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This Broken World We Choose 2 [Backstory: Miyako and Ryuu][Mar. 8th, 2012|10:09 am]

[[Takes place around 24 years before the main events of Fallen Leaves. Chapter 2 in the backstory of Ryouma's parents, Miyako and Ryuu. Chapter 1 available here.]]

They return to Konoha in a rainy twilight, silent and shivering in their sodden uniforms. It might be early evening, or late afternoon; Ryuu thinks they’ve been on the move at least eight hours, but without the sun it’s hard to be sure. His own weariness is no guide. He’s been weary, it seems, forever. Or at least since Tousaki Miyako was assigned to a team under his command.

His mission brief, three days ago, gave him the barest summary of her record. Chuunin, twenty-one, talented with fire jutsu but unlikely to manifest control over a second chakra nature and be promoted to jounin. Nothing to indicate she’s the type of girl to pick up a stranger in a bar for a standing quickie in an alley, or seduce her team leader on a mission. Or back down from a third seduction, later, and ask merely to be held.

After twenty years as a ninja—genin at eight, jounin at eighteen—Ryuu knows himself. Knows he was a danger in that dawn-bright inn room yesterday, that his iron-forged self-control was brittle, nearly broken. But he hasn’t been that man in nearly six years, and never wants to be him again. He never should have let himself go so far: shouldn’t even have touched Miyako until he was himself again, until the memory of a girl’s blood on his hands faded and he could remember what it meant to be gentle.

Loneliness is no excuse. Neither is telling himself that she asked for it, asked for him; she didn’t know who she was asking. He hasn’t told her his full name and doesn’t mean to. Memories are as short as lives in a ninja village, but some rumors linger. Maybe he should tell her himself, warn her off, scare her off—

But she doesn’t seem the type of girl to be easily frightened. She’s got shadows in her eyes, edges of her own; in the alley she wrapped her legs around his hips and bit his lip and told him he didn’t have to be gentle.

It doesn’t have to be you, she told him later. But I’d like it to be.

Maybe, he thinks, she could deal with dangerous.

He watches her as they trudge through the rain towards Konoha’s East Gate. She hasn’t spoken to him since they left the inn at Junpei, beyond the brief necessities amongst a team on the move—I’ll gather firewood, Thanks for digging the latrine. The rain sleeks her long black hair, sheens the delicate curves of cheekbone and jaw. She flicks water out of her eyes with an impatient hand and glowers up at the sky, generous mouth set thin, long lashes beaded with wet. There’s a curse itching at the corner of her mouth, but she bites it back, lowers her head again, and slogs on.

The gate-guards are stationed in a little three-sided hut, sheltered from the wind and the rain. They make a production out of checking IDs, even though Ryuu’s been through here three times in the last month, even though they seem to know Keiichi and Miyako by sight; they joke about people he doesn’t know. He stands apart, waiting.

“Hisagi Saya was lookin’ for you,” one of the chuunin guards mentions at last, off-handed, as he hands Miyako’s dogtags back to her. She stiffens, but drops the steel chain around her neck anyway, tucks the gleaming discs beneath the high collar of her shirt. Her voice is low, steady.

“She say why?”

“Said it was about your dad,” the other guard offers.

“Is he dead?”

The guards exchange a quick glance. Ryuu wonders what they read in her tone, in her face. Her shoulders are rigid, spine straight: braced against anticipated grief?

“No,” one of the guards says at last.

“Too bad,” Miyako says, indifferent as ice, and turns away.

Her eyes meet Ryuu’s. Caught watching, he almost lets his drop. But he remembers the blood-warm shame in his cheeks when teammates refused to meet his gaze, the copper taste on his tongue, and he doesn’t look down.

“I’ve got a mission report to write,” he says instead. “Coming?”

She smiles like a knife. “I still owe you that drink.”

Bureaucracy comes first; it always does. Ryuu drops the stolen documents off at the Hokage’s palace, where they’re neatly bagged and labeled and sent off for the next stage in their little document lives. He gets a new sheaf of papers in return: a mission report in triplicate, with blank pages for commentary on the performance of each of his subordinates, a map of the castle they infiltrated, injury and damage reports, and his own analysis of the mission and its execution.

“You’ve got twenty-four hours,” the chuunin at the desk tells him, gimlet-eyed. “After that we send the ANBU after you.”

“Is that a promise?” Ryuu asks.

The chuunin’s officious scowl slips; he blinks, bewildered. It’s Miyako who laughs, low, delighted, as she turns away from the Unassigned Missions board. “Was that a joke? I didn’t think you knew the word.”

He can’t remember the last time he made a woman laugh. Miyako’s voice isn’t anything like silver bells, but it’s warm and bright and genuinely amused, and something in his chest unclenches a little at the sound.

“I know it in three Earth Country dialects, too,” he offers.

She holds the door for him, smiling. “How’s about we get a corner booth at The Black Dog and work on that report, and you can teach me?”

The rain has driven the evening crowd to fill the bar earlier than usual, noisy and damp, sodden shoulders steaming a little in the heat of too many bodies packed too close. Miyako elbows her way through to the bar fearlessly, poking one tall white-haired man in the ribs when he doesn’t clear her path quickly enough. Ryuu recognizes him when he turns: Jiraiya, one of the Sandaime’s former students. He’s there with a thin black-haired man and a busty blonde girl, the other two members of a team already become famous.

Miyako isn’t daunted by early fame. “Thought you were still in Ame,” she says, tipping her head back to meet Jiraiya’s tattoo-edged eyes. He can’t be any older than she is; Ryuu was a chuunin before this boy even entered the Academy. But he’s four centimeters taller than Ryuu and five kilos heavier, and something about him sets Ryuu’s teeth on edge.

“Hurried back when I heard you were in town, Miyako-chan,” he says, with a grin barely short of a leer. Behind him, Shodai’s granddaughter rolls her eyes. Jiraiya doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. “Buy you a drink?”

In a bar this crowded with shinobi, releasing even a flicker of killing intent would be like pouring blood into a shoal of sharks. Ryuu clamps down tight and steps closer, looming behind Miyako’s shoulder.

Tsunade and Orochimaru notice him first. The girl’s eyes narrow, and her teammate’s hand drifts towards the kunai holster on his thigh. Ryuu holds his ground. They’re good, maybe better than good; he’s heard the stories of what they did in Ame. People are already beginning to call them the Legendary Three, the Sannin. He could take one, with luck, but not all three. At least there’s plenty of water here...

“Sorry,” Miyako says cheerfully, just as Jiraiya registers Ryuu’s scowl. His eyes snap down to her face again, or possibly lower. She tilts her head to look up at him, and Ryuu can hear the smile in her voice. “I’ve already got a date.”

“With Grouchyface there?” Jiraiya’s nose crinkles. “Might as well date Orochimaru--at least he’s got better hair.”

Miyako tosses her own long wet hair over her shoulder, straight and shining. “Never could abide kissing a man prettier than me,” she says. Orochimaru looks disturbingly smug. Jiraiya mostly looks disturbed.

“Don’t waste your time teasing them,” Tsunade advises. “Jiraiya won’t get it, and Orochimaru won’t care. Have you found a table already?”

“Just got here,” Miyako says. She turns slowly, taking in the packed booths, the shinobi packed three deep at the bar and leaning against the walls. On rainy nights half of Konoha goes drinking, it seems. Ryuu’s already seen and been seen by a score of jounin he knows. A few even acknowledge him with a tipped chin or a raised glass. Time has passed, and memories fade, but the back of his neck still prickles with unease.

Miyako’s fingers brush the back of his hand. Startled, he looks down at her again. Without the smile her face is suddenly older, sculpted by shadows, with a faint line crinkling between her brows. “Somewhere else?” she asks.

“You could join us!” Jiraiya offers, before Ryuu can draw the breath to say Let’s go, and maybe he will murder the kid after all. This time Jiraiya does notice his glare, and returns it with a smirk. “Sakumo and Kyouko already grabbed us a table for six. We can pull up an extra chair.”

“Kyouko’s got news,” Tsunade says to Miyako, in a low, warm voice. “We’re celebrating.”

“Already?” The thin edge of concern in Miyako’s face shatters into delight. “I haven’t seen her in months. I should congratulate her--”

And suddenly her fingers are tangling in Ryuu’s and she’s towing him out of the mob, heading for a table where a lean young man with a thick brush of untidy silver hair is standing eagle-eyed guard over six chairs and a delicate, dark-haired girl. There’s a confused moment of laughter and hugs and breathless chatter, while Ryuu tries to offer awkward congratulations to the young man people have already begun to call Konoha’s White Fang.

“Five weeks,” Hatake Sakumo says, glowing. They’ve barely spoken before, on teamed missions or in passing in the jounin lounge, but he’s clearly so light-headed with pride that he’d brag to the Tsuchikage himself. “I was pretty sure I could smell something different about her all last week, but she just did the test yesterday and got a positive. Due the middle of April. I’m voting for a girl.”

“You do know your vote doesn’t change anything, don’t you?” his young wife asks dryly. “You did your part already. I should just send you out on a mission for the next eight months, get you out from under my feet...”

They smile at each other. Ryuu looks uneasily away and catches sight of Miyako, standing with one hand on the back of a chair, watching. All the laughter has fled her face. She looks tired, a little pained, as if she’s inadvertently stretched a half-healed wound.

He barely knows her. Why should he want to take her away from this young couple so cruelly, obviously in love?

Jiraiya pitches noisily between them, dangling sake bottles by their slender necks, and the moment shatters. Tsunade says something, low; Sakumo blushes, and Kyouko laughs. Orochimaru sets a glass of orange juice down at Kyouko’s elbow and takes his own seat at the end of the table. Jiraiya tries to sling an arm around Miyako’s shoulders. She dodges, lithe as an otter, and comes up to circle Ryuu’s wrist with slender fingers and tug him towards a chair.

“Just a little while,” she says.

The mission papers crackle stiff in his flak vest, against his shirt. Twenty-three hours, now.

“A little while,” he says, and he takes a sake cup when Jiraiya offers it.

Twenty minutes blur with startling speed into two hours. Miyako buys a round, and then Ryuu does. Jiraiya tries to make a toast, deteriorates quickly into ribaldry, and ends up back in his chair with sake dripping down his face and the print of Tsunade’s fist blackening around his eye. Orochimaru tells a long, involved story about someone he met in Wave Country who did something. Somewhat surprisingly, Ryuu finds himself comparing notes with Hatake Kyouko on Water jutsu.

If she’s heard his history, she gives no sign of it. She leans back against her husband’s shoulder, sipping her orange juice, and asks questions with a voice like silk and a mind like a knife. He scrambles, more than once, for answers. Scrambles more as the alcohol softens the edges of the world. He’s distantly aware that he’s drinking more than he should on an empty stomach, but plates of yakitori and edamame and chicken karaage arrive at last, with the waitress making hurried apologies for an overworked kitchen, and then even that excuse is gone.

He catches himself, at one point, bending his head to nip a bite of karaage from the chopsticks Miyako is holding up to him. Her high-carved cheekbones are flushed pink and warm; her hair has dried, glossy in the lamplight, loose strands falling soft around her face. She’s beautiful, he thinks, a little startled at the observation; he knew that before, when she first leaned up next to him in another bar. Somehow it’s different now, relaxed among her friends, with Jiraiya and Tsunade bickering at one side of the table and Kyouko tipping her head back to kiss her husband at the other. The steel-sharp edges are hidden, swathed in warmth and laughter and real smiles. And he doesn’t need imagination to embroider his fantasies about what she looks like under her clothes; he has memory, tingling in his hands, coiling heat beneath his belt.

If she were to invite him again, he wouldn’t hesitate.

So when she scrapes her chair back and stands at last, he finds himself on his feet only a moment later--wavering a little, as he catches his balance in a world gone suddenly, pleasantly foggy. He stumbles over polite goodbyes, catches Kyouko’s amused eye, and flushes a little despite himself. Sakumo grins and gives him a completely indiscreet thumbs-up.

He hasn’t let himself get this drunk in years. It was far too easy, with Jiraiya refilling his cup every time he looked away, conversation flowing as smooth and pleasant as the sake. And he still doesn’t feel dangerous--just loose-limbed, a little tired, still half-aroused. He glances down at Miyako and catches her gazing back, dark-eyed and unafraid.

Maybe she doesn’t always have to be the one who asks.

Her hand is small and slim in his; her head barely tops his shoulder. For the first time in years, pushing through the crowd towards the door, his size feels protective, not threatening.

The rain has slackened, but not stopped. They stand together under the dripping eaves and study the wet streets, scrunching together when an already half-drunk shinobi pushes past them into the bar. The air is cool and damp on Ryuu’s heat-flushed cheeks, and his head clears a little.

He says, “My apartment’s the far side of the village. Near the Hyuuga Compound.” Nearly two miles, even by a ninja’s direct over-roof route. He looks down at her again, and realizes abruptly that he hasn’t asked, not the way she did, courage without fear.

He doesn’t know if he has that kind of courage.

“I can write the report myself. I’m not just trying to get you to do my work.” Even worse. He cuts himself short, on the edge of anger. Even that young idiot Jiraiya could say this, with a laugh and a leer. Why is he even trying?

“My place is closer,” Miyako says, watching the rain. Her mouth curls with the edge of a new smile. She glances up at him, and the soft scarlet light of the paper lanterns hanging from the eaves catches in her eyes. “You can decide about the report later.”

Her fingers lace through his, and she tugs him out into the rain.

After eight hours’ slog, another brief wetting should be less than consequential. He finds himself running with her all the same, head ducked against the spitting rain, following her through streets he barely recognizes in the dark. Three flights of crumbling stairs, and then she has her back to a painted steel door and her hands caught in his jounin vest, and he’s kissing the laughter out of her mouth.

Somehow she manages lock and deadbolt. He feels her chakra crackle against his as she disables the protective seals, but he’s too distracted to analyze the array. By the time they stumble inside both their vests are already unzipped, and his mission report papers are spotted in wet. She sweeps them out of his vest, tosses them on the kitchen table, and peels the vest down his shoulders. He finds her hair-tie and snaps it, and her hair tumbles long and loose and damp down her back, just as he remembers it in the alley and the inn.

They shed clothes in a staggering striptease, from the tiny kitchen/living area to the even tinier bedroom, half its floor-space eaten up by the wide double bed. Her skin is like ivory in the darkness, silken-soft but striped with scars beneath his fingertips. He is beginning to learn her body: the raised mole just beneath her left breast, the lumpy knot of scar tissue above her collarbone, the right places where lips and tongue can make her back arch and her breath catch and her hands clench in his hair. She gasps his name as she climaxes, and then again when he enters her and brings her once and twice more to the edge and over.

He’s lying breathless beside her, spent and still shaking, before he realizes that it’s the first time she’s ever called him by name.

He sleeps a little, eventually. When he wakes the rain has stopped and the darkened room is barred with moonlight. Miyako lies warm in his arms, her hair tickling his nose, her hands curled beneath her chin. Her breath is slow and steady, and her eyelids flicker with her dreams.

His arm has gone numb beneath her head. Even in her sleep, she didn’t roll away.

Carefully, holding his breath, he eases his arm free and sits up. His pants are somewhere in the shadows on the floor; he doesn’t dare risk a light to find them. He’s skating gingerly over the clothing-strewn floor, toeing items into a narrow bar of moonlight to look at them, when the bedsprings creak. The skin prickles over his spine. He turns to look.

She’s half-upright on one elbow, hair tumbling tangled over her shoulder, eyes still fogged with sleep. “Leaving?”

He finds his briefs, and turns away to pull them on. “Yes.”

“You don’t have to.”

Something closes in his throat. He thinks of trying to explain and doesn’t know how. “I have to write the mission report,” he says at last.

“At three in the morning?” Her voice is drought-dry. She slides out of bed, skin whispering against the sheets. Bare feet pad over the cold wood floor, then pause. Cloth rustles, and something soft hits him in the back of the knee. “Get dressed,” she says. “I’ll make coffee.”

When he turns, she’s already gone, and his pants are on the floor at his feet.

He dresses mechanically, without turning on the light; the warm yellow spill from the kitchen is bright enough. He finds his belt near the bureau, hip-pouches tumbled in a heap; one has opened and spilled shuriken across the floor. Leg-bindings and kunai holster are under the bed. He has to check to be certain they’re his.

Shirt and flak vest are still missing. He has a hazy memory of losing them somewhere before he stumbled through the bedroom door. Sword and pack are in the kitchen, he thinks, by a chair. He left them where they fell.

He doesn’t know how to face her. It seemed so clear when he woke, like resheathing a sword: he’d never meant to stay. She isn’t his to hold. Better to leave in the darkness before dawn than in the harsh light of early morning, when truth is harder to hide.

But there are no sheltering shadows in the kitchen, where Miyako is leaning against battered cupboards with a coffee pot bubbling at her elbow and her arms crossed over her breasts. She wears a man’s loose buttoned shirt, white, its hem barely brushing the tops of her thighs. He wonders who left it here, then reminds himself he has no right to care.

“Coffee’s nearly ready,” she says, cocking a bare heel against the cabinets. Her voice is carefully cool.

He thinks of declining, but he’s insulted her enough already. “Thanks,” he says, and stoops for his shirt.

The door opens without warning. Ryuu drops the shirt and goes for a kunai.

But the man in the doorway is unarmed, swaying a little, holding himself straight with a hand on the doorframe. “Miya-chan,” he says, and takes a step inside. “Saw the light on. You’re up late.” He smiles at her, and even across the room Ryuu can smell the sharp burn of cheap shouchuu. “Waitin’ up for me?”

“I told you before,” she says, and her voice is ice and fire. “Get out.”

The man’s hazy smile holds. He’s not so tall as Ryuu, a little heavier, perhaps twenty years older. There’s grey in his hair and yellow on his teeth. He’s wearing dirty civvies, but he holds himself like a ninja. Chuunin, Ryuu thinks, from the well-worn patterns of his chakra. No threat to him, and Miyako can hold her own--

But he doesn’t like that smile.

He straightens, dangling the kunai loosely between two fingers, and the man in the doorway isn’t drunk enough to ignore him. Dark eyes rake over him from bare feet to tousled hair, lingering on his bandaged left arm. “ANBU?” the intruder demands.

Does he think Ryuu’d admit it if he were? Ryuu’s mouth twists. He tugs at the knotted ends of bandaging, drops the whole tangle to his feet. The long gash down his biceps is red and crusted, barely half-healed, lacing over older scars. No scarlet spiral excuses his old mistakes.

“Jounin,” he says.

Not even a flicker of caution in that drink-flushed face. “Mighta guessed. She likes ‘em rough.”

Killing intent rises like a storm from the far side of the kitchen. “Get out,” Miyako says. “Now.”

The drunk staggers, clutching at the doorframe. But if he’s too far gone in the bottle to master and release his own killing intent, there’s anger ready just below the surface. “Gettin’ full of yourself, girl,” he says. “Spread your legs for a jounin, an’ suddenly you’re too good to talk to your dad? You think you can look down on me, give me orders? You little whore--”

Ryuu moves.

The man’s spine slams into the wrought-iron railing of the landing outside before he’s quite realized Ryuu is there. This close his breath is foul and fiery with alcohol, his blood-shot eyes wide with fear and fury. He scrabbles at Ryuu’s hands, at the forearm shoving hard against his chest, but stills when he feels the kiss of a kunai against his throat.

“She told you to go,” Ryuu says, softly.

Her father spits obscenities at him.

Ryuu looks down, over the railing: it’s a three-storey drop. No problem at all for a ninja with his wits about him, dangerous for a drunk. He’s not sure he cares.

“Over the railing,” he says. “Or down the stairs. Your choice.”

Another brief struggle to break free. But Ryuu’s sober now and he’s angry, and he’s got youth and strength and leverage all on his side. He shoves Miyako’s father back against the railing, hard, and presses the kunai closer. The razor-edge bites. A thin trickle of blood seeps around the edge of the blade.

A man this old will know his name, know the danger in it. But Ryuu has spent six years trying to make that name mean something else, and he won’t use it now to warn off a man too drunk and stupid to scare. Not when he hasn’t yet told Miyako who he is and what he did.

Instead he leans in, bending Tousaki back over the railing, and murmurs: “I’m still valuable to my village. Are you?”

It’s a calculated guess--the dirty civvies instead of a chuunin vest, the alcohol, the anger. But he’s seen enough men’s eyes widen at the shock of a mortal blow to know this one hit home. It’s almost instinctive to follow up on his advantage, to strike again before Tousaki can recover. “The MPs won’t even investigate if one old drunk trips down the stairs.” Ryuu’s good at staging deaths, accidental or otherwise. His spare uniform is still spattered with the blood of the last corpse he arranged. He remembers the blood drying on his face, the weight of the severed head in his hand, and lets the memory darken his voice. “It’ll be easy. I might even enjoy it.”

Behind him, Miyako says coldly, “I don’t want even his corpse outside my door.”

Ryuu’s not fool enough to look round, even when Tousaki’s gaze darts over his shoulder. But he eases off a little, enough to let Tousaki breathe again. Blood slicks the edge of his kunai and the side of Tousaki’s neck.

“I’ll know,” he says, “if you come round again.”

Tousaki shoves him away. “Enjoy her,” he spits. “Half the village already has.” He swipes at his bloody neck, swears viciously, and staggers for the stairs.

Ryuu’s hand clenches around the longing to plant the kunai in his spine. He holsters it instead, harder than he should; he’ll have to check the others for nicks later, and clean them all. A familiar task, mindless, numbing. No need at all to think or remember.

But peace doesn’t come yet, and his thoughts don’t slow.

“He must have been discharged,” he says, turning. “He wasn’t wearing dogtags.” Ryuu knows better than anyone how hard it is to be discharged from Konoha’s shinobi service, how bad your mistakes must be; even in the blackest times no one ever threatened it to him.

“Drunk on duty,” Miyako says, in a frozen voice. “He’s been warned before.”

She drops his shirt and vest and a handful of crumpled papers at his feet.

“Thanks,” she says. “I won’t look for you again.”

The door closes. He hears the click of a lock, the harder snick of the deadbolt. Chakra flares, reigniting protective seals. For a moment she is silhouetted black against the yellow glow of the curtained kitchen window: straight-backed, strong-shouldered, graceful head still held high. Rigid as glass, refusing to let herself shatter.

The light flicks off, leaving them both in darkness.

His pack and sword and sandals are still somewhere in her kitchen, hidden behind a chair. He makes his way home without them, catching himself with chakra when his bare feet skid on wet roof tiles. The sky is beginning to lighten, grey in the east. He thinks of running over rooftops at dawn with Miyako behind him, two days ago, and wonders what he did wrong.

Should he have tried to leave in the first place? He can’t see that things would be any better if Tousaki had caught them in bed, instead of half-dressed and out of it; but maybe it would have made a difference to her. Maybe if he hadn’t tried to slip away like a man leaving a prostitute, leaving guilt instead of money on the bedside table...

Her father’s ugly words ring in his head. Little whore. Half the village.

How often has Tousaki used those knives against her?

He could have killed Tousaki. Nearly did. Who’d notice that smear on a record already blackened? He’s still valuable to his village, even now--especially now--and Tousaki’s out on a dishonorable discharge or worse. The MPs might not bother to investigate, even if he stood over Tousaki’s corpse with blood on his hands. He startled me, he could say. Reflex. And they’d write Accident on their papers, or maybe Suicide-by-jounin, and drag the corpse off, and Konoha wouldn’t care.

Would Miyako?

There was no dullness to the edge of her killing intent. But you can kill without caring, or broadcast killing intent without truly desiring death. He’s done both too many times to recall. He tries to remember the look on her face, but all he can see is the way she sat up in bed, her hair tangled with shadows, dark eyes half-lidded and sleepy-sated, in the moment before he left her.

His own apartment is dark and cold. He dries his wet feet on the mat just inside the door and drops his vest on the armor-stand. Mission report on the kitchen table, kunai holster and shuriken pouch on top of the weapons chest, clothes in the basket in his bedroom. He turns the light on only when he gets to the bathroom, and blinks painfully in the sudden glare.

The mirror shows him a man who hates himself.

He turns the shower up as hot as it will go and stands for a long time under the steaming spray, one hand braced flat against the tiled wall. For a little while he lets himself remember the bathhouse in Junpei, clean striped yukatas, Miyako’s elaborate game of pretend. The paleness of her skin, the softness of it, the smell and taste of her, the perfection of her movement under and around him. The demure bride’s smile, and the teasing chuunin’s.

He wanted her from the moment she bought him a fruity pink drink with an umbrella on a stick. Wants her still, remembering, even though he’s already had her tonight, even though he’ll never have her again. I won’t look for you, she said, and he could hear how she meant it.

Damn Tousaki. If he hadn’t come Ryuu might have recovered from his misstep, might have sat down for coffee, might have finished the report there at Miyako’s kitchen table and then gone back to bed with her until morning came. Maybe in the clear light of day he’d have been able to talk to her at last. Maybe she would have forgiven him his past, teased away his fears, let him kiss her scars. Maybe someday he’d have been where Hatake Sakumo is now, honored, respected, with Miyako leaning back against his shoulder and smiling that soft, secret smile as she cradled the child growing in her womb.

The water runs cold.

He towels off roughly and digs through his closet until he finds an old yukata, faded and threadbare. His kiseru pipe is in his pack, but he has a spare. The box of hair-fine tobacco is on the table by his bed. He opens his bedroom window and sits on the ledge, above the window-box where neglected pansies are slowly dying.

Konoha never truly sleeps, not with the mission-desk and the hospital and any number of restaurants and bars open twenty-four hours a day. Now it is almost dawn, and the rest of the drowsing village has begun to wake. Two chuunin race down the street below his window, shouldering into each other at the turns. A street-sweeper follows them, slow and intent on the soft susurration of his broom on pavement. Across the street Nakamura-san, the baker, takes down the shutters from his windows and begins hauling out chairs and tables to create his little sidewalk cafe.

Ryuu could have stayed, and asked Miyako to have breakfast with him, and spun out a whole idyllic future as fragile and beautiful as soap-bubbles in sunlight. But Tousaki would still have come. Still attacked Miyako with every word, driving her into a frozen shell, stealing the warmth and laughter from her eyes.

Is he dead? she’d asked the guards at the gate.

Too bad.

Ryuu barely remembers his own father. An enormous hand ruffling his hair, a rumbling voice, a name carved at the very top of the Heroes’ Stone, near the Shodai’s. When he was very small he begged his mother for stories of the father who died a hero; he practiced with his father’s sword in the garden and imagined he could feel those big hands guiding his. He grew up lonely, then resentful, then glad that his father did not live to see the shame Ryuu brought upon their family name. In the bad years, when he was pulling himself out of the blackness, Ryuu sometimes prayed to him.

He suspects Miyako might have traded his dead father for her living one.

Little whore, Tousaki said. She likes ‘em rough.

If he is right, he should have killed Tousaki when he had the chance. Should kill him now, to make up for no one doing it years ago. Would Miyako thank him? Or would she look at him with cold, indifferent eyes, and ask him if he believed usurping her rightful revenge was a sure path back to her bed? Whether he thought saving her, years too late, would be fitting atonement for his own sins, for the girl he didn’t save?

His pipe has burnt out. He tips the ashes into the window-box and stares dully down at the little grey heap.

“You’re no hero, Kondo Ryuu,” he whispers.

The rising dawn breeze catches the ashes, and scatters them away.
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