racing the devil

What he most admires about her, and what he most resents about her, is the grace with which she moves. There's ungainly speed, all jagged edges and jolting stops and elbows: that's him. There's elegance in motion, smooth flowing lines and pausing on the intake of a breath: that's her.

She is frivolous, light-minded, careless, undignified, behaving quite unlike his honoured grandfather (and he cannot understand why the older man tolerates her so easily and so respectfully) and hardly behaves in a manner appropriate to her high family.

She moves like flowing water frozen in an instant of waterfall or fountain-spray, flickering between two seconds.

"Little Byakuya-kun," she said, and rested her bosom against the back of his neck, and was gone, leaving him to chase after her.

"Let's make this more interesting," she said, a few miles later.

"How?" He was panting. He would rather not be panting. He didn't have any choice in the matter.

"Oh." A knife flickered into her hand. "Catch."

It curved through the air, so much slower than either of them, and his hand closed round the hilt. Like everything else about her, it was quality: it didn't need the Shihouin crest to be clearly hers.

"I'll take your hairtie," she said. "You can try and stop me."

His free hand moved to the tie defensively. "I don't need a knife for that," he said. "I already have a sword."

"A wooden practice sword." She couldn't have been more dismissive if she'd deliberately tried; as it was, her sheer lack of interest was cutting enough. "You need to learn to put steel with your speed, Byakuya-kun."

"I might hurt you."

She laughed.

His spine stiffened. "You think that little of me?"

"Oh no no no." She made soothing gestures with her hands, as if she were stroking his anger down. "Do you think I'd play this game with you if I didn't think you had a chance? Do you know how many people might have a chance?"

He shrugged.

"And that's one of your redeeming features." She flickered to his left in a single step. He followed her with his eyes alone, remaining in a ready position. "You aren't smug about it. You're proud of yourself. But you're not smug."

"Smugness is for the weak," he said curtly. "The truly superior man has no need for -" He cut off mid-sentence as she burst into movement, barely bringing his free hand up in time to block her movement; his other hand stayed fixed over his hairtie, awkward as the position was. She can't win if she doesn't get it.

She snatched at it twice more, and he blocked each one; then she withdrew a dozen paces, balancing there and shifting from foot to foot. "There's a big flaw in your strategy, Byakuya-kun."

"I can hold you off," he said firmly. "All I need to do is choose my ground and stay alert."

She tilted her head to one side. "I'm sure you can. I'll let you think about it a little longer, shall I?"

And it came to him in that instant, as mocking as her smile. He could stop her winning, but there was no way that he could win. He couldn't just stand here forever with one hand on his head.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Come for me," he said, and sprang at her.

The movement didn't take her by surprise. He hadn't expected it to. But it wasn't what she'd been waiting for, and it won him a shadow of a second's worth of initiative as they flashed round each other, moving too fast to crush a single blade of grass. Her long sleeves rippled as the air snatched at them, and the skirts of her unmarked white robe swung as she pivoted into an attack; his bare arms were streaked with sweat, his sleeves tied back for practice, and his hakama were spotted with dust and grass stains.

He left an opening, and watched, almost in slow motion, as she reached through it to grasp at his hair. He tilted his head back, and she extended her reach in response, an elegant motion of her whole body, leg, waist, breast, arm, hand; her fingers closed on his hairtie.

He caught her wrist with his left hand and brought the knife round and up in his right hand, letting it glide through the air in a bright glitter of motion that caught her hair as it drifted away from her face and sliced an inch of it away.

The fragments of hair began to fall.

She pulled his hairtie loose.

He dropped the knife and caught the falling lock of hair.

He ignores her smile, and merely nods in response to her critiques; he shakes his head and lets his hair fall loose over his shoulders.

When he is alone, he lays the lock of hair away in a fold of silk and paper: and a hundred years later, he still knows where it is.