Disclaimer: X is © CLAMP, Kodansha, Viz, and the rest. I make no claim.
Hear my soul speak
by Fushigi Kismet
Chapter 1: A machine with broken workings
Arisugawa Sorata leaned forward, hands hanging over the sides of his legs, and said, "So, Aoki, what's the job this time?"
Aoki smiled good-naturedly. "You're certainly in a good mood today. Something happen?"
"Not yet," Sorata said cheerfully, "but I've got a good feeling about today."
"Is that a professional opinion?"
"Just a hunch. So, the job?"
Aoki slid him a photograph. "Here it is. What do you think?"
Gingerly holding it by the edges, Sorata leaned back in his chair. His air and manner were completely different from a moment ago. Aoki was always impressed, no matter how many times he saw it, by how quickly the man's manner would shift once he was "working." It was the mark of a professional.
"This is it, then?" Sorata murmured to himself, his eyes roving over the image.
If Aoki squinted he could almost see a glow emanating from the photograph. "Yes, the client noticed when the machine began making noise even though it's been inoperable for a while now. Your thoughts?"
"Doable. Might be a little tricky, but if I can't do it, who can?"
"The client seems to think someone else might."
"What do you mean?" Sorata said, setting down the photo, his eyes narrowing.
"She's hired another agency to work on it in addition to us."
"What?" Sorata said. "Why didn't you SAY anything?"
"Well, the more the merrier?" Aoki said, taken aback by the vehemence in his friend's voice.
"Not in this business, it's not." He grabbed his hat and coat and stood so swiftly he almost knocked his chair over.
"Where are you going?" Aoki protested. "Your coffee's not even here - ah, there it is."
"Damage control," Sorata said, picking up the cup off of the waitress's tray and nodding at her before downing the contents in one go and tossing a few coins onto the table. "Who'd you say the competition is again?"
"I didn't," Aoki said, bemused. "But the illustrious Princess Hinoto is back in town and she's got a new girl with her."
Sorata paused. "So they're not amateurs then?"
"No, is that better?"
"Worse," he said shortly, jamming his hat over his ears and striding out the door.
Aoki took a thoughtful sip of his coffee and smiled weakly at the waitress who, frowning, cleared away the discarded cup and pocketed the change.
Arashi Kishuu bit her lower lip, and moved her hands though the customary signs, chanting all the while. She was young, newly graduated from her apprenticeship, and under Princess Hinoto's care until she came into her mastery. It was an honor to serve the Princess, but the pressures that came with the position were also immense. Especially for a girl of ignoble birth as herself, whose origins were even baser than if she had been picked up from the streets.
Those in their profession were not well-respected to begin with, and she knew the sight of the young girl in her school uniform was hardly doing anything to better their reputation. There were those who would much prefer to see her in a different, more servile role. One more "suited" to her. In order that the real work be left to the "professionals."
She'd show them professional.
In the corner the machine rattled impatiently and she narrowed her eyes to focus on the spiritual energy emanating from it. She chanted the last word and her fingers formed the last accompanying sign.
The spirit surged forth in a wave. She sharpened her concentration like a blade and pressed her energy against it, pinned it back to the corner of the room, holding it fast with her mental and spiritual barrier.
Strange, it should have been weakening already but it just seemed more enraged and to be straining harder against her. She heard footsteps outside, but couldn't turn her head, too busy concentrating on the spirit. The door was flung open with a sudden gust of air, followed by someone's labored breaths, then:
"Ah, it's going to try to break through the center."
She wasn't particularly inclined to listen to this bit of advice save for the fact that at that very instant the spirit began gathering and pushing at her barrier and despite herself she was forced one step back.
This wasn't possible, she thought incredulously. It had never happened this way in training, and she had dealt with a great many higher-level spirits than this! And yet, the pressure she felt from it was comparable to a Grade 2.
She took another step back, her shoulders bumping into something likewise moving forward. Something like a person. Startled, she almost lost her focus and her arms dipped. Hands gripped her elbows, pushed up her arms. The supernatural force swelled and pushed towards her, then stopped sharply, held in place as though by an iron will, and grudgingly began to move back.
"Let me help you with that," a cheerful voice said, low against her ear, and she noted the hand that had left her right elbow, that was outstretched as though pushing.
"I have it under control!" she snapped, irritated that someone was attempting to encroach on her territory. More irritated, perhaps, that someone had needed to.
"I'm sure you do," he said mildly, and his arms came up around her, his hands covering hers.
"What are you doing?!"
"It's fine, Miss. I'll just lend you a hand if I may. Don't worry, these sort of Grade 2's take a bit of a knack."
". . . Grade 2?"
"Looks and acts like a Four, doesn't it? It's sneaky like that. And lazy. It's hard to tell so it's tough to seal them without a hitch the first time or two."
"You're in the "business" then?"
"Seems like it, doesn't it? Whoops, this one's tricky, isn't he?" The spirit had been attempting to ooze its way around the sides their barrier but the man contained it with a motion of his left hand.
Arashi grudgingly mirrored the motion with her right to contain it on the other side. "Is it common practice in these parts to interfere with someone else's job?"
"No, but it's my job too. You'll have to take the client to task for hiring both of us, I'm afraid. Sorata Arisugawa. Pleased to meet you."
"Arashi Kishuu. I cannot say the same."
"Ouch! That stings, my lady." She could hear the grin in his voice.
"Can we just finish this up?" she snapped, temper fraying. Who had ever heard of something so ridiculous as needing help on one's first solo job? The Princess was going to laugh at her.
"Right, then," he replied pleasantly. "Just follow my lead." He broke into an advanced level chant but she knew it, having stubbornly memorized all of them a good three years early, and chanted the complimentary spell. His fingers shaped hers into the symbols he wanted, some of which she thought were rather decidedly unorthodox, but which seemed to work just as well, if not better, than the ones she had been taught if the rapidly lessening spiritual power of the ghost were anything to go by. They ceased chanting at the same moment, their hands outstretched, and the spiritual power dissolved fully into the next world.
She lowered her arms, breathing hard. "Don't expect me to thank you."
He withdrew his hands hastily and put them into his pockets. "That would be pretty presumptuous of me, wouldn't it, Miss?"
She didn't know how to respond to that and he must have seen it because he said, "Your control just needs a little more work and your timing is top-notch. A couple more jobs and I might have to think about switching jobs."
Was that a compliment? She didn't know how to take that either. No one but Princess Hinoto and her aunt had ever said so much as "Good job" to her before. What was customary in such situations? Was she supposed to smile? What was she supposed to do? At a loss, she said, "I . . ." and stopped.
"What do you want to do about the payment? I suppose the Princess is expecting the whole thing?"
She turned around, her long hair whirling, her face flushed with heat and exertion and not a little embarrassment. "Look, Mr. Arisugawa or whatever your name is, this was my job and-" She faltered, looking at his expression. She reached a hand up to touch her temple, her cheek. "Wh-What is it?"
Sorata did not answer, but something shifted in his expression. He swallowed and said, reaching out to let his fingers run through a stray strand of her dark hair, "I choose you, Miss."
Her blush grew deeper and she pulled away, eyes lowered. She didn't know what he meant by that but he was young, far younger than she had thought, clean-cut and fresh featured, with a good natured look to his face and intense brown eyes, and she couldn't help but feel embarrassed and uncertain as a result of his actions, her actions, the strange intensity of his gaze.
At that moment their client arrived and after taking a quick look around beamed and said, "What a fine job you've done! Which one of you was it?"
She looked up at him, the color still lingering on her cheeks. He nodded at her. For an instant she looked conflicted, but then she glanced quickly away and went to meet the client.
Sorata watched her with steady eyes, his heart still in his throat. His hands, stuffed inside his pockets, were shaking.
Aoki found him later stretched out on a bench in the park, eyes closed, soaked in sunlight.
"How'd it go?"
"Hell of a job. Didn't get paid either. Sorry."
"Hmmm. You seem to be smiling a great deal for a man who didn't get paid. Something good happen?"
"That may just be the best understatement of my life."