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     The bell over the door jangled its chordless tune, washing a bright sea breeze over the wood musk that lived among the shelves and walls of the little storefront. There was no mistaking the statuesque frame or the olive drab frock coat of the first lady to walk over the threshold. Jounouchi "Ice Machine" Sai tucked a lock of the brown hair hanging at her chin behind her ear and strode straight over to the stupid churning slushie machine that the flower-faced viper of a store owner had somehow rigged up and wouldn't get rid of because pirates liked it so much -- but did Kakei ever step up to shave the barrel full of ice in the morning?! Oh no! Not him! Not that the boss was even here at the moment, and not that he couldn't handle a couple pirates on shore leave (even if the dark, hulking Rikuou, whom he was forced to call his co-worker, hadn't been there).

     Though their second customer could barely be called a pirate. Just look at those sweet pigtails! That angelic smile! The soft, plum colors on her frock coat (when any full-blooded brigand with enough rank for a nice frock coat would be sure to have gone with a much brighter purple)! Saitou-san was just a first-rate medic who happened to be on a pirate ship. Kazahaya was sure she had a good reason for it.

     He peeked out from the back room and let his hand fall off the lever marked with a red, feathered hat. He could no more able to believe his eyes now than he'd been able to believe the sight through the periscope when they'd come up the walk. "What are they doing here? The Queen Cassandra wasn't due into port for another week! At least! Do you think something's wrong?"

     "They're pirates." His oversized landmass of a coworker never talked so much as grunted, which went double for while he was sweeping. "Pirates are allowed to be capricious."

     "I just hope she doesn't expect Captain Doumeki's special order to be in yet. We do operate on a schedule."

     "What was that, Kudou-kun?"

     As his back hit the wall -- thankfully not jarring any of the buttons or levers, although he had to sputter out the tuft of unmanageable hair that'd flown into his mouth -- his savior and tormentor shone an unreadable grin at him. The man might have the grace (and annoyingly perfect, sleeked-down coiffure) of a straight-up prince, but he was indubitably a demon on the inside. Many were the days Kazahaya wished he could either have been rescued from an ice cube death by less sadistic people, or that he could get the man who had taken him in to wear a collar with a bell. "Kakei-san. We weren't expecting you!"

     "Well, I'd say I came just in time. Don't you think, Saiga-san?"

     He also wished he knew who that dark, mountainous shadow of a man was, besides someone who spent most days sleeping on their back room couch. Saiga didn't have the Black Market's seal tattooed around his right arm like the rest of them did, but he still helped out at the store. Well, for a nominal degree of 'helping'. The man dropped a package in Kazahaya's hands and wandered right back to the couch to plunk his ass down to snore. He and Rikuou had to clean and straighten all day like slaves.

     Which technically they were, he supposed. Indentured servitude worked like that. But someday he'd get back on his feet, on the move, and could leave these crazy days behind.

     He also supposed he shouldn't take off the wrappings on the package. Generally when one saw tough, brown wrappings closed up with triple red strings in an intricate knot like the flat, hexagonal creation he was looking at now, the contents were best left undisturbed.

     "One self-targeting map of the North Sea coast for Captain Doumeki," his boss explained, leaning in to tickle Kazahaya's chin with a smile that got less trustworthy every time he saw it. "I had a feeling they might be coming."

     By which he meant, 'a premonition'. And would it kill him to warn anybody else once in a while?

     Well, good to know he could tell a magic seal if ever he saw one. He'd had quite enough of magic, thanks. Ninjas and pirates could keep their tricks, even if technically they were the lucky ones in this world. People who couldn't manage to make it onto a brigand's boat or as an assassin's assistant -- but still had 'gifts' like his -- ended up in the service industry. Oh, would his parents have cried.

     Kakei's laugh rang through the store, and the manager strode off to sit on the couch, setting the snoring giant's head on his lap. "Go help our guests, Kudou-kun. And remember -- the customer may not always be right, but the customer is definitely armed with at least five deadly weapons."

     As if he needed reminding.

     At least the two pirate ladies were ignoring Rikuou. Everything about that jackass -- from his growls to his glares to the mild disorder of his tar-black, so-called hairdo -- seemed designed to grate on Kazahaya's long-past-extant patience, but nothing was worse than watching gaggles of civilian schoolgirls ask where to find the mallowmars just so they could talk to him. Their giggles could kill hyenas.

     "Pardon me..."

     A sunshiney voice pulled him back to the counter and the register, with no time to wonder how long he'd been staring off after his co-worker. Saitou-san had stepped up to check out! Smiling and sweet as ever, with nothing but a magazine in her hand! Jackpot!

     "Did you find everything you were looking for?"

     "That's it, I think. Thank you." Zipping around to the register with as bright a smile as he could manage, he rang up her copy of the Daily Picaroon.

     "Oh, I read this issue!" Kazahaya whispered, leaning in with a laugh. "On page three, there's someone who thinks the wreck he found might be the Clover Belle. About ten thousand salvagers are heading out to see if they can find Mihara Oujirou's lost treasure." He always read the articles about the legendary Prince of the Seas, and not just because it made it easier to talk to pirate customers. "You know, my mother used to tell me he's actually my great-great-great-great-great..." He counted off a hand of fingers then started on the other hand. "...great-great-great grandfather."

     Before Saitou-san could say anything, a slushie cup hit the counter with an absurd gravity to its thunk. "Does Kakei pay you to flirt with the customers?"

     "Ah! Jounouchi-san! I wasn't..." Kazahaya flitted his eyes back and forth between the knifey stare of the Ice Machine and the calm smile of the medic. "I was just making conversation!"

     The pirate didn't spare him another word -- just a silver coin on the counter. "I've got it, Kaede."

     Figuring the price of the slushie plus the price of the magazine, Kazahaya thanked his lucky stars for adding machines, because he couldn't ever think clearly enough to calculate change when dealing with their special customers. But thanks to modern appliances, all he had to do was count out the right number of coppers, and hand them over. "Have a nice day!"

     At least Saitou-san waved at him before leav--

     And there was that bastard, Rikuou, again, giving him dirty looks. Well, all of the great, jet-headed menace's looks were dirty, really, even the ones that weren't particularly mean, so there wasn't anything new about that, but did he have to stop sweeping just to glare across the store? If there hadn't been customers around, Kazahaya would have stuck out his tongue. But there were customers, so he couldn't or he'd get his pay docked, and had Saitou-san just dropped her handkerchief?

     The square of pale purple linen floated to the ground, unremarked by the two pirates walking silently out toward the door. The least he could do was pick it up for her.

     He wondered, as he closed his fist around the fallen cloth, what might have happened if he'd been young and met those two. Sure, there were dynasties of sea bandits as good as royalty, but they still got new blood in. If Kazahaya had been an apt kid, maybe still five or six, and tagged along after Sai, he could have stowed away on her boat and thrown himself on the mercy of her captain. Become a cabin boy, worked his way up through the crew, learning to mend torn clothes and broken limbs alike. And to sail! Oh, to sail...

     If you survived! the sensible part of his brain yelled out at him, but it was so hard to hear through the whistling of the salt winds through the rigging as he climbed with a dirk between his teeth, up to the crows nest to spy out from the flags whether the approaching ship was friend or foe.

     Wouldn't it be something to make a name for himself, maybe be a pirate Lord some day? In charge of a whole fleet that bent on his say-so? And... And...

     And why was he wearing a skirt?

     A hard rap fell on the back of his hand, the pain spreading out from his wrist keeping his fingers paralyzed open as the lavender handkerchief fluttered back to the floor.

     Of course. Those had been Saitou-san's memories, skirt and all.

     "Don't you ever think?"

     The snarl by his ear wrenched him the rest of the way back into reality, with the visions that the hanky had taken from its owner flitting away like a leaf in a storm. Maybe there were benefits to staying in a general store, surrounded by new goods, instead of out pirating or ninjaing, but would it kill the universe to hand him some respect instead of Himura Rikuou? To whom he happened to owe his life, which only made matters worse. Why had the lout even scooped him out of the snow if he was going to constantly be such a monumental jackass?!

     "I was handing that back to our customer!" Kazahaya hissed, pulling his own hanky out of his pocket to guard his fingers as he bent to pick it up again. He wasn't that impaired.

     But Rikuou parried his hand away with the self-same broom he'd used to break Kazahaya's grip. "I've got it. Quit spacing out before Kakei sees you."

     As if anyone had asked for his help! ... Except for when they'd first met. His recollection wasn't too clear (freezing and all), but he thought he might actually have said, 'Help me,' then.

     But. What. Of. It?

     Kazahaya scowled at the monolith's back as he handed the kerchief back to Kaidou-san. Life was so horribly unfair. Because Rikuou was one of the few things he knew for sure was safe to touch, because the bastard was too good at keeping himself locked away. Even that pissed him off, even though he'd spent too many days before he'd come here wishing he could wear gloves every second of every day. You know -- if they hadn't made living practically impossible, and if he hadn't kept forgetting them in washrooms. Being able to wear gloves all the damn time was practically a superpower in itself.

     Then the door jangled, and the two pirates were gone -- and all in an instant, the weight in Kazahaya's apron pocket was suddenly much, much heavier than a few sheets of paper should have been. He'd forgotten to give them Captain Doumeki's map.

     Although she hadn't asked for it. That meant he wasn't in trouble, right? Wandering over to the lever wall, he tucked the package down further, where Kakei couldn't see it. Not even Kakei, not from where he was standing. All he had to do was slip it carefully, nonchalantly, into the special order bin while he reset the pirate lever...

     With a clunk and a squeal and a whoosh of steam from something in the walls that had been built by some man with glasses and an evil grin long before he'd been around to see it, everything transformed. The magazine racks pushed copies of the Daily Picaroon into clamps hooked to a swiveling arm, hiding them somewhere out of all sight like discs in a jukebox. Bins of Salty Dog Rum Taffies and Jolly Roger Jelly Skulls slammed closed and spun to the inside of the rack, revealing rows of innocent chocolate bars and gumballs. Paper signs advertising, "Here be value, Matey!" with women in lacy negligees, boots, and hats rolled around on scroll bars to show the store's seven-leafed logo and assurance that, "Green Market is your one stop, day or night." Everywhere, scalliwag swag and piratey perishables hid themselves in the walls and fixtures, not to be seen by civilians who might be uneasy. Or who might actually be ninjas in disguise.

     They didn't get many normal customers. Yuuko being who she was, he hadn't thought they'd have ninja customers at all when he'd started working here, but it seemed there were things that ninja with the means wouldn't rather put on their Union tab. Like condoms, chapstick, and the occasional rare object that might cost them more than an arm and a leg if they were to get it from the mysterious Shop that only ninja could find. Even more occasionally, they wanted something unique that Yuuko didn't have in stock, but that the Black Market could track down.

     "Ninja," Kazahaya muttered under his breath. Of the rock and the hard place that had their little storefront by the balls, they were by far the trickiest customers. Then, like he'd called down divine wrath, the proximity alarm right in front of him started to beep and glow red. He leaned down to check the periscope window to see who was coming around the corner, and wouldn't you know...

     "Ninja!" he yelled out this time, so everyone could hear, pulling the lever marked with a black throwing star. With another steam-puffing creak, the shelves spun, the magazine rack twisted, and their door barred itself -- waiting for the tap-tap tap-tap-da-dap of the secret knock.

     Not ninja he had to think twice about, either. There were no doubt civilians who actually believed Lantis was the head gardener at Hundhammeren Castle -- and when he was out of armor, he looked plenty unassuming -- but the one-man juggernaut had dealt with the Black Market enough that Kakei never bothered treating him as anything but the captain of the citadel guard. And the blond man next to him, Eagle -- he'd signed on as a "valet" at the castle not four years ago and was already the number one gentleman's gentleman, which according to Kakei meant Black Ops. Between that and the gleam in his smile, Kazahaya always took special care never to touch anything that man wore. Although... he'd always been a bit more unnerved by their little red-headed girlfriend. She looked cute, and she looked harmless, but he had it on good authority that Hikaru could, at the least provocation, whip a flaming sword three times her height out of god knows where and summon mechanical monsters with a single shout. 'Ward of the Queen,' his ass.

     Kazahaya hoped to hell this was a chapstick run.

     At least you could count on ninja not to reveal themselves when other people were about, or to approach when there was a pirate in the vicinity, or to expect their merch on the shelves when they were in disguise. A handy, self-regulating system that kept their store from trying to house pirates and ninjas at once. There wasn't enough property insurance in the world to cover for that.

     Tap-tap tap-tap-da-dap, went the ninjas, and ka-shlunk went the door lock. It all seemed so pointless, since they'd only change the store if there were confirmed ninjas around and no-one else, but none of the ninjas ever complained. Rikuou stood aside with his broom as the three figures entered and set the bells to jingling again. Two of the three flashed smiles at the store, while Lantis headed over toward the chocolate as if he was the only one in the world. Try as he might, Kazahaya'd never seen the man actually take something off the shelf -- nor Hikaru for that matter -- but if he glanced away for a second, naturally the ninja zipped down two aisles and added five things to his basket while Kazahaya wasn't looking. Eagle, on the other hand, didn't bother. He seemed to find it more amusing to study the Shinobi Special hand cream in full view and drop it into his basket with a bedroom grin.

     Guaranteed to make your skin as strong as steel and smooth as silk. Perfect for the ninja who uses a garrote or who wants to learn the guitar. Kazahaya didn't ask which one Eagle was. There was no doubt he was concealing far more than five weapons under that big, green cloak. Thank goodness he took a turn toward the slushie machine before Kazahaya had to decide which of their customers to try to help.

     Leaving him with the tuft of red hair sticking up over the magazine racks and the black-clad man who'd teleported to the juice aisle.

     Right. Lantis it was.

     "Can I help you find anything today?" Kazahaya waited through the usual ten seconds of being ignored as the ninja compared the nutritional content of ordinary strawberry-kiwi juice to that of Satsu-berry Cooler before he considered his duty done. "Okay. Well. Just let me know if there's anything you need!" he laughed, and walked back up toward the register -- where Rikuou was ringing up a newspaper, some fruit jerky, and an extra large box of condoms for the kunoichi he could have sworn was on the other side of the store before he'd turned his back. Why couldn't ninja just move like normal people?!

     By the time he'd gotten behind the counter to start bagging their shopping, Lantis had poofed out of nowhere to add his juice, candy, and a bag of birdseed to the lot, and Eagle was just sauntering up. "These, too, please," he said, pulling up a pack of extra-strong mints to add to his slushie and his hand cream.

     "Eagle, Lantis! Did you see?" Hikaru asked, pointing out a full-page ad in her paper. "The Imonoyama family named Nokoru the new head of the academy in Kragero! He's having a tournament next month for the ceremony."

     "You just want to fight that Takamura boy again, don't you?" the blond teased.

     "Of course I do!"

     Lantis dropped exact change on the counter with a soft clink. "Will the other girls be going with you? Nokoru and his friends are probably still up to their nonsense."

     Sometime between when Kazahaya had dropped his eyes to the newspaper and when he looked back up, all the other goods on the counter had disappeared completely. Fucking ninja. Did they even need bags? Why bother making him pack things up? He supposed he was lucky they brought their things up to the counter at all. "They wouldn't make trouble, but Umi and Fuu'll want to come anyway," Hikaru answered, then flashed Kazahaya and Rikuou a bright smile as she took the newspaper. "Thanks, guys!"

     Kazahaya waved at her with a smile of his own, which felt like it was fading fast. Two pirates and three ninja within ten minutes was a bit brisker than business on a usual Thursday. As soon as their backs were turned, he drifted out of sight behind the lever wall, trying not to thunk his head too hard while he waited for the sound of the door closing. He reached out for the ninja lever with his eyes still closed and pushed it back up and away. The whooshes and whirs of the store going back to normal always helped him breathe more easily.

     Just like that infernal proximity alarm seemed dead set on making his brain jump out of his skull!

     Please let it be a civilian, he thought, willing his eyes open. Please let it be a civilian. Please let it be a civilian...

     The screen showed a figure in black, but it wasn't Lantis coming back for toothpaste. That was the slim and permanently exasperated frame of Watanuki Kimihiro. At least if it had to be another ninja, it was him. Always knew exactly what he needed (although it was usually something special for Yuuko), always shopped quickly no matter how much fuss he made, and never made you feel like you had a knife pointed at your back. Kazahaya was about to pull the ninja lever again with a well-earned sigh of relief when Watanuki started acting strange.

     Well. More strange. He always looked a little strange, like he was ranting to himself when he walked, but this was odder than usual.

     This time, he jumped a mile in the air then disappeared into the shadow of a fence post -- completely invisible, as if he'd vanished. When he stepped out again a second later, he was wearing a funny red-and-white paper hat (probably the first thing Kazahaya'd ever seen clash with an all-black ninja outfit) and pushing what looked like a popcorn cart. For what reason, he wasn't about to ask.

     Definitely a popcorn cart, though, confirmed by the carton of puffed, yellow kernels he dished out in a flash and shoved with an arch-backed flailing of arms at the man who'd just stepped into view, walking down the street.

     A man with the unmistakable feathered hat and gleaming hook-hand of Captain Doumeki Shizuka.

     "Aah!" Kazahaya yelped, backing slowly away from the display. Ninja and pirate. Together. And because he couldn't take his eyes off the screen for some reason, he could tell they were still walking toward the door. And had he mentioned, together?! "Aaaaaaaah...!"

     "What's the matter, Kudou-kun?"

     Kakei's footsteps coming up behind him were not helping!

     "It's... It's..."

     "It's what?" Rikuou growled, trying to nose in on the display.

     "It's..." Kazahaya whipped around, shoving his back up against the image of the two men approaching, trying to explain, but found he could only get a faint squeak out of his throat. Then the big, green button that suddenly felt so friendly under his hand caught his attention and he knew what they had to do. "Let's hide," he suggested, every window and door slamming locked as he smashed the button with his fist and dropped like a sack of flour to the ground. Something about the three identical thuds hitting the floor around him and the breath tickling his ear hinted that, maybe, this hadn't been his best idea ever.

     Hide?

     Had he actually just suggested they all hide?

     And they all did?

     "You even duck like a cat," Rikuou murmured where only he could hear, rendering him suddenly and uncomfortably aware of how he was crouched over his elbows and knees with his chin jammed against the wood. "Nice ass, though." He tilted his head to the left only to find his co-worker's dark eyes narrowed at him, and that when the man's breath was running over his lips instead of his ear he suddenly had no idea what he was thinking at all.

     "Kudou-kun..." Kakei whispered, barely louder than the rustle of his clothes as he and Saiga crawled over the wooden floor, with a hint of a giggle. "Why are we hiding?"

     "--dare to infringe upon my place of business! Again! This being the second time, in case you don't remember Sunday night or still plan to claim that was a dream. It wasn't! It was very, very real, and exceedingly uncalled for! And now, you have gone too far! Too far, I say!" their customer's voice rang from the door.

     As the ninja rattled the door, then knocked out a rushed, Tap-tap tap-tap-da-dap (which, thanks to the green button, did nothing), Rikuou pushed up to his feet. "It's just Watanuki, scaredy-cat."

     "Open the door this instant! I know you're in there!" the ninja screamed, rattling the door handle again. "I can hear you laughing!!"

     Kakei was the only one laughing, though.

     And once Rikuou's brute face was out of his sight, the training that'd been drilled into Kazahaya's head suddenly snapped back, and he jumped up. In the one in a million event that a pirate and ninja actually showed up together, and they weren't actively destroying the scenery by trying to kill each other, the ninja must be incognito. Hence the popcorn cart, he assumed. That could be a disguise. When that happened, he was supposed to pull the pirate lever -- not have a panic attack.

     The creaking and puffing of the gears and steampipes in the walls sounded far more like a scream than he'd ever heard before, and for some reason the whole shop echoed with a loud... song. With drums, and very energetic guitars. Around the lever still in his hand, he saw a memory forming of the bespectacled man who'd built the system installing a record player that used the rafters as resonators, chuckling the whole while. And then a singing voice declared all around the store, "Soon this whole world will break apart, with whatever dreams and hopes you have..." in a way he could only describe as suspiciously ominous.

     That had definitely never happened before.

     Then he saw Rikuou's hand next to his. On the ninja lever. Pulled down at the same time as the pirate lever. And the store... Oh god, the store. It was full of dancing magazine racks where ninja newspapers and pirate periodicals were fighting for space, while the candy racks spun around and around, tossing rum toffees everywhere. Only the slushie machine kept churning as normal, without a single jitter or cringe. He pushed both levers back up to the 'off' position, but nothing changed. The store was broken. Kazahaya could only stand there with his jaw trembling while the door swung open and the ninja stomped in, with the pirate eating popcorn behind him.

     "The banana sauce isn't bad," Doumeki called out, eating the last few kernels as he dropped the empty carton into the trashbarrel with his hook.

     "I should think not, you lout! That was my own personal creation! Now you may have that side of the store," Watanuki answered him, toeing an invisible line between them on the ground, "... and I'll do my business over here! Understood?!"

     "Wow," Rikuou said, nodding at the pending apocalypse in the aisles.

     "Wow?!" Up on his toes where he had a chance of getting his eyes at least as high as his co-worker's nose, Kazahaya hissed, "You screwed up the entire store, while there's a pirate and a ninja inside, and all you can say is, 'Wow'?!"

     In his classic jackass style, Rikuou blocked him in against the wall, where the pirate and ninja levers were sticking into his back and the man's dark bangs were nearly falling into his eyes. "I think we can call that a joint effort, Mr. Let's Hide. I'll clean up out there. You think you can handle the counter, or are you gonna spaz out again?"

     "I'll be fine!"

     And he would. As long as he ignored the sarcastic glint in his co-worker's grin as he walked away, and ignored how Kakei was doubled over and turning blue from laughing into Saiga's shoulder. He must have known this was going to happen. Fucking sadist.

     "Even as a memory," sang the song playing through store, from the record that Kazahaya was going to find and smash when this was over. "A dream is nothing but a dream. You are... star light!"

     That. Was his new least favorite song. Ever. Most especially because it was so damned catchy.

     Captain Doumeki leaned his back up against the counter with the copy of the Daily Picaroon he was theoretically reading, but mostly just holding open as he tracked Watanuki dodging around the store. "The wreck of the Clover Belle, huh?" he murmured with a scoff, and turned the page. "People need to stop looking for ghost ships. Never ends well."

     "Did you find everything you were looking for?" Kazahaya asked, hoping if he stuck to his script that his voice wouldn't tremble too much.

     As the pirate looked up again, the clerk thought he might have seen a hint of a smile behind his stoic mask while he stared down the twitchy ninja hiding behind a display of chocolate gift boxes. "Absolutely." Flipping another page, he asked, "Did that special order come in yet?"

     "Just arrived today!"

     With a sigh and a big, plaster smile, Kazahaya pushed the brown paper package over the counter. The pirate captain seemed to find it in order, which at this point had to be the best thing that had happened all day. "Thanks," Doumeki answered, stowing the bundle inside his jacket and resuming his pattern of reading articles and watching Watanuki. "You know if there's anything to this story about the FTO getting spotted in Hundhammeren Bay?"

     Between the song still pounding through the walls, the whine of the displays going crazy, and the day he'd been having, Kazahaya's brain felt like a sieve that'd caught the tea leaves from what the pirate was saying and missed out on all the tea. "The... ah... I'm sorry, the what?"

     "FTO."

     Kazahaya shook his head. Hadn't made any more sense the second time.

     "The personal longboat of the White King of Autozam?" Doumeki explained. "That he ran off with when he disappeared?"

     Ah. Well. All he knew about Autozam was that the fleet served a couple oceans away at the bidding of "Devil-Breaker" Satsuki on the Dragon of Earth, and that was all he needed to know. He'd take his local, halfway friendly Takifugu pirate fleet any day of the week. Shaking his head again, he told Doumeki, "Sorry. Autozam's a little out of my way."

     "Nevermind, then."

     "Did... you want me to ring you up?"

     This time, Kazahaya was sure he saw the pirate grinning. "Register's on his side of the store," he said, nodding at the figure in black sneaking up around the still-spinning barrels of granola.

     "I... um. I can go over there and... you know..." Miming typing on the keypad, Kazahaya finished, "You don't have to move."

     Captain Doumeki dropped two silvers on the counter. "That'll get me a slushie, too, right?"

     "Ah. Yes."

     "Keep the change."

     As the pirate strode over to the spinning mess of shaved ice and sugar syrup, the ninja finally popped into view by the register -- fuming and muttering and clearly opening his mouth to say something Kazahaya didn't expect to find pleasant. Right on cue with the reverberating chorus of, 'I am... moonli~ight!' that simply would not stop playing throughout the store, Doumeki turned around, holding up a full-page graph of multi-colored bars and yelling.

     "Hey!"

     "You know my name, you feather-headed nincompoop!" Watanuki yelled back, business forgotten. "Learn to use it!"

     Without a blink, the pirate captain pointed to a blue bar, stretching almost halfway across the page. "Any chance a ninja got onto the Dragon of Heaven?"

     "Do I look like a ninja to you?" screamed the man who, Kazahaya was certain, was Yuuko's personal assistant despite the red-and-white paper hat at which he was pointing so ferociously. "How the hell would I know that?!"

     Doumeki pulled the tabloid back down to where he could see it. "Right. So did the 'popcorn vendor's union' send someone to 'make popcorn' for the Pirate King?"

     Kazahaya backed as far away as he could from Watanuki, whose face was now fading into crimson, starting from the tips of his ears and working its way to his nose. The way he was tapping his fingers on his crossed arms bore an unfortunate resemblance to a ticking timebomb. "I have no idea, and even if I did I wouldn't tell you! That's none of your business!" Then, with a cough into his hand, he said more quietly, "Why do you ask?"

     The pirate resettled his hat, shaking his head at the numbers that even a non-pirate like Kazahaya had noticed surging, although they weren't yet close to the frontrunner whose purple bar spanned the page. "Nobody'd lie about getting over eleven thousand points in a day, which means somebody got one hell of an epic somebody into bed last week."

     "What?!" All of that red drained out of the ninja's face in an instant, leaving it as white as fresh linen in the sun.

     "Don't worry. We're still in first."

     Ah. Ha. Well. Now Kazahaya knew who was purple. And why he was winning.

     "Now, wait just one minute, you ass! What do you mean, 'We're in first'?! You said you weren't sleeping with me for the points!"

     Even over the ear-numbing music, Kazahaya could hear Doumeki call out as he headed for the door. "I'm still turning 'em in."

     "This conversation is nowhere near over! Villain! Scoundrel! Pernicious, good-for-nothing libertine! Don't think you can escape when you walk out of here! I will track you down! I will find you!"

     "I'll be right outside when you're done shopping."

     The usually calming jangle of the bells on the door faded into the din, and Watanuki whipped back toward the register with a twitch that made both his eyebrows quake like a tin can on a string in a gale-force storm.

     "Kakei. Now."

     "I presume Lady Yuuko has a special request," the store manager answered, stepping out of the back before Kazahaya could even think of calling him.

     "I should say so! Although I wonder if Mistress Yuuko will be so gracious in the future towards persons who are clearly doing business with pirates!"

     With his usual pleasant mask, Kakei laughed, barely loud enough to hear. "Green Market has always been a free agent, Watanuki-san. Lady Yuuko understands that. It's the only way we can provide the services we offer."

     "Well, we'll see. In the meantime, she has a request, if you think you can handle it." The ninja whipped a large, paper-wrapped bundle out of nowhere, which Kakei took with the kind of care that implied magic and handed over to Kazahaya. "You'll need that," was the last thing the clerk heard the ninja say -- the crashing and confusion of the store, including the gesticulatory explanation Kakei was listening to, faded away in an instant. All Kazahaya could hear was a woman's voice.

     Clear and calm over a low clink of glasses and a haunting piano strain, she sang, "Away... far away..." It wasn't wasn't a sound he'd ever call 'catchy', or even tuneful, but only in the way quiet brooks didn't have a tune. "Memory fades into the breeze. Nothing there remains..."

     The song was only a faint impression, echoing around his ears without blocking out the sight of the mania surrounding him. He could tell it wasn't 'now' or 'here' -- a sense he'd struggled with for so long that sometimes he had to win. Today it was enough of a sense to let him find the slip of cardstock under his fingers, tied onto the package in his hands. Plain black, but for the green of a four-leaf clover. Careful not to drop the bundle, he moved his hands to safer parts of the wrapping. Kazahaya only caught one last, fading bit of the woman's song as real life flooded back in.

     "Where it begins, where it ends... As it runs far, far away."