Well you were a dancer and I was a rag,
The song in my head,
Well, it was all that I had
Pink hair fell messily into her face as she looked into her captor's eyes. There was an unreadable expression there, as though a light had flickered on for a moment before dying out. A tell-tale scar peeked out from the top of his half mask and cut through a spinning tomoe in his mismatched gaze. Intriguing white, or maybe silver, hair peeked through. Even still, she did not get the impression of an old man. Just as she doubted her feral appearance made her look as sweet as her pink hair usually implied. Maybe this explained her ability to look beyond the physical and into the slight.
Every tug on her new restraints resulted in a perfectly proportionate tug back. She tested every way she thought of to relieve herself of the rough rope, without even minimal success. With each attempt he stopped and turned to her, as if letting her know he had caught her. He showed unflappable patience and never said a word. It was strange to walk in silence. She felt as though he should be talking, scolding, yelling; angry.
It was his stiff steps, the way his shoulders stood rigidly and his arms tensed. His steps spoke of war and pain and struggle. Unflinching eyes cooled the heat of the day and put a shuffle in her feet. This man was strength and calm incarnate. She had not been found by a simpering boy, but a full man. To escape would be difficult; near impossible. Even so, there was no doubt as she gave up removing her bindings that she would eventually make her way home… Wherever home may be.
It was well past nightfall when they stopped to rest. The man quickly set up a fire, dragging her along all the way. Once the fire was steady he simply sat and stared at her for a good while. His face never faltered, as smooth as undisturbed water. He had covered the disturbing red eye with a headband that looked much like the one she had awoken to several years earlier. She used to carry it but a dark haired boy with the same red eyes had bought it from her for a rather large sum, and without explanation he had promised to return. She wondered briefly if maybe the two were related. They both had a similar, yet vastly different, aura of coldness. If so, it would explain the boy's desperation to retrieve the headband.
Recognizing relief, she closed her eyes. To allow herself the luxury of relaxation would jeopardize her safety and the safety of the few who depended on her. Just because he may be related to the foolish boy that had found her before did not mean either of them were kind. Too often people she had known had fallen victim to the comfort of familiarity. It was a flaw in the nature of humans that she had tried several times to overcome. Unfortunately, such deeply ingrained habits were difficult to break.
She was startled to realize he was speaking to her. His question had passed without really sinking in and now he stared at her awaiting an answer. Her clueless eyes must have given away her inattention. With a cleared throat he asked again.
"What is your name? How did you come to be in the forest?" Despite the question he seemed to already expect a particular answer. As though her life were a test, he knew the right response. Bemused, she wondered what he thought he knew.
"My name is a secret. I have been in the forest for as long as I can remember. The people I have come from believe that giving a person your name gives them power over you. I'm sorry; I cannot give so much to a stranger." With each word she straightened her back and lifted her chin, sitting like the Queen she had become.
"Then I assume you will understand when I do not tell you mine." A slight nod acknowledged that she would understand. "I have been sent to seek you out. We'll have to talk to my leader and see what we are to do."
"I do not know what you want from me, but I need to return to the People. If I am gone too long, they will search for me. And when they find me, I would not want to be your village. They are very protective of their own."
She kept her voice calm and level, though her heart fluttered heavily. Her people were few in number, and new to the ruthlessness of war. Even with an unsurpassed thirst for the skills she had taught them, and exceptional success at the foreign techniques, they would be no match for a full population. She could only hope to bluff her way through this. Once she was back where she belonged, she would start the trek to new ground. Even if these strangers weren't threatening, her people may not care. Of course, why bind a person if you mean them no harm?
"We are protective of our own too," was his only reply. He cast a strange look in her direction but didn't elaborate. Instead he turned away from her, holding her rope and watching the sky above. With desperation he seemed to be searching the stars for an answer to an unknown question. He was still stargazing when she slid asleep.
The next morning she awoke to find herself wrapped in the man's arms. Silver hair tickled her cheek and his face greeted her with a gentle visage of sleep. A faint scent of sandalwood and leather spun a web of comfort around her senses and the rhythm of his heart felt disarming. His mask still covered his mouth and nose, but the headband had been removed at some point in the night. The red tomoe was invisible beneath the closed lids; however, that did not make him any less contradictory. A smooth, unblemished lid seemed to belong to someone else entirely than the dangerously scarred, rough skin opposite it.
There was an unexpected blanket of safety clinging to her. She had not felt this way in as long as she could remember. What could be so different, so familiar, about this man? This question curled into her mind as the birds chirped and the sun rose. Before she recognized the opportunity of escape she found herself staring not at his mismatched lids, but the eyes below them. For the briefest of moments pain cut through his apathetic façade and a strangled gasp belied every moment she had spent with him.
And then it was over, as soon as it had begun. The damage was done. Curiosity stirred deep in her gut and she knew that she would not rest until she found out why the sight of her had caused him so much grief.
"Sorry, I must have gotten cold in the night." Ignoring the moment of weakness, he stood and cleared their campsite of any signs of habitation. "Old ninja habit to huddle together for warmth." His eyes avoided hers.
She knew it was a lie. Ninja only did such an invasive thing in extreme conditions. Not only did her infallible instinct tell her as much, but she had several contacts in that world. She had never heard of the practice becoming habit.
"You must travel to cold places often." Using her voice as a soothing balm, she tried to gently probe for more information.
"You could say that." He seemed to understand the powers of elusion.
"Many people can say many things. How do you know that I do not already know who you are?" His back stiffened, his grip tightening on the thick binding he drug her by.
"Why would you know anything about me?" Even his words were clipped and tight, as though he expected her response to throw a whip of flames across his back.
"Gossip, to put it simply. How many people do you think run around with mismatched eyes and silver hair?" It was a lie of course. There were no such characters in any of the conversations she had managed to 'overhear'. Even still, his body slackened.
"Then you have heard nothing. If you had… Well, we would not be talking about this right now." With that he carried on walking. Despite all her most valiant efforts she could not pull any more information from those hidden lips. Even casual conversation had ended with his silence. From morning to night, they continued their trek to her unknown prison.
Once again this night, she followed him as he gathered supplies to build a fire. He had stopped glancing at her so often. Now he spent his time staring forward into the forest and occasionally following the trail of a critter that skittered across the trees. Once he had a sizable pile of sticks and tinder he sat and began setting it aflame.
"You have an air to you. The People call it éadóchas. It makes you seem so much… Older." The observation tugged a wry, albeit tiny smirk.
"What does that word mean?" It was a language he had never heard spoken before.
"I do not know exactly how to translate it. It is deeper and more than sadness. It is as though you have been to heaven and fallen." The wry smile fell away and she found herself looking into a surprised face.
"That is a fitting description, then." The quiet settled in again.
Suffocating silence filled the air around her. The need for conversation overwhelmed her. He did not seem to want to harm her, but there was a sense that he could not stand the sight of her. Though at first his one good eye seemed to drag his gaze to her, there was never a clear indication of why. Now there was not even that amount of attention from him. How was she going to find out what his hurt reaction was over if she could barely get him to look at her?
"So, the people you speak of… What is your place in them?" The words were spoken hesitantly. That one quizzical eye was rooted on her.
She faced a dilemma. The People did not believe in lying. Yet, she could see several situations where revealing that she was their leader would be unwise. One does not reveal that the opposition already has the most important piece of the game. How could she tell him the truth in a way that would not reveal too much? "I am the mother. I keep peace for the people and teach them." She hoped the metaphor was lost on him. It was hard to be sure when the only reaction was a pale face.
"I'm sorry I asked." He started to turn away. The thought of that suffocation made her heart clench.
"What about you? What is your place?" The question fell from her lips without a hint of the desperation behind them.
"I am a ninja. I fight; I bring war to make peace. I rescue. I survive." Of course, she had already known what his place was in life. The telltale signs of the ninja were all there. And ninja were simply weapons, warriors.
"Sounds dreary." She looked into the fire and gave a defeated sigh.
"It is." The color had not returned to his face and he seemed more distant than ever. Once he was finished with his meager traveling meal he began to get ready for bed.
"Are you not worried I'll run away?" He had tied the rope to the tree he rested against and turned his back to her.
"Of course I am. But I can not baby sit you all night. At some point I have to sleep. I just happened to get tired before you tonight." He turned around and pierced her with an intense stare of red and gray.
Initially it took her breath away and that was all she could see. And then she noticed a sharp cut jaw, high cheek bones, a roman nose. For a moment she saw him laughing, filled with joy that would make most men envious. All too soon she realized this was just a thought, a projection of her mind onto the somber man in front of her. A dusty eyebrow lifted at her ogling and she felt her face heat in a blush. The vision had seemed so clear.
"Anyway, if you think I won't track you, then you are mistaken. I have not searched this long for you to just disappear again." Once again his back was to her.
"Why were you looking for me?" Although she knew he was awake, she did not repeat herself when he did not answer. It would have been a waste of breath. Instead she spent the night trying to cut through the rope.