Author's Note: The last chapter, hooray! It's the sort of universe I could probably happily write lots and lots for, but you know what they say – best to leave the audience wanting more. ;) I hope everyone had as much fun reading it as I did writing it.
A Traditional Ninja Romance
Consciousness was a fickle thing. Ryoma wandered near it several times, but wasn't able to drag himself to the stage of coherent thought the first few tries. Once he had a vague sensation of worried voices murmuring around him, and another time of fingers softly brushing his arm. Something was keeping him from fully awakening, though. It was a like a really heavy blanket had been thrown over his head.
Eventually, snippets of memory started to worm their way into his thoughts. Tezuka's smooth baritone; cracking as he shouted his name. Heat, light and smoke. Steel dancing in between flames. The coppery aroma of blood mixing with the acrid scent of burning straw.
That's right, Tezuka and his father were fighting… the house was on fire…
"Buchou!" he exclaimed, sitting up in bed, arm outstretched. Seconds later he regretted the motion as pained lanced through his body. Ryoma gasped, falling back against the futon.
"Don't move," Tezuka ordered. "Your wounds are still healing, and you lost a lot of blood."
"At least let me sit up," he grumbled. Tezuka looked like he was about to argue, but eventually helped him into a sitting position.
Once upright, Ryoma glanced about in confusion. The room was very familiar… he was back in the compound. More specifically, Tezuka's room – the desk had been pushed into the corner. "What-" Where was the burning building?
"Inui found your letter."
It took a moment for Ryoma to figure out what he was talking about. "But… I tore that up…"
"That is certainly not enough to stop Inui."
The pieces were small. It must have taken him at least a while. He'd hidden them in his futon, too! As though anticipating his next question, Tezuka continued, "Admittedly, it wasn't complete when I came after you, and not all of it made sense until I heard what your father had to say."
His father… his father. "Buchou," he rasped. "I failed." It pained him to utter those words, but they needed to be said.
"You did no such thing."
Strong arms encircled him. "You gave preference to Seigaku's orders over your father's without even thinking. The true purpose of your mission was to test that." The arms tightened. "However, I admit that I did not expect you to undertake a kamikaze run."
"It was the only way I had a hope of killing the old man."
"You should have said something. Did you honestly think that I would send you to your death?"
"Why wouldn't you, after I…"
There was a hand stroking his hair now. It made him feel sleepy. "Our intelligence on Echizen Nanjiroh had him as a retired ninja. Had I been aware that his strength had not significantly diminished, I would have certainly chosen another means of testing your true loyalty."
Ridiculous. "Are you saying that you made a mistake?" The steely, levelheaded captain of Seigaku's clan never made mistakes. Everyone knew that.
As though reading his mind, Tezuka responded, "Even the best captain can only be as good as his subordinates. And admittedly, my judgement in this matter was clouded."
"But… after I…" He'd betrayed Tezuka. Wasn't the captain upset? First he'd dumped him and turned to Sakuno, and then his father revealed that even in the first place, it was all an elaborate ruse!
"Your letter was enough. But I admit that things made a lot more sense after hearing that you were acting on your father's orders."
"Ha?" Ryoma was confused.
Tezuka leaned in close to his ear. "Fuji told me about you throwing up."
That bastard. "That could have been anything!"
"Long-term acting isn't among your strengths. Your personality kept changing around me. And even Momoshiro noticed something was off when you started courting Ryuuzaki. I didn't understand why you would be so upset, though, when you were the one who decided to end things. Now, it makes sense."
"But I still… aren't you mad? Aren't you mad at all?" Ryoma demanded. Tezuka hadn't reacted at all when he dumped him, either. It hurt, Ryoma realised. It hurt even worse than his own betrayal to think that Tezuka cared so little that he wasn't even upset.
"For a while I was. But now that the truth is known, there is no need to be."
Ryoma closed his eyes. His throat felt tight. Did this mean… did Tezuka forgive him? Dare he even contemplate the notion?
There was something he'd overlooked, though… "You knew I was an infiltrator?" he asked.
"I'm not certain if infiltration really fits what you did, but we suspected."
"Since your battle with Ibu. He's Fudomine's ace. There was no way that a rookie without proper training in a dojo or lots of mission experience would have been able to fight him evenly. After that, we became aware of you sneaking out as well, though we could never discover where you went."
"And you let me do the paperwork under suspicion?" Knowing things like the clan's suppliers and mission details was valuable information for a spy.
"I'm sorry to say that I don't normally do that much paperwork. All of the requests and forms you copied out were dupes. If there was any action upon that misinformation, you would have been exposed as a spy."
Ryoma groaned. "All those hours of paperwork for nothing."
"I wouldn't say for nothing." Tezuka's grip tightened again, though he was being extremely careful of his bandaged shoulder.
"Wait… then…" Realisation settled in. He was possessed by the sudden urge to laugh. "Were you…?"
Tezuka withdrew from the embrace, looking uncomfortable. "It was Fuji's idea. Given how you acted around me, he thought it would be more effective than just surveillance. Honestly, I was a little surprised that it worked so well."
Unbelievable. "What are you talking about? I did all the work," Ryoma scoffed, then glared. "If that was the case, why were you being so difficult about it?"
"I wasn't in favour of the plan. It was only when you came that night that I figured I should go ahead with it anyway. Honestly, I didn't really know what I was doing."
Ryoma didn't either, but he wasn't going to admit it. "So then…"
Stiffly, Tezuka glanced away. His cheeks started to glow faintly pink. "I… for me, as well. At some point..."
"You cut a deal with my father," he recalled abruptly.
Tezuka didn't say anything. He didn't need to.
"He was just being a pervert, anyway. I can't believe he put me through all that for something so stupid." That wasn't quite true, either. Nanjiroh had dismissed the matter of continuing the clan, but Ryoma had the niggling doubt that maybe that had been the old man's intention after all. Ever since Ryoga had vanished during that mission, his father was always worried about his legacy. But Ryoma didn't want to give Tezuka any reason to doubt the deal, and in any case it was blatantly obvious that the Echizen line wasn't going continue through him.
Tezuka still didn't comment. Hopefully he believed it and would let the deal stand.
Ryoma lay back on the futon. Sitting up was draining his energy too quickly. "The others?"
"Those in the main squad are aware of the situation. They are quite eager to see you after that letter you left."
"Hn." Ryoma's face burned at the thought of anyone reading that letter – he'd never intended for another set of eyes to ever see it. He supposed he should be grateful in this one instance, though. If it weren't for Inui's nosiness, he'd probably be dead. "One thing bothers me."
"You said you just suspected. How was killing him supposed to test my loyalty?"
Tezuka thought on this for a moment, before launching into explanation. "It took a long time to find a connection between you and Samurai Ninja. When we heard the name Echizen-"
"You said you didn't know the name."
"More misdirection, I'm afraid."
"Then why didn't you follow me, to make sure I'd try to complete the mission? I could have warned him and escaped."
"We were prepared to deal with that consequence. Our primary interest was in preventing a rival clan rising within our own territory – without the need to test your loyalty we probably would have just run him off. I was hoping that if you were loyal to your father that you would simply flee. I'd already decided to let you both go."
"Isn't that sweet of him?" a smooth voice added from the doorway.
Ryoma jumped at the introduction of a third person to their conversation. "Fuji-senpai?"
After that, the rest of the main squad spilled into the room in a disorganised mess. "Who pushed me?" Momoshiro yelled.
"Ochibiiiiii! I was so worried!"
They all crowded around the futon; though Oishi made sure everyone kept back. "Give him room, he has a lot of injuries!" he scolded.
"Don't worry about it, Oishi-senpai," said Ryoma.
"Worry about it? I spent hours stitching you up! I wasn't sure if you were going to make it! You were stabbed in the leg, cut in the armpit, cheek and elbow, and had a sword go clean through your shoulder! It's a miracle it didn't hit any bones! You picked up burns from the fire, and were suffering from smoke inhalation when Tezuka brought you in!" Ryoma winced as Oishi started listing off his injuries.
"Wow, Echizen, you were really put through the ringer," Momoshiro observed, eyes wide. "Are you okay?"
"Ochibi is so brave!"
"Has exceptionally high pain tolerance," Inui noted under his breath.
"We're glad Tezuka brought you back safely," Kawamura added. "And I'm really happy you're going to stay with the clan."
"Did you all know?" he asked, feeling strangely depressed by the notion. He'd been so careful! When did he slip so badly?
"It was just the senior members until a couple of days ago, but even after we discovered your fortnightly wandering, we found it rather difficult to follow you. Your movements were quite peculiar," Inui reported.
"Trying to follow Ochibi was so tiring," Eiji complained. "We had to stay so far behind so that he wouldn't notice us, and then he kept doubling back and changing paths!"
Ryoma blinked, thinking that over. Oh. He always followed the path that Horio showed him through the forest out of habit. Maybe that was why it took so long to get to his father's house every time. Ironic that it was what kept his colleagues from discovering his destination – and probably the very same thing that had saved his life. Tezuka wouldn't have made it in time otherwise.
"We never actually found out where you were going for sure. It was only when Inui found out about your father through chance that we put things together," Momoshiro explained. He rubbed the back of his neck. "I didn't think he'd order to you try and seduce Ryuuzaki's granddaughter, though! That sort of explains a lot."
Sakuno. Ryoma had forgotten about her. He had absolutely no intention of going through with his previous mission if he didn't have to report to his father anymore. But she was the daimyo's granddaughter; upsetting her probably wasn't a great idea.
Fuji apparently noticed his concern. "As for Sakuno, just yesterday her grandmother called her back to the estate. She's been betrothed to a rather nice young noble in the north. They're getting married in the Spring, I believe. She really wanted to say goodbye to you, but unfortunately you were still unconscious."
How long was he unconscious for, anyway? "That's, um, a little convenient," Ryoma commented.
Fuji smiled. "You think so too?"
Right. Meddlesome ninja at work. He closed his eyes briefly, feeling suddenly tired. "So… no one has any problems with me staying?" It was a little hard to take it all in. Ryoma wasn't sure what he was more surprised about – that they'd known about his infiltration for so long, or that they were so willing to overlook it.
"Of course not, Ochibi! How could you think such a thing?" Eiji exclaimed, moving to hug him before being tugged back by Oishi.
"I told you he was badly injured!"
Momoshiro scratched the back of his head. "Even after Inui told us to be on the lookout, I had trouble believing it. You sort of fit in, you know? And it's not like you really betrayed us, or anything. I mean - it wasn't like you sold information or tried to kill anyone or sabotage missions."
The only one he'd really betrayed was Tezuka, but by some sort of gift of the gods, the captain didn't appear to care about it anymore. Ryoma supposed that the captain's own acts of subterfuge sort of evened it out.
"Certainly, our mission success rate has improved with Echizen's addition to the clan," Inui quipped.
"The brat's useful," Kaidoh agreed gruffly.
"And everything has been worked out now, right?" Kawamura added helpfully.
"Tezuka would be quite upset, otherwise," Fuji remarked.
It was really amazing. Seigaku was something else indeed. Ryoma didn't think he'd ever felt this comfortable before in his life.
"I get to stay," he murmured, mostly to himself. Tezuka heard anyway. He picked up his hand, threading their fingers together.
"You're definitely staying, even if I have to tie you down with wire," Tezuka said sternly.
"Kinky," Ryoma muttered.
The edges of Tezuka's mouth quirked into a hint of smile. "You scared me," he admitted softly. "When Inui started reading out your messages, and I realised what you were planning to do…"
Ryoma brought their hands to his lips – his body ached too much to do much else. Oishi speaking of his injuries made him uncomfortably more aware of them. "You really don't care about all that I did?"
"Of course I care," Tezuka said. His voice was as business-like as always, but Ryoma thought he spied a glint of mischief in the captain's eyes. "But it doesn't really matter anymore."
At his questioning glance, Tezuka drew back his hand and leant over the futon, placing a hand on the ground either side of his head. "I made a deal with your father, after all. You belong to me, now." He leant down, and brushed their lips together.
It sent thrills through his body. The difference between kisses with Sakuno and Tezuka was like night and day. Ryoma shivered. "What are my orders, Buchou?" he asked breathily.
Tezuka didn't answer; he just captured his lips in another kiss.
After a long moment, Momoshiro cleared his throat. "Um, maybe we should leave."
"I would sort of like to stay," Fuji remarked. Tezuka and Ryoma both froze; they'd briefly forgotten that the others were still in the room with them.
"It is improbable, given Echizen's injuries, that they would progress to-"
"Everybody out!" Tezuka ordered. Ryoma was mildly amused to note that he sounded slightly panicked.
Half of them filed out of the room hurriedly, while the other half groaned and dragged their feet, disappointed that their entertainment was stolen from them.
Seigaku really was a very weird clan, but Ryoma didn't mind.