Ms. Faintly dropped the thin packet of papers onto Tak Jak's desk, and thin though it was, the papers scattered everywhere and Tak scurried to gather them, sending a surly face at her teacher's back. It was the third assignment that day. Tak Jak had already received an F on her first page Ms. Faintly had corrected during the second assignment, though Tak thought her work was good enough for a passing grade. No doubt she'd also fail the second assignment she'd just barely completed in time.
"This assignment is due tomorrow," Ms. Faintly addressed the class. "I want a page written about the topic I have given you."
Tak Jak glanced at the top page to find her topic. She read: The history of the Dark Demon and the Ventaiga's line of power.
Of course, she thought, sighing. In any case, it would be easy—all she had to do was ask Ryu and Kairo. Or Twilight, since her Light line was the direct enemy of all the Shadows through history. All but two, anyway.
"Class dismissed," Ms. Faintly called out, and immediately Tak rose, sending out her senses and being on her guard this time. Anthony casually walked up to her; she turned, backed up a step, and glared at him, falling into her fighter's stance. Despite her caution, Tak Jak cried out and spun around when something hit her head. "No fights in my classroom," Ms. Faintly snapped, holding a rolled-up stack of papers. Then the teacher looked away as Anthony yanked on Tak's arm, throwing her off-balance.
In retaliation, Tak Jak launched a punch at his face, but he caught it, his gaze never leaving hers. Her dark green eyes widened for a split second, in startled fear. She struggled to free herself from his grasp; he shook her once to make her stop, glaring at her warningly. Her attempts abated. But not for long.
Anthony staggered back, shouting out in surprise as Tak shoved him. Standing defiantly, she glowered at him, fists at the ready. Yet his gaze was hotter than hers was, and he strode toward her confidently. His confidence wavered her resolve long enough for him to seize her by the shoulders and slam her backwards onto a desk. With the breath knocked out of her, Tak struggled to breathe. Suddenly a hand shot out of nowhere and clamped onto Anthony's windpipe like a Commodo Dragon, never to let go.
Anthony released Tak's throat and stepped back, as the hand directed by moving him away from her. Only then did Kairo push him farther, making Anthony trip and fall onto his backside. "Next time I rip out your throat," Kairo said flatly. Without another word, he took Tak's arms and pulled her up, leading her out of the classroom and turning his back to Anthony.
Ms. Faintly had left before Tak Jak had, and, because Kairo had been waiting outside, he knew something was going on. Once they were far enough down the hall, he stopped to look Tak over, and make sure she was not seriously hurt. Tak inhaled sharply, knowing she was about to cry. Her back hurt when Anthony had thrown her into the desk, and her neck and arms were sore. Kairo stood behind her and lifted her shirt just enough to see the angry red marks. He knew they'd be bruises soon enough; running his hands as gently as he could against her enflamed skin, he tried to alleviate the pain like he had before. Tak sighed.
"Better?" Kairo asked. He placed a kind hand on her shoulder, but she was hunched forward, trying to hide her tears. "Tak Jak—"
"I don't want…you to always be saving me from everything," she said, sniffing and rubbing her nose.
"Well, what was I supposed to do? Stand there and watch him abuse you?" Kairo retorted in anger.
Tak shook her head. "I meant…I want to be able to fight. I want…to be able to…to do what you do. I want to be the hero, too, not the damsel in distress all the time!"
Kairo placed both hands on her shoulders this time, and looked at her softly. "You are mine," he said in a low voice. "You have saved me from a life of darkness, and that is no easy feat, Hero. I owe you my life and more; helping you out in a rough spot is the least I may do."
Choking on a laugh but a smile on her face no less, Tak hugged Kairo and buried her face against his chest. He hugged her in return but tenderly, being mindful of her bruises. "You still have to teach me, then, the ways of being a hero," she said. He didn't answer her, looking down the empty hall to hide his saddened thoughts from her eyes.
Shadows were never heroes, he reflected to himself. They only destroyed. How could he ever teach her anything of being a hero, when he himself was nothing like one?
"Hi, Kairo," Nehiko said, standing in a way that showed off her figure. Kairo stared at her, though in confusion, not admiration.
"Um…" he said. "Do I know you?"
The girl laughed. "It's me, Nehiko!" Still he looked at her blankly. She shrugged amiably and added, "Remember? The one you saved from Tyler's antics. I dumped him, by the way."
"Right," Kairo said, recalling slightly the girl Tyler had aimed a ball at. "Nehiko. I—er…" She moved closer to him and he nervously moved away.
"Are you doing anything later today?" she asked suddenly, leaning even closer.
Bewildered, Kairo sputtered, "Um, actually…well, I was going to…be with Tak Jak and my other friends…"
"That sounds like fun!" Nehiko gushed, successfully latching onto his arm and snuggling him. "I can't wait! When are you going? To where? Ooh, is it out to eat? 'Cause I'm hungry and maybe just you and me could get something, you know? Or what about—"
"Could you just…let go of my arm, please?" he said through clenched teeth. Tak Jak's was the only touch he could stand, and he knew only this girl's name. She talked too fast, besides.
Nehiko did as he asked but she slipped her hand in his, opening her mouth to speak again when Kairo yanked his hand back and stepped away, hands raised. "Look, stop it already. I have no idea who you are—and why the hell do you keep touching me?"
"I'm sorry, I was just…" Nehiko put on her best hurt expression and built up her reserves of crocodile tears. Then she raised her shaking hands to her mouth. "I-I-I never meant…"
But Kairo was already walking away without waiting for a reply. Nehiko had to hold her breath to keep from shouting in frustration and stomping her foot. Never had a guy resisted her like that before. Pouting, she folded her arms and glared at the concrete. Kitten had told her to do exactly that! What had gone wrong?
Nothing; Kitten's plan was working fine. She knew Kairo to be blunt around strangers to the point of being rude, so of course he'd turn around and walk in the opposite direction from an annoying teenaged demon. Right into the direction Kitten was lurking, along with her trap.
As soon as Kairo stepped around the corner of the building, Kitten stepped out of the shadows, startling him until he recognized whom it was. "Sister," he began, happy to see her, and then he remembered what she'd told him last and his smile was wiped from his face, his hand dropping to his side when he'd reached out to touch her.
"Half," she responded, glaring at him.
"Half, then," he answered coldly, putting up a mask to hide the hurt she'd already seen. "What do you want?"
"I want to know why you dismissed my friend so heartlessly, Kairo." She grinned. "And here I thought you were no longer heartless."
"She holds no appeal to me," he said. "Not even as a friend. She talks too much, and too fast."
Kitten flashed her fangs at him. "Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
"Get used to it—?" he sputtered angrily before she cut him off.
"Since you didn't listen to me earlier, little half-brother, I thought you needed some persuasion. Stop hanging around Tak Jak; she's no good for you. Why don't you hook up with Nehiko? She's much more dull and oh so predictable."
"Like hell," Kairo growled. "I love Tak Jak. There is no way another—especially that girl—could ever take her place!"
"Then you'll just have to pretend Nehiko's your little Takeshi, now won't you?" Kitten said, falsely sweet. Before he could protest, she added, "Because I knew the only way to break you two apart was by blackmail."
"You have nothing on me!" he spat. She held up a small, thick, brown book that he didn't recognize at first.
"How about this?" she asked, smirking.
"What is that?" Kairo whispered, though he knew. He knew deep down in his heart that Kitten was holding Tak Jak's Book of Memories.
Kitten opened to a random page and touched the thin paper filled with writing. "Ask Nehiko to come with you to lunch, Kairo."
"No!" Kairo hissed defiantly, clenching his fists. Then a terrible tearing sound instantly broke his resoluteness.
Kitten held half of the page in her hand. "Oops," she said mildly. "I guess Little Miss Tak Jak won't remember that ever again." She reached for the page under the one she'd ripped. "Shall we try again?"
"No!" Kairo cried again. His hands shot out to stop her, but Kitten stepped out of his reach, grinning maliciously, triumphant. He clasped his fists to his heart. "Please, stop! I will ask her. I will ask Nehiko!"
"Good," Kitten purred, giving him her best fake smile. She tucked the book into an inside pocket of her dark purple cloak and walked toward him, grinning now from ear to ear. Kairo was slumped against the wall of the building, one hand clutching his mouth in disbelief. Kitten leaned closer to murmur, "And you are not to tell Tak Jak any of this, or offer any explanation as to why you will not talk to her, or be around her any more. Got that?"
"Yes," Kairo said feebly.
"You are to be nice to Nehiko and do everything she asks, and respond to her and comment her—and treat her like you would Tak Jak," Kitten added. He visibly flinched, looking at her in horror. No one could take Tak Jak's place.
"And," Kitten said as an afterthought, "I think you ought to trade rooms with Anthony or someone. I doubt your brother will let this go unexplained—your ditching Tak Jak and those other fools, that is—and he might question you relentlessly until you tell him everything. And that I cannot allow."
Blankly Kairo stared at the ground, his incredulity so strong he could not move for a long moment. He felt the first knife bite into his heart, sending a burning pain shooting through him that rocked him to the core. When he could focus he found himself on his hands and knees, still staring at the ground with widened, frightened eyes, and Kitten was casually walking away. "She's waiting, Kairo. Ask Nehiko out to lunch."
Kairo's eyes turned black. Amerin stole the pain away and locked all of Kairo's feelings inside his heart, where they'd be safe for the moment it took to ask Nehiko a simple question. He picked up the ripped page Kitten had discarded, and slipped it into his pocket. Then he stood and brushed off his clothes, wiped his eyes, and put a smile on his face as he headed back to the place Kairo had left Nehiko. She was still standing there, and Kitten was nowhere to be seen.
Copying Tak Jak's shape-shifting abilities, Amerin attempted to turn his eyes green and hoped they matched Kairo's. No matter, Nehiko looked at him and broke into a bright smile. Amerin told himself to talk as Kairo would, to speak with softer tones, and then he opened his mouth and said, "Dearest Nehiko, would you care to accompany myself to lunch? Of course, I have not the faintest idea where to go, so perhaps you might suggest a place…?"
Nehiko was all too thrilled with him to wonder why he suddenly had a change of heart, so to speak, and immediately linked arms with him and started her motor-mouth, heading off toward the nearest restaurant.
Amerin felt Kairo rise up in panic, realizing he'd been overtaken, but Amerin patted their shared heart and told him, Trust in me, if no other. I will never betray you.
Kairo sat back, tears again on the infantile face of his fragile spirit. He was in the center of a darkened room, with only the light spilling out of a hole high above him, an escape he could never reach.
It was a chamber in his wounded heart; it was filled with his crestfallen despair.
"Where is he?" Ryu murmured aloud. "Kairo knows we agreed to meet here, at this time…"
Kiume and Twilight were silent, meditative. They knew something had to have gone wrong to prevent Kairo from showing up to an appointed date. Tak's heart sank, sensing that she knew why. But she didn't voice her fears.
Finally Twilight said, "I can't feel him anywhere near here. He must be either already in town, or…" She couldn't think of another reason; maybe she didn't want to consider anything else.
Ryu sighed in disappointment. "Let's head out, then. Kairo can find us if he wants to."
As the party of four started toward the road, Adrian ran up, his pad of paper clutched tightly in his hand and the words Is something wrong? written upon it. He walked with them as Ryu explained "Kairo's missing. We saw him this morning but now he's nowhere to be seen."
Adrian's gaze slid away, and Twilight knew it to mean he knew something about Kairo's disappearance. "Do you know where he is?" she asked him. He stared at his hands for a moment and then scribbled on his notepad reluctantly.
w/Nehiko. I saw them walk out of school… Hesitatingly he glanced at Tak, confirming her fears as he added …Hand in hand.
"Impossible," Ryu objected. "That girl's mouth runs a mile a minute; Kairo hates when people talk fast. And he would never let some random girl hold his hand, either."
Adrian shrugged helplessly. He wrote I saw what I saw. That's why I asked if anything was wrong, because Kairo and Nehiko were being… Sending an apologetic look Tak's way, he continued …really friendly.
"Like how?" Kiume asked, peering at him suspiciously.
Again Adrian shrugged, averting his gaze. Well…if they were holding hands, and walked off into town around lunchtime, where do you think they went? His written words seemed sarcastic, enhanced by his annoyed expression. He tucked the paper into a bulging pocket of his pants, withdrew his mace on a string, and began spinning it hard until it went whistling through the air. The four backed off a bit, unnerved by it.
"Wait," Twilight said suddenly, staring off far down the road. Ryu and the others stopped at once, and Adrian caught the spiked ball out of the air to end its spinning, watching her all the while. "I sense him now—Kairo. But his spirit…I don't understand. It's…broken…" She paused a moment, thinking. "No. It's Amerin. He's taken control." Without warning, she cried out and clutched her shoulder, wincing.
Ryu steadied her, looking concerned. "What is it? Are you all right?"
"He blocked me. I can't sense him anymore. But I know where he is." She pointed down the road. "It's a small restaurant, red and white checkered walls. He's sitting across from Nehiko." Shuddering, she added, "I caught a look of it through his eyes. I think that's how he realized I was there."
"Did you find Kairo?" Kiume asked, to hide her pang of slight irritation. She'd thought Amerin was interested in her, not Nehiko. After all, he'd kissed Kiume once before.
"Yes," Twilight answered gravely. "Amerin has him locked within his own heart. And it's dark. He looked up at me but that was when Amerin put up his mental walls and pushed me away."
"What is going on here?" Tak muttered in confusion.
Adrian's gaze was unreadable, but just to be sure, he turned his back on them, regarding the road thoughtfully.
Amerin knew how to be gentlemanly. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it, being polite though only pretending to listen as Nehiko prattled on, and he nodded and said "Mm-hm," as if he knew what she was talking about. Coming from a completely different generation, he had no idea the people she spoke of, had no recollection of the things that were popular at the current time because he was not apart of it. But he smiled reassuringly, making Nehiko blush time and time again.
"Come," he said, standing and holding out his hand to her. They'd finished their meal and sat talking for a while—a mostly one-sided conversation—and he'd felt comfortable just sitting there, at least until he'd sensed someone watching him, searching him.
He scowled angrily when Nehiko wasn't looking. It was Princess Twilight, of course—her line's art of scrying on the spot were powerful, and so he'd thrown up thick mental walls between his and her conscious to keep her out. But no doubt she'd already found out where he was. And so he was forced to convince Nehiko to leave the restaurant, which wasn't at all difficult.
"Do you think we might continue on?" Amerin, disguised as Kairo, suggested. "Explore the town, perhaps?"
Nehiko paused, a worried expression crossing her face. "Well, I'd like to, but they're supposed to be posting the date of the preliminary tournament. And there's only going to be three battles; I want to be picked to fight in one of the three." She held up one finger, and then three, as if to reiterate her point.
"Tournament?" he echoed, curious. Nehiko looked at him, incredulous.
"You joined the school but you don't know about all the tournaments?" she gasped. "What do you think we do, use the school as a boarding house? Besides the classes some of the lower fighters have to attend, there isn't much to do until a tournament comes around."
Amerin wondered briefly if she knew that Tak Jak attended such a class and purposely insulted her in front of him. Nonetheless, he cleared his throat and caught her arm, subtly steering her down the road to the school. "Tell me about it," he probed, fully knowing he was inviting her to speak nonstop.
"There are three leaders in the school that each pick a pair of students, who then battle. The order is derived from the lower-ranked teacher's choice first, then the next, and then the Headmaster's two battle last."
"Who are the three that choose? Well, two. Since the Headmaster chooses."
"I think this month it's going to be the Nurse, then Ms. Faintly, and, as you know, Mr. V."
"Ah," Amerin said. Then he held back an annoyed sigh as Nehiko started up talking about previous tournaments, who won and lost, what happened at the best fights, and who was killed. Though murder was frowned upon, it wasn't exactly in the rulebook that you couldn't. Mostly the rules counted the battle ended by third blood, which was how some died; the wounds inflicted were sometimes extravagant. The Headmaster's choice had to battle until one fighter was unconscious, however, in order to name a victor.
Amerin stopped short, hearing the voices of the last people he wanted to run into. Nehiko started into a string of questions, demanding to know what the matter was, why he'd stopped and how come. Which, he thought, was just repeating the same question.
Ryu, Twilight, Tak Jak, Kiume, and Adrian spotted him and halted suddenly. They held a short staring contest, and then Ryu fell out of the stupor.
"Where the hell were you?" Ryu said, his anger hinted in the way his lips pulled back in a slight snarl and his fists clenched tight. "We had everything planned out, and then you don't show?"
Amerin tipped his head to the side, curious. His answer was honest. "I have no idea what you're talking about." Then he blinked, horrified, and mentally kicked himself. He hoped none of them noticed his slip of tongue.
But then he remembered Twilight's prying gaze back in the restaurant. They must already know that Kairo was not in control.
Nehiko gave a haughty toss of her shoulder-length, near-white hair, then tugged on Amerin's arm until he leaned down, thinking she wanted to whisper in his ear. Instead she kissed his cheek. "Thanks for lunch, Kairo. I'll see you later! Maybe we can battle in the arena," she said as she departed. With a wave she thought of as cute, she turned and sauntered down the sidewalk.
Kairo didn't want to see Tak's reaction to the casual display, but Amerin looked at her anyway. Her face was flushed and she was staring off to the side. He noted that she was leaning against Adrian some, and Amerin almost smiled when he felt Kairo's anger flare as he noticed it too.
Once Nehiko was out of earshot, Ryu hissed, "What was up with that, Amerin? You know Kairo hates her."
Slipping his hands into his pockets, Amerin outwardly seemed confident, cool, and reserved. "Yes, but unfortunately, neither of us has any choice in the matter," he said vaguely. Then he saw Kiume, looking uncomfortable as she glanced at him and then at the ground. Each time she did her blush brightened.
She remembered his kiss.
Grinning, Amerin reached forward and took her hand, then bent to kiss it. He looked up at her and was quite happy to find that she was staring at him, horrified from knowing Ryu was watching. "Hello," he said in a soft, husky voice, "beautiful one." Satisfied that he'd riled Kairo's brother, as he had held no love for his own traitorous sibling, he straightened.
Then he brushed past Ryu, and walked back toward the school without another word to any of them.
Amerin bunked with Adrian that night, having switched with Darien. The two were brothers, he assumed, though they didn't look much alike. Adrian's hair was more of a dark brown, straight and unobtrusive. Darien's, on the other hand, was black and slightly wavy, with a sort of lopsided cut to it. And their eyes were different, too, being different shades of brown—Darien's being a solid dark color, almost black like his hair, and Adrian's looking like liquid gold mixed in with mud. For one amusing moment, Amerin wondered what their parents looked like.
Sifting through Kairo's bag, Amerin frowned when he couldn't find the Shadows' book. Had Kairo not brought it along? Amerin sighed and closed the bag, not wanting to unpack and put everything away just yet. Then, since it was late anyway, he climbed up to the top bunk and settled in. Adrian soon turned out the light and fell asleep.
Amerin figured he'd give over control to Kairo in the morning, if the boy felt up to facing what he was blackmailed to do. However, there was no doubt in Amerin's mind that he would have to be the one to tell Tak Jak—only for the purpose of keeping her away from pleading for an explanation—that he no longer loved her, and so decided…to be with Nehiko. Of course, there was the possibility of Tak Jak seeing through the ruse.
No matter. Amerin was going to let Kairo try first, and if he couldn't—which Amerin wholly believed so—tell the blatant lie to her face, then Amerin would be forced to.
With those last thoughts in mind, he closed his eyes and darkness took over, dragging him down to sleep.