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6:42 PM, June 23 rd , Outside a Nondescript Office Building: In Which Misao Is Assaulted By Terrible Fashion (Among Other Things)

It had been a drizzly, humid, and utterly terrible day: her hair had frizzed beyond all recognition, Panera had put chicken on her lunch salad despite her express orders not to, and a man with the face and mien of a twenties gangster had a gun trained on her face.

"Come with me," the thug grunted.

Misao focused on the dull gleam of light shining on the barrel. "No thanks."

"I don't think you understand the situation," he said. "I got the gun. You talk, scream, or make any noise, I'll shoot you in the face. Get in the car."

Gramps' voice floated through her mind: Keep him talking. "No, you won't. You need me. Otherwise, you'd have shot me already."

He shoved the gun closer to her face. "Listen, you dumb bitch—"

She snatched her chance, ducking under his arm and bringing her fist against his throat and finishing with a spectacular left hook to his nose. He landed on his back, wheezing and bleeding explosively all over his cheap polyester. Thank you, Gramps.

She supposed she ought to purr something sassy, like, "No one's ever called me dumb before," but the Okina that lived in a corner of her mind said, Now is not the time, smartass. She took his advice, scooped up her fallen purse—no need to give her fallen friend access to her credit cards, driver's license, and unraveling tampons—kicked the gun into the gutter, and fled the scene.

She had managed to sprint only a hundred yards when a nondescript car skidded to a stop not ten inches from her nose, showering her with muddy water. She backed up a step, clenching her fists, heart hammering.

Aoshi flowed out of the passenger seat. "Get in."

The adrenaline pumping through her system told her to run the other way. Her rational brain said to listen. She took a third option—she laughed, wild and a little horrified. "Fuck you."

He gazed at her steadily. Everything about him was steady, neat—immaculate, even—from his hair to his trench coat to his perfectly shined shoes. The rain didn't even seem to touch him. "Now is not the time for this."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want to keep you alive."

"Then where were you thirty seconds ago?" The rain came down even harder, and her shiny purple satin raincoat was no match for it. Misao was beginning to feel, in some distant, sensate part of herself, like a drowned rat. "Some asshole tried to abduct me at gunpoint."

Aoshi inclined his head a few degrees. "My apologies. That was an oversight on my part. It will not happen again. To that effect, I suggest you get in the car."

He did not say Before I make you but Misao was pretty sure it was implied. She swallowed, and took hold of the back door handle. "I don't make it a habit to get into tall, dark, and handsome strangers' cars," she said, "but you're the exception. Because you're Kenshin's friend, and while I don't trust you, I trust him."

Aoshi didn't do anything as pedestrian as sigh in relief, but the tension in the set of his jaw slackened the tiniest bit.


5:54 AM, June 16 th , Aoshi's Office: In Which Aoshi Discovers That Things Are Closer Than They Appear (And Resists the Urge to Slam His Head Against a Wall)

Aoshi glared at his computer screen. "Are you quite—sure?"

Okina, Aoshi's mentor, collegue, and, as Shikijou would say, all-around pain-in-the-ass, glared right back. "Of course I'm sure who my granddaughter is, dumbass."

Aoshi was not a man given to the casual use of expletives—he had always thought that the energy one invested in saying "Jesus fucking Christ on a stick!", for example could be put to use in a much more efficient fashion elsewhere, like fixing the problem that made one want to slander religious figures in the first place. Now, he clenched several grammatically creative and anatomically impossible imprecations behind his teeth and said, "That is not what I meant. Are you sure that he is coming for her?"

Okina's beard quivered with tension. "Positive. I got a tip from an old friend in Shanghai. After you and your boys laid waste to his little trade nexus in China, our mutual friend has been very, very busy these past few months digging up anything he can get on you and me."

Okina, who had an extensive network of friends (informants, really) all over the world, had been instrumental in finding the crucial intel that had eventually led to the dismantling of a flourishing illegal arms trade that had sprung up in East Asia—thus leaving one Woo Heishin very angry and very without funds. "So he found her."

"So he did." Okina leaned forward, deadly serious. Aoshi felt his spine snap up even straighter. "Listen, kid. She's smart, she's fast, but she's not one of us—she doesn't even know about all this. She won't last five minutes out there without help."

She would not even be aware of the danger, Aoshi thought. And even if she were, what could she do about it? One did not go to the local PD and tell them that an internationally wanted leader of a shadowy underground illegal-arms trading empire wanted one's head on a platter because he wanted leverage on one's grandfather, who had been a highly placed, highly decorated intelligence agent for the better part of forty years, and that grandfather's old student. "Understood."

Okina narrowed his eyes. "Do you really understand?"

"I will protect her."

"Damn right. But I want you on it, not one of your underlings."

Aoshi's jaw tightened so much he suspected he looked like the victim of a tetanus infection. "Understood. Have you alerted other agencies?"

"Those dumbasses will lead him straight to her." The old man grimaced. "No fucking professionalism these days. You're the cavalry. Maybe you should put on a suit."

Ignoring that bit of inanity, Aoshi asked, "What is your next move?"

Okina slipped on a pair of sunglasses. "I'm getting off the grid. I have some people to meet and even more people to avoid. Keep your ear to the ground. I'll be in touch." The screen went blank.

Hannya materialized out of the shadows. "Orders?"

Aoshi looked down at his tablet at the file Okina had sent. The information contained within was sparse, nothing more than a few pictures and an address. He didn't need all of that—Hannya had found people with less information. Aoshi didn't need Hannya to go hunting this time, however, not when he knew excruciatingly well the face that stared up at him. He had traced the whimsical arch of that nose with his eyes more times than he dared to count, had pressed his open mouth to that throat in every dream he'd had for the past six months.

"Meeting," Aoshi said, rising. "Fifteen minutes."


8:23 PM, June 23 rd , An Empty House in an Empty Subdivision: In Which Misao Learns Some Things, Gropes Some Things, and Wants to Hit Some (Other) Things

This is, Misao supposed, what one would call a safe house if my life were an action movie. Of course, if her life really had been an action movie, Misao would have made sure to wear something a little sturdier than high-waisted shorts, a tank top, and a slinky satin trench coat. What had seemed equal parts fashionable and practical that morning (no heels—just a pair of strappy gladiator sandals—and not a sequin in sight) now made her feel very vulnerable. What I need is a Kevlar vest.

She left her clothes in a sopping mess in the corner of the surgically clean bathroom and pulled on the clothes that had been left on the counter for her—sweatpants that were several sizes too big and a T-shirt that might have had, once upon a time, a picture of Eisenhower on it—and padded out of the bathroom, still feeling naked and exposed and wired as an exposed nerve, which did her no favors when Aoshi emerged from a dark room like some kind of Prince of Dark and Gloom and Night Terrors.

"Jesus Christ," she gasped, leaning against a wall. "I have been held at gunpoint today. Do not sneak up on me."

As was usual, neither his face nor his body twitched as much as a muscle. "That was not my intent."

That unnatural stillness angered her, burning away the last of her nerves. He had no business being so calm when Misao felt like her life was falling apart. "Is it your intent to tell me what's going on?"

He didn't answer immediately. "I do not know how it could benefit you."

"You're serious?" Misao turned away in disgust. "I respect your top-secret vaguely defined shadowy organization crap, I really do, but I have a right to know why when goons are coming for me, don't you think?"

His eyes bored into her, like they always did, and he looked like he always did, too—like a man who found himself faced with a mildly puzzling problem, and didn't quite know how to solve it. "I am trying to find a way to tell you that would not be…unduly tumultuous." His voice was a slight fraction of an octave off from his usual stiff monotone—he sounded bemused and uncertain and a little angry.

Misao decided she didn't have the time or the inclination to plumb the depths of his still waters, and turned to walk down the hallway.

He followed her into the state-of-the-art kitchen, replete with glittering counter-tops, cavernous appliances, and even a row of gleaming knives stuck to a magnetic strip along one wall. She supposed if life was going to be as sweet to her as it had been to Kaoru, Aoshi would turn out to be a man capable of making sweet, robust love to a virgin kitchen, making even sweeter and more robust love to her less-than-virgin self, and then be emotionally available after the fact. She turned to him. "I don't suppose you cook."

"No. I am capable of making food that is merely…edible."

"Yeah," she said. "My microwave is the only appliance that's ever seen any action." She felt perilously, stupidly close to tears, so she headed to the freezer. Only a few seconds of digging unearthed an ancient carton of chocolate ice cream. She didn't even like chocolate ice cream—it was too bitter—and this particular specimen was suffering from an extremely bad case of freezer burn.

"You should eat."

Misao dug around in the carton underneath the icy, petrified layers for the good stuff, applying herself to ignoring his winter-sky eyes. "I am eating."

"You should eat something that will sustain you," he said in exactly the same tone.

She rolled her eyes and swallowed a mouthful of tasteless goop. "Don't worry, this'll kill me, like, sixty years down the line. A bullet, on the other hand, would do that more quickly. A lot more quickly." Another vile, bitter spoonful. "Maybe I should know why I'm dodging bullets and why you're concerned with helping me dodge them, but you don't seem to be very invested in letting me know anything at all."


Aoshi had been reduced to making ramen.

Misao sat at the kitchen table, moodily moving her spoon through melted chocolate ice-cream though she no longer was eating it. She hadn't said anything for over an hour, having limited herself to glaring balefully at him, and he, for whom silence had been a lifelong friend and companion and comfort, found it…bothersome.

He liked her animated and colorful and chattering away, and this new Misao, angry and brooding and occasionally tearful, did not sit well with him.

A voice crackled in his ear—Beshimi, his sniper, seated on a rooftop several houses away: "All clear, boss." Hannya and Hyottoko and Shikijou chimed in—all was clear, for now.

He poured the noodles into a soup bowl and slid it in front of her.

"I'm not thanking you," she said, but she took the chopsticks he held out for her. "I'm just starving."

He watched her eat in silence for a while longer, drinking in her sweet face and the dark sweep of her hair and the way her lashes arrayed themselves on her cheeks, and wished…wished for futile, impossible things: that he were not who he was, cold and alone because to be otherwise would invite madness; that she would continue to feel affection for him even when she inevitably would come to know the truth of his purpose and his work; that his life were not shrouded in darkness and secrecy by necessity; that he had found the fortitude to avoid her months ago when he had first divined the effect she had on him. In that last, he had been deplorably weak: even the most oblique mention of her had brought him running.

And perhaps he should answer for that weakness, even in part. And her grandfather was a man with dangerous enemies; if one could find her, despite all the precautions the old man had taken over the years, then others could as well.

"Fine," he said, taking the seat at the table across from her. "I will tell you what I can."

She looked up at him, a glob of noodles poised halfway between her pink mouth and the bowl. "You will?"

He almost smiled. "Keep in mind that this is not entirely my story. There are parts of it even I do not know and parts of it that I cannot tell you."

She forgot the noodles handily. Her eyes, when she focused them and brought to bear the force of her enormous personality, always stopped the breath in his lungs, if only for a moment—so infinitesimal, in fact, that his quick inhalation afterwards was not at all discernable—but still he could not decide their color.

"Okay, Agent Smith, lay it on me. Why are people after me?"

"They have recently come across some sensitive information. With it, they pieced together the secret of your parentage."

"Uh-huh," she said, allowing skepticism to draw out the sounds. "I don't have any birth secrets. My mom was a painter and my dad was an elementary math teacher. They died in a car crash when I was five." She propped her chin on a hand and frowned. "Which, yeah, tragic, but not…" She waved a hand in the air vaguely. "Not, like, at the level of threats and guns and kidnapping, yeah?"

"That is not what I am talking about." He had not known much of Okina's daughter's life—Okina had taken pains to hide her, and Aoshi had had his hands full elsewhere.

"Then what do you mean?"

"That it is not in your parents the…hostile parties…have shown interest, but in your grandfather."

"Gramps?" She shook her head. "I know he's had some military training and stuff, but he's a used car salesman in Florida, for god's sake. He's not dangerous."

"No?" He almost smiled again. "He is actually a highly decorated and highly admired agent—a former member of the very same agency I work for now."

"Right," she said. "The one that does not officially exist."

"It exists. I am just not at liberty to tell you its name."

"Of course you're not. You're not allowed to actually tell me anything that might help me verify this story of yours." She rolled her extraordinary eyes. "But, please, do go on."

"Okina has lent a hand to me and my team over the years as he has a network of useful and informative contacts in places where I…conduct my work. Recently he delivered intel to me that helped in the massive takedown of a network if illegal arms trafficking in Ease Asia. It is the former head of the trafficking organization that is our hostile party in this situation."

"So…" she said, her brow furrowing, "if I'm following you, this 'hostile party' or whatever, they're after me because Gramps outed them?"

"That is the shape of it. Do you believe me?"

"No!" She exploded out of her chair. "What kind of idiot do you take me for? My grandfather? A secret agent? Next, you'll be telling me about a one-eyed Scottish lady up in Schaumburg who has a bridge to sell me."

He cursed Okina for lying to this woman for so many years and again for saddling him with this impossible task. "I hadn't thought of you as any kind if idiot until now. Do I strike you as a man easily given to carrying tales?"

"No, but you didn't strike me as the sort to put unsuspecting people under house-arrest either." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Okay. Okay. Say I believe you. Why are these assholes gunning for me? Do they think my gramps tattooed the coordinates of a secret stash of nuclear war heads on my left butt-cheek or something?"

He refused to look anywhere below her neck. "Of course not. That sounds like the plot of a supremely terrible 80s B-movie."

She threw her hands up into the air. "Uh, in case you hadn't noticed, my life has turned into a bad 80s B-movie!"

He snorted. "Hardly that."

"Why did I ever want to date you?" She paced the length of the kitchen, grumbling and bristling with nervous energy. "I should strangle you. I should break Kaoru's bokken over your skull. When I'm dragged up before a jury, I'll just tell them all about you and not a single one would convict me."

"Highly unlikely." He almost smiled at her ferocity, her bloody-mindedness. "In any case, I would avoid pursuing such a course of action. I am only here to keep you alive, after all."

"Which brings us back to my point. Why are people shooting at me? If not, as you say, because of butt tattoos."

She looked more angry than afraid, and brilliant in her anger. "Revenge. Leverage."

"Revenge against Gramps?"

"Your grandfather. And me."

She frowned at him. "Gramps I can understand. Why you?"

"Because," he said, and if he had been a less rigid man, here, he might have drawn in a deep breath, "your grandfather was my mentor."

"That's it," she snarled, and stalked into the living room.


Misao felt cold. The house had an air-conditioner running on full blast, of course, but she didn't think that it had anything to do with the chills that left goose bumps along her skin.

Gramps couldn't be a super-secret spy, he just couldn't, because Gramps belonged on an old car lot filled with slowly rusting lemons and charming Midwestern retirees out of their money. But she could not help but remember the little incongruities—how she truly did not know how he had spent his life before she had been delivered to him by Social Services, how he seemed bizarrely knowledgeable about weaponry and the arts of inflicting violence, how hyper-aware he was of everything…

No. No. She shook her head. All of that can be explained away.

Aoshi had followed her out of the kitchen. "This is why I thought it best not to tell you."

"You could have saved your breath. I don't believe you." She shivered again, remembering Gramps' eyes when she'd come home one day with a scrape on her face and how he'd gone out that night and how that moron Hyouko had moved away that very week. Coincidence.

"I don't believe you," she said again, hating how her voice was thick with tears, but needing to hear the words aloud anyway. "It all has to be a coincidence because…because Gramps could not have kept this from me all these years." He voice broke; her tears spilled over onto her face. "He just c-couldn't."

He made a sudden move toward her then, a shifting of stance, and enfolded her in his arms. He pulled flush against his broad chest—broader and warmer than she could have imagined—and held her there with his heartbeat under her cheek and his scent—leather and metal and clean soap—filling her lungs.

"And you?" she asked in a small voice. "Did you…conspire with Gramps to come into my life?"

"No." His voice rumbled beneath her cheek. "That was coincidence."

She kept still for a while, floating through space. He held her like she was infinitely precious; and while she had wanted to touch him—sleep with him, certainly—she had never imagined this very simple, very elemental thing: his closeness and his warmth and his comfort. She burrowed her nose into his shirt, seeking more of the same.

The quality of his embrace changed then, becoming something more fraught. His heartbeat was no longer quite steady. She had known he was attracted to her, of course, but he had never acted on that attraction, despite every welcoming signal from her. Well, then, maybe I need a more direct approach.

So she stretched to her full height flush along his body and kissed him on the mouth.

He went instantly, utterly still.

Not giving up, bucko. She kept kissing him, kept plying him with fluttering kisses along the seam of his lips and his jaw and his neck and buried her hand in his hair—silky, soft and slightly springy, as she had imaged it—because she was going crack him or die trying—and gently, gently bit his neck.

A tremor went through him, then another, and then he moved instantly and furiously, flowing like an swollen river; his hands drove up her torso and into her armpits and he set her against a wall and gave her his mouth, open this time, thick with tongue and teeth and desire. She welcomed it all, rubbing herself shamelessly against him, yes, yes, I want this, more, the kiss spilling through her mind like music, like an entire orchestra crashing through her brain, bashing cymbals and sending vibrations down to her fingertips. She knotted her hands in his hair—it must hurt him—but he made a guttural sound and kissed her harder, more lavishly, like the entire world had gone dry, and she was the only conduit of water left.

He moved then, kissing her face—her brow and her eyelids and her jaw—and he paid decadent, voluptuous attention to her neck—and his hands, marvelous and large, cupped her ass and pulled her close—and she could feel him, swelling for her. Oh, yes, she wanted it, she wanted it—

The gleam of a gun in the rain.

She pushed him away sharply. He moved away instantly, his chest working like a bellows, and she fell against the wall. Her knees felt like they were made of foam. She pushed hair out of her face with a trembling hand.

"This scene won't play," she said shakily. "I know this book. I've read this book. We seduce each other; we have mad, athletic, adrenaline-fueled sex against a wall; and then the villain bursts in while you have your pants around your ankles and shoots your dick off! There are reasons, you know, why I won't read romantic suspense. Where is the narrative tension supposed to be coming from, anyway?"

His eyes, as he gazed at her, were no longer the cold silver of winter-skies, but the grey of a monstrous thunderstorm. It felt heavily on her skin, almost like a touch.


Aoshi was on the cusp of something foolish and momentous. Let me stay with you. Let me protect you. Please, God, let me touch you…

The taste of her buzzed on his tongue. She had been sweeter and more tart than the finest wine, beyond compare to anything his staid and paltry imagination could have conjured. His fingers tingled with the need to touch her skin again, her impossibly soft skin. He'd bruised her mouth—it was wine-dark now—and he wanted to kiss her again, ached with the desire, the need for it. This was why he had refused to touch her for all these months, despite her every invitation: having taken one touch, he'd become addicted, and would need her all his life. Already his mind was spinning feverish imaginings, foolish schoolboy nonsense, he hair spread across his sheets, her taste on his mouth, her thighs trembling beneath his kisses…

"I—"

"Incoming," said Hannya's voice in his ear.

"Shit," he snarled.


10:32 PM, June 23 rd , An Empty House in an Empty Subdivision: In Which Misao Stabs A Bald Guy

Bullets were flying around outside, and Misao didn't know what to do.

She had watched Aoshi go from bemused and amorous to rigid and focused, all his nerves locked into hyper-awareness, in about three seconds flat—which she hadn't thought was possible—then he'd shoved her into a tiny room and said, "Stay here. Do not, under any circumstances, leave."

And he'd slammed the door, locked it, and that was when the gunfire had begun.

She folded herself down in a corner of her glorified closet and stuffed a knuckle into her mouth to keep herself from screaming.

When door burst open and an enormous man covered in scars and 80's hair shouldered his way in, she did scream.

He clapped a hand the size of a saucepan across her mouth. "Shut up, kid. I'm on your side."

"How do I know that?" she mumbled around his palm, though she figured if he really was out to kill her, he could just crush her skull in one hand and be done with it.

He grinned cheerfully. "Because me and the boys have been making bets about when the boss would finally break down and make a move on you. You two just won me fifty bucks."

"Fifty—"

He peered through the door. "Now is not the time. Things aren't going too hot, he brought these specialists, so we gotta—"

Yet another man entered the room, as tall as Mullet, but completely bald, wearing a shit-eating grin that made Misao want to kick him in the teeth, and carrying a long staff. "My thanks," he said with a strange accent, "for leading me to my prey."

"Yeah?" said Mullet. "You gotta get through me first."

"It is a trivial matter," said Baldy.

"That staff ain't gonna do you any favors in here," Mullet said, and they both swung into action, which lasted a total of three seconds—Baldy's staff broke into segments, and one struck Mullet in the thigh with bone-shattering force. He went down like a stone.

Baldy turned his yellowish eyes on her. "Your turn."

A strange fury seized her, and she knew without a doubt that she would not be leaving quietly and meekly like some kind of cowed mouse—she could fight, and she would win, because she was her grandfather's granddaughter, and she was made of tougher stuff than that, more than this Telly Savalas-looking motherfucker could dream of handling.

She launched herself at Baldy, calling upon years of half-forgotten gymnastics training—but the body didn't forget, did it? She had practiced these movements until her very bones ached. She trusted her body to carry her over Baldy's head, landed on the other side of him, and sprinted down the hallway.

Among Misao's many and varied talents was a particular propensity for knife-throwing. She had picked up the skill a few years before for a perhaps ill-conceived performance art piece that had never come to fruition anyway—one of her colleagues had nearly lost a finger to Misao's knives and had subsequently lost the stomach for it. He had been the very worst kind of douchebag, and so she had never really regretted it.

I won't regret this, either.

She skidded into the kitchen, frantically searching for what she had seen earlier—there, the row of knives.

Badly crashed into the kitchen bare moments after her, still grinning. "Do not think you can run forever—"

Her first knife buried itself in his pectoral muscle.

He lost his grin instantly.

She swallowed. Shit. She had meant to get him in the throat on her first try; now he knew the one trick she had up her sleeve, would be on guard for it. She could not risk coming within an arm's length of him—he outweighed her by too much, and would overpower her easily—so she had to keep him moving.

She bounced around the kitchen, counter-top to counter-top to table and back again, throwing everything she could find at him—pots, lids, her old ice-cream container with its puddle of chocolate ice-cream soup. Her knives she was more careful with, throwing them only when she thought she might land a hit, but she rapidly came to the conclusion that her first try had been lucky: three knives later, she'd only managed to graze him on his left arm.

Desperately she tried to dodge around him, trying for the hallway again, and he turned to reach for her—his arm was a hairsbreadth away—her heart was exploding in her throat—when he slipped on chocolate ice-cream soup.

He went sprawling to the floor with a roar, still flailing for her, and she thought, Where can I stick him so he stops coming after me—

A gun roared near her, and Baldy's shoulder exploded in a shower of red.

"My apologies," Aoshi said, coming up behind her. He had a nasty cut on his cheek and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth, but seemed otherwise unharmed. "I can't kill him. He has information I need."

She was trembling from head to toe, but not, she thought, from fear. "And if he didn't have information?"

"I would put a bullet in his head."

And what more declaration did she need?


She wanted some quiet in the aftermath. While Aoshi was dealing with men in various flavors of suits and uniforms and senses of self-importance, she went to sit with Mullet. The poor guy had gone down defending her, after all.

"Sorry about your, uh, leg," she said, seating herself next to him in the ambulance. "Is it broken?"

"They think so," he said, still somehow cheerful. "I'll be outta commission for a while, but that's not bad. I've been needing a vacation."

"What, this wasn't a vacation for you?" she said. "I took out the bad guy for you."

"Good for you," he said, grinning at her like a pleased uncle. "I thought you could handle yourself. Figured the boss was worried about nothing."

"You did?"

"Oh, yeah. He gave himself an ulcer, he was so worried about you. Kept telling him, 'Relax, man, we got a tail on her,' and with Beshimi watching you every minute of every day—" He stopped abruptly.

Misao felt very cold again. "How long has this Beshimi been trailing me?"

"That's classified," Mullet cadged, uncomfortable.

"Was he around this evening, when I was cornered on the street?"

Mullet didn't answer.


1:26 AM, June 24th, In Misao's Apartment: In Which Misao Speaks her Mind

She was silent on the long drive back to her apartment. Aoshi attributed that to exhaustion, and did not probe her, even though he wanted to. Is this what it feels to be bursting at the seams? he thought to himself, and did not like it. He was full of foolish declarations for her, but could not find the wherewithal to say them out loud.

When she flicked on the lights in her apartment, Aoshi's senses were flooded—blood-red walls, eggplant curtains, wide pictures of flowers done in splashes of paint hung across the walls—but before he could do more that gawk, she whirled on him.

"I'm sick," she shouted, driving a fist into his chest, "sick of waiting for you! Of throwing myself at you! Kaoru's birthday!" Smack! "Megumi and Sano's wedding!" Smack!"Yahiko's birthday!" Smack! "Every! Single! Time! You ignored me, you looked past me, you did everything to pretend that I didn't exist!" She spun away in disgust, "I have a brain, you know, even if I haven't been acting like it!"

What could he say? "I know."

"You know? You know? I'll tell you what I know, you rat bastard: if you stay away from me now because of some misguided allegiance to my grandfather, we are going to have words. Are you afraid of spoiling Little Miss Spy Princess? Well, guess what? I haven't been unspoiled since sixteen!"

"That is not—"

"No!" she snapped. "No! I chose that! I picked the guy, gave him a condom, and gave consent! You know what you forgot to do, O Intellectual Giant of the Century? You forgot to ask me for that before you stuck your goons on me!"

That is quite enough. "It is a very good thing I did. Where would you be if I had not?" His work had given him a fortunate (or unfortunate) indifference to corpses, but imagining hers, all that passion and fire and vitality gone—was enough to turn his stomach. "I had to put a plan in place that would guarantee your safety for good."

"So all this—" she waved a hand around as though to indicate the seismic shifts in his life "—was part of an elaborate ruse to lure the head of the food chain out of hiding so you could gank him?"

Gank? "Partly."

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "So you kidnapped me and used me as bait?"

What was the phrase Shikijou was so fond of? Put your head between your knees and kiss your ass good-bye? Crude, Aoshi thought, but appropriate. "Yes."

"So, in the midst of all your clever maneuvering," she thundered, each word precisely pronounced, "you didn't pause to consider whether or not you should have asked me first?"

He could prevaricate. He could evade. He could kiss her into silence, but that seemed like a bad idea—such moves always worked in movies, of course, but he was not such a fool that he would make the mistake of thinking that she would submit to such a clumsy and addlepated advance. She would probably slap him, and he would richly deserve it.

And that left the truth. And Aoshi had always been truthful when he had cause.

"I did not consider that course of action," he said, bowing his head a fraction. "I am not often in a position where I am called upon to do so. I should have…I should have briefed you. I would have done so for my men, and you are more than equal to any one of them, and perhaps I felt subconsciously that you would be more than equal to the task. While I am glad to be vindicated on that front, nevertheless, I am—I am sorry."

Some of the anger melted off her face. "Oh. Oh. You beast." She turned away from him and he heard a loud sniff.

"I did not mean to make you cry." He put one hand on her back, running his fingers down the bumps of her spine. "I did not mean that."

She sniffed again, the moved toward the spiral staircase that led to her loft. At the foot of the stairs, she turned to him, and said very clearly, "I am going to shower. You should join me. We started something in that living room…and I want to finish it."

He followed her to her bathroom as though in a trance. Twist by twist, she undid her hair. It flowed in glorious waves, night-dark and beautiful. He buried one hand in it, cradled her skull, before he knew he'd moved. She was night and day, crackling city lights and the predawn songs of birds.

She drew him into the shower, under a hot flood, and her touched her then, touched her as he'd wanted to for months—her hollow between her breasts, the sweet curve of her stomach, the lean lines of her thighs. He dropped to his knees. She was spread above him, slicked with water and her own moisture.

He licked her systematically. Methodically. If anything were to be done well, he'd always thought, it should be done thoroughly, not in haste.

Later, when she lay in his arms, soft and trusting and miraculous, she said, "Will you be here in the morning?"

"I will be here for as long as you want me."

"Forever, then," she mumbled sleepily, and sighed, and Aoshi stayed up a long time, staring at her and marveling.


The next day, he taught her the proper way to throw a knife.

When Okina showed up a week later, very tanned and full of gleaming, toothy smiles, she chucked a knife at his head. Aoshi felt absurdly proud.