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A Certainty in Steel and Skin

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So I bare my skin and I count my sins

And I close my eyes and I take it in

Imagine Dragons, "Bleeding Out"


Northwest Fire Country, April, Sandaime Year 29

Ryouma missed his fifteenth birthday. Someone in his unit was probably keeping track of the days, but for Ryouma they’d all blurred together in one long nightmare advance-and-retreat, back and forth over the border until earth jutsu and endless rain turned the world to mud. He was the last chuunin left, and sometimes he still wasn’t sure he’d survived. Maybe this limping slog through exhaustion and blood actually was Hell, and they’d just never noticed the moment of their deaths.

He kept himself awake on watch, for a little while, trying to remember the moment he might have died. That sword-blow he’d thought he’d ducked? The explosive jutsu that threw him fifteen meters and left his ears still ringing and his vest spattered with Ichiro’s blood? There were new stains since then. Some of the blood was his own.

Could the dead bleed?

He was testing the theory with a kunai at the base of his hand when a hawk plummeted screeching out of the rain and sank its talons into his shoulder. Ryouma’s hand slipped. He stared stupidly down at the blood seeping over his wrist, until the hawk shrieked again and pecked at his ear.

The jounin captain caught him over the other ear with a clout that staggered him. “Get yourself in hand,” she snapped, as the hawk flapped awkwardly to her arm instead. Its talons dug through her wet sleeve into the heavy muscle of her forearm, but she didn’t flinch. She unfastened the message case from its feathered leg, cursing at the rain.

Ryouma stood with his wet hand clamped over the cut on his wrist and watched her face change. She sagged, as if all the fire had burned out of her.

“We’re ordered to Mizudera,” she said.

Nobody let Ryouma touch the maps. He had no idea where Mizudera was, but it wasn’t Konoha. It wasn’t safe.

Maybe it wouldn’t be raining there, though.

Mizudera was no castle town, but it had been fortified as a front-line command center, stark stone walls surrounded by burned-back fields that left clear sight-lines for nearly a kilometer around the city. Konoha uniforms and civilian militia patrolled the walls. The rain drizzled to a mist that hissed and steamed in the flare of torches over the gate, but the mud in the streets was still ankle-deep.

Ryouma reported to a medic to get his wrist checked, and to a quartermaster’s assistant to drop off ruined gear and request replacements, and, finally, to a small house near the main market that had been requisitioned as a barracks. There were already three men sleeping in the six-tatami room they assigned him to. He flung his filthy blankets down in the only space left and fell asleep as soon as he’d peeled his vest off.

He woke in the dim light of late afternoon. Two of the men were gone, but there was a boy a year or two older than him sitting up against the wall, with a pad of white paper balanced against his knees. He was wearing short black pants and a wrapped shirt, open-collared over mesh armor. Reddish hair tumbled over the dull gleam of a hitai-ate. Genin, probably: no flak vest, chakra a loose tangle beneath his skin. His pencil scratched against the paper, and he frowned and reached for an eraser.

Ryouma’s bones ached too much to sit up. “What’re you drawing?” he asked.

The eraser skipped. The boy swore and swapped out his pencil again. “Hold still,” he said.

He didn’t seem embarrassed at all. Ryouma could feel his ears heating up, but he tried not to betray it. He lay on his side with one arm curled beneath his head and the other tucked down against his stomach, where his shirt had rucked up to bare his skin. He wondered if he should pull the shirt down, but he didn’t want to move.

Sunlight filtered in from a paper-screened window set high in the wall, and the room was warm. Ryouma’s clothes had dried, though he itched with sweat and mud and worse things. The tatami floor was hard under his hip. He could smell himself, and the other men who’d slept here. The genin looked clean, though — there must be baths somewhere around — and he smelled of oranges.

Ryouma’s eyelids drifted closed.  

He woke again when paper and blankets rustled. The genin was trying to straighten out his bedroll, swearing again under his breath. He’d flipped his sketchpad closed and tucked it under his arm. The pencil was sticking behind his ear, almost invisible under his hair.

Ryouma pushed himself up on his elbow. “Don’t I get to see?”

The genin stopped, looking down at him. He said, a little gruffly, “It’s not very good.”

“I can’t draw at all,” Ryouma said. He held up his bandaged hand.

The genin hesitated a moment. His cheekbones pinked, beneath the freckles. Then he dropped down cross-legged on the floor beside Ryouma, opened the sketchpad, and thrust it into Ryouma’s hand.

The boy on the page didn’t look like Ryouma. He was sketched out in the faintest lines, copied over darker in clean spare linework. The stained, torn chuunin shirt gaped over his delicate collarbones and bared the hollow cup of his navel. The cut-glass bones of his face came too close to the skin, and his lashes, soft and thick against his paper-pale cheeks, looked as long as a girl’s.

Ryouma cleared his throat. “I’m not that skinny.”

The genin scoffed. “How long’ve you been out in the field?”

Ryouma glared up at him. The genin reached for the sketchpad again, but Ryouma struggled up to sit against the wall and turned the next page over.

This one had only his head, sketched down to the collarbones again. His eyes were open, confused with sleep, and his hair fell tangled over his forehead. There was a little design sketched over one cheek, a complicated swirl of lines and dots that looked half like a teardrop and half like a flame. The rest of the page was filled with variations on the same design, spiraling into flowers or thorns.

The last page had him sleeping again. He was shirtless this time, and still far too skinny. Ryouma would have protested again, but the genin had made up for the imagined fragility by drawing a new design across his chest and down the narrow panel of his torso. It looked like a bird, spread-winged and singing, with a long crest that turned into shapes like flames. Its trailing tail flowed down past his navel and disappeared beneath the low dip of his waistband.

Ryouma wet his lips. “Why a bird?”

The genin shrugged. “Why not? I like birds.”

Ryouma looked up at him, and then quickly down again. He said, “It should be a dragon. For my name. You write it with the characters for dragon and horse.” They were some of the only characters he knew, but he didn’t have to say that.

A thin freckled hand reached out and took the sketchpad back. One of his fingers was crooked at the knuckle, as if it had been broken and never healed quite right. His nails were short and dirty with charcoal-dust. He pulled the pencil out from behind his ear and wrote the characters, smooth and flowing and perfect, over the drawing’s head: 龍馬 .

“It’s pronounced Ryouma. Tousaki Ryouma,” Ryouma heard himself volunteer.

“Shisei Takumi,” the genin said, not really attending. He was drawing something else in the empty edge of the page, sideways to the rest of the picture. “What’s your chakra element?”

“Fire,” Ryouma said, craning his neck to see. “And Water.”

The pencil stilled. Takumi looked up. “You know your second nature already?”

“I made chuunin last year,” Ryouma said, drawing himself up a little. He scrabbled in the blankets at his feet, flaking mud over the tatami mats, and dredged up his battered flak jacket. Dark stains smeared the faded green canvas. He dropped it again. “I’m working on special jounin now.”

“Well, aren’t you special.” Takumi’s mouth twisted. He bent over his sketchpad again. Under his pencil Ryouma began to see curving lines emerge, twisting and writhing; an open mouth, glaring eyes, three-clawed paws stretched out to catch and tear. Another dragon tangled around the first, fluid as water, coupling together as intimately as lovers.

The tips of Ryouma’s ears burned. He could feel the heat spreading. He bunched the blankets up in his lap and said, “You’re really good.”

“I paint maps for the cartography office. And explosive tags.” Takumi added the suggestion of scales like glimmering pearl down the second dragon’s spiraling spine. “I’m going to study under Horimasa Rei, when this is all over.”

He said it as careful-casual as Ryouma had said I’m working on special jounin, as if Horimasa Rei was a name Ryouma should know. Probably it was, like all the other things everyone expected Ryouma to have learned in the Academy or before, and thought he was stupid for not knowing.

He wasn’t sure what he thought of the way Takumi seemed to see him, but he didn’t want Takumi to look at him the way Hitomi-sensei and his jounin captain and all the rest of them did.  

“Horimasa-sensei,” he said, easy as he could. “Doesn’t take many students, right? You must be really good.”

Takumi went pink under the freckles. “Y’think so?” He looked up. “I met him in Junpei a year ago, when we were on furlough. I showed him some of my designs. He invited me to come study, I didn’t even have to ask. If I’m still alive when this ends…”

The excitement drained away. His mouth twisted sideways again. “Well. One of the guys who sleeps in here keeps telling us about the house he’s gonna build his wife when he gets back to Konoha. He’s up to three storeys and fifteen rooms by now. Fantasizing about studying with the greatest living tattoo artist isn’t much weirder.”

“I don’t think it’s weird,” Ryouma said. He’d seen ANBU tattoos, once or twice, and clan tattoos, like the Inuzuka and the Nohara. He’d never seen anything like this.

He skimmed a finger over the entwined dragons, careful not to smear his filthy skin against the paper. Just a few pencil strokes captured the muscular curve of a haunch, the tangled tails. They were vicious and beautiful, like the honed edge of a kunai, like a jutsu perfectly performed.  

Somebody who could draw like that should be alive when the war ended. It wouldn’t be right, to let this die.

“This is a tattoo design, right?” he said, looking up. “It’s really good. It’s— I’d be proud to wear something like that, if I made it through. Anybody would.”

“Oh, I could do better than that,” Takumi said quickly. He turned to a fresh page and laid out, in a few broad strokes, the rough lines of a naked torso. He shaded in the flattened circles of nipples. Ryouma shifted, hugging his knees to his chest.

The drawing grew under Takumi’s pencil: a fluid shape crawling down over the left shoulder and twining in on itself over the pectoral muscle, claws splayed as if seeking purchase on skin. Its bearded jaws gaped around the dark nipple. Takumi was just beginning to fill the shoulder behind it with a complex scroll of rolling dark clouds when the door slid open.

Ryouma was on his feet with a kunai in hand, Takumi shoved brutally to the wall behind him, before he’d quite realized he’d moved.

The man in the doorway lifted his hand with exaggerated care. “Settle down, kid.” He wore chuunin blues, and his other arm was sling-bound against his chest. He moved sideways into the room, his chakra tight and controlled, wary, under his skin.

Ryouma had to fight to pull his own chakra in. His heart hammered against the inside of his rib cage, and all his skin felt too tight. His breath wanted to come out in a yell.

He rammed the kunai back into the holster at his thigh and said instead, “Sorry. Just got in.”

“I can smell that,” the man said wryly, crouching down to sort through a neat pile of blankets and gear on the other side of the room. He jerked his head at Takumi. “How’s about you let him up and go find the baths?”

Ryouma looked guiltily down. Takumi was squashed between his leg and the wall, clutching his sketchpad to his chest and swearing low and rhythmically, without pause for breath. His pencil had snapped in two.

“Sorry,” Ryouma said again, helplessly. He stepped away. “I’ll — go now…”

“You owe me a pencil,” Takumi said. He pushed himself up, shoved the broken ends of the pencil in a belt pouch, and glared fiercely at Ryouma. “We’ll stop by the commissary on our way.”   

The quartermaster in Mizudera kept shop in a long high-beamed building that had once been a rice merchant’s warehouse, but the commissary was crammed into a tiny storefront that still bore a stationer’s sign. Wooden shelves teetered with green glass bottles of rotgut shouchuu and packs of playing cards. Takumi wormed his way through to the back, where one shelf still carried letter paper and envelopes and bottles of writing ink.

Ryouma hovered behind. The aisles were too narrow for comfort; he couldn’t get a clear sight-line anywhere, and he couldn’t seem to keep track of his elbows. His hip-pouch nearly knocked one bottle off the shelf, and he only barely caught another when he turned to rescue the first. The commissar’s malevolent scowl itched on the back of his neck.

It seemed wiser to stay close to Takumi, and to mutely accept the items Takumi handed over: another thick sketchpad, a flat metal box of colored pencils, a very sharp and thin penknife, three brushes, and two bottles of ink, one black and one red. There was a slim cardboard box containing sketching pencils of varying hardness; the edge of the box was smashed, and half the pencils were broken, but Takumi added it to Ryouma’s armload anyway.

He lingered over the writing paper, fingering a smooth page. “You write much to your folks?”

“No,” Ryouma said.

Takumi glanced back, his brows raised. Ryouma set his jaw and refused to look away.

“All right,” Takumi said, and shrugged. He eeled past Ryouma again to nab a bottle of shouchuu off the shelf. “That’s it.”

Ryouma hadn’t seen his pay in six months, but the scowling commissar condescended to record his name and ID number in her logbook, set against the price of Takumi’s purchases. She even produced a flat canvas bag to carry them in. Takumi commandeered the bag in one hand and set the other between Ryouma’s shoulder blades, pushing him toward the door.

Outside dusk was beginning to fall, and paper lanterns glowed softly from the overhanging eaves. Ryouma could smell rice cooking, and grilled chicken and stewed mountain greens from a small shop next door, but Takumi steered him down another side street instead. They passed a squad of chuunin in clean uniforms and battered gear, and a jounin with a bandaged hand and a limp. A genin courier clattered over the tiled rooftops. Two women carrying tofu buckets stopped to watch, sad-eyed.

One more corner, and Takumi was ducking beneath a set of dark blue noren emblazoned with a character Ryouma recognized. 湯, hot water, the same kanji that signaled every public bath in Konoha. He reached for his dogtags again, but Takumi kicked off his sandals and stepped up to the attendant this time, digging crumpled cash out of a belt pouch. “Two,” he said. “And all the soap you’ve got.”

“I’ve got soap,” Ryouma said. He’d learned that early on. “No towel, though.”

“Towels,” Takumi told the attendant. “And scrub brushes.”

He waited, holding the bucket of bathing gear, while Ryouma fumbled through the mud-stiff lacings of his boots and shoved them into a cubby. They went through the left-hand door into the men’s side of the baths together. There were a couple of middle-aged townsmen in the changing room, wet-haired and paunchy, joking with each other as they dried off and dressed. At the far end, a scarred man in jounin uniform eased out of his pants as if every muscle ached.

Takumi claimed a locker near the door and stripped down unselfconsciously. He had narrow shoulders and pale skin where the sun had never touched, unmarred by scars. High on his shoulder a long-tailed swallow darted, vivid in blue and red and green-black ink.

He caught Ryouma looking, and grinned suddenly. “I told you I like birds.”

“Did you do it?” Ryouma asked. He knew it was an idiot question as soon as the words left his mouth, but Takumi beamed.

“I drew it. I told you I met Horimasa-sensei in Junpei, right? I showed him my designs and he said this one was the best — well, the full thing, it’s meant to have peonies and clouds and another bird further down — but we only had the one afternoon. So he did this part for me, and he’ll finish it when I go study with him. When this is all over.”

When, not if, Ryouma noticed. As if Takumi really believed that the war would end with peace and stability, with Konoha strong and secure enough to let one genin retire to ink tattoos instead of explosive tags. As if the promise stained into his skin was enough for him to live on.

“It’s pretty,” Ryouma said.

“It’s not bad,” Takumi agreed proudly. He bundled his things into his locker, banged it shut, and looked over. “Huh. Maybe you were right about the dragon. You’ve got the muscle for it, after all.”

“Told you I wasn’t that skinny. I’ve spent the last year fighting.” Ryouma wrapped his stained uniform shirt around his kunai holster and slid them into the next locker over. He could see the bones in his unbandaged wrist, and the ropey veins beneath the skin, but his biceps were hard and his chest beginning to define. Rat bars tasted awful, but they had protein. He let himself flex, just a little.

Something else had snagged Takumi’s attention. “Two sets of dogtags? That’s against regs, isn’t it?”

Ryouma glanced down before he caught himself. The tags gleamed a rubber-edged silver against his sternum, suspended from identical beaded chains; Tousaki Ryouma facing the world, and Tousaki Miyako cold against his skin. He resisted the urge to close his hand around them, and unzipped his pants instead. “Nobody’s ever hauled me up for it,” he said, casually as he could. “Bet you’ve bent regs yourself.”

“Sure,” Takumi said, but he didn’t take the bait. “Whose are they? Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Swooning stranger? You’ve still got both of yours…”

“‘Cause I didn’t trade,” Ryouma said shortly, and shoved his pants down. “The third one was my mom’s.”

“Oh. Shit.” Takumi fiddled with the elastic cord of the locker-key around his wrist. “Sorry.”

Ryouma twitched one shoulder up, half a shrug. “Long time ago.” He stepped out of his pants and briefs, shoved them in the locker after the rest of his gear, and dropped a bar of soap from his belt-pouch into the bucket of towels and scrub-brushes. This time Takumi followed him, through the heavy sliding door and into the bathing room.

There was a long row of stools and spigots at the right-hand wall of the tiled room, and most of them were free. At the other side, hazy through steam, a couple of young men soaked in the half-sunken pool. Their chakra coiled loosely under their skin, like predators relaxing after the hunt. The one facing the door cracked his eyes open to watch Ryouma and Takumi come in. His gaze followed them lazily as they chose stools.

Takumi nudged Ryouma. “Don’t look back. He’ll think you’re interested.” He added scornfully, just loud enough for the men in the pool to hear: “He’s too old for you.”

One of the other men laughed. The first one flicked water at his friend and sank back, closing his eyes again.

Ryouma looked away. He turned his tap on, peeled the paper off a new cake of carbolic soap, and began lathering up. The strong smell of the soap stung his nose and tingled on his skin. “You ever take anyone up on it?”

“Couple times,” Takumi said, preoccupied with his hair. Wet, it turned the color of wood, with only the faintest red gleam under the fogged ceiling lights. “One or two civvies, a couple other genin. I don’t fuck around with jounin. Too many of ‘em are crazy in the head.”

Where did chuunin fall on the dividing line of crazy? Ryouma scrubbed carefully around his bandaged wrist. He thought maybe he didn’t need to ask.

“How about you?” Takumi worked a crown of foam into his hair, head tilted back to keep the suds from his eyes.

“Only get nervy like that when I’m tired,” Ryouma said. “I hadn’t slept in, like, three days—”

Takumi laughed at him. “I meant, you ever hooked up?”

“Oh.” Ryouma flushed again, red all over. Maybe Takumi would think it was the heat. “No, I— There hasn’t been much chance. This’s the first town-leave I’ve had since— Hell, since I got reassigned from my genin team.” And how long ago was that ? “What day is it?”

“April 10,” Takumi said.

Three and a half months since he’d last seen Hitomi-sensei and Shouri. Just past five since he’d been promoted to chuunin. Not quite six since Kenichi died, and Ryouma still hadn’t been able to scrub off the reek of rot.

He’d been fifteen for three days.

He wondered where Takumi drew the line at too old for you.

“How old’re you?” he asked, which was as close as he could get. Takumi, bent nearly double to rinse his hair under the faucet, didn’t hear; Ryouma had to repeat his question when Takumi resurfaced for air.

“Seventeen next month.” Takumi shook water off like a dog. “That guy’s too old for me, too.” He got up, squeezing water out of his hair, and grabbed a scrub brush. “Bend over.”

Ryouma put his head down on his knees and tried to breathe through the warm slick grip of Takumi’s hand on his shoulder, the rough scrape of the brush down his back. He couldn’t tell if Takumi was touching him because he wanted to touch, or because he thought Ryouma was taking too long getting clean, or simply because he’d have offered to help any friend in the baths. At least, any friend who smelled as bad as Ryouma did.

Takumi drew him as something beautiful, but maybe he’d like the drawing better than the person.

He still hadn’t thought of a way to ask before Takumi dropped the brush and slapped Ryouma on the shoulder. “Think I finally found skin down there. Rinse off.”

Ryouma rinsed. He lathered his hair, rinsed it, washed it again. The young men in the bath left; the scarred jounin from the changing room replaced them, sinking into the steaming water with a weary sigh. He looked as if he’d fallen asleep by the time Ryouma and Takumi slipped into the far end of the pool.

The bathhouse kept its water heated just shy of too hot. Sweat slicked Ryouma’s forehead, but the warmth seeped into his bruises and teased knotted muscles looser. He kept his cut wrist out of the water, though the bandages were already soaked from washing.

Takumi raked his wet hair out of his eyes and leaned back. “I heard there’s some civvy bathhouses in Hikouto that won’t let you enter if you’re tattooed, in case you’re yakuza. Stupid. Yakuza aren’t nearly as dangerous as ninja.”

“Ninja wouldn’t tear up a bathhouse,” Ryouma protested. “We need them too much.”

“Well, you do,” Takumi said, flicking water at him. “Did you fall in a corpse or something?”

“Something like that.” Ryouma looked down at his clean left hand, wavering under water. He looked up again. “I invented my own jutsu. That’s how I made chuunin.”

Across the pool, the jounin’s eyes slitted open.

“Oh, fancy. Real up-and-comer here.” Takumi closed his own eyes, tipped his head back. He didn’t seem to have noticed the jounin’s sharpening interest. Or take any interest of his own. He said, “Horimasa-sensei uses jutsu. That’s how he gets the colors so bright. I’ll learn his. None of his other apprentices have been ninja, so there’s nobody to be his heir. It can’t be all that different from explosive-seal work…”

“How hard is explosive-seal work?” Ryouma’d used the seals, but never even thought about the ink and jutsu that had to go into making them.

Takumi shrugged gracefully, without opening his eyes. He had freckles on his throat too, where the notch of a shirt would open, but his skin was milk-pale across his chest until the freckles began again on the points of his shoulders. His hands rested loosely on his knees beneath the water. “Tricky but not hard . And you have to do hundreds at a time, all the same. It’s boring, really. Tattoos are way more interesting. Even if you’re not doing jutsu, every one of ‘em’s different.”

“Because people want something unique?” Ryouma hazarded.

The jounin’s eyes closed again. He rested his head against the edge of the bath.

“Because people are unique. Their tastes, their shapes, their skin—” Takumi sat up properly and grabbed Ryouma’s arm, above the elbow. “I drew a bird for you, but you wanted a dragon. And I drew a dragon, but the dragon I’d actually draw on you would be different from the one I drew then. And you’re still growing, so I’d have to do it so it would work when your shoulders get broader, when you’re not so skinny—”

“If you’re going to crawl into his lap,” the jounin drawled, “you should do it out of the bath.”

Ryouma flushed scarlet.

Takumi paused, one hand circling Ryouma’s biceps, the other skimming over Ryouma’s chest. His knee bumped Ryouma’s thigh. He looked back at the jounin, and he said coolly, “Hoping for a show?”

The jounin’s narrowed eyes glinted with something like amusement. “Someone is.”

Ryouma wanted his towel. He pulled away from Takumi and turned his back to clamber out of the bath, hoping they hadn’t seen.

The jounin laughed, softly.

Takumi splashed after him. “He’s an asshole. Crazy in the head, I told you. Hey, don’t worry about it. Happens all the time.”

“Sorry,” Ryouma muttered.

You don’t need to be. Seriously, what a perv, we weren’t fucking in the bath or anything. Look—” He tugged at Ryouma’s arm, halting him just before the sliding door. “Look, let’s get dinner. And then I wanna draw you again.”

“Draw me?”

“Or draw on you. Unless— You’re not gonna get weird about it, are you?” He glanced down, at Ryouma’s inadequate towel. “Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’m not. I just—”

I don’t know what you want from me, he wanted to say. I don’t know what’s okay to ask for. He’d tried before, clumsy and inadequate in the face of Hitomi-sensei’s cool self-possession, and been squarely knocked down. The memory of that moment still burned like salt in a wound.

Maybe it was better not to ask at all. Just wait, and see what Takumi was willing to give.

“I won’t get weird,” he said, and he let Takumi lead the way out of the bathing room.

They got dinner. Takumi paid, this time. They sat at the narrow counter of the yakitori shop, so close their knees and shoulders touched. Takumi talked about tattoos, loudly and with his mouth full. He was full of names Ryouma didn’t know and places he’d never heard of.

“There’s a war on,” Ryouma said, once. “And they’re still doing an inter-country exhibition?”

“Ninja are at war,” Takumi said. “Not everybody else.”

“Well, yeah, but—” Ryouma thought of the churned-mud battlefields, burned villages, bridges shattered into chasms. “It spills over onto everyone else.”

“Not everyone. ” Takumi pointed at the chicken-shop auntie, who was mercilessly deconstructing birds with a cleaver. “She’s just running her shop. How’s her life any different than it was ten years ago?”

“Because Konoha’s protected her,” Ryouma said. “If we lost Mizudera, you think this shop’d still be standing?”

“Might be,” Takumi shrugged. “Iwa shinobi eat chicken, too.”

“So you don’t think it matters who wins?”

“Hey, I didn’t say that. I just think—” Takumi dragged another bite of chicken thigh off the skewer, chewed, swallowed. “I just think there’s more to the world than shinobi. That’s all.”

Ryouma knew there was. He’d lived it, and he’d left it.

He toyed with a bit of scallion left on his skewer. “Will you stop being a shinobi, when you become a tattoo artist?”

“The moment this war ends,” Takumi told him, “I’m hanging my hitai-ate up.” He dropped his skewer—“Two more, auntie!”—and reached out to tap Ryouma’s forehead protector. His fingernail rang on the dull, scarred metal. “What about you?”

“I’ll die a ninja,” Ryouma said.

Takumi laughed, awkwardly. “Okay. Well, I hope you die an old ninja.”

Ryouma hid his wrist beneath the counter. “I’m trying.”

They finished eating. Ryouma bowed to the chicken-shop auntie, thanked her for the food; Takumi laughed at him again, and tugged him out. “C’mon,” he said. “Night’s still young. You don’t have anywhere else to go, do you?”

“Nobody’s given me orders.” They might tomorrow, or even tonight; somebody might track him down by his chakra, order him out again. Most of his gear was at the quartermaster’s. He was wearing the cleanest clothes he had, and they hadn’t seen a laundry in two weeks. He should—

“You still,” he said, and hesitated. “Want to draw me?”

“Hell, yeah. I know the place. This way.”

The moon was rising, thin silver over alleys where no lamps hung. Takumi took him down a narrow street away from the commissary, the canvas bag of art supplies banging against his leg. They cut through a shuttered market, and past a red-lantern house.

Ryouma hadn’t been in a brothel district in almost five years. This one was busier than the one where his grandfather had lived: light spilling from upstairs windows, women silhouetted in doorways, a half-dressed boy beneath a lamp post. Shinobi roamed in packs.

Takumi passed three houses and stopped at the fourth. “I need a room,” he told the woman there.

Her eyes cut sideways at Ryouma, but she said only, “Two thousand ryou for an hour.”

Takumi dug four crumpled thousand-ryou bills from his belt pouch and passed them over. They disappeared into the front of the woman’s kimono. She stepped up out of the genkan and led the way silently down a narrow hall and up a flight of wooden stairs. At the top of the stairs, she slid a shoji door back on a three-tatami room, just wide enough for a spread futon between a pair of paper-shaded lamps.

The woman left them. The door slid shut.

Takumi dropped his bag of art supplies on the floor, crouched down, and rooted through it. “Pencil first,” he decided. “Then ink.”

Ryouma stood on one foot, awkwardly scratching his toes down the other calf. Down the hall, someone moaned. “What do you want me to do?”

“Take your shirt off and get comfortable.” Takumi was distracted, paring a new pencil down with his penknife. “You’ll need to hold still, but I may want you to move once in a while.”

“Uh, okay.” Ryouma peeled out of his shirt, dropped it by the door, and looked at the futon. It looked clean. His pants were certainly not. They itched against his newly scrubbed skin.

What had Takumi meant by draw on you ?

He’d look more stupid, standing here overthinking things, than he would if he made the wrong choice. He unbuttoned his pants quickly and stepped out of them, dropping onto the open futon in just his briefs.

“Perfect. Stay there. Yeah, braced on your arm like that.” Takumi had his sketchpad out, balanced against his knees. His face was intent, a tiny furrow etched between his brows, beneath his hitai-ate. “Move your knee a little. No, left.”

Left knee, or left direction? Ryouma opened his legs wider, hoping he’d guessed right.

Takumi whistled. Ryouma flushed, and held still.

A door scraped in its tracks down the hall. A woman laughed. Nearer, flesh slapped rhythmically against flesh. Takumi bent over his sketchpad, muttering to himself. Ryouma’s leg began to go numb. His nose itched.

He wondered what Takumi saw. Sharp shoulder blades, knobs of spine, ribs inadequately muscle-sheathed? Maybe the inky hair, strengthening jaw, runner’s legs. Or was there something more, transmuted through lead and paper into a vision Ryouma would only half-recognize?

“Okay,” Takumi said, flipping a page. “Move.”

Ryouma stretched his leg out gratefully and scratched his nose. “Can I see?”

“Not yet. Hold that. No, with your thumb on your lip. Open up a little. Okay.” Takumi’s pencil scratched again.

He made Ryouma sprawl out on his side, and then on his stomach, head pillowed on his arms, knees drawn up a little under him: Ryouma laughed awkwardly, adjusting. “What are you drawing, my butt?”

“Yes,” Takumi said absently. “Pull your knees up some more. There, that’s good.”

Ryouma turned his face into his arms. His skin felt hot. “When are you going to draw on me?”

“Soon. Do you spend all day doing squats?”

The thread of admiration in his voice made the heat sink lower in Ryouma’s groin. His briefs grew tight. He answered half at random.

“Mostly running. Some of my sensei’s kata make you go low, though. She’s a Hyuuga. She taught me ‘cause she said otherwise I’d get my fool head taken off before I could get close enough to use my jutsu. Nearly did, couple days ago.”

It was easy to ramble, in this safe golden warmth, clean and fed, with the futon soft under him and Takumi’s eyes on him. The couple in the next room were breathing harder, approaching climax. Ryouma tensed his thighs to keep himself from rubbing against the futon. He barely listened to himself talk.

“Was up against a kenjutsu user. Chuunin maybe. We’d lost all ours. Swordsmen I mean, but chuunin too, except for me. Just jounin left and they were all busy, so it was just me and this bastard. He was good and he knew it. Kept yammering about how he was gonna stick my head on a pike, the way the old samurai used to. So—”

“War’s a fucking waste,” Takumi said, with a sudden savagery that brought Ryouma’s head up in alarm. He couldn’t see Takumi properly, just the sketchpad and the bent head, the tousled hair gleaming red in the light. He pushed himself up.

“Don’t,” Takumi said sharply. “I just broke my pencil lead.”

“I’ll get the knife,” Ryouma said, uneasily. He was still half-hard, but the thrum of sudden tension in his nerves made it impossible to stay still. He stepped off the futon and crouched for the penknife.

Takumi dropped the sketchpad facedown. “I’m done anyway. Give me the ink.”

“Can I see what you’ve drawn?”

“Suit yourself.” Takumi busied himself sorting through the canvas bag again, magnificently unconcerned.

Ryouma switched the penknife to his other hand and reached cautiously for the sketchpad. He was almost certain the broken pencil lead wasn’t to blame for Takumi’s changed mood, but surely Takumi’d heard plenty of war stories before. Worse stories. Ryouma was alive now, after all, and he’d just scrubbed the last residue of that kenjutsu user from beneath his fingernails.

He turned the sketchpad over.

The boy in the drawing spread his knees and hollowed his spine, offering himself up without hesitation or shame. The barest strokes sketched the bladed shoulders and a tousle of dark hair; most of the pencil’s attention was for the curve of his spine, the long strappy muscles of his thighs, the firm globes of his bare ass. A knotted tree branch climbed up the back of his left thigh, spread blossoms across the small of his back, and dropped petals like rain down the right ass and thigh.

Ryouma looked up and found Takumi’s eyes on him.

He seemed to have run out of breath. “Is this what you’re going to draw on me?”

“Maybe.” Takumi had a stoppered jar of ink and a fistful of brushes. His greenish eyes were all dark pupil in the lamplight, and his freckles disappeared against flushed skin. After a moment he dropped the brushes, reached back, and pulled the green bottle of shouchuu out of the canvas bag. He wrenched off the cap and took a long slug, then held it out, coughing, to Ryouma. “Have a drink.”

Ryouma’d never liked the too-sweet burn of rotgut shouchuu. He took the bottle anyway, and a drink. He tried to sling it back with a careless abandon, but the fumes hit his sinuses and he almost spat the mouthful out. “I’ve tasted better paint thinner.”

“Second round’ll be better.” Takumi recovered the bottle with a clenched-jaw determination. He coughed less this time. So did Ryouma.

They passed it another two or three times before Takumi screwed the cap back on. Color still burned pink in his cheeks, but his hands were steady as he picked up the brushes again. “Lie down on your stomach. And take your briefs off.”

Ryouma’s skin felt too tight. He got up slowly, an ungraceful unfolding of knees. Shouchuu filled the cavities between his thoughts, like cottonballs in a jar. He pushed his thumbs between his skin and the frayed waistband. His skin was hot and his cock hardening again.

He thought of Takumi’s drawing. He’d drawn Ryouma as naked even when he wasn’t, and then he’d given that pencilled boy something more.

Ryouma shoved his briefs down, and stretched himself out on the futon.

Takumi knelt beside him. “This may tickle. Hold still.”

The cool tip of a wet brush touched Ryouma’s back and swept down. He shuddered. The brush lifted, returned, teased across Ryouma’s shoulder blades with long, light strokes. He couldn’t guess their path or the shape of Takumi’s painting. He turned his head to the side and still couldn’t see anything but a slice of Takumi’s intent face leaning over him, one brush tucked behind his ear, the third caught between his teeth.

“Hold still,” Takumi muttered around the brush, and pressed his other hand to the back of Ryouma’s neck, as he might hold a paper scroll to keep it from rolling up again.

Ryouma didn’t quite mean to squirm. He couldn’t help it, caught between Takumi’s warm hand and his tickling brush and the unsatisfactory rub of the futon beneath him: too much sensation, not enough…

Takumi leaned in harder. Ryouma stifled a gasp.

“When I’m done,” Takumi said, reprovingly. The brush flicked down Ryouma’s spine. It lifted and returned again, cool with fresh ink. Ryouma turned his head back into his folded arms and bit his hand.

He tried to breathe through it. The weight of Takumi’s body coming down as he leaned, the press of his knees against Ryouma’s hip and side, the sweep and curl and dance of the brush over shivering skin. Takumi muttered to himself, switched brushes, unstoppered the other bottle of ink. A stroke licked across the swell of Ryouma’s right shoulder. Takumi stretched to reach the other shoulder, made a disgruntled noise, and swung his leg over to straddle Ryouma’s thighs.

Ryouma bit down hard enough to hurt. It didn’t help.

Takumi barely seemed to notice. He had Ryouma pinned now, and his brush roamed over fresh skin in dabs and strokes and swirls. Drying ink pulled tight on Ryouma’s lower back. A little patch of damp soaked into the futon beneath him. In the close warmth of the little room, the musky scent of arousal grew and mingled with the sharpness of soap and lamp oil.

“Almost finished.” Takumi shifted his hand down to grip the tight muscle of Ryouma’s left asscheek. His wet brush licked over the other. Ryouma fought not to press himself back into Takumi’s hand, to rub against the soft futon. His body quivered with the effort of holding still.

Brushes switched again. This one felt smaller, a fine point tracing a short cluster of strokes at the dimple of Ryouma’s right flank. An artist signing his work, Ryouma realized. He felt the touch like fire, like a brand.

Takumi’s weight settled down on Ryouma’s thighs. “Let it dry.” His fingers feathered over Ryouma’s hip. “It’s seal ink, so it won’t take long.”   

Ryouma’s thoughts slipped like fish through slow fingers. “Did you put a seal on me?”

“No,” Takumi said, but he didn’t sound offended. He rubbed Ryouma’s hip. “I don’t need to, do I?”

“No,” Ryouma echoed. His voice came in a whisper. He turned his head against his arm. He still couldn’t see Takumi. But Takumi’s weight anchored his thighs, his touch seared Ryouma’s skin, and his ink dried tight from Ryouma’s shoulders to the base of his spine, holding him together, making him into something new.

He wanted to ask what Takumi had drawn on him, but then Takumi’s fingers slid down over the sharp jut of Ryouma’s hipbone. Ryouma’s hips jerked up without conscious choice. Takumi laughed and shoved his hand into the gap, until he touched Ryouma’s cock.

And then it was hot and slick and sweaty. Takumi’s weight lifted off Ryouma’s thighs. He helped Ryouma hitch his knees up, till Ryouma could grind into Takumi’s hand instead of the futon. His hand had different calluses than Ryouma’s, fit differently, found a different rhythm. The other hand rubbed over Ryouma’s ass and between his legs. Cloth rustled.

His cock followed it, thrusting between Ryouma’s thighs, using them like he’d used the rest of Ryouma’s body.

Too much, too quickly. A wave broke inside Ryouma and crashed down on him. His body shook, emptying itself. His head dropped back onto his arms. His lungs still heaved for breath. Aftershocks shuddered through him. He was vaguely aware of Takumi wiping his hand on the futon, then gripping Ryouma’s hip with bruising force; of the thick, slippery slide between his thighs; of the quickening rhythm, the rasping breath, the gasps that never quite became words. He felt the moment Takumi came, in spurts that dribbled down Ryouma’s thighs.

Takumi was panting. He dropped onto the futon beside Ryouma, still fully dressed, with just his pants opened. “So? What’d you think?”

Ryouma hadn’t been thinking. Maybe that was what made it good.

He stretched his legs out on the futon, feeling the cool cotton under his toes, the sticky smear against his skin. He turned his cheek against his arm. “You liked the painting that much?”

Takumi laughed. He reached out, hand hovering for a moment over Ryouma’s cheek. Ryouma held his breath, waiting.

Takumi’s hand moved down. His fingertips brushed Ryouma’s shoulder. “It’s good. Good canvas, too.”

Ryouma was starting to grow chilled, as sweat dried, but he liked having Takumi’s eyes on him. “What did you paint?”

“A dragon, of course.” Takumi sounded slyly pleased, faking surprise that Ryouma even had to ask. “It’s a full back piece. People pay half a million ryou for one of Horimasa Rei’s…” He sat up, his hand flattening on the sharp hard line of Ryouma’s shoulder blade. “When the war is over, and I go apprentice under Horimasa-sensei, come find me. I’ll do it for real.”

He sounded so certain that it was impossible to doubt. “All right,” Ryouma said. “But not my back. I want to see it.”

“Back is better for a big piece, but maybe a smaller one…” Takumi pulled his hand back, leaving Ryouma’s shoulder oddly cold. He scrambled up, closing his pants almost absent-mindedly, and reached for his sketchpad again.

Ryouma sat up, slowly. After a little while he peeled the bandage off his wrist and used it to clean his stomach and thighs. “I liked the one you drew back at the barracks, before I broke your pencil,” he said. “The one over my heart.”

“That was pretty good,” Takumi admitted. He stopped sketching and flipped back several pages in the book. “It’d take fewer sessions. Heal faster, too.”

Ryouma had only the faintest idea of how tattoos healed. “I don’t have much downtime,” he said, pulling on his briefs. “But if I got hurt maybe, and was already healing from something else…”

Takumi made a thin, angry noise. Paper ripped.

Ryouma looked up, surprised, and Takumi smacked the torn-out page against his bare chest. “You keep it,” he said, between gritted teeth. “Come find me. And don’t get scarred anywhere, either. This design won’t work over scars.”

“Okay,” Ryouma said, a little startled. He lifted his hand to take the paper. Takumi’s hand dropped. Ryouma stood a moment, holding the page, cool and crisp against his skin. He said, quieter, “Okay.”

Takumi turned away to bundle up his art supplies. Ryouma finished getting dressed in silence. He folded the paper and tucked it into his belt pouch, and then they left, walking out together into the chilly evening.

It started to rain again, halfway to the barracks, and then they ran.

Ryouma’s orders came two days later. He’d washed his uniforms, and had his gear mended, and picked up replacements for the items too ruined to mend. He’d slept ten hours at a time, eaten till his stomach hurt, and had another bath. There were no proper mirrors in the bathhouse, but he’d found the small cracked one the older men used for shaving, and stood for a while with his back turned and his neck craned, trying to see.

He scrubbed very carefully around his hips and shoulders, and avoided his back altogether. The seal ink held, at least for a little longer.

He didn’t see Takumi much. He slept too long, or went out at the wrong times. Takumi had duties: maps, Ryouma remembered vaguely, and explosive tags. He wasn’t in the barracks when Ryouma came in, or else he was still sleeping when Ryouma woke, a tangle of reddish hair huddled into a blanket between two bigger men. Ryouma dressed very quietly, trying not to wake anyone, and went out for a run.

He met his jounin captain in the market on his way back to the barracks. “How’s the wrist?” she asked him.

Ryouma shrugged. He had a thick brown scab; he hadn’t bothered to bandage it again. “I’ll keep the hand,” he said.

“Damn fool,” Kodama-taichou said, but without bite. “We’re leaving at dawn. Got another three jounin and seven chuunin. They’ve kept me in command, gods know why.”

“You kept us alive,” Ryouma said.

“Not enough of you,” she said bleakly. She shook her head. “Dawn, by the city gates. Pack what you’ll need for six weeks in the field. If you can’t do a sealing scroll—”

“I’ll manage,” Ryouma said.

Kodama nodded distractedly, clapped him on the shoulder, and left.

Ryouma went to the quartermaster again, for extra kunai and waterproofing-wax and field rations. He bought soap at the commissary, and socks, and chocolate. He begged blood pills off a medic-nin, and palmed a vial of soldier pills when her back was turned. Only jounin were supposed to carry them, but jounin didn’t always share.

He came back to the little house by the market as Takumi was going out, and they stopped for a moment of confusion in the genkan.

“I was going to get dinner,” Ryouma said. “Do you want—?”

Takumi shook his head, mouth flat and unhappy. “There’s a new scout report just in,” he said. “They need me at the cartography office.”

“Oh,” Ryouma said. “Okay. Good luck.” He hesitated. “Are you coming back tonight?”

“Not likely.” Takumi shrugged under his heavy satchel. “These urgent orders tend to be all-nighters. Teams need the maps by dawn.” He looked at the rucksack over Ryouma’s shoulder, and his greenish eyes darkened. “Expect yours’ll be one of them.”

“Probably,” Ryouma said. “We set out tomorrow.”

There was something more he ought to say, but he didn’t know what. Takumi waited for a moment, as if he expected it too. Then he said stiffly, “Go and come back.”

“Thanks,” Ryouma said. “I mean— Thanks.”

Takumi jerked a nod, hefted his satchel up on his shoulder, and went out.

Ryouma took off his boots and went slowly in.

He unloaded his rucksack and packed it again, with sealing scrolls and waterproof pouches, and all his easy-access gear folded very small. He tucked rat bars and the vials of blood pills and soldier pills into the scroll-pouches of his vest. He opened his belt pouch to add another roll of bandage, and found the dragon tattoo drawing badly folded on top.

He unfolded the paper. Then he tried to press the wrinkles out, flat on the tatami. He still hadn’t properly seen the painting inked into his back, and he was worried it would flake away before he did. But he looked at the graceful, liquid coils of the dragon penciled over a muscled chest, the fierce snarl, the clawed paws raking out against the storm. He touched it, carefully.

“Ryuu,” he said. His father’s name. Half his own.

He folded the dragon up carefully and tucked the paper into the front of his vest, over his mother’s dogtags, over his heart.

Then he zipped up his vest and went out again, into an evening falling too fast.