama asked quietly, peering over the table, at me.
I rolled my eyes. "Really, Shuichi—you know better than to question my judgment."
It was the Monday of next week, and we were eating our lunches in the computer lab. I glanced up, and, when I saw Hikari looking at me in a helpless 'what do I do?' fashion from the table next to us, where she sat next to a gleeful Chief. I offered her a pained, apologetic smile.
Hikari hadn't managed to shake off Chief from their last encounte—he had waited outside the bathroom in the park as she had searched frantically for a window to use as an escape.
...Unfortunately, she hadn't found one. Now, seeing their "first date" as a success, Chief didn't leave my poor friend alone for one second. He was currently invading her bubble space at the table adjacent to us.
Kurama touched my shoulder lightly, trying to regain my attention. "Reina..."
"Yes, yes, I'm sure he can be trusted." I replied, sighing heavily at his sobriety and turning back to him.
I stabbed sullenly at my food, and frowned at him. "Honestly, you remind me of my mother..."
"Just working on some homework, mother," Kurama explained as we walked into his kitchen. "We won't be too much trouble."
"Of course you won't," Shiori beamed, wiping her hands on a dishrag and tossing it, with a damp plop, on the counter. "Reina, it's been so long! How are you?"
I smiled. "Great, Ms. Minamino. And you?"
She swooped down on me and embraced me in one surprising motion, then stepped back and laughed, "better than ever! You two can work in the living room—just call if you need anything!"
We exited into the living room, and sat on the couch, spreading our homework between us. That was just a ruse—we were actually splitting up the city again, trying different tactics to catch the renegade demon.
"My mother's... enthusiastic," Kurama explained rather sheepishly, grinning crookedly up at me. "She adores you, really..."
"Oh?" I hesitated in unfolding the map of the city, cocking my head slightly as I looked at him. "Kinda like my mother adores you, huh?"
Kurama opened his mouth to answer, but then I heard the kitchen door slam, and a small boy skidded into the living room.
"Kokoda..." Kurama said, looking up, surprise coloring his tone. "I didn't know that you were coming over today."
I looked up interestedly, hand lifted in the middle of tucking a pencil behind my ear.
The boy, Kokoda, seemed to balk at the sight of me, so I smiled tentatively and raised my hand higher, waving. The boy—he couldn't be more than eleven—flushed.
"Uh... yeah. Dad dropped me off- he needed to go grab something from the store... your mom invited us over for supper..." He trailed off into awkward silence, shuffling his feet nervously.
"This is Reina," Kurama said after a beat, smiling as he gestured to me.
I smiled. "Hey, Kokoda. Nice to meet you."
"Um..." I felt sorry for the boy as his eyes darted timidly between Kurama and me, "Shuichi... can I use your computer? I-I've got some homework..."
I ended up staying for dinner, after calling my parents for permission. Thankfully, my mom answered—she obviously loved Kurama. But dad, unsurprisingly (because he was, you know, a dad) didn't seem to care for him too much. He probably would've asked me to come home.
"So, Reina, what are you planning on doing when you graduate?" Mr. Hatanaka asked me in a friendly way, looking at me over his glasses.
"I'm not really sure yet," I said slightly taken aback by the question. "I was thinking about something along the lines of visual arts... photography, you know..." I smiled uncertainly as he blinked, "advertising..."
"She's a talented photographer," Kurama offered after a beat of silence, smiling at me on the sly. I returned the smile gratefully. I got the impression that Mr. Hatanaka wasn't impressed with my choice of study.
Mr. Hatanaka smiled in a thoughtful sort of way and nodded. "Well... that's interesting."
"I was planning on maybe double majoring in business, so that I could start up my own someday," I offered. At that, he smiled and nodded.
"That seems like a very good idea, Reina," he said simply, and we continued eating. I glanced over at Kurama, and he offered me a smile of encouragement.
His approval was good enough for me.
We ended up focusing on the park. Kurama, being a demon, automatically found the place comforting—a sanctuary, so to speak. So we guessed that the demon that we were looking for would find the place welcoming as well.
Kurama was going to circle the woodsy part of the park, keeping an eye on the border. Ryo and I were going to walk straight through the forest, and possibly scare the demon out. I didn't have control of my power yet—I was very far from grasping it—so maybe my presence would annoy the demon enough to send him running.
But if the demon wasn't there, Ryo and I would take the train station again, and Kurama would haunt the park for many days to come.
...So, I hoped this would work.
"When do I get to meet this Kurama guy in person?" Ryo asked, making small talk. We were already deep into the forest, him twirling his sheathed sword in his hands, me struggling (and failing) to widen my aura.
I blew out an angry sigh, letting the tiny bit of my aura I did have some awareness of fade away into the back of my mind. "Does it really matter, Ryo? I'm trying to concentrate."
I ground down on my lip and pulled—with grim resignation—on my unruly spiritual gift. I could sense it widening slightly, sending pulses of mental electricity out into the quiet forest...
Then, it hit something.
"Holy!" I gasped, releasing my aura and spinning around, snatching Ryo's arm. I pointed imperiously in the direction of the obstacle, almost stuttering with surprise. "There! Over there! I sensed something!" I actually sensed something!
"C'mon!" Ryo urged, yanking me forward. "The trail curves that way, anyway—let's go!"
"But, what about Kurama—"
Ryo shook his head, grinning widely, from ear to ear.
"We can take 'em." Ryo grinned down at me, letting go of my arm so I could run without being dragged. I tried to match his pace. "Good job, Reina!"
We were close enough now that I could sense the demon sapping on my energy. It was a weaker drain than Kurama—but I was instantly able to zero down on where he was.
That is, in the canopy, above our heads.
"Move!" I bellowed, shoving both of my hands into Ryo's back. With a cry of shock, he slammed into the ground.
I whirled around, peering upwards, crouching automatically, hands clenching into fists. I felt my pupils dilating, heart pounding...
Then, with a feral screech of rage, the demon leaped from the canopy, straight at me.
There was a faint breath of wind, just barely disturbing a few hairs on my head, and a whistling noise just by my ear.
The demon twisted in midair, landing in a completely animal like crouch a few yards away. Its mouth opened in a snarl, fangs glinting dully in the light filtering through the foliage.
"Stay back, Reina. I got this."
Ryo sidestepped me, blocking my view with his back, sword—unsheathed—gripped tightly in his right hand. He took a fighting stance, left foot forward, lifting his sword to point directly at the demon, left arm rising above that.
"Do you need to take it in for questioning or anything like that?" he asked casually as he slowly rotated the tip of his sword in the air, drawing the demon's gaze like a snake charmer attracting the attention of a cobra.
The demon spat a feral snarl at him, but remained crouched.
"I… I don't know. Just wait for Kurama," I said, fumbling for my communicator. I flipped it open, and after a few seconds, Kurama's face appeared on the screen.
"Hey, Kurama, we have a demon cornered here, you need to—"
In that second, the demon leaped forward with a howl.
I jerked sideways with a shout, hitting the ground and rolling out of the way, The demon's claws slashed the air that I had been standing in, and it whirled on me as I scrambled back to my feet. I ripped off a glove and stretched my hand towards it. My fingers sparked with electricity, making the demon hesitate.
"That's right, stay where you are," I snarled, hoping I sounded threatening enough to keep it at bay. "I'll incinerate you."
The demon stared at me for a split second, and then, with one last baleful hiss, darted away.
Ryo bolted past me with an angry shout, one of his arms bloodied. As I watched in muted horror, he caught up with the demon a little ways down the trail and slashed at it with his sword.
The demon howled and fell to the ground, and Ryo slashed at it as it lay there helplessly.
"Ryo!" I shouted, running forward. "That's enough, stop…!"
And he did. But the demon did not move.
I took a hesitant step forward.
"Is it... dead?"
Ryo looked back at me, a disparaging smirk on his face. I saw the blade of his sword. It was red, dripping. My stomach lurched.
"'Course it is. See for yourself."
I took several unwilling steps forward, and looked down at the demon.
Three slashes. Running from shoulder to hip.
I looked at Ryo quickly, dread and realization seeping in. Oh. Oh God.
His neck and chin were speckled with the demon's blood, but his face was oddly serene. He stared up into the trees as if reliving a fond memory. There was a faint smile on his features.
He looked down at me.
"Y-you're..." I stammered, backing away, tripping on a tree root and stumbling, eyes darting between him and the demon, "that... renegade demon... the one we've been looking for—"
Ryo turned, frowning in confusion.
Then his eyes widened, mouth popping open in an "o" of realization and horror. Then, in nearly the same instant, his sickened expression glazed over with flat denial, and he took one, ominous step towards me.
My heart lurched into my throat. I scrambled backwards down the trail, unwilling to turn my back and run. Unwilling to leave myself vulnerable.
"S-stay back, Ryo!"
"You're not turning me in." His voice was dark, stiff—angry. His advance became faster, hands curling into fists, voice rising in fury. "I've come too far for it to endhere..."
I did the only thing my terror-ridden mind could think of.
Turned, and ran.
I ran, hurling myself past my athletic limits, and I could still hear him running behind me. Ryo's breathing was fast, but with vehement anger, not exertion. Closer.
There was no way I was going to outrun him.
"KURAMA!" I yelled for all I was worth, leaping from the path, crashing into the undergrowth. I was smaller than Ryo, maybe that would work.
I could hear Ryo tearing his way through the dense bramble, cursing as thorns cut into him. I knew I was getting attacked by the greenery, too—but I could hardly feel it. Terror numbed me to the pain.
The blow came from behind, heavy, painful—and I let out a strangled cry before the air was knocked from my lungs.
Ryo's hand clamped over my mouth and nose. I clawed at it, trying to kick him, but he didn't move an inch.
I tried to draw a breath.
Finally, with a burst of adrenaline, I ripped his hand off my mouth, and clamped down on it with vicious force. I tasted blood.
"Ow, dammit!" Ryo howled, releasing me. I scurried away from him, raking an arm over my mouth, spitting out his blood—disgusted, yet petrified.
The grove of trees that surrounded us took on the heat of the sun, flames searing through my veins in a mildly painful—but mostly relieving—inferno.
This wildfire was familiar.
I saw a flash of red—Kurama's hair, then it disappeared.
With it, Ryo.
A second too late, I whipped my head around to stare, wide-eyed, at the scene next to me.
Ryo was pinned against the tree, legs kicking—several feet off the ground—in a futile attempt to break the sudden hold Kurama had on his throat.
I cringed against a tree trunk, trembling despite the raging wildfire boiling through my blood, making me feel like I was being burned alive. Despite that, I felt cold.
Kurama spoke, in a voice that many would judge as friendly, even genial.
"You had better hope—for your sake—that she isn't so much as bruised, boy," he murmured.
There was a long silence, during which I gasped for breath, not moving an inch from my crouched position against the tree. I shivered from the barely recognizable malice in Kurama's voice—I had never seen him so… demonic.
Though I knew he was completely in control of himself—his subtly infuriated voice sent chills racing down my spine.
...Such precise fury terrified me more than Ryo ever could.
Ryo choked for air, fingers scrabbling at the stranglehold Kurama had on his windpipe, unable to make a sound.
"Kurama… stop. You're killing him. Stop, please." He didn't respond. I picked myself up off the ground and bolted over to him, grabbing him by the arm that was holding Ryo, tugging at it desperately.
"I'm not hurt! Let him go!"
He looked sharply down at me, saw my expression. His face was hardened, the barely defined fury more obvious in his features. Then, the anger written there vanished entirely, smoothing out into a shocked look.
I heard a soft thump, then suddenly his arms were around me, voice whispering urgently in my ear, sending fire through my veins.
"I wasn't going to, Reina… don't. It's okay."
I twisted away from him, sinking into a crouch next to a motionless Ryo. I grabbed his wrist, pressing my thumb into it.
A faint pulse, but it was there, steady.
I breathed out a shaky sigh, relieved. "He's alive."
Above me, Kurama was still whispering. "Reina, I..."
"Just... don't say anything." The calm tenor of my voice surprised me. "Call Botan and tell her that we found the Vigilante."
"So... why did you do it?"
Ryo glowered at me. "That's none of your business," he said shortly, and waved to his bedroom door, to the window, where thin, glowing webs glinted dully in their own faint luminescence.
"I was kinda hoping that you were gonna bail me outta here."
The webs were Reikai's version of an ankle bracelet. As soon as Ryo passed through them, the webs would attach themselves to him, keeping him under tracking surveillance. Because Ryo was human, like me, he couldn't go on trial for his misdemeanors. So the Spirit World used the Tracking Web to keep an eye on him.
It was a week after Ryo's capture, and he was finished recovering from his encounter with an irate Kurama. Now, he was just irritated.
I shook my head in answer to his statement, and to clear my thoughts. "Ryo... you attacked me, and seriously ticked off my friend—"
"Your demon friend," Ryo muttered sullenly.
I frowned. "So surely you understand that bailing you out is the last thing on my to-do list."
"Whatever," Ryo grumbled, flopping down on his bed and glaring at me. "If you're here just to tell me that I should be ashamed of myself," his voice became mocking, "then just get out. I don't have to listen to you."
I stood from my chair, stung. "Fine," I said, walking to his door and opening it. My arm passed through the Tracking Web without disturbing it—it would only attach to Ryo. I shot an insult back over my shoulder. "I'm gone, delinquent."
"Good riddance!" Ryo called out after me, and I closed his door with a little more force than was necessary.
"You certainly know how to pick them," Kurama observed bluntly, a tiny edge of sarcasm in his voice. He shrugged away from the wall he had been leaning against—waiting for me—and started walking down the hall.
"Care to explain what you're insinuating?" I said acidly, struggling to fall into step next to him.
But, before he could answer, a blue blur came skidding around the corner, then slammed into me.
"Botan?" I gasped, regaining my balance with Kurama's help. "What—?"
"It's an emergency!" Botan cried urgently, grabbing my wrist, spinning around and yanking me after her. "We've just found out where the Makai insects are coming from—and it isn't good!"
So… I'm pretty sure this technically isn't my third chapter in one day… but still. THREE CHAPTERS, BACK TO BACK.
You should be proud of me. XD