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This Broken World We Choose

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He’s leaning on the bar nursing a bottle of beer when Miyako comes up to order another round, and since the bartender’s busy getting his flirt on with a redhead at the far end Miyako takes her time appreciating the man at her elbow. Tall, the way she likes ‘em, with scarred hands and black hair and no obvious insignia of clan or rank. When he tips his head back to drink the sweeping line of his throat and jaw is like calligraphy.

“Drinking alone?” she asks.

He glances down at her, and if he’s drunk enough to be startled it’s only a flicker behind dark eyes. “I was.”

There’s a bandage nearly hidden beneath the short sleeve of his black tee-shirt, a scabbing scrape along his high, chiseled cheekbone. Miyako’s a chuunin of Konoha; she knows well enough not to ask if it’s the mission that has him drinking here alone, or where his teammates are. Her own teammates from her latest mission are waiting in a booth at the back, but they can wait a bit longer. She rests her elbows on the bar and tosses her long hair back, inviting his gaze to linger. “If the bartender ever bothers to do his job, let me buy you one.”

“Do I look like I need it?” There’s a momentary tension in his mouth--professional paranoia, she thinks. Jounin.

That would be enough of a turn-off for most girls she knows, genin and chuunin alike. (Civilians are too silly to know better. Miyako and the other kunoichi watch out for the civilian girls when they can, warn them off the dangerous ones, and shrug and go back to their beers when the little fools brush their warnings off.) But Tousaki Miyako has never been most girls. She catches the barkeep’s eye at last, draws him in with a wink and a nod, and smiles back up at tall, dark, and paranoid.

“Don’t know you well enough to know what you need. But I just got back from a B-rank with the documents and without a scratch, and I’m celebrating. Told myself I’d buy a drink for the first pretty boy I saw, and you fit the bill.”

His eyes widen. “Pretty?” And, after a stunned moment, “Boy?”

“You’re adorable,” Miyako tells him fondly. She glances over her shoulder at the barkeep. “Three beers for me, and for my friend here...”

“Nothing,” he says firmly.

“One of those fruity little pink things with an umbrella on a stick,” Miyako says, and grins at him as she collects the tall frosted bottles from the bartender. “Hit me up later if you want a round with a little more testosterone.”

She puts an extra sway into her hips as she walks back to the corner booth. She’s still grinning when she drops the bottles in front of Tetsuo and Hiroshi, and she takes a long swig from her own before glancing over her shoulder.

There’s a fruity pink drink in a fancy glass on a napkin resting just short of the tall jounin’s knuckles. He’s staring down at it as if he expects the henge to drop at any moment and reveal an explosion tag. The bartender drifts away again to flirt with his redhead. Hiroshi begins a whispered countdown. Miyako reaches out, without looking, and thwaps him on the forehead.

The jounin looks over. Tetsuo swears and begins trying to sink beneath the table, to either die of second-hand embarrassment or take shelter from the inevitable chakra-edged brawl. Miyako, caught staring, smiles.

She can almost hear the snort. But he picks the drink up, drops the umbrella on the napkin, and tosses it back in one smooth swallow. She watches his throat work, strong and brown, and when he sets the glass down again and meets her gaze with a challenge in his eyes, she abandons her boys without a backward glance.

Yesterday she killed two men. Tonight, she thinks, she’ll make up for it.

His name’s Ryuu. He doesn’t give his family name; she doesn’t volunteer her own. They’re not exactly standing on formalities, pressed against the brick in the back alley behind the bar, with his hands sliding up under her shirt and her mouth hungry on his throat. He’s tall enough that she has to stand on her toes to reach his mouth; he tastes of shouchuu and strawberries, and his hands are like fire on her skin.

Once, with her shirt half-off and her skirt pushed up to her hips, he hesitates. “I don’t have a condom on me.”

“I’m on protection,” she tells him. If he were a civilian she’d worry about disease, but an STD check is a routine part of every ninja’s hospital treatment, and at his level — even at hers — they’re visiting the hospital once a month. Konoha knows its ninja. She arches up beneath his hands and laces her fingers through his thick black hair, pulling his head down to hers, nipping at his lower lip. “You don’t have to be gentle.”

He isn’t. He takes her there against the wall, hard and fast and brutal, and she bites his shoulder to muffle her cries. It’s like riding a tiger, all lean muscle and explosive power, the thrill of danger and the sharp edge of pleasure-nearly-pain. He takes her to the brink and throws them both over, and in the shuddering aftermath she closes her eyes and rests her head against the crumbling brick and feels, for the first time in weeks, finally at peace.

It can’t last. He shifts, and she sighs and opens her eyes and unwinds her legs from around his hips. He relaxes his grip on her thighs, lets her down, takes a moment to adjust himself and zip his jeans up again. She re-fastens her bra, pulls skirt and shirt down, and rakes her fingers through her hair.

“Thanks,” she says.

“Any time.”

She’s already stooping among the discarded bottles and broken crates to feel around for her panties, and for a bare moment she’s startled enough to stop, crouching there, and look up at him. He has his hands in his pockets, but he’s looking down at her, not away.

Her fingers close on elastic and lace. She stands, stuffing the crumpled ball into her pocket, and smiles. “If you mean that,” she says, “I might just take you up on it, next time I’m home.”

“Next time,” he says, “buy me a better drink.”

Tetsuo and Hiroshi are already gone by the time she re-enters the bar. They left the tab for her to settle. She pays it and, after a moment’s thought, adds a bottle of cheap shouchuu to the bill.

The night air has finally begun to cool. She walks slowly, swinging the bottle by its neck, and tilts her head back to watch the stars. There aren’t nearly so many here in the heart of Konoha, with all its lights spilling up into the sky; only the brightest are visible. The rest still shine, out in the darkness of the forest and fields where ninja bleed and die, but they’re too weak to be seen here, and children never learn their names.

The stairs of her apartment building are old and crumbling. Normally she’d take them two at a time anyway, but she’s tired and a little sore, and there’s no reason to hurry. Their mission report is already on file. She’ll take a day off, maybe two, and then sign up for another. Snow Country should be nice, this time of year.

Maybe she’ll look for Ryuu again when she comes back.

She’s still thinking of the muscles in his arms, the way he held her without apparent effort, when she sees the light in the window. Every muscle knots. She reshapes her grip on the bottle and takes the last flight of stairs silently. The door-knob moves beneath her hand, unlocked.

She could grieve for the loss of that easy lassitude, the mindless peace. But she opens the door anyway and steps inside, and when the man seated on the threadbare sofa glances away from the flickering television she meets his smile with a cold stare.

Her father is still a handsome man. Tall, dark-haired, with only streaks of grey at his temples, his lean frame barely beginning to thicken with age and alcohol. He wears faded chuunin blues; hitai’ate and flak vest are already tossed carelessly on the floor, along with a handful of crumpled cans. She recognizes the six-pack she left in her fridge.

If she were clever she’d have dropped the bottle of shouchuu off the stairs outside, but it’s too late now. He’s seen it already, and his smile widens. “Welcome-home present, Miya-chan? Sweet of you.”

“Get out,” she says, low, so angry that she can feel it vibrating in her belly. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here? I told you--”

“I need a place to stay for a few days,” he interrupts.

“Saya finally got smart and kicked you out?” Miyako shakes her head. “I don’t care. Go take a mission. Don’t come back. Don’t ever come here.”

He stands, and despite herself she takes one step back. She recovers, steps forward again, but the damage has been done. He’s still smiling, lazy, easy, so godsdamned sure of himself, and she thinks she might be sick. Isn’t this always the way it goes? She’s angry enough to kill, and he thinks it’s all a game he’s already won.

Hell, maybe he did. Maybe he won it fifteen years ago, and she’s only kept fighting because she’s too damned stubborn to know when she’s beaten.

Stubborn’s all that will help her now. She points to the open door. “Get out.”

He steps closer. The smile has begun to fade, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. “I’m tryin’ to be patient, Miyako,” he says. “But I got my limits.”

“I hit mine a long time ago.” She’s holding herself so rigid that she’s almost trembling. Raw chakra sparks over her fingertips. “Believe me now: I’ll kill you if you touch me. Get out.

For a long moment he stares at her, dark eyes narrowed, mouth twisted in sudden fury. She lifts her chin and stares him down, letting him see the promise in her eyes. She’ll do it. This time, she tells herself, she’ll do it.

And then he moves, so sharply that she flinches before she can catch herself--but he’s stepping back to scoop up his vest and hitai’ate, then moving past her, through the door, out to the landing. He stops there and turns, and he’s already recovered the old easy charm. “Get some sleep, Miya-chan. You always lose your temper too easy when you’re tired. I’ll see you another time.”

She slams the door. Locks it, dead-bolts it, keys the seals she seldom ever uses because they’re such a pain to replace and recharge. She’s breathing hard and fast, and her chakra surges through her pathways as if searching for release. She thinks of fire jutsu, of skin crackling, fat sizzling, of smoke thick and greasy and soul-satisfying, and she’s not sure whether to laugh or cry.

In the end she drinks a quarter of the bottle of shouchu, and then she brushes her teeth and ties her hair up and changes into her chuunin blues.

The mission desk is open twenty-four hours a day. They don’t ask questions.

They leave in the grey light of dawn, three chuunin and a jounin captain, all of them yawning and cranky in the sunless chill. Miyako doesn’t know where they’re going and doesn’t care. The jounin has their orders; he’ll give her hers. She nurses her hangover and speaks only when spoken to, and the sun has already risen above the trees before she realizes that their jounin captain is Ryuu.

If he recognizes her, he doesn’t betray it. They break for lunch at noon, at a little roadside stand a few miles out of Kawaguchi; he buys rice balls and pickled radish and shares them out with scrupulous fairness. Two each, and anything else comes out of their own pocket. Daisuke, the medic, buys yakitori on a skewer and offers some to Miyako. The smell is nauseating. She smiles at him anyway.

Ryuu doesn’t sit at the shaded benches outside the stall with the rest of them. He takes his rice balls and wanders off into the trees beside the road, where the shadows lie so thickly that his blues are near-invisible four steps in. Miyako can spot him only by the red swirl patches on his shoulders, bright as blood.

“Got your eye on the taichou?” Keiichi is a little weasel of a genjutsu user, sharp-featured and pale-eyed. She’s worked with him before and likes him less each time.

“Maybe,” she says, without bothering to look at him. “Is that any business of yours?”

“He’s bad news,” Keiichi says.

Miyako swings her leg over the bench and stands, brushing her hands off against her thighs. “So am I.”

She heads into the trees. It’s cooler here, and the shadows are gentle to her sun-pained eyes. Her headache begins to fade at last. She even dares to contemplate a nap; they won’t move out for another fifteen minutes at least, and she slept worse than poorly last night. Not much grass here, but she’s slept curled between roots before.

Then she rounds the massive trunk of another tree, and Ryuu is watching her.

He looks different in blues and flak vest and hitai’ate, with a katana strapped to his back and a kunai holster on his thigh. Older, more solid somehow. Maybe it’s the weight of authority on his shoulders, or the sun-dappled shadows on his face. That scabbing scrape is still livid along his cheekbone, though, and she wonders if he’s still wearing a bandage beneath his sleeve.

“Quick turn-around,” she says.

“I don’t spend much time at home.” The shadows make it hard to read his eyes. He’s leaning back against a gnarled trunk, shoulders braced, one sandaled foot propped up against the bark, his hands easy in his pockets.

Her body still remembers the heat of his skin.

She draws a little closer, stops, finds her own tree to lean against. “I can understand that.”

He frowns, and for a moment she wonders what she’s doing. You don’t get involved with your teammates on missions; that’s a cardinal rule of the shinobi corps. You may be married ten years with three brats at home, but on a mission you’re comrades, not lovers. She’s served before with men she’s slept with, and neither of them have said a word.

Maybe it’s the darkness in his eyes.

“I didn’t know you were on this team,” she says. “I signed up for the first short-notice mission I could get.”

He murmurs, “Quick turn-around.”

“Well,” she says, deliberately light, “I told myself I had to take another mission before I went looking for you again.”

That startles him at last. She smiles and shoves away from her tree. “Start thinking about that drink.”

She heads back to the tables by the road, where Daisuke and Keiichi are playing a desultory game of Five-Finger Fillet. She joins them, wins easily, mocks Keiichi for using a dull kunai; her own is as sharp as a whisper, but she never draws blood.

She can feel the moment Ryuu comes out of the trees to watch, but she doesn’t look up.

They move on again. That night they camp in a sheltered clearing beside a stream, and she lies awake in her bedroll beside the banked fire, listening to water run over stones. It’s her second night without sleep and she’s desperately tired, but every time she closes her eyes she shudders herself awake again. In the morning she asks Daisuke for a soldier pill. His eyes cloud with worry. “Already?”

“I had a root in my back all night,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep.”

He still looks worried, but he opens the sealed box in his med-kit and doles out one of the precious little pills. The Akimichi researchers are still perfecting the formula; this is one of the newest formulations, dark green and slightly moist to the touch. It begins to dissolve on her tongue with a taste like old coffee and mold. She swallows it and thanks Daisuke and goes to the stream to rinse out her mouth.

Ryuu is shaving, narrow-eyed, intent on the little sliver of mirror he’s propped up on a willow root. She crouches upstream from him, cups her hand in the morning-chill water, and nearly overbalances when he speaks.

“We’ll be in Junpei tonight. I’ll get us rooms at an inn there.”

He must have heard her conversation with Daisuke. She stares, dry-eyed, into the stream, watching her reflection hurry past.

“Thank you,” she says. “I’ll look forward to it.”

Outside the city gates that evening they each cast a henge, concealing uniforms and flak vests beneath a thin veneer of civilian respectability. Keiichi’s weasel face turns square-jawed and handsome. Daisuke’s round cheeks thin a little.

Miyako doesn’t change her face or figure, but she imagines her long dark hair done up in a respectable married woman’s bun, held in place by carved tortoiseshell kanzashi. Her kimono is pale green with little sprays of white plum blossoms, and her wide obi is red as heart’s blood. She folds her hands demurely and smiles beneath lowered lashes.

Keiichi whistles softly, falls silent when Ryuu’s eyes cut to him. Miyako’s smile widens.

Ryuu is still tall, still black-haired, but he wears a samurai retainer’s dark blue kimono with two swords thrust through his narrow black obi. The other two are in townsmen’s short pants and happi coats, unremarkable on these crowded streets; she wonders if they’re regretting their selections now. Keiichi’s fingers flex around the shape of another hand-seal.

“Don’t bother,” Ryuu says. He pulls out his wallet with their mission funds, counts out a handful of ryo for each man. “We’ll be less obvious if we split up. Make a left turn and two rights and then take rooms at the third tea-house you see. Have dinner and get some rest. We’ll meet behind the inn at moon-set.”

Keiichi looks as if he wants to argue, but he meets Ryuu’s eyes and turns away. Both of them fade into the stream of humanity passing through the gates. Ryuu waits ten minutes, then follows, with Miyako silent at his heels.

He takes the best room at the tea-house, orders a meal and hot water for baths. The women’s bath house is behind the main wing, connected by an open-air passage overlooking a garden. Miyako passes Daisuke on the way and doesn’t acknowledge him with even a glance.

When she comes back, with her wet hair loose down her back and the inn’s cotton yukata cool on her damp skin, food is waiting on little laquered tables in the center of the room. A single double-wide futon has already been laid out beneath the window. Ryuu is sitting in the wide window-sill, smoking a slender, inlaid pipe and watching the world fade into darkness. His skin is clean and brown, hair drying ruffled, blacker than night. The inn’s striped yukata gapes open over his chest and bares one dangling leg.

Miyako kneels, graceful as a geisha, in front of one of the little tables. “Will you eat, my lord?”

He stirs, comes back to himself, looks down at her. A corner of his mouth quirks. “I will.”

He taps the ashes out into a little pewter bowl, tucks the pipe into his sleeve, and comes to kneel across from her. Both of them are wire-nerved, dangerously aware of their own uniforms in packs leaning disguised against the wall, of their comrades somewhere in this inn’s maze of rooms, of the mission looming before them in the darkness. Maybe that’s what lends a delicious edge to their play-acting. They eat, exchange polite conversation: a reserved samurai and his new, nervous bride, slowly feeling their way towards a deeper knowledge of each other...

Miyako sets the tables out in the hall when they finish. She closes the sliding door and turns back into the lamp-lit room. There are four, possibly five hours till moon-set; time enough to sleep, if she could ever relax enough to close her eyes. She’s never acquired the old soldier’s gift of sleeping anywhere at an instant’s notice, and she wonders if Ryuu has either.

She meets his eyes. “Will you take your rest, my lord?”

His gaze drops, touches the single futon. Lifts to her again, for a long, thoughtful moment. Then his mouth tightens, and he shakes his head. His voice is still the smooth, cultured tones of the samurai. “I may smoke a little longer. You should retire first. You were weary today.” He retreats to the window, pulling his pipe from his sleeve.

For a moment she can see him there, smoking the moon away, stiffening in a window-sill so that she can sleep. The futon is wide enough that they could share without touching, only a little closer than when they slept around the fire last night. Is it propriety that keeps him there? He must know she has no reputation to protect.

She thinks, fleetingly, of Shinobi Rule Sixteen, of shinobi turned sexless: not men and women together on a team but weapons in a common sheath. Did those long-dead rulemakers truly believe that donning a hitai’ate meant shedding your humanity? Or were they just as human, just as fallible, just as weak to lust and loneliness?

There are four lamps burning behind their paper shades around the corners of the room. She blows out three, leaves the last glowing softly by the door while she folds down the coverlet. Silhouetted against the open window, Ryuu turns his head away to grant her a moment of privacy.

This is far harder than buying a handsome man a drink in a bar.

At the first brush of her fingers across the back of his neck he tenses, rigid as iron, but he doesn’t turn. She holds her breath and eases the yukata from his shoulders. His skin is warm, and her hands are so cold. She trails her palm down the broad smooth muscles of his back and feels him shiver at her touch.

“My lord,” she whispers, taking refuge in their disguise, “will you not take your rest with me?”

A muscle leaps in the side of his jaw. Smoke coils from the tiny bowl of the pipe, wreathes his head, dissolves into the wind. He takes the pipe from his mouth and stares out at the white waxing moon. She can barely hear his words.

“I am not weary, my wife. There would be little rest.”

“My lord,” she murmurs, “that is all I desire.”

He turns to look at her. His eyes are wide and black, and she could fall into them and never find herself again. His mouth shapes a word but does not release it. Slowly, carefully, he sets the pipe down on the window-sill. He reaches for her with the same gentle hands, unties the belt of her yukata, peels the robe back from her shoulders. She is naked beneath it, and she hears his breath catch.

She takes his hand and draws him down to the futon, and he goes with her willingly.

He wakes her later with a hand on her shoulder. She comes alert instantly. The lamp near the door has gone out, and the moon is dying. Ryuu is a black shape in the darkness, but his scent and his warmth are already familiar.

She dresses in silence. Underwear and sports bra, long-sleeved blue shirt with Konoha’s crimson swirls embroidered on each shoulder, dark blue trousers bound with white bandages at shin and thigh. She attaches her kunai holster to her thigh and her shuriken pouch to her belt, zips up her flak vest, ties up her hair.

Ryuu’s waiting crouched in the window. He’s already re-arranged the futon, mounding the coverlet skillfully over the shape of sleeping bodies. There’s nothing left to do but follow him into the night.

They meet Daisuke and Keiichi, both in uniform and wearing their familiar faces, behind the women’s bathhouse. A brief exchange of nods and they’re moving again, taking to the roofs for their swift silent passage over a sleeping city. Junpei Castle is a many-tiered blackness against the starlit sky.

Daisuke stuns one guard in the gardens. Miyako kills another: quick, nearly painless, a razor-edged kunai across the throat. He bleeds out in seconds. Daisuke looks reproachful, Keiichi excited. Ryuu’s face gives away nothing at all.

They scale the wall of the central keep, kill another guard, and slip through dark hallways. Ryuu guides them by hand signals to the lord of the castle’s study. Here Keiichi is in his element, rifling through books, checking scrolls, picking the locks on the solid desk drawers. Ryuu stations Daisuke at the door and beckons to Miyako to follow him.

She knows a little more of what they’re doing, by now. Keiichi has been sent to steal certain documents and replace them with others, forged by experts in Konoha. She and Ryuu have been sent to kill.

She doesn’t know why their client wants the oldest daughter of the lord of Junpei Castle dead, and she doesn’t want to know. It’s easy to kill when your victim is an object in your way, a messy thing of blood and bone without family or personality or future. The girl’s existence is a trouble to Miyako’s village, or to someone who is paying her village, and therefore she will end her, and try not to meet her in her dreams.

The target’s bedchamber is guarded, but the man is drowsy, leaning against the wall by a rice-paper lantern, not even bothering to pace. Ryuu flicks a hand at Miyako; she stops obediently in the shadows. He reaches into his belt-pouch and pulls out his canteen. Unscrews the top, and sets it gently on the ground.

He’s already shaping hand-seals as he steps out of the shadows.

It takes the guard a moment to realize the danger, and by then it’s too late. He draws his sword, opens his mouth. Ryuu murmurs, “Suiton: Hebi no Dekishi no Jutsu.”

Water rises from the canteen in a thin, glittering stream, wavering for a moment in the air. Miyako sees a flat, wedge-shaped head, tiny malicious eyes, slender dripping fangs. Then the water-snake strikes, faster than a whip, flashing under Ryuu’s arm to wind like a noose around the guard’s throat and plunge into his open mouth. His eyes bulge; he drops his sword and claws at his throat, at his mouth, but his fingers slip straight through the snake without loosening its coils. He drops to his knees, then his stomach. One foot kicks, and then he lies still.

Ryuu releases the Bird seal, and the snake collapses abruptly into a puddle on the floor. The drowned man doesn’t twitch as Ryuu slides the bedroom door open and steps inside. Miyako scoops up his empty canteen and follows.

No windows, no lamps. The only light is a soft golden glow filtering through rice-paper doors from the hallway. Ryuu is a ghost in the darkness, blacker than shadows. When he draws his katana from its sheath between his shoulder-blades the edge doesn’t catch a glimmer.

It rises, falls.

Miyako knows that wet thunk as well as she knows her own name. She doesn’t flinch, even when Ryuu picks the dripping head up by its long hair, holds it up for a moment to bleed out over the body, then rejoins her with his grisly trophy still hanging from his hand. “Her father’s room,” he says, barely a whisper.

This time she takes the lead. There are more guards, but they’re easily avoided by slipping into the shadows, chakra-crawling on the ceiling. No point or purpose in killing all of them, and every corpse left in their wake is an added risk, another minute shaved off the time before an alarm is raised.

The guards outside the lord’s bedroom are a different matter. There are two, stationed on either side of the sliding doors, and they both look alert, awake, aware of the constant danger brooding over a man who has enemies in a world that has ninja. Miyako flattens herself to the ceiling and studies them, upside-down. She’ll have to take out both in the same moment, and most of her jutsu are not meant for indoors work.

She can feel Ryuu close behind her, his chakra a cool pressure against hers. He could repeat his drowning snake jutsu, but they have only the water in her canteen--and besides, she thinks stubbornly, this is her job to do. Her moment to show him what she’s made of.

She tries not to think of why that should matter. Instead she draws a kunai, grips the cloth-bound hilt in her teeth, and crawls along the ceiling to a point perfectly between the two guards. Ryuu hangs back, watching. Miyako adjusts her angle, transfers more gripping chakra to her knees, and sets her hands together in the first seal of the Temporary Paralysis Technique.

One of the guards turns to speak to the other just before Miyako hits the last seal and releases her chakra. The words clot on his tongue. He struggles to turn, to close his mouth, but his muscles are no longer his own. Only the guards’ eyes move, agonized, as she drops from the ceiling and lands crouched at their feet.

Her jutsu will last only a few seconds at most. She cuts their throats in two quick slices and refuses to flinch from the blood spatters. They bleed out, still on their feet.

Ryuu drops down behind her, lands softly in a three-point crouch. His other hand cradles the head, wrapped in its own long hair. He nods to her, almost imperceptibly, then straightens and slips past her into the lord of Junpei castle’s bedchamber.

Miyako does not follow to watch him place the daughter’s severed head on the father’s pillow. She does not want to imagine that waking scene, or what trifling or terrible insult might have provoked their client to buy this inhuman revenge. The daughter is dead; if her father’s mind is not broken by his morning’s waking, his power will be by the documents stolen from and planted in his study. Her team are merely weapons in their client’s hands.

This rule, at least, she will follow.

They regroup with Daisuke and Keiichi in the study and leave the castle the way they came. No one speaks on the journey back to the inn. The sky has already begun to lighten, pearly grey in the east, and in a courtyard somewhere a cockerel crows. Under their roof-tile highway the city’s early risers are just beginning to stir.

Behind the women’s bathhouse, Ryuu says, “Eastern gate. Noon.”

Daisuke and Keiichi disappear without argument. Miyako wonders how much of their obedience is due to the blood drying in spattered sprays across Ryuu’s face and flak vest. His sleeve and hand are brown with it. She rubs her own face, and blood flakes away on her fingertips.

Ryuu checks the greying sky again. “You have half an hour before the maids come to clean the bathhouse, maybe. Make it quick.”

She does. She even dries the wet floor and buckets with a very minor fire jutsu, afterward, and disguises her wet hair and damp uniform with another henge. Loose hair this time, and a rumpled yukata, as though she’s just returning from the toilet. The serving maid she meets in the hall bows politely and never meets her eyes.

Ryuu is already back in their room, damp but well-scrubbed, rubbing absently at his hair with a thin towel as he repacks one-handed. He glances up, then away. “You did well, tonight,” he tells his pack.

“I am grateful to have pleased my lord,” Miyako murmurs.

That gets his attention again. He looks up sharply. Miyako smiles at him and sinks down on the futon. “My lord’s pleasure is my only desire. That this unworthy one might find favor in my lord’s eyes--”

He moves so fast her eyes barely register the blur. One moment she’s kneeling a futon’s length away, and the next she’s flat on her back, knocked breathless and out of the henge, with one broad hand pinning her shoulder and the other at her throat. His eyes are the color of burned bone.

“I am not,” he breathes, “in the mood for games.”

“Good,” she says, sudden, savage, because games are a thin substitute for what she really wants, for hard and hot and hurting the way that dead girl in Junpei castle will never have.

That murdered girl.

If she closes her eyes she can still see the smeared spray of blood across his face, like shattered rubies in the lamplight, drying flaked and black. He killed one girl, asleep in her bed, and one guard, drowned in a castle corridor. She cut four throats and never questioned the rightness of it. Did those men have wives waiting for them in warm beds? A favored whore down in the city, planning with her lover to buy her freedom? What makes their lives worth so much less than her mission?

Dangerous thoughts. A shinobi is a weapon. Once she begins to question her orders there will never be an end; that way lies both madness and missing-nin. Better to drown herself in breathless urgency, in his mouth on her skin, his heat burning away uncertainty. It’s worked before.

She reaches for him. A hand at his waistband, cold fingers on his cheek.

“This isn’t a game,” she tells him, “and it doesn’t have to be you. “ She’s seen the way Keiichi and even Daisuke watch her; neither of them would turn her away. “But I’d like it to be.”

His hand tightens on her throat, just shy of painful. Chakra crackles instinctively beneath her skin. Even now, even pinned on her back and at his mercy, she could fight him off; kunoichi learn tricks even jounin never have to.

She doesn’t move.

The muscle jumps in the side of his jaw. He jerks his chin up, looking at nothing now, or perhaps at memory; his eyes are as dark as the shadows in her own mind.

“I’m not safe,” he says.

He’s bad news, Keiichi had warned her, and Miyako had answered, So am I.

Her fingers slip down his cheek, graze the side of his mouth. She remembers the taste of shouchuu and strawberries, the sting hidden beneath the sweet.

“I don’t care,” she says, and then, surprising even herself, “I don’t believe you’ll hurt me.”

She’d thought she wanted him to. But she can see the fear, now, behind the iron control; the tension in his jaw, the tightness in his mouth. His hands on her throat and shoulder are too rigid to tremble.

He’s seen the darkness in himself. Used it. And they’re not at a bar in Konoha, at a safe remove from the mission, reports filed, clothes changed, a hazy film of alcohol softening the harsh edges of the world. All the edges are raw now, his darkness still only half-leashed, the memory of blood hot on his skin.

She looks for life after she kills, for warmth, for the mindless peace she’s found only lost in men’s sweat-slicked bodies. She never assumes they’ll respect or even remember her in the morning. But she has never wondered if they respect themselves, afterward, either.

She whispers, “Please. Just hold me a little while.”

He looks down at her at last. The darkness flickers in his eyes. And then, slowly, he lifts his hand from her throat, drops his other hand from her shoulder. He lowers himself to the futon beside her as carefully as if she’s a wild deer in the forest, tensed to flee at any moment. She can hear the blood pounding in her ears; she counts thirteen before he slides an arm under her shoulders, wraps the other over her ribs, and turns her toward him as gently as if she will shatter beneath his touch.

He is so warm, and gradually she begins to warm too.