Somehow the words "dark goddess" came to mind as Ken watched Claudia train. Just a week after the ambush, and she had declared herself fit to practice again. Maki had shot her a darker look than he'd have ever thought possible, and even Michael had seemed hesitant about it, but once she'd shown that the ripping claw marks had faded to little more than pink scars, they'd had no more room left to argue, and they'd had to give in. Maki had made one provision upon surrender though: that she only practice with one of the three of them watching. She'd seemed ready to refuse, but then Michael had produced this blue-eyed, pitiful, and pleading stare, and she caved in.
She was a madwoman for practicing, he had found out early on. Almost four hours ago, Maki had come to get Michael and him to watching her, claiming a need to get back to work for the reason of leaving. An hour ago, Michael had abadoned him to go watch the videos Maki had left him. And now he'd been sitting alone on this bench in the back courtyard of the apartment buildings, watching her twist and twirl and otherwise manipulate an antique and beautiful katana.
"Aren't you tired of watching?" she stated out of the blue.
The sheer suddenness of her words nearly made him jump, but he held it back and retorted, "Aren't you tired of practicing?"
She shrugged, the movement not even affecting the movement of the sword. "I need to. Otherwise, the muscles in my shoulder will heal too tightly."
"It shouldn't be as healed as it is, not for the amount of time that's passed."
Apparently reaching the end of her kata, she lowered the sword and took a seat on the ground before him. "I've always healed quickly."
"It's not normal."
"I've never been normal," she countered.
There was a long moment of strained silence. "I never did thank you, for your help getting my belongings back."
"No big deal. Proved to me that I'm not as out of practice at lockpicking as I'd feared."
"Is everything just 'no big deal' with you?"
She scowled at him again, but it seemed halfhearted at best. "I'm told I get nicer every near-death experience I have."
Of all things she could have said, that was perhaps at the very bottom of the list. "Wh-What?"
"I almost died. If Maki had shown up... just five minutes later and..." She shivered and twirled a light-coloured lock of hair around her forefinger. "I cheat death all the time. It's practically part of the job description." She glanced up at him. "It won't be part of yours. Maki and I are going to be the risk takers. I don't want to put Michel in that kind of danger anymore, and you're too new at this for the field itself."
"Your faith in me is overwhelming."
A small hand fisted a part of his shirt, and she pulled him face-to-face, almost nose-to-nose, with him before he realized what was happening. She certainly was a lot stronger than she looked. "I'm accepting you because Michael likes you. Neither Maki nor I trust you." She jerked him closer with one hand, raising the other - the one with the sword - threateningly. "But if you hurt Michael, I swear to all the gods you will wish I had just killed you."
"Claudia!" Michael's voice cried. A second later, the young man was between them, pulling her off him and checking him over for wounds before whirling back on his partner. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Just laying down the ground rules for our new team member, bishounen."
"You were trying to take his head off!"
"Nonsense. If I'd wanted his head off his shoulders, it would have long since been on the ground. I'll be back. I'm going to go find Maki." She breezed past them both and back inside the apartment building.
"Are you okay?" Cornflower blue eyes checked him over quickly before coming back to his own.
"Fine, fine, just a bit shook up. She's stronger than she looks."
The boy frowned. "She nicked you." He lifted a piece of his shirt to dab at a cut on Ken's throat. "I'm sorry about that. But I'm kinda glad she's acting like the Claudia I know again." He grinned faintly. "She was scary when she was being so nice." He sat down beside him, or rather almost close enough to be in his lap. "Ken?"
"Do you remember the picture of Claudia I showed you in your office?" He nodded slightly. "Does she look different to you?"
He closed his eyes in concentration, thinking back on the photo. The woman in the picture had a pale imitation of the presence of the fighter he'd met now. The face was the same, the eyes similar, what he could identify of the body structure the same... what did that leave?
... the Aryan poster child with perfect blonde hair...
"Her hair," he stated finally, opening his eyes to see Michael leaning even closer than before. "In the photo it was blonde, and it's almost as pale as Maki's now."
"That's what I was thinking, but I wasn't sure." He bit the knuckle of his forefinger. Over the last week, Ken had come to realize this was Michael's way of showing his nervousness. "Do you think she's okay?"
Hesitantly he slipped an arm around the young man's shoulders and let Michael rest his head on his chest. "She's a very strong person, Michael. I'm sure she's fine."
On the other side of the door, the subject of their conversation sighed and turned away. "No," she muttered to herself, "but I know how to be."
4 November 2001
So much for my resolution to work on something else. *shrugs*
Ooooh... "I know how to be..." What do you suppose Claudia meant by that? And what's with her new appearance? And is she trying to keep Michael and Ken apart - or set them up?
Answers coming sometime in the next week!