Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto, Shueisha, VIZ Media, et al. No money is being made from this story and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: "Undertow" is a semi-sequel to "Tides," my Team 7 fic from 2005. "Tides" departs from manga canon during the rescue Gaara arc. Basically, they catch up to Gaara before Akatsuki get him into the cave and yank out his demon, Kakashi does not wind up in the hospital, and Sakura does not learn about Sasori's spy. Kakashi, Naruto, and Sakura then go kidnap Sasuke from Hidden Sound; when he wakes up, Naruto and Sakura accompany him away from Konoha on a quest to confront Akatsuki. Officially, they are now missing-nin and "Undertow" chronicles the first contract they take in that capacity.
This story contains assassination for money, the implied past sexual abuse and murder of several young women, familial dysfunction, and coercion into a sexual relationship. (There is, however, no rape within the actual story.) If those themes are problematic for you, please do not read the story.
ETA: This story was edited on 10/13/09, in response to several reviews. The changes do not affect the plot, but if I've done my job, Team 7's employers are now evident, Tsukimaru's motives are clearer, and Mikatsuki's character is more consistent from scene to scene. +crosses fingers+
Summary: Chouryuukei Tsukimaru thinks he is playing a game with a helpless girl as his toy. He is very, very wrong. AU Team 7 fic, semi-sequel to "Tides."
The swirl of pink in the corner of his eye caught Tsukimaru's attention first.
He turned, curious, and saw a girl with cherry blossom hair sitting on the side of the canal, looking lost. Her light green dress was shabby and thin; the fabric hung limply in the thick, hot air. As his boat skimmed past she raised her head and met his gaze for a second before shyly looking away. Her eyes were mint-green, innocent as new leaves, but something dark and wounded lurked behind them. Her body was peasant-sturdy, but her gestures spoke of grace. Delicacy. Fragility.
Tsukimaru held his breath until she was out of sight. Then he motioned his guard to approach his seat.
"Tsukimaru-sama?" Hebi asked as he knelt, ragged black hair shading his respectfully downcast eyes.
"That girl," Tsukimaru said. "The one with hair like sakura in spring. Find her."
"Her name is Houka Kaori," Hebi told him two days later. "She and her brother arrived from Wave Country two weeks ago and are living by the docks. The money from the sale of their boat is running out. She defers to her brother, Kureji." The guard's lips quirked upward in a humorless smile. "He seems approachable, if a bit... simple. Neither will speak about their previous circumstances, but their accents are inland Fire Country."
Tsukimaru considered this information. The girl, Kaori, was isolated. She was submissive. She had presumably fled from her home. She needed help. If he played this right, she would consider him something of a savior... until he ended the game. Maybe this time he could paint all the details perfectly.
"Bring Houka Kureji to the lower gate this evening," he told Hebi. "He and I may be able to reach a mutually beneficial agreement."
"Yes, Tsukimaru-sama." Hebi bowed and left the room, closing the door silently behind him.
Tsukimaru waited until the sound of the guard's footsteps vanished down the corridor. Then he untied the sash of his kimono and ran the silk through his hands, twisting it slightly. The dark fabric slipped through his fingers like water.
Houka Kureji couldn't have been more than a year older than his sister, and a similar wariness lurked in his clear blue eyes. His pants and shirt were stained with tar -- he'd found a job at the harbor, Tsukimaru concluded -- and his blond hair was wet, as though he'd dunked his head in a canal in a futile attempt to make himself presentable. Old scars slashed across his cheeks like scrapes from a desperate woman's nails.
Kureji slouched against the doorframe of the lower gate and tried to look unconcerned, but his shuffling feet gave him away. He cast quick glances around the entrance hall of the manor like a rabbit searching for hawks and marking cover. Hebi leaned on the other side of the door, idly flipping a knife from hand to hand.
Tsukimaru watched from behind a screen near the hearth for several minutes as Kureji grew steadily more uncomfortable. Finally the boy cracked. "You lied," he spat at the black-haired guard. "I should've known better -- no lord wants to see me. Is this how you get your kicks in this shithole town, you bastard?"
Hebi shrugged minimally. "Tsukimaru-sama will come when he wishes, idiot -- you can't compel a lord. Until then, wait."
No one could compel a lord? Perhaps, Tsukimaru thought. Perhaps. And someday he would spin a web so fine and strong that his father wouldn't see to slash his way out. After that, he would rule in Kuronami and even the daimyo of River Country would tread lightly around him to keep the trade routes open. Until that day, though, one man could still compel him, and he was forced to work in shadows.
Hebi was good -- quiet, competent, unquestioning, clearly shinobi-trained -- but he was still young, and new to Kuronami. He should not have spoken his master's name without permission. He would have to be reminded.
Tsukimaru stood and walked around the screen. Hebi dipped his head; Kureji nearly jumped in surprise before bowing awkwardly. "Lord! I didn't know you were here! Hey, hey, I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to call your town a shithole. It's a cool town! Everybody's been friendly, you know? Me and my sister are really glad to be here."
"I am glad to hear that," Tsukimaru said, letting his smile show. "I am pleased to see Kuronami continue to grow, with strong citizens such as you. However. My father, Chouryuukei Mikatsuki-dono, does not necessarily agree, and... troubles... have been known to befall those who come to this town, especially those who bring no money to bribe his guards and stewards."
He watched Kureji's expression. The boy was confused at first -- naturally -- and then comprehension dawned in a mix of outrage, horror, and weary, cynical resignation. "Damn it," the boy said. "I got a job, but I can't pay anything, not yet." He flushed. "Sorry. Um. Thanks for the warning, Tsukimaru-sama. Guess we'll have to hit the road. Again."
Here was the opening. "That might not be necessary," Tsukimaru said gently. "I find myself in need of companionship, and I hear your sister is too delicate for hard labor at the docks." He folded his sleeves and waited. In the background, Hebi tossed his knife.
Inevitably, Kureji agreed.
The next evening Tsukimaru was delayed at supper with his father long past the hour when Hebi was to bring Houka Kaori to his rooms. Finally Mikatsuki tipped over his empty sake cup and declared himself done with conversation for the night. Tsukimaru bit back his frustration, bowed low and deferential, and withdrew from the gardens into his wing of the manor, which overlooked the canals.
He had no patience for games tonight. Sometimes there was no point playing with a toy; sometimes it was only worth breaking.
The girl perched at the very edge of his bed like a songbird ready to fly, clearly uncomfortable in the cherry blossom kimono he had left out for her. Her hands twisted together, fingers weaving around and around in graceful, restless patterns, and she tugged at the obi every minute or so, sliding the bow back and forth around her waist. She jerked her head up when the guard slid the door aside, then lowered her mint-green eyes. "Tsukimaru-sama," she murmured.
"Your presence graces my humble rooms, Kaori-san," Tsukimaru said, hiding a smile. He turned to Hebi. "Leave us."
The guard hesitated, and met Tsukimaru's eyes for a moment. "Your safety, Tsukimaru-sama--" he began.
"Is my concern," Tsukimaru finished. "Leave." He held Hebi's eyes in silent warning, and then turned, slightly dizzy. He would almost have sworn the guard's eyes had flashed red for a moment.
"Tsukimaru-sama? Are you tired? I can rub your back and help you bathe," Kaori said, still twisting her fingers, clasping and unclasping her hands.
As she spoke, Tsukimaru realized how drained he was from playing the dutiful son under his father's gimlet eyes. A massage sounded appealing, and he could always invite the girl again. Perhaps he would make this a game after all -- extend his pursuit, bring her gently to his hand, and only then spring the trap.
Yes. She was a beautiful toy: vividly colored, exotic, difficult to replicate. He might never get a better chance to play the game to such a striking conclusion. It would be a shame to break her so soon, before he had laid more than the bare framework of the snare.
The bath was steamy and scented with sakura petals, and Kaori washed his hair with surprising skill. Then she settled him onto his bed and poured rose oil between his shoulder blades; it warmed to the heat of his skin as she trailed callused fingers along his spine, deftly working out the knots. Tsukimaru drifted into sleep as the girl's strong hands caressed his back.
He dreamed of silk and knives.
Three days later Tsukimaru sent Hebi to invite Kaori to supper.
She shifted awkwardly on the silk cushions, as if more accustomed to chairs or a bare floor. Tsukimaru supposed a farmer's daughter would not have had much occasion to eat formal meals, but he disliked poor presentation. By the time he brought her to his rooms for good, he would have her trained properly. He refused to let her be an embarrassment when they reached the climax of this game.
"It's beautiful," Kaori said, staring wide-eyed at the carefully arranged dishes. She touched her teacup with shy fingers. "Will it break?"
Tsukimaru imagined sharp edges slicing into her hands, imagined blood trailing down those fragile fingers. "Only if you drop it," he said, sipping from his own tea. He raised his lacquered chopsticks, seized a bit of fish in lemon-garlic sauce, and offered the bite to her.
After several seconds the girl opened her mouth and let the chopsticks slip between her lips. She hummed in pleasure as Tsukimaru drew them back, scraping across her lower teeth. "It's good! Thank you so much, Tsukimaru-sama."
Then her eyes darkened and she looked down again, twisting her fingers. "Can I... may I bring some home for Kureji?"
Tsukimaru frowned, and she hurried on. "He works so hard, you see, but we have to save the money. Sometimes he skips meals and doesn't tell me, or he eats nothing but ramen because it's cheap. I worry about him."
"Your concern does you credit, Kaori-san," Tsukimaru said gently, "but giving up your food for him is as senseless as his own actions. Besides, the meal would be spoiled by the time you reached your brother. I will have the cooks prepare some cold dishes for you in the morning."
Phrases of thanks tripped over each other, pouring from Kaori's mouth. Tsukimaru watched her teeth part and close around words; he tightened at each glimpse of her tongue, a darker pink against the bud of her lips. Beautiful.
"Where will I sleep, Tsukimaru-sama?" the girl asked eventually.
Tsukimaru laid his chopsticks aside. "The bed is large enough for two. You may lie under the sheets; I will stay on the balcony until you sleep, contemplating the stars. When I close the shutters I will lie on top of the sheets. You have nothing to fear," he added gently. It was too early in this game for that. Small steps worked best in many endeavors, not only in the long, unvoiced struggle with his father.
"Oh," Kaori said, flushing and looking aside. "I've never... are you sure it's not improper, Tsukimaru-sama? Your reputation... And I don't want to spoil your sheets -- they're silk, and that must be so expensive!"
"There will be no trouble," Tsukimaru said. "Please, finish your meal. It would be a shame to waste."
"Yes, Tsukimaru-sama," the girl said.
After servants removed the plates, Tsukimaru helped Kaori into his bed and parted her cherry blossom hair with a lacquered brush until it was smooth and shining. Then he stepped onto his balcony and looked over the dark water of the canal, listening to the ragged, untuned chorus of crickets and frogs and the soft, relentless murmur of water, eating away at the land.
Hebi dropped lightly from the roof and sank into a deep, one-kneed bow. "Tsukimaru-sama," he said, barely audible over the night. "Your father is asleep."
Tsukimaru leaned on the railing and considered. "Can you avoid the traps in his office and reset them as you leave?"
"Good. Copy the import taxes for the past month and leave them in the hollow base of the fountain outside my office."
Hebi's eyes flashed in comprehension and he sprang weightlessly for the roof, nothing but a blur of pale skin and shadowy cloth.
Tsukimaru stifled a sudden yawn and a rush of desire when he thought of Kaori lying in his bed, limbs trustingly lax and parted. So easy to bind. To break. But no, not yet. He had spoiled all his previous games with an overeager rush to the end. This time, every move would be perfect. Turning, he went inside to soothe some of that longing by watching lamplight play on the girl's hair, by breathing the clean scent of her skin in the summer night.
Yes. This game would be more than worth the time.
"Tsukimaru, my boy! I hear you have a new diversion. Quite pretty, too, from the few glimpses I've caught -- must you hide her so jealously?"
Tsukimaru held himself perfectly still for the space of a breath, then turned to smile calmly at Mikatsuki. "Father," he said. "I am pleased to see you in good health. I have nothing to hide. The young woman is merely humble and shy, and I fear your presence would overwhelm her."
The old man rested a hand on the hilt of his sword, the white of his beard and the gold and scarlet of his robes showing to dramatic effect against the dark green leaves of the courtyard garden. He leered. "Overwhelm the little sparrow with my magnificence? Must you always speak sideways, my boy? We know each other; there's no need to dissemble with me. You think I'd take your girl from you."
Tsukimaru spread his hands in feigned astonishment. "I assure you, Father, I meant no such thing. I apologize if my words seemed to imply any accusation."
Mikatsuki smiled, hard and sharp. "You meant every drop of it. You're my son; I ought to know." He waved a languid hand, stirring his trailing sleeves to dance like tongues of fire in the humid air. "I won't touch a single pink hair on Houka Kaori's sweet head -- I am quite capable of finding my own songbirds to play with. You don't have to worry about her. You do, however, need to worry about the person who looked through my tax records two nights ago and missed one of my tell-tales. That was careless of you. I would almost call it unworthy of my heir."
Tsukimaru feigned hurt confusion. "I would never violate your privacy in such a manner, Father. I assure you, I'll do my best to find and punish the intruder. Have you considered that the River daimyo might have hired shinobi to trouble you?"
Mikatsuki waved his hand again. "Oh, I thought of that possibility. I also thought of the merchants' council; the fools have been oddly quiet these past months, not a single tax or extortion complaint sent to the daimyo. But one must look to one's own household first in affairs like this. And one can never be too careful." He looked up at the hazy blue sky where the summer sun blazed with no sign of clouds. "This will be a hot season, my boy. I hope you'll keep yourself cool; heatstroke and sun-poisoning can be deadly."
"And you wonder why I speak sideways," Tsukimaru whispered as his father exited the garden, flanked by his ever-present bodyguards. "I only follow your lead. Furthermore, your warning lacks teeth; I don't fear you anymore."
Hebi faded out of the shadows as Tsukimaru passed under a ginkgo tree. "I didn't touch the tell-tale," he said, scowling at the aspersion cast on his skill. "Mikatsuki met with one of the daimyo's men this morning; the man came angry and left calm. Your father blamed the tax discrepancies on you."
"Ah." Tsukimaru considered whether to trust the guard, then considered his father. Mikatsuki could last another twenty years, he supposed -- long enough to raise a new heir, as a threat or a replacement -- and the old man knew Tsukimaru wouldn't let him spend those decades in peace, or perhaps even spend all of them still alive. Games within games. Tsukimaru touched his hand to his sash, rubbing the silk between his finger and thumb, testing its strength. "It's time to move Houka Kaori into my rooms."
Hebi bowed his head. "As you wish, Tsukimaru-sama."
The day had been stifling, the sea breezes too weak to reach much past the shore, and nightfall brought little relief from either heat or humidity. Tsukimaru unobtrusively held his arms an inch out from his body in an attempt to keep his clothes from sticking to his skin.
"Are you sure this is proper, Tsukimaru-sama?" Kaori asked yet again as she adjusted the small shrine on a lacquered table. It was crudely carved and painted in the Fire Country style, jarringly out of place in the spare elegance of the room. It had, however, a certain rustic charm, and it was not yet time to sever all the girl's ties to her former life.
"Hey, hey, if Tsukimaru-sama says it's fine, then it's fine," Houka Kureji said loudly, tucking a creased photograph of a lush-figured blonde woman into the shrine -- the siblings' mother, perhaps, in her youth. "He's a great guy! Nobody around here ever says anything bad about him -- and if they do, I punch them in the face!"
"You are too kind," Tsukimaru murmured.
"You'll be safe here, Kaori, not like back ho-- not like some places. There's no jerks to leer at you or touch you funny, no chance of people breaking in at night," Kureji continued, throwing a glance at the silent guard. "See, you'll always have guards and they'll protect you. Right, you bastard?"
Hebi twitched but remained silent. Tsukimaru concealed a smile.
"Kureji, be polite!" Kaori scolded, reaching over to smack her brother's head.
"There is a more graceful way to chide him," Tsukimaru said in seeming idleness. When Kaori looked interested, he picked up a fan from a table -- one of his mother's collection -- and offered it to her. "Tap him lightly on the shoulder. When he turns to you, snap the fan open and conceal your face to show that he is unworthy to look upon you."
Kaori tapped her brother on the nose, giggling, and then snapped the fan open. Delicately painted cherry blossoms seemed to drift over the faintly yellowed silk. Wisps of pink hair fell around the fan like a veil as Kaori tossed her head; their color matched the flowers.
"You're like a real lady now," Kureji said, smiling at his sister. "Lucky!"
"My boy, enough of this sneaking around," Mikatsuki announced as he replaced the sake decanter on the lacquered table. "Tomorrow you will bring your girl to dine with us. Usually you dispose of your amusements without letting them become troublesome; I find myself curious about this sparrow who has managed to capture your attention to such an intense degree."
Tsukimaru sipped from his sake bowl and thought at a furious pace. Unfortunately, unless he had his father killed immediately -- which was impossible; he had yet to lay the proper groundwork for exposing some of the old man's vices and painting himself as a grieving son who had taken action to prevent worse excesses -- there was no way to keep Kaori hidden.
He bowed his head in acquiescence. "As you wish."
"Excellent," Mikatsuki said, raising his sake bowl and nodding to his son. "Most excellent. Of course, we won't be able to discuss business with your sparrow present, but I'm sure I can impress upon her the long and rich history of the Chouryuukei family."
The edited history, of course, with the various assassinations passed off as war casualties, accidents, or tragic illnesses. Tsukimaru studied the fall of water in the artificial stream that ran through his father's private courtyard. "I'm sure she will find the patterns most instructive," he said.
Mikatsuki's eyes narrowed. He clapped his hands, summoning a maid to remove the sake and the empty bowls. "All patterns have exceptions, and deeper layers," he said. "You may learn that as you grow older."
Tsukimaru ground his teeth as he left his father's rooms. He knew perfectly well that Mikatsuki could kill him and deflect any inquiries from the River daimyo -- as he deflected the merchants' complaints over taxes and harbor fees, or the commoners' whispers of murder and worse -- whereas he had yet to achieve that level of political influence. But he had time and he had a shinobi-trained guard, whereas his father refused to trust any samurai whose weapon skills outstripped his own ability with the sword. The game was more balanced than Mikatsuki thought.
Tsukimaru smoothed his face and deliberately relaxed his hands, unwilling to reveal the line of his thoughts to his father's servants.
Kaori was his prize. Until he broke her, nobody else had the right to lay a finger on her or so much as look at her without proper respect. If his father expected Tsukimaru to hand over Kaori in order to win a month or three of peace...
"Have you found the death records?" he asked Hebi that night.
The guard shrugged. "I don't know. Everything's in code, and I don't have enough local background to make sense of the patterns."
"Copy all his records," Tsukimaru said, clenching his hands on the balcony rail. "Copy them, and bring them to me."
His father had finally taken one step too far.
It was time to end their game.
Tsukimaru should have spent the day reviewing his father's records, matching the coded phrases and numbers to the events they described. He knew the patterns of assassinations, tax evasions, shipwrecks, extortions, and outright theft that wove through Mikatsuki's rule. Of all people in the world, he had the best chance of following his father's line of thought.
But Tsukimaru left the records in his room, buried among his failed attempts at poetry and watercolors.
He spent the day walking with Kaori, showing her the hidden beauties of Kuronami -- the water gardens, the floating shrines, the willow groves, the ivory and lacquer patterns on the city gates. He listened to her laughter, flowing and falling like clear water from a fountain, and wondered what her scream would remind him of. He wondered how fast her tears would flow.
Around every corner, it seemed a work-roughened man or woman hailed them with a wave and a cheerful call of, "Kaori-chan! We've missed you!"
"And I've missed you!" she called back each time. "How are you? How is Kureji? Have you met Tsukimaru-sama? Isn't he kind?"
Each time the commoners smiled with stiff lips and wary eyes, and said yes, of course, they were fine, Kureji was fine, and Tsukimaru was every virtue exemplified.
Tsukimaru watched the interplay -- as mannered as an ancient drama, as incessant as the tide -- and raged behind the mask of his benevolent smile. He would have to be careful. Kaori could not simply vanish, as the others had. This girl might be missed. She and her brother must either been seen to leave town alive, or die in an obvious, public accident. Drowning would be best: a pleasure outing gone tragically awry. If the bodies were dredged from the harbor, any wounds could be attributed to sharks.
He helped Kaori onto a boat and watched her trail her hands in the saltwater as they skimmed along the canals. They stopped for the midday meal at an exquisite teahouse built on an artificial island in the lagoon, well away from the reek of the docks and the bustle of the shipping lanes. Kaori touched the table and dishes with reverence and closed her eyes to savor the food. Tsukimaru sat beside her. He rested his hand on her shoulder, ran his fingers through her hair, caressed the side of her throat. She didn't flinch. She leaned into his touch and smiled at him, her leaf-green eyes full of trust. Beautiful.
He had her now. Once he killed his father, it would be time to change the game.
Evening stole over the sky, bringing scattered stars and a crescent moon in its wake, and Tsukimaru turned reluctantly homeward. "Tonight we'll dine with my father, Mikatsuki-dono," he said. "He generally dines alone, for fear of assassins, so this is a great honor. Please use your best manners. However. Mikatsuki-dono has a great eye for beauty and his behavior with his personal favorites is... less than courteous, one might say, so please don't put yourself forward either. I would hate to see you in his hands."
"I understand, Tsukimaru-sama," Kaori said, resting her hand lightly in the crook of his elbow. "I know I'm unworthy of your concern, but you've done so much for me and Kureji. We'll always be grateful to you. If there's anything I can do in return, please tell me."
Tsukimaru smiled. "I consider your happiness full repayment, Kaori-san, but if a token would ease your conscience, I'll see what I can think of."
Yes. This phase of the game was complete.
"Welcome, my dear," Mikatsuki said, his face a benevolent mask. "This garden was designed by my grandmother, who loved nightingales. The netting overhead keeps them from flying away; the fruit trees and the fountains keep them happy and singing. Listen -- do you hear them?"
Trembling, Kaori nodded, and slipped her fingers into Tsukimaru's hand. "It's wonderful, Mikatsuki-dono. You do me too much honor, inviting me here."
"Nonsense. Any woman who manages to capture my fickle son's attention for nearly a month is worthy of all the honor I can bestow." Mikatsuki gestured toward the low table on the polished stones, where dinner had been laid waiting. "Shall we eat?"
The entire meal followed that pattern -- Mikatsuki flattering Kaori and she nervously deflecting his compliments. Tsukimaru held his tongue, knowing better than to openly cross his father, but whenever he could he brushed his hand against Kaori's thigh, reminding her of his presence. Reminding her of his claim.
Finally, Mikatsuki laid aside his chopsticks and sighed. "I hate to relinquish your company, my dear, but this old man needs his rest. Please think of me kindly while you and my son enjoy your youth."
"Oh, of course, Mikatsuki-dono!" Kaori said, bending her whole body in a respectful bow. "I don't know how I can ever repay you and Tsukimaru-sama. You both have done so much for me and my brother; we are forever in your debt."
Tsukimaru frowned. What had his father ever done for Kaori? But no. He relaxed his hands, uncurling his fingers from where they had begun to gouge into his palms. The girl was simply being polite, showing appropriate deference to the lord of Kuronami.
Mikatsuki smiled, slyness creeping around the edges of his kindly mask. "I say again, you do me too much honor. But old men are as susceptible to flattery as young ones -- perhaps more so -- and I thank you for your attention. Good night, Kaori-chan."
The excess familiarity grated against Tsukimaru's nerves. He stood hastily, gesturing Kaori to rise as well. "Good night, father," he said with a minimal nod of his head. "I wish you peaceful dreams."
"Peaceful may not be the right word, but I'm sure they'll be pleasant," Mikatsuki said. He tilted back his head and drained the dregs of his tea. "Until later, my boy."
Tsukimaru led Kaori from the garden in frustrated silence.
Hebi slid open the door to Tsukimaru's rooms and ushered them inside. As soon as the door closed, Tsukimaru whirled to face Kaori, stepping forward and pressing her to the wall. But gently, gently. No pain, not yet. Not until she yielded, not until she let him in of her own will. The greater her trust, the more beautiful the shatter point would be.
Tsukimaru fished a smile up through his rage and softened his voice. "Did my father disturb you?" He slid his left hand down her arm, over the silk of her kimono. His right hand lifted to play with a loose strand of cherry-blossom hair.
Kaori shook her head, nervousness and tension visible in every line of her face and body. "No! Not at all. I could never say anything against Mikatsuki-dono."
Tsukimaru brought his left hand inward to rest on the curve of Kaori's hip, barely distinguishable under the layers of fabric. His fingers slipped just under the edge of her obi. "Don't worry, Kaori-san. Anything you tell me is for my ears alone. I won't repeat your words to him."
After a moment, Kaori sighed and a fraction of her tension seeped from her limbs. "I'm sorry, Tsukimaru-sama. I'm sure your father is a good and noble man. But he looked at me like-- like men used to, back home, before Kureji said we should run away." She shuddered. "I don't want anybody looking at me that way!"
And here was the moment of truth. Tsukimaru leaned close, sliding his right hand up to loosen the bindings of her hair and let pink strands cascade down over his fingers and wrist. "Not even me?" he whispered against Kaori's ear. "I dream of the gift of your favor, Kaori. You can say no. You don't owe me anything. Your friendship and presence are repayment enough. But will you allow me one night?"
A tiny squeak escaped Kaori's throat -- a cricket chirp, a songbird's cry -- as she raised wide, startled eyes to meet Tsukimaru's gaze. She swallowed.
Then she leaned her head against his chest and murmured, "Yes."
Tsukimaru undressed the girl slowly. First he ran his fingers through the loose fall of her cherry-blossom hair. He untied the obi and unwound the heavy fabric from her waist. He knelt and pulled the silk slippers from her feet, setting them aside. He touched her ankle, ran one hand up her leg under the kimono.
Tsukimaru stood and offered one hand to her, gesturing toward his bed with the other. "Come. Sit. I'll brush your hair."
Kaori hesitated, her hands rising and twisting in a peculiar gesture. "I--" she began.
Something heavy crashed in the corridor, shaking the door on its hinges. Kaori jerked her head around, shock painted over her expressive face. Tsukimaru seized his sword from its stand and stepped forward, wondering why Hebi had not already disposed of the problem and knocked to present his report. What use was shinobi training if not for preventing disturbances of this sort?
Male voices raised in unintelligible snarls. A body slammed into a thin wall.
"Enough," his father's voice said, slicing through the sudden quiet like a sword through flesh. Tsukimaru froze, not daring to breathe. Sweat slicked his palms, trickled down his back and sides under his clothes.
His door slid open, revealing Mikatsuki and one of his samurai. Behind them, a second samurai pinned Hebi to the floor, one foot in the guard's gut and a sword at his throat. Mikatsuki smiled, a wide, beaming grin that sat oddly on his face.
"Tsukimaru, my boy, you must improve your hospitality!" he said. "I've come to remind you which of us is the master of this house and this town. You've been prying in places that don't concern you -- as punishment, I'm taking away your toys. Come on, Kaori-chan. You're spending the night with me, to give me pleasant dreams."
Kaori pulled back with a tiny cry, hiding behind Tsukimaru. "Oh, please, no! Tsukimaru-sama, you said--"
"For my son's sake, you'd better leave that sentence unfinished," Mikatsuki said, caressing the hilt of his sword. "Hurry, Kaori-chan. My patience won't last forever."
Kaori stared beseechingly at Tsukimaru. He made no move, neither to help her nor to encourage her surrender. He could not cross his father -- not yet, not over a mere toy, no matter how beautiful or how much time and work he'd put into preparing her. No game, no art, was worth losing his chance at Kuronami. He could not best the old man and his guards in any case. But he would not give Kaori up willingly. He held his father's eyes, silently promising vengeance.
Kaori tiptoed forward, pausing to brush her hand along Tsukimaru's arm one last time. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "It was always you I wanted."
She took Mikatsuki's proffered hand and allowed him to lead her from the room.
One samurai departed with Kaori and his father. The remaining man laughed as he pinned Tsukimaru's guard to the floor. "One of me and two of you, me all tied up with this bastard, and look who's hiding in the corner. Some mighty lord you are, Tsukimaru-kun." His bandaged cheeks stretched wide in a mocking grin.
Hebi twisted under the man's foot and crooked one finger slightly, beckoning Tsukimaru forward. Now, his eyes commanded. Distract him.
Tsukimaru drew his sword. The samurai glanced over his shoulder at the sound of steel against lacquered wood, and laughed. "If your father tried that, I might worry. You, though? Give up, Tsukimaru-kun. Find a rag doll to shake around; that's all bullies like you are good for."
Tsukimaru stepped forward, stilling his hands, mind racing. "I think you are mistaken," he said. He let the sheath fall to the floor and raised the sword. The hilt felt foreign in his hands, awkward, untrustworthy. He took another step.
The samurai shifted his weight as he lifted his own sword from Hebi's neck.
Hebi twisted, lightning quick, drawing a knife from a thigh holster and stabbing at the samurai's leg, aiming for his hamstring.
The man collapsed, cursing. Hebi kicked the sword from his hand as he fell. Tsukimaru flinched as the blade spun past his feet. "Don't kill him!" he shouted, but he was too late. As the sword clattered against the wall, Hebi knelt and slammed the knife home between the samurai's ribs.
"Bastard," the man whispered. He coughed. His fingers twitched. Blood stained the front of his shirt.
Then he was silent.
Hebi withdrew his knife, wiped it on the corpse's clothes, and made it vanish. Then he stood and met Tsukimaru's eyes. "What now, Tsukimaru-sama? Shall I kill your father? Steal the rest of his records? Fetch the girl?"
Tsukimaru lowered his sword in confusion, his mind racing. Hebi had killed Mikatsuki's man. That was a declaration of war; Mikatsuki would never overlook such an insult, never let his son escape unscathed. Tsukimaru couldn't turn back now, couldn't simply forget Kaori and resume undermining his father from the shadows.
He had to strike before his father realized anything had gone awry, before Mikatsuki found a way to twist Tsukimaru's temporary advantage against him, as he always did. The game with Kaori was spoiled now; Tsukimaru refused to touch used goods, especially ones ruined by his own father. Nonetheless, perhaps Kaori could still be of use.
"The dockworkers and water-folk love Houka Kaori. What do they think of her brother?" Tsukimaru asked, kneeling to pick up his discarded sheath. "Would they follow Houka Kureji against my father if he made an accusation of rape and murder?"
Hebi tilted his head sideways and stared blankly forward, lost in thought. Then he blinked. "Yes. But only if he had a corpse to show, and something of your father's for proof."
"Then we will provide both," Tsukimaru said, sheathing his sword and nudging the dead samurai with his toe. "Hurry. We have little time before this offal is discovered."
Hebi nodded, and began moving silently through the dim, lamp-lit corridors toward Mikatsuki's rooms. Tsukimaru followed, sword still clutched in his sweating hands.
The second samurai was standing guard outside Mikatsuki's room. Hebi peered around the corner, and then motioned Tsukimaru to walk forward openly as a distraction. The man turned at the sound of footsteps, noticed the sword in Tsukimaru's hand, and opened his mouth to either protest or alert Mikatsuki.
Hebi darted forward and dragged the samurai in into the room across the hall, vanishing into the shadows. Something cracked and popped -- Tsukimaru shook his head to banish the vivid image of a shattered neck or jaw -- and Hebi slid back into the light, wiping his hands on his sleeves.
Tsukimaru pressed his ear to the lightweight door, listening for his father or Kaori. Listening for screams, or moans, or the slap of flesh on flesh.
He heard nothing but the low, tense murmur of Kaori's voice, her words indistinct through the walls. Tsukimaru's hand stilled over the door latch. That was wrong, all wrong. His father did not play long games; all his patience was reserved for money and war. He had never talked with a woman since Tsukimaru's mother died in childbirth. Perhaps he had not even talked to her.
Kaori should have already been beyond words.
As Tsukimaru's hand lowered, Hebi darted forward and tripped the latch, sliding the door open with a rattling crash. Across the room, her half-naked form gilded by the light of a single lamp, Kaori struggled to turn and face the doorway. Mikatsuki's hand tightened in her hair, and he shoved her more firmly down onto his lap.
"What madness is this, boy?" he demanded.
Tsukimaru stepped forward, feeling as if he were floating above his own body, as if his hand on his sword were only connected to his mind and his will by the wisps of a dream. "She was mine," he whispered, and then, louder, "mine to touch, mine to shape, mine to use. Not yours! You take everything I have ever held. You ruin everything I've planned. No more!"
Incredibly, his father laughed. "Oh, my boy -- she came to me. Your little sparrow slipped into my room not a quarter hour ago and begged me to save her from you, begged me to make her mine. You ruined your own game, as you always do. Go back to your rooms, Tsukimaru, before my guards come and kill you. Or stay, and die, while you watch me create a new heir."
Mikatsuki's sword lay sheathed and harmless on its stand by the window, too far away for the old man to reach in time. Tsukimaru stepped forward again, his sword naked and shining in his hands. "Liar!" he said. "You came to my rooms with your samurai. You stole her from my arms. I've been patient, but that was too much. You know our family stories. You know how this one ends."
Now his father looked alarmed. "I never came to your rooms," he said. "Who put that lie into your mind? My boy, you've been tricked. We must both be in danger. Lower your sword and listen to me."
"Liar," Tsukimaru said again. "I saw you."
"You saw illusions!" Mikatsuki insisted, and then raised his voice. "Alert! Guards! Defend me! Defend the house! Someone has bespelled my son!"
"No one can hear you," Hebi said from the doorway, his voice low and inflectionless. "No one will come."
Something ugly flashed across Mikatsuki's face at Hebi's words, and he glared at Kaori as if she were a threat. "Traitress," he hissed as he threw the girl to the ground and struggled to rise, fighting against the thick fabric of his unfastened robes. His hand rose. His mouth twisted. "You will regret this, boy!" he snarled.
"No," said Tsukimaru. "I only regret not killing you sooner."
He ran his father through. Blood dripped down onto Kaori's pale skin. The contrast was as beautiful as he had thought it would appear.
Tsukimaru wiped his sword on his father's robes and wondered why his victory felt so hollow.
"Now what?" Hebi asked.
"We take my father's codes and--" Tsukimaru began, but another voice talked over him.
"How should I know, bastard? We wanted them to kill each other, but look at this mess! Who's going to believe the old fart got up in time to kill this piece of trash?"
Tsukimaru whirled, sword still in his hand, and stared at the second figure now standing in the doorway -- Houka Kureji, dressed in the impaled samurai's clothes, parallel scars dark and vivid on his cheeks. He was tossing a knife from hand to hand and staring at Hebi as if they were equals.
"Everyone will." Tsukimaru spun around again to see Kaori rising to her feet, adjusting her disheveled kimono with a sour expression. "Mikatsuki is known as a swordsman. Tsukimaru is not. It's a tidy wound, no splashes on anything but me and the cloth. We move the body closer to the sword stand and wrap his fingers around the hilt before they stiffen and nobody will blink."
"Kaori?" Tsukimaru stepped toward her, baffled. What had become of the fragile girl he'd spent so long preparing? Had the whole world gone mad tonight?
Kaori looked up from her kimono and glared at him. "You don't get to talk anymore. Sit down."
"Just kill him already, Sakura-chan," Kureji said. "We have a fee to collect from the merchants' council and more important things to get back to."
"But--" said Tsukimaru, and then froze as someone -- Kureji? -- pressed a knife to his back.
Kaori's small, graceful hand closed on his jaw with dangerous force. "You don't get to talk," she said. Tsukimaru's eyes darted from side to side, unable to credit what he was seeing. This could not be Kaori, could not be his perfect, porcelain girl. His gaze caught on a motion behind her: Hebi, his traitorous, erstwhile guard, unsheathed his father's sword and eyed him the way a man might consider a rabid dog.
Kaori turned her head and frowned at Hebi. Mikatsuki's blood trickled down her cheek, painting a lacework of crimson over her pale skin. "No. Hand over the sword -- this is my job."
"I'm the one who has any training with a katana," Hebi said.
"Yes, and I'm the one who had to smile while a rapist touched me. For weeks," Kaori said. "Give me the damn sword, Sasuke."
Tsukimaru made a strangled noise in protest. This was wrong. Everything was upside-down and inside-out. He was the hunter; she was his prey. Toys did not turn on their owners. This should be his moment of triumph -- his father was dead, Kuronami was his -- and this girl was stealing it from him.
"Point for Sakura," Kureji said from behind him, digging the point of his knife a fraction deeper into Tsukimaru's skin. "Hand it over, bastard, and let's get out of here."
As she grasped the sword, Kaori leaned forward on her tiptoes and whispered into Tsukimaru's ear. "The boys took this job for the money. I took it for the sailor's daughter who was found in pieces in the bay, and for all the other girls you broke and killed. Every time you touched me, I wanted to skin you alive. Every time I smiled at you, I was imagining this moment. Burn in hell, and be reincarnated as a worm."
Kaori bared her teeth in a parody of a smile. Her face and clothes were stained with blood, as they would have been at the end of the game, but she wasn't broken. She didn't look anything like a toy.
She slid the sword home.
The pain burned like ice and fire, blossoming like lotus overtaking a pool. Tsukimaru felt himself fall to the floor, the impact jarring the blade in his chest and swamping him with another wave of agony. Dark spots gathered in the corners of his vision, creeping inward in a thickening film. He fought to breathe, to think.
Through the growing haze, Tsukimaru watched the boys lift and move Mikatsuki's corpse, placing it to Kaori's specification. They dropped his own sword by his hand and wrenched his father's blade from his chest, wrapping his dead fingers around the hilt.
"Good enough," Kaori said after a moment. "You left the code books somewhere obvious?"
Hebi nodded. "Naruto set up Tsukimaru's room as soon as I left. Everything's covered except the absence of your corpse. How do you plan to explain that?"
Kureji grinned. "That's the best part!" Tsukimaru closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he thought he was hallucinating, because the dead samurai stood next to his traitorous guard, impossibly alive. Was this shinobi magic? Had anything that happened this night been real?
Had his father been right, at the end? Had Tsukimaru doomed them both by refusing to listen? Or had he been helpless all along, caught in someone else's game?
"Play dead, Sakura," the samurai said with Kureji's voice. "We have to dump you in the canal while someone's watching. That'll make sure everyone knows something rotten went down tonight."
Kaori laughed as the samurai scooped her up and tossed her over his shoulder. Hebi pushed back the paper window screen and leaped into the night. The samurai followed the shinobi through the window -- Kaori's cherry-blossom hair flashed in the lamplight, one last glimpse of color in the drowning dark.
Then she was gone.
Tsukimaru closed his eyes.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.