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There were attempts to keep her out.

A wall she scaled with ease.

Motion detectors she slipped past effortlessly.

Another wall, this one on a house, that she climbed all the way to the ledge three stories up.

A locked window with glass she cut and removed without a sound.

It was child’s play.

She held onto the ledge with one hand and extended the other with the circle of glass she’d cut from the window out behind her. She let the glass slip between her gloved fingers and land in the bushes below, then turned to observe her target, watching his breathing carefully. The glass had landed nearly silently, but she had seen videos of this target, had read his caution and his perceptiveness.

Her target was sleeping soundly, though.

She smiled.

She pushed herself up on the sill and slipped unobtrusively through the window into her target’s bedroom.

She paused a moment to take in the room and adjust her path forward.

The bedroom was warmer than the outside, the air still except for the slight draft from the hole she’d cut. The floor was clear of debris, and the carpet was short. Soundless approach would be simple.

The target himself was sleeping in the bed on the other side of the room, wrapped up in a mound of blankets. He was lying on his back on the side of the bed, negating the need for a slow creep across the bed to sneak up on him or a sudden lunge that would be risky with such a dangerous target. She watched what his body was saying, the slow and even rhythm of his breathing. His body said safe-content-pleased, unaware of the danger only feet away.

Her chest twanged, and her pleasure at being unnoticed soured. She did not like the killing in her job, a person’s life draining into the blood on her hands, but her master would not approve if she let her target live. She had seen in his body the first time he made her kill that danger awaited if she did not follow her orders. She did not want to find out what that danger would be.

She forced herself to move, approaching his bed on feet of smoke and shadows, before her target could wake. She did not know that she could beat the man, tall and powerful in a way most others were not, and she would like to let him end peacefully in his safe-content-pleased.

She stepped around the bed, edging ever closer until she stopped in her tracks.

There was a small light, low on the wall, shaped like her target’s insignia and offering a dim glow, but it was enough light for her to see the small shadow tucked into the side of her target. His features, though she could see so little, read sad-anxious-SAFE-CONTENT.

She tilted her head in a question, but no one would answer it.

Why was the little shadow, the little bird who flitted beside the bat on the streets, sad-anxious? Had he been hurt? Her master hurt her when he did not approve of her performance, and when she had watched them in the maze of buildings hours before, she had seen the bird fail to stop an opponent from escaping. Her target had surely beaten his apprentice soundly for such an error.

But if the little bird had been beaten, then why did he feel safe-content so strongly with his master’s around clutching his shoulder. He should have been pained-sad-anxious after such a mistake.

She stood there, watching. Waiting for the answer to appear.

And then it did.

The shadows deepened and twisted on the child’s face, displeasure turning to distress. He whined in fear, sharp and high, and squirmed as though trying to escape a monster only he could see.

Oh. The little bird was having a bad dream.

She knew about bad dreams. She wondered who he killed in his.

Her target stirred in response to his bird’s movement, and her throat tightened. She dropped her hand to the hilt of her knife, ready to strike if he should try to harm the child for waking him.

Her target frowned in his sleep and pulled the boy closer to his body, but she stayed still. His intent was not revenge-frustration, it was soft-caring-my baby.

But…the bird had failed his mission. He had let his opponent escape. Why was his master being kind to him.

Sh, Tim,” her target mouth-noised.

The bird stilled at the mouth noises and relaxed the next time her target mouth-noised, “It’s just a dream.

She watched in awe. Her target had not truly woken, and yet he had comforted his failure without needing to think. His bird had not truly awoken, but he had not needed to force down apprehension when his master had touched him. His fear had melted away on instinct, like snow underneath the sun.

Did her target truly not punish his bird for failures? How did his bird learn?

She stepped closer, fingers drifting from her knife as she bent down to examine them more closely.

The bird was not a bad fighter—not perfect like her, but good—and yet his master did not frighten him or hurt him as punishment. The child’s face, with his nose turned against the man’s chest, was happy-safe-content-loved.

She thought of her own master, across the ocean and waiting for her return. He would be displeased if she failed her mission, but her mission would take the little bird’s happy-safe-content-loved that chased away sad-anxious-scared. She did not like to kill, and she did not like to steal.

Except she did want to steal.

A raw, empty place inside her wanted to steal the happy-safe-content-loved-master who loves and does not hit. No, that was not the feeling. Not stealing. She wanted to join that happy-safe-content-loved-master who loves and does not hit-and small bird who is loved, but she could not because her master would be angry and beat her and kill the target himself.

She considered longer.

She knew her target was a fierce fighter who defended. She had seen him protect-angry-scared when someone had tried to hurt his bird, and protect-angry-brave when people had tried to hurt other people in the city. Her master had shown her attack when sleeping because he did not know that she could attack when awake and win. She could almost always beat her master in a fight, and if he thought that she could not kill her target when he was awake, then surely her master could not kill his target when he was awake.

She walked back around the bed, away from the bird and his bat, but she did not go to the window. She went to the bottom of the bed and did not let herself pause before raising one knee and setting it on the soft blankets. She looked at her tar—her new master—and found that he was still sleeping.

Hm. He did not wake easily. She would need to protect him in case her old master tried to attack when sleeping him. Her new master would find that she was fierce-loyal-obedient-brave just like she had been for her old master if she could just taste the safe-content the bird was drinking in.

She pulled herself the rest of the way onto the bed, but her master did not wake even still. She smiled. His safe-content-pleased with his bird was enough to make him so helpless. Could she give him safe-content-pleased?

He blinked hard when she started crawling, and stirred when her slight weight shifted the mattress, but he did not fully wake.

He turned his head and looked straight at her. She froze. She did not know if his protect-angry would make him attack her if he thought that she would hurt his bird, but then he frowned and made mouth noises. “Dick?”

The mouth noises seemed to calm him, because he closed his eyes and laid his head back down, but she could read in his body that he was still not-awake-not-asleep. He was peaceful, though, and his safe-content-pleased deepened as he extended his arm to the side.

She smiled at him, safe-content building in her chest. She had not felt that so strongly ever before.

She stopped beside him. What was she supposed to do next?

She looked to the bird, nestled against their master and held in tight by the arm around his shoulders, then to her master’s arm laid out on the bed beside him. Was that for her?

If it was not for her, her master would show her to move, but if it was for her…

If it was for her, she would like that very much.

She lay down at his side, leaving only a sliver of space between them, and let her head hover over his arm for a few moments to give him time to correct her before she laid her head down upon it.

His arm was wide with muscles and sinew, strong and mighty beneath her. His chest was so large that she could not even see the bird on the other side. Yes, he would be a good master once she’d proved herself.

The arm shifted, and she started to jump back for fear of having offended her master, but then the arm curled, drawing her flush against her master’s body and squeezing her firmly but not painfully.

She gasped, and the safe-content-pleased bloomed hot in her chest as she laid her cheek against his. Her new master pressed his lips to her head and made mouth noises at her—“Goodnight, Dick.”—before settling back down. She smiled at his mouth noises. They sounded so odd, so pointless, but they had calmed the bird. The tone of them was like when birds sang hellohello! in the mornings, except he was saying safe-loved-protected instead.

His hand made a huge spot of warmth on her shoulder, and she bit back a whine of displeasure when he moved it and left coldness, but then it came to rest on her head. She made mouth noises, since he liked those, like she was a bird: happy-pleased-protected.

He made throat noises without his mouth back to her as his hand started to move like his fingers were a comb. It was a strange sensation, feeling his throat noises as chest vibrations against her cheek while heavy fingers touched her scalp and hair in kindness, but as the safe-content-pleased grew in her, she decided that she liked it very much.