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a warm afternoon is worth any other

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“Is it true,” Orochi says one afternoon, as you sit on your heels there watching her clean the various paraphernalia of her trade, “that you and Saizo used to date?”

 

The question is playful. There’s a faint layer of disbelief underneath the obviously delighted tone, the one that mockingly exclaims, as it always does, how scandalous!—but Orochi already knows the answer to her own question. She generally does; asking questions she already knows the answers to is one of her favourite things to do.

 

A common trapping of her profession, you presume, though you don’t like to presume things.

 

“Yes,” you say. Blunt and straight to the point. What’s the point of pretending otherwise? You’ve said enough in the past for Orochi to piece things together.

 

“Wow,” she says in response. You’re not sure if she’s teasing you yet or not. “Didn’t think he was your type.”

 

“Mm,” you answer. Very unhelpful, but that’s never stopped Orochi when she’s in a mood to talk.

 

“I know you grew up together,” she continues, right on cue. “And I know you two work well together as a team. But really? Saizo?”

 

“You sound judgmental,” you inform her, sipping your tea, relaxed. She doesn’t actually sound judgmental; she just likes pretending to say judgmental things, for reasons you don’t think you’ll ever quite understand. Orochi is like that—no matter how intimately familiar she is to you, you are ever two different beasts.

 

But that is quite fine with the both of you.

 

“Orochi, judgmental? Never!” she declares with unnecessary flourish. You never tire of watching her move, though you’ll never understand why she is the way she is. “I simply wish to understand the secrets behind your courtship! Tell me—what magnetic pull drew you to him?”

 

Perhaps a different kind of person would roll their eyes here. You’ve never really tried that, but you should probably save your first eye roll for a more momentous occasion. Idly, you wonder if Saizo or Kaze have ever rolled their eyes—unlikely, or at least not in polite company.  

 

(Saizo, that is. You’re quite sure that such a heinous thought has never once crossed Kaze’s mind.)

 

(Saizo is Saizo.)

 

“There was no courtship,” you say, because it’s true. Ninjas might court others if they are ever taken by the folly, but not each other. It either happens, or it doesn’t. “It just happened.”

 

“Hmmm.” Orochi doesn’t appear entirely satisfied by this answer, which is to be expected. There’s that adorable little vexed furrow between her brows. “A natural heat born of years of fighting side by side, then? Or an unexpected burst of passion following the rush of battle? The desperation brought on by thinking one of you was going to die?”

 

No. “Perhaps,” you say.  She’ll weasel to her point eventually. You sip your tea.

 

“Well, it is certainly true that Saizo used to be different, back in the day. He wasn’t nearly so peevish. And he certainly had better manners!” Orochi muses, picking the previous topic back up as though nothing happened. She’s still absent-mindedly sorting out her cards. But then she looks up, eyes suddenly gleaming. “Why, when I first met him—”

 

“Yes, I know,” you cut in before Saizo’s spirit can be humiliated again. The entire camp must have heard that embarrassing story by now. Oh, Saizo. So adept at intimidating enemies into silence, but trying to wrangle Orochi is a different kind of challenge altogether. You would know. “Please, spare his dignity.”

 

She lets out a hearty guffaw. It’s a familiar, heartwarming sound—though you still feel bad for Saizo. But you cannot do anything about Orochi’s predilection for pulling pranks on the big and surly.

 

Except for you, of course. Orochi could never pull one over you. You’d like to see her try.

 

“It makes me wonder what you see in me, if I share a spot in your dating history with him,” she teases then. Ah. So that’s it. She’s simply been fishing for compliments, the vain woman. A bold move, considering that you’d reduced her to a blushing mess the last time she’d given you an opening. But then, that’s classically Orochi—never one to admit defeat. And you can’t claim it isn’t a fun game.

 

The bright afternoon sun chooses this moment to visit you two. It slowly warms the small of your back as it trickles in through the paper doors. It pools in the air, a rich, suffused golden; the glow reflects off of the polished surface of the wooden table, the vivid yellow-green of the tatami, and the brightness of Orochi’s dimpled cheeks and dancing smile.

 

Without meaning to, you smile back.

 

You are entirely too comfortable here.

 

“Hmm. Well, for one, you both like fish.” Your attempt at a joke, though you know you’re not a very funny person.

 

Thankfully, when it comes to humour, Orochi is more than capable of pulling your weight in this relationship. She laughs at your poor attempt, though you’re not sure whether it’s because it was pathetic or because she genuinely found it funny. Hard to tell, with Orochi.

 

“Seriously?” she asks, amusement clear on her face. An open book, this one, even when she tries not to be. “You dated us because we both like seafood?”

 

You think about how best to answer her. Like you said before—you’re not a funny person. But it’s been an interesting experiment, trying to say different, occasionally outrageous, occasionally incomprehensible things to try to make her laugh.

 

“Kaze likes it too,” you say after a half-second of incredibly deep thought.

 

Your venture is a resounding success. Orochi’s eyebrows fly up, even as her mouth drops open. You always wonder how they go so high. Yours staunchly refuse to—it must be because of the muscles. Orochi’s eyebrow muscles are very commanding, compared to yours. Clearly, she has had ample amounts of muscle training.

 

You hide your smile in the rim of your teacup this time.

 

“What! Kagero, what have you not been telling me!? Are you implying—twins!? Really? What am I supposed to do with that information? Are you suggesting something? You better not—don’t you laugh at me!”

 

You’re not laughing; over a decade of being friends with Orochi has not yet taught you that precious skill. But you’re smiling more widely than usual into your tea, and Orochi calls that laughing—if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for you.

 

“It wasn’t twins,” you say. “Not like that. You have nothing to worry about, Orochi.” You are aware that you are being deliberately misleading, given that you and Kaze have never had that kind of relationship. You imagine that the mere thought of that kind of thing would make Kaze’s usually grave face turn into a chard leaf. 

 

Orochi huffs. “’Not like that’, you say! I don’t appreciate having my leg pulled, Kagero. No, not my leg—it’s my heart you’re yanking about like a dog on a chain!”

She doesn’t sound very upset.

 

“I’m terribly sorry if I’ve caused you grief,” you apologize, but you know that you’re too amused for it to come across as properly solemn. You set your teacup down and get to your feet in one smooth motion. “But I did say you have nothing to worry about. After all…”

 

“Two of them,” you say lowly as you slowly sidle up to her, “wouldn’t compare to a single one of you.”

 

“Um,” she says, a card falling out of the pile in her hands.

 

You lean over and carefully brush the hair at the sides of her face behind her ear, your face close enough to smell the herbs on her skin but not enough to touch. This close, your hand can feel as her cheeks begin to heat up.

 

That’s a cute expression on her. But as difficult as it is for you to play favourites, it is her smile that you want to see today.

 

“I assure you,” you hum, “that I am very invested in keeping your heart free of any chains, Orochi.”

 

She’s red already. “I miss when you were too concerned with your dark and gloomy image to say such things to me.”

 

You think about it, but not for very long. Some things Orochi says don’t merit so much thought.

 

“I never was,” you disagree gently, carefully making yourself comfortable on the tatami without disturbing any of her fortune-telling equipment. Knowing how to position yourself and knowing how to not leave a mess are both arts you excel in far better than painting with a brush. If your paintings weren’t so bleak—you would be drawing her figure all night long.

 

Her shadow, like a babbling brook—one day, you’ll be able to capture it, and perhaps then you could finally thank her for befriending you, all those moons ago.

 

She looks like she thinks about it for a moment, too, then sighs.

 

“No,” she admits ruefully, “you weren’t.” You close your eyes as you quietly drift closer, not needing to see the soft curve of her lips to picture it. You’re far too at ease with her, but at least she is always willing to indulge you.

 

Orochi is an enabler of all kinds of mischief; it is one of her most attractive, and most unfortunate, traits.

 

“You’ve always been such a weirdo."

 

You lean in, until you can feel her smile, too.