She still uses the masculine terminology with reckless disregard. She still behaves as though she’s ‘just’ a bodyguard. It’s still a struggle to get her into a dress. Ryuji likes the contrariness of her - the unconscious spice when other women are sugary sweet. It’s not intentional, it’s not a weapon like her bugworm. It’s just Tsukasa.
“Why do you put up with her?” Asago demands as Tsukasa storms off into the garden to work off her fury after Ryuji tried to cozen her into sitting beside him.
“Because she’s not you.”
Asago sniffs. “There are plenty of women who aren’t me in the world, Ryuji.”
“But only one Tsukasa.”
Ryuji turns the conversation to other avenues - the smooth and dangerous politics of the clans. Asago is a good ally to have; as the ambitious and clever daughter of the head of Silver Dragon Clan, she knows what is in the wind, even when her father won’t share it with her. She would have been a brilliant seisai to the sandaime of Kuryuugumi - but for that she isn’t Tsukasa.
When Tsukasa returns from the far reaches of the garden, dragging a disarmed and bruised assassin in her bugwhip, Ryuji allows the rest of the household to panic and increase his security. His concern is all for Tsukasa.
“Are you hurt?”
“Don’t be silly,” she sneers, although she doesn’t shake off his touch. “It’s what I’m supposed to do as your bodyguard.”
“Put yourself in harm’s way?” Asago inquires sweetly, never having moved from her seat. “Is that the business of the seisai now?”
Tsukasa pales at the term, then reddens. “That is the business of Kuryuugumi,” she spits out between gritted teeth. “And of Ryuji, who is no longer your concern.”
It’s as close to being claimed by Kozuki Tsukasa as Ryuji has yet come. And he finds he likes it, although he hides the smirk before Tsukasa sees.
Asago and Tsukasa snipe at each other, exchanging insults in much the manner of any two kumi and coming away more than satisfied at having spoken her mind and reassured herself of the other girl’s disdain. Other women play sweet and sugar, but these two are vinegar and oil – unmixing, and yet going well together. And if Asago commands no particular rank within the dragon clans, Ryuji thinks it unlikely that state will continue. She has her own cunning, does his childhood friend.
And yet it is Tsukasa who pulls at him, like magnet to his steel.
Later that night, when all the household is asleep but the night guard, he climbs into her bed, sliding in behind a slim, lean body that is nothing like the women paraded around him like so much meat.
“What?” She tenses as she wakes to the caress of his hand down her arm, the back of his fingers brushing the edge of her breast – released from the stupid protector she wears and allowed to curve as the gods and nature intended. Then she relaxes, as though relieved, and for a moment he thinks his battle is won. His mouth curves in warm delight as he leans down to nuzzle at her throat, as her hand comes up to cup his jaw—
The world tumbles and he lands with a thump on his butt as Tsukasa shoves him out of the bed with a sharp push against his throat. “ Baka! Get out of my bed, you idiot!”
Leaning back on the floor where he fell, his butt and elbows aching, Ryuji laughs at himself and his hopes, at her outrage and the way she clutches the sheet to her chest in the shadows, at the way she huffs when he stands and bids her goodnight, at the temptation to pull her up against him and leave her with a kiss that promises all the things she’s once again opted not to take – not yet.
Someday she will accept him. She must; the alternative is unthinkable.
Why does Ryuji put up with her? Because he will not allow Tsukasa to be pushed. Coaxed and encouraged, teased and taunted, but always with the option to say ‘no’.
The boy he used to be trapped her into service; the man he is becoming wants her to stay of her own desire.
Shibuya glances at his watch although he knows he shouldn’t.
“She’s coming,” says Ryuji, confident as only he can be when it comes to Tsukasa.
Privately, Shibuya’s not so sure - the heads of the dragon clans have been restless of late - because Tsukasa still will not declare for Ryuji, nor Ryuji for Tsukasa. Things could get difficult, but all Ryuji will say is, “They can wait.”
The door slams open and the waiting kumin gape.
Business trousers cling to slim legs, the waist is tailored and the jacket buttons up to the middle of the chest, beneath which a satiny shirt rises smoothly to the open-collared throat. Within the shadows of the shirt front, something glitters, hauntingly.
The outfit is not feminine. But for the first time since Shibuya has known Tsukasa, she wears no protector and is unmistakably female.
And just as unmistakably primed for a fight.
The nearest kumi nearly bites off his tongue as Tsukasa shuts his mouth with her hand shoving is jaw closed. “My eyes are up here,” she says, and the edges of his flesh beneath her fingers shows white as his terrified eyes swivel up to her face. He knows not to grovel, but the kumin of Kuryuugumi have become adept at the art of not-grovelling.
In comparison, the executives of Kuryuugumi stare, uncertain of what to do with the young woman they have become accustomed to thinking of as an ancillary addition to Ryuji. A bodyguard, a servant, no-one of note – although they have more wit in them than to use her as a servant, at their beck and call. The smartest are already recalculating their alliances; the most stupid will offend her and fall from Ryuji’s grace.
She stalks towards the car with all the grace of a panther, but her eyes are hard as diamonds as she strides over to Ryuji, even if her cheeks are scarlet.
Ryuji seems to be holding back a smile. But he grinds out his cigarette in the ashtray at his elbow, and jerks his head towards her accustomed place beside him. “Let’s go.”
Were he any other man in the world, Ryuji would have spoken of the clothing. Were she any other woman in the world, Tsukasa would have expected a comment. Because they are who they are, they say nothing. Yet as the car door closes, Shibuya sees Ryuji’s hand close over hers, and if Tsukasa does not acknowledge him, neither does she shake him off.
That day, meeting with the clans becomes a whole new game.
Shibuya watches with the others as Tsukasa mingles alongside Ryuji. One step behind and to his left, facing out like a good bodyguard should.
When a stupid kumin of another clan tries to accost her, she twists his arm and brings him to his knees with her left, even as her right lashes out with the bugwhip, stabbing through the hand of the assassin dressed as a servant with the knife poised to throw – at her, at Ryuji, at some other member of the clans. Distraction and death.
“I would investigate his loyalties,” she tells the guards who come to deal with the kumin and the assassin. “And question the security of this house.”
In the aftermath, Ryuji closes his hand over hers, and she gives him a frowning look and takes her hand back. But when the other young men of the clans approach, she drops back to Ryuji’s shoulder again, ignoring them.
For the rest of the evening, Ryuji’s smile is triumphant, and Shibuya mentally notes that he must tell Meiko to expect Ryuji in her infirmary tomorrow morning.