Her window faced the East, which she'd always liked. The morning sun woke her gently, and she groaned happily in her throat as she unfurled in a long, luxurious stretch. Her bed was warmed by the body beside her and she gazed at him thoughtfully as she sat up, letting the sheets slip down around her waist. She looked down at her bandages and flexed her hands, closing her eyes with a heavy sigh of relief when she could feel it. She had been worried the sensation might never come back to her hands. She carefully unwrapped her bandages, continuing to flex her fingers and wrists. She had new scars on her palms, but she thought they seemed small, and would fade easily.

She looked over at the man beside her. "You know, this is the second time you've let me catch you sleeping…" She smiled playfully and leaned down slightly, whispering softly into his ear. "If you're not careful, I might start thinking you trust me." She reached over him to grab the brush sitting on the nightstand.

Kanda's hand swiftly caught her wrist, startling her, and he held her fast. He slowly opened his eyes and they glinted at her dangerously, but there was a twitch to the corners of his mouth, hinting at playfulness. "I know better now… I sleep with one eye open around you."

She grinned at his words and pressed against him so she could reach her brush, staring into his eyes. "Just so you know, I consider that an invitation." She kissed him swiftly, catching him off guard, and when she pulled away she had a small, self-satisfied smile on her face.

Sitting up again, she untied her hair and combed it out with her fingers for a moment before beginning to tame the unruly waves with the brush. Her eyes closed half way and her head tilted slightly – she seemed to enjoy this particular chore. It was probably a cat thing. The sun filtering in through the window lit her tanned skin and the highlights in her hair.

Pushing up on his elbows, Kanda watched her, momentarily struck. He'd never noticed how much red and copper was in her hair until just now. He took advantage of the moment to simply look at her, watching the subtle roll of toned muscle beneath smooth, healthy skin, listening to the rustle of her brush over her silky hair.

She swept her hair back behind her to finish the top half, lifting her arms up behind her head, causing her back to arch. He gradually began to realize that the pose was doing beautiful, provocative things to her breasts, and let his gaze wander.

"I still can't believe that it's true…"

"Hmm?" She paused halfway through braiding her hair into a long tail, opening her eyes to look at him curiously. "What's true?"

He reached out and casually flicked the small, silver hoop dangling from her nipple. She responded with a quick gasp and a small, restrained shiver. Then she laughed, resuming her braid. "You thought I was fibbing just to tease Allen?"

"Yes, I did."

"In the early days, right after I got Darkpaw, I was still pretty desperate to find humans. I felt that if I found people, they would help me get home to my father. I couldn't tell you how long I searched, but I stumbled upon a hunting party one day and they took me to their village. I don't know if they wanted to help me or keep me, but they were kind to me, from what little I recall.

"Both the men and the women pierced themselves in all sorts of places. Maybe it was a status symbol, or maybe it was art, but I guess I'll never know. Either way, I thought it was attractive."

She shrugged her shoulders and slid from the bed, opening her wardrobe and casually starting to dress. She kept talking, so he lounged in the bed and watched her, continuing to listen. He could see her scars on either side of her braided pony tail and an idea came to him.

"When I think about it, it's hard to remember, but I feel like I was with them for a while. Maybe it was about three months. That's how long it took the Akuma to track me down. They attacked the village, looking for me, and they killed a lot of people I'd come to think of as friends.

"My Innocence activated. I transformed. I killed the Akuma. The villagers became frightened of me. They didn't know what was happening, but even they could tell I had been the target. I was cursed. I was unsafe. They begged me to leave, and I did it to spare them. Other villages weren't so kind. Word spread fast, and within the year it was Open Season on yours truly."

"Open Season…?"

She had pulled on her underwear and was scowling thoughtfully at her clothes. When he spoke from just behind her she jumped and he grinned. It was one of their oldest games, trying to sneak up on one another. "It means all hunters were given permission, actual specific orders, to shoot at me to scare me away. Like I'd become the new local predator, or a rabid animal." She glared at him, but her curiosity won over her chagrin. "What are you doing?"

He held up a jar. "You said you need this twice a day. Keep telling me your story." He started applying the balm to her scars, feeling her relaxing under his hands. She didn't tremble like she had the other night – maybe she really had been cold. Not nervous or in pain as he'd originally thought.

She took a moment to enjoy the intimacy before resuming. "Other villages were simply told to kill me on sight, that I was a demon, an Outsider. They believed I didn't belong there. I couldn't bring myself to hate them for it, either. Part of me agreed."

She picked out a long, dark-blue tunic paired with silver leggings and once he had finished with the balm, she began to get dressed. Her sword belt was looped around her waist and she slid her daggers out, checking the blades to be sure they were clean before sliding them away again.

"All the same, when I hit puberty, I did my nipples just like those women from that first village. I didn't want to forget them. I didn't want to forget the lesson I had learned while I was there."

"What lesson was that?" While she was finishing getting dressed he had gotten dressed as well. He finished tying up his hair and came to stand beside her again.

"Ignorance," she told him, "is dangerous."

He thought about that for a moment, and nodded his head in approval. "So, did it hurt? The piercings, I mean."

"Sure, it hurt, but… I was surprised that… well, at the same time, it didn't feel bad."

Her statement made him stare at her and her cheeks colored slightly, but her eyes glittered back at him defiantly. "What? You don't stop me from biting you, do you?" She reached up to tease her fingertips over the fresh bruise and teeth marks on his neck, just below his left ear.

He caught her hand quickly, trying to stifle a shiver, but the grin on her lips told him she had felt it. She pressed against him, staring up into his eyes. "It's the same thing. It hurts when I bite you," she purred to him in a low, sultry voice, "but you still like it. I know because you make all kinds of noises every time I do it… It really turns me on."

She released him so he could blush furiously in private, and went to find her boots. Kneeling down, she dug them out from under the bed.

Nodding to each other, they left the room and headed down to breakfast.

General Nine strode into the cafeteria while Rifka was just mid-way through her meal. Sitting across from her, Kanda saw her dark eyes dart sharply to the General and tension build along her shoulders. Sure enough, the General was on her way to their table.

"You could run." He murmured to her teasingly.

That dark gaze flicked back to him and she muttered under her breath. "Too late…"

"Drills today, Apprentice! I want to see what your new powers can do in action."

For a moment, Kanda swore Rifka was going to protest, but the moment quickly passed and she set her fork down. "Yes, Sensei…" She collected her plates and took them to the kitchen window, then went to follow her General out of the cafeteria.

"Oh, Kanda, I think I saw General Tiedoll on his way here, too." Nine said over her shoulder.

There was a soft crunch and crackle as Kanda's chopsticks snapped in half and fell to the table. Rifka's lips curved at the corners and her eyes danced.

"You could run…" He simply glared at her and she snickered softly as she left.

As she followed General Nine through the halls toward the gym, Rifka felt Darkpaw stirring from her drug-induced sleep.

Hngh… what…? Was I sleeping?

"Good morning. And to answer your question, I guess so? I was starting to wonder if you'd ever wake up."

Rifka received a mental image of the great black cat yawning and stretching. She smiled. "Hey, hold still for a moment. Okay? I want to try something."


Rifka paused and closed her eyes to focus. An image flashed in her memory and she held onto it, sending it toward the jaguar. Her hand, pinned by another's, straining, but then their fingers laced together and clutched each other tightly.

The next image was of her lips, gasping a name between passionate, breathless kisses. She knew she was doing it right when she felt Darkpaw come to complete attention, ears up, tail still.

What are you doing?

"Call it payback."

The next image was of her back arching, her hands clutching the shoulders of her lover, both of them with eyes closed and teeth clenched.

No way… You mean, you…

The last image was of the pair passed out in the bed, sweaty and exhausted, their bodies tangled together.

That's… amazing! And exciting! You finally claimed your Mate! Good job!

Rifka abruptly no longer knew what she had expected from Darkpaw, but she blushed under the glowing praise and jogged to catch up to General Nine. The General had stopped at the end of the hallway when she noticed Rifka wasn't with her.

"Is something the matter?"

"No, Sensei, Darkpaw just woke up. That's all." They resumed their walk, and entered the gym.

What will you name your kits? Do you know yet?

She tripped. "MY WHAT?!"

You're going to have babies, aren't you? I distinctly remember him saying he wouldn't be adverse to the idea.

"That was an If/WHEN scenario! We're not planning anything like that yet!"

Now Darkpaw sounded amused. Do you want to, though?

Still blushing, Rifka smoothed her hair back and followed her General into the gym, surprised when she was led out the back into the fields beyond it. She took a deep breath. "I don't think it would work… I don't think Exorcists get maternity leave, do they, in a job like this? I don't think the Order would let us go to raise a family, either. Our children would have to be raised here… and they would have to be tested for compatibility…"

Darkpaw fidgeted in Rifka's melancholy silence. Aw… Aw c'mon! Don't be sad! You're not pregnant so you don't have to worry about it. Cheer up!

"If you're done talking to yourself, here's what you'll be working on today."

Rifka glanced sheepishly up at the General and came to stand beside her. The course was laid out with obstacles that were high, long, short and low. Some were walls, other were pits or pools. The edges were narrow, the path twisting. They stood at the beginning, and Rifka stared, in a combination of curiosity and disbelief. She turned to Nine.

"This, Sensei…?"

"This. Go ahead and run it at your own speed, get a feel for it."

"Okay…" Rifka removed her belt and boots and began to stretch. Once she was warmed up she looked to her General again. At her nod, she took off running. The first obstacle was a wall and she leapt, easily catching the top edge. She climbed over and dropped down onto the grass on the other side. Her eyes sought the path and she pushed off, hopping lightly onto a narrow balance beam that had been bent into an S-shape. It stood braced over a wide, muddy pool.

There was a loud, bursting hiss, and something small and red soared by her head. She gasped and hurried across the beam, not taking any chances that she might fall into the mud. "What was that?!"

She glanced back when she was safe on the grass, and saw General Nine was standing on a platform overlooking the course. She had some sort of air-cannon filled with the small red rubber balls.

"Akuma would not be this easy on you!" Nine shouted at her. "Get moving!" She turned the cannon and began to fire again.

Darkpaw hadn't known what to make of the course at first, but now she had decided, and Rifka could sense her alarm. She's mad! Run!

"Shit!" Rifka took off running again. The grassy area on the other side of the beam dropped off into another pool, this one of clear water. At least, she hoped it was water. She decided at the last minute not to test it, so she poured a little extra energy into her legs and vaulted into the air. She hit the edge on the other side and tucked into a roll.

A distant POW warned her, and she rolled again, quickly, to the right and forward, just as another ball hit the ground where she had just been, breaking a divot in the dirt. She started running again, her heart pounding. Now she knew – if one of those balls hit her, it was going to hurt!

"Sensei, is that really necessary?" She jumped over a pit, catching the rope hanging over the middle, and swung to the other side. She glanced down and her mouth fell open in horror when she saw the bottom of the pit was writhing with live snakes.

"Akuma would not have snake pits, Sensei!" She shouted at the woman.

"How do you know?" Was the calm reply.

The rope deposited Rifka onto a huge cargo net and she scrambled up, ducking instinctively and seeing two more "bullets" whizz by her shoulders. Over the top of the net she went, prepared to drop down, only to see there was no ground. She found herself soaring down a sharply inclined slide. The end arched up and vaulted her into the air again. She flailed, searching frantically, and caught hold of the swing in front of her at the last minute.

She clung to the ropes and pulled herself up so she was standing on the swing's narrow platform. Her heart was racing and she took a moment to catch her breath. She heard the cannon and swung to one side just as the bullet soared by her head like an angry bee. She glanced down, seeing another large pool of water beneath her. At the other end of the pool was another rope to get out.

The cannon fired again, and again. Rifka pumped the swing until the sweeps were strong enough to rustle the wind through her hair, trying to focus and be ready for the bullets at the same time. There was a moment of weightlessness at the peak of the swing, and she knew the moment was right. On the next pass, she launched herself off the swing. She soared over the pool, twisted gracefully, and tilted down into a dive.

There was another cannon blast. She heard it, but couldn't do much about it. She twisted again, but felt the bullet strike her against the thigh. With a wasp-like buzzing it sped over her skin, tearing a rip in her leggings. Rifka had to bite down on a cry of pain, and moments later, she dropped into the water with a huge splash.

She surfaced with a gasp, gritting her teeth, and swam to the rope. She pulled herself up on the rope until she could step onto the ground again. She checked her thigh. The skin she could see through the rip in her leggings was red and angry, but not bleeding. It would probably bruise later.

POW! POW! Went the cannon again and she burst into a run, hearing the bullets hitting the ground at her feet. She cursed and sprinted down the path, seeing that she was coming to the start again.

"Good!" Nine called out to her, stepping away from the cannon. She held up a stopwatch. "Not a bad first time, Apprentice."

Back at the starting line and no longer under fire, Rifka put her hands on her knees and panted to catch her breath. When she saw Nine holding the stopwatch, she got a bad feeling. "By 'first time' you mean I'm running it again, don't you?"

I think that's exactly what she means. What did you DO?

"Why do you assume this is punishment?! Have our training routines ever been easy?"


"Right now, in fact." General Nine clicked a button on the stopwatch and strolled back behind the cannon. "Also, I'm going to deduct points any time you let me hit you."

"Shit!" Rifka bolted toward the first obstacle and started the course over.