Kai would be lying to himself if he said there wasn’t some part of him that was a little relieved that it had been Tyson and Max who were taken first. Ray, albeit sometimes ditzy in his ‘I was raised in a mountain village of cat-people’ sort of way, was calmer, quieter, and not like herding cats when it came to training. Kai would give instructions, point, and Ray would nod and listen as any respectable blader would have.
Nevertheless, as the day flowed into the warm summer night, he found his ears buzzing from the silence. He remembered these quiet days. To think he had ever missed them. Because although he was annoying and hands down the bane of his life, Tyson had still been his best friend—if Kai could ever claim to have ever had one. But that was just it. Tyson made friends like breathing air. He was the poster child for how the world should be, and every Kai could never be. He had hated him as much as fire could hate water, but in the end, that was what drew his respect. Because despite being so painfully naïve that he should probably have died a horrible death by now, Tyson was strong. Where Tyson should have fallen before Kai’s cold might—before reality-he not only defeated him, but rescued him.
And since children’s cartoons had no grip on reality, the fact that Tyson still ran strong in spite of a world that attacked him time after time had proven long ago that he was greater than Kai. He couldn’t help but resent him a little for that. He suspected he always would.
He knew Ray felt much the same, as he didn’t quit tearing his rip cord even after Kenny came out and announced that it was almost midnight, even after Drigger hadn’t missed the target for the last hour and his fingers had started to bleed. Any good training session involved blood, in Kai’s opinion.
Wood splinters flew out from the sheet of plywood. Kai caught Dranzer with flecks of sawdust raining from his fingertips, tearing off the bandage from his face at the same time. Over the hours it had become soaked with his own sweat, making the cuts from his hairline to his eyebrow sting.
“Looks like we’re going to need a new dummy,” said Ray, breathing hard.
“That’s the last board,” said a very drowsy Kenny. “Can we call it quits now? I can’t sleep with the racket your making, and only God knows why Grandpa Granger can.”
Drigger leapt into Ray’s gloved hand. One of the pieces of cloth he had wrapped about his fingers came loose from the contact, splotched with scarlet.
“You could have just gone home,” Ray said.
“And what, leave you two to get your souls sucked out too? No way no way!”
“It’s not like you’d be able to do anything about it,” said Ray. “I mean, unless you wanted to practice blading—”
“For the last time, I will not practice assaulting someone! I still think this is wrong.”
“Then if you have nothing else to contribute, shut up.” Kai brought back his fingers from his forehead to find them only lightly specked with blood. The scabs had only cracked and would harden in the fresh air. Perhaps he could make do without a bandage.
Kenny fell quiet at that. Ray gave Kai a look he and the rest of the team often made whenever they thought Kai had gone just a little too far. But what else was there to say? Kenny wasn’t helping anything by staying out here with them and losing sleep. It was his brain they needed, and brains needed sleep. Ray had already said as much earlier when Kenny came out to announce what time it was.
But instead of squawking in indignation, Kenny went still.
“Alright,” he stood up, tucking his laptop under his arm. “I’ll head home. Call me if you get any developments.”
With that, he turned back into the Granger household and closed the door behind him.
Ray turned on him. “That was harsh. This is just as hard on him as it is on the rest of us.”
“And he wouldn’t have left if I had been any nicer,” said Kai, rolling his shoulders. “He needs his sleep. We all do.”
Ray sighed and wriggled his fingers, wincing. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone so far. Man, I tore up my fingers good this time.”
“I can fix that,” said a tiny voice.
Ray and Kai snapped around, slapping on their blades to their launchers and taking aim.
Crouched on the top of the Dojo’s wall, all baggy jeans and too big ugly sweatshirt, was the singer. The shadow cast by the orange light of the porch hid her face, though Kai re-verified that the voice was definitely feminine. This was a girl.
“Y-y-you’re fingers,” she squeaked. “I can m-m-make them better.”
“What the hell do you want?” asked Ray. “Come to take our bitbeasts too? Well bring it on, we’re ready.”
She cringed back, nearly slipping down the other side of the wall. “I-I don’t—I never meant—”
Kai unhooked his finger from the ripcord and held his hand back to Ray. “Ray.”
Ray hesitated, but lowered his launcher somewhat. “If you’re not here for our bitbeasts, why are you?”
“I-I just wanted to…to ask, because I didn’t…” The round grey hood of the hoodie rose higher, as though the hidden eyes within sought to peer at them. “I didn’t mean to—to hurt your friends. I only meant to draw out the animal spirits.”
“Well, you did,” said Ray.
She flinched. “But that wasn’t supposed to happen.” She paused. “Which is why…what are bitbeasts?”
Kai and Ray’s launchers lowered even more in surprise. “What?”
“What are bitbeasts?” she asked. “I have no idea how to draw out souls—I had no idea it could even happen—so how could the bitbeasts have? They’re just suppose to be animal spirits. That’s…that’s what she said.”
“You mean you’ve been stealing our bitbeasts without even knowing what they are?” said Kai. He wasn’t surprised. This often was the case with those who make it their business being thieves. Or those with sensitive consciences, as she was proving to be.
The shadowy figure wilted, ducking her face down, which allowed the porch light to touch her pale chin and quivering lips. “I never meant to hurt anyone.”
“Then what do you think stealing does, huh?” snapped Ray. “I’ll tell you what they are. They’re our friends, our companions. Their connected to us in ways you could never understand, so either give them back to us or get out of here!”
Kai held up his hand to stop Ray once more, but his eyes were to their visitor, who had started to tremble. He was in less of a mood than Ray to play nice or feel sorry for her. That had always been Tyson and Max’s job. Any guilt she must feel now was her just deserts.
But he remembered what Kenny and Dizzy had said. Without her, even if they got the marbles with Dragoon and Draciel back, Tyson and Max would still be as good as dead.
“What was it you said about Ray’s fingers?” he asked, hoping to keep her there long enough for him to think up a plan. Maybe if they could lure her down, he could get his arm about her and…
“I-I could maybe, um, heal them?”
Her voice was so soft now they could barely hear her. Kai exchanged a look with Ray.
“Well? Want to let her try?”
Ray opened his mouth to protest, but suddenly stopped as he recognized what Kai was trying to remind him off. They needed her.
“Yeah,” he looked back to the girl. “If you say you can, I guess I’m game. Though if you try anything funny—”
“I won’t,” she said quickly, sliding down from the top of the wall to land on all fours. She rose to her feet and approached them cautiously, slowly. Kai slipped his blade and launcher back into his belt, hoping it looked to her as a sign of peace rather than him freeing his hands.
As she drew nearer and closer to the amber porch light, the shadow of the hood peeled back, revealing more clear, pale skin, a small nose, and those same large, doe-like blue eyes.
What Kai hadn’t seen, however, was her beauty.
Ray let out a small gasp and she froze, biting her full, delicate bottom lip. A few curls of hair curled about her cheek bones, highlighting a heart-shaped face, though Kai couldn’t decipher their color in the orangish light.
“I won’t hurt you,” she said in that same, tiny voice, hugging her hands to her chest. “I promise. I…” She looked down at her folded hands, then reached them out tremulously to Ray. “M-M-may I see your fingers?”
Without a trace of his previous aggression, Ray tucked his blade and launcher away as well and lifted up his hands, his jaw loose and eyes wide. Kai understood how he felt. He had forgotten what he had been planning to do once she had gotten this close.
He watched in a sort of dazed curiosity as she carefully took up Ray’s hands with the tips of her fingers and brought her lips to his knuckles. Right as he thought, with an odd squirmish thrill, that she would kiss them, she stopped and those lips parted. A soft, almost inaudible hum filled the air, making the hairs on his arms prickle.
After a measureless span of time, she closed her mouth, drew back, and went to untying the bits of cloth. She tugged the first one free to reveal a perfect, unblemished finger. She checked it before moving on to the other fingers.
Kai couldn’t help but smirk at the look on Ray’s face. He could have been part way to heaven or part way to screaming.
“Do they hurt?” she asked.
It took a moment for Ray to respond. “N-No! They feel fine.” He brought one of his hands back to inspect, all the lines of his face lax in awe. “More than fine. What did you do?”
“It’s hard to describe,” she gently dropped his other hand and curled her own back to her chest. “Sometimes, with certain people, if someone’s, uh, blood is moving especially quick, I can hear, um…the bits in there reaching out for each other, and I just sort of speed them up. You know, speed up the wanting to heal, and for some reason your blood is especially loud and—oh gosh, that sounded so creepy.” She covered her face with her hands. “Just-just make sure you eat something before you go to sleep and get lots of rest, okay? I’m sorry. I really am.”
It wasn’t until she didn’t instantly turn and run away after saying that that Kai remembered about grabbing her. But, watching Ray stare at his healed fingers in stunned disbelief, he thought perhaps this might just work out without tying her up.
“Can you help us?” he asked.
She looked at him with wide eyes. “I…it’s not that simple. I—”
She suddenly cringed, folding in on herself with a cry. Ray flinched back to attention and Kai stared.
“I-I’m sorry,” she squeaked. “I have to—” she was interrupted by another attack of pain, and before Kai could do more than step towards her, she turned and sprinted into the shadows and vanished behind the dojo, where the exit would be on the other side.
“What was that all about?” asked Ray.
Kai just groaned and cursed himself. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple. It never was.
“Shouldn’t we have grabbed her?” Ray glanced at Kai’s brow. “We should have asked her to fix the scratches on your face too.”
“Just get to bed.” And after kicking down what was left of their practice board, he went into the house, took a quick cold shower, and threw himself onto his futon. Later, when he was sure Ray had fallen asleep in his own futon not too far from his own, he went up stairs and passed out on Tyson’s weirdly clean bed.