“Sydney-chan, who are they?” Kai asked, following his girlfriend into the cafe proper.
“They?” she questioned back, heading for the storage closet in the back. Various staff members rolled their eyes at the goth boy who followed in her wake.
He barely noticed the looks. “Yes, they, as in the witch and the redhead out there! Witch, Sydney-chan!” he hissed, low enough that no one but herself heard it. “Only someone extremely powerful could get through my misdirection spells–don’t give me that look, I’m worried!”
Standing with a hip cocked, arms crossed, the blue-haired female rolled her eyes at him. “‘Only someone extremely powerful’,” she repeated back to him. “My! You are full of yourself aren’t you? Yes, I realize that she saw you. That much is obvious. But she is also in the company of my cousin, who I trust implicitly. If that witch was dangerous, Ruby wouldn’t have brought her here.”
Seeing the way Kai’s fists twitched, Syd sighed and walked forward to hug him. “I’m fine! Have some faith in the goodwill of others will you? You’re a nice guy and you’re a witch.”
“I’m a black witch. I play with souls,” he deadpanned. “And I’m not nice to everyone.” But still, he relaxed, starting to pout as he hugged her back. “And I thought you liked that I was full of myself?”
The woman in his arms hummed and snickered. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
A sharp bang of a palm on the wall startled them both. “Syndey!”
He scowled. “Your friends annoy me,” he grumbled uncharitably, and gave her a quick kiss before stepping back. “I’ll talk to you more after work?”
“Of course,” Syd replied with a smile as she brushed by him. “I’m coming, I’m coming! Yeesh Lyds!”
The manager snorted and turned to leave the way back to the front. “He’s cute, Syd, but your ass is mine right now.”
Syd crooked a brow at Lydia’s back. “Stressed much?”
“You could say that.”
They emerged out of the kitchen. “Oh holy crow!” the blue-haired woman hissed to her manager. “Where did they all come from?”
Lydia shoved her at the till. “Nearby teacher conference from the looks of it.”
And Kai returned to his table, eying the witch as she finished her salad and sat back with a cigarette, chatting at her companion. Who was she? Where did she come from? How did she learn? The questions plagued him, driving him nuts with the need to know. Should he get up and ask her? But what if she tried to do something nasty? The dark aura was plenty good enough to indicate her status as a black witch as well.
The woman burst into a short bark of laughter at something her friend murmured. Then she twisted in her seat to look right at him. “Well? Grab your drink and come sit, boyo.”
The look that the tiny Asian shot him wasn’t completely trusting. Sydney may trust this ‘Ruby’ but apparently the woman wasn’t so sure about his credentials. Not that he blamed her.
He scooped up his drink and approached slowly, watching them both. The brunette tugged a few things aside and made a place for him to sit, smiling in a vaguely mysterious-knowing way. “Please, sit. I’m Arana Bella.”
He ducked into a quick bow before sitting. “Kai Watanari,” he offered slowly. “It’s nice to meet you.”
The woman nudged her companion not-so-subtly under the table.
The sniper shot a flat look at Arana then turned. “Ruby,” she said nodding to him, then settled back into her meal, leaving the two witches to hash things out.
Kai shifted uncomfortably. “Nice to meet you,” he mumbled.
“So, Kai. Or would you prefer Watanari?” Arana asked, and lifted her cigarette to her lips.
He bit back a wince. He very much Did Not Like smoking. “Um, no… Kai’s fine,” he said. “America.”
She smiled. “Alright,” she agreed, exhaling smoke, thankfully away from her companions. At least she wasn’t going to be rude about it. “Kai, then. You seem to be pretty strong.” It wasn’t a question, but he nodded anyway. “And confident. How’d you learn?”
He hemmed and hawed for a moment, positive his mother would butcher him for saying much. “Um… books,” he finally settled on. “You?”
“The same. I taught myself.” She eyed him. “How old are you, Kai?”
Another anxious shift. “Oh. Um, twenty-two…” Though he couldn’t be much younger than she… right? Except her eyes were old, and her manner… ageless. It didn’t fit, somehow, with the body of a young woman. She was really skinny, too. Not anorexic. But like she didn’t eat nearly enough. And she had bags under her eyes, mostly hidden by a touch of make-up, but there. “Nightmares?” It just came out, a blurt that he hadn’t fully thought through.
He jumped. “Itai!” he yelped, casting a wide-eyed look at Ruby as Arana laughed. He reached down to rub his now sore shin.
Arana ignored the question. “Twenty two… so young. How long have you been practicing, boyo?”
Kai blinked at the nickname, then shook his head. “Um, years,” he hedged. No need to tell her how many.
She nodded. “Interesting. What do you focus on?”
“Auras,” he mumbled. Not exactly a lie. “Erm… power… stuff like that…”
“Souls, you mean,” she deadpanned, and quirked a brow at his stunned look. “I’ve met a couple, over the years. None so young or powerful as you, nor male. Soul manipulators tend to get catty.”
He blushed, embarrassed at being caught fudging the truth. “Oh… Um… do you mind if… I ask yours?”
“Polite,” she said agreeably. “By all means. Ask.”
And she closed her mouth. He cleared his throat and shifted, then clued in. “Oh… um, w-what do you focus on?” he asked. Man, not even talking to Chang-dono had been this nerve-wracking! Then again, he knew who and what Chang-dono was. This woman was a mystery.
“Blood.” The answer was prompt, flat. “Life.”
Putting down her cup of tea, Ruby watched the two of them trade words back and forth. So far Kai was doing decently, only needed one swift kick to keep him from being an idiot. Seeing as things were now out in the open between the two of them and she needed more tea…
“Excuse me,” she said, standing and collecting a few empty plates. “I’m going for more tea. Eat that,” she commanded the older woman before she left. The salad had barely been touched.
Arana stuck her tongue out after the departed girl, prompting a smile from Kai. “Now that the guard dog’s gone. What did you really want?” she asked once the girl was out of earshot.
Kai’s eyes narrowed fractionally. “Who are you?”
There was a loud melody coming from something mechanically cheerful. It was loud and obnoxious and reminded the merc of a marching band.
“Blondie!” he whimpered, holding a pillow over his head. Light hurt and sound seemed to shred the inside of his brain. He hated the world, and it was obviously mutual. The tune paused and then started again.
A huffing laugh drifted over the bed before the mattress shifted. There was a flick and the song cut off.
“Baba here,” the blond’s smooth voice carried as the tall man pulled on a pair of shorts and padded out of the room. The door closed with a soft click that still felt like the dull crack of bone.
Curling a bit tighter around another pillow, Svorak tried to find oblivion where hangovers couldn’t follow.
Outside in the hall, Christoph smiled. “Hold on one second, Lee,” he murmured. “I need to move out of Hangover Alley.” Bedrooms on all sides of him were holding various team members in various states of pain. He and Medic were possibly the only ones that could function at the moment.
A few minutes later, the blond was sipping water down in the kitchen. “No, she isn’t available for that night,” he said firmly, then shook his head at the contact’s response.
“I can get her double her usual fee,” Lee offered. “There will be two other female guards with her, the same as last month.”
“No,” Christoph repeated. “It’s not about money, Lee. She already has a job that night.” A small fib, but dammit, the money for this particular night was out of their pockets! It was important, in a strange, intangible way.
On the line, the Triad’s man sighed. “Alright. But if she does become available. Please send her to the Opera house and dressed accordingly. We’ll keep an eye out for her, but at such a late notice–”
“Lee,” the blond cut him off with a frustrated growl. “No. Even if you think you see her, she will not be available. Tell Chang he cannot have her for that night.”
“But–” There was a pause on the line and the chemist paused too, listening. “He said, ‘No,” Lee, let it go,” a lower, gravelly voice sounded from a little further in the background.
“If that’s all then,” Christoph said into the phone with a satisfied smile. Lee stuttered a little, but the growl on the other side settled the matter quickly. “Good bye then,” and he snapped the cell phone shut.
Humming, the amused man refilled his glass and sipped, waiting. Three seconds later, the phone rang again, only with a different chime. “Jin! Thanks for that.”
The old guard snorted. “Sycophants.”