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Goddamnit.

Three times.

That absolute asshole of a guard at the Celes has stopped him in his tracks three fucking times now.

It’s a simple enough job, or it should be anyway: infiltrate gambling hall Celes and get rid of its murderous owner. That blasted Ashura made himself a thorn in everyone’s side long ago, killing who he pleases and making the police unnecessarily nervous. Behavior like that hurts everyone in the underworld, costs Yuuko money and harms plenty of innocent people besides. Yuuko waited to see whether anything good at all might be salvaged, but he guesses she didn’t find much.

“Can’t be helped,” she’d told him, sighing as she passed the job and its intel along just last week. “Ashura owes me a few lives. I know I can trust you to collect.” So he’d agreed, bowed, and left.

It should have been simple. Ashura knew well enough just how many enemies he had, so he kept himself holed up in Celes. Aside from the occasional appearance in the gambling hall and the seemingly random murders, rumor was, he stayed in his office. Getting to him meant infiltrating the gambling hall, which Kurogane could do easily enough. Yuuko had gotten him the layout after all, through one spy or another. He could either come in as a patron or sneak in unnoticed.

Except, Ashura’s asshole bodyguard has caught him in all three attempts so far.

Kurogane hasn’t been outplayed like this since he first started out. Certainly, no one has ever gotten in his way more than once, let alone three times. He hasn’t faced anyone this capable in… well, a long-ass time. Blondie’d even scored a few hits!

He doesn’t know what the hell is going on. Maybe he’s losing his edge. If this job didn’t need done so badly, he might even respect a guy like that. But as it was…

“Welcome back, Kuroga-ah-ah! You’re bleeding!” Watanuki’s deadpan greeting transforms seamlessly into anxious panic mid-sentence. Kurogane only shifts his hold on the wet fabric wrapped tight around his right arm and levels the kid with a narrow-eyed glare.

Yes, he thinks, bleeding is what happens when someone catches you with a knife.

fuckin asshole blond bodyguard with good aim. How was he supposed to know the man could throw so well? Guy only had one eye. Shouldn’t he have depth perception issues?

“I hadn’t noticed,” he deadpans. Watanuki simply scowls in response. Kid’s going to frown himself right into an early grave. “Is Yuuko decent?”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know.” The high schooler grouches. Watanuki’s cat-like irritation usually amuses Kurogane when it doesn’t annoy him, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it now. His arm hurts and his pride smarts and he’d just like to get this night over with, thanks. Maybe he lets the feeling show a little too easily on his face, because Watanuki pales. “She’s not with a client, at least. If that helps.”

“Good enough.” Kurogane twists the homemade tourniquet tighter and resolutely does not stumble his way through Yuuko’s sprawling halls.

 


 

Yuuko is decent by the time he steps into her drawing room, or at least as decent as someone like her can be. She’s sprawled inappropriately in her sharp suit and chaise lounge, braiding Maru’s hair while Moro watches. The woman takes one look at him leaning heavily against the doorway and tuts,

“Maru, darling, I’m afraid we’ll have to finish later. Could you two go and call Shuuichirou here for me?” The twins bow out with nary a sound, creepy as usual. He’ll never really understand Yuuko’s urge to take in as many awkward stray children as she can, but he supposes he owes his life to that particular bad habit.

Kurogane shuffles in behind the twins and doesn’t wait for Yuuko’s recognition to slump into the nearest chair. He’s done a decent job keeping himself from bleeding out, he thinks, but that doesn’t mean he’s not exhausted. Yuuko can deal.

“Caught again, Kurogane? That’s not like you.” She muses, drawing herself up to sit at least a little straighter as she takes his appearance in.

He very much agrees, though he’d rather not let her know that. Instead, he recounts the night’s activities in a bored tone, trying to downplay his embarrassment. He pauses briefly when Yuuko’s favorite doctor, Kudou Shuuichirou makes his appearance, but a glance from Yuuko sets him finishing the tale. Kudou stays silent and asks no questions. Kurogane appreciates his professionalism, but he does kind of wish the man would warn him before he starts stitching. 

“Well,” Yuuko muses as his story comes to close. “I’d heard of the blond dealer at Celes, but if I’d known he was such an important player I would have warned you.” She doesn’t need to say as much. Yuuko doesn’t make a habit of putting her people in danger unnecessarily.

“I figured. How do you want me to proceed going forward?” She continues as if she hasn’t heard him for a moment or two, simply pulling long draws from her favorite pipe. Kurogane bears her pageantry and tries to ignore the burning pull of needle and thread against the sore ache of his knife-wound.  If Yuuko could please just get this over with—

“Ashura pays his price in blood. That’s final. You’ll need to find a way to make it so. However…” she leans forward, peering at Kurogane and the gash in his arm with narrowed eyes. “I don’t think I want the dealer dead. He’s obviously a formidable fighter, and I have no quarrel with him in particular. Two deaths would alert the authorities unnecessarily anyway. See if you can’t find another way around him.”

Strangely, her pronouncement makes him feel... relieved? He doesn't fear the idea of facing the guy in a fight again, but the thought of killing him… well maybe he respects an opponent like that after all.

“If I’m buying him off, I’ll need something to go on.”

“Hm,” Yuuko considers, tapping her pipe to shift the tobacco inside.  “I have a suspicion or two about him, but nothing concrete. He doesn’t exist, officially speaking, but that’s hardly a surprise given who he works for. People have a tendency of disappearing around Ashura for more than one reason, after all.” She motions toward the matchbook, as if she means him to light one for her.

Kurogane huffs, tilting his chin meaningfully toward his arm, still very firmly held in place by an ill-tempered Kudou Shuuichirou.

Yuuko frowns down at him. Sighing deeply, she leans forward to reach the matches herself. Her long fingers coax flame forth easily and she reheats her pipe bowl with a pout.

He rolls his eyes to the ceiling. Kurogane may owe her a lot, but she’s trying at the best of times. It’s hardly his fault Kudou decided the damn thing needed stitches. Kurogane hadn’t thought it looked that bad.

It’s your fault letting your guard down enough to get injured like that in the first place, Yuuko’s expression seems to say, brow raised tauntingly.

“Can you wait for me to leave before you do the mind-reading conversation thing? It’s creepy,” Kudou announces, punctuating his annoyance with more force than necessary on the next pull of a stitch. Kurogane grits his teeth and resolutely does not wince.

“Creepier than talking about assassinating local criminals?” Yuuko muses, laughing. The doctor’s hand jerks again and Kurogane only barely restrains his wince this time. Can she not tease the man while he’s got a needle buried in Kurogane’s skin, thanks.

“Since I’ve been in my clinic all evening, I’m certain I have no idea what you’re speaking of.” Kudou’s voice rasps, dry as the desert itself. Yuuko’s pipe trails away from her mouth when she laughs, deep and long.

“This is why you’re my favorite, Shuuichirou,” she drawls. Kurogane resists rolling his eyes a second time and stares the woman down. He cares about her. He really does. She’s the closest thing to a mother he and everyone else here has. She’s also a pain in the ass.

“Back to the matter at hand,” he interrupts before Kudou gets a chance to answer.

“Ah, right. Your blond tormentor.” She inhales, exhales smoke, makes him wait a few minutes longer in the silence just for dramatic effect. The woman has far too much fun playing with the people around her. “While Ashura hides like a paranoid fool, blondie runs the gambling floor. Young, attractive, most likely involved with one or two disappearances himself, though nothing can be proven.” Yuuko takes a deep draw of her pipe, lets her eyes fall closed. “I’ve gotten a few petty complaints about him over the years: mostly neighborhood gamblers whining about his fixing games on the house’s behalf. Not my concern or my problem. Certainly no mention of knife throwing!”

Great. Kurogane sighs and resigns himself to the pull of the needle in his arm as he listens to Yuuko laugh. Her information network doesn’t slouch. If she doesn’t even have the guy’s name, let alone any important details, he must be a serious pro.

“Anyway, Shuuichirou,” Yuuko drawls, sitting her pipe aside with a gentle click of finality, “how is our dear Kohaku? The house is so lonely without them.” Kudou jabs his arm forcefully again, and Kurogane tries to figure out just where he went wrong.

 


 

Don’t kill anyone other than Ashura. Get the blond out of the way.

He doesn’t know how he can manage both, but he has no choice but to try. It annoys the hell out of him that Yuuko can't just assign info gathering and blackmail to one of her usual crew, but they've lost enough personnel to Ashura already. She's not going to risk anyone less capable. 

He waits a day or two before he decides to tail the bodyguard. He can figure everything else out after he has a better grasp of the situation. He only needs to find a way to make that guy take a day off, right? Buy him off, blackmail him, threaten him away… Kurogane will figure something out, he’s sure. He simply needs more intel before he can worry about the next move.

Regular informant or no, he knows well enough how to shadow a target. His more usual line of work affords him that experience, at the very least. He sets about his early morning stakeout of the Celes with a reasonable, if preemptively bored, sense of confidence.

Stalking is neither glamorous nor interesting, but he doesn’t usually have any trouble with it. He spots his quarry locking the doors and ducking out of the gambling hall around five in the morning, looking sufficiently haggard after a long night of work. Kurogane waits for him to cross the street and move a block ahead before he steps out of the shade to trail behind.

Maybe he's overconfident. Maybe he's lost more of his edge than he thought but... he doesn't make it three blocks before Blondie turns on a heel and looks straight his way...

It’s all in his head. It has to be. But he swears that when that blue gaze catches him, the stitches in his arm begin to burn.

God. Fucking. damnit.

He avoids indulging the urge to punch the nearest passerby, but only just. How has the bastard spotted him already?! Has he just suddenly become completely incapable overnight, or is Blondie really just that good?

Great. Well, he certainly doesn’t know what to do now. He didn’t see Ashura leave last night, so presumably the man’s still inside Celes. Maybe if he backs off now he can double back, break in and try to make the hit, but since the blond menace saw him he can only assume backup would arrive quickly. He doesn't fear the possibility of a good fight, but if Yuuko wants him to limit the body count, he'll have to avoid large scale engagements like that.

Seething, he almost convinces himself that a chance at Ashura (and the end of this job) might be worth the risk of extra casualties. He thinks through the path in his head, trying to recall the best escape routes and break in points from Yuuko's notes. He takes a step back, makes to turn around and—

Catches the stranger's eye again as the blond nods sharply toward a nearby cafe.

It's a challenge—an invitation.

His opponent walks toward the entrance and swings the glass door open wide with seemingly carefree motions. Kurogane tries to weigh the whole thing rationally in his head. The early morning does afford some privacy, but enough workers mill zombie-like down the street to provide a steady flow of witnesses. Anyone smart would recognize that; it’s not really the right time or place to start something. On the other hand, he has no idea what kind of allies this guy might have. Celes didn't run much outside of itself, but Blondie's come with so many surprises already; who was to say he didn't have a few coffee shops on the take?

It’s a terrible idea. If he follows the guy now, he’ll be making a total rookie mistake.

...

Hell, he's fucked this job royally so far. Might as well keep the streak going. Besides, if the blond brings him a fight, he might even owe the guy a thank you. The stitches still smarting in his arm ache for payback. 

Kurogane shifts the fake woodwind case slung across his shoulders and makes certain he can draw his blade quickly. He strides eagerly toward the shop door, frame tense with anticipation. His fingers meet the handle as he sweeps the room behind the glass. Nothing appears out of the ordinary. The mystery blond is standing at the counter, seemingly ordering a drink.

Fuck it, he thinks, and the door swings wide.

 


 

 

“Fancy meeting you here," the man teases, motioning for him to sit at a table just a little too short for either of them. The furrow in Kurogane’s brow digs deeper. He could play along, but that’s never been his style.

He takes the offered seat, tilts his “instrument case” forward for easy access.

“You’re the one who invited me, aren’t you?” he deadpans, watching the way pale hands twitch briefly with surprise.

“Ha! I suppose so.” The blond leans back in his chair, bringing his cup to his lips for a long sip. His single, piercing eye never drifts from Kurogane’s unmoving form. “Not going to order anything, then? It’s really no trouble. I could have them bring something over for you.” He sees what his opponent intends and reaches out to halt one pale wrist before the blond can wave to the counter. It’s a signal if he’s ever seen one, and he knows without a doubt now that he’s walked into some kind of trap.

Thank God, he thinks with only the slightest hint of guilt.

“I’m not thirsty.” The glare he earns for himself is brief, but vicious. Kurogane’s heart speeds in his chest, mouth threatening to quirk upwards. He pulls his opponent’s hand forward and down to the table’s surface with gloved fingers. “But I wouldn’t say no to a fight, if that’s what you’re aiming for.”

The blond tears his arm back and away, shoulders shaking with something like a laugh.

“You are absolutely terrible at this,” he announces, and Kurogane shrugs. He’s not wrong. Kurogane doesn’t do this kind of subtle dance—it’s not his forte. He’s a weapon. Yuuko points him in the right direction, and he cuts. Asking him to play spy is just begging for trouble. “Alright then, Mr. Honest, why are you following me?”  He punctuates the question with a snap before Kurogane can stop him, and the store’s employees jump into motion. They finish the only order on the bar, start silently lowering the blinds and flicking the store sign to closed. The last customer bustles out with a nervous glance in their direction.

Kurogane figured the Celes had more going on than Yuuko knew, but this kind of coordinated scramble confirms it. He starts to say something glib, body tense and ready to spring into motion at the first hint of a fight. For all he knows, every employee in the room might have a gun at the ready, just waiting for him to make a move.

“You mean you don’t already know?” Kurogane muses, studying his opponent’s face for something—any kind of hint. The blond’s expression remains as cool and placid as a lake, though his fingers twitch once in irritation.

“Well, I know a few things. I know you work for the witch, for one,” hardly a difficult deduction. The butterfly pin on his lapel gives as much away to anyone who’s ever heard of Yuuko. Troublesome if it shows when he wants to go unnoticed, but useful enough to be worth it. Half the people in this town owe Yuuko one way or another. “You’re armed, terrible at information gathering. You’ve been showing up where you shouldn’t, fought me in the offices the other day, and then tried to follow me.”

Kurogane takes a moment to glance warily around the shop, wondering suddenly whether his opponent intends to use this exposition, make a scene and get him arrested. Unlikely. The last of the workers leaves with a tiny, nervous bow in the blond’s direction, shutting the door behind them. With the shutters down, the tiny shop is transformed to a perfect meeting place, hidden away from prying eyes.

“It’s obvious you want me dead. I just can’t figure out what I’ve done to offend the witch herself.” That’s… odd.

“You think I want to kill you?” Kurogane presses, already feeling like he somehow has the upper hand. Blondie might be a prodigy at knife fighting and he might have more allies than anyone had thought, but he doesn’t understand a damn thing. “You figured we wanted you dead, so you isolated yourself here with me; no witnesses, no backup, and no way to call for help,” blondie simply tilts his head in answer, that blue eye bright with challenge. “You are absolutely terrible at this,” he echoes, deeply satisfied by the annoyance he sees flicker briefly over his enemy’s delicate features.  

“So, I’m not your target then?” Can’t hurt to tell him that. He’ll know soon enough if he leaves here alive, anyway.

“No,” Kurogane admits, increasingly amused. He watches the blond frown, slouching down to hazard another sip of coffee.

For a man convinced an assassin intended to kill him, he really shows very little concern. Is he suicidal, or just arrogant? Kurogane wonders.

“Thievery then. You wanted our business records? Maybe you’re following me now because you think I can be bribed? Or could it be that you intended to get to…” The blond trails away, his expression closing off in time with his voice. Ah. Perhaps he realizes.

“Who can say?” Kurogane barely has the time to tease. Finally, finally, the asshole makes a move.

Hot coffee flies toward his face in a wave as those pale fingers dart for a slim waist. He hadn’t been fast enough to react last time, but he knows better now. He’s been waiting for this. His blood thunders in his ears as he dodges back and away. He’s moving before he makes the conscious decision to do so, slamming his chair sideways and sending it skidding across the floor. His blade slides free from its hidden compartment with a satisfying, familiar sound, catching the first knife just before it can find a home in his chest.

“I owe you for the other night,” he crows. The healing wound in his arm protests every swing as he deflects blade after blade, but it only spurs him on. Twenty stitches and a new damn shirt. He intends to make the bastard pay.

The blond is good, but not good enough without the benefit of surprise. He runs out of thrown weapons soon enough and eventually resorts to fighting up close with a wicked looking knife. An intimidating weapon, but he won’t stand a chance against Kurogane’s blade.

“Who is it,” his opponent hisses, entirely transformed from the laughing, controlled man who’d been seated languidly before him just moments earlier. “Who does the witch want?”

Kurogane knows better than to answer. Honestly though, he doesn’t know if he could. Shorter blade or no, the dealer fights like a man possessed. He’s entirely different from the joking, carefree thing facing him down in the moonlight of Celes’s offices. Kurogane shouldn’t have any trouble sweeping in and landing a decisive blow, but the blond makes it impossible. He moves like water, flows around Kurogane and his swings, slips under his arms and pulls him in closer so that Kurogane has to keep spinning away. Even if he tries to take advantage of what he knows must be a significant blind spot on the man’s left, he can’t land a hit. It’s frustrating. Fascinating.

But… it can’t last forever. When it comes down to the wire, Kurogane just has more experience.

He moves for an overhead strike, anticipating the easy way the enemy fighter catches his blade on the downswing and steps away from it. When the blond pivots to take advantage of the opening Kurogane leaves, he sweeps out with his ankle and kicks the café table hard, landing a solid hit and knocking his opponent to the ground.

“Cheat!” the man wheezes, sounding for just a second like the playful creature Kurogane had met once before. It doesn’t last. His features harden, and he rolls away from the axe kick Kurogane intends to meet with his chest. Even downed, the dealer is a ferocious thing. He rolls like a fool and strikes out at whatever part of Kurogane he can reach, always searching for an opening to stand. He manages to nick the fronts of Kurogane’s shins and tear his pants to ribbons at the ankles. Goddamnit that’s a whole suit the bastard owes him now.

“Lay the fuck still!”  He finds himself growling as he finally, finally manages to press the edge of his steel to his enemy’s gasping throat. He knows better than to let his guard down, even with his opponent seemingly bested, and a good thing too. That eye stares defiantly up, unflinching as he keeps moving, uncaring of the sword biting into his neck. His wrist darts forward, ready to plunge his knife up and into the back of Kurogane’s knee.

A death wish. This asshole has a fucking death wish, Kurogane decides. Acting as quickly as he can, he somehow avoids slicing into the dumbass’s carotid as he shifts all his weight to one leg. Swiveling uncomfortably, he slams his heel down on the man’s wrist with enough force to break it. The blade clatters behind them across the floor as its owner gasps with pain.

Great. He’s finally got the guy at his mercy, but it doesn’t feel like much of a victory. He’d had to fight too hard for it, his shins remind him, smarting and wet with his own blood. Besides, he doesn’t even know what he’s supposed to do now. He’s not supposed to kill the guy.

He bends down, considering. He keeps his left knee firmly on that troublesome right arm, doesn’t let his blade drift too far from his enemy’s sluggishly bleeding neck.

“No way I’m just gonna threaten a guy like you off work, huh?” He thinks out loud to himself, and the dealer laughs. No, probably not. A guy like this, who’d cut his own neck to land a good knife hit? If he wasn’t waiting for death, he was certainly stubborn in the face of it. Well, there’s really only one good way to go from here. He’ll have to try to put the guy out of commission. He can’t threaten him away, but at least he can make the asshole less of a threat in the future. It just… feels kind of cheap.

Well…. The guy’s a card dealer, right? Broke one of his wrists already. Ruining the other hand shouldn’t prove too much a challenge. No reason to make it more painful than it has to be though.

“Next time,” he finds himself chiding, pulling his weapon away and twisting it up towards the ceiling. His quarry starts to struggle as soon as the steel moves more than a few inches from his neck, but Kurogane has all the control here. “don’t underestimate me.” He brings the hilt of his blade down on the man’s temple, hard. However surprising his fighting skills, the blond passes out just like any other person.

Kurogane sighs deeply as he sheathes his sword and pushes himself up and away with a sense of loss. He’d had a lot of fun with that fight, up until the end. How much more interesting could it have been if blondie had seen fit to call for backup, or play it cautious?

He rifles through the enemy’s pockets, all too aware that any of the shop’s workers could very well have called the police by now. He keeps the small wallet he finds, collects the thrown daggers and the impressive knife from around the room, rights as many tables and chairs as he can, and then turns back to his fallen foe. He hates this, but…. Business is business.

The man keeps his daggers sharp, Kurogane muses as he drives one all the way through the muscle and bone of the dealer’s left hand, straight into the floor. He wakes briefly to scream, before the pain pulls him back under. Damn. He’d been hoping the concussion would keep him asleep. (Kurogane is an assassin, not a sadist.) He pulls himself back up, collects his coat… and starts toward the back entrance.

He can do this. He can leave the guy here. It’s not his problem.

Except… wasn’t the whole point of not killing anyone supposed to be to limit police presence? When those shopkeepers come back and find the place like this, they’ll call the authorities for certain. Besides, what if he’d fucked up and given the man brain damage or something? He might die anyway and then all of this would be for nothing.

God damn it, he repeats on a loop in his head like a mantra, hurrying back to pick up his enemy’s broken form. He reaches over and pulls the dagger back out of that hand, wincing as he listens to another pained moan. Nothing he can do for it now—what’s done is done. He makes certain no hidden weapons remain at the man’s waist and tosses him over one shoulder. He steps out the back entrance and into an ally to the tune of police sirens, cursing all the way.