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"Playing Games"
an X/1999 fanfic by

Written for Parron's birthday. Original release date: April 25, 2007.

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Kekkai had their uses, no question about it. Keeping outsiders safely out of a battle, for one. Alerting the others that a battle was going on in the first place. Protecting the people you loved most (and the city, and by extension the world--Sorata had heard it called both a domino effect and a spiral, which for some reason didn't translate into Arashi being very amused when she woke up and found he'd spent the night building a spiral of dominoes around the kitchen when it was their turn to cook breakfast. She had at least held off on smacking him until Kamui and Yuzuriha had come downstairs and he'd set the little black tiles cascading around the room as a demonstration. It was something).

Not destroying your neighborhood while you played war games was also turning out to be a handy feature.

With property damage taken for granted, the real trick was not doing each other any actual harm; scrapes and bruises were allowed, but killing or incapacitating the people on your side in the actual war was obviously a bad move. It leveled the playing field, made them rely more heavily on the powers they all shared as Dragons and the spells the mystics had learned in training--things it was easy to under-utilize in real fights when bringing lightning down on someone's head was the more direct method of attack. It was also blatantly unfair in some respects; lightning and fire were harder to use non-lethally than wind was, while Subaru's level of skill was so far above the other mystics' that it was laughable to imagine facing off against him. But war wasn't fair, and they were all on edge, needing to burn off excess energy. No one complained.

Since there were no real rules other than "don't kill each other", Sorata couldn't think of a reason not to see if he could find Arashi and spar with her. He cast his kekkai when the others did, watching her thoughtfully until she disappeared down an alleyway, all sounds of her passage swallowed by the eerie stillness of the air inside the layered barriers. The idea of cutting loose with any of them was fun enough, although he imagined they'd all be going to bed sore that night, but she was definitely the opponent he wanted. Bet you're curious too, 'neechan. By now the two of them had known each other long enough that she must have reached the same conclusion he had: among all the Seven Stars, their levels of training were the most evenly matched. He couldn't be the only one who wanted to know.

It was tempting to reach out for the magical construct he'd created to guard her, just to see where she was, but there was no sense risking her discovering it. There were times he was sure she must have noticed its existence, but he couldn't imagine her staying quiet if she found herself being watched by something with his magical fingerprints so obviously all over it... and a spell she didn't know about was a spell she couldn't dismantle. So he waited, shifting from foot to foot with impatience until Subaru, who'd looked mildly surprised when Yuzuriha picked him to send the rest of them off in random order, tapped him on the shoulder and pointed west.

As it turned out, he didn't have to look for her. Less than five minutes after he was out of sight of their starting point, he headed for the top of a low-rise apartment complex and was greeted with an attack that was little more than a warning strike. He fended it off reflexively and found Arashi watching him with just a hint of a predatory smile. "You're late, Sorata-san."

"Got stuck in luck-of-the-draw traffic," he replied. "Thanks for waiting, but you look kinda empty-handed."

"Oh?" He wouldn't put it past her to be able to conjure ofuda out of thin air, but he recognized the practiced sleight of hand she used. "Better?"

"If that's the way you want to play, sure." Sorata traced most of an appropriate ward, waiting. She nodded, and he made the last stroke to bring the sigil to life in the air between them. And then it was all a blur, strikes and parries and watching each other for openings, neither taking time to stop and strategize.

He'd never seen her fight with only her mystical technique before, and couldn't help grinning at the euphoric rush of watching her work; hours of professional conversations had proved she knew her theory and history inside out, but that had nothing on the real thing. Even without drawing her sword, she was a conduit for all the spiritual strength of Ise, and she used it with flawless speed and focus. He kept up and pushed back, but it was a brutal workout. They were both panting a little, working for every breath that wasn't devoted to chants; the fabric of her uniform made it hard to see if she was sweating as much as he was, but her skirt stuck to her thighs every time she stopped moving long enough for it to settle.

Please let the girl I love be hot, he'd prayed back at the monastery, flippant enough to irritate the older monks, and his prayer had been answered a hundredfold. He'd never been inclined to try imagining his death, before or after meeting her--too many possibilities, nothing to gain from dwelling on it--but there were moments when he looked at her and felt nothing but a satisfied peace. Her eyes shone as she looked back at him, hands shaping a mudra as naturally as picking up a pen. A Dragon in a girl's skin, doing exactly what she'd been born to do. No one else I coulda chosen. He countered, reciting a mantra under his breath, sure she was reading it off his lips and already planning her response. No one in all the worlds.

Neither of them attempted conversation until one of her spells startled him enough that he instinctively used electricity to take it apart. She dodged his retaliation instead of blocking it, stepping backwards off the roof they were on; he was after her only a second later, already looking as he landed on the balcony below. There was no sign of her. "You're fast," he said admiringly, with no idea whether she was still in earshot.

A hand touched the side of his face, surprisingly warm, the softness of her skin as unexpected as always; even in his fantasies he never forgot what she was, that it was her natural state to have a sword in her hands. "And I win."

"You do?" He turned to face her, not trying to hide his smile.

"I most certainly do." She used her free hand to push her hair off her face. "You called lightning, the rules changed. I'm just doing you the courtesy of not actually drawing on you." Her palm pressed harder against his cheekbone, warning.

"Bring it out." The prolonged contact was making him lightheaded, willing to risk her annoyance to keep her close. Her touches were usually quick, over almost before the pain of a fast pinch or jab registered. "C'mon, 'neechan."

Arashi jerked her hand away, brought it to rest in front of his neck. "If you insist."

He always forgot the sound of the sword coming out of her, the wet tearing noise of skin ripped apart and healed in the blink of an eye. He'd overheard Yuzuriha asking if it hurt, once, and Arashi's calm reply that it was over too soon to matter.

"I win," she said again, impossibly sharp steel at his throat.

"Looks that way." He carefully didn't rub his neck when she stepped back and dismissed the weapon. "Think anyone else is still playing?"

"No." Power melted out of the air as she took her kekkai down, and Sorata followed her example. The faint glow his eyes had long since adjusted to disappeared, damaged buildings miraculously restoring themselves around them, the sounds of the city coming to life in his ears. They were three blocks from home, sweaty and exhausted but otherwise indistinguishable from any other students on the evening street. "I forgot it was raining when we left," Arashi said, straightening her uniform in quick, precise movements. Rain spattered the fabric as she worked, but she continued until she'd put herself as much to rights as possible. "Shall we head back?"

"Think any of the others have been back long enough to start supper?"

"If we're fortunate." Sorata filed away the fact that team-building work noticeably lightened her mood; under her practiced patience, she was itching to be doing something. Working herself to the bone had put a bit of a spring in her step. "Although we may wind up doing it," she continued. "Kamui and Yuzuriha made breakfast, after all, and the others are guests."

"Maybe donburi or something, if it's us," he offered, thinking of ways to get supper on the table quickly.

"After a shower." There was no room for argument in her tone as she pushed the door open and called out the ritual greeting. Karen and Yuzuriha's voices blended in reply, and Sorata felt himself relaxing as he kicked his shoes off. A house full of people was a comforting thing, and their place held seven as easily as four, and Subaru agreeing to visit after training was so unheard of that Kamui had spent the morning wandering around with anxiety and excitement vying for control of his face... He chuckled at the memory, sneaking a sidelong glance at Arashi.

She was an expert at keeping her expression under control, but evidently no one had ever told her that her body language made her less inscrutable; Sorata had no doubt she would have learned to rein it in much more effectively if she knew. Removing her boots and stepping into house slippers had no right to look so expectant. "It'd be quicker if we double up in the shower," he said cheerfully, as if their somewhat ascetic upbringings hadn't made them the fastest bathers in the house.

"I'll pass, thank you." But she didn't emphasize the cool reply with so much as a swat, and he grinned.

"You sure? I could wash your back for you--"

"No." She stopped at the foot of the stairs, taking a deep breath of the smell wafting out of the kitchen. Either their housemates or their guests had succumbed to hunger or decided to be generous. "Somehow I think that wouldn't save us any time." She headed up without waiting for a reply, leaving him staring after her.

"Who won?" The faint scent that always clung to Karen identified her before she spoke; she slipped around him with practiced ease and sat down on the staircase. He blinked down at her, barely registering the amount of bare skin she was showing.

"She did, but she was nice enough not to put her sword through my head." His gaze swung back to the upstairs landing. "Hey, Karen-san--did you hear that? Did she sound like she was playing along?"

"Mmm." Amusement colored the noncommittal response. "Doesn't supper smell good? Yuzuriha-chan started cooking when she found out Aoki-san has to head home soon. Nice to know you're all eating properly."

"We get by. Even Kamui's turning out to be a good cook, and gettin' better." He took another look at her clothes, a different outfit than she'd been wearing when she arrived. "Hey, are you working tonight?"

"Later on." She stretched slowly, and spent a few minutes filling him in on how everyone else had done. As she finished, she cocked her head and listened attentively. "Sounds like she's done up there."

Sorata took the hint and went upstairs, passing Arashi in the hallway. "Your turn," she said briskly, still toweling her hair. "There should still be hot water."

He looked past her at the bathing room doorway, which was completely devoid of steam, and shook his head. One of the things he'd learned quickly when they all moved in together was that Arashi's idea of a warm shower was somewhere in the tepid range, although she tolerated hot baths well enough when the four of them took turns soaking. "I'll make it fast."

"We won't start without you." She went into her room, and then leaned back out. "You're a good opponent."

"Fun, wasn't it?" She waved him towards the bathing room without answering, and he grinned. "Thought so," he said, closing the door behind him.

[fin]

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"Playing Games" 2007 by .

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