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Dark and Stormy

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  • Mix equal parts fresh lime juice, VSOP Jamaican rum, and a fine dark Jamaican rum in a shaker.
  • Combine with half a measure orange Curacao, and a quarter measure each of orgeat and simple syrups.
  • Add two cups crushed ice, and shake it like you mean it.
  • Glass it, drop in the lime, and garnish with mint.

     The shadowed room danced with reflections of fireshine from the globe of blazing light hovering over Hikaru's hand. She cupped it near her chin so the glare shining upward lit her face in that spooky way everyone used to do at summer camp. Eagle tried to pretend he wasn't laughing, but since she was sitting on her boyfriend's lap she could feel every rumble when he suppressed a giggle. "And so..." she whispered, "Kouryuu gave up searching for the cats in the house, and ran to the demon prince Kokuyo for help... only to find that Hari and Ruri had been in his throne room the whole time!"

     She blew out the flame in her hand, leaving the room totally dark. Not for long, though. A second later, Lantis walked in from filling the bird feeder on the porch and opened the blinds. Sunlight flooded the kitchen, glinting off the pots hanging from the wall and leaving her more somber boyfriend a tall, dark shadow at attention by the counter. Neither of her lovers were as subtle as they thought they were. "Is that the one you're telling for the ghost story contest?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow.

     "I think so." Alcyone, the queen of the hook-handed lunatic stories, had always taken the top spot before, but no search parties had been able to find her after she'd run off -- six months gone, come August. This year it was anybody's game. "I wish I had time to find a new one. But after how writing one last year went, I thought I'd try a classic. It could work!"

     Eagle burst into cackles and squeezed her around the waist. His white-blond hair danced around the laugh lines at his eyes as he shook his head. "Hikaru. Telling the best ghost story means making your audience afraid -- and you can't do it as long as they can hear how scared you're not."

     "I didn't sound scared?!"

     "Not a bit, hot stuff. Not a bit." Hikaru shifted to her feet to let him up from the chair, watching him stretch his shoulders over his head as he gazed out the window. They'd moved just outside the castle walls, to this house in town, so Eagle could have a view of the bay and a dock for his little superboat, and she never got tired of the way he smiled when he looked at the waves. "You're a tad disadvantaged there, you know. I'm not sure you've ever felt fear."

     With a pout, she sat back down on the edge of the chair. "Sure I have! You scared me with that thing your zappy machine did when you kidnapped me. I couldn't even stand up half the time." Almost nothing she'd run into before or since was more annoying than how Eagle's tech could rip your brain apart, turn your legs to jelly, and twist your stomach inside out. "How was I to know if I could get away, or if Umi-chan and Fuu-chan would have to come in after me and maybe get hurt?"

     Lantis sighed, letting Eagle settle against his chest, but answering the blond man's bright grin with a scowl. Hugging Lantis's arms around his waist, his eyes twinkled as he asked, "Now, be honest. Did you even for a second doubt that all three of you would get out of there safe and finish your mission? No matter what I did to you?"

     Shaking her head, she settled back in the chair. "You didn't even have me chained up! Well, not really."

     "And maybe, if you ever can't see a way to win, you'll have been scared enough to tell 'The Demon and the Phantom Cats' believably enough to win a contest. Maybe I should tell it with you? You could be the monsters, and I could do Kouryuu's parts." He turned his head up to look Lantis in the eye, letting his bottom lip tremble as his eyes opened wide and his voice started to shake. "Did I... did I just see a cat's shadow running up the stairs?!" It sounded so fake, Hikaru's giggles wracked her till she couldn't breathe.

     "You're worse than she is," Lantis answered.

     Neither of them had a chance to try again. While their laughter was still ringing off the kitchen walls, a shower of black butterflies swirled over the table. A maze of lights formed a glowing disc over their wings, Mistress Yuuko's face hovering in the shine. The smoke from her pipe swirled up out of the image, circling her projection in a gray halo. So much for dinner tonight. If the head of the Ninja Union had decided to call, there was a mission and no time to waste.

     Hikaru pulled her glove onto her hand and summoned her armor from the jewel on its back, then stored it away again. Perfect working order. "How may I be of service, my Lady?"

     "Oh, there's just a little trinket I need you to pick up for me. Umi and Fuu have a map, and they'll meet you at the harbor. You'll need to sail through pirate waters to get there, of course, but I persuaded the captain of the Haliotidae to take my three precious wards where they needed to go."

     "I understand." The butterfly mirror scattered, fluttering off on the wind. A few birds chattering outside were the only sound in their little kitchen. She didn't feel any heavy worry in the air, but neither Lantis nor Eagle liked missions where she got sent off without them. Boys could be so high-maintenance. Hikaru looked up at her boyfriends and laughed, "I guess we're going out to sea. Do you think we'll be back in time for the festival?"

     "That's up to the sea," Eagle answered. "The FTO could get you anywhere and back in two days tops, I'm sure, but--"

     She shook her head. "You know Lady Yuuko. She never explains, but she's always got a reason." Hikaru ran over to give him a goodbye kiss, then boosted herself up on the counter to kiss Lantis, too. "Wish me luck!"

     The broad-shouldered man sighed, burying his nose in her hair. "Make sure you don't need it. We'll be there if trouble finds you."

     "Or you find it," added the blond man at their side. "Now get out of here. Low tide'll hit if you don't hurry, and the flood will start rolling in. You know what they say... Time and tide wait for no man? Ninja girls aren't exempt."

     "Okay, okay!" She leapt off the counter into a run. "See you later!" she called, waving from the door, and dashed down the sunlit streets toward the docks. It'd been years since one of her missions had put her on a boat! Would it be a trading ship, she wondered, or a private yacht? Or maybe a fishing boat! She could help with hauling in the nets while they sailed to wherever they were going!

     Hikaru had a perfectly worked out dream in her head of how they could manage all the nets on the boat at once, just bursting with fish, by the time she spotted Umi-chan and Fuu-chan already on the pier. Umi-chan was flipping a long, blue sheet of hair over her shoulder and rolling her eyes while Fuu-chan was leaning over to talk to someone. But Hikaru could barely see the boat! That couldn't be the Haliotidae, could it?

     Oh, no. Of course it wasn't! As she ran, the figure in the water came out from behind the pole. Ferio, in his little dinghy as usual. Maybe he'd finally gotten commissioned on a big pirate boat somewhere and wanted to make good on his promise to steal Fuu-chan away? Hopefully he wouldn't be too mad if he found out she was a ninja, not a schoolgirl. But rules were, she couldn't let him find out, so that probably wouldn't come up anytime soon.

     "I know it's not much," Hikaru heard him saying, focusing in so she could hear from the other end of the dock, "... but I want you to have it. As my promise that someday, I'll make all your dreams come true."

     So he probably hadn't gotten that commission, then.

     Fuu-chan clutched his present under her chin between her folded hands, smile unchanged on her face. "My dreams? What dreams would those be?"

     "Oh, for the love of God..." Umi-chan muttered.

     "Umi-chan! Fuu-chan!" Hikaru called out. "I'm here!"

     "Ah, Hikaru-san!"

     "Hikaru! You're late!" Her blue-haired friend grabbed her around the shoulders and pinched out both Hikaru's laughing cheeks. "What're we going to do with you?!"

     An old man leaned over the rail of the schooner docked nearby. "If that's all of you, let's set sail before we lose this wind!"

     "We'll be right there!" all three girls called together.

     But as they walked off, Ferio grabbed Fuu-chan's hand and stopped her. "Wait. That's the ship you're sailing on?"

     "That's right," said Fuu-chan. "The captain agreed to take us for our field trip, since it's on his way."

     "But the Haliotidae's going to--"

     Umi-chan pouted and crossed her arms over her chest. "To Chizeta. I mean, we know all about the giant octopuses, and how there's pirates there, but there's monsters and pirates here, too. And it's really the closest place to study comparative volcanic geology."

     Oh. So that was their cover story. Good to know.

     Ferio didn't look quite so calm as either of her friends, nor as calm as the Haliotidae's captain, who was probably more afraid of Lady Yuuko than of anybody else. The young man just stood there for a second, eyes gaped and mouth twitching so it set the cross-scar on his chin dancing. "Does your school know Chizeta's just declared itself in rebellion?! You could be heading into a pirate war!"

     Sometimes, Hikaru really wished she could tell people she was a ninja, and could handle little messes like pirate wars, but she doubted Ferio would find ninjas in the mix to be at all reassuring.

~//~

     The haze from Karen's pipe lingered at the top of the war room, nestled in the heart of the Dragon of Heaven where the rocking of the waves tried and failed to budge the lead markers Sorata had spread over the south seas map. Smoke didn't burn Kamui's eyes anymore, whether gunpowder or tobacco, and the swirling shadows it left on their plans below did no harm. They simply made the pictures of the ocean seem to shift and live as if it were real water. Even down here at the Equator, with volcanic beaches instead of the gentle slopes of home or the rocky cliffs of nearby shores, the water was the same terrain he knew. The flagship of the Takifugu pirate fleet, the pride of the seas, didn't usually ship out to personally quash rebellions, but most 'pirate rebels' were lone shark layabouts who came crawling back as soon as they realized how annoying it was to negotiate new shipping contracts. Chizeta was organized, and they meant it when they said they wanted to expand their territory out of their little islands.

     That was bad enough, but of course it wasn't all. Whatever extra message Princess Kotori had sent to Fai this morning, the Pirate King hadn't shared. The blond had barely said anything, and that wasn't like him. His silence as he slowly peeled an orange from the dish next to the map was starting to give Kamui permanent shivers.

     The gunnery mistress curled a strand of red hair over her ear and tapped the tiny bowl at the end of her long pipestem on the blue field marking the Chizetan Sea, spirals of white curling up to join the smoke clinging to the ceiling. "We'll need to be at least this close to their fortress for our big guns to breach the walls."

     "I'm hopin' it won't come to that," Sorata answered, and slid the figure for the ship two inches back from where Karen had pointed. "We're talking before we shoot." After thinking another second, he moved the figure for the Dragon of Earth five inches behind the miniature Dragon of Heaven. Far enough to keep the hell ship out of sight from the land, even if it came out for air. One sight of the Barrows-Guard on her decks would stop any chance of negotiations, that was for sure. The rest were no better. Everyone on that thing was a murder waiting to happen (except Fuuma, and maybe Kakyou). "Anybody got a problem with that, him and me can settle it outside."

     Nobody argued with Sorata's declaration that they'd talk to the two princesses first. The captain was the only one here from Chizeta himself, but it wasn't like these were ninja. Pirates had manners. They might get out of this without wasting a shot, if Sorata could talk them down. Sorata could talk people into the damnedest things, and before you knew it they'd be smiling and nodding when you asked them to do one-handed handstands in waterfalls.

     At least, Kamui was pretty sure Sorata had done that to other people. Not just him.

     Murmurs of agreement from Aoki and Yuzuriha. More silence from the Pirate King, Fai D. Fluorite, and another bite of orange. The pile of peels he'd built up through the whole session would spill over onto the floor any second. Whatever he was thinking, this had better not be just another game to him.

     Arashi had already said everything she planned to say, and Subaru was standing back in the corner as always -- shooting worried glances at Fai every few minutes still. Worried enough that a glimmer of obvious concern peeked through the eternal gravitas that Kamui had rarely seen wrinkle before, so Subaru had to be lying when he said nothing was wrong. He'd been doing that for almost two weeks now, since that fucking ninja had shown up and Fai had let him get away after a parlay for 'favors rendered'. If Kamui didn't know better, he'd have guessed it was because Chizeta had seen that brilliant tactical decision as a signal of weakness to exploit, but the hushed whispers their navigator had been directing at His Mysteriously Royal Foppishness (which Fai had been ignoring) had more to do with a brightening star Subaru thought might be a comet (not that anyone else could see it at all, or fathom why he'd be worried about a comet).

     Kamui would have given his favorite hat to live in a world where Subaru thought nothing was wrong except for Chizeta's princesses, Tarta and Tatra, declaring war.

     "Hmm..." Fai dropped an orange peel into the dish holding down the nearest corner of the map. He scanned the landscape and rubbed his hands, and then he moved every person's figure from the beach back to the ship except for his own and Sorata's. "I think a low-profile chat would go over better, don't you?"

     Kamui grabbed his own marker out of Fai's hands and dropped it back on the beach. "Are you insane?!"

     Fai smiled, and pursed his lips as he cocked an eyebrow.

     "Don't answer that," Kamui corrected himself. "We can't send two people! Tarta and Tatra are the best fighters in Chizeta after Sorata!"

     The Pirate King pushed Kamui's marker toward the ship again. "So since I'm going with Sorata, that's not a problem."

     "They could have an ambush!" When he tried to shove his miniature back towards the beach, his finger hit table and he nearly stubbed his nail against the map.

     Wouldn't you know, Fai had nabbed it faster than the eye could see, and now he was holding it out of reach on the other side of the table, flipping it through his fingers. "We'll be fine!"

     "Yeah, don't worry Kamui!" With a laugh, Sorata ruffled his hair. "I'll have the flare gun. If anything nasty starts, you guys could get there with the ship in two minutes flat to make 'em regret it."

     "Besides, I've got a special job for you." Fai picked up two more tokens from the board and placed all three on top of Mt. Saijaan, the volcano at the center of the island. "You're going here, with Yuzuriha-chan and Saiki-kun."

     All the serious faces in the room looked up from the map to stare down the blond, and Yuzuriha almost choked on the sip of rum she'd been drinking. "Wait, what?" their sea-mistress asked. "Is there something going on besides, you know... the potential war? I thought that was why we were here."

     "Why would there be something going on? I just thought, as long as we were in the area, there's something I want you to pick up. It's not like a little rebellion is the end of the world."

     Fai did have a magpie way of running after shiny objects. Kamui might have believed nothing special was going on, if only it hadn't been for Subaru in the corner. Their navigator's mouth tightened, and now there were no quick glances anywhere. He kept his eyes fixed on Fai without bothering to see where he'd pointed on the map. Subaru knew what this was about.

     Well, then, maybe this 'special job' wasn't complete bullshit. "Fine," Kamui growled. "What do you want us to go get?"

     With a laugh, Fai picked up another orange from the table and spun it around in his hand. "Oh, then I guess you haven't heard, Kamui-chan. You must know how two of the Dioscuri's orbs went missing once upon a time."

     Kamui stiffened, his grip tight on the table. Less because Fai was prattling on about fairy tales like the Six Divine Warriors, and more because the King had called him 'Kamui-chan'. No one but Princess Kotori called him that. Whatever he was out to find, then -- and it couldn't be one of those communicator orbs because the Dioscuri weren't fucking real -- but whatever it was, it had been the reason the Princess had contacted them this morning.

     "Yeah," Yuzuriha answered before anyone could notice Kamui hadn't. "When the Heavenly Twins died, their orbs shot into the sky like falling stars, and no one knows where they fell. At least, that's what the legends said."

     The Pirate King traced a lazy finger around the meandering borders of the volcano on the map. "Well. Word is, we can get to one of them from here. If you're up for it."

     "Maybe if you stop screwing around and tell us what you're really after!"

     "But I just did, Kamui!" Fai whined with a phony pout. "I simply must have that orb. I promise, the fate of the entire human race depends on it."

     "The Six Divine Warriors. Are. A. Myth." Grabbing the orange out of Fai's hands before he could start eating it and refuse to answer because gentlemen didn't talk with their mouths full, Kamui snarled, "Somebody made them up. Like somebody made up the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus."

     "You know, next time Santa stops by for dinner, I'm going to tell him you said that, and he's not going to be happy." Around them, everyone who was involved in a real mission bustled about, cleaning up the map and markers, murmuring about munitions and miscellany. Kamui grabbed the whole bowl of oranges so Fai couldn't take another. "You know, if you're that unsure about what's real and what's not, you could just ask Seishirou. He's supposed to be one of the Dioscuri, isn't he?"

     "The Barrows-Guard would say whatever he damn well wanted, whether it was true or not. Kind of like you!" As if there was anything he needed to know badly enough to ask that bastard about it. "People call Arashi the Fata Morgana, but that doesn't mean she's a fairy castle floating on the horizon. Yuzuriha's not actually a Black Cat. I'm not Death itself! That man doesn't need to be a demon in human form who stole immortality from the stars for everyone to think he's earned the name!"

     Kamui couldn't meet Subaru's eyes while he said it, although he could feel his friend's hurt twisting under the silent, unchanging shell he showed the world. What he'd said had needed to be said, and the one time Kamui had tried to say he was sorry for speaking his mind about the hell ship's navigator after he'd learned how Subaru felt, Subaru had told him, 'Don't,' before the apology could cross his lips. And that had been the last of that. Fai, on the other hand, made more than enough of a show of his wounded pout that a fool could tell it was only an act. "You think Seishirou would say that when it wasn't true?! What, do you think the Snow Fox didn't captain the first pirate ship, too?! And you'd probably say the Dimension Witch didn't really found the Ninja Union!"

     "If six warriors with that kind of power were running around the world, never aging and never dying--"

     "Four warriors," Yuzuriha added, boosting up over the table to steal back one of the oranges. "The Heavenly Twins got killed, remember? Only the Snow Fox, the Dimension Witch, the Barrows-Guard, and the Dreamseer survived at Abaddon Falls."

     He could feel the energy of wanting to punch Fai in the face crackling around his clenched fist like lightning. "Four, six... whatever! Someone would have noticed them! If the Dioscuri were real, where are they?"

     "Gosh, Kamui. You may have a point there." The asinine fop turned to Subaru, who'd dropped his face into his hand and was shaking his head at the ground. Clearly he wasn't the only one who thought Fai was too ridiculous to bear. If Subaru was running out of patience, then matters had gone more than far enough. "Maybe they've retired to some tropical island," the blond mused at the Sumeragi, "with cabana boys to wait on them hand and foot. You don't think that'd get boring after an eternity, do you?" As soon as a growl started rumbling in Kamui's throat, Fai looked back and grinned. "Tell you what. If you can beat me in Rock, Paper, Scissors, you can go to the negotiations with whoever you want, and I'll go to the volcano."

     Kamui stuck out his fist with a glare, silently counting 1, 2, 3 while they both threw down, and stuck out his hand flat for Paper.

     Fai waggled the two fingers he'd held out for Scissors, the sly grin on his face never changing. "Well, isn't that just the worst luck?"

     Swiping his hat off the table, Kamui stomped off toward the door. "I guess I'll find out what we're really after when I get my hands on it."

     "Now you've done it," he heard Sorata laugh from other side of the war room. "You know how Kamui hates losing at Rock, Paper, Scissors."

     "He'll be fine after he's perched on something tall for a while," Fai shot back. "That always makes him feel balanced and defensible."

     The latch on the door was shaking in his grip and the hinges squealing when he felt a hand on his shoulder. "I'll go with you," Subaru said. Kamui hadn't even heard him walk up, and barely noticed his anger fading away as they stepped out into the narrow corridor.

     "Subaru..."

     "Some quiet will be nice while we can get it. This won't be a good year."

     "This trip would go just fine if that--" Kamui cut himself off as he realized that Subaru hadn't been talking about Chizeta. Nobody expected Chizeta to go longer than a week before they gave in. "Wait. Did you say, year?"

     Green eyes stared him down with blunt honesty. Kamui thought he could see echoes in them of the whispers about comets only Subaru could read in the skies, and omens the Pirate King would never take as seriously as they deserved. He tried to sigh, but felt a shiver in his chest that wouldn't still. "I won't ask what you mean by that. I bet I won't like it."

     As they stepped from the lamplit confines of the ship to the clear night on deck, the brocade of Subaru's coat seemed to shine all the brighter under the white light of the moon and stars, as if the yellow flames indoors weren't pure enough and cast a colored shadow over his back. Seeming to glow like the the foam capping the nearest waves on the obsidian seas, his friend murmured, "I'm sure."