Kame can afford to shop wherever he likes now. He can buy designer goods by the truckful, if he so desires, and he owns jewellery worth more than the house he grew up in. There's not a mage in Japan who can craft a more beautiful spell; a spider could not spin so intricate and delicate a web of magic. Kamenashi Kazuya is the best, and he charges accordingly.
He buys his clothing from the most fashionable boutiques in the world, and staff members fall all over themselves trying to catch his attention. He dines at the most expensive restaurants, parties into the early hours at exclusive clubs with women who leave with the taste of his magic on their lips.
Yet when he shops for ingredients - for spellcasting, not cooking - he always goes to the same, nameless little store, tucked away down a back alley where only the curious or the powerful go. Ueda protects his territory well, doesn't care for outsiders, and the curious are turned back in a hurry unless, like Kame, they have the talent to resist the dizzying illusions Ueda throws in their path.
"Afternoon," Kame mumbles as he lets himself in, shaking the rain from his hair and wishing he'd thought to bring an umbrella with. It hadn't started raining until he'd entered the alley, and teleporting one from home would've been pointless.
Besides, if Kame catches a cold, he can cure himself in a trice. It's his most popular spell, and the one that's made him the most money.
There's a cheerful "Afternoon!" from the back, and Ueda's assistant, Jin, pops up at the counter. His unruly brown curls are even messier than usual and there's a streak of dust down one cheek. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, displaying strong, healthy muscle earned by moving stock and, occasionally, dealing with difficult customers.
Kame isn't one of them. He's been coming here for three years, now, and he remembers when Jin started, just over a year ago, all youthful enthusiasm and nerves, long limbs crashing into the counter. He's settled in nicely, since, but he's not the most coordinated shop assistant in the world; whenever Kame asks Ueda why he hired him, Ueda simply smiles and shakes his head.
Ueda's rarely around during the day - he mans the shop at night when the more dangerous customers come out to play - so when Kame stops by to stock up, he's usually served by Jin.
"Want a coffee?" Jin offers, dusting himself off.
The shop is all dark woods and tangled curtains, a forest of beading and weaving and tapestries that part at a touch of Kame's hand as he crosses the floor and comes to rest on one of the stools by the counter. He brings the scent of damp, clean rainwater; it mingles with sandalwood and sawdust.
Kame can smell the rain, but he can't smell coffee brewing. "Not if it's too much trouble."
Jin sweeps a stack of textbooks aside to make room for the large, square tablet he retrieves from under the counter. He picks up a stick of green chalk, flashes Kame an eager grin, then begins to draw.
The first item Jin sketches on the tablet is easy to recognise. It's a pentagram, one of the three fundamental shapes used in magic. It's a little wobbly, but Jin manages without using a ruler and it doesn't look too bad when he's done.
The second half of the drawing is rather more obscure. A tall cylinder with wispy curls emerging from the top, and tiny, near-illegible English letters scrawled beneath it. Jin opens the pouch on his belt, takes out a handful of powder and sprinkles it over the picture.
In a flash of green light, the cylinder pops up from the circle, revealing itself to be a Starbucks cup.
"Latte?" Jin says proudly, handing it to Kame.
Kame takes it, marvelling at the heat against his palm, at the slosh of liquid and the scent of coffee. He takes a cautious sip...
After a moment's coughing and spluttering, Kame is able to speak again. "Temperature's fine," he says, "but it tastes of pepper."
Jin's face falls. "Sorry, sorry," he mutters, snatching the cup away again. "I guess I still need to work on that." He removes the pouch from his belt, sniffs the contents carefully, then makes a face. "Pi must've added condiments to my working mix again. I'll have to beat him up later."
Kame knows Jin's only kidding about that. Pi is the shop's imp, a tiny bundle of mischief who eats enough for a man three times his own size and likes to play with the customers. He usually hides behind the tapestries, ready to leap out and ambush anyone who might give him food and cuddles, but rain makes him sleepy and Kame suspects he's probably napping under the counter.
"It was a good try, though," Kame offers. He doesn't like seeing Jin defeated; a smile suits him much better. "I'm sure it would've worked fine if it wasn't for the pepper."
Jin shrugs. "Maybe. I've been practising a lot more lately," he points to the stack of textbooks, most of which are about curses, "since you promised you'd take me flying if I passed the Level Two exams. It'll never happen, but..."
"Pass Level Five and I'll teach you how to fly for yourself," Kame says with a wink.
He is actually younger than Jin, though not by much, but in terms of magic, Kame is far older. Kame made it through college on a sports scholarship, almost had his heart broken when his teachers discovered he had a talent for magic. Mages were barred from playing professional sports, and Kame had to give up his dreams of playing baseball.
So he turned his attention to becoming the best and the brightest in his new field, modelling to support himself as he sought out every scrap of knowledge his seniors and teachers could give him, studying late into the night and developing his skills at an alarming rate. Kame learned that he had a real knack for working out spells for even the toughest problems, figuring out the exact quantities of ingredients, getting the timing down to a split second.
He's just as much a perfectionist now that he works for himself, and it's what makes him successful.
Jin could be just as successful, Kame thinks, if he applied himself properly. The difference is in their working methods. Where Jin had casually thrown a handful of powder on the drawing, Kame would've measured it out carefully, not wanting to be off by so much as a grain. Jin trusts his instincts, never measures or times anything, and assumes that his spell will work the way he wants it to.
Most of the time, it does, and Kame's slightly envious of that. He never lets Jin know this, though. He knows little of Jin's background - Ueda won't tell him anything other than that Jin dropped out of high school when his abilities began to manifest, and this is the first job he's been able to hold for more than a couple of months. Jin doesn't talk about himself much and seems uncomfortable when Kame asks, so Kame clamps down on his curiosity and contents himself with the odd leaked snippet.
"Level Five seems like a long way off," Jin complains. "I have to learn manifestation and all that difficult stuff first."
There's a blue blanket on the wall, decorated with coloured beads stitched into the shape of a lake, and Kame pushes it aside to uncover the hatch where Ueda keeps his coffee-maker. But the coffee-maker has moved since last week; Kame finds a basket of scrap material in its place, with Pi curled up in the middle, fast asleep, holding a lollipop stick in his tiny fist. Kame represses the urge to ruffle his hair and pulls the blanket back into position, sharing a quiet laugh with Jin when he sees where the imp has gotten to.
"Probably hiding because he knows I'll be cross with him about the pepper," Jin says. He knows where the coffee-maker has moved to, makes a start on some coffee of the non-magical variety.
"At first I thought you were going to manifest that latte," Kame says. "If it hadn't been in a Starbucks cup, I'd never have known it was teleported."
"Actually, I've...uh..." Jin ducks behind a basket of ferns, but not before Kame can catch a hint of red in his cheeks. "I've been experimenting. Just a little. I managed to manifest this yesterday."
He hands Kame a pebble no larger than his thumbnail. Kame studies it, keeping his expression grave because he can see out of the corner of his eye that Jin is hovering expectantly, torn between bursting with pride and nervousness that he has somehow screwed up again and that this is going to be even worse than the pepper-flavoured latte.
But Kame's not an examiner. He's not even Jin's teacher, just his friend, customer and sometime advisor, so it doesn't bother him that Jin is experimenting with powers he can't control yet - so long as no one gets hurt, anyway, and the warding spells on Ueda's shop will prevent that from happening.
Manifestation is a big step up. Jin's still at the stage where he can't use himself as a channel for magic, only light the fuse for an external spell with a touch of it. He mixes up powders and potions, draws his shapes and recites his rituals, then sets them off with a tiny spark.
Kame, on the other hand, learned years ago how to turn energy into matter, to manifest an object using nothing more than his own body as a channel for energy and the magic required to transmute it. He can do things that someone at Jin's level can only imagine.
But everyone has to start somewhere, and the first step towards manifestation - and indeed, any high magic - is to use the basic equipment and gradually wean yourself off it.
"I drew a pentagram with a rock inside it and threw a little sand over the top," Jin explains. "It was supposed to be bigger than this, though."
Kame tosses the pebble up in the air and catches it before throwing it back to Jin. "I don't care what you've heard - size isn't everything."
"That's not what Pi says," Jin mutters, but he returns Kame's smile and seems content that he's not going to get a lecture on the misuse of magic. "You think I should try with something else?"
"I think you should try with whatever you're comfortable with." Kame accepts a real cup of coffee and wonders if it would be showing off to make a snack appear out of thin air. He could call it a demonstration, of course. "Just watch out for the weather."
The rain has increased considerably in volume since Kame walked in, and there are hints that a full-blown thunderstorm may be on the horizon. It's not yet mid-afternoon and already the sky is darkening. Inside the shop, where light is dark's poor cousin even in broad daylight, customers - only Kame, right now - are at the mercy of Ueda's coloured lanterns, hung at random intervals round the walls. The only truly bright light is over the counter.
Jin blows briefly on his coffee to cool it, loses patience and takes a sip anyway. "What about the weather? It's not like I'm going to do it outside - my spells aren't going to go soggy."
"The electricity in the air can disrupt your body's own electrical balance," Kame explains. "You might try to manifest a teaspoon and end up with an elephant."
"I'm not drawing a pentagram big enough for an elephant!"
"It was just an example."
Kame watches as Jin almost overbalances his stool by swinging long, shapely legs from side to side; it doesn't seem right that such a lively, attractive young man seems to spend all his time in a shop. Surely Ueda gives him some days off?
"Jin," Kame asks suddenly, "Do you live here?"
"Upstairs, yeah. Ueda lets me stay so long as I work in the shop."
"But you don't have to stay here, right?"
Jin turns wide eyes on him. "Where else would I go?"
Kame spares a thought for Jin's family, whoever and wherever they are, but that's not what he's asking about. "I mean, you don't have to stay in the shop all day, every day. You can go out."
"Sure. I go shopping sometimes, or Ueda takes me out for a meal. It's not like I'm a prisoner or anything." Jin sets down his coffee cup, looks Kame straight in the eyes. "I know what it looks like. It's not like I'm some geek who spends every second with his nose buried in a magic textbook either."
"I didn't think you were," Kame says. "I've just never seen you leave the shop, that's all."
Jin slides across the counter, nearly knocking his cup to the floor, and throws open the front door. He doesn't stay out in the downpour for long, just enough for the rain to dampen his hair and darken his shirt before he seeks shelter under the tiny canopy. His posture, hands splayed on denim-clad hips and legs spread wide, offers a challenge to Kame.
Kame takes him up on it. He saunters across to the door and rests his hands on the frame so that Jin can't pass. Jin trades in a smirk for wariness, as if he thinks Kame might keep him out of his home for good, so Kame tries to make his expression as non-threatening as possible. Not the smooth, seductive smile that speaks to women and charms them into his bed without the slightest need for magical persuasion, but the goofy, kind of awkward grin he used to wear a lot in high school, back before he could afford to get his teeth fixed.
It works; Jin returns it in kind.
"All right, I believe you can go out," Kame says. "So how about coming out with me tonight? We'll go have dinner - any restaurant you want."
"Sorry." Jin shakes his head apologetically. "Tonight's no good. Ueda's testing me on fire spells. I can't afford to skip it; he's taken my lighter away till I master them."
"Tomorrow, then?" Kame suggests. "Or you pick a day that's good for you."
"That's not really-"
"Jin," Kame says. "I promised to take you flying when you pass your Level Two magic exams, but do you know what that involves?"
Kame relinquishes his hold on the doorframe. "There's a little more to it than that. Turn round."
"Just do it and hold still, okay?"
Shrugging, Jin complies. Kame takes a couple of steps forwards, pressing up against Jin's back and wrapping his arms round his waist so that Jin can't walk away. Jin's taller than he is, but not greatly so; Kame can hold him comfortably without strain.
"Until you can do this for yourself, I have to carry you," Kame explains. Just in case Jin doesn't get it, Kame gives him a little demonstration.
Flying isn't easy, but it's not complicated, either. Kame doesn't want to go anywhere but up, so he leans back, relaxing against an invisible wall - not quite to the point of overbalancing, but enough that one good push would topple him over. Jin wriggles in his arms, trying to keep his own balance as Kame pulls him back.
Kame's laughter is never so genuine as when he's here. "Stop squirming or I won't be able to hold you," he warns, but his voice is amused, not stern.
He pushes up, then, feeling his weight fall away as his bones become no heavier than cotton, though far sturdier. Flesh and blood become inconsequential as dust, yet retain their shape and form beneath layers of clothing. Channelling air magic makes Kame as light as a feather.
His strength is unaffected, fortunately, or he'd not be able to carry Jin as they leave the floor, rising a full six inches from the ground and hovering in place. It's only a short distance, but it's Jin's first time and he gasps in surprised delight.
"See?" Kame murmurs, tilting his head so that his lips are within a hair's breadth of Jin's ear. "I have to hold you close, or I'll drop you - and if we're high up in the sky, you really don't want me to do that. You need to be completely comfortable with me, to trust me with your life."
To further illustrate his point, Kame moves them outside, just far enough that he can take them a little higher. Jin hasn't earned a proper flight yet, after all, and it's still pouring with rain, so he's not inclined to show off too much. The forwards motion presses Kame into Jin's back, Kame's black leather jacket into Jin's black and white shirt, and Jin into Kame's arms.
They're close enough that Kame doesn't just hear Jin's breath hitch when the rain hits them - he feels it. They rise a couple of feet, moving as one, and Jin remains still. No squirming, no struggling, not now that he could fall. There's nothing for him to cling to. If he clutches Kame's arms, he risks hurting him and sending them both back down. It's only a short fall, but the ground beneath them is slick and treacherous.
"It's easier if we face each other," Kame says. "Then you can hang on as tight as you like. But I figured we ought to at least go out to dinner before we go for a flight."
What Kame doesn't say, but hopes Jin manages to infer from this, is that spending half an hour or so practically cuddling in mid-air is fairly intimate behaviour for two people who have never even seen each other socially before.
Not that what they're doing now is so distant. Kame breathes in sweet, honey-scented shampoo; his arms press against taut abdominal muscle that lies beneath soft, well-worn fabric, and toy with the idea of drifting lower.
Kame holds a lot of people. With his wealth, power and status, he can have anyone he wants. Sometimes he does. He'll dance in clubs, writhing and grinding against beautiful women in shimmering dresses; women who welcome his touch, who make him believe he's the most desirable creature in all the world...right up until they walk out the next morning with sin in their smiles and the taste of Kame's magic on their lips.
The men are just as bad. Different faces, different bodies, but their motivations are the same and when they walk out, it hurts just as much.
It feels good at the time, though, and that's why Kame continues to go out, to drink and dine and laugh with his friends, to have fun that might turn out to be nothing more than a few quick dances in a crowded nightclub, or might be a weekend of sensual pleasure. Kame can be as adventurous as he likes - it's not easy to hurt a mage, especially one with so many healing spells at his fingertips.
But for all the intricate, intensely physical intimacies Kame's had since his first kiss, he's never felt closer - more connected - to anyone than he does to Jin right now.
Jin feels innocent. Pure. Not in the physical sense, perhaps - there's that chequered past, those years that he won't talk about - but there's none of that conniving, almost vicious greed and selfishness that characterises most of Kame's conquests. Jin has his selfish moments, true, but he's honest when he wants something, doesn't plot and scheme and seduce.
At least, Kame's pretty sure there's no seduction going on, and he thinks it's a shame because he'd like to hold Jin a little longer.
He tightens his grip and takes them higher above the alley, so that they can just peek over the rooftops, and that's when Jin starts to squirm, trying to twist round, ducking his head so he can no longer see.
Kame takes them down as quickly as he dares, settling them under the canopy, and the second he relaxes his arms, Jin all but runs inside the shop. "Too high?" Kame asks gently as he follows Jin indoors.
"That's not it!" Jin is pale; his breathing uneven and his hands clenched into fists. He looks terrified. "Just close the door!"
Not that Kame wouldn't have closed it anyway, but the urgency in Jin's voice makes him slam it. The crash shakes the hanging curtains and rattles rows of jars. A sleepy yawn can be heard from the scrap material basket, so Kame sticks his hand behind the blue blanket and lets Pi play with his rings until the imp returns to his curry-flavoured dreams.
Given the choice, Kame would rather be petting Jin, who has ducked behind the counter and is scribbling frantically on the floor with a stick of chalk. Kame peers over the top; Jin is drawing a circle with himself in the centre.
"You're putting up a shield?" Kame can't understand why. "Ueda's got wards up all round the building."
"You'll be safe," Jin says. "Don't worry; it's only me they want."
"You're not making any sense!"
Kame vaults over the counter, squeezing into the circle just as Jin closes it with a drop of his own blood. They are sealed in until such time as Jin breaks the circle...or someone stronger breaks it for him.
Magically speaking, circles are the strongest shapes. No corners, no straight sides. Push a circle and it bends, but doesn't break. It's no wonder they're the favourite when it comes to shield spells. Kame's no stranger to shielding, but he knows - probably better than Jin does - just how detailed Ueda's wards are and he can't imagine why Jin feels the need to protect himself inside the shop.
"You shouldn't have done that," Jin warns, looking ruefully down at the chalk outline. "I'm not going to break it to let you out, Kame."
"I'm not asking you to."
There's a thump from the window; Kame turns to see a big black bird sliding down the glass. It might be the rain, or it might be his imagination, but it leaves a dark smear of blood in its wake. Kame shivers and takes a step towards it, but Jin's shield holds and he's pressed back into place.
It's a good shield, filtering out toxins in the air but allowing the air itself to pass. Fortunate, else Jin would've used up their supply in no time.
"Need me to magic up a paper bag?" Kame offers.
Jin gives him a dirty look and closes his eyes, taking a few long, deep breaths and releasing them slowly. It seems to help.
"Save your energy; we might be stuck in here a while." Jin peers at the window. There's a second thump, and another dead bird heads for the ground. "They know where I am now."
"Who does?" Kame's frustration's increasing by the second. "If you don't tell me what's going on I can't help, can I?"
"I'm...I'm being hunted, okay?"
"I got that part," Kame says dryly, but because Jin looks so distraught at actually having to explain himself, he softens his tone and asks, "Can you tell me who by?"
Jin licks his lips nervously, avoiding Kame's eyes. "Promise you won't hold it against me?"
That sounds ominous to Kame. "You didn't kill anyone, did you?" He'd take a step back, but there's no room in the circle. Jin only drew it to hold one person, after all.
"Of course I didn't kill anyone! They're trying to kill me!"
Kame rolls his eyes and waits for an answer.
"And where exactly are you finding gypsies in Tokyo?"
"I'm not, 'cause they were in Osaka, but that's not the point, Kame!"
"Jin, if they were in Osaka, I don't think you need to worry about them showing up in the next five minutes." Unless they teleport, Kame thinks, but he's not about to say that aloud.
"I don't think they'll come in person. They've been using birds to attack me since...since..."
"Since?" Kame prompts.
"Your life's perfect, right?"
"Don't change the subject!"
"I'm serious, Kame. You go out, and you date or whatever and there's never anything messy or complicated because you just solve all the problems life throws at you. No unwanted pregnancies, no broken marriages, no shattered hearts. That's your life, right?"
Kame's pretty sure he might've broken up a marriage or two - by accident - though he did manage to save one with a spectacularly memorable threesome, and there definitely weren't any pregnancies...but hearts are fragile things - his as much as anyone's.
"What would you know about it? Have I ever walked in here and bragged about my love life?"
Jin is taken aback by Kame's resentful tone. "I hear from Ueda sometimes. Or I read about you in the magazines and newspapers. You don't talk to me about it, though."
"Would you really want to sit here and listen to me talk about who I woke up with this morning? Because if you're that interested, I was in my own bed - alone, and I have been all week."
Not that Kame's nights have been entirely empty, but he hasn't taken anyone home. He's had his fun on the dancefloors, in the bars, but he's gone home to cool sheets and sweet dreams, fantasies of how his next shopping expedition might go, of how he'd ask Jin to take the jar of powdered moonstone down from the top shelf and watch for a glimpse of smooth skin as his shirt rides up his back. Of how he'd traverse the counter when Jin's turned away, moving in slowly...
Kame gives himself a mental shake. Now is not the time for those kinds of thoughts.
Jin shrugs. "Why should I care? I'm not one of your drinking buddies."
Because you don't go out, and I know you're lying about Ueda taking you out for meals. You can go out, but you won't.
"I don't want you to be one of my "drinking buddies". I'd like to think we have better things to talk about."
Like magic, and how Jin likes to use vanilla extract in his working mix because the scent makes him think of childhood ice creams, and why Kame used to use a baseball when he needed a focus, because the traditional crystals just didn't give him the kind of concentration he needed. Or they'll talk about the mysteries of the universe that magic hasn't even come close to solving yet, like what happens when you die? Is there life on other planets? How much can Pi eat before he turns down food?
"And you're still changing the subject," Kame says. "Okay, so I have a social life. You want it? Fine. You have it. But get to the point before I start going grey. Please."
"Like you'd ever go grey," Jin says with a smirk. "You could change your appearance just like that." He snaps his fingers to illustrate. "Wish I could. Then maybe I wouldn't be in this mess.
"I...I had a lot of problems in high school. Some of them had nothing to do with magic - I'm a lot better now, but I couldn't concentrate on my studies back then and all I really wanted to do was play soccer. I'd cut class a lot, go hang out with my friends, sometimes go see matches. The teachers didn't like me much." Jin is suitably abashed. "I got in fights, too. When I couldn't understand things, sometimes I'd mess around in class - make them laugh, you know? You probably don't, I guess.
"But when I started feeling things, that made everyone keep their distance. We didn't have anyone in my school who could do magic - or if they could, they kept it a secret. I didn't have any friends or relatives who could, or anyone like that I could learn from. I didn't know a thing. Hell, the first time I started a fire by accident, I thought I was having a heart attack. Nearly set my friend alight too - he was holding an unlit cigarette and I was kidding around, making like I could light it with my mind.
"I didn't expect it to work."
Jin's story is a familiar one. Ritzy private schools allow that pupils might have or develop a talent for magic, and ensure that they have resources available to help. But regular high schools don't have the budget for it. Kids either get the information and training they need outside school, or they don't get it at all. For every young mage who goes on to hone their skill, there's another who's destroyed themselves with their fledgling abilities.
"My family didn't really get it, either. I've got a younger brother - completely normal - and my parents started paying more attention to him, cutting me out of things. Just in case I accidentally blew them up or something careless like that."
Kame's "I'm sorry" is automatic, but genuine nevertheless. The glamorous, fun, glitzy side of magic is well-known and in the limelight for everyone to see. The flip side of the coin, the tragedy and the heartbreak, remains in the shadows where no one notices. Not unless they've been there, or they know someone who has. Kame does, and he'd rather not see Jin follow in Shige's footsteps.
"Thanks. Doesn't help now, but thanks." Jin continues with his tale. "I got sick of everyone treating me like I had the plague, or trying to use me to do stuff for them, so I left. I was sixteen, old enough to do just fine by myself - or so I thought - and all I could think about was going somewhere where I wouldn't be a freak.
"I only saw the big, fancy academies and ads for expensive private tutors - none of them wanted to take on a high school dropout who couldn't afford to pay his way and was more likely to flood the building than learn how to conjure up a glass of water.
"I didn't know little places like this store existed all over the city; I left Tokyo altogether. My friend Ryo lives in Osaka - we make fun of each other a lot, but I can count on him when I have to and then, I definitely needed to. I went to stay with his family for a while, which worked out great...until they discovered I could do magic."
"They kicked you out?" Kame said, surprised.
"Yeah, but...I kind of destroyed a couple of walls of their house when I was trying to work out how to put up a shield - I didn't have anyone to tell me it helps to draw a circle first! They took it pretty well, considering, but they said it was best if I moved on until I was less...volatile."
Kame would like to take the time to be appropriately understanding and sympathetic, but a third bird crashes into the window and he gestures impatiently for Jin to get on with it.
Jin notices the bird too; he speeds up. "I fell in with a bunch of Ryo's weird friends - they all lived in this old, run-down restaurant. Not just guys, there were girls there too. People kept coming and going, working where they could, helping each other out. Other runaways, I guess.
"Anyway, there was this one girl - Eris, her name was - and she could do magic too...only, she couldn't control it any more than I could. She'd tried to move a cup from one room to another, and ended up teleporting herself all the way from Greece. She wasn't in any hurry to get back, though. She didn't talk about her family, and I assumed that was why."
"Since when do you speak Greek?"
Jin snorts. "Very funny. She'd been in Japan for two years by the time I met her."
"And?" Kame prods. He's fairly certain he knows what's coming, based on the way Jin starts shifting his weight from foot to foot, but he needs to hear it.
"And...what do you think, Kame? I liked her, okay? We used to mess around with spells together, try to figure out what the hell we were doing - and then patch each other up when it all went wrong. We had fun." Jin sighs with nostalgia. "I didn't have to hide anything from her."
"She was obviously hiding something from you," Kame says.
"Yeah, but I was too hooked to care. C'mon, when a beautiful, exotic, older - by six months - woman suggests you share a bed because winter nights are cold and body heat's a lot safer than trying to conjure up a heater, you don't say no, do you? Especially not when you're sixteen and a half and so wound up you get hard whenever someone looks at you for more than two seconds."
Kame remembers being sixteen and a half. Remembers the way the girls would gather round to watch him at baseball practice, and how his underclassmen friends would hang on his every word. He didn't have his magic back then, and his looks were in that awkward, transitional stage, but he had his talents and he worked hard to make the most of them. If that got him a quickie in the locker room with the female team manager after practice, or perhaps a slower, leisurely make-out session in the darkest depths of the library with Shige, back before he disappeared, then Kame was more than okay with that.
What he's not okay with is the way the lanterns are flickering. Ueda's got the whole place bespelled so securely even dust's not allowed to gather without his say-so, which means whatever's happening, it's powerful.
"I'm ecstatic that you had some very happy teenage nights, but-"
"All right, I'm getting there," Jin huffs. "Eris's family tracked her down eventually, and that's when the trouble started."
"Gypsies?" Kame guesses.
"Yeah. Turns out Eris was promised to the head of one of the other clans, and now they'd finally found her, they wanted to take her back so she could marry him. She didn't want to go, so she told them the truth. She wasn't a virgin anymore, which made her impure in their eyes, and she couldn't marry the guy."
Kame thinks this over for all of five seconds. "Jin, I hate to break it to you but if she'd been there for two years already-"
"I know, I know. I don't think it was me either. They didn't want to hear it. I mean, I could only go by what Eris was telling me 'cause they were speaking Greek, but it was obvious they had their sights set on me."
Jin wipes his palms on his jeans, then pushes down one side to reveal a tattoo - a small black bird on his left hip. There's a mocking curve to its beak, and the single eye glares malevolently at Kame.
"The loudest, ugliest guy there hit me with some kind of shock spell, and when I woke up, everyone else had disappeared and I had some ominous new body art."
It's not a degenerative spell; Kame's sure of that. Jin doesn't appear to be in any danger of having his limbs wither away and drop off, or of succumbing to a debilitating disease that will eventually kill him. The tattoo is a marker - a brand of possession - and it means that Jin cannot call his life his own.
"Can you feel it?" Kame asks.
"Not anymore. It was agony back then, but it died down after a while. It doesn't do anything - no glowing or creepy morphing."
"Would you even notice, given where it is?"
"Probably not." Jin goes to cover it up again but Kame intervenes, pushing the denim aside to press cautious fingertips against inky black wings.
The bird pulses under his touch. At the same time, the flickering lanterns die, leaving only the light over the counter. There isn't much daylight on display anymore.
"It's breathing," Kame says quietly. "I can feel it."
Jin shudders. "I can't. I tried to get rid of it for ages, but nothing worked. Maybe I should've just shot myself up with anaesthetic and taken a knife to it."
"You'd only have hit something vital and wound up in the morgue." Kame skims his fingers over Jin's hip, splaying them wide across otherwise unmarred skin so that the tattoo is covered entirely by his hand, tickling it with illusory feathers. "I doubt it would've gone quietly. What happened after you woke up?"
There's an uncomfortable pause, during which Jin finally notices that he's standing there with Kame's hand down his pants. He elbows Kame in the side to make him retreat before he consents to continue.
"What do you think happened, Kame? I ran. I threw everything I owned in a bag and I ran. I didn't want to be around if Eris's relatives decided to come back for me.
"It didn't matter where I went, though - I couldn't settle down. I'd pick up odd work all over Japan, find myself some place to stay, and within a few months I'd find myself being followed by birds. They'd leave feathers in my bed, if they were being nice - if they weren't, they'd steal my food, tear my clothes...or fly right at me when I was up a ladder, or crossing the road, or anything where there was a good chance I'd end up in hospital."
Jin throws a despairing glance towards the window, which is now more blood and feathers than glass. The assault shows no signs of letting up. Not all the feathers are black; Kame doesn't know how many different breeds of birds are involved but he suspects there will be a lot less avian traffic in Tokyo for a while. The noise level is getting ridiculous.
"This happened wherever you went?" Kame says.
"You can see why I don't have much of a social life. I was about three seconds away from getting my eyes pecked out in Okinawa when Ueda stepped in with a much better shield than anything I'd been able to produce. He got me out of there, brought me back here, and..." Jin shrugs. "The rest, you know. He couldn't do anything about the tattoo either."
"So you stay here, you don't take more than a few steps outside in case the birds spot you...oh." Kame tries to avoid guilt if he can help it - he doesn't like the queasy sensations in his gut - but there's no way round it this time: it's his fault Jin's been found. "Sorry. I shouldn't have taken you up; I guess you were only safe so long as you were hidden in the alley."
Jin doesn't level any accusations at him, which only makes Kame feel worse about it. The way the overhead light keeps flickering doesn't help matters.
"It's going to happen again." Jin sounds subdued, defeated. "They'll break through Ueda's protections eventually, and then the walls and windows. They won't touch you or Pi, though; don't worry."
"Because we don't have this." Kame gives Jin's tattooed hip a gentle pat. He understands now why Jin's toting around textbooks on curses - if he's ever going to escape his, it'll be while he's in a magic shop."Before Ueda's store gets ruined and you get fired, we have to do something about this. Where is Ueda, anyway? Sleeping?"
"He packed a bag, said something about going to the lavender fields with a friend, and left. He's due back tonight."
"It's just you, me and the imp, then - and he's not going to be much help." Pi's gentle snores are faintly audible over the thumps from outside. "If only...ah."
"Ueda's shields stopped the birds before, right? So what makes you so certain they'll crack now?"
"Because," Jin says miserably, "he didn't have to hold them off for long. He teleported us all the way here."
Kame goes to clap his hands together with excitement, then remembers he's keyed a fireworks display (to impress his little niece) to that particular motion and thinks better of it. "If you drop the circle I can just teleport us out!"
"You could, but they know this place now. I could never come back. I'd be running again." Jin rubs a hand over his nose. "I like it here, Kame. I like coming downstairs every morning and trying to stop Pi from stealing my breakfast; I like it when Ueda teaches me how to do all the things I should've learned years ago, because it feels so good to not make a fool of myself every time I try to do something.
"And I really like talking to all the customers who come in here - even if most of them take a while to warm up to me and actually talk back. You took no time at all, though."
Kame grins. "I couldn't have stood there in silence after watching you trip over the first time you stood up to greet me."
"Pi always picks the worst times to tie my bootlaces together," Jin grumbles. "I crashed right into the counter - and you couldn't stop laughing!"
"No, but I did help you up, at least...and I'm going to help you now." Kame has never had a problem saying things that others might consider "sappy", even when sober, because he always means them and speaking the truth is nothing to be embarrassed about.
But when he's locked in a circle less than his own height in diameter, with a very attractive - and very scared, but trying not to show it - friend, anything he says takes on a whole new dimension.
He says it anyway. "I want you to stay here too."
"You just like me for my amazing customer-service skills." Jin makes light of it, but Kame can see he's pleased. After a year of having no one bar Ueda, Pi and the bizarre assortment of customers who frequent the shop for company, it's only logical that Jin would latch on to any even halfway normal affection aimed towards him.
"You do make a mean cup of coffee," Kame agrees. "When you don't try to use magic, anyway. I like you a lot, Jin, but not enough to drink a pepper latte."
Jin sidesteps the implications of that one and says, "We should've tried adding cinnamon."
"We could bribe the birds with it." Not that Kame thinks bribery is likely to work, but they have to do something. "What've you tried on them before?"
"Um...nothing, really. I couldn't focus enough to use any magic on them when they caught up to me - and nothing I did to hide myself worked. This is the first time I've even had the chance to put up a shield."
And if Ueda's shields fail, Jin's isn't going to do much. Kame can reinforce it or create his own, but there has to be a long-term solution.
"The tattoo has to go," Kame decides. "It doesn't suit you anyway."
Unfortunately, all Kame has at his disposal is his own magic, unless Jin drops the shield. They can't reach any of the ingredients in the shop and Kame can't bring anything in from outside the circle; all he's got to work with is what's in there with them, and anything he can manifest from pure energy. It makes him glad he didn't conjure up a paper bag for Jin earlier.
He catches Jin's beltloops and draws him closer, then drops to one knee so he can take a better look at the tattoo. Even with the belt, Jin's jeans are baggy enough that they remain in place when Kame tugs them down, and the bird glares at him once more.
Despite the intensity of the situation, Jin can't help laughing. "If Ueda comes back right now and sees us like this, he'll definitely fire me!"
"I'm sure I could compensate you."
"You do make a lot of money, I guess."
Kame squeezes Jin's other hip lightly; for a second, Jin tenses up. "I wasn't talking about financial compensation."
It's hardly the ideal time to push the issue, so Kame slips into the professional guise he wears so well. "Removing the tattoo physically won't help," he says, studying it with a critical eye. "It's a part of you, not your body. We need to unravel the spell."
"Hope you're good at unravelling, 'cause I failed Crafts."
"It's not like unravelling a scarf, Jin. In a perfect spell, you can't find an end...so you have to make one yourself. And you do that by disrupting it with something discordant and chaotic."
"Chaos, I can do."
"Yeah, but it needs to be controlled chaos. We have to figure out what the consequences are likely to be - you don't want to have half your body disintegrate, do you?"
"Kame." Jin tries to bend down but the angle's wrong for him to stare Kame in the face. "Would you listen to yourself? How predictable is chaos?"
Kame suspects his brains have been temporarily scrambled, his senses overwhelmed by such close proximity to Jin. It's the only explanation. "I just want to make sure I don't kill you by trying to cure you."
"That's reassuring. It's also not going to get us anywhere. You have to take risks sometimes, Kame!"
Kame's not averse to taking risks, but in such close quarters and with Jin's life on the line, he's not sure he wants to. Taking risks didn't help Shige, didn't get him off the streets and into law school, and Kame thought he'd tried eveything to get his friend straightened out. In the end, he couldn't do anything for Shige...and he doesn't want things to be the same with Jin. If they teleport out of there they'll only have to repeat the whole thing again somewhere else, and they won't have the luxury of Ueda's shields round them.
"We need a spell where we already know something's wrong," Kame says. "Something we know won't work."
Jin nearly elbows Kame in the nose as he removes the pouch of powder from his belt. "Something like this?"
"Your working mix with the pepper in it?"
"Yeah!" Jin's getting excited now. "I've been using it to teleport stuff. There's shredded feathers for flight, ground goats' hooves for movement, hair of a pilot, that sort of thing."
All the usual. Kame's worked with stranger ingredients in his time, like salamander blood and the ground horn of a pregnant dragon - but those would be overkill for summoning up a coffee. Not that Jin can do that right now.
"You can't teleport anything in through the shield," Kame points out. "And you certainly don't want a scalding drink turning up on your hip, do you?" He withdraws a red plaid handkerchief from his jacket pocket and holds it out to show Jin before dropping it on the floor. "It's clean. Try moving it to cover the tattoo, using that mix."
Jin looks doubtful. "Got any chalk? I can't fix a destination without a pentagram."
They check the floor - it doesn't take them long - but the nearest stick of chalk is out of reach on the counter where Jin had set it down before closing the circle with his own blood.
"You couldn't draw it on yourself, anyway," Kame says, which makes Jin smirk. "Not from that angle."
"I'd probably still make a better job of it than you. Don't forget I've seen your artistic talents, Kame."
"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that." Kame has many talents but art will never be one of them; he has a good eye for colour and design, but all that gets him is an incredibly stylish wardrobe. He has no shortage of creativity, though. "Give me your hand."
"For wha-that tickles!"
Kame fits his right hand over Jin's, matching their index fingers so he can trace them across the tattoo in the shape of a pentagram. Naturally, it's invisible. It's also kind of messy and uneven, because Kame pushes and Jin pushes back, and between the two of them their innate magic spills and meshes to create the lines required. Kame can still feel the pulse of black feathers as he moves, but it's easy to ignore such unpleasantness when Jin's sensitive skin and hard hipbones are beneath his fingertips, and he can hear his ticklish friend trying - with limited success - to muffle his laughter.
It's difficult to depict a plaid handkerchief with chalk; with fingers, it's near-impossible, so they settle for a square with a few criss-crossed lines. When it comes to drawing, Kame has to have faith that enthusiasm alone will carry him through.
"You've got a destination marked," he says when Jin finally stops cracking up. "Rub a handful of your working mix into it and picture the handkerchief."
"And what are you going to do once the spell's disrupted?" Jin takes a handful of powder from his pouch in readiness. "Wipe it all away with the hanky?"
Kame flexes his hands, shifts to his other knee and prepares for some fancy fingerwork. "You'll see. I'm sorry, but this is going to tickle. A lot."
"Can't wait," Jin mutters, pressing the powder against the tattoo before he can lose his nerve.
The skin grows warm instantly; Jin drops his hand the moment he feels the heat along his palm. There's a crackling, accompanied by the scent of scorched meat and a burst of pepper that makes both men sneeze. The handkerchief would've been useful but it's disappeared entirely. Jin leans up against the invisible wall of the circle and tries to stay still, which proves a trial because the moment his hand is out the way, Kame's all over him, right arm across his stomach to provide support, left index finger hovering over the tattoo.
Kame tries not to worry about the burning; he figures if Jin was in pain, he'd have at least said something. The spell is his sole concern. It pulses, inked wings beating so the long, black feathers almost burst free from the skin and take flight before Kame's eyes. Lightning sizzles along the ragged wingtips, a daunting discouragement to all who might be tempted to touch.
And there, at the sharp end of the beak, Kame sees a thread of magic hanging loose from the spell. He seizes it, curling it round his finger, giving it a gentle tug.
Unravelling a spell isn't like unravelling a knitted scarf, where if you pull too hard, the worst that happens is that the wool breaks. A spell must be unravelled in its entirety, because if the carefully-woven threads of magic snap, it's almost impossible to pick them up again.
With slow, delicate movements, Kame follows the spell along Jin's hip, letting his own magic bleed through his skin as a lure and turning his finger so the thread spools around it. There are several layers; he finds himself retreading familiar ground. The more he unwinds, the more the ink fades, until Kame is tracing the spell alone and Jin's bird of ill omen is nowhere to be seen.
Jin does a good job of suppressing his giggles - Kame tickles him terribly and he's trying so hard to keep still he's shaking from the strain - but when Kame reaches the final layer, the tickling stops and the pain begins. The foreign magic is engraved on Jin's soul and wrenching it free is agony; he tries to hold back a moan but can't quite manage it.
"Not much longer left to go." Kame wants to soothe Jin but if he uses magic to ease the pain, it'll disrupt his unravelling and there's no telling what will happen. "Just hold on."
Jin takes him at his word, getting a tight grip on Kame's right arm and digging in with his fingers. It makes Kame jump, but not as much as the deafening crack. For a second, he thinks Jin has actually snapped his arm.
The reality is far worse. Ueda's shields have failed...and the birds are breaking through the door.
"Can you hurry up?" Jin asks, voice hoarse with pain and urgency. "My shield won't hold them for long!"
Kame can't reinforce it now. A raven is first through the front door. It locks Jin in its sights, dives straight for their circle, thumps against the invisible barrier and slides to the floor, stunned. From the corner of his eye, Kame notes the shield's flicker. It can't last for long, not if the birds keep coming, and after the first there's a regular stream of unwanted guests piling up in a circle around them.
A crow hitting just next to his eye makes him recoil. Kame pulls back, yanking hard on the thread, which causes Jin to give an ear-piercing scream. Alas, this fails to scare their attackers, though it does shatter a small jar of beads.
Kame breathes a sigh of relief that the thread hasn't snapped. "I had no idea you could hit that kind of note," he says.
"Only when it feels like someone's trying to rip out my insides using a red-hot poker!"
"Just bear with it a little longer, Jin."
Kame is approaching the end, now, and that, he knows, will be the most painful part of all. Magic winds thick and heavy round his finger, oily and alien to Kame's own cool, clean power and drawn to it with the same insidious lust, the same desire to corrupt, that attracts evil to innocence.
The very end of the thread is a translucent knot, tainted with a murky black sheen. Kame has only seconds to remove it; Jin's shield is not much more than thick air, offering a mere suggestion of resistance to their assailants.
"Brace yourself," Kame warns.
Jin glares down at him - there's nothing to brace himself on except a cushion of air and the mountain of corpses beginning to fall through the circle.
Removing the final knot turns out to be a more complicated business than Kame had anticipated - simply pulling it out risks breakage and there's no way he can untie it. He has to coax it free, maintaining a steady, gentle pressure while trying not to dig directly into the skin with his nails. A whimper escapes Jin's lips when Kame gives the thread a long, slow pull, but it's like tearing off a plaster - less agonising to remove all at once.
"Did I ever tell you how much I hate pain?" Jin finally releases Kame's arm, much to its owner's relief. "Maybe it'll hurt less if I do it myself."
Before Kame can caution against it, Jin pushes his hand between them, feeling for the knot and pressing his index finger briefly against Kame's when he finds it. Rather than join the tug-of-war with the thread, Jin tries to excise the knot by running the tip of his finger round the edges, sliding it underneath in an effort to prise the spell loose.
Somehow, it works. As Kame feels the knot begin to dissolve he gives the thread a sharp yank, and just like that, it comes away, joining the rest round his index finger. Without Jin's soul to anchor it, the spell becomes nothing more than neutral, free-floating energy, so Kame lets it drift towards the door.
There's nothing in its path. The shield vanishes and Jin doesn't even notice because he's throwing his arm up to protect his eyes from the bird that's aiming straight for them.
"You'd better duck, Kame. The shield's about to go and I think they're going to start coming through!"
"The shield's gone...uncover your eyes, will you?"
Jin does, only to discover that no one has any interest in pecking him to death. There is a trio of ravens flying aimlessly around the shop, but they make it out the door eventually and Jin and Kame are left alone with a pile of avian corpses and one (still sleeping) imp. The unfortunate side effect of the collapsing shield is that all the blood and feathers stuck to it fall to the floor, adding to the mess.
"Ueda's going to kill me," Jin groans. "The whole place is a wreck!"
Kame pulls out his cell phone to summon his emergency cleaning service. "Pixies," he explains. "They can have it all cleaned up in ten minutes and redo the shields while they're at it. Ueda will still know something happened, but he'll take it a lot better.
"Besides, now he can send you out to do the shopping for him. That should help sweeten things."
That brings a smile to Jin's face. "I'd do a much better job of it anyway - he's too indecisive." He looks down at his hip, winces, and pulls his jeans back into position. "It's all gone?"
"All gone," Kame promises. "You can go anywhere you want now. They can't target you anymore."
It's a good thing Kame's standing with his back to the counter because Jin's flying tackle hug is strong enough to knock him over. "Thank you," Jin murmurs.
Kame hugs him back. "You did half the work yourself!"
He's excited now, and happy, and tired, and relieved, and any number of mixed emotions, most of them generated by the sudden disappearance of danger and the warm, comfortable presence of Jin in his arms. He sags against the counter, in no hurry to move, but the cloud of sparkles that appears in the doorway puts paid to that idea.
"Pixies are here," he says. "We have to leave while they work." Seeing Jin glance at the blue blanket on the wall, he adds, "Pi will be fine. They just don't like humans to watch them work, that's all. They'll lock up after themselves too."
"How do we..." Jin's disgusted gaze sweeps the circle of blood and broken bodies. There's too much to step over without getting covered in gore.
Kame grins and switches his grip so he's holding Jin round the waist. "Simple."
A moment later they're rising from the floor, easily clearing the bloody mess and ducking low enough to make it through the front door without flattening Jin's hair. It doesn't feel awkward, even though they're now face-to-face and pressed so close that Kame's sure Jin can feel his heartbeat.
They leave the shop behind. The rain has stopped, and while the puddles are numerous and deep - particularly around the windows, where they are stained with red - it looks as if the weather is gradually improving. Kame doesn't want to take them too high, because Jin's not used to it and anyway, Kame's been waging an on-going war with his fear of heights for years, so he lifts them up to the roof again, hovering just above the flat surface.
Jin could let go now and step down onto the roof, but he has no intention of doing so. Once he's certain that no winged predators are headed his way, he can relax and enjoy the flight.
"I thought I was going to have to wait till I passed my Level Two exams?" he says.
"Changed my mind," Kame says. "You're not going to have so much study time from now on because you'll be out getting your life back."
"Will you still teach me how to do it, though?"
"Definitely. I can't carry you all the time - you're heavy!" That earns him an indignant thump on the back, which is all Jin can manage from that angle without endangering himself. "Yeah, I'll teach you how to do it for yourself once you've got the control to manipulate your own energies. You'll have to be patient for now, though."
Jin lets his toes skim the rooftop just enough to give him the momentum he needs to wraps his legs round Kame's tiny waist. "I've spent too long trying to be patient," he says.
It's an awkward position for Kame, but since he has the advantage of being able to shift in mid-air, he brings his own legs up as though he were sitting on a chair, allowing Jin to straddle his lap. It looks ridiculous, Kame is sure, but at that height, there's no one around to see them.
"I appreciate patience isn't your strong point," Kame says, "but I'm not teaching you until I'm sure you won't melt your own bones by accident. You'll just have to put up with being carried for now."
He checks that Jin is secure then takes to the skies again, soaring in the general direction of a nearby park. (One without a duck pond, because he figures Jin's had enough of birds for now.) It's nearly dinnertime, and there's a good takoyaki stand there that Kame wants to visit. Not quite what he'd had in mind when he'd invited Jin out for a meal, but it will do. He just hopes they don't give the owner a heart attack when they land.
Jin heaves an exaggerated sigh. "Fine. I'll be patient...but you're going to be stuck flying me everywhere. I never got to stay in one place long enough to learn to drive."
"Lazy," Kame teases. "Use the trains like everyone else."
"Not today. I've just spent the last year living in that shop - now I can go out, I want to make the most of it. I can go to concerts again! I can go out for food, and to drink, and dance, and-"
Jin cuts himself off abruptly as Kame spins them round like a fairground ride, whirling them across the trees.
"You can do all that tomorrow," Kame says. "Tonight, I'll make you fly."